Literary love-in

It’s been a literary weekend at Cheltenham Festival for the oldest book event in the country.  As well as eating a lot of cake (and I mean a LOT), salivating over the superb shops of the region and marvelling at the fact that Cheltenham boasts the one remaining 80s clothing haven, dash (really…), there’s been a wealth of talks and readings from the great and the good of the book world.

To pass as a fully-fledged member of the literati, you first need to know how to pronounce your authors’ names.  Despite overhearing a few strange attempts over the weekend, I have gleaned a few pointers. I can proudly confirm that legendary children’s author and creator of Mog and The Tiger That Came to Tea, Judith Kerr’s surname is pronounced ‘car’. Birdsong author and literary stalwart Sebastian Faulks’ surname should rhyme with ‘smokes’.  If addressing novelist Louise Doughty (possibly the nicest author I have ever met) one should make sure one annunciates her name as ‘Dort-ty’.

Once armed with these basic tools, it was time to delve in. Jilly Cooper told Mariella Frostrup that she thinks that Boris Johnson looks as though he would be, “great fun in bed. Though I don’t think he’d fold his clothes up before or after”.  She then revealed a second lust – for Alastair Campbell. The ex-spin supremo told me (and I mean personally, swoon) that he was “flattered”, but “taken”.

Elsewhere, LA Confidential author James Ellroy offended his audience by telling a blue limerick, Alistair Darling was complimented on his sun-tan (but not his eyebrows) by a group of local children and Booker of Bookers winner Salman Rushdie compared Beowulf to the Super Mario brothers.

There was many a disappointed fan on Sunday as one time Lib Dem MP and some-time Cheeky Girl botherer, Lembit Opik, sent word that he would be pulling out of his talk to  launch his bid to be London Mayor. Boris and Ken must be quaking in their sensible shoes.

Finally, Martin Amis’ talk turned a little racier than intended with a frank discussion of sex in literature. It is, all conceded, far easier to write bad sex than to do it well (no pun intended). It’ll be interesting to find out Giles Coren’s take on this when he arrives at the festival on Friday. His debut novel Winkler won the annual Literary Review ‘bad sex’ award for colourful depictions of bodily unions and toe-curling descriptions, such as the section where he referred to a male character’s genitalia as, “leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath”. Oh my.

I’m off for a reviving cup of something. And perhaps some more cake.

The rehearsal

Off to a wedding in the US and looking forward to experiencing an authentic (probably) all-American do. This appears to include several extra components, not present in the traditional British ritual. These include the wedding shower, various brunches and lunches and a ‘rehearsal dinner’. I felt compelled to point out to the groom-to-be that I have been eating solids for dinner, unsupervised (and with little incident), for 30 years now. But this, it seems, is no excuse. I am to be fed the night before, on the day itself and the day after. I’ve told Northern Boy that he is likely to have the luxury of two seats to himself on the plane back to London the following day. I’ll need to be shipped home.


I feel a wave of emotion at the sight of my beloved sprawling suburbia. I am going home, back to damp, blue and green, dingy and wonderful England. We land just as Terminal Five is stirring into life for the day. Despite being nigh on deserted all night, it still smells of old sandwiches, stale coffee, porridge, TCP, glade, hairspray, deep heat, old people, dust and toffees. I inhale deeply, Ahh, England!
My sense of being home increases tenfold when I’m wedged between a yummy mummy and an elderly couple in the queue for passport control. Boden Mum is busy with her Blackberry for the entire 10 minutes I’m standing behind her, only turning around once to address her much-neglected progeny with a sharp, “Oliver! Put that crossword down and get out your passport!”
The older couple, liberal types with scarves, are debating the various merits of their friends.
“What’s Tom doing these days, I wonder? Still gay?”
“No, I heard he’s married now with children.”
“Oh! And he made such a fuss…”
Once I’ve been fully checked, screened, and welcomed back to the UK by the nice man at passport control, I set my phone to Greenwich meantime and head to the ‘Nothing to declare’ sign. I’m still trapped behind Boden Mum and Right-On Oldies and despite some fancy footwork, my adversaries seem to outwit me at my every impatient turn. Precocious Child is traversing with his Trunki so that I can’t overtake, and the Oldies can’t quite make up their mind which way they want to go. I calculate that I’m just about in time for the first tube so plan to head to Paddington. The day lies fresh and untrampled before me and I don’t intend to waste a moment of it.

