Tales Of The City: The night I went under the hammer

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The Independent Online

It's a damned odd thing, being won in an auction by a lady you do not know. You can't escape feeling like a prize pig in a raffle, borne home under the winner's arm, to have unspeakable things done to you in their kitchen. My frail ego suffers enough existential shocks without the indignity of being called "lot 62".

It was last Christmas that I was won in The Independent's charity auction by a lady called Liz Pembury, a retired sociologist from Staffordshire. Her prize was to be squired around "literary London" for an evening - a soirée of party fun, bookish gossip, learned allusions and supper at the Groucho Club. It took until June to find the right party night. I had no idea what to expect. Would she be a fan of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Catherine Cookson? A novelist manqué, with a Waitrose shopping bag full of manuscripts?

We met at the Serpentine Gallery at 6.45pm for the HarperCollins authors' thrash. She was slim, white-haired, dead chic in a daffodil-yellow jacket and lots of home-made jewellery. "Actually, you weren't my first choice," she said. "The prize I was really after was two tickets to the England v France match at Twickenham, but I didn't expect to win it, so I bid for you as an alternative." She nursed a glass of bitter lemon. "I don't know the names of many authors," she said, "so all these things you're telling me will go in one ear and out the other." Nerves, I thought, she's probably a bit nervous about hanging out with the literary titans...

We worked the party together in the gallery's trendy pavilion. I introduced her as "the lady who bought me in a charity auction", but she didn't seem overjoyed at the description, so I took to presenting her, neutrally, as "my friend Liz, a writer from Staffordshire". The literary world meandered past - Paul Bailey and Daisy Goodwin, Philip Hensher and Rachel Cusk. I introduced Liz to my agent and publisher. She was cool with them. She did not, apparently, need their services. But she liked meeting Virginia Ironside and Irma Kurtz, the nation's leading agony aunts ("Do you know the collective noun for us?" asked Virginia. "It's a sob...") and, throwing caution to the winds, accepted a glass of champagne. Victoria Barnsley, the Harpers chief executive, drifted by, beaming. Then, for the first time, Liz brazenly introduced herself, to a man from the BBC, as "I'm Liz, I won John in an auction some months ago." The news spread. "You did whatttt?" asked an incredulous publicity girl. "Does anyone do that with men over 30?"

By 8.30pm I was worried. My guest seemed unimpressed with my smart, bookish associates. "Shall we look in at the Hillary Clinton launch?" I asked. She regarded me suspiciously. What, yet more publishers and agents and writers she'd never heard of? I hailed a taxi and we sped to Kensington Palace. We alighted to a blitz of paparazzi photographers. Liz beamed, as if suddenly in her element. "Have we missed Hillary?" I asked a departing guest. "Oh no," came the reply, "she's still very much here; and so is Bill."

Suddenly energised, Liz strode into the Orangery, seized a glass of Pimms and went outside among the famous faces. "There's Lulu," I said, hastening to assert my role as sneery London sophisticate introducing an out-of-town rube to the Celebrity World. "I know, John - and Alistair Campbell's behind you, and David Furnish and Stephen Daldry," she said, seeming suddenly taller and more commanding. "Come over here, Liz," I said, extending a guiding arm, "I think I saw... Liz?" But she'd gone. I searched the yakking throng for five minutes and discovered her telling Sir Richard Attenborough how much she admired his work. Like one entranced, Sir Richard leant forward and plonked a kiss on her trembling lips.

She reappeared beside me. "I just love Richard Attenborough," she said, "but I think it's time we met Hillary." We strode indoors to where the former first lady was holding court. "You can't just march up to Mrs Clinton like this," I hissed. "You have to be introduced. You have to think of something to say..." But Liz was now a driven woman. Thirty seconds later, we stood before the guest star in her curiously dowdy belted white coat. "Er, hello," I said. "I greatly enjoyed your book, especially the story about how your first case as a trial attorney was representing a man who found a rat's, er, bottom in his meat loaf..."

"Ha ha," said Mrs Clinton, with a voice like the tinkle of a razor blade in a sink. "Thank you for bringing that up."

She looked at Liz. "Do you know," said Liz, indicating my manly form, "I won him in a raffle?"

"Excuse me?" said Mrs Clinton.

"I mean an auction," said Liz. The ex-President's wife burst out laughing. "Yeah?" she said. "What has he got to offer?" She and Liz had a little chat about men while I stood alongside feeling small. Hilary and her minders moved on. "That was fantastic," said Liz. "Now, how about finding Bill?"

I couldn't keep up. I was supposed to be guiding a nervous launch-party virgin's faltering steps and she'd turned into a crazed party animal. Outside, she became embroiled in a row between Bob Geldof and Nicky Haslam about whether Clinton or JF Kennedy was more charismatic. "What about you?" Geldof demanded of Liz. "Do you think Bill Clinton is sexy?" When the party broke up shortly afterwards, the rock star made a point of returning to kiss her good night.

As we wandered down the lamplit path to the Bayswater Road, and a taxi to supper at the Groucho Club, Liz sighed. "I think, on the whole, I could get used to this life." Well, yeah. I dare say I might get used to it myself one day, if I had an ounce of her chutzpah and savoir-faire. But there's a limit to your sense of self when you're just lot 62, and you've spent the evening watching the lady who bought you turn into a queen bee of London society.