…to work in London’s horrible January half-light and found myself with a strong desire to be sitting on the balcony at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, drinking coffee and looking down on the beautiful, sunny square at the centre of the town. I have only done this once before in my life, so I can’t really claim that this is what I usually do when things get miserable here, but when I did it, I loved it, and even while I was sitting there I was aware that the moment was always going to represent something or another.
It was part of an action-packed weekend. It began on a Saturday morning in Memphis, where I went with my friends Marah, the rock band I occasionally perform with (they play, I read, although I’m thinking of suggesting that we switch that around) and we visited the Sun studios. We drove from Memphis to Oxford – from Tennessee to Mississippi! – in the afternoon, hung out at the bookstore, did our show in a bar that night. The show didn’t go as well as it can do. There was a loud, large party of frat-boy drunks who inexplicably didn’t want to be listening to my carefully-wrought essays in a Mississippi bar on a Saturday night, and when Dave Bielanko, the band’s fearless singer and guitarist, leapt off the stage to remonstrate with them, they remonstrated right back, and he retreated rapidly.
But afterwards we went to a house party nearby, and the next morning, Dave’s brother Serge and I walked down the Sunday-morning sleepy, tree-lined road to visit Faulkner’s house, which, though usually closed on Sundays, was opened in honour of our visit. Faulkner’s house is incredible: it’s been preserved exactly as it was on the day he died. The plot of one of his novels is scribbled on a wall in pencil, there’s a can of 1950s dog repellent by the typewriter, and the bookcases are full of the Alastair MacLean novels he probably blagged from his publisher. And on the way back to the hotel, an apparently endless stream of local writers poured out of their houses to say hello, and to give me copies of their novels and collections of poetry, the novelist Tom Franklin and his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, prominent among them. It seemed to me as though everyone there lived some kind of charmed life.
A few weeks ago, I received a terrific book through the post entitled “Mixing New Orleans”, about Southern cocktails and New Orleans bars, sent to me by its author, Jennifer Adams. “You probably won’t remember,” Jennifer said in the accompanying letter, “But a year or two ago, you came to a party at the house where I was living in Oxford, Mississippi….” Oh, maybe I remember, and maybe I don’t, Jennifer. I have weekends like that all the time.