Not long ago I received a letter from the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery, asking me if I had any regrets.
Me? Regrets? Of course I have regrets. I regret not being entirely sure what neurology is. I regret getting a letter from the Neurology people asking if I had any regrets, which felt a bit like being asked if I had any last requests before being led out to the firing squad. And a moment later I regretted not having read to the end of the letter, which suddenly made things clear.
What they were after was a bit of reminiscence for a fund-raising book they were putting together. The idea was that if they got enough writers and well-known people to contribute individual regrets, they would have an entrancing and absorbing celebrity confessional in which dozens of people we have seen on the telly or read in the papers would own up to secret shortcomings or awful omissions. All they wanted me to do was send them the story of one of my regrets.
This happens all the time, as you will know if you are even remotely in the public eye. As I write these words, I wager that somewhere a committee is meeting to think of ideas for getting money for their good cause, and someone is saying: ‘Why don’t we put out a small book of celebrity recipes? Jack’s cousin knows Joanna Lumley quite well. I am sure she would give us a recipe. And didn’t you once meet Prunella Scales, Dorothy? She’d be marvellous . . .’
I know this, because in my time people have been so desperate to raise funds that they have written even to me to ask for a contribution. I have been asked to do an account of such things as:
- My first childhood memory
- My most recurring dream
- My favourite recipe
- My most unusual encounter
- My favourite book
- My funniest joke
And I have responded, and eventually been sent a copy of the book, and extremely dreary they all are, on the whole. It is commonly assumed that when celebrities put pen to paper, they are going to sparkle, but in my experience it is usually the opposite – celebrities rarely radiate wit and wisdom. Henry Kissinger once said – it may be the only funny thing he ever said – that the great advantage of being famous is that when you are talking to strangers, and boring them, they think it is THEIR fault.
Occasionally people do come good. I remember with pleasure Spike Milligan’s contribution to a book of celebrity cookery recipes, which was a description of how to cook one single strand of spaghetti. The cooking of the strand of spaghetti was simplicity itself, but the sauce that went with it was fiendishly complicated and involved thirty or more ingredients. It would have taken a whole day to prepare. At the end Spike added a note: ‘If larger quantities than one strand of spaghetti are needed, adjust amounts accordingly’. It may be the only funny recipe ever written by man or woman.
Magazines, of course, very often use the same idea of getting celebrities to talk about one thing, but then turn it into a series. You know the kind of thing. “My workroom” or “My best and worst holiday” or, when there are two of them, “How We Met”. You can even ask writers to write about things that haven’t happened yet. Punch magazine once asked a collection of male writers to write a piece on “My Next Wife”. After that, they did another series in which woman writers wrote on “My Next Husband”. And it revealed, quite coincidentally, a very interesting division between male and female.
‘It was quite extraordinary,’ I was once told by the man in charge of commissioning them, Peter Dickinson. ‘The men all, without exception, ducked the issue and indulged in dreaming and fantasy and wish fulfilment. The women, without exception, dealt with the problem quite practically: they listed their present husband’s shortcomings, specified what they wanted improved in the next one and in some cases even revealed the actual name of the man they were going to marry next.’
The reason that Desert Island Discs is so popular is that it uses the same idea, of collecting people’s scraps of memories, on several different levels. You not only get a person’s potted biography, and his top eight records, but his favourite book AND a luxury. Brilliant. It’s like the best of several charity books. Though I think that the best charity book I ever saw was Robert Morley’s “Book of Bricks”, for which Morley asked all his celebrity friends to contribute their most notable dropped brick. The British are so excruciatingly haunted by embarrassment that a collection of people’s most embarrassing moments was bound to be a hit, as indeed it was. (It is interesting how many expressions we British have for that kind of moment. Dropping a brick. A clanger. Egg on one’s face. A red-face moment. I wanted the ground to ope...)
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to write to the Neurology people and tell them how much I regret something. If only Peter Cook were still alive, they could have got him; he said he once saved David Frost from drowning, which he came, in later years, to regret bitterly. I regret not having said that. But I fear that won’t be enough of a regret for the Neurology people. Let me think . . .
The Lady 11th March 2007