Barack Obama’s inauguration is going to be one of those moments where people will recall, years from now, where they were.
But as the public looked on with a sense of hope that suggested Obama has something of the divine about him, one of my own household gods was being transported into a committee room at the Westminster Parliament to talk to a few dedicated souls.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, America’s foremost man of letters, Gore Vidal, had flown in to tell his small (but perfectly proportioned) audience about the “spitefulness” of the Kennedy brothers toward the island.
Wheelchair-bound and struggling with an obstreperous microphone, Vidal held us rapt; we leant forward to grasp every last intonation in the soft voice, to see every faint roll of the eyes or barely-perceptible shrug.
Not only were we honoured by the presence of Gore the great writer, but also of Gore the performer.
History concertinaed before us, time shrinking as he reminisced, almost as though to himself. “The beach was milky white as I played backgammon with Jack. He lost as usual”, and he mimicked the petulant pair’s favoured response to anyone who dared to object to their plans: “They’re just jealous”.
He brought us “a gift” too – as though his presence were not enough. Introducing his young carer as ‘Flavian’, this smart, conventionally-attired young man turned out to be rather openly AWOL from the US navy. Now mentored by Vidal (as the great man had himself once been “mentored by Eleanor” [Roosevelt]), he explained that, after realising that his role in Iraq was just “guarding oil”, he felt that he was no longer prepared to be “a muscleman for the thugs in the White House”.
Of course, there were one or two of the more knowing members of the audience who, being a tad more aware of Vidal’s proclivities, smiled and gave an extra round of silent applause. It’s hearting to know that pleasure is not the preserve of youth.
Struggling in my new, pink patent pumps by Marc Jacobs, I scrambled straight for the platform at the end of the meeting, with two aims firmly in mind: one, to talk to the great man and two, to ask him to sign a copy of The City and the Pillar, which I’d managed to find in the gay bookshop near work at lunchtime, a total lack of any greater notice of the event having prevented me from bringing a copy of anything that I already possessed.
Is it acceptable protocol in such a situation to go autograph hunting? I really don’t know, but was working on the basis of it possibly being my last such opportunity.
As I stood politely waiting to catch his eye, he was tapped on the shoulder by a middle-aged man, who exuberantly informed him: “Hello, I’m ******** ******** and I’m the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union”.
Well to be strictly accurate, dear – you’re the leader of half of Britain’s biggest trade union. Protocol nearly took another bashing, but I fought my gut response – to make a gesture at him suggesting solo sexual habits. The onanist, having said his piece, disappeared rapidly, presumably self-satisfied and leaving Vidal looking as inscrutable as ever.
It was my turn. I burbled a greeting and profuse thanks for his talk. I managed to call it “erudite” – and brought forth a smile. Even household gods enjoy a bit of flattery.
Then I proffered the book. I felt a twinge of guilt later, looking at the crabbed hand and wondering if such a visible reminder of his present infirmity aggrieves him more than any pleasure he gains from the recognition that being asked shows. But you take such chances when they occur – household gods don’t visit every day.
I caught the highlights of the inauguration later, after adjourning to a pub right opposite Westminster for a suitably boozy interlude with journalistic friends and colleagues. But when anyone asks me where I was that night, I shall have no problem remembering a very special literary audience.