They do love a party at The Spectator. I was invited to four in ten days last week: the Apollo Summer party, the Spectator ‘At Home’ Summer party, the annual Spectator ‘Meet the Readers’ afternoon tea party, and our Spectator arts editor, the great Liz Anderson’s farewell party.
I hadn’t been up to town this year, and on the train journey up from Devon, I felt like a hick up from the sticks. But I love London and I had that same old heart-lift as I stepped down from the train under the great iron roof of Paddington station, then passed along the platform beneath that giant unkempt simpleton representing the Great Western Railway employees who fell in the first world war. But my favourite arriving-in-London moment was yet to come.
I went six stops on the Bakerloo line, climbed up out of Charing Cross station into the dazzle and wingbeat of Trafalgar Square’s airy 50 acres. Then I crossed the road, passed under Admiralty Arch, glimpsed a sunlit Buckingham Palace at the end of the Mall, and turned sharp left at that sinister old second world war concrete bunker, from which presumably Churchill would have made his last stand if it had come to it.
On my right now was glorious St James’s Park, with its surprising pelicans and that quaint old park keeper’s cottage, and the public conveniences hidden by shrubbery, which is also a cottage, in that very modern sense of the word, and a very lively one. The foreign tourists who pass in and out of there must marvel at the number of attendants standing about with apparently nothing to do, and perhaps regard this as a manifestation of a high civilisation. Then, on my left, coming into view now, was the magnificent open space of Horseguards Parade, formerly a tiltyard, adorned by the pugnacious Old Admiralty Building, with George Gilbert Scott’s Italianate Foreign Office beyond. From here I could see Birdcage Walk, with a glimpse, through the trees, of the Spectator office garden — my destination.
I was wearing my suit, a new shirt ripped from the cellophane, and a pink tie. A pentecostal London wind was blowing the tie straight out in front of me, where it hovered as if by magic. My shoes were polished, my hair newly cut, and I’d shaved that morning with a new razor blade. Big Ben chimed musically, then came that hair-raising hiatus before the terrible certainty of that first stroke. In about another three minutes, I will be walking in through the light oak door of 22 Old Queen Street and giving my name at the reception desk.
It is always here, at this precise moment, as I’m walking across Horseguards Parade, that I feel I have arrived in London. I’m sober, clean, dressed in all my finery, and back in our great capital after an absence in the country. Furthermore, I am going to a Spectator party, which are the best kind of parties I know of. I am confident that everyone I meet there will be cheerful, friendly, courteous, funny, intelligent, well-dressed, not judgmental, and as serious or as lighthearted as you like. But above all you can have a drink. There is never any shortage. It’s ridiculous. If I haven’t been up to town for a while, hick-like I tend to cane it, often with unfortunate results. And I know through long and painful experience that right at this moment, conscious of Horseguards’ fine gravel through the thin soles of my dancing shoes, I am feeling the best physically that I am going to feel for a while.
I continued along Horseguards as far as Birdcage Walk, crossed over into Storey’s Gate, turned right into Old Queen Street, and went in through the door of number 22, giving my name at the desk. I went along the passage, down the stairs, picked up a flute of champagne from the table in the music room and passed through into the garden. The first person I saw was Michael Heath, who, as soon as he saw me, cried, ‘Oh no!’ — or words to that effect — and threw up his arms in horror. And so we began. The last person I spoke to, at the final party, Liz Anderson’s farewell, was Boris. He was standing alone on the garden steps. I haven’t seen him standing alone anywhere since he edited the paper. He had a short, sharp haircut and was wearing an electric-blue suit. I was drunk. He offered his paw. ‘Nice suit,’ I observed. ‘I had it made in China,’ he said, opening the jacket wide to show me how capacious it was. ‘I’m in the Chinese tent,’ he added, making an up-to-date political joke even of his suit. And then I went to Paddington, and from there back to Devon to lick my wounds, and try to remember as much of it as I could.
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