It has been a week of celebrations. Two birthdays – almost four decades apart – marked, in what seemed like an audacious generation-swap, by a lively party (for the 61-year-old) and a thought-provoking night at the theatre followed by dinner at a ritzy restaurant (for the 25-year-old).
First the party, where gem-coloured cocktails and innovative canapés were served to media types, lawyers, writers, and members of the former New Labour administration – the Ghosts of Government Past.
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a more cheerful bunch of spectres. We all know: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” What we didn’t know was quite how giddily relieved – light-headed even – is the pate freed from its kingly burden.
A year ago, in the same airy north London drawing room, the same guests toasted our friend’s 60th, but the mood then among the ruling Labour politicians – less than two months from the election that was to oust them from office – was more sombre. There was a palpable fin-de-siècle melancholy, a sense that the party (and not just our friend’s) would soon be over.
What a difference a year makes. In the happy hum of conversation last week, one couldn’t help thinking that there was another factor buoying up these blithe spirits, that there was more than consolation in the knowledge that somewhere across London, in a parallel drawing room, the Ghosts of Government Present would be conforming more perfectly to spectral type – stricken, ashen-faced, haunted by the cares of office, the unpredictable tide of world affairs, the goading of the press and the Schadenfreude of the opposition.
And so to the theatre – four “hot tickets”, stalls seats in a West End jewelbox, and a play described as fiercely clever, politically provocative and wildly funny. Just the ticket for a clever, politically engaged 25-year-old with a sense of humour. Only it wasn’t. Not for him. Not for us. We sat there, silent, frozen-faced, unamused and unprovoked, while all around us the audience whooped and chuckled at the so-called jokes and gasped at the so-called provocations. It is an oddly alienating experience to be in close physical proximity to others, to witness the same spectacle, and to have such a viscerally different response. One is beset by waves of misanthropy, alternating with gusts of self-loathing. One feels a churl and a rank snob, while battling a suspicion that one’s neighbours are engaged in an outrageous collective fraud. If common, unadorned expletives can set a theatre audience howling with laughter, surely every workplace, pub and football stadium in Britain is pullulating with Wildean wit. Why, in the confines of my own study, even I can be heard uttering such priceless one-word wisecracks when my computer crashes or a billowing pop-up obscures my screen. Then again, perhaps we’re at fault – nature’s wallflowers, destined to sit glum and unpartnered at the edge of life’s ballroom, while the grinning dancers whirl by, exchanging merry badinage. But they can’t honestly think this is funny. They can’t seriously believe this is clever. They can’t really find that actress with a voice like a dentist’s drill anything other than maddeningly irritating.
I have been here before. I spent four years as a drama critic, covering fringe shows in pub venues as well as West End openings, four nights a week, and concluded that when theatre works, there is no more thrilling, inclusive and transcendent art form. When it doesn’t work, however, few endeavours bring so vividly home the brevity of life and prompt the immediate urge to do something meaningful and enriching, like the crossword, or sorting through one’s old receipts. The theatrical hit rate – exhilarating success to spirit-sapping failure – was, I calculated, one to 32. But that was not why I left the job. My courage failed me.
I remember one famously genial drama critic remarking, during an interval at the Bush Theatre, that “friendship is the enemy of criticism”. Now I had, and still have, only one good friend who is an actor (though she prefers the unfashionable term actress) and, by a combination of luck and journalistic ethics, I was never placed in the difficult position of having to review her, but the genial critic’s remark resonated.
I was tired of being mean to people who had worked hard, mostly for little money, and disported themselves so energetically every evening in a perfectly innocent, fundamentally friendly, impulse to please. It was the curtain calls that I found most trying.
After spending two hours scowling in the dark, scribbling abuse in my notebook, I would watch the cast skip onstage, their eager faces shining in the lights as they waited for the approbation only a heartless boor could refuse. And so, just as I did last week, I would applaud politely. Then I would go home, head increasingly bowed with guilt, write my review, and trash their dreams.
Last week, of course, the trashing was done in private, over a convivial birthday supper. And, you will have noticed, I am withholding the name of the play in question. I have a backlog of bad karma to get through. Some of it is heading my way over the next couple of weeks when my first novel, The Spoiler, will be reviewed. The process feels like volunteering for the stocks and handing out the rotten fruit. I’d like to point out to critics that no living creatures were harmed in the writing of my novel.
Meanwhile, I’m engaged in some hectic displacement activity, organising the seating plan for my publication dinner. In the 1990s, when my novel is set, book launches were vast bacchanals which passing journalists and other hostile strangers could enter unchallenged, dine very well on quails’ eggs and blinis, and drink themselves to cirrhotic satisfaction.
In today’s Age of Corporate Parsimony, it is a different story. A few trusted friends, selected publishers and agents, and security-vetted family members – not a diarist in sight – will meet in a private room above a discreet restaurant. There, my guests will refrain from discussing my reviews, which I will have refrained from reading, feast on cheese cubes (the budget doesn’t stretch to tinned pineapple) and toast my putative success in two varieties of mineral water: still or sparkling.
The novel-writing business is not necessarily a fast track to prosperity and so, fired by The Social Network, I am developing a piece of software that will transform the lives of the modern metropolitan, enhance general happiness, and, in the process, make me a Zuckerberg-style fortune. iTablePlan!™ will guarantee the perfect, harmonious dinner party or seated social gathering by collating the results of a scientifically prepared online questionnaire, sent in advance to guests via WhoAmINextTo?.com®.
Their answers will be analysed using the Ordocode™ algorithm protocol and the placement prototype, to be road-tested at my publication dinner, will guarantee, for example, that, depending on your inclinations, you will be seated nowhere near the harried phantoms of Her Majesty’s Government, or the carefree revenants of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Nor will you be placed in salt-passing proximity to the jerk who laughs at the merest breath of an expletive.
Or, if your humour tends another way, we can guarantee that at no stage in the evening will you have to exchange a word with the perpetual miserabilists who can’t crack a smile at the funniest play in the West End.
‘The Spoiler’ (Harvill Secker, £12.99), by Annalena McAfee, is published on April 14