Joe Biden, the American Vice-President, is a bit of a chancer isn't he? After his mother died last year, he put her house in Wilmington, Delaware, up for rental. Someone took it on until April this year, upon which it fell empty. Where, thought Biden, can I find a reliable new tenant? Coincidentally, just then, the US Secret Service were looking for somewhere to house the Veep's bodyguards – somewhere near Biden that would be a quiet base for hush-hush Secret Service activities.
A light went on in Biden's brain. A deal was soon done. The tough-ass bodyguards moved into the late Mrs B's charming waterfront home, sat in her armchairs, put their feet up on the pouffe (I'm guessing here), dusted the glass ornaments on her sideboard, used her Spode china at teatime and fed her cat. And for renting the place, they coughed up $2,200 a month. Which of course went straight into Mr Biden's pocket. It's a nice little earner, isn't it, having bodyguards who pay government money for the privilege of living in your old mum's house?
Republican voices have complained that it's a flagrant misuse of public money. I think it shows Mr Biden in an unusual light. He suddenly seems like a British politician; someone who likes the financial extras of a job; a man who recognises a nice little earner when he sees it; a fellow who appreciates the value of a buy-to-let property; a chap with friends at the golf club who might be interested in your proposed scheme; a bloke who could probably introduce you to a town councillor who might pull a few strings; a guy whose brother-in-law owns a lock-up garage where you could stash whatever-it-is with no questions asked, squire; a geezer who responds to adverts in the press saying "Make £££ out of your old family homestead..."
Unfortunately, an awful lot of people are like that now. The recent loud huzzahs over the news that the Olympics 2012 building works are largely finished, with a year to spare, was almost drowned by the noise of the population of London rushing to put their houses and flats up for rent for the duration of the Games. At this rate, there won't be many metropolitans left in town a year from now: they'll all be in Umbria or Florida or staying in friends' spare rooms in Norfolk, while incoming hordes of Qatari royals move into their London pads.
Several websites are now jockeying with each other to sign up modest London homes as Olympics lettings. At rentatthegames.com, a three-bedroom house in Bermondsey will cost the hapless visitor £400 a day or £8,000 for the whole period. At the subtly different rentforthegames.com, a one-bedroom flat ("sleeps four") in Limehouse is yours for £2,200 per week. At rentduringthegames.com, you can find a three-bedroom house in Stratford for £3,000 a week.
These are all in locations handily near the Olympic site, in some cases a walk away. What's delightful about perusing the pages of rental offers is seeing the number of flats and houses that are nowhere near the Olympics site. Sometimes they're not even in London. I couldn't help marvelling at the cheek of the householder who's offering his large Victorian mansion ("seven bedrooms – sleeps 18") in Folkstone, Kent. "Just a short 50-mins train ride from the Olympic Village on the high-speed train," he promises potential renters, though he's careful to hedge his bets ("1 hour from London, or take the ferry/channel tunnel to France for the day...")
Shoreham, Haslemere, Sidcup and obscure bits of Surrey are all described as "idyllic location for Olympics", while a Berkshire house is apparently "walking distance to the Olympics". Spectacularly grotty sections of south-east London are promoted as being "minutes away from Olympics site" (that'll be 135 minutes, through railyards, deserted warehouses and muggers.)
The endless list of properties being pressed into service as rentable homes is quite remarkable – a shocking testament to human greed, mendacity and opportunism. Now what, I wonder, would I get for a two-bedroom flat in W11?
When all is said and done, a spud is just a spud
It's tough being an early adopter and a foodie. Not only do you queue for hours to acquire an iPad2, you have to be up first thing for the fruit and veg as well. Last week it was off to Leeds for the fresh Umbrian summer truffles in Morrisons supermercado. This morning, I was queueing outside my local Tesco Metro from some unearthly hour to buy the specialist potatoes called La Bonnotte ("the caviar of the potato world") which make their British debut today.
Delicate, fragile, grown only on a tiny island off the French coast, redolent of sea salt, lemon and seaweed, they're so exquisite they have to be picked by hand. And when you've taken them home, you have to try to resist doing what you usually do to potatoes: peel them, salt them, boil them and mash them to buggery with some spring onions and butter. What else could I do? Nibble them? Sip them? Invite the neighbours round for a potato tasting? There are limits to foodie-ism, you know.
Will blackmail yield to market forces?
Hats off to entrepreneur and action-man Duncan Bannatyne, who has responded to an attempted blackmailer (who promised to "hurt" his daughter) by offering a £25,000 reward for anyone who turns in the miscreant, or "double, if his arms are broken first". Mr Bannatyne is clearly a fan of the Mel Gibson movie Ransom, in which Mel goes on primetime TV to announce that he won't pay his son's kidnapper a brass farthing, but offers $1m reward for his capture, and sets off in pursuit of the baddie with a gun.
The trouble is, Bannatyne's own role on Dragons' Den keeps intruding on this story. Has he been receiving offers from wannabes along the lines of: "Managed to break one arm but he got away; do I qualify for 50 per cent of extra reward? How about 40 per cent? What's that, £11K? Poss also gave him black eye – shall we say £25?"