Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

It was the house of our dreams for a life we wish we led. My uncle Edmund and his wife Natalia lent us their weekend address over New Year. Oh boy, talk about gracious living. The house is to be found on the Ditchley estate in Oxfordshire, a converted folly made of honey-hued stone, perched on a hill and alone as far as the eye can see. There are kilims on the flags, open fires in every room, and the chaste walls are dotted here and there with gouaches and Islamic prints of spare, subtle beauty. One room is consecrated entirely to works of philosophy, while other shelves have everything from Pleiade editions of the classics to Tintin. So for four days we walked in the enormous park and read The Castafiore Emerald and The Crab With the Golden Claws to the children. Castafiore, published in 1963, is now recognised as a masterpiece of Wodehousian plot. How many have spotted that in the bottom frame of one page of Crab Tintin and Captain Haddock are holding hands? They jolly well are. Check it out.

Another joy was not being able to work the TV, so that everyone was spared watching the `Tabloids v. Broadsheets' edition of University Challenge which went out on New Year's Day. You missed it, eh? Good on yer. Put it there. I don't think I've ever been so rattled by a TV programme, a terror that mounted for the six months after we were roped in. It was the fear of decrepitude, that the `search engine', as they call it in computers, just wouldn't work. It's all there, or so you fondly believe, but it takes too long to remember which shelf it's on. Our team was Libby Purves of the Times, who kept muddling me up with Bruce Anderson - a huge compliment, in a way; Decca Aitkenhead of the Grauniad, who brilliantly snatched an answer in the dying seconds; and Richard Ingrams. Their team was Ann Leslie of the Mail, who did well considering that she thought you had to pull the buzzer, not push it; Jane Moore of the Sun, Peter Hitchens and Tony Parsons. I'd fingered Hitchens for the danger man, and had tried to psych him out for months, creeping up behind him at party conferences and saying things like, `Who invented the spinning Jenny, hey, dummkopf?' and, `Name the four victories of the Duke of Marlborough.' But it was Parsons we should have nobbled. He was wired. The rims of his nostrils were white. You could almost hear the adrenalin sloshing in his capacious brain-pan as he leant forward and whispered, `Tony Parsons. The Mirr-ah.' The trial run was dreadful. `This is going to be a disaster,' whispered Ingrams, as we failed to answer any starter questions. We did manage to overhaul them at one point, whereupon - and I don't for one minute mean to suggest that this was in any way rigged in favour of the popular press, not for one minute - Paxo bowled us some unplayable stuff about particle physics, how many hadrons to the gluon kind of thing. `Say 240!' roared Libby Purves. Raspberry. There were in fact three mekons to the gavron, or whatever. The system was especially unjust to Richard Ingrams, who always seemed to know the tricky answers to the tabloids' bonus questions, though these are never thrown over to the other side. Anyway, to cut a long story short, no beating about the bush, we lost. I heard myself bellowing that Astarte corresponded to Artemis, that Rahab was an innkeeper, and that the northernmost county of Ulster was called 'Larne' (Aphrodite, prostitute, Antrim -- dummkopf). …

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