Tales of the City: Can you feel a song coming on?

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The Independent Online

Can you feel a song coming on?

I am slightly alarmed by Mr John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General. Not content with being anointed with oil every time he's sworn in to political office (it's Mazola corn oil, since you ask, and it's rubbed into his head like in the Bible, and no, I am not making this up), not content with draping the naked breasts of the Spirit of Justice statue in his department building (pray God he never meets Tony Blair in his saucy shirt – see right), he's now taken to singing at the end of his speeches.

Ghastly but true story. In February, he surprised an audience at a high-school seminary in North Carolina by singing, to backing tapes, a self-composed number called "Let the Eagle Soar". The lyrics forcibly recommend listeners to allow the largest and most fearsomely taloned bird in the States to fly without let or hindrance (sound advice, I'd say) "from rocky coast to golden shore" – though, since both locations are by the sea, this doesn't suggest that the bird is actually soaring terribly far, but we mustn't be bothered with details. Mr Ashcroft dished out copies of the song to an audience of Hispanic justice department employees, and suggested it should be translated for maximum all-join-in effect.

What a precedent. Can Mr Ashcroft be on to something here? If his boss, President Bush, were to adopt the same tactics, no G8 summit would ever close on a downbeat note again; the world leaders would all be singing, damp-eyed, a sagebrush lament for the Lone Star prairies of the Prez's boyhood. Were the Reverend Dr Paisley ever to tire of complaining about Mr Trimble and the iniquities of Sinn Fein, he could fall back on bellowing "The Sash My Father Wore" to his enraptured followers (he probably does anyway). I think we'd all like to hear Iain Duncan Smith concluding one of his speeches about future Tory tax policy to the good folk of Cheltenham by singing, "I Think I'd Better Think It Out Again" from Oliver!.

And can I just suggest to Mr Byers that a rendition of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" at the end of his next address to the Commons might be the best move he ever makes? Although his interlocuters on the Opposition benches might begin, dismayingly, to sing: "And now he's leaving... On that midnight train to Georgia..."

The trials of Peter Rabbit

The nibbies are being awarded tonight – that is, the British Book Awards 2001, whose logo is a fountain-pen nib, are being dished out at Grosvenor House tonight. The organisers would like you to think of the Nibbies as the UK books equivalent of the Oscars, partly because the judges tend themselves to be from the publishing/bookselling trade, and partly because there's an "academy" of voters, representing the ordinary bloke behind the till of Ottakar's in Hammersmith, who have a small say in things.

These things do not automatically elevate the prize to the status of the Academy Awards in Hollywood, but they're getting there. And it's an amusing evening: the drinking, the dancing, the ironic cheers for whoever wins the Most Doggedly Persistent Travelling- Sales Rep Award, or the prize for the Best Harry Potter Cardboard Cut-out Point-of-Sale Item.

This year, I had the pleasure of being one of the judges for the Publisher of the Year award. We met up, we five Olympian justices, in a Ballygowan-filled basement off the Tottenham Court Road, to try to compare the wildly varied fortunes of huge multidimensional, polyconglomerated publishing empires (like Random House, which now owns 20-plus imprints such as Cape and Chatto as well as being under the same umbrella as the enormous Transworld) to those of smaller houses like Virgin Books.

To help the judges, the publishers were asked to submit a prospectus saying why they deserve the prize, telling us their sales and profit figures, their best titles and marketing coups. They make fascinating reading. At least three of the submissions massaged their figures to look as if their turnover had increased by, say, 130 per cent in a year (rather than four years). They talked about "market share" as if they meant the year-round market, not just the month before Christmas. They bragged about "repositioning" and "rebranding" and "major restructuring", and lost me several times in the thickets of "BIC systems", "EDI trading" and "supply chain efficiencies".

But my favourite moments were when the contenders cast around for reasons why things hadn't gone too well. My personal Nibbie for Nonsensical Publishing Claim of the year goes to Penguin, who soberly informed us: "Frederick Warne, the division publishing Peter Rabbit, suffered hugely from the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the first half of the year, and from 11 September and the loss of tourist travel in the second half..."

Why Tolkien lost the plot

Shameless plug dept. Only a madman would think of missing Radio 4's brilliant quiz show The Write Stuff, on which I have the honour to be team captain against my literary-trivia rival Sebastian Faulks. It goes out on Wednesdays at 6.30pm. We're just now taping the new series. Tonight's "Author of the Week" is J R R Tolkien, and trying to read The Lord of the Rings again plunges me in gloom, to think I cannot follow current literary trends and admit it's a masterpiece. It still seems utterly one-dimensional, flatly imagined and written with the vocabulary of a 10-year-old. But what do I find among Tolkien's Letters? A missive to his publisher in 1955 explaining: "A primary fact about my work, that it is fundamentally linguistic [his italics] in inspiration... The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were rather made to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me, a name comes first and the story follows." So now we have it – inventing the name of Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, is what was important to him, not the plot, which could go hang. That explains a great deal – but it doesn't explain why the great hyper-linguist could never write a sentence you'd want to read twice.

That's no lady, that's my fashion statement

This charming young lady with the blue eyes, sheeny black hair, red telephone and "it's for you-hoo" expression has been causing quite a stir in the tabloids. She was called a "tart" by The Mirror, a "sexy brunette" by The Sun and a "nude shirt lining" by the Daily Mail, which seems to take exception to the fact that the PM walks around, at a Commonwealth meeting, in a cool Paul Smith shirt rather than something in beige from BHS. The Daily Telegraph muttered sadly about his "unusual departure from a conservative dress code".

Ye gods. There aren't, in fact, any pictures of the PM revealing his naked lady friend to the Aussies (she can only be seen if you roll back the cuff). The whole story clearly came from Paul Smith Ltd, though their press office wouldn't speak to me. The cutie is, of course, a classic pin-up from the war years – a "Varga Girl" named after the illustrator Alberto Vargas, who worked for Esquire magazine from 1940 to 1946. She is very much an old-fashioned girl.

In choosing such a shirt, Mr Blair reveals himself to be a retro-loving, old-fashioned kinda guy – and a believer in the peek-a-boo strain of male fashion. He hit the feature pages last year by revealing, to a couple of lady journalists, a flash of CK on the waistband of his underpants. Next, mark my words, it will be the pink polka-dot suit linings from William Hunt of Savile Row, and then the ultimate tip-of-an-iceberg fashion statement: snakeskin boots. You can only see the toecaps, but you know that the rest of them go right up a chap's leg. Phew. Try and stay calm, ladies...