Brown study ... port in a storm ... Major's favourite read guide

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YOU had your own concerns last week: would Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith be able to find true happiness; would those poor people in that soap opera be freed on appeal; what, quite, is the point of Sebastian Coe? I, for my part, have been pondering a more intriguing story which is the talk of the highest salons in the land. Sir Steven Runciman, the great historian, given access to the archives at Balmoral, opens up a book, and out flutters a document confirming the marriage of Queen Victoria and her faithful Scots servant, John Brown. Sir Steven takes said document to Queen Mother, who examines it, declares it most interesting and throws it on the fire in front of them. Well. I telephone Sir Steven, 91, who finds it most interesting, even if he has never seen the Balmoral archives. But did I know about the missing diary of the Marchioness of Ely which records Brown's father offering her champagne outside his cottage after the visit within of the Queen, John Brown and a minister? Or the woman called Brown in New York who told a great-great-grandson of Victoria that they were closely related? Fascinating, but unproved, says Sir Steven, genially. I replace the receiver, reflecting that there's more to this history business than you might think.

NOW, then. You will be looking to the Captain for some informed, useful comment, based on his experience, in this matter of homosexuals in the services. Quite natural. So here it is: frankly, I'd rather be in a tight corner with Achilles, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Richard Coeur de Lion than Generals of the calibre of My Lords Cornwallis, Cardigan, Raglan and Haig, thank you very much. No, what worries me much more is vegetarians in the services. I noted last week that the Israeli army was having all sorts of trouble with vegetarian conscripts demanding non-leather boots and things like that. Highly alarmed, I rang our own Army to ask if we make special provisions for vegetarians. Well, said the spokesman, it did offer salads in the summer, so, yes, you could say the Army made provisions for vegetarians. What do you make of that? Trained killers eating salads? Not confidence inspiring, in my view. And here's something else: how do you think a vegetarian soldier would react if the enemy sent in cavalry?

THERE are those who accuse this column of appalling metropolitan bias and an obsession with the doings of a tiny circle of people who do not inhabit the real world. This is sheer nonsense; today, for example, I bring you exclusive news of the pine marten, courtesy of John McNamara, genial host of the Admiral's Rest, Fanore, County Clare. Accomplished restaurateur he may be, his handling of a pan renowned from Kinvarra to Kilkea; but he also spends 1,000 hours a year studying the pine marten (for embarrassed metropolitans who thought it was a starter, I append a picture). They are extremely rare, extremely shy creatures, pine martens, once prized for their pelts, members of the same family as the stoat and the weasel, increasingly encroached upon by Man. Two habitats are doing well near Mr McNamara, possibly because he leaves whipped cream and currants out for them. And now he has made a discovery which looks set to rock the pine marten world: the secret of its ability to descend vertical inclines is that its rear legs revolve through 180 degrees. For more, read Mr McNamara's book, due out later this year; meanwhile The Captain leaves you with an easy way to tell the difference between a weasel and a stoat: one is weaselly recognisable, while the other is stoatally different. Oi!

IT TAKES an old head, I find, to put all this Nolan stuff into a proper perspective. Turn with The Captain now to Hansard, 18 May: "Mr Spearing: Will the Right Hon Gentleman give way? Sir Edward Heath: I am sorry, but I am doing rather well and do not want to be interrupted. I recently entertained a diplomat and others at lunch. We had a happy party. He sent me a nice letter of thanks and a bottle of port. What should I do? Should I immediately ask that it be published in the register that I received a bottle of port? Or should I tell the diplomat, 'I am awfully sorry; you are very kind, but I am afraid I have to return it to you'. Rightly or wrongly, I decided to do neither. All that I did was to write thanking him very much for a bottle of 1970 port, although I would have much preferred 1927." Captain's note: a 1927 bottle will cost you about pounds 200; a 1970 bottle about pounds 30. So there you are. Thank you, Sir Edward.

AND now, John Redwood, the cricket test. You will remember my contention that watching Redwood play cricket would settle once and for all whether he really was from another planet, since no amount of briefing would allow an extra-terrestrial to convince with willow and leather. Well, last Tuesday he played for the winning Lords & Commons side against BBC Westminster; and my political correspondent, Miss Una Tributable was watching, disguised as one of those people (women) who make the tea. Her verdict? Mixed. A useful spell of wristy, deceptively quick medium pace, and a brief spell at the wicket characterised by some pretty strange and curious cross-batted strokes. But how do we know that it was really John Redwood, and not some double, craftily substituted? I think we can be fairly sure: Miss Tributable heard him say, while she was leaning over, pouring his tea, that he believed ministers should always tell the truth, or at least give a version of events they could live with.

THERE was one of those surveys last week in which famous people reveal their favourite childhood reading. John Major went for Robin Hood, Billy Bunter, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Below The Salt. Below The Salt? By Thomas Costain. No, not tremendously well known. In fact, the only copy I could find was in the British Library. It has a quiet hero, John Foraday, who is forced to drop out of Harvard by a decline in the family fortunes but is taken up by a senator who believes he witnessed Magna Carta. Much of the book happens then, with a parallel hero who rises from below the salt to knight. Costain was a Canadian who worked for Doubleday and wrote several historical romances. I, of course, read it hoping to sneer; the reference books are sniffy about him. But it's a ripping read. It was published here by Collins, now HarperCollins, who are distinctly unmoved by John's imprimatur. Someone else should republish it in time for Christmas. How can a book endorsed by both The Captain and Major fail? Oh, suit yourselves, then.

AN ELEGANT flier lands on my desk, trailing a Channel 4 television series called Plunder. There will be three programmes, apparently, telling "the story of how three world-famous works of arts were plundered". The three works are the bust of Nefertiti, taken by a German archaeologist; the Pergamon Altar, "used by both Germans and Russians for their national glorification"; and The Venus De Milo, whipped by the Frenchies. Sorry? Something missing? The Parth-enon? That Greek singer who used to jump up and down about those bits in the British Museum? Don't know what you're on about, squire.

READY for a Wiggin': Junket Jerry Wiggin putting on a brave face for the Moonlight cameras before going into the Whips Office for a bit of a grilling over the "cash for amendments" furore. Jerry is holding up for inspection the stuffing he was about to put down the back of his trousers. He was rather coy about the hair net, but a Westminster "insider" told us that errant Tory MPs quite often employ hair nets and shower caps to protect their coiffures against one of the Whips' more severe punishments, turning the MP upside down and putting his head in a bowl of cold custard. Actually, it's Billy Beaumont, whose particular brand of method acting is currently lighting up our screens in an attempt to sell more Shredded Wheat. Billy is pictured on a visit to a SW factory. And this, mark you, is a former England rugby union captain. You would not, I guarantee you, get a League man posing like a jessie in this fashion.