Diary – Monday 27 February 1995


One man who knows precisely what is on his walls, however, is the Prime Minister. He has been busy installing David Hockneys and the like on the walls of 10 Downing Street, formerly the backdrop for more traditional 18th- and 19th-century art. He has not replaced the Turners and Constables favoured by Margaret Thatcher so much as discreetly hung them elsewhere. “It’s to show his support of modern art,” says a spokesman.

Presumably that does not apply to the portrait of the great cricketer, WG Grace. “As soon as he arrived here, the Prime Minister specifically asked for a portrait of Grace to be added to the Downing Street collection,” says the spokesman, before adding, “but I’m not entirely sure where it hangs.” Bedroom, perhaps?

A number of my City friends are congratulating themselves on leaving Barings before the disastrous events of the weekend. One friend, it turns out, left only days ago. But I, too, count myself lucky. Three years ago, for some unfathomable reason, I got down to the final eight for two or three graduate places and endured a whole day of interviews at the bank’s Bishopsgate premises. Who knows? Perhaps they might have been rash enough to offer me a job.

But I was saved, eventually, by the vice-chairman, Andrew Tuckey. He strode into my interview room, took one look at me and barked: “You don’t really want to be an investment banker, do you?” “No,” I replied, feelingly. If only, my friends sighed at the weekend, he’d said the same to Nicholas Leeson.

In the very hour that the country’s grandest universities withdrew their affiliation from their eponymous Pall Mall club, the Oxford & Cambridge, members of the University Women’s Club were enjoying their monthly club dinner.

Talk of sexual equality was not on the menu, however. Instead, Lady Longford, the octogenarian biographer, kept the guests entertained with a yarn about how she once nearly set Windsor Castle on fire (well before the palce actually went up in flames).

“I was writing my biography of Queen Victoria,” she explained, “and I was copying out certain documents in the castle by hand when I learnt that you were allowed to bring in tape recorders. So the next day I brought mine in and suddenly there was this terrible smell. A line of smoke started coming out of the machine. I had to unplug it immediately.”

Lady Longford went on to display an impressive knowledge of matters electrical. “You see, the electrical system at Windsor was still on direct current, but my tape machine ran on alternating current. No wonder there was some smoke,” she explained with a grin.

Speaking of Oxford and Cambridge, I ran into Norman Stone, the notoriously right-wing Oxford historian, last week, and found him complaining bitterly about the proposed removal of the Oxbridge entrance exam. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to test anyone’s calibre,” he moaned. But then, it seemed, an idea came to him. “I know,” he said, eyes glinting mischievously, “what about a new course to stretch the students a bit? How about Totalitarian Women of our Time?” Now who could he possibly have had in mind?

One unpleasant side-effect of the Irish peace process is, of course, the sacking of the various actors who used to do the voice-over for Gerry Adams for British television. One of the main ones was Aiden McCann, a 34-year-old from Belfast, who has already found himself another role – as Charles Dickens.

“The main similarity is that they both have beards, moustaches and an obsession with combing their hair,” he says of his role in Stuffed Shirts & Marionettes, a play about Ellen Ternan, Dickens’s lover, which opens shortly at Croydon’s Warehouse Theatre. Doing Gerry Adams, he admits, was somewhat easier. “Adams sounds just like my father,” he says, “so it was simple for me to copy the “nars and thars” (nows and theres, of course.)

“But there is,” he continues, “a bigger difference still between Adams and Dickens. The latter would use 800 words to say something when the former would use one.”

Jim Dowd, Labour MP for Lewisham West, will not be jumping into his black tie again in a hurry. He recently attended a black-tie reception at Grosvenor House, and on returning to the Commons, found he did not have time to change into his suit for a reception for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Marching in, he was somewhat taken aback when his fellow Labour MP Tony Banks introduced him to the IFAW head, Brian Davies, jokingly, as a waiter. Still, he let it rest – until, that is, Davies turned round and in all seriousness asked him how long he had been working in the Strangers’ Restaurant.

Tonight sees the opening of the much-hyped new production of Hamlet, starring Ralph Fiennes and Tara Fitzgerald. The¬†performance¬†ought really to put its venue, the Hackney Empire, firmly on the map of London theatreland at long last, but the administrative staff there are not optimistic. They blame the AA, which has pointed the way to the venue from the city with one of those natty little yellow signposts, but have omitted the theatre’s name and written merely: Hackney Hamlet. Alas, poor Empire.