I have heard the mermaids singing

WILLIAM DONALDSON'S w e e k

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On Thursday, I had lunch at the Ivy with Michael O'Mara. As usual, I arrived early, so being in a particularly buoyant, though reflective, mood, I ordered an unaccustomed brandy and sank into my past.

I used to come to the Ivy when I was a theatrical manager. I winged a few pigeons here in my day, once, with both barrels, brought down David Jacobs, the fashionable solicitor. I took him for pounds 10,000 and the next time I saw him, I, through a confusion in my career, was Mr Grant the Visiting Masseur, and he was Mr Howard, wishing, in an afternoon flat and for pounds 5 only, to be rebuked by a therapist as pseudonymous as himself.

I don't know which of us was more surprised, but Mrs Mouse, to whom I was married at the time and who hadn't much cared for my previous occupation (teacher of English Literature at an A-level crammer in Maida Vale), was proud of me for bringing home the bacon.

Potential investors like the Ivy's atmosphere, I think. They like the sensible food - entrecote the old way, nothing silly - the ancient waiters, the numinous presence of Ivor Novello and Noel Coward, of Frances Doble and Coral Browne. When Ivor Novello and Frances Doble appeared together in Sirocco by Noel Coward, the audience booed and threw tomatoes at the stage. Miss Doble was so shocked she stepped forward and delivered her prepared curtain speech.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said. "Thank you for making this the happiest night of my life."

It's all different now, of course. The food now is fashionably simple (fishcakes and so forth), food on the go, as it were, clever food to the taste of the serious young players here to pitch - though less so, I imagine, to the sprinkling of people who, sadly, were someone once, pink-faced old parties with manicures and haircuts, but with terror in their eyes.

I recognise one of them, I think, a farceur from the old days trying to sell something to a scornful boy. The boy will smell the fear and send him packing. He shouldn't be here at all, the old farceur. He should be at home screaming solitary insults at a daytime TV screen. The old fool doesn't even have a column.

Nor did my friend Tim Williamson, with whom I had lunch here on the very day he came unstuck. Tim dealt drugs to members of the Royal Family, but this was just a front from behind which he was married to Sir Robert Mark's daughter and ran an artistes' agency representing Peter Bowles and others.

One day Timmy was as sane as you and me and the next he walked into the Ivy backwards and padlocked his briefcase to the table leg. It contained everything he needed in an emergency, he said - a packet of Daz, a roll of lavatory paper and the deeds to his house in Kentish Town. His wife, he said, might try to seize the latter in his absence. Further, his father- in-law, Sir Robert Mark, had taken to following him around in a police helicopter.

Then, since walls have ears, he took the roll of lavatory paper out of his briefcase and insisted that, for the rest of lunch, we communicate by writing messages to each other on it. What the packet of Daz was for I never did discover.

It's not much fun when a close friend comes unstuck, and I did what anyone in my position would have done. I arranged to get my stuff in future from Andy From The Sixties, and I advised the Royal Family to do the same, which they did. So that was all right - at least for me and th Royal Family, if not for Timmy, who went to live with a maiden aunt in Barnes. Not much of a life, really - representing Peter Bowles, followed everywhere by a police helicopter piloted by Sir Robert Mark, ending up in Barnes. He should have got himself a column.

I'm brooding along these lines when O'Mara arrives. He's been pestered by Pratley again, he says. Pratley's a big-time windbag who recently lost everything - his house, his wife, his children. He scrapes a living pushing free magazines through letter-boxes.

"I've been avoiding him," O'Mara says, "but he caught me for lunch the other day. I was amazed. He looked terrible, he'd aged 10 years and he walked with a stick."

"God, how awful."

"Indeed," says O'Mara. "But there's the point: he wasn't sorry for himself. On the way to lunch, he said: 'I'm back on my feet.' Then a gust of wind blew him clean over. He lay on his back laughing."

"Magnificent! He was in the gutter, but he was looking at the stars."

"Exactly. He'd discovered, through adversity, who he really was."

"He'd been to hell and back."

"He'd lost everything," O'Mara says, "but for the first time in his life he really liked himself."

"A lesson to us all," I say. "Because he wasn't sorry for himself, you'll be happy to see him again."

O'Mara looks astonished. "Why should I want to see him again? The man's a loser. He hasn't even got a column."

I rock with laughter. "Ha! Ha! One door closes and another door closes! Some more Sancerre, do you think?"

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