John Walsh: Tales of the City

In Hampstead, Hammersmith and Hackney, hurricanes hardly happen
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The Independent Online

There is something positively biblical about the mass flight from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina; something very Old Testament about a Category Five hurricane that's both impending but is also going to take several hours to arrive, thus driving the locals into a nice crescendo of panic. One thinks of the destruction of Sodom, the plagues of Egypt, Noah's warnings about the coming flood. Was the city's mayor, Mr Ran Nagin, filled with Moses-like gravitas as he stood outside the town hall and intoned the words: "Every person is hereby ordered to evacuate the city of New Orleans"?

Imagine the consternation with which the citizens greeted this bald statement. "Every person? You mean, including the rich ones who've got a flood-defying penthouse and a wind-defying nuclear bunker? Every person, including those who can book into the 30th floor of a hotel on the north side?" Then the realisation would sink in: this is a Force Five, guys, and not even the finest stratagems of Acme Penthouse and Bunker Security Systems will stand up against it. This is Nature in full fury, and it will blow your house down, wherever you live.

Faced with the prospect of Lake Ponchartrain bursting its banks on one side, the Mississippi flooding in on the other, and the black-filigreed balconies of the French Quarter crashing down on the drenched streets of Royal and Dumaine (God, how I love New Orleans), the population legged it with admirable speed and order. The police were given special powers to commandeer any building or vehicle that might be used for shelter or flight. People without cars queued to stay overnight in the Superdome stadium. The TV news showed enterprising shopkeepers boarding up their premises with plywood and nail-guns.

You have to ask: what if it happened here? How would Londoners respond to the Moses command, to evacuate the city forthwith? I'm not sure we would be as sanguine as the Orleanites. Fleeing, for instance. I can imagine many posh metropolitans seeking the safety of higher ground but getting no further than Primrose Hill, from which vantage point they can look down on lesser mortals before going for an agreeable lunch at Lemonia. And the direction - do you flee west on the overcrowded M4 (the middle-class choice) or up the crammed M1, or do you head east for safety, despite the fact that nobody with social ambitions would be seen dead on the A12 in August? No one who possesses a ticket to the Fifth Test match at the Oval will leave London for fear of being stranded beyond the M25 when Trescothick is strapping on his pads. Wily entrepreneurs will mount gigantic car-boot sales in a field just off the M25 orbital, to catch the fleeing trade.

In about-to-be-stricken London, I can't imagine local shop-owners calling for huge wooden boards and nail-guns to protect their property. They wouldn't be that fussed. The local Tesco Express might festoon the outside of its windows with buy-one-get-one-free special offers for Pimms, the delicatessen might take the Milanese salami out of his window where it has reposed invitingly for five years, and the local Thai restaurant might take its pavement sign ("Green Curry, All you can eat, £4.95, also Lychee's") indoors for fear it might blow away, but that's about it.

The tragic car-less population will be herded into the Millennium Dome, loudly protesting that they don't like it any more than the last time they were sent there by the Government. The police might try to commandeer vehicles from members of the public, but woe betide them if they try it on with the north London owners of Jeeps and Land Rovers ("I assure you, officer, it is absolutely vital I keep my 4x4 Mitsubishi. Juniper and Trouncy's new term is about to start...")

No, London just isn't ready for a mass evacuation - it's too phlegmatic a town, too perverse, too self-absorbed - any more than she's ready for a Force Five hurricane. Just as well we don't have them. Phew.

But where's the smut?

Terry Coleman's excellent new biography of Laurence Olivier breaks frankly astonishing new ground - not for what it reveals but for the reverse. He delves fearlessly into the great man's sexual exploits, reveals his many affairs and dalliances, and addresses head-on the frankly hard-to-imagine revelation, by the US showbiz writer Donald Spoto, that Olivier had a gay affair with Danny Kaye.

He amusingly rubbishes the story that Kaye dressed up as a customs officer at Idlewild airport and subjected Larry to an intimate body search, before revealing his true identity - a tale that stretched the borders of credulity the first time we heard it.

But yes, he reveals, Britain's first-ever theatrical lord did have a gay affair in the 1930s, with an older actor called Henry Ainley. This is how Coleman deals with the subject on page 81: "Olivier preserved among his paper 15 letters from Ainley. There is also a telegram and a card. Nine of the letters are explicitly homosexual. The more explicit are not quoted here. What seems to be the first is undated..."

Did you get that? A modern biographer of a major theatrical talent finds a cache of revealing personal smut in his grasp. He tells the thunderstruck audience what he's got - then tells them that he's not going to say what the letters contain. This is bizarre. This is unheard-of behaviour. Ever since Joyce's sexually frank letters to his beloved Nora were made public in the late 1980s, it's been accepted that every sex detail, ever priapic throb or colonic spasm, should be noted and registered by life writers.

Mr Coleman has refused to join in. But why has he? Because he used to be a famous journalist, rather than a professional biographer. And there is nothing more discreet and prudish than a journalist who has gone legitimate. Goddammit.