John Walsh On Monday: These days, no expense fiddle is spared

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The Independent Online
POOR FIONA Jones, MP and now suddenly former MP. It's hard not to feel sympathy for her. To have lost (pending appeal) your seat in the Commons, your pounds 45,000 MP's salary, your agent (who was fined pounds 750 for his part in her downfall), the respect of your constituents, the doe-like loving gaze of your leader, and any shred of sympathy from your political peers is a tough break. To be sentenced to 100 hours of "community service" - the modem equivalent of being put in the stocks - must seem a galling irony to a woman who has represented her community for nearly two years.

If they'd flogged her naked through the streets of Newark and put her in a ducking stool on the edge of town, she couldn't feel much worse than she does now. That faraway look of purse-lipped disbelief she wore after the court's decision - as of someone who, while watching her courtesy car being ritually crushed by the Serjeant-at-Arms is told that her pet hamster has been found dead in the microwave oven - spoke paragraphs.

What did she do wrong? She made a false return on her campaign expenses. But it wasn't an expenses fiddle as you or I might have once understood the concept. There was no freebie ride to Morocco or lingering candlelit supper a deux in the Adulterer's Rest Hotel, courtesy of the taxpayer. We're not talking designer frocks charged to a bogus "clothing allowance". She didn't indulge a taste for nasal sherbert under the heading of "research materials". All she did was overspend her own cash on party banners, stickers, hired cars, petrol and toner for the photostat machine; she was, as far as we can tell, simply guilty of being an over-zealous campaigner who finds she's exceeded the legal limit for expenses by 105 per cent, panics and tries to conceal the evidence.

But life is hard in Expenses Land. Fiddles and "creative accounting" used to be a joke ("In Reading she was Charlotte/ The pick of all the bunch/ But down on his expenses/ She was petrol, oil and lunch") and employers sometimes indulged a little moral trimming among their executives. But now the culture of wrongdoing is so advanced, you can't even claim back less than half of the money you spent, without having a political opponent say you've falsified the record and must be challenged in court.

Ms Jones should have had an excuse prepared. Like the famous ICI executive who fiddled his expenses for years with the help of a contacts book of important clients in the pharmaceuticals industry, whose names he would carefully rotate through the months, while secretly lunching friends, family and mistresses.

One day, the finance director called him in. " Look George," he said, "it's about your lunch on June 12. It cost pounds 78. Your expenses form claims it was with Philip Harris of Smith Klein Beecham. Do you remember it?"

"Certainly," said George, "At the Ivy. Very tasty, as I recall."

"The trouble is," said the finance director, "Mr Harris sadly died nine months ago."

There was a silence. "Have you anything to say?" asked the finance director.

"Well," said George, "I thought he was a bit quiet."

u

SIMON BRETT once edited an Anthology of Useful Verse, as though to refute W H Auden's famous dictum that "poetry makes nothing happen".

Now there's a new arrival at the interface of modem verse and handy advice. It turned up at the Poetry Society on Friday night, in the shape of Caroline Carver, an unpublished Cornwall-dwelling writer who has just won the National Poetry Competition with an effusion called "Horse Under Water".

Ms Carver arrived late and breathless to pick up her prize, having been delayed by a crash on the M4. A small, sweet-faced woman in her late 50s, like a miniaturised A S Byatt, she sat before the microphone and told the assembled bardic sophisticates how to handle sharks.

"If you try to stroke a shark on its forehead," she said, "you soon realise you have to do it downwards, from nose to tail. Do it the other way and your hand will be covered in blood, because the skin is abrasive, like little knives, all pointing the same way."

Ah yes, nodded the poets, we will certainly bear that in mind. "If you want to kill a shark," she continued, "you have to do it in the tummy, where the skin is smooth. You may have noticed that a shark's mouth is set quite far back towards its stomach, so if you're standing in shallow water, it has to roll on to its back to bite you. In other words, if you want to kill a shark, you have to wait until it tries to kill you."

