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JEAN VANIER: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
As the young literary editor of The Scotsman in the mid-1960s, Christopher MacLehose proudly commissioned a series of two-page articles on the post-war novel in various countries. Germany, Italy, France, Japan and the Netherlands all received their due. Then one day his editor stopped him in the corridor. ‘Christopher,’ he said, ‘the North Vietnamese novel – more than half a page and you’re fired.’
Lunch at the Palazzo da Mosto is such a quintessentially Venetian experience that it would seem disrespectful not to arrive by way of the Grand Canal. Stepping ashore from a water taxi close to the Rialto, you find yourself at the end of a broad, sunny street lined with the usual tourist shops; but turn aside into a dark alleyway where the sky is a far-off ribbon of blue, and you step into another age.
You do not have to spend long in Tam Dalyell’s company to discover why he drives Government ministers demented, and has the rare distinction of being anathema to both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
Anyone who has read the Just So Stories can tell you what the crocodile has for dinner. But what does Redmond O’Hanlon – author, traveller and natural historian – tuck into of a quiet evening at his Oxfordshire cottage? His hilarious, compelling books of jungle exploration (Into the Heart of Borneo, In Trouble Again and Congo Journey) are so full of gorge-raising, stomach-turning, bowel-disordering delicacies that it seems a shame to find him sitting down to anything less disgusting than a weevil fricassée.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of London’s literary circles, the shaded area would be Claire Tomalin. As an author she has won Whitbread and Hawthornden and James Tait Black Memorial prizes; as a former literary editor she counts Julian Barnes, Timothy Mo and Clive James among her protégés; as a sitter on committees she has graced the British Library, the Royal Society of Literature and PEN; as a wife she enjoys the tea-making expertise of Michael Frayn. Among the big cheeses of the book world, she is up there with Samuel Pepys’s Parmesan, which he buried in his garden for safekeeping as the Great Fire of London raged on 4th September 1666.
A suite at the Savoy sounds like an eminently suitable place to meet Sir Ian McKellen. Its opulence is of the kind that ought to be enjoyed by an international film star; its location – surrounded by theatres, and a short carriage-drive from Buckingham Palace – makes it a perfect green room for one of our few actor knights. But Sir Ian is anxious to point out that he doesn’t actually live at the Savoy: he has simply come up river from Limehouse for the day; and as he fidgets in his Regency striped armchair – constantly rearranging himself, like one of those rubber toys that you scrumple up and watch gradually regain their original shape – he certainly seems far from at home.
Nothing can adequately prepare you for Craigie Aitchison’s house in south London, but if you imagine a cross between Aladdin’s cave and the premises of Steptoe & Son, you will be half way there. The amount of bric-a-brac is heroic.
When Niki Lauda was asked to wear a suit for the launch of the Jaguar R3 racing car, he refused. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there’s no need. I’m different: I only have one ear.’
There is a celebrated scene from Oklahoma! in which the mutually antagonistic farmers and cowboys set aside their differences and come together for a hoe-down. Something of the same spirit will be found in London this week when the bookmen of the Royal Society of Literature and the scientists of the Royal Society gather for the first of a new programme of joint meetings.
Four years into researching White Mughals, the true story of a love affair between a British diplomat and an Indian noblewoman in the age of Jane Austen, William Dalrymple was on a final visit to Hyderabad, where the couple had met. He had four hours to spare before catching the plane home, and decided to visit the bazaar to buy some ornate metalwork boxes – for which the city is famous – as presents for his family. But it was a Sunday: most of the bazaar was closed, and Dalrymple was beginning to despair when a stranger – offering his help in broken English – led him off to make one of the most extraordinary discoveries of writing career.
The Warwickshire Constabulary’s headquarters at Leek Wootton resembles something between a minor public school and a country club. A leafy avenue leads to a down-on-its-luck manor house surrounded by token lawns and a rabble of modern outbuildings; only the stern notices cautioning against parking on the verge, and a series of small mounds where a SWAT team of moles has been on underground manoeuvres, hints that this is a control-and-command centre in the struggle of law against disorder.
Until recently, Frances Barber was so embarrassed by her voice that even the bathroom tiles seemed too discerning an audience. Apart from an appearance as Nancy in a school production of Oliver!, she had never sung in public in her life: the suggestion that she should star in a new musical seemed ‘the most preposterous thing I had ever heard’.
To walk around the grounds of the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood is to feel your grip on reality being slowly prised loose.