Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 09 March 1995
When I heard he had died, I did a quick telephone poll of friends. It revealed that the lyrics of his best song, "The Intro and the Outro" - that ludicrously protracted introduction of a band of unlikely musicians - are buried deep in the fortysomething psyche like a five-minute catch- phrase: "Princess Anne on souzaphone ... a sessions gorilla on vox humana ... General de Gaulle on accordion - really wild, General ... Max Jaffa on violin - mmm, that's nice Max." It all came roaring back down the telephone wires, like a secular catechism, unconsciously learnt and never forgotten. And if you want the folk memory of 1973-74, it was of being in a roomful of stoned students, all waiting for the moment, among the druggy noodlings of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, when Stanshall's voice comes in and announces: "Grand piano ..."
I'd like to play the record to Tony Blair - who was precisely the right age, in the right place and at the right time to be a Stanshall fan - just to see if he could identify the climactic moment before I could.
Birds do it; bees do it; even educated Greens do it. The urgent debate about the rights and wrongs of making physical contact with your professional colleagues has been heating up nicely this week. All over the nation, burly Lotharios have been demonstrating to their quaking female co-workers just how far you're allowed to go, according to the Green Party, in the way of comradely embraces. Hand on arm - yes. Hand on thigh - no. Arm round shoulder - yes. Arm round waist - certainly not. Slap on back - yes. Full-scale bear-hug - God no (shriek). It's all been quite an education for anyone who, like me, has been a serial fondler and free-range masseur for years.
Some offices lend themselves more readily than others to this kind of behaviour. Here at the Independent, we're typically advanced. Kisses, hugs and hand-holding are practically mandatory. I despair of the benighted employees of other organisations who view the business of colleague-caressing as somehow objectionable. Their chief spokesperson seems to be Nigella Lawson, the severe Times columnist, who on Tuesday observed: "On the whole, and sensibly enough, women do not want to go round flinging their arms around the men in the office. They are not having to restrain themselves. It is, frankly, not that tempting."
Indeed not. But can this be the same Nigella Lawson with whom I shared an office at a Sunday newspaper for a few weeks in the Eighties? The one who, appalled by my stumbling attempts to master the computer system, finally cracked and, with a brisk "Look, it's very simple ...", came and sat on my lap? I cannot, sadly, impute any motive to her action beyond girlish exasperation. But if anyone would care to make a film of this thrilling moment, can I ask that the person they get to play me is shown to have a slightly greater sense of proportion than Michael Douglas?
The more unwelcoming elements of the literary world have been wondering what in George Walden's curriculum vitae makes him a natural choice as chairman of this year's Booker Prize judges. Where, they ask, are his creative works? Where are his reviews? Where, God dammit, is any evidence of any literary discrimination of any kind? I can understand their grudging tone - it is, after all, a position held in the past by such starry eminences as Professors John Carey, Richard Cobb, John Bayley and George Steiner - but I am happy to stick up for the sitting Member (Cons) for Buckingham.
"Obviously, I am an amateur," he modestly told the London Evening Standard, "though literature and criticism have been my life ever since an adolescent affair with an older woman, Karenina by name." Mr Walden is too modest. My researches reveal that he did once write a review, in Books & Bookmen, November 1984, of six books on Chinese history. So that's OK then.
Interestingly, the review strikes a topical note, when Mr Walden asks, rhetorically: "If, as I believe, we are more distant culturally from Europe - and especially from France - than [we have been] for many decades, how much can we presume to know about China?" Perhaps the Tory whips' office might like a quiet word with Mr Walden before he embarks on his marathon reading stint.
Another slightly odd choice for literary evaluation is Alan Clark, the irascible diarist and indefatigable horizontal jogger, who has been amusing the panel judging the 1995 AT&T Award for non-fiction, of which he is chairman. No one would call Mr Clark an overbearing chairman, but he kicked off the proceedings by telling his co-judges (Sheridan Morley, Ruth Leon, Val Hennessy and June Formby) that their meetings would be conducted along parliamentary rules. "No one may speak while the chairman is speaking," he growled, "and if you wish to speak, you must raise your hand." He was quite surprised, apparently, when the entire meeting burst into spontaneous laughter.
I paid a recent visit to Lewisham, quite possibly London's grottiest borough, to see my friend Chris, who lectures once a week at the local college of further education. We met at a neighbouring pub, which was filled with the most heinous and terrifying press-gang of plug-ugly cut- throats and desperados I have ever seen outside an Oliver Stone movie. Chris seemed strangely unmoved by their looming presence. Didn't they bother him? "Hardly," he said. "They're students." Good heavens. Of what? "The most popular courses in the college. They're both packed out, two nights a week. Courses Number 1864 and 1865 in the brochure. The Installation and Maintenance of Burglar Alarms ..."
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