CAPTAIN MOONLIGHT: Decorative vs functional ... betrayed unionists

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SAD NEWS of a breach of the fragile ceasefire in the former Yugoslavia reaches me. Hostilities occurred at a conference in Tuzla organised by the Helsinki Citizens Assembly which included actresses, writers, television presenters and other fin de siecle global problem solvers.

Among their number were the American feminist and cultural critic Susan Sontag and the British actress and miscellaneous campaigner Julie Christie. Apparently the conference chairman admonished Ms Sontag for overrunning her time at the lectern. She responded indelicately and to the whole conference: "I may not be as decorative as Julie Christie, but I am more functional and I am here to speak."

Such an outburst may not have surprised seasoned Sontag watchers. Fellow American feminist Camille Paglia dedicated an essay - "Sontag Bloody Sontag" - to her and once wrote : "Her gravity and austerity belong to the era of Sartrean nausea, of metaphysical dyspepsia, of no rather than yes."

But I am pleased to note that we British fight our corner. As the metaphysically dyspeptic Ms Sontag returned to her seat, she was verbally set upon by a justifiably enraged Julie Christie who pointed out that she did not care to be described as decorative, adding with both cheeks burning: "And I can be as functional as you any day."

I am sorry to report that relations between the two warring factions are still fractious. And UN observers fear further outbreaks if the two parties are brought into close proximity.

n A WHOLE new career may have opened up for the Prince of Wales now that he has contributed to an audio cassette of speeches from Shakespeare. He chose to read Prince Hal himself as he empathised with the heir to the throne. I'm happy to inform His Royal Highness of another chance for empathy for a follow-up cassette.

Wending its way to him in the post is a letter from the trade union Bectu, which represents the backstage staff at the Royal Shakespeare Company of which he is president. It will tell him that they have not been consulted about the RSC's move out of London, that they have been treated appallingly and that they expect to lose their jobs.

Prince Charles should immediately agree to receive a delegation. Then he can do a good method-acting job next time. I commend to him Act V, Scene 1 from A Midsummer Night's Dream where King Theseus graciously receives the rude mechanicals. "I will hear them," he says, "for never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it."

WHO'D be a union baron these days? First, they took away their beer and sandwiches at Number 10. Now, they've taken away their free lunches at headquarters.

The brothers gathered in solemn conclave last week in Gatwick to plan a down-sizing of the TUC so that it could live within its means. Thirty jobs will go at Great Russell Street in central London, but the belt-tightening will not stop there.

To save pounds 75,000 a year on the catering budget, the comrades will have to forgo their free bacon butties at breakfast and free lunches in the canteen at Congress House. Pausing over his fish and chips there last week, one habitue complained: "It isn't much - an upmarket greasy spoon, really. But at least it cost us nothing. Now we'll have to pay."

Since Congress House is only a short step from the British Museum, perhaps they could make some money by renaming the canteen and throwing it open to tourists. But what to call it? The Scargill Diner? The Bickerstaffe Bistro? John Monks' Hard Rock Cafe? Any better ideas?

n AT LAST we have a new art movement. Hazardism, a belated but worthy successor to Dadaism, had another outing at the Tate Gallery last week. Damien Hirst's installation of two halves of a cow in two tanks could not be shown in case poisonous gases leaked. Crassly, reactionary art critics saw this as an unforeseen accident. It was, of course, the hazardists at work. Hirst is a leading hazardist, but far from being the only one. Indeed, in only endangering the lungs of gallery goers, he is a fairly tame one. The American hazardist Bill Viola videoed his mother dying for an installation piece also at the Tate. An artist who can have his own parents check their blood pressure every time he reaches for his video camera is a worthy hazardist. Hamad Butt, who caused the Tate to be cleared after iodine gas leaked from a sculpture, has a place in the movement. My own favourite hazardist is Rebecca Horn whose sculpture at the Serpentine Gallery had a sign next to it warning visitors to keep their distance because of high voltage.

Art that is unlikely in some way to send you to hospital is looking decidedly passe. To be a real gallery for the millennium, the new National Museum of Modern Art at the converted power station in Bankside will have a rotating sculpture on the roof garden which chucks the unwary visitor into the Thames.

NEVER joke with a lady's affections. Mike Stock, the multimillion-selling songwriter, took part in a newspaper jape saying he was working with Julia Carling on a Christmas single, "Stand By Your Man". This jest has earned him a severe warning/dressing down via a solicitor's letter. I am happy to confirm that Mrs Carling has no plans to release a record this Christmas. And record companies wanting to reissue "Diana", "Willpower", or "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" had better think again.

n A PARTY at the Speaker's private apartments in the House of Commons for the launch of the poppy day appeal. The Speaker, Miss Betty Boothroyd, lectures us all on the need to observe the two minutes' silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. When she was a girl, she recalls, her mother used to make her stop in the street while she was shopping for the full two minutes. Under her stern gaze we all promise we will do likewise, including Lord Tebbit, who pledged to observe the silence even if in traffic. At last he can bring his political career full circle and get off his bike.

SOMETIMES even the most untrendy among us can be forced to reach for our PC manual. A poster advertising the Christmas pantomime of Rula Lenska in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Redhill, Surrey, proudly announces "Featuring Seven Real Dwarfs". What next? "Cinderella with genuinely ugly sisters"?

Charles Nevin returns next week.

THIS is the Rev Stephen Normand, curate of St Peter's church in St Albans, with a picture of his great aunt Mabel. She was the American silent movie star Mabel Normand, whose scandal-filled life will be celebrated in the West End musical Mack & Mabel, which opens on Tuesday. Mabel directed and starred with Charlie Chaplin, worked for and lived with Mack Sennett, was the top female comedy movie star, became a cocaine addict, threw wild parties and was linked to the murder of her lover, before dying at the age of 35 of pneumonia and tuberculosis. The Reverend Stephen Normand is 46 and does baptisms, weddings and funerals.

In between, he is obsessed with his great aunt. He has been left her diaries and other artefacts, though his grandmother tore certain pages out of the diaries because they were too racy. His researches over the years have taken him to America where he has interviewed everyone from his great aunt's nurse to one of her close friends who turned out to be the wife of Fatty Arbuckle. The scandal attached to his glamorous relation still rankles.

Speaking about it, he goes faster than any congregation would allow in a sermon. "The film director William Desmond Taylor, who was shot, he wasn't really her lover you know, he was a very important person, the president of the Motion Picture Society and he was fighting the drug ring in Hollywood; actually he was having an affair with an up-and-coming actress called Mary Miles Minter, and it was probably her mother who killed him; he was shot and left lying in this very odd position; Mabel was the last person to have seen him alive; she drove away in her chauffeur-driven car and blew him a kiss, there was lipstick on the car window, and the police did question her; she's always been a very important part of my life; would you excuse me, I have to take a service now."

Photograph by DAVID SANDISON