I'm lunching with my dear old friend Richard Ingrams, and we discuss whether that other venerable institution, Private Eye, is as funny as it was. When I tell him that it still makes me laugh, I am telling the truth, but feel a bit as I do when proclaiming that some slightly faded, 50-year-old woman is still as beautiful as she was in her twenties.
Ingrams astonishes me by gushing about Princess Anne. She had recently visited his home village of Aldworth to open some new houses for the less well-off. He spoke of her as any old royalist would do, praising the courtesy and naturalness with which she consumed tea and biscuits in the village hall with him and the other Aldworthians. It was funny to think of the meeting, and one wondered whether they had discussed his hilariously cruel fictionalised accounts of her marriage to Mark Phillips ("Love in the Saddle"), which appeared in the Eye all those years ago. Apparently, the matter had not been raised when they shook hands in the village hall. We talked about how much we had both changed over the years.
Funnily enough, another reminder of the whirlygig of time came later that evening when Jennifer Paterson rang up for a chat. She was either just returning from a promotional tour in Australia or about to go and take Two Fat Ladies to the Outback. I forget which. Ingrams and I first became friends when he reviewed telly and I reviewed books at The Spectator. Jennifer was the most uproarious character in the building, even then, of course, but I do not suppose that any of the men - Alexander Chancellor, Peter Ackroyd, Ferdinand Mount, Ingrams himself, Auberon Waugh - ever guessed how much more famous than they she'd become.
She used to get the sack on a regular basis, but took no notice and just turned up the next week regardless, to cook meals for the sometimes distinguished guests. My favourite moment was when Enoch Powell came to lunch. While he was in the midst of some unstoppable disquisition on a pet subject (the sovereignty of Parliament, perhaps, or the unlikelihood of Shakespeare having written his plays), Jennifer came up behind him, wound a lock of his hair round her well-varnished finger-nail, and said, "Cootchy-cootchy- coo!" He still went on talking his mad rubbish, as if nothing had happened.
I AM trying to finish my book about the loss of religious faith in the 19th century. The task isn't made any easier by having builders in the house. (Of course - the modern cliche - they promised to be finished in August.) This morning I sit at my table and try to reconstruct in my imagination the mental anguish caused to the first readers of Lyell's Geology - when they realised, first that the Genesis story of an instantaneous creation of the world was now disproved, and, much more worryingly, that the fossil evidence showed a process at work which ruthlessly discarded whole species. No wonder Lord Tennyson asked "Are God and Nature then at strife?" But these thoughts are interrupted by a pneumatic drill. White dust billows from the basement, settling on books, papers, telephone and baby. Squeezing past the painters on the stair, and getting my bottom liberally smeared with white undercoat, I go to investigate. Our request: "Please lay a couple of slabs of York stone to replace the ones which got cracked by the back door" has been interpreted as "Please gouge out the old door- step, and create crazy paving outside the larder." Sir Charles Lyell and Lord Tennyson somehow elude concentration in such an atmosphere.
How lucky I am to be published by John Murray, though. It is one of the last independent publishing houses, and my editor there asks me to come and finish my book in the peace of 50 Albemarle Street. The beautiful drawing-room, with its portraits of former authors such as Byron, can not much have changed since the days when they published Lyell and, even more crucially, Darwin. (The John Murray of the day thought The Origin of Species wouldn't catch on, so there wasn't a big print run for the first edition.)
Once in this atmosphere, the thoughts, and the words, flow. I begin to think that there might be some chance of finishing the book. At lunch time we go for spaghetti, my editor and I, and discuss the problem of having a dog in London. She's tried it for five months, and is on the verge of sending Wilkie into exile in Scotland. We rescued ours from Battersea Dogs' Home, and it seems a bit wet to admit defeat, even though he is a terrible nuisance, poor little fellow, and can't be left for more than an hour or so without shades of the prison house descending, and terrible whimperings bursting from his lungs. At least it gives us an excuse not to go out much.
When I come home from the day at the office, I find that dog, wife and baby have been imprisoned in the house. A builder has put "filler" on the front door (which worked perfectly well this morning). It needed a battering ram to get it open.
First thing in the morning - if possible before the dawn arrival of the builders with their loud trannies - the dog and I set off to perambulate Camden Town partly to buy newspapers, partly for bowel relief. (His, not mine, though there are human beings hereabouts who use the pavements for the purpose. This morning, we watched with some astonishment as an old lady threw her skirts over her head and squatted down just behind the cinema in Parkway.) I can't say that I find attending to Percy's latrinal needs the happiest part of the dog-owner's life, but at least in this part of London, you can score some very palpable hits on the doorsteps of literary or showbiz celebrities. It does the heart good to stand at the end of a lead while Percy shows what he thinks of Harry Enfield, Dr Jonathan Miller, or others too near our house to be mentioned. The old Soviet Union used to herd writers together into colonies; the capitalist system seems to have done the same.
WE HAD the most depressing letter through the door the other day from the local vicar, asking me to read at the carol service. I'm not really a church-goer, but that apparently wasn't the point. "So many people at or around the church have to do with books - writer, publisher, agent - that I am hoping for a literary event," he wrote. I'm not sure that I want Christmas to be a "literary event": there seem to be quite enough of those already. The idea of celebrating the birth of the homeless Christ- child in the stable at Bethlehem by asking a literary agent or a journalist to read the story seemed to my agnostic soul to be profanity bordering on blasphemy.Reuse content