New Statesman, February 2017
In April 2004, in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest of America, I found myself on an unexpected literary pilgrimage. I was on a book tour which left little time for sightseeing, and had arrived in Seattle on a Sunday, expecting to spend the Monday mainly signing books across town ahead of an evening event – organised, somewhat ominously, by the local branch of a national proofreaders’ association. The woman who collected me from the airport was easily the least friendly “media escort” I ever met. She was pretty snappy, in fact. When she dropped me at the hotel, and I politely asked what time she’d be back, she barked, “Are you a late person or an early person?” I sensed a woman who wasn’t wild about her assignment. Perhaps she’d once been traumatised by a comma.
The next day dawned beautifully, but to a problem. My books had not arrived. “So whaddya wanna do?” she said. And I drew inspiration from the air and said, “Well, have you heard of a funny writer called Betty MacDonald? She died in the Fifties, and wrote a book about living on a remote island in Puget Sound. Maybe we could discover where she lived?” Of course, nowadays, getting info like this is a doddle. But trust me, in 2004, you boarded a car-ferry to Vashon Island (based on a visiting British woman’s vague hunch), and basically took it from there.
All this wrought a slightly worrying transformation in my companion. She might never have heard of Betty MacDonald, but boy, did she like a challenge. I, meanwhile, was mainly confused by the way Vashon Island was quite an up-to-date place, when I’d expected it still to exist in 1952. I was also surprised by the shortness of the ferry ride. While I wrestled with these conceptual difficulties, my companion was barking at people, “Where did Betty MacDonald live?” And they were saying, “Who?” And she was saying, “Betty MacDonald, for god’s sake.”
I was honestly happy to leave it at that. When I’d read Betty’s books as a teenager, I had never even dreamed of setting foot in Downtown Vashon. I was content. But the media lady was on fire, and I started to worry, if we actually found the house, would she just barge in? “Well, hey, thanks for trying,” I said, as we drove up the main road back to the ferry. But she said, “Nonsense” and swung the car round. To my increasing alarm, she called realtors, and accosted teenagers, and finally we found ourselves at the top of a private road (marked PRIVATE ROAD), at the bottom of which, out of sight, was the house we sought. Lumme. Crunch time. “Aw, what a shame,” I said. “Look, it says Private.” She was incredulous. “You came six thousand miles, Apostrophe Lady,” she said. “We’re going down.” But I just wouldn’t let her, and I expect when she tells the story herself these days, I come out of it quite badly.