Diary

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The Independent Online
In Middle England to visit a sick friend, I was ferried from hospital to railway station by a cross taxi driver. "Disgrace, the trains these days," he said. "They should have left them alone." Poor John Major, I thought to myself. If Tunbridge Wells is in revolt against privatisation, he'll be lucky to keep even his own seat. But Conservative Central Office can relax. "They should never have nationalised them," continued the taxi driver. "That's where it all went wrong. And what's more, they made an even bigger mistake. They got rid of steam and the trains haven't run on time since."

I get many laughs from the chattering classes. Last week, Margaret Drabble obliged. On Start the Week to plug her biography of Angus Wilson, she was asked by Melvyn Bragg to talk about the "malicious competitiveness" between writers that developed in the Eighties. I made a private bet with myself that she would end by blaming this on Mrs Thatcher, but I lost. She blamed it on monetarism.

When John, an English rugby enthusiast, rang me after the Irish-Welsh match, I asked him which side he had supported. "Ireland, of course." "Why?" "Can't stand the Welsh." "Why?" "All that singing." I proceeded to dinner with four English friends.

Nina and Lucy agreed with John, but Richard demurred: "I'd have been neutral. But I'd support Ireland against Scotland. Can't stand Scots. Rough lot." I continued the vox pop over the next few days and found not a single English person without a prejudice against one or other of the neighbours. Yet none of them was aware of Michael Flanders' and Donald Swann's anti-Celtic "Song of Patriotic Prejudice", with the rousing chorus: "The English, the English, the English are best/I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest."

It is obviously time to reissue this 1964 hymn of disparagement as a necessary safety valve for the disgruntled English. Here are the three key verses: "The Scotsman is mean, as we're all well aware/And bony and blotchy and covered with hair/He eats salty porridge and works all the day/And he hasn't got bishops to show him the way ... The Welshman's dishonest, he cheats when he can/And little and dark, more like monkey than man/He works underground with a lamp in his hat/and he sings far too loud, far too often and flaaaaat ... The Irishman now our contempt is beneath/ He sleeps in his boots and he lies in his teeth/He blows up policemen, or so I have heard/And blames it on Cromwell and William the Third."

Now before my countrymen start writing to complain that I'm letting the side down yet again, may I point out that Flanders and Swann saw this as a complement to the multitude of Celtic songs denouncing the English. But of course it is the fate of conquerors to be resented. As an English woman admitted to an Indian in Tom Stoppard's marvellous Indian Ink, which I saw last week: "I don't suppose I'd have been grateful if a lot of Romans turned up and started laying down the law and teaching Latin and so forth." "What a cheek," is probably what I would have thought. "Go away, and take your roads and your baths with you."

Our Washington correspondent reported on Friday that President Clinton was so delighted with the rescue of Capt Scott O'Grady that he and Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, "enjoyed a late-night cigar to mark the occasion - albeit on an outside balcony, to conform with the edict of the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, banning smoking inside the White House". I've always thought it was the height of rudeness to guests to ban smoking in an official residence and have often wondered how Israelis or Japanese are ever persuaded to come to dinner, but I had not realised that Bill Clinton likes to smoke, but she won't let him. Is he too much of a wimp to point out that the house comes with his job, not hers? There are moments when I get nostalgic about John Wayne.

In his annual report, the investment ombudsman wrote entertainingly of the Stock Exchange rule requiring investment companies to record phone conversations in case of disputes with clients. The quality was so terrible and the retrieval system so ineffective that in six years, he said, only two recordings were of any use. One "preserved usefully the remark of an investment adviser that he did not realise shares could go down as well as up."

A friend having given me a (duff) tip for the Derby, I dropped by our local turf accountant and wagered a fiver. I was disappointed to find the establishment almost as austere as that I used to frequent when I was at Cambridge and searching for a respite from a PhD topic so boring I was driven ultimately to abandon it. By what route, I wonder, had I come by the belief that nowadays all betting shops are furnished with leather armchairs, with punters being waited on by beauty queens? Or is it simply that, yet again, my corner of the world is being left out of things, and that when Melvyn Bragg and Margaret Drabble visit their bookies they wallow in luxury?

Incidentally, the Sun's contribution to the Derby was a page three lovely wearing a grey topper and red G-string along with a lot of jewellery and a pair of binoculars. The text was such a classic that I borrowed pen and paper from my newsagent and copied it down for you: "Lovely Lisa Bangert, 22, is under starters orders for today's Derby at Epsom. The Mansfield miss loves losing her shirt on this famous old race. And her favourite place to stand? Tattenham Corrr-ner, of course." I was surprised the Sun had missed the opportunity to change the first vowel in "Tattenham", but then I remembered that Rupert Murdoch is a born-again Christian.

Poetry corner. Tom Gaunt won my heart with: "I find it is no use pretending/That it's easy to find a good ending/But if it gives you a smile/Then it makes it worthwhile/For it's only my own time I'm spending." What a lovely lot you are and you're giving me lots of smiles. Here a few conclusions to the Listowel: "A crazy old ratbag from Sydney/Decided to sell off her kidney/But the bids being low/It was sadly let go/Offaly cheap to Gene Pitney" (Linda Jones, NB pronounce "Pitney" adenoidally); "A quack from Rhayader/Transplanted her bladder/Tho' his lawyer maintained that he didae" (John Parke); "A Scot bought the rights/ With heart, liver and lights/And opened McDonald's up - didn't 'e!" (Bob Pettitt).

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