Launch day arrives to a dawn the colour of wet slate. The weather’s been dreadful for the last couple of days, and Aberdeen seems determined to live up to its reputation for cold and wind. But I don’t care. Because I’ve got more than enough on my plate right now without worrying about it peeing down.
Being bloody minded, and not too bright, I have determined that I’m going to send Agent Phil (will wear pudding for drink) the first 50 pages of TSA, and as of COB yesterday evening all I have to show for myself is a lousy 47 pages. So first order of business is to get the last three pages done, before settling down to do my accounts and VAT return, which has to be done today or it won’t get in on time and I’ll get shafted for some huge, arbitrary fine, on top of all the sodding money I’m going to have to give them in the first place.
I HATE doing my accounts. That’s why I got myself an accountant, but as they’re going to be doing battle with the Inland Revenue on my behalf, I’ve decided to take a poke at the VAT people myself. A decision that I’m beginning to regret after the first two hours. The swearing starts not too long after that, accompanied by the occasional nervous twitch as I tot up exactly how much money I’ve shelled out over the last financial year. By the time James arrives I’m just slapping the last calculation into place, gibbering and cackling like a weasel-loving weirdo on a caffeine binge. Normally when I embark upon the dreaded accounting ritual sacrifice I am good for bugger all afterwards and this is no exception. James has to follow me round the house as I rant and grumble and mutter about getting outside a very large gin and tonic. Or a whisky. Or anything, just as long as it’s cold and very alcoholic. James is early, which is good, as it means there’s time for me to come down from my accountancy killing-frenzy before we head off into town.
A long time friend and fellow bearded writing person, James has come all the way up from Aberystwyth in the left bit of Wales, to act as taxi driver for me, She Who Must Be Seen To Be Believed and Agent Phil (is that cranachan in your hair, or are you just pleased to see me?). He rationalises this bizarre decision by saying he wants to be at the party, doesn’t mind driving, makes a nasty, fidgety passenger and he’d really like to meet Phil and the HarperCollins people. And he thinks staying sober will vastly improve his chances of making a good impression. Not me – I’m going to scarf a ton of canapés, drink all the wine and generally make a nuisance of myself. Oh hell yes.
The order of business is as follows: pick up She Who Must from her office at five, swing round past the airport to pick up Phil and then fight the rush-hour traffic into the middle of town, getting to the Aberdeen Union Street branch of Ottakar’s in time to say hello, before sodding off to the pub for a wee nippy sweetie. After that it’ll be back to the bookshop for a glass of wine, some canapés and then, according to the sign in the window ‘the author will give a talk about the book and answer questions’. After that I sign some books and the HC contingent, Phil, James, She Who Must Be Fed and me are off to dinner. No problems.
The first problem is that the flight up from London hasn’t arrived at 16:55 like it was supposed to. When it eventually gets in at about half five Agent Phil appears in the company of three attractive young ladies from HarperCollins – Jane, Sarah and Emma the editorial equivalent of the A-Team (only without the whole building a tank in the garage from bits of an old lawnmower, Morris Minor and a bag of cabbages), all of whom tower above Phil’s manly four foot six frame. As the plane’s half an hour late – they couldn’t take off because there were ‘rain clouds over Heathrow’ believe it or not – Aberdeen is well and truly in the constipated grip of rush-hour traffic. Not even a bucket of syrup of figs could shift this lot.
The second problem is that the hotel has screwed up on Jane, Sarah and Emma’s booking. Instead of staying two minutes walk from the bookshop, they’re all the way out on the South Deeside Road. The new hotel is very swanky, but there’s no way in hell they’re ever going to make it from the Airport all the way out there, change, play with the Corby trouser press, and get back into the centre of town for our 19:00 kick-off. But they clamber into a taxi anyway, ready to give it a valiant try. And all the time Aberdeen is quietly getting on with the business of raining on everybody and everything.
James does battle with the traffic all the way into town, and, believe it or not, we’ve got just enough time for a swift pint in the pub across the road before the thing’s meant to start. Which we make full use of. It’s not until we’ve finished and are outside the shop that the plan starts to fall apart again. Ottakar’s have given their Cold Granite window display a bit of a makeover since I first saw it last week. Now there are big postery board things with pictures of the book jacket, and there’s a swathe of tartan up behind the book’s title (eighteen-inch-high letters made from cut-up dust jackets) and the whole display is HUGE. Even ‘Harry Potter and the Gauntlet of Puberty’ has been squeezed over to make room. So James, who’s also the official photographer for the evening, takes my photo with my very first bookshop window. Then before I know what’s going on, a crowd of people begin to gather outside the shop, all there for the signing and there’s more photos and some handshaking and hellos to people I’ve not seen for ages.
