Editor-At-Large: Janet Street-Porter

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The Independent Online

If there's one thing that fills me with self-loathing, it's finishing a book that hasn't been worth the effort. I can feel the bile rise in my throat as I turn the last page. It's worse than eating a fourth crumpet or second fried egg and it's definitely worse than being so drunk so you can't remember how many Nurofen you took the night before.

If there's one thing that fills me with self-loathing, it's finishing a book that hasn't been worth the effort. I can feel the bile rise in my throat as I turn the last page. It's worse than eating a fourth crumpet or second fried egg and it's definitely worse than being so drunk so you can't remember how many Nurofen you took the night before.

Contrast this with the sheer bliss of a book that's so brilliant you don't want it ever to end, and the sadness when you do. My latest bout of literary loathing occurred as I finished Sebastian Faulks's novel On Green Dolphin Street. I took to covering up the jacket in public places, I was so ashamed of myself for devouring such utter tosh. Is Seb Faulks trendy? Part of some literary crowd that has passed me by? Is he mates with my other bête noire Martin Amis? Does he share bottles of wine with the ghastly Julian Barnes? I shall have to call our literary editor Suzi Feay and find out.

On Green Dolphin Street is the story of a love affair between a British diplomat's wife and an American newspaper reporter, set in Washington in 1959. It's romantic bilge right up there with The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer. If it appeared as a short story in a woman's magazine you wouldn't give it five minutes, and yet the jacket is emblazoned with the quote "Faulks is beyond doubt a master", courtesy of The Financial Times.

The Collected Short Stories of Noël Coward on the other hand are a work of glittering genius. Having purchased a paperback copy in a secondhand bookshop for £2, I have managed to eke them out as my book at bedtime for months. Coward couldn't be more fashionable if he were alive. Private Lives gets everyone in the audience from Tony and Cherie downwards, and last week one of his unperformed plays (based on a short story entitled "Star Quality") opened at the Apollo, with Penelope Keith in the leading role.

There's already been a compilation album of pop stars doing Noël, featuring everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to Shola Ama and Robbie Williams, and now operatic wonderboy Ian Bostridge is in the middle of recording a set of Coward songs, with entirely new arrangements. Why do I find Coward's stories, like his plays and songs, so compelling, given they feature a consistently narrow range of characters and settings? These are not the kind of people you'd want to spend five minutes in the room with, and yet Coward uses a small canvas to create gripping studies of old age, loneliness and jealousy. He wrote only 20 stories, over 50 years, and yet they are strangely timeless. Coward was fascinated by rich, spiteful old bats who generally get their comeuppance. His other obsession, the hollow marriage, he returned to time and time again. The settings are grim villas in suburbia, boats on endless cruises, and tropical islands where Brits end up marooned. To call Coward a chronicler of the middle classes is to denigrate his talent ­ surely his gift was to use this milieu to examine the pathos of growing old and the fear of ending up by yourself and unloved.

Sadly, I don't feel that Penelope Keith is really cut out to play Lorraine Barrie, the leading lady in Star Quality. It's the story of how a difficult actress, slightly past her sell-by date, does her level best to sabotage the production of a new play by interfering with everything from the script to the casting to the costumes. I don't want to sound mean, but Miss Keith's ankles are too sturdy for a start. Her whole physique looks more suited to riding on a police horse than carrying off brittle drawing room comedy dialogue. She seems more Surrey than South Kensington, incapable of bringing pathos and vulnerability to the enterprise, settling merely for verbal attack.

We need to understand that Lorraine Barrie is terrified of failure along with old age. She is a pathetic, repellent character, like all Coward's best. Nevertheless, the combination of Keith and Coward will surely make this a commercial success, and the staging itself is thoroughly engaging. I have decided to start reading the short stories again when I get to the end.

In with both feet

You may recall that in a few weeks' time I am climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I have now purchased enough equipment to live on its lower slopes for several months. Against my better judgement I decided to buy a new pair of hiking boots, and, armed with an article culled from the sports section of this very paper, I set off for the outdoor equipment shops. Have you any idea how technical boots have become? It must be easier to program a computer than understand the difference between what you can put on your feet at 19,000 feet. Of course no one stocked the boots The Independent on Sunday wrote about. And boots are made in Italy or Austria or Germany and my size came up differently in every make. I spent an astonishing £145, when I've gone through the past decade hiking from the Himalayas to the South Downs in ones that cost £37.50 a pair, made in Romania and sold in my local shoe shop (sadly now closed down) in Pateley Bridge.

The final indignity is that after wearing my new hi-tech footwear for a two-hour stroll across the North Yorkshire moors I now have huge blisters on the back of each foot. Nightly I now wake up with two things to panic about ­ one that I won't be able to climb 3,000 feet on my final day to the summit (which involves 12 to 15 hours of walking) and secondly, that I've messed up my feet.

I rang Chris St George, ex-SAS man and director of the Third Space gym in London where I've been training in a room which has some of the oxygen taken out to simulate what it will be like at 9,000 feet. He told me to throw the boots in the bath for at least 30 minutes and then walk around with them on wet for an hour. Afterwards I leave them to dry and give them a going-over with dubbin. "But they're really nice navy blue suede," I bleated, realising that I might have made another major error. So I'm plastering my feet with surgical spirit, taping special jelly gunk over the blisters and soldiering on.

Just in time

Finally, after moaning about museums being simply annexes to coffee bars the other week, what a relief to walk around the refurbished and rehung Tate Britain and discover that they have abandoned their weird policy of hanging paintings according to "themes" ­ the nude for example. The collection is now hung chronologically and makes complete sense. There's far more on display and it looks brilliantly coherent. This is one museum that draws the visitor in and takes you on an exciting journey. The café is not the focal point, simply your reward at the end of a couple of well spent hours. The new galleries downstairs have kicked off with an exhibition in the worst possible taste on the Victorian nude. Next to a terrific picture by Henry Scott Tuke of four boys larking about in a boat is one of the nastiest things I've seen in a long while ­ a repellent and thoroughly creepy study of three naked boys on a beach, by William Stott. These little lads are thin, white and a paedophile's fantasy. I'd better call up Rebekah Wade and get the News of the World on the case.

Noël Coward's 'Collected Short Stories' are published by Methuen, £12.99

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