Memories are made of this

Patricia Beer

  • Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? by Giles Gordon
    Chatto, 352 pp, £16.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 7011 6022 5
  • Yesterday Came Suddenly by Francis King
    Constable, 336 pp, £16.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 472220 X
  • Excursions in the Real World by William Trevor
    Hutchinson, 201 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 177086 6

I was well into Giles Gordon’s Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to make its intentions thoroughly clear; and that was nothing to be censorious about. But all leg-pullers have to declare themselves eventually otherwise there would be no point, and as I read on it dawned on me that Gordon was not going to declare any such thing. But there is so much to support my original impression that I have still not been able entirely to give up the idea that the book is a spoof.

There is a kind of innocent absurdity about it which belongs to the very nature of a good spoof. To begin with, having firmly introduced his book as an autobiography, Gordon puts on a consistent act of not being able to remember a thing, which in the circumstances seems a ‘smidgen’, as he would say, foolish. He cannot recall the name of the funeral parlour where Tennessee Williams lay in state nor can he remember the venue (‘some pub in Fleet Street’) where he was to meet Gore Vidal. Probably it had been so with us had we been there, but we might not have thought it necessary to say so, especially if, like Gordon himself, we had not in the event bothered to visit the funeral parlour or actually speak to the live celebrity. The motif of forgetfulness is heard throughout the book. Gordon held an umbrella over Judi Dench on her way ‘to I think it was Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road’. He made some changes to an article by Ronald Harwood but as to what they were: ‘I really can’t remember.’ This motif could be a useful technical device in another context but in this case it can only be a motive: to cut the great and famous down to size.

It is difficult to catch the intended tone of this book partly because Gordon presents himself as essentially a man with a keen sense of humour, and you never know where you are with people like that. He laughs in the wrong place at a friend’s poetry reading. He giggles at names like Rees-Mogg, and splits his sides at the list of those who supported Count Tolstoy (ha ha) in the recent painful court case: Prince Dmitri Galitzine, for instance, and Princess Tatiana Metternich (ho ho). He finds his jokes good enough to repeat, like the one about Sue Townsend: ‘creator of Adrian but no mole’. Confronted with such a merry madcap I see that I have no sense of humour at all, and am rather glad about it. On the other hand, in reading this book, I must be missing a lot of jokes. When Gordon speaks of other writers, ‘including he who was to become Lord Archer’, and a little later tells us that he was employed to teach Prince Andrew to write grammatically, I am at a loss. I feel there must be a joke in there somewhere.

Of course it is a perfectly acceptable ploy for a writer to be deliberately silly but I simply cannot decide whether or not this is what Giles Gordon is doing. When he speaks of syllabics as ‘a briefly fashionable, and easy, way of writing verse by counting syllables’ is he (I am assuming he knows better) being naughtily provocative or is he inventing a comic pigignorant character, the Alf Garnett of the world of literature? When he reveals how ‘Prince Harry even let my baby daughter Lucy sit on his horse’ is he lampooning people who talk like that, or is he talking like that? And then there is the mystery of his sneering. He mocks the writer of the farming column in Private Eye who, he says, ‘eager to reveal his pseudonymous identity at one of their parties, introduces himself as Old Muckspreader’. (A natural and friendly thing to do, I would have thought.) Does he forget, or is it meant to be funny, that he himself is extremely eager to make sure that we all know about his own contributions to the Eye?

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