My return to the UK from Los Angeles was as traumatic as the rest of my trip, which culminated in the death of my friend Steve at the start of the solemn national service of mourning broadcast across all television and radio networks. As Billy Graham began to speak, Steve gave a gentle sigh and was gone. A death as elegant and timely as his life. To be honest, the volume of flag-waving that was suffusing the media was beginning to make me feel a bit nauseous.
At times, as the tragedy unfolded, elements of the American population seemed unbearably patriotic. Members of many other nationalities died on Tuesday 11 September, but you wouldn't have known it from watching American television. All around me beefy men were sipping beer and demanding wholesale destruction of a country they wouldn't be able to place on a map. When I pointed out that bombing would surely kill women, the silent victims of the Taliban regime, I was met with incredulous silence. Bombs and guided missiles, as far as I know, do not come fitted with chromosome- reading devices which seek out only the male sex. In any war, generally the biggest losers are women and children, who end up without homes and bread-winners. This war will be no different.
Security at Los Angeles airport was supposed to be stringent, and most passengers had to board buses to the terminals from long-term car parks. My limousine driver was able to drive right up to the empty forecourt of the terminal without one person checking our credentials, because he knew a service road in. Once inside the terminal, I was locked in a lounge for an hour because of a bomb scare, while they evacuated the lower level of the building. Presumably, if the bomb had been in the building, all business class passengers would have been blown up. That's certainly a bigger incentive to fly economy in future.
Last Monday, I travelled to Berlin for the day on British Airways and didn't detect any major new security measures at Terminal One. I handed in my boarding pass at the gate and was about to sit down on the plane, when I asked the man next to me what time we arrived in Berlin. "This is the flight to Budapest," he said. Red-faced officials escorted me to the correct plane at top speed. Later that day I returned on Buzz to Stansted, where hundreds of passengers from European flights converged on one solitary man in charge of checking passports. I think the word "perfunctory" is apt. In LA I had a pair of nail scissors confiscated from my hand luggage. But what use is that in a world where passports are meaningless?
Groucho Marx was right
Not a week passes without an invitation to join a new club. Why anyone wants me on their premises I can't imagine, but generally these mailing lists are simply ways of entreating you to cough up about pounds 200 a year to join a members-only establishment where you can drink till late and pose about on leather banquettes looking at thin women in short skirts who got in free on the arm of some man about town. I'm only interested in clubs where the people look as ramshackle and are badly behaved as I am, which is why, in spite of it being owned by Matthew Freud, I still occasionally visit the Groucho.
This is the place where some feeble harpie once assaulted me with a broken glass because I called her "flotsam". She then made a tidy sum selling the story of our alleged "tiff" to several newspaper diaries. Security at the Groucho is so lax that the flotsam in question has probably been back several times since in spite of a lifelong ban.
This week's invitations to club world both came from the Renaissance club, which seems to exist in two very different guises. One is run by someone called Micky de Fernandez who seems to know me through his previous involvement with a place called Rock, which I've never visited. It was accompanied by an invitation to join the first private members club on the internet. I log on, but discover nothing without paying pounds 45. It seems previous events have included paintballing and wine-tasting and the promise of elephant polo in India. Another website reveals that the club is for upwardly mobile people in shipping, trade or finance - a grisly photo of one of their "events" reveals a high number of pinstriped suits. So I think that's a no.
The other Renaissance club invited me to a series of weekends in Charleston, Santa Fe or Oxford where opinion-formers and their families meet and discuss world events. The club was founded by ex-US ambassador Philip Lader and his wife. These invitation-only events are where, to quote their literature, "Nobel prize-winners, astronauts, politicians and thinkers hold seminars and workshops to build bridges across traditional divides...".
Philip Lader is a great friend of Bill Clinton and hit the news the other week after being reduced to tears during a rowdy edition of Question Time. He's also the chairman of WWP, the world's largest advertising organisation. During his time as ambassador, he walked the length and breadth of Britain to "meet ordinary folk". As I have done the same thing, I shall not sneer. But there's something ominous about a weekend attended by "admirals, priests, athletes, judges, Pulitzer prize-winners" and so on that makes me feel slightly suspicious. Isn't this just ruthless social networking, American-style? Why me? Did I make a devastating impression when we shook hands for a nanosecond at his election night party at the American embassy? The invite cannot be a result of my feeble entry in Who's Who, which is devoid of any qualifications and includes only a couple of awards - fewer than the number of husbands.
As I write this, I am packing for a very different kind of extended weekend. I have included the latest book on Scrabble (Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis) and a thoroughly dreary paperback biography of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (by Janet Todd). That's my homework. I've got the small swimsuit for slim pre-lunch appearances and the large one-piece for the post-lunch, more bloated look. But if I had to dress for an ex-president, an astronaut and, possibly, Salman Rushdie, and carry appropriate reading material, I think I might have to call in a packing consultant. That's my hot tip for a new club: forget all the different Renaissance enterprises, just call it "Perfect Packing". Log on, giving the date of your trip, location and ambience, and then Perfect Packers turn up and do it all for you. I shall register it immediately.
Suits you, madam
Last week I tried out a new service at Liberty, the department store that's been through a lot of changes recently (and not all for the best). It's called personal shopping. You phone up and make an appointment, and then go to a large, wood-panelled room where a very pleasant person called Celia is armed with a clipboard. She sits you down with a drink or tea, and then grills you relentlessly about your taste and what you're looking for. This might work for the bride's mother or an awards ceremony but as I'm attending nothing more than a bottle of wine with Neil Tennant next week, I felt a total failure. It reminded me of my handful of visits to various relationship counsellors, all of which have ended in failure.
Astonishingly, Celia came through the clipboard test still speaking to me. We strolled around the store hunting for potential purchases to carry back to the luxury room and try on in private. "Is there anything special you're looking for?" she persisted. In the end I came out with the truth: "anything I can get over my bottom, that doesn't cling to my middle, that takes 10 years off my face, and makes me look like a size 10". In other words, the impossible dream. Celia is wasted in this job, which requires levels of tact and diplomacy more suited to negotiating with Robert Mugabe.
Celia Clark, Liberty: 020-7734 1234. The service is free.Reuse content