I’m slogging up Newport Road, Cardiff carrying two bags of shopping and with a rucksack on my back. It’s been raining and there’s water everywhere. A cyclist dressed like a praying mantis and going like a rocket barrels down the narrowing pavement as it passes under the Valley Rail line to Queen Street Station. Pedestrians scatter. But somehow not me. I end up with my carrier of apples, M&S ready meals, a CD by Jeff Beck and a DVD of Elvis’ first four films (reduced to ten quid so therefore essential) ripped from my hand and scattered to the four winds. The streaking cyclist vanishes into the distance. Par for the course, this course, so it seems. Newport Road, the eastern gateway, the route out of here to Wales’ first city, Newport. Then Chepstow, the border and centralist England beyond. The only place now without its own devolved administration, as a Tweeter recently said.
I’ve come along here, down the years, with any number of writers. Adrian Mitchell when he was resident author at the Sherman. Adrian Henri after the Liverpool Scene had played Charles Street. Hunting for a late night drink. With Czech grandmaster Miroslav Holub looking for a room. With sound poet Bob Cobbing heading to my house to sleep on my battered settee.
There seems to be something about this whole writers on tour business that is against proper hotels preferring cut-price put-you-ups instead. It’s happened to me. I’ve slept on z-beds, collapsed couches, mattresses with mammary droop, sleeping bags on floors and piles of blankets. When you are touring you get expenses, yes, but given the level of fee usually offered you need to spend them with care.
This is one of the essential difficulties with writing. Everyone expects you to do it for free, or for a fee so low it might as well be. There’s a notion that somehow your book sales will increase and you’ll get your costs back from the margin you make on that. Or that your publisher, rich beyond dreams, will magically cover whatever you spend. Limousine, five star, fine dining, multiple top end sandwiches in the first class on the way back.
Last time I got myself up to the level of entitlement to that it turned out that the line I was travelling on didn’t run first class carriages. And when I asked my publisher to pay for my overnight at the five-star Llangollen Hilton they just laughed.
Back on Newport Road I’ve reached the Four Elms, a place where Ifor Thomas once carved a stack of books into fragments with a chain saw. You could do that then. No health and safety. Another bike hurtles towards me. I hide in the bus shelter. Is the world getting better or worse?