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The Old College Diaries

I’m sure none of you care to recall the recent furore over the design of the forthcoming PorterGirl collected works, but it’s been taking up a sizable part of my time and effort so recall it you bloody well will.

Anyway.

The front cover design is decided. Here it is.

Portergirl Trilogy Draft 3B OCD.jpg

I shall now look forward to the inevitable wranglings over the back cover and blurb…

But in the meantime, I have been sent these to peruse. Ladies and gentlemen – PorterGirl swag, no less!

I’m not sure about the t-shirt. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to wear a t-shirt with my face on it. The mugs and notebook are quite nice, though – if you are one of my friends or family you will definitely be getting these for Christmas, just so you know. Actually, my enemies will probably get them too, come to think of it…

One Night With Head Porter

There is nothing quite so good for the spirit as a proper old-fashioned catch up with those who know you best, not least when recent events of a friend’s death and an unexpected house fire weigh heavy on your mind. And so it was I found myself on Saturday evening piling through bottle after bottle of some nice fizzy stuff with everybody’s favourite Head Porter, Paul Butterworth, and his delightful better half, The Headmistress.  

It was a balmy evening in South Cambridgeshire and Paul greeted me with with open arms and that huge smile of his. He had an air of casual elegance about him, dressed as he was in a crisp white linen shirt and fashionably cut jeans. 

“You look great!” I exclaimed. “Did The Headmistress dress you?”

“Yes…” Paul replied, seemingly amazed I was able to guess this. 

We headed straight outside, through the managed tangle of wildflowers and crazy paving, to the small clearing at the bottom of the garden. Seating ourselves at the patio table that is only a little bit wobbly, Paul narrowly avoided smashing all three crystal glasses in his enthusiasm to pour drinks. 

After glossing over the minor incident of my home almost burning to the ground, we celebrated the successes of PorterGirl and discussed the future. Paul expressed great enthusiasm for donning his bowler hat once more and I assured him that the readers would be delighted. Especially as there is the continuing assumption that there is a romantic connection both on and off-screen – neither of which is true but no amount of assertion on my part can convince the readership otherwise. Paul is openly chuffed about this and The Headmistress gamely suggests we should ‘give the public what they want’. However, this would involve drastic alterations to the plot and the disappointment of other characters, so perhaps things are best left as they are.

Paul regaled me with his eclectic tales from the world of television and film, as well as recent adventures taken with The Headmistress. He recounted fondly how is son, Josh, has recently graduated from Manchester University with a degree in film making and was already making waves in the industry with his short films. My little heart burst with pride – for it was I who gave him his first ever paid directing job when he took the helm for the initial PorterGirl book trailer. 

As well as making me laugh until a bit of wee almost came out, Paul gave me sound advice about bringing PorterGirl to screen, not dating the wrong sort of chaps and how leaving Cambridge could be a wise move (more about that another time). But, for now, it’s back to work for me with renewed vigour.  The sudden and interesting developments to Project Britannia mean it absolutely must take priority right now, but with an evolution for PorterGirl in the pipeline and Who Shot Tony Blair? up in the air following the loss of our Chancellor of the Exchequer, this is perhaps for the best. Priorities, you see.

One of which is definitely drinking fizzy stuff with Paul, obviously.

Paul Butterworth in action…

Deploy The Stiff Upper Lip!

You know, there is nothing quite so lovely as living in the countryside, in a little property surrounded by fields.

Except for when those fields are all on fire.

Receiving the phone call that your house is on fire is quite a leveller. Had it not been for the sounds of sirens and people shouting in the background, I might have thought it was a joke – and not a very good joke, at that. There was confusion, then disbelief. Nothing could be done but to get home and see just what was going on.

On the winding B road, a police cordon was in place about three quarters of a mile from my house. A clutch of locals and their children – already over-excited about the first week of the summer holidays – hovered around the cordon, guarded by a lone police officer who looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. I don’t blame him. Working cordons and scene guard is rubbish, especially in this heat. I pulled up and a burly fellow in combats and a skin tight khaki t-shirt approached my car.

“Road’s closed, love. Where are you trying to get to?”

“That’s my house down there.”

He motioned for me to park up and waited for me to get out, before approaching the police officer.

“This lady lives down there – what’s going on?”

The air was thick with acrid black smoke, the greasy stench filling my nostrils and stabbing down my throat. The fields stretch for a good three miles around and there are (were?) little individual dwellings on all sides. Was everyone alright? The officer was unable to tell me anything useful. He wouldn’t say whether or not my property. So I waited patiently by the cordon.

The children whirled and scampered around, absolutely delighted at the drama. I stood quiet and calm while they squealed about having the biggest barbecue ever, how someone said that four houses were on fire, that there were sixty fireman fighting the fire (this, at least, turned out to be true). Before long, their parents realised I was waiting to find out about my house and made attempts to temper their excitement. People offered me tea, to come and wait in their houses. One little girl helpfully announced – 

“Mummy, you should give her some of your big bottle of gin, you drink that when you’re sad!”

The poor mother was mortified, but it made me laugh. This was perhaps the first time I have refused tea and gin. I just wanted to know one way or another about my house.

The press arrived and wanted to take pictures and ask me questions. Burly combat chap sent them off with a flea in their ear and I was grateful. Usually I have no trouble standing my ground. Right now I was having trouble just standing.

I had no concept of time, but quite a bit of it passed. I chatted with the gathered spectators, occasionally bothered the police officer for updates, and watched as emergency vehicles went to and fro through the cordon. It would probably all be okay. The official sources of the police and fire service wouldn’t tell me anything, but finally a gang of tree surgeons returned from the scene. Burly combat chap (by now acting as part protector, part morale officer to my good self) accosted them and began a very proficient interrogation. I hovered within earshot, hoping to finally get some sort of information.

“That first one behind the big wooden gates? Yeah, that’s all gone, mate. It’s completely burnt out.”

That’s my house.

And that was the moment I found out that I had lost absolutely everything. My hearing fuzzed and suddenly I was very, very far away from everything. My periphery vision closed in, like being in a dark tunnel. It is incredible what the human spirit can endure when it has to and the brain has a remarkable mechanism of shutting out extreme shock and trauma. A weird, thick calm descended. Ah, this is survival mode, I thought. This is good, make the most of this. Because when the adrenaline disperses you’re going to be a right mess. 

The first thing I thought of was not the things I’d lost, but the things I’d got. Proof, if any proof was needed, that I remain a mindless optimist under any circumstances. I had my phone on me and even my phone charger in my bag. I had my wallet with bank cards, ID and some cash. I had my car, in the boot of which was my cricket gear. I had the very basics of rebuilding my life right here with me.

My laptop would be gone but the work is backed up. Losing the extensive handwritten notes, drafts and research was a damned inconvenience but not insurmountable. The hats. The vintage tea set. The boxes of photos I’ve had since the days well before camera phones and digital photography. That new dress I’ve only worn once, that’s a shame. Mementoes. Books. The things that make up a life. 

The little girl appeared at my side, an enormous bottle of pink gin in her arms. 

It was a tempting offer, but I had to keep a clear head and I would probably have to drive somewhere at some point. I made some phone calls. Friends offered support. In fact, offers of help of all and every kinds flooded in from across the country. It would be difficult and it would take time, but everything was going to be alright.

And then it was, a couple of hours later, that I discovered that the tree surgeons had been wrong. The outbuildings were completely destroyed but the main house was more or less okay. The police officer confirmed (the first useful thing he uttered in this whole, epic episode) that there was some damage to the main building, the electric and gas were off, but it was mostly untouched by the fire. But I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near it for several hours. The relief was indescribable – even for a loquacious writer so very fond of ad-verbs such as myself. Now, there was only one thing for it. So, obviously, I went down the pub and got shit-faced.

The next morning, I awoke with a ferocious hangover that was the least of my problems. Some windows had melted and smashed, so burnt stuff and debris from outside had merrily scattered itself all over the place. Although the fire didn’t make it inside, the firemen had been through the house, walking through soot and goodness-knows-what along the hallway and up into the loft. I mean, there was charred debris everywhere. Every single surface, every item, every nook was filthy with it. And the smell – oh, the smell was just horrendous. I started cleaning. And cleaning. In fact, I am still cleaning nearly a week later. I noticed that the edges of my rugs were singed. I spied a blackened scrap of paper sat atop a pile of notes on the desk. I’ve since been told that the whole place was minutes from igniting. But it didn’t. It’s still here and so am I.

Part of the boiler melted, the toaster didn’t make it. Oddly, a random orange bucket sat defiantly among the wreckage of the outbuildings, completely untouched. That orange bucket is now my hero and serves as a symbol of fortitude against all odds. When the insurance fellow arrived in his van to assess the damage, he crashed into the post van parked in the driveway. I thought this was quite funny. Perhaps the place is cursed, now.

Things are a little way off being completely back to normal but they are well on the way. I never did have the messy breakdown I was expecting, post-adrenalin. I think the booze saw that off. But gosh, am I tired. Tired of cleaning. Tired of thinking. Tired of talking about the fire. I’m behind with everything and still trying to catch up. Mumsie was worried that I wouldn’t eat properly, but I can assure you that the best way to cope with a crisis is to eat your way through it. And deploy the stiff upper lip. Everything really is going to be okay.