Creative harmony in the kitchen as the plot thickens - it's enough to turn a writer green-eyed

john walsh
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The Independent Online
Gilbert and Sullivan. Rimbaud and Verlaine. Crick and Watson. Burke and Hare ... history is full of resonant collaborations, the twining of heterogeneous talents into a single silken braid. And now a spectacular modern example (as far as the book world is concerned, anyway) - French and Gerrard. Sean French, columnist, author and Bardot fan, and Nicci Gerrard, most sensitive of journalists, have just hit the big time. Their co-written novel, The Memory Game, came out this week to a chorus of praise and a background twittering of the purest envy. This is because, not only are the co-authors richer by an advance of (grit teeth) pounds 250,000, they're also married; the story of their blissful union was told in the "Tiddler" supplement of last Sunday's Observer. There, the nation's green-eyed horde of chronically blocked and not-got-round-to-it-yet journalists manque could read of French and Gerrard's rapturous creative duet - of the plot's gestation across the kitchen table, the married pair's harmonious mutual editing (seemingly as carefree as the grooming of primates in Regent's Park), the tidal wave of gin on which knotty narrative impasses were swept away, the gradual realisation that it was "a darker, scarier story than we had anticipated", the finished manuscript, the call from the agent while they were holidaying in Sweden, the two-book deal ...

I'd be happy to report that everyone wished them well - so married, so successful, so lucky - but honesty compels otherwise. The prevailing note on Monday morning was of scores of journalists violently yanking the few sad last grey hairs (Keats, you know) from their heads. "Did you read that thing in the Observer?" cried one. "I couldn't decide whether to shred it, burn it, Blu-Tac it to the dartboard or just jump up and down on it, screaming." Others, possibly incensed by the special-offer advertisement for the novel that appeared with the article ("make Sean and Nicci even richer!") contented themselves with ripping "The Tiddler" in half like a very small telephone directory - literary journalists are rarely built on robust lines - or sending it off, anonymously, to famously war-torn bookish couples of their acquaintance.

Untroubled by these seismic waves, French and Gerrard threw a party on Tuesday to launch their new offspring. Their other productions (they have several gorgeous little girls) tumbled winsomely on the stairs and paraded about in silk and taffeta. I paused outside to look for the blue plaque commemorating the most famous front doorstep in literary London (it's the one on which Jeanette Winterson and her girlfriend Peggy Reynolds stood, a few years ago, when they came to berate Ms Gerrard for a disobliging critique, as the latter was hosting a dinner party) but it appeared to have been stolen.

Inside the conversation was all about the recent shake-up in the publishing world - Helen Fraser, the universally liked boss of the Reed Group (Heinemann, Secker, Methuen and Sinclair-Stevenson) is leaving to run the Penguin Group (Viking, Penguin, Hamish Hamilton and Michael Joseph) thus putting her a notch above the equally-admired "Queen of Publishing", Clare Alexander, and therefore promising an interesting, if terribly polite, battle for supremacy between the two divas in coming months. The talk also turned, again, to Ms Winterson's recent confession about how she once used to have sex with upper-crust ladies in Sloane Square, in return for Le Creuset saucepans. What especially baffled people was her assertion that "their husbands would never miss them". Did this mean that her clients returned, dizzy with Sapphic rapture, to their homes in Hampshire or Gloucestershire, and sent her their cast-iron kitchenware through the post?

But as we talked and drank champagne and munched vegetarian spring rolls, an uncomfortable detail stole over us. In a corner of the kitchen, a handsome woman of mature years lay recumbent on a pine plank as all around her people chatted unconcerned, some of them even callously addressing her supine form. Was it a tableau vivant of the French-Gerrard novel (in which a woman disappears from the middle of a close-knit family)? Actually no, it was Ms Gerrard's mother, who has a bad back. As, I dare say, have French and Gerrard too from having it slapped, just that teeny weeny bit too hard.

At one moment in the Observer piece, Ms Gerrard quotes a recipe for dry Martini, recommending "... a few drops, perhaps a teaspoon, not more, of dry vermouth, then a slosh of gin...". Finding the exact constituent quantities of this simple drink seem to have taxed an amazing number of sophisticated brains in the past. The precise ratio of gin to dry vermouth has been discussed, documented and argued over as if it were a matter of Biblical exegesis. The point is, it seems, to keep the vermouth quantity to the utterest minimum. Ms Gerrard's "perhaps a teaspoon" would, I'm afraid, not go down well with the barmen of Anchorage, Alaska who traditionally fill a jug with ice and gin, then remove the cork from a vermouth bottle, hold it above the surface of the gin and whisper "vermoooth..." over the quivering meniscus. The late Robert Morley, when he was directing an American play in the Haymarket, instructed the actor Ian Carmichael how to make an on-stage dry Martini: put gin and ice in jug, then attach scent-spray bulb to a vermouth bottle and direct a single puff over the top of the jug. Others think the passage of the sun's rays through a vermouth bottle is quite enough of an intrusion, while that shocking old blasphemer, Luis Bunuel, used to insist that the blending of vermouth and gin should be on a par with the seed of the Holy Ghost passing through, without breaking, the hymen of the Virgin Mary.

Then, the other day, I dropped into the Cobden Club, the fashionable new dude ranch at the end of Ladbroke Grove, and watched the real thing being made. The barmaid, a seraphic blonde whose bathwater probably retails at thousands of pounds a bottle, showed me: put slug of vermouth in jug with ice. Shake around a bit. Up-end over sink, losing vermouth, draining ice cubes. Pour vermouth-flavoured ice and gin in cocktail shaker, shake, strain into ice-frosted cocktail glass. Cut bit of lime, twist until drop appears, put result in glass. Serve.

There now. That wasn't too difficult, was it?

Massive excitement in archaeology-land. The Greek ,minister of culture has just announced the discovery of "the original Lyceum" in central Athens, where Aristotle, the renowned philosopher and alcoholic, invented metaphysics, drama criticism and most of Western civilisation. Departing from the simplistic received notion that the "lyceum" was some kind of school or debating academy, another Ministry of Culture person claims that it's "one of three major gymnasiums" of ancient Athens. By a spooky coincidence, yesterday's Daily Telegraph revealed that the Whitehall Palace near Downing Street, built by Henry VIII in 1531, far from being a rest home for clapped-out bureaucrats, was in fact designed as a zippy royal "sports complex" with tennis courts, bowling alleys, cock-fighting pits and, I've no doubt, ye olde bungey-jumpinge roofe. It was, if you like, "the original Harbour Club". It would be nice to see it and the original Lyceum restored to their former glory. And after the Lyceum, I look forward to the discovery of "the original Locarno", "the original Roseland" and "the original Palais de Danse".