As the audience digested this vital intelligence, Ms Carver read her winning poem - about a horse that's used as shark-bait - in a lazy Caribbean dialect, the legacy of her time spent in Bermuda and Jamaica during the war as an evacuee memsahib.

She has just stopped working for a lawyer's practice in Falmouth. You can almost see the dorsal fins of publishers circling around her. I predict an exciting new- millennium career for the formidable Ms Carver.

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"IT WAS like playing with a Stradivarius," said the veteran Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli at the Cafe Royal on Thursday night, referring to the experience of working with three dames of the English stage and two feisty American divas in his new movie, Tea With Mussolini, about a colony of saurian expatriates in Florence who refuse to acknowledge the reality of war in the flower-strewn piazzas they've learnt to call home.

Well molto grazie, Frank, they must have thought. I've seen the film and yes, there's a richly familiar quality about the performances of Joan Plowright (fussy and maternal), Maggie Smith (bitchy and xenophobic), Judi Dench (arty and tearful), Cher (hollow-cheeked and theatrical) and Lily Tomlin (playing a lesbian and looking weirdly like Dustin Hoffman these days). But will any of this starry quintet relish being compared to a 250-year-old violin, angular, overpriced, excessively varnished and incontrovertibly wooden?

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I'VE DISCOVERED a new strain of everyday metropolitan fury, a companion to road rage: it's called Radio Cut-in Rage. You're driving, let us say, along the South Circular, listening to Melvyn Bragg discussing cosmology, or perhaps to a blast of Schumann on Radio Three, or the Capital Countdown or the News Quiz. You've just got to an interesting bit. You're negotiating a tricky right-hand turning at Tower Hill while concentrating on the words.

Your mind, hands and feet are meshed in happy Cartesian harmony. Alan Coren is saying: "I'm grateful to Mr Lionel Flew of Basingstoke for this cutting from the Henley-on-Thames Gazette."

And then suddenly - "DUH-Dah DUMM. It's GLR Traffic Update! And bad news from the Droitwich intersection. A lorry has jack-knifed, shedding its...." What the hell? You jab a finger at the search button on your radio. By the time you've got back to the station, you've missed it. The mood has gone. You shake your head. You go "Tsk".

Five minutes later, you shove a cassette into the tape slot. The Manic Street Preachers sing a delicious, if oddly up-tempo, song of loss and rejection, and you find yourself singing along: "But you / stole the sun from my har-ar-heart. You stole the...." "CRASH. And on the north section of the Hanger Lane flyover, it's simply chaos out there! For any drivers approaching the...."

You thump the steering wheel. "Bugger off!" you cry at the intrusive myrmidons of 94.9 khz on the FM wave, "I don't care what's happening at the Hanger Lane flyover." You try to calm down. You strive for a zen-like, uncaring stillness.

One time, the only local radio stations that could cut in on other stations were pirates operating from a flat in Brixton; the yelling tones of Shabba Ranks would suddenly invade, say, Just a Minute, bringing Peter Jones's charming dilation on " My Goldfish" to a brutal end. Now your sonic space is invaded from all directions with dismal jingles and otiose news about failed contraflow systems.

It's happening more and more. Yesterday, en route to Sunday lunch, Radio Kent cut in, just as The World This Weekend was bringing us news of the Breitling Orbiter when....

"Dah-DAH. And drivers should avoid the Maidstone area, where an oil tanker has collided with a milk float on the M2, causing a three-mile tailback..." Radio Kent? Goodness. Soon Radio Gdansk will be running a stronger signal than the British national radio stations, and cutting in on Desert Island Discs with updated news about pig-iron quotas.

I know sound radio is getting more competitive; but this plundering of the airwaves can only result in driver irritation, gear lever abuse, dashboard violence and undisciplined shouting at your windscreen. The Department of Aural Pollution must look into it without delay.

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