THE DAY started beautifully. I was picked up from a very fine hotel by my publicist, a bright and attractive young woman named Sonia, and placed into a car (with VIP written on the side!).
Our task for the day was to meet our adoring public. It was a dream come true.
As we scooted down the road towards the Sydney Writers' Festival theatre where the audience was waiting, I remarked that I was interested in meeting Jacqueline Wilson, who was also due to appear at the same theatre that day.
Sonia smiled and assured me that we’d meet the celebrated British author. “Now there’s someone you don’t want to be sharing a signing table with,” she laughed.
I laughed too. Jacqueline Wilson is wildly popular, having sold 20 million books in the UK alone –-- which is staggering when you think the entire population is 58 million and many of them don’t read books. Her signing queues are legendary --– they stretch, sometimes literally, for miles. On one famous occasion, she signed books for nine hours before the crowds finally thinned.
We arrived at the theatre, and I was very happy to meet Ms Wilson offstage, and I sneaked into the theatre with several hundred children to listen to her speak – she was great: unassuming, natural, and very easy-going. This was a pleasant surprise for me: I think of her in the author superstar bracket, not quite JK Rowling, but only one step lower.
All the “performances” if we can call them that, went very well.
And then all four authors were ushered into the foyer to sign autographs.
“You’ll be sharing a signing table with Jacqueline Wilson,” a theatre staff member told me.
What!? I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out (rare for me). I did a passable impression of a gobsmacked trout.
Two of the authors had been placed at one end of the theatre, and two at the other. I was sharing a table with Ms Wilson at the front of the foyer.
Within seconds, so many children had surged in front of us that the whole place seized up. We were told by staff the crowd was blocking access. Our table was lifted up and moved back as far as it could go, almost into the next hall, which was a restaurant.
A massive queue built itself up in front of “Jackie” as we referred to her by then.
I realized that I would just have to make the best of it. All authors fear book-signings to some degree – perhaps no one will be interested and I will be sitting there all alone, my lack of appeal on display in the most blatant and humiliating fashion. But when you are sharing a table with a superstar, extreme humiliation is guaranteed.
Oddly, I found myself not caring in the slightest. Why was this? I did a bit of introspective thought.
First, I was so thrilled to have established a quick, easy acquaintanceship with someone who was a long-term hero of mine, that I was feeling great. I was caught up in the same wave of worship as were the kids in front of us.
Second, you can only be humiliated if there are people looking at you, thinking (or appearing to think): look at that poor guy, sitting there all by himself. But almost no one was looking at me, and no one was thinking negative thoughts. The crowd was all children, and youngsters don’t have the sort of political, over-sensitive, over-analytical way of thinking that adults have.
So I found myself happy and relaxed as teachers marshalled flocks of children into lines.
And then I was delighted to find a queue building up in front of my bit of the table.
I realized that I had been saved from complete abandonment by two factors. Ms Wilson was not nearly as famous here in Australia as she was in the UK, so her queue was long but not obscenely so. And then there was the fact that she is a straightforward speaker: she spoke well, but her talk was a rather calm, didactic chat about her writing and her career; in contrast, I approach audiences as an entertainer or comedian and had managed to get the kids shrieking and high as kites. So the more excitable youngsters raced for my autograph instead.
In the end, I had to stop signing well before she did – not just because her queue was longer, but because the bookshop had sold out of my books.
The journey from dream to nightmare and back to dream again is surprisingly short.