Tales of the City: Bittersweet sympathy

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The Independent Online

I was glad to be asked recently to write a preface for a reprint of Alice Thomas Ellis's first novel, The Sin Eater. First, because re-reading this brittle, bittersweet black comedy set on the Welsh coast convinced me it's one of the great fiction debuts of the past 30 years. Second, because it let me write about the experience of being taken up by Anna Haycraft (Thomas Ellis's real name) in the 1980s, when I was a willowy youth, working on a business magazine and trying to cut it as a book reviewer.

I was glad to be asked recently to write a preface for a reprint of Alice Thomas Ellis's first novel, The Sin Eater. First, because re-reading this brittle, bittersweet black comedy set on the Welsh coast convinced me it's one of the great fiction debuts of the past 30 years. Second, because it let me write about the experience of being taken up by Anna Haycraft (Thomas Ellis's real name) in the 1980s, when I was a willowy youth, working on a business magazine and trying to cut it as a book reviewer.

Anna always held court standing by the Aga of her ramshackle Camden house, drinking red wine and smoking untipped cigarettes, as her cats prowled about underfoot and her five children shambled in and out with their groovy friends.

She radiated a profound melancholy, but she lived for conversation and gossip; her fathomless dark eyes were full of tell-me-everything sympathy. So people did tell her everything and she'd nod and make barbed comments about the folly of human desires. She was irresistible company: a combination of Virginia Woolf, a Catholic reverend mother and Fag Ash Lil from the Pig and Whistle.

At the Haycrafts' legendary summer parties, she would park herself in a corner of the room while the entire company of novelists, poets, classical scholars, drunkards, chancers and would-be Bohemians gradually filed past. By her side, I heard Jonathan Miller discussing case histories with Oliver Sacks. By her side, I met Jonathan Coe, whom she discovered when he was a twentysomething ingénu. By her side, I learnt from an alarmingly excited Angela Carter that Simon Raven had definitely eaten human flesh.

Mrs Haycraft would survey the bacchanalian throng with amusement, keen to understand every expression of human oddness. I treasure the moment when she gazed at a famous, 6ft 4in transsexual whose vast bosom was wrapped in black PVC, and murmured in my ear: "You know everyone, darling. Who is that man with the tits?"

She was a stern moralist who smoked and drank too much, a devout papist entranced by paganism, a strict fiction editor who never plotted her own books but was content to "see what happened". She was full of contradictions, the largest of which was how much she wanted to live or die. She wrote to me at Christmas to say she'd had lung cancer, but she'd had it removed (you'd think she was talking about a grease spot on the draining board) and was capering about like a pony. But when she died the week before last, it was something she'd looked forward to for years, since the death of her son Joshua. As tragic-seeming as Medea, she was a life-enhancer. She was the best mentor a man could have.

All style and no sustenance

New levels of gastro-chic in Harvey Nichols's Fifth Floor restaurant, where my friend Louise ordered a mozzarella salad as main course. On a small plate sat a three-quarter-sliced very ordinary tomato, a thumbnail-sized lump of mozzarella and three shy basil leaves. She called the waiter and said: "Can you justify charging £8.50 for this Liliputian repast?" He admitted it was a bit outrageous, but said it was the restaurant's "policy". She then called the manager, a lady who kicked things off by saying "How can I make you happier?" Louise explained about the bonsai nosh and the £8.50. "Oh yes," said the woman brightly. "It's something we're trying out, to see the customer response."

Gosh. It's come to something when the owners of a fancy restaurant decide to experiment, not with a new dish, but with a new price.

Doctor who?

How Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh First Minister, must be kicking himself after his brush with fame this week. He called into the BBC studios at Llandaff to appear on a political show called Dragon's Eye, found himself amid a throng of actors - and with them was ushered into the make-up room beside the Doctor Who set.

Morgan is a striking-looking cove. He has "character actor" written all over him. It is entirely credible that the producers thought he was playing the tree-like villain in the first episode of the Doctor series. Sadly, he was discovered and shooed away from the tendrilous arena, back to the obscurity of the Welsh Assembly. I'm just a bit surprised Michael Howard didn't come rushing round begging for a part as an oak.

Cash in hand

That Mohamed Al Fayed, there's something about him you have to admire. When fewer and fewer people are carrying hard cash any more, he trusts to the enduring power of the little rectangles with the Queen's face on them. In Jonathan Margolis's encounter with him, as reported in Tuesday's Independent, Margolis reports a sudden flurry of activity - Eurostar tickets, hotel bookings and living expenses were all urgently needed. In short order, Margolis was given a buff envelope containing enough cash to cover everything.

I was at the Neil Hamilton libel trial and listened as Fayed explained to the court how he always carried a suitcase full of £10 notes. A picture emerged of Fayed parading grandly down Park Lane, in his natty double-breasted suit, dishing out fistfuls of tenners to people to whom he'd taken a fancy. It's quite an achievement to turn oneself into a fantasy image - the epitome of a London millionaire as imagined by a five-year-old child.

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