John Humphrys came by chopper, so why did I just get a train ticket?
I came face to face with a reality I have evaded for too long. I am not an A-list celeb - at the very best I am C-list
Saturday 13 June 1998
We were bound for a literary festival at which I was due to read and answer questions. I pictured a marquee full of patient, earnest faces awaiting my arrival; waiting and waiting until patience gave way to rage.
Urged on by my wife, I approached a pale youth wearing the uniform of the railway company. "Do you know how late it's going to be?" I asked. "I am supposed to be giving a reading at the Hay Festival in a couple of hours."
The youth shook his head and simply said: "What?" Again I questioned: "The train. Even a rough idea how late?" He looked at me with what I took to be pity and replied: "Ah no. I wouldn't like to say sir." I tried several of his colleagues with an equal lack of success. Then a woman sitting nearby said she was also on her way to Hay. "You'll make it alright. Don't worry," she said.
As it happened I had returned just the previous day from a three-week trip to Japan filming a Great Railway Journey. In three weeks, and across countless miles of track, not one train had been late. Steam trains, commuter trains, bullet trains. All had arrived and departed exactly as scheduled. And on the one occasion when a train threatened to be late, the apology was fulsome. In this matter at least the Japanese know how to say sorry. When our train rumbled into Newport 25 minutes late, was there a word of apology? Of course not.
By the time we neared Hay-on-Wye, the family stress level was heading for the danger zone. But much, much worse was to come. For, as we began the last stage of the journey from Hereford to Hay by car, our charming driver Nigel volunteered a terrible secret: "We had that John Humphrys from the Today programme earlier," he chirped. "They sent a helicopter up to London to get him." A helicopter! From London! While I, the inestimably great Keane was travelling by rail (second class). I was just recovering from the shock of that disclosure when Nigel explained that several other writers not quite in the helicopter class - like Peter Carey - had been chauffeured down from London.
So it was, somewhere between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye, amid the green folds of the summer countryside, that I came face-to-face with a reality I have evaded for too long: I am not an A-list literary celeb, not even a B-list one. At the very best I am C-list. Perhaps even that is pushing it. If I were a soccer team, I would be lucky to be in the Fourth Division. If I were a country, I would be Albania or Guinea Bissau.
I was, however, naturally concerned to hear that the arrival of Mr Humphreys' helicopter had terrified a number of cows. They had been innocently munching grass when the whirlybird descended into their field. The creatures must indeed have suffered shock. One can only hope that the trauma was alleviated by the knowledge that a real somebody from the A-list had arrived in their midst.
If, like me, you have produced a book inspired by the arrival of your firstborn, it might seem perfectly natural, even desirable, to bring the said child to an occasional literary event. At the very least, one would be preparing him for a life on the giddy fringes of celebrity. After Hay, it is something I would strongly caution against.
For it is a scientific certainty that the child will become more waspish, fractious and cross a greater number of adoring readers who surround him. "Is this the famous Daniel?" they asked and he frowned in return. And woe betide the one who extended a hand to pat his head. This could produce howls of terror.
At Hay, we went to a charming restaurant on the main street for our evening meal. A woman sat alone by the window. To her right was an open book, to her left a glass of white wine. She was contemplating the rooftops and the last beams of sunlight flooding the street. As we approached, she looked up and smiled. "That little boy looks like one of Botticelli's cherubs, a real sweetie," she gushed. Ten minutes later, as our cherub loudly demanded a football and stamped his feet on the ground, I saw her shoulder muscles tense, a distinct red flush appearing on her cheeks. The poor woman was struggling. At the best of times, it is impossible to control the moods of a two-year-old. Generations of parents have suffered public humiliation at the hands of such infants.
But where other parents at a literary festival might deliver a stern reprimand, I must observe a public sweetness that demands immense powers of self-control. No barking, no raised voice. "Now love, won't you be a good boy?" I whimper. If things are looking desperate I might say: "If you're not good, the man will be cross." Just who the man might be is never specified, but his looming presence generally tends to have a quietening effect. And thus, as I ushered the fractious child out of the restaurant and into the street, I imagined the other diners saying: "Such a nice man, just like in the book."
The reading itself was a dream: full of ordinary people listening carefully and asking intelligent questions. I always come away from such events feeling slightly guilty. People are, generally speaking, terribly nice. The media swamp I crawl from is so shallow, self-regarding and venal. I love Hunter S Thompson's description: "It is a shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run wild and good men die like dogs." There is, however, the occasional hazard of the lurking crank. I once almost abandoned a reading in Ireland when a supporter of the Angolan government launched a long and bitter tirade against imperialism and its proverbial running dogs. He included me among the galloping canines.
Still worse are the religious fanatics. Believe me, they are out there. Waiting for their moment. You never know the hour when you will look up from a table full of unsold books to find a beatific smile and an invitation to welcome Jesus into your life. Hay-on-Wye was blissfully free of such miseries.
After the reading, I collected Daniel from the patient arms of his mother and headed off across the fields. The sun was shining and my son was in his "I am the sweetest child in the world" mood. After a few minutes walking, we came to a field full of sheep. The ground was covered with their tiny black droppings.
"Don't walk on the poo," I warned. "Don't walk on the poo," repeated Daniel. Then he fixed the sheep with a determined stare. "Let's chase them," he shouted and galloped off across the poo-pebbled grass, scattering the flocks before him.
l Fergal Keane's book `Letter from Daniel' is published by Penguin//BBC, at pounds 6.99.
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