Tales of the City: Fun with a lady who launches

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The Independent Online

Nine months ago, in The Independent's Auction of Promises, I was bought as Lot No 8, "Spend an evening in Literary London with John Walsh" - a mildly emetic proposition, I realise, but one that was finally enacted a few days ago. The winner was a chap called Gerry who bought it (or bought me, if we must acknowledge the deal's slave-market associations) for his wife, telling her, in his kindly way: "Even if your book never gets published, at least you'll see what a proper launch is like."

You never know who your blind date will be in these events. I'd hoped for a simple fan of famous writers, journalism, London, champagne and arty chitchat. Ruth didn't quite fit the bill. She was a slightly built, ferociously intelligent neuroscientist who runs a research association in Cambridge, employs 250 people and specialises in depression. We had as much in common as Robert Kilroy-Silk and a Montmartre chanteuse. This wasn't going to be easy.

We met for spritzers in a bar that was deserted except for the debris of a lunchtime party. "Tell me," I murmured suavely, "all about yourself." She did so. The air was suddenly filled with "neuronal hard-wiring", "synaptic plasticity", the "water-maze model of memory"... I could feel myself panicking. What could I contribute to this flood of boffin arcana? I seized on a passing word: "Anhedonia? Is that something like, you know, hedonism, pleasure?" "It's a bit like it," she said shortly, "in meaning the exact opposite of pleasure."

I knew how that might feel. My companion was charming, but worryingly scientific, precise, apparently a stranger to relaxation. She was writing a memoir about her father's psychological condition, so we talked families for a while.

In the taxi, I began to explain about the wonders of journalism. Yeah, she said, actually she'd written a few pieces for The Independent, and they'd won prizes. I waved a tour-guide hand at various famous London sights. It's OK, she said, she was born in Catford and knew London pretty well, thanks...

Nothing I could do impressed her. So I took her to a party just off Regent Street where David Campbell, the charismatic boss of Everyman Books, was launching a complete set of PG Wodehouse. Ruth looked at the crush of men in serious suits and florid faces, took in the tidal wave of Bollinger, the stargazer lilies, the dark wood, the susurration of expensive secrets. "That's Jeremy, who's just finished a biography of Allen Lane," I whispered, "talking to Lucy, whose book on heroes got rave reviews, and that's Perry Worsthorne in the yellow bow-tie..."

Ruth nodded. Her chin was lifted. A smile tickled the edges of her mouth. She seemed to be expanding somehow, like a Japanese flower in water. I introduced her to hacks, writers and agents, laughingly explaining how she had won my wretched company in an auction, poor woman...

Then a PR diva called Liz spirited her away, and I didn't see her for an hour. When I did, she was transformed. She was chatting like an old pal to Jung Chang, of Wild Swans fame. She was exchanging badinage with Andrew Roberts, the historian. She looked like the life and soul of the event.

As I drew near, I heard Liz introduce her: "And this is Ruth McKernan, the neuroscientist and writer, whose book Billy's Halo is being published by Doubleday." Those words, far better than all my footling attempts at gallantry, had made all the difference to my date. She glowed with confidence, an author among authors. When she met Ed Victor shortly afterwards, you could see him considering the significance of her book ("Hmmm - Oliver Sacks meets Blake Morrison. This could have potential...").

A few gallons of Bollinger later, the mellowed Ruth and I went to Groucho's for dinner and gossip - and the analytical scientist in her soul returned. But it had changed. It had a distinctly lighter spirit, a triumphant airiness. You could see by the way she worried whether her alcohol dehydrogenase was keeping up with her desire for a refill. You could tell by the way she marvelled at the piano player's ability to converse while playing Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me". "How on earth does he do that?" she breathed. "His motor cortex must be the size of a football."

You can take the party girl out of the research lab, but...

Notes from a railway platform

You know how some bits of music go round and round your head all day long, like a mantra? Hook lines and choruses (like the ones in "This Love" by Maroon Five) can reel through my brain for weeks. But when did I start humming station announcements?

I was standing at York station on Monday, waiting for a train, when it dawned on me that the lady announcer's voice always ended on the same note. No wait, the same two notes, a third apart. No, hang on - it was the same up-and-down cadence each time, whether she was regretting the late departure of the 11.32, or telling people not to get caught in the slipstream of the non-stop, nuclear-waste "service". Every Tannoy-bonged announcement was - I now saw - an unchanging sequence of notes.

The lyrics were sadly prosaic. "Platform nine, for the eleven-fifty-two/ GNER service to Edinburgh" was typical. Sometimes she struggled to fit all the words into the cadence ("Passengers at Platform Three/ who are waiting for this service/ please stand clear of the platform ed-ges") but she managed it. The most banal pronouncement was transformed by her liquid singsong ("Will customers ensure their belongings/ Are with them at all times/ Unattended bags maybetakenawayby sec-uri-tee").

Prosaic, flat-capped names like Doncaster and Stevenage took on a romantic colouring when intoned in her thrilling bel canto. Phrases like "the trans-Pennine service to Newcastle" could have come from La traviata. I think the unseen lady has hit on a mystical communication sequence, like the musical code in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Why, she may have been trying to contact alien life forms, on their evil way to Scarborough.

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