I can’t think that I’ve lived for as long as I have without discovering the band Half Man Half Biscuit. I thought my life was complete after buying the Leyton Buzzards’ double-sided classic ‘I Don’t Want to Go to Art School’ and ‘No Dry Ice or Flying Pigs’, which we got in 1979 or ’80, and then almost immediately wore it flat. But a couple of months ago our friends Kate and Ian gave us another Damascene Moment with the wonderful 1/2 Man 1/2 Biscuit CD, Achtung Bono, which doesn’t have a bad track on it. And I mean that: not one. Particular favourites of mine are ‘Restless Legs’, ‘Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo’ and the timeless classic, ‘’For What is Chatteris?’ – which is a very fair question.
Ever since I came out of the closet and confessed to the world that I’d written a crime novel, people have been asking me about my hero, Alan Cadbury. So far I’ve managed to find just one photo of him and I once caught a glimpse of his passport which stated he’d been born in January 1971. Maybe one day I’ll find out if he was born in hospital (probably I suspect, the Pilgrim, in Boston) or on the farm in the Lincolnshire Fens. But although I don’t want to give away too much about him at this stage (because I want you to subscribe to the book, if you haven’t done so already), I can confess that he has very eclectic musical tastes – far more so than his more celebrated, albeit fictional, colleague in crime, Inspector Rebus. Alan, like me, is a huge fan of 0.5 M.0.5 B., but I rather suspect he’s been into them for very much longer than my mere two months.
So just to give you a flavour of Chatteris, Alan and The Lifers’ Club, I thought I’d reproduce the two passages that mention the small Fenland market town, which today is in north Cambridgeshire, but is built almost entirely out of the grey/yellowish brick that’s so characteristic of (old) Huntingdonshire. Why oh why did they have to mess around with long-cherished identities, back in 1974? And ‘Humberside??!!’ I ask you! But I rant, nay, digress. Chatteris is just too far north of Cambridge for most commuters, so has retained its Fenland atmosphere. It’s also by-passed on two sides, so isn’t too congested, nor, I fear, too prosperous, either. The cliché is to describe such small towns as ‘sleepy’, but there are too many agricultural workers and a sharp easterly wind for that. It’s also famous for its fish-and-chips. Need I say more? So here are those extracts, which I’ve slightly doctored so as not to spoil the plot, if and when the book does appear. In the first, Alan describes where he’s currently living:
‘You’ve moved from Leicester?’ [Jake asked Alan].
‘Oh yes, seven years ago. After we’d finished the Flax Hole dig. I landed a big site near Peterborough and moved back to the Fens.’
‘Moved back? So you come from around here?’
‘Yes, I was brought up on a small farm near Crowland…’
‘Now I’m at Tubney.’ Jake was none the wiser. ‘It’s a little village about ten miles away. Near Chatteris. I’m in a grim bungalow. Everything stinks of diesel…
‘Everything? Even the bathroom…’
‘Yes, even the phone. The place used to be owned by scrappies…’
Ali smiled ruefully.
‘Say no more. Sounds like you’d be better off in here…’
‘Except the village pub’s next door.’
Jake’s smile was neither hostile nor friendly.
‘The Hat and Feathers. I drink there most nights. Keeps me sane.’
‘So you’re OK, then.’
Somewhere outside a loud bell sounded and people started to leave through a door on the other side of the room. Jake glanced up at the clock on the wall, then said with some disdain:
‘I’d better be off. Feeding time at the zoo.’
The second extract is even shorter. It describes a pub about five miles from Tubney (so not the Hat and Feathers). It’s quite short, but then I don’t ‘do’ long moody descriptions. If you can’t say it briefly, then don’t say it at all. So here it is, all three paragraphs of it, again doctored in key places:
Alan hadn’t wanted to meet Lane at the college after the interview. He didn’t know why. It just felt wrong. There were too many eyes in that place, and if Jake managed to detect even the slightest hint that he was seeing the Law, then the whole project would be dead in the water. So he suggested the Old Slodger.
Traditionally, ‘slodgers’ were fenmen of the south Fens; ‘yellowbellies’ were their Lincolnshire equivalents. This pub was a small independent house with close links to a micro-brewery in Chatteris. Alan knew the beer was always good, the food plentiful and fresh, although a bit robust for London tastes, and the company relaxed. He liked it.
He walked into the bar. A couple of the locals said hello, but then they left him alone. That was another thing he liked about the Slodger: Fen people never crowd you. He ordered a beer and a round of sandwiches, then sat down, taking a copy of the local paper from a rack by the fire. He was starting to warm up and relax. After a quarter of an hour, half a pint and a doorstep sandwich, DI Lane entered.
Now I must go out and spray off some persistent creeping thistles. Next stop: Hay-on-Wye!