Things get ugly in Middle England

To Leicester. My geographical ignorance is so shocking that I have to go to Google Maps to find out where it is. It turns out to be almost smack in the middle of England. I really should know this. I've been asked to read out a short story I wrote about 15 years ago, which would fit well, it appears, into a themed evening of football-related fiction. It's a monthly event called Short Fuse, a showcase for new writing, and I am wondering in what sense my story falls into the category "new" (I only write stories when I'm asked to, which isn't, frankly, that often, but this is the one I'm least ashamed of, so I don't mind it re-entering the public arena), when I'm asked: "What's your usual fee?"

Tempting though it is to put on a Dr Evil voice and say, "One meeelion dollars", I have to think about this, as I do not have a usual fee for this kind of thing at all, never having done it before (except for free), and I can't do anything for free any more; I can't afford it. So when the organiser, Polly Tuckett, suggests £100 and a train ticket and accommodation, I am delighted. Plus, I get to see Leicester!

The initial impression is inauspicious. I am booked into the Regency Hotel, a couple of miles down the London Road from the city centre, in a part of town that I can't help noticing has more branches of the Samaritans (one) than it has pubs (none).

The hotel turns out to be the full old-fashioned Incompetent English Hotel Experience, whose locus classicus is, of course, Fawlty Towers. I have
been assured a smoking room, but the sign that promises eternal vengeance and awful retribution, plus a £70 cleaning charge, if they even think
I've been smoking there suggests that there is no such thing as a smoking hotel room any more in this Gestapo khazi of a country. And as I lie on the bed in a room whose attic roof has reduced its volume by half and whose sole small window offers only a restricted view of a car park,

I wonder if life has anything more blandly depressing to offer.I ask when the bar closes. Apparently residents can be served at any time of night they like. We'll see.

Worse than Evelyn Waugh

As it turns out, the reading goes quite well. Polly runs a good event. There is an initial mauvais quart d'heure when it looks as though the number of readers might outnumber the audience, but things pick up and I even manage to get a few laughs, probably because the punters have had a few by the time I come on.

Things get a bit ugly afterwards. A woman whose presence in the post-gig company had mystified me for a while turned out to be a performance poet and lecturer at the University of BetterNotSay. After listening to a lot of gossip about funding and Arts Council grants, I suddenly snap. "You mean to tell me," I say, appalled at how horribly right-wing I suddenly sound, "you get paid, whatever you write, whether anyone wants to read it or not? And if you're a poet," I add, beginning to shout and wag my finger a bit, "tell me who your favourite poets are. No? OK. Quote two lines of any poem which you like. You can't? Then give me two lines of your own poetry of which you are reasonably proud, and let's see what all the fuss is about."

There was more, which does me no credit, but suffice to say that Evelyn Waugh himself would have, at some point, tapped me on the arm and suggested I steady on and stop being such a tit.

To the poet's credit - think, perhaps, of the serenity of the character called the Oracle in The Matrix - she doesn't poke me in the eye with a fork like I deserve, but says she admires my passion and hopes to continue the debate. Ms Tuckett is a model of discretion, her face betraying no sense of shock that such an appalling person as myself has managed to infiltrate her evening.

In the end I stagger back to the hotel somewhere around five in the morning. I ask them for a whisky and soda. I don't actually want it, I just want someone to make it for me. It's the principle of the thing. They do. Bless them. And they even kindly forget to wake me up in the morning. Recommended.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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