Diary

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The Independent Online
So there you are, 10.30 at night, wandering up a custard-yellow staircase, ticket in hand, to reach a dark schoolroom - hardly a theatre - with 20 rows of seats, sparsely occupied. Approaching an empty chair, you pass a tiny hooded figure squatting on the floor and squeaking, whom you take to be an unusually tragic beggar, reduced, after a year of fruitlessly washing windscreens at traffic lights, to direct action; as you creep by, you feel (horrors) nasty little fingers plucking at your jeans. Seconds later, you notice that the audience is full of these tactile Morlocks, all gibbering away. Just as you're thinking of calling the manager, the creatures take the stage and pretend to be a garden of mythical shrubs, accompanied by the muffled bings and bongs of a hairy percussionist. Three explanations occur: 1) you've gone mad; 2) you are having some kind of acid flashback; 3) you're at the Edinburgh Fringe. The show in question was All Hallows Eve by an American mime troupe (dread words).

But why does one return to this crucible of the avant-garde? Oh, come now, those heady, once-a-year moments: drinking Guinness in the Bannerman at 2am with 12 Celtic supporters, dancing at 4am in the Gilded Balloon to the theme of TV's cricketing highlights programme, listening to the 43rd "jevver" comic in a row, so-called because their routines start that way ("Jevver wonder why, when you puke up, there's always diced carrots in it?")

This year, had some added attractions, though. The Book Festival party featured the newly slimmed-down, not-a-politician-anymore Roy Hattersley (is he doing a diet book, too?) and a jazz band brazenly fronted by an elderly dame in a gaucho hat ("That can't be Mary Wesley, can it?" asked a friend). Elsewhere, you're assailed by images of culture shock (like the sight of a horde of South Korean drama students, newly arrived in their sensible winter woollies, gasping in the unfeasible heat) and the promptings of romance. Over a shockingly late pizza rusticana, I explained to a lady poet with eyebrows like Glencoe muskets that I might be able to put some work her way back in the Big Smoke. "Look," she said, kindly but firmly, "I always pull at the Edinburgh Festival - but only with very tall Italians..."

One unexpected Festival-goer was Marsha Hunt, the black Sixties singer and actress, star of the original Hair, ex-lover of Mick Jagger, now novelist of repute and Folkstone-dwelling freelance dreamboat. She was in town to launch the Saga Prize for fiction, an award she's founded to encourage young black writers. An admirable cause for sure. But why Saga, the holiday firm exclusively for wanderlusting crumblies? Weren't they a little, you know, uncool for the delectable Ms Hunt to be in bed with? "I'm 49, honey," she drawled, "and these days, you qualify for Saga trips when you're 50. They have the cheapest flights to America you'll get anywhere. Believe me, I just can't wait."

Seeing Lady Thatcher at the Savoy, where the American Impac Corporation unveiled its pounds 100,000 book prize on Tuesday, was a weird experience. Hers is a face you know so well, you feel like saying, back-slappingly, "Hi, how are you?", as familiarly as if she were your mum. Only some instinct for self-preservation saves you. But what, I asked Lord Archer, was she doing there? "Good question", said Archer. "I believe she's a friend of the senior management..." So it wasn't true that she'd been paid thousands of pounds to appear, a vision of gravitas in lime green, at this modest party? "No, no, I looked at her diary, and it seems she wanted to come." So if I wanted to invite her to my birthday bash, how much ... But his lordship had moved smoothly on to what the Scotsman said about his last collection of stories.

Tricky things, adjectives. You think you've nailed down somebody's essence with one, and it just sits there looking wrong. The effervescent John Major. The dignified Mariella Frostrup. The tentative Eric Cantona. See what I mean? But I think a prize should go to whoever wrote the press release I'm holding. It excitedly announces "The World's First Global Talk Show" hosted by none other than "Selina Scott, the enigmatic British TV journalist and presenter".

Marvellous, eh? Ms Scott is many things, including personable and adaptable, but she is enigmatic only in the sense that a 60-watt lightbulb is enigmatic. Spurred on by its own happy choice of words, the document burbles ambitiously about The Selina Scott Show interviewing Terry Waite and Gerry Adams and going out to 70 million viewers on NBC/Super Channel. "We expect," they conclude, "Selina's probing, confidential style to produce some big surprises..." Gosh. ("Answer the question, Mr Waite - are you in the pay of Islamic Jihad? And can I just say I really admire that beard...?")

Charm came to Swansea last week in the person of Jimmy Carter, who arrived on Friday for the opening of the town's new pounds 6m Literature Centre. The folksy, God-and-rabbit-fearing ex-Prez was offered the honorary presidency of Swansea's "UK Year of Literature" jollifications, and has been taking his official duties seriously. He is, it turns out, a colossal fan of Dylan Thomas. When he visited the UK in 1977, shortly before assuming the presidency, he planned a special trip to Laugharne, Thomas's adopted home, but was sidetracked by James Callaghan, who asked him to come and lend support at a by-election in Newcastle. Also in 1977, he learnt from the Archbishop of Canterbury that there was no commemorative plaque to the cherubic soak in Westminster Abbey; with Camp David briskness, Carter proceeded to campaign for a plaque, and got it.

He is, it seems, a keen versifier. His earliest poems, written in a submarine during the last war, were romantic effusions designed to win the hand of the fair Rosalynn, long before she hardened into the Steel Magnolia.

Now, surrounded by gun-toting special agents, he assured the crowd: "Ah thought Ah was presumptuous, just an ole peanut farmer from Georgia, runnin' for Pres'dent. But Ah never felt as presumptuous as Ah do now, standin' heah in Swansea, birthplace of the greatest poet of the century, an' readin' mah poetry..." The Swansea masses positively glowed.

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