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16 October 2008

Shakespeare’s Globe

If this were an Oscar Wilde story, our future would be foretold in Robert Peston’s follicles

By Sebastian Shakespeare

The story continues to generate an absurd amount of coverage. Why? Because for many this is the only intelligible story. Forget about AIG, ICICI, CDOs and the rest of the alphabet soup of financial acronyms. Peston promises hope of recovery, or perhaps an elixir of youth. If this were an Oscar Wilde story our future would be foretold in his follicles. The first flash of grey at his temple would mark the bottom of the market – the “buy” signal we have all been waiting for. But it’s not a novel. We live in a world so banal it’s news when Pizza Hut changes its name to Pasta Hut. Perhaps it should call itself Peston Hut in tribute to his eternally youthful topping.

Last week I met Nobel laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul at a Literary Review lunch. He is one of the few authors I’ve encountered who exudes supreme self-confidence. He echoed the provocative claim by the Nobel judge Horace Engdahl that American literature is parochial, and proudly revealed that he had reviewed Philip Roth’s first novel 50 years ago. The review was so negative it was never published. I asked whom he thought worthy of this year’s prize, but he demurred, instead asking me for my nominations. Each name I suggested elicited a withering response. Mario Vargas Llosa? Too sensationalist. What about British writers? “Like whom?” he frowned. I scratched my head. J G Ballard? John le Carré? Snorts of derision. Who did he want to win? “I think it’s time for a Syrian poet,” he said.

Alas, the Syrian poet who goes by the singular Adonis was pipped to the post by Jean-Marie Le Clézio from France. One of Adonis’s best-known works is “The Funeral of New York”, published in 1971: “New York is a woman/ holding, according to history,/a rag called liberty with one hand/and strangling the earth with the other.” Well, there is always next year.

Sir Vidia also told me he never reads books when he is writing because he doesn’t like to contaminate his prose. If only I could apply the same principle to this column and give up reading other people’s. In my trade newspapers are unavoidable. Today even the feel-good news feels bad. For one week in November passengers arriving at Terminal Five will apparently receive a free cup of tea and a biscuit. This supposedly joyous innovation is to encourage people to entertain positive thoughts about Britain rather than worries about bad weather and financial woes.

I couldn’t think of a crueller trick to play on foreign visitors. How long will the tea stew in its urn? What’s more, tea is a diuretic. No sooner will he have left Heathrow than even the most continent of continental travellers would feel the call of nature. Unfortunately, the number of public conveniences has been slashed, halving in a decade to 5,500, according to the British Toilet Association. A uroscopy flask would seem a more appropriate gift.

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Cometh the hour, cometh the Mandelson. “It’s back to 1994,” said Derek Draper when I saw him at the Evening Standard’s London Influentials party. I hope not. Or at least I hope Draper’s old boss has developed a thicker skin since being gazetted as Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool. Whenever I went up to Mandy at Labour party conferences he would brush me off with the words, “I don’t speak to diarists.” Seconds later, he would be whispering sweet somethings into a rival journalist’s ear. Yes, I admit it, I was jealous. I don’t think Peter ever forgave me for once accusing him of making a shopping trip, with an unidentified male companion, to buy kitchen utensils at Jerry’s Home Store on the Fulham Road. It was hardly the most damaging item; perhaps he baulked at an implied image of connubial bliss. He insisted it was a case of mistaken identity and demanded (and received) a retraction. It is hard to believe he would do the same today. Unless, perhaps, I accused him of dyeing his hair. Perish the thought.

Can computers think? My wife, author of the forthcoming The Art of Conversation, has just participated in the Turing Test at Reading University. She had a three-way, five-minute conversation via computer and had to discern which correspondent was human and which was a machine. “Do you know Hal?” she asked, referring to the masterful computer in Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey. Surely the boffins who had devised the software would have prepared for that. The first reply? “I try to leave the baking up to my girlfriend.” Sorry?

The question I wanted her to ask was “What is the secret of longevity?”. A British woman of 105 has attributed hers to plenty of walking, the odd glass of wine and no sex. Luckily, for me, the answer was football and TV.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary