This week, I committed a shameless act of bribery. No, it didn’t involve a police officer or a public official and a wodge of cash. It involved offering a small child a Disney film and an ice cream, in exchange for ten minutes of uninterrupted silence. Now those of you who are better parents than I are probably tutting right now. Well, tut away. Perhaps, in a similar situation, you would have had a cornucopia of worthy craft activities and a healthy organic snack lined up. Maybe your children are more obedient than mine. All I can say is this. Judge ye not, lest you too have a radio interview in the middle of the summer holidays.
The life of the author, just like the life of the actor, artist or musician, is not bloody glamorous, let me tell you. Maybe when you get into the hilarious, telephone-number-earning sphere it is, but for the thousands of us toiling away at the arts, our lives are just like everyone else’s. We do the laundry. We do the shopping. We try and eradicate the mould from that white silicone stuff in the bathroom. We scream at our kids, and in between, we try to find time and head-space to work. It’s difficult enough to find time to actually write the damned books, but we have to find time to promote them too.
It so happens that this is the week my novel, Wonder Women, is being released in South Africa, my home country. The South African publicist does sterling work, and, among other things, had set up a telephone interview for me with the book show on a South African radio station. It’s great publicity. It’s also, unfortunately, the second-last week of school holidays here in the UK. My angel childminder was on her own, hard-earned summer holiday. My older son was working. My husband, ditto. I had hoped I might be able to time an afternoon nap for the four-year-old to coincide with the interview, but a miscalculation involving daylight-saving time meant this was not to be. Hence the aforementioned bribery and an interview conducted squatting in the hallway leaning against the living room door, hoping that the interview was not going to take longer than the time it takes a four-year-old to eat a Cornetto.
I would feel worse about this if I hadn't tuned into Women’s Hour the very next morning. There, I heard Jenni Murray announce that she would be interviewing the winner of the Foster’s Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival, Bridget Christie. Now every publicity-seeking female artist knows Women’s Hour is a plum gig – almost four million listeners, impeccable pedigree – yet Bridget Christie’s interview was conducted over the phone. I wondered briefly if she was still in Edinburgh, or lived somewhere in the sticks, but Jenni Murray said that she was London-based, and then explained that she was being interviewed from home because she was looking after her kids. A quick Google search tells me she has two, aged six and two. And indeed, when I listened to the interview, she sounded distracted and a little flustered. A less astute listener might have thought she was intimidated by being on such a prestigious radio show, but I’m pretty sure she was either (a) in the pantry holding the door closed with her foot, (b) wiping someone else’s bottom, (c) dispensing a snack or (d) making silent threatening gestures and faces at one or both children. Any parent knows when bribery has failed, threats of violence are all you have left.
Bridget Christie, if you ever read this, you have my sympathy, as does every woman (and man) who works from home and tries to juggle being professional with being a parent. It is exceedingly difficult, and at some point, you’re going to compromise one or other aspect of your life. Your cooler-than-cool work-person façade will slip and someone will hear you shriek at your kids, or orange squash will be spilled on a vital document, or you’ll miss a crucial meeting because of chicken pox or a school concert. Alternatively, your kids will spend too much time in front of the TV, or will learn to trade good behaviour for snacks and treats, or will end up just missing you because they’ve been banned from your office/ workspace/ shed/ bathroom while you try to meet an impossible deadline. Indeed, Bridget Christie’s show nearly didn't make it to Edinburgh at all… she is married to comedian Stewart Lee, who also had a show at the festival, and at one point it seemed one of them would have to forego the experience to look after their kids. The juggling and the choices can be heartbreakingly difficult, but in my experience, the people who are performing those impossible balancing acts work harder than anyone. They wait till the kids are in bed and put in hours of work to meet deadlines, they work through illness and crises because they can’t waste sick days on their own bout of flu, they perform miracles in the sixty minutes of a toddler nap. Because they have to.
So the next time you’re on the phone to a homeworker, or expecting an email or a piece of work, remember some people are keeping more than plates spinning. Cut them some slack. They will deliver. And if you go round for a meeting, they’ll almost certainly have Cornettos in the freezer.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.