William Donaldson's Week: Got a black tie I can borrow?

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL CODRON once told me that when he worked for Jack Hylton his job was to check whether Hylton, after a casting session, had lipstick on his fly. I suddenly remembered this on Tuesday, and for reasons that I'll come to shortly.

Meanwhile, do you have formal wear, by any chance? I used to have a whole range of the stuff - evening tails for dancing at Claridges with the Lord Great Chamberlain's daughter, morning coat for weddings and various Royal enclosures, black tie and pumps and so forth for dining at home with my father - but not any more.

I must have mislaid it somewhere, along with all the other stuff that once was mine: houses in Sunningdale and Knightsbridge, Georgian silver, commodes, a grand piano, my father's shotguns, binoculars and cuff links. The odd thing is, I can remember, more or less, how, why and when I got rid of the house in Sunningdale and so forth, but not the formal wear.

On second thoughts, that's not so odd. Anyone suddenly needing formal wear might go confidently to his wardrobe, only to discover that he didn't have it. That couldn't happen with, say, a house in Sunningdale. On being approached by a chap who wanted to know whether, by any chance, you had a house in Sunningdale, you'd not say, 'Yes, I'm almost sure I have' - only to discover, after you'd dabbled around a bit in your accounts and records, that you appeared to have mislaid it.

Formal wear, on the other hand, would, in the general run of things - and like coathangers, paper clips and old friends - simply dematerialise.

What is odd is that I still think I could get all this back; even, if I wanted it - which I wouldn't - the house in Sunningdale. This is why I'm still out there running around, trying to sell stuff from a briefcase to young men whose heads come to a point like a rat's.

Which brings me back to Michael Codron, Jack Hylton and the lipstick on the latter's fly. I used to run around trying to persuade chaps such as Jack Hylton, Tom Arnold, Emile Littler and his brother Prince - wax-faced old gentlemen with little pot-bellies and tiny, manicured hands no bigger than a child's - to fund some satire from a suitcase. They may have had lipstick on their flies, and for all they knew I could have been talking double Dutch, but they sat as still as corpses in their low-lit offices, listened politely to my pitch and then - because they wanted to be part of things again - they wrote me out a cheque.

It's not like that now. Now I attend on young men who, clearly, have seen one episode of LA Law too many; who eat buns in the boardroom and whose hats, if they wore them, would have to be fashioned in the manner of a traffic cone; who have unnaturally short arms and, literally, roll their sleeves up. That's okay, I'm used to that. On Tuesday, however, I found myself negotiating with a young man who, with regard to his accoutrements and furnishings, seemed almost to be taking the piss. Next to the boardroom, with its buns and bananas, this young man had a fully equipped gym.

This won't do, I thought, I'm on the wrong end of the conversation here. I've reached an age when young men with hairstyles should be selling stuff to me. Jack Hylton may have had lipstick on his fly, and he wouldn't have eaten buns for breakfast - still less have had a gym - but he always listened politely to what I had to say, and then wrote me out a cheque. This young man would drink medicinal water straight from the bottle, bang the table and say 'It's a brilliant idea] I'll get back to you tomorrow' - after which I'd be a monkey's uncle if I heard from him again.

Serve me right, you may be thinking, for trying to pull the big one off, claw back the house in Sunningdale, the commodes and my father's shotguns. I should pack it in, you think, retire and put my feet up. Justin Judd thinks I'm a loser, after all - enrolling me on a writer's course and so forth - but if I'm a loser, how come I've been nominated in more categories than you've had hot dinners in the British Book Awards 1992 - the ceremony to be held on Thursday week?

Root Into Europe (Methuen) has been nominated under Humorous Coffee Table Docu-Drama and The Complete Henry Root Letters (Mandarin) under Classic Reprints; The Big One, The Black One, The Fat One And The Other One (Michael O'Mara Books) is a frontrunner under Fiction and I'm heavily tipped to walk off with the Jeremy Isaacs' Special Award for Persistence, General Attitude and so forth.

I'll be up and down like a jack-in-the-box, attired in formal wear and with at least six speeches up my sleeve. Which is why I need your help. I appear to have mislaid my formal wear and would be grateful for the loan of yours (5ft 10, as slim as a snake). Equally, I've not made a graceful acceptance speech before - much less six - and am therefore short of appropriate jokes.

The formal wear will be returned on Friday morning, as will the jokes - with a small 'drink', as we say, for any of the latter used.