Diary – Monday 9 October 1995


Presidents of the Oxbridge unions are not usually meek, unambitious types – consider the examples of Messrs Heseltine and Hurd and Mesdames Benazir Bhutto and Arianna Stassinopoulos-Huffington. But the current incumbent at Cambridge, one David Branch, a third-year reading Archaeology and Anthropology with “no plans” for a political career, is more audacious than all his predecessors put together. He has arranged for Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi to speak at the Union.

On 22 November (assuming he has finished ejecting Libya’s Palestinians) Gaddafi will debate the motion: “This house believes that the West cannot remain as guardian to world affairs.” His adversary is Sir Laurence Martin, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Branch’s plan is “to link up Gaddafi via satellite, which will be switched off when we want to have a ‘normal’ debate among ourselves afterwards.”

Should things run smoothly it will be the first time that Gaddafi, whom our government does not deal with, has ever been granted a public platform in this country. But Gaddafi may drop out at the last moment. Sir Teddy Taylor’s office staff, who helped with the arrangement, warn: “One simply does not get a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from Gaddafi.”

Alan Howarth’s article in yesterday’s Independent, explaining his reasons for switching to Labour, rang alarm bells with the eight former members of the Young Conservatives who defected to the SDP in 1981. Some of them think he has copied their statement. “When we resigned Howarth was the director of the Tory Research Department,” says one, “and, as such, he sat in our meeting with the then party chairman, Lord Thorneycroft, when we had to explain our reasons for resignation.”

My source thinks that apart from a generally similar use of imagery (negativism versus positivism, etc) there is even one direct lift from the 1981 statement. It is the description of Labour as “a new politics of generosity, and inclusiveness, of realism that appeals to our better nature”. Obviously the party is different, but none the less I’m sure the coincidence will get psychoanalysts producing theories on the longevity of the subconscious like there’s no tomorrow.

To the Groucho Club for a double celebration lunch; on the one hand to welcome the celebrated black American writer Walter Mosley (Clinton’s favourite author) to these shores, and on the other to congratulate Angus McKinnon, the new editor of GQ, on his appointment.

McKinnon, 42, is a rather different character from his noisy, ebullient predecessor, the late Michael Vermeulen. Attired in his customary tweed jacket, he sipped only now and then from his wine glass, making quiet, intelligent conversation all the while. But there is a sense, none the less, that much of Vermeulen lives on in him – not just because he was Vermeulen’s deputy for several years, but because Vermeulen was instrumental in introducing McKinnon to his new bride – Rowan Pelling. “Since Michael brought Rowan on board GQ as his secretary he always patted himself on the back for our pairing,” McKinnon confided. But Vermeulen’s patronage turned into something of a mixed blessing for the duo. To say their relationship was subjected to intense office scrutiny would be an understatement. “When Rowan and I started going out I thought it was my duty to inform Michael,” says McKinnon. “When I’d finished, he looked at me and said ‘Angus, that is absolutely fine, but all I really want to know is how many times you’ve slept with her’.”

Last week at the National Gallery an American rendered a new, illuminating verdict on the long-standing debate over Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage. (For those who don’t know, the picture is of a man and a woman in 15th century dress, but the woman in the picture has a large bump on her middle: is it the dress or is it pregnancy?) This particular man did not know any of this. So when a gallery guide asked him what he thought the picture represented, he whipped out his book of English idioms. “Seems to me,” the American finally enunciated in loud, deep South tones: “there’s sure bin some shootin’ before the Twelfth.”

The unexpected also occurred at London’s South Bank last week when, surrounded by minders, Salman Rushdie arrived unannounced to join in readings by Umberto Eco and Mario Vargas Llosa. As ever, Rushdie stole the show. He marched in just as the compere was starting to introduce Eco and Vargas Llosa and received a huge ovation for several minutes. He responded with lots of regal waving. At the end one could not move for crowds wanting to get him to sign his books. It was, all in all, real puke-making stuff. But if Eco and Vargas Llosa – the two whom the programme had billed – were annoyed, they did not show it. Indeed Eco went so far as to make a joke on stage. He got up and read incomprehensibly fast in Italian for a good five minutes. He made sure his audience was completely baffled before snapping his book shut with relish and saying “now … een English?”

One might imagine that the British gay community would welcome the arrival here of Andrew Sullivan, editor of Washington’s political journal, the New Republic, and prominent gay thinker. His position in the right-wing establishment means that his new book, Virtually Normal, is likely substantially to widen general awareness of the difficulties faced by homosexuals. But the gay pressure groups are furious that a debate organised by the Guardian launching Sullivan’s book is to be held on Wednesday, the same night as a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Gay Liberation Movement. Furthermore, Outrage’s leader, Peter Tatchell, feels that the panel debating homosexuality is unrepresentative of the issues of modern homosexuality.

The Guardian replies that it cannot help the date – it is the only one Sullivan could make, and it has added on to its panel Angela Mason of the lobbying group Stonewall. Tatchell and his cronies are still peeved. Over to Suzanne Moore, who is on the panel: “It would be sensible to include someone from Outrage,” she says, “not least because if they are not represented they will create a disturbance on the night …”