Peter Steward's Web Site
Chapter 1 - Grantchester Doesn't Exist
Remember the great poet Rupert Brooke .. Remember former Tory party chairman Jeffrey, now Lord Archer. Well you might be surprised to hear that neither of them have ever existed.
You might be further surprised when I tell you that their home town of Grantchester also exists only in the imagination.
Or so it seemed on one bright and breezy summer's day when the family decided to drive to Grantchester and walk to Cambridge along the famous water meadow.
We had done it many years before and so we were all looking forward to a pleasant day out.
When it comes to Cambridge - and I am referring to the Cambridge in England and not the Cambridge near Boston which is nowhere near the Boston in Lincolnshire if you follow my muddled train of thought - there is only one rule.
And that rule is never try and park in the centre. Cambridge is one heaving car park. The city centre is a conglomeration of slowly moving metal. So before this day I would confidently advise anybody to park in Grantchester and walk.
After the particular day in question I now know that to be the theory. We soon found out, however, that Grantchester does not exist. Firstly it seems to be on none of the signposts. All the other villages in the area are, but there was neither hide nor hair of our destination.
Secondly, and much more worrying, none of the local inhabitants seem to have heard of either Grantchester or Jeffrey Archer. This I will explain later.
For now it must be enough for you to picture the scene. We had been driving up and down the Cambridge ring road for what must have been days, although of course it was probably only an hour or seven. We passed Addenbrooke's Hospital on our right, then we passed it on our left, then we approached it straight ahead. In fact we approached Addenbrook's from every conceivable direction and point of the compass.
Now please dear reader, ask yourself a question. Would we have found Addenbrooke's Hospital if we had been looking for it? And the answer dear reader is a certain no. Sod's law dictates the answer must be know. I have never met dear Mr Sod but his law's seem to be excellent. Dear reader if you ever meet him pass on my good wishes.
If we had been looking for Addenbrooke's Hospital it would have turned into the medical equivalent of the Marie Celeste - or dare I say it, Grantchester.
Anyway the family motto has always been "If in doubt cause a traffic jam by parking in the middle of the road and asking a local person the way."
This is based on the fact that most local people do not even know the name of the next road let alone something a few miles away. This gives the stranger or the visitor a rosy glow akin to asking Well if they live here and don't know the way what chance have we got?
So we stopped a student of Mediterranean extraction and politely asked the way to Grantchester. Why is it that the person you believe to be local always turns out to be from approximately 3,000 miles away and scarcely speaks any English. You usually end up directing them somewhere.
"Excuse me could you tell me the way to Grantchester?"
"I'm sorry, I ave been here only just a two days. I come looking for Cambidge. Can you perhaps me help."
"Aw forget it pal."
Actually that's not quite how this conversation went. I asked for Grantchester. He tried to point me to Colchester.
"Sorry I am student, but I think Colchester is up there," he said pointing in broken English. Well actually he pointed with his finger and spoke in broken English. See how confused we became and we were only 60 miles from home. Think how confused the poor chap must have felt.
I believe the chap was a student at Cambridge University. I base that on the fact that he was carrying a clipboard and pen. People carrying such aids are usually either students, research people who stop you in the street to ask disgusting questions about the state of socks or similar or extremely important executives who want to look important but really have very little to do at that point in time except walk around carrying a clipboard and pen.
I well remember a certain newspaper editor who walked around corridors anti clockwise on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and clockwise on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We knew this because we followed him at a safe distance. He always carried a clipboard and pen. One day he returned to work after a period of the flu. It was Tuesday and he took off in an anti clockwise direction thinking it was Monday.
This threw us out completely as six of us passed him in the corridor! Now I wouldn't like you to think we didn't have anything to do, but that Christmas we all asked for clipboards from our loved ones.
As far as this student was concerned we soon assumed that he did not know where Grantchester was, had never heard of Rupert Brooke and as for Jeffrey "Lord" Archer, well that seemed a definite no no. He was probably studying nuclear fission on the Adriatic coast or something equally vital to mankind.
By swerving immediately to the right, just avoiding reducing the cycling population of Cambridge by at least three (more about cyclists later), I was able to speak to an elderly gentleman who I felt sure would have heard of Grantchester, Rupert Brooks and possibly even Jeffrey "Lord" Archer. Please remember these references to the title Lord as it will be important later.
