13 Questions with A.J. Kirby

by HST UK on February 6, 2012

I’m going to keep this introduction deliberately short, because this interview is delightfully long. A.J. Kirby proves to be one of the most insightful writers I’ve had the privilege to interview. Pour yourself a tall one, and savour the read…

HST: I think it’s best for AJ Kirby to introduce himself to our readers. Tell us how you became involved in the ‘writing game’?

Hi Richard, hi all. First up, thanks for the interview. Just to give you a little background, I’m Andy Kirby. I write as A.J. Kirby, a pen-name I’m increasingly starting to think is a little pretentious. When I started out, I thought it lent me a little gravitas (and I also maybe thought initials were the way to go, after J.K Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkein, George R.R. Martin etc.) Anyway, you might recognise my name from my short fiction, which has been published widely across the internet, in print and in magazines (by friends of HST Sein und Werden, in two of Des Lewis’s Nemonymous books and his ‘Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies’, in the Dog Horn Prize Anthologies ‘Bite Me Robot Boy’ and ‘Cabala’, as well as in the ‘Where are we Going?’ collection from Eibonvale Press, ed. Allen Ashley, which launches in London on 3 March). Or you might know me from my longer works, my novels ‘Perfect World’ (2011), ‘Bully’ (2009), and ‘The Magpie Trap’ (2008); my novellas ‘The Black Book’ (2011) and ‘Call of the Sea’ (2010), or from my short fiction collection, ‘Mix Tape’ (2010).

I suppose I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote a graphic novel when I was about seven, and then won a short story competition – prize a year’s free swimming at the local baths – when I was ten. But then I kinda lost the touch. I blame computer games, football, beer, and the mad idea that I’d get more interest from the opposite sex if I was the frontman of a rock band – we were called Magnetic Fishpond, how did we fail? – for this. And my innate laziness. Then I went to uni and studied English and, much as I loved it, I think it set me back years, as I lost confidence in my own writing. It seemed all I learned was how to pull a story apart, not how to put it back together again.

And then came the world of work. Which was great for a while, as I could finally afford to eat something other than beans on toast. But then I started to feel pretty unfulfilled. I didn’t really know why. I’ve never really been the self-analytical type. But something wasn’t right. For a while there, I had a mid-twenties crisis. I lived by the rules of the ‘Yes Man’, which meant I had to say yes to every opportunity, no matter how bizarre. This led me, via a few false starts, side-roads, and U-turns, to appear on the (now defunct) Les Dennis gameshow, In the Grid (weeknights 5pm, Channel 5 – less of an audience than the Europa League). And it seemed as though my ragtag unplanned momentum would take me all the way to riches when, just before I went on stage one of the security guards, who I’d befriended over cigarettes out back of the studio, told me the answers. Yes, I had a key to the future, a golden ticket, a… I went on stage and promptly Les Dennis hypnotised me, or the lights did. Something happened certainly. Because promptly I forgot all the answers and managed to lose. The winner went home with £70k. I went home kicking myself that I could have been so stupid.

I kicked myself for quite a while. And then I decided to do something about it. I still felt unfulfilled, and I figured I might have done even if I’d won the money. So I decided to say yes one last time, and I entered a local writing competition. There wasn’t a happy ending straight away. My entry was, frankly, crap. But finally I regained the writing bug, and it’s been with me ever since. My prizes? I’ve got a short fiction collection – ‘The Art of Ventriloquism’ – out as an ebook from Solstice in March this year, and then my long-awaited (by me!) follow-up to ‘Bully’, ‘Paint this town Red’ will be out through Wild Wolf Publishing in Spring.

HST: I enjoyed reading your short story ‘A Question of Trust’(http://wordlnd.weebly.com/a-question-of-trust.html). What fascinates you about Private Detectives, and the jobs they carry out? The story covers the issue of shame, regarding internet browsing, and sharing of private information. Do people feel safe because on the internet they feel they’re operating under a cloak of anonymity?

I’m a big fan of pulpish PI stories, films, and TV shows, and also of the more highbrow stuff like Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’. I’m fascinated by PIs; we had one who lived on our street a while and I always thought about asking him for a job until he disappeared mysteriously (do these guys ever disappear any other way?). In a way, the private detective is like the writer, searching for the truth, solving puzzles, reconstructing the narrative in order that they can understand what happened. They’re also like writers because it’s a bit of a lone-wolf profession. I imagine there’s a lot of sitting on one’s arse and simply waiting for something – inspiration, luck – to strike. A private detective features in ‘A Question of Trust’. In this story, I wanted to explore the theme of privacy in a world where everyone increasingly lets everything hang out.

I think the belief some people have in the anonymity which puppet names can give them as they troll on message boards and websites can be a very dangerous thing. It’s like the old H.G. Wells story, ‘The Invisible Man’, not many seem to use their anonymity for good. I remember going on a lovely short break to a hotel in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The hotel was absolutely top-notch; brilliant food, great rooms complete with roaring log fires, friendly staff. And it was reasonably priced too. So my girlfriend Heidi and I were a little non-plussed to find ourselves the only guests. Eventually, we got talking to the proprietor, and she told us the sorry tale of how anonymous reviews of the hotel on Trip Advisor had screwed her over. Some of the remarks were very personal, and most were very hurtful. Accusations and muck were slung. She told us that not long before our stay, Trip Advisor had taken down a lot of these comments and reviews as they were proved to have been penned by one of her competitors. Unfortunately though, it seemed to be taking her a long time to rebuild her reputation and rooms went empty nearly every night, she said. The guy who’d written the reviews continued to draw in the punters though; he’d got away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Funnily enough, I used a little of that story as background shading in my forthcoming novel, ‘Paint this town Red’.

HST: Your short story collection ‘Mix Tape’ contains some rather loathsome characters. Is it easier to create characters with flawed personalities?

The devil gets all the best lines, they say. And I have to admit I find it very difficult to write a character who isn’t flawed in some way. My characters are alcoholics, drug-abusers, sex-addicts, killers, monsters, misanthropists. They’re loners, haters, bastards, small-minded fools. And they’re just the ‘goodies’. In the last question, we talked about PIs. I love solving problems like a PI. And I suppose in a lot of my stories, I set myself challenges. Can anything good be wrung from a character as bad as this (think Gary Bull in ‘Bully’, or Toby Howitt in ‘Perfect World’ and watch out for Adrian Devonish and Manny Combs in ‘Paint this town Red’)? I like characters who change over the narrative. Character arc is important to me. And if you start off with a perfect character, it doesn’t leave much wriggle room, does it? Well, maybe it does, but for me, I’d just turn ’em bad. I suppose deep down I’m cynical. If I met someone perfect, I’d think they were too good to be true. I want my characters bad enough so they are true.

HST: I dig your take on voyeurism within the pages of ‘Mix Tape’. Nowadays people are not only willing to share their own dirty laundry, but they also go to the limits in terms of prying about other people. Facebook stalking, twitter following, google searching. What does ‘privacy’ mean in 2012?

Privacy means remembering to tick the right boxes on Facebook so your settings are right. And then checking every single bloody day to make sure they’ve not changed the small print. Privacy means outsourcing your mental trapdoor, the mechanism which usually slams down before you say something you shouldn’t, to somebody else, some faceless corp which doesn’t really want you to hold anything back. Privacy means making a compromise. Sure, I want my name out there so people know about my stories, but yes, okay then, you can see that picture of me belly-dancing in Crete or read that ill-advised drunken ramble I went on on Youtube, when I refused to accept any good music had ever been made since 1999. Privacy means the dirty-washing-line telegraph. It means accepting that ex-girlfriends might just know where I am and what I’m doing… A lot of stuff on the internet seems to be about who can shout the loudest, and it’s hard to keep secrets when you shout.

HST: ‘Mistletoe Pompoms’ (http://thenightlight.co.uk/2011/09/mistletoe-pompoms/) is a great little tale about brotherhood and brothels. Talk to me about what intrigues you about the Sex Industry, and Sex Tourism?

Past few years I’ve had the great pleasure to go on a number of stag-do’s. I’m at that age. And there seems to be an undercurrent in a lot of these events that a bit of mild perving is expected. And I feel very uncomfortable about this attitude that it’s all a bit of harmless fun, that nobody’s getting hurt. Lapdancing’s now become a team bonding tool for straight-laced insurance brokers who need to let their hair down. There’s about ten lapdancing bars in Leeds, some of them quite upmarket. I walk past one of them sometimes on my way to the library (oooh, get me!) and what strikes me as funny is the fact that the windows are always blacked-out, but then you see the sad, shifty fellers puffing furiously on their cigarettes by the doorway, hoping nobody they know will see them. The internet’s got a lot to answer for here. When I were a lad, the most exciting thing ever was when one of my mates found a slightly damp porno mag in the local park and brought it in to school for us all to have a look at. I don’t know if porn mags sell any more, apart from to long-distance lorry drivers at service stations. Now people can see whatever filth they like at the click of a button. Now, levels of acceptability have changed, as have attention spans. In ‘Mistletoe Pompoms’, I wanted to explore this idea that now we can get whatever we want without much of an effort. But mostly, I wanted to write about the mundanity, the shabbiness of it all. We can get whatever we want, whatever our tastes, but already we’re bored, looking out for the next, even more depraved image, or video.

HST: The story is set in Lyon. I was reading about the city’s Football club Olympique Lyonnais and their visionary chairman Jean-Michel Aulas in a book called ‘Why England Lose?’ The book talked about how perfect of a location Lyon was for a successful football team, how the cultured bourgeoisie were ready to buy into a brand, and through shrewd Moneyball-like transfer dealings the club astutely became the dominant team in France. Lyon is a place that historically seems to continuously bubble with invention and bright ideas. What did you appreciate most about Lyon?

I’ve not read that book, but I will now! I went to Lyon a few of years ago for a couple of days either side of a match at the Stade Gerland – Lyon v Manchester United. (Heidi has now laid down new rules that we will not combine all our holidays with United’s European Cup away trips.) To date this, Carlos Tevez scored a last minute equaliser for United and we all know what’s happened to him since. Apart from the football, I loved the city, the architecture, the vast central square. But most of all, the food. Lyon’s a famous training ground for top chefs and the food is top-notch. (Heidi says her best meal there was the one I wasn’t there for as I’d gone to the match that evening; I think she was just trying to make a point. I had a lukewarm hotdog from a stall outside the ground.) Generally, I always take a notebook on holiday as I find my best leftfield ideas come when I’m most relaxed, or not even thinking about writing at all, say maybe taking a funicular railway or watching two old fellers playing boulles. One of the central concepts of ‘The Magpie Trap’ bounced into my brain as I was being jiggled and joggled in the back of a 4×4 on safari in Kenya for example. And I wrote the whole of my story ‘For Arts Sake’, which was runner-up in last year’s Dog Horn Publishing Fiction Prize whilst sat round a pool at a weird all-inclusive hotel in Tunisia at which Heidi and I were the only guests in the whole complex. I thought after Lyon I’d be writing a story about food, but then, almost as soon as I started writing, I realised the story which wanted to come out wasn’t about food at all. By the way, I should conclude this answer with a denial. I know I’ve now made it sound as though I’m an international jetsetter, but really I’m not. My list of places I have to go to before I die, or run out of money, is longer than the mss for my latest novel.

HST: Are you interested in Psychogeography? Again, in your story ‘Pacemaker’ (http://www.fivestopstory.com/read/story.php?storyId=679), the reader is taken on a vivid journey through city streets, step by step. Do you like to explore urban sprawls?

Will Self’s one of the writers I admire most, so I suppose I must have absorbed some of the psychogeography which permeates his writing by osmosis. There, even mentioning Will Self brings me out all thesaurusy. Seriously though, I’m pleased you noticed that about the story. I work in Glasgow quite a lot, and I was struck by how much the city resembled an American city, with its grid-pattern streets. Indeed, last year, I believe they filmed a Brad Pitt movie there, doubling Glasgow as Chicago. ‘The Magpie Trap’ does a similar thing for Leeds, and ‘The Plight of Chinese Lanterns’ which was in the recent Metropolis issue of Sein und Werden, is a kind of extension of this, featuring, as it does, a lot of story about the huge amount of empty tower blocks which now litter the skyline of the city, Ozymandian remnants of the city’s over-reaching during the last boom. A plot of land the size of Wales must have been deforested from the Amazon simply to print up all of the TO LET signs.

HST: ‘Bully’ is partly set in Afghanistan, where a soldier survives an IED explosion. Did you research about post-traumatic stress when writing the novel?

I did. Quite a lot in fact. I was aware of the sensitivity of the subject and how terrible – insulting actually – it might be if I got it wrong, or if things didn’t ring true. A lot of this research was ‘hands on’. I talked to people who’d been there (man). We sat down over pints, chatted. I gave them a few ideas about what I was writing about and then expected them to clam up, or to tell me I shouldn’t be writing it. But the opposite was true. Some of the lads I spoke to couldn’t wait to talk. A few of them used the old ‘a friend of a friend’ buffer to do this, but I got the message all right. And what came over strongest was the sense of alienation the soldiers felt on their return home. How home actually didn’t feel like home any more. My research also entailed reading a lot of war fiction and poetry. Most relevant, I found, was some of the American stuff inspired by Vietnam. And, if I was to pick any writer that really inspired me, it would be Tim O’ Brien. I still feel a little uncomfortable having written about the conflict without having bought my right to do so, so to speak. But hey, I write dark fiction, and you can’t get much darker, or more horrific than war.

HST: You raise some interesting points in your novel ‘The Magpie Trap’, some of which reminded me of the sentiments echoed succinctly in the Specials song ‘Rat Race’.Are you motivated to write in order to avoid falling into mundane unrewarding work?

A lot of people have told me that ‘The Magpie Trap’ is their favourite amongst my books. Which is annoying in a way because it’s the first full-length piece I wrote. It’s also annoying because for ages I couldn’t decide how it fit in with all of my other books, which are very much horror/ sci-fi/ dark fiction orientated. It took a journalist from the Yorkshire Evening Post to convince me there was a fit for ‘The Magpie Trap’ within my overall ‘big picture’. I was lucky. This journalist went above and beyond. All he had to do was the bare minimum, turn up at a book-signing with a photographer in tow, ask me where my ideas come from, maybe misquote me on a few of my sales figures, upping them so I seemed more of a big-shot. But he didn’t because he loved his job.

This guy went out and read pretty much all of my books before he met me (sounds kinda like you!) and he even came up with a theory. He told me he thought all my books were modern morality tales; the seven deadly sins translated for a modern audience, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales zoomed hundreds of years into the future. ‘The Magpie Trap’ was about avarice, ‘Bully’ about wrath, ‘Perfect World’ about the worship of false gods (the internet). My new novel, ‘Paint this Town Red’, which’ll be out Spring 2012 from Wild Wolf Publishing, could be said to be about sloth and pride.

That journalist didn’t have to read all my books, but he did. He was motivated to do so because he loved his job. So I suppose my sin is envy, because I still have a day job which… Well, let’s just say it doesn’t make me wake up every morning and leap out of bed, thankful only that it’s a new day and new challenges lie ahead. I’ve done my fair share of monotonous jobs in the past; personal favourites have included a job in a factory in which I had to press little bits of cardboard out of much bigger bits of cardboard (which then became the tags for pet toys) and washing-up in the kitchens of a massive hotel. I’ve cursed my lot in life a million times over working these jobs and I’ve worried that they’d stifle my creativity (yep, I was a real precious artist-type), but now I have a little perspective, I can see they have given me things to write about, pent-up feelings to release, imaginary revenge to mete out. They’ve also earned me money – occasionally – which gets me by. I watched Tapeheads last night and John Cusack and Tim Robbins’ view on it was this: “You gotta do what you gotta do, in order to do what you wanna do. “

HST: Further to this, you offer your writing services for business use. Do many writers forget that this is an option to them, and remain ignorantly impoverished?

