A Jan Morris anecdote for you;
“I was a guest once at a Buckingham Palace reception for publishers and writers, and at the end of the evening, wishing to leave, I looked around for somebody to thank. Queen, princes, dukes and all seemed to have gone elsewhere, so I left anyway, and at the palace gates I found a policeman. ‘I was brought up,’ I told him, ‘to say thank you for having me when I’d been to a party, so as I can’t find the Queen or anybody to say it to, I’ll say it to you instead. Thank you very much for having me.’
‘Not at all, madam,’ he replied. ‘Come again.’
Jan Morris, Contact
I read that this morning and laughed, because, unlikely as it may seem, it just so happens that I was there too that night and, extraordinarily, I can tell almost exactly the same tale. Content warning: may contain name-dropping.
I was working for Stanfords in those days, the Covent Garden map shop, when I received a splendid looking invitation in the post. It came on thick creamy card with an embossed gold edge, and I naturally assumed that it was a wind up. I was guilty myself of that kind of caper; I once sent a Canadian friend a 14 day notice of compulsory repatriation – he had left home under something of a cloud and was terrified that the Mounties had finally got their man. Another pal received a large income tax bill from HMRC, signed Vestan Pance. It was definitely my turn for similar treatment. Except that it was real. The great and good from the book trade were being hosted at Buckingham Palace as part of a British Book Industry day – the Queen having already visited a printing house and a publisher that morning, and I had the golden ticket. I have no idea why I was picked and still wonder if it was some kind of a mistake. But other booksellers had been invited, alongside publishers, critics and, best of all, as many authors and poets as you could possibly want to meet.
My first thought was that I wouldn’t go (up the Republic!) but it soon occurred to me that this wasn’t likely to happen again, so I headed up to Jermyn Street to buy a suit. I didn’t own one and shelled out a week’s wages on a blue corduroy number that, rather unfortunately, made me look like a Tory MP. In short, I looked ridiculous.
The day came and I took a black cab with my boss, who had also been invited, and we drove through the gates (the taxi driver was even more excited than we were) into the central courtyard, passing Nicholas Crane, who was being reprimanded by the police for trying to chain his bike to the iron railings that surround the Palace. Then up the stairs, the footmen all lined up, and into the extraordinary state rooms.
It was a bizarre mix of opulence (chandeliers, works of art, gilt everything) and slightly shabby. It had been a while since the carpet had been replaced, the paint work was tired and so on. In fact, the whole evening had that feel – endless streams of servants bringing drinks and canapés, but snidey under the breath comments from the footmen and guards, who quickly realised that they had a rabble in that night. The chandeliers were the size of minibuses, and the paintings were astonishing, it was all astonishing – I walked passed Beryl Bainbridge, peering intently at an inscription. ‘Fuck me,‘ she exclaimed, ‘it’s a Canaletto!’ She had a way with words; a few weeks later, I saw her looking lost in Covent Garden. She caught my eye and said, ‘any idea where the fucking Garrick is?’
My boss was deep in conversation, so I walked around in a bit of a daze, trying to take it all in – at one point I was grabbed firmly by a steely Etonian who discreetly steered me away, saying “I’m terribly sorry, but you nearly trod on Her Majesty”. And there she was! She’s only small you know, so you do have to be careful. Incidentally, I have form in this department – I once received a stern look from Sir Edmund Hillary after I stepped on Lady Hillary’s toes.
Naturally HRH was surrounded by fawning literary types so I went off in search of authors I might want to talk to. We all had name badges; Eric Wark didn’t exist in those days and my real name, Foulkes, the one that goes with the day job, was on mine. Lots of people assumed I was Sebastian Faulkes ( I think Birdsong had just come out) – I’d had a few drinks by then, and did nothing to disabuse them, enjoying the way they uncomfortably tried to extricate themselves from the small talk as they realised who I wasn’t. I then severely embarrassed myself with Graham Swift, who was a real hero of mine, as I did my own bit of fawning before managing to deeply insult him (quite by accident) – I was trying to compliment Waterland which, at the time, was arguably my favourite book, and asked him if it was difficult following up such a massive early success. Surely nothing else would ever be as good. He pointed out with enormous indignation that his most recent book, Last Orders, had won the Booker Prize…
It was later that I bumped into Sean O’Brien, the poet, but known to me from his days as an English teacher in the Sussex comp I went to in the eighties. I bounced up, relieved that at last there was somebody I knew and, to my even greater relief, found that he remembered me too. One of the proudest moments of my life followed as he told Wendy Cope that I was the best Caliban he had ever seen. (He was very kind – it was a school production). Some years after he told me that the same evening the Duke of Edinburgh had met another poet, Jo Shapcott, and asked her what she did. She told him, to which he replied, ‘My God, the place is crawling with them.’
I may be able to shed light on this classic bit of Dukery; earlier on, I had been standing with my boss when we fell into conversation with Dannie Abse. At this point the Duke joined us and began to “andwhatdoyoudo” to each of us in turn. He wasn’t interested in booksellers but, on discovering that Abse was a poet, asked him if he wrote decent stuff like Kipling, or whether was he one of those ghastly modern poets. Abse told the Duke that he thought Kipling was ghastly – there was an extraordinary flash of rage in the Duke’s eyes and all of a sudden he was gone. We stood there slightly stunned, but secretly I think we were all quite pleased.
There is no getting away from the thrill of it – it is easy to see the seductive quality of wealth, power and influence. Sadly, I had none of these, but was quite happy to be an observer, making the most of the free booze. I was grunted at by Frederick Forsyth, shoved aside by Harold Pinter as he made a dash for our tiny monarch, and bewitched by Melvyn Bragg’s fantastic hair. New experiences were to be had too – one of the plates was piled high with the biggest whitest most delicious maltesers you have ever seen. It was quite a surprise when I popped a few in to realise they were quails eggs.
As for Jan Morris’s farewell, I didn’t see her leave, nor could I find the Queen to say thank you to, but I did see Sean O’Brien. I waved goodbye and he shouted back, ‘You’re welcome, come back any time!’ I am still waiting for the second invitation.