I meet Chris in the bistro on the ground floor. ‘Tell you what, Tim,’ he says, shaking my hand, ‘why don’t we keep you anonymous? That way everyone’ll say exactly what they think of your book without having to mind their p’s and q’s.’
‘Yup, we could do that.’ I grimace inwardly, my stomach turning just a little on its axis.
‘The meeting’s upstairs,’ he smiles. ‘Follow me.’
My reading edition tucked under my arm, I follow him up a narrow staircase towards an excited babble of literary voices. That’s a good sign, I think; they all enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to being the centre of attention, to soaking up the adulation: the hero of the hour, a genius and a scholar.
‘This is, er, Tim, ladies and gents,’ announces Chris to the assembled gathering. ‘He’s thinking about joining the Club and I said he could come along for a taster evening.’ Murmurs of greeting and sidelong glances. ‘To kick off proceedings,’ he continues, ‘I’d like to say that I recommended Lessons in Humiliation to the Club because I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a headmaster myself, there was plenty to laugh at. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?’ He clasps and unclasps his fingers. ‘Yeah, I had a good chuckle. Liked it.’ He turns to his neighbour. ‘What about you, Bill?’
Bill is fingering a copy of my book, flicking through the pages in an appreciative way, as if he can’t decide which high-point to single out first for praise. This is going to be a great evening. What it is to be appreciated as a comic writer. ‘Well,’ he sighs, his brow furrowing, ‘not wishing necessarily to start off on a negative footing, but I only got as far as – er, let’s see: Page 51 – and then had to stop.’ As does my heart, briefly: in mid beat. Chris glances at me, but I am concentrating on the shadow cast by a bottle of dried grasses on the mantlepiece above Bill’s head. ‘It may be a question of sense of humour, but frankly, I didn’t find it in the least bit funny. It’s all very clever and all that, but it’s just too much. The thing is relentless and anyway, I didn’t sympathise with any of the characters. I couldn’t read any more.’ He pauses theatrically. ‘I also found it offensive.’ The other nine literati are now hanging on his every word. ‘Did anyone else find it offensive?’ He clearly relishes his moment in the hot-seat. There are mutters of general assent. ‘Take this passage: I’ll read you a bit.’ He cracks open the book and settles into his outrage:
‘“Valerie and I squeeze into a doorway to let a fully-laden double buggy through. The girl pushing it is smoking and spotty, her pink tracksuit stained on one shoulder. I feel oddly superior: not for Valerie and me a life of drudgery. We are above all that. We are smug middle class lovers who carefully and responsibly take preventative measures.”
What do you think of that?’ Bill glares round. ‘Hardly politically correct, is it?’ Further murmurs of assent. ‘No. Hated it.’
‘So, Jim, what about you?’ asks Chris, leaning forward and smiling encouragingly at the next reviewer. My heart has not only stopped: it has been ripped out of my chest and tossed to the crocodiles.
‘I’m sorry to say I couldn’t finish it either,’ states Jim pugnaciously. ‘It’s about adultery and, well, you know, what with my first wife going off with another man, I know how it feels and I don’t want to read about it, thank you very much.’ Jim’s Northern intonation makes his misery all the more palpable and I find myself glancing at the next person: will she hate me too? She is a peroxide blonde named Tania and apparently the femme fatale de choix in local Am Dram groups.
‘I enjoyed the theatrical bits,’ she twitters, crossing her skinny legs and flicking her hair back. ‘It’s basically about a man who wants to be loved, but I haven’t finished it either.’ (She’s reading that phrase directly from the back cover. I know. I wrote it.)
On my left, deep in a sofa, is a lady married (I think) to the Bill person. When she speaks, I am made aware from her guttural R that she is a) Swiss and b) therefore too po-faced and controlled a person to wish to engage with a book with a title like that and which her husband so vehemently hates. However, her neighbour Alice, Jim’s new wife, is also a teacher and enthuses about the hilarious pedagogic content, and about how good it was that the narrator stood up to the wicked headmaster. She wonders though whether the book wouldn’t be better read aloud or performed on stage by a comedian because it was all a bit much of an assault on the average reader. Too much of a good thing. This Timothy Edward is clearly a cleverclogs. ‘I agree with you, Bill,’ she concludes. ‘It is relentless. And also, the school stuff is obviously ridiculous. It could never happen in this day and age.’
Jim has been studying his iPad. ‘One other thing,’ he mutters. ‘One of the bloke’s reviewers says that she’s looking forward to the next volume.’ He looks up in horror, his reading glasses crooked.
‘Is he going to write a sequel, then?’ hisses Bill.
‘I hope to God he doesn’t,’ declares Alice.
Now it’s Tania’s turn to perk up; she announces categorically that she doesn’t know anyone like this awful Valerie. ‘Women like that just don’t exist,’ she decrees. ‘She’s utterly ridiculous too.’
My feet, I notice, are twitching in my shoes, preparing themselves for a major flounce. Surely it’s time to receive a fake text and excuse myself on the grounds of a work-related crisis or a death in the family? I force myself to lean back and fold my arms instead, protecting myself from whatever’s coming next.
On my right, Oliver is speaking. Oliver is evidently not a member of the Club either. I know I’m safe with him because he told me downstairs that he was a fan of mine. ‘Well, I’m surprised at the reactions so far,’ he intones, sitting up straight and bringing a full and varied life experience to bear on the proceedings. ‘I have to say that I absolutely loved it. It was brilliant. I read it in two sittings. The writing is so funny – I’d compare it to Evelyn Waugh.’
‘Evelyn Waugh?’ snorts Bill, nearly choking on his red wine. ‘You’re surely not comparing this to Waugh? It’s not even as funny as Tom Sharpe!’
‘This book leaves Sharpe in the shade,’ snarls Oliver. I must remember to slip him a crisp twenty. ‘Furthermore, I think it’s a great achievement to have written such a novel and had it published.’ Don’t over-egg it, man. ‘I’m appalled at what’s been said tonight.’ Fighting talk which might have descended into fisticuffs had I not opened my mouth to speak.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I say, somewhat over-resonantly for such a small room, ‘I think you may have missed the point here.’ All eyes swivel. Who the hell am I to suggest such a thing?
‘Really?’ sneers Bill. ‘Is that so? But may I ask first why your copy has all those pink markers in it?’
‘I always put markers in my books,’ I smile, ‘because I am anal and like to know what I’m talking about.’ There is loud laughter as I say this rude word. (I do not explain that the markers denote either good passages to read to enthusiastic punters or misprints that need to be corrected in the – under the circs – unlikely event of any future reprint.) ‘But I agree with you, in point of fact. I think the book is offensive. It deals with social and personal issues (I use the word in its modern sense) which might be unpalatable to many. To you, in fact. Let me read you a bit.’ I open up at Chapter Twenty-Nine:
‘“One of the disadvantages associated with being the Village Lothario is that squadrons of curtain-twitchers, back-biters and gossip-mongers tend to gang up together in the village shop to discuss how best to shun the miscreant whose actions have so shocked them to the very core of their bourgeois respectability. Naturally, I despise them for this, justifying my venom by telling myself that these bottom-feeders are working from a position of envy and regret, only wishing that they’d had the presence of mind to become my confidant and walking partner instead of Valerie.”’
Knowing how it should sound, I manage to generate a laugh from them on nearly every line, and by the end am feeling a little better. ‘I also have to tell you that both the school material and everything to do with the Valerie woman is true.’ I pause for a second to allow Fear to drift across their faces. ‘I know because I wrote it.’ Chris grins sheepishly as Alice and Bill turn to glare at him. Oliver sits back with a satisfied grunt and five mouths assume feline rectal form. ‘But, please,’ I grin, ‘I beg you not to be embarrassed. Imagine how awful it would have been if you had known who I was. How dishonest a discussion we would have had.’
‘But, Tim,’ whispers Alice. ‘How do you feel after hearing all this adverse criticism?’
‘To be honest,’ I lie, ‘I feel one per cent chastened. And I have to say that I am entirely unrepentant because this I what I write and how I write. I am sorry that some of you – most of you – don’t like it, but there it is.’
An hour later, having opened my soul to them, having admitted to some of the true awfulness of the reality of my flailing years, having made them laugh and love me, I say my farewells. There is deep-tissue hand-grasping and full eye contact from all members of the Book Club.
‘Thank you so much for coming in,’ says Alice as a round of spontaneous applause dies down. ‘It’s been a great evening. We’re really looking forward to the sequel.’
Timothy Edward’s novel “Lessons in Humiliation” is available at http://www.timothyedwardauthor.co.uk