One night stands
While I have been blithely posting on the irritations of car insurance etc, I have in fact been in the States on a tour of one night stands. No – not that sort. It’s the theatrical/lecturing sense of the term I’m using here.
I left the UK last week, after an excellent brunch for book-bloggers at Profile Books (who publish my “Wonders of the World” and “Profiles in History” series). Petrona’s already reported in on this. I just want to add that – enthusiastic book-blogger that I occasionally am -- I was a bit apprehensive about meeting my cyber-colleagues. Truth to tell, I suspected that, however sparky they might appear on the computer screen, they might prove to be a bit nerdy in the flesh (like me?). Actually I was wrong and good fun was had by all.
Why did Profile host it? Not total altruism. Blogging is increasingly an important review medium and leads to sales (or at least it may do). It’s worth a publisher being in with us.
After that, first stop was Boston . . . then New York, and I’m writing this on the plane to Los Angeles. It’s been good so far, but not as glam as you might think. The first 36 hours I didn’t set foot outside the hotel, but sat in my room, sustained by room-service (apart from the occasional trip to the gym/swimming pool/cocktail bar) finishing – well, writing really – the lectures I’m giving.
At Boston the main gig was at the Museum of Fine Arts – talking about the Triumph (surprise, surprise) and signing books in their wonderful book shop. I cut an unusually smart figure, as I was sporting some stylish garments lent to me by my excellent editor at Harvard University Press – who I think guessed (not entirely wrongly) that I had arrived in the USA with a suitcase full of books and just the mucky t-shirt and leggings I stood up in.
Then it was a 6.00 am start on the train for New York, where I was showing Newnham alumnae on the East coast round the new Roman galleries at the Met, before speaking at a cocktail party (on one day) and a buffet supper (on the next) for the same.
Leaving aside the Roman galleries (where I felt, like many others, that there were rather too few labels saying where any of the stuff had actually come from), the Met is a paradise for a triumph-lover. I discovered (what I honestly should have known before) that the Tiepolo painting on my front cover -- it's on the right -- is actually the first vast picture you see as you go up the museum’s main stairs. But more than that, in the very next room, there was a smashing “Triumph of Aemilius Paullus” and almost better still, a little further on, a self portrait of Hans Holbein with a mocked up ancient frieze in the background – showing, as far as I could see, a triumph. (Why don’t the Met do a mini-exhibition on Triumph, I thought – not without a degree of self-interest.)
But the unexpected highlight was a 15th century “Triumph of Fame”. Not that it was so very special in itself, but I came across it just as a teacher was explaining it to a group of 6 year olds. The temptation to intervene was hard to resist (but I did). Interestingly the kids appeared to have few problems with the idea of “Triumph” (a bit worrying that, I thought); it was “Fame” that floored them.
And the commercial success? Well, sod’s law really. At the MFA a gratifyingly large pile of books, a great audience, with a good number of students who’d come miles to be there – but sluggish sales. At the alumnae events, great fun, similar enthusiasm – but only a few books which were snapped up on the first night.
And were they in the bookshops? Yes, but not all.
Emboldened by a ‘review to die for’ in the New York Review of Books (I came clean about Mr Raphael’s downer, so I think I’m allowed to boast about this one), I decided to march into the Met bookshop and check it out. No sign of the Triumph at all – although some pleasure came from seeing a pile of a great book on Socrates, by Emily Wilson, in my ‘Profiles’ series. So I went to the lady at the information desk and asked, all innocent, if they had that new book on the Roman Triumph which there had been a review of in the latest NYRB. Blank look. She consults her computer. “By Beard?” she asks. I nod. “Not yet”, she says.
I hope “yet” means exactly what it says. After all it’s got their most prominent painting on its dust jacket. They better had get it.
(I sign off as Palm Springs appears beneath me.)