The first thing I have to make clear is that I am not good with flying. Flying and me, we have never got on. But because I’ll be talking tonight about touring, about being a writer on tour and doing readings and signings and lectures and all of the things that writers are meant to do – although they don’t involve writing and aren’t quite in the job description, because, as a writer, you don’t get a job description – because of that, I do have to mention the F-word, the flying.
Which isn’t what I anticipated in those nice little day dreams of travel that I had when I was young. Those involved pack mules and tramp steamers and people in panama hats and meeting men who looked like Humphrey Bogart in curious Quayside lodging houses. Not being trapped in a shuddering metal tube beside a screaming and tubercular toddler for eight hours while some maniac kicks your back through your not-quite-reclining seat and everything smells of vomit and old tights
But that’s what I end up with – because I’m a writer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that writers are actually forced to travel, it’s just that no publisher really expects you not to and you can’t earn a living if you don’t. But it’s not compulsory. So you ricochet between spasms of tender and artistic isolation and the kind of touring schedule that would be familiar to drug mules, stand-up comedians and over-enthusiastic members of the SAS. Even though it’s not compulsory, authors are expected to attend festivals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, the US, Europe, Nottingham and a number of the earth’s more unanticipated corners. Europe can now be reached by train, of course – although this often involves being stuck in the station at Brussels during the small hours and eating out of vending machines while avoiding being mugged for your kidneys – but basically the modern typist can expect to be on or near aircraft for a horrible percentage of any given year.
This, for me, means trotting along numberless corridors and gangways and aisles carrying a bag containing: one lap top computer, because if it isn’t with me, it will be lost – one set of universal adapters for phone and power lines, because you can never buy any once you’re there, wherever there is, and the internet cafés will all have burned down and, should your hotel suggest it has a business centre or even a computer terminal you can borrow this will always turn out to be a dreadful exaggeration – plus one, or more, backup memory storage devices for when I’m attacked by a lunatic with a huge magnet, or somebody steals my computer - one litre bottle of water for every hour of the flight, because there isn’t enough hydration in the world and even standing next to a plane rips all the moisture from my body until my brain starts to squeak – one aerosol bottle of sprayable water, for similar reasons – one tub of moisturiser to prevent my skin being shed in its entirety and scaring children – one bottle of eye drops, so that I’ll be able to blink every now and then – one mangled plastic bag of real food, to replace or supplement the pretend food I will be offered – one special inflatable neck collar, to prevent my becoming paraplegic en route – one note book and pen, in case an idea enters my head, or I have to scribble a farewell note which I will then sellotape to my stomach, if I have time as I plummet – one bottle of melatonin, to ease jetlag – one bottle of low-dose aspirin tablets to ease blood clotting – one bottle of super strength aspirin tablets in case I get a stress-related headache or feel the slightest hint of circulatory congestion - one random paperback which I will stare at numbly and grip with sweaty fingers until it is unrecognisably warped. And maybe a clean hanky, if I remember. Obviously this bag can no longer contain the Swiss Army Knife I used to imagine saving my life should I become trapped in wreckage, or have to survive in a hostile environment with other passengers intent on supplementing their leaf and berry rations with human flesh. I do pack the Swiss Army compass with attached magnifying glass. You never know when you’ll need a magnifying glass.
My bag is naturally, far too heavy to be a carry-on item, so I have perfected the art of casually holding it at the check in desk and swinging it about as if it weighed no more than half a pound. This frequently manages to convince.
And so I find myself – in my aisle seat for easy egress and circulation – checking for my lifebelt, wishing I had a smoke hood and grimacing through the pre-flight checks and take off. Beyond that I simply become the person you would least like to sit beside for any time at all. I shudder convulsively, I smear myself with moisturiser, I spray water, drink water, dribble water, wring my hands, get up and walk about, badger my neck collar and occasionally moan like an injured dog.
Because I am thinking about physics – the nice, helpful physics of aerofoils and surfaces and lift – and the appalling physics of stalling speeds, crosswinds, air pockets, clear air turbulence, metal fatigue, stress cracks, instrument failure, fog banks, thunderstorms, unexpected mountains, icing, fuel leaks, hydraulic leaks, sabotage, unexplained explosions, explained explosions, high jacking, mid-air collisions, bird strikes, fires, solar radiation, Deep Vein Thrombosis and the possible inhalation of plagues. Let us not even consider that the pilot may be drunk.
And a few of my flights have been less than helpful in calming my fears. So far, I’ve been struck by lightening, evacuated from a flood zone in a float plane very like a Vauxhall Astra with wings and bounced across the tarmac at Manchester while landing in a gale. The next time I fly I don’t just want an underseat life jacket, I want a personal smoke hood, a parachute and a boat – “your safety is our primary concern” – they all say that – then where is my boat ? and can somebody explain why I’m supposed to feel calmer because of my seat belt. If the plane is going down, if it’s suddenly become a hunk of useless falling metal, why do I want to be strapped to it, why should airlines hope this reassures ? Just asking.
So why do it, why the planes, why tour at all when anyone who’s ever tried it, if they’re being honest, will tell you that by the third or fourth hotel you’re already wondering if you should close your own head in the Corby trouser press before you do the reading or after. Not enough sleep, not enough friends, not enough food – these are not things to make you cheery. And genetically I am already not predisposed to be cheery. Rolling back through the generations, my relatives have all been more than keen to top themselves. It’s a wonder I’m here. If socio economic conditions were too hard, if they suffered existential trauma, if they ran out of twiglets, if it rained – kill yourself. Stress-related headache – kill yourself. Thousands of miles away from home on your birthday trapped in a wet back packer’s hut full of giant woodlice alongside a total stranger with whom you have to do a reading in front of three weeping Tasmanians in a pub owned by several large people who very plainly want to kill you ? The Big Exit looked inviting that night. And I wasn’t making that up – I was playing that down.
Hotels, B&B’s, writer’s accommodation generally – it’s just a massive invitation to self-harm. At the cheaper end, you have the delightful place in Nottingham with no hot water and the unmistakable smell of armpit at two, dank locations on the coverlet. Leave the windows open and condemn yourself to hypothermia and sleeping in all your clothes – close it and wonder all night what has died and where exactly the body is hidden in your room. Oddly, this was very like a place where I stayed in Sligo and every other place where the event organiser cheerfully yells that they haven’t had time to check the accommodation, but they’re sure it will be fine, as they sprint away, always leaving you on the doorstep of a large, middle aged woman wearing stained and dangerously tight leggings, who serves you pale green meat products at breakfast and does not ever speak. And then there was that place in the borders with the one-eyed dog where I was welcomed back from my workshop by the spectacle of Mrs. Owner singing country and western in the icy bar, accompanied by what appeared to be a corpse on the Hammond organ and watched fondly by Mr. Owner, while three grim regulars sat in a line and stared at the opposite wall. Watch out also for Eastern European Government Boarding houses where the shower may be in the communal kitchen, the bed may be three feet long while the sheets are two and a half feet long and in the corridors you may happen upon vast, silent and almost entirely naked people for reasons that you do not fully understand.
At the other end of the spectrum there are, of course, the lovely hotels where lovely festivals put you and the staff look askance at your dog-eared luggage and your dog-eared self and you huddle in the centre of your large and well-appointed room, wondering what you can touch that you won’t have to pay for later. Especially nice hotels will always want to turn your bed down when you are already in it with terminal jetlag. And at every turn the staff will want to know that you are happy and being completely satisfied, which – given the knowledge you have of the whole of the rest of your life – simply makes you want to cry. But then, once in your lifetime, you will get the Perfect Hotel – the one that will never come again.
I found mine in New York. I had started the day in Boston airport, waiting for a plane that never left, because it was delayed by fog that wasn’t there. Then I spent many more hours on a train from Boston, which was delayed, perhaps by invisible fog – which is the worst kind, very unpredictable - and then I waited in New York – weeping openly – in a long, potentially violent queue for a cab that would take me to a hotel – at that point any hotel would have done. But this was not any hotel – it was a wonderful hotel, a Perfect Hotel and a friend of mine had called them up and lied and said that I was a famous European writer and they should take good care of me, because then I might write about them and they had believed him and so the receptionist grinned dementedly at me as I signed in and then the porter carried both my bags and me in and out of the lift and set us both down in a suite – a wonderful suite. The Perfect Suite. With the perfect bed – large and firm and silky and friendly and a bathroom you could camp in with many, many sewing kits and lotions and potions and comfy towels and a kitchen with nibbles – wonderful, impossibly expensive nibbles in – who knows, Viennese glass jars and it even smelled good and if it hadn’t been too big to fit I would have gone with it and got a room with it in a hotel and done whatever it would like, it was that good. And I had exactly twelve minutes to spend in it before I had to be changed and out and ready to give a reading before going back to it and trying to go straight to sleep, because I would have to get up at 4am the following morning to catch a plane for Seattle. Such is life.