The great escape

To paraphrase the musings of the great philosopher and X-Factor winner Joe McEdlerry, holidays aren’t necessarily about how fast you get there, or what’s waiting on the other side: ‘It’s the climb’. And sometimes that’s just about the plane taking off and finally feeling like you’re getting away from it all. There is nothing about flying that I don’t love, from the first time that your ears pop the moment you’re invited to liberate a paper from first class on the way out (did I say that out loud?), and so the adventure begins.
Once we’re flying at full altitude, the pilot gives us a warm welcome and points out that we’re now high enough to see the whole contour of the continent. “So if you’ve left something behind, it’s too late to go back and get it now!” he jokes over the tannoy. I laugh, the kind of laugh you only ever do on a plane – something about the lack of oxygen and the fact that the man making the wisecrack has your life in his hands.
The air conditioning is turned up to a ferocious level and I start digging around for a blanket. I know I’m going to need at least four of the scratchy specimens woven expertly from pure plastic.
A parody of normal life ensues, with the air stewards creating an ‘evening’ with trays of rectangular food and bad films on screens in the seat back, a whole five inches from my face. Then the lights are turned off and my fellow passengers start fishing out eye masks, slipper socks, and even complete pyjamas sets before lining up neatly to wash in miniscule cubicles.
I don’t realise that I’m asleep until I get woken up what feels like moments later by the scent of six-hour-old reheated eggs.
“Breakfast?” the stewardess asks me.
“It’s breakfast?” I angle my head to read my hairy neighbour’s watch and realise that a whole five hours have elapsed since my last feeding time. The cabin crew turns the lights on and acts all cheery, as though we should all be well-rested after a perfectly normal night’s sleep.
“Please fasten your seatbelts. Cabin crew, seats for landing.”
I see the airport silhouetted against a puffy, felt sky. And exhale, properly, for the first time in months.

Rock ‘n’ royalty

On a closed set in West London, cameras and lighting rigs are assembled to the strains of acid jazz and the contented munching of early morning bacon sandwiches. Padding around in a body-warmer, white jodhpurs and thick woolly socks (this is before she had her own clothing line – can you guess who it is yet?), a small blonde girl sips tea from a steaming mug. I’m at a photo shoot with esteemed photographer Mary McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul and sister of designer Stella. But the focus of the shoot isn’t rock royalty, it’s the real thing. “Do you want smiling or serious?” asks the blonde, flashing the whitest teeth I have ever seen. Zara Phillips is sporting immaculate blonde highlights and a glowing complexion only obtained from years of healthy outdoor living. She is sickeningly photogenic and all Mary has to do is point and fire. We get some great shots of Zara in front of the British flag, until someone asks whether the Union Jack is being held the right way up. There is a debate and it’s decided to consult Zara’s older brother, Peter who is loitering by the buffet table eating chips (“shh, don’t tell,” he mumbles through a mouthful of mashed potato: “I’m meant to be on a diet”). He looks at his sister and laughs: “That,” he says, pointing at the flag, “is upside down!” The chunky white stripe on the diagonal cross has to be on the top left-hand side, apparently. This is verified by examining the Union Jack cufflinks that Peter just happens to be wearing (that’s serious patriotism) and the situation is resolved. Peter holds up the flag, just out of shot, while his sister tried to suppress giggles and look sultry…*this is an extract from an interview with Zara Phillips. For more, read Royal Rebel, Zara Phillips*

Timing & Twinings

I am sitting at a table dominated by a tight bunch of fat cream roses that I inhale until I feel light-headed. The wooden floors have been buffed to gleaming, the tables are cloaked in white and the glassware has been polished to perfection (with vinegar, I suspect from my years of waitressing as a teenager). Uniformed staff hover in double-breasted blazers and shiny black shoes. I run my fingers over the beautifully laid table and grin uncontrollably. Admitting my fondness for white linen napkins and butter knives makes me feel about as rock and roll as Sue Barker but there you have it. I’m 30 and I get off on Radio 4 and tea from china cups.
“Would Madam like to order something while she waits for her guest?”
It’s been 25 minutes, I rationalise. They probably need me to order something. I can just share it when my ‘guest’ arrives. I try calling the number I’ve been given again but there’s no answer. And so, selflessly, I submit to my waiter’s recommendations.
I eat pinwheel sandwiches on cocktail sticks with an olive on the end and chase melon balls around a plate with my fork. I sip Lapsang Souchong and feel that satisfying burn as the tannin hits the sides of my tongue. I bite into something new and get an explosion of flavours. I identify chopped nuts, honey, cinnamon, and possibly bits of apple wrapped in a delicate filo pastry. I get slightly tingly all over at the egg-free praline chocolate slice (as if it’s the egg that’s going to make my thighs swell) and then eat a scone topped in half a centimetre of icing sugar. The sugar goes up my nose. I sneeze and drop the scone, sending a cloud of powder over my face. I begin to choke. I’m making such a racket that the lounge pianist pauses his rendition of Dido’s ‘Thank You’ (which amazingly still sounds crap even in crooner style) and sends over a waiter with some water. Spluttering, mortified, pink, but grateful, I sip at it. Suitably chastened and sobered-up from my sugar-high, I decide that perhaps conducting interviews over afternoon tea isn’t such a good idea. It’s far too distracting. After another 10 minutes, I resolve to leave. And no, my ‘guest’ never turns up.