I reached consciousness just as the first rays of dawn lit the room and the first sound I heard was a gull squawking in my hallway. Because the night had been hot, I had left the back door of my new bungalow in Norfolk open, and I now regretted it, as it had allowed the gull to enter my kitchen and dining room, spraying its wet faeces all over plates and cupboards and rugs, but then I remembered it was probably not a gull, but my cat Ralph, who, like so many other individuals who have spent a lifetime singing, has been experiencing voice problems in old age, often meowing totally silently but sometimes, at best, making a croaky noise evocative of a small unhappy seabird. I fed Ralph and my other, more officious cat, Roscoe, then showered, letting Norfolk’s awful water fall on my head and turn my hair into something somehow simultaneously massively greasy and massively dry. I had only been back in the east a fortnight and I was already yearning for the delicious, soft water of west Devon, and the slightly less delicious and soft water of east Somerset. Already, on many days, it could feel like what I had on my head was not hair but the godforsaken pelt of some three-week dead rodent. I had been prepared for this though. It was right there in my Cons list, in my notebook, from when I was trying to decide whether to move back to Norfolk: “Fucking horrific water”. Fortunately, there were endless pluses here to make up for it. I had made my decision, and feeling a round-the-clock need to descale my own fringe was just something I was going to have to live with.
I drove down the A11, which always feels like a gentle downhill slope all the way to the Almost London region, even though people who have never been to the middle of Norfolk think the place has no slopes at all. Driving at 7am on a Sunday in 2019 in provincial Britain is like being on a simulator that offers you, for no extra cost, the experience of driving at 2pm on a weekday in 1979 in provincial Britain – except with bigger, more anonymous cars. Did it seem in 1979 that there were too many people in the world, just like it does now? I don’t know. I was three as 1979 dawned and had not yet begun to analyse life to the extent that fosters a sense of population anxiety. But I’m pretty sure that 1979 didn’t feel part of history, something quaint, while it was happening. It probably just felt like 1979. I found myself wondering if, in 2059, the 2019 idea of an overcrowded planet will seem quaint, or if we will have finally fully succeeded in destroying it by then. Even at this quiet time on a Sunday, I noticed that the car culture in Norfolk and Suffolk is different to the car culture in the West Country: more motorbikes, faster, more overtaking on the inside. Through my wing mirror I saw my loose rear bumper wobbling and, just as I had every time I’d driven on a multiple carriageway road for the last eight months, told myself I should probably get around to gaffer taping it down, so it didn’t fall off, like it had a couple of times in February, just outside Illminster.
Mercifully, unlike on my other four recent trips to bring stuff from my old house in Somerset to my new house in Norfolk, the M25 was relatively clear. I stopped for petrol, and bought a black coffee from Pret A Manger at South Mimms, bypassing Starbucks, and thinking about the times twelve or thirteen years ago when I convinced myself Starbucks coffee wasn’t horrible, and Starbucks itself wasn’t horrible, by ordering their drinks covered in caramel, to mask their rubbish taste, which now led me to remember how much crap I put in my body around that time, and how sluggish I felt a lot of the time, so different to how I feel now, and wonder how on earth I took so long put two and two together. I turned onto the M3 then, not long after, onto the A303, where a young muntjac deer ran out in front of the traffic, making it safely to the opposite side. I hoped the muntjac was on its way to, rather than from, its family. At dawn two days ago I had seen a pair of muntjacs casually walking down the suburban road where I live, casually, like two inseparable dog friends. After so long in the country, I had experienced concerns about the culture shock I might experience in moving to the edge of a city, but, as well as the muntjacs, I had already witnessed plenty of other wildlife: a massive hedgehog, a huge squadron of dragonflies on my lawn, countless trash-talking squirrels, a female tawny owl, two long slugs in my kitchen, possibly dragged in on Ralph’s back. It was quieter, too, in a way, than the extremely rural cottage in Somerset where I’d lived for the previous eleven months that I was now travelling back to. The noises were less prone to slice abruptly through the day. As I reached Stonehenge, the traffic ground to a halt, as it nearly always does, which is down to the roundabouts a mile either side of it and the narrowing of the road, but no doubt also down to the cumulative effect of countless drivers slowing their cars just fractionally and saying, “Look! Stonehenge!” as they see Stonehenge. As always, Stonehenge looked like a film set mock-up of Stonehenge, not like the real Stonehenge, whatever that may be. Wiltshire got bald and a little lunar after that, then finally wooded and cuddly as it melted into Somerset: my favourite stretch of the A303, with the vast forest of the Stourhead estate on the right, whose endless foxgloves would now be taking their final few breaths of the year. It felt like summer had only just started. It felt like summer had been here forever. I felt confused about where I lived, a little like a couple of fingers or an ankle or perhaps even half a leg was still here. I felt totally at home back in Norfolk again. All these feelings were not incompatible.
