I was spying through the garden fence this morning when Ian Hislop caught me.
‘Just admiring your new lawnmower,’ I said, though I confess, I was blushing just a touch between nose and ears for reasons other than guilt at the thought that he might suspect I was trying to get writing tips from his wife, Victoria. I had a far more likely reason to feel embarrassed .
Since the Hislops bought the big property that backs onto our garden, I’ve been trying to avoid letting him know we were neighbours of his. I feared that viperish wit he's known to dole out on those mentally inferior to him. One withering remark from him and I might begin to feel bad about my life and my part-time office job in Manchester.
‘And why, pray tell, were you examining my lawn mower?’ he eventually asked in that high-handed way he has which involves energetic fluttering of his eyelids. ‘What, exactly, were you doing?’
‘You mean doing generally or in particular?’
‘I mean doing in that garden,’ he said. ‘God in heaven! You don’t actually live here, do you?’
‘Comes as a bit of a shock, doesn’t it?’
‘Just a bit,’ he answered.
‘Well, I do live here and so does Judy. This is our home. We also have a beaver but it lives in our pond. We’ve named it after Stephen Fry. Not the pond, of course. Fry deserves nothing smaller than a lake or large inland sea. I mean the beaver. It’s called Stephen Fry. We’ve lived here ages. Buried plenty of skeletons in this garden, I can tell you... Though not literally. That would be murder. I just meant metaphorical skeletons... And, anyway, if I did have to get rid of a body, I wouldn’t bury it in my garden. I’d bury it in somebody else’s... Though not yours. Although I’m sure it’s a fine garden for that sort of thing. No, I wouldn’t need to because I haven’t killed anybody... But I might have accidentally drowned Fred Talbot when I scuttled the “This Morning” map in the pond. I’ve written about it on my blog....’ There was a long silence during which I probably did too much grinning. ‘Do you have a blog, Ian?’
That’s typical of what happens when you meet Hislop. He’s got this way about him that makes you confess to the most ridiculous things. His place is really with some police force. Stick him in a room with an innocent man and, I swear, inside the hour they’d be doing vocal gymnastics like a canary in counterfeit sweatpants.
‘Well, jolly good,’ said Ian, climbing astride his lawnmower. (I looked away as he did his striding. When a man wearing shorts starts to stride, I find it’s always better if you look away.) ‘If I were you, Richard,’ he said as he began to rev the throttle, ‘I’d seriously think about getting yourself a job. You’re going to rot, standing around at the bottom of your garden and spying on other people’s lawnmowers. And if you ask me, there’s also something indecent about it.’
And with that he was off, the editor of the nation’s premiere satirical magazine, cutting a swathe of green in his own rather overgrown back lawn.
Now, you might say that I’m a stubborn old sod who never learns his lesson. Yet this encounter did teach me two things. The first was that Ian Hislop loves a noisy lawn mower as much any celebrity who happens to come in below five feet in hip-cropped shorts. The other is that he’s acutely perceptive about a man facing a crossroads in his life.
You see, we’ve again reached the point of the week when I go down to the bottom of the garden to do some thinking, a little planning, and spread the occasional smatter of tears. Tomorrow is the day when I shed the skin of the lovable TV host and become, for a better want of words, Elberryesque, as I challenge my knees to the long trudge to the station and then a day working on the dark side of the moon which, in this case, looks remarkably like Manchester.
I’ll be working up there for two days but my nights will be spent looking for work. I hope to find something to rescue me from what is rapidly taking on all the characteristics of a rut. I want work that challenges me. Creative work. Work for a man who writes 2000 words of a blog before breakfast and then invents illuminated liquorice sticks in his garden shed before noon. I don’t mean temping work; shuffling files, euthanizing fax machines. I want work that tests a man with my unique qualities. Judy thinks I’d be a whiz as a copywriter or design guru. Give me the next Pepsi campaign and I’ll give you Leonard Cohen singing before a wombat chorus. Never been done before. Bound to be a hit.
Only, the trouble with being so famous in one line of work means that it’s hard to find work in another. I have been sending my CV to different companies in the hope of landing some small role in advertising. They usually send them back thinking I’m joking. When I do get an interview, it’s more out of fascination and the chance to get an autograph.
‘But haven’t you got a show on Channel 4?’ they ask.
‘I’m looking for a change,’ I tell them. ‘It’s very well for the press to say that I’m earning a few million a year but I’d be much happier if could clear twenty grand on a regular basis.’
‘That’s rather hard to believe,’ they say. ‘You’d rather have less than the UK’s average wage instead of these huge contracts?’
‘That’s just it,’ I tell them. ‘The contracts are all in Judy’s name. I’m just an honest Joe without a penny in his pocket.’
‘Do you have any qualifications?’
‘Honorary or academic?’ I ask but at this point they usually close their files and show me the door.
Oh, I could write more of tonight's rambling post but I’m merely delaying the inevitable. I have to go to bed. I can hear that Judy will soon be finished on the trombone so I’ll simply say that I’ll see you on Friday, if not sooner. I’ll try to post tomorrow night from Manchester but if you don't hear from me, I'll have emptied the mini-bar in room 318. And if anybody fancies joining me, I'll be taking my travel Scrabble...