Recluses aren't what they used to be. In the old days you could rely on, say, Howard Hughes to stay put in his sanitised hotel suite, surrounded by hypodermic-wielding Mormons. You could put money on the likelihood that Greta Garbo, if invited to a beach-blanket party on Long Island, would not even send a reply. You could guarantee that you would not find JD Salinger in the local K-Mart demanding of lippy assistants, "Look here, young man, do you know who I am?" But since the self-recluded Salman Rushdie started his ubiquitous partygoing, the profile changed. Today, to be a recluse is to be a wild and crazy social animal.
Look at Thomas Pynchon, author of V, The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland. No sooner had he found fame than he disappeared. Now 59, he hasn't been seen in public since the Sixties. It's said that he sometimes emerges from his unknown lair to stay overnight in friends' houses, then swears them to secrecy, but obviously no one will corroborate this. A technofreak army of his fans crave details about the great man, but are doomed to frustration. The last extant photo of Pynchon is a snap from the Cornell University Yearbook, showing a callow teenager with sleepy eyes. He turned down a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975, saying simply. "I don't want it." Media-wise, he has been a complete pill for years.
Now look what's happened. Pynchon has just done an interview for the American Esquire magazine. But (before you rush) it's not him being interviewed, it's him asking the questions. And the interviewee? The members of an indifferent New York rock band, unappetisingly named Lotion. It seems he met the band two years ago in a scabby Mid-Western bar, followed their career, discovered that the drummer liked Gravity's Rainbow and now he's writing sleeve notes for their new album. What next? Good Morning with J Paul Getty III?
Have you noticed the spooky way so many things come in threes? Stooges, Graces, Wise Men, Musketeers, Little Maids From School, Blind Mice, French Hens. And, of course, the curiously satisfying music generated by trios of names, spoken aloud. Faith, Hope and Charity. Peter, Paul and Mary. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Freeman, Hardy and Willis.... I would not be drawing your attention to this minor phenomenon, had not a new verbal troika been dinging around in my head all morning: Semen, Tallow and Gelatin. Semen, Tallow and Gelatin. Every time I walk past a radio, the words are being intoned like a prayer to the Fates (Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos). When you start mixing up Greek mythology and beef derivatives in your brain, it's time for a holiday.
Stephen Fry has been amusing friends with the story of an encounter in a Cambridge bookshop. Impressed by the shop's special offer, he decided to buy all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary at the knockdown price of pounds 1,500. Would they deliver them to his home? Indeed, they'd be delighted. Fry browsed for a few more minutes and also selected, as a humorous gift for a friend, a book with the most boring title in lexical history, The Oxford Book of Canadian Political Anecdotes. Standing at the till, he was greeted by Jeremy Paxman, who happened to be passing. "Ah, Stephen," said Paxo, "how is life treating y...". Before his astonished eyes, the till flashed up the price: pounds 1,517.50. "My God," said Paxman, looking at the bland Canadian tome in Fry's hand, "What on earth are you buying?". "It's extremely rare," said Fry blithely, "and worth every penny". The look of incredulity on the Great Inquisitor's face could have been bottled.
Anyone old enough to remember Muffin the Mule, Godfrey Winn and 77 Sunset Strip will recall that the most memorable stuff in the charts at the fag- end of the Fifties was the work of Lonnie Donegan, banjo-player, skiffle exponent and prototypical British rock'n'roll star. Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour, he used to inquire rhythmically, on the Bedpost Overnight? "My old man's a dustman," we used to sing, we scrubbed and Vitapointed grammar-school boys, "He wears a dustman's hat/He wears gor- blimey trousers/And he lives in a council flat." When, later on, music historians started making claims that Mr Donegan's Rock Island Line was the missing groove between Leadbelly and the Rolling Stones, we were outraged. No, we said, Lonnie Donegan wasn't cool, or bluesy or dangerous, he was funny; that was the whole point.
I saw him on Monday at a party to launch Dancing in the Street, BBC 2's deeply fab new 10-part history of rock that starts on 15 June. He looked about 50 and was done up like a Vegas crooner in cream slacks and a loud shirt apparently made from several Hermes headscarves sewn together. By the time I'd summoned the courage to approach him, he'd covered it up with a virgin-lambswool designer tanktop-sweater. Was it his usual party gear? He surveyed the crowd of music hacks from Mojo and Select. "Pearls before swine, I can tell yer." He told me about his new album with Van Morrison and Chris Barber, and gave me his business card, showing his address in Spain. Why did he like living in Fuengirola? "It's better than Chiswick 'Igh Street," he said, "and they're nicer to kids" (he has three children under 10 by the last in a succession of wives). And did he ever play the old stuff for the locals? "Nah," he said shortly. "They couldn't afford me. The concert 'alls are too small". Visions of Malagan urchins singing "Mi viejo es basurero/Lleva gorro de basurero/Lleva un pantalon barbaro/Y vive en un piso de la municipalidad" in my head abruptly ceased. At God-knows-what age, Mr Donegan has an admirable sense of his own worth; for him, it's got to be Wembley or nothing. I hope he makes it.
Which leaves me pondering one thing: what exactly are gor-blimey trousers? Are they the male equivalent of fuck-me shoes?
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