I drove for another half an hour, then turned right, then left, down the lanes leading to the house, very mild, English lanes, reeking of cow, speaking of tractor. I unlocked the door to the house and became more aware of its smell than ever before, which, though not especially strong, had a personality, and did not at all resemble the smell of my new house. I was amazed to find that four of the six plants I’d left there had survived a fortnight of heatwave in a room made almost entirely of glass, and one – my Clivia – had even thrived. I’d had to leave the plants because my original moving day had not gone completely to plan. I have moved enough times now – 23 in total – to know that moving never goes completely to plan. This time I had done everything right, been zoned in and organised in ever way, but it hadn’t been enough: at 9am, on the day of my move, an hour after my movers were supposed to arrive, I got a call from the company, AnyVan, to say they had broken down and wouldn’t be coming. No explanation why or where they’d broken down, no news of whether there’d be a replacement. I had waited for a call back and it hadn’t come, so I’d driven to Norfolk, with most of my stuff still in Somerset, and nothing to sleep on. Amazingly, I’d found another company, DL Removals of Bristol, who, wonderfully, had managed to get a van full of stuff the next day, following my instructions over the phone. But – to add to the three I’d already made – I’d still need three more car journeys back and forth between Norfolk and Somerset, of which this was one. Later, I looked up the CEO of AnyVan, who is called Angus Elphinstone, and is the son of the 18th Lord Elphinstone, and who you can see on Youtube talking about his mission to become richer and richer, but also dropping in the comment that his company is “good for the environment” with no explanation as to why. Yet in my initial email from AnyVan I was told the person in charge was a friendly-looking bloke called “David”, who asked me to “give him a call anytime”. You can’t actually speak to David, though: the number he gives you takes you through to a call waiting queue. In my complaint to AnyVan, I pointed out to one of the company’s managerial staff that the false intimacy of this mysterious person called David was very misleading. He explained that an email from a fake individual such as this to encourage a false sense of confidence was “standard practice these days”. I was quite close to losing my rag at this point, but stayed relatively calm, although I did ask him a couple of questions. “So what you’re essentially saying is it’s okay to be a phoney bullshitting twat these days because everybody else is a phoney bullshitting twat these days?” was one.
I loaded up my car, using every inch of remaining space, then mowed the Somerset cottage’s intimidatingly gargantuan lawn, in an attempt to save some of my deposit, which the lettings agency had told me they would keep if I didn’t mow the lawn. The day got even hotter, and I stripped down to my swimming trunks, sweating but also getting deep into a mowing zone, where all of life outside of mowing faded away. I mowed gently into the patches of the lawn I’d left deliberately long to encourage bees and butterflies, and as I did butterflies flew into the air, and I prayed that none got caught under the mower. I had explained to the lettings company about the bees and butterflies, but, historically, lettings agencies are not known for their consideration of bees and butterflies and other garden wildlife. I thought about the cleaner I’d had to pay to come in and clean the place because of my movers not turning up and me not being able to clean, and about the fact that her job had been deemed insufficient by the lettings agency, and the money they were taking from my deposit for extra cleaning, and I remembered again, as I had so many times before, that moving house feels like you snagged your life on some thorns and it made a hole and all the money fell out through it. But I also remembered that I would recover, and that the hard bit was over now, and I felt ok, and was alive, and healthy. Also, I’d had a nice landlady, and those are not easy to come by. After nearly three hours of mowing – which would also, in time, be deemed as insufficient mowing by the lettings agency, and lead to a gardening charge – I walked briskly to my car, and left for Norfolk. Before that, I took a mile detour, to a bridge over a river. I climbed onto the bridge, and leapt the fifteen feet from the bridge into the water below: an action that would probably have looked a lot more devil-may-care than it really was to a bystander, who would not know that I had already done the same thing twice in the last month, having been advised by some knowledgeable local teenagers on the exact deepest landing point. I swam three hundred yards down the river, hauled myself up the muddy bank, feeling my hair already benefitting from the water, which, despite being silty and full of the juices of fish and insects, was still West Country water.
