Literary Lunch

4 September 2013

I’m at the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch next week (Thursday 12 September, Cairn Hotel, Harrogate, 12 noon-3pm) talking about my new book The Inn at the Top. It’s the first time I’ve done the event since 2001, when I shared the platform with Edna Healey and Esther Rantzen. It took place a few days after 9/11 and having eaten the lunch, watched by an expectant audience, the three of us were all clearing our throats and girding our loins, since we didn’t know in which order we’d be speaking, and, in my case at least, also wondering whether a) I should have gone a little easier on the Chablis and b) probably linked to a) above, whether I should have nipped to the loo before the hour-long series of talks began.

Just then, the Chair of the event, the Yorkshire Post’s long-standing right-wing columnist, Bernard Dineen, rapped on the table for attention. ‘Before we begin,’ he said, ‘I’d like to ask you to stand for a two-minute silence in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack on Manhattan’. You could have heard a moth’s wing-beat in the silence that followed and you could tell from the faces of the audience that everyone was reliving the horrific sight of those television pictures of the Twin Towers collapsing.

Once we’d sat down again, however, a horribly selfish thought struck me: I began praying that I would not be the first one called upon to speak, for if I lived to be 100, I would never find an audience that would be less receptive to the light, trite and bright speech I’d been planning, than a roomful of people with images of that horrific death and destruction still filling their minds. I stopped breathing as Dineen cleared his throat and said ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, our first speaker today is… Edna Healey.’

Edna gamely rose to her feet and began her talk in complete, deafening silence, but slowly managed to steer the audience away from those horrific memories and onto much safer ground. When she sat down, I led the applause. Esther Rantzen and I had a much easier task later on, but I never got a chance to thank Edna at the time for dealing so well with the poisoned chalice. So Edna, if you’re reading this, it’s twelve years late, I’m afraid, but thank you, you saved my life.