My grip on reality takes a weekend off

ON MONDAY

I WENT to the Rushdie party on Friday, to celebrate the publication of The Ground Beneath her Feet, and found myself caught in a parallel universe.

It is not often that you find the idiom of a book infecting the atmosphere of its launch party, which is probably just as well: imagine the crowd at a Jilly Cooper thrash chatting entirely in boudoir puns and clamping sweaty hands on each other's quivering haunches ... But this was different. It was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, not the most obvious venue, perhaps, for the baptism of what one critic has called "the Ulysses of rock'n'roll," but I believe Wembley Stadium (where Rushdie once appeared on stage at a U2 gig) was busy that evening. And this was a very select gathering. A slew of transmedial luminaries (Ian McEwan, Ed Victor, Hermione Lee, Alex from Blur, Mariella Frostrup, Helen "Bridget Jones" Fielding, Douglas Adams) wafted around the arty partitions, hung with sub-Jackson Pollock spidery daubs. Magnificent Japanese-pagoda installation pieces turned out to be the party supper, a few hundred platefuls of chicken and beef on mushy garlic, ranged on top of each other in glass towers. Of Rushdie's former Special Branch minders - once known, Sweeney-esquely, as "The Tweedy" - there was no sign, unless they were the burly pair in the front lobby, masquerading as wine waiters.

The author has been as ubiquitous as oxygen for two weeks, interviewed everywhere from Paxman to Rock'n'Roll'n' Greek Mythology magazine, discoursing on the surgical operation that raised his Garfield eyelids, on his post-fatwa bliss and his new kid, Milan, the book's dedicatee. The papers lapped it up. There was the usual philistine fuss about the supposed opaqueness of Rushdie's prose (the Evening Standard commissioned three of its writers to stay home for five days, slog through The Ground Beneath her Feet and report on what an ordeal it had been. Encouragingly for the author, they had all liked it, while admitting it was a challenge, an intellectual work-out and "a form of mental flagellation").

Everywhere you can feel a susurration of pride that it is our guy Salman, rather than Don DeLillo, who has produced the last great novel of the 20th century. The critics' responses have veered from the ecstatic to the extremely rude, depending on how much they had enjoyed his ceaseless riddling and game-playing.

This is a book that describes a massive earthquake on 14 February 1989 (the day of the fatwa), and in which Lou Reed has a walk-on part, but as a woman, and things happen almost, but not quite, in the real world. That's fiction for you. Actual life isn't like that, isn't it?

At the party, I talked to Neil Jordan, the Irish film director. His current project is The End of the Affair, Graham Greene's novel of melancholic revenge, set around Clapham Common. Ah yes, I said, I grew up there. Can't wait to see how you've used the bandstand, the tarmac blisters that were once air-raid shelters, the awful trees that Greene describes so well ...

"Actually," said Jordan, "we're filming it on Kew Common. Clapham was just too difficult. All the traffic."

Enter Neil Pearson, the actor, who was squiring the divine Marie Helvin, a friend of Salman's.

"The End of the Affair, eh?" he said to Jordan. "I knew you were filming it. I live in Clapham Old Town, and I saw the film crew on the Common the other day."

"Er, no," said Jordan. "We're doing it in Kew ..."

A silence fell as we digested the possibility that there might be a second, quite different film crew, and another trio of actors in Forties hats and coats, embarked on a similar project in the increasingly crowded parkland of London SW4.

Shortly afterwards, a friend and I were comparing notes about the likely real-life identity of the characters in Rushdie's novel (not a very elevated discourse about a Modern Classic, I'm afraid, but this was, au fond, a party).

"The big-shot impresario of rock concerts in the book, Mark McWilliam," I said, "must be Harvey Goldsmith."

"You're missing the point," he retorted. "It's Mark Fisher, the Arts minister, who's now partner to Candia McWilliam, the novelist. It's a sort of joke, you see."

"Mark Fisher?" said David Gilmour, the Pink Floyd guitarist who was passing by. "He used to put on concerts for us years ago, until he moved on to U2... "

Things kept getting the wrong way round. Gilmour, the Olympian axe legend, found himself watching an indifferent rock band whose young guitarist probably chose his career after watching Gilmour play "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" in the Seventies. A national newspaper editor found himself standing beside Neil Pearson - but how could he ask "What are you doing now?" without sounding as if he thought the former star of Drop the Dead Donkey might be heading for Kosovo? Michael Foot, supposedly consigned to history, appeared on (or at least beside) the dance floor. John Diamond, whose weekly Times column about his throat cancer has kept the nation enthralled and concerned, like a million-strong family, for over a year, turned up in a cool suit, looking as fit as a butcher's dog.

Wherever you looked, there were new identities, confusions of nomenclature, people re-imagined, people reborn, art and life and make-believe (and food) bizarrely miscegenated. "Fiction doesn't get any better than this," said Salman's publisher, Dan Franklin, toasting his star writer. Well, no.

Leaving, slightly bewildered, at 11pm, I looked for signs of an earthquake at Aldgate East tube. There weren't any. But the night was young.

u

I MET an odd woman at the Imperial War Museum on Saturday, while spending an hour at the exhibition "From the Bomb to the Beatles". She was in her late twenties, pregnant, her hair pinned up in a gingham scarf; she wore a horrible brown coat like a sheepskin rug and carried a basket of root vegetables. She was standing beside me, staring wistfully through the glass at a display of pitiful groceries, circa 1947 - rationed bacon, a tin of "12 Pure Dried Eggs", a can of yummy "Selected Snoek". Oh, for God's sake, I thought, how dim can you be? It had taken me a whole minute to work out that she was an actress playing a British Housewife in Austerity Times, like the period-costumed swells who drift about the Museum of the Moving Image, pretending to be Thirties starlets and film-goers.

"I think they've done your eyes very well," I announced, chattily. "Very Forties. Not to mention the really horrible coat. And your being pregnant is a nice touch of pathos. Was that a requirement for the job?"

She said nothing. Indeed, she seemed more sad and wistful than ever Aaaargh! I realised, with a thrill of horror, that she wasn't an actress at all. She was a real woman who'd just popped into the museum while out doing a bit of shopping - and I'd just gaily insulted her, suggesting she looked oldfashioned, criticising her coat, alluding facetiously to her condition. "Look, I'm sorry!' I began. There was a muffled snort from my left. Two ladies in their fifties were beaming. "I wouldn't try it on with her," said one. The penny dropped, for the third time in two minutes, and I fled. Bloody waxworks.

KATHLEEN JONES'S biography of Catherine Cookson, which comes out next month, is a salutary reminder that the plots of people's lives used to be infinitely more vivid than they are now.

Today, when whole novels are written about flirtations in cyberspace, when the most exciting physical feature of your working day is the polystyrene lid coming off your decaffeinated mocha, Ms Cookson's experiences are dynamite. One reads with dropping jaw about her intense involvement, at a poorhouse laundry in Hastings, with an Irish lesbian called Nan with whom she chastely slept in a Put-U-Up bed, and who, on the morning of her wedding, rang Catherine to say she'd been loading ammunition on to a lorry in Dover and was now driving over to see the bride with her service pistol. The gun-toting Sapphic avenger is good, but the lorryload of ammo is the kind of detail Elmore Leonard would kill for.

One should also sympathise with Ms Cookson over her mother, Kate, a card- carrying monster, who came to live at Catherine's boarding-house, where she used to demand the guests' rent in advance and blow it instantly on drink. When relations with her daughter deteriorated, she tried to finish her off by making a cocktail from four different spirits, knocking it back, then flinging a pair of steel-capped shoes in Catherine's face. A song comes into my head: "She takes a whisky drink, she takes a vodka drink, she takes a lager drink, she takes a cider drink..." It's called "Tubthumping", rather appropriately for the ex-manageress of a laundry. Was Catherine Cookson's mother the Danbert Nobacon of 1933?

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