I laughed the other day when reading in the paper a letter that Philip Larkin had written in response to being asked if he’d mind being put forward for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The answer was that he did mind a very great deal! This was his reply to Rachel Trickett the then-principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
“My idea of hell on earth (physical pain excepted and I’m not sure it is excepted in this case) is a literary party, and I have an uneasy feeling that the post carries with it a lot of sherry-drill with important people.”
LETTER TO RACHEL TRICKETT 8TH OCTOBER 1968
Ah, the hell on earth which is the literary party!
My own hell on earth occurred in May 2005 at the Cartier Diamond Dagger award ceremony of the Crime Writers’ Association. Ian Rankin won it that year. My agent had done what she tends to do which is introduce one of her least verbal authors to me and my partner in the knowledge that we are friendly and chatty etc … etc …. and then disappear in search of important people. Then the inarticulate author abandoned us in search of important people and then my partner abandoned me uttering the fatal words, ‘Shouldn’t you be networking.’
I was now frozen to the spot looking wildly around me at sealed pods of people who I assumed had bonded in the same sand pits as children.
Sealed pods … sealed pods …
I was Sigourney Weaver on LV426 (that’s a planet by the way) looking at sealed pods … oh no, actually they were alien eggs …
Anyway, I’m sure you get the general idea. And we all know what happened to John Hurt. I stood there, frozen to the spot, with sweat dripping off my fingers and pooling in my shoes. But then much to my relief I espied a man a little over to my right standing by himself. I felt reassured because he seemed in a state of complete contentment and concentration and, as far as I could work out, he seemed to be writing. He was doing something with a pen anyway. In the middle of a screaming, yelling party, he did not seem that worried about networking or important people or anything much. I was impressed and drew strength from his confident and splendid isolation.
I can’t really remember much else about the party although my partner did return at some point and say, ‘Haven’t you moved yet?’
A few days later a cartoon appeared in The Times which was then reproduced in Red Herrings the magazine for the CWA. Here it is.
It then became instantly clear to me that the man who had been standing there in splendid isolation was Martin Rowson, the cartoonist. He had been drawing me along with about forty other people. There I was (I had short hair and wire-rimmed glasses then) looking impressively haggard and tormented. In fact he has captured perfectly how I feel about parties at which I am supposed to be networking.
Did I mind? Hardly. I doubt there’ll be another occasion when I end up in a cartoon containing Ian Rankin, Harold Pinter and James Naughtie.
However, the moral of this particular tale is this. If you want to avoid being depicted in the grip of a social anxiety disorder in a national newspaper, when your partner tells you to network, network.
Do you like parties?
Are you good at networking? Do tell!
Cartoon code – from left to right: orange – James Naughtie, yellow – me, pink – Harold Pinter, blue – Ian Rankin.