Now this gentleman was a dear old soul. He was cleaning his car (a Lada!) and obviously at one with the world. I gauged this as he was humming some classical music. Why is it you can never remember those infuriating tunes or only remember the ones turned into pop songs by Ken Dodd?
I swear that's why Classic FM radio was set up. They play 300 pieces a day. That's plenty for would-be hummers to pick up. As I write this I'm listening to Puccini. He used to play full back for A.C Milan and that's probably why they used the theme for some world cup or other.
Classic FM is to blame for a new strain of human being. They meet each other and instead of using the usual greetings such as "Hello Chap" or "Watcha Cock". Come to think of it what an obscene line that second one is particularly if used to greet a member of the fairer sex. I remember the other day looking in a shop window (not in Cambridge but in Norwich actually) and seeing a wrist watch appended to a model of a man's penis. Must have been where the phrase "Have you got the time on you cock" came from. But I digress and let's face it I will be digressing rather a lot as you get further into this sad and sorry verbiage.
These people always start the conversation with something like "Hey Gerry, got this damn tune on the brain. What the hell is it?"
A long discussion then takes place as to whether it's the adagio from Mahler's fifth symphony, a bit by Bernstein or Ouskinsky's third violin concerto. The last one is usually ruled out on the grounds that whistlers find it hard to reproduce the sound of the violin. Added to that there never has been a composer called Ouskinsky anyway. But then does Jeffrey Archer exist?
Well whatever this grand old gentleman was whistling while he soaped his Lada (Nothing sexual there I can assure you. The juicy bits come later in the chapter when I tell you of what a man can do with soap suds and a porche). This gent seemed to be at one with himself, his surroundings and the world. He would definitely be able to point us in the right direction. We had certainly at last hit upon the right man for the right job - unlike the Tory party at certain times in the past.
Five minutes later I was left a broken and disillusioned man (what again I hear you say). But let's not leap ahead. I will start at the beginning of the conversation.
At this point I would like to point out that I was politeness personified (I read that in a book once).
"excuse me we're a bit lost. Can you tell me the way to Grantchester?"
The gentleman knew somebody was speaking to him, but he couldn't tell from which direction the question came. He even looked under the car before turning to confront me.
"Sorry I'm a bit deaf," he responded.
Now I'm pretty used to deaf people as my wife has "impaired hearing" which makes it very difficult to have conversations about people when they are in the room.
"Just look at old ------ over there making a fool of himself," I might say to her in a low voice.
"Who" she would reply very loudly, thus ruining any intimate conversation about just what ------- is doing and who he is doing it with. Still I digress yet again.
"The way to Grantchester," I repeated.
There was a long pause.
He stroked an imaginary beard and then answered.
"Now let me see. It's around here somewhere. Let me think. I've heard of it. I think I've even been there. It's a nice place."
At this point you could be excused for thinking he was talking about some exotic sea port thousands of miles away. No he was referring to good old Grantchester. Good old elusive where the hell is it Grantchester.
"I'll ask the wife," was his next response. Not I'll ask my wife but the wife as though she was an object and probably no longer the object of his desire.
He dived into the house (or gave as much an impression of diving as an elderly gentleman can). His wife had heard of it as well but couldn't be any more helpful.
Indeed these delightful people had been of no help whatsoever, but at least they had been totally useless in a graceful and friendly way and that's probably and art in itself.
Sods law of the road states that when faced with a decision to turn either right or left, no matter how hard you try you will always pick the wrong one. There are few certainties in life, but that is one of them. It rates alongside the certainty that you will always leave one spoon in the bottom of the washing up bowl when you empty the water or the certainty that the book you want in the library always falls somewhere between the end of one row and the beginning of the next and after searching between the two for an interminable time you find it's not in stock anyway.
So we took a left turn - and ended up in the middle of Cambridge
To cut a long story short we actually found a dear old couple who told us to turn round, go through three sets of traffic lights and turn right between the Shell Garage and Bidwells. Hallelujah, they had heard of Grantchester, they had heard of Jeffrey Archer and I didn't even have to try Rupert Brooke on them.
Amazingly we found the Shell Garage, we found Bidwells and we turned right into Church Street and glory upon glories Church Street turned into Grantchester Road and Grantchester Road turned into (wait for it) - Grantchester.
