The Prince of Wales Suite at the British Council HQ must be the worst place in the civilised world for a book launch. It's a low-ceilinged box of a room, reminiscent of a Travelodge lounge or provincial tax office with the partition walls removed; it has carpet (or the sense of carpet; beige carpet) and concrete pillars dividing the space into two and a general mood of sixties brutalism about it. The acoustics seem designed specifically to muffle the human voice. Add to this a microphone that doesn't work, and you have what ought to be a blueprint for disappointment.
So it's both surprising and gratifying that the NW15 launch on Tuesday was great fun. Bernardine Evaristo and Maggie Gee, the anthology editors, were delightful and attentive hosts. The food was good (the British Council tends to cater well: I remember a conference party in Bologna some years ago with grissini swathed in prosciutto and forms of parmigiano dotted around the table), the Pimms flowed copiously from fruit-filled jug to glass. In the absence of the starrier contributors (Doris Lessing, Julian Barnes, et al.) we lesser lights revolved and networked as nature intended us to do.
It wasn't all alcohol, finger food and the exchanging of cards, of course. Three readings were given by, respectively, Ursula Holden, a drily observed and often moving essay about the business of writing, Karen McCarthy, a witty language-loving piece delivered with great verve and skill, and Tod Hartman, the funniest story in the book and read with increasing relish as the audience responded with hoots of laughter. Karen, clearly used to performing, was unperturbed by the lack of a microphone, while the sheer quality of the work of Ursula and Tod (yes, we're on first name terms) was enough to overcome the technical shortcomings of the evening.
I'm looking forward now to seeing Patricia Duncker's teachers' notes for my piece, an account of a pick-up that went wrong in a mild sort of way. It shares with Tod's story a sprinkling of French and a reference to a post-modern philosophe, but isn't half as funny.