Getting the bird from Camille

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CAMILLE Paglia's life is proof that if you ask a silly question you simply don't get a proper answer. She should know.

Last week she stormed out of an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in Philadelphia, calling a man I have always found perfectly obliging "the worst-prepared popinjay of a reporter I have ever encountered". Ever? None the less, Rex took the precaution of speaking to Paglia on the telephone while she was still on the other side of the Atlantic.

She is a cultural critic, a Formula 1 talker, with opinions on everything under the sun, including the behaviour of England's fans in France. Paglia tells me she's been watching the World Cup on a local Spanish channel. "You guys are surrounded by water," she observes, speaking the literal truth. "It once gave Britain its independence, but all that's left is seething frustration. All those lager louts are typical of your mob mentality, which is the reason you have such an incestuous culture in London.

"British feminism hasn't produced a single original voice except Germaine Greer. She was Australian. And the longer she's been with you, the duller she's become," Paglia continued.

Now Paglia's preparing for a talk at the National Theatre: "I am coming to England to celebrate a great British genius, Alfred Hitchcock, because I've written a book on The Birds. I've studied it more microscopically than ever before, because of VCR capabilities, and my mission is to resuscitate the reputation of Tippi Hedren." Rex hopes it goes better than Camille's last appearance on the South Bank. After a few needling questions, she walked off the stage at the Festival Hall last year.

The daughter of immigrant Italians, Paglia trained as a classicist, and spent a decade trying to get her doctoral thesis, titled Sexual Personae, published. Since Yale University Press brought out this daunting tome in 1990, complete with its fantastic connections between characters like Nefertiti and David Bowie, Paglia has become the Darth Vader of feminism.

"I loath feminist film criticism: it's a boring crock of rubbish. And I don't believe in post-modernism. You can't simply juxtapose fragments and pretend there's no continuity in Western history. I want to lead criticism back to epicene common sense; at the moment it's so full of abstract theory you can't even read most of it. I approach films from the point of the fan, enjoying the great compositions, the glamour and emotionalism."

As a cultural critic, Paglia was the first to deconstruct the Diana myth. "I personally have not recovered from Diana's death. The shock was so profound it still feels unreal to me. As an Italian, I believe in rituals, the long mourning, and I'm still going through that. The highlight of my career was when I heard Earl Spencer quote from my work in his eulogy, talking about the hunter becoming the hunted. My ideas have never been so widely broadcast."

We will all be relieved to hear that Paglia is a big fan of Prince William: "He was recently on the cover of Life magazine. It looks like he'll save the monarchy because he's like an international pop star." Deep sighs of relief all round.

THE FOOTBALL pitch of Willaston County Primary School in Cheshire was divided into 144 plots yesterday for a competition which, quite frankly, has failed to rival the World Cup. The organisers of the World Worm Charming Championships should not mind. I'm a fairly avid fan.

Two-man teams have half an hour to woo as many worms as possible out of their allotted patch. To the victors goes the Golden Worm Trophy; the heaviest specimen wins the Silver Trophy. Apparently, the champions' technique is to cause vibrations in the ground, through stamping and stereos, to simulate rain. In recent years the worms appear to have learned a new set of tricks because the record number of worms charmed (511) was set way back in 1980 and is, at time of going to press, still standing.

On the set of Forte Towers

OPENING a hotel is a bit like opening a play, with the staff learning their lines and their moves, and the scene painters leaving the stage door as the curtain rises. But in a hotel the audience joins you on the stage, commenting on the sets and contributing its own dialogue.

Rex observed this at the Hotel Tresanton which opened a couple of weeks ago in St Mawes. Since he knows the owner Olga Polizzi and her husband, the author William Shawcross, this was not exactly a detour, but it was worth the long journey to Cornwall. As I arrived, gardeners were still planting the sunny terrace with blue flowers - agapanthus, ceanothus and lavender. In the tranquil lounge - now all sea blue and sand- colours - there had been cement-mixers only 10 days ago. The dining- room and the terrace are freshly polished, like the deck of a fine new cruise ship.

The hotel is full of Polizzi's unusual visual touches. A set of 16 square pigeon holes on a cream wall house 16 pairs of dark-blue Wellingtons standing to attention. It's like something dreamed up by Damien Hirst. In the hall, a stand contains a cluster of outsize, royal-blue cotton umbrellas with scarlet handles. Boots and umbrellas are for the guests' use - a knowing precaution against Cornish weather.

But I was most intrigued by the books in the bedroom: Milton's Areopagitica, the complete works of Henry James and an instructional cricket book by the great Ranjitsinhji. Downstairs is lighter, more traditional fare: Dornford Yates, Nevil Shute and Ngaio Marsh. Shawcross, who has taken time out from writing a book about Bosnia, plays a role as sous-sommelier, and Olga's daughters, Alex and Charlie, treat the guests like grown-ups. The Hotel Tresanton run as a family business would be in a good comedy - full of drama and laughter. But that it what you might expect from Olga Polizzi, who is Charles Forte's eldest daughter.

NEXT Friday, in Burton-on-Trent, 20-year-old Gary Harding will undergo "trussing", thereby turning himself from an apprentice into a journeyman cooper. This involves placing Gary inside an oak barrel crafted by his own hand. A mixture of hops, balm, dirt and brewery waste is poured into the barrel and he is then rolled around the cobbled courtyard of Marston's brewery. If the barrel survives, Gary crawls out and asks for his job back. If the reply is favourable, he shares a drink with the head cooper. This is Tony Blair's modern, flexible workforce?

Sales are good for the soul

HERE'S a good news story - from publishing, where good news stories are no longer common. It tells about the success of The Soul Bird, Michal Snunit's soulful children's book. At the end of last year, Nick Robinson of Robinson Publishing quietly acquired the English language rights for pounds 1,500. Published here in April, it is already on its third print run, having sold 20,000 copies. And now Robinson has sold the American rights to Hyperion, the publishing arm of Disney, for a sum not unadjacent to $120,000 (pounds 72,000).

"It has sold 400,000 copies in Snunit's homeland of Israel," Robinson tells me, "which means that 10 per cent of the population own a copy. If the same happens in America that will mean 25 million copies shifted. The book is simply about people's inner spirit and resilience, and I suppose it's what's called 'feel-good'. Michal's a huge celebrity in the Middle East: the other day she was in a car crash, and the other driver was more interested in meeting 'the soul bird' than in his car."

ARCHITECT Piers Gough, whose design projects have included a house for Janet Street-Porter in Clerkenwell, several Canary Wharf developments and an ultra-modern public lavatory block in Westbourne Grove, has turned his attentions closer to home.

For two years, he has been one of the driving forces behind the creation of a "green bridge" across one of London's main eastern arteries, Mile End Road: he lives just up the road in Bow.

The wide, shallow bridge, which will sprout grass and trees to form a "seamless" transition between two sides of an existing park, is the first of its kind.

"It is funded partially by Lottery money and backed by organisations such as the East London Partnership, with work set to start early in July.

Gough says: "The organisers said to me: 'You're a local resident; why don't you help?' When I went to a meeting a couple of summers ago, they had only got as far as things like lookout towers, or a funfair, but residents hated the idea of that." Work on the bridge, which he promises will be "calm and understated" rather than "histrionic with lots of guy ropes", will take place during the night to minimise disruption to traffic.

"The idea for a grass bridge leapt into my head as I was lying on the grass; it was one of those serendipitous thoughts. Then they said 'Why don't you be the architect?'" It was offer he could not refuse.

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