Diary – Monday 3 April 1995


One thing puzzles me about the re-conversion to Labour of the seriously right-wing polemicist Paul Johnson. In an interview at the weekend, Johnson made it plain that he thought people mattered more than ideas in politics – and he is very taken with Tony Blair, hence the change of allegiance. Yet Tony is not the only person to have impressed Johnson recently. Indeed, the most outstanding personal influence in his life at the moment is distinctly Tory: Lady Carla Powell, former adviser to Mrs Thatcher on sartorial affairs, and the stylish Italian wife of Sir Charles Powell, former adviser to Mrs Thatcher on foreign affairs. Lady Carla has been telling her friends how invaluable Johnson has become. “He walks my dogs; he does my errands,” she explained in a fetching accent to a friend who was visiting her recently. At which point, right on cue, the doorbell rang. The friend went to answer it and discovered the diligent Johnson, holding Lady Carla’s dry-cleaning.

My attempts to contact Sir Peter Maxwell Davies last week during his 15-date, coast-to-coast US tour with the BBC Philharmonic proved unexpectedly problematic. I rang the Flamingo Hilton, Las Vegas, at 9am US time, by arrangement, and asked to be connected to the composer’s room. “I’m sorry,” replied the receptionist, “I just lurve your British accent, but could you just repeat the name more slowly, please.”

I repeated it. “Davis? How do you spell that, please? Oh, Day-vees.” Short pause. “I’m sorry, we have no Mr Day-vees registered.”

I suggested we try Maxwell. Then Peter. Then Sir. “I’m sorry. What’s `sir’?”

“It means he’s a knight of the realm. He’s a famous British composer, he’s giving a concert in Las Vegas tonight and he’s meant to be staying at the Flamingo Hilton.”

“I’m sorry, but if he’s a famous British composer, what’s he doing staying at the Flamingo? No one stays at the Flamingo if they can afford to stay at the Las Vegas Hilton. Shall I transfer you there?” She does. I repeat the routine. Same result.

Forty minutes of to-ing and fro-ing between the composer’s British and American press agents solved the mystery. Maxwell Davies had been in the Flamingo all along – registered as Mavis. Guess they had some problem with his accent.

One fears for Radio Four. No sooner does news of David Starkey’s temporary departure from Thursday’s The Moral Maze leak out than I am reliably informed that Libby Purves, presenter of Midweek, is to leave at the end of May. The official line being put out by producer Lucy Cacanes is that this is also only a temporary break, but other radio sources whisper that Purves is not likely to return. It all hinges, apparently, on how her first novel, due out in June, is received. If, as everyone in the know predicts, it is a roaring success, out goes Ms Purves radio persona and in comes Ms Purves novelist. Meantime, should aspiring interviewers apply for the Midweek spot? Not according to Ms Cacanes, who says somewhat acerbically: “You know it doesn’t work like that.”

I rather think Sir Nicholas Henderson, our distinguished former man in Washington, has been watching too many James Bond films. Or maybe, like myself, he was feeling somewhat exuberant after imbibing a quantity of King’s Ginger, a fairly lethal champagne cocktail served originally at the court of Edward VII, but re-invented by Berry Brothers to mark last week’s launch of the Hon George Plumptree’s book on that monarch. Either way, Sir Nicholas has captured the 007 manner well. Shaking my hand vigorously, he boomed from his giddy height: “The name’s Henderson.” Pause, accompanied by knowing look. “Nicholas Henderson.”

When four years ago my colleague Kevin Jackson was commissioned by OUP to write the Oxford Book of Money, he fondly imagined the result would stand, like all the other Oxford books, in a prominent position in the literary anthology sections of most leading bookstores. After all, his book, published in February, contains as many literary references to coinage as one could possibly want – Dickens, Shakespeare, Eliot, Pound, Austen … even Woody Allen gets a look in with “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”

Not being the neurotic type of author who sneaks around bookshops checking the stock, poor Jackson was surprised to learn that his tome was not selling as expected. But far worse was his discovery as to why – nine out of 10 bookstores have hidden it in a section called Personal Finance.

Glad to report that Steven Norris, the cabinet minister who upset everyone with his reference to fellow London tube travellers as “dreadful human beings” is on top form again, this time trading insults via the unlikely columns of Commercial Motor magazine. An angry constituent of Mr Norris’s, freight forwarder Ron Smith, has for some time been attempting to get the MP for Epping Forest deselected on the grounds that his alleged affairs make him unsuitable for office. After several face-to-face run- ins, Norris responded to an inquiry from Commercial Motor about his adversary with the line: “No man who dyes his hair can be taken entirely seriously.”

“You don’t want to say that?” exclaimed his secretary in horror. “Oh yes,” said Norris, “I most certainly do.”

Tony Slattery disgraced himself at the Laurence Olivier awards on Sunday night, publicly calling all sorts of eminent critics disgraceful names, leaving the audience open-mouthed. Nicholas de Jongh was a four-letter word beginning with “c”; John Peter of the Sunday Times got off lightly with “barking mad”; Maureen Paton of the Daily Express was “boss-eyed” and poor old Milton Shulman was a “silly old fool”.

Shocking behaviour indeed, but to some of us, Tony, sadly familiar. Two years ago, Mr Slattery attacked a colleague of mine at the Edinburgh Festival. A mildly critical description of him written a couple of years previously by this colleague had, it seems, been festering inside his brain ever since.

Upon spotting the culprit in Edinburgh, Slattery pinned him against a wall, slapped him about the face and locked him in a vicious nipple grip that even now is painful to recall. The verbals that accompanied this lot can only be described here as a bestial variation on Paton topped with a thundering de Jongh.