party time


the launch

Living in a country house (ravishing Thrumpton Hall for anybody interested in a gorgeous setting for a film) that thrives on its new incarnation as a party venue, I watch the parties, my laptop facing the window, from the third-floor office that was once my nursery. Below the window lies the rose garden, all neatly geometric beds of flowers; beyond them lies a green lawn reaching out towards fields and a wooded hillside cleft that once – it’s curiously sexual – served as a Roman shrine.

The wedding parties that take place here follow a pattern that never fails to please my watchful eye. First, usually, comes a couple of young men, secret smokers, softly conspiratorial, laughing together as they saunter out towards the grass.  Both look overwhelmed with relief to be free of social responsibility and off on their own. Today, it's an older couple who first emerge from the house's French windows. Probably married, and shielded by a bed of tall pink roses, they're shyly kissing each other. She glances up.  I duck from view. 

Next come a jolly spill of small children, spreading out across the lawn, running, cartwheeling, shouting with happiness and all on the run from the patient, prowling, conscientious fathers – seldom the mothers nowadays – who are supposed to be keeping an eye on them.  They've got their work cut out. A couple of them take their coats off and start playing tag. Rejuvenated and red-faced, they're laughing like kids.

And here's the couple – do you wonder that I find it difficult to work on a Saturday? – heading for that perfect photo shot (top of the rosegarden steps) as certainly as every couple that visits Paris discovers just the same spot under the clipped trees, off to the side of Notre Dame. Bliss keeps them warm. I've watched the couples stand out there under a dripping grey sky with a March wind whipping through the trees. They don't care. Today, our lovely bride is bare-shouldered and ecstatic, veil askew, shoes kicked off, kissed and kissing, locked in love. I'm not sure she can even hear the jolly shouts of her friends, gathering to cheer her on. It's all so sweet, so pure a spectacle of happiness. Sitting at my window, remembering how much sorrow and loss has been experienced in this splendid, ancient house of ours, I'm looking with misted eyes at a scene of unclouded joy.

And that joy is what I experienced this week, on the day of the launch of my book.  Noble Endeavours is the book I've lived with, night and day, for the past five years. Now, unbelievably to me, it's complete, alive: all that reading and thought and planning and writing finally transformed into a beautiful, tangible object. I can see it standing there in sturdy piles on the counter at the bookshop door. I feel so proud!

I've been as nervous as a bride all day. There are at least three other splendid books being launched in London tonight. Surely everybody will go to those parties and forget about mine? Here we are at lovely Daunt's, my favourite North London bookshop. The doors stand open and my fears are unallayed.  The bottles of wine are uncorked.  The glasses are ready. The room is empty. My mother, more serene than I, is sitting on a chair and reading – oh, unpardonable! – somebody else's book!

'But the pictures are so nice!' she protests as I snatch the rival from her hands. My tiny grand-daughters stop doing cartwheels across the wooden floor to stare up at me with puzzled eyes.

'Excuse me,' the older one says, and she takes my hand, as if to comfort me, 'but we were wondering. Do you think anybody's going to come to the party?'

It's only six o'clock. Nevertheless, panic grips me. The publicist has arrived, breezily charming and confident – as I am not – that all will go swimmingly well. But then the anxiety returns. My husband smiles warmly at me. I take this to mean that he knows nobody is coming. I smile back. Terror sits like a stone in my throat.

I know this social anguish from watching the weddings. I've seen the brides and grooms stand hand in hand by the entrance door, conducting a desultory conversation with the photographer while barmen clink their glasses and polish jugs. Somewhere, too loudly, a clock ticks. I've seen their eyes glance out at the empty terrace and back to each other, pleading for reassurance. Maybe all parties feel like this? But at a book launch, just as at a wedding, there's this special, fearful sense of being centre stage and knowing that – after all the planning, all the endeavour, all the heartache and all the hopes – there's nothing to be done. Nothing, that is, except to wait.

The fear is groundless. What also links a launch to a wedding party is the moment when, within the space of thirty seconds, everything changes.  And then comes the best of it: a wonderful sense of being swept up on a brimming wave of affection that spreads out and out until it seems that nothing, absolutely nothing, just for this perfect hour or two, can break the spell of friendship and goodwill. (A spirit, I can't help sadly adding, that once bound England and Germany as close to each other as a royal bride and groom could make them.)  

But– and this is more true of a launch than a wedding party– there's also a curious sense of wistfulness. This is the moment that marks a beginning and an ending. This book – this friend – this repository of so much hope and work – is setting off on its journey. And when I say that I shall miss it, I mean that I shall miss all the people who came to life, as in a novel, while I was writing it. I've never before attempted a book with such an enormous cast of characters. I didn't know how attached to them I would become, scurrilous though a few of them are.  Poets and writers; travellers and lovers; emperors and princes; soldiers and explorers: what would all these astonishing people have thought of each other, I wonder? One thing I do know; they would have approved of my theme.

Some of the people I have written about in Noble Endeavours dedicated their lives to bringing together the best of England and Germany. If my book can remind its readers of what wonderful things were achieved, even in the darkest of times, by burying distrust and looking to the future, I'll have done something to carry on that valiant and crucial mission. 


   Added: Saturday 07 September 2013