for fans of
Diana Wynne Jones


Yesterday I went to 10 Downing Street. The Blairs were giving a reception for children's writers and illustrators, which has never been done before by a Prime Minister and seems to me to be very enlightened of them. I was very interested, because I had always wondered what 10 Downing Street was like inside. Apart from anything else, when they show it on telly, all you see is a narrow house and this black front door, and it has always struck me that it must be like Tardis - many times larger than it looks from outside - and if so, how do they FIT IT IN?

Since I am still not very well after the surgery I had this summer, I hired a car with a driver to take me there. And - would you believe this! - the driver turned out to have been a footman in Buckingham Palace and then butler to the Duchess of York (Fergie, that is). So on the way there he was telling me all about Security and how the police mostly do it, but that he himself also had to train in the art of escaping terrorists and how to arrest intruders and so forth.

The result was that when I arrived at Downing Street, I instantly thought of the very polite policeman at the gate as 'Static Security' (the mobile ones arrive on motorbikes in minutes if there's trouble, I'd been told) and almost asked him if that was what he was. But he seriously checked me off on a list before I could, and asked me to go up the street to a small plastic shed to be searched. This was just exactly like the stuff they do in airports. Two highly polite men took my small handbag and ran it through an X-ray machine while I was told to walk through an arch. No problem. But when I got home again, I worried about this. You see, my handbag was so small that my asthma-inhaler wouldn't fit into it and I'd zipped it into a pocket of my mac instead. When I got inside No 10, they took my mac and hung it up, still with the inhaler in it, and nobody checked that it wasn't a small plastic bomb - all they knew was that it wasn't a gun. But of course they probably checked all the coats once we were out of them. There were security people on duty everywhere.

There was another seriously polite policeman just outside the front door and he checked me off on a list again and then tried to open the door electronically. But something went wrong - I always have a bad effect on electronics: computers in airports look at me and instantly go down - and the door simply sort of bounced about. The polite policeman said, 'I think you'll have to knock at the door, madam.' So I did. Big black iron knocker. And I thought, 'This is like a dream - me, knocking at the Prime Minister's door!' It was opened at once by a polite and anxious elderly man, who again checked me on a list (and the reason he looked so anxious, I discovered on the way out again later, was that he was also COUNTING us all - he had to make sure that the same number of people came OUT as went in) and then passed me on to the person who took my mac, helping me out of it SO politely. Everyone was so polite and mild and steely and kind that it was awesome.

Anyway, I was now inside and it IS like Tardis. The downstairs floor stretched back and back and back, downstairs being sort of grand and sort of like a school or a library at the same time. But I was told to go upstairs. Again the stairs were rather like school stairs with metal bannisters. But they had a carpet on them, which looked old and horribly valuable and was the ugliest carpet I've ever seen - sort of pale pea green with dark pink patterns. If I were Mrs Blair, I'd have torn it out at once and sold it to Saddam Hussein or someone. And at the top, it went Tardis-like again, because that floor stretched sideways and sideways and sideways and seem to take up the whole street - or some other dimensions entirely, because you really couldn't see how else all this grandeur could be fitted in. It was very grand, with gold paint on the ceilings and huge ancient carpets that were slightly less ugly, and anterooms and vestibules in both directions, and a huge landing where more polite people gave me a name badge and helped me fix it on, and another polite person gestured me through a line of anterooms with mirrors and golden chairs with paws instead of feet. And finally I arrived into a tall tall room filled with roaring voices and people, and big pillars one end that didn't seem to hold the ceiling up.

And here for a while it was just like a cocktail party. If you haven't been to one, it's - well, a huge crowd of heads and suits and quite smart dresses, and massively loud talking, but you still can't hear a word, and lots of waiters with trays of drinks (wine, water and juice) and lots and lots of little ladies with bleached blond hair carrying vast dishes of queer little snacks, weaving about under all the talking. And you stand there for a little while thinking 'I can't see a SOUL that I know! Help!' Then one or two people that you realise you DO know blur out of the crowd, and before long you are bending down and shouting at, say, Nina Bawden, and then stretching upright to yell at, say, Shirley Hughes, and wondering if you dare go away and sit down - only there doesn't seem to be anywhere much to sit. And there was Terry Pratchett, who was clearly being very funny, if only you could hear what he was saying.

After about half an hour, Mrs Blair was suddenly there, and with her was a tiny, staggering little boy in pyjamas - Leo I think. It must have been awful for him, all legs and roaring voices overhead. He went away to bed quite soon. Mrs Blair is quite small and looks exactly like she does on telly, only rather more tired. I never met her. She rushed away into the middle of the roaring room and shook hands there.

