During the last two weeks I have been travelling round the country visiting bookshops and arts centres to do readings from my latest collection of short stories, The Dog Catcher. The way the evening goes is that I read from one of my stories entitled "Barcelona Chairs" – a coruscating satire on minimalist architecture, political ambition and New Labour greed – and then answer questions from the audience; after that I sign books.
As the author of two best-selling and enthusiastically reviewed collections of short stories, I was asked one particular question at the Bristol Watershed Arts Centre last Friday night: "When the Queen Mother dies, do you think we'll all get a day off work or what?"
After some thought, I replied that, given that the aristocracy had been grinding our faces in the dirt for a thousand years, it would only be fair if we got a day off when one of their top ones carked it.
There was then a bit of a discussion about getting a day off work for royal funerals; of course, it doesn't make any difference to me as I am self-employed. I rarely get a day off – I'm working on your behalf thinking up funny ideas to put in the paper, if not 24/7, then at least 21/6 most weeks – so I couldn't remember, but the audience said that it didn't happen for Diana's funeral because it was held on a Saturday, which I somehow blame her for, or her creepy brother.
I did recollect that the last time I got time off for a funeral was when we all got a day off school for Winston Churchill's state interment (though he wasn't royal). Of course, that was in the old days and I, like almost everyone else, attended a single-sex school – a girl's school it was, and I can remember quite clearly that we used the day off to have a party dressed in our shortie nightdresses and drink cider and indulge in pillow fights, which rapidly turned into passionate kissing.
It's an interesting thought, though, that if the dear old Queen Mum (godblesser) bought the farm before today, then you would not be reading this column, because what is at the moment a fairly harmless piece of writing would be transformed into an incredibly shocking piece of bad taste worthy of Hitler, Pol Pot or Chris Morris, and these words would metamorphose into something abhorrent simply by a turn of events.
There was another occurrence along these lines during a previous question-and-answer session in Liverpool. In the story I read out, the odious central character uses the word "spastic". I used this word deliberately to highlight how nasty he was, but it does get a ripple of laughter due to shock value.
After the reading, a woman in the audience said that a close friend of hers had recently become paralysed from the waist down, and could I justify using that particular word? I reckon that this woman had become sensitised by what had happened to her friend and she might not have noticed the word if that event had not occurred.
Nevertheless, it was a valid question that I was happy to reply to, since I felt I had covered my ass; not only could I argue that my motives in using the word "spastic" were to highlight the awfulness of the character, I could also point out that I have in the past done work for the cerebral palsy charity Scope, and I have always tried to cast disabled performers in my productions, both as actors and background artists.
When I was planning a new show a few years ago, I gave the people in charge my usual speech about how we should always consider both disabled performers as well as women and ethnic performers when we were casting speaking and non-speaking parts.
In return, rather to my surprise, one of the team gave me a speech. He said that really I didn't have to mention any of this stuff and that, in a way, I was insulting them by even bringing it up; I should understand that I had grown up in the bad old prehistoric days of television, that they were part of a new younger generation of television folk who had grown up with the idea of equal-opportunity casting, that it was second nature for all of them to look beyond the use of white males when stocking a show, that every single person connected with the production knew there was an absolute requirement to reflect the diversity of everyday life and that I could rest assured everything would be done to bring this about.
In addition, they had all been on awareness courses at country-house hotels, and there were constant memos from management on this very subject, so that really it was automatic, it would happen as a matter of course.
Needless to say, when we came to shoot the thing there were certainly no disabled persons to be seen anywhere and the majority of speaking parts were filled by white males from the comedy circuit.Reuse content