On the drive home, I finished listening to the audiobook of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1, which I enjoyed, with reservations, including the long and mostly dull section about the making of his 1989 album Oh Mercy with the producer Daniel Lanois, whose services had been recommended by Bono. I loved picturing the young Dylan arriving in New York at his record company for the first time, full of talent and tall tales of dead parents and his freight train journey there from the midwest. I also loved hearing his thoughts on his late 60s recluse period, which should probably be mandatory listening for anybody under the misapprehension that celebrity is a desirable condition. Afterwards I listened to all of Highway 61 Revisited, and all of Blood On The Tracks, and the 50% of Blonde On Blonde that I can cope with, realising that the book was permitting me to enjoy them on a new level, but also thinking that the use of language on them, at their best, made the use of language in the book seem kind of pedestrian. By this point I had again passed South Mimms, where I decided not to get a coffee, and where ten years and one month ago I’d dropped off two excitable buskers who were on their way from Norfolk to Cornwall to pick apples and play music on the street. I wondered about the buskers, who would probably be pushing thirty now, and hoped they were still making music, and hoped that that summer still seemed as recent in their minds as it did to me, rather than something ancient and unreachable, from another, looser life. I could still remember so much about that weekend – the gig I saw in London that evening and the conversation I had with my friend Emma after it, the immense skill and determination of the disabled man I played golf with the next day in Hampshire, the smell of the stew my friend Jackie cooked me at her house in Pembrokeshire that night, the photo Jackie took of me in her garden the next day with her dog and cat where I looked oddly like a late 1970s DJ on the cusp of decline – but that was no doubt less due to the power of my memory and more due to the fact that the decade between 34 and 44 is not as long as a decade is when you’re younger.
The sockets of my eyes hurt as night fell and I came off the M11 onto the A14. In my rear view mirror, my loose bumper wobbled. The whole car rattled like an old tin dustbin – which, in effect, it sort of was – as I passed the big pineapple on a stick war memorial near Thetford which always used to tell me I was virtually home, and now would again: that is, if I continued to drive, which at the moment I badly wanted not to, not just in an attempt to reduce my carbon footprint, but in an attempt not to be part of it All, and not to feel as tired and zombielike as this. I passed the sign near Attleborough that advertises “Gravel Pits”, as if gravel pits are an attraction, something you might pay a tenner to roll around in for an afternoon with a couple of good friends. I hit the edge of the best city in Britain – the city I never stopped loving, even after I heartlessly walked away from it – and drove to my road, which, three months ago, after looking at three houses in another part of the city that weren’t right, I’d walked past, and said to myself, “That is a road I’d like to live on.” I opened my front door, brought a lamp and a couple of plants in, and shut it. The noise of the door echoed, even though the house was no longer empty and was beginning to resemble a home. My cat Ralph walked into the hallway, opened his mouth silently, and I lipread that what he was trying to say was “Meow.” I fed him, and Roscoe, who danced into my hand as I put the food down. I drank some awful water, the awfulness being slightly disguised by the fact that I’d earlier placed it in the fridge in a jug. I cleaned up a hairball. I listened to Peace Frog by The Doors while I cleaned my teeth, and danced, but not into anyone’s hand. I went to bed, wearing a too big t-shirt with Foghat written on it, was asleep within not much more than a minute and did not dream.
Things of relevance:
The website for DL Removals of Bristol is here. I cannot recommended them wholeheartedly enough. Ask for Dave. He’s a real Dave, unlike the other one, from AnyVan.
My new book is out soon. You can pre-order it here.
I am also writing another book. You can help to fund it here.
I am sick of pushing my own work, in order to stay financially afloat. I’d rather not self-promote at all, and wouldn’t, if I didn’t still need to, to pay my rent. So from now, so offset this feeling, I’m going to recommend another artist and writer alongside everything I write. Check out Alice Stevenson’s work. She is great.