I’d never have guessed that there was a connection between Joan Collins and the novelist Anthony Powell, the centenary of whose birth is being commemorated with an exhibition at the Wallace Collection. But there is, as I discovered quite by chance 20 years ago when I went to interview Powell to mark his 80th birthday. He and his wife Lady Violet had invited me for lunch before the interview; indeed he had himself prepared one of his famous curries and he greeted me at the door wearing a cook’s apron. At one point during lunch he asked me who had been my last interviewee. My heart sank. Would he feel demeaned when he heard my answer? Would he think that he was in the wrong company? Should I name my last interviewee but one, Isaiah Berlin? I plucked up my courage. ‘Joan Collins,’ I murmured. ‘Perhaps you’ve heard of her?’ (Joan at that time was mainly identified with the American soap opera Dynasty; she had not yet become a national institution.) When she heard the name, Lady Violet gave a little shriek of pleasure. ‘Did you hear that, Tony — Joan Collins! We’re her oldest fans! We’ve got a photo of her. Let’s find it, Tony.’ They both then sprang up from the table and got down on their hands and knees to search among old photographs in a nearby bottom drawer. Soon they surfaced triumphantly with a large group photo of Francis Holland School — at which one of their sons had been a pupil — circa 1943. Joan, clearly recognisable in pigtails, was grinning in the middle row (her sister, Jackie, was also in the picture). The Powells, when they attended the school’s end-of-term performances, had soon spotted Joan’s budding star quality and kept an eye out for her. They often used to watch the Francis Holland pupils playing games in Regent’s Park, and noted that even in her early teens Joan was dressed in the fashion of the day: tight black jumper, thick black eye make-up and bright-red lipstick. Whenever she came into view, Powell told me, Violet would presciently remark: ‘Look, there goes trouble.’ This all came back to me as I was going round the excellent show — called Dancing to the Music of Time — at the Wallace.
It is quite rightly illegal to drive a car while talking into a mobile phone. But what about walking while talking? The other day, not for the first time, I narrowly avoided driving into a pedestrian who was so engrossed in his phone conversation that he stepped like a zombie from pavement to road without looking up — let alone to left or right. In general, I don’t like the idea of new laws, but ought there not to be one against dangerous walking?
Usually, when visiting a university campus, I feel tremendously pleased no longer to be a student. But on a recent trip to Lebanon I was taken round the American University of Beirut, which overlooks the Mediterranean, and I felt almost envious of the lively young men and women strolling among the beautiful college buildings and gardens. The university was founded in the late 19th century by American missionaries and has grown into the most prestigious academic institution in the Arab world. While I was there, I talked to a small group of aspiring journalists who were editing the weekly college newspaper. We discussed the dangers for them of a journalistic career (in the past few months one journalist has been assassinated in Lebanon and another maimed) and the freedom of the press in Britain. I was surprised to discover that even these liberally educated students were under the impression that the British media is largely controlled by a powerful Jewish lobby. When I told them that this was nonsense, they looked bewildered.
The drilling and banging in our terrace house is sometimes so loud that I can’t hear the phone ring, let alone conduct a conversation on it. The roses in the garden are covered with a layer of dust. The residents’ parking bays outside the house have been suspended for three weeks. Worst of all, ‘an infestation of rodents’, as our electrician called it — i.e., a small army of mice (we’ve never had any before), has found refuge in our basement kitchen and damaged some cables under the floor which will have to be repaired at great inconvenience. All this because my next- door neighbour has decided to gut and rebuild his house. It will take nearly two years, and there’s nothing I can do about it. My neighbour is a friendly and helpful man who will pay all expenses incurred, but it will still be a horrible ordeal. Life’s very unfair, but so is the compensation culture. If, for example, someone pats your bottom on the Undergound, you may, if you choose to bring a charge, be awarded thousands of pounds in compensation; meanwhile, months of daily pounding and torment have to be endured without consolation.
What strikes me about the two Davids — happy though I would be with either — is that Dave, who is regarded as the very embodiment of youthful optimism and forward-looking modernity, looks rather more middle-aged and staid than his older rival, the boyishly charming and less cautious David. Moreover, I’ve conducted a small poll among my women friends and they all agree that DD is definitely the more sexy candidate. Of course, these are superficial considerations. But then appearances are often a better guide to reality than they are reputed to be.
Once a week I teach English to a small group of immigrants at a school in Kilburn run by an educational charity. Usually the group consists of a Spanish couple, a Brazilian woman and a man from Nigeria. Last week we were joined by a charming young Muslim woman wearing a hijab. As part of the lesson, we read and discussed a newspaper article about the French riots, so I was particularly careful not in any way to offend her. I talked about deprivation, unemployment and social exclusion. When the class was over, the young woman, I noted, stepped into a large Mercedes and drove off.