Researching a new book on Shakespeare’s sonnets, I stumbled upon an astonishing piece of hitherto unnoticed evidence in a 16th-century book by a sex-maniac clergyman from Cambridge. I shall not bore you with the details; suffice it to say that William Covell (the author and S-MC in question) revealed in words not especially ambiguous by Elizabethan standards that ‘Shakespeare’ was a nom de plume used by the courtier poet Edward de Vere. Now a lot of people have been saying this for a very long time — so stale buns to that, you may think — except that no one has yet noticed that the matter was revealed in a book as long ago as 1595, so that makes it an important discovery. Well the Sunday Times ran a jumbled account on its news pages illustrated by a photograph of a nudist performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Times ran a piece the next day suggesting that ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ was a rarely performed play by Shakespeare.
Our newspapers may be put together by degraded and ill-educated editors, but the reports were still just about coherent enough to rouse the hornet’s nest. ‘Stratfordians’ used to hoot at anyone who questioned their orthodoxy, but now that the tide of evidence has turned against them, and almost every intelligent educated person concedes, at very least, that there is a genuine authorship problem, their derisive laughter has toned itself down to the sort of soft growl that senile dogs emit when you try to get them into the car. After two days of manfully parrying emails of vituperation (‘Evelyn [sic] your [sic] just an attention seeking pratt [sic]’: ‘why give air to the views of that talentless little wanker Waugh’ etc), I decided that enough was enough and it was time to take myself abroad.
British Airways has just started direct flights from Heathrow to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China and supposedly the fastest-growing city in the world. Two days among 14 million Chengdu Chinese, none of whom has ever heard of Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, was just what I needed. At Xiongmao Jidi, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, I saw a panda penis and balls preserved in formaldehyde, photographs of pandas attempting copulation, and of masked Chinese surgeons penetrating unconscious female pandas with gaudy plastic inseminators. Two living but hairless adults were held each in a cramped concrete cage. Uniformed security guards dragged me from three motionless babies when I asked if they might be dead. Two adolescents held in another cage were kept from repose by a zookeeper antagonising them with a luminous broom handle. The crowds were not interested in seeing the animals except through the lenses of their cameras and were ruthless in barging themselves and their equipment to the front. None of the pandas looked happy. Oh the hell of belonging to one of the cuter species! Were I a giant panda I would prefer the extinction of my entire race to any one of the humiliations inflicted upon me at Xiongmao Jidi.
Returning to Heathrow the next day, I headed straight to Milton Keynes to catch Dame Edna Everage at the start of her ‘Farewell Tour’. Uncontrollable laughter for two hours left me with a headache that lasted the night. Next morning I felt a heart attack coming on — sharp pain in the left side of my chest, heavy weights pushing against the ribcage, numbness in the shoulder and a left hand that seemed colder and clammier than the right. When I explained this to the woman from NHS Direct and told her that I had just come off a long-haul flight, she ordered me to check myself immediately into the accident and emergency unit of my nearest hospital. After three-and-a-half hours of X-ray, blood test, ECG scan, leg-slapping, form-filling, probes and inquisitions, the wonderfully efficient and sympathetic staff of the Northampton General Hospital discharged me with a clean bill of health. I walked out backwards feeling perfectly well, but ashamed and dribbling in supine apology. They laughed and wished me good day. The diagnosis was ‘phantom heart attack’ and for a moment, out of sheer embarrassment, I wished it had been a real one.