Many ways to pay for a free lunch

Malcolm Muggeridge was speaker, an unfortunate choice since Evelyn Waugh couldn't stand him
Click to follow
EVERY PROFESSIONAL pen-pusher, it seems, apart from me, has a cracking story to tell about the legendary Christina Foyle, doyenne of the literary lunch, who has just died. My problem was deadlines. I used to cover Foyle's literary lunches for the London Evening Standard diary when I first came down to London from Blackburn as a cub reporter. To make the last edition you had to file your copy by 2.25pm at the latest, five minutes before Miss Foyle rose from her seat at the top table to introduce first the guest speaker, then the celebrated author, for whose company, together with a pretty ordinary three-course meal, 300 chintzy ladies had paid pounds 10.

Hacks got in for free - Miss Foyle thrived on publicity - but the press table was miles from the action, making it impossible to witness all those gems that diary-writers crave, such as Enoch Powell canoodling with Jackie Collins or Lord Longford's trousers falling down. Often I had to leave before the pudding and by the time I got back, the speeches were over and the ladies were queuing in droves to buy signed copies from their heroes or heroines.

A very old, very doddery friend, who has been going to Foyle's Literary Lunches practically since they started, frequently reminds me of the time he went to listen to Evelyn Waugh talk about his new book, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh by this time was fairly doddery himself, very deaf and heavily reliant on a large ear trumpet, not unlike the one on the gramophone that dog is listening to with one ear cocked on those HMV ads. To be placed next to Evelyn Waugh was to draw the short straw because, although he could talk and eat at the same time, he could hear what you were saying only if he chose to put down his knife and fork and hold his trumpet to his ear.

On this particular occasion Malcolm Muggeridge was guest speaker, an unfortunate choice since Waugh couldn't stand him. When Muggeridge rose to start speaking, Waugh ostentatiously removed the trumpet from his ear which had enabled him to hear Miss Foyle's introduction, put it down in front of his plate and, in full view of the chintzy ladies, switched off.

Foyles may be the recognised market leader, but there are other literary lunches. The Yorkshire Post offers a distinguished literary table and I dimly remember years ago being invited at quite short notice to speak at the marginally less prestigious Manchester Evening News literary lunch.

I had just written my first book, a wretchedly dull volume entitled Little Princes, which purported to be a history of royal children from the Conqueror to Prince Charles. I am not a historian, and did not set out to write a history. I was commissioned by a now-defunct publisher to get the low-down on life inside Buckingham Palace, long before Andrew Morton started dishing the dirt so successfully.

Why me, you ask, a question I frequently and dispiritedly asked myself when I'd spent the advance. To cut a long story short, I couldn't get hold of any royals or even ex-royal employees, none prepared to speak to me without my crossing their palms with more silver than I or the publishers could afford. Ah, now I remember. I'd been dining out on the fact that my best friend's sister was headmistress of the nursery school where Lady Diana Spencer, who had just become engaged to Prince Charles, used to teach. Publishers have long ears. Someone must have heard me boasting about royal connections and signed me up.

By the time I had finished the piffling project, my book was able to carry a very large picture of a pregnant Diana, Princess of Wales on the back cover, its only selling-point.

So, I got this invitation to the MEN literary lunch and, flushed with pride and laden with those books not yet remaindered at Waterloo Station, took the train north. When I told this story to Jilly Cooper she sympathised, saying that much the same thing had happened to her when, back in her early days, she had spoken at the Yorkshire Post lunch. She was on with the Monty Python gang, who brought the house down. When she finished speaking she heard a woman say: "If I were her mother I'd smack her bum."

I was on with David Frost, Robert Lacey and Patrick Moore, who had written respectively and hugely successfully about being famous, the Queen and the galaxy. When I'd finished speaking I heard a woman in purple observe to her companion: "I want my money back. I paid 10 quid to hear Joan Collins talk about her body and all we get is this daft woman talking about swaddling." That was when someone told me that Miss Collins, who'd just written a workout manual, had scratched at the last minute. At least I got a free meal. There are many ways of paying for a free lunch.