According to the website and the telephone information lines it’s ‘Business Class’, but to the wee man at Inverurie train station, and the sticker on the carriage window, it’s ‘First Class’. I’ve never travelled anywhere first class before. The first thing that strikes me is just how quiet it is. No one says a word in our tiny bit of the carriage – separated from ‘Saver’ and ‘Supersaver’ by a pair of sliding doors and just over £20.00 a ticket (and that’s both ways: Aberdeen to Glasgow and back again) – except to say “yes” to tea or coffee. And two minutes later I’m wishing I said “Oh Christ NO!” instead. British Rail tea: the legends are true. It’s like drinking creosote, only not so nice. So I dig out my laptop, plug it in, slap on the old earphones and start writing chapter zero of ‘TSA’, one of at least two books I intend to write this year.
I’ve never been a great one for reading in cars: motion sickness. And you can forget all about those bloody Imaginator-style, virtual roller coaster things. I don’t know if it’s the fake motion-blurry computer graphics, or the fact that my inner ear is busy telling my brain that, no, we’re not flying in a spaceship through a spacestation / asteroid mine / scale model of Raquel Welch’s fallopian tubes, we’re sitting in a suspiciously stained seat strapped to a shed-load of pneumatic pistons, so stop being so bloody stupid. In the ensuing internal bun-fight, whatever I had to eat last usually comes off worst. Writing on a laptop, on a train is something like that too, and by the time we’re clickity-hummming south past Arbroath, my breakfast is beginning to gargle and I’m beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.
So why do it then? Well, the lovely people at HarperCollins have asked me to be their guest at the Gala Dinner, which takes place at the end of the annual BA Conference. They have a lot of booze, a big awards ceremony, three course meal and a disco. Sounds like fun, no? Except maybe for that bit about the disco. But even then, get enough drink in me and I’m John Travolta after a hip-replacement operation and random liposuction. The dinner is tonight, I’m going to meet up with Val McDermid – she of the extremely generous blurb – my publicist Fiona, some of the high-heejins at HC, and a whole heap of other industry types. And then as a penance I have to sign 1,500 books at the HarperCollins warehouse tomorrow. Which I’m not-so-secretly dreading.
I’m taking the train, because it’s less hassle than driving all the way down and fighting with the Glasgow motorway system (designed by the Marquis de Sade on a really, really bad day) , and I can crack open the old laptop and finally get started writing the book. It’s a plan and I’m sticking to it. Anyway, it’s quiet enough in ‘business class’ to hear a midgie fart, I’ll have no problems concentrating. Unless I loose my breakfast that is.
On the other side of the class-divide-sliding-doors, a group of six guys are drinking bottles of Miller and laughing so hard I’m pretty sure one of them’s going to have an embarrassing accident in his pants any time now. He’s got a laugh like a hyena on helium and at each and every stop on the way from Aberdeen to Glasgow he nips out for a fag, standing in the open door of the train, all the smoke drifting back into the carriage.
I however, have no such addictive compunction. Except maybe for the packet of orange and lime Tic-Tacs I bought for the journey. Which seem to be all lime. Now I’m all for lime Tic-Tacs, but I bought the mixed ones for a reason: I like the orange ones, and so spend the next ten minutes trying to shoogle all the green ones to the bottom of the pack, like a crazed maraca-shaking lunatic. Which elicits increasingly worried looks from the American on the other side of the table, who spends the whole trip tracing the train’s progress down the east coast of Scotland on a map, and so is probably in no position to cast the first stone.
And neither is the only other occupant of our business-class fortress against the great unwashed: I call him Mr Shouty. Remember I said it was all nice and quiet? Well that changes round about Perth. Mr Shouty has a mobile phone and the bastard is determined share his side of an angry conversation with everyone. Now, I don’t actually have a mobile myself, but I’m pretty sure the whole point of having a mobile phone is that you don’t have to shout to speak to your friend in Dundee. You speak into your phone and the words travel through the air, borne on the wings of the magic technology fairies. The little buggers won’t get there any faster if you shout!
The cold and rain starts before we get to Sterling, the castle invisible from the train, hidden in the low, grey clouds as Mr Shouty gets going on yet another bloody call. I wonder if anyone would mind if I just smashed his head in with his own phone? If anyone’s interested – and I’m sure we all must be given the volume he’s shouting his private conversation at – he’s in the middle of negotiating some sort of hostile takeover. But then I get the feeling pretty much everything is going to be hostile where he’s concerned.
When the train pulls into Glasgow I take a black cab to the hotel HC are putting me up in. One Devonshire Gardens – sounds like a bed and breakfast, which is OK by me. I’ve spent the last four years working for an IT company, I’m used to… shall we say, the lower end of the away-from-home accommodation experience. HC obviously are not. One Devonshire Gardens is five, plush Georgian houses, all knocked together into one VERY swanky hotel. According to Dave, my taxi driver, it’s got four stars: this is where all the rock and film stars stay when they’re in town. Rod Stewart, Brad Pitt, and now me. Lucky, lucky people. Inside it’s all dark wood panelling and sweeping staircases and stained glass. I have never even been inside anywhere so swanky, let alone stayed there! And I’m not in a tiny, wee, broom-closet with a walk-in shower and single bed either, I’m in a suite. You name it I’ve got it: sofa, armchairs, tables, funny wooden boxy things, one of those things you putt golf balls into and it pings them back at you, one putter for same, an ironing board, huge bath, four poster bed, and a Corby trouser press. Now this is living. Publicist Fiona is off to the bank (and may be some time), so I set about using every single last item of equipment I can find in the place. Including a spell soaking in a deep, bubble bath, liberally sprinkled with bath salts (I’ve no idea what bath salts are, but I’ve got a big jar of them in the bathroom, so I’m bloody well going to use them), and I lie there reading ‘Lazy Bones’ by Mark Billingham, eating one of my complimentary apples and drinking my complimentary mineral water. The effect is only slightly spoiled by the fact that in my freeloading glee I’ve mistaken the aloe vera shampoo for the aloe vera bubble bath, and am therefore currently washing and conditioning my entire self. But the bubbles do a great job of hiding the water, which has a strange, chemical-yellow, ‘Mountain Dew’ quality that’s probably best not dwelt upon.
When the anointed hour finally arrives I clamber into the old kilt outfit, foregoing underwear as befits a red-blooded Scottish male with a heavy sporran, and stride downstairs to meet Fiona. Only Fiona is nowhere to be see. But, sitting in a chair by the door is someone who looks suspiciously like Val McDermid. I’ll just go over and say thank you for the blurb she gave Cold Granite. Or at least that’s the plan. I get as far as the smile and intake of breath, when she glances up from her book and gives me a look that screams, ‘just keep on fucking walking’. So I do a quick about turn and kid on I was going to hand in my key at reception anyway. My guess is that Val gets recognised a lot, she’s probably sick to the back teeth of people coming up to say “Hi” the whole time. Then I hand in my key - which, incidentally is about the same size as my sporran – and decide that this is bloody stupid. We’re both with the same publisher, we’ve both got the same publicist, and if I skulk about in the shadows waiting for Fiona to appear and introduce us, I’m going to look like a right arsehole. So back I go, and this time I don’t even give her a chance to produce ‘the look’, I go straight in with the, “Val? Stuart MacBride – thanks for the blurb…” after this things go swimmingly. Val’s nice, swears like a true Fifer, is hugely enthusiastic about her genre, fiercely loyal to the writers she likes, and full of hellfire and damnation for the industry individuals and institutions she hates. I get the feeling that pissing off Val McDermid would not be a good move. Did I mention she’s from Fife? They grow them scary down there.
It’s odd, being driven through Glasgow to the dinner. My family is at least three generations Glaswegian, I spent a lot of time down here when I was little, but so much of Glasgow city has changed since. And it’s still changing, new buildings springing up, changing the skyline, bringing it closer, shutting off the vistas of orange sandstone and yellow brick I used to know. My granddad was caretaker of the Baltic Chambers, a big, rectangular sandstone office building, built around a dank central well where the sun rarely ever reaches the bottom. I almost manage to catch a glimpse of it before we sweep round a corner, and it’s gone.
