Perhaps it is because I am old enough to remember an Australian society steeped in British tradition (we sang God Save the Queen at school) or because my heritage is from one English grandparent (Whitby) and two Scottish grandparents (and a 3rd who wished she had been born in Scotland but her parents had arrived in Aus before she was entered the world; Glasgow, north of Edinburgh and somewhere west of Culloden among the Scotch distilleries). There is a certain feeling of familiarity with being among Brits, with their tea, toast and marmalade; pale grey-blue sky (Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country jumps to mind); and variation in vowels as you swing up and down and across the country that has you reliving Steptoe and Son one moment, and Upstairs Downstairs the next. It is true that over the years as I have visited and welcomed my escape from London winters, I have seen much change and not always good. It was the punks pink Mohawks that offended me in my twenties (I don’t have an issue with pink Mohawks, just that I was wanting, well, Upstairs Downstairs, to play out before me); later the mix of cultures continued to confuse my childhood version of Britain—but I welcomed the cuisine that came with them, and by the time each culture had been in UK long enough to have their own range of Steptoe and Royal plum vowels, I had changed my view of what Britain was.
But until this visit I had never worked here (I had sadly had to turn down a fabulous offer as I had just had a baby) or had any excuse other than a wistful return to roots reason (scrambling around Scottish graveyards), or a walk across the country to come to the UK. This time I was launching a book—and appearing at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Not quite a triumphant return of the convict (my grandparents were just escaping the cold anyway) but at the very least a different angle to view the country from.
Legend, my publisher, has a small office on Fleet St. Fleet Street. Forget Monopoly, this is the heart of newspapers, real London. Standing outside, I have St Paul’s in front, the Royal Courts of Justice behind. And an ancient lift that I want to move into – I may have had to had some kind local not shown me how to get out. Legend are enthusiastic and deliver red wine to my launch at the Stoke Newington bookshop that (thank goodness) is not Australian. I read to a small crowd, half come for Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House, also being launched—but they are polite (they’re British!).
Then Graeme and I are interviewed by a British journalist. I’ve read this weeks column and hope that between now and November it hasn’t changed into a tabloid that will give us one of the more lurid headings that British tabloids can do…Clio seemed very nice…
Cheltenham was next, via a night in South Devon with friends. In Cheltenham, with its leafy streets and elegant rows of houses and shops in buildings that have probably stood there for hundreds of years, you expect to bump into the Queen (well, at least someone walking a Corgi) or maybe Rupert Campbell-Black. For those who don’t know, the latter is a Jilly Cooper fictional character and this is horse country (racing specifically) and though he wasn’t there, Jilly was. I hadn’t read one of her books since Riders 25 years or more ago, while attending a three day event in Queensland where my sister was riding—but I remember how it sparked my interest in the jodhpur clad men. Loved their boots.
Jilly Cooper should be declared a National treasure; about to turn eighty, she has a grandmother smile and a mischievously naughty twinkle in her eye. Both her, and interviewer Clare Balding’s, sense of comic timing was pitch perfect. $1000 a shag? Horses…You didn’t base that character on my father did you? (they are old friends)…did you?
There was too, of course, the intelligentsia in full force (with the plum version of vowels); Ian McEwan with Nutshell… ‘I am upside down inside of a woman…’ and comments about his character being in the unusual position of having his father’s rival’s penis an inch from his face (the story is told from the POV of the fetus and his mother is having an affair). Sebastian Faulks on psychiatry and war…I don’t think he blames us psychiatrists for war but I can’t be sure. Less well known, a heart-warming session about two books written about fathers with autistic children (based on their lives for all the fiction label)—Shtum by Jem Lester (just finished reading it—this is about the hard end of nonverbal incontinent autism, but defines what true parental love really is) and The Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart, a more feel good but equally authentic take on parenting special children. This was chaired by Graeme Simsion (Rosie Project/Effect, The Best of Adam Sharp) who also appeared in his own session (and a late night reading) with Gavin Extence (The Universe versus Alex Woods and others); the later another wonderful take on autism which won loads of prizes. Gavin did the bar…oops I mean reading crawl with us…a brief reprieve from caring for a 2 and 4 year old!
In the midst of all this my session was a tad more clinical…and I was there more as a Professor of Psychiatry than for Medea’s Curse and Dangerous to Know but I managed to sell a few books anyway…and even if I hadn’t, the magic of walking around Cheltenham, wandering into tents with 1600 others (Jilly Copper’s event!) or the more exclusive Writer’s room with my red arm band…was worth it. The enthusiasm of the attendees, and even the shop assistants seeing my band and asking what I had written and hurriedly writing it down…well the book isn’t dead yet!