Three or four years ago, I received a letter from Meopham School, in Kent. The school had opened a small unit for kids who needed support to cope with mainstream schooling, mostly because they had been placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum; because of my connection with autism – my eldest son Danny is autistic – the school asked if they could name the unit after me.
This, let me tell you, is one of the weirdest things that can happen to a person. At first I was merely worried: it seemed to place a lot of undue pressure on my career. What if the books dried up? Would they change the name of the centre to “The Zadie Smith”? But when I thought about it, I realised that all sorts of places in London are named after people I’ve never heard of. Who was John Barnes, who gave his name to the library in Holloway Road (it’s not the former England, Liverpool and Watford player?) Who was Janet Adogoke, who gave her name to the sports hall in Shepherd’s Bush where I used to play five-a-side? It doesn’t really matter, does it? I began to relax a little – maybe, I thought, it would actually be better for the school if the books dried up, and then they could separate the unit from the half-awake person waiting for his coffee in Highbury Corner Starbucks.
When I went to visit the unit for the first time, it all became very surreal very quickly. “Where are the toilets?” I asked one of the pupils. “You turn left at the Nick Hornby and go straight on.” There was a Nick Hornby menu for lunch. There are Nick Hornby email addresses. And I realised that, one day, a tired and overworked teacher was going to insert an expletive before my name. Indeed, maybe the name itself was the expletive.
I went to the Nick Hornby Centre a couple of weeks ago – four of the kids were leaving, and there was a lunch party thrown in their honour. The Centre has worked brilliantly, and the children there are thriving – like just about every institution of its kind in Britain, the Centre is wildly oversubscribed. And this time, I felt immense pride that I have something to do with it all, however tangentially, although the pressure returned. What if I suddenly went mad and killed fifty people? Obviously, that would reflect pretty badly on me. But the Centre wouldn’t look very good, either. I am now more determined than ever not to turn into a mass murderer.