‘We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live’, Iain Sinclair, Edge of the Orison
Northampton, 24-26th February 2012
Last Saturday I went back up to my old home town to do a book-signing at Waterstones on Abington Street. This was for my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels (published by O Books) – part of a sixteen date tour that started last November.
Returning to my old stomping ground is always an emotive experience – even more so now that I have lost both my parents – but it felt good to be returning for something other than a funeral or morbid anniversary. To be returning as a visiting author giving a signing at a major High Street book store was quite special, to say the least. The only other time I had done something similar was when I returned to my old school Mereway Upper (as it was called then) to run a creative writing workshop with the pupils inspired by my children’s fantasy novel, The Sun Miners (written for my nephew Kane, when he was 12 years old). That was the first time I had come back on a motorbike, and the last time I saw my Dad – so the whole experience was charged with emotion for me.
Helping to support me in this was my dear friend Justin Porter, who arranged somewhere for me to crash the night before. We caught up, laughing about old times in a fabulous new pub, ‘Olde England’, done out like a medieval mead hall (complete with mead – which we had to try…).
Saturday morning the sun was blazing as I rode to the bookstore. I was told to bring the bike right into the front, and so I took it up Abington Street (now pedestrianised) and rolled it straight into the store, much to the astonishment of shoppers! The staff had made a nice display and I placed the bike in front of it, gleaming after a thorough polishing. Having the bike there proved a stroke (or two-stroke) of marketing genius, as it proved a good talking point, drawing all sort of folk over for a chat.
The very first person who came over was a lovely guy from the West of Ireland – a fellow biker, who, as it happened, knew my Dad’s best man, who lives in Gort! Small world! They hold a ‘bike church’ on a Sunday – going for ride-outs in the Galway area and beyond – and he said if I ever make it over to give him a shout. A call of adventure if ever there was one! I see a tour of Ireland coming on (he thought it would make a good follow-up to Turning the Wheel – publishers take note…). He bought a copy and gave me his contact details. A good start to the day!
Throughout the day family and friends dropped by – it was very special to see my old school -friend (and master illustrator) Steve Hambidge; as well as Justin; Julie, Roxi, Kane – the whole Manwaring clan! For a while we seemed to take over the store until (probably to the Manageress’ relief) they left. It was a busy day (best trading for over a year apparently) – I think the glorious sunshine must have helped to put everyone in a good mood.
The staff looked after me – and really made an effort to promote the talk (which makes all the difference). A photographer from the Chronicle and Echo came and I did some gurning at the camera. Who knows who might see it – and be surprised (or maybe not) to see my mug in the local rag?
Afterwards, I sat in Northampton’s lovely cobbled market square and savoured the last drops of sunlight over a well-earned cuppa. The town feels ‘on the up’ these days – certainly compared to
how it felt growing up there in the grim Eighties. It is great to see lots of creative activity especially – it seems Northampton has finally found its soul and celebrates its own ‘local distinctiveness’. Rather than seeming like ‘it all happens somewhere else’ folk like my friends Justin and Jimtom make things happen in the town – such as the monthly Raising the Awen open mic, and the annual Bardic Picnic. I had visited Delapre Abbey earlier in the day, and its looking well-maintained (last time I was up I helped with some volunteer conservation work).
Saturday night I caught up with my old partner in rhyme, Jimtom – the unsung Bard of Northampton (along with Justin). He told me about his exciting vision – it was great to see my friends following their dreams.
After seeing my sister for lunch I set off back across the Cotswolds in the afternoon sun – stopping off at a couple of scenic spots to do some sketching for my current project: Oxfordshire Folk Tales (a commission for The History Press). Next year I have another similar collection due in – about Northamptonshire – so I’ll be visiting the county a lot more this summer as I undertake field research. The elastic has certainly snapped (I feel no pull to return to live there) but I am learning to re-appreciated the Rose of the Shires.
There is something very grounding about connecting with one’s roots. It’s important to remember where you’ve come from however high you fly or far from the nest. And if anywhere could keep you down-to-earth it is the old shoe town, Northampton (home of the Cobblers football team – who often live up to their name; the local rugby team the Saints are far better, but perhaps misnamed!). So, I wear my DMs with pride – made in Northampton – they keep me in touch with my Sole Town.