If you are a novelist, it’s a fair bet that the finest words in the English language are “The End.” You’ve finished the damned thing, no more agonising about plot twists, how to spell miilleni…millennium, or whether we are now allowed to finish a sentence with a preposition. Yes, The End, in fact, is the beginning – the start of that wonderful period called between books.
But this can be shattered by what could well be regarded as the most dreadful words in the English language: “can you come and do a book signing?”
You can’t say no, of course. You must go and sit, like a constipated lemon, usually by a draughty doorway, for at least three hours while people brush past you on their way to buy books by wealthy toads like Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. You have to say yes because The Retailer is King and his Majesty has to be obeyed.
A typical morning will go something like this. You arrive at eleven and wait while a young, smiling girl with spectacles goes to find another young smiling girl with spectacles who is “the special events manager.” She smiles and says, “I knew we had someone coming this morning but couldn’t remember who. What did you say your name was?” Then they find the publicity show cards sent by your publisher and, more importantly, a chair and coffee that is always too milky.
At about eleven, someone will pick up one of your books, open it, frown, curl a lip in disgust put the thing down and walk away. At 11.47 an sweet old lady will ask where the ladies’ toilet is. I always welcome this because it will be the only genuine enquiry I will have all morning. Even so, I send her to the Gents.
At 12.02 someone will pick up a book, march off to the sales counter to buy it and then return and put it back. “Sorry,” she (it’s always a she) will say, “I thought you were someone else. “Yes, I am,” I call after her, “I’m bloody Agatha Christie. She’s dead too.” Nobody laughs.
I sell a book at 12.25 by blocking the path of an elderly gentleman, seizing his lapels and shouting, “You like historical adventure, surely? I am C.. Forester, writing under a nom de plume. Buy a book, you swine, or I’ll break your knee caps and set fire to your house.”
At one pm, my old mate Jim Farrand will stagger towards me and say, “Do you fancy lunch and three bottles of Cote de Rhone?” I always yes. It seems such a pity to disappoint him and he once bought one of my books thirteen years ago. And it’s been a tough morning.