You asked me the other day if I had any ideas for books that I wanted to write, so I am writing back to you now to remind you that that was the first question you ever asked me when we first met nearly thirty years ago.
Actually, it wasn’t quite the first question. The first question – and I cannot remember who asked it, you or me – was, ‘What on earth are we doing here?’ That was because we were both guests at a Private Eye lunch at the Coach and Horses, in the upstairs room where all the hacks met once or twice a month to swap gossip about other hacks.
I think I know what I was doing there. I had been on the staff of Punch for fifteen years and had just resigned to go free-lance. Punch and Private Eye were great rivals in those days, and although their cartoonists moved easily from one magazine to the other, there was no overlap of writers at all. If you wrote for Punch, you never wrote for Private Eye, and vice versa.
And within a month of leaving Punch, I was invited to a Private Eye lunch. I don’t think for a moment I was being asked to contribute to Private Eye, which indeed I never have been. It was more like being welcomed across the Berlin Wall. I had defected from Punch, and the free world was giving me a free lunch. And all I can remember about it now was sitting next to you, and you not being at all sure what you were doing there, and you saying ‘Well, if you’re going free-lance, have you any ideas for books you want to write?”
I did, as a matter of fact. (I think all free-lance writers have stacks of unwritten books at the back of their minds, mostly impracticable and almost all destined never to be written) And the one I was keenest to tell you about was my World Atlas of Prejudice.
This was a project for a global guide which would tell you immediately just what everyone in the world thought about everyone else. Well, not everyone. What the Austrians think about the Australians is of little interest to anyone, and people in Siberia never tell jokes about people in Patagonia.
And you don’t really need a book to tell you what the French and the English think of each other, or the Irish and the English. Or the Americans and Canadians. Or the Australians and New Zealanders. We always tend to know what close neighbours think of each other. But as soon as it becomes a bit remote –even a tiny bit remote – we are floundering. What do the French think of the Spaniards? Do they have a pet name for each other, the way we call the French ‘frogs’ or Germans ‘krauts’? The Italians and Spaniards – what do they think of each other? What do the Italians think of French driving? Are the British the only people in the world who think that the Germans get up at dawn to put their bathing towels on good bits of the poolside?
My book would explain all this.
I once read a book by Alistair Horne about South America in which he told a Chilean joke.
It went like this.
‘A group of Chilean men are drinking in a bar and one says suddenly “What would you do if you came home early one day and found your wife in bed with another man?” One of the other men says immediately, “I would go out and break every window in the US Embassy!’”
End of story.
Alistair Horne then explains the joke. The power of the USA is so all-pervasive in South America that they get the blame (and sometimes credit) for absolutely everything.
Now, you can’t really laugh at a joke after it has been explained to you, but you can see why it is funny to other people, and that joke from Chile – the only Chilean joke I have ever heard – suddenly explained to me the love-hate relationship of the Latino and the gringo in a way I had never seen before.
I think I told you all this, and you thought it was a terrific idea for a book and asked me to write down a resume of it, and I did, and you sold the idea to a publisher for a lot of money!
How I never wrote the book and how eventually we had to pay all the advance back is another story, but at least it proved that I could have good ideas for books. And you have been my agent ever since, and I am still trying to think of good ideas for books for you!