Two hundred and fifty years ago, in a stone house in a village in Yorkshire, a country parson wrote a book that changed the world. "Who has not Tristram Shandy read?" wrote a young James Boswell on its publication, "Is any mortal so ill bred?" The answer, it seemed, was practically nobody as the book's author, Laurence Sterne, discovered when he tried to buy a copy in London himself.
Two centuries before Gauloise-smoking dons dreamt up postmodernism as a self-aggrandising hobby for the dimmer-witted, and two and a half centuries before "opinion" in our culture became a democracy of verbal diarrhoea unleashed on a bored blogosphere, this 18th-century cleric did it all. "In a purple jerkin and yellow pair of slippers, without either wig or cap on", he set forth on the riotous, unreliable, self-reverential, metafictional and just damn funny journey through The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
This is a novel (for want of a better word) which begins with the narrator's conception and perhaps literature's most famous coitus interruptus ("Pray my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?") but in which he isn't actually born until the fourth volume. It's a novel which plays with what a professor of cultural studies would call "notions" of time, chronology, history and narrative, to the point where some pages are just black blocks or dots and squiggles, and which includes both lengthy hypotheses on philosophy, logic and religion and the kind of humour which involves a hot chestnut, a groin and burnt balls.
You can sit in the study where Sterne wrote it. You can flick through his books, stare at his letters and fiddle with his pipe. You can wander round his garden, full of catmint, tree peonies and old roses and you can stand in the pulpit in the church where he preached. I know because I've done it. Three years ago, when Michael Winterbottom's film of the famously unfilmable Tristram Shandy, A Cock & Bull Story, came out, I went to the "world premiere" in Coxwold village hall. And I spent some time at Sterne's old home, a medieval cottage turned Georgian farmhouse, Shandy Hall.
Like so many writers' houses in this country, Shandy Hall has survived on a wing and a prayer. It's open to the public, but it's not a museum. Patrick Wildgust, its hugely energetic curator, who lives in it with his partner, Chris, devotes his every living hour to keeping the place going, on a shoestring and for a stipend that would make even a Lehman Brothers banker laugh. When he's not putting buckets under the holes in the ceiling, he's organising visits for schools and colleges, dreaming up collaborative projects with artists, makers and choreographers, putting up exhibitions and doing everything he can to keep this strangely neglected genius of English literature's name alive. …