This is not a book likely to figure in the lists of the reading circles of Home Counties England. There is for a start the little problem of a title, which on the spine is How to Disappear but then itself does, for the centre of its frontispiece is A Memoir for Misfits. A dedication follows, ‘To my old friend Pedro Friedeberg whom I’ve never met’. Just three pages in, and every fuse in the brains of the respectable matrons who meet to talk about books will have blown over the Bristol Cream. And that is before they have even started reading.
What about? Oh, snobbery and sodomy, erections and drugs, you know the sort of thing, and, inevitably, faded hotels in faded seaside resorts in various parts of the world, all threaded together on quests for three people undertaken by the author who, like Alice, sees them disappear like the White Rabbit. Who are they? A man seduced 40 years before by the novelist Evelyn Waugh, as the result of which he sought sanctuary in a Welsh fishing village where he wrote a book on 20 ways to cook mackerel. Then there is the Indian Zoroastrian lady, the social climbing equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket. She managed to get the 90-year-old premier marquess of England to marry her, stealing him under the nose of James Bond’s creator’s mother (you might like to read that again), who later managed to steal him back and hustled him off to the Bahamas. Finally, a German artist who was said to be about to buy a Scottish island but never turned up. Nobody turns up.
Princess Diana figures in absence in the opening and, in her coffin, in the closing section. Evelyn Waugh (with, according to an eyewitness, his very small genitalia), is off-stage, as is Dylan Thomas’s wife Caitlin who, when the action slows, dances naked on assorted tables, watched once by the mackerel cook and a man with a machine-gun (it was the war after all, when, it was said, U-boat crews used to call like Jehovah’s Witnesses on the inhabitants of the more remote villages on the Cardiganshire coast). My father was there at the time, building a top-secret factory for a mysterious English major who had a contract to build bomber navigation aids in the village of New Quay; luckily, the major does not appear in the book, for mankind can only bear so much unreality. The top-secret factory is a chip shop now.
But Alastair Graham was there, having fled the attentions of Evelyn Waugh and the Metropolitan Police, but allegedly succumbing to those, according to Duncan Fallowell, of the village postman. As nobody in New Quay read Waugh (in which Graham contributes to Sebastian Flyte) his presence went unremarked until the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited when gossip identified the quiet man in the immaculate sailcloth trousers (Mr Graham having taken up mackerel fishing in place of intercontinental buggery) at the bar of the Dolau Arms, though the fact that in the village he was drinking Cinzano would already have made him notorious. It was there that Fallowell met him.
But did not meet him again, for Graham refused to open his door when, having found out who he was, he called to take him out to supper. As a result he is obliged to rely on letters — one to Waugh ‘With love from Alastair and his poor dead heart’ — and, after Graham’s death, on the threadbare reminiscences of the local doctor and a cleaning lady.
I used to stay in New Quay around this time and was shown his house in the terrace immediately below us; Graham had died a few years earlier. But then that is the odd thing: however bizarre the quarry, you, the reader, will find you have some small connection with him or her.
The last chapter is about the outpouring of national grief when Princess Diana died. Fallowell must have been between quests at the time, for he writes at length about the reactions he saw, and recorded, and the flowers he stepped over in the streets of London, pausing only to give the Royal Family a good kicking over their lack of public reaction to the death. You don’t often come on the Queen being given a kicking:
They began to look smaller and smaller. Their stultification became embarrassing, pitiful, scandalous. The Queen throughout her entire reign had never looked so cheap.
A few pages further on, there is another piece of social history. According to Fallowell, people’s reactions to the death prompted explosive bonking all over Britain, like that in doorways and parks the night of the 1918 Armistice. Eh? I never noticed. But he himself had been part of it, clocking up 40 sexual partners in a month (‘including a group of women in a naturist jacuzzi in Brighton’). Forty? But this included turning out behind Woolworth’s in the Porto-
bello Road when the opposing team was one short (‘I followed him down an alleyway and hey presto.’).
This is a strange book.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 17, 2011