In Spoleto, where I was to give a poetry reading as part of the festival, an old friend, with a perfectly straight face, mendaciously announced that my literary career began as a barber in the army. I read the eight or so poems of mine that happen to be translated into Italian. Perversely, my translators have chosen my most English poems with references to cricket and the War of Jenkins' Ear. I could explain, but it would take longer than my allotted 20 minutes.
Geordie Greig, the editor of Tatler, and Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, gave a retirement dinner for John Carey. The 14 guests were a mixture of academics and writers. As Merton professor of English, Carey succeeded the formidable Helen Gardner and felt modestly that it would be difficult to fill her shoes - "an opinion Dame Helen shared". His wife remembered, when he was offered the post, that he put down the phone, saying: "They don't know I haven't read any Scott." She added that, typically, he then read his way through all Scott. In his speech, he complimented the affability and intelligence of his colleagues at Merton, remembering by contrast how, years ago, Balliol senior common room went out of its collective way to snub the then Master - apparently for the venial fault of not being very bright. One don who tape-recorded the proceedings of Balliol governing body would ostentatiously switch off his Grundig whenever the Master made a contribution. My own compliment to John Carey would be that some phrases, some encapsulations, are so hilarious, so unforgettable that they turn his readers into tape-recorders. This is the critic who evoked the erotic power of Lady Diana Cooper in these terms: "Men clamoured around her like gulls over a council rubbish tip." Of bullfighting, Carey wrote, succinctly and unanswerably, that it was "men in fancy dress tormenting cattle".
I attended a meeting of the Central European Classics Trust, the invention of Timothy Garton Ash, which publishes translations of forgotten European masterpieces - the latest of which is Antonia Lloyd-Jones's forthcoming translation of a collection of short stories from the Polish writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. As usual, we were much exercised by the problem of publicity. Should we advertise? I pointed out that the prime literary spot in the Observer - that space at the bottom of the "Review" front page - costs £9,000. The review route? Hardly. Good English books often don't get reviewed, let alone foreign masterpieces such as Ivan Olbracht's The Sorrowful Eyes of Hannah Karajich . . . How do you get these great books into people's hands? Perhaps, I ventured, the Classics Trust should give a launch party in the New Yorker manner - targeting the guests, following up the invitations with telephone calls, giving each guest a party bag as they leave, containing a miniature of Polish bison grass vodka and a sample copy of, say, Boleslaw Prus's great Polish novel The Doll or Gyula Krudy's The Adventures of Sindbad. The idea of giving copies away is morally repugnant to the secretary, Danuta Garton Ash.
I spend the whole of the next day arranging to send free sample copies of Arete, the magazine I edit, to 300-400 targeted quality booksellers. A "sample copy" rubber stamp is ordered. Why? To stop them selling the free copy. Why? If we're giving the copies away anyway, what does it matter? Well, we want the booksellers to read Arete, and order it, not just lazily stick it on the shelf and wait for a buyer. Now I understand exactly how Danuta feels. The bookseller can have something for nothing - but not a cash profit as well.
Apart from that, it's been a rather musical week. First, a visit to Garsington Opera - or "Gasworks", as my children used to call it, taking their inspiration from the gasometer you pass if you approach the manor house from Oxford. Comparisons with Glyndebourne are unavoidable, particularly when the replica festival programme is in your hand.
The grounds, of course, lose nothing by the comparison, once you get past the gasometer. Even the makeshift auditorium isn't makeshift actually, but state-of- the-art prefabrication - temporary which feels permanent. Listening to Rossini's La Gazzetta, I didn't hear any great singing, but Marco Gandini's direction was lively and Edoardi Sanchi's laconic, inventively detailed set was the central protagonist. It featured a swimming pool and a left-hand-drive period motor car. Leonard Ingrams, who owns Garsington, was in the row in front of me, perfectly properly leading the applause at appropriate moments. The libretto translated by his wife, Rosalind, was on sale - and essential.
Glyndebourne can't compete financially with the great opera houses and has hit instead on a magic formula - great singers nearing the end of their careers and great singers at the very beginning of their careers. Pavarotti's first English appearance as a young, slim-ish 19-year-old was at Glyndebourne. At the Spoleto Festival, Pavarotti was promised and made it to the press conference, but not the concert. We had to make do with Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming. Fleming sang an aria from Dvorak's Rusalka - Dvorak at his most Brahmsian - and stole the evening. Her voice manages to be exceptionally expressive, richly shaded, yet so clear and so vibrato-free, it is like listening to mercury in a thermometer.