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A Life in the Day of Nicholas Best (Sunday Times magazine)


I haven’t been able to winkle the accompanying photograph out of the Sunday Times, but this is a feature they did on me in the magazine some years ago. It was entitled: Nicholas Best, writer, describes a typical working day at home. Times have moved on since I wrote it:

When I was at prep school in Kenya, the day always began with roll-call, to make sure no one had escaped during the night. Two boys did, my first term, and were hunted down with dogs, spotter planes and spearmen from the Kikuyu Home Guard. This was at the end of the Emergency, when it was important to catch up with runaways before Mau Mau did.

Now that I live in the English countryside, the routine is slightly less character-building. It begins with staggering out of bed around half-seven, desperate to get my clothes on before the children arrive. The first irritation of the day is always the children rushing in and helping me to get dressed. I can dress myself.

Then down for breakfast: orange juice, muesli, coffee – a great improvement on the prep school, where it was often locusts in the dry season. If I had the choice, an ideal newspaper at breakfast would be the Daily Telegraph for content, Times for style, Dempster for the dirty bits and Posy Simmonds and Doonesbury for light relief. We take The Times.

At nine my wife shoots off to her job in Cambridge, something abstruse involving writing books on Darwin and having her stuff translated into Chinese. She has access to the university computer, and logs on sometimes to discover that she is already using it. They’ll pirate anything, those undergraduates.

I start work at nine too. My office is a 17th century barn, with door key to match, across the drive from the main house. I jog all the way.

In fact, of course, writers don’t actually do anything, so most days I spend from nine until 12 sitting at my desk, just looking out of the window. ┬áThis being Cambridge, what I see out of the window in an average month’s viewing would include a steam engine, a pony and trap, two men on penny farthings and, more often than not, a little old lady hurtling down to the shops in one of Sir Clive Sinclair’s electric jalopies. Also a Nobel laureate who walks past clutching a bunch of twigs. Always a bunch of twigs. He is an economist, so perhaps he uses them in his work.

Sometimes the words flow, sometimes they don’t. If it’s a good day, I occasionally scribble for as long as two and a half hours without a break. Not often, though, because it’s an inexorable rule of good days that someone will interrupt just as you are getting into your stride. Sometimes it’s the window cleaner, holding up a bloody finger and asking for sympathy because he has fallen off his ladder. Sometimes Basil, our Sealpoint, trying to get an angry pheasant through the catflap. Sometimes a neighbouring wife, needing help to start her car. Start your car, madam? This is deathless prose I’m writing here. Don’t you know they write PhDs about the person from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge?

If it’s an FT day, I abandon all pretence of writing and turn to reviewing instead. FT days happen once every three weeks when an enormous parcel arrives from the Financial Times containing a pile of novels to be waded through and reported on, preferably by the end of the week. One of them is inevitably a four-generation family saga of 500 pages. Another is usually an American author who has found himself at last and is giving ungrudgingly of his discovery at 600 pages or so. James A. Michener holds the record here with 1001. Oh the misery of FT days! About 90 per cent of the novels that pass through my hands have been written before, in various guises. This is particularly true of women, for whom divorce in Islington is a perennial theme.

Come lunchtime, if I have been reading fiction all morning, I am usually feeling pretty sour. I have lunch with nanny and the children, an episodic repast in which fish fingers play a large part. Nanny likes to have a chat during the meal, hitting me with all the latest gossip from the greengrocers.

After lunch, the one – the only – perk of freelance authorship: I go up to my bedroom, I draw the curtains, I lie on my bed. And there, for quite some time, I am in a meeting.

It is usually when I am pretty deep into this meeting that nanny comes bursting in with some piffling domestic problem of her own – like her horse has escaped from the field and can she go and look for it? I will have to take care of the children while she is gone. Oh God, why isn’t my wife here? Who invented role reversal anyway?

If there are no dramas, I will work from two until four, usually tearing up what I wrote in the morning. And I stare out of the window again, waiting for the second post. the Wine Society van, anything to break the monotony.

At four I knock off for the day, always with a sigh of relief. Three afternoons a week I take violent exercise before tea, usually a run. I would much prefer to go sculling, particularly with the Cam at the bottom of the garden, but the logistics are against it. So I run for exactly 20 minutes, stopping in mid-stride wherever I happen to be, which is usually back home unless I have made a terrible miscalculation.

That is the normal form. The only variation – rare, happily – is a trip to London on business. First the train journey, the utter chaos of British Rail, everything from running 30 minutes late to cancelled altogether. Then London. A wave of hostility at the barrier. I am a foreigner in a foreign land. I go straight to the FT, where I hand in my copy at reception, only to learn days later that it still hasn’t emerged from the internal mail system. Then to Covent Garden, where my publisher has his lair, or to Soho to see my agent, or even as far as darkest Shepherd’s Bush, where the BBC is eager to use a book of mine without any mention of a fee.

London is no place to linger, so I make a point of starting for home before the rush hour, scuttling thankfully back to base. If British Rail hasn’t abandoned me in Bishop’s Stortford or Audley End, I am usually back in time to bath the children, a task I share with my wife. I shave while I’m doing it. Most men shave in the morning, apparently, but I don’t know how they find the time.

Then the high spot of the day, the absolute high spot. The children go to bed. We read them a story, we clean their teeth, we tuck them up. They get out of bed on a variety of pretexts and are shooed back in with the promise of a knuckle sandwich if they don’t damn well stay there.

I kiss goodnight to two teddies, a Goofy and a mouse with one ear. Then I go downstairs, seize ice and lemon, and mix myself a small tonic with a very large gin. I have no idea what happens after that.

 

2 comments

Let me begin by introducing myself!
Gr. Granny Brown’s daughter Edna was my Granny. Her daughter Jean is my Mum. I’m researching our history to enable me to write about all us women. I write to Ramona. I knew about you from our cousin Yvonne and I’ve read all your books. I’m fascinated about our family and would like your permission to write/email you about your life, your children, grandchildren.
I’m a widow living with Mum (also a widow) and caring for her 24/7 as she has Parkinson’s. If you’d like to write c/o my email I’d love to hear from you.
Everyone calls me Dee …

by Mrs Deidre Ward on April 26, 2018 at 9:52 am. Reply #

Apologies for not getting back to you months ago. I have only just noticed your message.

I think you also wrote to me via email and I spammed it by mistake because I didn’t know who you were.

So. More apologies. Can we start again? You can email me at nicholasfgb@gmail.com.

Best wishes,

Nick B.

by nick on June 15, 2018 at 7:49 pm. Reply #

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