There was supposed to be a lady there from my publishers, but I'd never met her, so I didn't know how to find her. And I took a rice thing from one of the small ladies and it came open and rice went all up my sleeve, like gummy little beetles. So I stopped that and found Peter Dickinson (who is one of my favourite people) and Philippa Pearce and another lady, and we went out into the vestibule (unless it was an anteroom), where there was a sofa. Philippa, who is really quite elderly, collapsed onto it gratefully, saying she couldn't hear a word in the main room. And there wasn't room on the sofa for Peter, so he sat on the floor. Some of the seriously polite people doing duty in that room clearly thought this was Not On. Two of them respectfully brought him one of the chairs with golden paws and ushered him into it - where I must say he seemed far more comfortable (and later, when I went out there again, I found that the chair had been carefully put back where it came from, into the exact paw-prints it had made in the carpet there). Meanwhile, I was watching two men carrying large hefty camera-things, who were standing about by the archway. I have never seen two men who looked more like rats. They just seemed to stand there, talking sarcastically to one another.

Then, quite suddenly, one of them switched on a powerful light on his video-thingy. A man came out of a doorway into this glare. And we all realised it was Tony Blair. Peter said we ought to go back into the main room, so we got up and went, while the camera-rats rushed in ahead of us with their camera-things focussed on Mr Blair - and absolutely focussed, so there could have been no one else in the picture, sort of leaning over his shoulder - and Mr Blair pretended they weren't there. He looks just like he does on telly, only paler and a LOT more tired.

There was not really room to get into the room properly. A man was standing with his back to me, talking to a lot of ladies. I stood more or less in the archway for a bit, watching a new person, quite a young man with a label round his neck, who was rushing this way and that through the crowd, looking neurotically anxious and seeming to search for someone. He made you feel he had lost his Mummy. Then the label round his neck flipped round and it said he was the Prime Minister's security man. Almost at the same time, the man with his back to me turned a little to one side and I realised he was actually Tony Blair - with the camera-rats still filming away at him - and I thought, Funny! I didn't know he was that tall! But the strange thing is, if you think about it, you never normally do see the BACK of a politician, and it's quite unrecognisable.

Two schoolgirls rushed in about then - I think one was Katherine Blair - and said hello to Mrs Blair and rushed off again. Pity, I thought. I would have been really interested to meet them. But it was not to be. A lady turned round from the crowd around Mr Blair and said, 'Oh, you're Diana Wynne Jones. Come and be introduced to the Prime Minister.' So I went forward. And as soon as I did, Mr Blair set off quickly across the room, away from me, and the camera-rats went rushing after him, ploughing through the crowd, knocking aside small old people like Philippa Pearce and Nina Bawden and almost toppling a huge tall man with a beard, and filming away in a frenzy. And there turned out to be a little platform on the other side of the room. Mr Blair sprang up on to it and made a short speech.

It was quite a good speech. He made it clear that he did read to his children when he had the time - and this was obviously true, because he knew how little kids always want the same story over and over again - and he said we all did valuable work, not just for the country but for the next generation. And then he said this was a great responsibility. And some behind me growled, 'Yes, we know.' And that was it really. Mr Blair, camera-rats and Mrs Blair all disappeared at once, like some kind of magic, and we were back to a crowd of shouting people again. And I did get to find the lady from my publishers, who told me that the cover for THE MERLIN CONSPIRACY was pretty good now, and I met the lady from OUP, who publish my Dalemark books. Then it all got very noisy again.

This time I went out into the quieter part with Terry Pratchett, where we had great fun having writer-talk. This is the kind of talk where you only have to say three or four words instead of explaining what it is you do, and it is very satisfying, knowing that the other person understands exactly and completely what you mean. Terry told me about his next book, so I demanded he sent me a signed copy. It's out next May and it sounds really good. Then Shirley Hughes reappeared and said we'd got to look at the dining room. Terry promptly vanished, but I went to look. The dining room(s) were out in another dimension, sideways from the vestibule, and went off into distance because there were two of them, one small and one truly big, but otherwise identical apart from the size of the tables, and lined with splendid plain wood. I want a dining room like those. Bernard Ashley was in there admiring them too, and we went out together, because it was obviously time to leave.

But I had to stop and ask one of the politest of the polite servitors where the toilet was, because it was a long drive home. And he told me and I found it and it was quite big, with all brass fittings, but not sumptuous. And as I was locking the door, the knob of the bolt came off, leaving the door locked. I thought, This could be VERY embarrassing! Imagine having to get someone to help me get out of here! But after a bit of fiddling, I got the knob back on and pulled back the bolt. Then I thought, But think of a foreign dignitary getting locked in here. If she dropped the knob it would probably roll away under the door. I'd better tell someone. So I went, very doubtfully, to the politest man, and told him. And he beamed and said, 'That's just the kind of thing we like to know about, madam.' Which made me feel a lot better.

And then I found my car and went home.

Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones 2002

(Editor's Note for anyone who doesn't know: 10 Downing Street is the official London home of the British prime minister. It is often just called "Number 10" and is very close to the Houses of Parliament. The prime minister in 2002 was Tony Blair, who is married to a successful barrister, Cherie Blair [Booth]. They had 3 children and then one much younger son. Buckingham Palace is where the British monarch lives in London. The Tardis is Dr Who's time machine - much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside!)