The fifth anniversary of our move from north London to north Herefordshire passed unheralded a couple of weeks ago – not so much as a glass of local cider passed our lips – which I suppose shows that we now think of ourselves as fully fledged country-dwellers rather than former city-dwellers. Nevertheless, there is plenty to remind us of our old lives, not least this column, and the two books inspired by it, which sometimes prompts people to write to me saying how much kinship they feel with us.
This is exceedingly gratifying most of the time, and yet occasionally unnerving, as in the case of the woman who wrote recently to say that she had read my book, Tales of the Country, and felt as though our lives had run in parallel. "We too left Crouch End as part of the white flight," she wrote.
Whoa! The white flight? That is the phrase given by racists to describe an exodus provoked by the feeling that there are altogether too many black people in the city. It was precisely why our jolly postman assumed we were leaving London N8. His sister had moved to East Anglia for the same reason, he said, and to my shame I didn't bother to disabuse him. But here's a message for my recent correspondent: if she had read my book more carefully, she would know that, in fact, we agonised, like the woolly liberals we were, about leaving a multicultural society behind. We weren't flying from anything, least of all ethnic minorities.
Now that's off my chest, let me turn to my latest book, The Pheasants' Revolt: More Tales of the Country (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), which I've been signing at bookshops in Leominster, Hereford and Worcester. I tell you this not as an ego-inflating exercise but rather the opposite, because at each shop the tables were groaning with my books, and I was given a chair at which to sit, and in Worcester even a cup of coffee, yet punters came there none. Or almost none. Two in Worcester, three in Hereford, five in Leominster. I felt just like J K Rowling. Before she was famous.
At the Open Championship at Carnoustie the other day, while tramping round in a small posse of journalists following the Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie, I regaled the writer, broadcaster and former jockey Brough Scott with this sorry tale. He said he could top it. To promote his most recent tome, a signing was organised at a large bookshop in Cheltenham. The people there told him they would need him for 45 minutes, which he privately reckoned wouldn't be long enough. "After all," he told me, " Cheltenham is my back yard. I expected to find them queuing round the block." Yet, for 40 minutes, not a soul turned up. Then a young woman with spina bifida arrived, telling him that she was his most devoted fan. Then she left. Nobody else came.
I thanked Brough for this most uplifting story, and turned to another member of our group, the journalist and hugely successful author Lynne Truss. I didn't suppose she had ever had such a dismal book-signing experience? " Oh, I have," she said, and related a gruesome story featuring lots of books and no customers, albeit in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was sweet of two such distinguished writers to reassure me in this manner, and I hope the kinship that I feel with them is not as misplaced as my "white flight" woman's with me. I suppose it's a reversal of Gore Vidal's celebrated observation that "every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies". When you know that others have died a little, you feel more of a success.
Moreover, I at least did one of the signings on the day that I enjoyed a modest success, as guest speaker at Hereford Cathedral Junior School speech day, which took place in the majestic cathedral itself. I had been haunted beforehand by memories of Bertie Wooster's friend Gussie Fink-Nottle in Right Ho, Jeeves, who was his old school's guest of honour on speech day, and, of course, in classic P G Wodehouse style, made a frightful ass of himself. I was also worried when someone told me to keep an eye on the five-year-olds at the front, that when they start shuffling and picking their noses, you're boring them. So I started my speech by exhorting them not to shuffle or pick their noses. But it was too late.
Charlie and the crisp factory
The Cadbury factory at the heart of the salmonella scandal – for which the company has been so heavily castigated and fined – is just a short drive from our house, adjacent to the A49 on the way to Hereford. We pass it most days and have always speculated (though only when the children are in the car, you'll be relieved to know) that the place is probably full of Oompa-Loompas, just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But our vision of Oompa-Loompas beavering away has been completely torpedoed by this hoo-ha. You can't have Oompa-Loompas and a hoo-ha, after all. Happily, though, the spirit of Willie Wonka has not been killed off entirely by the salmonella. Two of our children recently visited the Tyrrells crisp factory near Leominster, and were thrilled to find a Wonka-style set-up, with freshly dug potatoes (it is the only crisp company in Britain that grows its own potatoes, my eight-year-old tells me) being sliced by ingenious machines and lowered into boiling oil. Then put into packets by Oompa-Loompas, apparently.