Captain Moonlight: Of mace and men . . . bats in Baku . . . and instant whips

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COME with the Captain now to old Baku, capital of Azerbaijan and legendary haunt of men with pasts hopeful of a big future, crossroads of Asia and Europe, a city of muttered secrets and opportunity for those clever enough to see it and brave enough to seize it.

And who is that oddly familiar man with the wavy hair, weak chin and unfortunate manner over there in the Baku equivalent of Stringfellow's? Yes, that one in the corner chatting with the chums and associates of Rasoul Guliev, the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, tales of whose deeds and deals fill in the idle moments between haggles when Baku's merchants meet?

Bless my cotton socks but you're right: it's Mark Thatcher, legendary son of the Baroness, the chap with the invisible means of support, no sense of direction and an insufferably self-important manner (Harrow man). What's he doing in Baku? Well, a consortium led by BP has just secured an dollars 8bn oil deal with Azerbaijan; and Lady Thatcher played an important part in abortive talks with the previous government; but BP officials are at great pains to make it quite clear that young Thatcher has absolutely nothing to do with them, the deal or anything.

Mark does have a talent for turning up in places and causing embarrassment. The Middle East springs to mind (some firm called Cementation, Mumsy, and batting for Britain, if I remember correctly). Luckily, Mr Guliev, a man whose entrepreneurial interests run in many directions, from printing Azerbaijan's new passports to acquiring arms for Azerbaijan's new army, does not blush easily.

Oleg, my man in Baku, tells me that Mark has even bought a flat there. Perhaps, at long last, he has found a place where he can really feel at home. Alternatively, of course, he might just think he's in Brighton.

TIME was, you knew where you were because Paul Foot would always be to the left of you. If only it were still so simple. Last week came news of a book written by a former housemaster at Shrewsbury containing a letter from the young Footie vowing to fight for public schools to the last ditch. And now I must reveal the moment that reduced a Private Eye lunch to stunned silence. The topic of conversation, unlikely I grant you, was testing on animals. Foot declared that it seemed eminently reasonable to have something tested on animals before he used it. 'First sensible thing I've heard him say in 40 years,' was the verdict of Richard Ingrams. All very confusing. Captain's advice: be careful where you air this one, Paul. I find people tend to get very excitable about bunnies.

BUT THERE is one thing that does remain constant in these shifting times: the Daily Mail's unrelenting opposition to members of the Labour Party having fun. The latest affront was the leader's wife having a 40th birthday party at a 'smart' restaurant in Islington. 'The champagne flowed and the socialists sparkled,' began the Mail's report, which then went on to list all the fancy dishes you can get - grilled seabass, of course - at Frederick's, the rather Essexist restaurant with conservatory in Islington where Cherie Booth had her bash. All very quaint. Clive Jenkins used to have the best riposte to accusations of champagne socialism: 'Yes, that's right. Would you like some?' But then the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, is a man who, in a lower executive position, used to send reporters out on stories with the loud cry, 'Go, Paras, Go]'. Funnily enough, Dacre also had his 40th birthday party at Frederick's.

GASPS and general horror at the National Children's Bureau conference as Virginia Bottomley admitted beating her children. One of her senior aides was so taken aback that he showed what we newspaper people call 'signs of visible distress'. What went unnoticed was the curious turn of phrase employed by the Health Secretary to describe occasions on which she had smacked. These were when her children had 'thrown down the whip for the fourth time'. What could it mean? Some sort of sticky pudding? Or was correction even fiercer than we imagine chez Bottomley? A health spokesman helps. He is sure that Mrs Bottomley was using throwing down the whip in the parliamentary sense of refusing to toe the party line. This could be Mrs Bottomley's greatest contribution to child care: treat them like Tory backbenchers and you won't go far wrong.

IT'S THE fashionable phrase on absolutely everyone's lips: post neo-classical endogenous growth theory. Gordon Brown, you will remember, tripped it out last week to explain exactly where Labour's economic head was at these days. Much mockery followed. But I know my readership. Most of you are probably old friends with the theory, and most likely refer to it familiarly as PONCENDOGROT, perhaps even shorten it to Poncey. It was, though, I have to confess, a new one on me. So I approached Mr Brown's office for exposition. They seemed a teeny bit miffed and refused 'to go into any more detail about what the words mean', which seemed a bit hard on a simple searcher after wisdom on behalf of the electorate. I tried the Treasury. 'That's not for us to comment on,' said a spokesman. I probably imagined the relief in his voice.

