Literary criticism's Darth Vadar revealed over lunch

Christina Foyle told me quite matter of factly that she had the power to enter people's minds

IT WAS thanks to Sheridan Morley that I once, and once only, met the late Christina Foyle.

Sheridan and I were colleagues at Punch magazine at the time. I worked up at the top end of the corridor and Sheridan worked down the bottom end. Indeed, Sheridan worked down the bottom end of the corridor while everyone else worked up the top end, in a vain attempt to escape from Sheridan's telephone conversations. Sheridan has a very powerful and carrying voice, which is admirable when you are on stage, but I don't think it had ever occurred to him that the electronic miracles of the telephone allow you, nay, encourage you to drop your voice and still be quite audible. Everyone at Punch could hear what Sheridan was saying to some friend at the other end of a phone line, and we all fancied that his friend could have heard him unaided too....

Sorry. Drifted down memory lane for a moment. Anyway, there came a time twenty or more years ago when Sheridan's wife Margaret wrote a life of Sheridan's father Robert, and Robert had written a book too. And I think even Sheridan may have produced a book (The Collected Telephone Conversations of Sheridan Morley, Volume 1, perhaps), so Christina Foyle was persuaded to dedicate one of her famous Foyle Literary Luncheons to the Morley clan, and to tripartite mass publicity for these three books. Sheridan got me invited to the lunch, perhaps because it would be nice to have someone not called Morley there, and much to my surprise I found myself sitting next to the great Christina Foyle herself.

I knew I would have to be on my best behaviour, because Foyle's Bookshop had a very low reputation with people of my generation. We all agreed that it probably had more books on the premises than any comparable bookshop. We also assumed that nobody that worked there had any idea where any of the books were, because Foyle's seemed to like employing cheap labour, often foreign, and never book-trained. I knew someone who had once rung up Foyle's quite seriously to enquire about the cost of a new set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the overseas assistant had gone away to find out, then come back to ask: "Um sorry - what did you say Mr Britannica's first name was?"

So I didn't talk to Christina Foyle about her shop, but about authors she had met over the years, which was interesting enough, because she could remember people as far back as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was fascinated to be sitting next to someone who had known Conan Doyle, and quizzed her on him, but of course she had been very young at the time and could remember only the sort of thing that a little girl would remember about a moustachioed old author. Then the conversation drifted round to, of all things, spiritualism and allied matters and Christina Foyle told me quite matter of factly that she was psychic and had the power to enter other people's minds. Then she said that Foyle's Bookshop had gone through bad times recently, because it turned out that her most trusted accountant had been embezzling enormous sums of money from the bookshop for some considerable time, and had been fired in distressing circumstances.

"If you have psychic powers," I said, "how come you didn't look into his mind and see what he was up to?" It was not the right thing to say.

She gave me the glance that withers and said that psychic powers didn't work like that, at which point I was rescued by the man sitting on the other side of me, who leant across me and said to Christina Foyle: "Did I hear you say you have psychic powers?"

He was a famous actor. I wish I could remember who. I have a strong feeling that it was Nigel Hawthorne.

"Yes," she said. "Do you?"

"I don't think so," he said. "But I rememer once being in the presence of someone famous and having a sudden strong overriding conviction that this person was utterly evil."

"I've had that feeling," said Miss Foyle. "Also only once. And also with someone famous."

Well, they couldn't exchange confidences like that without actually revealing which famous person each was thinking of. And when they did, the extraordinary thing was that they were both thinking of the same person.

In both cases they had had the experience with Kenneth Tynan.

Very strange.

I can remember nothing else about Christina Foyle.

Nor can I remember the names of the books by the Morleys, which I am sure Sheridan would wish me to mention at this point.

Sorry, Sherry. But they're probably out of print by now anyway.

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