So on Wednesday afternoon I ducked out of the office alone to catch the 17.08 from Paddington. I missed it. Any reader who regularly travels to Slough will know about unlucky Platform 13. It's so far from Paddington, it's at Royal Oak Tube station. So I was late, half an hour late. And this is a treasonable offence.
We had been asked to get settled in their drawing room (OK, 15 drawing rooms, if you count the vestibules that traipse off St George's Hall) between 5.15 and 5.45pm, for a 6pm kick-off. Turn up that early at anyone else's party, and you'd be branded socially inept and never be invited again. But in almost every other way, this event wasn't like the usual royal bash.
On arrival, charming, smiling factotums issued warm welcomes, spirited away embarrassing encumbrances such as worn overcoats and bulging briefcases, told you where the loo was, and, best of all, presented an exquisite little book containing the entire guest list, in democratic alphabetical order. The only members of the press to make the grade were the arts editors of the broadsheets, and anodyne broadcasters such as Hugh Scully. There was no sign of the big political interviewers, the Dimblebys or Paxman, let alone republican pundits such as Paul Foot or Darcus Howe. Predictably, the list erred on the side of luvvies, but included some surprisingly unpopulist figures: Amanda Root, the actress who was so good in the BBC2 Persuasion, Nikki Yeoh, the jazz pianist, Mike Figgis, whose biggest film was about alcoholism, David Chipperfield and Chris Wilkinson, architects far too hip to have ever been in serious contention for the Windsor refurb.
As well as the obvious names - Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Dame Judi and Lords Gowrie and Norwich - there were actually some people under the age of 50, such as Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham-Carter, Trainspotters Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor, "Sensation" artists Anthony Gormley and Yinka Shonibare, the creator of the new BBC logos, Martin Lambie- Nairn (described as "Identity Designer") and Askalar Ramocon ("Rehearsals director, Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble"). Whoever drew up this list had their index finger on the great and the good, and their little one on the pulse of Cool Britannia. The hand, clearly, was that of Downing Street.
What was most surprising about the event was how relaxed it was, even in a venue the size of a small town. There were no speeches, "aisles" or roped-off tea tents (as at the Buck House garden parties). Nor were there dusty equerries on hand to pluck suitably grand and/or reverent subjects from the crowd to be honoured with an introduction to a highness. No, our hosts mingled. People walked up to them, unintroduced. And didn't bow or curtsy! (Some guests were positively, indiscriminately familiar: Gary Barlow squeezed my arm twice, the cheeky flirt.) Their highnesses braved this touchy-feely crowd of 600 in an extreme minority - and they're a lean bunch now, almost Scandinavian in their paucity, numbering, on Wednesday evening, only HM and Prince Philip, Prince Edward (using his title, for a change), Princess Margaret, back on her feet after her stroke, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (so inconspicuous I never noticed them), the Ogilvys and the only glamour couple the family can field these days, the relatively urbane Viscount and Viscountess Linley. But the royals appeared to be having quite a good time. Perhaps they, too, are susceptible to the lure of celebrity.
You wondered whom the Queen recognised. Well, with all her furniture, she probably had no problem with Hugh Scully; and she looked reasonably at home with performers of her vintage such as Joan Collins, Shirley Bassey, David Attenborough and Michael Caine. Her less-smooth encounter with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red was well documented by the tabloids, but for the benefit of IoS readers I'll repeat it.
She said to him: "And what do you do?"
He said to her: "We've been very successful exporting our music all over the world."
What the papers didn't report is whether it was said with any irony, on either part.
Some vestiges of antiquity lingered. Smoking, in the very rooms that went up in flames six years ago, was expected: there were ashtrays everywhere. Where else but a royal palace would the bars be staffed by retirement- age waiters in white tie and tails? And who else but our sovereign would offer you not the champagne ubiquitous at film premieres and award ceremonies but a full range of spirits? Cheers, ma'am.
WHILE on the subject of impeccable hosts, congratulations to Tony McHale, the manager of the Bel-Air Hotel in LA, which last week was voted the world's best hotel by Gourmet magazine. Tony, you see, is British - from Manchester, in fact. So what's the secret of his success? "We try to run it," he told me, "with a European genteelness rather than with the more modern and technologically focused management of America. They have this feeling that they've got to make the almighty dollar. Whereas in England the hotelier is just the consummate host." The Bel-Air has also had a British head chef, Gary Clauson, for the last seven years. "We are a nation," says McHale, "not of shopkeepers but of the best hoteliers."
Tut-tut over tete-a-tete
NOT that our friends across the Atlantic are always happy to let the British take the glory, as a strange little incident in Quebec illustrates.
The city decided it wanted to commemorate the wartime conferences that took place there between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and commissioned copies of busts of them. The trouble was, the Churchill copy, based on a bust by the late Oscar Nemon that stands in the entrance to the Cabinet War Rooms, turned out to be rather bigger than the Roosevelt. The Americans couldn't have that. So the unveiling, scheduled for last autumn, was put off, and will now finally happen this week, with parity achieved.
"I think it's a great tribute to my father's work that it should be seen to be so powerful," Oscar Nemon's son Falcon told me. "I suppose it shows that in politics, size is everything."
I ALWAYS thought I was a bit of a party animal myself, but last week I had to bow to the real thing when I turned up for a book launch at the National Portrait Gallery. The place was full of dogs. Their masters were gathered for the publication of The Face in the Corner, a book that celebrates the place of domestic animals in some of the world's great paintings. Author Robin Gibson showed off his mongrel Ted; Clare de Rouen, the general manager of the nearby Zwemmer bookshop, brought her black pug Tara, which was rivalled by Gary, a pug belonging to Louise Christie (daughter of Sir George, the organiser of Glyndebourne). One dog at least had no trouble getting into the social spirit: it was quite clearly on heat.
Band of my fathers
YOU'D think certain organisations would steer clear of certain venues. One can't see the Temperance Society meeting at the Dog and Duck, or the Board of Virago holding its AGM at Lord's cricket ground. So I was puzzled to discover where Welsh National Opera were to announce details of their 1998-99 season. A concert hall near the projected Welsh parliament in Cardiff, perhaps? The moody cathedral in the city of their patron saint, David, in Pembrokeshire? No, the WNO has chosen the Hard Rock Cafe in London, home to many a hairy legend's bass guitar and a permanent queue of tourists. Whatever next? Tom Jones singing Figaro arias accompanied by the strumming of ZZ Top?
UPDATING my TV set last week, I came face-to-screen with the changing world of couch-potatodom. Watching telly, I learnt, is all about "aspect ratios" - the relationship of the width to the height of the screen - and these, you may be aware, are about to change to. Out go "square eyes", in come "rectangle eyes".
Brendan Slamin, of something called the Widescreen Forum, told me: "We see more with our eyes horizontally, because our eyes are beside each other, rather than one on top of the other. This change will enable producers to frame their pictures in a different way. Viewers will be able to see the person listening as well as the one talking; if you're watching football, you can see the whole tactics of the game, rather than just the crowd around the ball."
Apparently, those with the cheap old sets can expect a lot more of those thick black lines across top and bottom, known as the letter-box effect ... ensuring that only some viewers will be privy to Alan Shearer's touchline antics in the World Cup.Reuse content