Tales of the City: What every well-appointed panic room needs

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One of the most vivid enchantments of my childhood was moving house and finding an air-raid shelter at the bottom of our new garden. It was overgrown and musty-smelling, and home to a million weevils, but, goodness, the excitement. A brick hideaway, a subterranean den, a purpose-built cave, an underground tree-house, a Secret Seven shed, it was a blissful place where you could legitimately hide from the world, consume thousands of Jammie Dodgers and bottles of Corona Cherryade (stashed away for emergencies), and wait for the all-clear to sound.

One of the most vivid enchantments of my childhood was moving house and finding an air-raid shelter at the bottom of our new garden. It was overgrown and musty-smelling, and home to a million weevils, but, goodness, the excitement. A brick hideaway, a subterranean den, a purpose-built cave, an underground tree-house, a Secret Seven shed, it was a blissful place where you could legitimately hide from the world, consume thousands of Jammie Dodgers and bottles of Corona Cherryade (stashed away for emergencies), and wait for the all-clear to sound.

It implanted in the darker reaches of my psyche the need for an armoured cocoon in my life – some sort of inner sanctum, containing the necessities of one's simple existence, where you could read 28 Valiant annuals in succession, unbothered by the outside world. I liked discovering impregnable royal cells called "keeps" in National Trust castles. I approved of friends whose fathers had "dens" to which they would retire from the womenfolk and smoke cheroots and nobody was allowed in. I learned from a friend living in Geneva that the Swiss are more familiar with hidden rooms than any other people, because every private household is expected (or is it required?) to build itself a family-size nuclear bunker as a standard domestic fixture. What they should put in it, to while away the dead hours waiting for the end of civilisation, the authorities didn't specify.

I thought of the old shelter and its many variants when I went to see Panic Room, the new David Fincher movie, which features Jodie Foster and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) holed up inside an impregnable vault, playing cat-and-mouse games with three thick burglars. The film's premise was, I'd read, neither bizarre nor particularly unusual. Panic rooms, purpose-built with steel walls, are becoming increasingly popular in urban America, as they have been for years in, say, Johannesburg. As home-owners get ever more paranoid, rather than build themselves spiky, high-voltage electric fences or equip themselves with Heckler & Koch automatics and grenades, they prepare for siege conditions and retreat into a metaphorical womb where no marauding felons can get them.

This was excellent news. I went to see it with alacrity. Worldly connoisseur of claustrophobia that I am, I couldn't wait to see what Ms Foster's iron-clad womb looked like.

What a disappointment. It wasn't just small and boringly attic-like, it seemed to be equipped with all the wrong stuff. There was a bank of CCTV monitors, but where was the video-library of old Grace Kelly movies? A big fire blanket (for those moments when you decide to set fire to a gas jet that's being pumped into your air-space by the villains) but no 96-tog duvet to snuggle under. A fridge full of mineral water, but no chilled Oyster Bay sauvignon. Tool-kits galore, but no library of Russian classics and Sherlock Holmes stories. A dedicated telephone system (it didn't work unless you'd already programmed it) but no cupboard full of Fry's Turkish Delight.

It was hopeless. This wasn't a Panic Room; this was barely a Vague Anxiety Room, a Mild Trepidation Chamber, the kind you sneak into when you're feeling out of sorts or insecure, but don't imagine staying in for long. The real Panic Room in my head has to be a place you could stay in for weeks. I'm sorry, but I'm not buying one unless they can guarantee that it will feature a hi-fi tower and the Jennifer Lopez Complete Works CD.



How the right money can buy you teenage flicks



How apprehensive must Jane Austen fans feel, to learn that their heroine's first completed novel, Northanger Abbey, is being adapted for the movies by Martin Amis. It seems that Andrew Davies (who has a virtual monopoly on classic-novel adaptations) pulled out because the production studio, Miramax, was trying, he said, "to drag it in the direction of a teen flick". Mr Amis, we must infer, has no qualms about doing just that, and nor, gentle reader, would you, in return for $1m (£680,000) from Harvey Weinstein.

I think we can see how it might work out. The original story concerns Catherine Morland,a cleric's daughter, who travels to Bath and falls in love with Henry Tilney, the son of a general. Invited to stay at the Tilneys' family seat, the eponymous Abbey, she imagines (from reading too much Gothic fiction) that the General is involved with dark deeds in the criminal underworld. She discovers she's wrong, gets sent home but marries Henry anyway.

In the new version, Catherine is a kohl-eyed Goth called Katy Nine, living in a Bayswater bedsit. She falls for an aristocratic wimp called Nige Effete whose mother, a little implausibly, is a tough US traffic cop called Dale. Invited to the family pile ("Anger Grange"), Katy has a vision of her cosmological irrelevance, and shoots Nige in the groin. During a darts tournament at the famous health spa, Dale forms an alliance with Short Stanley, a halitotic circus dwarf, and gives birth to a psycho- pathic baby. There's a great deal of secondary material about murdered girls, spots and root-canal work, but it all ends happily, when Dale gives her consent for Katy to become engaged to a reality-TV auto-eroticist called Barry X, on condition that the latter becomes a rural dean.

There, now. I'm sure that, were Ms Austen around to read such a treatment, she would weeptears of gratitude to find the spirit of the original so faithfully preserved.



Free speech – a snip at £5,000



I've been pondering the phenomenon of Carole Stone the "networking queen" for some time, and wondering about her obsession with hostess-ship. I've met her a couple of times and can confirm that she's terribly good at being a hostess – remembering exactly who everyone is, what they do and where she saw them last, finding out who at the party they'd like to meet, calming the fears of the anxious and the socially maladroit, that sort of thing. It's a fine virtue to possess, but only once you've established that you've got something in common with each member of your great array of pals and contacts and guests. Otherwise, you may risk coming across as a tinkling cymbal, a glassy objet d'art, which tinkles and twinkles in the same way at absolutely everyone.

But as I was pondering the actual point of Ms Stone, a letter arrived from the lady herself. She's about to open a club – a salon indeed – in central London, called Stones, and is looking for investors who'll put up £5,000 apiece. And the point of the club would be... what? It will, she says, give her the chance to "create an atmosphere in which my friends can really enjoy meeting each other over a drink or a meal. Stones will be where you'll be free to talk about work as well as play – I want it to be the place where all sorts of new ideas and important issues get discussed".

But this is fantastic. Do you mean, there'll be a place in London where I'll be free to talk? And not only that, but to talk about work and play? Stone the crows. You mean I can just walk in off the street and start talking about anything I like? I can say the first thing that comes into my head without being either arrested or shot at? I can discuss important issues, like my amazing feats of letter-opening and canteen-visiting at work, without fear of reprisal? So that's what Ms Stone and her "atmosphere" is for. Nice to find out at last.



No laughing matter



The Ann Winterton affair only proves that lady politicians are terrible at making jokes. First Mo Mowlam's awful "women's bits" routine, now this. Leave aside the ill-advisedness of a Tory politician being rude about Pakistanis just after the BNP dig into Burnley, and her "10 a penny" gag still isn't funny, even by the standards of small-boy, playground humour. No matter whom it upsets, it doesn't work. I wish Mr Anan Islam, a disgusted local businessman, had pointed this out, rather than appear to be smarting under the lash of Ms Winterton's, you know, scathing wit.

Mr Islam runs the Taste of Raj restaurant in Congleton. By a happy coincidence, Harry Hill used to have a little joke about a similar establishment. "I found an unusual new restaurant the other day," he'd say. "It's called A Taste of the Raj. The waiter hit me with a stick and made me build a very complicated railway system."

Oh dear, I've gone and upset any British imperialists in the audience. But at least it was funny.

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