Books: Fine art of friendship

Richard Eyre acclaims a memoir of the agent who outshone her stars; Love Is Where It Falls by Simon Callow Nick Hern Books, pounds 14.99, 214pp
ONE SHOULD leave one's mark on everyone one loves," said Peggy Ramsay in a letter to her lover, the actor/writer/director Simon Callow. Only he wasn't her lover exactly: more, as the subtitle of his book suggests, a "passionate friend", which is a euphemism that denies the book its most fascinating aspect. It is a love story, and if it is a love story without sex, it is only because one of the participants was a 70-year-old woman, the other a 30-year-old homosexual man.

The affair with Simon Callow began with a coup de foudre. They met by chance, they talked without drawing breath, they exchanged letters, she watched him act, she became his patron, he became her "Puppy". To him she sacrificed the thing she held dearest: her independence.

She found in him energy, youth and unambiguous passion for the things she cared about most: Life and Art - but not in that order. For Art everything had to give way: friendship, comfort, marriage. "Expect nothing," she said, "and everything becomes a bonus". With Simon it became apparent she expected everything of him, and in his way he gave her everything he could. He gave her love without desire.

Peggy Ramsay was a literary agent, who dealt exclusively with writers who wrote for the stage and - much less important to her - for the screen. She left her mark on all her writers, all of whom at some time or other, however briefly, she was infatuated with: David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Robert Bolt, Alan Aykbourn, John Mortimer, Joe Orton, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Willy Russell, John McGrath, Howard Brenton, Peter Nichols and more.

She had what Simon Callow described as an "amorous" relationship with all her authors; she identified something in their work that she wholly admired, pursued them, represented them, encouraged them, and was almost invariably disappointed by them. She judged her clients by comparison with dead authors ("Is he as good as Shakespeare, dear?") and would say to one client of another "Do you think he'll write anything really good, dear?".

She provoked strong feelings in what one client decribed to me as her "menagerie". They wanted to be loved by her, and were sometimes hurt by her contempt, or exasperated by her exacting standards. When I took over the National Theatre, she said to me: "Dear, I hope you'll have the courage to be unpopular."

Most of what one knew of Peggy was legend: her age, her lovers (who possibly included Beckett, and certainly Ionesco), her background, her acting career, her home life - if one could ever have imagined Peggy being so bourgeois. It's shocking to discover the factual detail: her mother, her husband, her abortions, and the solitariness of a life in which the company of books was almost invariably preferable to people. Except when it came to Simon, with whom she desperately craved companionship. "Should we adopt a child, you and I?" she said, and he, for once, was silenced with amazement.

Peggy was a good deal larger than life - or life was a good deal smaller than Peggy, which is why it's possible to write about this book and ignore the fact that Callow's love story is a triangular one. Through most of the years of his "affair" with Peggy, he was having an affair with a rich, handsome, sad (and suicidal) Egyptian boy.

Callow has a brilliant eye and ear. No photograph could do justice to Peggy. A very good portrait painter might have painted her over many sittings if she had ever had the patience, but unless she had been listening to Schubert or Strauss she wouldn't have stopped talking. Callow brilliantly captures her gloriously idiosyncratic conversation, larded with epigrams: her flights of smoothly modulated sentences interrupted by italicised attacks on words, her voice swooping like herons diving for fish.

At the end of her life and the onset of Alzheimer's, the droll gave way to the tragic, and she became as small as life. As David Hare said, she became just like a human being. She was frail, needing reassurance, needing to be convinced that her life had mattered, and Callow describes this painful decline with an immensely touching fastidiousness. If she hadn't been its subject, she would have loved this book; it is about everything that mattered to her. "It's frightfully well-written, dear," she would have said. And it is.

Sir Richard Eyre was Director of the Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1997