John Walsh: Tales of the City

In the Olympian groves of literary London, there's just one word on everybody's lips
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You never know what you're going to get on a blind date, do you? It could all swing along like Astaire and Rogers (the cocktails, the easy chat, the shared interests, the oysters, the witty banter, the steak, the casual flirtation, the second bottle of Chateau Talbot, the stroll in the moonlight by Vauxhall Bridge ...) or it could make Fuseli's Nightmare resemble something by Mabel Lucy Atwell.

Happily, the only blind dates I get these days are the ones occasioned by the Independent Christmas Auction, at which a Dr Hal Jorna had paid £1,300 to secure my services accompanying his wife Eunice to a literary party, followed by dinner.

I chose the Everyman's Library centenary celebrations to astonish my date. It was the perfect event. The venue was the Royal Academy, which doesn't host public thrashes every day. There'd be lots of publishers and writers there. And since the owner, David Campbell, is one of the best-connected men in Britain, we were likely to find Mick Jagger, Claus von Bulow and the Sultan of Brunei making small-talk by the buffet.

Would Eunice like it? All I could establish on the phone was that she was called Eunice and lived in Hull. The only other Eunice I'd ever come across was a contestant on Gladiators years ago, a terrier-like woman who was required to perform feats of pointless athleticism. I hoped our evening wouldn't be so stressful.

We met in a wine bar near the Royal Academy. Eunice was short and svelte, in a little black frock and a Helen Mirren haircut. She had a very chic jacket, cut away at the armpits. "Lovely," I said, "Is it Dolce e Gabbana?" "Marks and Spencers" she said shortly, and ordered a gin. She had a determined glint in her eye. You could tell she wasn't to be mucked about by plausible southern charmers, thank you very much.

She was an ex-nurse-turned-Health Visitor, well used to being surrounded by morally dubious folk who made up stories all the time. Attending a literary thrash wasn't going to be a stretch. We walked through the hallowed courtyard of the RA. It was full of policemen and self-important chaps saying "Can I see some photo ID?" I watched Sir VS Naipaul being stopped at the door, and prayed (God forbid me) that the irascible Nobel laureate would be challenged about his identity by a callow security guard. But he was deemed to be OK.

Inside, I fell into a mantra of introduction: "... and this is my friend Eunice, she's come all the way from Hull to check out the London literary scene, her husband bought me for her in an auction a-ha-ha-ha." Eunice endured this patiently. She met Emma Sergeant, the painter, who told her about a happy art commission she'd once had in Hull. A Liverpudlian film critic told her about his aunt from Hull.

She was chatty and gracious, but I could tell something was missing from her encounter with the writing fraternity - some trigger of rapture. "Look," I said, "there's Joanna Trollope. She's delightful. I'm sure you've read her stuff. Shall we go and say hello?" "No," said Eunice, shaking her head. "I find her female characters a bit insipid."

"That's OK," I said, "Round here, you don't have to like someone's work to say hello to them." Eunice's face was set with disapproval, as if I'd suggested some shocking piece of social hypocrisy.

David Campbell climbed on a podium and made a birthday speech to Everyman Books. The crowd shifted, and Eunice and I registered that the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were barely two yards from us. (That explained the security.) Camilla's frock was green. She had the air of a woman dying for a ciggie and knowing there's fat chance of having one in the Royal Academy. Eunice was impressed, but there was still (I felt) something lacking in her evening.

Then a tall, handsome cove came to say hello. I did my This-is-Eunice-she's-from-Hull routine and asked, "Do you know Jonathan Coe?" It was pandemonium. Her face lit up like a bonfire. She clutched his hand convulsively. Coe's novel, What a Carve-Up! was, it seemed, her favourite book, not least because there's a Health Visitor in it, very sympathetically portrayed. "That's made my evening," she breathed, after they parted. "Jonathan Coe, well really ..."

We wandered through gloomy RA rooms, passing knots of Olympian figures - McEwan, Lodge, Frayn, Claire Tomalin, Vikram Seth - chatting together uninterruptibly, like the Virgin and Saints in those sacra conversazione pictures from the Renaissance. Andrew Roberts talked a riveted Camilla through the details of his next book. A camp and swishy reviewer wanted to know if Eunice had met Philip Larkin at Hull University library and fallen under his spell.

Every other person she met produced, as if from some Rolodex in their head, a Hull-related story. On the way out, we met AS Byatt, an Olympian of the most rarified sort. I introduced Eunice. "You're from Hull?" said Antonia. "My father was a recorder in Hull. I remember when he took us for walks on Hull pier. We had prawn sandwiches."

Over dinner at the Groucho Club, she considered the evening. "The thing that really surprised me," she said, "was how friendly everyone was. I didn't expect that from the London arty crowd. And they all seemed to know Hull and have some connection with it, every one of them." After the coffee, the malt digestifs, and the burst of "Love Me or Leave Me" at the piano, Eunice retrieved her party bag with its free Everyman Library book. Which one had they given her? It was the Selected Poems of Andrew Marvell.

"For goodness sake," she said. "Marvell went to school in Hull. Do you think they knew?" And she went off to bed at her hotel, presumably looking forward to telling her friends and neighbours in the North-east: "If you go to a party in London these days, guess what they're all talking about? Hull."

Comments