I often used to wonder what authors did before they turned up at signings, how strange and wonderful their lives were, and I suppose now, to a certain extent, I know.
I travelled to Kew Gardens yesterday, to talk at the Queen’s School (not at the plants), and on the way, my mind seemed to unravel a series of curious thoughts.
As I cycled to the station, it was barely dawn, all mystery and foxy as my wife would say. The trees gathered in darkness, with low lying mist wrapped around their roots, made me imagine Cambridge as it was hundreds of years ago, before the houses were built: a tangled woodland ringing with nightingale song, perhaps.
My part of Cambridge is near to Cherry Hinton and I wondered if the straggly old cherry trees, some now cornered in suburban gardens, remembered the old days of the Great Wood that legend says stretched from one end of these isles to the next, so that a squirrel could spring from Land’s End to John O’Groats without touching the ground.
On the train I looked out of the window and saw a jet trail, but imagined it as a vast, crystalline, sky-ranging, serpentine, sea-horse-like creature – possibly because I had been listening to Peter Serafinowicz’s Radio 6 podcast in which he describes alternate life on earth (in the voice of David Attenborough).
“This creature’s name would take a human being hundreds of years to pronounce, but for our purposes we’ll call it an alternate elephant - although its closest relative in our dimension is probably a robin. Truly one of alternate nature’s giants – so big it has its own sun and moon orbiting in a triple nine formation. But it’s also so small it’s in constant danger of being crushed… by atoms. It’s favorite meal is Time, and indeed in one sitting this elephant can devour 20,000 years in just under a second.’
Magical stuff. Check out his Radio 6 podcast on Joy of Six. http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/th
After this my mind turned to my talk – partly about monsters. Should I mention Grendel, one of the first literary monsters, from Beowulf? The strange thing about this story, is that after the hero kills the creature he has to face… Grendel’s mother! This is a formula that not many subsequent stories have followed. Imagine the hero putting a stake through Dracula’s heart, only to hear the vampire gasp out, with his final dusty breath ‘you fools, you have not won! Now you must face… my mum!’
Arriving at Queen’s School, Kew, the sense of unreality was heightened by the fact that everyone – staff and pupils alike – were dressed as children’s book characters. Strange remarks could be heard from the corridors, like: ‘Oh no, I’ve broken my tail!’
Photos of previous school visitors in the reception included a NASA astronaut and Colin Firth. Helium balloons surrounded the stage where I was due to give my talks, with Pooh and Tigger already waiting patiently.
I talked about Candle Man in the morning (Not mentioning Grendel’s mum), then in the afternoon showed one of my epsiodes of Shaun the Sheep to the infants.
Me: “Shaun stories are about 7 minutes long – how long do you think it takes a team of grown men and women to make them?”
Child: (after some thought) “EIGHT minutes!”
In the heady atmosphere of nostalgia and anything seeming possible, even the school dinner smelt delicious, but as my wife texted to warn me – it probably smelt better than it tasted. During my book-signing in the library, I had to make do with four bakewell tarts instead – or is that just fantasy too..?
Happy World Book Day, and thanks to the Queen’s School for a great day.