Don’t mention the cold!

12 February 2013

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! We’ll be publishing one a day all week, written exclusively for High Impact. Today read Herman Koch.

It happened on day two in Birmingham’s beautiful cathedral. The temperature was… well, it was alright really. Compared with conditions in the Oxford bookshop the night before this was like travelling from Antarctica to the southern tip of Patagonia.

I was signing books after the successful event. A girl no older than fifteen approached the table.

“You want a dedication or just a signature?” I began, using my standard procedure.

She spelled her name.

“Is your last name spelled just like… well, as in ‘Savile Row’, Elisabeth?” I asked cautiously.

“Yes,” she answered. Maybe she was blushing, or maybe she was just starting to freeze to death.

“Are you in anyway… related?” I asked, realizing immediately that I was probably blushing myself.

“Jimmy Savile was my uncle,” she almost whispered now.

“Right,” I said. She was actually quite attractive. There was some similarity in her looks between her and the youngest sister in Downton Abbey – I couldn’t remember the name just then, but I recall being quite upset when she suddenly died at the beginning of the third season. “Were you in any way…?” I was searching frantically for another word for “abused” in my mind, this being a word that might sound rather coarse in a cathedral. “Did he… Did he… at some point… touch you anywhere?” I was whispering myself by now.

Elisabeth lowered her eyes. Lit by the candles burning everywhere in the cathedral her face suddenly looked like a younger version of Hilary Mantel.

“What was that?” she asked.

Apparently I had said something else, or maybe I had just been thinking aloud.

“That is the name of my hotel,” I said, looking her directly in the eyes for the first time. “And this,” I added, scribbling in the still half- opened copy of The Dinner, “is the number of my room.”

The next day something similar happened in Liverpool. We had been travelling through a snow-covered landscape. One man and his dog were chasing sheep over the white foothills. The heating in our carriage was turned off. We all envied the sheep.

“Is it ‘Walter Epstein’ as in Brian Epstein?” I asked after our even more successful event in the Epstein Theatre. For a change this was not a young girl of fifteen, more a bald man in his fifties, but on a literary tour like this you can get quite sick if you have scrambled eggs every single morning for breakfast, I knew by now. With Nick Chapman, our tour manager, we had a silent agreement who could visit us in our dressing rooms after the events. Something must have gone terribly wrong this time.

“He just gave his… well you know what I mean, and he gave his last name too,” the man said. “I am actually John Lennon’s sister’s son.”

“Did your uncle at some point try to…?” I started. But then I realized what he had just said.

“What was that?” the bald man asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just humming. Isn’t it good, ‘Norwegian Wood’?”

Where there any scandals after that? Yes, there were! I won’t mention names; we all know what we did. The painted graffiti on the wall-paper in the Sheffield hotel room. The typewriter thrown out the window in Norwich (luckily the room was on the ground floor). The foul language in the Indian restaurant. The chicken tikka on the wall and the waiter who, in the end, did not file a complaint - but only after we took him outside (it was freezing). The books we ripped to pieces on stage. The books by other writers (who didn’t participate in the tour) we burned on the trains – just to get warm. On the Ten O’clock News we saw people who lived on Savile Row protesting to have the street name changed. And we all just laughed.

On YouTube there is some much-discussed footage of a Dutch (or Belgian) writer reading out a statement. The writer doesn’t look well.

“I hereby declare that the temperature on the trains and at the venues was… nice,” he reads flatly, looking straight at the camera. You need to watch this full screen. So you can see the bruises, one of his eyes looking as if it received a high impact just above the eyebrow. “I want to thank the Dutch Foundation of Literature and the Flemish Foundation…” the writer continues in a dull, monotonous voice. You can clearly see he’s been drugged.

Up to this very day, his body has not been found.

(Note from the author: this is a partly fictionalized account of the High Impact tour; not all these events took place in real life.)

On YouTube there is some much-discussed footage of a Dutch (or Belgian) writer reading out a statement. The writer doesn’t look well.


Herman Koch

Former actor & comedy star; best-selling novelist – in the Netherlands & round the world – of the thrilling, chilling mega-hit The Dinner (Atlantic, 2012).

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