A Horn-player Released

Readers of Lessons in Humiliation will doubtless recall that I have long been the proud owner of (and indifferent practitioner on) a French horn. The instrument is a British-built Paxman Series 2 actually, built to the specifications of the “Mereweather System” in about 1973 and bought for me brand new by my parents through an arrangement with the school music department.

Today, however, FedEx is coming to take it away.

As I left the house this morning, my hallway was encumbered by a large cardboard box containing said horn. When I return this evening, it will be gone, sold on to a company of French horn refurbishers in – you guessed it – the Forest of Dean. The end of an era; the end of a bumpy forty-two year relationship with the instrument.

I spoke to the Man from the Forest on Sunday morning. (Horn enthusiasts spurn the concept of days off.) He reassured me that, yes, that my old friend is still worth a lot of cash, but also explained that the beloved horn I have cherished and played as far afield as St Omer, Strasbourg and Streatham Hill is no professional bit of kit, but a mere “student instrument”.

This news has left me reeling. Is it the case then that for the past four decades I have been labouring under a misapprehension? Have I actually been performing for my whole life upon a horn designed for a rank beginner?

Connoisseurs of my track record would expect me to make clear at this point that my playing has never been of professional quality. Indeed, out of modesty – and in my own defence – I must state that I have always been aware of my shortcomings. The rather weedy sound I have historically conjured from my horn (not to mention a certain inaccuracy in the quest for the note juste) has always been, I have believed, somehow the fault of my own technique: bad embouchure, tension in the neck, poor breathing and general incompetence in the practice room. Despite my scraping a Pass at Grade 8, I have always regarded myself as an essentially shit player.

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Not so! For as a result of my conversation with the Man from the Forest, it is the horn itself which stands accused of inadequacy, not its player. I now understand that the “engine” (the round and complicated bit comprised of valves, slides and assorted curly-wurly bits of tubing at the mouth end) is a substandard lump of machinery deemed unworthy by Paxman’s long-dead artisans of being included in one of their top-of-the-range instruments. Furthermore, the bell-end (and I use the phrase technically) – the end you shove your hand up – is also below par, being moulded from a thinnish piece of cheap metal like an unzipped baked bean tin welded randomly onto the “engine”.

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Unlike that of a high quality and expensive horn, my bell end is not a thing of beauty. It has not been painstakingly hewn from thick ingots of living brass by sweating elves in the foundries below Walhalla. It has missed out on the process of being heated, hammered and hollowed out for a hundred years or more. No, the bell of my Paxman Series 2 has been judged a cheapskate chunk of shite metalwork which will never – could never – resonate like the professional horns I have so long yearned to emulate.

In how many concerts have I played since my schooldays when the instrument and its owner were young, shiny and foolish? How many classical composers have I caused to spin in their graves by single-handedly massacring their masterpieces? By rights, I should be devoting the rest of my life to walking barefoot (wearing sack-cloth/eating ashes) between European musical shrines, begging forgiveness of composers whose life’s works I have done so much to defile: Dvořák, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Walton (completely beyond me), Richard Strauss and his father Franz – and of course Mozart.

Especially Mozart.

I still suffer palpitations when I recall my gratuitous public destruction of Symphony No. 29 (in A) during a student concert in St John’s Wood in 1978. The horn parts in this symphony are high and consequently very exposed. In the old days (a century or two ago), you just shoved in the correct length of extra tube to put the horn into the right key, but these days, with horns built in the key of F, you are required to “transpose”. Thus begins the nightmare begins.

TRANSPOSITION: Explanatory Notes

For those unfamiliar with this particular area of musical expertise, the unhappy First or Second Horn in a symphony in the key of A is required to read the notes on the manuscript and simultaneously play three notes above it. Presented with any key selected at the whim of a vindictive composer, the F player transposes up one (into G), down four (into C), down one (E flat), down three (D), up nine (when he’s lost the plot altogether) and, the biggest bastard of all, down a semitone (into E).

As if the mathematical misery of transposition wasn’t enough, it is also true that the instrument itself adds to the player’s woes with its innate unreliability. You never know when your horn will attempt to make a break for freedom of expression. If a pianist (for example) strikes a correct note, that note will sound; but not even the most proficient horn practitioner is entirely immune from his instrument’s wayward character. Seven hours’ practice a day for twenty years is no guarantee that the horn will oblige in the heat of performance. The danger of it rebelling and emitting an unwarranted fart at the most delicate of musical moments (we in the trade prefer to call it a “cracked note”) drives many players to drink and eventual nervous collapse.

So it was that during the aforementioned concert at the north west corner of Regents Park, I made a valiant attempt at the Mozart, but although I certainly got one or two notes right, ninety per cent of my offerings were fluffed, cracked or missed out altogether. Nobody afterwards was unkind enough to suggest that I sell that horn and take up the tuba instead, but that was probably because nobody said anything to me at all.

Forty-two years on, I find myself in a state of post-cornal high dudgeon and disappointment. Looking back though, nobody has ever suggested that I upgrade; nor has anyone ever demanded my autograph or said “well played, Tim” after one of my many public performances in orchestras, bands and chamber groups. They have, come to think of it, always found some excuse to scurry by and avoid a situation where praise might normally be forthcoming.

Have I been wrong all these years to attribute my unreliable playing to my own incompetence or, after my chat with the Man from the Forest, am I now permitted to blame the bloody horn itself for this lack of customer satisfaction?

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In Defence of Curmudgeonliness 1: Air Travel

Air travel? Don’t you love it?

Younger members of my family are of the opinion that my policy of being a grumpy old git at airports is a deliberate ploy to irritate them and ‘ruin the holiday atmosphere’. However, the truth is that I am unable to share the enthusiasm of those for whom flying is the norm, a pleasure and a right; setting aside the hypocrisy of ignoring any ecological concerns, their relaxed, sanguine and pragmatic views are entirely alien to me; and whatever they say about my being more likely to be run down by an ice-cream van in Antarctica than killed during air travel, my distaste for airports and flying machines remains intractable.

In deference to my nearest and dearest, I have pondered long and hard upon the topic. Here are my objections:

  1. Discomfort

I am 6 foot 4½ inches tall and have recently celebrated my fifty-seventh birthday. With these credentials, who would not dread paying hard cash to be folded in three and wedged amongst strangers for eleven hours between closely packed seats?

  1. Swelling

The last time I flew, I hobbled up the disembarkation tube with the splendidly swollen feet and ankles of a true Old Fart; a puffiness which did indeed subside after a mere couple of days but which is clearly a precursor of thrombosis, a coronary or stroke during my next long-haul flight. (And this despite conscientious flexing of calf muscles to encourage blood-flow; not to mention regular periods spent disconsolately pacing in small circles outside the loo.)

  1. Nausea

Turbulence is a blight in flight, especially when I’m trying to sleep. How apt that the leaps and plummets of the aircraft so perfectly correspond with my own downward spiral of emotions; not to mention the momentary loss of abdominal control as my thoughts turn to the five miles of nothingness beneath my feet.

  1. Patronisation

My section of the plane is always under the gimlet eye of that flight attendant, the one po-faced and overly professional member of the crew who has been specially employed to keep both passengers and colleagues in line. He is the one (and it is invariably a He) who, with unsmiling adherence to Procedure, insists that the baby three rows in front of me is thoroughly woken up and correctly attached to its seat belt; the steward’s strict training ensures that he can unswervingly ignore both the child’s subsequent screams of bewildered outrage at its loss of nocturnal routine, and the despairing wishes of its distraught and catatonic mother.

  1. Frustration

My in-flight entertainment system is guaranteed to be the only one on the entire plane which declines to function. Poke and prod at the screen as I might, no much-needed divertissement will be forthcoming, either audio or visual. That I am the sole recreation-free punter on board is confirmed to me when, whilst performing my anti-mortality physical jerks from the rear of the cabin (see above), I can observe every seat-back – but mine – enlivened by the bright rectangle of Amusement. And will any member of my family (for whose tickets in all probability I have paid a fortune) offer to swap seats with me so that we might share the movies on offer? Unlikely.

However (and you knew there’d be a However), the greatest of my objections to this avian form of personal purgatory actually concerns:

  1. Humiliations and Confiscations

Lest any member of my aforementioned family is tempted to give me the look and enquire whether I’ve ever considered ‘getting over myself’, may I point out that my feelings for and/or against airport security officers the world over have been reignited only this week by reports of a particularly bureaucratic confiscation at Gatwick.

This news has rekindled old resentments.

In the name of Our Security (said he, bounding up the steps to today’s Podium of Outrage), the authorities have historically vied with each other to mete out the juiciest and most humiliating of inconveniences for the avid air traveller. It is obvious to me that the plotters gather every Tuesday in a sparsely furnished room adjacent to Starbucks marked ‘Airport Staff Only’:

“Here’s an idea, Brian.”

“What’s that, Colin?”

