Two summers ago at La Rondinaia, during one of those last evenings before he flew from his sky-high eyrie for the last time, Gore Vidal advised me to read the 19th-century memoirist Augustus Hare’s The Story of my Life, an author with whom he felt great affinity. ‘And read all six volumes, too’, he added. Within a fortnight John Saumarez Smith had produced a set, and within moments I was hooked on Hare. Where but in Hare could one learn that Queen Victoria was in fact christened Victorina, but, in the trial of Queen Caroline, a little girl of that name ‘played a most unpleasant part’, so the Duchess of Kent changed her daughter’s. What could this lanky, esoteric, snobbish, sensitive bachelor with a mother problem, whose life spanned a previous century, and whose circle and circuit were the drawing-rooms of that century, possibly have in common with Vidal, a writer whose catalogue raisonné is so diverse, so worldly, so strong, so deftly tailored, and he himself the embodiment of an urbane, modern man of letters? Well, much the above, as it happens, plus a gimlet eye and an elephantine memory.