I spent an extraordinary Sunday evening celebrating the work of a deceased nihilist in a defunct theatre. Bloomsbury were launching Damned to Fame, James Knowlson's vast biography of Samuel Beckett, with a party and some readings from the master's work by a quartet of distinguished actors. Rather than consign the academic guests to a Soho wine bar, they hit on the Royal Court as the ideal site. (It was, theatre buffs will recall, the scene of several Beckettian premieres, notably Happy Days with Billie Whitelaw. Now it's being decommissioned for two years; pounds 22m will be spent on gutting it and turning a 400-seat proscenium theatre into - well, a 400-seat proscenium theatre). The Court is, for the moment, in effect closed down. This means we were sitting in a drama palace that in effect doesn't exist, celebrating a man whose work exists in a temporal hinterland that takes in both birth and death...
Heady stuff - but then the whole evening was a little weird. A chap with Beckett's face (from the Modernist Writers Lookalike Agency?) stood around importantly and was revealed to be Sam's nephew, Edward. Hearing that the great artist Arikha was in the room, I hissed at a friend, "Would you know Avigdor Arikha if you saw him?" at the exact second the great man walked by behind me, his eyes flickering sus-piciously. The veteran French actor Jean Martin declaimed Beckett's last work, Comment Dire (What is the Word?) with such ferocious, bulging rage that we feared for his septuagenarian heart (as did his sister sitting in the second row).
The most charming moment of the evening, however, wasn't in the theatre at all. It was a few miles away in St Martin's Lane, where several party guests had been diverted, by accident, to the Duke of York's Theatre (that's where Royal Court productions will be held in future). Outside the gaudy billboards advertising the Ayckbourn-Lloyd-Webber By Jeeves, a knot of 20-odd ascetic Beckett fans gathered sheepishly and looked at their feet. They might have consulted one another as to whether some mistake had been made; but they were too shy. Godot fans do not, as a rule, have much to say to devotees of Bertie Wooster.
John Major isn't the only one to harass female MPs with his gross and flirtatious behaviour. While still reeling from Emma Nicholson's news of the PM's impertinent inquiries about the way she smelt, the political world was reminded on Tuesday of a legendary encounter with another swordsman of the boudoir. At the launch of Brian Brivati's biography of Hugh Gaitskell at that notoriously louche venue, the Institute of Historical Research, you couldn't move for senior politicos (Jenkins, Benn, Hattersley) and heavyweight political commentators (Peter Hennessy, Donald Watt, Ben Pimlott) all making speeches from the floor and reminiscing about the late Labour Party chief. Then the book's publisher, Richard Cohen, made a speech in which he brought up the subject of sex in political memoirs. He told how he'd commissioned Barbara Castle to write her book Fighting All the Way, in which she reveals that she once went to Aneurin Bevin's flat and that Bevin had "made a pass" at her. This presitigitational euphemism tantalised Cohen. "Barbara," he'd said, "I don't think you can say this about the great hero of the working classes, without expanding a little". A week later, an emendation arrived. Okay, directed Dame Barbara, you can change that to "made a passionate pass". Perhaps someone should have a similarly encouraging word with Ms Nicholson.
This is turning into a seriously crap year for fans of Cupid, moonlight, long-stemmed roses and men whose eyes are mischievous and mocking. First John Boon, co-inventor of the Mills & Boon industry, dies. Now, I hear, the Romantic Novelists Association is tiring of the abuse that is directed at its members by cynics, and it is going to change the name. "People look at you as if you're blue-rinsed if you say you're a romantic writer," says the RNA's Elizabeth Buchan, "even though it's a fine tradition that's grown out of Jane Austen, the Brontes and Hardy." But what are they going to to call themselves now? "We wanted to be just The Fiction Association, but I realised the Press would call us `the sweet FA'. So now we're waiting for suggestions from members." While they're waiting, can you help? Tell me what you think the romantic writers of the 1990s should collectively be called, and the sender of the best suggestion will get a free copy of Maeve Binchy's new novel. It will be hand-delivered by a smouldering biker in early middle age, perennially misunderstood by his rich but stuffy family and seemingly incapable of finding love. Until now, that is ...Reuse content