Diary – Monday 4 December 1995


This week sees Judge Stephen Tumim, the newly retired chief inspector of prisons, take his last curtain call, still defiantly getting up the nose of the man who so cruelly removed him from his post – the Home Secretary, Michael Howard. On Thursday, Tumim attends a final special tribute to his work and his guest will be Derek Lewis, the recently sacked governor of HM prisons.

The duo are to attend a gala performance of West Side Story at Wandsworth prison performed by inmates and Pimlico Opera. Since Lewis angrily accused Howard of unfair dismissal and interfering in operational matters this autumn, Tumim’s gesture of friendship is likely to go down like a lead balloon at the Home Office. Still, Howard may take solace in the fact that he can now pursue his “tough on crime” policies unimpeded by Tumim’s liberal interference. For how long, though, is a moot point. Methinks Tumim’s final words in office are ringing in the Home Secretary’s ears at night: “The pendulum will swing back again. It may not be until after the election, but remember, that is only a year or so away.”

Some interesting reading has fallen on to my desk concerning Ian McCartney, the shadow employment secretary. In May he issued a press release that vigorously deplored the half-year results of the Royal Bank of Scotland (the Tories’ bankers), which announced that pre-tax profits had increased by one-third to pounds 270m because the bank had made 200 staff redundant – part of a programme to shed 3,000 jobs by 1997.

The bank’s chief executive, George Mathewson, was unamused. He replied to Tony Blair, with a copy both to McCartney and the Labour spokesman for the City, Alastair Darling, stating that he was very “surprised” by McCartney’s press release.

McCartney interpreted the letter as a request for his sacking. He was livid. Now, though, the brouhaha seems to be over. McCartney is triumphant. Why? For two reasons: first, as he puts it, “I’m still in the job.” Second, those forgiving people at the Royal Bank of Scotland have just given him a mortgage.

Manchester University had a novel way of celebrating National Tree Week, last week – it cut down a pine copse on the land of The Firs, former home of the late vice-chancellor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, to create a car park. A nest of squirrels died in the process – and the sight of their bodies laid out on the university skip has greatly inflamed the university’s green brigade (virtually the entire student population). The axeman responsible, Mr Furser, head of estates and services, is being bombarded with furious calls. When I rang to speak to him, his secretary sighed, “About the trees, is it?”

It is not often that I meet convicted felons at drinks parties, so you may imagine my surprise when, at a literary do hosted by the Scottish literary agent Andrew Lownie last week, I was introduced to an elegant lady attired in black and pearls named Baroness de Stempel.

I’m afraid yours truly was quite nonplussed. My manners deserted me entirely – I stood and gawped, wondering how to start conversation. (Baroness de Stempel, for those who don’t know, was sentenced to seven years in jail for swindling her late aunt, Lady Illingworth, out of pounds 500,000 – she spent four years inside and was released in 1993.) What is a girl meant to say to such a person in the way of small talk? I could hardly say, “Aren’t you a criminal?” That would have been a bit rude. So, seeing as we were at a literary do, I opted for the tamer, “What have you written?”

The good lady saw my embarrassment and came to the rescue at once. “I have written a book about myself, but it has not yet been published.” Pause. “But the reason you’ve heard of me is because I was convicted of fraud and spent four years in jail.” Phew. After that we had a lovely long, perfectly normal conversation about the expense of renting London flats. … Baroness de Stempel is moving to Fulham.

I had a fascinating time last week visiting Gordon Medlicott, one of Britain’s last lighthousekeepers – they are all due to be replaced by automatic navigational systems by 1998. But Mr Medlicott, 54, who is head keeper at North Foreland lighthouse, near Broadstairs in Kent, was at great pains to debunk the myth (which I firmly believed in) that lighthouse keepers are meant to keep a look out for wrecks in the dark. “Unless the coastguard asks, then that is not, and has never been, one of our duties,” he told me patiently. “In fact, I had a friend at – I won’t say where – who only realised there was a ship aground outside his front door when he switched on his TV and saw the news.”

Whilst Fleet Street’s incestuous world is abuzz with the news that the Daily Mail’s features editor, Richard Addis, is shortly to become editor of the Express. Addis’s wife, Noonie, has her mind on more academic affairs. She is devising an Ancient Roman boardgame, due for completion in February. “The idea is that lots of different Roman characters go around a street map of Rome buying ingredients for a Roman feast,” she explains. “It is meant to be for all age groups – I thought of it because so many of my contemporaries were nostalgic for Latin lessons.”

But Mrs Addis has one problem which readers may be able to assist with – choosing the game’s name. “My last thought was ‘Cicero’,” she says. “And friends have suggested Caligula and Festina Lente.” Send your suggestions my way. In the meantime, I’ll start the ball rolling, cornily I’m afraid, with “Nil Desperandum”.