Literature: Vidal's cold calling

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Pundit, novelist, hobnobber with movers and shakers, Gore Vidal has some bracing points to make about `this unlamented century and failed millennium' in his

latest book of essays

For our own safety, it is fitting that there should have been a few weeks' interval between the London appearances of septuagenarian literary firebrands Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.

Both men have been accused of monstrous arrogance - Mailer most recently for simply having written an autobiography of Jesus. Vidal has his own unflattering self-portrait ready to hand; "I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm loveable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."

This week, he appears in the role of prophet to take part in the first of three major "Sounding the Century" lectures at the South Bank in association with Radio 3; his brief is to consider the most powerful forces for cultural change at the end of the century. What qualifies him to pronounce on so vast a subject? A brief incursion into Virgin Islands, his latest collection of essays written between 1992 and 1997, reminds us - an undimmed capacity to weave his lifelong learning and hobnobbing with the world's movers and shakers into witty and sceptical overviews. In "Chaos", penned for Amnesty International, Vidal draws his conclusion about "this unlamented century and failed millennium...The larger the political entity the greater the danger for that administrative unit, the citizen."

It would be interesting to know what the poets gathered together in Banned Poetry, an anthology for Index On Censorship, would make of that equation. In his introduction, the poet Peter Porter gloomily notes that "a new range of censoring, by market forces and the imposition of the lowest common denominator, has spread through countries which have thrown off the yoke of direct coercion." A London reading, in which Porter is joined by the Yemeni poet Abdullah al-Udhair and the exiled Chinese poet Liu Hong Bin should make for a refreshing antidote to some of the kitsch campaigning of National Poetry Day (Thursday).

Post office buses in rural Scotland will play poems to passengers, verse postcards will be distributed to Waterloo commuters. And the nation will "vote" for its favourite love poem. As with Gore Vidal's fallible democracies, one dreads the result.

Gore Vidal, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, SE1 (0171-960 4242), 6 Oct, 7.30pm; Banned Poetry reading, Waterstone's, London N1 (0171-704 2280) 7 Oct, 7pm, pounds 2; Vidal talks on why the novel has replaced the cinema, ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647), 8 Oct, 7pm, pounds 10

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