|Question: I didn't know Colin Firth was a writer as well as an actor until I saw his work in your anthology.
Nick Hornby: It's his first published piece. I think it was very brave. I'd known he was interested and I thought this might be something to get him started. I could see he was extremely excited to be asked and he just needed a finger, rather than two hands, to push him over the edge. I've talked to him a lot over the last few years; he's incredibly bright and I thought that he'd come up with something interesting.(London Metro newspaper, Nov.2000)
Department of Nothing
Through a creepy forest she ran, young Emma in her white nightie; flapping and phantasmic in the gloom of an enchanted night-storm. For it was prophesied that the only way to lift the spell was for her to find the Night Garden and take the ring from the hand of the evil Lucien Lothair who ruled all Sardorf with an iron fist and a nasty climate. In order to do this she had to run through this forest, where darkness had stolen all colour - sucked it like a vampire does.
Something was chasing her. How could she know if she was running towards even greater danger . She couldn't, basically, so she just had to get on with it and run anyway and hope she was running in the right direction. On she strove, scraping her extremities on stumps of mighty oak and frowning yew - whereupon she came upon an ivied wall, wildly she fought for passage - and lo! By luck or grace, she fell upon a door which gave on to The Night Garden.
All moonlit and full of eerie beauty and tranquillity. Here the wind fell silent - and her pursuer seemed not to be around any more. The garden seemed to belong to a great house or castle, now mainly forgotten. All around were crumbling walls and sundials, old statues, rose trees, terrible gargoyles and stone animals. What she didn't see were little real live devilish faces poking from behind rocks. Then suddenly, standing right in front of her, there was a group of weird children. They were staring at her. One of them said, 'Who are youz?' And then, before anyone could answer, this big loud honking voice from somewhere else, suddenly shouted 'Henry!!!' which is my name.
And then there wasn't any garden or children, just me sitting next to my grandma's bed, probably late for school, smelling haddock, wishing Grandma's stories didn't have to be always interrupted. You see how annoying it is! It's more than annoying, it's irksome. In fact, it was twenty to nine and I was about five minutes away from quite a big detention if I didn't go damn sharpish. I still wanted Grandma to go on, but that's always when she gets strict and says, 'No more talking, the session is closed.'
Whenever I'm listening to a story I always turn her bedside clock away so I don't see the time. She says I'm not allowed to, because I have to respect punctuality - but I always manage it. Clocks are definitely on the TTPUYL list. Things That Pants Up Your Life. Grown-ups think they are fantastic - they love minutes and they add them up like they're made of pound coins or something. Our teacher Shitty McVittie (I didn't make up the shitty part, that's what everyone calls him) if you're, like, a minute late then it's like you've stolen a minute off him and so he'll steal an hour off you - after school. Even Grandma says 'chop chop' all the time, in spite of being magic. It's strange, because the place where clocks most can't get you is in her stories. Even after she's told one it's like you go into a kind of slo-mo for ages.
So when I came out of Grandma's room I already knew I'd be thinking about the rest of the story until five o'clock, and I'd probably get in trouble for daydreaming. You always come out with a load of new words and things you can carry in your head until next time - and school would be much worse without these things in your head ... my head.
It can still make you go a bit mental to be torn viciously from a mysterious midnight garden to your mum shouting 'cause you didn't eat your haddock. So your life is made of half-finished stories and games that never actually get added up into a whole thing - unless it's your homework or your broccoli, then you can finish it all, however long it takes.
There's a name for all this: most people call it real life, but actually it's called the Department of Nothing. It's not just one department, but loads of mini departments. The broccoli and haddock and meat with vomity white bits get made in the Kitchen of Nothing. School is the Paper Department, where they have this special doom-paper so that anything you write on it is doomed. Then there's the Waiting Room of Nothing where you get told Not now, I'm busy, or You're not old enough yet and all that, and this is also where all detentions come from. And then the Department Vacuum Cleaner comes and sucks up all the second halves of stories and games, so you can never find them again. Grown-ups think they are the controllers, but they're not really, because it's the Clock Department who have all the actual power; marching grown-ups about like sergeant majors to one two, one two. Absolutely everyone lives there - unless they get to go to Grandma's room, which is the only way out of the Department except nobody nows that, even though it's blatant. The trick is holding on to the magic to get you through the Department of Nothing. The luckiest thing is that stories come right at the beginning of the day.
Stories are my best thing in my life. OK so it goes, best things: Grandma's stories, Grandma, Tintin books, the crossword in The Chronicle, gobstoppers, weekends and holidays. And days when Mr McVittie's away. But the main best thing is usually Grandma. /.../
Read the rest of Colin's story in the book Speaking with the Angel published November 2000
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