Call me naïve, but I never suspected what havoc writing a book about conversation would wreak on my social life.
When I meet someone new, however well we are getting along, the instant this fact is revealed the other person takes a deep breath, then a step back. Then they start apologising, assuming I’m about to rate their conversational prowess. Or – and this is worse – they expect me to dazzle them with spontaneous repartee.
I’m not yet a recluse, but it took some temptation to break my post-Christmas party fast last week, when I ventured from my home to Albemarle Street, an elegant Georgian thoroughfare off Piccadilly.
You might make such a trip for several reasons.
As the seventeenth century drew to its close, speculators realized this corner of London was ripe to be redeveloped as the Vegas of its day. Gentlemen’s clubs, gaming rooms, and all manner of high-class debauches soon pullulated in the shadows of aristocratic mansions fringing Green Park. Today their legacy is more chic than raffish, with the Ritz hotel and fine dining to draw well-heeled crowds.
Albemarle Street is also a particular magnet for literary pilgrims. Either they come to weep for Oscar Wilde, who was accused of homosexuality at the Albemarle Club, leading to his eventual imprisonment. Or they come to curse a publisher named John Murray.
Murray’s firm nurtured the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Darwin and Lord Byron, over tea and stronger refreshments, around the fire in the drawing room of the 50 Albemarle Street HQ. Alas, the Scotsman took his editorial role too seriously. After Byron’s death, Murray perused the poet’s gripping, scandalous, unpublished memoirs. But prudishness overcame fiscal prudence, and Murray dumped them in the fire, igniting centuries of delicious speculation. After all, given what everybody already knew about the incestuous Romantic, what devilment could be worth hiding?
Nevertheless, I am grateful to John Murray. Not only does his company live on, in a tall glass building in a less salubrious part of town, and act as my British publisher. But when I went to their author party in Albemarle Street last week, I was surrounded by the works of my favourite authors, and for a millisecond could imagine myself part of such exalted company. What is more, standing by that notorious fireplace, I had the perfect topic to divert anybody who approached.
Or so I thought. Then the magnificent literary agent, Caroline Dawnay appeared.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I told my friend Mungo he should come because I knew this would be a proper party because you’d be here.’
She disappeared, returning with a tall, reluctant Mungo.
‘This,’ she said terminally, ‘is the Art of Conversation.’
Well, what do you say to that?
As seen at penguin.com