The curse of the cheerful personality

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The Independent Online
That estimable magazine, Prospect, has pulled off something of a coup in its current edition. What is most unusual is that it does not come in the form of an article by a disgruntled politician, or as a piece of investigative journalism. Instead, it takes the shape of a short story by the famous author Frederic Raphael, whose tale features the narrator's relationship over the years with one Methuselah Soames. Soames himself is an awesome polymath, but he is also a windbag, a dilettante and, ultimately, a moral failure. In the end, Soames fails to write the novel that he has always been promising, but succeeds nonetheless in convincing the world that the book he hasn't written is far more important than all the novels that the narrator has.

Soames is Jonathan Miller - no two ways about it - right down to the stammer. This clear identification makes more interesting the claim in the story that Soames indulged in a bit of horizontal lit-crit with a princess (almost certainly Margaret), telling her "she was beneath him", when (according to Raphael) "some even say that at the time, it was literally true".

Now, Miller is clever and successful enough to make many uncomfortable. He directs plays and operas, is a wit, a raconteur and a qualified doctor. Peter Mandelson probably visits his house for tea, where they paint watercolours together. But what on earth has he done to justify this piece of fictive vilification? The man himself was bemused. "Raphael has gone mad!" said Miller, speaking from (where else?) Florence.

There are on offer (according to the Sunday Times) two explanations for this bit of literary spite. The first has it that Mr Miller got into an altercation with Mr Raphael's son at a Chelsea cinema recently. Tempers frayed and Miller repeatedly called Raff Jnr a "f****** c***!" I find this hard to believe. What (in a Chelsea cinema) could excite such passions? A yawn during a protracted screen suicide? A fatuous remark about the influence of Noh theatre upon Les Enfants du Paradis? And what do the asterisks stand for? My guess is "flatulent casuist" - a dreadful insult. This was followed by the ultimate "my dad'll get you" revenge - "my dad'll write a short story about you. Then you'll be sorry!"

The second explanation was given by Jonathan's spouse, Dr Rachel Miller, who recalls that - 40 years earlier - she and Jonathan had not turned up to a Raphaelite dinner party. "He was angry and accused us of insulting behaviour, although so far as I can remember, we simply forgot." It is entirely typical of female social sensibility that she should recall an occasion that her husband has almost certainly long forgotten.

But can this conceivably be true? I don't mean is this true or not. I do not know the protagonists personally, so I cannot say. No, I mean, can this be true? Is it possible? Can we believe that an intelligent, successful man such as Frederic Raphael could hold a grudge about a shunned dinner party four decades after the last profiterole was cleared from the table?

Consider what has happened since 1957. We do not own most of Africa, and there is no Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of novels have been written, plays and operas produced, and millions of people have been born and died. In 40 years, the protagonists themselves must have changed a great deal, weathered by loss and love. Could anyone fall out over something so small and maintain the animosity for so long?

They can indeed, for there is such a thing as the one-way feud. The cheerful, careless person turns up to this party and shuns that one as convenience dictates. It is of little significance, after all. Nor are they worried if others treat them in the same way. They are secure and tolerant.

But consider Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. The invitation to the christening has gone astray, or there are too few gold plates to go round. So she gatecrashes the party, lays a curse on the princess, and - sure enough - turns up 16 years later to do the wicked deed. She must have been really, really pissed off.

This may be the horrid homage that the insecure and ambitious pay to those who breeze through life being happy and - even worse - paying their obsessive counterparts too little attention. "If I had done something to disparage him or to undermine or to deny his place in the world, I could imagine him writing a furious piece. But there isn't," Miller says plaintively. You couldn't even disparage the guy! God, Jonathan, what a bastard you are!

Miles Kington is on holiday