Another week, another book launch. This week, it was Jill Westwood's first novel, Holding the Centre. I can't say that my toast flew out of my hand with excitement when the invitation from Axon Press turned up on my breakfast table. Any claim the book might have had to originality already appeared undermined by its lazy titular reliance upon Yeats's overfamiliar poem. (Simon, a former colleague of mine who spent a long year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem fretting about the decline of Zionism, once claimed to have seen a local backpackers' guide with the title Slouching Around Bethlehem.)
There were other problems. Two years ago, Jill sent me a chapter of the novel to read because it included a character "who bears some resemblance to you". It might have been her ineptitude at characterisation or possibly my own distorted self-image, but it took three readings to decide that I must be Piers, whose "self-confident intellectualism was refreshingly belied by unexpected flashes of modesty", rather than Gus, whose "sensitive, aquiline face suggested a poetic temperament", or indeed Lenny, who only popped into the chapter for a paragraph and a quick beer and displayed no other character trait than "a general churlishness".
No doubt Piers grew into a more rounded character in the final text, but given that his only function in the 5,000 words I'd read was to provide the heroine, Amy, with an opportunity to elaborate her own sensibilities, it seemed unlikely. (Maybe it's a consequence of having read Camus's L'Etranger so often during adolescence that, whenever I open a novel, I still find myself longing for a central character who doesn't have any very clear idea about why he's the central character.)
Despite such reservations, I dutifully turned up in the Dinosaur Room at the Natural History Museum on Wednesday night and endeavoured to look intellectually self-confident on the remote chance that one of the young, blonde publicity women who were enthusiastically ducking between the skeletal proboscises might suddenly rush up to me and cry: "Why, you must be Piers." ("Gosh," I would say with calculated self-deprecation, "do you really think so?")
As usual on such occasions, most of the punters had positioned themselves well away from the table bearing several hundred copies of the new book. After all, it was one thing to drink someone else's booze, but quite another to show premature enthusiasm for a product that had not yet received even the most basic imprimatur from the London Review of Books. (My own aversion to being too near the actual objet d'art derives from the unfortunate moment five years ago at a minimalist exhibition in the Laure Genillard Gallery when I'd rested my wine glass on an unsteady shelf that turned out to be an exhibit. "Didn't you even notice the red dot on the side?" whispered Marcia, as the conceptual artist swept my glass away.)
Jill's speech was marginally less inaudible than others I've strained to hear in the Dinosaur Room, and it contained the usual lengthy references to those who'd made it all possible by designing the cover, reading the proofs and gluing the pages together at the bindery. But I perked up when she dramatically glanced to her left and fixed her eyes on an inordinately dreary gay couple who'd regaled me earlier in the evening with stories of their narcissistic cavorting at Sydney's Mardi Gras. "And, of course," cooed Jill, "my special thanks to 'Piers and Gus'."
There was nothing else to do. I put on my best churlish face and headed for the exit. Lenny would have been proud of me.