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Charles told me off after my last post, saying I shouldn’t go round bad-mouthing other writers, not even when they were Louise Washbag. When I asked him why on earth not, he just shook his head and said didn’t I realise that the publishing industry was collapsing to its knees around our ears and that we were all in it up to our eyeballs, so elbowing people aside who might be able to give us a leg up was just shooting ourselves in the foot.
“What?” I said. But he’d already begun pouring a pint of Staropramen for an ill-shaven young man in a trilby (when not doing his agenting stuff, Charles works part-time in a bar on the Balls Pond Road – I probably don’t need to keep saying this, do I?), and I don’t think he heard.
“Look at Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope,” he went on once he’d done, “they absolutely loathe each other after that business with Cooper’s Schnauzer and Trollope’s second husband, but – they still appear on stage together at Hay, all smiles, telling each other how wonderful they are.”
“I’d forgotten about the Schnauzer. Remind me, what was it precisely Mr…”
“Don’t ask, Trix. Let’s just say she’ll never chase a frisbee across a public park again.”
“But can you really blame the second Mr Trollope for that? She must be pushing eighty now.”
“The dog, Trix, not… oh, look, my point was that these days even quite well-known writers have to swallow their pride and get out on the streets and sell themselves.”
And then, before I could express my disbelief at this, he told me that someone from Smoke: A London Peculiar, the little magazine that’s been kind enough to print several excerpts from my forthcoming memoir, was appearing at the Lewisham Literary Festival the following Saturday, and that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go along and show solidarity, mingle with the crowds – perhaps even have a friendly chat with the organisers.
“These are the people that have the power these days, Trix, what with social networking and everything. Don’t be afraid to use them.”
I stared at him.
“Lewisham?” I said. “They have literary festivals in Lewisham?”
“Apparently. I always had Lewisham down as one of those places you only ever went to to get a mobile phone unlocked, but… hidden depths, it seems.”
I pondered. I’d once been driven through Lewisham by an errant taxi driver who got Blackheath muddled with Hampstead, so I’d actually seen it from both directions, and neither time had it looked like the sort of place you could imagine Mariella Frostrup fawning over Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan in front of an invited audience.
“But where are they putting the marquee?”
“No marquee, Trix. It’s in a church hall near Hither Green station.”
That sounded even less promising, but maybe Hither Green was the more bookish end of Lewisham. And I could see there was some sort of logic in what he was saying. About the mingling, I mean, not about the selling ourselves on the street – even JK would never sink that low, and she has lovely hair and would be really popular. Hair makes such a difference. Men often found my hair a bit unexpected, which is why I always tried to keep my hat on till they’d passed the point of no return. Otherwise, we’d be right back to square one.
Washbag has nice hair too – and is another blonde, of course – but I can’t imagine she’d be as much fun as JK.
Sorry, where was I? Yes, so, the Saturday before last, I caught a train from London Bridge to Hither Green, and then walked up to St Swithun’s church hall, following a series of photocopied arrows someone had fastened to the railings.
I’ve appeared at quite a few literary festivals over the years, and I’m really not a fan. Panels aren’t so bad, because there’s safety in numbers – and if you get on with your fellow panellists, and there’s some wine around, it can even be quite fun. Once, during a particularly tedious Q&A at Cheltenham organised by Radio 4’s Front Row, I spent half an hour playing footsie with an equally bored Kazuo Ishiguro under the mistaken impression that the big banner the BBC had hung along the front of the trestle table was hiding our increasingly adventurous manoeuvres from the chairs set out below the stage. Which it definitely would have done, if Kazuo hadn’t somehow manage to accidentally unhook it when kicking his shoes off to, um, spice things up a bit. I should probably have guessed something was amiss from the sudden draught, but – I’m afraid I was a bit caught up in the moment. In fact, it was only when the questions began to acquire a distinctly surreal hue that we – and Mark Lawson, who was chairing the session, and was obviously just as oblivious as me and Kaz – realised something was up. Part of Mark’s job as chair, of course, was to repeat the audience questions in case anyone hadn’t heard them clearly, and I can still picture his face, poor man, as he turned, somewhat hesitantly, to ask me if, at my age, I’d still consider wearing a skirt above the knee. But he’s a professional, which is why he then strove to ascertain, on behalf of an extremely excited middle-aged woman in a floral hat, whether Kazuo had a particular fondness for electric blue, and whether he always painted his toenails. In fact, it was only when a man in the third row stood up to ask whether I’d mind uncrossing my legs again, only this time more slowly, and – if he might be allowed a supplementary – whether anyone had a torch he could borrow, that Mark decided to wrap things up and ask the audience to give us a round of applause and thank us for coming.
