Between a Heckler and a Hardback

Who on earth dreamed up the book festival? Putting authors on stage seems, on the face of it, bizarre. Unlike stand-up or tap-dancing, writing books is not a performance art. Go to a comedy show or a concert and you will see people perform. Go to a literary festival and you will see people talk about performing. Perhaps this is just as well: writing, like other bodily functions, is at the best of times dull, at the worst messy and preferably executed in private.

So why this fascination with authors? Would you pay an estate agent to tell you how he sold his last house? Of course not. You’d pay him not to. Perhaps it’s because story-telling is such a fundamental art, requiring no tools beyond words. Everyone uses words, which makes being a writer a bit of a swizz. Nonetheless it’s a job which is held in pleasantly high esteem, despite requiring no training or qualifications whatsoever and despite the fact that most people suspect (often quite rightly) that the only thing separating themselves from published authors is a dollop of luck. Part of that luck, of course, involves the manuscript finding just the right reader at just the right moment, but part – and I would like to think the greater part – involves stumbling on the magic that turns mere words into stories. Is this why people go to book festivals – to catch that magic? But it’s an elusive thing; try to pin it down and it slips elsewhere.

As I stepped, eight years ago, into the Bedouin village that is Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square for my very first book festival, I wished that I, too, could slip elsewhere. I had just written a book called The Mum Shop and to my great surprise I had been invited to hold an event at this granddaddy of literary shindigs. In other words, thanks to one slim and rather frivolous volume, I had gone from being someone completely anonymous and dull to someone so famous and fascinating that a tentful of people could be expected to pay real money to listen to me talk for a whole hour.

I am not one of life’s extroverts. At parties I hold quiet, almost clandestine one-to one conversations in corners and I prickle with cold sweat at the mere thought of telling a joke. Yet now I was called upon to amuse a whole crowd of complete strangers for 60 minutes. I ask you – if I could be funny by the simple expedient of opening my mouth, would I go through the tortuous (and may I say appallingly remunerated) ordeal of writing books?

My ever-lurking doubt that anyone would listen to me if they had a choice in the matter was magnified a hundredfold in Edinburgh, where of course my audience would be children – children who had been dragged away from all the much more interesting things going on outside, children who knew I could not hope to provide excitement on the same scale as legendary street entertainer Big Al Katraz unless I performed with my head in a shark-infested tank and my hands cuffed behind my back.

Anyhow, into my tent they all trooped, not quite kicking and screaming but not racing forwards with irrepressible joy either. They took their seats, I was introduced, and we were off.

Of course I had a heckler. Like most hecklers, he sat directly before me, in the centre of the front row, with his arms crossed. Unlike most hecklers, he was 5½. In a doomed attempt to warm up my audience I chatted about the main character in The Mum Shop, pointing him out on the book cover. ‘This is Oli,’ I told them brightly. ‘Is anyone here called Oli?’

‘No,’ replied a firm voice.

I looked down in surprise at the speaker. He was extremely small, but wore an expression of grim tenacity that was positively Churchillian. If there were any Olis in the audience, none of them would dare admit it now.

I struggled foolishly on. ‘Oli has a friend called Skipjack. Are there any—‘

‘NO!’ My nemesis shook his head categorically. ‘Read the book,’ he commanded.

Needless to say there was no sign of a handler in the tent who could restrain this monster with a lead and muzzle or, better still, a rubber bullet. Defeated, I began reading.

Now, The Mum Shop is about a boy who swaps his mother in the hope that her replacement will be a big improvement. This notion had gone down a storm at the primary school where I had held my maiden outing: within seconds of my introducing the theme, a forest of hands had shot up from children eager to be given the exact address of the nearest Mum Shop.

Transfer this to Edinburgh, where the back row of my tent was filled with parents of female gender all paying close attention, and you begin to see my problem, viz an instant dampener on any cosy conversations I was hoping to have with the kids about how much fun it would be to exchange their mothers for less appalling alternatives.

Reader, I died. Up there on stage, with 17 minutes still to go. Those 17 minutes remain, thankfully, a blur; I only dimly remember a kind festival helper coming to my aid and inviting questions from the few adults in the audience whom I hadn’t alienated with my subject matter. Suffice to say it was the second most embarrassing event of my life, only narrowly beaten by an Argyll Ball many moons ago to which I wore a strapless dress. Unfortunately for half of the Reel of the 51st Division I only nearly wore the strapless dress, a subtle but important difference which none of the long row of subalterns in my set felt the need to bring to my attention. I now view with extreme caution any invitation to venture north of the Tartan Curtain: these things come in threes.