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6 November 2019

I could learn a thing or two from Jack Reacher – especially when a child tries to steal my sausage

For those who do not know him, Reacher is a tough-as-nails ex-military policeman (US Army) who keeps getting himself into scrapes despite wishing for a quiet life.

By Nicholas Lezard

So I seem to have upset at least one resident of Faversham, if the letters page of two weeks ago is anything to go by; although I do wish that people would read a little more attentively. I said “not as Brexity as you might think”, while our correspondent says I have maligned the place as a “provincial Brexitville”.

Ah well. That said, I did overhear a splendid conspiracy theory at the Sun Inn while I was nursing a pint by the fire: “The reason Corbyn wanted the election on 9 December was so the students could vote twice, you see – once in their university town and then again in their home town.” What does one say? That you’re not allowed to vote twice in general elections, or that for various reasons, Corbyn is not as popular with students as he was? I let it go, because it is too cosy by the fire and there is no point in getting into an argument. This country is having enough arguments.

Anyway, this will be my final night in the town, and in the care of Diogenes the budgie. Our relationship is very good these days: he’s stopped pecking me and does a lot of chirping, in a manner that suggests articulate thought – although what can he be thinking about? He listens to the news with me so perhaps he has his own theories on the wisdom, or otherwise, of holding an election on the 12 December.

Meanwhile, I reflect on my time here. One of my favourite radio shows is Mark Steel’s in Town, in which the comedian researches and fossicks around a town, and then gets up in front of an audience and then takes the mickey out of their birthplace/place of residence in a manner that both sails very close to the wind and yet is somehow endearing. He always manages to leave the town with its residents’ cheers ringing in his ears.

I am not sure this will be the case with me. Never mind Mr Tim Jennings, who gave me a piece of his mind in the letters pages – it’s difficult to make new friends in a certain place or at a certain time of life, and with only a month to do so. The newsagent who stocks the New Statesman is a nice chap but we’re never going to be sending each other Christmas cards; ditto the barman at the Sun who lets me put logs on the fire. (The Sun Inn is a venerable old pub, with a very comfy armchair by the fire; if Heaven does not have a very similar arrangement then I’m not sure I’ll be interested.)

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The second-hand bookseller beneath me might miss my custom, but not my company (which has been furtive and slightly shameful) in that following the advice of a couple of friends I have discovered Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. For those who do not know him, Jack Reacher is a tough-as-nails ex-military policeman (US Army) who keeps getting himself into scrapes despite wishing for a quiet life.

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To judge the books by their covers one would suspect the typical reader to be an inadequate male of a certain age, his unhealthy interest in reading violent scenes masking a deep inner insecurity, like Mark Francois. (You don’t want to get into a fight with Reacher, even if you’re outnumbering him eight to one.) But open the inside flap and you see laudatory quotes from the likes of Lucy Mangan, Patricia Cornwell and Philip Pullman. I gather that Margaret Drabble is also a fan. One does not expect Margaret Drabble to be a fan of books where so many people get elbowed in the face or kicked in the nuts, but there you go.

But the thing that really makes me like these novels is, Reacher’s major character trait is that he is a drifter, rarely staying in one place for more than one night. His only luggage is a toothbrush. He buys cheap clothes when the old ones are too used and leaves them in the bin. As you can see, there is a certain similarity to my lifestyle, at a superficial level. I do not get involved in violent scenes, although the other night I was walking back from the chip shop and a boy, aged about 12 perhaps, screeched to a halt on his bike and asked me for my saveloy. I wondered what Reacher would have done. Probably a rabbit punch to the solar plexus. Nothing too hard. Just hard enough to make the kid think twice about asking for people’s saveloys in the future.

However, I am a peaceable chap and decided that in the end the best thing to do was to say “nice try”. It is not a situation I have experienced before, in all my 56 years on the planet, and I have led a rich and varied life, so I didn’t have a better quip to hand.

The boy looked at me again, but in a different way this time. His brow furrowed.

“Are you famous?”

I thought of my readers, both friendly and unfriendly, and the impression I had made in town.

“Round here,” I said, “I think the right word is ‘notorious’.” 

This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong