I suggested that I and my long-time acquaintance Ben meet up. He’d always been immensely charming, but there’d been times I’d felt more manipulated than flattered by his charm. Once, on a bus in north London, he’d told me how very much he’d admied a particular piece I’d written, only to admit a few miles down the road he hadn’t actually read it. Another time, he’d taken me to lunch, and spent perhaps 40 percent of our time together on his mobile phone, making dinner plans with another of those to whose back catalog he hoped to buy the rights. Still, charm’s charm, and he was unusually bright, and had been through no little hell of his own, and I felt sure it would be interesting to talk about our lives in 2016.
I came up to his office, thought hesitant to see a colleague of his with whom I’d had a pretty ugly falling-out not long before abandoning the UK for the first time. It wasn’t excruciating, though. We smiled at each other, Colleague and I. I hadn’t planned on Ben buying me lunch. Indeed, I’d suggested we meet at two to preclude his doing so. I’d intended to buy him a cup of coffee. But it turned out he’d put off eating. We went to a restaurant he liked. My salad was good, and our server, who might have been French, at no point said, “No probs.”
I wondered if his recent successes had made him happy, and was delighted — not because I wish unhappiness on him — when he said, “You know better than to ask me that!” I will not pretend not to be a little bit pleased to learn that persons who I feel have accomplished much more than I (which is to say nearly everyone) aren’t exultant about their accomplishments. I’m a perfect bastard that way, as in many others. I was flattered by his forthrightness.
He alluded at several points to his ancientness. Because he is a dozen years my junior, his doing so made me feel even ancienter than usual. The years hadn’t made him less charming. Whenever I addressed him by name, I could count on his reciprocating within a few sentences. (I like when people call me by name, and call them by name in hope of making them feel good.) I told him how my having written at 22 a disparaging review of a particular album has turned out to be that for which I am best known, and how much I hate that. When he told me his wife reads all his work, even when she’s not fascinated by the subject matter. I experienced intense envy. I picture someone asking my widow at my funeral if my novels were good. I would hate to imagine her affirming that they were when she hasn’t actually read a single one of them.
Ben’s raving gently about a recent performance of my band he’d been kind enough to attend made me slightly uncomfortable, as, on the actual night, he’d rated it a 7.5 out of 10. When I told him about my 15 unpublished novels, he said he regarded me as a genius, and offered to do whatever he could to help. I don’t think he really regards me as a genius, and didn’t in a million years want him to think I’d arranged for us to meet so I could solicit his help. We spoke of how he’s taken to writing poetry on the bus to his office, and how my own poetry his always intended to be sung.
The best part of our meeting was when we walked back toward his office. Dorothy Parker said, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, sit next to me,” and I am a Parkerian. It was enjoyable to compare notes on a mutual acquaintance I regard as a pompous twat. I’m always delighted to discover that an acquaintance shares my low opinion of a third party, and flattered by their confiding.
Ten years ago, when I vaguely suggested that Ben and his new-at-the-time wife come over for dinner, I got the impression he wasn’t mad about the idea. In the autumn of 2016, I might try anew.
I don’t envisage actually having a funeral. If I did, I’d bet a large sum of money on the turnout being disappointing.