Diary – Monday 26 June 1995


Nasa’s plans for a truly historic moment on 4 July are being held up by a technical hitch. The Russian cosmonauts due to land in Florida on board the US space shuttle, which will have linked up with the Russian space station Mir for only the second time, have forgotten their visas.

Gennady Strekalov and Vladimir Dezhurov are already in space and are not really in a feasible position to nip back home to get them. The American shuttle lifted off last week and so is similarly handicapped. But the American rules are clear; foreigners without visas are deemed illegal aliens.

Alors! The duo apprised Nasa of the situation from outer space a few weeks ago. “Yes, it made things a little complicated,” a spokeswoman said. “They could not have landed. But at last we’ve got it all sorted out. The State Department has organised some papers for them.” What a relief. Would the notion of them landing without documentation have caused the Americans to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, I inquired. “No,” came the answer, “it would have been, er, interesting.”

Last week, you may recall, I described my irritation when trying to pick up my going-away outfit from a top London designer, only to find the Arab socialite Mona Bauwens and a film crew in situ, cluttering up the changing-rooms and hogging the mirrors. Well, knock me down with a feather. Ms Bauwens has written a charming fax to apologise. “I am sorry if my crew and I ruined your shopping afternoon, particularly as it was for such a special occasion. Please accept our sincere apologies. Kindest regards

The most memorable evening of my week was, without doubt, a mind-bogglingly awful performance of Aida at London’s Holland Park open-air theatre. It came as something of a shock, as my party had paid good money – pounds 35 each – for our seats, and spied in the audience a collection of well-known opera buffs, including the former Chancellor, Norman Lamont, carefree before his career took its recent exciting turn. But things looked bad from the moment the pretend Egyptians stepped on stage. “My God,” whispered my neighbour, “they are actually wearing tea towels on their heads.” Worse was to come. For Act Two they changed into sheets. A group of dancers started waving fake snakes around. At least, I thought they were snakes until my fiance whispered: “What do you think the eels are meant to symbolise?” But the biggest mistake by far was for the organisers of Holland Park Theatre to include an introduction in the programme by the Today presenter James Naughtie. It begins: “It’s tempting to use as the test of a good Aida the way the triumphal march is done …” The triumphal March comes in Act Two, before the interval. Suffice it to say that we used Mr Naughtie’s test and did not stay for Act Three. Many others followed our example. Mr Lamont, however, was obliged to remain for the second half. He had no choice. His wife was on the committee.

Given the current political situation I wonder if the Panorama team is kicking itself for not making a documentary about John Redwood instead of its dire programme on Michael Portillo, which appeared last week. Apparently the production team had terrible difficulties getting anyone to talk at all, as Portillo had called everyone he had ever known and banned them from co-operating, so Panorama had to chase off to Spain for interminable shots of wrinkled Portillo relatives. At all the literati parties I attended in the ensuing days opinion was united on how appalling it had been: “Sensational, tabloid stuff,” said one man vociferously. “No decent interviews with anyone really close to him; speculative rubbish emanating from the mouths of those not remotely close to him. I really think a piece should be written about that programme’s demise. I would do it myself, only it’s more than my job’s worth,” said another. And what is your job? I inquired. “I work,” he said, grinning, “for the BBC.”

News of bad form inside the British Council’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale comes my way, I’m afraid. The guilty party is Britain’s leading dealer, Anthony d’Offay, who upset the staff of the British Council enormously by using their telephones all day to make deals. The Biennale, for the uninitiated, is a kind of Olympics for the art world. It is not meant to be commercial at all. Taxpayers pay for the country’s chosen artists to display their work. Private deals are not desired. D’Offay, apparently, takes no notice of such restrictions. “The British Council felt,” says one who witnessed the whole scenario, “like you would if, unannounced and unwanted, I moved in and took over your desk.” Fortunately, I am fairly certain that if Anthony d’Offay saw the untidy state of my desk, he would not dream of attempting such a rash move.

One who made Herculean efforts to watch his country’s rugby side battle brilliantly to victory on Saturday was none other than Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose Christian name will doubtlessly be bandied about among the British student population getting Finals results this week, since it has become a synonym for the “two-two” degree.

Desmond himself was far away from university life this weekend – he was in San Francisco, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the charter of the United Nations, which meant that in order to watch the World Cup final he had to get up at 5.30am and find a pub with cable television. “In the end,” he told San Francisco on the radio, “I went to an Irish pub called the Blarney Stone.” He went on to defend accusations that black people are, in effect, banned from rugby in South Africa. “No, no,” he said. “I myself played in junior high school … I was reserve for the third XV.”