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Wednesday 29th October 2003

I had a small but cosy book reading in Milton Keynes tonight. Embarrassingly I was 20 minutes late due to getting on a slow train that stopped at everywhere between London and Milton Keynes (and Aberdeen as well... ha ha, not really. I am exaggerating for comic effect). Luckily none of the 12 people who had turned up to see me had been discouraged by my unpunctuality. They all waited. All twelve of them. I think at least four of them worked in the shop. Ah well. At least it wasn't cancelled.
The lady who had organised the whole thing was very pleased to see me and embarrassed by the turn out. "I want you to know I did loads of publicity for this. Radio, papers, everything."
This may have made her feel better, but it didn't do much to raise my spirits. After all, this merely meant that the everyone in Milton Keynes knew I was coming to their town to read from my book, but they weren't interested in coming to see me do that. Not even for free (there may have been a small charge here actually, so I can console myself with the fact that it was this that kept the notoriously mean Milton Keynsians away from the event).
However the 12 people were an excellent audience, person for person definitely the best of the three I've done so far. They really laughed and asked some good questions and most of them bought a book. I felt it had all been worth it.
The very nice young woman who had booked me even offered to give me a lift back to the station, though apologised that I would have to wait a few minutes. I said that was fine and that I'd just have a look round the shop. She said that it was customary at such readings for the shop to let the authors have any book from the store as a thank you.
This was great.
It had been something that I had been hoping might happen at the signings, but so far no-one had made such an offer. To me this is the signings equivalent of nice sandwiches at a gig (and God bless her, in Ottakers in Milton Keynes the nice woman had also provided some lovely sandwiches).
It was like some kind of parable. The shops where I had attracted many customers and sold many books gave me nothing (except maybe a coffee and a nudge in the direction of the door), in Milton Keynes I was given sandwiches and car rides and best of all any book that I wanted.
If you live in Milton Keynes please go and patronise your local Ottakers store. I know for a fact that they have a lot of unsold copies of my book lying around. And please avail yourself of the wonderfully organised readings that they are kind enough to arrange for you. See, what a few polite gestures can get you).
Obviously being given carte blanche to choose a free book is a bit responsibility. There was a part of me that was tempted to simply ask her what the most expensive book in the shop was. But I feel such greed would have not been the correct response to the kindnesses I had already been shown.
But I was definitely going to get a hard back book. I may be grateful, but I'm not stupid.
In the end I chose, "Who Murdered Chaucer?" by Terry Jones (and four other people who haven't been on TV and thus their names are in much smaller writing on the cover. Quite right to. Having ever been on TV makes you better than other people.)
I had read adn extensively quoted Terry Jones' book about Chaucer's Knight's Tale in my A level English exam and then subsequently seen Jones doing a book signing in Oxford (cf Excavating Rita) and told him this fact. "I hope they didn't mark you down for that!" he shrieked. I was 18 and totally overwhelmed at having spoken to him.
I read the start of the book on my long journey home and I think I made a good choice. It's very informative and interesting. My favourite bit so far is where he (or they or whoever wrote this bit) talks about medieval account books which detail what sums of money were paid to whom by a particular king and why. Edward II apparently once paid a bloke called Jack of St Albans fifty shillings because "he danced before the king on a table and made him laugh very greatly." How wonderful that such a moment gets recorded in history. And also that a man arsing around gets paid a huge amount of cash for his troubles. I imagine there was a lot of blokes changing their arm (or leg) and jumping up on tables and doing funny dances after that. But my guess is that none of them were as funny as Jack of St Albans and were not as richly rewarded. In a way it is perhaps disappointing to think that the only small mark one has made on the fragile page of history is to have danced on a table. But in a way it is all the more marvellous. I bet no-one else from St Albans in the reign of Edward II had made it into a history book. But Jack is fleetingly remembered all these centuries later. Good on him and his crazy dance. I wonder how it went.
Another bloke was given twenty shillings by the king for often falling off his horse and again causing the slapstick loving king merriment. He may have had a rubbish sense of humour, but he was happy to pay top dollar, long before "You've Been Framed" was even in the planning stages.
But my favourite use of kingly funds that Jones (or whoever) mentions is this "Henry VII, mysteriously, paid half a mark to a friend for eating some coal."
I think this is just brilliant.
Henry VII was testing the water of what people would do for money. Just as many rubbish Channel 4 shows these days test how far people are prepared to go to appear on TV.
Some would say this was an abuse of being the most powerful and richest man in the country. "Want some money? Then eat this bit of coal."
But not only is there no point in being a king if you can't make people eat fossil fuels (and at least Henry paid up on the bet. He could have just ordered the friend to do it for nothing), but it's also a terrific joke. Humour is usually expunged from history, but it is only through humour that we get to know someone. So we now know Edward II was a bit of a twat who liked people falling off horses and doing dances (and thus deserved a poker up the Marber for his troubles) and that Henry VII was a bit surreal and crazy and probably quite bored.
It reminded me of a time when I was about 22 and was sharing a house in Acton with some college friends (including Stewart Lee from the "We Will Rock You" audience). We were having a party and everyone was a bit drunk and my housemates bet me fifty pounds that I couldn't eat an entire pack of butter (not an individual portion, a regular pack).
I thought that I could do it and fifty pounds was unimaginable wealth to me (and no-one was going to pay me to dance on a table), so I gave it a go.
I had two pretty good bites and swallows of it, but then I almost retched and could go no further. I failed. But I lost nothing but my dignity (and for a few weeks my appetite for anything with butter in or on it).
It is nice to realise that there was someone prepared to accept an equally (well actually much stupider) bet, all those years ago. The fact he succeeded (and we shall never know just how much coal he had to eat) does not lessen the sense of brotherhood down the ages.

And maybe one day, in the year 2525, some historian will seen fit to mention my butter eating challenge. Maybe it's all I'll be remembered for. Being the bloke who failed to eat a whole pack of butter.
I think it might actually be the best thing that I've ever done.

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