Unlike novelists, who tend to pick and choose which award ceremonies to attend, British poets turn out en masse at major verse awards. Through the hot crush you could spot them all: James Fenton and Alan Brownjohn and Peter Porter and Glyn Maxwell and Jamie Mackendrick and Elaine Feinstein and Michael Horovitz ... Only Fiona Pitt-Kethley, the former freelance sexpot, seemed to be missing, presumably (she recently got married) curled up in domestic bliss choosing curtain material for the drawing-room.
A contingent of Irish bards threatened to steal the show. Ciaran Carson, who won the prize in 1993, sang tragic laments about his homeland into the ear of Ruth Padel, a Scots beauty with an unresolved Hibernian complex; Michael Longley, looking astonishingly like the late-period Hemingway, puffed furiously on roll-ups; Bernard O'Donoghue from Cork mused about his new Establishment status as an Oxford don. Christopher Reid, the grand fromage of the Faber poetry list, sported a repellent pink eyepatch like an albino pirate. What had happened to him? (A row about an anthology entry? A come-outside-and-say-that brawl over the merits of sprung rhythm?) "Concrete pavement," said Reid shortly. "I may have been a bit drunk ..."
The winning Mr Doty decamped, with Mrs Eliot and an entourage from the Poetry Book Society, to the restaurant at 190 Queensgate, while the runners- up trailed off to drown their sorrows. At the winner's dinner, I eavesdropped as Liz Lochhead, the Scots poet, and Professor Gillian Beer, the legendary Cambridge scholar, compared notes about places in the British Isles where they once went skinny-dipping. Disconcerted by the mental pictures conjured up, I turned to TS Eliot's widow and was entranced by the gold bracelet that shimmered on her right wrist. From every other link hung a tiny flat gold book, each painted a different enamel shade, each carrying a title. They were Eliot's complete oeuvre - poems and plays - reduced to a tinkling bibelot. One of the mini-books - I think it was The Cocktail Party - was a locket containing a strand of the uber-Modernist's exiguous hair. "Tom gave them to me, piece by piece," said Mrs Eliot. "Until Garrards, the jewellers, said, 'Don't put any more on or they'll start knocking into each other' ..."
Beside me a poet muttered, "Ask her if she's got After Strange Gods [the book of essays which includes Eliot's notoriously anti-Semitic rant] hanging in there." One did not, of course. One would not wish to tangle with so grande a dame.
Speaking of sharing meals with classy women, I was glad to hear that the participants enjoyed themselves when the Evening Standard invited the Princess of Wales to lunch on Tuesday. Not all of them, though. The paper's literary editor, AN Wilson, a distinguished novelist and long- serving royal sycophant (as readers of "Lillibet", his fulsome poem to the Queen, will know) has been telling friends of a traumatic moment. He was amusing the Princess with mildly scandalous historical tales of intimacy between royal couples, and capped them with a reference to a new book of photographs that showed crowned heads at play. One photograph, he giggled, appeared to show Queen Mary with her hand upon her husband's, ah, groin ... Princess Diana's blue eyes regarded him steadily. "And that made your day, did it, Mr Wilson?" she inquired. Wilson's cheeks blushed a cardiac puce, as the table rocked with merry laughter.
John Keats, it is said, almost jacked in his career after his poem "Endymion" was savaged in Blackwood's magazine. And some of us think fondly of the day when reviews could be spectacularly bitchy things, instead of the sarcastic little squibs that pass for evaluation today. So it is good to read a startling burst of vituperation in the current issue of The New Criterion, the American culture magazine, borne home from the States in triumph by m'reviewer, Christopher Hawtree. It is a storming, relentless, hate-fuelled demolition job on Gore Vidal's memoir Palimpsest, published to acclaim here last autumn. The author is the veteran critic John Simon (whose review of Norman Mailer's last novel brought the pugilistic Norm howling into the New York Times offices demanding retribution). Mr Simon pours scorn on every part of the book, accuses Vidal of lying, fantasising, treachery, ignorance (especially of Latin and Greek), envy, tastelessness, illiteracy and self-aggrandisement. He clearly does not believe a word the great man writes. He speculates vividly about what Vidal gets up to in the sack and even accuses him of surreptitious closet heterosexuality. And all this takes place over 10 pages of the magazine. We await Vidal's reply with (as they say) lively interest.
The news that the Sex Pistols may be re-forming falls on the ear of the one-time fan with an ominous clang. It goes against nature that the great pop anarchists of 1976-77, whose career ended with the death of Sid Vicious and a San Francisco concert where Johnny Rotten sneered over a closing cacophony, "Ever got the feelin' you've bin 'ad?", should return in middle-aged reflorescence, like those Sixties crumblies, from Pink Floyd to Percy Sledge. It was only when I heard the remarkable secondary rumour that the band are being offered pounds 2m apiece that this noisome rencontre began to make sense. I am intrigued to see how time might have mellowed the three-chord desperadoes. Can you imagine J Rotten, his tartan bondage strides replaced by Sta-Prest beige slacks, intoning: "Some of you older fans may recognise this one, so don't be afraid to sing along. It's called 'No Future' and it goes something like this ..."Reuse content