Pete Brown on losing his laptop and starting the book from scratch

09 October 2014

By Pan Macmillan

You could say it was poetic justice: I’m sure the Bard himself would have found some measure of grim satisfaction in it.

I was eight months into writing a book about the history of a pub.  And I had my laptop stolen – from a pub.

It was my own fault – there’s no getting away from that. And I offer no excuses. But when you spend as much time in pubs as I do (a lot) you start to think of your local as a home from home, where everybody really does know your name.  And because this pub was my local, where they all know I write about beer and pubs for a living, I really do know a lot of people in the pub and feel quite relaxed there.

So at the time, it felt perfectly natural to leave my laptop bag beside the chair where I’d been sitting at a big table full of friends, all coming and going.

I was standing outside talking to a hipster with a magnificent beard, wondering perhaps if he really was a polar explorer, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked my bag for four hours.  I went back to the table and found it thrown underneath.  It was one of three of four bags that had been tossed, right there in full view of the pub.  Flap open, laptop gone.  No one had seen anything.  I went through the stages of grief very quickly, and then went home and bawled my eyes out.

The following day I went to the pub to check the CCTV footage.  Our table was in the centre of the field of vision of two different cameras.  I saw myself put the bag down.  I couldn’t see the bag, but I could see exactly where it was.  I was bound to see either someone pick it up, or someone go under the table and emerge with a laptop in hand.  These were the only possibilities.

Four hours later, there I was coming back to the table, picking up the empty laptop bag and staring into space for a weirdly long time.  I had seen no one and nothing suspicious, despite being able to see everything around the bag’s location.  Be warned: these scumbags are very good at what they do.

Everybody asked me if I had backed up.  No, I hadn’t.  I had lost every word I’d written on the book – 25,000 to be precise. 

And I had four months left until my deadline.

As the CCTV footage spooled out, I went into town and bought a new laptop.  The following day, I went to the local history library where I had spent the last eight months, pulled out a three-inch-thick manila folder of press cuttings that I had only just finished going through, and started again at the first page. 

People often ask me how I managed to do this – how I found the will to start from scratch with two thirds of my time gone. 

It was easy really – the only alternative to starting again was not to do the book.  And as terrifying and depressing and daunting as it was to go back to page one, the alternative was even worse. 

Anyway, once I started again, I could remember where the good bits were, and which bits didn’t offer much.  It took me four weeks of very hard work to recreate what I’d lost, and while I didn’t quite make my deadline, I didn’t overshoot it by much more than I usually do.

Another thing people ask is if it’s a better book as a result of having to start again.  I think it probably is.  It gave me an almighty kick up the backside and I wrote in a feverish zeal all day, every day, for about five months.  I hated the thing when I’d finished it, and just wanted to get it out of me and away from me.  And then, when I received the proofs back and started reading through for typos and errors, having gained a bit of distance on it, having forgotten that this line came from a press cutting from The Times in 1935 and that line from a tourist pamphlet published in 1918, when I could see it for what it was, I started to think, “Ooh, this is quite good.”

Having said that, when giving advice to aspiring writers, I will never, ever, recommend leaving your laptop unattended for four hours in a busy pub as a strategy for improving your craft.  So please – be careful out there.