Lord of the manor in Wood Lane

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The Independent Online
TODAY I am proud to present extracts from the sensational best- selling book by John Birt, 'A Year in the Provinces', due to be dramatised on television next week, starring John Thaw as John Birt.

It tells the story of a television executive who, tired of his success at London Weekend Television, decides to leave the Big City and settle quietly in the little-known region known as Wood Lane. His first encounter is with the man he has hired to help to rethink the look of his living room . . . .

'John Birt?'

I looked up. At my door stood a middle-aged man with a stoop, respectfully holding his clipboard. He had a twinkle in his eye, which I was to come to know well, and which would light up his features every time I suggested a radical change. I would also get to know the stoop very well, as it was shared by all inhabitants of Wood Lane. On seeing me, they would bend forward in that curious half-obeisant, half-mocking stance, as if tempted to kneel, yet as soon as they left my presence, they would straighten up and I would hear their refreshing, honest laughter behind my back.

'Yes?' I said.

'Ahder,' he said.

'Ahder?' I said, startled. When I first moved to Wood Lane, I had no idea what people were talking about - indeed, I would still have no idea what they are talking about if I had not taught them how to talk properly as befits a modern organisation or, in other words, how to employ the correct objective-oriented idiom.

'AHDER,' he said. 'Assistant Head of Decor and Executive Renovation. We heard you was needing a respray job on your office suite.'

'I certainly do,' I cried. 'And that's not all] I aim to turn this whole place into a wonderful centre of excellence] I shall open it up to thrusting new ideas and balanced coverage] I shall make sure that everyone who works on my estate knows exactly what to do and how to exercise their own individuality exactly as I want them to]'

'Right,' said AHDER, taking notes. 'New broom, sweep clean, repaint, move furniture around, same as usual, OK, Mr Birt, can do.'

'NOT the same as usual,' I said. 'Very different this time.'

He smiled and said nothing. I must watch this lovable rogue.

As the seasons pass, the spring schedule followed by the summer repeats, followed by the autumn schedule and so on, John Birt gets into the rhythm of the Wood Lane year, and learns local customs.

Most people in Wood Lane eat in the 'canteen', as they call it, or at their desks, but now and again it is nice to go to a local restaurant, and I have recently been going to one in the quaintly named 'Shepherd's Bush'. The restaurant is named after the French writer Balzac, and is patronised by many of the workers on my estate, whose names I intend to get to know as soon as possible. Mr Powell, who runs my entertainment video library, and Mr Yentob, who looks after the serious side of things, are often there. Perhaps they would know the names of the other people. I must ask them.

Yesterday I overheard a fascinating conversation at the table behind me.

'I can't stand it,' said the first speaker. 'He doesn't know what's going on, and if he doesn't understand anything he merely closes it down.'

'I can't take much more,' said the other man. 'If he doesn't change his ideas soon, I'll have to go elsewhere.'

I wondered who they could be talking about, and took a quick look over the table divide. It was Mr Powell and Mr Yentob, sitting together. How curious]

In 1992, John Birt decides money is a bit tight and looks around for economies.

Today I went exploring west of the estate and, in Christchurch, found an amazing cottage industry called 'radio'. I asked one of the old characters what happened there.

'Well,' he said, 'we make noises here, like talking and music, and they go through the air and folks do listen to 'em in their homes.'

'How splendid]' I said. 'How long has this been going on?'

'Since way back, but not for much longer if that bloke Birt goes on the way he is.'

'Oh, does 'that bloke Birt' own this place?' I asked.

'Aye, worse luck.'

He has certainly given me an idea or two . . .]

Coming next: Jonathan Powell goes Awol, and John Birt has poor Michael Checkland evicted from the estate.