Former prisoner Stephen Fry told Pentonville inmates that, after public school, jail was easy

Seventeen ninety-eight was a marvellous year, the Lyrical Ballads and all. If we are looking at books and pictures, 1998 seems pretty good. In October we had Richard Holmes's second volume of his great life of Coleridge, the darker reflections as opposed to the early visions. Michael Ignatieff published Isaiah Berlin, a book which once picked up cannot be dropped. Ralf Dahrendorf compares Berlin to Erasmus: I cannot comment, because I have never read Erasmus, but Berlin and Coleridge are two of the mightiest talkers in our history.

In terms of dialogue, I have always thought that one between William Blake and Dr Johnson would have been fun - and, in fact, quite possible, around 1780. Berlin and Coleridge - a dialogue that would not have been possible - would have made good talk together, although I suppose neither would have listened to the other. Max Beerbohm's drawing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talking, which shows the diners around the poet dozing, is probably untruthful. And I certainly never noticed anyone asleep while Berlin held forth.


I learnt with sadness of the premature death of our Poet Laureate, my precise contemporary. Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, and his Tales from Ovid, gave us lyrical ballads and, although I have yet to read them through (I suffer from a lack of feeling for Sylvia Plath), they are both important features of the year. But who is to succeed Hughes as Poet Laureate? No paper seems to mention Christopher Logue, that learned translator of Homer, the editor of the Oxford Book of Pseuds.


At 2 Cork Street I discovered Helly Nahmad, who has an extraordinary show of Picasso's paintings, catalogued most beautifully by the curator, James Hyman. On the ground floor there are at least a dozen superb paintings, almost all of grand museum standard. I went downstairs and found a large white room, empty but for a comfortable sofa, and 20 or so great Picassos, including family studies, a child on a tricycle and Marie Therese, Dora, Francoise and Jacqueline.

I cannot think of a sofa better placed in the whole of London; when you sit there, examining the incomparable pictures and playing the game of "which one would I take home?", half an hour rapidly turns into an hour.


I take the bus to Oxford. There, at the Ashmolean, I found a show featuring the work of an artist wholly unknown to me, John Malchair. There is a masterly catalogue, of the kind you can take away and read for pleasure. Malchair was born in Cologne in 1730, came to England when about 24 and stayed here. He played music, led a band, drew, taught, and was married - the happiest event, he declared, of his life - and became the leading draughtsman in Oxford. He lived with apparent serendipity until the age of 82. The fun with his catalogue is to identify from the pictures the place as it is now, with the rumble of buses replacing the rattling of carriages. The drawing on the cover, with its ancient bridge, is Cornmarket Street (somewhere near the Co-op, I think). "St Peter's in the East from New College Garden displays," writes Colin Harrison, curator of the exhibition, "mild perversity with concentration on the garden to the detriment of architecture. As a study in foliage, however," he generously adds, "it is the most extravagant and varied he produced."


I have been enjoying a few other public events of late. Last month the Arthur Koestler exhibition of prison art appeared as usual in the top floor of Whiteleys, in Queensway, west London. I bought a small pot, the bust of a villain leering, white-faced and in dark spectacles, placed on a little stand painted to suggest crumbling bricks and plants. It was a huge show of paintings and craft objects, opened by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and by that remarkable former prisoner, the actor Stephen Fry.

Fry had earlier spoken to the prisoners of Pentonville at the launch of "Unlock". That, too, was an important event of the autumn: where else could you hear Fry telling rows of adult prisoners that he had been in prison when he was young, and there was nothing very hard about it if you had been at public school?

"Unlock" is an organisation founded by two former prisoners, Mark Leech and Bob Turney (both of whom have written excellent memoirs of their prison life), designed as an old boys' association to represent the interests of ex-prisoners who are determined now to go straight and to encourage the rehabilitative side of prison life. I cannot think why it was not started years ago, with Stephen Fry to lead the prisoners.


And why did not dim, industrial Bilbao build its glittering Guggenheim Museum years ago? I visited it with the Contemporary Arts Society last month to wonder at the titanium tiles and the extraordinary lines of Frank Gehry's silvery construction. Inside, a distinguished show of ancient Chinese art was not entirely happy among the elegant glitter. I felt the man-sized soldiers from an ancient army needed rather simpler barracks, but overall the Guggenheim can give only pleasure.


If I had to choose among the pleasures of my present existence, I would say that gazing at Picassos from the sofa at Helly Nahmad would rate high. As would an evening with Ignatieff's Berlin. They had a lot to enjoy in 1798, but I do not believe they had more than us.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians