Magazine article The Spectator

His Master's Voice

Magazine article The Spectator

His Master's Voice

Article excerpt

His master's voice

Francis King


by Paul Bailey

Hamish Hamilton, L15.99, pp. 182, ISBN 0241142015

The first of Paul Bailey's Acknowledgments is to his former partner and continuing friend, the publisher Jeremy Trevathan, for suggesting that he write a book about his dog, Circe. Fortunately perhaps, since a dog is of limited interest to anyone except its owner, Circe's scampers through the book are so intermittent that one is tempted to think that the title refers as much to the life of its author as to hers. But the problem with this is that the authorial personality - independent, self-confident, ironic, capricious, now purring with gratitude and now administering a sudden, lethal scratch - is all too clearly not canine, but feline.

Bailey has a long memory not merely for a good turn but for a slight. Grievance-collecting is an unattractive habit; but if a writer pays back grievances with so much incisiveness and to such amusing effect, who, other than the victim, can complain? When I hear anyone either overpraising or denigrating some character long familiar to me, my first thought is always, 'You must have known someone else.' So it was from time to time with this book. Early on in it, Bailey and his then partner invite 'a famous poet' (not named but easily identified) and his wife to dinner in their Paddington eyrie. On entering the cramped sitting-room the wife looks around her and then exclaims to her husband, 'Just think, darling, only two nights ago we were in New York with Igor and Vera.' What Bailey regarded as 'a lofty put-down' clearly still rankles. But, from what I know of the poet's wife, I am sure that she blurted out the remark merely from clumsiness, not because she was disdainful at being invited to so modest a flat, but because she was amused by the piquancy of the contrast between it and the Stravinskys' sumptuous habitat.

Elsewhere Bailey writes of another of his dinner-parties having been made 'hellish' by the 'self-importance' of an author. Again, the author, a distinguished biographer, is not named but one can at once infer who she is. Could this woman, who subjects her fellow guests to 'an onslaught of egotism' by 'barging' into the room and haranguing them 'in stentorian tones', be the same unfailingly courteous, kindly person who has been my friend for 50 years or so? …

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