Back to Norwich in the small hours after a weekend trip to the Chicago Humanities Festival. Overseas tours don't come any more fleeting than this 36-hour sojourn in a landscape hitherto described only in the novels of James T Farrell and the closing scenes of The Blues Brothers, in which John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are run to ground by what seems to be the entire Illinois Police Department. I retain a confused impression of mighty buildings and immensely courteous shop assistants. My strategy in Chicago, as on all foreign territory, was to exaggerate my Englishness. "Good evening," I would politely remark, on being introduced to some alligator-skinned sponsor's wife in the hospitality suite, "how frightfully nice to see you." Yet the results were not always satisfactory. "We liked your talk this morning," a civil old gentleman deposed, as I limbered up for a session on George Orwell's posthumous view of the current international situation. "Only some of the folks at the back thought you were so English they couldn't understand what you were saying."
Tuesday: Jet-lagged into insensibility, children greatly impressed by the gift of a Disney video not yet available here, I take a train to Sheringham on the Norfolk coast to be interviewed for a Radio 4 programme marking next spring's centenary of the birth of the novelist Patrick Hamilton (Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude and so on). A beachside shelter duologue with Nigel Jones, Hamilton's biographer (Through a Glass Darkly), is followed by a second chat outside the house in which Hamilton, a martyr to the bottle, drank himself to death in 1962. Later we drive to the Lord Nelson in nearby Burnham Thorpe, another Hamilton haunt, to record a three-way discussion with the subject's other biographer, Sean French.
Much as we are enjoying ourselves, no one is terribly sanguine over the likely size of the audience. Sean insists that his Patrick Hamilton: a life sold worse than any book in the recent history of Faber & Faber. Nigel wonders gloomily whether Hamilton isn't that fatal thing, "a writer's writer". After lunch, Sean kindly ferries me back to Norwich, just in time to reach my elder sons' school for an update on their progress. Talking to the headmaster in a corridor, I wonder if now is a good time to tell him about the half-dozen crates, containing (among other items) a copy of every novel submitted for this year's Man Booker Prize, that are about to be dumped on his premises as our contribution to the Christmas Fair. Meanwhile, the pile of unread review copies (the latest addition being Alan Sillitoe) continues to grow.
Friday: To Southwold in a taxi (someone else is paying) to address the Sole Bay Literary Festival on "Orwell and Southwold". Talking about Orwell on home territory always makes me uneasy. Locals have long memories: the quavering voice from the back row announcing that he or she was Orwell's love child cannot be discounted. I get back to Norwich in time to attend an event at the city's Forum celebrating the launch of a literary initiative (the details are vague) sponsored by East England Arts, the University of East Anglia and the local council, and am rebuked by a literary agent for being nasty to one of his clients. The pile of unread review copies (Sillitoe has now been joined by Toni Morrison) continues to grow.
Saturday: The first weekend since early October spent in the bosom of my family, and expectations (of serenity, dutiful children and promising sports results) are high. I watch Felix play football for the church under-12s seven-a-side team. Already a man short when the game kicks off, the Eaton Eagles are soon reduced to five when defender William is led whey-faced from the pitch. They go down 16-0, this particular proud father having stationed himself behind the posts to help the goalie retrieve the ball. The indignity is compounded some hours later when Norwich go down 1-2 to Watford, thereby blowing their chance of heading the Nationwide Division One. Later, brooding in the garden, I fill ten rubbish sacks with leaves and do something agonising to my back. The pile of unread review copies (Sillitoe, Morrison and now Simon Winchester) continues to grow.