John Walsh on Monday: Why writers appear to be homeless

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LORD JENKINS of Hillhead presided over a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature the other night. He handed out the Heinemann Prize to Richard Holmes, for his swooningly praised two-volume biography of Coleridge, gave the Winifred Holtby Prize for a regional novel to Giles Foden for The Last King of Scotland, his fictional account of life at the (decidedly "regional") court of Idi Amin in the early 1970s, and inducted into the society's ranks a dozen new members, including the novelist Shena Mackay and Lewis Wolpert, the nation's leading populariser of science among the clueless arty masses. The joint was filled with Holroyds and Tomalins and Bainbridges and other names from the premier league of British writers. And to all of them, Lord Woy offered a mild rebuke.

Why oh why, he asked, must they conceal their private addresses? Look up a writer in Who's Who (or People of Today or any other thick gazetteer of famous folk) in order to drop them a line of praise about a work that has impressed you, he grumbled, and what do you find? The only address they give is their publishers.

It's a nightmare of boring, incognito shadows. You want to tell, say, Jilly Cooper how much you love her subtle insights into the human heart in Score, you've dashed off a fan letter to the chatelaine of Bisley, hoping its passionate outpourings will arrive on her breakfast table next morning along with the kippers and the Frank Cooper's Vintage Marmalade, and what do you get? C/o Transworld Publishers Ltd, Uxbridge Rd, Ealing, London W5. It's the biggest passion-killer since the advent of reinforced gusset tights. I understand Lord Jenkins's irritation. Many's the time I have tried to interest a leading light of modern culture in my fascinating views on their work.

My umpteen respectful letters to Kate Moss and Elle Macpherson (left), pointing out the many things we have in common - our both being human beings, quite tall, keen on cigarettes and probably unfulfilled in certain aspects of our social lives - have foundered on the impossibility of getting past the entrepot of their professional addresses.

My applications to join the Rolling Stones as a vital bongo percussionist all foundered on the reefs of something called Bernard Docherty management. My urgent meetings with the Pope have never got past the unimaginative jobsworths at "c/o Vatican City", even though I enclosed a blinder of a CV. Trying to get Slobodan Milosevic's home address and area code was, frankly, a complete waste of time (and as for "www.mad.dictator@belgrade.hq.co.serbia", just don't bother).

His lordship's strictures have a horribly topical ring, however, given the news about the "Who's Who muggers". No sooner had his lordship called for a greater openness among writers in dishing out their street names, but we read about a gang of robbers who simply inspect the pages of the nation's poshest directory, lie in wait and grab the hapless celebrities as they're opening their front doors. Only last week, Robert Robinson was attacked at knifepoint on the doorstep of his Chelsea home, and he and his wife relieved of cash and jewellery. If you're in Who's Who and so generous as to print your home address, it seems, a band of footpads will call on you sooner or later.

Under the circumstances, writers would be advised to ignore Lord Jenkins's advice just for now. The only amusing thing about this alarming development is the thought of a crew of n'er-do-wells hanging out in Vauxhall Bridge Road, waiting for the arrival home of "Jonathan Cape", this strangely generous bloke whom so many top writers appear to be living "care of".

I WENT to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy last week and gazed at the new Hockneys in the Lecture Room. Jolly colourful they were too. You look at them, and think, Good God, look at those colours - red and orange and livid purple with greeny bits all over the place - and for a minute or two that's all you think. There are six pictures in the room and they're all of the Grand Canyon. The RA even supplies mirrors in all four corners, so you can look at A Closer Grand Canyon or at Double-Study for A Closer Grand Canyon while your eye is pulled away by the reflection of A Bigger Grand Canyon ... Having registered the uniformity of Mr Hockney's subject-matter, you ask yourself: what do I think of it? It's hellish colourful, comes the reply. More, you tell yourself, I need more than that. Very well then, the art critic inside you replies, some of the colours are horribly clashing and some are not "true to nature" in that Nature, left to itself, would never come up with such a repellent blotchy mauve ...

Yes yes, you tell yourself sternly, but this is hardly a coherent aesthetic response. Can you not think of something more expressive? You examine the brushwork, you look at the foliage in the corners of the painting, you narrow your eyes before the great Mixed-Infants-class daubs of poster crimson and banana yellow. Cake, you say to yourself. The whole thing looks to me like a landscape of cake. Walnut layer cake, with icing and buttercream filling, and green candied fruit and bits of cherry on the top. Huge slabs of strawberry shortcake, sliced this way and that in majestic avalanches of sponge and filling. Seed cake. Fruit cake. Jam pancakes piled up into ziggurats of ... These foolish deliberations, possibly the least helpful analysis of a painting in the history of art, are interrupted by the arrival of Paul in the Lecture Room.

Paul is a music critic. You were once in the same readers' group in Brixton. You remember admiring his hair-trigger responsiveness to everything, whether it was Debussy, Gunter Grass, Kokoshka, Barcelona, risotto nero, Abel Gance's Napoleon or Match of the Day. Paul always made you raise your game.

"Ah Paul," I said. "I was just thinking how much these rocks resemble a piece of, er, lemon madeira ..."

"Scatter cushions," he said firmly. "Acrylic scatter cushions. The thrilling decadence of the colours. The utter abandonment of realism after a perfunctory struggle. That rock, for instance ..."

"The one that looks like, er, a big meringue?"

"We note the shifting planes, the vertical sweep, the skewed perspectives, the literal impossibility of comprehending vastness, the sense of being lost in a magic kingdom that's available only to art ..."

"I don't think much of the spotty green bits," I said coldly, feeling I'd slightly lost the initiative. "Looks like mould."

Paul uttered a short laugh. "Pointillism, of course," he said, "a delicious tease. Just as the clouds are straight from Magritte in their faux-formality, the trees are by Cezanne and the foliage is a mocking comment on the formal gardens of the 18th century."

"Exactly," I said. "I was just thinking"

"The whole history of European painting is in here, of course," said Paul airily, "but that, in a sense, is only the starting-point ..." An hour later, he was still at it. He had deconstructed everything in the Lecture Room, including the mirrors, the fire extinguisher and the attendant. I had said nothing for 47 minutes. I longed to get away for a cup of tea. And some Victoria sponge. In a sense.

THE BEST literary joke I've heard lately is 48 years old. It's in a letter, never published before, written by Dylan Thomas (right) to Loren McIver, the American artist. He wrote to thank her for putting him up and introducing him to Tennessee Williams, whose most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Thomas rechristens A Truck Called Fuck.

Andrew Sinclair's new biography of the Welsh soak with the mad-cherub eyes is due out in August, and contains the striking news that Thomas had diabetes and, when admitted to a New York hospital in 1953, was treated for it with cortisone, which brought on a coma, from which he died. Do you see what this means? Dylan Thomas did not die of drink. He died of medicine. Bang goes another of the absolute certainties that shore up your life.

Next week, Virginia Woolf did not drown herself, she was in serious training for a sponsored marathon swim in Skegness. Emily Bronte did not, after all, die of consumption; she suffered heart failure while laughing at a risque letter from Charlotte detailing her saucy exploits with her London publisher. Thomas Chatterton did not kill himself with arsenic at the age of 18. He lived to a ripe old age, publishing satirical romances under the nom de plume of Fanny Burney ...

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