Memoirs of an Oldie Literary Luncher
For any writer who has the good fortune to say a few words about his or her latest offering at an Oldie Literary Lunch, the persistent news that Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is still closed strikes a heavy chord. I speak as one who in his day has tucked into Simpson’s excellent food alongside writers whom he never dreamed he would meet, spouted to polite and largely enthusiastic guests, and signed a few copies for them as they made their way out.
Out of all of them there was one who never ate or drank a thing and that was John Mortimer. Having always thought of him as a serious trencherman, it came as quite a surprise when he refused every plateful and every offer of wine. I didn’t like to ask why, and rather assumed that, spending as much time as he did with theatre folk, it may have been that he was all too familiar with tales of laddies who had made a bollocks up of their first speech, following an injudicious tipple in the dressing room.
On one occasion he sat down, announced that he had a new anecdote he was going to try out on us and devoted much of the knife and fork time to honing it. It was about a judge who admonished an alcoholic down-and-out with the words, ‘I’ll let you off this time, but I want you to promise me that you will never touch a drop of alcohol again. Not even the teeniest sip of dry sherry before lunch.’
Sir Roger Bannister was able to tell only a tiny fraction of the many stories from his autobiography, Twin Tracks, at a Simpson’s lunch in 2014. The best of them was about how he had reluctantly agreed to run in a Fathers and Sons 100 yard race at one of his boy’s sports days. He had, he admitted, rarely been so nervous in his life, not just because he had never been in the business of short distance running, but also because he had heard there were going to be a few reporters around.
‘I won,’ he said, ‘by a waistcoat button. The local newspaper commented on how sporting it was of me to have made it look as though I wasn’t trying. The truth was that I had never run so fast or tried so hard in my life.’
In Richard Ingrams’s day, one was sometimes asked to speak at lunches outside London. In Winchester, one of my fellow speakers was Oliver Postgate, the creator of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, Pogle’s Wood and the great Bagpuss himself, who was not only there in person, but at one time, nestling on my lap.
The only other subject of discussion - on the way back from the loo, I seem to remember - was the bore of having prostate problems.
I shall never forget the story Marmaduke Hussey told us in Bath back in the early noughties. ‘I’m going to tell you something,’ he promised, as we mingled with our pre-lunch snifters, ‘which is going to make you cry.’
As a 20-year-old Guards officer he had lost a leg at Anzio and spent some months in a German prisoner-of-war camp until, under the terms of an international agreement whereby badly injured solders were repatriated, he was carried out of the camp on a stretcher between a honour guard consisting of British POWs and every one of the camp guards.
‘What a way for a young man to spend his twenty first birthday,’ he said; and, as he promised, we all cried.
One of the biggest surprises of an Oldie lunch in the Randolph Hotel in Oxford at around the same time was that the most famous speaker, Princess Michael of Kent, turned up at all. Standing just inside the main entrance waiting for her arrival, Richard confessed that, given the hard time Private Eye had given her concerning rumours of plagiarism, he was not altogether his carefree self.
In the event Her Royal Highness arrived quite a bit later than expected and with a security car in tow, and if she harboured any ill feelings towards Private Eye or its erstwhile editor, she showed no sign of it.
I had the honour of sitting next to her and can truthfully say that, as lunching companions go, she comes high on my list of one-offs.
The book she had come to talk about was called Crowned in a Far Country and comprised portraits of eight high-born young women who left the countries of their birth to marry heirs to great thrones: among them, Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky who became Empress of Prussia.
Without any prompting, she proudly informed me that she had researched and written every one of her books herself. As if I could possibly have imagined otherwise, I thought, and smiled graciously. We got on so well that she asked me to sign a copy of my latest volume of humorous verses to her husband. I was only sorry that when I was introduced to him a year later, the gesture failed to ring a bell.
Ingrams believed that ten minutes was long enough for anyone to say what they had to say, though noticeable leeway was given to speakers of greater distinction and interest than usual. Among them was Douglas Hurd who, at a Simpson’s lunch in 2014, shortly before Richard’s departure, treated us to an absorbing and quite lengthy account of the life of Disraeli.
I was the next to go, and was, I thought, drawing to a witty and carefully crafted conclusion when a scrap of paper was passed along the table. The erstwhile Foreign Secretary glanced at it and placed tactfully in front of me. I looked down to see scrawled on it the words ‘You’ve had your ten minutes.’