Saturday, 5 November 2016


I woke up this morning in Sutton Coldfield feeling a little nostalgic and emotional. It's something I often experience in the Midlands. I imagine my younger self, and that, inevitably, comes with a degree of self-evaluation. Would I recognise the person I've become? Would I consider myself successful? Would I believe I'd ever reach the tender age of 42? I guess it didn't help to discover that the hotel I was staying in was where my Auntie Winnie had had her 100th birthday party. Cut me open, and I bleed the blood of almost every location in the Midlands, and the older I get, the more important that blood becomes...

It struck me that, considering the mood I was in, the best thing I could do would be to take myself home via Stoneleigh, the little Warwickshire village where my Grandparents lived for the entire time I knew them. The place is ram-packed with memories and it's a place which, thankfully, changes very little as the years roll past. It's an ancient village which sits underneath a rather beautiful, terribly English hill. Between the hill and the village runs a river, which is so clear you can see every last lime green reed, glowing in the sunlight, being buffeted by the fast-flowing water. There's a little bridge which is perfect for Pooh Sticks. Weeping willows bow down to the river's edge.

A water meadow separates the river from most of the houses. Years ago, a consortium of residents purchased the land, thereby making it impossible to to build on.

The little (I think Norman) church sits in the middle of the field. And it's there where my Grandparents are buried. It's being renovated at the moment, so is surrounded by scaffolding, imposing fences and huge signs which inform passers by that trespassers will be prosecuted. I couldn't go in as a result. I'd like to have gone in. It would have reminded me of midnight masses, and the concert that me Ted Thornhill and our mate Tom did there when we were 17. We played string trios. I remember playing the Four Seasons. On one of the walls sits a war memorial with thirteen names on it from the Warwickshire Regiment. All killed in the First World War. Probably on the Somme. Thirteen names, from a village with no more than 100 houses. Do the maths.

An oak tree planted for my Grandparents is growing proudly in the meadow by the gate to the church. In a hundred years, no one will know who Girl and Harry Garner were, but the tree will keep growing. And the tree will know.

I visited the grave and had a chat with them. They weren't hugely talkative, but I think they were wearing ear plugs to muffle the sound of building work!

I took myself on a walk around the village. There's very little to it. A little lane scattered with timber-framed houses. The village club is still there, but there aren't any pubs. I walked past the old shop. Grannie used to give us a handful of 2-pence pieces from a copper jar hanging from her kitchen shelves, and we'd go to the shop to spend it on penny chews. A sign on the door of the house where the shop once was says "The Old Post Office." I still remember the way the place smelt inside. The aroma of sweeties, newspapers and past-their-sell-by-date-synthetic-cream-doughnuts.

I remember when the "Old Forge" (which now deals in stoves and fireplaces) was an actual blacksmiths. The building hasn't changed. It still sits underneath a large horse chestnut tree, which had shed most of its leaves into a big fiery semi-circular hearth rug. The old red phone box in the village now houses emergency life saving equipment, including an "automated external defibrillator." There's probably an interesting book to be written about the way that people have repurposed these quintessentially English, yet utterly obsolete objects to reflect the nature of the places in which they live. I've seen lending libraries, internet hubs and tourist information centres. A defibrillator is new on me, but probably says all you need to know about the population of Stoneleigh!

This afternoon I should have been at an award ceremony, but, despite being nominated for something, I didn't go. I didn't go for a number of reasons. The award was for Beyond The Fence, which I consider to have been such a damaging experience that any mention of it makes me recoil like a frightened animal. Believe it or not, Nathan and I still haven't watched the filmed version! The other reason why we ultimately decided to steer clear was that the award was voted for by the public, so essentially, it's a popularity contest. The award will go to the person with the most number of Twitter followers rather than the person who did the best job. Award ceremonies are awful enough without knowing you don't stand a hope in hell of winning an award! Besides, even if you do win, people are always far more interested in what Devina McCall is wearing to say well done or make you feel anything less than a terrible smell! If you genuinely want to feel like a nobody, get yourself nominated for an award! I'm still not sure I've ever forgiven Grayson Perry's wife for asking me if I wanted to be photographed holding one of the awards that her husband beat us to! Priceless!

So instead of going to the ceremony, which was this afternoon, I stopped off at Toddington Service Station and did some writing. Em is set in the 1960s, and I couldn't think of a more appropriate 60s location than a service station on the M1. Peel back the layers of plastic and tatty-looking fake chrome, and you'll find a building which epitomised the glamour of the motorway age. I sat in some sort of ghastly atrium and watched the clouds outside darken.

By the time I'd reached London, the rain had arrived and I might as well have swum my way from the car to the house. All this made the hour I spent in bright, beautiful Warwickshire sunshine seem all the more special.

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