I remember the very first literary party I was invited to over twenty five years ago. I was very excited and rather intimidated to be introduced to a writer whose work I greatly admired and who was regarded with something akin to reverence by many critics. To my dismay I soon saw that he was extremely drunk and not at all in a pleasant way. In fact with his psychotic glare and pent up anger he was a distinctly frightening figure.
I quickly sought to make some excuse and disappear into the crowd but he would not hear of it, demanding to know what I thought about all sorts of topics and arguing furiously with any opinion I ventured to advance. But though my views appeared to infuriate him, he seemed to take an inordinate and irrational liking to me, insisting that I come to stay with him in his cottage in Dartmoor (an offer I never took up.)
To my relief, after about an hour of this, he lost interest in me and wandered over to the window. The party was being held in an elegant part of Oxford and we were on the first floor. A moment later I heard the sound of glass shattering. It soon transpired that the eminent author had decided to amuse himself by throwing empty beer bottles onto the paving stones below. Not long after this he was forcibly removed from the party.
‘Is he often like this?’ I asked the host.
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘all the time.’
The author in question has been dead for a number of years but I will not embarrass anyone, myself included, by naming names.
I should not have been surprised. An author and his work are two very different things and a beautiful and profound piece of work may be produced by an absolutely vile individual. This truism was brought home to me more recently when I attended another literary get together in a well-known club in Central London. I was standing in a corner, wondering why I had come since I dislike parties so much, when I was hailed by another author whom I had met before once or twice.
For a couple of reasons my heart sank. Firstly because she is infinitely more successful than I am. (Yes I know that’s not very noble but there you are). But mainly because she is one of the most tedious women ever to walk upon the face of the Earth. It is impossible to have a conversation with her because she does not talk to you, she talks at you and she has one topic and one topic only: herself.
This occasion was to prove no exception. I heard in great detail about how well she was doing and about her plans for doing even better in the years to come. I think if I had fallen to the floor with a heart attack she would not have noticed but would simply have carried on talking until the paramedics arrived and asked her to step aside.
This morning I was out shopping with my wife and, happening to pass a book store I popped inside and glanced about for one of her books. I didn’t have to look very hard. There was a whole shelf of them. ‘I bet they’re complete rubbish!’ I said to myself, picking one up and opening it at the first page. In fact, it was terrific. The conception of the story was intelligent and imaginative. The writing was crisp and robust. The plot moved at a cracking pace. Within a few lines I was utterly gripped. Indeed, I only just stopped myself from buying a copy!
When I went back outside and re-joined my wife she peered at me curiously.‘Are you all right?’ she asked. ‘You look a bit pale.’
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. ‘Absolutely fine.’
I was lying, of course.