When I arrived in
in 1970, a wide-eyed seventeen year-old, Richard Nixon was in the White House,
Edward Heath was taking over from Harold Wilson in Downing Street, the Beatles
were breaking up and Foyles was the pre-eminent London bookshop by far.
It was huge, rambling and scruffy and so old fashioned Dickens would not have looked out of place in any of its shambolic departments. The shortest route between floors was via a bare concrete stairwell which surrounded a clanking lift shaft. It had the most ridiculous payment system ever invented, involving queuing two or even three times at different counters, and a reputation for treating its employees as virtual, if willing, slaves.
Hovering over all this was a penthouse, the
home of the fragrant Christina Foyle, (she had a fantastic, peacock strewn
country house as well), who had been working in the shop since 1928. Her father
had opened the store in 1904. Her biggest claim to fame was the founding of the
“Foyles Literary Lunches”; vast, glittering affairs held in the grandest hotel
ballrooms of Park Lane,
bringing “writers and thinkers” together with their readers. Virtually all the
most famous names of the twentieth century ended up at one of these lunches
eventually, either as performers or as guests on Miss Foyle’s high table.
A few years later I was commissioned by a magazine to do a series of profiles of interesting
London figures. Having
just published my first novel, (the publisher was a magnificently eccentric
Nigerian by the name of Dillibe Onyeama, who had shot to fame with his own
autobiography controversially entitled “Nigger at Eton”), I had personal
reasons for wanting to meet this woman who ruled London’s literary landscape. I
made tentative enquiries to the bookshop staff, who were obviously puzzled by
the very concept of something as vulgar as press relations but promised to pass
my request on.
Eventually summoned to a conservatory in the penthouse for tea, I met a woman who seemed to me to be exactly as the Queen herself would be in such circumstances. Later, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, I realised I could also see elements of the same steely, handbag style of charm. It was like being granted an audience with a very grand great aunt, the sort of tea-party conversation I had watched my mother indulging in throughout my childhood. We sat amongst the palms, gazing out across the rooftops of
Soho, sipping from
wafer thin china cups. She asked me gracious questions about my novel and
politely assured me she would make sure it was well stocked in the shop. The
interview ended and I wrote the piece.
A few months later an impressively stiff invitation arrived at my bed-sit in
Earls Court, inviting me to sit on the
high table at the next Foyles Literary Lunch. The format of these lunches was
always the same. There would be one or two main speakers, who were usually
people with potentially bestselling books to promote, and the rest of their long
table would be filled with invited guests who tended to be people who Miss
Foyle knew or who she was grooming for future events. All the other tables were
filled with the paying customers, who came to eat, listen, buy books and have
them signed. The people on the high table would all sit along one side and in
my memory they were raised slightly higher than the rest to afford better
visibility to the masses- but my memory may have become confused by artists’
depictions of the Last Supper.
All of the denizens of the high table were famous and all of them were, conservatively speaking, at least three times my age. High table invitees were assembled in an anteroom first in order to be greeted and introduced and we made more polite small talk before being wheeled out to the adoring paying public. It was glorious, like stepping into the teachers’ common room at Hogwarts; part of the last great hurrah for publishing elitism before the much-needed tidal wave of democratisation hit books and education and life in general. The age of deference was teetering on the brink of extinction, although it would prove to be a long, drawn out demise, and a whole new world was arriving through the doors which had been thrown open by the pioneers of the sixties.
I received several more such invitations from Miss Foyle and I confess I accepted every one of them because it was a magical kingdom to visit, albeit a suffocating one to live in as a young man trying to break into what seemed like a closed and elite world.
Nearly forty years later my wife and I received an invitation to one of the Queen’s summer garden parties at
. Buckingham Palace
“This’ll be a bit of a test for all your wishy-washy republican opinions,” she said when I showed her the invitation.
I didn’t bother to struggle with my conscience for long. For so many years I had been forced to walk all the way round the giant slab of a building and its walled gardens whenever I wanted to get between Victoria Station and the West End that the temptation to see inside the walls was too much to resist, as it has been in any of the other palaces I have managed to infiltrate around the world over the decades.
As the Queen and her family descended the palace steps to mingle with the guests on the lawns I was struck by the fact that she was still dressed pretty much as Miss Foyle had been that day at tea. It was like being transported to a pleasantly landscaped time capsule, rolling green lawns filled with top hats, brass bands, tea tents, officers and bishops. Maybe not as much has changed as I would like to think.