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?

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum