Back in Manchester, the Americans are swapping stories about their trips and sorting through souvenirs. Rachel has a handful of hobbit figurines to send to friends in Missouri. For herself, she bought an imitation ring and treasures it as Frodo did. Ben didn’t come back with any Roald Dahl souvenirs, but he has bought a sonic screwdriver from the Doctor Who Museum. Ellen spent the weekend writing poetry and watching clouds. None of them experienced a mind-blowing epiphany. Rachel says she felt close to Tolkien, but only in the way you feel close to photographs of your parents as children — close but at the same time distant. She seems satisfied but, looking around, I wonder if this is enough for us — what more do we want?
Later at lunch Ellen brings a message from our tutors.
‘There’s a special panel discussion on tonight,’ she says. ‘Some big British writer. We’re supposed to go and then meet the tutors afterwards for the farewell dinner.’
Patrick, a quiet and intense Cormac McCarthy fan, is the only one in the group who has read anything by this big British writer. He comes around to our rooms one by one advising us to dress nice: ‘We might get to meet him afterwards. And there’ll probably be publishing heavyweights in the audience.’
Perhaps we aren’t as interested as we ought to be. Most of us have a naïve disdain for modern novels and authors who still breathe and go grocery shopping. For us the Golden Age of literature is always in the past. The best authors are always dead authors. What could the latest literary sensation possibly have to offer? Making our way to our seats in the second row at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, I wonder what the big deal is — who is Martin Amis?
Martin Amis is languorous as he walks into the hall. I can’t say exactly why this is impressive, but it is. I would normally view drooping skin and a faint monobrow as unattractive qualities, but Amis wears a defiant gaze. There is charisma, yes, and it is hard not to stare. Suddenly my treasured image of Jane Austen, the sketch done by her sister Cassandra, seems insipid in comparison to the flesh and blood man on stage.
He drapes himself over the chair, drawing the attention of the room away from the host and other writers on the panel. Every row in the hall is full. Many people cradle piles of books with ‘MARTIN AMIS’ in bold typeface on the spines. It is a frenzy I never thought possible for a writer, let alone a high-brow, literary one.
Amis clears his throat. His voice is heavy but crisp – he has the confident accent and affectations of an Oxford man. He speaks about violence in literature, referencing texts I have never heard of but clearly should have. Every word he says is intelligent, every idea already formed into a perfectly punctuated sentence. He speaks in carefully polished free verse, and exudes equal parts intelligence and celebrity charisma. Intelligence or just cocksureness, whatever it is, I’m under the spell.
Not all of what he says is easy to follow. Obscurantism occasionally lapses into nonsense and then into what seems like bullshit. But somehow it doesn’t matter. Very few people have come for the content; they have come for the man. He is preaching to a hall full of true believers.
After the discussion, I find myself standing in a long line for book signing. I’d snuck in behind some of the other summer school students. I hadn’t really listened to much of what was said, but there was something about Amis that had struck me. There was something in the way he walked into the hall and dominated the conversation, every eye trained towards him. I want to see him up close. Patrick passes me a book to buy.
‘You can’t just give Martin Amis a scrap of paper to sign,’ he says scornfully, handing me The Rachel Papers.
When I reach the book-signing table, the other writers who had been part of the panel lean forward and grip their pens. I bypass them and head straight towards Amis. His face is bored and leathery, dried-out. I make eye contact for a half second. He glances at me then drops his head and I am left staring into a faint bald patch. He massages the pen with his index and middle fingers and asks for my name.
Immediately, my tongue becomes dead inside my mouth. Words. Not wanting to appear like every other fawning fool, I’d rehearsed some words, some witticisms, in my mind as we shuffled forward in line. But now my words clump together like hair in a plughole.
‘Coco,’ I say.
Well fuck, I think. He is going to remember me as the girl with the strange name! A name only clowns or porn stars should have (although, in hindsight, it was arrogant to think he would even remember me at all).
‘There’s a character in this book called Coco,’ he replies, as he bends the stiff cover and begins scribbling his own name.
I mumble something vague. I probably should have read his novels before coming to meet him. He finishes the signature and pushes the book back towards me. Our eyes meet for another half second.
‘She’s a cock-tease.’
I don’t really remember what happened after he said ‘cock-tease’. Now, years later, when I try to recall the scene everything is hazy: everything except his craggy face and the phrase ‘cock-tease’. It hangs in my memory like a brightly-coloured balloon — a brightly-coloured cock-shaped balloon, slowly deflating.
I should have said something clever. I should have shot back a zinger. I probably guffawed and stumbled off or, more likely, Patrick pushed me to the side, and I traipsed back to my flat thinking of what I should have said — l’esprit de l’escalier.
Cosima McGrath is a writer and editor from Brisbane. She works for Griffith REVIEW and is an editor for Bumf. In July, she will examine the way avid readers and aspiring writers encounter their literary heroes on the page and in real life.