KENNETH CLARKE, the former Tory chancellor and health secretary, has written an unusually glowing tribute in praise of Romola Christopherson, who is retiring after a distinguished career as the Department of Health's press officer.
"I think that I enjoyed every job that I had in government," Clarke writes to the Health Service's staff magazine, "but there were few things that were more fun than working with Romola Christopherson.
"We were probably the last ever secretary of state and press officer to smoke ourselves heavily through every crisis!"
Mr Clarke should be careful. A confession like that could put him - and Romola - into serious jeopardy should they ever need treatment at certain puritanical health authorities.
THE NORTHERN Ireland Assembly has opened a new gift shop, but before the recess began yesterday, the only merchandise available was confectionery - all emblazoned with the lovely flax flower, the assembly's logo. (Readers will recall that this logo was first revealed by Pandora on 15 October.) On offer have been toffee, something called "midget gems", humbugs and fudge. Pandora hopes the shop will sell out of the latter two products before the assembly embarks on its next session.
THE IN & Out is moving out. Umbrellas furled tightly, pinstripes pressed sharply, members of the Naval & Military Club will pass in and out of its famous Piccadilly driveway for the final time tomorrow. The lease on the 135-year-old club's landmark Mayfair headquarters has expired, but happily the club has found a new home nearby at 4 St James's Square.
As the new clubhouse is considerably smaller, Bonhams will conduct an auction on 21 January back at 94 Piccadilly for what the organisation describes as "some of the club's and the members' finest antiques".
ON BROADWAY, celebrity couples are flocking to see The Blue Room in which, as the NY Daily News puts it: "Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen do things on stage that Mayor Giuliani has banned elsewhere around Times Square."
In recent days, Winona Ryder and Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, and Michael Douglas and his new NY Times columnist girlfriend Maureen Dowd, have all been to see the stimulating drama. So far, however, no sign of Bill and Hillary.
HOW DO the Brits rank in the US gossip stakes, where celebrity-worship is now the national religion? In its list based on "mentions" in a wide range of NY and national gossip columns, the New York Observer provides an intriguing ranking of the 500 most media-popular people, both living and deceased.
The highest ranking Brit is, unsurprisingly, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, at No 12, while the next entrant, at No 66, is the actress Minnie Driver. In the top 100, she is followed by the journalist Tina Brown (76), the actress Kate Winslet (90) and Mick Jagger and Uma Thurman (tied at 100). Thereafter come Elizabeth Hurley (111), Natasha Richardson and Anna Wintour (tied at 120), Kate Moss (124), Helena Bonham-Carter (152) and, finally, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair (180). Lest he feel disgruntled about this (President Clinton is, after all, ranked No 1), this placing puts Tony in a dead heat with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Judi Dench, Whoopi Goldberg
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