The Battle For Dole Acre: An Introduction
The day I finished In Southern Waters in 1995, my heart, long shot through with fault lines, finally cracked and broke. I lost my sanity for about three years. I thought it would never come back. In those three years, I wrote 25 000 words of a highly cloacal novel called ‘Tidying Up’. It suited my mood.
Then, one day, I turned forty, and I cheered up no end, just like that. ‘Tidying Up’ turned my stomach, and I dropped it like a stone. I was frightened of the me that could write that stuff. I was happy again, and I didn’t want to go to that place, those places anymore.
I started to think about the small northern city of Pancester, which you can find on the map if you close your eyes and look hard enough.
It’s a place where nothing changes, very like Frinton-on-Sea, or Budleigh Salterton, except bigger, and Catholic. It is, I suppose, a fictional place where nothing happens, like Blandings Castle or Tilling. Because nothing ever changes there, it has kept its medieval practices and traditions, much like the City of London, or Hungerford. Like Lewes it has bonfire celebrations, like Jedburgh, Kirkwall and Haxey in Lincolnshire it still plays street football, like Winchester it hands out a Dole: like Leominster, Towcester and Bicester it’s a bugger to pronounce for hard pressed American tourists. The food is bad, but no one cares, the politicians are corrupt and no one cares, and no one cares at all for the visitors who keep the place afloat. It’s every town, I thought – Pan-cester.
I wanted to write about Pancester. And because I was so well and happy again, I really just wanted to write something very light-filled; something joyous. A jeu de fete, a fol-de-rol.
But Pancester is English; bawdy and blue-veined like stilton. And I thought maybe I had left out the characters pungent side. So I let the thing ripen, get a bit moist and stinky. It turned into a pantomime – a masque.
I found something of that bawdiness in ‘Tidying Up’, like a palette sent from the other side of being well. In particular, I tried to see if it was possible to elicit the readers sympathy for a male character whilst showing the grotesque side of male consciousness. I mixed ‘Tidying Up’ drop by drop into the bright colours of Pancester, and I liked it. My stomach no longer turned. I wasn’t frightened any more. It was like being put back together.
So this book, in every sense, is the book of my heart. And, in the years since it was published, I’ve come to terms with the fact that almost nobody else feels the same. I still get ‘royalty’ statements, so I know that it has yet to sell a thousand copies; and that it never will, since it was remaindered within a few months of its release. It didn’t make it into trade paperback, and it’s the only one of my books that can be quite hard to get hold of.
Inevitably, you can’t help but wonder why. One of the problems was that the editor who had taken ‘Dole Acre’ on left Weidenfeld and Nicholson before it was published, and if a book doesn’t have a champion at the publishers, then you’re screwed. It only got three reviews; one in ‘The Big Issue in the North’, where the reviewer really really hated it, and one in prestigious but obscure culinary journal Petits Propos Culinaires, where they liked it, and whose tiny readership of high brow foodies are probably the only people who bought the thing. The third review was in a car parking trade magazine, where they rated it five stars, because of its high level of car parking content. I only got the last one because I met the editor on a train.
Also, I can’t pronounce the title. If you’re not actually from the south-east yourself, try putting on a Mockney accent, and saying ‘The Battle for Dole Acre.’ I think you’ll see the difficulty. When I say it, it sounds something like ‘The Bowel for Dow Ache-ah’. And the title was probably madness anyway, pronunciation notwithstanding. It is, of course, a tribute to JL Carr’s ‘The Battle of Pollack’s Crossing’. If you’re going to make your book a tribute to another author, try to make it Dan Brown, or somebody that people have heard of.
I guess one of the problems was that ‘happiness writes white.’ My attempt to do an Ealing comedy might have made a great Ealing comedy, but clearly nobody much thought it was a great book. Well, I disagree, and so do a handful of discerning readers, who have said really kind things about it. Problem is; literally a handful.
Another thing I’d like to say is about my concept for the accompanying website. I had always conceived the book as having a presence on the internet. At various points in the book, readers would be directed to the website, which was to be called visitpancester.com. Although it wouldn’t be necessary to read the web pages to enjoy the book, if you did have a web connection in those distant days (the book was published in 2000), you would be able to ‘log on’ and look, for example, at a map of Pancester, or the menu of the 3i’s restaurant. As part of this web project, but also as a research exercise, I wrote the text of the Pancester Mummer’s Play. You can read it here; but, I should warn you, it is quite authentic… as the Reverend Clement Dadd said, it is a folkloric curiosity rather than a work of literature.
The other unpublished fragment that you can only find here is an extract from Dadd’s masterpiece, ‘An Account of the Antiquarian Customs and Curious Survivals of Pancester.’, from 1907. My agent and my editor both advised me to take this out, which was the start of Chapter two of the book. They felt that a big chunk of made-up folklore parody right towards the beginning of the book would slow the thing down. I thought they were probably right, and I agreed to take it out, but I’ve regretted it ever since, because I felt it explained so much of the odd behaviour of Pancestrians. Anyway, I thought, I can put it up on the website. Snag was, 10 years ago, publishers felt that what is now known as ‘enhanced content’ was nonsense, and refused to print the links. So the bits that are here are a ghost of that idea. If by some bizarre twist of fate, ‘Dole Acre’ came back into print, I would insist that the website was up and running; and I feel sure that I would now get a measure of support. I hope so, anyway; if reading is going to switch over to mobile phones and devices like Kindle or iPad, it’s enhanced content that will make it worthwhile.