It was Lord Byron who claimed that he "awoke one morning and found myself famous". Well, so did I. In Byron's case instant fame followed the publication of his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, in 1812. For me, almost exactly two centuries later, it burst forth with the serialisation in a major British tabloid of a new memoir I'd written about my internet dating adventures as an older woman. I knew my spicy little book would kick up a bit of dust, but hadn't been expecting to become an overnight international sensation. A 'phenomenon', as some have put it. Perhaps you'd like to know what that is like. Well, it felt rather like the media-spotlight equivalent of going over the top from the trenches on the Western Front and into no-man's-land. Bratatat!
Of course much of the (at first) overwhelming response to my book was a result of the screaming headlines used in connection with my story. Headlines over which I had no control. The book contains much else besides the titillating fact that as a 60-year-old I had intimate encounters with a few of London's 'hot young dudes', but that was the focus of all the media attention. Of course I know how newspapers work and I understand tabloid-ese. I just didn't think that this revelation was something to get so lathered up about in 21st Century Britain. Many young guys are keen on older women - they like their self-confidence, experience and independent-mindedness. So?
The paper which ran my story over three weeks has the biggest and most widely-read website of any newspaper in the world. Fifty million people around the planet look at the site daily and as I was to discover, a huge proportion of them are utterly witless, the human equivalent of the bottom feeders which inhabit the gloomy depths of the sea floor. Having been fed for years on a diet of tabloid drivel and celebrity gossip, they lack the ability to respond thoughtfully or intelligently to a genuine human interest story. Their anonymous comments on the paper's website - crude, ignorant, bilious - came as a shock. But unlike teenagers who sometimes commit suicide over the vitriol spewed out at them on social media sites, an older person has developed survival skills. After the first day I never looked at the comments again. "They're not real people," one sensible radio presenter told me. "No need to take notice of them."
After the opprobrium from 'the great unwashed' (and from one po-faced tabloid columnist who simply 'didn't get' the concept of consenting adults harmlessly enjoying each other's company, age differences notwithstanding) came the worldwide celebrity. Requests for interviews from TV shows, radio stations and magazines. As a journalist, I had for decades been used to knocking on the doors of media outlets for publicity purposes. Now they were queuing up to knock on mine. Marvellous.
And as my story was publicised in country after country - Turkey, Spain, Greece, Malaysia, India, Australia - I was bombarded by encouraging messages from members of the global public for whom I was suddenly a figurehead for female liberation, a 'pioneer' and an 'inspiring leader' for other older women. The praise seemed just as overblown as the criticism had been. Was this me they were talking about? It felt as if I were living someone else's life.
I received many hundreds of Facebook friend requests from around the world and invitations to connect on professional networking sites. The emailed dinner invitations poured in too, from eligible men of my own generation. The columnist who declared in her censorious piece that no man would be interested in a serious relationship with me now, after my having written 'such a book', couldn't have been more off-beam. It has had the opposite effect. Oh I love the smell of vindication in the morning.
A month on from the launch of my tale upon an unsuspecting world, the fame game continues apace. Interview requests still come in (I have my own publicist now, don'tcha know) and every time I post a status update on Facebook, scores of new FB friends leave a trail of enthusiastic comments after it. In fact I can't go on to the site without dozens of people clamouring for private online chats. Men and women, from Sydney or Ankara or someplace unpronounceable in Azerbaijan. They have all read about me or heard about me. And yet it's remarkable how a situation so surreal can become the norm within a few short weeks.
Recently one of my latest FB friend additions, a young man from a village in Gujarat, sent me brief message: 'You are famous lady?'
I looked at it for a while and honestly didn't know how to reply.