Brian Viner: 'It's streets paved with celebrities that I miss, now London is not home'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

It is getting on for seven years since we moved to north Herefordshire, which means we have lived in the sticks for almost as long as we lived in Crouch End, yet even now people frequently ask whether we miss London. Actually, there is something I miss about London, but I usually struggle to put my finger on it. Last Tuesday night, however, sitting in my finery at the Costa Book Awards at the Inter-Continental Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, it dawned on me. It's not swanky black-tie dinners I miss, because I still get invited to a few of those. Nor is it theatres, museums or galleries. Or restaurants and bars. Or ethnic food shops in particular and multicultural diversity in general. No, it's none of those. Call me irredeemably shallow, but it's celebrity-spotting.

I miss it because I have a talent for it, as my wife would acknowledge, having often enough heard me murmur, in a crowded airport terminal, or a busy restaurant, "look, there's Grant Bovey", or "that's Rolf Harris's wife, Rolf must be here somewhere", or "Prunella Scales at 10 o'clock" or even "that bloke at the cosmetics counter was in John Alderton's class in Please Sir!" Celebrity-spotting is a bit like bird-spotting; the more obscure the celebrity, the better the spot. In other words, it's easy to identify a robin, but it takes skill to pick out a siskin. That said, Jane could bump into Mick Jagger or Madonna and wonder why she vaguely recognised them, eventually concluding that their kids must have gone to the same primary school as ours. Maybe it's a female thing, because I know other women who similarly fail to recognise celebrities out of context. On the other hand, during a Test match tea-break at Lord's once I spotted my old university friend Justin bearing down on me, and not having seen him for 20 years I rushed up to him and pumped his hand saying "how the hell are you?" He assured me he was fine, but didn't seem especially warm, doubtless because he wasn't Justin at all, but Will Carling, the former England rugby captain. Even we experts can make mistakes.

Anyway, the Inter-Continental last Tuesday night was crawling with celebrities, which in a way spoils the fun. It's much more satisfying to spot Floella Benjamin at the Sainsbury's check-out than at a table in a banqueting-suite with Esther Rantzen. Moreover, overt celebrity-spotting is a no-no at an event like that, especially if you are part of the media yourself. To be caught staring or even glancing more than once in the direction of Imogen Stubbs and Sir Trevor Nunn is a professional faux pas. You must affect disinterest, which in turn makes you look as if you belong. It's rather like sitting in the Centre Court press box at Wimbledon, where only ingénues applaud a scintillating rally between Federer and Nadal. Experienced hacks might mutter something appreciative, but their hands are for scribbling notes, or bashing at keyboards, not for gaucheries like clapping.

The strange and rather heartening thing about the Costa Book Awards is that, with all those celebrities in the room, it is little-known and sometimes first-time authors who steal the show. Last Tuesday's show-stealer was an extraordinarily spry, fabulously pukka 91-year-old woman called Diana Athill, whose memoir Somewhere Towards The End was among the award-winners. She said she remembered being 15 or so, and her mother saying that she did not particularly want to go to a dance. She recalled thinking "if ever I get old enough not to want to dance, I shall kill myself". A slightly wistful smile. "But of course one doesn't. One doesn't want to dance."

Regular readers will recall that a couple of months ago I took one of our Black Rock chickens to the vet because she seemed to be ailing, and was told she had a viral disease from which she would not recover. I was asked if I wanted her put to sleep, and even whether I wanted her buried in the pets' cemetery. It is on such occasions that one's credibility as a horny-handed son of the soil is truly tested. I asked the vet to put her to sleep but not to give her a formal burial. Now the bill has arrived for the euthanasia. It is £11.20. I might never again be able to hold my head up in the King's Head.