One of the many misconceptions that people of other nationalities have of English people – Americans chief among them I’m afraid – is that we’re all so reserved and private that we’d rather die than exchange words with a stranger.
Like most such stereotypes this is, of course, rubbish. It’s people like me from the South of England who see conversation with strangers as a extreme social taboo – go up to the North of England, and they’ll natter away at anything that moves and a lot that doesn’t. I know. I’ve got family in Yorkshire, visit frequently, and often find myself thrown into a panic by complete strangers greeting me as I walk along the street. (I usually just smile and nod back and hope to hell they’ll be happy to leave it at that).
Many years ago, a school friend of mine went to University in Lancashire. When he returned home after the first term, he’d gone completely native, saying excitedly: “It’s great! Complete strangers talk to you on the bus!”
Only half joking, I told him that stranger talks to me on the bus, he’s either a pervert or a retard! Now I should stress that this was 22 years ago and I was 18. Were I to have the same conversation now, I would choose my words far more carefully and with considerably more tact; but I suspect the overall message would have been much the same. I don’t generally talk to strangers on public transport; it’s just not a thing we do down here.
So anyway, last night I went to London’s Forbidden Planet to attend a signing by one of my favourite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, that I’d only found out was happening that day. (And as it happens, I’d literally just finished re-reading his novel, the Wild Shore, just a couple of days previously – I really am a fan).
So anyhow, there was a little queue of us, and a stack of books at a table, but come the start of the signing at 6 o’clock, no author. (Funnily enough, this was the exact opposite of my one and only signing for Game Night: I was there, but no queue of readers).
It turned out that Kim was late because of a mix up with times. I must stress that when he did turn up he was very apologetic, most gracious, and by his conduct put himself right up towards the top of my personal “writers, personal opinion of” chart, the bottom of which is currently occupied by a certain big-name SF author I had the misfortune to hear speak at a science-fiction convention some time ago.
The Big Name SF Author
I was in the audience for a panel supposedly about writing courses. For the first ten minutes or so, the four panelists managed to largely contain themselves to merely being mildly smug and self-congratulatory about the courses they’d run or attended, but then for no particularly compelling reason the big name SF author segued sideways into a long, sustained, mean-spirited and frankly vicious attack on the self-publishing industry and self-published authors, with the former being described as “evil” and the latter being described as angry, socially dysfunctional individuals with an inability to take criticism, a burning belief that they were right and that everyone else in the world was wrong, and a fanatical desire to prove the rightness of that latter conviction through the successful self-publishing of their novel.
(Midway through this, he did backtrack slightly, and concede that self-publishing firms weren’t actually evil…)
As you can no-doubt guess from the way in which I’ve described it, I was somewhat enraged both by what he said, and by the cold viciousness in which he chose to say it. I’m not saying that he’ll remain at the bottom of my “writers, personal opinion of” chart for ever, but I’d advise anyone wishing to seize that bottom place from him to begin their interaction with me by punching me hard in the face if they wish to have a fighting chance, such is the degree to which I’m still outraged by what he said.
And finally, now that he’s made me aware of just how much prejudice there is against self-published books in the publishing industry, I now always feel compelled to point out that my own novel ended up being small-press published rather than self-published. This is of course the same moral cowardice that leads people to begin attacks on homophobia with the line, “I’m not gay myself, but…”, and yes, it does leave me feeling similarly disappointed in myself.
Anyway, so, signing queues. And bus queues. Yes I have got a point, and after spending this long typing the introduction, rest assured, I am damn well going to make it.
Some way into our wait, @Danacea of Forbidden Planet (whose tweet was responsible for me being there in the first place) came out to explain that they were very sorry, but that they didn’t know where Kim currently was. People were actually a little worried. It was starting to sound like chapter one of a thriller:
“So. He flew into the country on Wednesday morning. Do we have proof that he arrived?”
“He had lunch with his publisher on Wednesday afternoon.”
“And then he was supposed to appear at some… comics shop?”
“Forbidden Planet, sir. In Shaftesbury Avenue.”
“Right. He was supposed to be there at six, but he never showed up?”
“Yes sir. I believed the staff waited until a little after nine before raising the alarm.”
“They waited three hours?”
“He’s a writer, sir.”
But the point is this: it was at that very point that I started to talk to the guy who’d been standing in front of me for a good half hour, a guy who turned out to be a very personable New Zealander with whom I had a very interesting chat on subjects ranging from the author we were there to see, theories as to where he might be, the Internet, and the privacy implications of widespread Internet usage.
Which is where a signing queue turns out be just like a bus queue, at least in the South of England. Because you see there is a time when it is perfectly socially acceptable to talk to strangers in a public transport setting, and that is when the bus, or train, is significantly late or something has gone obviously wrong.
There are just too many of us packed into too small an area for us to regularly converse with strangers. We’d spend our entire life talking, and never have a chance for thought or contemplation. The taboo against talking is the shield we need to give us that space; but when exceptional circumstances strike we can drop the shield without fearing that we’ll never have personal space again.
Which is why I got chatting in the queue. Because when Danie made her announcement we were now officially in exceptional circumstances. And you know what? I’m quite glad KSR was late. It made it much more of an occasion.