As publication of my new novel, My Favourite Wife, draws closer, Fred Kindall steps up the training. You need to be a fit man to publish a novel these days. ‘It’s good to be alive,’ Fred exults, as I lie on the floor of his gym and he bounces a black medicine ball on my abdominal muscles. ‘You’re so lucky to be training,’ he screams, his favourite catchphrase.
Fred is a boxer and so going to the gym no longer means sitting around watching Pimp My Ride on MTV. A boxer doesn’t exercise. He trains. The excess weight produced by your soft, affluent life just melts away in the presence of Fred. Every time he bawls in my face about how lucky I am to be training, I feel another couple of pounds drop away. I have lost a stone in the last year alone thanks to Fred, but now I have walked into the trap that ensnares so many middle-aged men — buying inappropriate trousers. My Diesel Viker jeans arrive in a plain brown envelope and I sneak upstairs to try them on. I know immediately that I will never wear them again — they are cut so low fore and aft that I would almost certainly be arrested for indecent exposure. Then my wife walks in on me. ‘Don’t tell me,’ says Yuriko. ‘Jeremy Clarkson, right?’ A cruel race, the Japanese.
Yamada-san’s Japanese class is packed every Wednesday. There are a few wizened old gits around my age, but mostly the class is made up of all these fresh-faced 20-somethings who dream of drawing manga comics in Tokyo, climbing Fuji-san and meeting girls. Incredibly, the students who are doing best are the ones who do not speak English as a first language but Hindi, Cantonese or Spanish. Wakarimasen, I keep thinking. I don’t understand.
The congratulations unexpectedly start pouring in. Have I won something? Ah, but no — it’s because last year the Press Complaints Commission received more complaints than at any time in its history, and the number was inflated by two pieces — Heat magazine’s sticker of Jordan’s child (143 complaints) and a piece I wrote in the Daily Mirror (headlined, ‘Oh, up yours, señor’) in which I criticised the Portuguese for their treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann (485 complaints). The piece appeared last autumn and we have only just reached a settlement with the PCC and the Portuguese ambassador. I was hugely impressed by the fairness and wisdom of the PCC, and I was hoping the controversy would be at an end. But now the broadsheets, as slow off the mark as always, have just discovered it. ‘Hilarious, darling,’ they all tell me. ‘Any chance of a quote?’ Will my shame never end?
As every day brings me closer to my grave, I find more of my time occupied by study of one kind or another. Boxing with Fred, conjugating Japanese verbs with Yamada-san and, every Thursday, learning to ski among the majestic snowy peaks of Milton Keynes. I have always been shy about learning to ski because it meant practising my snowplough with a bunch of three-year-old Austrians. So SNO!zone at Xscape, Milton Keynes, is the piste for me — a giant dome containing three 170-metre slopes made of real snow. My coach is Wilf from Essex, a brilliant teacher who soon has me zipping in and out of pimply snowboarders, and shows me how to put my skis back on when I lose them after hurtling face first down the Milton Keynes mountainside. The most difficult thing is using the ski lift — a metal circle on the end of a pole that you place between your legs and let pull you to the top of the slope. It is like placing your wedding tackle on a very cold frying-pan.
We have a new private security firm policing our street after dark. The glorious Gurkhas, for so long the bedrock of private security in Hong Kong, have arrived in London. I can’t begin to describe how happy the sight of these little Nepalese men on our street makes me, even if they are not packing a khukuri knife. I grew up with my father telling me rapturous stories about fighting alongside this warrior race in the second world war, and they are everything he said — loyal, hard-working, sweet-natured, unassuming and hard as teak. The greatest fighting men in the world, my dad always said. It would be worth getting burgled to see them in action. Our last security firm were a nice bunch of Middle Eastern lads, and handy if you wanted their Alsatian mutt unleashed on a peeing drunk, but they were disappointing in a crisis. A neighbour who was mugged walking home from the Tube received only sympathy, when extreme retribution would have been nice. I note that these Gurkhas do not have an Alsatian. But then they are Gurkhas. So they don’t need one.
A large brown box arrives and before I open it I know that it contains the advance copies of My Favourite Wife. This is a moment you never forget. The first time you see the finished thing. The book is a love story set in Shanghai, and as I stare at the spangled blue cover with its silhouette of the famous Pudong skyline, I wonder what fate has in store. They say that writing a book is like having a baby, but it is actually nothing like that experience, because you get to protect and care for a child for the first 15 years. Publishing a book is much more like having a wild teenager, and then giving him the keys to the family car.