“Let’s make absolutely certain that the buggers start their holiday as knackered and cross as possible.”

“I agree, Col. What’s your plan?”

“Sleep deprivation!” Gales of cruel laughter. “After an hour-and-a-half’s kip – max! – they’ll be so dozy and compliant that we can do what we like with ’em.”

Thus, we are obliged to rise at 2.30 in the morning to rush headlong (and, if in a taxi, at great expense) to the airport. If not in a taxi, but at comparably great expense, we explore at length all the myriad one-way systems under, through and around the airport in question before locating the correct Long-Term Car Park. Then, with planes roaring tantalisingly overhead, we begin the long, shivering sojourn in the dark, sometimes in freezing wind and rain, waiting for the ‘Courtesy Shuttle’ to take us to Departures. (We know the vehicle to be merely a bus, but Brian and Colin have renamed it in order to instil a sense of the foreign and exotic even at this ungodly hour.) We can see it in the distance patrolling at a snail’s pace each and every avenue as it makes its strictly timetabled approach. No point in worrying about being late now because we still have to queue for hours – sorry, not for hours, but for our own safety – in order to remove our shoes, boots, belts, hats and pacemakers to the satisfaction of today’s first set of unsmiling representatives of officialdom.

That this is a serious place, I can dimly understand, even with no sleep, but surely, if I were really determined to blow us all up halfway between here and our holiday, I would feel duty-bound to think up devious and cunning new ways of doing it – ways that haven’t in the past been observed, analysed and countered by the authorities and their political masters. An imaginative professional would surely swallow a bomb in advance, have one sewn into his buttock, inserted into a chocolate bar or piece of fruit or shoved safely supra-sphincter into his rectum. How incompetent these days would a bomber have to be to try and smuggle some death device on board in a water bottle, or a half-used tube of toothpaste, or a jar of make-up remover purchased Duty-Free on the outward journey (don’t start me)? Bombs in liquid, or secreted in the soles of shoes, in mobiles or laptops are so passeés. (See how I agree that French word, even in English?) In fact, a real stickler for innovation would load his explosive into an unopened carton of ‘Président’ fondue purchased in an Alpine supermarket at the end of a skiing holiday. I can still see the silly fat faces of Brian and Colin’s colleagues at Grenoble airport passing the sealed pack of pre-melted cheese to each other, daring it to blow up, and discussing whether of not it was a liquid.

“C’est du liquide, ça, non?” queries Jean-Yves.

“Ouais,” responds Jean-Pierre sagely. He’s shaking it, listening to the cheese slop back and forth in the plastic container. “C’est pas solide.”

“Alors, puisque c’est du liquide, c’est pas permis.” The jobsworth looks smugly over at me: “La fondue, ees nut allowed.” And into the gaping mouth of the waiting bin-bag goes my souvenir snack.

Bearing this miserable saga in mind, here’s Tim’s Top Tip for any putative destroyer-of-human-life-for-religious-or-political reasons: why not tamper illicitly with a pot of my homemade ginger marmalade thoughtfully selected by my stepson as a gift for his hostess in Barcelona? During this year’s season, I made thirty-nine pots of this delectable addition to the breakfast table, but, cudgel my brains as I will, I have absolutely no recollection of slipping plastic explosive into any of those jars, let alone into the one randomly selected for export to Spain. I can almost hear the altercation at Security:

“Oho, what have we here, young man?” enquires Brian, peering up at my stepson who towers over him at six foot eight. (How can the lad even bear to enter a plane, knowing what’s in store for him?)

“That’s a pot of marmalade,” replies William. (Obviously, that’s not his real name – or is it? Am I double-bluffing here?) He’s a good boy, and a loyal one. “My Stepdad made it.”

“It’s liquid.”

“It’s marmalade.”

“Still a liquid.” The idiot tilts the jar a little. “See, it’s moving slightly.” What? Is Brian criticising how well-set my jam is?

“But it’s marmalade. It’s not a –” William lowers his voice to a whisper, “ – not a you-know-what.”

“It’s still a liquid, sir. You can’t take it on board. It has to be checked in.”

“But I’m travelling light: hand luggage only, see?”

“Not my problem, sir.”

“So, it’s fine to stow a marmalade BOMB in the hold of the aircraft, is it? Just not in the cabin?”

“It’s a liquid, Sir.”

“But look, you can actually see through it,” persists William uncharacteristically. “It’s a transparent, firm liquid in a clear, glass jam-jar; you’ll be telling me next that glass is also a liquid, but it’s not.” (William is an A-level Physics student.) “And the jar contains a breakfast conserve made of sugar, orange juice, sliced peel and assorted citrus pith.” (And he’s not lisping.) “I saw it being made. Can’t you see, there are no bomb-making ingredients in this pot of marmalade, you fuck-witted tosser?” He unscrews the lid and sticks a long forefinger in; he offers the officer a lick.

“It’s a liquid, SIR!” Voices are beginning to be raised. Colin and a squat, fierce woman called Karen come running. Sniffer dogs are summoned, but lacking both a taste for or training in homemade provender, they fail to impress and are soon dismissed. My stepson is frog-marched behind a screen, strip-searched, bent over a stainless-steel table and inspected rectally with a latex-sheathed digit. Line Managers are consulted, but after heated discussions about the likelihood of the lad being the first marmalade bomber in the history of civil aviation, into the bin-bag goes my product.

Presumably, the staff canteen later echoes with Christmassy cries of joy as gleeful employees empty the bag onto the floor and squabble over the goodies from today’s haul. Who will have taken my marmalade home and been treated to the controlled explosion of taste on their toast the following morning?

*

A five minute walk from the airport in Tobago, there’s a touristy knick-knack market for the use of travellers whose luggage has already been checked in. How odd, then, that the burly and humourless officials on duty in the terminal should decree that it’s unlawful to export conch shells purchased at said market only a few moments before. Is it on ecological grounds that they defy you at this late stage of your holiday? Or do they worry that, in revenge for my little screen not working, I might belabour the crew with the evicted crustacean’s former abode? How fortunate for my conch collection that my own son Sebastian (again, I use another name) was quick-witted enough to whip the contraband out of the bin bag whilst the man’s back was turned.

Forty years ago, you were positively encouraged to export potentially lethal hardware. I remember having no difficulty flying from Dulles Airport with a nice new stainless steel hammer I’d fallen for in a Maryland hardware store. (It boasted three screwdrivers concealed in the handle like Russian dolls.) I was able to hand it personally to a benign and avuncular Captain as he welcomed me on board. My hammer made the transatlantic journey safely and sensibly in the obliging gentleman’s blazer pocket. I still treasure it.

In recent decades I have not fared so well, being required to hand over not one but two Swiss Army knives in quick succession; these I was forgetful enough to have left in my hand-luggage. I understand that a knife is a weapon, so make no complaint. The Powers that Be were right to fear that I might savage an attendant with the little pointy thing that removes nails from horse’s hooves. Let alone any of the blades. “Or was it the case, Sir” (again with the patronising) “that you expected to be required to attend a lame equine during the flight?”

I can sort of appreciate the undesirability of on-board weaponry such as guns, daggers, pick-axes, blow-torches, sledgehammers, pneumatic drills and chainsaws, but quite why you are still permitted to carry tweezers and a lighter onto a plane remains a mystery. I bet even a dullard like me could do a great deal of damage with either of those two dainties – or a combination of both. Think of the potential for carnage as I set fire to a pile of complementary Daily Mails and in-flight magazines before emasculating a crew member with the tweezers.

Airport staff will continue to be trained to follow the rules, eschew common sense and avoid taking the initiative until the end of time. Like automatons, they will aggravate the travelling public until we become so irritated with the inconvenience that we decide to holiday at home. Of course, they need to be seen to be trying to avoid the untimely deaths of plane-loads of innocent people, but is it not the case that their good intentions are merely knee-jerk reactions to past horrors, and as such, largely inappropriate and draconian? As has been seen in so many recent air tragedies, horses that are absolutely determined to bolt do so despite the best efforts of airport security.

I am informed by the young that to travel with me is in itself a major cause of stress. Security officers “are only doing their job,” they scold, “and wouldn’t you rather feel safe on a plane?” Well, yes, of course I would, but my real horror of flying stems neither from the possibility of being deliberately blown up or hijacked, nor from my own childish impatience with the inconveniences mentioned above. No, what I really dwell upon prior to and during a flight is a statistically unlikely yet fatal combination of circumstances entirely beyond our control. With the constant possibility of our frail little flying machine straying inadvertently into a hostile weather system, I am vulnerable to flights of cowardly imagination. What I really fear is:

  1. Human error, Weather and Mechanical Failure

Even as we enjoy a perfectly smooth and peaceful flight to some delicious destination; even as I sip my wine and marvel at the quality of provender provided, I can never be persuaded to feel safe in that plane.

If, for whatever reason – man-made or ‘Act of God’ – we are destined to explode or crumple at thirty thousand feet, no well-meaning precaution will make any difference.

Which is why – despite the anticipated queues at Passport Control this summer ­– I do love a cross-channel ferry.

Timothy Edward’s novel “Lessons in Humiliation” is available through http://www.timbartholomew.co.uk

The Book Club: a Lesson in Humiliation

I meet Chris in the bistro on the ground floor. ‘Tell you what, Tim,’ he says, shaking my hand, ‘why don’t we keep you anonymous? That way everyone’ll say exactly what they think of your book without having to mind their p’s and q’s.’

‘Yup, we could do that.’ I grimace inwardly, my stomach turning just a little on its axis.

‘The meeting’s upstairs,’ he smiles. ‘Follow me.’

My reading edition tucked under my arm, I follow him up a narrow staircase towards an excited babble of literary voices. That’s a good sign, I think; they all enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to being the centre of attention, to soaking up the adulation: the hero of the hour, a genius and a scholar.

‘This is, er, Tim, ladies and gents,’ announces Chris to the assembled gathering. ‘He’s thinking about joining the Club and I said he could come along for a taster evening.’ Murmurs of greeting and sidelong glances. ‘To kick off proceedings,’ he continues, ‘I’d like to say that I recommended Lessons in Humiliation to the Club because I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a headmaster myself, there was plenty to laugh at. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?’ He clasps and unclasps his fingers. ‘Yeah, I had a good chuckle. Liked it.’ He turns to his neighbour. ‘What about you, Bill?’

Bill is fingering a copy of my book, flicking through the pages in an appreciative way, as if he can’t decide which high-point to single out first for praise. This is going to be a great evening. What it is to be appreciated as a comic writer. ‘Well,’ he sighs, his brow furrowing, ‘not wishing necessarily to start off on a negative footing, but I only got as far as – er, let’s see: Page 51 – and then had to stop.’ As does my heart, briefly: in mid beat. Chris glances at me, but I am concentrating on the shadow cast by a bottle of dried grasses on the mantlepiece above Bill’s head. ‘It may be a question of sense of humour, but frankly, I didn’t find it in the least bit funny. It’s all very clever and all that, but it’s just too much. The thing is relentless and anyway, I didn’t sympathise with any of the characters. I couldn’t read any more.’ He pauses theatrically. ‘I also found it offensive.’ The other nine literati are now hanging on his every word. ‘Did anyone else find it offensive?’ He clearly relishes his moment in the hot-seat. There are mutters of general assent. ‘Take this passage: I’ll read you a bit.’ He cracks open the book and settles into his outrage:

“Valerie and I squeeze into a doorway to let a fully-laden double buggy through. The girl pushing it is smoking and spotty, her pink tracksuit stained on one shoulder. I feel oddly superior: not for Valerie and me a life of drudgery. We are above all that. We are smug middle class lovers who carefully and responsibly take preventative measures.”

What do you think of that?’ Bill glares round. ‘Hardly politically correct, is it?’ Further murmurs of assent. ‘No. Hated it.’

‘So, Jim, what about you?’ asks Chris, leaning forward and smiling encouragingly at the next reviewer. My heart has not only stopped: it has been ripped out of my chest and tossed to the crocodiles.

‘I’m sorry to say I couldn’t finish it either,’ states Jim pugnaciously. ‘It’s about adultery and, well, you know, what with my first wife going off with another man, I know how it feels and I don’t want to read about it, thank you very much.’ Jim’s Northern intonation makes his misery all the more palpable and I find myself glancing at the next person: will she hate me too? She is a peroxide blonde named Tania and apparently the femme fatale de choix in local Am Dram groups.

‘I enjoyed the theatrical bits,’ she twitters, crossing her skinny legs and flicking her hair back. ‘It’s basically about a man who wants to be loved, but I haven’t finished it either.’ (She’s reading that phrase directly from the back cover. I know. I wrote it.)

On my left, deep in a sofa, is a lady married (I think) to the Bill person. When she speaks, I am made aware from her guttural R that she is a) Swiss and b) therefore too po-faced and controlled a person to wish to engage with a book with a title like that and which her husband so vehemently hates. However, her neighbour Alice, Jim’s new wife, is also a teacher and enthuses about the hilarious pedagogic content, and about how good it was that the narrator stood up to the wicked headmaster. She wonders though whether the book wouldn’t be better read aloud or performed on stage by a comedian because it was all a bit much of an assault on the average reader. Too much of a good thing. This Timothy Edward is clearly a cleverclogs. ‘I agree with you, Bill,’ she concludes. ‘It is relentless. And also, the school stuff is obviously ridiculous. It could never happen in this day and age.’

Jim has been studying his iPad. ‘One other thing,’ he mutters. ‘One of the bloke’s reviewers says that she’s looking forward to the next volume.’ He looks up in horror, his reading glasses crooked.

‘Is he going to write a sequel, then?’ hisses Bill.

‘I hope to God he doesn’t,’ declares Alice.

Now it’s Tania’s turn to perk up; she announces categorically that she doesn’t know anyone like this awful Valerie. ‘Women like that just don’t exist,’ she decrees. ‘She’s utterly ridiculous too.’

My feet, I notice, are twitching in my shoes, preparing themselves for a major flounce. Surely it’s time to receive a fake text and excuse myself on the grounds of a work-related crisis or a death in the family? I force myself to lean back and fold my arms instead, protecting myself from whatever’s coming next.

On my right, Oliver is speaking. Oliver is evidently not a member of the Club either. I know I’m safe with him because he told me downstairs that he was a fan of mine. ‘Well, I’m surprised at the reactions so far,’ he intones, sitting up straight and bringing a full and varied life experience to bear on the proceedings. ‘I have to say that I absolutely loved it. It was brilliant. I read it in two sittings. The writing is so funny – I’d compare it to Evelyn Waugh.’

‘Evelyn Waugh?’ snorts Bill, nearly choking on his red wine. ‘You’re surely not comparing this to Waugh? It’s not even as funny as Tom Sharpe!’

‘This book leaves Sharpe in the shade,’ snarls Oliver. I must remember to slip him a crisp twenty. ‘Furthermore, I think it’s a great achievement to have written such a novel and had it published.’ Don’t over-egg it, man. ‘I’m appalled at what’s been said tonight.’ Fighting talk which might have descended into fisticuffs had I not opened my mouth to speak.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I say, somewhat over-resonantly for such a small room, ‘I think you may have missed the point here.’ All eyes swivel. Who the hell am I to suggest such a thing?

‘Really?’ sneers Bill. ‘Is that so? But may I ask first why your copy has all those pink markers in it?’

‘I always put markers in my books,’ I smile, ‘because I am anal and like to know what I’m talking about.’ There is loud laughter as I say this rude word. (I do not explain that the markers denote either good passages to read to enthusiastic punters or misprints that need to be corrected in the – under the circs – unlikely event of any future reprint.) ‘But I agree with you, in point of fact. I think the book is offensive. It deals with social and personal issues (I use the word in its modern sense) which might be unpalatable to many. To you, in fact. Let me read you a bit.’ I open up at Chapter Twenty-Nine:

‘“One of the disadvantages associated with being the Village Lothario is that squadrons of curtain-twitchers, back-biters and gossip-mongers tend to gang up together in the village shop to discuss how best to shun the miscreant whose actions have so shocked them to the very core of their bourgeois respectability. Naturally, I despise them for this, justifying my venom by telling myself that these bottom-feeders are working from a position of envy and regret, only wishing that they’d had the presence of mind to become my confidant and walking partner instead of Valerie.”’

Knowing how it should sound, I manage to generate a laugh from them on nearly every line, and by the end am feeling a little better. ‘I also have to tell you that both the school material and everything to do with the Valerie woman is true.’ I pause for a second to allow Fear to drift across their faces. ‘I know because I wrote it.’ Chris grins sheepishly as Alice and Bill turn to glare at him. Oliver sits back with a satisfied grunt and five mouths assume feline rectal form. ‘But, please,’ I grin, ‘I beg you not to be embarrassed. Imagine how awful it would have been if you had known who I was. How dishonest a discussion we would have had.’

‘But, Tim,’ whispers Alice. ‘How do you feel after hearing all this adverse criticism?’

‘To be honest,’ I lie, ‘I feel one per cent chastened. And I have to say that I am entirely unrepentant because this I what I write and how I write. I am sorry that some of you – most of you – don’t like it, but there it is.’

An hour later, having opened my soul to them, having admitted to some of the true awfulness of the reality of my flailing years, having made them laugh and love me, I say my farewells. There is deep-tissue hand-grasping and full eye contact from all members of the Book Club.

‘Thank you so much for coming in,’ says Alice as a round of spontaneous applause dies down. ‘It’s been a great evening. We’re really looking forward to the sequel.’

Timothy Edward’s novel “Lessons in Humiliation” is available at http://www.timothyedwardauthor.co.uk