14 MARCH 1992, Page 48

Long life

Recollected ecstasy

Nigel N icolson The other day George Weidenfeld and Ed Victor gave a party at the Groucho Club for my 75th birthday and I was allowed to invite 22 other guests, including my three children. I had expected to be asked to say a few words after dinner, and had prepared a few more than a few. As I was the only person present who knew everyone else, I had considered saying something provocative about each, but then reflected that my circuit of the table would create a bow-wave of apprehension ahead of me and leave a wake of disap- pointment behind. So I desisted. Instead, I recalled the incidents of my life which had caused me ecstasy. A capacity for pleasure, I said, is something that fortunately endures: but ecstasy doesn't. It is confined to youth. I gave two examples.

I was 16, at school. We had just sat down to supper when the captain of our football team, passing behind my chair, dropped into my lap a cap — my house colours. Everyone laughed and cheered, and I felt that life would have nothing more to offer in undiluted joy than that moment. It com- bined achievement of a sort with accep- tance (of which I'd always had some doubt) as one, literally, of the boys. I was exultant. Ecstasy number two: I was now an undergraduate, walking alone one long vacation through the Peloponnese. I found myself benighted in the mountains and lay down under an olive tree to sleep. This was no hardship. It was midsummer, warm, and the nights were short. When dawn came I discovered that by chance I had chosen a spot 200 yards from, and slightly above, the 5th-century temple of Apollo at Bassae. At that period I was passing through a phase of intense philhellenism and the temple, which in the late 1930s was unapproach- able by road, had been the goal of all my travels. And there it was before me.

I spared my friends incident number three, because ecstasy is too heady a liqueur to be taken in quantity. In fact it was the best. Summer 1944, Italy: my bat- talion had reached the foothills below Perugia, which the Germans were still occupying. Early one morning a partisan told me that they had decamped during the night. I and another subaltern, Joshua Rowley, piled a small force into four jeeps and drove up and up, round and round, into the centre of the city. In the main piaz- za there were few people as we drove in. They stopped to stare for a few seconds and then rushed towards us, shouting, 'Oh inglesi!' All the doors and windows were suddenly flung open and a great crowd welled into the piazza, converging on our dusty little caravan. Finally we came to a halt before the cathedral. They swarmed round us. I have never seen such looks of wonder and happiness. They seemed unable to believe that the English would look like other men, and we caught their spirit, laughed off their embraces and sent back by radio, a little self-consciously, the message that Perugia was liberated. Yes, that was the best.

What was the worst, my guests asked. I hedged a bit on that, but told them that what I most regretted was that classical music had never meant anything to me. This is partly because my childhood was bereft of it. Vita had once, to our astonish- ment, given us a rendering of 'Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do', but the perfor- mance was never repeated. And I am now in so pitiable a state musically that if Sue Lawley were to ask me what I'd like next, I

would have to reply, 'I'd like to hear "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady'. It would be too shaming.

I concluded that 75, provided that one has kept one's health, is a delightful age. Its greatest benefit is that one is spared spo- ken reproach. Family and friends excuse one for faults and omissions from which one has no excuse to be excused. It legit- imises selfishness. I can do things on a sud- den whim without consulting others, like sleeping for an hour at 3 p.m. or suddenly dropping everything to visit the battlefields of Hastings or Agincourt, or give myself the renewed pleasure (for old men forget) of seeing once again St Michael's Mount or Beverley Minster. The birthday party was all the better for not being ecstatic.