A week in books

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The Independent Culture
When a Faberge show packed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1977, its director Roy Strong noted "the three ingredients essential to any successful exhibition: death, sex and jewels". In his Diaries 1967-1987 (Weidenfeld, pounds 20), the first Curator Superstar makes an epic exhibition of himself - but only scores on two counts. Jewels, he's got 'em. Duchesses and divas flash their rocks as Sir Roy minutes posh soirees - frock by frock, tiara by tiara - with the finical relish learnt from his old mentor, Cecil Beaton. As for death, one arts worthy after another bows out as the "self-made grammar-school boy from nowhere" (ie a loveless home in Edmonton) buries friend and foe. Sex, however, stalks mostly in the wings - except when Princess Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn lurch into view.

The papers have already gutted this vain and catty tome for its royal gossip, from the trashing of Di ("Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy ball") to the slighting of Fergie ("no beauty at all, but good Sloane Street features with large eyes"). Elsewhere, Labour politicians who dare to remind the caped civil servant just who pays for his fab gear appear as "north-country louts" or ignorant numbskulls. So this top-flight bitch would do well to mind his own Ps and Qs. No works exist by a painter named "Lucien" Freud. The soloist in Swan Lake does not dance unaccented "fouettes". And "embroiderie anglaise" has got tangled up mid-Channel.

Name-dropping and point-scoring at full tilt, the Diaries drag Max Beerbohm chatter into the age of David Frost. Yet for all his snooty foibles, Sir Roy's flair as a scholar-showman appealed to a much broader public than his detractors ever could. Strong stuck firmly to a public-service ethic and a mission to explain. He never ran an "ace caff". When Sir Terence Conran and his business bullies took charge as the 1980s V&A went "up the Thatcherite alley", Strong cared even less for them than for union jobsworths.

As a first-class primer on arts-world skullduggery, the Diaries deserve a permanent home on Chris Smith's new desk at National Heritage. Underneath the sniping and griping, they recount a 20-year battle to bring style and splendour to state culture without mimicking market forces. Strong sought to paint his corner of the public sector gold instead of grey. And that quixotic ideal looks just as valid now as when the man in "the Regency jacket and the ruffled shirt stepped into the media limelight" of Harold Wilson's high noon.

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