The pleasures of failing to get your act together

'There is always sadness when an eccentricity has gone forever, leaving the world a duller place'
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The Independent Online

Last week I found myself a guest at the 700th Foyles literary luncheon, which is not so much of an exclusive honour as it sounds, as there must have been about 700 other people there besides me. It took place in one of the vast rooms in Grosvenor House in Park Lane, and as I was milling about with the hordes beforehand, inching my way towards my table, I heard someone say: "I asked somebody from Foyles to show me to the right place just now, but I was sent to theology instead."

Last week I found myself a guest at the 700th Foyles literary luncheon, which is not so much of an exclusive honour as it sounds, as there must have been about 700 other people there besides me. It took place in one of the vast rooms in Grosvenor House in Park Lane, and as I was milling about with the hordes beforehand, inching my way towards my table, I heard someone say: "I asked somebody from Foyles to show me to the right place just now, but I was sent to theology instead."

People round him laughed, if only out of nostalgia. Foyles did use to be rather like that. It was a bookshop that had everything but didn't know where anything was, or where it was when it last saw it. Most of the half dozen after-lunch speakers had nice things to say about Foyles (I was startled to learn that Kate Adie had bought all her university textbooks at Foyles for her degree in – this was the startling bit – Swedish and Old Icelandic), but they all had their own stories of assistants at Foyles who couldn't speak English or who went to get a book and didn't come back for three days.

(I have my own Foyles story myself. Many years ago a friend of mine wanted to know if Foyles actually had the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica for sale and rang up to find out. He was answered by a foreign sales assistant. The sales assistant asked him to wait for a moment, and put the phone down. Two minutes later he came back and said: "Do you by any chance know Mr Britannica's first name?" True story.)

But they wouldn't have told these stories if they hadn't been conscious that this was all out of date. Foyles has now got its act together, and has streamlined its business, and under the new family management of Christopher Foyle and Bill Samuel, both descendants of the founders, it looks very much as if Foyles is going to be not just very large but very competent. Which I find not just cheering, but also somewhat depressing. There is always some sadness when a place gets its act together, when one more example of eccentricity has gone forever, leaving the world a duller place.

Quentin Crisp knew this. Someone told him once that Sweden was determined to lose its reputation as the world's leading suicide nation by publicising statistics that showed that it was actually not abnormal. "That would be a great mistake," said Crisp. "Its reputation for suicide is the only pretence to style that Sweden has."

Not true, of course, but the underlying moral is true. For years, for instance, The Guardian had a reputation for having the best misprints. There is even a Guardian misprint preserved in brass. The paper's late opera critic, Philip Hope-Wallace, used to occupy the same chair every day at El Vino, so one day, in his honour, the management of El Vino put up a plaque to him on the wall. Philip was very touched, though he did point out that they had spelt his name wrongly on the plaque.

"But how can that be?" said a thunderstruck management. "After all, we checked with The Guardian..."

People who fondly remember the Guardian misprints, and still refer to it as the "Grauniad", have to do battle with the fact that The Guardian has also got its act together. People who refer mockingly to British Rail sandwiches have to do battle with two facts: that British Rail no longer exists, and that sandwiches on trains are pretty good these days. People used to refer mockingly to Channel 4 until it became good, and then they started making fun of Channel 5, but I gather that has got its act together as well.

You can't depend on anything these days. Why, things are so bad that the Duke of Edinburgh, once a byword for blunt tactlessness, hasn't put his foot in it for years.

What we desperately need is more eccentricity, not less.

Did I hear someone say: "Come back, Jeffrey Archer"?

Yes, well, I am not sure things are that bad.

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