Senility is a cunning mistress. She’s always finding new ways to twist your melon, man. The latest trick she’s playing on me is Western House Syndrome.
I should point out before we go any further that I’m not talking about real senility. Still only in my early forties, I have just as strong a grip on reality as any man of that age with a young child stealing more of his sleep than he feels comfortable with. But even a relative whippersnapper like me knows the gentle failings of memory which get that little bit more noticeable every year. They’re only at the ‘have I put sugar in that tea?’ level, but still, they can make life tricky. Especially when you’re a writer sitting in a BBC studio talking to nine local radio stations over three hours in a desperate attempt to plug your latest book. (This no longer takes place in Western House, by the way, the cosy little building next to Broadcasting House which housed the ‘down the line’ studios. Everything has now been lumped into the billion-pound behemoth known as New Broadcasting House. I’m still calling it ‘Western House Syndrome’, though. Senility, you see.)
The problem is, when you conduct what is essentially the same interview nine times in three hours, you start forgetting which presenter you’ve said what to. You find yourself using the line ‘as I mentioned earlier …’ to someone on BBC Devon, when in fact you didn’t mention it to them earlier at all, you mentioned it to BBC Newcastle. Only ten minutes ago, granted – but how are the listeners of BBC Devon meant to know that? As far as they’re concerned you’re talking nonsense. Unless of course they’re sitting there thinking: ‘Did he mention that earlier? I don’t remember it. I must be going senile.’
Take my last book, for example, which was about London. It included a line I overheard in Walthamstow, as a man walked along the street on his mobile: ‘It’ll be an hour and a half before I’m in Romford, Matilda – if you’re gonna have a bath, have a bath now.’ This got a reaction in early interviews, so it soon became a ‘banker’. Then came Western House day. In the middle of one chat the presenter for some reason mentioned baths, and I replied with: ‘We’re back to Romford and Matilda, aren’t we?’ He laughed – BBC local radio presenters always laugh at everything, it’s in their contract – but I could tell it was a confused laugh. Only then did it dawn on me that I hadn’t actually used the line in this particular interview, I’d used it in the previous one. As far as the presenter and his listeners were concerned I’d just thrown in a completely arbitrary (and therefore completely incomprehensible) reference to someone called Matilda in Romford.
So could I apologise, in advance, to any local radio listeners who get confused in the next couple of weeks as I shamelessly hawk my new book? It’s about travelling from Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus (11 days, 46 buses since you ask – oh, you didn’t …) I’ve got some pukka bits of British historical trivia lined up for the interviews, but at some point I’ll no doubt back-reference them under the impression that I’ve already referenced them a first time when in fact I haven’t referenced them at all. So if I mention someone called Margaret Calvert as though I’ve already explained who she is, she’s the woman who designed many of Britain’s road signs, including the ‘schoolchildren crossing’ one showing a girl leading a boy rather than the other way round (Calvert modelled the silhouette on a photo of herself as a child, aiming to strike a blow for what would then have been called women’s lib). The completely unexplained comment about Marmite being French will refer to the fact that the name comes from the Gallic cooking pot known as a ‘marmite’ (there’s a picture of one on the label of every jar). And the thing about Scotland having given Homer Simpson his ‘doh!’ is all about James Finlayson. He was the Scottish actor in the Laurel and Hardy films who was always uttering a confounded ‘dohhhh!’ sound; half a century later Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer) copied it.
No doubt there’ll be other gaps in the narrative. That’s what we writers call cock-ups. If in doubt email me or tweet me or (should you be feeling really daring) buy the book. Other than that, just smile nicely and humour me. It’s the kindest thing you can do to a confused middle-aged author.
Move Along Please is published today by Random House.