Just imagine, the earl and the loofah. It's all terribly surreal

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It's hard to say whether the Earl Spencer divorce case is working out as comedy or tragedy, but it's certainly packing in a lot of amusement value. You could hear a collective gasp of outrage across the metropolis when the papers reported the view of "expert witness" Jeremy Posnansky that, for a settlement of pounds 300,000, Lady Spencer would be able to afford only "a house in a very unattractive distant suburb with problems such as crime". Everybody who recently paid pounds 300,000 for a Charming, Four-Bedroomed, South-Facing, Crime-Free Home, Handy for Shops and Underground Station could be heard demanding, "Oi! What's wrong with Shepherd's Bush/Clapham Common/ Muswell Hill then?"

More obviously rebarbative was the suggestion by Lord Spencer's brief, Leslie Weinkove, that her ladyship shouldn't be entrusted with a settlement of pounds 3.75m because she might not look after it properly ("There is a question mark over her ability to manage such an award, given that she has a 12- step approach to life"). Poor Victoria may be a recovering alcoholic, but it does not, presumably, stop her hiring a financial adviser. More alarming is the implication that Mr Weinkove regards a cash award as if it were some kind of small child, in danger of neglect and abuse.

I confess to a shameless fascination with this case, even down to the public displays of insouciance: how, one day, the earl is "laughing and joking" with his advocates while his wife is grim-faced; the next, they've swapped roles, and she is having uproarious fun with one of the earl's ex-squeezes, while he is looking tense. Are they taking it in turns? Is it all being stage-managed by the shadowy Mr Weinkove?

The scene that most sticks in the mind, however, is that business in the bathroom. According to his wife, his lordship was actually lying in the marital bath when he explained to her that she was a hopeless wife and a crap mother, that he had found someone else and wanted a divorce. He did all this, let me remind you, while lying supine, naked, pink, hideously complacent and spectacularly vulnerable in a lot of warm water. How many female readers of these sordid details have, I wonder, become lost in silent contemplation of what they might have done with (handily adjacent) nailbrush, loofah, aerosol can, plastic duck and freezing cold shower head attachment?


Fun and games in Cork Street on Tuesday evening, when George Melly and a couple of hundred groovy chums piled into the Mayor Gallery to celebrate the launch of his book Don't Tell Sybil, the story of his encounter with the British wing of the European Surrealist movement, and in particular its leading light, ELT Mesens, the Belgian collagiste (Melly had a brief affair with him and his wife). The place was full of ephebic young men, with black and white mohair coats and hungry eyes. Everywhere you went, the S-word kept turning up. "This conversation is getting terribly surreal," people assured each other, even though they'd done little more than remark on the clemency of the November evenings. The evergreen artist Harry Blacker, now 88, remembered meeting Ande Breton, the proto-Surrealist, in Paris in 1934. Breton offered him an odd-looking painting of a nude with drawers (the other sort) protruding from her limbs. It was by an unknown Hispanic called S Dali. The price was pounds 50. "I couldn't afford it," says Blacker, aghast at what he had missed. "It represented ten weeks' salary". In the corridor, Julian Mitchell, the playwright and Inspector Morse scribe, explained to Maggie Hambling why he had two black/orange eyes and a lot of sticking plaster on his nose. An operation for skin cancer, apparently brought on by too much Mediterranean sun. "I blame it on the Somerset Maugham Award I got 30 years ago," he raged, "and their stipulation that you have to spend it abroad." Beside us, a breathless blonde in black sequins scrutinised one of ELT Mesens's famous collages, this one a mixed-media symphony of faded newsprint, purple paint and autumn leaves. "Oh it's all newspaper," she said, disappointed. "From a distance, it looked like silk. I thought, what a good pattern that would make for a pair of leggings ..." Jolly surreal.


The artist-patron relationship has always been a little fraught. One side supplies the cash and the condescension, the other does the creativity and the gratitude. It's never going to be a smooth and happy business. But one can only guess at the chronicle of supplication, hope, rejection and tears that lies behind the brusque "Acknowledgement" in Lucy Ellmann's new novel, Man or Mango? published next spring. It reads: "The author wishes to make clear that she did not receive a single fucking penny from the Arts Council of Great Britain while writing this novel."


The time: 11.15am on Monday. The scene: Carriage F on the 10.45am South Wales and West train speeding to Newport. The personnel: chaps in suits, female management consultant, fat Welsh family returning home after London weekend. The tables are full of coffee cups, orange juice cans, pain au chocolat. Then, shattering the peace, comes the voice of a huge, burly, besuited man with a mobile phone clamped in one bearish paw. He barrels into the compartment like a school bully and swaggers along it. His voice suggests Ireland, and he is yelling instructions down the tiny phone as if struggling to be heard in Inishbofin, over the boom of the Atlantic. He is oblivious to the people in the carriage, and pauses at an empty seat to bellow further orders, as if stopping to rest at a park bench. My fellow traveller across the table raises his eyebrow, then turns right round in his seat to glare at the miscreant. But he's British and therefore wouldn't dream ...

"SO YOU'LL MEET ME THERE?" bellows the Irishman. "BUT HOW WILL YOU KNOW ME?" There's a brief shared giggle around the compartment. Then a man at the back emerges from his newspaper: and calls out, "That'll be simple. You'll be the one doing the shouting." The man looks over, with Celtic hostility. Is there going to be trouble? Amazingly, a second man shouts, "You don't really need a phone, do you?" Mutiny! From nowhere, a third chips in, "He can probably hear you just as well without one." The man, after a dumbshow of bafflement, aggression and hurt, shambles off to the security of the next carriage, leaving us triumphant. But I remember how he looked: like an actor, confident of wowing the audience with his swashbuckling panache, and finding instead a lot of heckling, catcalls and root vegetables flung through the air.

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