So to a party to celebrate Granta’s 100th issue. I arrive late, having started at the wrong tube station and walked from Queensway to the Portobello Road in pouring rain. On the stairs up to the auditorium is Martin Amis, deep in conversation with someone I don’t recognise; inside the Twentieth Century Theatre everyone is facing away towards the stage, where there are speeches in progress. At the back of the crowd, straight in front of me, listening, Ian MacEwan, Annalena, Ian Jack; and then I look to my right and see Richard Williams, who worked on the magazine for a while. He whispers to me “I think I was here in 1968, for a concert by Quintessence; or was it the Third Ear Band?”.
The room is extremely noisy after the speeches, and I work my way to the other end, where I am talking to a woman who is writing a history of twentieth century art when we are approached by a distinguished looking gent: widow’s peak of silvery curls, quite tall, substantial; air of quizzical command. I have him down for a writer of military histories.
“Are you”, he says to my companion, “Suzy Israel?” No, she says.
Suzy Israel is the name on the RSVP, a figure of shadowy power who is Sigrid Rausing’s PA.
Would you recognise her? asks the distinguished gent. No.
Ah, he says. You see, I don’t quite know who invited me to this party.
Well, says she: there are Sigrid and Eric, meaning the couple who own the magazine, pointing them out where they talk a few yards from us.
He pulls from his pocket the invitation, an imposing rectangle of white card. On the back of it he has written two names. The top one is Martin Amis. Could we point him out?
“Can’t see him from here”, I say, “but then he is very short.”
The second name, he can’t make out. It is Ian somebody.
“MacEwan?” I suggest.
“Yes: that’s it. Is he famous?”
“Well, yes,” I say. “But I can’t point him out in the crowd: he, also, is very short.”
The art woman and I are now both studying the distinguished gent unashamedly, so as not to catch each other’s eye. He maintains an admirable sang-froid.
“I’m here”, he says, “because I am a a member of parliament. I chair the committee on human trafficking, and this, along with human rights, is a subject that interests Sigrid Rausing. The trouble is that it is very hard to meet trafficked women. They do exist, I know. But it is very hard to find them.”
We urge him to go and talk to his hostess, which he does, and I am left to reflect that this earnest and slightly ridiculous figure does more good for the world than almost all of the people in the room whom I normally think of as upholding civilisation. It’s not that I disparage culture. But I do think that working to end the slave trade is more admirable and much less absurd than producing second-rate literature, which some at least of the participants at this celebration must be guilty of from time to time.