Rachel Johnson, in last week’s Spectator diary, says that her husband says she only writes a book in order to have a launch party. Me too. My thoughts are too disordered to write a book from scratch, but now and then someone offers to publish a collection of these columns and I, fantasising about a party with all my pals there, agree to it. Times must have changed for the publishing industry since Short Books put out the last Low life collection and gave me a terrific launch party, because the publisher of this latest collection stated with finality (once the book was done and dusted) that publishers no longer finance launch parties. I am invited to book launches all the time and was therefore gobsmacked and sceptical on hearing that. But if Rachel Johnson’s publisher refuses even her a launch bash, I suppose there must be some truth in it.
In the end, The Spectator stepped in and gave me a launch party in the garden at 22 Old Queen Street last Friday. Hennessy, who are celebrating their 25oth anniversary this year, sent inconceivably large bottles of cognac. Brighton Gin, made with juniper and milk thistle, and therefore healthful for the liver, supplied the G and T. I invited 25 guests, the publisher ten, about a dozen came from The Spectator, and there were 12 Spectator readers, winners of the ‘My biggest drink or drug debacle’ essay competition, selected by me.
Rachel Johnson says that half of those whom she invited to her party failed to turn up. In my case, two thirds of my 25-strong guest list cried off or simply didn’t appear. But the great Taki was there, which is all that mattered, and we had a jolly little party, and come the end nearly every person I chatted to appeared to be suffering from an insult to the brain. I was too busy signing books to get properly stuck in, and could have passed a breathalyser test at any stage of the evening.
I now wish I had managed to drink more. My genetic inheritance is a peculiar mixture of reticence and forwardness. Unfortunately, I am reticent when I ought to be forward and forward when I ought to be reticent. At the party my attack of reticence was moderate to severe. Because I had little opportunity to pour alcohol down my throat — my equivalent of hauling on a big brass lever in the signal box and switching the points — I was stuck with it. And the very last place where one ought to be a shrinking violet is at one’s own book launch.
As I made my way around the party, I was met with either round abuse or extravagant praise. ‘Hallo, cunt,’ was how I was greeted by the first person I saw as I entered the Spectator offices. Preceded by the ubiquitous adjective, the phrase never sounds clichéd, does it? The term was applied to me throughout the evening by the friends of mine that did turn up. My friend Steven, for example, a funerary celebrant, whom I first met in Mrs Asplin’s infants’ class when we were five, angrily shouted this phrase at me whenever I came within ten yards of him. He didn’t speak to anyone else. He was either calling me that or speaking urgently into his phone, perhaps calling someone else it. Sometimes he could stand it no longer and would seek me out and shout it in my ear as I scribbled on the title page of someone’s book. He was, I suppose, the slave at the Roman triumph, whispering in the Emperor’s ear the modern-day version of memento mori.
Others, some eminent, praised the column. When I am feeling forward, of course, I can take praise all day long. When I am feeling reticent, even praise that is sincerely and humbly expressed is horrifying. In a letter to the poet Anne Sexton, the late poet laureate Ted Hughes warned her about the dangers of praise. Praise for one’s stuff is corrosive, he said, because it confirms you in your own conceit; it elects you into the government; it makes you self-conscious; it creates an ‘underground opposition’; it deprives you of your own anarchic liberties; it fatally satisfies ambition; it separates you from your devil, who hates being observed; it deprives you of your detachment; and, worst of all, perhaps, as far as Ted was concerned, it banishes your ‘spirit helpers’. Obviously, I’m a hack, not a creative soul. Nevertheless praise, whether faint or extravagant, has, if I’m feeling reticent, a nightmarish quality that makes me jumpy. So when the thank-you notes came in from the readers the next day, and one began with, ‘You are completely different to what I imagined, and are indeed a charlatan masquerading as a lowlife,’ it was in its way as welcomely refreshing as mint mouthwash.