Rex Fontaine
A WONDERFUL creature whose habitat has been eroded by the modern age. This, I should tell you, is Norman Lamont talking, but I wouldn't want any of you to think for a moment that we were even remotely near the realms of autobiography. Heaven forfend! Dear old Norman - the latest Tory to join the comeback trail - is of course referring to the corncrake.

For those of you who can't tell a sparrow from a magnificent frigate, the corncrake is a bird of sufficient rarity to get a twitcher like Norman really excited. "I'll tell you a funny story," Norman told me when I met him last week. "I was up in the Hebrides recently. A friend and I had gone up there to try and find the old corncrake. It usually lives in long grass and corn, but its habitat has been eroded. It makes this glorious rasping noise - the sound of England at the turn of the century. And nowadays one of the only places they can be found is in the Hebrides.

"Now someone had told us that these birds respond to the sound of a fishing reel, that brrrr sound. So there we were, sitting in our Range Rover at dusk, the windows down as we wound in these fishing reels. Sure enough, we got this marvellous response from the corncrakes: one even landed right in front of the car."

Reeling in votes at the 1997 general election proved rather harder for Norman. After his old constituency of Kingston-upon- Thames disappeared because of boundary changes, he stood for Harrogate and ended up as one of the many Tories swept away by the tide of New Labour. For the past year the one-time beleaguered Chancellor and bitter enemy of John Major has been looking for a way back into politics, and now it looks as if he may have found it.

Last week he was short-listed to be the Conservative candidate in the North-east for the European elections; this weekend he's speaking at the Cardiff "counter summit" against the European Union as part of the Anti-Maastricht Alliance; next week he is expected to be made a life peer in the Prime Minister's political honours. "I miss Parliament, but I'm not miserable," he told me. "I've had a year to get used to it. Any talk about MPs going through a bereavement is nonsense. One will always be very interested in politics, though it's not as if I need to appear on television to believe I'm alive." Especially as his daughter, now studying politics at Bristol University, "often reads about me in her reference books".

Lamont talks a lot about Scotland, especially the Shetlands; partly because it's his place of origin, but also as a convenient lead into his other favourite topic, the European Union. "Back in the Seventies, the only place that was very clearly against joining the European Community was the Shetlands." He waits for me to ask him why. "Because the government produced a booklet urging people to join, along with a map. The Shetlands wasn't featured.

"I'm afraid I can just never, ever let it go," he says of the old European issue. "I see it as a long haul, going on for the next four or five years. I'm not expecting the single currency to collapse, I'm expecting it to last. I don't think it will be a self-evident disaster, but the strains will appear over a longer period, as the wrong policies are chosen for individual nations. I can see why people find it ironic that I now want a seat in Brussels, but it's very important that there are people to oppose the fanatic federalists. There's no compulsion to join the EU, it's just our incredible lack of self-confidence."

He's kinder about Labour. "I rather enjoy a little bit of aggression in politics. All this constitutional change, the devolutions, the PR, the Mayor of London, it's been embarked on by Blair because it's painless radicalism. He can keep the left happy, and show the changing face of new Britain. But with so much change all simultaneous, it's a Pandora's Box. I was alarmed to see Scotland moving towards independence, but then - like their football team - they have unrealistic expectations."

Lamont is also writing his memoirs ("They'll be very judicious and balanced. I think they should be full of graphs") and doing the de rigueur ex-politician's job of standing at the lectern. "It's not exactly unremunerative," he says with a grin, "and I sit on a number of boards. I travel a lot, speaking to groups of bankers in Switzerland, and going to Romania once a month to help with their privatisation. I write in the Sun quite a lot; I have found it easy to adjust to the style." But above all, Lamont likes his birds: "I've written a foreward to a book on bird-watching, all about Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the First World War. He was a keen ornithologist too, you know."

NORMAN will be pleased to hear that tomorrow sees the arrival of another sterling incarnation when the soon-to-be-privatised Royal Mint issues a pounds 2 coin, the country's first bi-colour coin (white in the centre, yellow outer rim). It will show technological progress through the ages (the images change, depending on the angle of vision), with the milled edge bearing the inscription, "Standing on the shoulders of giants".

The design is by Bruce Rushin, an art teacher at Flegg High School in Norfolk. "I heard about this competition on the news when I was driving home from school," he says. "I'm a fine artist, I trained as a painter, but this required some graphic design work. I was a fresh pair of eyes looking at coin design." As he goes on, it begins to sound like a very modern piece of minting: "I knew what I didn't want to do; heraldry seems a little archaic, great ships didn't seem appropriate. And anything to do with the military seemed undiplomatic to our fellow countries in the EU. Concentric rings about technological advancement seemed a better proposition."

Howard Simmons, the noble numismatist who organises London's coin fairs, puts the new coin in perspective. "There have been all sorts of patterns and experiments with two-coloured coins. In the 17th century, ha'pennies and farthings were our first bimetallic coins: they were tin, with a copper plug to prevent corrosion. Then in 1849, there was the florin.

"Up until some time in the 1960s, you only got new coins when there was a new reign, or a new portrait. Now it's simply a question of down-sizing of the coins. When you're a bank lugging around bags of the stuff, it's better for them to be lighter." So I wonder whether these new coins will become collectors' items. "Collectors only pay premiums for something rare. These two-pound coins will be worth, erm, two pounds."

Meanwhile, I presume that Mr Rushin is the envy of his school. "I do have a certain amount of celebrity," he says, "but youngsters are very hard-headed. All they want to know is how much I won, and why I haven't bought a new car." And what kind of car does he drive? "A fairly new Fiat Punto actually."

They can be as

rude as they like

AS the example of Norman Lamont shows, politicians find it very hard to give up politics, and they seem as addicted to the defeats as they are to the triumphs. Attitudes to being lampooned in political cartoons are particularly revealing, since even the most vicious caricature will tend to find a place on its subject's walls - presumably on the Wildean basis that there is only one thing worse than being talked about ...

Our own political cartoonist Peter Schrank knows all about this, Michael Portillo and Paddy Ashdown being among those to have sought to obtain Schrank cartoons in which they are featured. "I always feel that if the subject wants a copy, then you haven't been doing your job properly," Peter tells me. Gerald Scarfe, he adds, hates it when the people he caricatures contact him for copies. The political cartoon, of course, has a noble tradition, and I'm delighted to recommend an exhibition in London devoted to the work of a group of modern political cartoonists - among them Schrank, Chris Riddell, Dave Brown and Martin Rowson - which is featuring alongside older examples from the likes of Hogarth, Gillray and the great David Low. It's at the Scientific and Literary Institution at 11 South Grove in Highgate, London N6 and runs until 25 June (Wednesday to Friday, 1pm to 5pm; Saturday 11am to 4pm and Sunday 11am to 5pm).

Tobias Jones

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