20 AUGUST 1988, Page 7


My mother, a bibliophile, taught me always to return books. 'Keep the jewel- lery,' she used to say, 'but give back the books.' No matter how I was tempted excruciatingly once by an out-of-print Reay Tannahill on cannibalism — I always, always gave back the books. I was raised to believe the most noble courtesy between readers was to give back the books. 'Poor cow,' I imagined friends sighing at my grave, 'one thing you have to say for her, she always gave us back the books.' Now I begin to wonder if it isn't as uncivilised to be a careless lender as a careless borrower. There's an unopened tower beside my bed and not a single book in it I want to read. Every one of them was pushed into my hand by a friend who just knew I was going to love it. How shall I ever bring myself to return them honourably? Because you can't give books back without comment. You're expected to have read the damn things, aren't you? And to have something pithy to say about them. Novels are re- latively easy. Simply skim the first page, the last page, and an incident in the middle. 'Thank you so much for insisting I read it,' you then say, and something along the lines of, 'Illuminating. Especially that bit where he's sick in the limo. . . .' It's the improving books that create a problem. For example, what am I to say to a well-intentioned friend in Dorset about Rudolf Steiner's Vision of Love? She tells me the book saved her life. I read one sentence at random and knew it would be the death of me to read more. 'Rudolf Steiner has made many statements regard- ing . . . the power of love. . . . Some of the statements are to a greater or lesser degree identical.'

When the 10,000 Republican bal- loons have drifted away, and the Demo- crats' token women are back on their nests, only then will the central issue between the two candidates emerge for us to see. In the end, after the razzmatazz is over, the issue is what it has always been: a question of height. I'd be surprised if the taller man had not won at least seven out of the past ten national elections. Even Franklin De- lano Roosevelt, while chair-bound, kept the head and presence of a very, very tall man. Only Carter was a peanut, yes; and Nixon was a shrimp, but possessed of the ability other marine creatures have to puff himself up incredibly when threatened. Mark my words, Dukakis will never stand on a platform with his opponent, who towers over him. Political analysts have noticed he is already trying to lower his rather squeaky voice. He knows what really counts with the voters. Certainly Dukakis showed courage in choosing a much taller running mate, though less than IRMA KURTZ it would have taken to choose Jesse Jack- son. Judging from some of the avid, wild-eyed faces in Jackson's camp, to have picked him as a second would have ex- posed Dukakis not only to a humiliating height difference, but also to the second factor in the American electorate's decision- making: the telescopic sight of a rifle.

hat is this thing?' he asked me. He's 15. He was holding a threepenny-bit. Remember the threepenny-bit? It was a cunning coin, and how pleased it made me feel, how welcome, how English, when I had mastered its relationship to the shilling and its insignificance compared to a guinea. Could that really have been 22 years ago? Has it been so long since I arrived here from America and wondered where you hid your radiators? Honestly, I forget how much time has passed until some small thing like the threepenny-bit in my son's hand reminds me that at some point barbershop poles must have stopped turning, and one moment in my childhood I suppose I was watching the last trolley- bus I'd ever see pass my house. When did they take that boot out of the fish-tank in the window of Cording's in Piccadilly? In no time I've witnessed the end of the small ads on the front page of the Times, the final flight of a propeller-driven passenger plane, the demise of the manual juice- squeezer; and nevermore will I hear a telephone ring. Really ring. I mean not chirrup like an outraged cricket. Ring. Rang. Rung. All done.

At the weekend I met an 18-year-old girl who is currently attending my universi- ty, and that encounter, too, has made me feel ancient. By a remarkable coincidence she has my old room in the dormitory: 812, Hewitt Hall. The plumbing still rattles, she told me, and pigeons continue to favour the window-ledge. It all sounded pretty much as it had been until she mentioned that her neighbour, 814, is called Bill. He's a boy. Boys have started boarding in Hewitt Hall at Barnard College for Women. How did this happen? Just yester- day the only males to be seen there were the fathers of freshmen on the first day of term. And, believe me, they were in no hurry to stay around. Boys were what Hewitt Hall was there to protect us from. It was because of boys we had a ten o'clock curfew; because of boys our two matrons never closed the door to their lodge and took it in turns to patrol the porch; because of boys we were all subjected to a compul- sory course called 'Modern Living', so abstruse and dry I never even imagined it was supposed to be sex education until an upperclassman told me. And now there's a boy in 814, Hewitt Hall. He sleeps there, and talks dirty in the corridor with the other boys. My God, I'm old.

Afew months ago I happened to meet a professional nose in a Japanese res- taurant. They're very rare, you know. I'd be surprised if you could find more than a dozen on the planet at any given time. A professional nose can sniff any perfume and immediately identify its components, suggest improvements, and pass judgment on its value in the market-place. He is a virtuoso of the most neglected of our senses, an artist, a kind of genius. When a woman finds herself next to a great nose at a sushi bar, it doesn't take long before she's trying to find out which, in his opinion, is the best scent available. Reluc- tantly, my pro nose committed himself at last to a perfume I'd never heard of before, called Coriandre. Naturally, when I had to be in Paris a few weeks later, I went into a duty-free parfumier on the rue de Rivoli and asked to try a sample. `Coriandre?' said the salesgirl, looking down at me in that endearing Parisian way. 'It is very, very special indeed.' She put one or two drops on a little card and I sniffed, expect- ing to be uplifted by the sort of perfume every discerning woman dreams of finding: something subtle, promising, memorable, all her own, and hang the expense. For the rest of the day I kept taking that little card out of my bag and sniffing it. Once I thought I caught a slight trace of verbena. Otherwise, it smelled to me of nothing at all. Lord knows what a gifted nose would make of Elizabeth Taylor's Passion. I bumped into it the other day at Selfridge's, and I'm still reeling. Powerful? That's an understatement. It has the punch of seven or eight enraged husbands. Sophia Loren's Sophia, though cheaper, is demure in comparison. And the word is out we're soon to be assailed by Cher's Uninhibited. I'm not sure I approve of this new craze for smelling like middle-aged movie stars. It seems unwholesome to me, as well as misleading about the true artistry of scent, which should be used discreetly rather than as a fumigant.