If you pile them up right, Ian Rankin books make an excellent table to sign your books on
Dig that sexy eyebrow action
Ishbel Hunter works with dead people
Inside the shop, Vicky (manager of the Aberdeen Ottakars and queen of the canapé) greets me with smiles and a glass of wine. We’ll get going in a little bit, but first I should relax, talk to a few people, eat some canapés and generally mingle. This sounds like a good idea, which should have set the old alarm bells ringing in the first place. Thirty seconds later an old friend, who turned up early so he could buy the very fist copy, asks if I’ll sign his book while things were still quiet. Not a problem says I, thinking we’ve got plenty of time before all the speeches and questions. Signature and doodle, done by making a little table out of Ian Rankin books. Then I look up to see that someone else has also decided to catch the worm (if you’ll excuse the expression) and get their book signed before the rush. And by the time I’m halfway through that one there’s a queue, going around the pile of crime novels and away round the corner. Eek!
Jane Johnson stripy-coated editorial guru and author
I can safely say that my speech was a beauty, witty, thought provoking, gracious, deeply moving and ultimately uplifting. And the reason I can safely say that is because I never actually had to make it. Not one word. Which means no one can contradict me when I say it was the greatest single speech ever given in the history of the world. Made ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ look like the ramblings of a drunken monkey. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Instead I spend the whole two hours signing books and thanking people for coming.
There’s a big contingent from INoGITCH, relations I’ve not seen for years all the way up from Glasgow, friends, friends of friends, friends of my parents… At one point I look up from drawing a teddy bear with a flamethrower to see an eerily familiar face – it turns out my mother has tracked down my nursery school teacher, Moira Lawson and invited her along to the signing. This is the woman who taught me how to read and write in the first place. With whom I got into an argument when I was tiny because she wanted me to spell water with an ‘A’ rather than as it was pronounced: ‘woter’ and in our house I wasn’t allowed to say ‘waaater’. And one of my VIP guests also turns up – Ishbel Hunter head Anatomical Pathology Technician at the hospital (the first line of her address is ‘The Mortuary’). Ishbel’s a bubbly, enthusiastic redhead, who seems almost as delighted to meet me as I am to meet her. Especially as she now knows I’m not a freak, phoning to ask about cutting up dead bodies for the fun of it. Ahem…
Like a twit I keep asking people if they’re going to be hanging around and that I’ll catch up with them when I get to the end of the signing line. Which I never do. Some people even come round twice! Quite a few people buy more than one book: Bwahahahahahahaaa… And I’m not the only one who’s books are getting bought tonight: Jane’s first children’s novel ‘The Secret Country’ is also doing a brisk trade. I even get my first weirdo (it’s a publishing term), a strange-looking bloke who wanders about the whole evening – drinking wine and eating canapés, never making eye contact with anyone. Just drifting through the shop eating and drinking until all the food is gone. And then he does the same. Next time I’m anywhere near a launch party I’m going to try it, just as soon as I can find a dead badger to rub through my hair.
By the time the line has petered to an end I’ve been through one and a half of my specially signing pens. Then I’m introduced to Peter Mitchell of Press and Journal fame who’s much, much larger than life and is going to put a bit about the launch in his Friday column. After that it’s time to sign a bit of the shop’s stock and then dash off up Union Street to the restaurant, where much toot is talked and Phil gets to try out a new hair treatment, applied by gesturing emphatically with a dessert-covered spoon. This is the first chance I’ve had to catch up with Jane, Sarah and Emma the whole evening and it’s a good meal, with lots of wine. I’m starving because, unlike my weirdo, I’ve not been near the canapés all night. In fact the only reason I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine is that other people have kindly fetched them for me. Which means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Especially if I’m going to get anywhere near Phil, who’s on great form. By the time the staff are cleaning oatmeal and whipped cream off the restaurant walls, floor, seats, tables, customers on other tables, the lovely ladies from HarperCollins have had to make their excuses – unlike Phil, they’ve got to catch an early plane. He’s staying in Casa MacBride tonight and not flying out until midday so we can discuss the new book tomorrow and stay up until four in the morning drinking the Norwegian equivalent of whisky and talking rubbish with Fiona and James.
So that’s it: like all good ships I have now officially been launched, though no one attempted to bash a bottle champagne over my head. Even if it did feel like it the next morning.
Today Aberdeen, tomorrow the world!