A shaven-headed man offers me £300 to go to Hull – and it's a blessing

Where would I not go for £300? I struggle to think.

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To Hull. Why Hull? Because I haven’t been before and I was asked nicely, that’s why. I’d been on a panel for a literary bash and after the gig a big, shaven-headed man came up to me. Normally when this happens I brace myself for flight but when he said that he’d pay me £300 plus train fare to go to Hull and talk about myself, I said of course I would. Where would I not go for £300? I struggle to think.

That was months ago and as the time for departure approaches I don’t feel much like staying in town. The past few weeks have conspired to make me deeply suspicious that things are too good to be plausible, and that I am dead, and this is my death reverie, the Matrix arranging things for me to have a pleasant exit from this world.

However, in recent days, the status quo ante has reasserted itself and so, heartsick and hungover, fraught with lack of sleep, and not for any fun reason, I find myself on the train to Hull Paragon, a ham-and-cheese-melt panini cooling slowly on the fold-out tray in front of me.

Why not Hull, indeed? I might even get laid. (And if you think this clashes, and not to my credit, with last week’s cliffhanger ending, let me reassure you that this is an idle and empty train of thought.)

I am met off the train by the shaven-headed man, who is Shane Rhodes, the founder and generalissimo of Wrecking Ball Press (in whose offices I am writing the words you are now reading), and Russ Litten, Shane’s associate and also a poet and author. They rebuke me for passing Philip Larkin’s statue without noticing it and, as I pose for a picture, or a someone-elsie as I suppose they now have to be called, I wonder if this is the first of many faux pas I am fated to make in this city.

If my form at recent public events is anything to go by, I am likely to open my remarks with some gaffe like, “Hello, Liverpool!”

But they are gentlemen and pretty soon it is clear that we are going to get on. Russ, with an experience born of five years as a writer in residence at more prisons and young offenders’ units than I have space to name, assures me, over our second pint, that I would be fine in prison. “In fact, you’d love it.” (I do not so much have a fear of going to prison as a deep conviction that I will be going there one day and, unlike Russ, not on my own terms.)

Naturally, I am gently probed as to my familiarity with the north. I assure them that I know it well, for my wife’s sister lived in Yorkshire.

“Whereabouts?” they ask, and I am nonplussed, for though I have been there countless times, I have not done so for nearly nine years, and the name of the town she lived in escapes me utterly.

“It began with an H,” I say. “Or an A.”

A few names are lobbed at me. “No, not that one. Or that one.”

“Harrogate?”

“Ah! No, not Harrogate, but it’s not too far from there.”

After a while it becomes clear that the only way I am going to retrieve the information is to call the Estranged Wife.

“Hello, darling, I’m in Hull.” (I don’t actually say “darling”.) “Where does your sister live?”

“Boroughbridge.”

“Boroughbridge,” I say to Shane and Russ.

“Boroughbridge!” They explode. “That’s in f***ing London.”

“Ah, well then.”

We go to the Old English Gentleman, a pub I cannot praise highly enough, and run through the plan for the evening. I suggest I read out a bit from my book and then Russ and I just chat, he supplying the questions and me answering. I propose I read out the episode with the Guvnor and the herbal Viagra, acknowledged by many as the most toe-curling episode. The conversation drifts towards Viagra.

“I hear it works for women, too,” says Shane. “The labia get all engorged.” And he makes a gesture suggesting engorged labia with his hands in his lap.

“I’m not sure I’d like that,” says Russ, sounding worried, and a bit sad.

“No, it would be like a bouncy castle,” says Shane, and we all brighten up.

But the gig goes well and afterwards we go back to the Old English Gentleman, a pub that would make a journey to Hull worth it on its own, and Michael, the landlord – and a dead ringer for Ron Mael from Sparks – brings us all an enormous plate of sandwiches and chips, and I feel as though, once again, life is treating me kindly.

I salute his generosity. “He understands,” says Russ, “the power of literature.”

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 appears in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind