A superbly afternoonish short story by the film critic Peter Bradshaw (21 October, 3.45pm) featured a hungover and weary narrator, Eliot, recalling various moments in his youth when he’d faked heartbreak (“I even did the little lip-biting thing, taking it well, you see . . .”). Eliot’s first love, he told us, had been Lucy, the 11-year-old girl next door, whose sister he’d wounded with a dart during the inhospitably hot summer of 1976. Eliot was 11 at the time, too, but the Lucy thing had forever stayed with him, “the more poignant and intense for the lack of sexual feeling” – though the pair did flirt (catastrophically) with a kiss.
All these years later, drunk and full of “meagre canapés” at a hotel conference, Eliot stumbled outside for a fag, only to find himself in . . . well, in a very short story-ish situation.
Tom Hollander read it all, and far more slowly than anybody might usually dare. Because he hung on every word, we did, too. He gave the impression that what he was doing was astoundingly accurate and close-up work, where even an innocuous “Hi! Hello!” (supposedly delivered by a young woman) was sculpturally exact. And it was delivered in that characteristic Hollander way, by which I mean it played on the tension of sounding like someone whose heart is open but who is also helplessly cynical.
Nobody does part-regretful moral emptiness like Hollander. Or (paradoxically) can make words sound as if they’re burning towards some dynamite pile of hilarity. I’ve often wondered how this actor, whose first play at school was Oliver! (or so I’ve read) delivered the line, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The audience would have been either rolling around on the floor clutching their sides, or wondering if Mr Bumble was going to get it in the knee with a razor.
Ultimately, the satisfying twist in Bradshaw’s story (involving a woman’s ear) had something of the feel of Ian McEwan’s first short-story collection, First Love, Last Rites. It was sad and sly, and connected impermeably to the mid-Seventies and what it felt like to be young. And written – touchingly – as if the memories of most things back then give little peace.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage