Diary – Monday 27 November 1995


A horrendous spectacle was in store for the nation’s cultured types last Monday night. No, I’m not talking about the Panorama interview, but the astonishing debut appearance of the F-word on the surtitles at the Royal Opera House. My friends in the audience (yours truly could not resist the Princess) nearly fainted. There it was, boldly inserted in the dialogue of the first act of the opening night of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler directed by Peter Sellars: “Any scum can have a fuck …”

The official justification is that Sellars wanted the dialogue to come over “in the raw”. But traditionalists present showed signs of being upset. Several seats became vacant before the opera’s four hours were up. But one who remained, smiling stoically until the end, was the Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo – which could explain why he was so supportive last week of his junior minister, Nicholas Soames, who was told to shut up by the Prime Minister on the subject of the royals. Unlike John Major, Mr Portillo hadn’t been at home to absorb Mr Soames’s insightful views on princessly paranoia aired on Newsnight.

What with postal disputes in Scotland and general strikes in France, the task of communication for all non-techy, non-Internet users like myself is not exactly easy. But last month Tony Wheeler, 47, founder of the ultra- successful Lonely Planet travel guides, made it even harder.

He faxed his London office asking for the name and address of his Swiss distributor, because he said he would be passing through Geneva on a walking holiday. He then disappeared off to Mont Blanc before receiving a reply. The London office racked their brains as to how to reach him. Eventually the manager, Charlotte Hindle, suggested that the distributor in Geneva, which does not have a shop window, hang a banner, bunting-style, in the street. Imagine Mr Wheeler’s surprise upon reaching Geneva to find “Welcome to Mr Lonely Planet” hanging on cloth above him.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he tells me. “In fact, I was so incredulous I even thought that perhaps there was a Swiss company called Lonely Planet.”

To the Ivy restaurant for the launch of Red Mercury Blues by the American journalist Reggie Nadelson. She told the assembled company how she had got this, her first novel, published. “I was having lunch with Robert McCrum [Faber’s editorial director] and had told him about my book. ‘It’s a thriller, Robert,’ I said, ‘it’s not sufficiently highbrow for you’.” McCrum, a gent, replied that he would happily look at it none the less. “Well, in that case,” interrupted Ms Nadelson, “I happen to have a proof right here in my bag …”

Moments later, I found myself inquiring after Edwina Currie’s next book, A Woman’s Place, due out in February. (You will recall that her first blockbuster, A Parliamentary Affair, was deemed a commercial, if not a literary, success.) Ms Currie immediately led me to a corner and, a la Nadelson, delved inside her bag. She presented me with three colour postcards: one had her own picture on it, another the cover of her first book and the third the cover of her second.

“I carry these with me at all times – and sign them for autographs,” she explained, busily signing one for me, although I did not ask for it.

Personally, I am a great admirer of Ms Currie’s go-getting style. But I’m not sure that on this occasion the sight of a small queue of autograph- hunters forming in Ms Currie’s corner greatly pleased Ms Nadelson.

I am glad to note that popular telly-programme awareness is one of the qualities that is looked for in prospective MPs. A barrister friend of mine, Edward Vaizey, has just been selected as the Conservatives’ prospective parliamentary candidate for Bristol East, a Labour seat. While waiting to be interviewed in the region’s Tory HQ, he loitered, naturally, in the public bar.

“This feels a bit like going on Blind Date,” he said, conversationally, to a woman supping next to him. She took a long, careful look at him (Vaizey is teddy bear-shaped). Up. Down. Round the sides. “Well,” she said at length, “it sure isn’t Gladiators.”

Vaizey, 27, later narrated the episode to his interviewers. It proved to be the meeting’s turning point.

“For some reason, they roared with laughter,” he says. “I actually think that’s why they gave me the job.”

Sad news, I’m afraid, about the fate of Baroness Thatcher’s loo. (You may recall that this particular water closet caught the nation’s attention 10 years ago when it was rescued by one Edemy Brougton-Aderley, who found it dumped on a Chelsea skip.) At the launch party for Lucinda Lambton’s newly expanded, authoritative book on the subject, Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight, Mrs Brougton-Aderley told me that the loo has pride of place as an ornament in her drawing-room.

However, according to her grandson Alastair, the artefact does not attract the attention one would expect of such an venerated water closet. Viewers do not crowd round it, touch it or even ask to clean it.

“Actually,” sighed Alastair, reflecting on the oddities now found in Chelsea drawing-rooms, “very, very few people even notice it is there.”

I am worried that my mind is turning to smut. While reading in a Saturday magazine excerpts from a diary written by the actress Emma Thompson during the filming of her screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, one line jumped off the page at me: “Saturday May 13 … Greg Wise (Willoughby) very energetic this morning.”

It is virtually the only mention in the lengthy extract that Ms Thompson gives Mr Wise, whom, as we now know, she was “seeing” at the time.

Ms Thompson is a clever writer. If one didn’t know better, one would assume that Hugh Grant was the object of her affections. She goes completely gooey about him. “Kissing Hugh was very lovely. Glad I invented it …”. But the single cryptic mention of Wise’s morning energy perhaps suggests that her dwindling relations with her husband, Kenneth Branagh, have not dampened her mischievous sense of humour.

On reflection, my guess is that Ms Thompson, who studied English at Cambridge, threw the double entendre in deliberately. In which case, phew, my mind isn’t turning to smut.