Friday, 21 February 2014

The Literary Salon.

Most people would get slightly star struck if they met their favourite actor or singer. A natural reaction may be to blush, fawn, stutter or be completely lost for words. Being over complimentary and familiar may be another. But it's hard not to be in awe of these people when they are projected like giants onto our cinema screens, beamed over multi channels on television and splashed across the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Sports personalities, models, dancers, reality stars and TV chefs also get the celebrity treatment because they are so familiar to us... we know their faces. But what of the ones that aren't so recognisable? The writers of the world... the journalists, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. What about the explorers or scientists, the brain surgeons and professors, the people that really do change our world? Would you know who they were if they passed you on the street?

As most of you know, my passion is books, reading them and attempting to write them. I immediately look at the photos of the authors on the back page or slipcover because I want to know the face behind the literature, good or bad, and commit them to memory. These are the people I swoon over, the ones that make me starstruck. Put George Clooney and David Nicholls in front of me and I may look lustfully at George for longer than appropriate but it would be Mr. Nicholls that would leave me blushing and wordless. Maybe using George is not the best example I could have chosen, but you get where I'm going.

A few years ago, I was at a literary festival with a friend when we found ourselves in a tent with Hari Kunzru and Hanif Kureishi. I don't mean a small two-man tent - that would be weird and not something I would publicly mention - it was more a large marquee-type tent where they had both been signing their current books. When I suddenly came face to face with the two of them standing together, I went a little peculiar. I turned red and began sweating. I couldn't look at them and began scanning the canvas for the nearest open flap. My friend watched my behaviour with incredulous irritation and decided to make the situation less awkward by simply pushing me forcefully in their direction. With no escape, I giggled and blushed, stood on one leg then the other, as if the portaloo was where I really should be heading, and said absolutely nothing as they raised their eyebrows at me. My friend brazenly stepped forward, introduced me to them, told them I was a huge fan and asked if she could take their photo with me in the middle. I adore her for that brevity, as I now have the photo at home. My face, however, is one of both terror and excitement... theirs, gentle bemusement.

A similar thing happened a few nights ago. I was invited to a fairly exclusive literary salon by a friend, and was quite aflutter when I found out that one of the authors reading from his latest work, was Patrick Gale. I had met this lovely man a few years ago when I was down in Cornwall collecting a prize for a short story competition, and he was kind enough to be persuaded not only to be the prize giver but also to have his photo taken with me for the local newspaper. The day was scorching and I was desperately searching for small dark pockets of shade to hover in, until Patrick had finished his book signing. I had worn a black jacket and dress to fake slimness, not fully thinking through the repercussions of combining black material with hot sun. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise when my outift soaked in every ray of sunshine making me feel like a boil-in-the-bag ready meal. Perspiration dripped down the small of my back and my fringe took on a damp hitler-esque appearance having been swept forcefully across my forehead. When Patrick came to shake my hand, it must have been like gripping a freshly caught baby squid... wet, floppy and trembling. The photographer seemed to take forever too, repositioning us again and again, until the sun was directly in our faces. The resulting photo was of me and Mr. Gale grinning, possibly grimacing, and squinting uncomfortably. If you look really closely you might see a small tear at the corner of my eye and think I was overcome with the emotion of it all, whereas in reality I couldn't see and the bloody sun had made my eyes water. I was emotional and starstruck, but not enough to weep!!

Since then, Mr.Gale and I have become Facebook friends, which is lovely. But there is a hidden danger with Facebook. Similar to us thinking we know stars and celebrities better than we do because we see and read about them all the time in the press, on Facebook, we do the same. We know where 'friends' have had their lunch and what they're cooking for dinner, where they are currently on holiday and if their dog is constipated, so when we next meet them we can launch straight into conversation, putting small talk to one side, and ask, “Oh, how was Morocco by the way?”, or “Did the brownies turn out all right in the end?”, or “Is your dog feeling better now that it's on the organic diet?” It's really rather odd. So on Monday morning, when my friend and I realised that the literary event had actually sold out and we were both poised with trigger fingers over our computers at 11am, ready to pounce as 10 more tickets went on sale, I decided it might be worth asking Mr. Gale himself, for any spares. Of course, I didn't phrase my message to him on Facebook quite so bluntly, I simply stated it would have been lovely to have seen him that evening but the event had, sadly, sold out and that maybe I would be able to see him at another event soon... Straight away, I received a message back saying that he had given all his complimentary tickets away but wished me luck at 11am. Amazingly, my friend did manage to click just at the right time and we were suddenly in possession of two 'golden' tickets.

So, even though I had exchanged messages with Mr. Gale earlier that day, I was still incredibly nervous about meeting him for a second time and I vowed to present myself confidently and be both witty and engaging. As he came to the end of his reading, the host suggested a break and the audience filed out of the beautifully candlelit salon into the next door room for drinks and nibbles. I spotted him from across the room, quickly checked that he wasn't talking to anyone else famous (I couldn't possibly handle more than one illustrious person at a time) and managed to say both hello and compliment him on his reading without a stutter or a blush in sight. Mr. Gale looked a little puzzled until I said my name and then realising who I was from Facebook, introduced me to the Mayor standing at his side, by saying, “Oh, this is Juliet… poor thing was so desperate for tickets today, but she made it!” I haha-ed rather too loudly and before I could say anything further he was enveloped in an adoring crowd. Later that evening, after a hilarious reading from the wondrous Armistead Maupin and as the literary salon came to a close, I whispered to my friend that I would love to have a picture taken with Patrick Gale to improve on the one taken in Cornwall. Before I could get my phone out, my friend had walked over to him, introduced herself and asked if he would be so kind as to have his photo taken with me. Of course, the poor man charmingly agreed and before we knew what was happening, my friend had grabbed my phone, instructed us where to stand and began snapping away, seemingly unaware of the crowd of people bottle-necked behind us as we posed in the narrowest section of the room. We then chatted for a few minutes about storms (a refreshing variation of the bog standard British weather conversation), bus replacement services and Cornwall, and then he asked how my writing was going. Ah. I had to admit that after two long years I was still only on Chapter Three of my book... oh the shame!

In a way though, my humiliation was my saving grace. By the following morning I was up at 7am and wrote for 5 hours straight, completely inspired. Inspired by a wonderful new friend who has suddenly ignited my passion for literature and who gave me the most incredible pep talk; inspired by a roomful of extremely talented writers doing what they love; and inspired by my ever-encouraging girlfriends who constantly boost me, one in particular, who recently told me off for wasting time talking about not having enough time!

Some things don't change, however. I may have appeared cool and composed as I chatted to a famous author, seemingly over my awkward excitable stage, but the resulting photo tells a different story… 

Monday, 10 February 2014

A Case of Mistaken Identity.

A few weeks ago I was walking through Soho when it started raining. I ducked into a doorway to wait for it to ease off and was joined, a couple of moments later, by a very glamorous black girl. She had obviously been running in the rain, and swore loudly as she pulled out a mirror to check her make-up, smoothing down her perfectly straightened hair with the other hand. She snapped her compact shut, looked around at the dark alcove, and suddenly noticing me, said, "Oh hello, do you know if this is the back entrance to Stringfellows?"

Now, I must explain what Stringfellows is at this point, otherwise the story won't make sense. Stringfellows is an infamous London institution, claiming to be... The Most Famous Gentleman's Club in the World. Peter Stringfellow opened its doors in 1980, perfectly timing the introduction of his 'stylish' topless dancing club with the glitz, glamour, big hair and hedonistic excesses of 80's London. It never pretended to be as tasteful as somewhere like the Playboy Club, but nevertheless, celebrities, international film stars, rock stars, models, paparazzi, and journalists flocked there for years. Nowadays, it attracts a different kind of celebrity… more overpaid footballer than award winning actor, but it still inspires a sort of hushed awe as people pass by and openly stare at the wealthy clientele as they are hurriedly ushered in under the bright neon logo. In 2006, Peter Stringfellow opened a second venue in Soho, and much to the horror of his seedier competitors, became the first club owner to gain a fully nude licence. And this, ladies and gentleman, was where I was apparently standing, one rainy night in Soho.

The girl was waiting for an answer. I looked at the door, expecting to see some sort of small sign or door buzzer to indicate it was indeed Strinfellows' back entrance, but seeing neither, I shrugged and said, "Um… I don't think so, maybe it's further down". She rolled her eyes, swore again and dug around in her vast handbag, pulling out a phone. "Shit, I'm so fucking late", she said, not really directing it at me, "I'm going to be in so much trouble". She heaved her bag on to her shoulder, somehow managed to tap a number into the phone with a diamante encrusted nail, and left. I heard her mumble an apology, then shout expletives and then ask directions as her tottering footsteps faded into the night. I sighed, pulled my coat tighter around me and leaned back against the door.

Suddenly, I was propelled sideways and flattened against the wall as the door flew open. "Owww," I said loudly, as I was squooshed into the tiny gap. A massive hand then curled around the edge of the door, followed by a huge bald head. "Ooh, sorry luv", he said, pulling me out. An enormous burly white man stood before me wearing a black suit and overcoat. He reached up and touched an ominous earpiece, its curly wire tucked into his collar. "Come on then... inside", he said impatiently, as his hand motioned towards the entrance. "You're late!", he added gruffly. Um. I was completely dumbstruck (for once) and as he noticed my horrified expression, he began very slowly, to lower his eyes, looking me up and down with an increasingly puzzled look on his bulbous face. You could actually see the confusion in his brain as it whirled around…. does not compute, does not compute. The fact that he had momentarily mistaken me for a dancer was utterly hilarious. Even more hilarious was the look on the black girls face as she came back and saw what was happening. "Um, hello?", she said rudely, staring at the bouncer with an appalled look of utter condescension. Her withering glare would have destroyed a weaker man, but he just beamed at her as happy relief flooded his face, and she was gently swept inside and the door closed firmly behind her.

People complain that Soho is becoming too gentrified with its overpriced wine bars and award winning restaurants, but as long as tits and arse still sell, there will never be a dull moment.