The Ryanwood bobs gently against the quayside wall of Peterhead harbour. At just 80-foot long, she is dwarfed on all sides by industrial fishing boats. The six-man crew, and that of her sister vessel, the Castlewood, are busy loading provisions. Food comes on board, as does water, as does ice.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes an impulse that, at times of great emotional stress, communicates a being’s distance from their birthplace, triggering the longing to be there, wherever “there” is, when the chips are really down. On Earth that can’t be very far, he argues: around 16,000 miles at a push.
Gray rocks in his chair, forward into the present moment, and then back to 1971. "I remember when Liz and I met," he says. "I was going through to Edinburgh on the train with a friend for a show at the Talbot Rice Gallery, and Liz was going to receive an award from Radio Scotland."
I ring the bell. No-one answers. The leaflet in my hand tells me this grey, slate-covered building – a monastery since 1895 – is the Church of England’s “best-kept secret”. But I have come to Hampshire to unravel another secret: that of the cult of Jane Austen.
Legend has it that the very first life models were five beautiful virgins who posed as Helen of Troy for the Greek artist Zeuxis. Disturbingly, the fifth century BC artist is said to have laughed himself to death while painting an old woman, who was sitting for him as Aphrodite. All of this and more comes to mind as my boxer shorts hit the floor.
Suicide was never far from Hunter S Thompson’s mind. It was the night before Christmas Eve, 1977. At his typewriter, in a room 28 floors above Fifth Avenue in New York, he imagined going out onto the terrace, leaping "200 yards out into the air”, and landing broken and bloodied in the Plaza Fountain below. “Nobody,” he wrote, “could follow that act.”