John Walsh: Of late nights and literary festivals

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The Independent Online

So I was at this dinner party in a farmhouse outside Hay-on-Wye after a day of rain and flapping tents, and around the table the conversation was about international rivalry. The likelihood of England being stiffed in the Euros. The perverse refusal of Russia and China to condemn Bashar al-Assad. And, of course, Spain asking for a bailout of its banks.

Soon the air was filled with Spain-knocking: its banks' woeful record in running up debts, its government's unattractive mix of bluster and denial, its champion tennis player, who should really make way for a younger, more Scottish opponent.

Then I noticed a member of the party murmuring something about "the time when England had a Spanish king". I raised a polite eyebrow. "When exactly was this," I asked, "that we had a Hispanic monarch? I may be rusty about kings and queens but..."

"It was in the Tudor period," he said. "Surely, you know Mary Tudor married Philip II of Spain?"

I dimly recalled. "But that didn't make him King of England," I insisted. "Just a prince consort or similar."

"No," said the chap. "He was King of England. In the 1550s. He may not have had the powers, but he certainly had the title."

"I'm afraid it doesn't work like that," I explained, with the fathomless condescension of one who stopped knowing anything about English history at A-levels. "Being married to the English Queen doesn't make you King, you see."

"Are you willing to bet?" the man asked. "There must be a laptop somewhere in the house."

Naturally, I accepted his wager, but I didn't insist on the laptop. Didn't want to make a fellow guest feel an arse, did I? When he and his wife had driven off into the night, I told the story to the company. "Funny chap," I said. "Who is he?"

"Tomas?" said the others, "He's a South American diplomat."

With a sinking feeling, I Googled Philip II of Spain. Goddammit, the bloody man had been King of England, from his marriage to Mary I in 1554 to her death in 1558.

I had to admire my fellow guest's style. A Spanish-speaker from Latin-America's most prosperous region, he'd managed to abort a generalised blather about Spain's current shortcomings by bringing up a historical period when a Spanish king ruled over us. I feel a perverse pride that I still owe £1 to the Chilean Ambassador to the Court of St James.