For some reason,probably to do with my own technical incompetence, every update here since the end of April has disappeared somewhere into the ether. That means, ooh, two things have vanished at least.
I’m just returned from a brief jaunt to Edinburgh where I put in an appearance at the book festival. So, in order that visitors here don’t think, ooh, the lazy sod, he’s not updated his website since April, and because every newspaper and website is chock-full with people’s ‘Edinburgh diaries’, here is my Edinburgh Diary for Friday 28 August.
12.40pm. I’m standing at the bus stop at the end of my road. I’m on the coast in the north of Dublin and feeling entirely underprepared. For various reasons, instead of making my leisurely way to Edinburgh in the morning, wandering around, drinking the free whisky in the author’s yurt, holding forth about my favourite subject – myself – in front of a bored and comatose audience for an hour before exploring a couple of pubs with my pal Pat, an old friend from London now living in Edinburgh, and falling into bed in a swanky hotel (in the modern travel vernacular, an ‘Embra-cation’, if you like), I shall be zipping in by plane, collected by car and raced through the streets hopefully in time for my 5pm talk, then whisked back to the airport and be tucked up in my own Dublin bed around midnight. It’s going to be a challenge, all right.
1.00pm. The bus drops me in central Dublin. One of the main things I’ve noticed since decamping here from London is that nearly everyone here thanks the bus driver when they get off. Almost without exception. It’s a terrific thing. It’s a small, perhaps insignificant detail, but one that adds to why I feel so at home here. I walk up O’Connell Street and wait for the airport bus.
1.15pm. The airport bus arrives. I’m first on, niftily outmanoeveuring the tourists and their luggage with some fancy footwork and a little light use of the elbow. It’s half an hour to the airport and there’s reading to be done. My co-speaker Madeline Bunting’s book arrived only recently and I’ve only had the chance to skim-read it so far. I want to spend this journey at least getting to grips with more of the salient points. I’m on the upper deck, front right and there’s one of those dark, heavy, doze-buzzing flies knocking against the window in front of me for the whole journey. A similar sensation, in fact, to that experienced by people attending my events.
1.45pm. We arrive at the airport and I’ve still got the fly-drone sound in my mind. I am, however, more au fait with Madeline’s book and the sense of panic starts to recede.
1.46pm. The sense of panic suffers a resurgence when I realise that I’ve been so worried about reading Madeline’s book that I’ve not really thought about what I’m going to say about mine.
2.00pm. I’m through security. My flight’s at 3.20 and it’s on time. It’s Ryanair though, so anything could happen yet. I note also that the gate is D80, the furthest departure gate of the entire airport. Another 100 yards away and it could probably qualify as the first gate at Belfast airport.
2.20pm. I pass through the deceptively swanky D section with its open spaces, high windows, coffee emporia and friezes of literary quotations and descend to the D73-D80 cavern, the lost world of Dublin airport. Seemingly comprised of around two dozen portacabins placed in grid form with the walls knocked through, this must be the most soul-sapping place in the world. The constant smell of the toilets. The utter lack of any redeeming features, absolutely nothing to make the wait in any way pleasant. The maze of ceiling pipework, visible presumably on the grounds that they’re functional, and the gate numbers, invisible presumably on the grounds they are not.
2.45pm. With a good half hour still to go before boarding, one person walks up and stands by the gate itself. Within a minute, a minute populated by an orgy of fumbling, rustling, uncrossing of legs and gathering of newspapers, everyone else has stood up and formed a queue, all trying equally hard to look utterly nonchalant while doing so. Having nothing but my shoulderbag, not to mention years of Ryanair departure gate experience, I’m second in line in the priority queue. See ya on the other side, suckers.
3.10pm. We’re boarding. I’m second on and have the entire plane to choose from. Given the tight schedule, if I had any kind of cop-on I’d have sat near the front for a speedy exit. Or the back, in the event of rear stairs being employed at the other end. But no, I sit right in the middle, over the wing. Duh.
3.20pm. We’re off, on time. I pull out my copy of And Did Those Feet and think again about how it’s not a great title. I read the introduction and reinvigorate my passion for history and its dispensing in an accessible, entertaining way. Being Edinburgh, I figure I should talk about one of the Scottish journeys. Madeline’s book is about a single acre of land in Yorkshire belonging to her father, a story of startling family and social history borne out of a seemingly mundane plot of land. Hence I pick out the passage where I meet old Jim in Sanquhar and he walks me through the entire history of the town, as it seems to fit in with the whole thing quite nicely. I try and think up a joke about the supposed American boycott of Scotland, but before it’s fully-formed we’re landing.
