Diary – Monday 20 March 1995


Even the French don’t believe the official French excuse for cancelling, at the last minute, the televising of the Scotland-England rugby match on Saturday: the advertising of alcohol and tobacco at Twickenham.

How do I know this? I was there – in Picardie, northern France. At the appointed time, the France Deux channel was showing nothing but the ultra- boring Milan-San Remo cycle race. The same race was still going on an hour later, when the presenter at least apologised for departing from the schedule. Our host, accustomed to the ways of French sports coverage, explained without batting an eyelid: “Of course they aren’t showing the rugby: a Frenchman is winning the cycling.”

Talk of Bill Clinton’s controversial handshake with Gerry Adams put the American wife of my weekend host in mind of the hand-shaking technique of her old college friend, Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary. (They are kindred spirits: Mrs Clinton christened her daughter Chelsea, while my host’s wife named hers London.)

For the socially active, Mrs Clinton’s technique is worth studying. According to my friend she sticks her right hand out firmly, looks deep into your eyes and for a fraction of a second concentrates on you 100 per cent. She then removes her hand from your grasp and transfers it to the small of your back. “Without actually doing something so unseemly as pushing you away,” says my friend, “she makes it quite obvious that your turn is up.”

I hope the receptionists at the Daily Telegraph are suitably embarrassed. An article in that paper last Friday told how European noblemen with long titles have long been treated with a certain scepticism on these shores. It went on to describe the experiences of Prince Oskar von Preussen, an international publisher who also happens to be the Kaiser’s grandson. Visiting a London firm recently, the prince gave his name to the receptionist, who frowned and eventually gave him a visitor’s sticker labelled “Oskar, Prince”. What the article omitted to mention was that the “London firm” in question was … the Daily Telegraph.

The recent heavy rain up in Yorkshire has been making life difficult for the Government’s Funding Agency for Schools, newly installed in offices on the banks of the River Ouse in York. They have already had to evacuate their premises several times in the past three weeks because water has come over their doorstep.

Their head of finance recently devised what he thought was a foolproof plan to ensure nobody got trapped. He worked out that if the life-buoy on a post on the opposite bank began to float up within its frame, it was time to leave. This timing device worked well – until last week, when agency workers looked up from their desks and found it had floated away altogether. Happily, nobody drowned.

Disappointing news. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of New York photograher Richard Avedon’s work, which opens on Thursday, will not, after all, be showing a series of pictures of the late great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in the nude.

Peter Watson’s new book on Nureyev alleges that these photographs, which no one has seen, were taken after Avedon and Nureyev downed a vodka or three one evening shortly after Nureyev defected from Russia. There was speculation these would finally appear in one of Avedon’s exhibitions after Nureyev’s death.

But it seems Nureyev’s wishes are to be respected from beyond the grave. According to Watson, when Nureyev sobered up he regretted what he had done and got Avedon to promise that the pictures would never be displayed. But the question remains: has somebody destroyed them, or are they being hidden somewhere?

The prosthetically-challenged chap shown above is an 18th-century “ship’s cook”, a centuries-old naval ranking that has often inspired literary minds. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver was a ship’s cook (and Treaure Island was almost called The Sea Cook after him), as was the traitor in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.

Sadly, the ship’s cook’s days are numbered: from April the rank is to be abolished and replaced by the title “chef”. A Defence Council instruction explains that the change “is designed to reflect an increased professional knowledge in cooking and catering skills beyond that expected of a cook.”

Or, as a navy spokeswoman rather more succinctly put it: “Chef sounds posher, doesn’t it?”

The charming old Etonian historian Philip Ziegler was the star speaker at last Thursday’s opening of the Imperial War Museum’s spectacular exhibition London at War 1939-1945. Ziegler, author of a recent book on that subject, was explaining his researching methods. “I spoke to former doctors from Brixton, dentists from Hampstead, plumbers from Putney …”

Just as he reached the “plumbers” bit, a well-known historian in the audience was heard to whisper: “and marquises from Eton”.