Friday, 23 April 2010

Chatting for the first time

Last week I did something I have never done before. And it being the first time, I was abit rubbish at it. I was a chat virgin.

I have had one-to-one chats on Facebook but until last week, when I was invited to chat to individual readers and reading groups around the country, was the first time I had been involved in a mass-chat. I’m fairly sure that’s not the right terminology and saying “mass-chat” is a bit like your dad talking about musical combos or the hit parade, but hey, you know what I mean.

I logged on to the site Nothing. I waited some more, and still nothing happened. The moderator sent me a text saying that there was a glitch. Questions began to appear: Was I still in a relationship with Juanita? What were my motivations for writing the book? How did I keep track of the conversations contained in the book?

All I could do was sit and look at the screen and watch the questions build up: was I surprised at the large number of relatives you found in Mexico? Would I like to give a talk on the book at Words by the Water at Keswick?

After about fifteen minutes, the screen finally flickered to life and then I had to write as fast as I could to try and answer all the questions before the clock ticked down. It was like being in an exam, but with nice questions.

After an hour, time was up. The screen went blank and I having spent an hour typing to furiously to people all over the country, I found myself alone in a dark room.

I got up and made something to eat.  

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Reading at Hampstead Waterstones

The day of the reading in Hampstead arrives.

I receive a flurry of e-mails from friends who are Arsenal fans, making their excuses. It’s the local derby, they’re sure that I understand. I have long learned that one can’t fight football. My 40th birthday was the day that England played Portugal in the quarter final of the 2006 World Cup. Love me as they do, I knew there was no chance of getting more than a smattering of anti-football friends to attend any party that night.

Tonight though, I have no choice. I agreed to talk about my book a long time ago.

I enjoy talking about my book; it’s certainly easier than writing it. My only fear is that no one will turn up. I dread speaking to rows of empty seats. It used to happen sometimes when, in my TV days, I used to fly to conferences obscure parts of Eastern Europe to talk about my TV channel.

I once travelled for seven hours to attend a film festival in Czech Republic. When I arrived, the organiser, a corpulent man with a thick moustache and permed hair, said that he wanted me to host a press conference.

No one had said anything about a press conference. I couldn’t think who would be interested in listening to me give a press briefing when I had nothing to announce, but he insisted that local press would be fascinated to hear from me.

He led me into a lecture theatre, where there were three people sat at the back. One of them, I discovered later, was the organiser’s wife, another, was lost and walked out as soon as I began to talk. The other woman was, she insisted, a journalist.

I talked about my TV channel for about ten minutes, until I could think of nothing more to say, then I asked if anyone had any questions.

The one journalist put up her hand, and asked if I could help her. I said I would try. “My TV hasn’t worked for months,” she said. “Do you know where I can get it fixed?”

I arrive at Waterstones in Hampstead, where I see three people and about 35 empty seats. My heart sinks. I am led upstairs to the staff room, a spacious room with a sofa and large coffee table, on which are two bottles of kosher wine. The charming girl who is charged with looking after me offers me a glass, and tells me tales of previous speakers – some of whom are household names – and how much they had to drink before, during and after their talk.

She leads me back downstairs. I have a feeling of dread and prepare to tell rows of empty seats all about my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather.

There are three empty seats at the front. All the rest are taken. As I begin my talk, more people arrive, then more. Two extra rows are added as I speak. Having spent five years writing this book, it is pleasing in the extreme that people are interested to hear what I have to say about the experience. The questions are plentiful and intelligent.

Then we all go to the pub. 

Friday, 9 April 2010

Better out than in

It turns out that it wasn’t a hangover, or brain cancer. I go to see the dentist who tells me I have a “mischievous wisdom tooth”, and pulls it out.

I now have a disconcertingly large hole in my mouth, but my headache has gone. Looks like I’ll make Wednesday’s reading after all.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Will I live long enough to give my talk?

Four days after my big night out and the hangover is no better. I’m dizzy, my brain feels like it has been replaced by candyfloss, clamped with a vice and muffled with a tea-cosy. My thought processes are slow, and a long way from my mouth – not a good day to be talking to the press. Today it has been women’s and genealogy magazines, and the regional newspapers in the North Yorkshire.

I go for a walk to the newsagent to clear my head. I buy the Ham & High to look at the interview I gave to promote my talk at Hampstead Waterstones on 14th April. The interview is not there.

I write to the interviewer and am told the piece was filed to late and will appear next week, a day after my appearance at Waterstones.

I have a lie down but can’t sleep; my head is too painful. I convince myself that I have a brain tumour, and wonder if I will live long enough to give my talk. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

PR with a tequila hangover

It’s a Tuesday and though I’m too old to be talking in these terms with any degree of dignity, I still have a hangover from my night out with some Spanish friends in East London on Saturday night. I have vague recollections of drinking gold-fish bowls of tequila through two foot long straws and after that it really is a bit hazy.

In just over a week I have my reading in Waterstone’s in Hampstead. Maybe it’s time I did some PR to promote it. Shame my head feels like it’s been hit by a truck.

I call the local newspaper, the Ham and High – the clue is in the name, it is sold (mainly) in newsagents around Hampstead and Highgate. They are interested in the story and they ask for a copy of the book, so I jump on my bike and cycle to their offices in Swiss Cottage.  

There I am met by a reporter in a sharp suit and taken to a coffee shop for an interview. I had thought I was only dropping off the book, and I feel a bit shabby in my bicycle clips and windswept appearance, not to mention the stabbing pain I still feel down one side of my face.

The reporter has done his research and already knows an alarming amount about me. His questions are thorough and fair and I leave feeling happy with the answers I have given.

I have barely recovered my breath from cycling up the hill when I receive a phone call from Sarah Freeman at The Yorkshire Post for another interview. My mind still feels like it’s on a work-to-rule but she’s an engaging interviewer.

A few more phone calls, a few more mails and I have a lie down.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Radio Sheffield

I arrive at Radio Sheffield to be interviewed by the legendary presenter, Rony Robinson.

The car park is empty and the lights in reception are off. I ring a bell by an intercom. It rings loudly for several minutes, then stops. I call the number of the radio producer and find myself listening to a recorded message about station opening hours.

I ring the intercom once more and am buzzed in by a bright-eyed production assistant who takes me to the waiting area.

Also in the waiting area are two people who are on-air before me. One of them, a sociologist, tells me that she is often on the programme to talk about equality issues.

“Are you a serial offender too?” I asked the person sitting with her.

It was perhaps not the most subtle of questions, as it turns out he has spent several years in prison.

When my turn comes, I am ushered into a studio to be greeted by Rony. He reminds me of John Peel, not just in the way he looks – close-cut greying beard and comfy cardigan – his voice too; has the warm gruffness that Peel had and he also shares that favourite uncle demeanour.

Seconds before we go on air, Rony says he wants to start by asking about my life’s turning point. I say it’s probably the moment that I discovered that my great grandfather’s secret family. “Okay, excellent,” he says and moves closer to the microphone as Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain comes towards the end.

“Or the moment when I set off on my trip,” I add.

He nods, his finger raised to indicate that he’s about to speak on-air.

Or the moment I return to Mexico with my grandmother, I want to add. They’re all turning points. You could argue that every day has its pivotal moments.

But by now he is in full flow, talking about how a son of Sheffield (that’s me) had come to be in the middle of Mexico. “Was this your life’s turning point?”

I say it was, and decide not to mention the dozens of others that I have thought of in the last few seconds.

We move on from turning points and I tell the story, Rony interrupting only to drum on the desk in excitement when I get to the part about meeting Tío Arturo for the first time.

The interview over, I head off to Sheffield Live! It’s a community station, the only one I have ever been to with an exclamation mark in its name. It’s also the only interview I have done that has started with the interviewer telling me how weird I am for not drinking tea or coffee.

Another of life’s pivotal moments? I wonder to myself.

It appears not, so I tell my story.