On the Publication Party for The Man on the Bridge
Another series of firsts to add to my list: I had never been to a publication party. I had certainly never been to one in London. And I surely had never been invited to one by Stephen Benatar, one of my favorite authors ever.
Until July 11th.
I had the world’s smallest suitcase. I packed the garden party dress and shoes and earrings (though I forgot the pearls my sister Jane had brought me from the Philippines. Damn.). I flew overnight into Heathrow. I had what my friend, the writer and entrepreneur Brenda Sparks Prescott, calls the tour book: all the printouts of maps, connections and timetables I would ever need. After clearing customs, I slipped into the ladies’ room and changed: I would not see Stephen, the man of the evening, until I met him at the party, as he was coming down from Yorkshire.
And there I was. Wandering the streets of London until 6, when the party would begin at the offices of Capuchin Classics on Kensington Church Street. But oh, looking so sharp in that dress! The two drawbacks: first, that every once in a while the sky would suddenly grow ominous, and buckets of rain would fall, necessitating huddling under awnings for fifteen or so minutes; and second, the shoes were terrible for walking–I finally abandoned them for my Teva sandals, which didn’t go with the dress, but made life bearable. My final huddle of the afternoon was in the bookstore on the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Church Street; and because I’m secretly a slave to fashion, I changed back into the terrible shoes there.
I admit to scouting out the address before the rain started, so shortly after six (I didn’t want to be the first there), I abandoned Waterstones and rolled the world’s smallest blue suitcase to the address. This, I’d have you understand, is probably the most daring thing I’ve ever done: shown up on a publisher’s doorstep hauling a suitcase, cold. Brenda had told me that people showing up at publishing houses with suitcases is not a rare occurrence, and I shouldn’t feel self-conscious; Stephen had told me all I need do is introduce myself as his friend, and someone would put a glass of wine in my hand and make me welcome. I stood on the step for a few moments, thinking of these things, before I lifted the big brass knocker.
The woman who answered the door didn’t wait for me to say a word. Welcome! We’re so happy you could come! I stumbled through my introduction; then she suggested I stash my bag under the piano, and led me through to a rich dark room with bookshelves covering the walls, and a display table down the middle, where a pair of teen-aged girls were tending the drinks table. It was actually a Bellini that was thrust into my hand–another first (and one which I highly recommend). My guide introduced me to several people: Anne, Bernard, John–all friends of Stephen, who, of course, had not arrived. Since I was the only American, the story of my relationship with Stephen became an immediate object of curiosity. And as it’s a good story, I was happy to repeat it.
The rest of the party was a blur. Stephen arrived with his partner Sam, an artist (more on that later). Jonathan Miller arrived and made a speech in another room, but I was talking to John (who kept introducing me to people as Anne from America and himself as John from Islington) and we missed it. The
party moved outside into the garden after one of the day’s frequent bouts of rain. My terrible shoes kept sticking in the mud. Stephen stood balanced on the edge of a fountain and made a speech, in which he thanked many people, including Pamela Hansford Johnson, novelist and wife of C. P. Snow (a man with whom I have had a complicated literary relationship since college)…and me! By name: the American poet Anne Britting Oleson. I drank much red wine and ate many canapés, as the two girls from the dark library were diligent in mingling and serving. I admired the sculptures in the garden, and the spiral staircase I could see through one of the upstairs windows. I retold my story. I met many people. I kept sticking in the mud in my terrible shoes and finally made an executive decision to stick to the flagstones.
Somewhere between 8 or 9, Stephen, Sam and I slipped out and caught a black cab back to Stephen’s flat in Hampstead. I had survived my first–hopefully not my last–publication party in London. To tell the truth, I had enjoyed it a great deal.
Perhaps the next party will be mine. I will invite Stephen. And John from Islington. We will have Bellinis.
Because I can’t resist this, here’s a picture of the pub across the street from the offices of Capuchin: