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From Winchester to This

From Winchester to This

by William Donaldson

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Owen, Peter Limited
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5.80(w) x 8.86(h) x 0.75(d)

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From Winchester to This

By William Donaldson

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 1998 William Donaldson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1619-4


LUNCH AT THE Ivy with the Publisher. As usual, I arrive on time – this habit of punctuality being a necessary condition, I think, of my addiction, first noticed when I was researching Root Into Europe in 1990. After a mere three weeks away, bucketing round France, Italy and Spain with Mark Chapman, Jeremy Lovering and Justin Judd, my withdrawal symptoms were appalling.

More interesting, I think, than the usual ones – cold sweats, sleeplessness, loss of concentration – was this awesome punctuality, which was in such sharp contrast to my three colleagues' flaky inability to know what time or even what day it was (being alive now, they called it), and was – is – a function not, as I used to suppose, of my naval background but of a crushing boredom with the present, an addict's agitated need to press on to the next stage, whatever horrors might there unfold.

I wait for the Publisher, order an unaccustomed brandy and sink into my past. I used to come to the Ivy when I put on plays. I winged a few pigeons here in my day, once, with both barrels, brought down David Jacobs, the theatrical solicitor. I took him for £10,000, and the next time I saw him I, through some confusion in my career, was Mr Grant the Visiting Masseur, and he was Mr Howard, wishing, in an afternoon flat and for £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 (teaching English Literature at an A-level crammer in Maida Vale), was proud of me for bringing home the bacon.

Potential investors liked the Ivy's atmosphere, I think. They liked the heavy furniture, the old-time waiters, the numinous presence of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, of Binkie and Bottom and Binnie and Boo, the present possibility that Robert Morley and Coral Browne, Dame Moira Lister and 'Tim' Hardy might be lunching to left and right. I once abandoned Moira Lister in Liverpool and without her train fare back to London, and she's still going on about it twenty years later.

They liked the food, too, I think, the potential investors. Entrecôte the old way, nothing silly, and your choice cooked almost to a standard which might have been achieved at home – even by me, and I can't cook at all.

I should have visited the Ivy when I was Tatler's restaurant critic under Tina Brown and when, since it didn't cross my mind that even a Tatler reader would care what another person had for lunch, I ignored the food and instead discussed what a range of 'companions' – novelists, women, criminals, TV people – might be up to at the moment. As a result, the restaurants all withdrew their advertising, but Tina told them to sit on it.

It's all different now, of course – the upshot, I believe, of its having been taken over by the two go-getters who recently did a job on the Caprice, another former haunt of mine. The food now is fashionably simple (fishcakes and so forth), food on the go, as it were, food in the fast lane, clever food rather 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 but who now are calamitously out of it – smooth-faced old parties with manicures and haircuts but with terror in their eyes.

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

Only the confidence born of inherited wealth would confound this insolent youth – according, at least, to a story recently passed on by Pete the Schnoz. Pete the Schnoz had been lunching at the Kensington Place Restaurant when John Birt was hit full in the face by a flying sea bass.

The Kensington Place, according to Pete the Schnoz, is the preferred meeting-ground of Filofaxes on the make, serious haircuts pitching and lying to one another from behind shades reflecting the vis-à-vis. Pitch it wrong, commit yourself to words, which, in your frenzy to impress, you can't pronounce, and you could be on the skids before the artichokes arrive; at best, out of the business altogether; at worst, directing corporate videos or writing jokes for Have I Got News For You.

To gain entry, according to Pete the Schnoz, you must first fax your credits to a pony-tailed maitre d' and, even then, if admitted, the easily intimidated can, on stepping inside, be washed back on to the street by a tidal wave of sheer achievement.

'You'll get the picture,' said Pete the Schnoz. 'Jeremy Paxman passing between tables, Yentob in conference with Birt, a boy film director who's so hot they're catching a tan at the next table, another who's so globally hot that they're waking up with tans in Japan.'

Pete the Schnoz, unusually for a writer as good as he is, has a vigorous conversational style.

'Why, then, the flying sea bass?' I asked.

It seems that a party of genetically challenged aristocrats from Gloucestershire had been ignorant and vicious enough to choose this, of all places, to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of Hugo – seemingly, but only by a short head, the most oafish of their number.

They'd booked two tables, according to Pete the Schnoz, with the grown-ups, as it were, at one and the children at the other, and the most you could say for the former, apart from looking as if they belonged in a stable, was that they were a shade less loutish than the latter.

The girls, who had put their car keys on the table next to their Marlboro cigarettes, were more or less identical, according to Pete the Schnoz, with callous little faces and voices like seagulls after a herring catch, but the boys came in two varieties: half of them were fat and bald with food down their fronts and the other half were unnecessarily tall, with floppy hair and careless, cherry-pink mouths.

'We ignored them,' said Pete the Schnoz, 'until Birt was hit full in the face with a flying sea bass. It was extraordinary. The room was stiff with achievement, but these well-born herberts were behaving as if unaware that they were in a public place. You'd have expected them to be thrown out, but the maitre d', who had once refused Michael Grade a table on the grounds that his CV wasn't up to scratch, merely retrieved the sea bass and ordered up another one for Hugo.

'And when Hugo challenged Birt to three games of "Are You There, Moriarty?" Birt meekly acquiesced. Further, when Hugo removed his blindfold, thus ensuring that the still unsighted Birt flailed away at empty air while he, Hugo, caught Birt with three shots which would have dropped a water buffalo, the media hotshots led the laughter. You can't beat old money.'

Nor you can. There's a paradox of some sort here, however, and one which I may, or may not, have brought to Pete the Schnoz's attention at the time. In his interesting book, Constructions – a collection of loosely philosophical reflections – Michael Frayn has the following entry:

27. The secret police arrest us all. I, who have been a well-mannered and amusing guest at your dinner-parties these past ten years, betray you as soon as the secret police produce the electrodes. That bore Puling refuses, heroically. If ever we all get out again, don't make the mistake of asking him to your dinner-parties instead of me.

Equally, had the Kensington Place suddenly been taken over by the secret police and the electrodes produced, it's very possible that Hugo and his boorish friends might have stacked up better than the assembled media hotshots.

'When the torpedoes are running, background counts,' as I used to say to Chapman and Lovering, when, during the recce for Root Into Europe, I tried to explain my preference for Justin Judd's company over theirs. I wasn't calling Chapman and Lovering common, although they were, I was merely pointing out that when your backs are against the wall it's best to be with your own kind.

Not that your own kind always make it. I had lunch with my friend Tim Williamson, here at the Ivy, on the very day he came unstuck. Tim dealt drugs to Princess Margaret's friends, 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 me and the next he walked into the Ivy backwards and padlocked his briefcase to the table-leg. It contained everything he might need 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, Christina, he said, might try to seize the latter in his absence but would be confounded if the title deeds were padlocked to a table-leg. Further, his father-in-law, Sir Robert Mark, had taken to following him around in a police helicopter.

Then, fearful that the people lunching to left and right might be police informers, he took the packet of Daz and the roll of lavatory paper out of his briefcase, placed them on the table and insisted that, for the rest of lunch, we communicate by writing messages to each other on the lavatory paper. What the packet of Daz was for I never did discover.

It isn't much fun when a close friend comes unstuck, and when, over the next few weeks, Timmy's symptoms became worse (he thought he had the power to stop buses and proved the point more than once by stepping suddenly into the street in front of one) 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 Princess Margaret's friends to do the same, which, indeed, they did. So that was all right – at least for me and Princess Margaret's friends, if not for Tim or Andy From The Sixties (who later got sent down for eight years and without Princess Margaret's friends speaking up in his defence).

Timmy went to live with a maiden aunt in Barnes and one day he killed himself with an overdose of Valium. Not much of a life, really – representing Peter Bowles, being followed everywhere by a helicopter piloted by Sir Robert Mark, ending up with an aunt in Barnes. A pretty frightful one, in fact.

I'm musing along these lines, here at the Ivy, when the Publisher arrives. He's good news, the Publisher, if a little hard to place. For one thing, he must be forty-three or so, which is an odd age from where I'm sitting, being neither here nor there; more accurately, perhaps, an age at which you've either obviously made it or you haven't.

Not that the Publisher would see it like this, I think. He's sensibly poised, rather reassuring, neither squinting with ambition nor obviously out of it. He's neutral, would in the war of the flying sea bass, like myself, be on neither side; equally, and, like myself, might find himself in no man's land between the old farceur's position and that of the scornful boy who's taking him for lunch.

That said, and unusually among publishers (who aren't, as a rule, much interested in books these days), his comments always carry weight. I'd rather have lunch with him than with a thin rude woman who has speared her way to the top of a recently conglomerated house.

He takes me by surprise, however, when he suddenly asks me how my memoirs are progressing. He commissioned these some years ago, and my reluctance to deliver, or even to make a start on them, doesn't particularly arise, I think, from any desire to gain a pecuniary advantage or an interest-free loan. It's a reluctance, merely, to write about myself – this diffidence being a consequence of my background. I was brought up to believe that it's bad manners to 'take oneself too seriously', to indulge in sordid introspection or embarrass others with personal disclosures. In Sunningdale, and later at Winchester, we squared the shoulders and cracked on. We didn't dwell.

I've got the anecdotes, of course, but I've done most of them already, some more than once; the Albery tea-party with the cast of Beyond the Fringe several times, in fact. Shortly after the show opened in May 1961, Cook, Bennett, Miller and Moore caught on to the fact that while each of them was receiving precisely £75 a week the producers – Sir Donald Albery and myself – were pocketing £2,000 every Friday. This didn't seem equitable, so in due course they wrote courteously to the management, seeking an adjustment.

Sir Donald, whose contribution to the show's success had been to attend the dress-rehearsal (after which he had suggested that 'the one in spectacles should be replaced'), invited them to tea. Over seed cake and Earl Grey he patiently explained the economics of the theatre. 'Difficult times ... rising costs ... laundry ... back and front ... bricks and mortar ... the successes have to pay for the flops ... review the situation when I return from Juan Les Pins in late September ... have another cup of tea.'

Decisively out-argued – in spite of the intellectual, to say nothing of the moral, disproportion in the room – and having just been told that they were paying for Sir Donald's frightful fucking flops, Miller and Co. retired in confusion and Sir Donald and I ('Nothing I can do ... over a barrel ... hands tied ... so sorry') struggled along on £2,000 a week, but only for the moment. When the show moved to New York we did a great deal better.

I now surprise myself, however, and the Publisher, too, I think, by producing an idea off the top of my head – more accurately, an idea off the top of Jeremy Lovering's head. Lovering was the travelling new man on Root Into Europe and keeper of our collective moral conscience. When we held various minority groups up to primetime ridicule Lovering preferred to stay indoors, washing his hair and ironing his shirts. In the course of the recce for Root Into Europe, and while we enjoyed a short break in Mark Chapman's property in the Dordogne, Lovering asked me one day how my memoirs were progressing.

'I'm blocked,' I'd said. 'I can't find a decent voice to do them in. I'm not accustomed to writing about myself.'

'You never write about anything else,' he'd said.

Which showed, I suppose, how wise he had been to choose a career in television rather than in literary journalism. The narrator of my stuff is – obviously, I'd have thought – as much a 'character' as any of the others; he and the nervous, once-a-week style being simply the consequence of an embarrassed inability to write a straightforward sentence and both, equally, inappropriate in memoirs.

'Here's an idea,' Lovering had continued. 'You and I go round the world together – the old gun and the young Turk – sharing a number of strange adventures. In the course of these I try to impress you with my moral and intellectual vigour; you me with the lessons learnt in a long life. Action in the present explained by senescent racontage. I do, you try to slow me down with interminable reminiscence, to entangle me in a web of cautionary anecdotes – the lessons learnt in a long life. You have learnt some lessons, I suppose?'

'Just one,' I'd said. 'Not to put the seals on first. If you put the seals on first the stage thereafter will be as slippery as an ice-rink. In Nights at the Comedy, my attempt to revive music hall in the West End, I put the seals on first. Ida Barr, on next, aged eighty-six and singing "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery", went head over heels into the orchestra stalls.'

'There you are,' Lovering had said. 'Your first burst of racontage already. We're up and running here.'

I now pass this idea on to the Publisher as mine.

'The past and the present side by side,' I say. 'How the retributive nature of one's biography bears down on the present, forming and transforming it. A volume of memoirs done as racontage to a second party, or parties, sharing current escapades. From Winchester to this.'

'I'm sorry?' says the Publisher.


Excerpted from From Winchester to This by William Donaldson. Copyright © 1998 William Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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