Thursday, 28 July 2011

The camisole and cream catastrophe

The lovely couple
Twenty years ago today, July 28th 1991 was a beautiful day. I remember it well.  Sizzling hot, clear blue sky, the perfect day for a wedding.
I was, to be honest, a little nervous about this particular wedding. I'd broken up with the bride's step-brother about a year beforehand, and although there was no particular animosity, it still felt a little weird to be going to a big family event. But the bride and groom (an ex flatmate) were both good friends of mine, not to mention the bride's brother (another ex-flatmate) and sister-in-law. Also my friend Laura (the fourth flatmate) had come over from America . It'd be fine, I reassured myself. I had a nice outfit, I'd know lots of people there. Laura and I could have a good catch-up.
I lived in Hammersmith in west London, the wedding was in Hertfordshire, north of London. Thinking about it now, the sensible thing would have been to go and stay with my parents (also Hertfordshire)  and get ready there. But my brain didn't work like that. Instead I arranged to drive right across London, west to east, to Laura's parents' house in Woodford. We'd get ready together, then drive to the wedding.
 It was the perfect plan, I thought, as I went out to my car, carefully hanging my outfit in the back of the car.
My outfit. It was great. I had a short black straight skirt, and a sheer black camisole. Over the top would go a silk jacket, patterned in red and blue and purple, a sale bargain from Monsoon. I loved it, shoulder pads and all. I was quietly confident. Never mind the old aunties clucking over me and my ex. I'd be the model independent single girl..who happened to work for The Independent. Go me!
The hair! The gardening top!
So I drove all the way to Woodford. It took about an hour. And it was great to see Laura. Here we were, just like old times, getting ready to go out to a party. There was just one problem. No camisole. A frantic phone call to my landlady later, and we worked out what had happened. It was lying on the dusty pavement, back in Hammersmith. It must have slipped off the hanger as I got into the car.
Disaster! Misery! Catastrophe! There was no time to go shopping (and I can't even remember if shops were open on Sundays back in 1991) Laura's mum had nothing suitable for me to borrow. 'There's nothing else for it,' said Laura. 'You'll have to wear this.'
This turned out to be a knitted black top. Luckily it was black and sleeveless, with (not so luckily) a plunging neckline. Unluckily she'd been wearing it all that hot and sticky day while she worked in her parents' garden. It was just a little moist and pungent. 'Never mind,' she said, peeling it off. 'Just spray yourself with a load of perfume, and no one will notice.'
So, when we arrived at the wedding, I was not feeling so confident, nor very fragrant or sophisticated. My hair was frizzy, my silk jacket wrapped firmly around me. Every now and again I realised that the neckline had slipped beyond the decent level, and had to give it a quick tug to get it back in place.
The ceremony was gorgeous, the perfect day for a romantic outdoor ceremony. The bride was beautiful, the bridesmaids lovely in  flouncy lilac, the mothers of the happy couple, glorious in papal purple. The groom was dashing in a top hat. I hung onto my jacket and avoided my ex.
Naturally I took a quick glance at the table plan well before dinner. I moved some people around so that Laura and I could chat more easily. But there was a name I didn't recognise on my left hand side, and I left him where he was. You never knew. Maybe he'd be the man of my dreams.
Time for dinner, I sat down and glanced to my left. 'Aaw,' I thought. 'Not my type.'  My type at the time was skinny, cynical, nervy and wise-cracking. Ideally working in the media. This man lacked that quality of nervous energy, plus I wasn't sure about his profile (oh, yes, I was that shallow. Forgive me). But, polite as always, I asked him how he knew Sylvia and Richard. 'I'm Sylvia's boss,' he said. 'I don't know anyone else here.'                                                                                                              
Well! My protective nature took over. The poor man! He needed looking after! Plus I remembered Sylvia telling me that I should meet her boss. 'He's into books and films and he's got lots of lefty friends,' she said. At the time, I made polite excuses. I was a media snob and they worked for a toothpaste manufacturer. But he was, it turned out, a nice person to talk to.
So we continued chatting as the first course was served. And went on talking through the soup and the salmon (it may not have been salmon, I can't really remember. I'm just taking a wild guess here). And we were still talking through dessert. Once or twice my neglected friend Laura leaned over. 'Can you repeat that?' she asked him, 'I didn't quite catch it.'  Startled, he did, and then we went on talking. And I forgot all about the camisole disaster, and the lurking ex, and just enjoyed myself.
Until, that is, the coffee was served. 'Would you like cream?' asked the waitress -  and poured a jugful into my lap. All over my black skirt! I was mortified, but my new friend lent his napkin and mopped me up. And then he asked me to dance.
Well, it was no surprise when he asked for my number. And he called me a few days later, and we saw a Woody Allen film, and then we went out for dinner and talked and talked and talked (and he told me the 11 plus story). And we've been talking pretty much non stop for the last twenty years, although it took us three years to get around to getting married, because believe me, nothing makes my husband go at any pace except his own. Which is one of the many things that I love about him, even as I am infuriated.
One thing I didn't do at the wedding was take his picture (although I have one of the ex, hiding behind a fan). And I waited some time before telling him about the camisole catastrophe. 'Didn't you notice that I had a really low cleavage?' I asked. 'I liked it,' he replied.
The jacket, twenty years on.

I still have the jacket hanging up in my cupboard, I never liked to get rid of it. The shoulder pads are drooping now, but the silk still shimmers and glows. How lucky I was 20 years ago (not to mention how lucky he was), and how clever Sylvia and Richard were when they plotted their table plan. Happy anniversary!

(apologies for the poor quality of the scanner wasn't working, so these are copies of prints)

PS I mis-remembered! Laura was actually over to get married herself! Happily the weddings were close enough together so she and husband Ian were able to attend Sylvia and Richard's wedding as well. And Ian's presence at the second wedding meant I wasn't neglecting Laura as much as it may appear...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Huge Pile of Dosh

Gratuitous? Moi?

 There's a fabulous scene at the beginning of the new Harry Potter film where the intrepid friends are in a vault at Gringotts, and the treasure starts to multiply. As they struggle not to be crushed by the pulsating pile of bling, it's tempting to see it as a metaphor for the stunning financial success achieved by JK Rowling.  From a typically small advance for a first novel, she's grown a multi-million pound fortune -  and one which looks set to grow even further, now that she's split with her agent, cut free from her publishers and launched her own Pottermore website through which she will sell her e-books excusively.
'You'll be the next J K Rowling!' is what everyone (believe me, everyone) says to children's authors, and it's as irritating as it is false. Even JK herself went through years of low or no income before her books took off.  The week's Bookseller has a depressing story about the financial pain being suffered by children's authors in the current climate. Agent Caroline Sheldon estimated that fewer than half of the children's authors who previously made a living from writing five or 10 years ago are now doing so. She said: "The big things are getting bigger and the middle area is getting squeezed."  Authors are getting fewer chances and less time to prove themselves, royalties are lower because children's books are cheaper than adult ones, commissions for children's non-fiction have been hard-hit by competition from the internet.
It is difficult to make a living from writing. I haven't cracked it yet, although I can see my income growing as I get more interest from foreign publishers and -  crucially -  manage to keep on producing books. If I compare it, though, to my career in journalism, I'm quite happy. Although I could earn considerably more with a staff job on a national newspaper (and they aren't any easier to come by than getting a book deal), my salary would be pretty much my limit. Whereas a book..well, anything could happen. It's possible for a book to earn for you again and again - a foreign sale here, a film deal there - while you're working on other stuff.
Once you're a published author, other sources of income open up to you. I earn money from school visits, and occasionally from selling my own books myself. I could possibly earn more if I critiqued manuscripts and ran creative writing workshops. If I developed this blog (or another) into something with loads of readers, I might sell advertising space. If I could think of clever things to sell associated with this blog (Lia's red shoes? handbags?) then I could do that too.
I love watching The Apprentice, and I can't wait to see who wins the final tonight (my money's on lovely but bumbling Tom, although it ought to be super-competent and equally lovely Helen). This year the contestants are competing for moneya nd backing to start their own businesses, rather than a job. Writing a book is a little bit like starting a business, to be honest. Gone is the security of a regular salary (but who has that security now?), the benefits, the chances of promotion. Instead you get a load of risk and hardship - but you've got more control and you're potentially playing for higher stakes. Hard work, tenacity, a good agent, and a willingness to do some self-promotion all help.  After all, someone's got to be the next JK!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Lia's out!

It's not due to be published until August 4th, but Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery has taken me by surprise by bursting prematurely out of the warehouse and into the shops. It's in lots of Waterstone's branches and in stock at Amazon.
It's a very odd feeling...I'm not ready for this yet! Stand by for some Lia-related posts over the next few weeks.  If you've read it, I'd love to hear what you think (err...unless you think harsh and horrible things, in which case keep them to yourself!)
The Awfully Big Blog Adventure is a group blog which I contribute to, and this weekend it's running the world's first online literary festival -  details here. No tickets, no travelling, just lots of great authors talking about their books and book related stuff, plus competitions and give-aways and all sorts...And you don't have to miss a thing because it's all there forever.
My contribution will be online at 2.30pm this afternoon. (I'll add a link when it's posted)  Fiona Dunbar and I decided to do something jointly about our new books -  Fiona's is called Divine Freaks and it's the first in her new Kitty Slade series about a girl who can see ghosts and who solves mysteries, sometimes with the help of the ghosts and sometimes despite them.  I love Kitty, she's feisty, down-to-earth and brave - and I can't wait to read the rest in the series.
Fiona and I decided that we wanted to try and make a vlog for the online festival -  for the first time ever. We enlisted some teen readers and hijacked a house. Our plan was to just chat generally about the books...we weren't quite sure how the filming would work...we didn't write a script...
It should have been a disaster. But luckily our friend Candy Gourlay, author of the fabulous Tall Story, came along and took command of the filming and directing. So it's thanks to Candy that we produced something reasonably coherent and  - we hope -  entertaining.
Candy and I were two of the short-listed authors up for the Branford Boase award this week. It's an incredibly prestigious shortlist to be on, honouring debut authors writing for young people and the editors who gave them their chance. Neither Candy nor I won -  congratulations to Jason Wallace and Charlie Sheppard who won for Out of Shadows, an extraordinary book about Zimbabwe in the 1980s,  which has rightly been recognised already as winner of the Costa Children's Book of the Year, and (judging by the piles I saw on sale at the airport in Amsterdam) has already made the leap to become a crossover title which adults can enjoy just as much as younger readers. The powerful narrative and moral questions raised in Jason's book stay with you long after you've finished it.
Candy's blogged about the award ceremony  here - which saves me the job!  After the ceremony I went out to dinner with my fantastic editors from Frances Lincoln, Maurice Lyon and Emily Sharratt, and also Nicky Potter, the FL publicist; and J P Buxton, also short-listed for his book I am the Blade , an exciting retelling of the Arthurian legend, his family and editor Beverley Birch.  Jamie Buxton and I got to make the speeches about our editors that we would have made if we'd won. Mine was slightly less sensible than it would have been earlier, thanks to some lovely New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but the gist of it was clear...Maurice is a magical editor who deserves to win every award going, and I can't thank him enough for saying yes to When I Was Joe.