I found myself seated degradingly below the salt at Table 35, but my neighbours were a jolly bunch. They included a couple of booksellers who boasted about celebrity customers. The winner was a chap from Blackwells?? who encountered the Clintons last summer, during the VE Day celebrations. President Bill, it seems, expressed a desire to buy some books in the famous shop,?? but only if it was closed to ordinary mortals. So the customers were kicked out, and all the 200 staff ushered towards the only door at 5.30pm. The Master of the Free World and his wife arrived all too promptly at 5.31pm and, assuming the queue of besuited salesmen inside the doorway to be a diplomatic receiving line, shook hands with all of them....
Much has been made in the past of the idiocy of the Whitbread prize, for requiring the judges to choose between five categories of book (biography, poetry collection, novel, first novel, children's novel), a bit like judging between marrows, grapes, cornflakes, tagliatelli and ham sandwiches. But the Whitbread's breezy chairman, Sir Michael Angus, refused to see a problem. "It's simple," he told the judges, "they do it every year at Crufts."
This year's Supreme Champion was Kate Atkinson, a waspishly clever, teetotal 44-year-old from York, for her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Ms Atkinson is unusual, for a Whitbread winner, in being apparently sound both physically and mentally. Bitchy voices in the past have often noted the Whitbread's apparent fascination for writers who are bereaved, handicapped, alcoholic, extremely poor or working in a mental asylum or similarly unprepossessing circumstances. This year, finding no slag-heap minders or Tourette's syndrome sufferers among the finalists, I tipped Lord Jenkins's Gladstone biography to win, and was royally vilified as a result. Only later did I discover that Ms Atkinson's past includes spells as a barmaid, a chambermaid and a care worker at a rundown hospital. Ah-ha ...
Mystery of the week is: what exactly did the Princess of Wales say to Tiggy Legge-Bourke when they met at the Lanesborough Hotel? According to the Sun, the Princess clamped her hand on the hapless nanny's bloodless cheek and hissed "seven words" into her ear, whereupon Ms Legge-Bourke dissolved in tears.
Seven words, eh? How inexpressibly tantalising. One's initial assumption was that they must be: "Keep your filthy hands off my kids" or various emphatic synonyms to that effect. Then today's tabloids revealed them to be: "So sorry to hear about the baby." But one or two seven-word alternatives suggest themselves. (Greater London Radio listeners, asked for their thoughts, came up with a dozen possibilities, of which my favourites were: "I've seen Fergie with your credit card" and "That distinctive scent - it's Charlie, isn't it?"). But then you have to consider the apparently unstable state of the Princess's marbles, and anything becomes possible. Can we be absolutely sure she didn't whisper, malevolently: "Your name is an anagram of GiggleTurkey, OBE"?
The Evening Standard's dynamic new editor, Max Hastings, continues to cut a swathe through veteran reporters and herbivorous old-timers. His newest victim is the feature writer James Hughes-Onslow, the most charming (and easily the quietest) Old Etonian you'll ever meet, who's been at the Standard for what seems like several decades. He was the man who once sheltered from the rain in Germaine Greer's doorway, was yanked inside by the Australian termagent, romanced her in murmurously English ways and emerged, months later, a sadder and wiser (and somewhat quieter) man.
Unimpressed by this striking pedigree, Mr Hastings gave him until the end of the month to pack his bags. Then, finding him by the coffee machine this week, he grated: "I thought we'd seen the last of you." A memo followed, requiring the kindly, cycle-clipped James to leave forthwith. Cripes. Is Max turning into Maxwell?
Tonight is Burns' Night. The great Robert B, once memorably described as "a Heaven-taught ploughman", died 200 years ago, and at a thousand celebrations from Kilmarnock to Knightsbridge, a thousand beefy masters of ceremony in full tartan fig will extract a glinting skean dhu from their oatmeal Moss Bros socks and plunge it into a blazing sheep's tummy with a cry of "Gie' a haggis!" ... God, the things people will do for culture. Less dyed-in-the-wool Caledonians will make their way to the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London's Fitzrovia, where they are launching a month-long exhibition of contemporary Scottish artists, among whom is a true, if slightly peculiar, original.
His name is George Wyllie. Like Burns, he was once a Customs & Excise man, but he's now a fully disadvantaged artist who specialises in drawing attention to the paucity, the dwindling, the negligibility etc of Scottish culture in the modern world.
To this end he once sailed a boat made of paper into New York harbour (an ironic farewell to the Scots shipbuilding industry, you see), built a locomotive out of straw and set fire to it (ironic goodbye to the railway industry) and was responsible for the March of the Standing Stones (an ironic cheerio to the Scottish statuary tradition, apparently) at the Edinburgh Festival last year.
For tonight's show, he's come up with a sculpture that features 11 shortbread tins emblazoned with the features of R Burns and demonstrating the paucity, etc, of Scottish culture by the fact that there's nothing inside them (spare a thought for Daphne Wyllie, who helped out her husband's aesthetic daemon by eating all the shortbread). Right-thinking Celtic types, including me and Terry Major-Ball, will be there for the whisky and bagpipes at 6.30.Reuse content