Thursday 17 July 2008

The literary life makes death look a pretty good option

14st 0lb; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,298 days to go; St James’s.

The day did not get off to the best of starts when I strode confidently out of the house at 6.25 a.m. and the bloody car would not unlock with the usual electronic gizmo. I resorted to old technology and managed to open the driver’s door with a key, but the engine would not turn at all. Whatever happened to starting handles? Ideal for both this sort of eventuality, and for walloping people who stop to ask if you’re having trouble.

Fortunately, I have another vehicle on stand-by for just such emergencies; but the disabled car was the one I had prepared earlier, as they always used to say on Blue Peter. Luckily I had slung the luggage onto the back seat last night, rather than into the boot, which remained firmly locked along with all the doors apart from the driver’s one. After a bit of high level swearing and re-arranging, the dog and I left only marginally late and I was in good time for the 07.19 from Morpeth to London.

The dinner which was the real purpose of my visit to London having been cancelled, the highlight of my day became the literary lunch I had arranged to attend because I was in town anyway. To be fair, I was interested in both the subject and the speaker, who was an exact contemporary of mine at Cambridge. He had been one of the most elegant and self-assured young men of my generation, always sweeping through college in distinctive and evidently expensive old-fashioned clothes which excited my envy as a would-be young fogey myself. However, it was made clear that I was unfortunately ineligible for membership of the club owing to a fatal lack of funds, style and self-esteem. He had gone on to mix in very high society and to lead the sort of life as a man of letters that I have always envied.

Luckily all this stopped dead the minute that he wandered in. Superficially, he appeared to have aged well: his hair had receded a bit, but he had not gone grey at all, and his big, brown, spaniel eyes still looked bright enough – but in a hunted sort of way. In place of the fine Victorian get-up of the 1970s was a nondescript blue suit, and a college tie lazily half knotted some way below his open collar. And instead of the expected arrogant drawl when he opened his mouth, there came a hesitant stammer. His performance as a public speaker made mine look positively assured; he sweated, stuttered, gurned and generally gave the impression of being thoroughly ill at ease. What he had to say was interesting enough, though, focusing on the subject of his latest forthcoming biography. He had enjoyed a “beautiful friendship” with the great man, though his reference to having been “platonically loved” by him clearly pre-empted most of the obvious questions afterwards. Lunch was followed by a book signing in which I did not participate, though my guests who did so described the author snatching banknotes and stuffing them into his top pocket with the air of a man who is well down on his uppers.

Perhaps I should abandon my ideas of authorship and go back to labouring at the coalface of public relations. I gave some advice before lunch to one of my guests, who has recently taken a new job in which his responsibilities will include attempting to market the concern to potential investors. I explained why he would find this almost impossible, even though I could see that the allegedly revolutionary and modish gizmo the firm has been set up to produce attracting quite a lot of media interest. Although it is at little more than the design concept stage, the company has apparently already signed an exclusive contract to sell hundreds of thousands of the things at £22.50 apiece. What could possibly go wrong?

“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “They could turn out to cost £25 each to produce for a kick-off.”

My friend’s face fell. “It’s funny you should say that …” he began.

Later on, having changed the subject to something altogether jollier, namely Nazism, I made the implausible assertion that I am not a racist.

“How can you possibly say that?” he snorted.

“I have an Iranian girlfriend” I asserted, with some confidence.

He really should have been wearing a monocle, so that it could have fallen out with simulated shock, allowing him to twiddle it thoughtfully as he said, with an Eric von Stroheim sneer, “My dear chap, don’t you realize that the Persians are as Aryan as we are?”

Evidently not. Though I do now.

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