“You’re a writer?” said Sammy the barman in The Dun Cow glumly. “You’ve come to the wrong place, mate. You’ll find nothing to write about here.”
A cold rain blew against the windows and the fire cracked orange in the brazier. The Dun Cow is an old pub in a small Cotswold village called Hornton, huddled in the hollow of Edge Hill, on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, not far from Shakespeare country.
I assured Sammy I had no intention of writing about the Dun Cow. I’d spent last week holed up in a small stone cottage writing something else, and writing was the last thing on my mind. The first thing on my mind was a golden pint of Old Hooky ale.
I took my pint and settled into an armchair angled beside the fire.
“Ooh, no,” said Sammy. “That’s Eli’s chair, that.”
“I’ll get up if Eli comes in,” I replied.
“It’s not if,” said Sammy, and hardly had he finished when a gnarled old fellow appeared beside my chair, wet with rain, staring at me in bafflement and alarm. He wore a cloth hat and oilskin jacket and a pair of shapeless leather shoes and when I stood apologetically and made way for him he sat and produced a newspaper and accepted a pint from Sammy and lost himself in trying to puzzle out the latest news on Brexit while the steam gently rose from him.
Eli comes in every night for an hour. He takes a refreshment and reads the paper and then he grunts goodbye to Sammy and leaves again. He has been doing this every day since 1972. He has been doing it my entire life. That’s not the surprising thing, though – it’s that Eli doesn’t live in Hornton, he lives in Banbury, which is half an hour’s drive away, or nearly three hours on foot. Eli doesn’t drive, so he takes a six-hour round trip, returning home down fields and country lanes in the wintry night, in order to silently read his evening paper in The Dun Cow.
“Why here?” I wondered. No one really knew. Just habit, they supposed. The worst of it is that Eli is mortally afraid of the dark. He carries a pair of brass knuckledusters in case he should encounter any ruffians or footpads on the way, and when he’s in a particularly dark patch of the journey, either to frighten off lurking danger or to give himself courage, he lets out sudden terrifying bellows and howls. It’s hard to know what causes people to develop a lifelong terror of the dark, but I would imagine encountering an old man wearing knuckledusters and roaring like a lion might do the trick.
I met a chap named Luke who was a master thatcher. He’d apprenticed as a thatcher as a young man, and never looked back. Thatching was his life, he said. He loved it up there on the roofs, thatching away. He thatched even in the rain, but he leaned forward with great intensity and told me the best moments in a thatcher’s life are when you’re up on the roof and the clouds part and that clear winter sun comes out.
“Apricity,” sighed Luke. “You can’t beat the apricity.”
Later, I met a man named Mike who told me that in 1995 he travelled for eleven weeks around South Africa with the TV chef Keith Floyd. “Terrible alcoholic, but a lovely man,” he said fondly, pressing me to a whiskey.
“This one’s a writer,” Sammy informed him. “Columns and that.”
“Oh really?” said Mike, with gratifying interest. “Do you write a column every week?”
Oh yes, I said, with that long-suffering expression that columnists like to adopt, acknowledging that theirs is an arduous, even a heroic occupation, but selflessly accepting that someone has to do it. Every week, I said. Every week, come what may.
He nodded thoughtfully. He knew what that was like because his father’s brother had been a columnist for the Daily Mirror, writing a column every day.
I spluttered a little into my drink. “Every day, did you say?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “Every single day, come what may.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “Probably couldn’t keep that up for long, though, eh?”
“Well,” said Mike, “he kept it up for thirty years.”
It turned out Mike’s uncle was Cassandra, one of the most famous of the UK columnists from the golden years of newspapers. His real name was William Connor but he called himself Cassandra after the figure from Greek mythology who was simultaneously blessed with the ability to see the future and cursed never to be believed. Cassandra feuded with Winston Churchill, regularly tormented his mother-in-law in print and was once sued by Liberace for implying that Liberace was gay. The case went to trial. Liberace won.
I had heard of Cassandra because one of his columns is legendary. During the Second World War his column was suspended, and he began the first column after the resumption, three years later, with the words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, it’s a powerful hard thing trying to please all of the people all of the time …”
Before the war Cassandra wrote a good deal about politics, but afterwards he wrote gentler pieces about things that interested him, or made him happy, or made him smile. He thought that the world had enough anger and politics. He thought it could do with a little more softness and humanity.
Mike told me he’d had a dedicated reader who sent him a single goose egg, every year.
“Well,” I said, a little defensively. “I have a reader who sends me a Christmas card.”
“Christmas card’s nice,” said Mike. We nodded, and sipped our drinks. “Still, can’t eat a Christmas card, can you?”
Mike’s wife joined us a little later. She told me about the time she met John Wayne.
I left around 10.30 pm, wrapped and muffled against the night. Somewhere out there Eli was walking and howling at hedgerows.
“Going home to write?” said Sammy, wiping down the bar.
No, I told him, I was going home to fall drunkenly on my face.
“I warned you,” said Sammy with gloomy satisfaction. “You won’t find anything to write about here.”
The Times – 12 March 2019