Snaps, Pies and Videotape...

Well, that’s me back from London (again) only this time in a kind of exponential mucus machine kind of way. The sniffles have turned into the sneezles and the cough into something that makes windows rattle. But I’m on my part time thing again, so I get to be ill on my own time. Hurrah! There is no sick-leave for the stay-at-home write-ist.

But I digress.


I was down in London primarily to attend a cocktail party (not unfortunately held in my honour – not matter what Sarah says – except in the same way it was held in honour of all the UK authors and agents and colleagues of a large group of European publishers) where I finally got to meet the nice people from Unieboek and Forum who bought rights to bring out Cold Granite in Holland and Sweden respectively. I also almost managed to meet Mark Billingham, but was waylaid on my way over there and never really got round to it. Which was an odd coincidence as I had ‘Sleepy Head’ in my jacket pocket downstairs. When I arrived a nice, enthusiastic young lady met me at the top of the stairs and gave me a sticker with my name on it. I thought this was a great idea, it wouldn’t matter how many people I was introduced to, I’d never have to worry about forgetting, or not hearing their name, ‘cos it’d be right there in blue biro on their chest. It wasn’t until I got upstairs that I realised that it was only the authors who got stickers, everyone else was anonymous. They all knew who we were, but we had to play the memory game. Which is a recipe for disaster where I’m concerned: I have a head like a sieve. But on the plus side there was no chance of repeating the whole ‘Who’s Michael Marshall’ fiasco of the Voyager Summer Party. Always look for that silver lining.
The party was only from seven till nine (and even though it was billed as a cocktail party, restricted itself to red wine, white wine, orange juice and water – which Fiona assures me is normal these days) so Agent Phil (will dance for food) was all for going on somewhere afterwards. Maybe we’d crash a couple of parties – one for another publishing house and another for film agent / producer types – but he didn’t have a clue where either of them were, and neither of us really felt up to trawling the streets of London listening for the sound of drunken publishing types. Instead we found a nice cocktail bar in Soho and got stuck into the martinis and mimosas before catching the last train back to Guildford where Molly (Phil’s much better half) plied us with hash browns, onion rings and half a huge chicken pie each. At two in the morning. Gotta love a wife like that.


The party was fairly surreal, in a shouty over the ambient noise of everyone else shouting over the ambient noise of… you get the picture, but it was normality itself compared to the way I’d just spent the afternoon. Fiona McIntosh, publicity guru and renowned Judy Finnigan impersonator, took me along to ‘Impact Factory’ for ‘Media Training’. Now when I heard about this I was pretty convinced it’d be the same kind of thing they do with politicians: you know where they teach you to be a slimy wee bastard who never answers a direct question? Wrong. This is about how to do an interview without making a complete tit of yourself.
Fiona (not She Who Must… this is going to get confusing real soon) had told me on the way over in the car that most authors eventually get the hang of doing interviews and speaking to the press, but it can take ages. And the learning process can often be uncomfortable, if not downright painful, so she decided to get her writers some experience upfront. Which is why I spent the afternoon with James Fischer, being asked the same question over and over and over again… Well, lots of different questions really, there was just the one that got the whole Groundhog Day treatment: “What’s your book about?”
Sound innocuous enough, no? No. On the first pass I launched straight into the synopsis, drifting to a halt when it became clear that this wasn’t the right answer. So we did it again, and again, and again. Took me a while, but in the end I finally got it: when someone asks “What’s your book about?” they don’t really want to know what your book’s about, they want you to make them excited about buying it. And if you can make them excited you’ve a much better chance of making their readers / listeners / viewers excited about buying it.
The afternoon ended with the excruciating experience of a simulated television interview, on camera, which is then watched back and analysed (in a carefully-worded positive manner). And after that, another go on camera, this time with ‘shambolic interviewer who has done no research’ and awkward pauses. Apparently this happens a lot and if you’re not comfortable taking charge of things and talking coherently, you’re screwed. Sounds bloody obvious doesn’t it, but until it was pointed out to me, I’d never thought about it before. Obviously I’d been very lucky in Oslo, as all my interviewers had been very well prepared and, with one exception, seemed to like the book. But I will be better prepared next time. Honest.


My last appointment (and I’m shifting into first person present for this 'cos it's my blog and can do whatever the hell I like, so nyah) is with Jerry Bauer, the photographer Forum have arranged to take some portrait shots of yours truly and his lovely beard. I’m meeting him outside the St. Mary Abbot’s Church in Kensington at quarter to eleven, or I would be if the Jubilee line wasn’t buggered, meaning I have to perform the underground equivalent of orienteering to get there. By the time I get my first glimpse of Jerry, huddled on a bench outside the church, I’m already fifteen minutes late. He’s a small-ish, older man with a kindly smile and soft voice, and puts me in mind, for some unknown reason, of Jack Lemmon. God knows why: he doesn’t really look like him, there’s just a kind of Jack Lemmonyness about him. Fifteen minutes is nothing, he tells me as we nip across the road for a cup of tea, once he had to wait three hours for someone to finally show up.
Over tea he tells me about his schedule – he lives in Italy, but has come across to the UK because there are another two authors he needs to photograph, both of whom are attending the London Book Fair – and shows me some of his work. I think the title ‘Photographer To The Stars’ would be appropriate: you name someone, he’s photographed them. Authors, playwrights, film stars, the lot. As we go back across the road to the church I discover that he namedrops constantly. Not in an ‘aren’t I special’ kind of way, more like he’s hunting around for a friend we have in common. He obviously hasn’t heard that I’m a bearded nobody. I can’t help liking him.
Jerry’s not a clickwhirrrr-clickwhirrrr-clickwhirrrr kind of photographer. He’s brought a pair of ancient-looking Lika cameras – one for colour, one for black and white, each one with an old-fashioned light meter on top that look like they’re made of Lego – and each shot is carefully composed. Then he takes off his glasses, holds the camera under my nose, checks the light meter, shuffles back to where he started, puts the glasses back on, and then ‘click’. And then it all starts again. While we’re doing this he gets me to inch forwards and backwards, turning left, right, head this way, then that, all communicated silently with little hand gestures. It takes me a while to figure out that he’s doing it so the light and shade fall across my face in different ways. No, Jerry’s not from the clickwhirrrr-clickwhirrrr school. Jerry’s an artist. Just a shame he’s lumbered with me for a canvas. Poor sod.
After we’re finished he insists on buying me a sandwich before I catch my tube to Heathrow, and we talk about how he got into photography. Apparently he used to do interviews for a magazine, but sometimes the photographers they sent along with him just didn’t show up. So he bought himself a camera, and three months later his pictures were appearing in Vogue. He’s going back to Italy on Wednesday and promises to have some proofs in the post by the end of the week. After that he’s off to New York, and maybe Rio. He has some friends in Cuba, he tells me as I polish off my ham cheese and mustard on rye, and they can’t afford food, or the HIV medicine they need, so he’ll take them some clothes and some cash when he’s there. Which is kind of humbling.

All the way through Jerry’s photo shoot my cough has been getting steadily worse, sometimes wheezy, sometimes rattling, always painful. For a change I’m going to be the one sat two seats back on the plane, expectorating over the rear of some poor bugger’s head.

Revenge, thy name is mucus.