Stephen Spender’s credit card - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 36. Stephen Spender’s credit card

I think it was in 1991 that I was invited to a private dinner in Hampstead to meet Stephen Spender, essayist, dramatist, novelist, disillusioned communist, knight of the realm, former Poet Laureate of America - need I go on?

We were six at table and Spender was holding the floor. At eighty-two, he cut a fine figure: white-haired, leonine, vigorous, full of wit. His theme was the evanescence of fame - his own, presumably, but I couldn’t help thinking he was slipping me a veiled warning - and the need on the part of those touched by it to accept with grace their return to obscurity. By way of illustration he then told us the following story:

He had recently returned from a coast-to-coast car journey across the United States. Crossing the Nevada desert, he spotted a rare gas station and thought it prudent to fill up. A handwritten notice, presumably intended to discourage thieves, advised that the owner accepted credit cards only.

Spender presented his credit card. The garage owner scrutinized it in silence. Finally, he vented his concern:

‘Only Stephen Spender I ever heard of is a poet,’ he objected. ‘And he’s dead.’