After the launch party of Harry Mount’s How England Made the English, there was a second, impromptu, diehards’ party at a flat belonging to a book reviewer called Molly. Here I fell into conversation with a publisher who, while making a lunge for our hostess, invited me to another book launch slated for the following week.
An official invitation arrived by email a few days later. The book was called The Irresistible Mr Wrong. It was written by a notorious old roué, I vaguely remembered the publisher saying, who in his prime had married a string of celebrated beauties, seduced countless others, and was so fabulously well endowed he had a giant pepper pot named after him. I think he’d also said that the book asks the serious question: what is it that makes women fall so easily for charming scoundrels? Earlier, I’d thought I was in with a shout with our hostess, and I can remember looking jealously at the publisher and his possessive, caressing hands and asking myself exactly the same question.
The launch party was in the form of a buffet lunch in Notting Hill. I pressed the bell of a white townhouse on the dot of 12.30, and after a pause was led up to the first floor and shown into an elegant drawing-room. At the far end, in front of the open window, stood what I guessed to be the author. He was deep in conversation with another elderly male. Wavy silver hair, blazer, pink and sky-blue diagonal-striped tie, blue jeans, black loafers: Priapus himself, if I wasn’t mistaken. The living embodiment and perhaps even the origin of the term ‘the swinging Sixties’.
At the nearer end of the room, two other early arrivals, publisher types, were chatting amiably beside the drinks table. One of these, a welcoming soul, passed me a wide glass of Pimms, topped it up reverently with Prosecco, and, as he did so, said with awe, ‘Huge.’
‘The bigger the better,’ I said appreciatively, taking an exploratory sip. But he wasn’t talking about my Pimms. ‘Have you read it?’ he said. ‘The description?’ I confessed not. Displayed around the room were pristine copies of The Irresistible Mr Wrong. He took one up, opened it at a page near the beginning and read aloud from it, following the words with his index finger. ‘The last foot of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat…the most magnificent she’d ever seen…thick as a man’s wrist… Yul Brynner in a turtleneck…’
I glanced sideways at the author, still in conversation at the far end of the room. The face was deeply lined, otherwise he seemed disappointingly normal and perfectly able to make polite small talk in spite of his prodigiousness.
Other guests arrived — nobody I knew. But everybody in the room was very approachable and once you got talking to them, surprisingly broad-minded. I introduced myself to a man with dried emulsion paint on his shoes and a soaking-wet shirt who said he was the owner of the house. He was chain-smoking cigarettes and glugging down his wine in great gulps. He interrogated me closely about the extent of my various sins, as though he were Satan, or at least very high up in the chain of command of evil, and I was a novice sinner applying for the post of acolyte.
Then I thought it was about time I met the author. I went across and offered my hand. ‘Jeremy,’ I said. ‘I’m Jeremy, too,’ he said. ‘I should remember your name, at least, with any luck.’ Charm personified. Dazzling set of Hampsteads. I bowed humbly and withdrew backwards, knocking into an alert young woman who said, ‘Who are you, then?’
Surreptitiously indicating the author with my eyes, I did the fisherman’s boast thing with my hands and an inscrutable Chinaman with my face. Had she ever been out with a man purely because of his size, I wondered? ‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘It’s my chief criterion.’ This woman spoke so frankly on the subject that I briefly imagined I was in with a shout with her, too. But I think she belonged to Satan for the afternoon.
Then she said, ‘But it’s not Jeremy who’s massive, you know. The book’s not about him. It’s a biography of the playboy Porfirio Rubirosa.’ Happily, my stupidity knows no bounds, and I can easily laugh off even the most fundamental of misapprehensions. And I was slinging them down by now, and chain-smoking, and the rest of the afternoon suddenly telescoped into about ten minutes flat, and the next thing I knew I was slumped queasily on one of the sofas, a cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, and I was alone in the room.
And then Satan came in, preoccupied, stark naked, in a state of semi-arousal. He picked up a cigarette lighter from a table, lit a cigarette, then vanished again before I could think of an appropriate greeting.