When I was ten years old, I sent Anthony Ainley a letter. Bear with me on this one, there’s a reason I start with this.
Ainley was, at the time ‘The Master’ on Doctor Who, and I thought he was brilliant. And, on a day of writing off to various actors for autographs (these were the innocent eighties, where autograph stores were rare and Ebay was a thing of the future) I sat back and hoped that someone might reply. Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton all sent signed postcards. But Ainley? He wrote me a letter back.
For a ten year old kid, the fact that someone had read my request and done more than a simply reply was incredible. And it was such a shock, that even now, thirty years later, I still remember it. And so, when someone contacted me in the same way, I decided to do something about it. I decided that for once, I was going to go that extra mile.
Now, I’ll point out that I often get emails and letters from kids saying they like my comics – some ask for autographs, others ask for advice. It’s a common thing. But two weeks ago, I had a letter from an eleven year old boy, Joe Worboyes from Benfleet in Essex.
Dear Mr Lee, the letter started, I love reading about Doctor Who and I would very much like you to come to my school and tell all of the other children about your work. We a small school and it would be a lovely suprise for my friends if you could come to our school.
Now although I do school talks, to pop along for a single session is a rarity for the author, even if the expenses are paid, unless there is a particular book being promoted. I wasn’t promoting a book. It was almost the end of the school year.
But something about this polite, well written note made me look further. I contacted the school, Woodham Ley in South Benfleet and asked about Joe. What sort of kid was he? A chancer? An angel? They explained he was definitely the latter, a boy who loved reading, loved Doctor Who and who had actually shared his comics collection with his friends, allowing them to read stories they couldn’t afford elsewhere, actively helping them with their reading skills through selflessly lending out his own comics. Comics that I had written.
At that moment I knew I had to honour his request. I had to visit his school. It was the least I could do.
But what was the most I could do?
This weekend passed was the Starfury 11th Hour Doctor Who convention, and Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor was attending. A couple of weeks before, the Star Trek: TNG / Doctor Who #1 had come out and I’d sourced some copies for it. So, while at 11th Hour, Matt signed the comic for me and, with my signature added, I put it aside.
Now, at the same time, I realised that I could strike two birds with one stone here, as my nieces Caitlin and Hannah had both asked about me coming to their school at various times over the last couple of years – and it was no more than fifteen minutes from Joe’s school. I could do both in the same morning. So I called up their school and made a similar arrangement.
So… Yesterday, I drove to my niece’s school and, while the kids came in for the start of the day, I hid in the Headmaster’s office while they entered the hall. Then, when the deputy head announced me, I entered to smiles and shocked expressions from two very surprised young girls.
After talking about my childhood, and how I stopped being a reluctant reader, I moved into how I write, showing similarities with my work now to the way I wrote when I was their age. I acted out things. I pretended I was a dinosaur. You know, the usual things. And then with that it was time to go, I had some photos done with my nieces, and then I was off to Benfleet.
Arriving, I found Joe’s mother also arriving. She had been told what was happening by the school and was very excited and proud of her son, as well she should be. And, in a similar way to the previous school we were bundled into the Headmaster’s office until the student’s had settled in the hall. And then, when the Headmaster called my name I entered another assembly.
I explained I was here because of a letter. I pointed out Joe, explaining also that I was at the school because of him. I talked again about my childhood, and the way I wrote things – but then, at the end I pulled up Joe from the audience and brought him onto the stage. I explained that I didn’t usually do requests, but that the people at the school had been so enthusiatic about him, I changed my mind. And, when I’d heard that he’d sacrificed his own comics to the school library just so his friends could read them? I couldn’t let him get nothing for such a sacrifice.
And then I gave him the comic. The comic signed by me and Matt Smith. And Joe Worboyes, the boy who wrote was speechless.
And then the talk was over. I had some photos taken by the local paper of me and Joe, I thanked the school for allowing me to do this, and I left.
The rest of my day was just as busy, with meetings, lunches and a talk at the Apple Store in London, but they paled next to the face of an eleven year old boy when he held his comic, realising that by writing to someone he liked and who he was a fan of, nothing more than a simple, well thought out letter, he’d found himself on the stage with something incredible to keep. It was, as I like to call it, his Ainley moment.
I hope I remember it as long as he does. It was a good moment.