If diaries are all about name-dropping and indiscretion, and they usually are, perhaps I should say that I had lunch on Tuesday with the Prime Minister at No. 10. This is the sort of thing that no diarist could bear to suppress. On the other hand, the unwritten rules of journalism dictate that I can’t say anything about it. So does my editor at the Sunday Times. What a miserable dilemma. And in the very week when The Spectator asked me to write this diary. I suppose I can at least reveal that we had lamb stew followed by fruit salad; both were simple but good. Presumably the purpose of such meetings, among other things, is to subject us journalists to the Prime Minister’s formidable charm. This is the way the British establishment has traditionally succeeded in unmanning, or unwomanning, the awkward squad; it is also difficult to resist the seduction of smart invitations and the hope of more. It’s almost as bad as the corruption of friendship. I do feel slightly unwomanned, just for the moment, but, like the woman in the song, I will survive.
My other excitement of the week was a local Notting Hill charity quiz dinner for Response International, which helps with medicine and mine-clearing in places like Angola and Chechnya, in the aftermath of war, ‘after the cameras have left’. First prize was the Howitzer Cup, actually a 25mm mortar presented by a brave woman volunteer, who is a colonel in the Territorial Army. Large amounts of shepherd’s pie were cooked by other women volunteers – all very English, somehow. I am pleased and proud to say our table won, beating the powerful Sebastian Faulks team, mainly because we had an unknown champion in David Neuberger, old friend, polymath and judge. Feelings run very high in these charity quizzes, and I am afraid contestants are not always very sporting. After all, one’s intellectual prowess is at stake. One year at the River CafZ quiz, an event always studded with stars of the left-liberal intelligentsia, it quickly emerged, after the first few rounds, that an all-male team was winning easily. To our amazement an angry cry rose up from the assembled New Labour luvvies. ‘Cheating, cheating!’ they shouted. ‘It’s not fair! They haven’t got any women.’
I often think there is something very unfair and cheating about obituaries, which I read keenly every week. I know it’s very aging to be interested in obituaries; I wish I weren’t. I still have a schoolboy son at home, so I like to think that youth has not yet quite fled the house, but the truth is that, as time has worn on, obituaries have begun to interest me more than announcements of births and marriages. The end of the story is so very much more fascinating than the beginning, especially with famous people. But the trouble is that obituarists so often seem to get things wrong. Usually they’re much too nice and uncritical – de mortuis nil nisi bonum. But how absurd. The only sensible time to kick a man is when he’s not only down but dead. The obituarists were grovellingly, sickeningly nice about Roy Jenkins and Alan Clark, two of the nastiest men I ever met. It made me furious. Even journalists felt obliged to suck up to them post-mortem with laddish anecdotes and lunchtime reminiscences. Well, as the saying goes, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, say it now.
Et in Arcadia ego; I, too, once had lunch with that Roy Jenkins, at a glittering party in a private house. My delight at being placed next to the great man was soon crushed by the experience. He was so insufferably pompous and patronising that if we had been in a restaurant I would have walked out. Our conversation turned to the discrimination against private-school children at some Oxford and Cambridge colleges – now universally acknowledged and even recommended by our government. ‘It doesn’t happen,’ he told me flatly. I told him, politely I think, that I was convinced, both by talking to dons and by many individual accounts, that it did. ‘Nonsense,’ he said, really rudely. I persisted, whereupon he said, with magisterial disdain, ‘You do REALISE I am CHANCELLOR of Oxford University? I know all about it. I can’t help it if some of your friends’ children didn’t get into Oxford; they probably weren’t as clever as they thought they were.’ Vulgar, condescending ignorance! Later I worked out which character of fiction he reminded me of: it was Lady Catherine De Bourgh.
I wonder what my patron saint Jane Austen would have made of my encounter with Alan Clark. I met him at a political party in a private house not so long ago, for dinner and serious discussion. My motto has always been that any attention is better than none, so I didn’t mind, at first, that he started flirting, though, since I was not an admirer, I did not flirt back. His style was certainly distinctive. After the usual overtures, he told me, staring into my face, that my eyes were absolutely dazzling, mesmerising. Then he said he couldn’t work out whether that was because my eyes are too close together or whether it was because I have a squint. Despite this handicap, he pressed me more and more persistently to have dinner with him. I refused, very clearly, ever to have dinner or anything else with him. But he meant then and there. To leave the party at once. Apparently he thought saying no is a form of flirting; he pressed and pressed me, literally, as we queued to go into our hosts’ dining-room. When at last he came to believe I was impervious to his charms, and would not rush off with him into the night, he turned to me with a peculiarly vicious look. And this is what this self-styled gentleman, this ladies’ man, this intellectual, this flower of our civilisation then said: ‘Well, fuck you, then. Fuck off. I’m not talking to you any more.’ And he didn’t, I’m glad to say.
In thinking about death and the dead, I find the tough and truthful approach much more comforting than conventional pleasantries. I particularly loved the lines the artist Lincoln Seligman included on the service sheet at the memorial service of his father, Madron Seligman: ‘We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.’
Minette Marrin is a columnist on the Sunday Times.