Who Could Resist the "Ying Tong Song"?

Article excerpt

A week of heavy launching. I always enjoy the autumn publication season, and having a book of one's own amid the cornucopia adds an extra tang. As I've been asked to do Start the Week, I get to see the Velazquez exhibition at the National Gallery while the paintings are still being hung. The saints, the potentates and the princes of the church are magnificent. But it's the domestic scenes, the poetic within the prosaic, which captivate, especially An Old Woman Cooking Eggs and Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Larry Keith's chapter in the catalogue on Velazquez's technique is fascinating about his recreation of the fish in Kitchen Scene--you can almost smell them.

History's boom

Off to Cheltenham for three very different shows. First, Diane Purkiss, David Horspool and I debate "whither history" to accompany the Times Literary Supplement. The TLS last undertook a grand "whither" in 1966, when the future of narrative history was pronounced bleak. Au contraire, say I. We live and write as much as ever in the shadow of Macaulay and G M Trevelyan. If and when we cease to, the history boom will bust.

The next morning I fly solo on my Fifties book, Having It So Good. The main hall in the Cheltenham Town Hall has been repainted and, more than ever, speaking here is like performing inside a wedding cake. It is 50 years to the day since French emissaries called on Anthony Eden and tempted him into the disastrous collusion with Israel. Plenty of people of "my age" remember that Suez autumn and there's a good deal of experience-swapping at the book signing.

Final performance that afternoon about the writing of obituaries, with Mary Ann Sieghart, Anthony Howard and Roy Hattersley inside the wedding cake. It's attracted a huge crowd. Over tea, before we begin our exhumation, as it were, Mary Ann wonders why. The hall, I explain, will be laced with intelligence people from GCHQ. They can't be identified while they're alive but they look forward to their obits letting others know that they did good things for the Queen. To my faint embarrassment, Mary Ann uses this in her opening! …