Not that I’m not grateful as I go – because every book I can sell means I’m further from the slush pile and I have no skills or employment prospects and this is a great opportunity for somebody like me and ten, twenty years ago I didn’t even dream of being able to do this kind of thing (because I’m not a psychopath, or irredeemably masochistic) and it does seem genuinely astonishing, it always will, that anyone anywhere would read me, or turn out to listen to me. Really. The part that you as an audience may not understand is that the reading, or the signing or the meet-the-author session is only the teeny-weeny tip of a horrible ice berg. Of course, the author has spent years honing his or her craft and polishing the work that he or she presents – but beyond that you have no idea of the physical and psychological processes that have combined to bring the author there before you.
You’ll have worked out by now that your writer may be somewhat sensitised by the time you see them. A plane every day, a train every day, a number of strangers making strange requests every day – these will have taken their toll – they may be perilously close to their personal edge. I know, for example, that I’ve given a reading while woozy with exhaustion, because some television people demanded I spend the small hours at the start of that day being filmed inside a butterfly house in Munich before it opened – because my work has so much to do with Lepidoptera - which was interesting, and it was nice that the interviewer had a phobia of flying insects and kept squealing and running away, but eventually everything just got all mixed up with the sleep-deprived hallucinations that I was having anyway. Almost anyone you see reading will have participated in similar insanities and, of course, spent a good few lifetimes having their photograph taken. Now this is fine for a while, should you like having your picture taken in the first place, and not be certain you look like a circus donkey in a hat - but certain factors can still render things slightly unpleasant. And these will almost always be provided by photographers. Because they will need to take your picture before dawn, before you catch the plane, or just in the little space you had when you could have gone to sleep, having got off the plane, and with a couple of hours before the reading, or they will need to take your picture just before the reading, maybe when you are already out on stage, so that the whole audience can assume that you think a lot of yourself. Even if you don’t. Even if the more they snap, the more you know your face is freezing into a hideous, slack-lidded mask and you have the over-long, yellowed teeth of an unhealthy horse. Plus, if you’ve ever had half-way bearable pictures taken which involved make up and getting your hair done – it wasn’t my idea, it was a newspaper – and I can only say in my defense that it was much less bother than the usual and didn’t involve crouching in sleet, or lurking beside windswept lakes, or standing in a bin cupboard in a dodgy housing estate at night or any of the other bright ideas that snappers have had – anyway, if you have half-way decent pictures, then the photographers will always have seen those pictures and will always be certain that if you just relax a bit and let your hair down you can reproduce the two hours of expert restoration, lacquering, stapling and re-upholstery that produced the first set of photographs which you now regret so deeply. You can argue all you like, they won’t believe you. (I’ve had my hair cut now, but even so…) You can point out that you are tired and already look like a dead panda, you can say that any other intervention will make you look like a dead panda that fell out of a tree, they won’t listen. Until, you do let your hair down and they see and then all their interest dwindles away in a manner you could find depressing. Hence the new haircut.
Similar things may also happen as you work your way through the tour and come into contact with television studios. Now you want to be involved with television, of course – kind of - you want book buying viewers to know they can buy your book, you want to appear cooperative and willing, but things will never go well. My first dealings with a German television studio were also my last dealings with a German television studio for, I would guess, entirely aesthetic reasons. The make up lady – like all makeup ladies – had decided she could make something of me and this had already involved layering me with plaster of Paris and caking my eyelashes in widening, thickening, lengthening, pacifying goo until I couldn’t really see. Then she started on my hair – which she wanted to be big. It isn’t big. Even then it wasn’t big. It can be short or long, or intermediate, but always it remains fine, slithery and unimpressive. If you try to back comb it and spray it into bigness you will not succeed. But you will force me to tip toe, blinking painfully, into a television studio with a trichological nightmare collapsing down on top of me with each step. By the time I got as far as the studio and was wired up to listen to the translator who didn’t really help and the interviewer, who was somewhere else, one of my eyes had sealed half-shut, so that I was squinting and almost blind, I couldn’t move my head at all for fear of more collapsing and was aware that I very closely resembled a maddened bag lady. By the end of the interview I was mercifully almost entirely obscured by distressed hair. Some people may have bought the book out of sympathy, but I’m not convinced.