We felt as Stanley must have felt when he tripped over Livingstone. The glory of the exploration was over. We would see Addenbrooke's Hospital no more.
There on the right was the vicarage - home of Jeffrey Archer and formerly of Rupert Brooke. It seemed so ordinary. The gates were open, the garden was orderly and in the drive stood a smart red car. Don't ask me what sort it was as I wouldn't know a Ferrari from a Skoda (well maybe I lie a little). It all seemed so welcoming and I was tempted to walk up the drive, knock on the door and tell the household that 98% of people surveyed within a five mile radius had never heard of Jeffrey Archer. It's one of those facts that will probably turn up on a television quiz show in the near future.
Good old Jeffrey (I feel I know him well enough now to speak of him in the most intimate way) has been the subject of so much Media attention over the years that it is almost disappointing to find that he lives in an ordinary kind of house (big and picturesque and worth a few hundred thousand pounds, but ordinary still the same). There are no electrified fences and I expect he walks into the village and enjoys a pot of tea at one of the local pubs just like us mere mortals do.
But there's the problem, or as Shakespeare might say "There Be the Rub." Nobody ever makes it to Grantchester to enjoy a pot of tea. I'm surprised the villagers themselves ever make it to the local. Perhaps this is the Bermuda Triangle of East Anglia where the Marie Celestes ply their trade in some gigantic black hole.
I'm sure none of the residents would ever leave the village, fearful that they would never find their way back again.
So if you are ever around the Cambridge area don't be surprised if you are stopped by people with glazed looks on their faces asking for guidance.
"Excuse me. I don't suppose you know the way to Grantchester. We live there but seem to be a bit lost."
When we got to Cambridge we found you could get a punt back to Grantchester. I should imagine the Severn and the Thames, not to mention the Styx, are full of lost punters trying to get back to Grantchester.
"Excuse me sir but can you point us towards Grantchester. We left there 36 hours ago and are rather tired."
"Ach I should think ye are laddie. Don't yer know this is Aberdeen and Grantchester is south of Glasgee."
Authors Note: The above should be said in a mock Billy Connelly accent. I'm not very good at writing local dialect. I think it will possibly help the reader if I include the accents needed in brackets in the future. That way dear reader you will feel part of the plot and it will certainly help with the chapters on Yorkshire.
So we had made it and it was all worthwhile. Grantchester is a picturesque village. Sadly it was just our starting post for the walk to Cambridge.
There we met other members of my dear wife's (I have to put that in case she ever reads this) family - her two sisters and their husbands. They were staying in a property the other side of Newmarket, having travelled down from Doncaster and Wakefield respectively.
"Sorry we're late but the traffic was really heavy," I said looking them straight in the face.
There are a number of rules if you want to lie to somebody. Two of them are: Always give a plausible alternative to the truth e.g the traffic was heavy rather than we are idiots who got lost and look them straight between the eyes.
"I bet you had trouble finding the village,"I added.
Now the supposition here is that these people come from Yorkshire. They don't know the area and they are well over 150 miles from home. They must be confused, dazed and in need of humouring (not to mention probably in need of an interpreter). Above all they come from Yorkshire and so allowances have to be made.
"One brother-in-law looked me straight between the eyes."
"Nay Lad," (Yorkshire accent here) "Nay lad we found it easily, only took 20 minutes."
Of course he was probably
It was now more than time to set off from Cambridge across the water meadow or more accurately a concrete path across the fringe of the meadow. It was the start of a sparkling day in a unique city.
Cambridge is totally unique. Now I know the purists amongst you will tell me that there are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it isn't. It cannot be almost or totally unique. But I don't care because this is my story and you can always stop reading.
I will always stick with my degrees of uniqueness and not feel guilty about it. Cambridge is more unique than unique. Not because of its history, but because of its atmosphere and its idiosyncrasies. But hold on we are going too fast here.
You remember how I explained how we got lost in the car (or did you skip that bit). Well now we almost got lost in the water meadows.
Suddenly the path stopped and turned into a residential area. Of course to continue along the water meadow we should have gone right. We turned left and obviously had that "oh dear I'm lost" look about us. An elderly gentleman on a bike obviously took pity on us. Well that's what I assumed until I saw him stagger off after our conversation and realised he had probably looked upon us as the reason to have a rest from cycling for a bit.
