Captain Moonlight's Notebook

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All at sea on ships

READERS of this notebook know about Chatham House Rules. I offer another arbitrary line on secrecy and obfuscation known as the Mottram Convention, named after a rather clever civil servant, Richard Mottram, who was promoted to the Cabinet Office as Permanent Secretary in September last year from the Ministry of Defence.

The convention caused MPs enormous frustration on Wednesday when members of the House of Commons Defence Committee attempted to discover the size of the Royal Navy in the future. The convention's aim is to deny questioners precise answers, especially on maritime matters.

Brian Hawtin, an Assistant Undersecretary (Programmes) at the Defence Ministry, showed a masterly understanding of the form by describing the Navy's needs as 'about 40 ships'.

'What do you mean 'about 40 ships'? ', an MP snapped back.

' 'About 40' was a range around 40,' Mr Hawtin replied, adding with elucidation later that it meant 'from 35 up to 45'.

Bruce George (Labour, Walsall South) interjected: 'It's not going to be 45, is it? 'About 40' could mean 35, 34, 33 . . .' '

Silence.

Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat spokesman on defence, came straight to the point. 'Why do you use such an extraordinarily imprecise figure? It means anything you or your ministers want it to mean when the committee asks a question.'

The RAF and the Army, the defence committee members mumbled among themselves, always gave precise figures for squadrons and battalions. Why not the Royal Navy?

Silence.

'What is the precise genesis of this convention?' a committee member asked. The dreaded word followed: 'Mottram'.

I AM REMINDED of the Cottingley fairies - one of the most famous stories of photographic deception - by last week's dollars 1m ( pounds 725,000) settlement between General Motors and the Am erican television network, NBC News.

The network's news magazine programme, Dateline, rigged the results of a crash test on a GM truck to show how dangerous the model was. Rather than trusting to luck (and a court had earlier held that the trucks did indeed often catch fire on impact), the programme's journalists ensured the truck burst into flame by using 'incendiary devices'.

Elsie Wright, 15, and her cousin Frances Griffith, 9, succumbed to similar temptation at Cottingley, York shire, in 1917. With a box camera, they tried to photograph fairies in their garden but were too impatient to wait for the real thing and helped the picture along with cardboard cutouts and hatpins. Many took the result seriously, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published the pictures in the Strand magazine. Elsie and Frances confessed in 1983. What does this prove? Perhaps that television journalism sometimes contains the same streak of adolescent deceit.

Dogged by doggerel

JOHN RIMINGTON'S clerihew in support of his wife, Stella, the boss of MI5, which this notebook published last week has led to several replies in verse from readers but none from the elusive Mr A and Mrs B, the two critics who reside in that same street in Islington, north London.

Another neighbour, 'to be known only as Mr X' he writes, sent the best verse:

MI5 is a closed book to me

But in N1 opinions are free.

Mr A and Ms B

Think SR's NBG -

Lock the door] Hide the key] TNT]

Our literary editor wasn't over impressed. Like the original, it was awkwardly constructed, he felt. But he offered every encouragement. Merely to write verse was a worthwhile thing; to have it published was an achievement, even under the name Mr X.

THIS NEWSPAPER has been inundated with examples of the shocking state of British literacy following last week's Inside Story by Judith Judd and Sarah Strickland. I give the last word to Timothy Fogg, who sent in this advertisement from Southern Free Ads: 'Rose and Crown are dead by Tom Stoppard, pounds 3.50. Jane Air by Charlotte Bronta, pounds 1. Both suitable for current AEB board English A-Level course.'

A midwife scorned

A LITERARY thread in the Rimington family links John (not Stella) with that radical and sexual subversive, D H Lawrence. Mr Rimington told me his great-grandmother was the midwife who brought Lawrence into the world and that the Rimingtons, a family of coal miners, have had reason for regret since. If you read Sons and Lovers (expurgated or unexpurgated) you will find the midwife and her family treated with great disdain. The novelist and the clerihew writer, though separated by two generations, attended the same school: Nottingham High.

Hoping to learn more family 'secrets' I invited myself to his office where I was politely received and just as politely sent on my way. Not, however, before an abortive wild-goose chase in search of Queen Mary's lavatory.

Mr Rimington works in what was once a rather grand shop called Bradley's in Bayswater, London. Here the well-to-do bought furs and stored jewellery from the turn of the century until 1939 when the building was commandeered and became a government office. Its arts and crafts exterior is protected by a preservation order; its interior, an odd mixture of Edwardian baroque, art deco and 1930s steamship blond wood panelling is not.

Queen Mary, according to Mr Rimington, was a regular customer. The loo Bradley's built on the premises for her is one of the few pieces of the building's interior that has remained untouched, I was told. He described it as a grand throne-like affair in green marble. But could we find it? Not on your nellie. Mr Rimington's typists weren't in the mood to help. One reluctantly escorted us to a Ladies at the end of a corridor which had struck her as rather old- fashioned. This, thought Mr Rimington, must be it. It wasn't. I thought it was probably time to leave.

ON TELEVISION tonight you will hear that rhubarb is a favourite of the Prince of Wales. We are not told whether he grows it for purgative reasons. He says, or rather an actor playing Charles says, that rhubarb is one plant that needs a good talking-to. Whenever you see him in his garden, rhubarb seems to enter the picture.

I don't think I need explain that this is the mini-series of Andrew Morton's book on the Princess of Wales, made for Rupert Murdoch's Sky network. There are some odd moments. Each time Diana catches Charles talking to Camilla Parker Bowles the camera switches to the Princess heading for the fridge. She doesn't need any rhubarb because she throws up her food. When she complains that Charles doesn't cuddle her enough he replies, 'but you are always being sick'.

Having viewed the programme on Tuesday, I came away with the impression that Prince Charles's penchant for weeding was the main cause of the breakdown of his marriage.

Livid in the green channel

FOR A travelling man or woman an important civil liberty is the right to try to cheat Customs and Excise. I am talking about duty-frees.

You may wish to know that from the beginning of the year this right was taken away by the bureaucrats in Brussels with the connivance of our own customs authorities. We knew that with the single market we could bring in gallons of wine and any amount of spirit as long as local tax had been paid. But I and several fellow travellers certainly didn't know we would have shopping police digging into our wire baskets after check-in as we queued to pay for duty-free spirits.

For example, if you are travelling to any EC destination and you have a bottle of whisky bigger than a litre, and more than 200 cigarettes, an officious attendant blows the whistle on you and you cannot get served.

A normally docile friend was so taken aback by this bossy intrusion at Gatwick last week that he kicked his basket of booze across the floor. He is still in a state of shock, made worse by the refusal of assistants at the duty-free in Madrid the next day to allow him to buy a 1.14 litre bottle (the old imperial) of whisky on his way home.

This new policy is known as 'vendor control', according to officials from the British Airports Authority and Customs and Excise. It means the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between passengers and the men in the green channel is at an end. The cowards have passed responsibility for enforcing the law to the airport shop, which faces fines or a loss of its franchise if it sells the customer what he wants.

ON THE LEFT we have a picture of Sir Ian McKellen recording a short story last week for Radio 4, though the equipment suggests the Home Service circa 1955. Ah, that vanished age of repression. The story Sir Ian is reading is about a young man looking for casual sex in a public lavatory and it will be broadcast tonight on Radio 4's first gay and lesbian programme, starting at 8pm and lasting two hours. There is, you will have noticed, an awful lot of sex about just now on radio and television: bondage programmes; presenters in the nude; guides to the new Holy Grail of satisfaction. We are all voyeurs now, as Ludovic Kennedy observed in the Daily Mail the other day. Even the New Statesman on Friday was offering a 'Love Weekend Special' that included Islam and the erotic, lust and feminism, and a rude short story by Lucy Ellmann. And that respectable Tory newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, devoted several pages to love, sex and marriage with such teasers as 'Your sex life is their business' and 'Seduction on a plate'. The cinema, of course, has not stood aside, and here we're not just talking about the films. At the Prince Charles in London's West End they have restored 'comfy' seats - those love-benches with no centre armrest - in the back row of the stalls. This has an innocent 1955 ring about it - the time when cinemas held out the only hope of a cuddle in the warm - but the Prince Charles is not in the business of nostalgia. As part of an Aids awareness scheme, every ticket-holder gets a free condom. For 'tis St Valentine's Day.

Say what you like about . . .

. . . Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham- Fiennes, but:

He made the high-fat diet respectable

He might have been called Twistlytonne-Wickberg-ffienes

He's only written two books with 'ice' in the title

He will never be known as Twisleton- Wykeham-Fiennes of the Antarctic

(Photograph omitted)

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