Diary

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An imaginative people, the Japanese. Never at a loss. Two weeks after the Kobe earthquake, 290,000 homeless people are living on rubble, scraps and promises. But scuttling to their aid comes the grandly named Kansai International Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, full of helpful advice. They have published thousands of pamphlets telling quake survivors that they're likely to suffer from nightmare flashbacks and bouts of depression. I see, doctor. But is there a cure? The association suggests that sufferers should "keep busy, bake bread and joke about the prime minister to relieve the stress". Sound advice. But how would the British cope? Since joking about the PM is the social norm, what do we do with him when a Richter 7.3 hits Skegness? Every Saturday, a feeling of deja vu overwhelms me. The frenzy of taking down figures from the television screen, the neighbours' sudden interest in numerology, the tabloids' obsession with prizewinners ... What did it all remind me of? At last I found it.It's the following passage from a famous book: "In an angle formed by a projecting house-front, three men were standing very close together, the middle one holding a folded-up newspaper. Winston could see absorption in every line of their bodies. Suddenly the group broke up and two of the men were in violent altercation.

" `Can't you bleeding well listen to what I say? I tell you no number ending in seven ain't won for over fourteen months!'

" `Yes it 'as, then!'

" `No it 'as not. Back 'ome I got the 'ole lot of 'em for over two years wrote down on a piece of paper. I takes 'em down reg'lar as the clock. And I tell you, no number ending in seven ...'

"They were talking about the Lottery ... the Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal, if not the only, reason for staying alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Winston ... was aware that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the

big prizes being non-existent persons ..."

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, written in 1948. And isn't there something about the Lottery's prodding finger in the sky, proclaiming "It's YOU", that whispers "Big Brother" ... ?

Literary scandal is back in town, and about time too. For the past few months the publishing industry seemed to have gone a bit quiet: no fights, no betrayals, no vast advances, no sharky-agent stories, no plagiarism raps, no divorces, no cries of "censorship!" Bor-ing. Since Christmas, however, it's been like trench warfare. There was the Andrew Wylie affair and all the ramifications about Martin Amis's novel The Information (such as the resemblance of the hero's talentless-bastard-turned-bestseller friend to Amis's former bosom buddy, Julian Barnes, husband of his ex-agent, even down to his tennis-playing technique); the suggestion (not true) that PD James borrowed the plot of Original Sin from C Day-Lewis; Paul Johnson blasting away about the BBC's sexing-up of Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers. Only violence seemed to be missing.

Then a visiting American publisher, Morgan Entrekin, threw a party at the Groucho Club for his British friends - a really happening event, full of the mellowest scribes in town, radiating transatlantic camaraderie. His co-hosts were Charles Glass, the American Spectator hack and ex-hostage, Will Self, the cadaverous storyteller and style adviser, and Rian Malan, the handsome (if militantly laid-back) Afrikaaner-liberal author of My Traitor's Heart. Everything proceeded on typical media-thrash lines (drink, smoke, eat canape, suck up to Rosie Boycott) until the rump of the guests decamped for Christopher's, a fashionable restaurant. There, as they drank more gallons of Sauvignon Sec, an altercation broke out. Self accused Malan of hypocrisy over his native South Africa. Malan murmured a protest. Self suggested that, if he were gratified about the Afrikaaner defeat at the last election, he should decamp to Johannesburg. Malan objected. The sensitive writers squared up to each other. Eyes bulged. Collarswere grabbed, lapels twisted, ties throttled. "You've abandoned your country!" cried Self. Verbal sallies a la Cantona followed, until the two men bafflingly made it up. Morgan, the American friend, blinked uncomprehendingly,wondering how soon he could escape to the sanity of New York.

You wouldn't think that iconography - the close, deductive study of portraiture - came naturally to the tabloid press. But no sooner does the Princess of Wales appear at an award ceremony, with her hair combed in a side-parting than their pages are a-quiver with iconic analysis. Look at those shoulders, murmured the London Evening Standard, pure Leni Riefenstahl; my God, gasped the Daily Mirror, she's trying to look like Prince Charles; the Daily Mail wheeled on a psychologist to bang on about life changes and fresh starts. Only seconds later, they were wondering what secondary life-change caused her, the following day, to revert to her old "chrysanthemum-petal" look. I think I can help. It's called a hair dryer.

Shadow was never my favourite Gladiator (I'm more a Nightshade kinda guy), but I'm sorry to see him go, sacked on Tuesday for steroid ingestion. For those unfamiliar with the show, he's the one with the staring eyes who invariably whacked hell out of all-comers, and had a great routine of standing around looking pointlessly tough, like a drugstore Indian in an old Gary Cooper movie. He had an edge to him, though, the Shad, as if he might suddenly go berserk. Without him, the programme is diminished, safer, duller. Stand by for his dim replacement, Penumbra.

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