John Walsh

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The Independent Online
Can the musical salon be back? It seems like centuries since it was commonplace for householders of breeding, tone and general poshness to invite their friends to hear some young Hungarian dynamo play Chopin nocturnes and Liszt rhapsodies after supper. Readers of Joyce's story "The Dead", from Dubliners, will remember the salon run by the music-loving sisters which seemed, even in 1914, a pretty moribund ritual. But the home concert never actually disappeared.

In the past couple of years I've been to a few classical soirees in Notting Hill, put on by friends of rarified (and expensive) taste, and appreciated the evening's air of slightly determined sophistication. But I've never enjoyed one so much as on Saturday night.

The scene was Douglas Hitchhiker's Guide Adams's splendiferous pad in Islington. A cross-section of A-list types is crammed into an upper room: George Martin, the veteran producer of all the Beatles albums; Terry Gilliam, the crazed visionary director; Melvyn Bragg and Mariella Frostrup and Angus Deayton and Ed Victor and Salman Rushdie and Geoffrey Robertson QC, and Kathy Lette and so forth.

There was also a large American in a check shirt, beard and a trophy wife. "Who's that?" I hissed. "Don't you know anything?" came the reply. "Paul Allen, Microsoft billionaire." He turned out not to be the only one of this category present. Later I worked out that the combined wealth of the room was in 11 figures ...

The guests piled into Adams's library and dived for the rugs. Great levellers, rugs: Lobbs brogues fought for space with Armani'd bottoms. Squillionaire deal-makers jostled with suave telly stars for a corner of comfy hessian and calico.

It was like The Raft of the Medusa, only with champagne. But then the music started and nobody cared any longer. A guitarist called Robbie McIntosh, looking like one of the more obvious villains in Cracker, played blinding instrumentals with his band, the Polygenes, on bass and cello.

A handsome, fiftyish carnival barker from Southend, with slicked-back white hair and a scarlet waistcoat, turned out to be Gary Brooker, former voice and organ of Procul Harum. He sang a love song of staggering lewdness ("Shove me in your steaming vat/ Make me spit like chicken fat") and a moving ballad based on the late- night shipping forecast, with lyrics by D Adams ("Dogger, Fisher, German Bight/Help me make it through the night") before doing the whole of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with abandoned verses and all.

The star of the evening, though, was Margo Buchanan, a green-eyed chanteuse in a little black number, who smiles like Lulu, sings like Maria Muldaur and has a bit of a way with an audience. She has these terribly slender hands, you see, and when she extends her amazingly long fingers at moments of emphasis, you ... But I fear I'm straying from the essentially musicological nature of this critique.

She has always stayed a backing singer, she told me, because she never fancied wiggling her bottom on stage and getting tarted up like a Spice Girl; a back bar, a crush and a dirty blues is more her line. She's probably right, as you sit in the library at this cool salon and watch this seven- piece line-up (joined by the Pink Floyd maestro, David Gilmour, doing one of his seraphic guitars) doing its stuff, looking around at Microsoft billionaires and the crowned heads of Media London boogieing quietly together, you're convinced this must be what heaven - or at least a musicians' Valhalla - must sound like. Mr Richard Branson, whose new "grown-up" record label, V2, is launched next week, should sign them up without delay.

I'm rather taken with the behaviour of Bob Dornan, the Republican congressman in Orange County, California, a man who, when it comes to presenting a stiff upper lip to the world in the face of misfortune, makes King Lear look like Douglas Bader. Four years ago, he greeted the challenge of a Democratic woman for his Congress seat by calling her and her supporters "lesbian spear-chuckers". Now he has been beaten in the Congress elections by another bloody woman, Loretta Sanchez, by a mere 765 votes.

Rather than just insult his hated rival, he simply refuses to go. "I will not concede," he said, "to an inarticulate, flaky, non-qualified person."

Even if they declare Ms Sanchez the winner after counting all the out- of-town and immigrant votes, he ain't budging.

"It would be a travesty," he opined, "to have someone who spent 22 years in the Air Force voted out of office by non-citizens."

It's the magnificent irrelevance of his argument that's so striking. It's like Mike Atherton refusing to go after having his middle stump demolished ("I'm sorry, but it would be a shame to have someone who's spent years playing for his county cricket side being voted off the field by a non- batsman"). Next time I get a ticket I shall tell the traffic warden: "It's a rank injustice, warden, that someone who spent 25 years on public transport should ..."

Brace yourselves, everyone, it's Bad Sex time once again. Auberon Waugh started up the Bad Sex Award four years ago, its purpose "to draw attention to crude, otiose or perfunctory use of sexual description in the contemporary novel, and to discourage it".

"It's not for inept pornography, you see, but for badly handled, if that's the word I'm after, irruptions of smut in otherwise `literary' novels. The shortlist is published in the new issue of Waugh's Literary Review, out today, and a fine haul it is too.

AA Gill, hapless author of the year's most abused novel, Sap Rising, is in, but he's among distinguished company: Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, JG Ballard, Ben Okri and Mexico's finest novelist, Carlos Fuentes, all feature as well.

Given this is a family newspaper, I will spare you the throbbing organs of the 77-year-old Ms Lessing, the "vaginal aromas of ripe fruits" (Fuentes) and the "sweet gullies with their soft underdown" (Ballard, and he's talking about armpits, actually), nor will I outrage your delicate sensibilities by lingering on what Mr David Huggins calls "my blob of Lo-Cal genetics".

I will, however, offer you my favourite entry, this charming passage from The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, which at least seems to show a bit of respect for the business of sex.

"He pulled the faded quilt from the bed and opened the sheets and she laid herself down and watched him take off his boots and socks and then his jeans and shorts. And he felt no shame nor saw any in her, for why should they feel shame at what was not of their making but of some deeper force that stirred not just their bodies but their souls and knew naught of shame nor of any such construct?"

Delightful. It's that word "naught" isn't it? (Maybe Mr Evans thought it had something to do with "naughty".) And as you're trying to shake off the mental picture of Mr Robert Redford (who is to play the HW in the movie) removing his shameless shorts, the thought strikes you: is he ever going to take his shirt off? Or his vest? Or his hat? Maybe there should be a sequel: The Clothes-Horse Whisperer ...

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