Let this snap of Dan Smith and I at Leeds Book Awards be the last word on the matter: I don’t photograph well.
When I saw the pic, taken on a sunny afternoon in a grand civic hall, I had a sudden flashback to a wet Scottish night two years earlier. A night on which I understood with fresh and vivid clarity my relationship with (i) my fellow authors and (ii) cameras. Wigtown Book Festival, 2017.
It was pissing down in Wigtown.
I’d ridden a train up through the Lake District past Carlisle and into the lowlands of Scotland, changing at Lockerbie and heading west. A grey-skinned taxi driver with a mini-whiteboard had picked me up from the station. I was sharing the cab with Steven Poole – his column in Edge magazine was one of my monthly go-to reads on computer gaming and I was trying not to gush too much – and SJ Parris, elegant and hyper-intelligent writer of historical mysteries with CJ Sansom-style dust-jackets. I’d say we chatted in the taxi but in reality it was an episode of Cabin Pressure in which Steven Poole was Douglas; dry quips, dark glasses and cigarettes, SJ Parris was a deft combination of Caroline and Martin, riding up front all deep thought and fierce insight; and I was John Finnemore’s wide-eyed Arthur. I made the conversational running, an eager idiot declaring everything “brilliant!”
Every table in the town was booked for dinner but we all ended up in a pub somewhere because Philip Ardagh, with his national-treasure comedy-charm, had talked us in. His illustrator was with us too; a lively and charming woman with killer glasses. There was lots to drink. We discussed the festival, the green room, the various event venues and running order, the town’s bookshops. In a conversational turn that I consider emblematic of my writing career we discovered, sharing details of our accommodation, that my drinking buddies had all been put-up at the town’s well-appointed hotel. I, by contrast, was in a remote hillside B and B fifteen minutes away by taxi. It was getting on for midnight and I’d forgotten to call the owners. When I did, I’d already put away a few beers and struggled to make my apology coherent. They were furious with me. “I’m going to bed,” growled the owner once I’d failed to calm him. “I’ll leave a key.”
Back in the pub we drank some more. Sometime later, the split-second event that sits at the heart of this story happened.
I was mid-sentence, doubtless boring the arse off Steven Poole, when he went all Duran Duran on me. Seriously – he sucked in his cheeks, brushed back his fringe, tightened his jaw and his eyes went glassy and gorgeous. He was staring somewhere over my shoulder. Perplexed, I checked the others. They too had taken on new aspects. Philip Ardagh was grinning broadly. SJ Parris looked like Miami Vice. I’d dimly got as far as a what-the… when I figured out what was happening. Someone was taking a photograph of us all.
Too late; the flash blinded me precisely as I was gurning horrifically at my fellow diners, clumsy features distorted by misplaced enthusiasm, booze and shame. That’s the record of my Wigtown Book Festival experience right there.
And this picture of me and Dan Smith – I appear to have been caught in the moments immediately after saying something infantile, or responding to a hastily barked instruction to look surprised! – is one I have a great deal of affection for. Payback didn’t win, by the way, but I had a great time.