Tuesday 12 May 2009

Stranger than fiction. . .

Last Sunday Elisabetta and I went to the May Literary Picnic on Richmond’s Green. This year, veteran writer PD James was in discussion with two other novelists, Lee Langley and Gyles Brandreth. The way it works is that you bring some food and wine, share it with the people at your table (tables are pre-arranged, and we always end up at the Publishers Association’s table, courtesy of our friend and event organizer Clive Bradley) and listen to the talk as you eat and drink. In short, a very civilized way to spend a sunny day in May in England.

This year’s debate was one of the most interesting in years, and people especially enjoyed the joke-riddled contribution by Gyles Brandreth, an Oscar Wilde fan and a clever speaker. The highlight of the day – apart from Elisabetta’s cataclysmic fall on the floor when she tried to sit down on a non-existent chair – was when Gyles recounted how Oscar Wilde once invited an audience to ask him about any subject they might think of. Someone shouted: “I have a question about the Queen”, and Oscar Wilde replied coolly: “The Queen is not a subject.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s funny. There was also an evocation of a dinner on 10th May Eighteen-something, when Oscar Wilde got together with Arthur Conan-Doyle, JM Barrie, Bram Stoker and two more famous writers whose name now escapes me. That also sounded a bit spurious, but it’s the sort of thing any wine-sipping and cheese-nipping audience gladly sucks up to on a day like that, and I was more than happy to join the crowd in the final applause.

The gentleman sitting next to me, Tony, turned out to be a literary agent. As the conversation went on, it became clear that he knew very well about many of the authors and books I referred to. More often than not, when you talk about Ionesco or Journey to the End of the Night, you get a funny, quizzical face, but Tony seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. It emerged that he had directed for years the Richmond Theatre (the big one, not the Orange Tree Theatre) and that – surprise of surprises – he was the agent not only of John Arden and many other famous dramatists but of . . . Bettina Jonic, i.e. John Calder’s second wife, with whom he split up acrimoniously a few decades ago. And sure as hell Bettina’s writing a memoir, My Life with . . . – no, it’s not what you think, wait for this – My Life with Samuel Beckett !

Isn’t life stranger than fiction at times? Fancy me publishing that book one day – maybe under the Calder imprint. . . Perhaps I should ask John if he’d like to edit it. . .


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