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As Ian Hislop once told me, name-droppers have a distorted sense of their own importance

It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway.

Pants man: Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna in the 1979 London stage version of The King and I. Photo: Getty
Pants man: Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna in the 1979 London stage version of The King and I. Photo: Getty

It was leaving drinks for the Yank the other day at the Uxbridge Arms. For those who missed her earlier appearances in this column, I summarise: New Yorker, loud, funny, often moved to sarcasm (“Oh really?” sounds very good with a Noo Yoik twang), fond of a drinkie, and for a few months a traumatised resident of the Hovel. (It’s like being a ring-bearer. However briefly you carried the burden, you are in an exclusive club, and can be taken to Elvenhome when you’re about to pop your clogs by way of recompense.)

Anyway, all was going swimmingly, until I heard someone at a table not far from me – the Yank, being popular, had managed to pack out one of the pub’s bars – make a joke, or shall we say an observation, that revolved around my being something of a name-dropper.

This rather dented my enjoyment of the evening, for I like to think of myself as not so much a name-dropper as the sprinkler of a little minor-celebrity fairy-dust in order to put a little sparkle into other people’s lives. It’s probably a fault I picked up from my mother, who until she met my father used to be a very up-and-coming star on Broadway. I would, every so often, in that charming way children have of loving to hear a favourite tale repeated, ask her to tell me again about the time Yul Brynner chased her around her dressing room in his underpants when they were both appearing in The King and I. (To tell the truth, I was never entirely convinced of the veracity of this anecdote until I saw on the family shelves a copy of Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor: on the Technique of Acting, preface by Yul Brynner, and with a very large and bold inscription to my mother from the bald thespian himself, in handwriting that seemed, all these years down the line, to be still chasing her round the room, in its underpants.)

Also: I liked the way that this column’s godfather, Jeffrey Bernard’s Low Life, would drop the odd name from time to time; when Bernard mentioned the actor Tom Baker (and his very sensible idea that the NHS should be allowed to prescribe money as well as medicines) I thrilled to the knowledge that this man might have been a miserable alcoholic perpetually on the edge of destitution, but he knew Doctor Who. I never thought, “Huh, show-off.”

As it is, the number of names I can drop isn’t that very many, and as they’re almost all writers I have come to know after 20-odd years in the biz, they shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. And anyway, the man who made the remark about me should count himself extremely lucky to be at liberty to have made it on licensed premises two and a half miles from Wormwood Scrubs, rather than imprisoned within it, for he has done far worse things than name-drop, and for once I do not exaggerate for comic effect in the slightest.

But the problem that name-dropping reveals of the character of the droppers is the false estimation they have of their own importance in the grand scheme of things. This is all part of the fun.

Which is all by way of long explanation for the excitement I felt the other day when I got a phone call from Ian Hislop’s assistant, checking she had the right number for me, and could Ian call me soon? Now, I do know Mr Hislop well enough to go up to him at a party, say “Hello, Ian” and not actually be met with a blank look, but we are not quite on calling-each-other-up terms. So my thoughts ran in this order: 1. Private Eye has discovered The Awful Truth about me, and Ian is telling me that now might be a good time to flee the country. 2. Something awful has happened to Francis Wheen. And 3, which I decided in the end was the one I liked the sound of most, Mr Hislop has seen what was in front of his eyes all along and wants me to appear on Have I Got News For You. In which case my long struggle against alcoholic destitution will be over and my burgeoning TV career will sort out any financial unpleasantnesses for the rest of my life. In the bath, as I waited for his call, I fine-tuned my screen persona and frame of topical reference. Would I, though, do an ad for butter, like John Lydon? I don’t know. It would depend on the script.

Later on I learned that all he’d wanted was Laurie Penny’s email address. A small world crashed. But did I ever mention that I know Laurie Penny?