Diary – Monday 18 September 1995


John Major is in grave danger of committing the most serious social faux pas of his premiership. The etiquette of the dinner he is throwing for Baroness Thatcher at 10 Downing Street on 26 September, ostensibly for her 70th birthday but in reality to gloss over his differences with the Tory right wing, is all wrong. He plans to have a sit-down dinner first and a drinks reception afterwards. (He has pragmatic reasons. He thinks in this way to appease the second-eleven customers who don’t make the shortlist for the dinner, without causing them the embarrassment of shooing them out the door at the sound of the dinner gong) But imagine! No lingering over the port, no loving puff of a cigar, no time in which to digest the cheese, no chance to get really blotto … disaster. One who has been invited tells me it has really dampened his excitement. I suspect others of influence and importance feel the same.

This striking picture (right) of a nubile young woman could be a good advert for, say, toothpaste, or gold jewellery, or hair dye. But it takes on a whole new significance when I tell you that it is the frontispiece in this week’s edition of Country Life.

The magazine is historically the property of smart young gals in pearls, usually just engaged. But the editor, Clive Aslet, has decided that it is time to get radical, starting with Mary-Claire Lewthwaite, 22, non- engaged and from Cumbria.

He has had enough of the well-bred betrothed, in part because modern society’s conventions do not fit in terribly well with the magazine’s aesthetic values. “Women get engaged so much older now,” he tells me – meaning, I suppose, that at 28 there is a danger of wrinkles. Ouch!

Still, one ought to commend him for innovation. “I can safely say this is the first woman who has ever laid down for Country Life,” he says proudly.

Yesterday at breakfast time, London’s genteel literati were busy dropping their toast and marmalade in shock. They had received through the post an idea that is as outrageous as a topless model gracing Country Life. After 154 years of happy, undisturbed browsing, the demands of a handful are threatening to destroy the peace of the London Library. The committee is holding a referendum over whether to have a coffee room on the St James’s Square premises.

All those against – and I suspect there are very many, since I hear it was “only a few” who made the tawdry suggestion – should take comfort. It is quite clear from the language on the ballot paper that the library’s chairman, Nicholas Barker, is on your side. In his letter to members, asking for their vote, he throws the issue open and then concludes: “There are difficulties about the provision of such a room, and we will have to see whether these can be overcome. We would welcome members’ guidance.” Quite, Mr Barker, having given it yourself.

News of a further kerfuffle from Rodney Walker, the outgoing chairman of the NHS Trust Federation. Last week, you may recall, he made much noise about the dwindling capacity of the NHS – soon, he said, it would be able to cater only for emergencies and the elderly. At a dinner on Wednesday, he also managed to provide the first blot on what has generally been considered a spotless honeymoon landscape for the new Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell. Getting to his feet in Nottingham in front of 600 people, Walker turned to his trusted friend – the pair go back a long way, since Walker is also chairman of the Sports Council, which came under Dorrell’s jurisdiction at Heritage – and uttered: “There can be no greater gob in government than the Secretary of State for Health.” For a brief moment there was intense public scrutiny of the Dorrell jaw. Which was not, incidentally, quivering with laughter.

The Americans are the only sane people I can find who agree with me that last week’s performance by the actress Tilda Swinton in the Serpentine Gallery was a national embarrassment. My colleagues seem to have lost all rational faculties over it/her/the pillow. In the New York Times, however, the caption accompanying a picture of the sleeping Ms Swinton said everything that was needed on the subject.

First it said in big print: “Quite Useless.” Then, in smaller print: “At the Serpentine Gallery in London, performance art is provided by the actress Tilda Swinton. She sleeps eight hours a day in an exhibition called `The Maybe’. The woman at right is a visitor to the gallery.”

He may, as the critics have noticed, be starting to touch on the theme of mortality in his books but, at 74, the author Dick Francis still has plenty of punch. At the launch of his latest blockbuster, Come to Grief, a woman cooed: “Ooh, how do you churn out a book so often? [Once a year.] Are you very disciplined? Do you get up very early?”

Francis looked at her beady-eyed. “Actually,” he replied, “I get up early when I’m not writing. I was up, for instance, very early this morning.”

“Ooh,” cooed the lady again. “And doo tell, what did you do when you got up this morning?”

Francis looked a bit taken aback, and then focused on her a little sternly: “Madam, I went to the bathroom.”

Those who sat next to Bob Geldof at the glitzy first night of Jonathan Miller’s Carmen at the Coliseum last Wednesday felt just a teeny bit uncomfortable when it got to Act IV and the opera’s wild gypsy heroine, Carmen, chucked in her lover Don Jose for the younger, hunkier bullfighter Escamillo. The story is obviously not too far removed from Geldof’s own: his wife, Paula Yates, has run off with the lead singer of INXS, Michael Hutchence. “He just sat there grim-faced and still. It was terrible to watch,” says one who was in a seat nearby. Fortunately, there is not much physical resemblance between Hutchence and Robert Hayward, the singer playing Escamillo, to ram the point home. Still, one can’t help wondering what Geldof made of Miller’s characterisation of Carmen as little more than a slut.