The only thing you have to fear around these parts are your fellow metropolitans. We set off the other day to walk on Offa's Dyke, the great earthwork that used to separate Celtic Wales from Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire. It rears out of the countryside like a box of Toblerone, overlooked by the looming slab of the Back Hill, but hardly looks threatening, so off we went, four grown-ups, three children, one baby and one dog. Expecting little in the way of a challenge we pulled on gumboots and carried cameras and bottles of sparkling Malvern, and sang amusing hiking songs. Half an hour later, we arrived at the top of the dyke, broken-winded by drink and fags, crippled by crap footwear, knackered by the 45-degree gradient, noses blistered by the boiling Welsh midday sun. We were a tragic sight as we collapsed in a heap. The baby started a steady squalling that threatened to last for hours. The dog, delighted by its energetic walk, circled the top of the dyke. One of our number decided it was time for a group photograph ...
It was at precisely this moment that the other walkers arrived, three sets of them - proper walkers, the real thing. I looked at their tense, furrowed, 100-miles-a-day faces, their Timberland boots and Karrimor rucksacks, their Bang & Olufsen compasses, their Heckler & Koch binoculars, their crampons and iron-ration packs and Ordinance Survey maps and copies of No Through Road ... They looked at our little party - the ill-advised Versace jackets, the pounds 80 Paul Smith strides flecked with mud, the inappropriate gumboots. The baby's squalls rose a notch in volume. The dog decided it was time for a mid-morning dump on a slate outcrop. "Smile everyone!" said my friend with the camera. We posed, a ghastly crew of townies, triumphant at having got to the starting point of a trek. Behind us the real walkers were backed up like a funeral procession in the Olchon Valley lanes, waiting for us to get out of the way. "My God," breathed one of them, in the unmistakable tones of the Bayswater Road, "these bloody tourists ..."
AT THE Hay Festival, where variously favoured draughts of culture (Duncan Grant, Beethoven Quartets, the Welsh Gospel, Cyril Connolly, the architecture of molecules and the disestablishment of the Church of England) have been ladled down the throats of bookish punters all week, the most amusing exchange came during a session with Will Self.
Self was there to chat about Great Apes, his new novel which pulls a lot of satirical strokes by re-imagining the human world as populated by chimpanzees all except for one man.
He was on excellent form. Clad in skinny denims, he loped on stage with a handful of Heineken cans and smoked languidly throughout his interrogation by one Elizabeth Young, who had stepped in at the last moment to replace Suzanne Moore.
An unusual interviewer, the enterprising Ms Young didn't so much ask him questions about his oeuvre as advance her own views on the history of satire and pursue what seemed a private agenda of psycho-sexual dreams. Revealing that she had once entertained notions of becoming a black panther, she confided that she felt "a certain empathy" with Self's fictional descriptions of inter-species mating.
She especially liked the prospect of an encounter with an alpha-male primate. Did Self share her view? God no, he said, apes are five times stronger and more aggressive than humans. They'd tear you apart. What a horrible idea.
"How interesting, Will," she purred, "that your worst nightmare should be my most intense fantasy ..."
An unspoken invitation seemed to hang in the air. "Oh all right," said Self coolly. "But shouldn't we have dinner first?"
IN THE last few days I have met, for purely professional reasons, two American legends - a Hollywood one and a Tin Pan Alley one - and they've both been big surprises. Tony Bennett, the hawk-nosed crooner, explained to me the mysteries of Oriental perspectives in realist painting (for which I was obviously very grateful) and Jerry Lewis misquoted T S Eliot's Four Quartets at me ("It's all about simplicity, John - a condition that costs nothing and everything ...") for which I was even more grateful. It means, I'm afraid, that I will now spend months dragging Zen aesthetics and Modernist poetry into every conversation, just for the chance it gives me to say, "Tony Bennett explained it to me once. Apparently, in Shinto culture ..."
I've never been a big name-dropper. No really. I can't stand that kind of affectation. I abhor factitious familiarity. Matey allusions to famous friends cut no ice with me, as I was pointing out to Prince Rainier and Bob Dylan only the other day. I am, however, a connoisseur of other people's name-drops. I have nothing but admiration for a lady friend who occasionally murmurs the words, "When I was going out with Warren Beatty ... " and thus draws every female face towards hers in mute inquiry. ("And how exactly ... ?"). And she did too, for about 48 hours, 20 years ago. I love the way a famous male chum in movie circles does an elaborate Reverse Namedrop, as if to de-glamorise the encounters he reports. "Yeh, I had lunch on Sunday with this actor. Have you heard of him? You know who I mean by Tom Cruise?" But my favourite moment of mishandled nomenclature was some years ago in Ireland. I was standing with a girlfriend at her family home in Donegal. Every mealtime, her brother - a glamorous entrepreneur just home from Chicago or Sydney or Moscow - would regale the company with stories of what he said to Jagger or how he danced with Makarova or had a guitar made for him by Paco Pena. I watched in fascination as the father of the house smiled at his offspring's giddy familiarity with celebrities, and I thought, my God, the old man's going to trump his son's ace any second now. Finally he did. "That reminds me of the time I was lecturing in Genoa," said the father. "I was having a drink with Cardinal Montini - that's the present Pontiff, by the way - and he said to me, 'Jack ...' "Reuse content