The author swings through the glass doors of the boutique hotel. Boutique hotel in boutique town. Everything smells of middle class comfort. He's met by the volunteer, a cheery lady more accustomed to marshalling girl guides than marshalling the literati. She shows him to the room where he is to conduct the creative writing class.
The big dining table is a snug fit in the room and not at all what he had envisaged. When the literature festival organiser had emailed him and asked if he would discuss writing with a group of would-be writers he had imagined a cosy scattering of chairs where he could roam the room at will discussing the finer points and giving his views on the questions of the morning. Instead he is trapped at the end of the table whilst the delegates make their way to the empty spaces around him.
It's 11.00 and he must start, conscious that every eye is resting on him, waiting for his brilliant insight, examining his appearance - 80s journalist chic, black shirt, loose dark jacket, stubble and surprisingly manicured hands with which he conducts the class. He asks them to introduce themselves and each in turn gives him something they want him to know about them.
There are three PR women - how could it be that a town with more tea shops than businesses and pubs combined can have so many PRs? There are a couple of older guys who have probably been sent out by their wives who want them out from under their feet whilst they cook Sunday dinner. But there are two students too - one who breathes her name so quietly: "I'm F..." it comes out so he is scarcely the wiser. Fay apparently. And there's a young man who wants to be a music journalist. Now here's something the author can understand, whose greatest moments were defining albums by angry young men for a music paper. But the young man's dialogue is smattered with likes and yunnos and he muses whether his written prose is the same.
Then there's Carol. Not 'Hi I'm ..." but "I am Carol". Big voice, big blond hair and a big bow on her big chest. She tells the author that her daughter is an actress - as if that has anything to do with the price of fish but she wants him to know. As if, "I'm not just another of these losers." Beyond Carol and F...there's a shiny-topped little man who wants to talk about poetry. Why is he here?
They all turn their attention back to him and it's 11.20 so he talks about how he started writing. Nothing personal, just the process as it was when he started, pens and paper, typewriter ribbon. He talks about music journalism and sees the young man straighten in his seat, already brimming with his own imagined success. The author talks about the abbreviation of journalism, the fast-fix statements for a time-short reading public that wants its answers in grading systems and simple answers, not in the beautiful sentences the author wants to write. It's noon and suddenly everyone wants to talk.
They talk, not listening to each other but to their own voices, about the closure of book shops, about reviews so short they're scarcely worth the name, about kindles and second hand book shops and vinyl. The room is alive and the author leans back in his chair, relaxed, and discretely checks his watch. 12.20.
This is easy. He can sit and listen to them giving their opinions, but "my daughter is an actress, you know..." crackles him back to life. How did the music journalist from Stockport find himself here amongst the middle aged and middle class? He's written a book about the North but it isn't this North, this neat and tidy, doing something to occupy retirement North. His North is bleak and dirty, warm and brassy and this might be ... Surbiton.
One of the retired men starts a long ramble about the kind of people you meet on a tall ships cruise and he stops him, exerting an unexpected rein on the pointless chatter. He reads to the group from his photocopied notes. Gobbits of laudable advice about writing, mantras of authordom. They listen again, intently, jotting notes and names of suggested writers. Taking down their own homework.
Now it's 12.50. The author sighs the start of his wrap-up. He's completed the task, earned his crust, maybe sold a book or two and he can smell the pint foaming into a tall glass in the nearest pub. The class push back their chairs and start to file towards the door with thanks and goodbyes. He's released. He gathers his papers, pausing to shake hands with the young man who wants to write about music. A few of the class want a few words with the author, the rubbing off of stardust, making the imagined connection and then he's away, into the genteel foyer of the hotel, scouting around for the young porter he had sen on his arrival.
"Where can I get a beer?" he asks, hoping the rapidly intensifying sense of urgency is apparent to the liveried young man. The porter is well-trained and nods in the direction of the chintzy hotel bar.
"No. An actual pub," explains the author. He's got it. The porter gives directions and the author is on his way, delighted to find that a real pub, not a franchised, sanitised bar for the chattering classes, is a short step away.
He stumbles into the beer-brown gloom of the old-fashioned boozer and nods at the pump of his choice to the tired barman. Seldom was a pint so anticipated, so welcome. He hands over the coins and pulls the pint towards him, lifting it to his lips for the first taste to swill into his mouth and down his throat. He feels a hand on his arm. It is the small shiny topped man.
"I thought I might find you here. I'd like to read you some of my poetry."