I see that, despite having this column, a glorious but truncated broadcasting career on BBC radio and a lot of social clout among the drinking classes of Dulwich, I am deemed to be less important in the scheme of things than David Yelland, the editor of The Sun, a man so hopelessly unsure of himself that he cannot adopt a position without adopting its exact opposite 24 hours later. I am, it appears, of less consequence than David Beckham and Posh Spice, the speechless Gog and Magog of modern culture; I have less to recommend me, it seems, than John Prescott, a Transport Secretary who could not, with much confidence, be trusted to streamline the operation of a milk float; I have less clout and leverage than a lump of Lottery machinery called Guinevere.
How depressing. But rather than fling myself from the nearest high window ledge, I may start to compile my own list - of the least influential figures in the nation, people who are so unpowerful, they have no effect whatsoever on what other people do and are consequently rather more likeable than the ruthless legislators of the zeitgeist. Poets, vicars, most stenographers, Speakers' Corner speakers, performers of Muzak, peelers of vegetables at top London restaurants, late-night DJs on local radio and Department of Health inspectors would all feature in this glittering line-up of "The Not Very Powerful and the Egregiously Uninfluential", a group headed by men and women in whose patronage nobody has ever wanted to bask for long - Princess Michael of Kent, Eddie the Eagle, Gerald Ratner, John Selwyn Gummer ... oh, and me - who have all the power and influence of a pork chop. You may feel you want to join us. You may be wondering what you have to do to get on "The No-Power List". You may be wondering how to pull a few strings. Don't bother. We wouldn't even notice.
IN THE midst of all the kerfuffle about Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attempt to stifle the Brit Art exhibition in Brooklyn (he objected to Chris Ofili's depiction of the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant dung), I was struck by the compromise reached at the Brooklyn Museum. While its directors try to resolve the dispute, the museum is going ahead with the "Sensation" exhibition but has posted a warning: "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations, you should consult your doctor."
This, I think, represents the way ahead for art appreciation. 1) Go to gallery of your choice. 2) Scrutinise written warning outside. 3) Visit doctor. Say, "I'm thinking of inspecting the innards of a large pig in a Perpsex case, doc. Do I need some Ibuprofen?" Take prescription to Boots' on-site pharmacy at Tate Gallery. Ingest two pills with water. Proceed to first exhibit ...
I shall try this method first thing tomorrow. "Doctor,'' I shall say, "I'm thinking of having some Van Dyck this afternoon. What would you advise for that?"
IT'S BEEN an interesting few days in the life of Diana Ross's reputation. In 48 hours the famous singer went from being international soul diva to noli me tangere airport neurotic to `"Diana Cross" in police custody; then, courtesy of The Sun, we learnt about Diana prodding the near-naked breast of a girl singer on a music awards show to chastise her for dressing so scantily, learnt that she was known as "Ross the Boss" in the industry and "Miss Ross" (the words accompanied by a bow) to her staff at home in Connecticut. A flurry of other stories surfaced about the former Supreme and the gap between what she had become and where she had started out. Like the time she generously bought a house for her mother, then spent a frustrated afternoon driving around Detroit, trying to find her mother's then-present residence.
I interviewed her once in New York - she was staying at the Four Seasons under the name of "Miss Love". She answered the room door herself and had no bodyguards or PR people with her - presumably she was better able to take care of herself than any minders or managers were. I remember how touchy she became - but it wasn't because of my physical proximity or because she got fed up being told what to do by a pair of local photographers. "Head up, Diana," they said. "This way, Diana." They had her lying back on a sofa, with her wild black ropes of curls streeling across the velvet upholstery, and tried to coax a smouldery expression from this irritable but long-suffering grown-up wife and mother of (then) 48 years.
"Slide down a bit more, Diana," they kept saying, "a little bit more relaxed now ... ", and Miss Love complied until she was virtually horizontal. Her huge brown eyes looked with loathing at the camera, the lighting rig and their pushy operators. She'd probably had enough, 30 years ago in Detroit, of being told what to do by white boys or black ones, as if her pretty face and body, her talent and soul were exploitable cuts of meat.
"Head back a little, Diana," said the cameraman. "And part your lips a bit ... "
"Hey!" The singer sat up abruptly. "Don't direct me. Just take the pictures." It was a bloodcurdling noise, somewhere between a growl and a furious spit. "Don't direct me. Don't presume to push me around." She was still saying it at Heathrow last week.
I AM tantalised beyond endurance by something called Nemo's Almanac. You must have heard of it. It's been going for 109 years, having started life as a Twickenham governess's one-off little test for her charges, and is by some way the world's most difficult literary quiz. In its modest 12 pages are 72 quotations - some familiar; most howlingly obscure - from across the entire spectrum of literature in English, which you've got to identify to win the dizzyingly glamorous prize of a pounds 40 book token.
What drives you mad is that you're given a whole year to trace the quotations. A whole year to have your ignorance, your un-well-read-ness, your lack of enterprise reflected back at you, month after month. I started in October with a high heart, instantly identified bits of Byron, T S Eliot, S Beckett, Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf and Tennyson ... "Hah," I thought. "This is such a breeze. Seventy-two quotations? Make it a hundred and seventy-two and I may just break sweat." Then I discovered that the Virginia Woolf lines (the skating scene from Orlando, surely?) didn't actually appear in the book and consequently must be by someone else. I discovered that the Tennyson quotation (about Merlin, barges and Avalon) was from Wilfred Owen. It began to dawn on me that the quiz setter, Gerard Benson, the poet from Bradford, was something of an expert in literary soundalikes, and that this wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.
By Christmas I'd tracked down a bit of Patrick Kavanagh, identified a testy remark about the Bard ("Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault") as one of Dr Johnson's and realised from watching a black-and-white afternoon movie that another quote must be from A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankovitz. By January I had nailed down nine out of 72. I leant on friends.
I consulted everyone I knew who'd ever read a book. I bored people in pubs by saying: "That's never James Fenton, is it?" (It was, actually, though I got the poem wrong.) I haunted libraries. Bags the size of Louis Vuitton matching suitcases appeared beneath my eyes as I stayed up all night, leafing through Oxford and Faber anthologies. I cruised the Internet. I had some successes (once, I found the sources of three animal-related quotations in the same collection - three!) but, as with any drug, the will-o'-the-wisp of success just leads you to more failure.
In the spring I met other sufferers and snootily swapped one or two of the most recondite answers ("You didn't realise that was Erasmus Darwin? You can actually read, can you?"). But I stopped dead after 23 answers and resolved never to touch it again.
And now Nemo 2000, the new edition, has just arrived in the post. Mr Benson cheerily commiserates with us on our shortcomings ("A surprising number of you missed the Shakespeare"), congratulates the winners (nobody got absolutely everything right) and presents another slew of impossible- to-find bits of prose and verse. Obviously I wasn't going to be suckered into this pointless enterprise a second time, but I took a glance at the first couple of pages.
Impossible. As I thought, the arcana of Mr Benson's library are no concern of mine. But wait - isn't that a bit from "The Waste Land"? And isn't this line from The War of the Worlds? And this execution scene from a Hardy poem? And off I go again, for another year of frustration. Damn, damn, curse my folly etc. Write to Gerard Benson, 46 Ashwell Road, Manningham, Bradford BD8 9DU, enclosing a cheque for two quid, and you, too, can join in this exquisite torture.Reuse content