I don’t think Kazuo is used to encores. He’s basically a very shy man.
Solo appearances, on the other hand, really can be the pits, because it’s just you on your own, stuck there at a rickety table in a tent in the middle of muddy field in Budleigh Salterton or wherever, feeling stupid in your wellies or maybe something far less practical – if I’m there to do a reading, I always like to dress up and do it “in character”, as it helps me get in the mood – smiling maniacally at anyone who dares pop their head through the flaps.
I know that some people were appalled, for instance, when I wrote in Smoke about my treatment at the Waterman’s Art Centre in Brentford a few years ago. I was supposed to be reading from The Six-Fingered Jockey, which had then just come out, but, as the afternoon wore on, and the box office remained largely untroubled by my presence, I found myself being shunted ignominiously from the main auditorium to the studio, from the studio to the bar, from the bar to the foyer, and then from the foyer to the Guru Tandoori just across the road, who said they’d let me have a table in a corner if I’d spend 30 minutes afterwards handing out menus and free poppadoms on the High Street. As I say, people were appalled, but such experiences really aren’t that uncommon, as any writer will confirm. I bet even the sainted JK let herself be shunted ignominiously on more than one occasion when she was a young woman, just because someone told her it would help her career.
So I wasn’t at all surprised to find, on my arrival at St Swithun’s, that I constituted pretty much the entire audience. A nice young woman called Rachel met me on the door, took my four pounds entrance, and then asked me whether I’d like a piece of cake or a slice of pizza. I initially took this to be part of one of those dreadful “cat or dog?” celebrity questionnaire things all the magazines do these days in lieu of proper interviews, but it turned out she was simply drawing my attention to the somewhat over-stocked cafe area.
Then she apologised for the sparse turnout, and I tried to console her with what had happened to me in Brentford. I wasn’t entirely sure she’d grasped who I was, which was a bit disheartening, but she was very polite.
“That sounds awful,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “did the organiser offer any excuse? I mean, you’d clearly gone to a lot of trouble, what with the costume and everything.”
“He said it had probably been a bad idea to pick an afternoon when Brentford were at home. They were playing Darlington, and apparently it was ‘a bit of a six-pointer’. I had no idea what he meant by that, but when I tried to get him to explain he just started shouting something incoherent about somebody having dived and the referee being blind, so I hung up.”
She smiled awkwardly, and said she really had to get back to introducing people to each other.
Which wasn’t a task that took too long, obviously.
Not wishing to upstage anybody, I tried to sit at the back and look inconspicuous, but this proved trickier than I’d anticipated, as there weren’t enough of us to contrive two rows. Nevertheless, I made sure I kept quiet and didn’t ask any awkward questions – writers and publishers hate being asked questions – and I think the whole thing went fairly smoothly. Better than Brentford, anyway, as I made a point of telling Rachel afterwards, in case she was still feeling down.
“I mean, at least the police aren’t going to find you wandering down Hither Green Lane in rainsoaked jodhpurs and a riding hat and demand to know why you’re crying and where you got all the poppadoms,” I said to her, laughing.
There was a long silence.
“No,” she said, at last.