HORSES are causing lots of trouble, and not just at Aintree. John Major is not the kind of chap you would associate with more than an annual flutter on the Grand National and that is why his horse is such a problem for him. You didn't know the Prime Minister owned a horse? Well, he was given a stallion for his 50th birthday last month by President Sarparmurad Niyazov of Turkmenistan. Under a protocol governing gifts to ministers, Mr Major is not allowed to receive an item worth more than pounds 125. Either he pays the difference or hands over the animal to the state, whereupon we will foot the feeding and stabling bill and no doubt the cost of transporting it across two continents.
The problem is that no one has been able to put a value on this particular piece of rare bloodstock, an Akhal- Tekke pony whose ancestors, so my lad at Newmarket informs me, were shipped out through Persia a couple of centuries ago to form the backbone of the British thoroughbred. It has the arched neck and flared nostril of an Arab. If you listen to horse traders in Ashkhabad, the Turkmen capital, a stallion of this pedigree is worth some pounds 670,000. There are only some 1,000 pure-bred Akhal Tekkes left, and sales abroad have been banned.
Khrushchev gave the Duke of Edinburgh one in 1956 and the Queen a Karabakh pony from Azerbaijan. The Duke's horse, from which John Major's is descended, lasted only a few years at Windsor before being loaned out to a local rider. It died in 1970. My lad says the breed has changed little over 3,000 years and is known for its stamina and discipline - good at the jumps and steady at dressage.
My agent in Moscow says that Sir Brian Fall, the British ambassador, has received a telegram asking him to sort the matter out. Unfortunately we are not represented in the new republic. Perhaps the answer to both problems would be for the Queen to appoint Mr Major's birthday present as consul in Ashkhabad. It's been done before.
Baron, Pat and the Duke - her story
CAPTAIN Moonlight has come to the rescue of women in distress in his time, but never has he been involved with a showgirl, especially one who has been linked to the Duke of Edinburgh. I have been authorised by Pat Kirkwood, 72 - whose legs Kenneth Tynan described more than 30 years ago as the eighth wonder of the world - to put the record straight.
Miss Kirkwood lives on a moor in Yorkshire, where her main audience is the sheep and poultry that hear her practising scales in the out-houses. It is a far cry from her cosmopolitan life in London and the United States when she was the singing and pantomime 'sensation' of the 1940s and 1950s before she faded away in the 1960s. She dropped off the bill altogether in the 1970s, was 'revived' from time to time in the 1980s, and even 'rediscovered', first at the Barbican, then at the Palladium and this week at Wimbledon.
Everything written about Miss Kirkwood seems wonderfully old-fashioned. Who nowadays refers to being 'the talk of the West End'? She is a 'living legend' and comes from the 'golden age of stage and screen musicals'. Noel Coward wrote a revue for her, Cole Porter said she could sing any of his songs without permission. She has always 'topped the bill', her performances have been 'glittering' and her returns 'triumphant'.
But there is one legend she wants to knock on the head - that she had a fling with the Duke in 1948 while the Queen was pregnant with the Prince of Wales. I was lured to Miss Kirkwood by a statement from her publicity agent which said, 'Stage comeback for legendary star linked with Prince Philip'. I challenged Miss Kirkwood about this and she said she was not at all happy about that sort of publicity, but added she had hoped people would ask about the Duke so she could nail the lie.
Captain Moonlight stepped forward to hear her story, a fleeting moment from the glittering cabaret world of Britain in ration time.
The story begins at a dressing-room in the Hippodrome Theatre near Leicester Square, where Miss Kirkwood, aged 27, is playing in the musical Starlight Roof. It is October 1948 and she is waiting for her boyfriend, the late royal photographer, Baron (he was always just Baron), who has promised to take her out to dinner. The telephone rings at about a quarter to midnight. Speaking in a hollow whisper, Baron says, 'I'm bringing someone with me' and won't say who. She realises the someone is probably Prince Philip because it is Thursday and Baron and the Duke are members of an informal dining club which meets every Thursday.
Sure enough, the Duke is pushed through the dressing-room door by Baron. Her dresser tries to curtsey and falls over, her mother makes her entrance, stage left, from the loo. On Baron's arm is 'Basher' Watkins, the Prince's naval equerry. They roll around laughing.
Miss Kirkwood wants to eat. Off they go for dinner at Les Ambassadeurs, the place then, and afterwards head upstairs to Milroy, a 'very swish' club. The matre d', a Hungarian called Williams, won't let them in. 'We've already played the King,' he says. 'Tell them to play it again,' says Philip, and the Red Sea parts.
