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23 October 2019

Despite the Guildhall and the working stonemason, I can’t get anyone to come to Faversham

A Londoner is always going to look at small market towns with skewed and suspicious vision.

By Nicholas Lezard

Faversham has the feel of a film set. At first, as I lean out of the window and see the large triangular front of the Sun Inn, I think I’m in a Canterbury Tale, and half expect to see a wagon piled with hay, a small boy riding on top of it, going past the window.

There are hops all over the place; there was a festival a month and a half ago. It’s actually called the Faversham Hop Festival. There are even some hops – appropriated or rescued by the person whose flat I’m staying in – strung along one of the beams in the bedroom. If I blow a puff of air at them, they quiver a couple of seconds later. It passes the time.

Then I thought it would be fun to imagine that the town’s prettiness concealed a dark secret, and that I was on the set of Hot Fuzz. So I think of hooded figures, sauciness behind the scenes at the Amateur Dramatic Society.

After a while that doesn’t feel right either, so I settle on deciding that I am Patrick McGoohan as Number Six in The Prisoner. I have been sent here because I am a retired book reviewer Who Knows Too Much.

A Londoner is always going to look at small market towns with skewed and suspicious vision. (I may not have lived in London for nearly two years now, but it’s hard to get out of the bloodstream.) We don’t go here. When or if we go on holiday we go to the seaside or the mountains or somewhere abroad. We don’t really go to quaint market towns with a population around the 20,000 mark. We go to places either smaller than that, or bigger than that. Faversham is just the right size to make Londoners feel they have wandered into somewhere unreal.

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I keep trying to get London friends to come down here, but they are strangely reluctant.

“It’s beautiful,” I say. “And the pubs are great.”

 No dice.

“There’s a stonemason and sign-painter down the road. He works in the window, and the other day I found out who’d won this year’s mixed doubles at Whitstable Tennis Club. Whitstable itself is only eight minutes away by train. Whitstable! Think of all those oysters!”

Still, no one bites.

I send pictures of the market square, whose central building, the Guildhall, is so ridiculously venerable that if it was used in an advertisement by the English tourist board, the place would be overrun by Americans in a week. “I saw someone sweeping beneath its arches the other day! It is a scene that has been replayed in that very spot for several hundred years!”

Even my friend M—, who is an architectural historian, says she can’t make it.

“Everything shuts at 4! Even when they say they’ll be open until 5!”

Actually, I don’t say that bit.

The Estranged Wife, sensing I am going slightly loopy with solitude, suggests I go to a local meet-up.

“A what?”

“It’s where locals welcome new residents. You can meet like-minded people.”

I try to do the thought experiment of meeting people with minds like mine in Faversham but it doesn’t work. Besides, do I really want to meet anyone as mentally appalling as me? Jesus. I mean, imagine. (There is H—, of course, the award-winning wine journalist I ran into, but I can’t see him every day, he has a wife and young kid. He does say he’s going to pour buckets of free port down my throat tomorrow, which I’m rather looking forward to.)

Meanwhile, there is Diogenes the Budgie to look after. I’m too scared to let him out of his cage in case he decides never to go back in it again. He seems happy enough. I put my hand through the door and he sits on it and nibbles my knuckles. It took me a while to summon the courage to do this because when I put my fingers against the cage, he jumps at them, shockingly quickly, almost instantaneously, and pecks at them, hard. His beak is sharp. What possessed me to put my hand inside the cage I do not know. Wine, and sympathy. His tender reaction surprised me, but I do it every evening now.

Looking after him is pretty easy. Every day, a bit of fresh fruit. Every other day, more birdseed, fresh water and clean out the bottom of his cage.

The only problem is remembering the alternate days. Time works differently here. At the moment I am dating things from Sunday, when S— was going to come down. I’d got Diogenes and his cage spruced up for the visit, which – guess what? – never transpired. 

So Diogenes looks at me and I look at Diogenes, and each of us wonders who’s the more imprisoned. 

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This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state