It’s Saturday morning and I wake before dawn. It’s only my second morning in my new flat and I walk into the living room to look out of the window at the still unfamiliar sights. The sky is still a dirty amber and the lights still shining brightly on the London Eye and BT Tower.
I’ve rarely been up this early before; I’m tempted to say that the view is worth getting up for, but that’s not quite true. The sight of a still, quiet London glowing in the half-light is most certainly beautiful, but not as beautiful as a deep and restful sleep. I’m only up because I have a radio interview to go to.
The marvellous Emma, the publicity guru at my publishers, phoned me when I was in the middle of moving flat last week to tell me I had been booked to appear on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, the daddy of all travel programmes. It’s live at 10.00.
I have always assumed that guests would need to be there hours before, and would sit in the green room like Roman noblemen feasting on enormous bowls of fruit while production assistants run around after them to satisfy their every whim. This is why I am up so early. I want my bowl of fruit.
It’s 9.45, just fifteen minutes before we’re on air and I am standing in the BBC canteen with the other two guest, Chloe Aridjis, who’s promoting A Book of Clouds, and Mark Carwardine, a well-renowned zoologist . We’re sipping ice cold water in plastic cups. There’s no fruit. Not even any biscuits.
Ten minutes before the programme goes on air, we are shown into the studio. John McCarthy, wearing a very fetching floral shirt, greets us warmly and invites us to sit round a carpet-topped table. It has four microphones sticking out of a hole in the middle where there are multi-coloured cables and a computer keyboard. I am handed another glass of water and I can’t help wondering what would happen if I accidently dropped it. Would sparks fly? Would Radio 4 go off the air?
I’m gripping my water so tightly that I barely notice a green light go on. John begins his very smooth opening. He then pauses as they play a recording of a TV programme Mark made about whale-watching with Stephen Fry. I realise this was a programme I saw, though I don’t say anything as I’m not sure my microphone is switched off.
John’s brilliance is that he lulls you into thinking you’re just having a chat, which we are, I suppose, it’s just that we have a million or so people listening. I all but forget my nerves, so much so that I hear a voice inside my head say “Go on, say ‘titty turd’”.
Gosh, I hope that thought wasn’t out loud. John is looking at me, millions are listening. He’s asked me a question. What was it again, something about why I set out in the footsteps of my great grandfather?
I clear my throat and begin to talk, and try to keep the words ‘titty turd’ away from my mouth. (Where on earth did they come from anyway? Who the hell says titty turd?) John nods encouragingly and asks another question and I tell the story about Wilson, the loon who pulled a gun on me during the journey from Veracruz to Mexico City. The version in the book has a fair number of words a lot more offensive than titty or turd, but judging from the smile on John’s face, I think I’ve managed to avoid them.
John directs some questions to Chloe and then more to me and as a final question asks if we intend to go back to Mexico. We all say we do and it’s the end of the programme.
We have a brief chat as we put on our coats and within ten minutes I am in a car heading home. For a bowl of fruit.