The perils of speaking in public

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

I spend my life moving. Over recent years it was research. Now it’s caused by that research. But I have become adept at adding things on to each trip. In Naples at the weekend, I visited the Sansevero chapel which contains the ‘veiled Christ’ of Sanmartino — a work Canova said he would have given ten years of his life to have created. This is so moving to see in the flesh — even the nail wounds visible through the marble shroud — that you have to make an effort not to ignore the other masterworks around it. Afterwards I steal a night down the coast in Positano. The sun is searing and the Mediterranean like glass. Only the tablecloths billow frenetically in the wind that rushes down from the cliffs. It is a day before the start of the season and the locals are already complaining that too many people are coming to the Amalfi Coast. Certainly the clifftop bends aren’t up to the challenge of the tourist buses, and at some point — like Venice this year — there will probably have to be limits on visitors.

Back in London for one day, Nicky Haslam calls in the morning. He has two complimentary tickets for Bryan Ferry that evening. Would I like to come? I’ve never seen Ferry live before and don’t hesitate. The set, lighting, musicians and capacity crowd at the London Palladium are all fab, and Ferry himself just gorgeous to listen to and watch. By the second half of the show most of the auditorium are on their feet. I’m not sure I agree with this system. If one person gets up to dance then everybody behind them has to. When a friend in front of me stands I attempt to buck the trend and stare stoically into his back. But eventually — at ‘Love is the Drug’ — I too give in and get to my feet. I have to be on a plane to New York in the morning so we skip the after-party and head to the Wolseley for supper. Of course Nicky knows everybody there. The only person in the restaurant who doesn’t know him actually comes over to introduce himself. I’m not surprised. Some people sap life and energy from you. Only a rare few hand it out in vast, life-affirming quantities.

Because I only see movies on planes I am always several opinionated months behind everyone else. On the way to the US I watch the entire latest season of the ever more hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then the embarrassing The Death of Stalin. Neither Beria nor any of the other genocidists are made more evil, angry or expressive by the numbing use of the ‘F’ word. It just demonstrates that the writers are unworthy of their chosen subject-matter. They have taken another nation’s catastrophe and translated it into our own most embarrassing dialect.

New York is as boiling as Naples. Yet walking by Central Park after dinner with friends on Fifth, several couples are heading back to their apartments in black tie. One old gent is even strolling back home in evening tails. It looks glamorous and natural in a way it no longer would in our capital. Everyone in New York asks about the knife crime in London. I tell them it won’t be sorted out because we’ve already decided what the causes can’t be.

The next evening I am in conversation before a live audience on Lexington Avenue. It is great fun, and the hugely friendly, mainly young, audience brings some relief. In recent years I have spoken less and less. A few years ago, after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and various assassination attempts against friends across Europe, the British police advised me not to appear in public or at least not to give advance notice of engagements. None of which is ideal in my line of work. For a time I was a regular ‘surprise guest’, like Joanna Lumley on French and Saunders. Then I locked myself away to write a book, since when I have carefully eased myself back out in front of audiences. In July I’ll be at the O2 Arena in London with Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. Then I will lock myself away again. Which, to tell the truth, is the best bit.

I make it back to Britain in time for the bank holiday and picnic and walk with friends in the English countryside. Three countries in one week, and each time followed by the sun. It will come with me to Portugal this week, Austria the next.


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