Diary

A sensational rumour has been buzzing round the Frankfurt Book Fair. It concerns Robert Redford, the straw-haired heart-throb with the fondness for ecology and horses. A biography of the great man, written by one Michael Feeny-Callan, has been under way for some time (to be published here by Macmillan) but Redford has always refused to have anything to do with it. Then, a couple of months ago, he suddenly decided he liked the idea. He met the author, talked incessantly into Feeny-Callan's startled tape recorder, and the previously unauthorised biography became authorised.

But why did Redford change his mind? And is the book any good? Those of my acquaintance who've read extracts tell me, with emphasis and gesticulation, that it's the most folksy, unrevelatory read they've come across in a long time. So why is Sonny Mehta, the boss of the trendy Knopf house, starting the bidding for it at $500,000?

The answer to all these queries, dear reader, is frighteningly simple. Robert Redford is about to stand for President of the US.

It's been a week of Ageing American Artists' Anniversaries. Although Gore Vidal hit 70 on 3 October, his publisher, Tom Rosenthal, decided to throw a birthday party a fortnight later, to launch Vidal's autobiography, Palimpsest. Iris Murdoch, Lady Antonia, Nigel Williams, Taki Thedoracopulos and umpteen literary editors piled into the Garrick to hear the impossibly grand and senatorial Vidal deliver his sonorous bon mots. He greeted the news about Redford with equanimity ("Nobody'll vote for him. Paul Newman is a better actor and they wouldn't vote for him, either. And that stuff about the environment is the last thing the big corporations want to hear").

His off-the-cuff disparagements are wonderful. Referring to a Hobart- born critic and Oxford don who was recently rude in print about a friend of Vidal's, he said, "You can take Peter Conrad out of Tasmania [pause] but you cannot take the mania out of Peter Conrad." Someone boldly asked why he was wearing an Aertex shirt with a double-winged collar. "That, my boy, shows you have never seen a man dressed from head to toe in Versace."

There followed the only known anecdote told by Vidal against himself, about when "La Principessa" (as he refers to Hillary Clinton) visited him in his Italian palazzo and Gianni Versace dropped by to gush: such a wonderful uomo, such a bella figura, the finest writer in the world, such a compliment to our country that you choose to live here, that you have the American Prima Donna visiting you, the greatest thinker, the most sophisticated.... Versace paused, looked his host up and down, and concluded, "and the worst dress sense I 'ave ever seen". Hence the free makeover, Aertex and all.

Double-take of the year occurs at the stately thrash for another birthday boy, Arthur Miller, at the Ivy restaurant in London's West End. The bald eagle of modern letters, Miller is looking uncommonly well for 80: he is courtly, ironic and willing to discuss anything, from the trauma of birthdays to the craven reluctance of Broadway theatres to mount new plays. But while escaping from the well-wishers anxious to shake Miller's hand, you turn a corner and come on the spectacle of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett lighting a fag.

You pinch yourself. You must be in the grip of some hallucinogenic literary cauchemar. But no, it is Jennifer Ehle, who plays the stroppy-but-divine Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, the BBC series that has brought the drinking classes of the nation home from the Crown & Greyhounds at 9pm sharp for the past four Sunday nights. So you say hello. You remark that you are a colossal fan of the programme. You note that Ms Ehle is even more gorgeous in the flesh than when she played Calypso in The Camomile Lawn....

She has no time, however, for one's conversational sallies. Yes, she believes the programme is being quite well received. No, she would not like a drink, mineral water being her only liquid indulgence these days. No, she has not read the stuff in the Mirror about her affair with Colin Firth. Yes, she has read Ms Austen's other works, if only recently. Yes, she is enjoying playing Lady Anne in Richard III with the RSC at Stratford but is glad to own a car in which to escape. And so forth. As you blunder on, the truth gradually dawns that you are trying desperately to be a character in the TV series. You are trying to be a nicer Mr Darcy, a less duplicitous Mr Wickham. But you realise you are sounding more and more like the oleaginous Mr Collins.

Ms Ehle realises it, too. As the conversational grilling subsides, she lifts her sparkling eyes and says, "You're not by any chance going to ask me to dance now, are you?"

Judge Stephen Tumim, the man who has done more for half-moon spectacles than anyone since Andrew Cruikshank in Dr Finlay's Casebook, was on jolly form in the Great Hall in Lincoln's Inn last night, where the Folio Society revived its distinguished tradition of debates. Tumim, the portly and beaming HM Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, bravely advanced the motion that "The Freedom of Expression is Over-rated", a proposition stoutly defended by Jeremy Isaacs of the Royal Opera House.

I didn't spot any outbreaks of verbal abuse, but was intrigued by the presence of the writer Alec Hamilton in full Regency fig. He was, he said, impersonating Dr Thomas Bowdler, the Regency prude who went through the complete works of Shakespeare, taking out the bits deemed unsuitable for recital by the family hearth. And the original "Bowdleriser", Hamilton pointed out, spent the early 1800s, Tumim-like, as a "Commissioner to Inquire into the State of the Penitentiaries". Spooky or what?

An architect friend who hangs out in Soho rings me in terrific excitement. Mick Jagger has just bought five loft spaces in Wardour Street "and each one", confides my friend, "is three times the area of the top floor of my house. What is he planning?" It's perfectly obvious, surely - he is going to turn them into five retirement homes for himself and the Stones, so they can end their days in peaceful contiguity, just one floor above the noise, the movie sluts, the dodgy bars, the needle doorways, the broken dreams.... Or is he simply going in for property development?

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