Every morning, I found my father staring, then heard words such as "I can feel her spreading hot sauce on me"

What do women want? This is a question that has troubled great minds for centuries, and fortunately I can now provide the answer. They want prewar hand-fired clay flowerpots. I discovered this, quite by chance, when I was staying with friends in Derbyshire and broke a glass candlestick at dinner. So the next day, seeing an antiques fair in Hartington, I popped in to look for a replacement. But it was a very piddling antiques fair, and I was standing disconsolately looking at the ground (I thought) when a stallholder asked, "Do you collect them?"

"What?" I asked, staring at the truly hideous array of knick-knacks on her stall, but she indicated a box of flowerpots on the ground. Flowerpots?

Yes, she said, they were very rare, with the maker's mark stamped on them, and I could tell by the absence of cornice, the unusual depth-to-width ratio, the deep mould discoloration and the wobbly rims that they were hand-fired in the 1930s or possibly 1920s. She chatted on so pleasantly that I ended up buying two for £4 (a bargain, she assured me) and rather shamefacedly took them back to my hostess.

Lesley fell on them in rapture and said they'd be perfect for auriculas (flowers, presumably). She was so pleased, that I decided to go back and buy up all the flowerpots and brought a dozen back in triumph. Infuriatingly Lesley then said, "Two flowerpots good, 12 flowerpots excessive"; so I came back to London lumbered with a dozen unwanted flowerpots. Every single female friend who has entered the house since has squealed with excitement at the sight of them, so now I know what to take to dinner parties: old flowerpots, the wonkier and mouldier the better.


Spent much of the week scurrying round bookshops in search of the new Hannibal audiobook for my father, who is virtually blind. He has already ordered it from the excellent Talking Books for the Blind service, but new books sometimes take several months to arrive and, as he is fond of saying, he could be dead by then. My father went blind only three years ago, and I still haven't got used to seeing him - who always used to have his nose in a book - staring into space while his talking book drones on. I recently stayed a week with my parents and came down every morning to the double shock of seeing my father staring, and then hearing words such as "I can feel her spreading hot sauce on me" and "the fingers I haven't nailed I try to bite off" spewing out of the tape-machine.

"Good book, Dad?" I asked over the Alpen.

"American Psycho - a bit slow."

Heavens, I said, I thought the Talking Books service was all nice books like Joanna Trollope. Whereat my father exclaimed that it was bad enough being blind without having to listen to Joanna expletive-deleted Trollope.

Anyway, if he could see it, he would heartily approve of the new poster campaign for disabled people which makes precisely this point: that disability doesn't necessarily confer saintliness, nor should it be expected to.


Frank Stella phoned on Wednesday, inviting me to his opening. I was amazed that he was still speaking to me, given that I wrote an Observer piece a year ago saying how I loathed his current work.

But he said cheerfully, "Come over to Bernard Jacobson's - there's a load more of that junk on the walls you hate so much."

So I went, and sure enough there was a truly hideous array of old ironmongery made even more annoying by being called Easel Paintings. But Jacobson already had two prospective buyers - one German, one American - lined up, and Stella brought another with him, an American widow called Mrs Henkel, to whom he was quite touchingly attentive. She was as immaculate as all American millionairesses are; Stella, as usual, was dressed as a tramp, albeit a tramp with an unlit Corona in his mouth. His doctor made him give up smoking four or five years ago, but he still buys a fresh cigar every day and sucks it non-stop. He always times his shows in London to coincide with Ascot - he is a keen, though not very successful, racehorse-owner. This time, he had a horse running at Salisbury, which came in fifth.

I said, "Out of five?"

"No, out of 16," he said huffily. He was far more offended by that than by my saying I hated his sculpture.


And now I've offended someone else. India Knight, whom I esteem dearly, has just rung to ask what I think of the new "suicide" column in the Observer and don't I agree it's in bad taste and will I complain to the editor, Roger Alton? My wits are by no means about me, and I react with genuine bafflement: "Since when have I ever worried about bad taste?" (I didn't think it was exactly at the forefront of India's mind, either, but admittedly I haven't known her very long.) The only question as far as I'm concerned is whether the column is, as rumoured, by Chris Morris - and whether he can really keep it up for six months.

But then India goes on, "Justine's very upset"; and eventually, after some painfully slow mental clunking, I click: Justine and India think the column is a take-off of Ruth Picardie's "Before I die", which she wrote for the Observer when she was dying of breast cancer. Surely not? I mean it's very unclear at the moment what the new column is about but, in all the various theories, I've never heard anyone suggest that. But obviously Justine (Ruth's sister) and India (Ruth's best friend) are very upset, and now I've upset them more by being so dismissive.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote