There’s nothing more juvenile than having a hero.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself as consolation for never being able to think of one when reading those silly celebrity questionnaires. ‘Who do you most respect and why?’ ‘If you could have dinner with anyone at all, alive or dead, who would it be?’ ‘Who’s your greatest inspiration?’
My mind has a habit of emptying itself pretty quickly when put on the spot in such a – well, shall we say juvenile? please? – way. Before job interviews I always try to think of an appropriate answer. One that would make me look both supremely knowledgeable yet also humble and somewhat irreverently witty. But I’ve never ever managed to come up with a good one … and that inevitably makes me spiral into paranoid collapse (Oh my god, they’re going to ask me it and I’ll say someone like Virginia Woolf and they’ll think that’s really naf and then they won’t want me. Argh…).
On reading Kelis’s answer to the question: ‘What living person do you most admire and why?’ in the Guardian (here), what little respect I had for her completely vanished. ‘My mom. She has been a fashion designer and run a catering business.’ I mean, come on …
So, now I find myself in something of a quandary. Because now I realise I have a hero. It’s so juvenile. It’s so silly and daft, and it’s so pathetic that I feel the only way to make it at least half-way bearable is to write about it, because that might be a way of making it into something slightly more useful.
I only realised I had a hero, when he walked past me at Port Eliot festival on Saturday afternoon just after he’d given a phenomenal talk. I told him that I thought it was fantastic and he said some suitably humble, charming replies before running off to the bookshop to sign more copies of his book, which was – of course – in high demand. I was standing with my cousin, who hadn’t seen the talk. Who didn’t suspect me at all of my hero-worship.
‘Who’s that?’ she asked. So innocent.
And then I knew that he could only be described in one way. ‘That’s my hero.’
I sighed. She laughed. Then I explained.
I met him when I was about a third of the way through reading his book. He was giving a talk at the bookshop, and I asked him a few questions before everyone turned up. Why had he written it in the present tense? Had he found it hard to drag himself out of this incredible world of his ancestors? Was it difficult to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap?
He was utterly charming, humble and articulate – both when talking to me and when addressing a crowded room. He seemed nervous about giving a talk, grateful that people liked his book. He said he couldn’t believe its success, and wanted to go around writing ‘thank you’ in everyone’s copy. (He actually wrote it in mine!)
I too was nervous before the talk. Although I wasn’t even half-way through The Hare with Amber Eyes, I knew it was going to be one of the best books I had ever read. And I was going to meet its author. What if he were ghastly? What if he were really stuck-up and seemed like a real plonker? It would be so upsetting. It would detract from this magnificent book, and make me feel like a bit of an idiot for believing in it so strongly.
But he was wonderful. And the rest of the book was all the more wonderful for having met him.
So it was a very happy surprise when, having just arrived at Port Eliot, standing gormlessly near some tipis in a field with my fiancé, I saw Edmund de Waal. I said hello and immediately thought maybe I shouldn’t have. Oh god, I thought, how dreadful, I bet he doesn’t remember me at all. He thinks I’m someone who looks slightly familiar, who might be a friend of a friend of a friend or something. I introduced him to my fiancé, and then, to try and smooth over any awkwardness, reminded him that I’m Emily.
‘I know, I know.’ He said he remembered me from the bookshop. We chatted amiably about Port Eliot, how excited we were about going for a Wild Swim with Kate Rew, how pretty it all looked and how many interesting talks there would be. I asked him if there was a particular talk he was really excited about, and he said Diana Athill.
Anyway, off I trotted, pleased as punch that he – my HERO (although I had not yet reached this epiphany) – knew who I was.
His talk, the following day, was brilliant. In fact it was almost better than the one at the bookshop. Edmund de Waal (I don’t think I can call him just Edmund) had told me, in our little chat outside the tipi, that he was going to be given various objects from the big stately home an hour before the talk, which he would then have to talk about. And he managed it with great aplomb. He talked about books and the touch of different grades of paper, and ceramics, and – of course – netsuke spontaneously and effervescently and the whole room was set alight.
Ah. Well. I have my hero. I shall just have to get over it. I suppose the only consolation is that he has his heroes too. And, indeed, heroines. Like, perhaps, Diana Athill.
He had said how much he was looking forward to Diana Athill’s talk, so you can imagine my glee when I made a discovery that evening … I was chatting to a friend who, by some strange twist of fate, had given Diana Athill a lift down to the festival. En route they were nattering away and Diana Athill had said that she’d just read the most marvellous book – The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Yes, really!
How I longed to bump into Edmund de Waal again and tell him that Diana Athill loved his book, that his heroine thinks of him with just as much respect. But I didn’t have to, because at his talk she was sitting right at the front. How incredible that must have been for him. And how terrifying!
It must be extraordinary when someone who you think of as completely amazing, someone who is balanced on a pedestal way up there, swaps places with you. Just imagine them sitting down at your feet to hear what you have to say. And then imagine what might happen next? I spotted Grayson Perry and Jarvis Cocker hobnobbing over a cone of chips. Perhaps Diana Athill and Edmund de Waal were going to head off for a cuppa. Imagine chatting to your hero so easily on such level, if muddy, ground. Perhaps then they might fall from hero status a little bit and be more of a friend. Or perhaps you would be more of a hero yourself.
Well, perhaps if and when I have a book launch/give erudite yet entertaining talks/am on the radio, he might be there listening. Then I might say to him afterwards, over a whisky, ‘Oh yes, I remember reading your book. It was quite marvellous.’ But I’d say it in rather a nonchalant fashion, not in a juvenile way at all. I certainly wouldn’t let on to anything about heroes. And then, for sure, I’d feel that I’d made it.