Diary – Monday 23 October 1995


The Irish Prime Minister John Bruton has resolved to change his country’s national anthem, deeming the current song too militaristic for these optimistic days of the peace process. But the plan is generating an increasingly heated controversy – and some novel suggestions. Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fail leader, has already nominated “A Nation Once Again”. Now the nephew of the man who wrote the current anthem in 1907 has launched a campaign for his own preferred replacement. I fear, however, that his suggestion is likely to raise temperatures higher still.

Brian Behan, the playwright nephew of Peadar Kearney, who wrote the lines which begin: “Soldiers are we, who fought and died for Ireland …” has written to Mr Bruton suggesting that “Danny Boy”, sung to the tune of the “Londonderry Air”, should become Ireland’s new national anthem. “It is perfect,” he says – blithely forgetting that the very name of Londonderry is regarded these days as grossly politically incorrect by all but the most hardened loyalist – “because it unites elements of both the North and South”.

He adds: “However, in return, I would stipulate that the Orangemen & Co stop singing the British national anthem.”

To date, Mr Behan’s “campaign” consists of a handful of radio broadcasts, and methinks somebody will stop him in his tracks before too long. The Ulster Unionist MP Clifford Forsythe was distinctly unamused to hear of Mr Behan’s efforts. “I like the tune of ‘Danny Boy’ very much,” he says, “like I like Mozart very much. But my national anthem is ‘God save the Queen’.”

I don’t know what Mrs Bostridge, mother of Mark and Ian, ate when she was pregnant, or if she painted their baby bedrooms bright colours to stimulate their brain cells, but at the launch last Friday of Mark’s book Vera Brittain, a Life, the spectacle of these two baby- faced young achievers set middle-aged Oxbridge academics almost retching with envy. (“How important, relatively speaking, is the Gladstone prize?” I asked an Oxbridge historian just behind me. “I don’t know,” he replied stiffly, “since I didn’t get it.”)

Last week marked a double celebration for the Bostridge brothers. While Gladstone prize-winner Mark, 34, was lauded for his efforts – eight long years of thorough research – as a co-author on the Brittain book, Ian, 30, a distinguished professional tenor, had just released a record “The Red Cockatoo and Other Songs”, which contains works by Benjamin Britten never previously recorded. In January, he is due to sing the lead in The Magic Flute at the English National Opera.

If the two wore specs and glistened with acne and greasy hair, one might feel slightly better about them. But as you can see from the photograph, this is not the case. How come their parents got such a good deal, I asked them. “I don’t know,” said Ian, while Mark jested: “I’m sure Ian’s talent has something to do with the fact that as an older brother I always took a great interest in him.”

Incidentally, at the above launch, staff at the Imperial War Museum were in a great flap about what to put on Shirley Williams’s name tag. Everyone else was easy (I, for instance, was plain Vicky Ward). But the title of Vera Brittain’s daughter, Lady Williams, created something of a division among the ranks: no one could agree whether she would prefer to be titled or not. In the end she was asked to choose from two labels. She chose the untitled version, much to the jubilation of those who had punted that way. “I knew it,” one of them confided to me, grinning, “I just knew it.”

I have decided to dub last week my “Brian Sedgemore week”, because I kept on bumping into the tall, angular Labour MP for Hackney South. This is more, apparently, than the rest of the House of Commons managed, all 650 of whom noticeably failed to turn up to the Westminster launch of his satirical handbook, The Insider’s Guide to Parliament, last Monday. “They were too frightened to be seen with me, especially the Labour lot in the run-up to the Shadow Cabinet elections,” Sedgemore told me gleefully over dinner hosted by the Folio Society at Lincoln’s Inn, “because of the book’s contents.”

Only seconds earlier Susan Reeves, Sedgemore’s assistant, had described the book to me as “perfect material for the toilet” – in view of which I feel our MPs must be a very cowardly bunch indeed.

One MP who is likely to be slightly annoyed with Sedgemore is Paddy Ashdown who, the book reveals, used to visit a dance hall in Exmouth on Saturday nights in his marine days. “He used to sneak in through the back entrance, like I also did,” recalls Sedgemore, sighing nostalgically. “But he won’t like me for revealing how politically incorrect he was in those days – he used to refer to those occasions as ‘meat markets’.”

Making Nonsense of Modern Commercial Practices: the case study of the BBC. The Beeb’s internal mail goes out of its buildings before coming back in. Er, why? Because in June the internal mail system was contracted out to the Post Office. “It would be true to say,” says a postroom employee, “that the new system is having a few problems.”

Really? “But it’s not too bad. We reckon we are a next-day service.” So technically, the service probably qualifies as first class.

All new magazines have teething problems, and I am glad to report that the worst complaint so far levelled against Prospect, the political monthly launched last month by the former Financial Times journalist David Goodhart, is that the crossword is not hard enough. “I have realised that I can do one-quarter of the clues without even going to a reference book,” explains Goodhart, “and my general knowledge is not even very good. We are going to have do something about it.”

There is one advantage to having an easy crossword: readers fall asleep over it and do not enter. Goodhart’s postbag for this month contained only four correct solutions. But then, with clues like “Historic city founded by Kubla Khan in 1256 as his summer residence (6)”, one is not really surprised …