Diary

On Saturday I idly observed to Kuku, my newsagent, that the world was a better place without Ronnie Kray. As he nodded enthusiastically, a customer said: "You'd better not let my girlfriend hear you saying that." Now, this is west London, not the East End, and he was in his twenties, so we gazed at him incredulously and asked why.

Him: " 'Cos she's a great fan of the Krays. Has all the memorabilia and that." Me: "What does she like about them?" Him: "Just thinks they're really great." Kuku: "But they were murderers." Him: "Yeah, well I'm not saying they weren't out of order sometimes, but they never did proper people no harm." Me: "Ronnie was a psychopath. He carved people up." Him: "Only the one. And they done anyone what mugged old ladies or raped children. Looked after their own. You gotta admire that."

Kuku and I, having failed to make any headway during the next few minutes, tried another tack. "What's wrong with you that she likes you?" I inquired. "How do you mean?" "Well, if the Krays are to her taste, what attracts her about you?" " 'S'only her hobby," he said comfortably, and left me to peruse headlines like "OK, he was an evil killer but he never swore at old ladies" and photographs of Ron on the town with the young Barbara Windsor.

It all reminds me of Edna O'Brien and Bianca Jagger gazing mistily into Gerry Adams's flinty eyes, while in Northern Ireland ordinary people from both tribes say things like: "Sure, the lads overdid it breaking that 14-year-old's arms and legs, but you got to admit that'll stop him joy- riding for a bit."

I have two crumbs of comfort for anyone who found the US lionising of Gerry Adams hard to bear. First, my American sources tell me that local press coverage of his visit was sparse; celebs may have queued up, but for the general public Adams proved to be last year's novelty. Second, for most of the time he was dogged by a quartet from the Belfast-based Families Against Intimidation and Terror, whose banners urged him to have the beatings stopped. Adams waved and smiled at the tiny picket the first few times, which demonstrated remarkable chutzpah considering he knew the IRA had blown up the wife of one of them in 1993 and last December had caused the suicide of the son of another, following a vicious assault for glue-sniffing. Later, however, he took to dodging them and he cannot have been pleased when Bill Clinton unexpectedly included in one of his speeches an appeal for an end to beatings.

Susan Wheatley sent me a postcard with a PS: " `There once was a lady in Bantry/Who kept her false teeth in the pantry ...' but who can complete this limerick?" I instantly rang my expert, who confidently promised a response within 48 hours. When I rang after 49 to remind him he pleaded sickness, wife just out of hospital and difficulty with the rhyme, so I'm throwing the knotty problem open to the public.

I've always had difficulty with St Patrick's Day. As a child in Dublin I was annually downcast by the rain-sodden, Eastern European-style parade of sad floats advertising Jacob's biscuits and Bear Brand nylons. At the time I would have given anything for the American "faith-and-begorrah" vulgarity of pipe bands, leprechauns and drum majorettes that as an adult I loathe. I blame my late mother for turning me at an impressionable age against anything smacking of Oirishness - "ersatz", she used to say, with a shudder. She had a tremendous talent for invective, so I regret she has not been around to comment on the St Patrick's Day merchandise that has recently burgeoned in Ireland. Kitsch-minded Irish friends send me the most tasteless offerings they can find. A particularly fine example this year was a large clump of living shamrock in a plastic lapel-holder decorated with the tricolour, accompanied by the usual explanatory baloney about how Patrick used the plant to explain the Trinity to "the Ancient High Kings of Ireland". These days it could more usefully be deployed to explain the modern scholarly view that Patrick is a composite of three different chaps.

I affixed the shamrock to the English friend who insisted on taking me to the Imperial Arms in the King's Road for a celebratory lunch of the best Irish food in London. During the excellent meal I felt a misplaced twinge of compassion for Newt Gingrich's guests, who were fed - for some reason that eludes me - on corned beef and carrots.

A few more choice selections from my Church-of-England-and-stuff correspondence: "It depends what you mean by stuff" (Anthony Faulkner); "Now, there are three points I'd like us to consider about stuff" (Desmond Gudgin); and "Stuff is good for you. Or perhaps not" (Pat Gulliford).

While on matters theological, I must take issue with the woman who last week on Radio 4's Thought for the Day regretted that no one ever walked around graveyards any more. This was a singularly ill-timed remark, for I was just embarking on one of those periods in my life when I spend some hours every day tramping around the fine specimen across the road, muttering into a dictating machine the first draft of a crime novel. Apart from being able to walk up and down and talk to myself without interruption, there is in this cemetery the added bonus of being able to get names for characters from sources that won't sue. Victorian headstones have in the past provided me with such magnificent names as Buckbarrow, Runcible and Wristbarge. And you'd be surprised how quickly one ceases to be embarrassed by being overheard saying crossly to a machine things like "The trouble with you, young feller-me-lad, is that you've no respect for your elders and betters."

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