He was terribly terribly posh (as Cambridge folk sometimes are) but was obviously quite ordinary as his clothes were filthy - especially his once cream blazer which was now very grimy to say the least.
He still had about him the air of one who knew who he was and where he had come from, but possibly wasn't too sure where he was going to. His dirty attire was probably his way of shouting to the world "Actually I'm very like all of you. I know I can recite the periodic table backwards but hey look I dress badly."
I was hot and bothered. I spend a good 90% of my life hot and bothered and I'm tired of people telling me not to rush around so much and enjoy the sunshine when it exists. I hate the sun. On hot days with the yellow orb beating down I give a silent cheer when a heavy cloud approaches and blots it out. Then for a few seconds there is delightful shade and perhaps a light breeze and the weather becomes pleasant. Most people I know hate it when the sun goes in. The rest of the time I'm a quivering mess of sweat. People don't understand how us hot blooded (or is it cold) suffer. We hate the sun because of what it does to us, not beacuse we are anti-social and want to hide away indoors. I've often wondered what the opposite of the phrase "as cool as a cucumber" is. Possibly something like as "hot as a radish". Well that's me. I'm hotter than a radish and probably approaching garlic heat level.
So I was hot and bothered but keen to be in the centre of the city where I would probably become even hotter and more bothered.
"Are we in Cambridge?" I asked. In retrospect it was probably a stupid question to ask but after the Grantchester experience I wasn't taking any chances. What I meant to say was "Are we in the centre of Cambridge."
"Well where the hell do you think you are dear chap/" (upper class accent here please) was the reply.
Luckily brother-in-law took over at this point and coming from Yorkshire was able to strike up some kind of reasonable conversation that included a lot of pointing, a lot of smiling and something about hypotenuse and Pythagorian theory. Yes we were certainly in Cambridge.
And you know what as we followed his directions and turned right at the hedge and left at the bus stop and walked across an area of open grass we realised that the square of the hypotenuse was genuinely equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. And so we were in Cambridge.
* * *
Now visitors to Cambridge ask silly questions like why are there so many bikes and where's King's College. Silly questions because most of them have maps and you just have to find the river. There are other questions that are more sane such as "why are they now charging admission fees to look round the colleges." The answer to this is probably quite simple - "Why Not?"
The fee to enter King's College at this time was £2 for adults and that gives you entry to the magnificent college chapel. Many people resent paying to visit churches and cathedrals and I must admit a grave misgiving at paying an admission fee to go into God's house, Indeed a few years ago I refused to go into Ely Cathedral for this reason. But consider the economic facts. It costs King's College £1,000 a week to keep going and why shouldn't visitors pay a small amount to enjoy the buildings. After all if people kept walking round your garden wouldn't you eventually make a charge to ensure that those who came in genuinely wanted to view your petunias rather than just walk through for the sheer hell of doing so.
The college was the dream of a very young Henry VI who laid the first stone on Passion Sunday in 1441. The buildings were designed to be "grand" and probably something to allow the monarch to puff out his substantial chest and say "look what I done."
I can see him now talking to one of his advisors.
"Gadzooks Gerald that's just a little folly I knocked up in my spare time. Don't you just love the way the buttresses and flanges fall in line?"
"Yes my liege it's magnificent."
"Do you really think so Gerald?"
"Oh yes my Lord you have surpassed yourself."
"Gerald I must see about that knighthood for you."
I don't think our present queen would have quite the same reaction.
"My husband and I are responsible for this small architectural wonder Gerald."
"Indeed Mam but I have to tell you that the Sun newspaper has referred to it as a heap of crap and your son Charles has referred to it as a carbuncle."
Anyway dear old King Harry got away with it, but he did overlook one thing. The chapel took over a century to build and was the product of three separate periods of construction with a small matter of the War of the Roses interrupting. The original design was radically altered and now most visitors go in search of the initials of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which were carved on a screen in the chapel. This can be easily dated because in1533 the lovebirds got spliced and of course in 1536 old Henry got tired of his bride and had her head chopped off. It's probably surprising that the aok panel isn't full of the initials of all his other wives and mistresses. Nowadays love-lorned people carve their initials on trees - it's probably cheaper and saves them being dragged off to the Tower of London for defacing royal property (only joking).
One of the most spectacular parts of the chapel is the massive Reuben's painting "The Adoration of the Magi No Cameras allowed." For the life of me I cannot understand how and why he dreamt up such a strange title for one of his greatest works of art.
Leaving the chapel, you can walk around the square down to one of the many picturesque little bridges over the River Cam.
When you stand here you know you are in Cambridge thanks to the cunning stunts of the punts (try saying that after a few beers). Punting requires three things - a blazer, a straw boater and a streak of utter madness. On a summer's day there are tens of boats in a short space all vying for position. Most are being driven or punted by people singularly unable to control them. Just look over the bridge and there they are. There are punts stuffed to the gunwails with bodies and the idiot with the pole continually giving his passengers concussion by overbalancing with the pole and hitting them.
Other punts have a man and his lover (interesting old word that. In this case it's his wife, girlfriend, mistress or in these liberated times boyfriend). Let's say for arguments sake this time around it's his girlfriend. She will be sitting back enjoying the view and more than likely will be carrying a parasol, while the poor chap stands on the end of the boat trying to desperately look as if he's in control and enjoying himself. Now it could be the damsel in the boat has a rather mean streak and is hoping that her beau (another beautifully old word but this is after all a beautifully old place) will either fall in, get his pole stuck, do himself an injury with the aforementioned pole or get so knackered that he will be unable to have sex for at least a month.
Most of the boats collide in this game that is a form of water torture. The chines could have done away with the dripping tap on the head routine and just hired a few thousand punts. If the man does make a mistake (and those poles are bloody heavy) it gives the women the chance to give him a damn good verbal seeing to. And all this is in the pretence of having "fun."
Just occasionally you see a group of people who have got it right. We walked a short distance along the tow path and there they were. Three in the boat and three on the river bank sipping champagne and eating strawberries. The height of decadence but also the height of intelligence. They had punted a few yards upstream and were truly enjoying life. It does beg the question of course as to why they hired the boat and didn't just walk along the bank but we will overlook that as the folly of the young.
"You've never taken me punting," said my wife.
"Honey (that's what I called her in those days) I'm as hot as a clove of garlic at the moment," I replied.
She didn't seem impressed. Nothing I say these days seems to impress her - not even carving our initials on a tree."
"We must go punting the next time we come to Cambridge," said my brother-in-law.
I just love the "next time" syndrome. It allows you to put off all manner of things you don't want to do with a polite "I'll tell you what the next time we come here we'll do that." It is in the same category as "we'll do that later in the week if we have time." The latter gives you ample opportunity to think of something more pleasant to do later in the week and once it's too late you can always say "Shame we didn't have time to do ..... we must do it next time we come." That way you sound interested and cannot be accuse of being a "boring old fart."
Anyway I agreed with brother-in-law.
"Okay you can punt and I'll get the strawberries and champagne and meet you on the bank."
After all nobody's going to call me a silly punt.
* * *
Wandering around the backs of the river is very Bohemian. Listening to conversation on the way is wonderful.
Listening to two people having a full conversation can be boring but listening to snatches is almost surreal. You can just imagine what the rest of the dialogue is about without having to piece it all together.
By the riverside I heard the following:
"I must buy a toothbrush I've been using the wife's. It's just like French kissing but missing out the middle man." The mind boggles.
That's a good word - boggle. To boggle - something the mind does when in confusion. Still I digress.
After wandering around King's College we decided to give all the others a miss. They all seemed to charge admission and all seemed rather similar. You have to ask how many colleges your average visitor can take in before becoming bored. There are two types of tourist. Those who get easily bored and suffer in silence without admitting it and stop to read every notice without taking anything in and those who get bored, take sop much and strom off in a huff. The honest ones say enough is enough and go and have a pint or two. I can't imagine anybody going round all the colleges without terminal boredom setting in.
We spent lunchtime in an instantly forgettable wine bar that nevertheless was cheap, But our stay there did bring me into contact with one of man's greatest inventions - the condom machine.
A few weeks previous I came across a double machine - condoms on the left and asperin on the right. Talking about covering all eventualities.
"Not tonight darling I've got a headache."
