John Walsh's Tales of the city

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Indulge me for a moment in a fantasy, but I've been wondering how difficult it would be to nick a statue. Two things prompted this speculation. First was the removal of Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo from its temporary plinth in Trafalgar Square, to be replaced by that annoying perspex mirror-plinth of Rachel Whiteread's. Once it had gone, I realised that I liked the statue a lot ­ you'll recall that it's a little, life-sized figure of Christ before Pontius Pilate, in which he is just standing there, looking meek and got-at and mildly hacked-off with the way things have turned out. It's very human. I began to wonder where it had gone (to the Venice Biennale, since you ask), and in which exhibition it would turn up next.

Then I read about a bungled art robbery at a leading London gallery where the sneering experts said the looted Rubens painting wasn't worth much ­ its "over-familiarity" meant that it was too hot to sell. And I thought, well yes, but who would want to sell it? Wouldn't there be something indescribably cool about having a famous Old Master ­ or, better still, a famous piece of public art just sort of lying around your charming home?

Picture the scene. You are having friends round for drinks. When they arrive, you tell them to take a glass of Taittinger from the tray that's been Sellotaped to the hands of the life-size stone butler in the hallway. Only when they've joined the throng in the living-room will they think, hang on, there was something worryingly familiar about that butler's crown of thorns...

After getting Ecce Homo for the hallway, I think I'd need the Dolphin Boy from the Chelsea Embankment. You must know it. It was sculpted by the same man who designed the overlapping-hands motif on British pound coins, and it distracts motorists as they inch their way towards the King's Road, because the boy on the dolphin's back with his legs flying is holding on by just the tip of his finger. I need the airborne child, not for any sordid reasons but to act as a superior coat-stand. He will look terrific, coming out of the wall at a ridiculous angle and having people hang their parkas, Crombies and school blazers on his prehensile digit.

Plunging on in this felonious orgy, I would secure a gigantic ladder, place it against the Old Bailey at nightfall and shin up it when nobody was looking. Londoners would hardly notice what was missing until about lunchtime the next day, by which time I'd have put it to proper use in my kitchen. And if anyone dropped round for lunch, and wondered if the scales I was using for measuring 4oz of pasta seemed a bit on the large size, well that would be their problem.

Once you start this, there's no end to it. At the entrance to the Limehouse Link motorway tunnel in east London, there's a complicated bit of artwork, showing a score of spindly Lowry-esque figures in attitudes of agitation. One day soon, I'm going to have to pinch one, to attach to the door of the downstairs loo. I have long nursed an ambition to appropriate one of the magnificently noble, alarmingly earnest, sternly carved heads that loom over the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, glaring down at passers-by. There's one that looks uncommonly like Howard Jacobson, and I need it for the garden, to discourage local tearaways from peeing in the water feature.

Then there are the metal cows that stand on top of the Express Dairy building you pass on the M4 flyover ­ perfect for the children's barnyard-themed playroom. And I must find some way to purloin one of the giant books currently lining the Fulham Road, near Stamford Bridge, just to be able to carry it, amusingly, under my arm on future trips to the British Library.

Good game, huh? Care to join in? Tell me which bits of public art you covet, and would like to take home with you, and to what use you'd put them, and I'll bung you a bottle of fizz from Fortnums.


I HAD to give a talk yesterday, on journalism, to the frightening GCSE class at Dulwich College Prep School. It was part of their punishing, two-week introduction to the world of work and offices and professions and self-sufficiency ­ after the careers advice from lawyers, policemen, businessmen and actors, they'll be given a course in how to iron and sew ­ and I was there to tell them about the wonderfulness of the British press. Imagine, if you will, the horror of standing there, mouth going dry, before 50 over-educated, bored and cynical seen-it-all, post-exams 13-year-olds in the grip of testosterone meltdown, and picture my discomfiture. I was expecting, I suppose, something between Grange Hill and a class of Molesworths and Fotherington-Thomases. What I got was a more sophisticated crowd than either.

Did they read any magazines regularly? The Beano, PlayStation, PC User, Skateboard Gazette ­ yes I anticipated all those. But what about this saturnine youth with the buzz-cut hair and the alarmingly deep voice? "Loaded," he said in a voice that suggested he probably writes their articles about virgin-sacrifice rituals in Zanzibar. "In my experience of newspapers," drawled a pubescent in the front row with the assurance of a Conservative Central Office grandee, "the serious papers have small headlines but loads of text, while the tabloid papers have enormous headlines but hardly any text." We digested this blinding aperçu in silence. "I mean," he concluded, "why is that?"

Questions flew for half an hour. Who was the most difficult interviewee I ever had? (Dame Ninette de Valois, who told me to sit on my hands and not wave them around.) Why don't the papers have sections specifically aimed at teenagers with allowances to spend? (Some do, but only on Saturdays.) Had I ever been beaten up for pestering a celebrity? (No, but I got a very nasty letter from Jerry Lewis after alluding to his dentures.) Who came up with the crap advertising slogan, "Free thinkers welcome"? (That was The Guardian.)

And so it went on. What I liked was that, underneath the yawning sophistication of the questions ("Do you think that having naked women in The Sun is the last resort?") lay a palpable conviction that journalism is quite heavily involved with sex, violence and behaving badly. "Do you mind having to work on The Independent," asked a sneaky chap in the back row, "where things are quite formal, and you can't indulge in slander like you can in the tabloids?" The more I wanted to insist that journalism was all about writing, and pouring style over your view of the world, the more the boys seemed to see it as an excuse for a bit of a punch-up. Perhaps there were more Loaded readers present than were ready to admit it.


I LIKE Chelsea Clinton. What a sweet child she used to be, so toothy and eager to please, so stalwart and supportive while her dad was being arraigned for bad behaviour; and what a charming young woman she mutated into, with that slight hint of sexual generosity about her truly enormous mouth, and that trace of waywardness in the garland of flowers and head-dress of stars she wore at the graduation ceremony.

Now she's got her history degree from Stanford University, and is off to Oxford in the autumn. I see no obstacle to her future happiness, nor to her plans for world domination, except for one thing. In every photograph taken lately, she's started to look more and more like Margaret Beckett. Indeed, if Ms Clinton and the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs both entered a Margaret Beckett Lookalike Contest, Mrs Beckett would come a poor second. There's no harm, of course, in looking like Margaret Beckett. But Chelsea would probably be happier in her first Oxford term without having people come up all the time up and demand that she stop going on about foxes and come clean about foot and mouth instead.