Woman About Town

Afternoon delights

Alexander Larman reports from a half-liberated, half-imprisoned world

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We live in a strange half-liberated, half-imprisoned world right now. It’s not unlike being at Gordonstoun in the late Eighties, or so I imagine, with less cross-country running. But I have been making the most of my afternoons.

I have taken libations with various Critic writers and contributors, most notably a fine Margaux and cigar-laden lunch at Boisdale with the wine critic Henry Jeffreys and an equally memorable al fresco repast at the Rose and Crown in Oxford with the Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie.

We were fortunate enough on the latter occasion to be joined by Andrew Hall, publican extraordinaire, and much-loved dispenser of good beer and better cheer. Yet he brought sad tidings of the pub’s shifting clientele. “None of the students drink here any more,” he sniffed. “It all stopped about five years ago. These days, they’re all teetotal or take drugs.”

The Rev and I both nodded sympathetically at these fin-de-siecle tidings. I may organise a small crowd-funded expedition for selected students to sample the delights of Andrew’s establishment. If all goes well, it’ll make the hubbub at the beginning of Decline and Fall seem very tame indeed.

Princes and paupers

I look forward to seeing Ian McKellen give his Great Dane at the Windsor Theatre Royal before long in (checks notes) “an age, gender and colour-blind production”. The last time I saw McKellen do Shakespeare, he proved that he was, quite literally, “every inch a king” as Lear, so perhaps there will be similar larks involving a bare bodkin this time round.

I am intrigued to see how it fits into my own Hamlet hierarchy. I collect princes of Denmark rather as other men collect stamps, or tattoos of Edith Sitwell.

There have been good, even sublime Hamlets (Rory Kinnear at the National still the best) and diabolical Danes. One famously stupid actor gave a shouty and limited performance at the RSC that led to the quip that he believed the Oedipus complex was a Greek leisure centre.

But the best comment about playing the character was that of Richard Briers, who said proudly “I might not have been the greatest Hamlet, but I was probably the fastest.” One critic compared him to a demented typewriter. Let us hope that the 82-year-old McKellen is more of a relaxed quill.

Ewan McGregor could radiate an especially brittle kind of charm complete with toothy smirk

There was much incredulity at the news that Jonny Lee Miller, the erstwhile Sick Boy of Trainspotting fame, has been cast as John Major in the next series of The Crown. Personally, I’m all for it. Miller is a fine actor and has to be better than Gillian Anderson’s overwrought cosplaying as Margaret Thatcher. But why stop there? Several of his former co-stars should also join in the fun. Ewan McGregor could radiate an especially brittle kind of charm, complete with toothy smirk, as Tony Blair, and Ewen Bremner could segue from Sick Boy to Robin Cook without much trouble. But how could Robert Carlyle channel that extraordinary, incendiary Begbie-esque rage most effectively? Time to let him give his Gordon Brown, and see what phone-throwing, staple-banging anger comes of it.

The National Theatre has a novel way of advertising its new Michael Sheen-starring summer production. “Whisk yourself away to Llareggub with the dreamy sounds of Under Milk Wood.” A tempting offer, until one remembers that Dylan Thomas was a tiresome pissed windbag with a flair for self-publicity and that “Llareggub” is “Bugger all” in reverse. But more plays should be advertised as if they are spa breaks. One anticipates similar publicity for Sarah Kane’s notorious Blasted, which was set in a post-apocalyptic Leeds hotel room. “Join us for a soothing evening in Yorkshire, complete with the mellow sights of torture, eye-gouging, rape and cannibalism. A chilled night out for all the family. Under-tens free.”

Sympathy for the old devil

Now that gigs and concerts are tentatively recommencing, a friend reminds me of one of her rock-god encounters at a party. She was beckoned over by a smiling Ronnie Wood, who greeted her by saying “I haven’t seen you in ages!” Wood swiftly realised that he had mistaken my chum for someone else, but in quintessentially English fashion, both continued to chat away as if they had known one another for years, rather than minutes.

My friend then decided to chance her arm and say that she would love to see Wood perform with the Stones again when they were next in London. Unfortunately, at this point, Wood’s (then) wife Jo swept in and rescued him, hissing, “You can try Ticketmaster.” Their marriage ended shortly afterwards, which no doubt teaches its own pungent lesson.

I fully expect to see a version of OnlyFans for struggling literary novelists

Much talk about how Instagram influencers, those perma-tanned princes and princesses of our time, have been forced to appear on the sexy “content provider” OnlyFans in order to make cash. I fully expect a similar business to start up soon for struggling literary novelists. However, there will be no naughtiness or smut on offer.

Instead, the service could take a similar form to those heartrending “adopt a bear for £5 a month” advertisements. The deep-pocketed and generous-spirited could become patrons to a struggling writer or two, and advance them small cash sums on a regular basis in exchange for voyeuristic treats. These might include being allowed to watch live manuscript editing sessions, and exclusive access to emotional conversations with agents about dispiritingly formulaic responses from publishers.

For the big money subscribers, there should be a chance to meet the aforementioned literary novelists, although such encounters would have to be carefully regulated. Many writers resemble timid woodland creatures who scurry off at the first sign of social media criticism, or an unanticipated restaurant bill. If they were to be asked questions about “their influences” or “the world of publishing”, most would turn ashen and start stuttering. In many cases, I’m sure that they would rather disport themselves in the altogether like their influencer peers than answer such questions. At least it would give them some suitably angst-ridden material for the next book

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