Look carefully. This painting by Charles Willson Peale was hanging outside the room where I gave a talk recently in the National Portrait Gallery. As some of you will know, I have a cat called Captain Oates who looks uncannily like the creature in the picture (except that Captain Oates has a body attached to his head).
More of the unfortunate feline in a moment. The NPG talk was one of many I've been asked to give so far this year. It's been frantic, in a controlled sort of way, and hugely exhilarating. In what other walk of life could I find myself sitting in a green room in Emma Bridgewater's factory in Stoke-on-Trent one moment, sharing a meal with the wonderfully gentle and illuminating Michael Morpurgo and with Prue Leith looking dazzling and extolling the virtues of offal; the next, sneaking peeks at the Royal Wedding on my iPad with Joan Bakewell and David Dimbleby in Vanessa Bell's kitchen at Charleston; drifting around the exquisite buildings and grounds of Dartington Hall in Devon or attempting to look nonchalant as I turn up to speak at Portcullis House or prepare for the Edinburgh Festival?
I'll never grow tired of this life on the road. I love meeting readers and listening to their stories and reactions, whether it's at high-profile Literary Festivals like these, or to a local history group, an enthusiastic U3A meeting or a group of WIs. At one such gathering last week a lady came up to me at the end and presented me with a bunch of 'suffragist roses' - red streaked with white - in honour of the heroines of Hearts and Minds. So moving.
That said, after six months I'm ready for a couple of weeks faffing about by the sea doing nothing much at all. I LOVE my job. But there's nothing like a silly season now and again, when there are (temporarily) no deadlines to meet, and nothing needs make sense. That's why my silly summer task is going to be to write a short story about Mr Peale's picture. And I'll dedicate it to Captain Oates.