When I was seven, Saturday morning TV offered two choices: the anarchic Tiswas on ITV – home of frequent gunk-ings, custard pies and the dying fly dance – or BBC’s Swap Shop, where the producers’ idea of anarchy was Noel Edmonds wearing loud sweaters and Cheggars saying wey-hey a lot.
These days, Saturday morning TV is wall-to-wall cookery shows, so this Saturday morning I took my seven-year-old, Milo, to Marlborough Literature Festival at the Town Hall to meet Jeremy Strong, the author my son’s favourite series of anarchic novels, based around the characters in ‘My Brother’s Famous Bottom…’.
For the uninitiated, these fast-paced, quick-witted books follow the antics of a fairly normal boy, called Nicholas, and his family of crazies (the nuttiest of whom, by far, is his dad, Ron, although gran comes a close second.)
There are nine books in the series, and the titular Famous Bottom doesn’t actually appear until book four, but has – apparently at the insistence of publisher Puffin – appeared ever since.
In the flesh, we (well, I) found Jeremy Strong to be mainly Swap Shop, with only the merest hint of Tiswas. There was, for instance, little mention of the word ‘bottom’, save for an admission that the first ‘bottom’ book had probably sold so well because it had the word in the title.
He was very keen to support and encourage young authors, of whom there were many in the audience – Milo included. (Later, I discovered that his website reflects this, with a Krazy Klub for kids and Key Stage Two resources for teachers.)
So, he’s more Posh Paws than Spit the Dog. But once in a while, the ludicrous streams of consciousness that make his 77 children’s novels (no, I’m not claiming to have read them all – I’m generalising) shone through, and when they did, Jeremy had members of the audience – young and old – in stitches.
His tale of minding his baby sister as a child – which struck a chord with Milo, who has his own six-month-old sibling thrust on him from time to time – went from amusing to chortletastic, as he embellished the facts to have the baby being thrown from her pram and entering orbit, where she can still be seen today, in the earth’s upper atmosphere.
Similarly, his answer to a question from the floor about what inspired him to become a writer started as a story about the desire to please a favourite teacher, before developing into a fantastic yarn about the older teachers, who prowled the corridors like dinosaurs, and in fact were dinosaurs, and whose fangs dripped with drool that burned a hole in the page, the desk, the floor, the earth, through which the young Jeremy fell, ending up in Australia.
“It took me four weeks to get back,” he told his enraptured audience, “and when I got home my mother said: “where have you been? Your tea has gone cold.’”
Anyway, an hour in the company of Jeremy Strong flew by, and Milo – not a lad normally known for his patience – was more than happy to queue for almost half an hour to meet his literary hero.
And when he did, and handed over a copy of the latest book – the jubilee-themed Mr Brother’s Famous Bottom Gets Crowned – to be signed, he delivered an unintentional one liner that makes me chuckle every time I replay it in my mind.
Pen poised over the frontispiece, the author asked “Who’s it for?” To which Milo replied “me”.