Five years after I swore I’d finished with him, it’s odd to be back on the road with Alex Rider. It’s also quite confusing. In the 16 years it’s taken me to write the books, Alex has aged just 15 months while I’ve experienced 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Arab spring, Brexit, Presidents Obama and Trump, and Theresa May. Until a few months ago, I would have said that life feels much the same in the UK where Alex and I live. But three terrorist attacks, the election and the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower threaten to tear us apart. Even the queen was heckled when she visited the disaster site… surely a totemic moment.
I have a very slender, personal connection with one of the people who died at Grenfell Tower. I met Khadija Saye at the Venice Biennale and was immediately drawn to her luminous, very evocative daguerreotypes in the Diaspora Pavilion, which was dedicated to the work of emerging artists from diverse backgrounds. We got chatting and I liked her immediately. She had a huge personality and she was so happy to be there, in Venice for the first time. Bizarrely, we discovered we’d both gone to the same public school. Although Khadija was a touch reticent about the experience, she had won a scholarship to Rugby when she was 16. I can’t believe she’s gone.
I had launched Alex at the Hay-on-Wye book festival which, with its green fields, marquees, tea shops and endless rain, conjures up an image of a much more familiar Britain. The economics of book festivals puzzle me. Writers sell a quarter of a million tickets but receive next to nothing themselves. Not unless they’re Bill Clinton, who reputedly received £20,000 in 2001. And how much did they paid Senator Bernie Sanders this year? I was lucky enough to get into his packed-out session and he’s certainly an extraordinary speaker, naming the eight American families which, he claims, have more wealth than 53 per cent of the population of the world. At the end of his diatribe, the 1,200-strong audience was on its feet chanting not his name but ‘Corbyn! Corbyn!’ It was my first intimation of the shock of election night that was to come.
I’m not complaining about my own quite meagre fee, by the way, although I agree with authors such as Philip Pullman and Amanda Craig who have challenged literary festivals for their stinginess. Craig has suggested that all participants should be paid the same. I would go one step further. Authors should be offered a sensible payment which they can, if they wish, decline. The money should then go into a pot to be shared among technical/specialist/non-fiction writers or new, upcoming talent who may not be able to rely on massive sales. Might this not give a sense of camaraderie to the whole proceedings?
These days, I have to be careful when I speak at book festivals. Journalists attend most sessions and anything you say may be taken down and used against you. I was once caught talking about Orford, saying that it was a perfect setting for a whodunit because everyone who lived there wanted to kill each other. It was a joke, obviously, but a week later I found myself on BBC Radio Suffolk, having to explain myself and apologise. The whole promotional path has become a minefield with journalists waiting for you to say anything that might explode in your face. I am trying very hard to become more boring but even BBC Breakfast, interviewing me about Alex, tried to draw me out of my comfort zone with questions about ethnic stereotyping. Thank God for Blue Peter with its secret gadgets made out of cardboard and its endless innocent fun.
On the day of the election, I was being filmed in Salford’s MediaCity and drove to Orford late at night, shortly after the exit polls had come in. As I arrived, there was a quite exceptional storm, the rain slashing down, the wind screaming and the huge Suffolk sky chopped up into blinding white slices from Aldeburgh all the way to Felixstowe. This is what we writers call the pathetic fallacy. Generally, I try not to use it in my books but it certainly works, powerfully, in real life.
And so back to London. I’ve recently, against all good advice, ‘rescued’ a dog from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. This is a great institution — even if it does resemble HM Prison Slade, where Ronnie Barker was banged up in Porridge. I’m surprised they can still hang on to their prime site with so much development going on around them. Anyway, I’m rediscovering the quiet pleasures of walking in Regent’s Park and on Hampstead Heath. Dog owners are almost, without exception, affable. Strangers quickly become friends. It reinforces my favourite aphorism: a dog is the one mistake you never regret.
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