You may remember I was invited to the Rotherhithe Library reading group last night.
I was a little nervous. I can walk the walk and talk the talk at such events, but it doesn’t come easy to me to be the centre of attention. Luckily I had the wonderful Joan and Meloney Lemon (friends and fellow members of the East Dulwich Writers’ Group) with me as henchwomen.
But I had particular cause for anxiety this time. Readers of Nirvana Bites will know that I haven’t been exactly flattering about Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. ‘Redneck territory’ is how I described the area.
‘So what’s wrong with Rotherhithe?’ Joan asked as we drove – or to be strictly accurate, Joan drove, I navigated, Meloney lolled.
‘It’s weird,’ I replied. ‘There are plenty of black people living here but it’s very much a white working class area where racism is the norm. There are definite no go areas if you’re black.’
We turned a corner onto a back street leading to the library. A group of shaven-headed geezers, complete with obligatory bull terrier straining at the leash, leered at us.
‘See?’ I said.
‘Blimey,’ replied Joan. ‘Yes, I see.’
We drew up outside the library. We were early and decided to wait in the car. I had a sudden rush of paranoia.
‘What if they’ve read Nirvana Bites?’ I stammered. ‘What if they’ve come to GET ME?’
(For those of you who haven’t read my first book, I should point out that the plot revolves round the setting up of an international fascist headquarters in this very area. My unequivocal anti-racist stance is also clear from my website and this blog. Oh – and I’m Jewish too …)
I turned to Joan, seeking reassurance. None was forthcoming. It seemed I’d have to provide it myself.
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘These guys wouldn’t read a book, would they?’
Meloney piped up from the back seat.
‘You’ve got a blog now, m’dear. You’re out there. Anyone can find out about you …’
‘It’s all right, Debi,’ Joan murmured in her famously dulcet tones. ‘We’re here. I can just hit them with my handbag.’
I glanced at the diminutive figure with grey hair sitting next to me, glanced back at the blokes on the corner behind us … The odds didn’t look good. And I couldn’t even smoke a fag, thanks to this awful cold …
So it was with some trepidation that half an hour later we made our way into the library. About 20 people sat in a circle of chairs.
‘Are you Debi?’ one guy asked.
He looked good. I liked the look of him. Very camp and my kinda people … He grabbed my hand.
‘Loved your books,’ he gushed. ‘Both of them. Brilliant characters, wonderful writing …’
OK. Maybe I could relax a bit. There’d be at least one person on my side apart from Joan and Melony. I sat down in the circle.
‘We split the room,’ an older man growled from my left. ‘This side is always people who hate the book we’ve read.’
Gulp. The room was split about 50/50.
‘Think I’m in for a hard time,’ I muttered to the divine Ms Lemon.
Well, my dear blogmates, how wrong can you get???
They were ALL just amazing. Nearly all of them had read one or both of my published books. Several had bought their own copies and many complained that not enough were available in the library.
And they knew them. Really knew them. With hindsight I should probably have reread them myself before coming. It was a bit like a comprehension exam at times. They kept correcting me!
‘But Tatiana wasn’t a victim of global trafficking, was she?’ one woman pointed out. ‘She came here with the circus. It was only after she was here that she fell into the hands of the traffickers …’
‘Ooops, yes, you’re quite right. Sorry.’
I managed to slip in a plug for Amnesty's campaign while I was at it though ...
It would be hard to imagine a group of people more generously-spirited. I almost drowned under the outpouring of positive feedback. They knew my characters. Really knew them. Had no problems whatsoever in identifying with them. This was a very diverse group in terms of gender, age, race, nationality etc yet no one said they had any difficulty relating to the people in my books.
Buoyed up by their support and positive affirmation, I read out the rejection letter I’d received that morning. There was a roar of disapproval. These people, like all of us, are lovers of books and were appalled at the reasons stated for turning down Me, John and a Bomb. I lost count of the number of people who said they couldn’t wait to see my next books published.
There may have been some there who didn’t like them, but if so they stayed silent. I hope they would have felt able to voice criticism if they felt it … It would be utterly ridiculous to expect everyone who reads any book to love it.
Oh and some sundry extreme weirdnesses – they told me that a tropical fish shop (just like Koi Korner in Nirvana Bites) opened up in the same street as Koi Korner round about the same time the book was published! And several of them also said they knew Boddington Heights, the fictional tower block in the Old Kent Road that appears in both books.
‘No you don’t,’ I said. ‘I made it up!’
But they were adamant …
The evening was supposed to end at 8.30. At 9.30 Julian, the warm and welcoming organiser, called a reluctant halt.
So there are wonderful experiences to be had in Rotherhithe after all. I have never been so glad to be proved wrong!
Huge thanks to Julian and Margaret who organised the evening.
Huge thanks to the Rotherhithe Library Reading Group for inviting me and for their warmth and generosity.
Huge thanks to Joan and Meloney for their never-ending support.
And huge thanks to Life for giving me this magical and uplifting experience.