Article excerpt

The best thing about turning 50 is that you've had time to develop a healthy narcissism

While I tap out these syllables on the first day of my 51st year, waiters at Christopher's new restaurant in victoria are laying the tables for the guests who will assemble to celebrate my 50th birthday. I should do what I did on my 19th birthday, when someone told me that a girl I liked was going to give me a surprise birthday: skip town. Seating 130 people without offending anyone lies beyond the realm of my abilities, especially when people call every five minutes either to cancel or, belatedly, to accept. Maybe I was wrong to abandon the party for my 19th. In those days, I hated to draw attention to myself. Since then, I've acquired what my Canadian friend Bernard Avishai (he wrote The Tragedy of Zionism, coined the phrase "post-Zionism" 20 years ago and will weep if Ariel Sharon becomes Israel's prime minister) calls a "healthy narcissism". That is the best thing, apart from children and an impending step-grandchild, that comes with the passing of a half-century on God's fragile earth.

Pamela Cooper called a few days ago to tell me she could not make my birthday dinner. She is 90 now and has just lost the sight in one eye. Together with her husband of 50 years, Major Derek Cooper, she will drink my health at home in Wiltshire. The Coopers are, along with my former wife, Fiona, and Cohn Smith and Don McCullin, my oldest friends in England. It saddens me that they are not quite healthy enough to come all the way and stay up all night -- something that would have been easy for them even last year. In 1982, when they were spry septuagenarians, they braved the Israeli siege of Beirut to pull orphans out of bombed-out hospitals. Derek called late last year to ask whether the hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza might use his and Pam's assistance with the wounded in the new intifada. They are the best sort of English people, the kind who made me happy to settle here 25 years ago.

It is sad that the past month has seen the deaths of some of Britain's best: the beautiful artist Sarah Raphael (whom I adored), the trenchant critic Lorna Sage (with whom I fought) and Auberon Waugh, who needs no description (and whom I knew too little). Seeing Bron in the Academy Club drinking and smoking over the bridge table brought Hogarth's city back to me like nothing else. So wonderful to be, and be with, scoundrels and cads and rakes, while, outside, the dullards count their lives in coins. Long live Taki! Long live the outrageous Brothers Gilmour! Long live Tariq Ali! Long live the women I love!

This week will see the funeral of another friend, Gavin Young, journalist, adventurer, travel writer and great man, at Mortlake Cemetery. …