"That's okay love I've got just the thing for you. I'll just slip it on!"
This latest machine was not surprisingly in the men's loo. Do they have condom machines in the ladies? I've never had the courage to ask or to find out.
This particular machine was coloured stocking pink (whatever that is - I just made it up) and offered a variety of condoms from Midnight Cowboy to Precious Pinkies and Flavours of the Rainbow. I'm not quite sure what a rainbow flavour is but my job here is just to report what I saw.. I've never really seen the need for flavoured condoms. You're much better with a digestive biscuit and cheese and a mug of hot chocolate.
As I walked through the door (another strange phrase as you walk around a door and not into or through it as this would be rather painful) a man shot backwards and quickly withdrew his hand from the machine. I think he was on the verge of having a quid's worth. Why is it that people will only use condom machines when they are on their own - a kind of furtive pastime. There's still a stigma attached. Maybe he was just worried about getting a yellow flavour when he wanted a pink.
Anyway this chap withdrew as you would without a condom and left the loo. So I was able to have a good look at the machine and it turned out to be a machine with a sense of humour.
"Insert £1 and turn knob left and right - that's the knob on the machine and not on you."
Blimey for a moment I thought we were back in the swinging sixties. Maybe the machine was aimed at Sun readers who might get confused and dragged away by police after shaking and rocking to and fro in the toilet. Needless to say I didn't make a purchase as two other people came in and I have to be alone to play these machines. Sometimes it can take me three weeks in the local pub to get a packet. It can all get a little frustrating just to buy a snack for the evening! Of course there's always the point of no return when the money is in the machine but you haven't turned the knob or handle. Somebody comes in and catches you in mid flow and you just try to look nonchalant. You feel dead guilty and probably start whistling. You just know the bloke will go back into the pub and tell his mates that he saw you going for a Midnight Cowboy. It always ends in nods and winks and suggestive looks in your direction.
I must admit the condom machine made up for the iffy lunch. The afternoon capuccino made up for both. Given the choice between two condoms and a cup of capucinno I'll take the caffeine intake any time.
This one in the Corn Hall was brimming with chocolate sprinkles and real cream. You know a good capuccino by the fact that it is so cool on the top that you take a jolly good swig only to find that undernath it's piping hot. Two good swigs of that in a hurry and you wouldn't need a condom machine at all.
Much of the rest of our Cambridge day was spent looking round book shops. You would expect something special in a bookish city like Cambridge and I wasn't disappointed. There was one book shop selling hardback Rose Tremayne novels at £1 - difficult to resist. One of the highlights of the day was a visit to the Cambridge University Press Bookshop.
Dissertations on the Appolistoic Creed, Advanced Kant and many others were on display. Virtually every seemingly irrelevant book ever printed must have been present. I wondered how many they sell - but after all this was one of the great University towns of the world. Can you imagine the shop phoning up Professor Ernst Muller ( a made up name) in Hamburg to tell him that his Treatise on Exestentialism for Advanced Scholars had sold out and they were about to go to re-print with another seven copies?
"Professor Muller great news. We've sold three copies of your great work and it's only been in print for 10 years."
Meanwhile in Germany fuelled with this success the great Professor lifts another Stein of Ale to his mouth and thinks about writing his next "best seller." Is this the real world I can't help asking myself.
My favourite title however was "Music of the Korean Renaissance." I can't imagine many people being aware that Korea had a renaissance let alone produced music during it. I almost expected a scholarly interpretation of Middle of the Road's great anthem of our times "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" - so meaningful, so poignant, so utterly awful. Nevertheless the Cambridge University Press Bookshop was so bookish, so scholarly, so brilliantly irrelevant, so Cambridge. The kind of place you can pass yourself off as an academic as long as nobody speaks to you of course.
Waterstones was a different kettle of fish altogether. It gets the Steward five star award for content. Or it would have done if it had contained more than just the one book by Joyce Carole Oates. I had told the aforementioned JCO a terrible lie when she gave a lecture at the University of East Anglia. It was just one of a series of lectures with the big sell ate the end.
"Ladies and Gentlemen you are invited at the end to the book shop for a glass of wine and to buy copious amounts of books by the author which he/she will be happy to sign for you."
I usually avoided these events, but I was so impressed by JCO that I went along and went forward clutching tow paperbacks. She was a really "nice lady" as they say in the States. We had a chat and then I chickened out when she asked who I wanted the book dedicated to.
"Could you write to Anne (that's my wife).
She did. My wife was less than impressed when I presented them to her and I now have two cherished novels dedicated personally to somebody who isn't the slightest bit interested in them. It also prevents me from showing them to friends with a cheery "Look the author signed these personally."
I suppose it does prevent them from telling me that they have never heard of Joyce Carole Oates.
That little incident is similar to one a few years previously when I was a reporter and had to interview Bobby, now Sir Bobby, Charlton. He was taking one of his soccer schools for youngsters and looked very red in the face (corpulent). Nevertheless he took time out to chat and was happy to sing my autograph book. It's for my boys I said. So the inscription reads to Matthew and Christopher best wishes Bobby Charlton.
I took it home brandishing it excitedly.
"Look what I've Got Here," I said
They looked at it. "Who's he?" they replied.
They now know of course because I've given them the full "he's one of football's greatest ever players" lecture.
Anyway I digress again. Waterstones did have a phenomenal collection of books but it was the sales assistants that impressed me. I heard two of them speaking to each other.
"The Desmond Degruto novel. It is in paperback isn't it?"
"You mean Wanderings of a Nomad. Yes that came out on July 17th last year, paperback, priced £4.99."
You have to be impressed by service like that. I can't imagine anybody wanting to buy "Wanderings of a Nomad" and perhaps it was a ritual they went through every day just to impress people. Well I was impressed.
On the way back to the car I noticed a billboard for the Daily Mirror newspaper proclaiming a World Exclusive. Now my definition of an exclusive often borders on tat that nobody else wants. You have to judge this one for yourself. The story was that Lord Archer's mystery sister had been traced - or something like that. It was re-assuring to know that just a mile from where we were major world news was unfolding.
To the Daily Mirror this was earth shattering news. To the majority of people it would be meaningless and irrelevant. Apart from that it struck me that a good proportion of Cambridge people hadn't a clue who Jeffrey Archer is anyway. World-wide that figure would be about 99.9% of people. I can't see tribesmen in a remote African village discussing the merits of Kane and Abel. It was re-assuring at that time to know that whilst thousands of children were dying in Rwanda the Mirror had achieved such a world exclusive on Jeffrey.
The walk back through the water meadow was uneventful and that was our day out in Cambridge. We had a muffin on the riverbank (and no that's not some illegal sexual practice). I do have an apology, however. I would like to say sorry to Cambridge people and in particular the academics. Throughout the day I carried around a book that could be construed in certain parts as treasonable. No not Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses but This is Where the Rivers Join by John Wain (that's the author and not the cowboy film star).
What was treasonable about it? Well it was all about university life in the 1930s - in Oxford!!!
So what of Lord Archer, what of Grantchester, what of Rupert Brooke. Leave them alone I say. Grantchester is an idyllic place, long may it remain so, long may there be no signposts and long may it take tourists forever to find it. That makes it worthwhile for those who are prepared to make the effort. As for Rupert Brooke. Well I never did get round to him. Strikes me he's pretty irrelevant to this little piece, but he did write exceedingly good poetry.
Chapter 2 - 1994 was a Year to Remember
1994 was a year to remember or should I say 1994 was a year of memories.
How many times have you heard the phrase "Everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated."
Well 1994 was a golden (or should I say silver) t=year for that kind of remark. It was the 25th anniversary of three events that could have changed our lives, but didn't.
At the time they assumed mega importance. I refer to Chappaquiddick, Woodstock and Man's first flight to the moon.
Yes I know they were all American happenings, but how else could I introduce my travel chapter on America and by now you will know that this is only partly a travelogue punctuated by home spun bits of philosophy and a great shovel full of garbage.
So where was I in 1969 when these great (or not so great) happenings were taking place. I could lie and tell you I was on a school trip in the South of France or some other exotic location. The truth is very different, however. I can't for the life of me think of where I was and what I was doing.
So let's detail the events in chronological order.
On July 20th Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step onto the moon's surface with those immortal words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." And what did they fine - absolutely nothing - miles and miles of nothing, of just boulders and dirt.
Just five days later came Chappaquiddick. (at this point the chapter ends abruptly)
Chapter 3 - Cricket
Raise your glasses and drink a toast to Baltimore Cricket Club.
I say raise your glasses because that's about all our friends from Maryland in the USA will do as far as cricket is concerned.
Now I love the game. To me it's the finest sport in the world without exception. At what other spectator sport can you stretch out, enjoy the sun (yes I know that might be a fantasy in England), drink wine and beer, read the paper and still have time to catch the odd over or two?
Sadly Americans don't understand cricket. It's that simple. There's no need to beat about the bush, they just don't understand it. Come to think of it they don't understand many sports other than those which they invented and claim to be "world champions" of (baseball and American Football immediately spring to mind). I used to be in denial, refusing to believe that America would understand cricket with a few rule explanations and a bit of patience. I thought an intelligent American (and yes they do exist) would be able to unravel the intricacies of cricket.
I consider myself an intelligent Brit and it didn't take me too long to work out American Football and baseball although I struggled with the term "safety" in the first of these which is defined when a player of one side is slammed to the ground in his own in-zone. Firstly it didn't seem very safe to me and secondly in out country it would be known as an own goal.
Still I cut through the statistics and other irrelevancies on my first visit to the States and soon understood both games. So why should Americans have problems with cricket. Behind all the stats, techniques and nuances it's a reasonably simple game.
What I hadn't bargained for was the glazed look that comes over every American faced with a set of stumps, white clothing and all the other paraphernalia.
My first attempt to indoctrinate an American into the sport came many years ago when American friends visited us in darkest Norfolk.
Now I know many of you will say that Norfolk can't play cricket. Well that's as maybe but people with no experience of the game would not be able to differentiate between Norfolk and a first class county. I can still remember another American friend going to a working men's club in the Midlands and claiming for ever afterwards that he had seen the Rolling Stones. I can also remember being asked quite seriously in Sonoma in California whether I personally knew John Lennon!
I tried to explain to the former of these gentlemen that there were thousands of rock bands in England, many of whom were not very good and that the real Rolling Stones were very very unlikely to play Long Eaton Working Man's Club. I also remember telling the second gentleman that sadly I didn't personally know any famous English people let alone one-quarter of the Beatles. Still I digress and must return to cricket, firstly commenting that I doubt whether Keith Richards has ever fielded at silly mid-on.
So I sent my American friend off to see Norfolk and join the handful of people present. I couldn't go with him but had sat in front of the television the previous day to watch a Sunday League limited overs match. It was hopeless. He didn't seem to understand a word of my explanation.
The next day he returned at the end of play and asked me who had won. I explained it was the first day of two and that it would probably end in a draw anyway. What's a draw was his only response.
As for the Norfolk match (and their opponents and the result has long been lost to me), well his only question about that concerned the "two doctors" on the pitch all the time. This really confused me.
"Those men in white coats kept walking back and forth every few minutes. I was wondering whether the game really needed two doctors," he said. Of course he was referring to the umpires.
So we start by accepting that Americans do not, cannot and will not understand cricket. So how was the Baltimore club founded and why is it that they will never play a match?
Stick with me and I will tell you.
A number of years ago I took my family to the States and you will find bits and pieces about that visit sprinkled about this opus. After entering the Land of the Brave and Free at Boston, we travelled by a rather circuitous route down to Maryland to stay with friends - Bud and Mary-Lou.
They are the archytypal American couple. You can tell their house by the Star Spangled Banner in the front garden. Bud is a bit of a cowboy (in the best sense of the word) at heart and coming from the south is still a confederate despite the fact the civil war has been over for almost 150 years.
Many years ago Bud played third base for Baltimore Orioles, although he admits he was never a regular in the first team. My sons were most impressed when I told them that was the equivalent of being a Premier League footballer in this country. Ever since then Bud has been a hero in their eyes. When we visited the Orioles' present home at the magnificent Camden Yard stadium in Downtown Baltimore they searched the souvenir shop for a cigarette card of Bud. I had to tell them sadly that he played 40 years ago and so wouldn't be famous any longer.
But that didn't diminish the way they looked at him from then on. He had once been a professional sportsman and that was good enough for a couple of sports mad British kids at that time.
I must explain that at this visit the boys were 10 and 8. Still I digress once again away from the real reason behind this yarn.
to be continued