For a Londoner considering a move to the country, the benefits are obvious. Fresh air. Local produce. Beer at under £5 a pint. The drawbacks are also clear. Friends left behind. Fewer theatres and restaurants. Almost dying while cycling on a rainy night down the steeply inclined A361 into Ilfracombe, because a wriggling pig has forced you to take one hand off the handlebars…
OK, so the last scenario is unlikely – unless you’re comic memoirist Tony Hawks, whose latest book recounts what happened when he and his partner Fran swapped Wimbledon for Devon last year. Previous hits such as Playing the Moldovans at Tennis and the million-selling Round Ireland with a Fridge announced their central wheeze in the book’s title. The new one, Once upon a Time in the West Country, is merely about moving house, until Hawks accepts a challenge to pedal across Devon carrying a miniature pig called Titch. Does he now make decisions according to what might fuel an amusing written set piece? “You say yes to things you’d normally say no to,” he admits. “But we say no to things that take us out of our comfort zone, and some of the best things that happen take us out of our comfort zone.”
Along with the near-fatal bike marathon, Hawks competes in a tractor run and becomes chair of the village hall committee within five minutes of joining it. Oh, and he has his first child. The book ends with a vivid description of the birth of Arlo, now a boisterous 11-month-old.
Readers who recall Hawks and his novelty act Morris Minor and the Majors taking Stutter Rap to number four in 1987 will have deduced that he’s older than most new dads. “I’m 54. To begin with I thought: I’m old. But I’ve stopped that now. I sat next to [former Daily Telegraph editor] Bill Deedes at a dinner once, when he was 93. He’d just been in India and had more projects on the go than I did. I aspire to that.”
In the book, Hawks ineptly confronts the challenges of rural living, from keeping slugs off the vegetable patch to learning that the barbers seven miles away shuts on Wednesdays. What wisdom has he acquired? “Don’t imagine you’re going to be good at what people whose families have been doing it for ages can do. You’ll constantly have to ask how things work.”
When Hawks wants to know how things work, he asks the real star of Once upon a Time in the West Country: next-door neighbour Ken, a retired builder who pops round repeatedly to help with jobs such as shifting a grand piano, or tethering a harness to a tree to indulge Hawks’s idea of swimming on the spot in a paddling pool.
Ken is the man an “incomer” like Hawks needs: ludicrously helpful, with bottomless practical nous. “If he hasn’t got the part, he makes the part! I’m about to go round there because I’ve got yet another flat tyre. And his wife Lin looks after Arlo a lot, she adores him. They are the best neighbours in the world.”
Embracing the community is Hawks’s other dictum for country newcomers. “You’ve gone from a place where 30 per cent of the people on your road won’t be there next year, to a place where you know when people are born and when they die. You’ve got to get on with people, because you keep bumping into them.” The only rude Devonian he’s encountered so far is Titch the pig: despite their intense five days together, a recent reunion was disappointing. “I don’t think she recognised me! There wasn’t the pig equivalent of rushing up and licking you.”
Hawks harbours a desire to take a trip somewhere with Arlo and write about it – but the big jaunts round Ireland and Moldova were the antics of a man whose life lacked focus. The pig-on-a-bicycle challenge only takes up a third of this book, because that void’s been filled. And there’s a more serious element to Hawks settling down: he appreciates a simpler existence because he thinks environmental issues should make everyone slow down and consume less.
His signature style is to digress to offer tongue-in-cheek observations about everyday annoyances. The passages about green politics, however, are straight-faced. “It is a strong theme with me, yes. I don’t even think of it as politics. It seems like common sense.” He sees mild madness everywhere in modern life: in parenting (“We did it in tribes years ago. More tribes, that’s what we need”), education (“Our culture says, do all your learning by the time you’re 23. It’s much more fun learning later. People should do degrees in their 30s and 40s”) and marriage, which he and Fran reject because they’ve “made the significant distinction between love and ownership”.
In the 1990s he was a panel-show regular; now, he doesn’t own a TV. On those quiet Devon evenings, he and Fran read non-fiction books aloud to each other, or go online. Hawks certainly doesn’t miss the whirl of book launches and parties that fills a bestselling author’s life in London. “Invitations come in and you think, I can’t go any more. But most of the time I’d drink too much and make a fool of myself anyway. Once you get down here, you think: why did it take me so long?”
Tony Hawks is on Just a Minute (Sunday 12.04pm Radio 4). Buy Once Upon a Time in the West Country via Radio Times for £12.99: see RT Books for more details.