My first book is now published. It’s a tragi-comedy about breast cancer. I’ve just got back from America, where I was carrying copies of it around in a beach-bag, trying to sell it to a New York publisher. In the Random House building, there were over twenty elevators, and a publisher on almost every floor. I ricocheted up and down, darting into offices without appointments, leaving my book like a cuckoo laying eggs. In one office a friendly black receptionist gave me a copy of Caroline Blackwood’s account of the Duchess of Windsor and her French lawyer, Maître Blum. The girl dismissed my interest in a history of the Harlem Renaissance, repeating how much she loved the book on the Duchess. I read it all night on the plane back, every now and then bursting out laughing.
After sleeping for a few hours I rang my editor. He told me not to be so manic, then said that an extract from the book was appearing in a Sunday newspaper in two days’ time. How can I not be manic?
The next day I met the poet Michael Horowitz in the local health-food shop. The last time I bumped into him, in the same place a few months before, I was about to deliver my completed manuscript. Today, I asked him to my launch party.
‘Maybe I could review your book,’ he said.
‘That would be wonderful. Thanks very much.’
‘I’m doing a benefit for poets,’ he said, ‘at the Albert Hall. Do you think you could contribute?’
‘I might, send me the details.’ He produces a squashed tin of animal food from behind his back.
‘Have you got a cat?’ he asks. Does he want my opinion on this particular brand of animal health food, or what?
‘No,’ I reply, ‘we’ve got a dog. He likes that food, though.’ He then hands me the tin as a present. What am I supposed to do now? Is he going to review my book or do I first have to contribute to his benefit? There should be a guide for new authors about this sort of thing.
I am to have Sunday lunch with two characters in my book, Paolo and Emily. I have terrible jet-lag and oversleep till 1.15. I’m woken by Paolo on a car-phone. He sounds excited.
‘We’ve just seen the extract in today’s Observer and the awful photograph of you! We’re arriving at your house in ten minutes to take you to lunch.’
I am still in a nightdress when they arrive a few minutes later. Emily, true to her fictional character, charges through the front door and orders me to open a bottle of wine. Luckily I have one in the fridge. ‘I didn’t know you found me so attractive!’ Paolo says proudly. He is referring to a sentence in the newspaper extract, where I describe how a character (loosely based on himself) visited me in hospital: ‘I find his hairy masculine body sitting on my bed comforting.’ Unfortunately they left the newspaper at home.
We ring up a local restaurant. The clocks went forward last night and it is now 2.30, not 1.30, as I had thought. While we’re waiting for our first course, Paolo kindly goes off to buy me a copy of the Observer.
In the photograph I look fat, unattractive and extremely ill. The subtitle of the piece, ‘When Death Was at My Breast’, makes me seem like the heroine of a Victorian novel who’s about to die of TB.
Both my editor and Jill in the publicity department are going on holiday, just before my book comes out. Why, I ask myself, do they both have to be away at the same time? Are they going to elope? I feel very insecure. Before I went to America, Jill spent all her time promoting Hanif Kureishi and that Black Album of his. My editor kept saying: ‘Don’t ring Jill, she’s busy.’ Eventually, I told him sourly that Hanif Kureishi didn’t need promoting; it’s we new authors who need it, who aren’t famous.
The next day I went to my therapist. I took a bound copy of the book to show her. She got rather excited and tried to open it to find mentions of herself but I grabbed it away. I said once she’d read one extract about herself she’d want to read all the others and this would take up my whole session. She then asked about the book launch. Could she bring a writer friend, a woman fifteen years younger than me? I had to agree. As I wrote her out a cheque at the end she kept saying what a good writer this friend is. Apparently she has had several articles published in the better-known glossy magazines. Surely it is rather tactless of my therapist to praise this other woman’s achievements in my hour of glory? By the end of it I was ready to kick her.
Later in the day I talk to Jill on the phone. She and my editor are not going to elope. She’s going to Glasgow to visit a friend; he is taking the whole week off to write a review of the new Martin Amis novel. What with Hanif Kureishi and Martin Amis it’s surprising I have any confidence left. On Thursday morning I went to see Jill at the Polish Club. This is where I’ll have the launch party. I insisted on having it here, rather than at the publishers’ office, though it will be much more expensive. Jill felt sorry for me when she found out what my contribution would be. I myself nearly collapsed, and Jill said she’d try to get the publishers to fork out a bit more. She kindly asked if I’d realised what the cost of the party would be. I said I’d made a wild guess but hadn’t really faced up to it until now.
But there is good news. A journalist from one of the national papers wants to interview me next week. I’ve also been asked to appear on a TV programme called This Morning, On the appointed day, I will be collected in a limousine at 6 a.m. from my house, taken to Heathrow Airport and flown to Manchester. It’s presented by a couple called Richard and Judy. I’d better watch the programme tomorrow morning.
For several nights now I’ve only had a few hours’ sleep. I’m hysterical. Is this what it’s like to be famous? No wonder Stephen Fry tried to escape across the Channel. The woman in charge of the television programme rings up. Would I be prepared to take a phone-in from women suffering from breast cancer? I say I’m not too keen on the idea as I’m not medically qualified and don’t want to let these women down by not being able to provide adequate answers. She tells me this doesn’t matter; there’ll also be a doctor on the panel. She suggests having an actress read from my book. It looks like I will have to come up on the 4 p.m. train Thursday night. (There is no further mention of a limousine.)
Going up by train means I will miss Quiz Night at my friend Jacob’s local pub in Sidcup. My 13-year-old daughter and 1 were going to be on his team. Jacob – a character in my book – has a terrible inferiority complex. If I cancel the Quiz Night to be on TV he’s bound to say I’ve become too grand to go to Sidcup. I rang my editor and told him I had watched the programme. I warned him that I was going to shout ‘big kiss to my editor’ on national television. He seemed both pleased and embarrassed. I am finding it difficult to combine domestic duties with my new professional life of possible media appearances. My 11-year-old son is obsessed with making money. He guesses that I’m not working on my next book as I should be: I’m too distracted. He keeps monitoring my movements and each afternoon when he returns from school he asks: ‘Have you earned any money today?’ I have to say no. I now spend most of each day on the telephone worrying about whether my book will get reviewed. And then I start wondering whether it will be on the radio, and so on.
A ghastly journey down to Sussex for the weekend. It started off with my son leaving his radio behind. We were on our way to a cinema in the King’s Road when he discovered this. We’d gone there to pick up my daughter, who was there with her history class at school to watch The Madness of King George. I said we couldn’t go back for the radio as we were late and he’d already been rude to me. My son started hitting me in the car. By the time we got there, my daughter was standing outside the cinema on her own. My son went on hitting me until we parked near the Chelsea Pensioners and got a taxi to Victoria.
He went to a different part of the train from us. My daughter and I and the dog sat down. After about twenty minutes I went up the train to see where he was. He was talking very intently to a grey-haired woman whom I recognised. I think she is a fishmonger and drives a pony and trap at weekends. He looked absolutely sweet. Why can’t he be like this with us? I stared at him through the glass partition for some time.
My friend Duncan was already there when we got to the house in Sussex. He had driven from his brother’s house in Berkshire at dawn. I told him at once about being on TV. He said he was very jealous. My daughter is horrified. She said the presenters of This Morning are very patronising. Also if I mention sex on the screen and one of her teachers is ill and happens to be watching, she will be humiliated for life.
On Saturday I went to lunch with Mrs Mortimer, another of the characters in my book. She is 76. As soon as I walked through her front door she declared: ‘The book I’m really looking forward to is the one your ex-husband has just reviewed in the Spectator, Caroline Blackwood’s on the Duchess of Windsor.’ I couldn’t hold back: ‘Really Mary, shouldn’t you be saying you’re looking forward to my book?’ Mrs Mortimer seemed stunned by my new assertiveness. I said to her that I felt like a child who’d never had a birthday party. Now at last I was having one and I wanted to shout: ‘Me, me, me. It’s my turn!’ I added that my buried resentment about years spent watching my friends and ex-husband getting published had finally got to me. Duncan looked at me: ‘Your buried resentment? It doesn’t seem that buried to me.’
