Wednesday, 8 March 2006

A typical British shambles

The London Book Fair used to be one of the highlights of the year for me. For 19 years it was held at Olympia, which was great because it's only 20 minutes’ walk from where I live. It was so convenient; it couldn’t possibly last. This year LBF was held at ExCel, in the ‘exciting Docklands area of London’, as a booklet about it states. Try and look for it on a map of London. Go on, try! You won’t find it. It’s off the map. It’s miles away from anywhere – over there, towards the east.

We could have taken the tube and then the Docklands Light Railway, but we drove there (my idea, I’m afraid). It took two hours. Two whole hours! Another 30 minutes and we could have gone to see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. After driving through some of the least attractive parts of London (I always expect to see Jack the Ripper in Commercial Street: it’s so creepy around there), and past the stupidest building on the face of the Earth – the Millennium Dome, we finally arrived within sight of ExCel. There were no parking spaces available at the centre itself (why is the car park outdoors, by the way?) so we were obliged to leave the car in a distant car park, more like a field really, so far away that we had to take a shuttle bus to get to ExCel. Hadn’t the whole point of driving been to avoid using public transport?

The bus was full of raucous, half-naked Essex girls with orange perma tan, ugly French manicure and cheap jewellery: it was quite obvious they weren’t going to a book fair. It soon became clear that LBF was held at the same time as another show – devoted to Beauty. The centre itself was as congenial and cosy as an airport or a railway station. There were enormous queues at all the food outlets so no water, no snack, no nothing. We were also told – wrongly – there were no toilets inside the exhibition hall so we queued for the loos with millions of other women (there was a beauty show, remember). In the end we used the men’s ones, which were empty, otherwise we would still be queuing right now.

Once inside the hall, because the stand numbering was absolutely preposterous, we spent ages trying to find the one belonging to the publishing house my partner (and occasionally I) work for. It was hiding behind the HarperCollins stand (which was about twenty times the size of my flat), behind a massive wall bearing a huge poster of Sean Bean as Sharpe. Not really a prime position. Hardly anyone walked by in that narrow aisle. You could just about hear the hubbub of voices over there, beyond the shadow of HarperCollins.

Luckily the fair itself was great. Books everywhere – from lots of countries. Some nicer and better produced than others. I got given lots of sweets and chocolates. One piece of advice: if you have a stand at a book fair, do not offer crisps to visitors or exhibitors with badges: they will think you’re mean. Blech! Had I been invited to one of the parties that suddenly sprouted all over the place, around 5pm, I could have drunk champagne too. But I didn’t care: I collected (“May I have one of these?” “Help yourself!”) nine ball point pens, seven diaries, two adorable little Google magnets that light up when you twist a small button at the back, two letter openers, a biro masquerading as a red quill, two lanyards (which, I’m sure, will be useful for something), a copy of The New York Review of Books and several catalogues, of course. Oh, and I talked to Stephen Fry for about 30 seconds. He is even bigger than I thought he was. Very nice too.

The fair was supposed to go on until 6.30pm this year, but by 5.30 most people started packing their stuff and closing their stand. We still had to take the shuttle bus to be reunited with the car. By then it was dark and very cold. It took 25 minutes for the stupid bus to get out of the ExCel car park because everyone else was trying to drive away as well. The bus was full of the same women as before, this time laden with gigantic boxes, presumably containing exercise equipment or other useful apparatus like foot spas. For some reason, we were dropped several miles from where the car was parked and, since there was no lighting and we couldn’t see it, we thought for a moment it had been stolen, which could very well have happened since the field was unattended.

We’ve never been so happy to get back to Shepherds Bush.

LBF ended yesterday. Since Sunday we’ve heard that taking the Docklands Light Railway wasn’t a good idea either: apparently the queues to get on at the end of the day were horrendous.

I’m slapping the organisers (they do not even deserve that name) of the London Book Fair. Everyone’s contracted to go to ExCel for five years. As I said, LBF used to be fun. Slap!

Update: I thought the above was the result of teething troubles, but I've just learned that ExCel opened in 2000! Six years! I would have thought that was long enough to sort out proper car parks, catering, toilet facilities, etc. Obviously not.


  1. Slaps a-plenty to the disorganisers. At least there was cool stuff when you got in there. I'm impressed by your haul of goodies, although really how many diaries can a woman use? Ok, you're a writer, the answer is infinite.

    I guess this is our attitude to literature. That big company get the lion's share of everything and dwarf everyone else.

    And meeting my hero, Stephen Fry, even for half a minute, I'm purple with envy. He makes me think of tea and cardigans. I like tea and cardigans, especially when combined with lengthy visits to libraries.

    In Birmingham we have the worst organised comic conventions. Ok, they're supposed to be on a smaller scale the LBF, but the look of desperation on the face of a proper exhibitor at the last one I attended. I could've wept. I think he was expecting it to have been advertised and sign posted so that customers might drift by. Idiot! Utter shambles is too positive an assessment.

  2. Yes, JvS, the goodies were a sort of consolation prize, after that ordeal. It’s definitely part of the fun. Two years ago, it was canvas bags: everyone was offering canvas bags – really nice ones too, with lovely logos. As a freelancer, i.e. as a person who has to buy all her ‘tools’ and can never raid the stationery cupboard, I appreciate the chance to get free pens, once a year. Last year the nicest ones were from a publisher of semi-porn books. LOL! Ordnance Survey always has good ones too. As for the diaries, they’re from the publishers of the Horticultural Society’s and the V&A’s catalogues so they are very lovely and, of course, I’m not keeping them all.

    HarperCollins has swallowed up everyone. Everything is about entertainment now. :-(

    Stephen Fry walked past me as I was standing at one of the stands: I followed him for a few yards. He was like this enormous mountain moving in front of me. I tapped him on the arm and he turned around, smiling. We talked for a moment about Who do you think you are? His programme was so moving. You’re right, he does make one think of ‘tea and cardigans’; he’s kind of ‘comfy’. LOL! And so clever.

    What is so difficult about organising such an event? I was there at the birth of the Salon du Livre in Nice, in the late ’60s (I don’t mean I helped to organise it; I mean I went to the very first one) : obviously, it was on a much smaller scale, but it was wonderful. Radio programmes were broadcast live during it: interviews with famous writers, etc. One had a chance of meeting one’s favourite authors. It was very exciting. But the London Book Fair too has been a delight until now. Olympia is a much more ‘human’ sort of venue: it’s in the centre of things: minutes from High Street Ken. One of my partner’s American colleagues always used to buy books from the kiddies’ bookshop in HSK; this year she wasn’t able to do so: Docklands is much too far from everything. Maybe the fair has been a flop and it will be relocated back to Olympia. Hmm…

  3. See, I really like Commercial Street...

    I do think ExCel is a bit of a mistake though. I organised a conference there once and there was constant noise from aeroplanes from London City Airport going overhead.

  4. Isn't there a great hotel on a yacht moored next to the centre? Next time, Bela, you'll have to go and stay there overnight!

    How can anyone like Commercial Street? It's OK around Spitalfields Market, though.

  5. GSE, we didn't hear any aeroplanes but it was horrible anyway.

    Yes, L, there is a big yacht moored right by the centre, but I don't even want to think of the next time I might have to go there. :-(


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