The point I’m trying to make is, the author you look at on stage, who may appear sane and healthy, may actually be undergoing multiple humiliations designed to deconstruct his or her entire personality. If they didn’t already know they were ugly, hours of prodding and teasing will have convinced them. They will be vaguely aware that they are sluggish and stupefied with tiredness, when they ought to seem wise, or at least coherent, like an author should. If they are anything like me, they will find that four or five days of signing – and I don’t ever have to sign that much, bear in mind – four or five days of signing will mean that they lose their ability to reproduce their own signature. My signature is a dreadful scrawl anyway, but trust me, it’s truly alarming when all you can produce is a completely unfamiliar dreadful scrawl and you can’t explain this to the well-meaning stranger in front of you, because they might become alarmed if you begin rocking and moaning and wondering if you’ll ever be able to write a cheque again.
The effect of losing yourself completely is polished off neatly by any interviews you may give where journalists will tell you things you haven’t done, or thoughts you haven’t thought, while you try to explain things you have done and thoughts have thought, but you will find these unconvincing because you’ve already explained them three times this morning and frankly you wish you had the energy to invent a whole other life – a childhood spent performing in Romanian freak shows, a talent for motorcycle repair, dancing in a cage in Saigon, anything in which you might believe. But once again there’s almost never anyone about to whom you can voice your fears and journalists will only note your wild eyes and evasions and draw whatever conclusions they would like.
And, please believe me, I realise that writing is not the worst job I could have – it’s not as bad as uranium mining, or being a proctologist, or working with mechanically recovered meat or any of the other ways I couldn’t earn a living. I know. I’m just pointing out that sometimes it’s a bit of a pain, just now and then.
And, if you’re me, once your personality has come lose and wondered off with your baggage in the direction of Budapest, you will learn that your new self is worrying, criminal, even dangerous. Where do you learn this ? Why, in Airports, of course.
For example, when you hear the words “random search” you would assume that meant there would be searches and that they would involve random people. Oh, no – I mean, they are searches but they only involve me. Right next to anyone with a Muslim surname, there I am, sweating and nervous anyway and then the woman on the check in counter says – I promise you, this is true - “Is there anyone you’d like to be informed case of accident ?” “What, in case I don’t survive the flight ?” “Mm hm.” And I think – you know what ? – they’d work out where I was, or wasn’t. And so very few people would care if I didn’t land, or did land in an unconventional manner that I’m depressed already, so let’s just skip it, okay. Which means I’m in a bad mood. And then maybe I get the wand lady. I won’t say what airport she works in – I’ll leave it as a surprise for you. The wand lady turns up after I’ve been through two metal detectors and had my bag X-rayed by the special, extra powerful one that melts the rubber in your shoes. And there she is, with her wand. “May I wand you ?” And what do say - I don’t know, probably “no” isn’t an option, so I mumble “yes, sure, go ahead” But that isn’t enough. “May I wand your shoulders ?” Yeah. “May I wand you back ?” Mm hm. “May I wand your waist ? Turn round please. May I wand your stomach ? May I wand your thighs ?” Which is just… after a while, it feels personal, it sounds personal, it sounds weird. And you have to go with it, or you could be arrested or who knows what, but the whole thing leaves you feeling sullied. And then on I trot and I can see the gate and I can see the random search table at the gate and I can see the people working at the random search table and they can see me. And they can see that I’ve just been wanded and they can see that I haven’t been given a Kalashnikov to slip into my pocket, they can see I haven’t talked to anyone – other than the wand lady – I haven’t touched anyone – even the wand lady and I did, slightly want to punch her, so when I get to the gate, which takes me maybe one minute, imagine my surprise when the guy at the table says, “Would you mind if we submit you to a random search ?” And there’s no answer, because if you don’t say yes you don’t get on the plane and maybe worse, but the guy can see I’m not happy and I do explain – you could see me walking here, you could see that nothing happened – if you search the same random person all the time then surely that isn’t random and restricts the number of people you’re going to search at all. But he’s having none of it and passes me on to the lady who searches ladies, but she’s uncomfortable because I’m not happy and so she doesn’t really search me, she just skims – and I’m used to being searched, I get searched a lot, I know when they’re doing it right and she isn’t and then I’m telling her, “Well, if you don’t do it properly, then what’s the point.” and I’m so close to saying “I could be carrying anything on to this plane.” But I don’t. I don’t. I keep quiet and I do what I’m told and I get onboard.
And, of course, even when you’ve had my shoes off and on three times and everything electrical turned on and turned off and everything else turned inside out – even then, you never know what will happen. For various complicated reasons one spring, I had to fly to Montreal from New York, do a reading, fly back to New York, do two readings in one day, get no sleep and then fly back at dawn to Montreal - and do a reading. First mistake I make after all that ? – I tell the cab driver to take me to Newark instead of La Guardia. That’s about an hour and half in the wrong direction type of mistake. And when I realise I’m wrong – just outside Newark, the cab driver thinks I’m going to blame him and not pay him and he doesn’t want to drive me and I know it’s my mistake and I show him money – I physically show him that I have cash – and beg him to please turn round and drive back to Manhattan and then across it and get me there in time, maybe we will manage because it’s Sunday morning and so early it’s almost still Saturday night. And I make it, I get there in time. I’d planned to arrive early and have breakfast in the airport and be mellow, but that’s not happening now, I simply run from queue to queue and search to search and I just have time to stop at a stall and say “Bread, bagel, anything, breakfast, something I can carry please.” And the man throws me a paper bag with stuff in it and I throw him what’s left of my money and I run to the gate and the random search table and I’m prepared, I have my shoes off, I’m willing and cooperative and the searching person is nice and makes kind enquiries about my orthopaedic pillow, which is almost all I have in my bag – it’s very heavy, which is unfortunate – it helps your back, but only when you’re lying on it, not when you’re carrying it. And I get on the plane and so do the other passengers and three Muslim-looking guys who are wearing badges which read “I remember September 11th” and they look depressed and very much as if they do. And then we wait. We wait a long time on the tarmac. And I think “Oh, but I have my breakfast. I can eat. I can be civilised. I can relax.” And I reach into the paper bag, which nobody searched, and I find a nice warm bagel and some butter and some peanut butter and a knife. I have a knife. I’m on a plane and I have a knife. And there is no good way to say, when you’re on a plane, “I have a knife.” It’s never going to sound surprised, or happy, or culinary, or anything that won’t mean an air marshal tasers you in the eyes. I have a knife. They gave me a knife. Nobody found my knife, that I didn’t know I had. It’s not a bad knife, it’s small, it’s a plastic knife, but people have said bad things about what you can do with them and they’re not allowed and at this point some more Muslim looking guys get on the plane and they are not wearing badges and they are ruffled, they are upset, they have been very, very thoroughly searched, you can tell – and me, I have a knife. Which I then have to hide for the duration of the flight. Takes your mind off needing a smoke hood and a boat.
So by the time the average writer gets to their hotel – should that exist – he or she is vulnerable, may or may not be quite sure of who he or she is, and may feel obscurely or very openly criminal. And I would just point out that this is why, in some cases, we writers don’t come across as being all that normal. Yes, there is such a thing as artistic temperament – yes, creative people can be odd – yes, we spend the rest of our time being a bit by ourselves - but if you did what we do on tour, you’d be bloody odd. And that’s without drink and drugs and rock and roll even coming into it. Which in my case, they don’t, anyway. I’m barely functional as it is without getting involved in any of that. If you examine our relationships – they don’t work. Not often. Mine never do. But how are they going to ? If you’re in Germany and he’s in New York, or you’re in London and he’s in London, but the intersecting time period will amount to 59 minutes if you really hustle and you have the book to do, whatever book it is, you have to write it and it takes time and you do it alone, can’t be any other way. We are not always good at other people.
So you can understand that should you be in a big festival hotel – nowhere as respectable as Edinburgh – but in Canada, say, or America, or Australia – and the place is full of writers and writing-type people, you know it’s all going to go wrong. People will be doing things they shouldn’t do with themselves, they will be doing things they shouldn’t do with other people they may not know, or may not want to know, or won’t want to talk to afterwards or ever again and no one will remember who they are in the first place and it will be ugly. And yet it will also be all the fun we get. It will be most of the people – albeit demented strangers – that we may meet in a year. We might even make pals if it weren’t that all the pals we might end up with will turn out to live on the other side of the world, or to be using an assumed identity for the duration – who knows. It’s best to keep clear. Because even if it’s nice and the people running the festival give you fresh fruit at all hours and free passes to go whale-watching and special pens and shoulder bags and coach trips to sites of natural interest it’s still dreadful. Because your life isn’t like this – this is a glorified school trip full of emotional cripples – this is actually worse than your life, or at least equally unpleasant. Even when you can actually face the full hotel experience – big room service bill, flirting in the bar, getting it on – even then, it’s a mistake.
