A man called Wally came up to me in Bar Italia in Soho - where I was having an espresso with my friend, Harry - and said: "You don't know me, but you know my mate, Brian." The giant-screen TV was on very loud, showing a game in Milan, and I found it hard to remain in the café with Wally and his anecdote. You're never where you really are any more - at least that's my experience. Harry and I had just been in Boston, courtesy of Martin Scorcese's new film, The Departed. Except that even though it was shot in Boston, and looked perfectly Bostonian, I couldn't help thinking about Hong Kong, which is where Infernal Affairs - the film upon which Scorcese's is based - was made. I've never been to Hong Kong, but watching this uninspired remake made me feel, for the first time, that I might quite like to go.
It turned out that Brian and I had once had a punch-up, or so Wally claimed. I have no memory of fisticuffs with Brian - who's a book reviewer - but I told his pal: "Don't rock Brian's boat; tell him I said: 'Yeah, he took me down, he bested the big W!'" Wally seemed satisfied with this and lurched off into the night. Harry said the coffee tasted like Bovril and I began thinking about Vegemite, and then Australia ... but I didn't want to think about Australia because I'm working on a story at the moment that's set there. So I thought about the South African writer Rian Malan who's the last person I actually can remember having a punch-up with, although I've no idea why.
And inevitably, as is always the way, thoughts of Southern Africa - the tablelands, the rolling veldt, the croaking kraals, the Wellington boot dance of Soweto - led me speedily and unstoppably to Cheltenham. My Great Uncle Martin retired to this sedate watering hole in the 1930s, after 20 years as a District Commissioner in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). We used to visit him in his white-painted Edwardian villa in the 1960s, and even as a child I fully grasped the awesome rectitude of his lifestyle.
Later, I learnt the back story: Martin had been DC for a remote region. Here he had walked between the villages, resolving tribal disputes and dispensing justice. Any prisoners he took, he put to work building a golf course, on which he was the sole player. He lived alone, dressed for dinner every night, and then dined in a solitary estate. He took early retirement after a dispute with the Colonial Office about new examinations, then lived on for a further 40 years, replicating his life in Africa - as regards solo golf and dressing for dinner, although minus the troublesome Awemba tribe and their uppity Chief Munkungo.
My father was a great admirer of his Uncle's lifestyle. He appreciated the elevation of set habits - wine-bibbing, walks, a little antique collecting - into a kind of well-regulated art. I'm not sure how much Cheltenham had to do with my Great Uncle's constancy. In the late 1930s he had a brief sojourn as a tax exile of Guernsey, but he found "the thinking man's Jersey" rather too stimulating. Cheltenham also loomed large in the life of my father's cousin, Cynthia. She was a tweedy spinster with an overbite reminiscent of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I'm not sure if she knew Uncle Martin - they came, I think, from different branches of the family - but if they were acquainted, I daresay he found her mystical reasons for settling in Cheltenham a little outré.
Cynthia belonged to a New Age sect called the Atlanteans, who believed in all the usual crystal-dangling, ley-lining claptrap, together with a peculiar conviction that, après le deluge, all that would be left was Cheltenham. Why this modest, Gloucestershire town should be so favoured is mysterious. After all, Cheltenham is fairly low-lying, while the Cotswold Hills, which are nearby, hardly constitute Mount Ararat. Possibly the Atlanteans believed that when the waters rolled over the surface of the earth, they would sprout gills and flit about the submerged squares and crescents like so many genteel fish. Either that, or they conceived of Cheltenham as ancient Atlantis, and cleaved to it as a form of ingathering, much in the way that certain fundamentalist Jews think they must return to Palestine in order for the Day of Judgement to arrive.
Clearly, none of these people - Cousin Cynthia, Uncle Martin, the Hassidim - are where they think they are. Ralph Steadman and I were in Cheltenham on the Saturday that preceded my encounter with Wally in the Bar Italia - of that much I'm sure. We sat in an overheated marquee and I quizzed Ralph about his new book, The Joke's Over, an account of his 30-year collaboration with Hunter S Thompson - and the subject of a recent cover story in this magazine. It's difficult to imagine Thompson in Cheltenham - although I'm working on it.Reuse content