Diary – celebrating a fiftieth birthday

The best thing about turning 50 is that you’ve had time to develop a healthy narcissism. While I tap out these syllables on the first day of my 51st year, waiters at Christopher’s new restaurant in Victoria are laying the tables for the guests who will assemble to celebrate my 50th birthday.

I should do what I did on my 19th birthday, when someone told me that a girl I liked was going to give me a surprise birthday: skip town. Seating 130 people without offending anyone lies beyond the realm of my abilities, especially when people call every five minutes either to cancel or, belatedly, to accept. Maybe I was wrong to abandon the party for my 19th. In those days, I hated to draw attention to myself. Since then, I’ve acquired what my Canadian friend Bernard Avishai (he wrote The Tragedy of Zionism, coined the phrase “post-Zionism” 20 years ago and will weep if Ariel Sharon becomes Israel’s prime minister) calls a “healthy narcissism”. That is the best thing, apart from children and an impending step-grandchild, that comes with the passing of a half-century on God’s fragile earth.

Pamela Cooper called a few days ago to tell me she could not make my birthday dinner. She is 90 now and has just lost the sight in one eye. Together with her husband of 50 years, Major Derek Cooper, she will drink my health at home in Wiltshire. The Coopers are, along with my former wife, Fiona, and Cohn Smith and Don McCullin, my oldest friends in England. It saddens me that they are not quite healthy enough to come all the way and stay up all night – something that would have been easy for them even last year. In 1982, when they were spry septuagenarians, they braved the Israeli siege of Beirut to pull orphans out of bombed-out hospitals. Derek called late last year to ask whether the hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza might use his and Pam’s assistance with the wounded in the new intifada. They are the best sort of English people, the kind who made me happy to settle here 25 years ago.

It is sad that the past month has seen the deaths of some of Britain’s best: the beautiful artist Sarah Raphael (whom I adored), the trenchant critic Lorna Sage (with whom I fought) and Auberon Waugh, who needs no description (and whom I knew too little). Seeing Bron in the Academy Club drinking and smoking over the bridge table brought Hogarth’s city back to me like nothing else. So wonderful to be, and be with, scoundrels and cads and rakes, while, outside, the dullards count their lives in coins. Long live Taki! Long live the outrageous Brothers Gilmour! Long live Tariq Ali! Long live the women I love!

This week will see the funeral of another friend, Gavin Young, journalist, adventurer, travel writer and great man, at Mortlake Cemetery. There his bones will lie, appropriately, near those of his previous incarnation, Sir Richard Burton. Like Burton, Gavin Young explored the Arab world and conveyed its beauty in words. Gavin had been stuck in bed the last couple of years, cared for by the heroine of the Observer’s old newsroom, Gritta Weil. Mark Frankland, Colin Smith and other veterans of David Astor’s legendary Observer will lay him to rest. I fear that people moving to England for the first time, as well as the young growing up now, will never know how good Britain’s papers were before the unions were crushed, Murdoch demeaned the written word and the demands of commerce superseded those of literacy. It was a time when politics mattered and when newspapers provided the for a for public debate. Now, the papers trot out fillers to accompany the ads on social life, fashion, sport and the music business. Neglected are issues such as who should own the economy, who should run the country, who is being screwed by power and on whose behalf the state should act. Newspapers and weeklies were among the prime attractions – like the young bride I came here to marry and the Coopers — of this green and pleasant land. The question now must be: what keeps me here?

The fact that I can gather more family and friends in London than in any other city has something to do with it. Also the fact that my children – Edward, Julia and George – are natives. Their old immigrant father must be an embarrassment, with his American accent and bizarre customs, but they will have to endure me for as long as I can make them. I’ve occasionally ventured out of this country to live in others – France, Ireland, Lebanon, Italy – over the past quarter-century, but London retains its hold.

Derek and Pam Cooper may come up to London on Valentine’s Day to hear Colin Thubron, Ahdaf Soueif, Willie Dalrymple, Brigid Keenan and me read from our Middle East books at the Royal Geographic Society in London. The plan is to charge people £20 and send the money to the kind of hospitals in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank that the Coopers have been helping for ages. St John’s Ophthalmic Hospital has been caring for people whose eyes have been shot out by Israeli snipers, and Medical Aid for Palestinians treats refugees in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. My fear is that, if General Sharon is elected, he will send more refugees over the River Jordan. I may skip passages from my book, which came out ten years ago, and read instead the proposal for the next one. Publishers, please note.