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Diplomacy isn’t my strong suit: just ask the Germans

To the German embassy. Not a sentence I get to write often. Nor one, I suspect, I will get to write again. There’s some sort of literary event there tenuously attached to the London Book Fair. The German poet and novelist Matthias Politycki is in town and they’d like me to interview him: on a dais, sitting in a rococo chair, in front of about 200 dignitaries, publishing bods, weirdos who are interested in this kind of thing and embassy staff roped in to make up numbers just in case, I suppose. 

My first instinct with this kind of thing is to say “no”. I have a horror of interviewing people on stage, terrified by the memory of my time at the Cheltenham Festival in 199-, when I had to find, in front of that festival’s largest audience, common ground between Alex Garland and Nicholas Blincoe. I was nursing a hurricane-strength hangover and having to hide from 400 people – one of whom was my wife’s aunt – my right-hand side, which was entirely covered in mud, the result of falling into a damp flower bed at six in the morning en route to snatching two hours’ sleep after a modest little session in the hotel bar with James Walton. 

Fuller myself

But this is different. Matthias is a good egg, the kind of person whose company is itself relaxing, and I am happy to do him a favour. The only thing he’s had published in this country is a very good but rather depressing novella; the last time we met he gave me his long poem, “London für Helden”, or “London for Heroes”, in which two Germans go on the piss in London, trying to find a nice English real ale that they actually like – and failing comically. 

(The book also has a beautiful cover, with the title imposed on the Fuller’s London Pride logo; inside are reproductions of certain ads for, as an example, Spitfire ale, such as the one that shows a full glass at 19:39 and an empty one at 19:45, and the slogan “No nazi aftertaste”.) My German isn’t nearly good enough to get all the jokes or references, so I resolve to give my copy to the translator Shaun Whiteside, in the hope that it might one day come out in this country. 

Also, I’m being paid 200 quid. 

Still, terror mounts in the run-up to the gig. Germans take their literature seriously: any writer I know who’s done a tour in Germany comes back with a slightly dazed look, telling tales of sell-out audiences, interesting questions from people who’ve read all their books and decent treatment at the hands of whoever’s running the show. 

On the Friday before and with not a clue as to what I should be saying, I email Matthias saying, “Help! I haven’t the FAINTEST IDEA what to ask you. Yours in desperation, N”. I hear nothing until Monday morning, when the same email comes back, within an email from the German embassy, which says “I think you meant to send this to Matthias.” 

Well, I suppose it is better that they find out I am an incompetent idiot before kick-off, rather than very shortly after. 

En route to the embassy after a pot of Darjeeling and a chat, Politycki and his wife ask me how I have enjoyed the London Book Fair. Very much, I reply: I didn’t go. Once again the seriousness gap between the Germans and the British reveals itself. 

It takes some time to persuade them that book fairs are not my cup of tea. Publishers, I try to explain, are for giving writers lunch, drinks, or money, ideally all three together, and the thought of a melee of publishers, agents, writers and critics under one roof gives me something approaching a panic attack. 

(I once wrote a piece saying that I considered Hay-on-Wye a delightful place for 50 and a half weeks of the year – a comment that prompted Hay bigwig Peter Florence to make a nasty comment about my writing below the line, which he had every right to, but one day I will bring to a wider readership the story about him and the horse race.) 

War games

At the embassy, a typically plush gaff on Belgrave Square, I note the ranks of chairs, and am reminded of the time I went as a guest to a similar bash at the — embassy, which was so boring that I nipped out for an hour for a couple of pints, chatting to a pair of American tourists who had, blissfully, never read a book in their lives; when I got back, the —s were still talking. 

Anyway, in the end all goes well, apart from the incident with my clip-on microphone, which I thought was on mute but turned out not to be. Which we will never speak of again. I think it is best if I avoid diplomats for a while. I do not want to start a war.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master