Captain Moonlight's Notebook: True love among the fish kettles

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IT WAS not an auspicious beginning. I was put at a table which included the winner of the prize for the best first book. Her name was Marika Cobbold, she was Swedish and married to an admiral in the Royal Navy and I misheard the title of her novel. I thought she said it was Yuppies for Tea and imagined discreet Scandinavian orgies involving men and women in suits devouring scones and clotted cream before taking a sauna. I was even more confused when she corrected me and said her book's title was Guppies for Tea. She had wanted to call it Human Bites are the Worst, but her publishers were not amused. She said she was dyslexic.

We were in the Cafe Royal last Wednesday for the annual lunch of the Romantic Novelists' Assocation. I was led to believe - though I can't be sure as I was having a particularly bad day with my hearing - that Guppies for Tea was set mostly in an old people's home and involved dropping fish into kettles of boiling water so as to kill them in the most humane way. Pretty odd for a romantic novel. But the book is apparently selling like hot cakes.

Nothing surprised me that day. The Romantic Novelist of the Year had the name Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and it wasn't a nom de plume. Her novel, Emily, has a romantic enough format - young woman falls in love for the first time with a Russian noble - who is married. She distracts herself from the pains of love with . . . revolutionary politics. Harrod-Eagles began life as a pensions clerk at the BBC so there must be hope for all of us. She has written more than 30 books, churns out two blockbusters a year and pulls in around pounds 50,000 a year.

Except for the risque remarks of the guest speaker, Frank Delaney, who kept referring to Brendan Behan's joke about 'carnival knowledge', we could have been at a reunion of old girls from a good girls' public school. They were wearing sensible shoes, there were no dodgy accents, not a blue rinse in sight, no chiffon, and certainly no one had a poodle under her arm. Barbara Cartland, although a founder member, was not there, having fallen out with the assocation some years ago, I was told.

When I telephoned her later that day at her home she announced she had stepped from her bath to answer my call. 'Romantic Novelist of the Year?' she said. 'I am the Romantic Novelist of the World'.

THE British embassy in Moscow recently witnessed a terrible outbreak of discourtesy, involving the ambassador and the editor of the Times, who was visiting Russia. The trouble is I can't work out who was discourteous to whom.

My agent in Moscow says that our man, Sir Brian Fall, was piqued when the Times's editor, Peter Stothard, refused to stay for an embassy dinner, imagining that he had been invited only for drinks. Words were exchanged between Sir Brian and Lady Fall and Mr Stothard and his wife, Sally Emerson, the novelist. Worse, according to a member of the embassy staff, the editor arrived at the ambassador's residence in a sweater, 'looking like a junior partner in a law firm whose main interest was windsurfing'.

Mr Stothard turned up in a sweater rather than jacket and tie with the perfectly reasonable excuse that crowds and closed streets (Moscow was in turmoil - the Congress was again trying to impeach Yeltsin) had prevented him returning to his hotel after a day's sight-seeing for a change of clothes.

Lord Bethell, who stayed on to dine with Sir Brian, blames a 'communications breakdown'. The days when a British ambassador could take for granted that he would dine with an editor of the Times visiting his patch are gone, it seems.

(Photograph omitted)