The other day, I bought a second-hand copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity. I'd never read this famous work of William Empson's, but at only 10p per ambiguity it proved a bargain - unlike The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where I nodded off part-way through the first habit. Second-hand books are always good mystery value. Many seem to have been pre-owned by aliens still grappling with earth-speak, who have underlined words and phrases in blunt pencil. How do they choose? If Empson were to write "I'll catch a fox and put him in a box", the previous owner would underline "in".
How ambiguous I am myself - how invisible, in fact - I learnt when sprinting around London bookshops to sign copies (of my own books, as it happens, although it would be more fun to sign other people's). Mostly, the booksellers' welcome was warm, but sometimes there was a dazed interrogation. Who? Do we know you're coming? What's it called? What kind of book is it? They spoke not to me, but beyond me, to my (male) minder. I was reminded of my time in Saudi Arabia, where I moved under the foreign female's notional veil, with a shopkeeper talking past me to the man at my elbow. Every author wishes to "achieve recognition", and I see I have some way to go.
We're all aware that John Prescott is the walking incarnation of a mangled galley proof, but it's cruel of the BBC to tease him; when I switched on BBC News 24 part-way through Monday's statement on the fire service, the caption below him read "Deputy Prime Minsiter". Mince it he did. When a Leeds member asked about his local fire service, Prescott first mentioned the Isle of Wight, then London; then assured him, with the air of a man who makes his own geography, that "West Yorkshire resides between". Trying to say (perhaps): "I don't quite get your question", he admitted: "I am not fully available . . ."
Confused, I settled down to the hunting debate, and found it much like a day in nursery school: the rabbits and the hares, the little black hen, the otters (animals of good character), the minks (beasts of bad character). What stories those MPs do tell! One Tory MP said he knew a farmer, and that farmer had a hen house! He used to shoot foxes, till the hunt educated him! But what now? In his chagrin at Renard, old MacDonald will be out with his shotgun, blasting away at anything that moves: Kitty, Rover and your old grandma! "What's new?" asked one abolitionist; the hunt eats cats and dogs anyway. Kate Hoey, pro-hunting, said petulantly that she didn't care for cats.
Throughout, the hunters said their opponents just want to stop people enjoying themselves. They seemed to feel that if they could make them admit this, they'd be on the moral high ground. But it's quite usual to legislate against the pleasures of others, whether they have a taste for murder, under-age sex or certain drugs. I was afraid MPs would be too attached to British ambiguities to go for a total ban. The "middle way" suggested that, although hunting is cruel, we might sometimes do it just a bit, depending largely on the terrain, the height above sea level. In the same way, we abhor cruelty to children, but by law we can beat them just a bit for, as it were, pest control; and how much we get away with depends on which borough we live in.
The next thing is to pack a bag for the Oundle Festival, where Edwina Currie and I are part of the programme. Currie was to speak in a church hall, but after local protest she has been moved to a secular venue: she's a paid-up adulterer, and they won't have it. I don't think they're planning to stone her, but it worries me all the same. At an earlier stage of festival planning, we were to share the same platform (or pulpit). I am still due in the church hall, but perhaps the town's moralists are even now flicking through their dossiers and talking to my friends. Perhaps we can turn it into a fancy-dress evening. For Currie, some body armour and a large scarlet "A". For me, a veil and a large scarlet question-mark.
A volume of Hilary Mantel's short stories, Learning to Talk, is published by Fourth Estate this month (£6.99)