All screwed up as 'Sun' sinks on glory days

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I AM getting quite concerned about the Sun; I fear the once-great newspaper may be losing its way. Gone are the glory days when Lady Thatcher would turn (as she revealed last week) to Sun leaders for advice on the line to take at Prime Minister's question time; gone are council house sales, the Belgrano, Basildon man - all of them inconceivable without the audacity, low comedy and rampant demotic appeal of the Sun.

This is the paper that once gave us such great headlines as 'Up yours Delors,' or 'Hop off you frogs,' or, on the morning after Black Wednesday, mid-way through the David Mellor-Antonia de Sancha revelations, 'Now we've all been screwed by the Cabinet'. But something disturbing has been happening recently: the Sun has ceased to be the voice of middle Essex, and become obsessed with obscure sexual practices.

Last Monday it exposed 'the sex shame sweeping Britain . . . a sordid new craze that's sweeping Britain's stockbroker belts'. This turned out to be sex in lay-bys, and to involve about three people; but what was most interesting was the way it echoed a story a month before: 'Wife-swopping is a sickness which is sweeping Britain's bedrooms.' Again, this appeared to be about four of the nation's bedrooms. 'There are a lot more people into this kind of sex than you'd believe,' said the Sun's lay-bys informant, David Ware, making it more of a pity that he didn't manage to produce these people.

So sex is sweeping the nation; but most of all, it is sweeping the middle classes. 'Wealthy businessmen and professional couples gather to meet others for kinky sex sessions,' the Sun smirked on Monday. On Tuesday, it had a story about housewives offering 'telephone vice to men with posh accents'. And on Wednesday, investigating student sexual activity, it found 'the country's future brain surgeons' stripping off at parties. This amazement that middle class people have sex seems a bit forced - as though the paper is searching for a tone, and a way to make news again.

There are, of course, still great things in the Sun - Richard Littlejohn's tone never wavers - but this frantic scrabbling around for news where no news exists is unworthy of a once-great institution. You do not have to look very far for the cause. The Sun recently ran a 'shocking dossier' on sex in the suburbs (actually a few prostitutes working from home); on the same day it carried a leader, headlined 'Bring back those days of glory', which bemoaned John Major's lack of vision. The Sun dislikes Major, but it also dislikes Smith; it is anti-Europe, but also anti-racist. It is in a great political muddle, and, like Margaret Thatcher (but no one else), wishes granny were still firmly in control. If she were, you can't help feeling that the Sun would not be wasting its time on revelations that professional couples have sex.

I SPENT most of last week looking at schools, in pursuit of parental choice - an elusive thing, because it's the schools that have the choice; parents just have powerlessness and anxiety. Although all schools say exactly the same thing - that they offer children oportunities to develop in a rounded and interesting way - they have wildly differing atmospheres. The inner-city comprehensives have a valiant air of embattlement - vibrant, but poverty-stricken. So on Wednesday I went to look at an opted-out school, which picks its pupils, and has playing fields, and an embarrassment of computers. It was so far from my home I wished I had booked into a country house hotel for the night.

Almost every other parent in north London and the Home Counties was there, and the police had to set up road blocks. I parked miles from the school, and followed a crowd whose size must have rivalled the Arsenal gate on the same night, although we were rather less festive. We then had to listen to a headmaster's speech thick with the presumption that we were all desperate to entrust our children into his care, unless possibly they got a place at Eton. I left early, wishing I could opt out.

IT IS a serious disadvantage for The Hypnotic World Of Paul McKenna, which started on ITV on Tuesday, that it is not allowed to show hypnotism. The few soft-

focus shots of people clasping their hands and looking moody are profoundly unconvincing, so that when McKenna's subjects appear to think a glove-puppet is a crocodile, it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that they are are just doing it to get attention.

I once tried to get Paul McKenna to explain the hypnotic process, but was confused by a lot of what he said - possibly because he has, as he puts it, 'rewired' himself. 'A few years ago I shot off into the future, to do a future life calculation,' he explained. 'I looked at people who were wealthy, successful, and masters of influence, and at what distinguished them. Then I came back to now, and programmed all the things I needed into my unconscious.' McKenna is his own Frankenstein, but also, unluckily for him, his own monster: the rewired Paul McKenna has an overwhelming resemblance to a double glazing salesman.

WITH only days left to bet on the Booker prize, I have been wondering how William Hill decides the odds on, say, Tibor Fischer, of whom not even literary people have heard? The answer is that they bring in Graham Sharpe, who is himself the author of 10 books. So what if they're all about racing and gambling? 'I passed A-level English,' Sharpe says defensively, 'which I think gives me as good a right to an opinion as anyone.' As indeed it does - although he hasn't usually read the books when he makes the odds, and this year made Roddy Doyle favourite mostly because of the film of The Commitments. But his opinion is largely irrelevant anyway, he says: his job is to determine what the punters will think. And has anyone bet on Tibor Fischer? 'His mum,' says Sharpe. 'Or someone with a family connection. They put on pounds 500.'

Sharpe, meanwhile, is still disgusted that Barry Unsworth only won jointly last year: 'I thought that was the best Booker book I've ever read, although you could say that's damning it with faint praise.'