It was the week before Passover and the sentence “Why is this night different from all other nights?” had never felt more relevant. I was sitting in a farmhouse in frosty Connecticut, the night before the funeral of my partner’s sister. The event was already surreal, as you are not allowed to die in Connecticut between the months of October and March. I’m sorry, I will rephrase that. You cannot be buried in those months, whatever your faith or creed, because the ground is covered in six feet of snow and it is therefore impossible to dig.
Yes, in the age when human skin can be grown in sheets and elevators talk to you, you might think a way could be found to reserve a few trenches under cover in a cemetery but ours was not to reason why with a state that asks you if you have “remembered to tune up your snow-thrower” as you cross its borders.
So, here we were, a small family, united in sadness, with three-year-old twins and a two-year-old babe sleeping upstairs, checking catering arrangements for the arrival of a hundred mourners the following day when, sitting quietly over a flat white and a mini muffin, my iPhone started pinging like a hyperactive microwave baking 12 Maris Pipers.
Six thousand miles away in London and Manchester, friends and colleagues were trying to tell me something. Strangers were asking me to comment and newsdesks sought soundbites. With no work to speak of and nothing but charity lunches in my diary, I was suddenly hotter than Santa’s butt on Xmas Eve and all because, it seemed, of my hitherto unknown proclivity for destroying the education of an entire generation of students in my country of birth.
I am referring to the interview in the Telegraph with Nigel (EU go home! Or Eugh!) Farage, in which he decried the soft-option degrees favoured by thousand of students who should never have gone to university in the first place and who had no jobs to go to at the end of them. He went on to — I believe the American word is “quip” — “I blame Maureen Lipman for that ‘ology commercial.”
So there it was. And is. And always will be. I did it. Me. Not a ministering angel, not a fiery angel, and not by a messenger but me, myself, as it is written. Twenty-six years ago those BT commercials hit the airwaves, all 55 of them — except the ones that didn’t — and still the ringtone is as loud as ever. A fairly serious career was drowned in chicken fat and I spent the intervening years piecing back the profile, carefully, via The Pianist, Re-Joyce, Oklahoma, Ladies of Letters, Rosenthal, Bennett, Plater and Priestley, and even Midsomer fucking Murders, and I thought I might have succeeded.
I mean, I’m a realist. I know that my obituary will read ‘”Lipman Gets Cut Off!” but — aside from sundry Sun readers in B&Q and red-faced rucksack bearers at airports who still felt the need to walk 50 metres through a crowded concourse to stand before me and bleat, “I bet you’ve brought an ‘ology with you, haven’t you?” (I tend to give them my dead sea-bass look until they turn and walk sheepishly away) — I honestly thought the whole thing was toasted bagel.
Now here was Nige, with his pouchy little face and his blokey personality, bringing the whole thing thundering back, with repeats. So, instead of making neat piles of napkins and uncorking wine, the nephew and I went into the study, closed the door, got online and spent as happy a couple of hours, circumstances allowing, as either of us could have hoped for: “Lipman responds to Farage’s Marxist Ide’ology (That’s Groucho not Karl)” we headlined it, and “Laurence Olivier to blame for Second World War after warmongering speech: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.” These made us laugh inordinately, which was just as well as both jokes were subbed out when the letter was printed in the Telegraph the following Sunday.
The gist of my reply was that Farage must be the first politician in the history of first-world nations to regard education as a bad thing. I didn’t want to appear po-faced because I recognise an off-the-cuff witticism as well as the next thin-skinned thespian. In truth it was the sort of remark I might well have made myself halfway through a collar-heating interview, and one always dislikes in other people the things one most fears in oneself.
“Mr Farage himself, like me, avoided university,” I wrote. “It’s not too late for him to enroll in a soft media studies degree and change careers to become a fully-fledged comic.”
The trouble is that Farage’s message is very simple and very effective, if one doesn’t think too hard. It’s not unlike Comrade Putin’s. If things were like they were back then, we would once more be a proud and powerful empire and, invariably, it leads to some sort of cull. Not nice for badgers and even worse for anyone who doesn’t have the prescribed amount of Pict, Norman, Anglo- Saxon, Huguenot or whatever constitutes an Englishman these days.
As for me, my moments of supreme power were ending. As I passed through the last checkpoint at JFK airport, the smiley security lady bade me goodbye with: “Have a nice journey, Miss Lipman, and come back soon.”
Astonished — I hadn’t shown her my passport — I asked her how she knew who I was.
“Well,” she said shyly, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but my friends all call me ‘The Queen of Obscure Celebrities’.”
“Thank you,” I told her. “You’ve just given me the punchline of my article.”
Life, newspapers, reputation? In the end all things Pass Over.