It’s a silly, chippy complex, I know, but I often feel, on the rare occasions that I am induced to attend a lunch or dinner party, that I don’t belong. This truth or delusion occasionally overwhelms me and I sit there, paralysed, unhappy and silent. It’s a pity. Today we were six for Sunday lunch and so far — apart from knocking over the coatstand, twice, during what one would have thought to be the simple act of hanging a jacket on one of the hooks, and breaking it in two — so good. The chap seated to my left — by a very surprising and agreeable coincidence, given that only the week before I had for the first time in my life read a collection of Sir Max Beerbohm’s marvellous essays —turned out to be the ‘Incomparable Max’s’ brother’s grandson, still proudly bearing the illustrious name down into the present day.
As we ate, conversation was sometimes local, sometimes general. The raised subject of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in Moscow provoked a free-for-all debate about whether Putin was directly responsible. Had the Russian president — a ‘moderate’ the experts tell us — perhaps popped out of the Kremlin for a moment, pulled the trigger himself and dramatically fled the scene in a getaway car? With a face like that, we thought, you wouldn’t put it past him.
Our host had been marvellous about his busted coatstand, roaring with laughter and saying, ‘I love it! Don’t you just love it? Isn’t it gorgeous!’ He was a foreign news correspondent, veteran of both the vicious Chechen wars, Bosnia and Iraq One. Serious for a moment, his considered opinion was that Putin had not ordered the political assassination, but rather that some unknown enthusiast had assumed that potting Mr Nemtsov was all in a good cause and that when Mr Putin heard about it he would be dancing around on the tips of his toes. This theory allowed someone else — perhaps inevitably — to boil it down to the quotation, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ And there followed a fingers-on-the-buzzer competition to remember who famously said that, and about whom. Offers flooding in from all sides included Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, Thomas à Kempis and Graham Greene.
The correct answer was supplied by a chap whose name I also didn’t catch, but whom I would have liked to have got to know better because he ate and drank in silence and was perhaps suffering from a similar complex to mine. All afternoon he contemplated the tablecloth as if pondering the deeper ramifications of everything that was being said. Now he spoke up. ‘It was Henry II referring to Thomas à Becket,’ he said, adding cryptically, ‘Grammar school boy.’ And that was the last we heard from him for the rest of the afternoon, except once, when he surreptitiously but audibly farted, and said we must excuse him, but he was ‘quelling the Boxer Rebellion’.
Of the heroine of his only novel, Sir Max Beerbohm wrote, ‘Zuleika, on a desert island, would have spent most of her time looking for a man’s footprint.’ Conversation with his brother’s grandson suggested that on a desert island he would spend most of his time looking for a woman’s. It was extraordinary, I told him, how one moment I was reading with surprise that comedic precision with words equal to Waugh’s, and the next I was sitting next to a Beerbohm at lunch.
He modestly replied that the family talent for language had hit the buffers with Max, although there was a single memorable phrase to be found in the quotation books for which he was responsible and which was perhaps evidence of a very vestigial genetic talent for language. He had spent his life in advertising, he said, and it was he who had coined the immortal phrase ‘Pick up a Penguin’. At which the company, with the exception of our history man, joyously burst out in unison: ‘P-p-p pick up a Penguin!’ ‘I love it! Don’t you just love it? Isn’t it gorgeous!’ roared our host, standing up and leaning far out in a joyous arc to refill every glass with his potent and unlimited home-made red wine.
Sir Max Beerbohm once summed up the rest of our lunch very nicely. ‘There is a laughter,’ he said, ‘that goes so far as to lose touch with its motive and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best.’
It was this sort of laughter that blew like a gale throughout the afternoon. ‘I love it! Don’t you just love it? Isn’t it gorgeous!’ said our host in a kind of ecstatic litany. Self-consciousness was impossible. It was gorgeous.