Martel seeks literary inspiration - in a donkey sanctuary

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* Two years after he scooped the Booker Prize with Life of Pi - becoming, overnight, one of the most bankable authors in the world - Yann Martel has finally lifted the lid on his next novel.

* Two years after he scooped the Booker Prize with Life of Pi - becoming, overnight, one of the most bankable authors in the world - Yann Martel has finally lifted the lid on his next novel.

The Canadian author is currently in the UK, visiting donkey sanctuaries to research "a fable on the Holocaust". He tells me its plot will involve a monkey and an ass travelling around a giant shirt belonging to a German Jew.

Although Martel is expected to publish the (as-yet unnamed) book with Canongate, the small firm that "discovered" him, Pandora gathers that he has yet to actually sign a contract. Publishing sources say this could yet spark a bidding war.

"I hope to finish research by spring and then start writing," Martel tells me. "I got the idea from a Goya exhibition. It got me thinking how animals could be used as a light metaphor for a heavy subject. I chose a donkey, because all species of donkey are actually dying out."

"I've been reading about genocide, not just the Holocaust but also Rwanda and Cambodia. It can be depressing, but you also hope to learn something."

Martel was speaking at an Orange Word talk, where he was accompanied by a representative of Canongate. "We certainly hope that he'll publish with us: we have a very close relationship," she said.

* OTIS FERRY wasn't the only member of his family to have their collar felt at Wednesday's pro-hunt demonstration in Parliament Square.

His mother Lucy - a former model who recently divorced the Roxy Music star Bryan - was apprehended by police at six o'clock that morning, for allegedly trying to block Parliament Square with a horsebox.

"A 45-year-old woman by the name of Lucy Ferry has been arrested and charged with obstructing a public highway," says a police spokesman. "She gave her occupation as 'student'."

Police sources say that Mrs Ferry and one Jacqueline Coward - Otis' 18-year-old girlfriend - were apprehended shortly after a fleet of vehicles was abandoned outside the House of Commons.

They will appear before Bow Street magistrate's court on 22 September. I gather that friends plan to hold a orderly demonstration outside the court.

* AFTER A few false starts, Cilla Black has set a date for her TV comeback. On 5 December - 18 months after her last Blind Date - she will host a two-hour, Sunday night cabaret show.

"It'll be a little bit of everything I've done during my career, but the precise format hasn't been decided yet," she told me at the opening of The Woman in White . "I'm going to go on holiday before we record it, but if my voice is up to it when I get back, I might even be tempted to sing."

The show will be broadcast on the satellite channel Living TV. According to Black's son and producer, Rob Willis: "If you know about TV, you'll know that Living is a visionary channel."

* TWO YEARS after he received a knighthood, another signal honour for Sir Max Hastings. The Anthony Powell Society is to give him its annual Widmerpool award, a gong presented to the public figure who most embodies the traits of Kenneth Widmerpool, a character from Powell's novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.

"Widmerpool is variously pompous; self-obsessed and self-important; obsequious to those in authority and a bully to those below him," reads the society's newsletter. "He is ambitious and pushy; ruthless; humourless; blind to the feelings of others; and has a complete lack of self-knowledge."

What on earth persuaded them that Sir Max merited such a prize?

* On Wednesday, I reported that Andrew Neil's teeth have been straightened, capped and bleached at an American beauty clinic. Now there is news of a further addition to his beauty regime.

A nark at the BBC reports observing Neil, in a gentleman's bathroom area, applying a brown spray-on hair product, "of the sort used to cover one's bald patch."

It's an unlikely tale, but one that Neil's press officer refuses to deny. "I was surprised to get confirmation for you about the teeth," he says. "I can't see Andrew discussing his private doings in the bathroom. So it's a no comment - and you can't read anything into that."

I cannot possibly comment on what I'll be reading into that.