I use the following quote in my email footer: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” (Jules Renard). And I think there is a kind of romantic ideal of the writer (especially if he/ she’s a poet) being a hollow-cheeked, willo the wisp character who doesn’t set any store by anything as earthy as money. And in this ideal, the writer’s genius is often not recognised in his/ her own time, but only in posterity, when trusts and blue plaques suddenly come into play. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to earn a bit of money from your craft. I’m in marketing in my day-job, and I tend to try and do similar types of things to promote my novels as I do selling the stuff I do nine to five. Which might seem a little mercenary to some. And I have seen the way other writers look at me at readings etc when I start setting up all my postcards and flyers at the door, and my ten-foot AJ KIRBY: THE WRITER banner by the stage. But I’m just trying to make the most of what I have.

And what a lot of writers have after a few years with their noses to the grindstone, is a knowledge (and sometimes a healthy cynicism) of how things work in the publishing industry. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve made contacts, we’ve learned (hopefully) the tricks of the trade. Writers who’ve been round the merry go round a few times can sometimes forget how it is for writers just starting out, and passing on that knowledge can be invaluable. Over the past few years I’ve done a number of ‘other’ writing activities which have boosted my income, ranging from tutoring a GCSE student in English Literature to business copywriting, from running masterclass workshops to helping people write complaint letters (which I love doing – there are some examples on my website here: http://andykirbythewriter.20m.com/rich_text.html).

I was on a panel at the York Festival of Writing last year along with fellow authors Guy Mankowski and a very hungover Matthew Crow. All of us were blown away by the sheer number of writers in attendance, all of whom hung off our every word, or hastily scribbled notes as though we were in a lecture. We were also blown away once we learned how much each of these writers had paid to attend the event. And when Guy asked the question ‘how many people in this room have written a novel?’ the whole room raised their hands, like Arsenal’s defence looking for offside. It quickly became clear to us that there was money to be made from fellow writers. And I don’t mean this to sound like a get rich quick scheme, merely this: if you know what you’re talking about and can convey it well, if you’ve got experience of jumping through the many hoops before you get a novel published, even if you’ve sold a story to a magazine, you have a success story to tell. And people will pay. If you build a writers services page onto your website, people will most definitely pay for your advice. Don’t sell yourself short. Call yourself a consultant, or an expert. And talk the talk.

HST: As a Manchester United fan, what do you make of your noisy neighbours? Can the Blues become a sporting dynasty, and send the great Sir Alex Ferguson into a bitter retirement?

I’ve been lucky. I’ve supported United throughout the most successful period in our history, and, as a season ticket holder, I’ve seen more brilliant matches, moments, and players than most supporters of any club in any period could even dream of. We used to laugh at city – who I refuse to capitalise – and find it oh so funny how riled they’d get by United. Indeed, I had (and still have, actually) the sneaking suspicion that a lot of city fans don’t actually support city. They simply hate United (which bears out when you look at attendances even in this, their most successful season, when they couldn’t even sell out for their first ever Champions League match, or a semi-final). Even when they got their petro-billions and finally won their first trophy in my lifetime, last year’s FA Cup, United trumped them, by winning the league on the same day (trumping city has become something of a habit for the reds; the last time city won the league, United became the first English club to win the European Cup.)

But then came Old Trafford, this year, and the game which has now been named ‘The Six-One’ (which I find very difficult to write). That day city blew United apart and it felt as though the balance of power was finally shifting. Hubris was coming into play. Suddenly city laughed at United. It seemed a perfect storm. City with their kazillions, and their ability to buy more brilliant players than they could ever need; United run by the Glazers, horrible goblin fellers who are leeching off the club. Siphoning off our money like chavs nicking petrol. Not allowing us to replace our best players (Ronaldo, Scholes, Keane, Van der Sar). Although there had been protests – the green and gold movement and FC United spring to mind – the vast, overwhelming majority of United fans couldn’t see anything wrong until that city match. Then, suddenly, we were struggling to compete.

My dad, the eternal pessimist, thought City would win every game this year. They haven’t, but a season like that will come. Because money talks in sport, especially football. And I’m just glad United racked up 19 titles, to make us the undisputed most successful club in England, before we signed off. United are still in with a chance this season, by hook or by crook, but the reason for this is not because we’re a good team any more. It’s simply our dogged, determined arrogance, to be honest. And what I love about United – and what every supporter of every other club hates about United – is this heroic refusal to believe it’s over, that we’re not the best any more. This comes from Ferguson, and he’ll be forever a star in my eyes for that.

You’d think he’d be more than a star though, after twenty-five years of glory. But, despite everything, he’s not a god yet, like Cantona, or Best, for example. Ferguson is an avowed socialist, a man of principle, and yet he kow-tows to the Glazers and refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong with their regime. I think if Ferguson was to go out now, in a blaze of glory, with a huge sideswipe at the Glazers and how they are running the club, that would cement his place in history. As for city, they’ve got a lot of work to do before they have a history like ours. And I can hear the rumble of their laughter even as I write this. But 19 titles is quite a lot, boys. And there’s always a richer kazillionaire!

One good thing about the rise of the blue goons is the fact that now, finally, we have a proper Manchester derby. Although from the same city, city weren’t even our biggest rivals for years and years. That honour went to Liverpool, and Leeds occasionally. Arsenal for a while, back in the early noughties. Chelsea when they bought history with rubles. But now? Bring it on.

If you’re interested, I sneer at city while I can some more, here: http://www.homedefenceuk.com/sport_transferwindowJan12.html

HST: You’ve done some work for the PFA (Professional Footballers Association). Do you believe more emotional support needs to be offered for players who are adversely affected by having to adjust to life outside Football, in light of the recent Dean Windass story?

I was saddened to read about Dean Windass. I have a soft spot for Hull City as the Kirby family’s from Hull, and Deano’s goal took the Tigers into the Premier League for the first time in their history. Having quit, Dean has admitted trying to commit suicide twice. Hearing how far he felt he’d fallen was painful. And this comes not long after the awful story of Gary Speed, who seemed to have the managerial world at his feet after having turned Wales around. I shared the widespread sense of disbelief when both stories broke. Couldn’t really get my head around it at all. Until I read the biography of Robert Enke.

Enke was Germany’s national goalkeeper. He committed suicide not long before the 2010 World Cup. The book won Sports Book of the Year last year and it is a devastating read. The book changed my mind about a lot of things. There’s a sense that because money (and sporting success) insulates people; that they don’t ‘deserve’ to get to feel ill or to ‘moan’ about their lives. I’ve seen at first hand how crippling depression can really be, after seeing a work colleague, a once-cocky salesman who was failing to hit his figures, reduced to a shambling mess who had to hide under his desk some days because he was scared to talk to people any more. And I also saw at first hand how other people, colleagues, saw his depression. I saw the lack of understanding. The shaking of heads. The whispering behind doors. Depression didn’t exist in the old days, apparently. And it doesn’t leave visible scars, or blotches. So how can it be measured? Surely you can just get through it, put a brave face on things? No, not really.

Reading Enke’s book, and knowing that salesman, have changed my own slant on a few things, in particular the hounding criticism and dog’s abuse I gave United’s young goalie, David de Gea, after his high profile mistakes this season (particularly v. Blackburn.) No matter what life we walk, there will be obstacles, and, as writers, we should be able to empathise, see through other people’s eyes. Understand that sometimes these obstacles can seem like more than obstacles. Stories like this just make me very, very sad. And sure, it might not have had the publicity had he not been a sports star, but maybe that’s what’s needed so people can understand this illness. Bring it out from under the desk, out from the shadows, and into the light.

HST: You’re written Food Criticism. You don’t have to give the name of the restaurant, but please tell me about your worst experience you’ve encountered as a Food Critic?

There’s a couple which stand out. The first was a swanky new restaurant in the Calls in Leeds. They’d opened to much fanfare but had then started to fall flat as recession loomed and they pestered the magazine I wrote for on a daily basis to send a reviewer down. In the end, I was that reviewer. Problems started almost as soon as I arrived, partner in tow. They weren’t happy to be providing two meals, apparently. What did they expect? That I’d turn up on my ownio and simply sit there staring out the window at the wonderful view of the bin store outside? The manager was called. He wasn’t happy either. For a while it didn’t even seem we’d get past the lectern at the front door. I was all set to leave, of course, especially when the manager started trying to negotiate: ‘You eat for free, but anything you drink, you pay for.’ The eating wouldn’t be for free. I’d be giving the place much-needed publicity. And from the looks of it, it needed it. Three-quarters empty and full of a turgid quietness which made our ‘negotiating’ seem louder than cannon-fire. In the end, Heidi played peacemaker and said we’d accept the offer, and we were ushered over to what had to be the worst table in the house. Where we were plied with bottle after bottle of wine. No starter was forthcoming. To cut a long story short, the night was a huge disappointment. Much as I enjoy drinking, we were hungry. And three bottles of wine on an empty stomach does not good writing make. The food, such as I remember it, was of the small portion variety, and when it arrived, finally, did little to sate our appetites. The bill, when it arrived, was like a blast of cold air. Very sobering. We paid and left, and ate chips on the way home, which were delicious. But the real story came the next day, when an email popped into my inbox. It was from the manager of the restaurant. He was now claiming that we’d done one from the restaurant without paying for Heidi’s meal. He was asking for credit card details… Needless to say, quite a few emails flew back and forth that day, and the review, when it finally got written, couldn’t exactly save them from going under shortly afterwards.

For a restaurant, atmosphere and service are almost as important as the food, and there, the service was a stone cold zero out of ten. It doesn’t matter how much New York-style exposed brickwork you’ve got, nor how much shiny stainless steel there is, nor how crisp the maitre d’s shirt is. Sometimes the homeliest of places are the best. I recently covered a few restaurants in France for my sins, and most of the time, I found it impossible to find even a single negative which would stop the pieces from reading like frenzied fan-boy stuff. But, in a small town in Burgundy, between Auxerre and Dijon, we found a place which had taken homeliness to a whole new level. Heidi and I were the only customers in the place. The only staff, as far as we could see, was a slightly drunk Frenchwoman who was wearing her housecoat… and pyjamas underneath. Definitely pyjamas. And slippers too. She proceeded to serve us a wonderful fifty course meal – or so it seemed – and we proceeded to try and plough through it, as best we could. But by the time we were on coffees and brandies, eagerly supping them down so we could get out of there and walk off some of the food, the woman was nowhere to be seen. We waited half an hour, an hour. And finally Heidi thought we should go look for her. I’ve never seen anyone sleeping as peacefully as that Frenchwoman. In the kitchen, she’d removed her housecoat and was slumped in a chair right by the stove, snoring away like a train. When she woke though, all hell broke loose. She seemed to have no memory of who we were, or, frankly, of English. She wailed like a banshee, flapped her hands. The buttons on her pyjama top started to come loose. It was hard to know where to look, what to say. Quickly, we backed out of the kitchen, left a handful of euros on our table and left. We saw her the next morning in the local hypermarche and she was all smiles again. Seemed to know who we were. In perfect English, she demanded to know if we would be coming to her restaurant as we’d promised her. Heidi started to tell her that we’d already been to her restaurant, and the woman playfully bopped her on the head with a French stick and told us to stop playing with her. Only when she walked away again did we see she was still wearing her pyjamas…


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