Tales of the City: Say hello to the FT girls

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The Independent Online

Catherine McQueen, a Scots underwear model and quondam TV babe whom I expect you'll have seen recently on Extreme Celebrity Detox, was a guest at the Maxim magazine party last week, where she met my friend James. James has a decidedly Edwardian eye for a pretty girl but he excitedly reported that the most erotically charged moment of his meeting was when they were discussing Mark Thatcher, Equatorial Guinea and the international arms trade.

McQueen explained that, contrary to his preconceptions, she was neither a birdbrain nor a high-class hooker. She trained as a solicitor, and has a postgraduate degree in the global spread of money laundering. James is now wrestling with the proposition that, of all the things one looks for in a woman, a grasp of transcontinental finance and illegal trading may well be up there with an agent provocateur basque.

I am disposed to agree. Last week, at the English Speaking Union, I watched a charming young woman from the Treasury being lionised by earnest historians, suave publishers and sweaty young chaps from The Spectator as she explained how they reach the gross domestic product figures.

James and I have now christened this phenomenon. Forget the It girl. Hats off, gentlemen, to the FT girl.

Getting to grips with great artists

I have a shameful fetish for shaking hands with famous people whose hands were once clasped by someone even more frighteningly eminent than they. Interviewing Dame Ninette de Valois, I was enlivened by knowing that she used to have lunch (and clutched palms) with WB Yeats in the 1910s, and that my hand might now bear tiny, vestigial, subatomic traces of the Celtic Twilighter. Ditto the times I shook hands with Arthur Miller and Mrs TS Eliot and trembled to think where they'd been. But when it comes to brushes with stratospherically eminent people, I can only look in wonder at Madeleine Masson. I met her at a lunch given by the admirable Women in the Arts organisation, the kind of event at which the movers from the antiques trade meet the shakers from the art-gallery world.

Masson was the guest speaker. An unsinkable dame of 92, she's the author of 37 books, and has just sold her first screenplay. For her talk she elected to discuss some of the people she knew when living in Paris in the early 1930s.

She met Utrillo and Picasso at the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, and noted how dutifully Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas would cook for hungry young artists. She attended a beauty salon opened by Colette the writer, and watched in the mirror as her face was transformed (by the novelist herself) to resemble one of Toulouse-Lautrec's prostitutes. But her best story is about meeting young M. Gachet, the son of Van Gogh's doctor and the subject of the painting that sold at auction for the second-highest sum ever recorded.

Masson visited the son on the outskirts of Van Gogh's village, Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, and was delighted to discover, on the walls of Gachet's home, a treasure trove: studies of hands sketched straight onto rough brown butcher's paper in Van Gogh's incomparable style. He remembered the day when, as he was doing his homework, there was a commotion in the garden and he went out to find the local peasants carrying in the body of Van Gogh, who had shot himself in his beloved cornfields. He was taken to his room in the Hôtel de la Mairie, where he died later that day. Gachet recalled seeing the body laid out on a billiard table while his brother and assorted friends laid out all the paintings he had completed while in Arles and St Remy. Gachet, although no fan of art, told Masson that when he saw the canvases thus laid out, "blazing with the sun and soul of Provence", he burst into tears.

What a touching story. And, of course, young Gachet had shaken the painter's hand and could, therefore, pass on a tiny whisper of Van Gogh's ghost to 21st-century fans? Well, no, actually. Gachet couldn't stand the man. He hadn't much time, as a boy, for any artists and Van Gogh was the worst. "His table manners were appalling, he was mostly silent, and he spent most of his time out in the fields painting," said Gachet. "A mannerless bore".

Whoops. Perhaps one can sentimentalise a little too much about the wonderfulness of great artists.

Heroes for hire

I suppose we should applaud the financial acumen of the good folk of San Antonio Beach, in Chile. Anyone who gets into difficulties while swimming, and has to be rescued by lifeguards will be charged £30 to £140 for making a nuisance of themselves. "We need to cut costs," said a local flatfoot called Pedro.

I can see the economic logic all right, but it detracts a little from the heroism angle, doesn't it? The half-drowned man on the shingle... the gathered crowds... the sudden eruption of seawater from his mouth... the cry of "He's alive!"... the man's eyes flickering... the tousled vision of manliness that is David Hasselhoff - and the cruel voice saying, "Do you know your PIN number"?