My next course was obvious: Peter Jay. The BBC economics editor was friendly, but guarded. Was there a simple definition of Poncendogrot? 'Not known to me,' said Peter. Could he give it a go? 'I'm dubious about the wisdom of sticking out my neck on that one,' said Peter. I quested on. Next, Professor Patrick Minford, of Liverpool University, and one of the Treasury's Wise Men. The Prof was willing, but I don't think I was quite up to his speed. What I gathered was that productivity growth used to be thought exogenous, but now it was thought endogenous and susceptible to agglomeration and technology transfer. Convergence had something to do with it, too. Perhaps you can help. The Captain is offering champagne for the simplest definition. I might ask Peter to judge. And of course you can enter if you like, Gordon.

NATIONAL Poetry Day on Thursday: all week people have been ringing, urging me to persuade the Captain's laureate, Stan Trochee, to give the event some truth, some soul. I'm glad to say that Stan, who can be difficult, was game. So here is National Poetry Day. Ready? Right:

National Poetry Day


Why one Day, eh?

Why not every day?

Muse at Ten.

Daily bard.

That sort of thing.

Is that enough?

No? Tough.

THE DEATH of Sir David Napley, noted solicitor to, inter alios, Jeremy Thorpe, produced an expert tribute from fellow pro Peter Carter-Ruck. Carter-Ruck, who knows about these things, opined that Napley's fees 'may not have been low' but that his clients knew 'they were paying for the very best'. A taxi driver taking the Captain to visit Sir David put it almost as pithily: 'He uses a big meter, he does.' I also liked this: 'Sir David was said to have annoyed some clients by attending meetings in a 'gold-painted Rolls'. In fact, this is quite untrue: it was light brown, for which I can personally vouch, as he once pulled up as I was walking to the station and offered me a lift. (That was before I had my own Rolls-Royce.)'

ETERNAL vigilance: Street Watch subaltern Ernest Hodges, 63, looking for his wallet after the morning 'walk with a purpose' through a tough part of the streetwatchers' patch in Littlehampton. Mr Hodges and his three chums, Fred 'Cats Eyes' Mainwaring, Charles 'Tiger' Wilson (right) and Roger Pike, were quick to rally to last week's call by the Home Secretary for citizens to help in the fight against crime. Mr Wilson's wife, Mrs Wilson, likes him to wrap up warm. Mr Pike is the one disguised as a pot plant. Besides issuing a hefty blow, the maces have also been specially adapted to deliver covering fire. No? How about Labour Party officials carrying out the traditional eve-of-conference search for a policy? All right, it is, in fact, a Ward-Beadle of the City of London checking his hat before the Ceremony for the Admission of Sheriffs at the Guildhall last week.

AH, YES, Blackpool and Labour, the new party of the family, community and love in general. 'I know,' chirped up Harriet Harman perkily at the NEC meeting last week. 'Why don't we all appear on the platform with our partners?' There are 30 members of the NEC. Ms Harman's proposal attracted one other vote, not from John Prescott. His view: 'Yes, and why don't we bring our mothers-in-law along as well?'

A BIG welcome to the only weekly news digest that goes beyond the headlines to the little bits at the bottom of the page . . . Fortune- teller Denise Bakewell had her crystal ball stolen in Bracknell, Berks . . . The case against Darryn Saville, 28, of Woking, Surrey, a fire-eater accused of drink driving, was adjourned for experts to study the effects of paraffin on breathalysers . . . Postman Pat, who has only three fingers on his hands, will have a fourth added when he is published in Japan because a missing finger is the sign of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza . . . The ashes of fun-loving landlord Ken Frank, of Buckley, Clwyd, are to be put into an eggtimer, placed on the bar and used to measure drinking- up time. It was his deathbed wish . . . A 101-year-old man shot his wife, 73, dead in Bitolj, Macedonia . . . One in five Italians over 80 have an active sex life, according to research at Rome University. 'Their sex life is good, if a bit slower,' said Professor Antonio Isidori . . . Thirty-eight tons of frozen chickens caused traffic chaos when an articulated lorry shed its load on the M4 on Friday . . . And, finally, Robert Phillips, an actor, leapt from the stage and beat a man unconscious when his mobile phone disturbed a performance of Hamlet in South Africa.

(Photographs omitted)