Books: Partners in an improbable passion

Love is Where it Falls By Simon Callow Nick Hern Books pounds 14.99
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What is love? Is it unbounded and unselfish generosity? Is it the vulnerability to receive that generosity without anxiety? Does love require you to write countless sheets of purple, adoring letters?

If this is what love is, then Simon Callow and Peggy Ramsay were in love, utterly in love. But if you believe some sort of physical consummation is essential, then they weren't.

When they met he was 30 and homosexual and she was hetero and 70. He was a young actor, just beginning to break through at the National Theatre, she was the feisty and formidable agent who represented most of the big- name playwrights. But that did not stop her from falling head-over- heels, a coup de foudre as Callow puts it (be ready for a double ration of French and German phraseology).

Nor did it stop her inviting him to dinner and attempting, albeit just the once, a genuine seduction. Callow, shocked and embarrassed, talked his way through the souper sur l'herbe and made his excuses.

Once that issue was settled, theirs became an intense and sweeping friendship. Or was it a love affair, a passion, an obsession? Callow allows the reader to decide, punctuating this long-gestated memoir with many of the letters that passed between them - frequently they wrote to each other several times a day. These letters are all written in hyperbolic, grandiloquent prose: "Dear, dear Simon, you have a temperament which vibrates at the fall of a leaf" or "I want commitment, and burning passion and reckless gestures" or "But it's because you are so FULL of love, and of life, and you must stretch yourself in every way and meet everyone you can, and love everyone." And when they met, they talked feverishly or sat in silence drinking in every note of Der Rosenkavalier.

Now this is just the sort of carry-on which gives theatre folk a bad reputation. But somehow, as you read Callow's sensible, reflective, clear- headed prose between the letters, it does begin to make some kind of sense. These are two people who belong on the pages of Bronte or Dostoevsky, saying it all, feeling everything. They're not afraid to quote Maupassant or Verlaine if the moment demands it. So once you accept that the two protagonists are not of this earth, this has all the straightforward fascination of any fictional, impossible love affair.

There is no doubt that she was in love and would have taken the physical consummation had it been offered. He found her exhilarating, rapt, focused, soul-mating. But between them stood another man. Three months earlier, Callow had fallen for Aziz, a Turkish-Egyptian emigre film-maker - an "exquisite individual, perfect in his manners" whose "preferred tipple" was Carlsberg Special Brew. For the first time in Callow's life, this was the real thing, though he constantly doubted that he was loved as much as he loved.

Not surprisingly, Peggy's presence created ripples with Aziz who was an unstable presence at the best of times. Later he would sink into manic depression, and ultimately suicide. In the meantime, he was granted only seven-day visas into Britain, so their relationship soon became a long- distance, snatched weekend affair. But it is as though Aziz's enforced exile in Geneva gave Callow the time and the need to be with Peggy, the need to give and receive daily adoration.

Which is another way of saying that they were both lonely. Early on in the passion, Peggy sent Callow a case of wine because she was walking along Piccadilly and realised it was Moliere's birthday and that he was the only actor in England who would want to celebrate it. That might read as brilliant and inspired eccentricity. Or it might read as loneliness, a spirit looking for the love and companionship which she had consistently failed to find, failed to allow into her life. At what point does eccentricity - for all its apparent charm - turn into solipsism or exhausting unapproachability? Sensibly, Callow doesn't answer this question; he merely allows you to stand back and watch the result. He never attempts to analyse Peggy: he just tells you about the woman he knew, the woman who loved him.

Meanwhile Aziz, who had previously seemed just a mother-fixated, averagely screwed-up human being, now became maniacally depressed. His moods lurched from self-loathing to frantic new plans for unmakeable films. Finally, he took an overdose in his shadowy, crouched apartment in Geneva. Disbarred by the family, Callow was left wandering round London in a daze.

But, in time, he found new passions, new lovers. He found new books to write and shows to direct. And, of course, the result was that he needed Peggy less. His very devotion to Aziz, the distant lover (in every sense), had created his need for Peggy. Over the 10 years since they met, her "little puppy" was transformed from supporting actor to West End star to theatre director to film director. He no longer needed a patroness.

And Peggy herself was slipping towards Alzheimer's. At first unnoticed - how do you tell when someone so extreme starts to be insane? - she quickly slid into shambolic forgetfulness. And then hospitalisation and death.

Oddly, this is when the book comes alive. Suddenly everything comes into focus as you realise how genuinely distraught Callow felt. Peggy's death was the messy, unattractive death by senile dementia but Callow's prose transcends the inevitable ordinariness. She lived a life of grandeur and this is a touching memoir of her freakish greatness, shot through with love and regret.

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