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 11 May 1995
Apart from his saintliness, Chesterton is, surprisingly, still taken seriously as a political guru. His fans include William Keegan, the Observer's economics editor, and George Bull, who runs the Anglo-Japanese Economic Institute. "His thinking would be absolutely at home in the new Labour Party," says Bull. "Chesterton believed in empowering the mass of people by breaking down concentrations of shares and property. If the Labour Party wants some middle ground between nationalisation and American capitalism, that's just where they will end up. I suggest Mr Blair starts reading Chesterton right away."
Only a deaf curmudgeon would deny that audio tapes have become an unstoppable force in the book world. Every publishing house worth its luncheon budget is bringing out audio versions of new titles, read by resting actors and indigent television personalities. But recently I was told of an exciting innovation: HarperCollins has got Mel Gibson, the all-action movie star, to read Rebecca on tape. Yup, that's the Daphne du Maurier classic, narrated by a trembling female ingenue. Could it work? How would the Mel handle the scene in which Max de Winter, the narrator's middle-aged lover, tells her, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool"?
Minutes later, the news was amended: Gibson is to read not Rebecca but du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel, a far less soppy proposition.
It got me thinking, though. Is there not a lucrative trend here, in finding farcically inappropriate readers for international classics? I would pay good money to hear, say, Trevor McDonald's clipped tones reading William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. I'm sure that Bravo Two Zero, the tale of SAS derring-do, would have me in raptures all down the M4, if delivered in Mariella Frostrup's saucy rasp. Professor Stephen Hawking, whose computerised voice-box contrives to sound both Irish and surreally formal, would be a natural for Finnegan's Wake. Or (what the hell) Brian Sewell to do Fever Pitch; Ice-T, the gun-toting rap artist, to tackle Mansfield Park; Sir Geoffrey Howe to have a go at James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late, the Archbishop of Canterbury to take a shy at The Satanic Verses ...
Good game, eh? Can you suggest some? There's a prize of a dozen classic audio tapes for the sender of the most ludicrous combinations.
I'd love to say I was on drop-round-for-a-bourbon terms with Jonathan Aitken, but I'm not. And since his apotheosis as the sword-wielding scourge of Fleet Street, the prospect is even more distant. So when I found myself at the Secretary of State's handsome town house off Millbank on Tuesday, I lay doggo and watched as the flower of Parliament - Portillo and Waldegrave and Lilley and Baker and Clarke and Hurd - came and went along the noble carpets. They were celebrating the launch of John Patten's book, Things to Come: the Tories in the 21st Century (an amusing subtitle, given the party's present form, like the Klingons in the 21st Century, or the Albigensians in the 21st Century), but the air was thick with intrigue.
High drama came 10 minutes before the party's close. Just as I was telling Mr Patten, who went to the same school as I, that we had no famous role model among Old Boys apart from the chap who attacked the Bismark in a swordfish biplane, but that now the boys had a choice between him and Paul Merton, the Aitkens' doorway darkened. A towering figure stood on the threshold. "Christ," somebody murmured, "it's the boss."
A hush settled on the company. Michael Heseltine (for it was he) swept in, sculpted, seigneurial and impossibly grand, stayed for a glass, a handshake and the briefest chat avec l'auteur, before simply vanishing, leaving a gap in the party like the hole in the ozone layer. This is what I believe is known as charisma.
Forget the minor-league spat of Amis and Barnes. When it comes to literary rivalry, the real humdinger is scheduled for this weekend. At Sussex University, various English and American writers are convening to share their views about "90s Fictions", read their stuff, congratulate each other on their sensitivity, you know the drill. But heading inexorably for the same stage are Kathy Acker, the feisty, erotomaniacal punk writer of Blood and Guts in High School, and Gary Indiana, the New York "cultural critic".
The two used to be close friends but fell out when Indiana wrote a novel called Rent Boy, whose narrator introduces a character called Sandy Miller: "I read one of Sandy's books. It was all my c**t this and my c**t that for two hundred pages, stick your big d**k in my c**t sort of stuff. But literary, you know. One minute Sandy's getting banged by an Arab Negro and the next minute she's a 16th-century pirate on the high seas, or Emily Bront or something. Her writing is real modern ..."
Discerning some personal application in this rude portrait, Acker went off Indiana in a big way. On Sunday, they meet for the first time since. On stage. And she doesn't know he's on the schedule. The level of abuse should be around Warp Factor 19, I'd say.
Nice to see Hackney council entering into the VE Day spirit. Walking past the town hall, I couldn't help but notice that, alongside the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, they're flying the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. It's a perfectly fair and reasonable gesture, of course, presumably a nostalgic echo of the Yalta conference at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sat companionably abreast. Hackney must be congratulated on an inspired move. It is rather thrilling to reflect that perhaps the only place in the world where the image of Communism could still be seriously flown is in London E8.
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