I decide to drive to the Henley Literary Festival to hear Gareth P Jones speak. That is my first mistake. It is raining and I can’t work out how to use my windscreen wipers. I press a number of buttons that make my windows go down, my seat go warm, my warning lights go flash and my radio go BOOOOOM. My right side is now drenched, my bottom is boiling, surrounding cars think I’m breaking down and I’m being deafened by a song that wasn’t even popular when it was released fifty years ago. An hour and a half later I arrive in Henley – in true moontrug style (by driving the wrong way down a one-way street). But after I’ve parked my car all squint, my spirits rise. Best-selling authors are roaming the streets, their brand new books tucked under their arms like secret files…
I arrive at the Kenton Theatre early and choose a seat at the back so that I can let my scrambly moontrug brain absorb EVERYTHING. The theatre is an old Georgian building which opened in 1805 with a play called ‘How To Rule A Husband.’ Snore, snore, snore. ‘How To Rule A Goblin-Infested Forest With A Moonsilver Dagger’ – now that would have been more entertaining.
As I wait for the hoards of excited children to come in, I notice a small man in a black suit scuttle across the stage. He is wearing a grey silk waistcoat, complete with an old Victorian watch chain and a shining black top hat. He is twitchy and secretive as he arranges a chair in the middle of the stage and I am so busy marvelling at his strangeness that I do not notice the entire theatre has filled up with children and a bespectacled man is introducing the event. And then a peculiar thing happens. The strange man on the stage strikes up a song – on a ukulele – and seconds later the entire theatre is making ‘wwwwooooooohhhhhh’ ghost noises and uttering chanty gravedigger grunts. It sounds extraordinary – like a room filled to the brim with confused pigeons trying to sing Christmas carols. Just as I am about to ask what on earth the Victorian ukulele man has done with Gareth P Jones, the Victorian ukulele man takes off his hat and introduces himself.
I am Gareth P Jones.
And that’s how it is with authors. They’re never what you expect. Jones has already published a number of best-selling children’s books – among them the brilliantly original Constable and Toop (a Victorian ghost story about London’s haunted houses losing their ghosts. Click here to buy on amazon) and The Considine Curse (a book about a frighteningly dark secret which won the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award in 2012. Click here to buy on amazon). But today Jones has come to speak about something else: his brand new novel, The Society of Thirteen, which hits the bookshelves TODAY! Click here to buy it on amazon.
Part-magician, part-author, Jones performs a magic trick on an innocent-looking child called Emily before he reveals the story behind his new book. After pulling her up onto the stage, he declares that there was an Emily in one of his previous books. Emily looks pleased as punch – until Jones tells her that he killed her off in the first chapter. Stunned into silence, Emily stands on the stage amidst ‘oooohhhhhssss’, ‘aaahhhhhhhssssss’ and pigeon-like chanting from the audience as Jones performs a fantastically magical card trick. Emily returns to her seat, thankful to have survived longer than Jones’ last Emily.
And then Jones gets down to business: The Society of Thirteen – a book about a pair of orphans, Esther and Tom, who roam the streets of London in 1891 as thieves. Recruited by the enigmatic Lord Ringmore to run errands for his secret Society of Thirteen, the orphans discover a mysterious book which stirs up an extraordinary world of conjurors, magic and peril. Jones doesn’t want to run the risk of exposing too much of the plot before the book is out so he leaves it there. For now.
Instead, he tells us the story of an extraordinary magician and escapologist, Harry Clay, who must solve the case of a missing girl called Friday, believed to have been stolen from her family by fairies. Based on the famous Harry Houdini – a man who escaped from being buried alive, tied up to the tallest skyscraper and locked in a straightjacket under water – Harry Clay is a spell-binding character who draws the theatre into his detective case from the very first sentence.
Before long the theatre is once again filled with extraordinary noises – door knocks, gasps, applause and screams – as we step into Harry Clay’s world, leaving school trips and windscreen wipers far behind. Jones says to us, ‘You’re all authors now. Tell me who kidnapped Friday.’ Being a moontrug, I am convinced (and secretly hoping) that the fairies have kidnapped her but it turns out there are some mind-bogglingly clever moontrugs in the audience who have created story ideas far beyond the realms of fairy folk. Jones is impressed; like me, he knows there are future authors sitting just metres in front of his nose.
Jones performs one last ukulele-inspired song about ghosts and conjurors before signing The Society of Thirteen. I grab a copy and make for the book signing queue. As I shuffle forward I rehearse my lines (because this is the part of the day I always mess up – click here for previous disastrousness). Once again non-words (words that invent themselves and escape from my mouth before I can stop them) start rummaging through my thoughts and stamping on my last few grains of sense. When it’s my turn with Jones, I push my book forward and instead of saying ‘Please will you make my book out to moontrug?’ I say, ‘Please will you take my hook out to – ’ and then a non-word so extraordinary even Roald Dahl would have questioned it – ‘spoonplug’ – plops out. But we got there in the end…
…and after an hour, I am already forty pages in. Who is Lord Ringmore’s last peculiar letter going to and what is so mysterious about the small black book delivered by a stranger in the dead of night?