4.30pm. Half an hour before the talk begins, and ten minutes after the recorded fanfare announces the flight’s on time, and I’m still sitting in my seat while everyone slowly gets off. Eventually I’m away and down the steps and walking briskly through the terminal. As I charge through the EU Arrivals channel and through the door there’s a grey-haired man in a suit standing there holding up a piece of paper with my name on it. I walk up to him so quickly I almost knock him backwards.
4.40pm. When I tell Billy the driver I’m on at 5, the blood all but drains from his face. We’re racing as fast as possible through the rush-hour traffic. Billy has arranged that someone from the festival will be waiting to whisk me straight in, while also fielding calls from another driver waiting for Margaret Atwood at Waverley station. More phonecalls reveal that Margaret Atwood isn’t coming until tomorrow.
4.58pm. We draw up outside the festival. The organiser is there waiting for me, as is the sound man who, as we walk briskly towards the tent, inserts a battery pack into my inside jacket pocket (which must have seemed to onlookers like the most brazen bit of pickpocketing ever) and clips a microphone to my lapel. In a minute we’re at the door of the marquee. I peer into the gloom; there’s a sizeable audience, not full but certainly not far off.
5.00pm. Madeline arrives from the authors’ yurt, with the chair of our session who turns out to be Bob, who chaired me when I was here in 2005 talking shipping forecast. A thoroughly nice bloke, it’s good to see him again. I recognise Madeline from her Guardian website byline picture; it’s a shame we didn’t get to have a pre-event chat – down entirely to my unavoidably late arrival – but I’m sure things will be fine.
5.02pm. We walk from the gloom onto the stage and into the lights. The session goes very well. Madeline opens talking about her book and reads a short extract, then it’s me. I stand up and insist on taking a picture of me with the audience in order to prove I made it despite the transport and time pitfalls:
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My, in hindsight, shockingly toadying, barely-formed American boycott joke dies on its arse. Whoops. I ramble on about how history is alive and around us and tie it in to Madeline’s book and move on to the passage where I meet Jim. I’ve probably gone on too long. Bob asks us both intelligently devised questions, and there are a few from the floor – including one questioner inviting Madeline and I to dinner – and the whole shebang seems to pass off successfully. There’s warm and generous applause. Edinburgh book festival audiences are always kind.
6.05pm. Madeline and I are seated at a table in the signing tent. This is my favourite bit, actually getting to talk to people rather than at them. I know many authors don’t like doing events – and there is a curious assumption that because you can string words together in a book you are automatically going to be a highly effective public speaker, when the solitary, quiet activity of writing couldn’t be further away – but I love it. When it comes to the signings there’s always a danger that you’ll end up like Spinal Tap in the hands of Artie Fufkin, but thankfully there’s a healthy line of people. Some even have all four of my Little Brown books in a pile waiting to be signed. People thank ME for coming, when the thanks are due entirely the other way around. My friend Pat shows up; I’d left his name on the door but he’d arrived five minutes late and they’d not let him in. “Then my phone rang and it was a bloke in Ireland who bored me for half an hour,” he says. So he had the same experience he would have done in the tent anway.
6.30pm. Signing done and Pat and I are in the authors’ yurt. I take healthy advantage of the free whisky, we have a chat with Roland the organiser, and then we’re off around the corner to the Oxford pub. I text my friend Melissa, who lives in Edinburgh and who has been a penpal of some four years but we’ve never actually met, and she’s on her way. Alas the car to the airport is due at eight so not much time for being sociable. Melissa joins Pat and I briefly, it’s strange hearing her say ‘nice to meet you’ when we’ve corresponded for nearly four years.
8.30pm. Back at the airport and in a long, and unmoving, check-in queue. A man in a fluorescent vest claps his hands and announces the computers aren’t working, and they’re getting them fixed. It doesn’t matter a great deal as it emerges that the flight’s delayed until midnight anyway. I spend the evening at the bar. I’d asked Madeline to inscribe my book, and when I look she’s thanked me for a ‘pleasant conversation’. Which sums up the event nicely, I think.
12.15am. Finally we board. Exhausted and with the airport to ourselves. The place has distributed thousands around the globe today, which makes the emptiness even more striking. Aer Lingus generously offer free onboard tea and coffee but I don’t want anything that will help even slightly to keep me awake any longer than necessary.
1.00am We land at Dublin. I emerge into the night and take a taxi home, a young woman driving and her cab festooned with Catholic imagery and Chelsea memorabilia in equal measure.
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