For those of us around at the time, his wilder texts were mind-stretching little literary trips, from the weird and frightening The Bird of Paradise to the coiled syllogisms of Knots. But when one thinks of him today, it's of a man drenched in alcohol.
My God, Laing could put the stuff away. He used to hang out at the Colony Room in Soho, where Francis Bacon and his mulberried cronies could be found calling for brandies at four in the afternoon. He could floor a bottle of vodka and a tab of acid in five minutes flat. Once he took his 19-year-old son Adrian to the theatre to see Jesus Christ Superstar and took the precaution of ordering drinks for the interval: Pernod, Scotch, Bloody Marys, in bewildering array ....
The only time I met him, at a party in Islington, he was just back from Dublin, where he'd made a scandalous appearance on the Republic's popular Friday-night TV chat-in, The Late Late Show. As the talk progressed, Laing's posture became more slumped, his speech more thickened and his eyes more alarmingly strabismoid until Gay Byrne, the slightly prissy host, enquired, "Professor Laing, why did you think it necessary to become intoxicated before appearing on my show?" The audience began loudly to take sides: some demanded to know whether the prof would lecture to his students in such a state; others countered by enquiring why, for Jaysus' sake, a feller shouldn't have a few drinks on a Friday night ....
Back in London N1, he seemed unabashed. "I may have had a coupla small ones," he told me. "But I thought it was going to be, like, a little chat by the living-room fire, rather than some ... interrogation." So he hadn't been sloshed? "Christ, nooo...." At which point Laing seized a bottle of Burgundy and directed it at his half-filled wine glass. Don't, I said - that's red wine going into white wine." "'Sno' white wine," he said, "'Swhisky." Perhaps I looked startled at this revolting cocktail, for he explained. "All goes down the same way, doesnay?" Five minutes later, rather than being comatose on the floor, he was playing Meade Lux Lewis's Honky Tonk Train Blues, note-perfect, on Jay Landesman's upright piano. A role model for us all, I feel.
As anyone on the international academic circuit will tell you, the last word in intellectual rigour and literary-critical reclame is the New York Review of Books. In its pages every week, the world's most punishingly knowledgeable transatlantic thinkers and cultural assessors slug it out: Denis Donoghue, AS Byatt, James Fenton, Cynthia Ozick, George Steiner, Christopher Hitchens, Little Boy, JM Coetzee, Simon Sch... What? You're wondering who Little Boy is? Well actually I think we're all wondering after this week's issue, in which the following appeared in the Personal section of the small-ads: "Cute, slim, affectionate "little boy" (over 45) seeks adorable, bright, chubby "little girl" (any age) to share the magic of conversation across a restaurant table, love of good books and music, and lots of cuddling. We'll also go to Grandma's house for milk and cookies, play "dress-up" and let our caring, imagination and sense of playfulness give wings to our flight. Phone and photo with letter...."
I don't know about you but no more emetic Lonelyhearts ad has ever come my way. And the fact that it turns up in the august pages of the NYR gives one an additional frisson. Next time you see a stern-looking cove in Foucault steel-rims addressing a symposium on Transformational Grammar, just wonder if he's secretly dreaming of playing "dress-up" at Grandma's.
Sporting predictions have suddenly become a more unstable science than astrology. You've seen, I'm sure, the ubiquitous Nike advertisements featuring such Euro 96 stars as Holland's Patrick Kluivert (didn't play), Eric Cantona (not picked), David Ginola (nowhere to be seen), Les Ferdinand (failed to feature) and referee Dermot Gallagher (carried off pitch after 28 minutes). You've read Martin Amis in the London Evening Standard, confidently naming Agassi and Chang or Courier as the most likely finalists (all were booted out of the tournament on Day One). You've seen the running-jumping-backhanding shots of Agassi (again) advertising some other doomed product on television.... Only a fool would have a go at guessing the future, sports-wise. But may I venture a small prediction? That whatever the outcome of the European championship, no jury in the land is going to find against Mr Terry Venables in his forthcoming libel case against the BBC. A lone magistrate might give the case a properly disinterested hearing. But no collection of 12 honest men and true, after hearing Venables's voice (backed by the "Ode to Joy") on the Today programme on the morning of the Germany match, coming out with that stuff about being "so pleased to be able to do something for the British people", would hear a word said against him. Mr Venables will get off on the obscure but time-honoured Leave Him Alone defence.
Birth of a Eurojoke. A friend of a friend is a music publisher whose composers often premiere their work in French concert houses. A huge art fan, he likes nothing more than to travel to Gallic parts on expenses, checking out the best exhibitions. The other day he was in Paris at the Georges Pompidou Centre, lending his support to some bewildering cacophany scored for, let us say, a vox humana and 20 flugelhorns; and hearing there was an exhibition of Francis Bacon paintings nearby, he went to examine them. Not a chance. The exhibition was temporarily shut, and a crowd of mutinous Parisians milled about, waiting to go in. The reason for the delay? M Jacques Chirac was inside, having a private view. The publisher cooled his heels impatiently for half an hour. Then a smug-looking Chirac came out and his patience snapped. "Alors," he shouted at the Premier, "Vous n'aimez pas notre boeuf, mais vous aimez bien notre Bacon." And you know what? It got into Le Monde. There's gloire for you.Reuse content