I would point out this isn’t an area in which I specialise. I’m generally watching the Discovery Channel in my room, crying, eating Pringles and doing re-writes. But I’m only flesh and blood and sometimes I weaken. And I can only say that gentlemen sometimes promise things they can’t deliver and nights of mind-altering pleasure may be mentioned but may not come to pass. But even worse – they may. I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone, but I will simply mention that five hours of orgasms is, in fact, two hours too many. And I can’t begin to say how upset I am to be able to tell you this. But three hours is actually enough, more than adequate. The gentlemen among you can feel free to either find this news a relief or a threat – depends on how you’re placed. On a good day I would probably put up with as little as an hour. Particularly when I’ve decided that I’m undoubtedly hallucinating and nothing I think is happening really is happening and I will probably never have another experience like this, if I’m having at all, and that’s enough to make you melancholy and it’s fairly depressing you’ve never had the full five hour treatment before and it’s just.. it’s all too much to know. As I’m sure you’ll agree, so let us never speak of this again.
So now let’s talk about being ill. Because with so much stress and so much pressure and such a poor diet, you are assuredly going to be ill on tour. Jet-lag, of course, will make you feel as if you are ill in a terminal way, although you’re not. I will never forget seeing a marvellous Northern Irish writer hanging limply over the glass barrier that separated him from the thirty-two story chasm around which one particular Melbourne hotel’s rooms were built. Plunging down into the chasm were multicoloured banners which hypnotised in an entirely disturbing way and he was staring at the banners and moaning softly. I eased my way round and managed to encourage him back to his room before he dived into the beyond, firmly in the grip of that fabulous blend of ‘flu, depression, nausea, constipation and paranoia which is jetlag.
But once that’s worn off, you can cultivate real, frightening disease. I will point out that I’ve had food poisoning in Britain far more often than I have anywhere else and that I’ve eaten my way across Egypt and Jordan with never a problem. But India did defeat me. One moment I was fine, watching a goat being sacrificed and staring inappropriately as most writers would, then next day I was lying on my bathroom floor in New Delhi and extremely bad things were happening. I will not explain them. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t leave for Lucknow with my companions and was abandoned in a vaguely E.M. Forster-looking room, drifting in and out of consciousness, unable to describe my symptoms over the phone to a doctor I never got to meet and occasionally catching glimpses of black and white movies on my television, which may have been turned on at the time. A few days later and I was back on my feet and every Indian citizen I met took personal responsibility for my malady, suggested cures and apologised at length. Being back on my feet involved being given the opportunity to eat food at sunset next to open bodies of water while mosquitoes the size of sparrows clipped past both ears, because that is the British way. Just as the British way involves being taken to English-style churches, English-style graveyards and English-style cultural events while being driven everywhere to avoid contact with possibly disturbing levels of Indian culture. The only way to avoid this is to feign illness and run away. But you can’t run away from your malaria medication. Many of you will know that this medication doesn’t actually work against some of the really terrifying types of malaria now available, but it’s recommended that you should take it – the huge weekly pill and the smaller daily pill – even though the leaflet you get with the pack mentions that this may cause you to go mad and/or blind. You would also want to watch having an upset stomach while taking it, because it causes the most profound, kill-me-now stomach cramps I have ever experienced. Plus I had to work out a suitable time of day when I could start taking the pills in the UK, then move on to Indian time, then back to the UK, then adjust to New Zealand time for the period you still have to take the filthy stuff, even when you’ve left the danger zone.
What else did I discover in India ? Enlightenment, wisdom, some snippet of inspiration in the temple of Hanuman the monkey god, who also has special responsibility for novelists ? (Novelists and monkeys – it makes sense.) Well, no, probably not. Beyond being reminded that in poor countries or amongst people with very little you will generally always be received with generosity and given gifts. In Russia, in India, in Jordan, in Palestine, in Egypt, this has been my experience. And in countries where low incomes make books a luxury and lack of access to education makes reading a luxury and political censorship has made freedom of expression a luxury, you will find readers and readers and readers and writers and writers and writers, people who love books, who have risked everything for books, who will go without food to have books, or to make books. You will realise that sometimes you don’t know you’re born. I did, anyway.
Meanwhile, never mind getting there and getting back – what about the readings themselves – those opportunities for the author to reach out to the reader, make contact, break the silence of the unattended page. And it is great to do that – and it is desperately important, I believe, for the author to hear the voice they see on the page and imagine inside their head. Oh, but when it goes wrong, it’s quite difficult to describe how wrong that can be. Bad reviews can be painful, struggling with an unwilling sentence can be gruelling, especially if the sentence beats you in the end and there always will be people who make the effort to come up to you in shops, or in the street, or when you’re having a coffee with a pal and who tell you how very much they didn’t like your writing and they have a perfect right to do that and even to go into considerable detail about how many things they loathe throughout your work – but there is nothing quite like standing up in front of a room full of people who are clearly not enjoying any of the noises emerging from your head. And, by that point in the proceedings, all of the words that you carefully polished late into the night, at the cost of your social life and mental health, will have been converted into nothing more than silly, ugly noises, falling helplessly out of your head, like cow pats out of a cow.
But that’s not the half of it. Even getting on stage – whatever the stage happens to be - is fraught with danger. First you have to weather your introduction, should you happen to be given one. Many of these are excellent, actually too excellent, and end up being a highly misleading list of virtues you haven’t got and talents that have never been visible which a) makes you feel as if you have inadvertently wandered into your own funeral and b) makes it inevitable that you will disappoint. The quirkier introductions – for instance describing the author as being “like salty porridge: indigestible but possibly worth the distasteful effort” aren’t necessarily the best start to an evening. Nor is an in-depth analysis of why a writer using initials must, in fact, be two different people, followed by complex ruminations about which person might have turned up on this occasion – thus leading the aforementioned author to suffer yet another identity crisis without the usual warning. Beyond this point, of course, it’s over to the author, so any hopes of success can be definitively abandoned. So far I have managed to fall over on my way to the stage – which at least gets you sympathy – I have poured water over the manuscript I was about to read, I have poured water over myself, I have cut my finger, forgotten about it and realised – way too late – that I was speaking to an audience of school children while significantly covered in blood. They were very attentive. Although I have suffered the usual anxiety dreams that revolve around turning up without your book, or trying to turn up but being for occult reasons unable, I can recommend for real heart palpitations standing up , not in a dream, and reading from loose pages while you have ‘flu and finding, as you read, that the next page you were moving on to simply isn’t there. What is more you’re so ill that you cannot adequately describe how splendid and consecutive the missing page would have been, had you been able to provide it. Then there are the evenings when your sinuses are so congested that you would be inaudible even if you swallowed the microphone, or when your teeth refuse to cooperate, or one of your fillings has fallen out and you are whistling through a frontal fang, or you unwisely read a section that someone has requested and which you had mostly forgotten and then are horrified to discover how really, terribly dreadful it is. This situation is only worsened by accidentally reading a bad review of the book you are promoting while you linger in the green room before you begin – the rest of the evening will then simply be a reinforcement of your already complex issues surrounding self-esteem. And, as a side note, I can recommend giving a reading after the screening of a film you have written, a film that causes most of the audience to cry and, once they know you’re the author, to turn to you and ask questions like, “Why did you do that ? We never caused you any harm.”
And, meanwhile, the touring continues, along with the curious education it provides. For example I have learned that I will always love being in Russia, because in Russia I am not anxious – everyone around me expects to die at any minute, everyone is late, or hampered, nothing is expected to work properly and no one is surprised when some technical difficulty assails you – and yet none of this is my fault, it’s just life – AND you can get a fantastic cup of tea at any time – even in the middle of the night, even on a train. It’s the little things like that which keep you going.
I have learned that the music you will be most likely to hear in the Middle East will be warped compilations of Abba’s greatest hits and that Arab countries will also be generous in their provision of splendid tea and the type of coffee that reconfigures the frontal lobes and sent me jogging up Mount Sinai on two hour’s sleep without feeling a thing. I have learned that strangers in Canada will happily spend hours describing the weight of material in kilts, even after I have made it clear that I don’t care. I have learned that in the United States I have both a thick Glaswegian accent and an authentic Irish brogue, maybe both at once. I have learned that a pair of slippers, carried from place to place, can save what is left of your soul by providing a tiny sliver of familiarity every time you set down your feet. I have learned that ordering the cheese platter option from room service is never ever a wise option. And, above all else, I have learned that should I ever believe I am capable, or a creature of dignity, or a professional, occasionally deserving of respect, or somebody who writes in the Guardian and who might know a thing or two I am always, absolutely, fundamentally mistaken.
If I were not I would never have found myself laughing with hysterical despair while sitting on a rubber mattress in The Northern Lodge Motel, Launceston, Tasmania – “For a better tomorrow spend the night at the Northern Lodge Motel” The better tomorrow didn’t include running water, but did suggest that two slices of bread would arrive and that you could convert them into toast at your leisure, presumably using your own body heat, or your kettle – which certainly wasn’t designed to boil water. I would not have continued to laugh as I staggered along a grey beach and stared at the flapping leg of a dead seagull in the company of other mangled authors, all of them caught fast in the dreadful machinery of a Tasmanian tour. I would not have heard an award-winning English poet scream like a girl as we careened from lane to lane along a dark Tasmanian highway, driven by a diminutive and visually-impaired poetess, who sang, waved her arms, ignored road signs and talked about acid flashbacks as we hurtled towards our almost certain deaths on a road already lined with the regular humped remains of large, blood-spattered road kill. I would not have been comforted in Sydney by the assertion that the axe murder stalking the streets and axe murdering with enthusiasm wasn’t the Real Axe Murderer but only a copy cat. And I would not have ended up in Neumunster.
There was something about Neumunster, some kind of new event horizon, one I hadn’t crossed before. I was on tour in Germany again, had forgotten how to sign my name again, was staggering with tiredness again, but still battering on because the average German audience is a very fine thing and fun to be with. Naturally, the time I would have spent eating my dinner turned out to be time I was going to spend eating my dinner and giving an interview and having my picture taken, slathered in gravy and mad-eyed. But at least I got dinner. And then the reading went forward and my German translator read with me and he’s a fine gentleman and questions were asked and books were signed and everything was finished when I slowly crossed the darkened car park, heading for whatever hotel might have been provided and whatever bed I might be able to drop into. Which is when I fell over. There was no particular reason for it, no excuse – I just fell over. And embedded gravel in my palms – very useful if you have to carry luggage for the rest of the week – and apparently bruised my knees, I couldn’t tell and I was, of course, waving away all assistance and concern and hoping we could all just forget about it.
Until I made it back to the hotel – a nice hotel, a clean hotel, a hotel fitted out entirely in cream and white. I arrived in my room. I washed my hands, removed the worst of the blood and fragments. Then I considered my knees. I took off my jeans – which were muddy, but unscathed. Mysteriously, my knees were not muddy, but were bleeding profusely. I washed them and hoped they would congeal. I brushed my teeth and hoped they would congeal. I stayed in the bathroom to save the white carpet and hoped they would congeal. I looked at the glimmering white bed in which I could not lie and hoped they would congeal. They didn’t, not for hours. So I sat, beyond weariness and far away from home, watching my own kneecaps and wondering exactly why I had chosen to be a novelist. And wondering when someone would next come up and ask “Are you that entertaining in everyday life ?” To which the answer is, “No.” or “Isn’t it tiring being so funny all the time ?” To which the answer is, “Yes.” Not that you ever would provide those answers, because they would be depressing and self-pitying and that’s not what anybody wants.
But I don’t intend to finish on a low note. Because there are pleasures in touring, there are kindnesses and acts of generosity that can light up a whole month in a moment, but even the travails that shake you and strip away your comforts and make you question everything - above all yourself – even those are useful. Because eventually you do find there is a reason, a deep and I think rather splendid reason for touring – beyond the obvious one – that if you’re touring you’re not writing, you get to escape. Whenever I read to an audience, travel to meet an audience, stand up when I don’t want to and I’d rather be asleep and I’m thinking mainly of a bacon sandwich I won’t get – once the reading starts, all that falls away and I’m one human being saying something I care about to other human beings, even one other human being would be enough. This is where we understand what we are – that we move through our lives trapped in separate little bags of skin and we are always alone and often bewildered, or absurd – but we try to call to each other, speak to each other, reach each other. A book if it’s a book at all is only a paper record of that attempt – to share a dream, to share a sense of our condition, to be less alone. And this is never clearer, or more frightening, or more terrible, or more lovely than when some of us are standing here and some of us are sitting there and we face each other and we try to make it work.