Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (25/03/12)

Where every day is the first day of spring

Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah was determined to get his message across, but he failed to factor in the obstacle of France's 35-hour working week.

Hours before holing himself up for a 32-hour stand-off, I understand he telephoned all the major newsrooms to explain why he had gone on the rampage. Unfortunately, it was 1am on a Wednesday, obviously way past everyone's bedtime, and as Merah tried every major news channel, he was disappointed to find that nobody picked up the phone.

Finally, in desperation, he tried France 24, a small outfit equivalent to our Channel 5. Happily, they operate a shift system, and senior editor Ebba Kalondo picked up. She had an 11-minute conversation with the killer, who explained that his actions were part of a "much larger campaign", in protest at France's burka ban and military presence in Afghanistan. Suddenly, the channel had a world exclusive on its hands. Just think what a great country France would be if only they did some work.

Labour peer Lord Myners of Truro spoke with great authority about the economy on Newsnight last week. The only problem was that he kept referring to Jeremy Paxman as James. Why so? Possibly because Paxman's brother James is chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association in neighbouring Devon.

The nation rose as one to applaud comic John Bishop for his fundraising five-day schlep from Paris to London over land and sea for Sport Relief. But spare a thought for someone without whom Bishop's trip would have been blocked before he left the French coast. For I hear that Bishop's logistics people didn't foresee that the French port authorities would demand to see his papiers before he braved the Channel's shipping lanes in his rowing boat. There was, it seems, some digging in of Gallic bureaucratic heels and it looked as if Bishop would be stuck on the quayside sipping a pastis before his friend James Corden called his friend, er, Gordon Brown. He got on to his friend Nicholas Sarkozy, who doesn't enjoy ruling the Napoleonic centralised state for nothing and who whispered in the necessary harbourside ear. And miraculously, Bishop was allowed to head for Blighty. Gordon, take a bow.

Engelbert Humperdinck made his name as the wholesome version of Tom Jones, but is he getting slightly seedy? I only ask because Britain's Eurovision hopeful has been boasting about all the knickers women throw at him. Speaking to the diary, he says he gets "keys and bras and panties, sometimes with the phone numbers written in the crotch". As if that weren't bad enough, he followed it with another assault on the imagination: "Such a waste, as none of them would ever fit me!" The Hump, 75, seems to encourage saucy behaviour: he tells me he likes to throw handkerchiefs soaked in his favourite scent to the audience during gigs. "I should have become part owner of Pino Silvestre eau de cologne," he says. "I must have got through 75 bottles a year! It's so that they can take a little smell of me home with them." Eeeuch.

As a dashing war photographer who worked in Africa and Vietnam, Don McCullin is used to excitement. But the latest drama in the 76-year-old's life happened not to him but to his fourth wife, Catherine Fairweather, 50, the travel editor of Harper's Bazaar. There was high drama at the fashion mag last week when Fairweather had to be rushed to hospital after being bitten by a sand fly in Oman. Apparently the damage was so serious she had to have surgery, and she will be off her feet for a few weeks. Friends and colleagues are horrified and are rallying round, though as a seasoned traveller, we're sure she'll take it in her stride. Get well soon!

John Fowles's wife isn't happy: she has accused the Landmark Trust of "destroying" her late husband's home, an 18th-century villa in Lyme Regis, which they bought in 2007 with plans to convert into holiday flats. The novelist lived in the Dorset town, where he set much of his most famous work, The French Lieutenant's Woman. Mrs Fowles's outburst against the Trust was reported by the local press and duly followed up by The Daily Telegraph. Trouble is, its report may upset her even more: a web-edition headline called her John Fowles's "window". Telegraph readers will be put in mind of Gerard Hoffnung's letter from a Tyrolean hotelier boasting of having a "French widow in every room, affording delightful prospects".

m.bell@independent.co.uk

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