So there I am minding my own business in the bathroom, listening to Radio 4 when Geri Halliwell bursts forth from the broadcast. She tells us that she has just returned from Washington DC where she was engaged in some important work for the United Nations. As I listen, I realise that I have precisely no idea what it is that she does for the UN. Perhaps the Spice Girls thing was just an elaborate cover for the group's real role as an elite hostage rescue commando unit. It certainly would explain an awful lot. Whatever the truth may be, she's now back in the UK to promote her new book - Ugenia Lavender.
I have to confess that at this moment there is a kneejerk response in me that goes something like this: "Geri Halliwell writing books! What the hell!!!" It's an irrational cocktail of incredulity, loathing and anger - and I'm not sure where it comes from.
I realise later that much of this stems from the simple fact that, in authoring a book, Ginger Spice has succeeded where I have so far failed. Worse still, when I Google her track record with the UN in preparation for my "What were you thinking?" phone call to Kofi Annan, I find that she has indeed been doing important work in the field of maternal health in developing countries. Girl Power, it seems, is kicking my ass on so many levels. I relax a little when I learn that Ugenia Lavender is a children's book, but still I feel there is an issue here I need to address.
They say there's a novel in everybody, but is that true? Is there, in every academic, at least one tome of substance struggling to be liberated?
Lots of people somehow seem to manage it. A friend of mine wrote a book (on the subject of life in the universe, no less) while getting up to speed in the first couple of years of his PhD. All in all, very impressive. Another acquaintance told me that she wrote hers in her spare time for a bet. Again impressive, though I should point out that, when it comes to winning cash wagers as a source of additional income, book writing is not the way to go; it takes too long and the outcome is too uncertain. (I have found that brief but extremely public displays of nudity are much more efficient in this regard.)
The number of my friends and colleagues who have now written their own books is climbing all the time. These days, the invitations that drop through the door are not to weddings or christenings but to book launches. Not that I've got anything against book launches as celebratory occasions: there are usually a few interesting people to talk to and a bit of free booze. Better still, if you can get your mate to sign a couple of copies you can store them away ready to stick them on eBay when the time is right. On the train home, newly inspired by the flow of free champagne, I invariably find myself scribbling a chapter plan on a napkin, promising that tomorrow I'll start work on my own book. But tomorrow never seems to come.
None of this used to bother me until, a year ago, I gave a talk at a science festival. Afterwards, some kind soul commended me for being just about the only person at the whole event not there to promote his or her latest literary offering. This meant a lot to me. It meant that I was a complete bloody idiot, incapable of producing my own work.
So, recently, I set myself the task of writing a book. I wrote a chapter plan; this time on something that I wouldn't later blow my nose on. I wrote an introduction of sorts and the best part of the first chapter. I threw down a bunch more ideas and organised those. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. How many words? How many days? All of this while on a flight to some place or other.
The impossible suddenly looked probable. And, OK, there was still the thorny issue of who in his or her right mind would be willing to risk the reputation of a publishing house on a charlatan like me but this, in the gloaming of the cabin reading light, seemed like a mere detail.
It was fantastic; something had just clicked. I would start that day, that very evening. It would give me something to do when I woke at 4am with jet lag. Beaming as I rode the taxi to the hotel, I imagined my own book launch, my own free bar and canapes. I gave the cab driver a huge tip and waved a cheery goodbye. I was not to discover until later that I was also waving goodbye to the book in which all my notes were written. This I took to be a message from a higher ethereal authority, telling me once and for all that, when it comes to writing, I should stick to works of no more than 900 words.
The book struggling to fight its way out of me feels like it'll never see the light of day without surgical intervention. All I can say is this: Ginger Spice, I salute you.