Like a benign mammoth rising from a primeval Welsh swamp, Professor Sir Fred Hoyle blinked into the spotlight at the Hay Festival last weekend, to astonish (a) those who didn't realise the doyen of British cosmology was alive and possessed of more faculties than the majority of his audience; and (b) those who think astrophysicists have no time for the mundane impulses of the human mind.
The Bingley-born Prof, who was exploring the limits of the universe when Stephen Hawking was still in rompers and who found a huge audience with his 1957 novel The Black Cloud (in which a malevolent alien stratocumulus wipes out the population of Earth by simply downloading all the knowledge of the universe on to their brains and blowing their minds, some years before the phrase entered the vernacular), reminisced about his friendship with Richard Feynman, the wayward American Nobel-winning physicist, inventor and jokesmith.
Once, he said, he and Feynman compared notes about the Eureka Moment, the moment when you realise you've discovered something that's verifiable and true and adds to the sum of human knowledge. "The elation lasts about 10 seconds in the short term and about three days in the long term," said Feynman. "I've had three of them." (Pause.) "Not much to show really, nine days' pleasure for a lifetime's work ..."
It got Sir Fred thinking. How long does pleasure last? Sex and food and cocaine and Mahler aside, how long does it take for pure delight to radiate through the system and sustain through time? Hoyle is now planning a series of close analyses of Olympic medallists, 89th-minute goal-scorers, Mastermind finalists and (I'm guessing here) Brian Lara, in an attempt to quantify the nature of human triumph.
Well well. Only a few years ago Michael Frayn, in his novel A Landing on the Sun, portrayed two civil servants in a Whitehall eyrie trying to quantify human happiness. Once again, science tries to catch up with art.
Appalled by the evidence of middle-aged spread that greeted him from every reflected shop window in south London, a friend booked himself into Shrublands, the ritzy Ipswich health farm, last week, drawn by rumours (he is exceedingly gullible) that it was the one visited by James Bond in Never Say Never Again.
It was, for a time, hell. A ferocious regimen of hot-water-with-lemon snacks and mixed-lettuce blowouts at lunchtime had almost wilted his flabby spirit, when rapture supervened. Into the gym walked a double vision of media loveliness: Joanna Coles, the feline presenter of Radio 4's Medium Wave, whose stern-but-thrilling tones on Sunday mornings have brought a bulging mailbag of rude inquiries from retired bishops and naval ratings; and Daisy Goodwin, the voluptuous BBC producer, documentary-maker and serial heartbreaker. Inspired by their presence, my friend hit the Nautilus equipment with gusto, dangled from the wall bars, punished his corpulent frame with massages, weights (cop this, girls!) and unsavoury calisthenics of every kind. About to move in, at dinner, he was appalled to find them in close and exclusive discussion with Paul Scofield, the grizzled actor, about such things as the ethics of eating a lettuce leaf that has fallen on the floor when you're starving. Determined, the next day, to eclipse the Martin Chuzzlewit star and impress the Beeb babes with his manly credentials, my chum went berserk: sitz-baths, index-fingerology, colonic massage, mud infusions ... anything that might later impress them over the radish- with-mint supper. That evening he waited and waited, but in vain. Having shed four inches from their respective thighs by the second evening, the divine Coles and Goodwin had decamped to the pub.
I feel a strange, personal affinity with Terence Conran and his restaurants, even though I can barely keep up with his annexing of key territories all over the metropolis. A huge fan of the Gastrodome complex by Tower Bridge (especially the astounding steak 'n' kidney 'n' oyster pie at the Chop House) but a sworn enemy of Quaglino's, where the bar always seemed to be full of Levantine seducers and acrylic swingers from Middlesex, I'm chronically intrigued to see what he comes up with next. And hardly had I digested the news that in September he will open a new 700-seater called the Mezzo on the site of the old Marquee in Wardour Street (where I attended the first Sex Pistols gig in the summer of '76, like approximately 26 million other lying bastards), than I heard of the next one.
Conran has now acquired the lease of the Bluebird Garage in the King's Road, Chelsea, and will open a restaurant, delicatessen and foodie emporium on the site in a year or so. It is a pretty sorry-looking place today, but I remember a time when it was, or seemed, dead groovy, like Kensington Market but without all that cheesecloth. I even remember buying my first leather jacket there in 1977, encouraged by a young woman called Annie ...
I must say, it's very thoughtful of Sir Terence to shadow my career in this way. I'd like him to know that, should it cross his mind to turn my back garden in Camberwell into an al fresco diner, I'm sure I could find a window in my punishing schedule.
Ah, revenge. The new issue of the Oldie is out today, accompanied by this heartfelt note of sympathy from its editor, Richard Ingrams: "I am sad to hear of the (melo)dramatic demise of the Modern Review. We remember well how kind and supportive Julie Burchill was to the Oldie at its inception. Her letter to me at the time read as follows: 'Congratulations on producing the most pathetic magazine ever published' ... "