So, two charity books I have selflessly and magnanimously contributed to are just about to be published with an eye on the Christmas gift market, and the least I can do is point you in their direction. Both launched in London on Thursday – although I only managed to attend one of the launches, because it was at Number 10, Downing Street and I am shallow like that.
One of the nice things about being a published author is that you are often asked to write things for no money. You are flattered to be asked; the shrill inner voice of egotism and the baritone of realism combine to convince you that seeing your words printed in someone else’s book is suddenly far likelier than seeing them printed in your own, and that seeing your words printed anywhere is a pleasant, if fleeting thrill. Which is why I agreed to contribute to Modern Delight, published exclusively through Waterstone’s (Faber, £9.99), and with all proceeds going to Dyslexia Action, and the London Library; and Grandparents (Ebury, £9.99), the third book, followings Mums and Dads, compiled by and intended to make money for Piggy Bank Kids, Sarah Brown’s charity.
The former is a modern update of Delight by JB Priestley, published in 1949, which sought out 114 instances of simple pleasure (the Marx Brothers; a walk in the woods) at a time when Britain was beset by bombed, postwar gloom and the author was having some teeth out. The Waterstone’s edition collects mini-essays on the same from writers as various and crowd-pleasing as Stephen Fry, Nick Hornby, India Knight, Jeremy Paxman and Clive James. I wrote 400 words on the Pied Wagtail, which begins, “They say that the Devil is in the details. If so, then surely God is in the wagtails.” (Beat that for a forced pun, Clive James!)
The latter is a far cosier anthology of pieces about, yes, one’s grandparents, penned for no money by a broad sweep of contributors, from Martha Kearney, Alan Titchmarsh and the Archbishop of Canterbury to Jimmy Carr, Lorraine Kelly and Paul Dacre. Bill Bryson’s in there too, but it’s an appropriate extract from his memoir, not a newly-written piece. Still, kudos to him for turning up – and adding considerable literary weight and star power – to the launch.
You may recall that, by contributing to Piggy Bank Kids’ previous book, Dads, I was invited to its launch, last Valentine’s Day, at Sarah Brown’s house: Number 10, Downing Street. This was an evening affair, and star-studded (click here for a full guest list) – all party politics aside, a memorable event with champagne flowing and Joanna Lumley. My second visit was to be an afternoon-tea kind of affair, so less glamorous and boozy, although I had rather hoped for a better celebrity turnout, if only for the sake of my Dad. You might say I should have taken my Dad to the Dads launch, but he was there in spirit – in my essay for the book – and anyway, I had no idea that a nonchalant walk up Downing Street would become an annual occasion. (Charlie Higson took his dad to the Dads launch, by the way, but most took their spouses and partners, as did I.) No matter! It was great to be able to spread the Downing Street love around this year, and my Dad came down to London especially. Even though I was an old hand at walking up Downing Street, it was exciting again to push past the stupid public and be allowed through the big gates to wander up the most famous non-fictional street in Britain, having put our bags through the police X-ray machine.
No mobile phones or cameras were allowed inside Number 10, so I was unable to Tweet or surreptitiously snap the inside of the Downing Street toilets, and since no press photographers were granted access either, it actually felt, once again, like a private do. Sarah Brown spoke eloquently about the charity, we all stood around and held cups and saucers in the rooms where so many world statesmen have also stood around holding cups and saucers, and everybody craned their necks to subtly check out who else was there. I was disappointed that so many of the book’s bigger names didn’t bother to turn up (Kelly, Titchmarsh, Alex Ferguson, Fiona Bruce, Annie Lennox, Rowan Williams) – perhaps some of them are blase about going up the famous stairs and looking at all the former Prime Ministers? Perhaps they had better things to do on a Thursday afternoon? I certainly didn’t, and nor did my Dad. It was surreal to be in that famous house, nibbling tiny meringues and wondering who the very elderly lady in the wheelchair was. (We have since decided it must have been Denis Healey’s wife Edna.)
Of course, last time, it being an evening do, Gordon Brown turned up, without fanfare, and had an after-work beer among us. I expect he was working on Thursday afternoon, trying to think up ways of taxing the middle classes and allowing the bankers to give themselves obscene bonuses. Dad and I had a pleasant two hours at Number 10, chatting with my actor friends Michael Simkins and his wife Julia Deakin (yes, Marsha off of Spaced!), and regaling them with what Jimmy Carr had said to us when we first walked in. Ever the comedy imp, he shook my Dad’s hand and said, “Have you got the drugs? Because Andrew says you’re usually holding.” My Dad took this in good spirit and I enjoyed the risque nature of Jimmy’s opening gambit.
Just as we were leaving, we bumped into the genius British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, he of the best two Bourne films and instantly recognisable long hair. Dad and I had been enthusing about United 93 in Costa beforehand, which we had both watched on TV, so I introduced us to Paul Greengrass and we were able to enthuse about it to his face. He seemed grateful for our praise at the top of the stairs. I certainly liked the idea that my Dad could come down to London from Northampton for the afternoon and wind up shaking hands with the man who had written and directed the very film he had seen on TV two nights before. Dreams can come true, as long as they are sensible and achievable dreams based on being introduced to a man most people wouldn’t even recognise in the street.
Modern Delight was being launched at the London Library directly after our Downing Street experience, but Dad is not a serial ligger – and nor, frankly, am I any more – so we had some Italian food and he took the train home.
As I said, there is no photographic evidence that the Downing Street event ever took place (they didn’t even send out posh invites this year – credit crunch). I could be making the whole thing up, like Derren Brown Mind Control, but I am not. Jimmy Carr really did accuse my Dad of carrying cocaine and I really did see Trevor Beattie, Patti Boulaye, Bill Bryson, Emma Freud and Kathy Lette in the same room.