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5 September 2018

Back to Scotland – to cure both my bacon and my sense of failure

Things have changed a bit up here, even in the relatively short time I was away.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back in Scotland. Neasden saw me off, via East Finchley, by giving me a stinking cold and a sense of deep failure and regret. This wasn’t helped by having to unpack a hundred books that had been sent to me by various publishers keen to press their wares upon me. New readers may not know this, and maybe old ones don’t either, but I used to be a book reviewer for the Guardian, specialising in giving the kind of books that rarely get a chance (small publishers, obscure authors) a chance. Unpacking book after book and knowing that, in an age governed by how many clicks you get, these books were mostly doomed, was a dispiriting experience.

As was the journey north, which seemed to take forever. I have to go back to London in September to judge a literary prize and I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t a better way than a nearly six-hour train trip. Someone suggested flying, which might shave a couple of hours off but then there’s the whole getting to and from the airport business, which is something that I don’t think I am psychologically robust enough to handle right now.

No, there’s no getting round it: I live a really long way away, or rather, you do. Funny how the more often one does the journey, the longer it seems to take. I suppose it’s frustration.

When I got here I spent the first couple of days being too ill to move, but yesterday I rallied a bit and went into town for a haircut and a visit to the butcher’s, whose profits must have dived while I was away. The butcher’s and I have a special relationship. I asked them a couple of weeks ago if they had any smoked streaky with the rind on and they said no, they didn’t, but they could cure some for me by the weekend. They could what?

This is accommodation of the customer to a high degree, the kind of thing you only read about in cookery books by long-dead authors. A modern cookery book that contained the phrase “ask your butcher to…” would have to end with “… and you will be met with a blank refusal.” Anyway, this lot – and I am happy to name them as Ewarts of Alyth, with a few branches spread over Tayside – produced some of the best bacon I have ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of bacon. I was worried while I was away in London that they might have thought I had forsaken them, or become a vegetarian, or, even worse, Found Another Butcher’s, but when I came in and spread my largesse about the place it was as if I’d never been away. “We can close early today,” they said. (The hairdresser was happy to see me, too, and gave me the senior citizens’ discount for my short back and sides, on the grounds, she said, that she didn’t have that much to cut off in the first place. Hmm.)

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Things have changed a bit up here, even in the relatively short time I was away. You don’t notice this when you’re holidaying somewhere. The market square is being dug up; they’re putting ports in for electric cars, which is great (or would be, if there were any round the place), but they’re also chopping down trees, which is very much not great. And the weather has turned: it may be warm down south for the softies, but here there is a chill in the air, and even though the hairdresser said some of her customers claimed there was going to be another heatwave, she pointed out that their sources were no better than the more hopeful parts of the internet. This colder weather is fine by me as it means even more of an excuse to light a fire; it also intensifies the experience.

And like the character in Martin Amis who craves a cigarette even while he’s smoking a cigarette, I crave more Highland-y stuff even while I nestle beneath its folds.

Last night, in front of the fire and with a succession of steaming hot toddies by my elbow, I watched, on Netflix, Calibre, a film set in the Highlands (one of those cheery little numbers which is like a cross between Deliverance and Shallow Grave; I’d give it 3/5, but 5/5 for the scenery) and, on another media platform, Trollhunter, which is set in Norway, most of which is so far north it makes Scotland feel like Tuscany. I’ve seen this four times already, but I couldn’t get enough of watching people driving at night through pine forests, being scared.

Then the lights started flickering and a noise came from the kitchen very much like a cricket ball being tossed around in a washing machine. This, after watching the films mentioned above, was rather alarming. The simplest, most rational explanation, it seemed to me at the time, was that I was entertaining a poltergeist, but it turned out that the fridge had gone kaput. But as these days the kitchen itself is a giant fridge, I probably don’t need to get it fixed until June. Which makes me think: how long am I going to live here? Is this it, the place? I’ve even got a letter asking me to register to vote. Crivvens.

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This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left