A cautionary tale, with a happy ending.
About two years ago I started getting shooting pains down my left leg. I went to the doctor about it and they said it was sciatica. Although the pain was in my leg, it was actually a result of nerves in my spine being irritated. “It’ll go away eventually,” said the doctor. “If it gets too bad, just take some painkillers. Exercise will help, as would losing a bit of weight.”
Eventually the pain did go away, but every now and then it would return. In January 2015 it came back and didn’t go away.
One morning at the end of January, I was in a hotel near Heathrow airport where I was attending a brewer’s brand conference and workshop. I woke in quite extraordinary pain, the worst I’ve ever felt. I went from thinking “This is embarrassing. I hope there’s no one next door who can hear me screaming,” to thinking, “Actually, I hope there IS someone next door who can hear me screaming, and they call for help.” I realised I was in quite a lot of trouble and decided to phone someone. My phone was six inches away from my grasp on the bedside table. It too me half an hour to reach it.
Very soon after I did, I was in the back of an ambulance greedily sucking down most of a canister of gas and air. When I got to the hospital they gave me liquid morphine. It took the edge off a bit, but I still couldn’t move without yelling.
Two days later I was discharged with a pile of drugs including Tramadol and Diazepam. I spent the next three weeks feeling fucking wonderful in a kind of dissociated way.
It turned out I had two slipped discs at the base of my spine that were pushing against my spinal cord. I had to have an injection of steroids into my spinal column to sort it out. I’m fine now, but the pain is still there as suggestion, reminding me of my promise to lose weight, improve my posture, take regular exercise and build my core strength so it never comes back properly again.
I haven’t yet kept that promise, mainly because of what I did when I was fucked and bombed on very strong drugs.
About a week after I stopped taking the drugs, the latest issue of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser came through the door. As soon as I saw it I thought, “Shit! I was supposed to write my column for this week!” I briefly wondered why they hadn’t chased me for it, before turning to the page where it usually runs to see what they’d done instead.
There was my column.
I had written and submitted it as usual, but had absolutely no memory of doing so. Technically it was a bit sloppy, but it was uncharacteristically warm and affectionate.
I later discovered that I’d written four different features while I was high. Four that I’ve been able to find, anyway.
I had also done something else that was really, really stupid.
My last narrative book, Shakespeare’s Local, was very successful when it launched. It was picked up by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week and read out by Tony Robinson, who made it much funnier than my writing is, and the book spent the week before Christmas sitting comfortably in Amazon’s Top 100, outselling Hunger Games books and Downton Abbey tie-ins. It was easily the most successful book launch I’ve had to date. And it almost killed my book publishing career.
The issue was, it represented a transition point from my being a beer writer to being a mainstream, general non-fiction author. The publisher who had bought my first four books – and specifically, the man who had edited the last two – felt quite understandably that my next book should push me right into the bestseller lists, that I should be, if not the new Bill Bryson, then perhaps the next Stuart Maconie or Simon Garfield. I was very happy to agree.
The problem was coming up with an idea for a book that fit the bill.
I spent the next two years submitting ideas that were rejected. The usual response was along the lines of “Well, I’d read it like a shot, but I’m not sure it’s going to sell beyond your current audience.”
Mainstream publishing is changing and getting more difficult. There’s no longer room for ‘the midlist’ – books like mine that sell OK and cover their costs but don’t build and break out. My confidence began to plummet, until we reached the break-up conversation that goes along the lines of, “If you’d like to move on and see other people, that’s OK with me.”
I started pitching ideas to other people. I didn’t have a clear strategy, I just knew I wanted to start work on another book. If writing books is what you do – and for me, everything else is filler that keeps me busy and pays the mortgage between books – whenever you finish one you’re effectively unemployed until you sign a deal for the next one.
Did I want to carry on trying to crack a different, broader market? Or did I want to go back to writing about beer and pubs? Yes.
So I was having various different conversations with various different publishers about various different ideas when my back went and I got taken to hospital.
Then, during a particularly rotten, bleak and desolate comedown from the drugs that was every bit as miserable as the high was euphoric, I realised that I’d signed three different contracts, with three different publishers, to deliver three different books – all within the same timescale.
This was a really fucking stupid thing to do.
It normally takes me two to three years to write and research a book. Now, I had to write and research three in little over a year. And I had to break it to each publisher that while I was very happy about our new relationship, I was also seeing someone else.
This did not make for the kind of stress-free time I needed if I wanted to get happier and healthier. And so I haven’t. But now, fourteen months later, I’ve just finished writing the second of the three books, and I’ve managed to delay the third one, which I’ve started writing up today. I’ve mentioned them all at various times here and there, but with the first two now out of the way and with their release dates confirmed, here’s what’s coming up.
The Pub: A Cultural Institution
Publication Date: 18th August 2016
For all I’ve written about pubs, I’ve never really done pub reviews. This book is one of those coffee table, picture-led affairs with lots of gorgeous photography of old inns, pubs signs and real ale casks. But I also wanted it to be much more than that.
The book contains reviews of 300 pubs across the UK. 250 of these are short, 80-word listings, but fifty of them are double-page spreads featuring longer essays. Rather than just say what beers are on or what the decor is like (information which would quickly go out of date and is better sourced from websites) I’ve tried to review each of these pubs on its atmosphere, which is, after all, the main reason we choose one pub over another.
It’s much harder to do than reviewing the physical space or offering, and I don’t quite succeed with every one of the fifty. But I’ve also tried to make each one a story about the many different reasons why pubs are so special: a couple focus on legendary publicans, some focus on the relationship between the pub and its environment, one celebrates the ritual of that coming-of-age moment many of us experienced in our first pub, another talks about the institution of the pub juke box. One is about a marriage proposal, while another sees a pub help sort out an old man who has been made temporarily homeless.
I’m now going through the inevitable phase of “Sounds good! Did you write about the Three Old Codgers in Little Frumpington? Whaaaaat? You’ve never been to the Codgers? You haven’t lived, mate.” If you know the best pub ever, it’s probably not in here. But I promise you the 300 featured pubs are very good indeed.
Available for pre-order on Amazon – click the pic above for a link.
The Apple Orchard
Publication Date: 29th September 2016
When I wrote World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw, I spent a lot of time in orchards. I was moved by these beautiful places, enraptured by the customs and traditions around apple growing, and the people who kept them alive. I made loads of quite lyrical notes and observations, most of which never made it into the cider book because it wasn’t that kind of book. So I decided I wanted to revisit the subject.
The result is a book that follows the apple year, from blossom time in spring through to wassail in January. It explores the cultural meaning of the apple as well as its practical value. Was the apple the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden? Could it have been? Does it matter? If it wasn’t, why do we think it was? Exploring questions like these was like pulling a loose thread that led me all over the place. There are ancient Pagan festivals, an appreciation of soil, discussions about GM, and quite a bit of morris dancing. It turned into a sort of affectionate tour of British life and customs, as well as an exploration of our relationship with food and where it comes from. It’s possibly the best piece of writing I’ve done to date. It has nothing to do with beer, although quite a bit of cider is drunk.
I’m enormously chuffed that Penguin will be publishing The Apple Orchard under their ‘Particular Books’ imprint. We haven’t quite sorted the cover yet, but it is already listed on Amazon and available for pre-order here.
What Are You Drinking?
Publication Date: TBC Spring 2017
I’ve already written quite a bit about my book on hops, barley, yeast and water because it’s being published by Unbound, who use crowdfunding to cover the cost of publication, so I’ve had to flog the idea quite hard to potential subscribers.
The best thing about this is that by having to tell people about the book before I’d really done very much work on it, the process of funding changed the shape and scope of the book. Brewers, maltsters and hop growers have been in touch suggesting I visit them to learn more about what they do, and something that started life as quite a theoretical idea has become much more hands-on. I’ve picked hops in Kent, sat on a combine harvester as it reaps Maris Otter barley, watched speciality malts being made in Bamberg, seen hops being picked in farms in the Yakima Valley that are bigger than the entire British hop crop, visited the laboratory in Copenhagen where single strain brewing yeasts were first isolated and cultivated, drunk Burton well water straight from the ground and delivered fresh, green Galaxy hops to a brewery in Australia and dry-hopped a beer with them. It’s been utterly amazing, and if I can only do justice to the incredible source material I’ve gathered, the book will be worth the wait.
We reached our crowdfunding target back in October, but you can still become a subscriber if you want. Subscribers get their name in the back of the book, get access to exclusive updates about how the book research and writing process is coming along, and will also get their copies a month or so before publication. If you’re interested, here’s the link.
Some people have been uncomfortable with the idea of a crowdfunded book. If you don’t like the idea that’s fine, because on publication the book will receive the same distribution as any book from a traditional publisher and you can buy it on Amazon or any good book shop.
I will be blogging more frequently again now, having got the first two books out of the way. Sorry the last little while on here has mainly been me trying to flog stuff. I’ll be doing some actual beer blogging again very soon.