HarperCollins is hosting a drinks reception in the Glasgow Hilton (where the BA Conference is being held), up in the Glenfiddich room, only there’s no whisky to be seen, but there is champagne! Hurrah! Something to help me get past that nasty little bump of self-conscious shyness. The wine will sparkle and so shall I. Honest. Any minute now… Fiona introduces Val and I to a couple of people, and we chat for a bit. As usual I’m more of a listener than a talker – partly because I’m still on my first glass of fizzy, but mostly because Val is a LOT more interesting than I am. Then, as she’s taken off to meet someone, I spy Mark Billingham (whom I know from the bath earlier) in conversation with Iain Rankin, and some other bloke I’m probably supposed to recognise, but don’t. He needn’t be upset, I don’t recognise 99.9% of the people in here. While Mr Rankin makes good his escape I tell Mark that I’ve got one of his books on the go at the moment (but don't mention being naked at the time), and that seems to break the ice. Plus we both know John Rickards in a sad internety, second-hand kind of way, and spend a jolly couple of minutes wondering how you pronounce his name – is it Rikaaaaards, or Rikrds? Will he be at Harrogate this year (Mark, not John – or any of the other apostles come to that) he will, and Edinburgh too. Mark’s a good bloke, tall, but trying to make himself look shorter by standing with his legs as far apart as possible, completely unaware that he’s laying himself wide open for a knee in the testicles if he says the wrong thing. Then again, maybe he’s trying to get someone pregnant, and this is some kind of Tai Chi stance, designed to keep the family jewels well aired and at optimum temperature. In which case he should have forgone the dinner jacket and opted for a kilt like me – danglin’ free…
Amanda (big, BIG boss at HC) comes over as the crowd is being enticed through to the ballroom, where we’ll be eating, and introduces me to the associate producer for the Richard and Judy Book Club. This is what I’m here for: to press the flesh and make an impression with the assembled great and good. I’m just getting ready to turn on the charm – well to be honest it’s already ‘on’, it just needs a wee moment to warm up (it happens when you get older) – when the last and final call for dinner is announced. Mrs Associate Producer and her enterage all turn their backs en masse to grab a last glass of the HC champagne to take through to the ballroom, and Yours Truly is forgotten, my red-hot charm rapidly cooling to tepid. And off into dinner I go. On me tod. So much for sweet-talking my book onto this year’s ‘must read’ list.
The dinner isn’t all that bad, and the company’s good: Julia Cove Smith, new with Waterstones; some reprobates from HC sales, marketing and publicity; and Paul Henderson, who’s about to leave Ottakars to set up his own vegetarian / fish restaurant. This year the awards are pretty much what you’d expect, only more so and go on for a whole hour and thirty seven minutes. It feels like a lot longer. Val gets up to present an award, pulls a laugh from the crowd, then gets back to her seat for a drink and a smoke, the cigarette drooping from her lips at thirty degrees to the horizontal, like a half-hearted erection in need of Viagra. The Independent Bookseller Of The Year award is accompanied by a three-person mini pipe band, who contribute a fair chunk of time to the ceremony’s hour and half, but come with a complementary nip of whisky from Rankin’s publishers, Orion. An obscene amount of which goes back to the bar untouched.
After the awards the serious drinking starts. People network, clique, drink, network again… I have determined to be modest, yet accessible, but it’s hard to play the reluctant celebrity when no one has a fucking clue who you are, and breaking into other people’s conversations is hard, thirsty work. In the end I take a pint of overpriced Stella down to a quiet seat in the main lobby and watch the world go by. The funny thing about Stella is that it’s lovely and alluring when cold and freshly-poured, but tastes like a monkey’s arse as soon as it starts to warm up. When I get back to the hotel I’ll hit the mini bar. That’ll teach it.
By the time I catch up with Fiona again, the poor sod lumbered with driving us from the hotel to the convention and back again has been sitting outside since eleven. It’s now nearly two. And he’s going to have to get up a the crack of dawn to take his wife to work, in his Mercedes Benz. He tells me about his business as we negotiate the night-quiet streets back to One Devonshire Gardens, where the rock stars and unknown write-ists stay.
In the end I raid the mini bar for a £1.50 bottle of Strathmore mineral water. How rock and roll is that?