A good way of keeping abreast of nostalgia

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The other day, I was idly looking at a pretty girl in the street, and equally idly reflecting how much of my life I must have wasted bumping into things while looking at pretty girls in the street, and I suddenly remembered the character in one of Peter de Vries' novels who actually invented a cure for looking at pretty girls in the street.

The other day, I was idly looking at a pretty girl in the street, and equally idly reflecting how much of my life I must have wasted bumping into things while looking at pretty girls in the street, and I suddenly remembered the character in one of Peter de Vries' novels who actually invented a cure for looking at pretty girls in the street.

The book was called Mackerel Plaza . The hero was a young clergyman who was worried by how easy it was to fall in love with pretty girls in the street, especially if you were a clergyman, so every time he passed a pretty girl and felt his heart flutter, he would double back, pass her again and concentrate on the girl's worst feature so he would fall out of love again. Nice face? Thank God for the bad legs. Lovely figure? Thank God for the big nose, and so on.

Anyway, the hero comes to grief when he spots a girl in the street who seems to have no defects at all, and marries her, and then finds that her character is her big defect. (Who was it who said that many a man who has fallen for a pretty face has made the mistake of marrying the whole girl?) I was thinking about this while in the company of a well-known writer, and I asked if he had read Mackerel Plaza , and he said he had never heard of it. I said it was a novel by Peter de Vries, and he said: "Who is Peter de Vries?".

That was the moment when I stopped in the street, ignoring all the pretty girls passing by, and said, stunned: "You've never heard of Peter de Vries?" And apparently he hadn't, and I realised that not only was my companion a well-known writer, he must also be a much younger writer than me, since anyone who was old enough to be around in the late 1950s or 1960s would have known about de Vries. He was a very popular American comic novelist, and his new books were always eagerly awaited - books like Reuben, Reuben and Comfort Me With Apples . He died only about 10 years ago, so I am again confronted with the bitter truth that popularity is the quickest route to obscurity.

(It happened again the other day with Peter Ustinov. Not that he is forgotten, yet, but one of his finest achievements seems to have slipped out of people's ken years ago. I am thinking of his LP, The Grand Prix of Gibraltar , a hilarious tour de force in which he created a fictional grand prix race by doing all the voices, and car noises, with a cast of 30 or more characters, each played by him. Anyone I know who has heard it thinks it is superb. It even makes grand prix racing seem interesting. As far as I could make out, this record was not referred to in any of the obituaries I saw.

If I were in charge of keeping Ustinov's memory alive, it might be with that LP that I would start. I am not sure any of his books or plays is outstanding, and although he was possibly the world's best raconteur, you need the man himself present to maintain that kind of reputation. If Oscar Wilde had not written his plays, would he be remembered merely as a wit?)

Well, I'm glad to say I am not in charge of maintaining anyone's reputation, and if I had to look after Peter de Vries', I am not sure how I would go about it. All his books, it seems, are out of print. I looked him up on the internet, and though some websites offer a few quotes from his novels (he was, it seems, the first person to say "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be"), I was demoralised to find more attention was paid to a Dutch rock bass guitarist called Peter de Vries, and a male model who has, for some time, been the "face" of Armani adverts, and is also called Peter de Vries.

What I think I will do, instead, is something I haven't done for 30 years: find a Peter de Vries book and read it again. Which, I suppose, is ultimately the best way of maintaining a writer's reputation.

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