John Walsh: You can't beat a literary festival for a late-night row


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So I was at this posh dinner party in a lovely farmhouse outside Hay-on-Wye after a day of ceaseless Welsh rain and flapping tents, and around the table the conversation was all about international rivalry. The likelihood of England being stiffed by almost everyone in the Euros. The potential flashpoints of Russia playing its old fiefdoms, the Czech Republic and Poland, in the same week. The perverse, continuing refusal of Russia and China to condemn Bashar al-Assad. And, of course, the spectacle of Spain applying to the eurozone for a bailout of its banks.

Soon the air was filled with Spain-knocking: its banks' woeful record in running up debts with foreign companies, its government's unattractive mix of bluster and denial before admitting they were in trouble, its annoyingly stubborn champion tennis player, who should really, honestly, make way for a younger, more Scottish opponent. Its, er, bullfights...

Just then, I noticed that one member of the party was smiling enigmatically and murmuring across the table something about "the time when England had a Spanish king".

I raised a polite eyebrow. "When exactly was this," I asked coldly, "that we had a Hispanic monarch? I may be rusty about kings and queens but..."

"It was in the Tudor period," he said. "Surely, you know Mary Tudor married Philip II of Spain?"

I dimly recalled something of the sort. "But that didn't make him King of England," I insisted. "Just a prince consort or something like that."

"No," said the chap (he was, I noted, a rather handsome, certainly very plausible, foreigner). "He was King of England. In the 1550s. He may not have had the same powers as the Queen, but he certainly had the title."

"I'm afraid it doesn't work like that," I explained kindly, with the fathomless condescension of one who stopped knowing anything about English history at A-levels. "Being married to the English Queen doesn't make you King, you see. Otherwise, our present Queen's husband would be King Philip."

"Are you willing to bet?" the man asked. "There must be a laptop somewhere in the house. We could look it up on Google."

Naturally, I accepted his impertinent wager, but I didn't insist on procuring the laptop. Didn't want to make a fellow dinner guest feel an arse, did I? When he and his tall, beautiful wife had driven off into the night, I told the story of our contretemps, and our bet, to the company. "Funny chap," I said. "Who is he exactly?"

"Tomas?" said the others, "He's a South American diplomat."

Ah. With a sinking feeling, I Googled Philip II of Spain. Goddammit, the bloody man had been King of England, from his marriage to Mary I in 1554 to her death in 1558. It had even been high treason at the time, punishable by death, to deny his royal authority.

I had to admire my fellow guest's style. A Spanish-speaking, Hispanophile representative of Latin-America's most prosperous region, he'd managed to abort a generalised blather about Spain's current shortcomings by bringing up a historical period when a Spanish king (nominally at least) ruled over us. I feel a perverse pride that I still owe a £1 bet to the Chilean Ambassador to the Court of St James.

Amis, a man of taste

I've been an admiring, awestruck, jealously green-eyed, emulatory reader of Martin Amis since The Rachel Papers in 1973, and I'm happy to report that alarmist judgements of his new novel, Lionel Asbo, are wide of the mark. Yes, there are snobbish asides about working-class pronunciation ("Labyrimf", my dear, too shocking) and can't-keep-up anachronisms about the England he's left behind (O-levels are a thing of the past, Mart), and semi-Daily Mail swipes at women who have five children by different fathers of different races. But he's very evocative (and funny) on the terrible, constant, yammering racket of modern London, on tabloid morals, internet porn, ambitious poets and the debased-fairytale quality of sudden, aleatoric wealth and fame.

Readers of this paper will be pleased to find, on page 35, a little kiss to The Independent. When Lionel's 15-year-old nephew Des wants to better himself by reading the foreign pages of the national press, he starts with the tabloids. Then he casts a reluctant, alienated eye at the serious papers. The Independent, says the narrator, "was at least recognisably tabloidal in size. He expected the spidery print to exclude him. But it didn't; it let him in..." And so Des, a desperado from Diston, discovers the world. How nice that Amis thinks we're one good thing in a multifariously nasty world.