Diary

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The Independent Online
Fans of Oscar Wilde will know that it was 100 years ago, almost to the day, that the verdantly carnationed dramatist met his downfall at the Old Bailey, as plaintiff against the ghastly Marquess of Queensberry. The man long demonised as the instrument of Wilde's destruction was Edward Carson, the steely brief who cross-examined a decreasingly waggish Oscar and nailed him by asking if he had kissed a certain boy. ("Certainly not," Wilde disastrously replied, "he was a very ugly boy.") The courtroom exchanges passed into history, helped by the performances of Peter Finch (Wilde) and James Mason (Carson) in the 1960 movie The Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Now I hear of an extraordinary rapprochement, a century later, between the families of the two men, engineered by the Irish writer Ulick O'Connor. Last week, to celebrate the opening at Dublin's Peacock Theatre of his play about the fated duo, A Trinity of Two (Wilde and Carson were contemporaries at Trinity College), O'Connor invited the descendants to meet. Against all historical odds, the respective grandsons -Merlin Holland and Rory Carson - got on so well that they went to dinner together, stayed up till 3am, swapped phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. Mr Holland is an oenophile who writes on wine for the Oldie; Mr Carson grand-fils rents cars to businessmen in Knightsbridge. One feels this is, satisfyingly, just what the modern equivalents of Jack and Algernon would be doing .

The great British tradition of pointless feats of derring-do continues this summer when a blind Royal Marine arctic warfare instructor will attempt to climb Mount McKinley, the highest mountain (20,320ft) in North America. He will be assisted in this foolhardy venture by two doctors, two lawyers and a solitary real mountaineer called John Barry. They're doing it to raise £100,000 for two charities for the disabled and "to study the effects" of high altitude and physical exertion on their blind colleague.

He is Sergeant Alan "Reggie" Perrin, who was blown up during grenade practice on Salisbury Plain last August and took exception to the news that he would never walk again. But I wonder if he knows the calibre of his support team. The company behind the endeavour is run by the two young lawyers, Dominic Marshall and Edward de la Billire. Yes, it's the same de la Billire Jnr (son of General Sir Peter, of Gulf war fame) who got into the papers in 1992 for failing to pass his officer entrance exams at Westbury, and thus became the nation's second best-known army flunk, after Prince Edward. Whether a knowledge of tort and conveyancing will be an adequate substitute for army training at 20,000ft, we must take on trust.

An American exile called Edward Lipman told a tragic tale in Tuesday's Evening Standard about being jostled and abused and drenched in beer by roistering louts while walking home through the supposedly inoffensive backstreets of Cambridge at 11.30pm.

"Why did it happen to me," he whined, "a 'street-smart' New Yorker, in Cambridge of all places?"

By an odd coincidence I was walking through the supposedly inoffensive backstreets of Oxford last Sunday with a woman friend when we noticed a similarly Threatening Situation ahead: five rollicking types on the pavement outside New College, yelling fit to bust. As we drew level, one of the roarers detached himself from the pack (uh-oh), but all he could manage to ask was, "Oi - are you New people?"

"Nah, we're Old Bill, you wanker," my companion retorted. Our tormentor retired, crushed.

It rather confirms my view that fear makes you a victim because it communicates itself to a neutral observer who would not otherwise dream of bothering you. It reminds me of Alexander Chancellor's story about the time when, walking down Third Avenue, he saw a huge, trench-coated black man heading his way. Sensing trouble, Chancellor crossed the road - and was horrified to see the mugger doing the same. As they converged (and the former Spectator editor knew his life was, in effect, over) the huge villain widened his eyes, extended his hands ... and shouted "BOO!"

Dropping by the Garrick Club, I ran into Eric Jacobs, a chap whose life will be seriously disrupted when his biography of the club's most enthusiastic patron, Sir Kingsley Amis, is published next month. Mr Jacobs, a raffish, bow-tied, cigar-puffing charmer and former trades union correspondent, is a newcomer to the black arts of biography, which may be why Kingers chose him.

Author and subject have a curiously master-and-pupil relationship. "We had lunch here today," said Jacobs, "and he will insist on correcting my pronunciation. I said that somebody was typically Hamp-sheer and Kingsley said, "No, no, it's Hampshah, Hamp-shah". Had the irascible knight read the manuscript? "Of course. But the only thing he seemed to take exception to was my punctuation."

Finishing the biography was a problem because of Sir Kingsley's punishing work rate: he has completed two books and started a third since Jacobs began his labours a couple of years ago. "And I was surprised to learn," confesses the half-Scottish scribe, "that while I was writing the book, Kingsley was writing a novel called The Biographer's Moustache, about a distinguished literary figure having his life written up by a half-Scottish, younger hack ..."

Michael Hordern was the best King Lear I ever saw, infinitely better than rheumy-eyed Olivier, flutey-voiced Gielgud, bullet-headed Hopkins or neurotic Scofield. He was the best because he wasn't afraid to be silly, to express Lear's ancient whimsicality and second-childhood petulance, his juvenile fondness for riddling language, his elderly fear of Alzheimer's ... Bereft of his kingly toys, this Lear was a funny old gent, wispy of hair and wistful of voice, who nevertheless managed both to express and embody Pity, and make this unheroic virtue magnificent.

His secret weapon was his voice - or at least that weird, whinnying, braying, endlessly throat-clearing instrument, the Hordern Harrumph. Jonathan Miller once made a television film of MR James's terrifying ghost story, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, in which most of the soundtrack was composed of Hordern's querulous neighings. Should the BBC decide to celebrate his unique quality, they could do no better than to repeat both performances back to back.

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