It’s ironic to be writing a diary page when my actual paper diary – what the Americans more accurately call their “planner” – is a mass of crossings out, changes, and question marks underlined next to many a “TBC”.
I am a figure of fun in my family because of my somewhat extreme approach to punctuality: I’m frequently reminded of the time that my sons and I turned up for the Rugby World Cup Final before even the media had gained entry to Twickenham. (My boys took a photograph of me – the lone, seated, spectator in the stand – as their most joyful souvenir of the day.) And what about the freezing evening we arrived for a carol service at the Royal Albert Hall before the doors had been unlocked? The recounting of this has become a stock part of our family Christmases.
Recent months have taught me to be more accepting of scheduling generally. And of change. Months back I was confirmed to join the caravan of authors who spend the autumn months traipsing from literary festival to literary festival, promoting their new works. Some of these venues are gloriously welcoming, beaming audiences asking piercing questions.
A few, though, are hosted by terrifying, clipboard-bearing, “festival directors”. They are thrilled to see you – not for any ego-warming reasons, but because you’ve spared them the embarrassment of a no-show. These imposing hosts like to seize you by the arm as the final applause weakens, then plonk you at a trestle table to scribble dedications and signatures in their books. Then, your signing duties complete, they fix you with hard eyes and a tight smile, and say: “Would you like a cup of tea before you go…?” The message is clear: you are now superfluous, and in the way. It would be helpful if you were gone.
I love literary festivals, though – even if there are so many of them now. A recent cartoon portrayed two shipwrecked mariners scrambling onto a desert island, with one saying to the other: “Right, first things first: we’d better found a literary festival…”
I used to host a lit fest myself, and so I appreciate the ordeal of it all: the humiliation of begging for “big name” authors to come – they attract the crowds and secure the sponsors; and the embarrassment of tiny numbers attending brilliant events, simply because the speaker is not a figure familiar from Radio 4, the BBC, or their byline in the mid- to high-brow press.
And the scheduling is crucial – a few authors are best shown off before they direct their trademark powers of concentration to the South African Chenin Blanc. There will always be a scheduling crisis when an author falls ill, suffers a bereavement, or suddenly decides they can’t be bothered.
But one such crisis led me to my new book. The daughter of an elderly author called me at Althorp to say her father was too ill to appear. So I dusted down a speech on the queens of England that I’d hastily prepared for a dinner at Leeds Castle, hosted by the doyenne of historical fiction, Alison Weir. Now I delivered it again, going off on a tangent when I talked about Matilda, the daughter that Henry I had chosen to succeed him, but who was beaten to the throne by her cousin, Stephen. This nearly-queen only had a claim to the throne at all because her teenage brother, William Ætheling, boarded the White Ship – the Titanic of its day. Its loss led to a bloody civil war. Henry I was a wonderfully fertile king – he had 24 children – but none of his other sons were legitimate.
Remembering the interest that my audience had in the White Ship three years ago, I looked it up online and noticed that the 900th anniversary of the disaster fell in November this year. Publishers love an anniversary, luckily.
This autumn sees a tsunami of new books being published in the UK, since many titles were postponed by Covid-19. Competition for attention – from reviewers, bookstores and the media, let alone the poor, overloaded, reader – is hard fought. I received a general email from a much-loved comedian yesterday, begging for “likes” for their book on social media. I turned to my diary and saw that we are being published on the exact same day. The other family joke is about how overly competitive I am. But there’s still time…
The White Ship by Charles Spencer is published on September 17