Magazine article The Spectator

They Strutted and Fretted Their Hour upon the Stage and Now Are Seen at Literary Lunches

Magazine article The Spectator

They Strutted and Fretted Their Hour upon the Stage and Now Are Seen at Literary Lunches

Article excerpt

Welcome to the Hotel California, except that it was not California but Park Lane, and the hotel was the Grosvenor House. Though mirrors weren't on ceilings nor the pink champagne on ice, we were all just prisoners there, of our own device.

Court & Social columns are not my metier, but the guest list at the Foyles 70th anniversary literary luncheon last Wednesday, 18 October, was so extraordinary, so gilded, so melancholy as to be a period piece in itself. A last snapshot of a departing time, you might say; except that the time had long departed. Only the people were left behind.

I am no Samuel Pepys, but public moments that seem indelible in a thousand minds fade quickly if nobody writes them down. There must have been almost a thousand people, of whom nearly 250 were 'guests of honour'. So much honour! Honour's battalions extended across six top tables: a 'top' top table, and beneath it a sort of tournament of top tables.

The seating plan on which I rely charts the field of contest. On paper, the line-up emerges peppered by a hailstorm of decorations. Just a couple for Sir Nicholas Henderson, GCMG, KCVO; a modest three for General Sir Peter de la Billiere, KCB, KBE, DSO. At four, the Rt Hon. the Lord Carrington, KG, GCMG, CH, MC was numerically honours-even with Field-Marshal the Rt Hon. Lord Carver, GCB, CBE, DSO, KCVO; yet in this war of acronyms, both were outgunned by Marshal of the RAF Sir Michael Beetham, GCB, CBE, DFC, AFC, DL, FRAeS.

On the 'top' top table, James Callaghan's last chancellor sat almost next to Margaret Thatcher's first foreign secretary. The Rt Hon. the Lord Healey of Riddlesden, CH, MBE and Lord Carrington found themselves to the left of the principal guest speaker, Mr Ned Sherrin, CBE. The Baroness Thatcher herself was to Mr Sherrin's right. Lord Tebbit had been mischievously seated between Lady Thatcher and the German Ambassador.

Lady Thatcher has never been one for staring around. But had she looked along the seats to her right, her eye - lighting briefly on Lord (Kenneth) Baker and lingering perhaps a moment longer on Lord (Cecil) Parkinson - would have passed three ambassadors, the New Zealand High Commissioner and five peers, as well as her husband and Penelope Keith, before reaching her host, Christopher Foyle, and his wife. Glancing now to her left, she would have noticed two more ambassadors and the Australian High Commissioner - if she were not distracted by Lord (Bill) Deedes, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Snowdon, Lady (Barbara) Castle, Sir Hardy Amies, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, and others equally illustrious.

And that was just her side of the table. Across it, Katie Boyle, Nigel Nicolson, Dame Norma Major, Sir David Frost, the Lords Cranborne, McAlpine, Biffen, Carr (Robert), Rawlinson (Peter), Mackay of Clashfern, Fellowes . . . oh, where shall we linger? Not by the barons alone, but by the court jesters, troubadours and travelling players too: Harry Secombe, Alan Whicker, Robert Robinson, Thora Hird. Many of the surviving members of the Thatcher, Callaghan, Heath and even Wilson Cabinets were there.

Lady (Mary) Wilson herself was seated between Norris McWhirter and Lord Ryder. Richard Ryder was once Mrs Thatcher's private secretary, later John Major's chief whip, and now sat not far from Uri Geller, looking across at Chapman Pincher. The Thatcher-impersonator, Janet Brown, and Lord Saatchi were close by. …

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