Diary – Monday 13 February 1995


I am about to do a great favour for the parliamentary staff of Don Foster MP, Lib Dem education spokesman. A few weeks ago Foster invented a joke which his office is getting very tired of. If I reproduce this joke in the national press, they say, Foster will stop telling it at every dinner, conference and event that he attends and they won’t ever have to hear it again. So, in the name of bribability, here I go:

A man walks into the Department for Education in Whitehall and asks to speak to John Patten. “John Patten is no longer Education Secretary,” explains the secretary, “it’s now Gillian Shephard.” So the man goes away, only to reappear the next day – and the next, and the next. “Look, says the receptionist on the fourth visit, “how many times do I have to tell you that John Patten is no longer Education Secretary?”

“Oh … I know that,” says the man. “I just like hearing you say it.”

Last year I voiced a suggestion so terrible I cannot believe I am having to do so again: the rush for Glyndebourne tickets is dwindling. Even dentists in the nearby Sussex town of Lewes say they think there is no need to book in advance – and indeed the box office itself confirms that so far, in the priority booking season, they have not yet sold everything out. The reason? The list of operas for the forthcoming season not only fails to contain any obvious draws, but it kicks off with Rossini’s Ermione. Ermione, I discovered, does not feature in the definitive Kobb’s opera guide. And it is described in the Penguin guide to opera on compact discs as “the one Rossini opera never revived after its first production”. At Glyndebourne, however, they are not remotely worried. “Oh that,” said a spokeswoman. “That was just to do with politics in Naples in 1819. There won’t be any such problems here.”

There was a minor mishap at last week’s special National Trust tour of

2 Willow Road, the Hampstead house built in 1937 by the Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger as his home. (Yes, yes, he was a friend of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming – the latter thought it would be “funny” to name his chief baddie after him.) The tour of Goldfinger’s house was something of a controversial event, since British conservation groups believe that the National Trust should not be investing its money in such modern houses. But on this occasion the crowd was lapping it up. “Goldfinger left many original artefacts here,” said the guide, and the punters gasped. “Look,” said the guide, opening a cupboard to reveal some bits of material, “he even left some of his clothes.” More astonishment from the gawping visitors. Just then, however, a door flew open and a NT employee rushed in. To the dismay of the onlookers she hastily gathered up the clothes – with precious little respect, it seemed, for their value. Turning to the assembly, she explained, blushing: “Ahh … they’re mine.”

A slight dampener occurred at the start of last week’s launch of Jon Sopel’s biography Tony Blair: The Moderniser – the Commons division bell rang. So, despite the television cameras and the Westminster venue of Convocation Hall, scarcely any MPs turned up. Still, among those who could make it was Mark Ellen, a university friend of Blair’s and member of his student band, Ugly Rumours. I asked him if Blair had shown the hallmarks of a future MP in those days. Answer: “None of us were remotely political then. In fact, when we were occasionally asked to do charitable gigs for student squatters, Tony thought the concept a load of rubbish.”

Valentine’s Day, I have decided, should be renamed Dalai Lama Day on account of the Holy Tibetan’s great success as a dating agency. Richard Gere met his wife, Cindy Crawford, through the Dalai Lama. The same gentleman also introduced Gere to the English model Laura Bailey, and as a consequence he separated from Crawford. Now we learn that he has forsaken Bailey for Vanessa Angel, whom he met, surprise, surprise, through the Dalai Lama. If I were Vanessa Angel, I should avoid trips to Tibet.