JOHN WALSH COLUMN

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Call me a moral bankrupt, but I couldn't fathom all the hoo-ha about Dr Simon Heighes, the Oxford don who was caught stealing books from college libraries and selling them to Blackwell's for colossal sums of money. Agreed, Dr Heighes did make rather a habit of it - accused of several nickings over three years, he asked that 120 other ones should be added on; and, yes, since they included Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1st edn, some foxing, nice copy, pounds 63,500), they were a cut above pinching The Hunt for Red October from WH Smith; and OK, claiming he had to pay off his mortgage was a touch disingenuous (where'd he live, Blenheim Palace?) ...

But in his defence is the fact that stealing books had become one of the literary fads of the year. It's the epitome of trendy behaviour. In July, Richard Rayner published The Blue Suit, in which he airily recalled his undergraduate days spent nicking books from Heffers's shop in Cambridge. (Some critics saw these confessions as a post-modernist tease, an exercise in literary "intertextuality"; Heffers, on the other hand, sent him an invoice, backdated 15 years). Last week, Time Out Amsterdam (I get it for the crossword) published a column by the Scots enfant terrible Irvine "Trainspotting" Welsh discoursing on how much he likes nicking books in Holland and Germany ("The moral is: of course shoplifting pays, if you're disciplined, cool and pick your targets carefully"). Why even one of the autumn's most praised novels, Tibor Fischer's The Thought Gang, about the adventures of incompetent robbers in the south of France, is being advertised with the trumpeted line: I rob, therefore I am.

So relax, Simon. Stealing books apparently isn't stealing any more. It's a tease, a fiscal enterprise, an existentialist statement. See you in the Bodleian.

The art world has thrown up some pretty weird sights this year, from Tilda Swinton's "Resting Actress" to Damien Hirst's bisected livestock; but an equally odd spectacle was on popular view last week: the Duchess of York as promotions secretary. I found her just inside the door of the Roy Miles gallery in fashionable Bruton Street, where an exhibition of the work of Paul Gaisford (proceeds to Children in Crisis) was being launched with full party honours. Fergie was sitting at a desk signing - I suppose one should say countersigning - copies of the artist's work with her distinctive hoyden flourish. Posters, prints, Gaisford originals, all received La Duchesse's signature, thus easily doubling the value of each.

I only hope she does not fall into a practice adopted by Alan Bennett. The lugubrious playwright, writing in the 1996 Waterstone's Desk Diary, remembers his discomfiture in the past when book buyers solicited his autograph. Some wanted him to put "To Madge", some "To Mum", above his signature, which was OK. But some went too far: "One youth said, 'Could you put, "To Christine, I'm sorry about last night, it won't happen again"?' And then I had to sign this 'Alan Bennett' ..."

This is surely where Fergie could make a mark. I think we'd all like to own a Paul Gaisford print on which is written "Thanks for another fabulous night, The Duchess of York".

The party season is swinging along nicely, but me, I'm seething with jealousy. All right, I get invited to this publishing shindig or that office romp, but am I asked to whoop it up at St James's Palace? Am I hell. Some swanky friends of mine were invited, however, last week. It was a reception given by Il Principe to thank various people who'd been, ahem, especially helpful to him in the last year. No, Jonathan Dimbleby was not there (though his publisher was), nor Tiggy Legge-Bourke nor Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, nor any other double-barrelled fun-lover you might be thinking of. The only person of interest my friends met was one of the chaps from AG Carrick, purveyors of that clean-living "Duchy Originals" brand of biscuits and wine. You must have come across them: the former are frightfully healthy, wheat-germy things, the latter are slugs of non- alcoholic herbal fruit cup misleadingly packaged in wine bottles and christened Duchy Number One (mostly fennel-tasting) and Duchy Number Three (raspberry and redcurrant). They're not on sale in Sainsbury's, but National Trust gift shops have carried them for months. One thing puzzled one of my friends, who confided in the manufacturer. Why is there no Duchy Original Number Two? "Impossible old boy," came the reply. "Don't you know your upper- class lavatorial nursery slang? One just can't have a drink called Number Two's."

Relentless shopping in Hamleys and Toys 'R' Us has made me wonder what can be going on in the heads of little girls these days. Once you could give them dolls to play with; now, once you've got past the PC stage of giving them lawn mowers and toolboxes, you find the dolls have gone all funny. Tinkletots, the horror-show of a couple of years back (you fill them with water, squeeze their tummies and they pee all over you) have been abandoned as a terrible idea, but there are plenty more abominations around. Barbie dolls, having gone through a bingeing stage, with the Andrea- Dworkin-sized "Happy to Be Me Barbie", have come up with Baywatch Barbie and Life-Size Barbie just in time to welcome Ms Pamela Anderson - a happy amalgam of the two - on her trip to the UK. But what do you make of Check Up Baby? Yes, it's a fat, fleshy baby doll to which you can attach stethoscopes, electrocardiagrams and, for all I know, a dialysis machine. Am I alone in thinking that progress in the Toyland is getting a little, you know, intestinal? The next stage is obviously to run together two trends and give today's eight-year-old Barbie Visits the Gynaecologist.

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