Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 16 February 1995
Cruising round the London Book Fair, and noting the relative value of British authors among the trendier second-hand dealers (a first edition of Martin Amis's Dead Babies now fetches £180; while a first ditto of Arthur Conan Doyle's final volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, His Last Bow, re-bound in sexy buckram, can be yours for a pitiful £90), I chanced upon a copy of the Strand Magazine from a century ago. It was a "Royal edition" bound in blue silk to celebrate its editors having scored the rights to publish an 1841 etching by Queen Victoria of her first child, Victoria Jnr.
While marvelling at the display of brown-nosing by the hacks of 1891 ("The little Princess is so held that the nurse's face is quite concealed, and in no way divides the attention the mother was desirous of winning for her little one"), I got engrossed in an article called "On the Decay of Humour in the House of Commons" by the Matthew Parris of his day, Henry W Lucy, who wrote under the nom de galre of "Toby, MP".
Long-winded though he is, Toby has one flash of wisdom. "There is no assembly in the world," he writes, "so pathetically eager to be amused as the House of Commons. It sits and listens entranced to bursts of sustained argument. It burns with a fierce indignation at a story of wrong-doing. It flashes with generous impulse at an invitation to do right. But it likes, above all things, to be made to laugh."
And what has brought on his conviction that the Commons will never again ring to the jollity of the golden Gladstone-Disraeli years of the 1860s? Why the closing of Commons business at midnight. "It is an indisputable fact," he argues, "that mankind is more disposed to mirth after dinner than before," and complains that "the alteration of the rules of time under which the House sits for work was fatal to redundancy of humour".
Well, well. A hundred years later, the Commons has once again scuppered any chance of Parliamentary fun by ruling against all-night sittings. The Jopling committee decreed that, from last month, debates shouldn't go beyond the mid-evening vote. So now most MPs skip off home at 10.30pm, a time when the House's characters, like Tony Banks - his head full of rock'n'roll, his speeches bulging with witty invective - are just getting under way. They must take a lesson from the past and reinstate the all- night, no-sleep-till-Hammersmith, wild-party debate without delay.
It's hard to know whether would-be mothers who steal hours-old babies are acting from foolishly benign and sentimental impulses or something more sinister. But I wonder how they would respond to a new American initiative designed to put women off the idea of going anywhere near a baby. It is part of a "teen-pregnancy prevention program" and it features a doll called Baby Think It Over. This is not a variant on the versions of Barbie and Sindy you can now buy (like the Andrea Dworkin-shaped "Happy to Be Me" Barbie) but a kind of awful warning in bendy plastic.
This infant sleeps and wets itself like any other, but in addition it screams blue murder at unpredictable intervals in the middle of the night. It is programmed to respond to the "mother" alone, who can herself shut the little beast up only by cuddling and feeding it enough. It costs $220 and is selling by the thousand.
It may sound a repellent idea, but think of the mayhem (not to mention the lives) it might save. Here's what one student - a 17-year-old with the maternal instincts of Lady Macbeth - said after testing the doll: "I took it home with me one weekend. It cried all night long. The third time it woke me, I ripped the box out of its back and totally disconnected it. The doll was just not co-operating ..."
I've been following with interest the Sun's serialisation of the life and opinions of Pamela Anderson, the American actress and star of TV's Baywatch (or Batwatch, as the paper calls it, presumably referring to some David Attenborough spin-off). Ms Anderson is an attractive woman, but her instincts, she is at pains to stress, are at several removes from traditional Californian excesses. She is something of a bookworm ("I love reading heavy books on philosophy and spiritual issues. I know I'm no bimbo") and a freelance artisan ("When I get a day off, my ideal day is working on upholstery"), who eschews drink ("Very rarely, on special occasions I might have one glass of wine ...") and can see herself "running a little shop or an animal rescue centre" should her career take some unscheduled nosedive. I'm sure it won't (since Ms Anderson also, rather artlessly, told the Sun she was shortly to start "taking acting lessons") but I'm concerned about her role as a fantasy object. To imagine Ms Anderson resuscitating you on a starlit beach is to glimpse paradise. To imagine her busily re-covering an Ottoman sofa with hammer and tintacks, pausing only to dip into Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and sip refreshing draughts of Aqua Libra, is bliss of a quite different order.
These temperamental chefs. I hear from Nico Ladenis that his long-term rival Marco Pierre White got on the phone only minutes after hearing that both men had picked up three Michelin stars (for their restaurants at the Hyde Park Hotel and Grosvenor House) and thus entered the Parnassus of modern hotel cuisine. "So tell me," Marco inquired sweetly. "Didja get it for the Eat In, or the Takeaway ...?"
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