Ann Treneman's Notebook: Going on holiday with Proust and Mandelson
Saturday 17 July 1999
This year, I've given up on trying to streamline my luggage. I am just going to keep buying suitcases until I run out of stuff to put in them. Life is too short to worry about such things. Or so I say. But then people who worry will always find something to worry about. So this year I am not worrying about luggage. Instead I am worrying about holiday reading.
I cannot pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading an article on what I should be reading on holiday this year. Until now I had never really thought about it. But William Boyd has. "For four summers now," he writes, "I have been carting out to France the three volumes of The Pseudo-Memoirs of Mme d'Epinay - a compendious and savage attack on Rousseau by a former mistress - and carting them back, unread." Boyd also says that Don DeLillo's zillion-page novel, Underworld, is the "perfect summer read". His luggage must be even more of a nightmare than mine.
The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has packaged holiday reads into categories. For the beach, he says, you might consider a book with the word "beach" in the title. "This allows you a sly self-referential joke that will impress any post-modernists in the vicinity," he writes. He suggests Brazzaville Beach (by Mr Boyd, who sadly hates to read on the beach, which is too bad because that would be a really funny sly, self- referential joke).
Another category is the classic. "How many years is it now you've been promising yourself to read Proust?" asks Mr Morrison. To choose which classic to take, he says, we can play "Humiliation" with friends. The object of this is to name the most famous book that you've never read. Wow. Well, if I start to play Humiliation - which is a fairly normal game for most commuters, actually - then I shall never get packed.
The Big Issue advises against Salman Rushdie in general and DeLillo's Underworld in particular. "Everyone pretends to have read it but no one can tell what goes on after page 20 because their hands have fallen off from holding the equivalent of a five-pound bag of spuds," it says. In fact I, too, have bought this particular sack of potatoes. But I'm way beyond page 20. In fact, I'm at page 54.
In the end I have decided not to buy another suitcase in order to take Underworld with me. Instead, I went to Waterstone's and headed straight for the "three for the price of two" table. It's so much simpler than worrying about Rousseau, Proust or Humiliation.
In fact, I do have a must-read for this summer. The title needs work, though, so don't be put off. Complaints Against Mr Peter Mandelson is a slim blue paperback (A4, stapled) from the House of Commons' Committee on Standards and Privileges. It does not have a blurb, but if it did, this is what it would say: "Peter Mandelson - in his own words. The story of how an MP on pounds 43,000 per annum managed to borrow pounds 598,000. Classic tale of desire, vanity, delusion and house-purchasing. Provides genuine insight into an unreal world. And lots of political grovelling too."
Now, you may think that you already know this story, but I would disagree. Yes, we all know that Mr Mandelson borrowed pounds 373,000 from his friend Geoffrey Robinson so that he could buy a splendid Notting Hill house and that they both duly resigned over this at Christmas time. But behind that headline is so much more. What is so beguiling about this story is that we can all sympathise. Most of us want to live in bigger and better houses. I certainly would. In fact, it is a major life-goal to get more cupboard space. But I am held back by this little thing called reality. I cannot figure out how to swing it. And I want to know how Peter Mandelson did. Even if you put aside the Robinson loan, Mr Mandelson still managed to get a third mortgage of pounds 150,000 on top of his other ones for pounds 35,000 and pounds 40,000. And he had no income other than his MP's salary.
The mortgage application for the Notting Hill house is included in this document. It is a revelation. On it he is described as a "Minister for Parliment" (sic) though he was just an MP at the time. When asked about any current mortgages, he mentioned only one. When asked whether he had any hire purchase or loan agreements, the answer was no. And his signature is there, too, under that declaration of how everything is true, etc.
Now, I have always found those loan forms rather intimidating. I feel I should give my correct job title, for a start. I also tell them every obligation: every credit card debt is totalled, every car and bank loan disclosed. I list everything except the newspaper bill. But now I am wondering whether I haven't been taking this all a bit seriously. Is there any need to be quite so detailed when filling out these forms? After all, there have been three investigations into Mr Mandelson to date and no one thinks that he's done anything illegal.
There also are some tips for dealing with families. When he signed his mortgage form in August, Mr Mandelson believed that his mother would provide the rest of the money for the house. He is not alone in having such dreams. And we all know how difficult it can be to mention real figures, especially those in excess of pounds 300,000. He waited till September. "I do not think she ever realised," he testifies. "I did not realise, but then, to me, it is a large sum of money, but to my mother it was a fantastic sum of money, really, considering she bought her house with my father in 1951 for pounds 4,000 and she has never moved from that house... It suddenly seemed a lot of money." I particularly like that word "suddenly".
There is much, much more in it, too, of course. The book costs pounds 11.50 (available via 0870-600 5522) and the ISBN is 010 5562238. It has lots of uses. You could refer to that form for inspiration, for instance. Plus, it is a good thing to have on the bookshelf. It is a talking-point. The other day I was reading it on the Underground and a man started to talk to me. I thought he was trying to chat me up but then he said: "Is that about Peter Mandelson? You know, I don't blame him. Everyone is trying to do the same thing. I'm a mortgage broker; I should know." I think we could be talking best-seller here.
Photographs are strange things. They represent a split second of your life, and a highly edited one at that. You remember only the ones you keep. All those hundreds of shots that you shredded because you looked like a gargoyle are forgotten. But studio photographs are in a class of their own. My family loves studio photographs. Every few years or so we are dragged into one and the results are then air-brushed and put on full public display. This warps your mind, because you come to think of yourself as air-brushed.
This week I found myself in the studio again, and was relieved to see that a make-up artist was on hand. It was not a short session. There was plenty of time to chat. We talked about changing our names. Mr Make-up had an idea. "Why don't you use your porn name?" Now, I gather from colleagues that this game has been about for a while. Just in case you don't know, you get your porn name by putting the name of your first pet with your mother's maiden name. My first pet was a dog and this made my porn name Benjamin Franklin Bartels. "Very good!" said Mr Make-Up. I wasn't so sure.
We then tried opera singer names (your middle name followed by your street name) and mine was Carolyn Cherry Orchard. Suddenly I remembered that before the dog there had been a mouse. It had escaped from its box and nibbled through the sofa. My father murdered it, saying that no mouse was worth the cost of a couch. Its name was Whisky (after the box). So, there it is. Whisky Bartels. Now that has a ring to it.
Finally, I was ready for the photographer. "Sometimes I think that people hate me more than they do the dentist," he said. I assured him that that was not the case. It took a long time to take the photograph. My chin was in the wrong place. My hair was straying. I did not feel like myself.
Sometimes you do not even know that you are playing a game called Humiliation. Sometimes you are just getting through the day and it sneaks up on you. I'm sure such a thing would never happen to Whisky.
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