My friend Paige sent me something written by Adam Mansbach about how depressing it is to give a book reading when only four people turn up.
I read the piece the way any occasional author would read it: that heady mixture of squirming horror and suppressed giggling at the fate of another that is the particular emotional speciality of writers, and the jiggling relief that I’ve found an upside to having not written a book since 2006: if you haven’t written it, it can’t break your heart.
But then the giggle froze on my lips as I remembered something, and I thought: wait, you’re complaining about four people at your reading? Listen, buster, four’s a feast, it’s a flash mob. Four people is a Bieber concert or a Wolf of Wall Street orgy. If it’s real horror you want, drop by the Exclusive Books Children’s Festival circa 2007.
Some years ago I wrote a book called SuperZero, about a small boy who suspects he might be a superhero, and it burst upon the literary scene like a soft bread-roll falling into a basket of laundry. To promote it I undertook a whistle-stop tour of my lounge, which went very well, but then, as part of a cruel experiment called the Children’s Festival of Reading, I was asked to give a talk at the Hyde Park Exclusive Books. I agreed, for the reason I agree to anything – out of sheer slow-wittedness and surprise that someone asked.
Over a period of days I devised a speech to convulse a roomful of 12-year-olds with helpless laughter. “This chap is really something!” they would nudge each other and agree. “We must pester our parents into buying his entire oeuvre! As of now, he has a loyal fan base for life!” I considered wearing shorts on the day for added relateability, but when you’re a grown man writing for children you’re a suspicious enough character without going out of your way to resemble a scoutmaster.
It was scheduled for 9.30am that Saturday and I went in early to inspect the scene of my future triumph. Beanbags had been laid out for the early birds; latecomers would have to stand. There was a microphone to carry my voice to the back of the crowd, where eager youth would sshhh each other and jostle for a glimpse. “Join Darrel Bristow-Bovey for a morning of fantastical storytelling!” exhorted the posters, which gave me a twinge, but I was prepared for anything: if they wanted a story, they’d have one. If it was a wryly amusing description of the creative process they craved, by god, they’d have that too.
Nine o’clock came, and then 9.15. The beanbags huddled forlorn and empty. There is nothing sadder than a beanbag without a book-buyer in it. They seemed to sag and deflate under the dead weight of my hopes.
Exclusive Books had hired a photographer for the occasion. He eyed me as though I were responsible for the decline of his marriage.
“Don’t think I’ll be needing the wide-angle lens today,” he said. I understood why Sean Penn spent his younger years punching men with cameras.
I stood alone, a castaway in a wilderness of bean and bag. It was 9.27. In three minutes, if no one arrived, I could escape to sweet, sweet freedom.
At 9.28 a woman arrived dragging two of the most thuggish and unliterary brutes ever to darken the doors of a primary school. If those two don’t spend their free hours starting fires and torturing kittens then I don’t know children.
“Is this the fantastical storytelling?” she said.
“I’m leaving my kids.”
One of them was letting gobs of spit drop from his mouth and trying – with intermittent success – to catch them in his hands before they hit the floor.
“Madam,” I said, “this is not a babysitting service.”
“It said there’d be supervision.”
“It was cancelled.”
“Recently. Just now.”
She swore very loudly.
“Madam, please. Think of the children.”
It was 9.29 and I was about to flee when another woman came in with a small boy. He had a clean t-shirt tucked into neat shorts, and wore neat sandals. He was dressed for an outing, and I could see, with the certainty befitting the one whom it takes to know one, that no one at school thought he was cool.
The woman smiled hopefully. “Are you the writer?”
“No,” I said.
“This is my son Panayioti,” she said. “He loves books.”
“Mmmm, no, the writer went home.”
“At last!” yelled the photographer from across the store, with a most infuriating grin. “You’ve got an audience!”
So I had to pose for pictures standing beside Panayioti, grinning like some fraudulent Hans Christian Andersen, trying to imply by the tilt of my chin that multitudes were teeming just out of frame and Panayioti was merely the lucky winner of some delightful lottery.
“All right,” I said afterwards. “Nice to meet you, Panayioti.”
“Isn’t there a story?” said Panayioti shyly.
“Come on, man,” I said, defeated. “Look around. There’s no one else here. It’s just you and me.”
Panayioti gave me a look, and by god, I knew that look. It was a reader’s look, the look I had as a small booky boy without many friends yet. It was a look that may as well have said out loud: “But it’s a story. What do other people have to do with it? I’m alone when I read. You’re alone when you write. What else matters but the story?”
And I was still embarrassed and still ashamed and my ego was still curling up inside me like a slug under a shower of salt, but that look spoke a lot of truth.
And so his mom went for a cup of coffee, and I sat myself on a beanbag and Panayioti sat on one facing me so that our knees were almost touching, and I began: “Once upon a time .”
The Times, 20 January 2014