Diary

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The Independent Online
"So anyway," I said to Umberto Eco over salmon steak at Mosimann's (this is the kind of sentence one spends one's whole professional life longing to write), "what are the chances of your Italian publishers landing in court for corruption before your next book comes out?" Precious few, it seems, since Italian publishers, like their British counterparts, don't make enough money to warrant a bung to the taxman; but it hardly mattered. We were there to launch his new novel, The Island of the Day Before, and frankly, when you're with Signor Eco, you'd do anything to attract his attention. To have the black, bespectacled, hippopotamoid eyes of this colossus of learning trained upon you, even for a moment, is something to tell your grandchildren. Inside his badger-bearded, professorial bonce (Bob Hoskins meets Pavarotti), the wisdom of the ages wrestles with a fondness for James Bond and Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Like the few geniuses I've met - Anthony Burgess, Peter Ustinov - Eco radiates appetites which, in a lesser man, would seem gross. He knocked over his wine glass three times with tremendous unconcern. Between conversational salvoes, he selected a cigar the size of a drainpipe, fellated it with enthusiasm, then turned it sideways-on and sucked it as though removing the butter from corn-on-the-cob. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

But disaster followed. Discovering Eco was planning a book-buying expedition in London (he collects 14th-century works of scientific learning), I asked what he coveted most for his vast library. "Anything, provided eet ees wrong," he said. "But most of owl, the work of Robert Flood. Mosta his works, they fall prey to a micro-organism in the piges, which are stain' red. I geef an'thing for a Flood book with white piges." Robert Flood? I asked. Who he? The saurian eyes flickered with irritation. "Seventeenth century. Breetish. " 'E was interested in ev'thing - cosmologee, the circulation of the blood, the composition of armees ..."

Don't you find it odd, Professor, I asked in my suave, we're-all-experts- here voice, that he's completely unknown in England? An awful growl sounded in the maestro's hairy throat. " 'E ees only unknown ... TO YOU!" he yelled across the table, which rocked with sycophantic laughter. Death, I discovered, is not, after all, the worst that can befall you.

Meeting Eco also threw up one of the trickier questions of protocol for today's globally renowned intellectual. How do you fend off someone who wants you to speak at their conference in 1998?

Eco's celebrity means he is in constant demand to transfix them with cabalistic motifs in Cambodia, dismay them with deconstructionist scorn in Santa Fe, knock 'em dead with the semiotics of motorway construction in Kuala Lumpur. Only Tom Wolfe, I believe, gets rung up quite so much and has a similarly crammed schedule, with hardly a day in the next 24 months unaccounted for. Camille Paglia, Jonathan Miller and Susan Sontag can probably boast a year's worth of lucrative appointments (and HM the Queen, of course, will find it impossible to build in a trip to the launderette before, say, next July). So how do you turn down invitations for the far future?

"Ees impossible," said the cannelloni bolognese, "You hafta say, naow, I HATE you, I woan do eet".

Bad etiquette, Umberto. Lord Beaverbrook had a better stratagem when pestered for a meeting by an objectionable hack. "If not this year, your Lordship," pleaded the hack (in October), "How about next year? How about, I dunno, March the 12th?" "Impossible," grated Beaverbrook, "I shall be attending a funeral that week." By the time the importuner had worked it out, the phone had gone dead.

Amid all the speculation about the epidemic of marital busts-ups - Bob and Paula, Hugh and Liz, Will and Julia, Ken and Em - I take my hat off to Hennell, the New Bond Street jewellers, for a bold initiative. They've been offering homosexual couples "commitment rings" to cement their relationships. The new-style rings (from pounds 750 to pounds 15,000) are round, but not quite closed, to symbolise the "space" that is apparently a boon to gay marriages.

This approach is just what any modern relationship needs. They should market the rings for celebrity couples, complete with a pair of pliers and a tapered awl, to close and open the love token as your affection wanes, and thus let one's beloved know where he or she stands every morning - from the perfect circle ("I love you") to the three-quarter moon ("I'm going off you because you were so vile at dinner"), the two-thirds crescent ("I'm thinking of moving in with Derek") to the dismissive half-circle ("I must once have found you among the more amusing of my parents' many friends") that falls off while you're washing up.

You have to admire the late Jill Bennett. She might have been a tragic, embittered, alcoholic wreck by the end, but she had flair. I saw her once at a party at John Mortimer's in Henley, filling the marquee with a tirade of effing and blinding at Thomas Schoch, the long-suffering stockbroker who was her final consort. Now the details of her will have been contested by the companions of her last months, Alison Braid and Linda Drew, who were aghast to discover that her estate of pounds 600,000 had been left to Battersea Dogs' Home. I'm glad to see that Ms Braid and Ms Drew managed to claw back a few grand in the courts. But how piquant to find that, having initially insisted Mr Schoch should get nothing from her, Ms Bennett relented, leaving him all her ashtrays, except one. Not since Shakespeare left Anne Hathaway his second-best bed has a lover been so silkenly snubbed. And you can't help asking: who got Jill Bennett's favourite ashtray?

A friend has just come back from New York in raptures about "Wigstock", the riotous one-day festival of transvestism in Greenwich Village last month. Among all the carnival stuff, one sight made his jaw drop: at the end of Christopher Street stood a chap in a spangled Marie Antoinette outfit with a mile-high wig and, draped on his shoulder, a long, sleepy- eyed, bright green chameleon - wearing its own purple pompadour. Where can I get one? Harrods?

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