CAPTAIN'S Guide To London (23): The Granita. This is a restaurant popular with leftward- leaning aspirants to power and influence, Peter Lilley and the editor of the Daily Mail. It is where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dined on Tuesday prior to the Brown Self-Denying Ordinance. Decor: late 1980s functional. Food: small portions with lots of lentils. It is in Islington, an area of London where food is appreciated almost as much as chatter. (The Captain recommends The Islington Cookbook, a charitable compilation of favourite recipes of favourite residents. Donald Trelford, the much-missed editor of the Observer, plumped for cheese on toast; our own Alan Watkins supplied homemade baked beans.) I was anxious to discover whether the Granita serves brown sauce, a sensitive social and political indicator, but the owner, Vicky Leffman, refused to participate in anything other than a bona fide restaurant review. (Tony Blair's entry in The Islington Cookbook, by the way, was pasta with sun-dried tomatoes.)
NEVER has the Captain admired more the impartiality and sheer professionalism of David Dimbleby than on Thursday's Question Time. There he was, gravely and even- handedly chairing a discussion on the Social Chapter and the minimum wage without giving the slightest hint that in his other capacity as south London newspaper proprietor (Dimbleby & Sons) he is paying young journalists pounds 21.50 a day under contracts which make no provision for holidays, sick pay, or pension. Admirable.
Three cheers for Betty Britain
A TRULY loyal subject can only wait so long. The Captain has finally tired of waiting for Buckingham Palace to ask for some sorely needed help with its PR. Things are looking no better. This television series, The Windsors, is doing no favours, particularly with its promise of a reprise of the Squidgy and Camilla tapes. The Prince of Wales's dog is still missing. The Princess of Wales didn't save anybody last week. The Duke and Duchess of York are about to be reconciled.
I have a suggestion. The Queen, in PR terms, is a much under-used asset. Greatly respected, never puts a foot wrong, tireless in her sovereignty. But a slightly forbidding image. What she needs is a good nickname. An instant ticket to devotion and popularity, as many monarchs have found: Good Queen Bess, The Merry Monarch, the Sailor King (OK, the Conqueror was a little blunt, but it did at least give a clear signal). And one exists. Do you know what many people in the Services call the Queen? Betty Britain. It's brilliant: just the right mix of memorableness, accessibility and affection. There could be a logo, cartoons, mugs. Go for it, I say.
The right place at the right time: oh yes
THERE are, you may have noticed, rather a lot of 50th anniversaries around at the moment. But I would still like to draw your attention to Thursday next week, a day when we should all reflect on our luck to have John Major as Prime Minister. For it was at 9.35pm on 16 June, 1944, that a V1 flying bomb fell in the roadway in Caldbeck Avenue, in Worcester Park, south London, near the junction with Browning Avenue, causing extensive damage and killing at least 10 people. It was the first flying bomb to fall in Sutton and Cheam, and came three days after the first V1 was launched against Britain.
The young John Roy Major- Ball had been sleeping in his cot in the front room of the family home in Longfellow Road, parallel to Caldbeck Avenue. But minutes before the buzzbomb fell, his mother carried him into the hall. The front room windows were shattered by the blast: young Major's cot was speared by shards of glass.
The Prime Minister's elder brother, Terry Major-Ball, was in hospital with scarlet fever at the time, and so missed the excitement. We will now never know what it was that made Mrs Gwendoline Major-Ball remove the nascent statesman. Mr Major-Ball, a man not unused to the ways of journalists, realises that 'it would make a very nice story for you if you could say that Mother had some sort of premonition', but is unable to oblige.
Mr Major-Ball's book on himself and his family, Major Major, will be published in August. His original 73,000 words have now been reduced to 50,000. Neither the Prime Minister nor any of his aides have had a sight of the book. Being the man he is, Mr Major-Ball promises no major revelations.
ALAN CLARK (know the name, remind me) will not now be appearing on Radio 4's Any Questions on Friday. This is particularly disappointing given that a fellow panellist would have been Germaine Greer. Problems with the cast list, too, at the Cambridge Union, which will debate 'This house believes that the cream rises to the top' on Wednesday. Down to speak for the motion is Derek Hatton, former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, who was charged last week with conspiracy to defraud, theft and attempting to obtain a large amount of money by deception. Other creamy characters already lost by union president Colin Farmer include Jonathan King, the tiring 'popster'. Perhaps Colin should line up the Clarks against the Harkesses. But who would speak for what?
All the news that fits
WORRIED that you might be missing something? That there's just too much news to digest these days? Relax. Let Captain Moonlight do it for you with his exclusive, inimitable catch-up service, the media aid which starts where others end . . . Devil worshippers in Buenos Aires phoned an order for pizzas and ate the delivery boy instead. Police raiding a building found only the bones of Carlos Sanchez, 19 . . . Holiday Brits are fighting back in the sunbed war against the Germans. Christa Konermann, 60, back in Cologne from Lanzarote, said: 'These guys were huge and we didn't get a look in. They were up at 5.30am and tied as many as eight loungers together with towels' . . . A jewel thief who pulls a mouse from his pocket to scare victims while he steals from them is being hunted by Bulgarian police . . . Sexy actress Elizabeth Hurley caused a national power surge when she bared her chest on TV. Demand for electricity shot up 25 per cent in the commercial break just after Elizabeth, 29, opened her bodice in Wednesday's ITV drama Sharpe's Enemies . . . And, finally, the last minute of Thursday, 30 June, will be 61 seconds long to compensate for the earth's erratic rotation. It is estimated to have slowed by about 10 per cent in the last 350 million years but it is impossible to tell if it will eventually stop altogether.
A citizen of two worlds
THE Special Assistant to the Under-Secretary-General for the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations leads the way to the reading room at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Shashi Tharoor heads the team overseeing the UN operation in the former Yugoslavia and is here to take part in
an international peacekeeping conference. It is an important one: Kate Adie and General Rose are also attending.
So I ask him about the prospects in Bosnia. He has, he says, diplomatically, no comment to make for the record. Instead, he speaks with a general enthusiasm about working for the UN. 'The United Nations,' he continues, 'is an institution I rather passionately believe in.' Dr Tharoor, an alumnus of St Stephen's College, Delhi, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, is given to referring to 'these fellows' and 'your illustrious compatriate' and to apologising for using words such as 'interface'. The thought occurs that the UN has excellent potential for a great, sweeping satirical novel. The thought has apparently not occurred to Dr Tharoor, despite his other position as one of the finest writers of satirical novels currently operating in English.
But this is Shashi Tharoor in his elegant, Prince of Wales checked suit with red handkerchief, not Shashi Tharoor in his white open-necked kurtha on the back of The Great Indian Novel and his latest, Show Business, clever, artfully but not tricksily constructed books, funny, subtle, pacy. The Great Indian Novel puts the characters from the Mahabharata (which can be translated, very freely, as 'The Great Indian novel') into 20th-century India and pokes instructive fun universally. Show Business chronicles the not unfamiliar rise and turn of a Bombay film star into politics, complete with masquerading gurus, easy corruption and a delightfully revengeful wife.
Tharoor seems keen that there should be two of him: the Shashi Tharoor who was one of the first UN people to encounter General Milosevic; and the other Shashi Tharoor, the looser, loucher one, the writer who has reversed Indian filmi convention in Show Business by having his hero raped, not the heroine, by an impassioned Indian Louella Parsons. 'I had two horoscopes. An Indian without a horoscope is like an American without a credit card. But I had two done when I was born, suggesting different destinies.'
His father was then London manager of the Statesman, Calcutta's distinguished newspaper. The family moved to Bombay when Tharoor was three. Soon he was 'finishing library books in the car on the way home from the library'. Being academically gifted, he was expected to do something 'more conventional than journalism'. His enthusiasm for the Indian civil service waned with Mrs Gandhi's emergency; and so to the UN.
The satirist is not a cynic. 'I do believe in the perfectability of human beings, mostly because I see them as so imperfect, which is what I write about.' Being Indian helps him to believe in the UN: 'It is easy for an Indian to be a world citizen. India is almost a world unto itself, with every ethnic group known to man. There are 17 distinct languages with 17 different scripts. We have different cuisine, dress and physical characteristics, and yet we share a sense of ourselves, there is this collective dream of India which we seem to dream together in these 17 different languages.'
His literary influences are eclectic, from P G Wodehouse to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He admires Rushdie and some of Updike, and Kundera and Vargas Llosa; but he is anxious to point out that he is not a magic realist although the TLS did say there was both magic and realism in his work. His work is more controlled, so perhaps the diplomat and the novelist are not so discrete, after all.
He does not convincingly rule out a career in Indian politics. And, yes, he might write that UN satire, when he can do without the salary cheque. But now it is time for the plenary session, An Agenda for Action and Research. In the chair, Dr Gwyn Prins, Director, Global Security Programme, Cambridge University.
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