Diary

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The Independent Online
One of the more eclectic guest lists for an upstairs room at a west London pub features Lord Grade, Michael Caine, the rock star Bryan Adams and the writer Julie Burchill. What links them is a haze of thick, aromatic smoke.

They are all cigar smokers, some closet, some not, and have been asked to be founder members of the Havana Room, a club for cigar smokers above the Cow pub, run by Tom, son of Terence, Conran. The coterie is being started by the Comedy Store founder, Peter Rosenguard. He has discovered the joys of fat cigars after smoking (anything) for the first time in his life earlier this year on the birth of his first child.

His wife, whom he describes as "an aggressive, North American anti-smoker", has ordered him and his Havanas out of the house. "I started the Comedy Store because I wanted somewhere to laugh. I'm starting the Havana Room because I want somewhere to smoke," he says.

Those who think that rugby league is a competitive and dirty sport have clearly never been to a supper quiz. Tempers can fray, egos can be brutally damaged and friendships shattered. Even the soap opera EastEnders has featured a number of supper quizzes recently, complete with fisticuffs.

But the antics of Albert Square pale beside a bruising supper quiz which took place at the weekend to raise money for a centre for underprivileged young people based at Turville Heath, near Henley, the home village of John Mortimer and Jeremy Paxman. The two, along with a host of other celebs, including Sinead Cusack and Peter Mandelson MP, took part in the quiz. Paxman indeed was quizmaster, but found his audience less respectful than University Challenge students. He asked for the longest one-word anagram in the English language: "Carthorse and orchestra, stupid," barked Sir Robin Day, having waited eagerly to put his successor in his place. But such banter was good natured compared with what was to follow.

The winning team turned out to be the one led by the bestselling novelists Robert Harris and Nick Hornby. This provoked a near riot, I am told, when angry losers pointed out an ethical dilemma. The questions had been set by Gill Hornby, wife of Robert Harris and sister of Nick.

One of the more chagrined was the writer Henry Porter who had added to his team of Carmen Callil, Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Holden by finding and signing up a former Mastermind winner. Even the dirty tricks brigade at the Queen Vic hadn't thought of that one.

The one intriguing aspect of the launch of the "new" Beatles album yesterday was the first public appearance in 33 years of the man dubbed the fifth Beatle, Neil Aspinall, boyhood friend of the group, road manager, and now head of Apple Corps. Aspinall has shunned all publicity for three decades, but yesterday, sounding remarkably like George Harrison, he showed he is not short of a quip. Asked if Yoko Ono had any more Lennon songs in her bottom drawer, he leered mischievously and replied nasally: "Who knows what Yoko Ono has in her bottom drawer?"

One factor above all marked Aspinall out as a Sixties rock star manque - he wore a blue woolly hat to cover his baldness. While Nineties pop stars such as Right Said Fred and even Sinead O'Connor flaunt baldness as sexy, the Sixties brigade, including John Lennon in his later years, always cover their pates in shame. That a blue woolly hat indoors in the middle of the day might just draw attention to what fab follicles are or are not underneath never occurs to the true rock veteran.

Breakfasting with Alan Borg, the new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he gives his thoughts on the voluntary donations visitors are asked to give. They are "silly" and make people feel "uncomfortable" says the man who clearly prefers compulsory entrance fees. My own alternative to voluntary admission charges is simpler, and has never yet been tried at a museum. Instead of asking people to give money on the way in, ask them to pay on the way out. At least then they can give a verdict on their visit, and presumably will be inspired to give generously if they have had a good time.

One person who might be reluctant to cough up is the chap who told me that "the British art and design galleries are poor; the ceramics galleries are very poorly displayed; the Islamic gallery is appalling". I refer to Dr Borg.

My tale last week about the English National Opera's Carmen in which the diva playing Carmen lost her voice and had to mime to another Carmen on stage, seems to have been trumped since by the Munich Opera. In the murder scene there Don Jose actually caught Carmen with his knife and drew blood. The German press had a field day the next morning with "Don Jose Really Stabs Carmen" headlines.

I am delighted to learn that not only did the diva recover the next day but that she behaved like a true opera star and refused to speak to her leading man despite the blandishments of a dozen red roses. Carmen would have been proud of her.

A new James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, is introduced tomorrow with the premiere of Goldeneye, with audiences still wondering after all these years how he will shape up against Sean Connery and Roger Moore. But I was interested to learn that the first Brit to play Bond was not Connery but Bob Holness, the estimable, avuncular host of the TV quiz show Blockbusters, who played 007 on the radio in the Fifties. It must have been a blow to him when Saltzman and Broccoli overlooked him for the film role.

Holness lives near me in Pinner. I see him in the tea rooms sometimes. He may have missed out on the girls and the glamour, but I suspect that taking elevenses in Betjeman country is how Bond himself would have spent his middle years, the Earl Grey unshaken but stirred.

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