It's fair to say that Kate's hands do lack a certain elegance, but so would anyone's if, like her, they spent hours every day grinding marble and slaked lime without the protection of gloves. The reason for this self-imposed torture is that Kate is an artist, and her chosen medium is a type of fresco painting traditional to Jaipur in north-west India, properly known as "Araash". It's a technique which involves building up layer upon layer of marble and lime and was originally used as a means of finishing off buildings. "It's incredibly laborious, it's like making your own stone," says Kate, who uses the technique to create remarkable pieces of art, big lumps of polished stone often brimming with colour which mix traditional Indian symbolism with more contemporary reference points.
Kate has just received a doctorate from the Royal College of Art and some of her work was on view there last week. It's where I met up with her for a cup of tea, together with her sister Molly, who as well as being Kate's unofficial publicist is an acclaimed television documentary maker whose subjects have included London Zoo, the Angel tube station and the British Army in Northern Ireland. Molly is the elder by two years and was keen to point out that she was born in Toronto, while her sister was born in the somewhat less glamorous location of Peterborough.
"Araash" is not so much a dying art as one that's close to its last gasp, having been rendered somewhat redundant in practical terms in India with the advent of cement. Kate learned the skill from Shri Gyarsilal Varma, one of only a few remaining elderly practitioners. She spent two years with him in the late 1980s, thanks to a British Council scholarship, and has been going back to see him on a regular basis ever since.
Her aim is to make her living entirely from her art, but in the meantime she's been funding herself from commissions, creating shop interiors. Her first was for the Monsoon shop in Covent Garden and she's since worked all over the world, from America to Dubai.
As well as traditional pigments, Kate also uses synthetic ones made in Germany, which often contain fairly unpleasant chemicals such as manganese and cadmium. "Some of them are quite vicious," she says. "I was doing a job in America and I wanted to ship over a load of this pigment and they wouldn't do it, because it's terribly carcinogenic."
"I see. And this is the stuff you put on Maude's hands," says Molly, referring to one of Kate's pieces which features the handprints of Molly's one-year-old daughter.
"That was very diluted," replies Kate somewhat defensively.
"You just said it was carcinogenic," says Molly.
"Has she suffered?" asks Kate.
"No," says Molly. "But it sounds like she's going to have a tortured life and her body's going to start dissolving."
Maude is one reason why Molly hasn't made a full-length documentary for 18 months. "I think when you have a baby it does tend to make you much more girly," she says. "Basically, you've got to have such balls to make documentaries and I'm aware I've totally lost them. In the short-term, I hope."
Earlier this year she was commissioned to make a short film on Tony Blair for the Labour Party's election campaign, and what was intended to take three weeks ended up taking four-and-a-half months. It was a fairly unhappy experience. "It was an advert," she says. "I wasn't allowed to follow the avenues that I'd like to have done." Having rejected Alan Yentob's suggestion that she make a documentary on the first year of her daughter's life, she's now starting to cook up a few other ideas. She says she's particularly keen to do something on the House of Lords.
Our parking meters were rapidly running out, so there was just time to learn this week's Fascinating Fact, which concerns cockroaches. "At London Zoo, they freeze them," said Molly. "They catch them and put them in bags and deep-freeze them. That's how they kill them."
Shelley's star in the descendant
"HE NEVER said anything to me, but I now realise why he would never look me in the eye," says Shelley von Strunckel of the London Evening Standard's editor Max Hastings, who this week informed her by letter that he was forthwith dispensing with her services as the newspaper's astrologer. Shelley took over the column two years ago, following the death of Patric Walker, who had chosen her as his successor. Hastings had a brief meeting with her when he took over the editorship in January 1996, but the two had not spoken since. Shelley felt that the stars were perhaps not high on Hastings's list of interests, which apparently is fairly typical of Capricorns, who are much happier on the firmer ground of scientific fact. "Quite frankly, he's ex-military," she says. "I don't think astrology is quite his cup of tea."
There was a hint of things to come two months ago when Shelley's weekly forecast in the paper's Friday supplement, ES, was cancelled. A friend of hers wrote to Hastings expressing her sadness that the column had ended. Hastings wrote a one-sentence reply: "I'm saddened by your sadness, but we must all follow our own stars," it said. While allowing that this response displayed a certain wit, Shelley says she was "appalled to think my editor was writing so dismissively to my readers". Last week Hastings didn't give her any particular reason for her dismissal and he chose not to comment when I phoned to ask him. Shelley feels that he simply has a different viewpoint about the role of astrology in a newspaper.
The man chosen to succeed Shelley is Peter Watson, who, she says, is "a very, very nice man", although he belongs to a group of astrologists of whom she is rather dismissive. "There are two kinds of astrological writers," she says. "Firstly there are those of us who really are consultants. I have made my living as an astrologer for 22 year. I've faced clients across the table, so when I write, what I write is based on interaction with people.
Then there's another breed of astrologer which developed mostly because Patric Walker was writing so much that he needed people to ghost him. He had a staff made up of quite a number of people who were doing just this. They all started out as journalists and have never had the experience as astrologers of dealing with people that we who are pro- fessionals have had. Maybe they're a little less passionate about the field because it's just a job of work to them."
The inevitable question, of course, is whether Shelley saw this coming in her stars. "Ironically, no," she says. "When it came to light, I had superb stars, but that might suggest, as Patric Walker, who was the master of cliche, would have said, that as one door closes, another opens."
So in other words, this could have been the best thing that's happened to her? "I eagerly await proof of that," says Shelley, whose one main regret, she adds, is that she never got to say goodbye to her readers.
Harangued by Dodi in Harrods
EVERYONE seems to be trawling through Dodi Fayed's background at the moment, so I suppose I might as well add my little bit. A friend of mine working at Harrods a few years ago during a somewhat lean spell before she became the very successful sports marketing consultant she is today, vividly remembers coming across him.
"It was a temporary job because I needed some work," she says. "I was working on one of the concessions. I didn't really want to be there. Anyway, I used to use the express lift. Staff weren't supposed to use it. They were only supposed to use the escalator or the stairs. One day I got in it and he was there and he said: 'You know you're not allowed to use the lift.' I just looked at him.
"He said: 'Do you know who I am? I am Dodi Fayed!' I said: 'Well, sack me then.' He just laughed, rather arrogantly. What a creep. He was quite a small man and he smelt very strongly of aftershave." She says she was particularly struck by the fact he was sniffing rather a lot and his eyes were watering, so all I can assume is that he must have suffered badly from hayfever.
After me: Amo, amas, amat ...
LAST WEEK I was sent a copy of a book called Latin Can Be Fun, which contains Latin translations of many useful phrases, such as "Recently I watched a match between Arsenal and Manchester United", "Civilian air traffic is primarily the concern of the airlines and proceeds according to a time-table", and "You seem to be suffering from mild gastritis". The book was originally published in Germany earlier this century under the title Do You Speak Latin?, and in the 1970s it was translated and anglicised by Peter Needham, a classics master at Eton. Now he's updated it to include the likes of Tony Blair (Antonius Blair, that is) and Euro 96.
I rang Mr Needham at Eton, where he's one of a staggering 14 classics masters, and asked him if the book had any practical use. "Well, what practical use could it have?" he responded in schoolmasterly tones, as if I was a small boy who had just asked a somewhat ridiculous question. "People have translated Winnie-the- Pooh into Latin," he continued. "I mean, what use is that? It's the sort of thing you can put in the loo in a country house, perhaps."
Needham is 63 and has been teaching classics for 40 years. A self-confessed "old fogey", he laments the fact that there's far less "grammar grind" in the teaching of Latin these days, and speaking as a fellow Oxford classicist I have to say I agree with him. David Blunkett has been encouraging some sort of new Latin course with cartoon strips and speech bubbles, but that's not what it's about at all. It's all about struggling with ablative absolutes and getting to grips with your principal parts. Without all the hard work, as Mr Needham puts it, it's "like trying to make bricks without straw". Quite right. I think there should be more Mr Needhams in this world. "I'm not actually a subscriber to your newspaper," he said. "What's it called? The Independent on Sunday? And how much will that set me back? A pound?!
At last, my turn to get lucky
EVERY OTHER article in the newspapers for the last few weeks seems to have been about thirtysomething women who can't find a partner. Then last week Simon Nye, the creator of the hit TV series Men Behaving Badly, said with regard to the fact that thirtysomething Debs is finally going to succumb to the hapless Tony in the new series that,"women in their thirties lower their standards. There is a slight shift in women's views of men and what constitutes an eligible man. Suddenly bald men and fat men are considered."
This was just what I've been waiting to hear. Not only is there a huge pool of available women of my own age out there, but they're even willing to ignore the fact that my hair is beginning to take on a Hague-like appearance. And I'm not even fat! So ladies, don't be shy, you can contact me here at the Independent on Sunday. Just imagine - this could be the start of something rather wonderful.