Rubbing shoulders with political suits on the pavement outside the Westminster Arms, I drank two pints of Spitfire. Pump primed, I strolled the 50 quaint yards along Old Queen Street and entered the Spectator offices through the open door of number 22. An elderly chap on his way out said, ‘You’ve missed the speeches.’ I said, ‘Is all of literary London in there?’ ‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ he said huffily.
I went downstairs to the party and grabbed a ready-poured gin and tonic from the drinks table of one’s dreams. For the next hour, knocking back gins and working my way to the back of the garden, I chatted to the following Spectator personnel, and in roughly the following order: Clarke Hayes, Mark Mason (newly met), the great Liz Anderson (very recently retired, currently taking French lessons in Menton), Alexander Chancellor the Great, Laura Atkins, Fraser Nelson, Ferdinand Mount (with a clumsy bandage flapping from his nose, which made me laugh, because he has the type of face I can’t help associating with an intelligent East End villain), Harry Mount, Molly Guinness, Mary Wakefield, Sam Leith (our new literary editor, three sheets to the wind), and a very wonderful, and wonderfully drunk American woman (raised in the Central African Republic in the Bokassa years), who is newly arrived at The Spectator from the Wall Street Journal, and whose name I stupidly couldn’t retain. And there, seated at the wrought-iron table at the end of the garden, surrounded by three lovely young daughters, was the man whose career we’d all come to celebrate — our retiring literary editor, Mark Amory.
I am in awe of Mark Amory. To me, he is a great celebrity. We recalled our first meeting. At a Spectator party in Doughty Street I’d sought him out and said, ‘Was it really you who edited Evelyn Waugh’s letters?’ He said that it was. Had he met him? He had. He was friends with Auberon as a schoolboy, and he used to stay at Combe Florey in the holidays. I was inarticulate, he said, only managing the most common expletive by way of a reply. And at virtually every summer party since then, I’ve lurched or bounded up to him and said, ‘Go on, then. What was He like?’
Being a perfectly polite man, every year Mark Amory pretends to consider my inane question afresh, and every year he had said, as though suddenly struck by a very new aspect of the man, ‘He wanted you to please him; and he made you want to please him.’ As idolatrous as the man who danced with a girl who had danced with the Prince of Wales, I am thrilled to the core. But finally even Mark Amory’s oriental politeness was stretched to breaking point by the attentions of such a bore, and when he saw me coming he’d make a dash for it. Which he did now, shepherding his girls ahead of him, saying that he was leaving for Ireland.
And then I noticed that the caterers were packing up, and the party had shrunk to a lit-up rump of boozers, who had coalesced into an unsteady knot in the garden, much like the one in William Barnes Wollen’s depiction of the 44th Foot’s last stand at Gandamak. The woman from the Wall Street Journal, perhaps unused to bars shutting so early, toddled off to find more alcohol, and returned beaming with a gin bottle and tonics on a precariously tilting tray. We polished that off then fell out of The Spectator and into the pub across the road, where we shouted in each others’ faces until the barman refused to serve us any longer because one of our party had punctuated her drinks order by falling down, so we all piled into a cab to go dancing in Soho.
In Soho we lost two of our party between quitting the taxi and entering the first club. One of these was last seen on the very doorstep. There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip, we supposed. We lost another at the entrance to the second club, assessed correctly by a doorman as being too inebriated to be allowed in. Which now left three of us still dancing and chucking back vile concoctions of every hue. Then (it all went black, your honour) I met a woman in the street quite at random and I went off to a club with her. But when she took off her coat in this club and started dancing, she looked so well that she was immediately besieged by fervently attentive Italians, and I was rejected in favour of these younger, more upright suitors. Outside in the street, a busker was sawing the theme to The Godfather on his violin with such heart-rending emotion, I leant heavily against the railings and tears welled in my eyes and I let them fall.