Tales of the City: The ups and downs of Roy and Pam

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The Independent Online

I've interviewed some extraordinary people in my time (can I name-drop Leonard Cohen, with whom I once trashed a minibar; Joseph Heller, who wept when I asked him about his mum; and Dame Ninette de Valois, who told me to sit on my hands to stop myself from waving them about?). But nothing prepared me for Carrie Fisher.

We met on stage at one of the Orange Word Screenwriting Festival events, although nobody in the crammed audience seemed keen to hear Fisher's views on film language and mise-en-scène. The place was full of Princess Leia devotees; connoisseurs of Hollywood-Babylon decadence; fans of Fisher's my-drug-hell novel Postcards From the Edge (its sequel, The Best Awful, was published yesterday); and people who just like to watch the emotional equivalent of a slow-motion car crash.

Ms Fisher in the flesh is an absolute treat - sassy, funny, subversive, confiding, cascadingly talkative - but she carries with her a lot of unsettled personal weather. However sunny the dialogue at ground level, there's always a strange cloud, fizzing and crackling with electric storms, just above her head. Backstage, as she and her entourage tucked into a blood-sugar boost (her "rider" of dressing-room requirements insists on chocolate cake and pecan pie), she comes across as a mercurial mixture of domineering and vulnerable. You're never quite sure - no, scratch that, you have absolutely no idea - how she will behave next, or what she will say or do.

On stage, as she talks about her manic depression (or bipolar disorder, which is, apparently, subtly different in allowing the victim no intermediary stage between Up and Down), she can convince you that there's no more blissful state in the world than being manic. She can make you laugh like a hyena about her violent mood-swings: "The manic state and the depressive, I think of them as people. I call them Roy and Pam. Sometimes I book a holiday with Roy, but by the time you get to Tokyo, you find you're with Pam..." She was droll about the school-gang attitudes of mental hospital patients ("We're so much cooler and smarter than those mad people over there"), and the admiration felt by someone who has stayed awake and staring-eyed for six nights on the trot, when she meets a new patient who has done it for (gasp! my hero!) eight nights.

She could keep an audience 10 times the size of the British Library audience amused and faintly hysterical for hours. But through the event ran a fault line of alarm, as if the divine Ms Fisher had been actually on the point of cracking up in front of us. When she mimes the demeanour of bipolar patients discussing their medication in day-rooms, or enduring six-hour group- therapy sessions, you look at her doubled-up frame, or her face contorted with pretend-weeping - and you fear that she may never come out of this performance; that she'll soon begin to weep for real, and weep for ever, and this most charming and crowd-pleasing of women will be swept away into a mad oblivion right there in front of you.

I've never known anything like it, this bittersweet spectacle. The audience were laughing and murmuring, and sighing at her stories from childhood - like when she tried on her mother Debbie Reynolds's most glamorous wig and realised, with horror, she'd have to find some other way to be beautiful. And all the time, you could feel them watching Carrie uncertainly, and biting their collective lip with concern that she would come through it OK...

At the end, I asked her whether she'd rather have a famous song written about her, or turn up as a character in a classic novel. She started to run through the songs that Paul Simon had written for her when they were married; half-remembered a verse; forgot the words; stopped, waved her hands and looked aghast - then a member of the audience fluently recited the lines (from what turned out to be "Graceland"), and Carrie delightedly applauded. The audience clapped back. Their relief was pal- pable. It was like a group hug involving 350 people, a brilliantly Californian moment just off the concrete hell of the Euston Road.

Venice's mayor finds himself in deep water

I nipped over to Venice for a few days, to catch the carnival, and ran straight into a crippling strike. It's the water-taxi drivers. They're on strike because the mayor has apparently been dishing out the all-important motoscafi licences to the Venetian equivalent of minicab drivers.

Taxi licences cost a fortune (something like €300,000) in Venice, and are handed down from father to son, or from Mafia capo to favoured henchman, as a sacred legacy. This is hardly surprising in a city where the streets are full of water, there are only three bridges over the Grand Canal, and the vaporetto bus-stops are capriciously located for maximum inconvenience. Without taxis, a million tourists would be stranded with their luggage in the middle of watery nowhere.

To acquire a licence, you must have been a family friend of a taxi driver for many years, and pass a gruelling exam, and have 200 grand to buy what is effectively a small business. Now, the municipal bigwigs are letting unwashed and dishonourable men get their mitts on the crucial documents, and get them gratis. The mayor's intention is to cut red tape, and ensure that the cowboy operators are liable for tax on their huge earnings.

But, stronzo!, what a hornet's nest of corruption, what an operatic sequence of vendetta and revenge is being stirred up. It all makes London's Ken Livingstone seem, temporarily, like a model of restraint and common sense.