Philip calls for beer, Miss Kirkwood says let's make it champagne. The four are having a good time. Philip asks Miss Kirkwood to dance. She notices several couples, whom she describes as courtiers, looking shocked. The Duke, Sarah Ferguson-style, makes faces at them. They finish the champagne. Philip and Basher leave and Baron takes Miss Kirkwood home to her flat.
'End of story,' she says. 'I only ever saw him again at a Royal Variety Performance or in the stalls with his family.' The reaction was thunderous; she blames the 'courtiers'. George VI was outraged his son-in-law was on the town with a showgirl. Baron was sacked as Court photographer and the Thursday Club wound up. 'There were no facts to back it up,' she said. 'It was the inference that really annoyed me.'
Say what you like about . . .
. . . rail strikes, but:
it's one day when the trains aren't delayed
Jimmy Knapp is a change from Arthur Scargill
you don't need excuses for being late at the office
they get us in practice for Bank Holidays
Bloomsbury and its alphabet spooks
BLOOMSBURY, under its publishing director Liz Calder, has always been a rather intellectual imprint, associated more with the novels of Brian Moore, Nadine Gordimer, D M Thomas or Joanna Trollope than with titles such as Soldier A: Behind Iraqi Lines or Soldier B: Heroes of the South Atlantic. So it's surprising to see this publishing house seeking readers for these slash-and- stab books from Sunday Sport and the Daily Star, two newspapers that seem designed for people who find television news difficult.
The first two SAS books carry the pseudonym Shaun Clarke and are advertised as 'stories so controversial that they can only be told as fiction'. But who is Shaun Clarke? Many adventure writers' names have been bandied about. My colleague Lynn Barber believes Clarke to be Richard Ingrams, editor of the Oldie. Miss Calder only chuckled when I telephoned her to ask if Ingrams was doing a bit of moonlighting, so to speak. She passed me over to her colleague, David Reynolds, Publishing Director (military fiction).
Mr Reynolds is not a former soldier. He says he has not worked for the Foreign Office either, and merely finds the military business 'interesting'. The move into commando fiction was a logical development for the firm's very successful military non-fiction list.
Furthermore, Shaun Clarke was not one writer but several, I was assured. Mr Reynolds would give me no clues other than to say Soldier C would be set in Malaysia, my old stamping ground, during 'confrontation' with Indonesia in the 1960s. Soldier D would be set in Oman, an SAS base, Soldier E would be in Colombia where our boys are teaching the local constabulary the basics of jungle warfare and how to ambush and capture or kill drug barons.
Mr Reynolds stopped at the letter 'E', but if the series goes to the end of the alphabet, as he said it would, we may be in for some revelations of SAS activities that could have certain parts of Whitehall rushing for their 'D-Notices'. Clever old Bloomsbury could say it was just fiction and escape censorship. I wouldn't mind betting Soldier F is the story of former SAS chaps hired by the Colombian drugs cartels to counter their colleagues on the other side. Soldier G might tell us about our clandestine goings-on in Cambodia. Soldier H might be about Afghanistan, Soldier I in Kenya perhaps, Soldier J in Mozambique, Soldier K could tell us about Angola, Soldier L would be in Ireland and so on and so on.
My mind was dizzy with revelations and conspiracies until a wiser old bird a few desks away pulled me up and said it was just a way of making money. The books were war comics for grown-ups.
THE LAST occupant of a bolt hole I found myself in this week was Brigadier Kenneth Mears, Deputy Governor of the Tower of London. He left in 1989. His flat was gutted and now you have what the Historic Royal Palaces Agency call a medieval palace - three rooms that were the London residence of King Edward I.
I was taken aback by the strong smell of frankincense on the first viewing day last week. I was even more surprised to find a man in a robe waiting to explain that he was a banneret, a superior knight who looked after the monarch's security. Edward was a religious man so he needed someone to protect his back while he prayed.
Across the bridge into St Thomas's Tower were a maiden attending the Queen and a nun who curtseyed to me. An odd-looking chap with a baby's cap was at a desk writing with a quill pen.
'These costumed people are not for entertainment,' I was told firmly by my minders. 'They are not actors. They are students of history. They are there to help you understand the palace. It is live interpretation.'
The men and women in fancy dress - oops, I mean 'replica garments' - are known as Third Person Interpreters. The 'Third Person' mob are meant to spend two days of a five-day week at the library swotting up their roles, and get pounds 70 a day.
I was wondering what type of Interpreter I would meet in the armoury where I set out to find Kate Adie's flak jacket. But no Third Person and no jacket either. A policeman's armour had taken its place beside the padding of an American footballer. 'It wasn't really Kate Adie's flak jacket,' an ordinary old-fashioned kind of attendant told me when I asked after it. 'We had a picture of her wearing a flak jacket and a similar one on display.'
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