Kiss & Tell: making it up with Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton’s new book will be all about relationships, he tweeted recently. Alain and I go back a long way. I think it’s time to tell my story.
It’s a peculiar one, about books and writing and making things up, as writers do. I can’t even remember the year now, but it was around the turn of the century. I’d moved to the Highlands to write a novel. I was spending a lot of time reading, writing and researching. One brain-zapped afternoon I typed my own name into Google, and fell off my chair.
The Isabel Rogers who was by far more famous than me was a fictional Isabel Rogers. She had been born in the same year as me. She had my sister’s middle name. She lived in the same part of London I had. She had ‘chestnut hair’.
Of course, I had to read it. There were other details that leapt out at me: turning its pages was bizarre. A few days later, I decided to contact Alain to accuse him of stealing bits of my life. (I keep having these experiences with books – I’ll tell you about my A Prayer For Owen Meany story some time.) I found his website and pinged off an email, not really expecting any response but wanting to lodge my incredulity.
He replied. Charmingly. Of course: Alain is very charming. We exchanged sporadic emails. He suggested books I might read; I suggested he might listen to Byrd to further his classical music appreciation. He liked Byrd but not Schubert. You can’t win ’em all.
I can’t remember if my idea to write him a story came before or after his idea that we might meet during the Edinburgh Book Festival. It is all so long ago, dear reader, and I’ve had two children since then which has cauterised a good percentage of my working synapses and I fear no amount of sleep recovery will fire them up again. Anyway, I wrote about a fictional Alain meeting the real me, since he’d already sewn up the real-Alain-and-fictional-me scenario. It was called When Schrödinger’s Cat Met Jeoffry, and with that title you can already see I was aiming high in the show-off stakes. I’d read some philosophy and Christopher Smart and wasn’t going to let either go to waste.
Happily I no longer have a copy, since it winked itself out of non-backed up existence when my computer-before-last died. I remember it involved me almost falling over Alain doing a meditative headstand on a nearby mountain, and referenced Dante’s circles of hell and as many philosophies as I could cram in. My god it was bad. But Alain was very nice about it, and we met for dinner in Edinburgh that August.
I stayed with my friend Nick, who is a terribly clever academic and is Quite Tall. It was a basic error on my part not to factor in his height when he was giving me directions to Alain’s hotel. Nick is more than a foot taller than me. His stride is longer than mine. When he said arily ‘oh, it takes about fifteen minutes to walk there’ I believed him.
So it was that I arrived at least twenty minutes late, unkempt and probably overly rosy of cheek and sweaty of lip, to find an incredibly patient Alain sitting in the hotel foyer, reading. After he’d brushed away my apologies, we walked to a restaurant. Alain was kind enough to shorten his stride to keep pace with my little legs, and after I got my breath back I discovered his conversation to be as witty, urbane and interesting as I’d hoped. We talked of families (of course I quizzed him about how he invented mine), travel, books, how he had possibly seen me at Caius College Cambridge when I visited my then boyfriend during the years he was there too. He admitted he could have heard my name across a quad. He was clutching at straws, frankly. I can’t remember which restaurant it was or what we ate. This isn’t a bloody food review.
After the statutory linger over coffee, we ambled back in the direction of his hotel where things could have got a bit stereotypical. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted, but I can truthfully report that I made my chaste way to Tall Nick’s flat through a festivalling Edinburgh tingling from the most marvellous, gentlemanly good-night kiss. There is something affirming to have a very bright person lay his hand on your skull and say ‘this – this – is what I like about you’. I think he meant my brain. Perhaps he had a thing for redheads or was doing some phrenology research. Perhaps the rest of me repulsed him. No, it was my sparky IQ, I’m sure.
Since then he has married and had a family, and I’ve done the same (though not necessarily in the same order). When I joined Twitter I found him, and was delighted that he followed me back. When you have a blue tick and over 370k followers, you don’t have to. And, yes, he knows I’m blogging about this.
I read his books. I’ll be buying his new one. Bet it doesn’t mention dinner with a mad redhead who once put him in a story.