‘Jeremy! Jeremy! I can’t believe it! There’s no bloody booze!’ I’d walked into the music room where Elgar and Fauré were lavishly entertained by their sponsor, the flamboyant arts patron Leo Frank Schuster, whose townhouse 22 Old Queen Street once was. Our magazine was holding its annual ‘Meet the Readers’ afternoon tea party. And there he was, standing close to the door: the tanned, immaculate, cheerful figure of the great Taki. A sight to gladden every heart. It seemed too good to be true. That tan, those easy good manners, that lightness on the feet, that devotion to fun epitomise my romantic notion of what The Spectator is. Before every Spectator event, one idly wonders, or even goes as far as to ask, whether Taki will be there. And here he was unexpectedly. The man. Surrounded by 200 polite Spectator readers with fine porcelain cups of tea in their hands. I felt like dancing. He has that effect.
He had flown in from Gstaad by private jet. I’d come straight from a beach in north Cornwall shouldering a cheap rucksack. I was dressed for the beach. Short-sleeved red-and-white shirt with a lively cross of St George theme. Taki was in his usual so immaculately tailored suit you don’t even notice it.
This lack of booze had come as a heart-stopping shock to him, in spite of the event being quite clearly an afternoon tea party, with sandwiches, cakes, teapots, sugar tongs, and what have you. It was a coup de grâce after what he’d been through that day. He had left the warm sunshine of Gstaad only to find himself here under this grimly overcast London sky threatening rain. We looked up and balefully eyed the slate grey, and a large lone raindrop fell out of it and just missed him. And on the last part of his journey from Switzerland, he was humiliatingly forced out of his private jet and into a turbo-prop aircraft operated by a national carrier. Those captivating eyes glazed over, and the teeth clenched, as he recalled to mind the deep reserves of patience and stoicism he’d had to draw on. And to cap it all, when he finally arrived at 22 Old Queen Street, all they had to offer him was a nice cup of tea.
It was all humorous shtick of course. But on the subject of this unprecedented lack of booze, his appeal to a co-religionist had a note of sincerity in it. And I had to agree with him that it did indeed feel strange to be at a Spectator function without a champagne flute stem nestling comfortably between thumb and forefingers and the calming prospect of limitless supplies, which will be kept coming, often on circulating trays, until one’s legs go. Knocking it back like there’s no tomorrow is warmly encouraged at Old Queen Street as an essential part of the Spectator tradition.
But as much as I would have liked to have volunteered to sprint up Whitehall to the Tesco Metro on the corner of Trafalgar Square and secure us a secret bottle of Merrydown to be going on with, here were my two delightful Scottish lady friends, who come down without fail every year for the event to give me a good telling off. The leading one was approaching with a severe look and an admonitory wagging of the forefinger. These two humorous ladies read the Low life column more closely than anyone I know, alert principally for indications of sexual incontinence on my part. They are keeping a tally, and this time the wagging forefinger was referring to Ester from Hollywood. I hung my head in contrition. I sometimes think, however, that their teasing and finger-wagging is in fact superbly ironical, and that their real conviction is that my sex life is, by their own lights, a laughably meagre one, especially for someone with the gall to call himself Low life.
And then I looked over and saw Taki holding a transparent plastic cup with what looked like an inch and a half of spirits it. Alexander Chancellor, I noticed, had also spotted it and was eyeing the plastic cup with furtive, desperate envy. Excusing myself to the two Scottish ladies, who nodded smart approval, I darted over to interrogate Taki to find out where he’d got it. The deputy editor, said Taki. She’d supplied it. Cognac. Suddenly overcome, the head went down and with a catch in his throat he muttered about the cruelty of fate and the fickleness of women and gruffly wondered what the man whom she had married had got that he hadn’t.
But I didn’t stop to listen to any of this. I was up on my toes and away to secure a plastic cup and a biggish tot for myself.
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