To the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington for John Walsh’s book launch party. Who’s John Walsh? Oh, for heaven’s sake. Admittedly he’s rather buried alive at the Independent, but he is – now, let’s see – one of Britain’s great, um, men-about-town, a boulevardier. He’s a literary gadabout, an upmarket hit ‘n’ run merchant of the city’s salons. His main claim to fame is that he resurrected the word “oxymoron” in the ‘80s when he was (I think) either the Sunday Times books editor or someone bookish on the Evening Standard. Like a Mexican wave, the word - that no one knows how to pronounce - suddenly popped up everywhere else in the wake of his usage. People then wanted to be Martin Amis, see. Oddly, Walsh writes very well. Even more peculiarly, he’s a steer.
A steer? Yes. Now, the ghastly 50-something AA Gill would say he’s a stray ie a gay straight. That is to say, a man who is entirely heterosexual but who seems in most respects to have adopted the theatricality of a certain type of a flamboyant homosexual for cultural purposes. Stray sounds faintly pejorative, like the old word ‘bent’. I prefer steer: a neologism formed from straight and queer: the resultant creation is something slightly at odds with his swordsman reputation – never mind! - whether the result of past or present couplings I cannot say. But he’s happily partnered in crime-ridden West Dulwich with an attractive brood.
His delightful eldest daughter nearly stabbed me to death last night with the peacock feather sticking out of her hat. This attempt on my life took my mind to Tatler's lately dead fashion editor Isabella Blow (was it self-poisoning?) and her fantastic hats. I felt sad for a moment. But it’s hard to do poignancy at parties. Try crying into canapés. It doesn’t work.
Walshy is 50-something and has written two books of memoirs. His new book, Sunday at the Cross Bones, is his debut novel. In his witty speech he said he felt like one of those Albanian women who gives birth at 58 or whatever – he thought it a funny age to start out in fiction. The novel follows in the footsteps of the real-life Rector of Stiffkey and, inter alia, his messianic interest in London prostitutes – at first glance the book appears to teem with life in the style of a Hogarth painting. It is rich in incident. Walsh is Hogarth on stilts.
In his speech he took the opportunity to put novelist and critic Adam Lively in his place – who had reviewed the novel for The Sunday Times. Walsh remarked: “It’s funny, but was it 20 years ago that he came to my home in south Wimbledon and remarked that the brambles in my garden needed clearing? He was penniless then – so I got him to do my garden for £10. Twenty years later he’s reviewing my novel.” Yes, a reminder to be always good to the little people (OK, Leona?) or they’ll spit in your soup.
Before the speech I met Walsh briefly for the first time. He was dressed in something creamy-white, a pink waistcoat. A sleeping pinkish rose in his left lapel was faintly clitoral: I was tempted to tickle it. The myopic at a distance might confuse him for a delicious strawberry sorbet in meringue.
“Have I met you?” he asked. “Why have we not met?” His hair is luxuriant wild white-grey – fresh from pillow tousled - his face deep pink, the lips sensuous, almost pouty. And pink.
“We’ve cut each other dead for years,” I replied. “It’s more interesting than asking what one does.”
Fellow writer/editor/agent/journalist steers were greeted by him with extravagant kisses – not platonic air mwahs – on both (facial) cheeks. He’s a man who proceeds in life by seduction – of men, women, cats, shubunkin even – and this is a very considerable talent. He is the antithesis of me, but let’s gossip …
“The last time I had sex was in November,” a famous 50-something novelist reminisced. “I picked up the two best looking men at a party, aged about 30 each, and had them both. Yes, a threesome! By the morning I looked 10 years younger and they looked 10 years older. Yet no sex since November! Fortunately, I am a self-re-sealing virgin so I get to start all over again come my next lover.”
I retired to the patio outside under canopy. “Martin Townsend [the Sunday Express editor] is chaotic,” a female journalist started. “I mean, Jane [Jane O’Gorman, his wife and agony aunt of the Daily Star] forbids him to carry credit cards anywhere. The last time he had a credit card he phoned up a Chinese takeaway and said: ‘I’ll have one of everything.’ They took him literally and it took half an hour just to get the order into the house. No more credit card after that.”
Later came Walsh’s speech. He gave a very good impression of a publishing editor somewhat aghast at the prospect of reading 800-odd pages. I wondered aloud why the Independent's high-minded literary editor Boyd Tonkin was absent. I didn’t seek to stir, but one hopes Boyd – or “dank” as he’s known in some quarters – didn’t think the event slightly beneath him.
Oh, there was novelist Mary Flanagan. I couldn't possibly tell you what she said to naughty journalist Richard Barber ...