Would I like to take part in this year’s States of Independence, the annual celebration of independent publishing and writing, organised and funded by Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop and the Creative Writing Team at Leicester’s De Montfort University? A forty-five minute slot mine for the asking, 11.00am start. The usual thing, a reading followed by Q&A. Never one to turn down the chance of an audience, I was sorely tempted, even if it mean catching a fairly early train up from London. What nailed it, Notts were at home to Exeter that afternoon, time enough after my session to make the short distance up the line to Nottingham and take my seat at Meadow Lane.
The travel instructions from the university seemed to include everything but the way from the station on foot, but how difficult could it be? And I could see that Leicester City Council very helpfully provided local maps at each and every intersection; scale, however, seemed to be a very variable thing, and once I’d found the tiny red arrow denoting You Are Here, the university seemed to have disappeared. On the next map, there it was again, make a right and then a left and then … Gone. I asked friendly passers-by, some of whom – most in fact – thought I meant the other, more established establishment, THE university, while others sent me hopefully off in several different directions.
11.00am, though still a way off, was getting closer, while the university itself seemed to be just as far away, when suddenly … there it was, left, right, and Bingo! Not just the university but the exact building, the entrance hall already buzzing with people who had left the house that morning with books on their minds and a clear idea of where they were heading.
My event was on the second floor, Room 2.35, still plenty of time to get there and get settled. The young man who was to chair the session introduced himself and together we went off to find the room. I didn’t know I was doing this until last night, he said apologetically – but I did, he added helpfully, look you up on Wikipedia. With due modesty, I assured him that whatever he said by way of introduction would be fine. By 11.00 almost all the seats had been taken. The chairperson rose to his feet, coughed to get the audience’s attention, introduced me in a single sentence which included the words ‘crime fiction’, ‘poetry’ and ‘jazz’, and sat back down.
Right, then. I explained that I was going to read the first two chapters of my most recent novel, Body & Soul, after which I’d be happy to answer questions about that particular book or any of the others people might be familiar with. The reading seemed to go well and clearly there was going to be no shortage of questions. It was when I was attempting what was already becoming a rather convoluted answer to a question about ‘creativity’ [Why is it always questions about creativity that are difficult to answer?] that I came to the frightening realisation that I wasn’t too clear what exactly I was saying. And certainly not what I wanted to say next. I was, for that moment, just as lost as I had been earlier, finding my way blindly through the streets of Leicester.
There’s a sentence that resonates for me in Jim Harrison’s novel, True North, which I’m currently reading, in which he describes one of the characters thus: He survived on family money and a small pension from the church given for his general mental incontinence. And that was me. Sitting on the corner of the table in Room 2.35 suffering from mental incontinence. My mouth continued to open, my lips to move and words to come out, words that seemed to bear some relationship to one another without my being too clear what that might be. My questioner continued to nod helpfully, however, as if I were making sense to him at least. And then, just as suddenly, I was. Making sense, that is. Or I appeared to be. Are there any more questions, I wondered, looking around?
Notts County lost, by the way. Already sitting at the bottom of the table, and having dominated for the majority of the game without managing to score – this against an Exeter side who were down to ten men from the first twenty minutes – they conceded when the ball was bundled into their net with almost the last action of the game. Truly lost.