Summer 2009

Best thing this month for me was the London Book Fair where, to my astonishment, I was “Author of the Day” on the Wednesday. I had thought there must be dozens of us, one for every publisher showing off their new books to booksellers from all over the world. But there were only three, one for each of the days of the fair. And the other two were James Patterson who sells more books than anyone else in the world and the wonderful Vikram Seth, garnerer of countless literary prizes.

How I came to be in such a line up I have absolutely no idea and I don’t want to ask. Maybe no other publisher put forward a woman?  

Anyway, I had a ball. I was shepherded around the fair to sign books, was interviewed live in front of an audience by the lovely Matthew Fort who is a great friend and asked me all the questions I wanted him to, had my picky taken clutching copies of Choral Society and standing between giant posters of Prue Leith and Vickram Seth, and was the guest of honour at a cracking good lunch (catered for by my old company who have the contract at Earls Court) for foreign publishers looking for English translation rights, and ended up on the stage at a sort of literary closing ceremony given by the London Book Fair people. It was an ego-trip I will never forget and will certainly not be given again. Thank you Quercus

I’d never been to a trade book fair before and it was completely fascinating. The main Earls Court arena was as you would expect – full of huge publishers stands stuffed full of books. I had no idea that there were specialist publishers dealing in nothing but fishing books, or bird books, or maps, or archaeology, or inventions or photography.  Name a subject, however esoteric, and there’s a publisher for it.  

And then I saw the Espresso book machine in action. This looks like (and indeed is) a giant printer into which you put the CD of a book typescript and after a bit of whirring and humming, out comes a bound book, still warm like a new laid egg. Apparently Blackwells and Foyles have already bought an Espresso, and so readers or scholars wanting an out-of-print or obscure book can order one then and there. And I guess it will be a gift for writers who are unable to find a publisher.

But most astonishing of all was what goes on upstairs. The entire first floor, as big as the exhibition space downstairs and as far as the eye could see  was full of tiny booths, each with a desk and chairs, and all of them occupied by  agents doing deals with publishers, and publishers doing deals with distributors.

Who says the printed book is dying?

On the book front, it seems odd to be dashing around publicising just-out Choral Society when I have nearly finished writing the next one. If you can stand anymore about my life and writing and this book, click here for press articles and reviews.  I think I’ve only got two chapters to go, and it is due in to Quercus next month. And then they will take as long to publish it as I have to write it – 9 months so it should come out in Feb next year.  Providing they like it. Right now I’ve no idea if it is any good at all. Maybe you could tell me?  Click here to read first chapter – still in draft I warn you.

On the school food front, I went to visit the brilliant Cowes Primary school on the Isle of Wight. It was amazing. They do everything right. The food is delicious, the children help in the kitchen and they eat what they are given and love it. They all learn to cook, they grow vegetables and herbs, they keep chickens and sell the eggs. They’ve made friends with the old-age home next door and the children visit the residents. The school has appropriated a big chunk of the home’s garden for growing and composting and for their big commercial polytunnel which they use for salads.   (pictures to follow - please look again)

The children give names to their laying hens, but they also rear chickens and lambs for the table and they don’t give them names. I think it is wonderful that they are taught to rear animals kindly but the fact that they will be killed for food is not hidden from them.  

On the day that I was there the school playground had been taken over for the local farmers market and some of the children were helping on the stalls, selling bread and jams. A group of eight year olds were being questioned by the vegetable grower about the produce on his stall. They could identify absolutely everything including growing herbs like coriander and basil, vegetables like turnip, kohl-rabi and purple sprouting broccoli. It was a joy to watch.

This was a very different visit from the last time I was on the Isle of Wight. That must have been in the early seventies and I was a guest of Max Aitken, then the boss of the Beaverbrook empire. He was nuts about sailing and had a famous racing yacht called Drumbeat. I was so excited at being invited for the weekend by such a grandee that I failed to mention that I am terrified of the sea, hate sailing and get seasick. Most of the time I left them to it and stayed on dry land.

On the Saturday evening there was a dinner party and I found myself sitting next to Ted Heath, then Prime Minister and of course, champion sailor. He was not much good at dinner party chat and I was awed into silence by his position, so things were a bit sticky. Then Max announced, in an effort to give the PM something to talk to me about “Prue is a great cook you know Ted, talk to her nicely and she might make your breakfast.”  To which Ted replied, without a glimmer of humour, “Well, thank you, I will have half a grapefruit, a three-and-a-half-minute boiled egg and one slice of wholemeal toast please.”

So midnight found me and Max’s then girlfriend, neither of us exactly sober, scouring the town for a grapefruit and wholemeal bread, “for the Prime Minister’s breakfast.” We succeeded in the end.

So, very pleased with myself, I arrived at the PM’s door at 7 am, grapefruit perfectly segmented, toast in a napkin, egg exactly 3.5 mins, coffee, transistor radio for him to check the sailing weather. But I was stopped by the policeman outside the door who insisted on taking the radio to bits in case I was a bomber.  I expect the egg was overcooked if not cold by the time I delivered it.  But all apologies went out of my head as the Head of State heaved his fleshy white torso out of the sheets. Not a pretty sight. But at least I can now say I know Ted Heath did not wear pyjamas. Well, not pyjama tops anyway.