I am sick with nerves and still have dreadful insomnia. I have rung Emily and Miranda (both in my book) and begged them for sleeping pills. Miranda offered me a knockout pill and said she was going to drop it off at my house in an envelope but it never appeared (she later explained that all her pills had been used on her cousin, who is publishing his first book). My friend Larissa phoned and said there was an interview with me in the Bookseller. I went round and collected it. The interview and photo made me look cheerful and funny, thank God. Before I left I boastfully showed Larissa an extract that appeared in a newspaper, another extract from the new Waterstone’s magazine, and a favourable puff about me in Book News. When I pressed this last thing on her, her eyes glazed over and she started going on about Michael Palin, whose photo was on the same page. But she said that she was euphoric for weeks after being on television. She was sure I would enjoy it.
Later that evening I discovered I was not going to be on television. Two women have been chosen instead of me, because theirs is a ‘hot’ news story. They have both had mastectomies and think they had radiotherapy unnecessarily. They are going to sue. I rang up Emily and told her. She said I must ring my publishers immediately and get them to argue with the TV station. The girl who’s taken over from Jill in Publicity this week rang them at once, then phoned me back. She said although she had pointed out that it would be good to have me on with these women, as my comic approach would be a contrast to their plight, the TV people were adamant about showing only these other women’s gruesome story.
I waste the next morning watching This Morning again. The two women who have upstaged me are called Lady Ironside and Mrs Patch. Lady Ironside, who wore a scarlet jacket similar to the one I might have worn, said that as a result of radiotherapy she was in severe and constant pain, her collar-bone was dead, her ribs fractured easily, she had gross swelling – and she had had no warning whatsoever that this might happen. She also said the worst thing was not being told the truth. A doctor, sitting beside them, was very sympathetic but he said that only three out of 15 hundred women were likely to develop this problem. There was a cancer phone-in, and a cheerful blonde American woman talked about her own experience and advised women, when they visited their doctors, to ask all the questions they wanted and make a list of them in advance. In reply to one woman’s phoned-in question, she said there was no point in thinking ‘if’. One must take each day as it comes. ‘You mean,’ said Richard, the presenting Other Half, ‘don’t jump your fences before you come to them?’ I’m very hurt not to be on. Two hours later, I decided television was a vulgar medium. My editor rang up saying that I was going to be on World of Books, something far more highbrow.
A few days later I was on TV after all, not the This Morning show with Richard and Judy but the Good Morning show with Anne and Nick. I had to go to Birmingham at very short notice and stay in the Angus Thistle hotel. The first lap of my life as a star was ruined by intense guilt as I sped along the Euston Road in the BBC limousine – yes a limousine after all – and saw a man sitting on the pavement holding up a large sign saying ‘Homeless’.
I diverted myself by talking brightly to the driver, a trained landscape gardener. I asked him how far the limousine was prepared to go to pick TV guests up. He thought it depended on their importance. He had recently been down to Dorset to pick up a couple of Holocaust survivors. My guilt was somewhat alleviated when I heard this.
When I arrived at the hotel I found that I had forgotten my toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. Also I had brought two red shoes for the same foot, not only that but they weren’t even the same shoes, although they were both red. I felt rather homesick and after ordering beef strips with shallots (‘Charlottes?’ said the girl at reception sweetly) I rang Duncan at his parents’ house in Crowthorne. He was about to go off to a pub in Windsor.
The next morning, I put on the skirt lent to me by Emily. (My own three-quarter length black skirt was at the cleaners and my daughter had confiscated my short black one, shouting ‘Mutton dressed as lamb!’ a phrase which went straight into my son’s vocabulary.) Emily’s skirt had a slit right up the side. I should have known. I had to put it on. Two of the guests with me in the hospitality lounge at the Pebble Mill studio show were a man who was going to talk about women’s violence towards men and a two-year-old child prodigy from Sheffield who could recognise and name all different makes of cars and who had talked at nine months. (The effect of this was ruined when he became over-lively and his father said: ‘Let’s get your dummy, son.’)
Just before I went on one of the cameramen pointed out a ladder in my tights which went right up the side of my slit skirt. I said I would pull the skirt over my knees while being interviewed by Anne and Nick. I did just that.
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