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"England, I have discovered, is a country where no cuckoo should be counted until it is hatched." (illustration by Juliana Wang)

After the death of Jacob Bronowksi, Samuel Marcus Cohen succeeded, nem. con., to the title of Britain's favourite foreigner. So was he France's and Germany's and, he promised me, Italy's and Spain's, although his command of the last two languages was "far from approfondi". His short stories were always more than—as he described mine—"mere": they were philosophical and moral contes. The Sticking Point, his meta-novel about Baruch/Benedict Spinoza won prizes so prestigious that I had never heard of them. The word from Stockholm was that it needed only the clinching third volume of his Noah trilogy for Samuel Marcus to become a Nobel contender.

In the 1980s, after returning from abroad, I happened to meet S.M.C. at the launch party for a multinational philosophical chrestomathy to which he had contributed sections on Walter Benjamin ("albeit flawed, as perhaps I am, he remains my miglior fabbro"), Georg Lukács, and Antonio Gramsci. He welcomed me back to the metropolis with coercive cordiality. "Now that you are again at the still centre, so to say, you will need a London club at which to entertain your peers. You are probably thinking of the Garrick."

"Hadn't given it a thought," I said.

"Allow me to lead your feet into pastures greener, albeit less lush perhaps. I was—à l'époque—persuaded by certainly the third or even, in some eyes, the second greatest contemporary English draughtsman, to join the Stanhope. It may not boast the Garrick's tutti frutti peloton de tête nor yet a tie of the same stripe as the most lurid of Sicilian cassate, but it does sport an agreeably polyvalent ambience. And its centrality is convenient for the distended bladder."

Docility and the distinction of my sponsor led me to have lunch with him at the Stanhope a few weeks later. Its premises on North Audley Street had the traditional facilities of a gentleman's club: the reading room, the galleried library, the high-ceilinged dining room with a long communal table, a billiard room, and the bar with framed drawings and cartoons by famous members, past and current. There was also a bridge room.

Samuel Marcus was greeted with deferential salutes, but never with a hand-shake, a French habit discouraged between members. If I was embarrassed by the directness with which S.M.C. exacted promises of secondary support for "a candidature pas comme les autres", I was gratified by the members' friendliness. He warned me against presumption. "The Stanhope has a rigorous Scrutiny Committee and although, as you will have seen by inspection, there is no embargo on members of our—shall I say?—persuasion, one black ball will suffice to blight your prospects and my reputation. England, I have discovered, is a country where no cuckoo should be counted until it has hatched."

I had had no great wish to join the Stanhope, but I knew that I should be humiliated by rejection and by the gleeful woe with which Samuel Marcus was sure to announce it. Hence I was relieved when he telephoned to say that my name had been posted "albeit not high on the list" of successful candidates. It was typical of a master of the sous-texte that his congratulatory tone implied that I had only just scraped in. I discovered, when I inspected it, that the list was alphabetical.

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