Hooked on Hamza: Bradshaw joins Hutton in cleric's 'hood

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The Independent Online

* Once upon a time, New Labour's leading lights lived in the cappuccino heartland of Islington; these days, they congregate around the west London home of the Islamic militant Abu Hamza.

A month after it emerged that John Hutton, David Blunkett's successor as Work and Pensions Secretary, had bought a house next to the radical cleric's, I hear of another minister in the Hamza neighbourhood.

The Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw and his boyfriend Neal Dalgleish, who works for Newsnight, have lived in the Shepherd's Bush street for longer than Mr Hutton's family.

However, their proximity to the Hamza household only came to light at the weekend, when neighbours were invited to a Christmas drinks party.

"John Hutton was there with his wife, Heather," reports one. "We never realised they lived so close, but Hutton was cracking jokes about life on 'old hookie's' street.

"He was charming, and particularly admired Ben and Neal's front garden, which they've just had redone with smart curved paving stones."

Bradshaw wouldn't comment on his controversial neighbour.Meanwhile Hamza, above, is now at Belmarsh prison, awaiting trial for incitement to murder and religious hatred.

* Sad to report the imminent demise of that most enduring double act of modern TV: Rick Stein and his Jack Russell, Chalky.

Stein's pooch has been at his side for all of its 16 years, but was unable to appear in his last series, French Odyssey, for health reasons.

Now I learn that, in what is likely to be his swansong, Chalky will make two final appearances on our screens before woofing off into doggy retirement.

"Chalky's coming back for my Christmas special," said Stein at the opening of Brown's Hotel on Monday.

"After that, we've arranged one last hurrah in a show I've made about Betjeman's Cornwall.

"It'll be broadcast by the BBC in the summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

"He lived in Rock, across the estuary from Padstow, and I've interviewed a lot of locals who he knew."

Sadly, Stein, pictured with Chalky, never met his subject: "Parkinson's got him before he could visit my restaurant."

* Being a longstanding Madonna fan, Pandora has often wondered what it might be like to watch the enduring Queen of Pop working on her tightly honed torso.

Imagine my disappointment, then, to learn that she has taken to using the gym at Home House, a private club which last year "blackballed" me from membership.

"I have seen her using the running machine an awful lot recently," reports one (somewhat nosy) fellow member. "It's usually set on gradient seven, which is for hardcore hill-runners only; she must be extremely fit."

As to Madge's preferred soundtrack: "She always switches the CD player onto her own music," I'm told.

"Last time I saw her, she'd obviously had enough of Confessions on a Dance Floor, so we all had no choice but to work out to Music." Splendid!

* Charles Kennedy is clearly taking the threat to his leadership of the Liberal Democrats with admirable seriousness.

First, he read the riot act to disloyal MPs; then he employed a new speech writer, the improbably-named Mickey Finn. Now I hear that "chatshow" Charlie is off the booze this Christmas party season.

The other night, he was at Gran Paradiso restaurant in Victoria with the former Liberal leader, (Lord) David Steel.

"They're old chums, and took more than three hours over dinner," reports a friend of Steel. "Once upon a time, Kennedy would have seen off at least three bottles of claret in that time. But he was on Diet Cokes, instead."

It isn't all good news on the health front, though. "He did, however, chuff his way through an entire pack of fags between courses," I'm told.

* The German ambassador, Thomas Matussek, made headlines yesterday for a speech in which he accused Britain of "still failing" to teach its children a satisfactory number of foreign languages.

Matussek, who leaves office early next year, seems intent on going out with a bang. Yesterday, one of his official Christmas cards fluttered onto Pandora's doormat, depicting a glorious winter scene by Canaletto.

Splendidly, the painting chosen by His Excellency for the card is "A view of the Dresden Frauenkirche on the New Market seen from the Judenhof".

This, reckons the card's original recipient, looks like another sideswipe by Matussek at his host nation. "The new market in Dresden was a beautiful place, all right," I'm told. "But it was bombed to smithereens by the Allies in World War Two."

pandora@independent.co.uk

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