I was a crazed author until I discovered modesty

John Walsh ON MONDAY
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I CAN'T understand it. There's no mention of my book in Historical Commercial Vehicles magazine. And I've been through all 170 pages of the November issue of Kitchen Garden and Arboretum Monthly without finding as much as a glancing allusion.

Kerrang! has chosen to ignore it completely, for reasons I'd rather not go into here. Caged and Aviary Birds preferred to review some irrelevant and drivelling tome about psittacosis. The Vatican City Newsletter ("news, views and a free papal blessing") passed up a perfect opportunity to widen its subscription base. As for the Norfolk Pig Breeders' Gazette, Penthouse, Wisden, Hansard, and the Over Wallop Parish News, I can only say ... sorry. Feeling a bit preoccupied lately.

When you've published a book, it takes over your life in a way you will only otherwise experience by acquiring a baby or a large dog. After countless years in literary journalism, in which I became yawningly familiar with books pages, launch parties, the ethical probity of reviewers, ahem, with publishers' catalogues, with the spiced and musky seraglios that are known as publicity departments, after eons of watching marketing campaigns, Waterstone's signings, book festivals and the rest of the whirling charivari of modern literary life, I thought I knew it all.

Bring out a book of your own, however, and you're like a babe newborn, and about as sophisticated. Your nerve-endings twitch and tingle at the merest scent of a reaction from the reading public.

If someone says, "Oh, my wife's mother says she saw your book at Gatwick airport", you find yourself scanning his face, looking for some hidden critique. If a bus goes by displaying a destination that's one of the words in your title (like "Angel"), you are seized with the temporary aberration that it's a mobilised advertisement and the driver is probably reviewing it for the Telegraph. Someone rings up from a small cable television outfit in Ruislip and wants to film you walking meditatively around your childhood streets and revisiting shops where you once moodily purchased sherbet dabs and frozen rhomboids of orange juice called Jubbly. No, no, you say, this is crazy, you are confusing me, somewhat implausibly, with Howard Jacobson.

One's publicity lady rings up. She has found one a slot on Greater London Radio talking to Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, then a 20-minute live grilling on BBC Falklands FM, the "Me and My Shed" guest slot on Radio Kilkenny, a special, in-translation debate about writer's depression on Norske Boksplog 603 in suburban Oslo - and she has got one on to Loose Ends. This is unreal. One has been listening to Ned Sherrin's chat show for a dozen years until it's become part of one's mental landscape on Saturday morning (bowl of Cinnamon Grahams, toast and strawberry jam, shower, Mystery Noise...).

You take a cab to Broadcasting House, emerge blinking into the sunlight and encounter a ragged platoon of people in zip-fronted jumpers, coats and cagoules that have, frankly, seen better days; they surround you, like the reverent locals in the last reel of Night of the Living Dead, and say, "You on Loose Ends?" and ask for your autograph. Never having been asked such a thing in my life, I comply with an irritable, "oh-God- how-dreary-not-again" flourish, like Gloria Swanson.

Upstairs, along four miles of corridor, up two floors, through 10 swing doors, down three floors, along five more miles of corridor full of coffee machines and fire extinguishers, you finally encounter an Irish film producer, an 83-year-old soprano, the playwright Alan Plater, a young wrestler in a fetching red leotard, the actor Martin Jarvis, a baby-faced American jazz guitarist and his singer wife, whose first husky note makes Cleo Laine sound like Leonard Cohen ... Yes, this must be the place.

The next hour passes in a blur, as one strives to find something, anything, in one's life or memory banks, that will amuse Ned Sherrin, a man who is to the radio microphone what Ry Cooder is to the slide guitar.

You have a launch party that goes on until 11pm, a nice review that makes you dizzy with gratitude, a crap review that makes you seethe, a profile that makes you blush ... after a few days of it, you become numbed. You still scan every available bit of newsprint, every magazine contents page for the magical shock of finding your name unexpectedly therein. But your galloping vainglory has got to stop somewhere.

You gradually notice, just above the 200 words devoted to your work, some things called Other Books being evaluated at epic length. The radio schedules, too, seem to be full of Other People's Stuff which, as day follows day, seems somehow to dwarf the importance of your masterpiece. Eventually you wonder why anyone should bother with it at all.

It's the beginning of wisdom. Through this experience one eventually learns modesty, proportion, patience and a sense of how small one is in the universe. Until, that is, you start writing the next one. This, you tell the AppleMac grimly when you're struggling through chapter one, will really give the anoraks outside Broadcasting House something worth chasing.

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WHAT IS behind the current British obsession with trees and shrubs?

In Scotland, a ludicrous Ealing-comedy row has broken out about whether a Douglas fir in Perthshire or a Douglas fir in Argyllshire has the right to the title of "Britain's biggest tree". Since they both, annoyingly, measure 213 feet and have the same dispersal of branches, this dispute can only be resolved by some Whisky Galore shenanigans involving night- time raids, garden shears, winches, paint, the local pub landlord's pretty daughter and a visiting clot from the Ministry of the Environment, played by Richard Wattis.

Meanwhile, down at the actual Ministry of Environment in Whitehall, other flowering conifers are giving the Government headaches. It's been discovered that the leylandii cypress tree is being used all over the country by territorial fascists to intimidate their neighbours. All it takes, it seems, is one of these fast-flowering brutes in your garden and before you know it, you've got a 90-foot Triffid stalking about the place, shutting out the neighbour's light, stealing his car and watching his wife in the shower.

The Government's typically rough, kick-ass response, has been to bring out a leaflet entitled The Right Hedge for You (how much that title yearns to replace the word "hedge" with the word "mortgage") to suggest that really one should stick to privets and box hedges rather than bully the family next door with these looming redwoods. Naturally one welcomes any interest taken by Mr Meacher and his friends in the diurnal wars of suburbia. But are we sure that they'll stop at hedges?

I don't think I could stand it if the Ministry of Environment began advising us about the best place to put our water feature with bamboo stalks and goldfish. I would become nervous of creeping state intervention, should a booklet drop through my door entitled, The Right Flowering Clematis For You. When a chap arrives on the welcome mat saying, "I see you've got some pink fuschia growing in your window box. Have you considered how it might upset the people at number 24, with their terracotta stone cladding?", I shall know it's time to move to some less repressive regime, like Cuba.

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I'M SHOCKED to discover fraudulent bottles of champagne have been discovered on the British drinks market. Apparently, so widespread is the canker of fake champers in the run-up to the M-word, that a team of oenophilists from Bollinger plc has jetted in to London to investigate.

Suspicions were alerted, it seems, when a magnum of Moet & Chandon costing pounds 45 was discovered to be, in fact, a magnum of Woodpecker cider, or something even worse, normally retailing at pounds 1.80. This is terrible news, but not all that terrible to people like me who, while as sensitive as a gossamer feather when it comes to good wine, cannot generally tell vintage champagne from ordinary stuff and cannot justify paying pounds 45 for something that results in what Anthony Burgess used to call "borborygmic eructations".

What interests me, though, is the advice supplied by Bollinger about how to spot a fake magnum of Moet. It tells you to watch out for dodgy labels, funny colours, dubious bar-codes - and to ensure that the back- label material "is in French". If "millennium" is spelt with only one "n" this, mean the drink is not be entirely kosher. Gosh yes, and that's without taking into account the word "brute" on the front label, the legend "ace bubbly"on the plastic cork, the subtle mis-spelling of "Mowayay Shandy", and the fact the counterfeit magnum is shaped like a huge gun. That's the trouble with forgers, I've always found. Terribly literal- minded.

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