Before leaving home to meet the baroness, Amiss switched on the television news. It being August, journalists were starved for stories, so Hermione made the second item. Lady Babcock, it was reported with great gravity, who was better known as the literary luminary and high-profile New Labour peer Hermione Babcock, had died after a short illness. Her photograph flooded the screen, her handsome features dominated by the prominent nose and supercilious upper lip so many members of the House of Lords had come to hate. ‘Lady Babcock, who was sixty, was, perhaps, the most famous face of English literature of her generation. Here is Susie Briggs, our Arts Correspondent.’
Susie Briggs seemed grief-stricken at the loss of someone whom she deemed the grande dame of English letters and canonised as a warrior for peace and a towering cosmopolitan spirit, who was, inter alia, a fervent enthusiast for European political, economic and cultural unity. An acclaimed authority on the Bloomsbury set, her admirers and friends were legion, invitations to her salon were much sought-after and she was also this year the chairperson of the prestigious Knapper-Warburton Literary Prize, which she herself had won the previous year with Virginia Falling, the beautifully observed, tender yet haunting and ground-breaking novel about Virginia Woolf’s last day.
A small forty-something in a tight denim shirt appeared on camera. Amiss groaned.
‘Professor Ferriter, what is your reaction to the loss to letters of Hermione Babcock?’
‘I’m, like, gutted. Just gutted.’ With his familiar feeling of distaste, Amiss observed the flash of the diamond tongue-stud. ‘Hermione was like the first truly postmodern Bloomsburyite. Bloomsbury was, like, cool till it became history, but Hermione, she made it relevant again by embracing its provisionality, its fragmentation, its ambiguity, its simultaneity.’ As he warmed to his theme, Ferriter’s little forehead wrinkled and he waved his fists around like a didactic baby. ‘And then, like, she moved on. I mean what she said to me only the other day about how Queer Studies has screwed the deconstructionist prism and reversed the whole Bloomsbury experiment, it was sooooooooo…’
Susie had moved from sadness to desperation. ‘But her work, Professor Ferriter. What about her work as a novelist?’
‘Pretty dated term, that, Suz, if you don’t mind me saying so. These days we don’t…’
‘She won the Warburton for a novel, Professor,’ cried Susie, who by now sounded cross. ‘Can you tell us about it?’
‘Wow! It was like…wow! That moment when as she dies Virginia has this anti-marginalising vision of a Palestinian woman who is setting off a bomb in Jerusalem to blow up the forces of fascist colonialism while herself seeing Virginia the oppressed feminist throwing herself into the water…is…is… is…’ He seemed overcome.
‘Yes, very moving. Thank you, Professor Ferriter.’ With evident relief, Susie turned back to face the camera. ‘But what will this mean for the controversial Knapper-Warburton Prize, the focus for anger and rumour in the arts world and just reaching a crucial stage in the judges’ deliberations? And in such a crucial year too, with the winner being eligible for the million-euro Barbarossa Prize?’ Georgie Prothero’s face and Prada ensemble loomed into view, the horn-rimmed glasses and the somber expression adding gravity to his very youthful features. ‘Who can possibly take over at this short notice, Mr Prothero? Especially when the committee is so split.’
Prothero looked affronted. ‘I don’t know where you got such a false picture of the committee, Miss Briggs. And I’m afraid that—like all those connected with the Knapper-Warburton Prize will be—I’m still too stunned by this tragic news to think of anything else but our profound sense of loss.’
‘It’s common knowledge that the judges have been at each other’s throats, Mr Prothero,’ said Susie impatiently. ‘But in any case, you’ll have to find another chairperson, won’t you? The rumour is it’ll be Geraint Griffiths. Or perhaps you might be thinking of Professor Felix Ferriter, who I’ve just talked to?’
Prothero shook a minatory finger. ‘Such speculation is most inappropriate, Miss Briggs. This is no time for rumour. The War- burton—now the Knapper-Warburton—is a great institution, and whatever you say, the committee is dedicated and united and we will get on with the job in hand. In the meantime, let us mourn the heart-wrenching loss of a great lady.’
‘And that’s all from me,’ said Susie Briggs.
‘Thank you, Susie,’ said the newscaster. ‘Now, to sport, where England has scored a surprise victory in the one-day…’
Amiss pushed his cat off his lap, dodged the indignant swipe of her claw and went to fetch his coat. His phone rang, he looked at the screen, saw Geraint Griffiths’ number and, shuddering, headed for the door.
# # #
Interrupted only by a frantic phone call from Prothero about Griffiths’ success in getting his name trailed in the media, Amiss spent an agreeable half-an-hour in the Dorchester bar slowly sipping a glass of their cheapest red wine and listening to Cole Porter being played on a piano Liberace would have died for. He held in front of him a magazine he had been reading until he discovered he could see, reflected in the mirrored ceiling, the cleavages of two women sitting behind him. Amiss was no more a voyeur than the next man, but the breasts were large, the necklines plunging and the women—one black, one Chinese—were fantasy fodder. Just before eleven o’clock his reverie was broken into by calls of ‘Robert! Robert! Where are you?’ and he leaped up and waved.
‘There you are! Why were you hiding behind a tree?’ The baroness advanced in front of him, cried, ‘Look at me’ and twirled flirtatiously; a swathe of purple velvet swept a silver bowl off the table. She gestured impatiently at Amiss as he began to pick up the nuts. ‘They’ll do it. What do you think?’
Amiss abandoned the task to two waiters and sat down while the baroness plumped herself into the chair beside him and ordered from the dinner-jacketed major-domo a large (‘Now mind, I mean large, a large double, and water in a separate jug and no ice, have you got that?’) whisky. ‘What are you having?’ she demanded of Amiss.
‘Another glass of red?’ ‘But what is it?’
‘Another of the same,’ said Amiss firmly. As she leaned for- ward he snatched his glass away before she could sniff it disparagingly. ‘I don’t want one of those wine conversations, Jack. You said you didn’t have long. Oh, and you’re looking very nice.’
She forgot about the wine. ‘Nice? Nice? What do you mean nice?’
‘I mean splendid. Magnificent. Superb. You look wonderful.
Is that enough flattery?’
‘Nearly. But the earrings? What about the earrings?’
‘They almost brained me, but now they’re static, I can see they’re very impressive. If hardly subtle.’
She beamed. ‘I don’t do subtle. Green topaz and diamonds.’ ‘Sounds expensive. Myles?’
‘No. My grannie. She didn’t do subtle either. Right, that’s enough preening. Get on with it, whatever it is. You’d better make it snappy. Myles will be along within half-an-hour to pick me up.’
‘Where were you, anyway? Your office was extremely coy about your whereabouts.’
‘I don’t employ blabbermouths. I like secrets.’ ‘Jack!’
‘I was at an old boys’ dinner for Myles’ army pals. Don’t usually have women, but I was the speaker.’
‘What does one speak to the SAS about?’
‘I did a bit of warmongering. Now we’ve done for Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, sort out Kim Jong-il, ayatollahs, imams, Brussels and anyone else who gets in our way. That kind of thing. They seemed to like it. Where’s my whisky?’
It arrived as she spoke. She frowned at the waiter. ‘Very small double that. What’s the point of paying Dorchester prices if you don’t get a decent measure?’
The waiter smiled. ‘A very beautiful dress, if I may say so,
She beamed. ‘Italians,’ she said to Amiss. ‘Bloody brilliant. They always get it right. Can’t fight, but boy, can they flatter! You could take a leaf out of their book. Always pays off with women. Now what do you want? Why am I here?’
‘Because you’re a kind, thoughtful woman who responds to SOSs from friends even when with the SAS.’ He saw her expression. ‘Sorry. Because I have a proposition for you.’
‘I’m the one who makes the propositions.’ ‘Not this time.’
‘I like making propositions.’ ‘Hermione Babcock’s dead.’ ‘Good.’
‘That’s a rather callous response.’
‘Did you ask me here to elicit hypocritical drivel?’ ‘No. Sorry. Why didn’t you like her?’
‘Stuck-up, patronising bitch. Every time she spoke in the Lords she looked as if she had a pole up her arse. What a bloody menace! Do you know she wanted us to stop being called “Lord” and “Lady”. How would we ever get a table in a decent restaurant?’ She took a copious swig of whisky. ‘What did she die of anyway? Aridity? Acidity?’ She laughed uproariously.
‘A mystery ailment,’ said Amiss, rather primly. ‘Anyway, her death leaves the Warburton judges without a chairman and I wondered if you’d take over.’
The baroness sat upright. ‘Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?’
‘You gave that nearly as many syllables as Lady Bracknell did the handbag. And more volume. You’ve got half the Dorchester’s clientele transfixed.’
She snorted. ‘If they think that’s loud…Why would I want to be chairman of the Warburton? It’s boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. Self-important judges. Staged feuds. Rotten writers. Why would I want to have anything to do with it?’
‘It’s more to do with why I want you to. I’m on it, we’ve got troublesome committee members, and it needs a firm hand.’
The pianist moved smoothly from ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ into ‘Anything Goes’ and the baroness broke into tuneless, loud song. ‘…was looked on as something shocking…’
‘Jack. Pay attention.’ ‘Why are you on it?’
‘As ex-editor of The Wrangler, but really because a mate wanted an ally.’
She yawned. ‘So you become chairman. You can handle it.
After all, I’ve trained you.’
‘You haven’t trained me well enough. Even if they’d have me, which they won’t, because I’m too obscure, I couldn’t do it. Without you in control, the whole thing’ll collapse in acrimony.’
‘Why shouldn’t it collapse? Best thing for it.’
‘You don’t really disapprove of literary prizes, Jack. It’s a way of transferring money from business to poor starving writers who can spend it on food and drink. You were very pleased when your Dean of Studies won the Butterfield.’
‘Maybe. But that was history. This is fiction. And all modern fiction is a waste of paper.’ She signalled vigorously in no particular direction. A waiter materialised.
‘I want a decent cigar.’
‘Certainly, ma’am.’ He reappeared within seconds with a mahogany box which he opened with a flourish. She sighed. ‘I’ll have a small one. There isn’t time to do justice to a decent one before bedtime.’
‘For heaven’s sake, Robert, why not?’ ‘Afraid I’d go back to smoking cigarettes.’
‘Have you any pleasures? How’s your sex life?’ ‘Jack, this gentleman is waiting to light your cigar.’
When the business with clipper and lighter and energetic puffing was concluded and her cigar safely lit, she leaned back in her chair and smiled happily. ‘You were saying about your sex life.’
‘Non-existent at present.’
‘Good God, I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people. When I was your age I’d have had three on the go.’ She swallowed some whisky noisily. ‘Or maybe four. Depending on how busy I was at the time.’
Amiss changed tack. ‘Den Smith’s on the committee. And there are some people you’d hate just as much as him. You’d have endless scope for making their lives a misery.’
‘Den Smith? We should be dealing with him too. Second only to Saddam as a public nuisance. Nobody could be as bad as Smith.’
‘Well, maybe Rosa Karp.’ She drew on her cigar meditatively. ‘Tempting. Mind you, I’m not having an attack of false modesty, but even if I agreed, which I won’t, I don’t see how you’d swing it. I daresay they hate me even more than I despise them.’
‘Things are desperate. They’d almost certainly have to agree.’ ‘Who’s they?’
‘The key man in all this is Ron Knapper. You’ll have heard of him, won’t you?’
She wasn’t listening. Her attention had wandered to a small, fat, swarthy, elderly man who was passing by their table along with his companion, a young and striking blonde a head taller than him, who wore skin-tight, low-cut, micro-skirted gold lamé with thigh-high leopardskin boots. Her slender fingers were festooned with rings, both wrists sported sparkling bracelets, a single large bright stone lay between her vast breasts and her ears were completely covered with a jewelled lid.
‘My,’ said the baroness. ‘He’s certainly paying for his pleasures.’
‘Maybe it’s his daughter.’
‘The technical term is niece. This place is a fixer’s paradise. Good fixers acquire nieces like that. The currency is rocks. Big rocks.’
‘Ron Knapper, Jack. Canadian wallpaper manufacturer who acquired the Warburton Corporation a couple of years ago. The Warburton prize came with it. Knapper, apparently, is a writer manqué. Always going on about how he wishes he’d been a novelist instead of a businessman. Likes to see himself as a patron of the arts.’
‘Like that advertising idiot who spends hundreds of thousands of pounds buying up piles of dirty laundry—knickers they’ve called “Journey’s End” or “Finder’s Keepers.” That kind of thing?’
‘That kind of thing.’
The baroness blew a smoke-ring. ‘I had a most enjoyable fight about him last week on a TV programme. With Den Smith, as it happens. Den, of course, so much believes that ugliness is truth, that he’d rather art galleries showed pickled hedgehogs than Michelangelo’s “David.” He called me a dinosaur.’ She smiled and picked up her whisky glass.
‘So you called him?’
‘A dung beetle. He seemed quite vexed.’
‘Augers well. Anyway, Knapper leaped upon the Warburton with cries of glee, renamed it Knapper-Warburton and, because he’s the mega-ambitious sod he is, decided it had to be the biggest and best prize ever. Big-money literary prize, Jack. His equivalent of rocks. Got him to the dinner tables of the literati.’
‘Who wants to get to their dinner tables? They don’t know anything about food. Look at Iris Murdoch. Ate dog food. And not even decent home-made dog food. Tinned. Probably drank bad wine as well.’
‘So,’ said Amiss wearily, ‘once Hermione won the prize he consulted her on how to make it famous. She took him under her wing, he made her chair…’
‘Sorry, chairman, and all our present problems stem from that. Do you want to know the state of play?’
A familiar small figure darted into the room, strode down to their table and clapped Amiss on the back. ‘Good to see you, Robert. Can’t stop. Ida’s got to take off for Cambridge at six tomorrow so I’d better get her home to bed. Have you finished?’
‘No, I haven’t, Myles. I’ve been trying to persuade her to do something but she won’t listen properly and I need an answer tonight.’
Myles Cavendish gazed sternly at the baroness. ‘If Robert wants you to do it, Ida, you must do it.’
‘Because he’s your friend and he always does the things you want him to do. It’s a matter of honour.’
She drained her glass. ‘In that case, of course I’ll do it. Now why didn’t you say that, Robert? I thought you were supposed to be good at handling me.’
‘I was about to try the throwing-myself-on-your-mercy gambit.’
She yawned noisily. ‘Honour’s quicker. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty tomorrow and you can tell me all about it on the way down to Cambridge.’
As she began shouting for the bill, Cavendish looked at Amiss and winked.