What was your Howard Carter Moment?


A painting I did for Addyman's, the bookshop in Hay. Derek has a well publicised 'thing' against e-readers, so I thought this was apt. The original image comes from 'All American Men of War', a post-war US magazine. The character depicted is Johnny Cloud, a Navaho air ace who flew a P-51 Mustang, and whose many adventures were penned by Robert Kanigher and Irv Novick. (Acrylic on MDF, 28" X 29", 2014)

The following is a 500 word blog I did for Kindle when I was touring for 'The Woman who Died a Lot' in July 2012. The 'Howard Carter Moment' question is still my default question if there is silence during a Q and A, and it all gets awkward for the writer I'm there to see.

As an author I often appear at festivals - give a talk, answer questions, sign books, that sort of thing. Some authors grumble about it, but to be honest, what's not to like? We get to be the centre of attention for over an hour, strangers tell us they like our books, and we get to vindicate our wildest notions:

"You see, now long-dead Mrs Grimpkin of form IV? My notion of cage-fighting wooly mammoths is not totally without merit. Hah!"

But sometimes the glove is on the other foot. I find myself sitting in the audience watching another speaker, and I nod and laugh and applaud, and every now and then I actually ask a question. I used to pose the usual - variations of 'where do you get your ideas from?' - until I moved to the more alarmist, 'If you had to dispose of a body, where would you put it?' or the surreal: 'If you had to burrow thorugh an elephant, which end would you start?'

These days, I only ask one, which I call my 'Howard Carter Moment' question. Briefly, the notion is this: In 1922 Howard Carter discovered the least undisturbed Ancient Egyptian tomb, and after breaching the plaster seal, found himself gazing upon the fabulous wealth of the boy king Tutankhamen. When asked whether he saw anything, his response, in a typical British understated way, was: 'Yes, wonderful things.' This is the Howard Carter moment: when you look at something new and profound and fabulous and awe-inspiring, and your life is never the same again.

I've never discovered an undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings (and at my time in life, doubtless never shall), but I think I had small Howard Carter momentettes. This was one of them: Taking the new-found ability to read forward to a decision to read, by choice.

The first fifty or so books you read, you're told to read: 'See the Dog. His name is Bob.' Then you move on to better stories with longer words, and eventually, ones that convey meaning and emotion. This is when you're launched into a brave new world of ideas and adventures too numerous to mention.

I remember this moment vividly. I walked to the bookcase in my parents' house and stared at the wall of books on offer. Because Dad was an economist, most were tedious to the extreme, but after some sorting I chanced across a copy of Alice in Wonderland and took it away to the sofa. It was an astonishing discovery. The book glittered with the highest lustre, and when I'd finished, I read it again. Not simply because it was terrific but because I had the power to do so.

I'd like to think that if a passing relative had asked me what I'd found, I would have replied, without looking up, 'I have found a wonderful thing'. That was forty-four years ago, and reading is no less wonderful to me today. What's more, I still have that very same copy of Alice in my bookcase.

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