Diary – Monday 8 May 1995


I have always thought of genteel Harrogate as the Eastbourne of the North, on account of its popularity with pensioners, low crime rate and the incomparable Betty’s Tea Rooms. Betty may have to start adding green-leaf tea to the menu, however, because it seems the Japanese are moving in.

Bob O’Neil, mayor of Harrogate, has been courted by a delegation from Kyushu to set up a European centre for martial arts – and he is seriously considering it. “I’ve even been over there to discuss it with them,” he explains, “and I was very impressed. I was able to set up all sorts of joint business ventures. Everybody seemed to be talking about Harrogate.”

The venture, which Mr O’Neil says is 99 per cent likely to go ahead, will be named the “Centre for Excellence” and will be Europe’s first permanent martial arts forum. “It is for all types and levels,” says Mr O’Neil, adding that, at 49, he is quite interested in having a go himself.

What on earth was it that made the Japanese want to pursue aikido in Yorkshire? “Oh,” replies Mr O’Neil airily, “because of the gardens, the hot springs, the friendly Yorkshire people – in fact, they tell me it reminds them of Japan.”

Really? A bottle of sake to the person who can send me a photograph illustrating the resemblance.

David Lodge is clearly fond of the Groucho Club, Soho’s haunt for media types and luvvies in London. It was here that he launched his new novel, Therapy, last week. And the intriguingly titled “Groucho’s Fast Pan” turns up in the book. This turns out not to be something out of Delia Smith’s National Lottery Cookbook, but a club mannerism, which I was honoured to have vigorously demonstrated by the author himself.

“This,” explained Mr Lodge, “is what happens when you are sitting having dinner upstairs at the back and you want to check if anyone famous is also in the dining room. You roar uproariously at something your dinner companion has said (regardless of whether it is actually funny); throw your head back, holding your glass out, and roll your eyes slowly around the room under half-lowered lids.” He then waved his wine glass and rolled his eyeballs, producing a competent imitation of a tipsy frog. “You shouldn’t take it as an insult,” he continued when upright again, “everybody here does it.”

I was relieved that in our ensuing five-minute conversation on modern literature he did not do any repeat fast-panning, though he did at one point take a long, slow look round the room. For this I forgave him. “My book is not autobiographical,” he had been explaining, “because although the protagonist, like myself, suffers from depression, things start to happen to him that have not happened to me. For one, his wife leaves him.”

Pause. Long, sober, anxious pan. “My wife,” said Mr Lodge, “I hope, is here somewhere.”

Another launch, another evening at Groucho’s, but this time hosted by one far too well-mannered to practise the Fast Pan: Sir Rhodes Boyson MP, former education secretary. All concentration and charm, Sir Rhodes was promoting an educational tool for GCSE and A-level students: tapes of classic literature for those who find it easier to pick things up by ear than by reading. “I myself,” he said, “was always an aural man. I remember reciting out loud the whole of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One and Henry V for my A-levels. But I only realised just how much I relied on my hearing when I became headmaster of a school in Highbury, north London. I could tell by their footsteps which of the staff or pupils was about to enter my office.”

He chuckled. “I would seriously put them out by bellowing their surname before they’d even knocked.”

I am glad to report a happy ending to the fiasco which began last weekend when the commercials director Tony Kaye (renowned for his BA ads) lowered a 20ft by 12ft photograph of punters at the Eve Klein exhibition on to the forecourt of the South Bank’s Hayward Gallery, where the exhibition has been on display. Mr Kaye described the photograph as “a gift” but the Hayward’s security guards were not so sure: they wanted rid of the unwelcome giant object. Thankfully, after a week’s deliberation, the gallery has decided to let the picture stay – and has even given it a plaque.

“Well, since it was a picture of the exhibition – or, at least, a picture of people waiting for exhibition lecturers to arrive – we felt that it had a certain relevance,” explains a spokeman, adding that Mr Kaye “must have spent at least £1,000 getting it blown up”.

Mr Kaye is delighted. He is experimenting with two new artistic movements, which he has dubbed “exhibitionism” (making an exhibition out of someone else’s exhibition) and “soap art” (the theory of one thing leading to another). In deference to both he will next week move the work to another artistic venue in London. Art-lovers should keep an eye on a small gallery with watery associations.

Breaking the mould of fragrant Tory wives is Anita Townsend, wife of Cyril, the Tory MP for Bexleyheath. Yesterday, Mrs Townsend was to be found hanging an exhibition of her paintings that starts tonight at the Marina Henderson Gallery in Chelsea. Prices range from £150 to £400. Not that she will pocket the proceeds: all the money is going to charity. And neither is this a new career direction in anticipation of her spouse’s possible joblessness within a couple of years; Mrs Townsend was a serious artist before she was a Tory wife.

She is delighted to be resuming her career now that the children are away at school. “I was always very serious about it when I first met Cyril,” she says. He, she laughs, does not have any artistic imagination at all – nor, it seems, much romantic imagination, judging by their first date in the Seventies. “He took me to see Jaws,” she sighs nostalgically.

“Avoid complacency,” was Tony Blair’s wise caution after his sweeping victory in last week’s elections. Which explains, no doubt, why the Labour Party is busy offering incentives to members who can persuade as many as three more people to join. Heroic enrollers win the right to lunch with Mr Blair. Or rather, to be strictly accurate, the right to enter the prize draw of heroic enrollers to have lunch with Mr Blair. One lunch, for one winner. Avoid complacency, Tony – and, I am pleased to see, profligacy.