When the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, was pelted with green custard last week, he reportedly remarked to an aide that the fluid “looked like guacamole” – a reference to the apocryphal tale that he once mistook chip-shop mushy peas for avocado dip. Mandelson has always denied it, but as his humorous aside shows, he is fully aware that it is the destiny of politicians to be remembered for words they didn’t actually say. In years to come we will forget all about the green custard assault, but the guacamole stain on his reputation will never go away. This media virus has become encrypted in his political DNA, just as David Cameron will be forever associated with the words “Hug a hoodie”, even though they were not his but originated with an Observer headline writer. Jim Callaghan’s “Crisis? What crisis?” also entered the lexicon despite the quip never having passed his lips.
Similarly, Gordon Brown has often been mocked for pronouncing on “the death of celebrity culture”. But the words he used were not quite so definitive. “I think we’re moving from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters,” he told a literary festival back in 2007. Politicians: we misquote them at our convenience and at their peril.
Is the newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare really that of my namesake? I am in two minds and yes, since you ask, my family claims to be descended from the Bard, although parish records were destroyed in a flood in the late 17th century, so there is no firm proof. My favourite picture still remains the Chandos portrait from the National Portrait Gallery (based on the engraving by Martin Droeshout), a copy of which used to hang on my grandparents’ wall. I was always impressed by how this portrait showed the playwright sporting an earring (sadly missing from the new Cobbe oil painting). What a groover, I thought. Then I read in a biography some years ago that this was not a sign of grooviness. Far from it. In Elizabethan times, wearing an earring was a cure for short-sightedness and was akin to a form of acupuncture. Now I am very short-sighted and I have a Shakespeare forehead. What more evidence do I need that I am related?
The French ambassador in London, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, continues to astound with his polymathy. When confronted with the winner of this year’s Duff Cooper Prize, a 600-page book about the inventor of the atomic bomb, Maurice G-M read every word of it in a week. Sacrebleu! This is quite a feat, given that English is the ambassador’s second language. More impressive still was his performance at the prize presentation, proclaiming the scholarship of Martin J Sherwin and Kai Bird, co-authors of American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer.
At his residence in Kensington Palace Gardens, the ambassador made an impassioned 30-minute speech in English, astounding guests such as Lord Fellowes, Lord Egremont, Caroline Michel and Philip Ziegler with his erudition. However, the attention of some did wander. “It was a very good speech,” Claus von Bülow told me. “It made you want to read the book. It would take less time.”
Lady Antonia Fraser ventured out for one of the first times since the death of her husband, Harold Pinter, to the Orion Authors’ Party. Also in the throng at the Victoria & Albert Museum was Ion Trewin, who promises fresh mistresses and fresh revelations in his forthcoming biography of Alan Clark. Another guest, the Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs, fortunately did not appear to encounter Amanda Ross – who, as the creator of Richard and Judy’s book club, is a boon to the book world, but also happens to be the sister-in-law of Sachs’s prank caller Jonathan Ross.
The party’s host, Peter Roche, CEO of Orion, said that Gordon Brown’s age of austerity shouldn’t mean joylessness, hence the celebratory mood. “In this foggy landscape we are are hoping that the smoke is not leading us to the edge of the cliff,” he said.
The evening marked another milestone: for the first time, there were more literary agents at the party than there were authors. The novelist and screenwriter Julian Fellowes told me that his mind was full of film scripts. “The science of selling books fascinates me,” said Fellowes. “The hardback must be dressed up like a Christmas present.” And so should literary agents, especially if they want to survive the book crunch.
Much hilarity about the pencil holder, lovingly carved from the timbers of HMS Gannet, that Gordon Brown gave to Barack Obama. All our Prime Minister received in return was a boxed set of 25 American films. The Gannet was used to suppress the slave trade in the 19th century, firing on the Sudanese in 1888. In fact, the Gannet could be seen as an inspiration for America in its battle against Islamic extremism. The ship engaged with the forces of Osman Digna, a former slave dealer and supporter of the jihadist Mad Mahdi, and thus assisted in toppling a fundamentalist state that had been waging war against the rest of civilisation. Let’s hope Obama’s pen is as mighty as Gordon’s pencil holder.
Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary