Britannia rules the lanes ... storm over old port ... water shame

Captain Moonlight
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The Independent Online
I'M NOT saying four quid, I'm not even saying two quid... Listen, forget bicycle monarchies, you ought to know that the Queen, God Bless Her, has just started running a market stall down in Deptford. Trading under the slogan "A Pitch Of One's Own", Elizabeth II sells a wide variety of goods, including old Russ Conway albums, stamps, handbags, back copies of Hello!, various souvenirs from foreign trips and Commonwealth conferences, and hard-wearing sprays of artificial marigolds and dahlias. The look on her face will be readily understood when I tell you that she has just been offered a mere 99 pence for the spray she is holding. "Strike a light, do one a favour," was the Queen's response, and who can blame her? Well, actually, as you probably guessed, the Queen was visiting Deptford Market, but it might not be such a bad idea, might it? You get to see a lot of the man and woman in the street, down the market, I can tell you.

Oh, yes.

Photograph: PA

BONG! Yes, it's time once again for a Captain Moonlight Special In-depth Investigation, in which my investigators turn their beam upon a topic of pressing current interest. Today: bicycling monarchies. Yes, we know that many people in this country, including the Princess of Wales (blonde woman, you must know her), use the phrase "bicycling monarchies" as a shorthand term to describe continental royals with a more informal approach to reigning, but do any of these foreign majesties actually use a bicycle? Well, Queen Juliana certainly used to bike around Amsterdam in the Sixties, but what about now? Queen Beatrix is certainly a sporting type of sovereign, said our sources, but any bicycling is done strictly in private, ditto her family. The Swedish embassy said the same about its royal family. As did the Belgian embassy about its royals. Try the Danes, said the Belgians. The Danish embassy said the Danish royals had been known to bicycle, but only in the countryside and on holiday. Try the Norwegians, said the Danes. A Norwegian spokesman was disappointing on bicycling, but pointed out that King Olav had taken the underground to go skiing when petrol was rationed in 1973. This left the Spanish royal house, of which we had high hopes, considering all those pictures of King Juan Carlos on his motorbike. But a pushbike? The press attache at the Spanish embassy considered this with the gravity and dignity that has been the hallmark of the Escorial for some centuries now. "I think it would be fair to say," he said, "that it is not the distinguishing feature of the Spanish monarchy that they ride around on bicycles." But here's a funny thing: the Prince of Wales is rather a keen cyclist. And there is more: Buckingham Palace has confirmed to me, exclusively, that the Queen has been known to cycle. So which is the bicycling monarchy now? And do you know, I think a bit of cycling might help the Princess of Wales. Off that couch, out of that gym, dear, and get some fresh air in your lungs, that's the Captain's advice!

n I MAKE no comment about the discourtesy offered to the Princess of Wales by Nicholas Soames, the junior defence minister, last week ("That woman is obviously barking mad, three diamond clusters short of a tiara and about as much to be trusted as a Harrovian after a good lunch", were, I think, almost his exact words). Nevertheless, I did warn you on 17 October 1993 that Soames had been seen wearing white socks.

NOW THEN, a serious matter. If you cast an eye up to the Captain's hat, you will notice that it bears, with lights, the name of a well-known brand of port, and has done for some time now. Many of you have written to congratulate me for becoming the first diary column to combine fearless, favourless, relentless hounding out of the truth with sponsorship from a port company. But I am afraid to say I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement. The Captain has his price, but he also has his pride. True, I have been able to distribute the best part of two cases of late bottled vintage among you; but, despite repeated requests, I have yet to sniff as much as a bottle of the '63 vintage, a far superior product, and one rather more suited to your tastes (I never touch the stuff myself). There again, some - admittedly very subtle - hints about my needing a change of air and a free trip up the Douro exactly fitting the bill have been studiously ignored. Hence the ladder. Because, if the '63 doesn't arrive this week, I am going to go up there and unscrew those light bulbs.

n GERMAN speakers, please stop ringing! Genug! Satt! I was scarcely able to conduct any other business last week, or even to contact my turf accountant, because of all these calls about Michael "Halt!" Howard, Home Secretary, and a man with rigorous views on refugees, his father having been one. Anyway, we had a story in the paper last week which revealed that Howard's name was originally Michael Hecht. And what everyone wanted to point out was that Hecht means Pike. Pike! What a good name for him! You must remember Private Pike in Dad's Army, the stupid boy who had to wrap up well? Here's a picture to refresh your memory. Uncanny, I think you'll agree.

CAPTAIN Moonlight's Christmas Service: "You'll take the gruel out of Yule if you plan ahead with the Captain." Today, Christmas viewing. And I'd certainly make a window for Joy To The World, Christmas Saturday, 12.35pm, BBC1, "Carols and comedy with Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman", not to mention Natalie Cole singing with Placido Domingo on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, 5pm. Gifts: I notice that the special bathplug holder I brought to your attention earlier in the year is now available scalloped in porcelain. Write for details. Finally, I have a CD, Little Donkey, a collection of children's Christmas songs recorded by the Finchley Children's Music Group, which will be awarded to the most toe-curlingly cute anecdote you send in about your children and Christmas. And the next one, please.

n CALL ME a sentimental old officer if you like, but I was tremendously disappointed by the bid for Northumbrian Water by Lyonnaise, the French water company. This is because I have long cherished this dream that they would buy Severn Trent instead. At one time, they did have a small stake, but then they went and sold it. But I still dare to hope that one day, some French company will buy Severn Trent, because then they could call it Eau Eau Severn.

POIGNANT news from the Ministry of Defence testing establishment at Boscombe Down. The Prince of Wales, a large balloon, was utterly deflated during a masting operation last May. Sadly, according to a parliamentary written answer, its thin skin cannot be repaired. The cost of a replacement has not yet been established. Let us move quickly and quietly on.

n GREAT rejoicing here last week. This, after all, as you know, is the column that supports dentists. Here we have no truck with the professional style snobs who would rather banter with a barrister or break fondue with a brain surgeon. And now it has been announced by the General Dental Council (no toothless body this!) that dentists can now call themselves doctors. But, I hear, you say what about Doc Holliday and Dr Crippen? Well, Holliday's qualifications are disputed, and Crippen's extractions were very much a sideline. Next!

NICHOLAS Soames Update. News just in. The Princess of Wales is, the Captain has just been told, by this man in a black cab with the partition half-open and his eyes searching for mine in the rear-view mirror, the patron saint of the London cabbie. She can do no wrong. And hanging would be too good for anyone who offered her an insult. Which is bad news for the said Soames. "Just let him try getting a cab after this!" shouted the Captain's man. "None of us is going to have him in the back of our cabs, none of us!" Black cab blackball! A portly figure forever forlornly gesturing kerbside, come wind, come rain! I think I'd rather be Captain Hewitt.

The Captain's catch-up Service

IN WHICH you are brought bang up to date with the rest of the week's news ... Dutch burglars are being caught by the ear prints they leave on windows while they listen outside before breaking in ... More than 20 per cent of MPs suffer from indigestion, according to The House Magazine ... Customs officers broke a smuggling ring after finding rare cockatoo eggs hidden in a bricklayer's underpants, a court heard. Christopher Owen was searched as he boarded a flight home to Britain from Australia. The leader of the ring is believed to be an Australian master criminal called Bill Grumble ... Staying with airports, Peter Ferris, radio traffic newscaster, was delighted when his bag was the first up on the carousel after a Dublin flight into Heathrow. Then he noticed a large rip. Then he discovered that police sniffer dogs had eaten all the bacon and black puddings that his mother had sent him off with ... and, finally, would representatives of the Observer newspaper's circulation department please make their way to Elm Grove, Portsmouth, where they will find a large bundle of unsold copies of their newspaper cluttering the place up. Thank you.