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Richard Ingrams: Boozy lunches, smoke-filled rooms, gossip. All gone


I snatched up The Independent on Sunday last weekend hoping to get some insight into the bizarre political situation from its veteran columnist Alan Watkins, only to be greeted by the very dismaying news that he had died.

That Alan should go out at the same time as Gordon Brown and the Labour government seemed appropriate in its way. He was a survivor from an earlier age of old-fashioned politics – the age of smoke-filled rooms, boozy lunches and, above all, gossip. Alan had relished that world though he always found his fellow journalists more interesting and more amusing than politicians and, of course, he was right.

But then again the Fleet Street world that Alan Watkins graced has long since vanished. There were few of the old characters left, men such as his former editor, John Junor of the Sunday Express, who had impressed Alan early in his career with his guiding principles: "No first-class journalist ever has a beard. It is never libellous to ask a question."

As it happened Alan was unintentionally involved in disproving this last assertion. Reviewing a book which reprinted some of Junor's columns he commended the skill with which he managed to avoid possible litigation. He instanced Junor's paragraph about a headmaster who on three separate occasions had escaped prosecution for indecently assaulting his pupils.

After unreservedly accepting his innocence, Junor posed the question, "Might he not be wise to jack in a job which seems to carry such a high risk of false accusations?" Claiming never to have seen the original paragraph, the headmaster sued and Junor's book had to be withdrawn.

Have women really been snubbed?

Following the example of his great hero Tony Blair, David Cameron made sure that when the new Cabinet was photographed there was a smiling female face in the foreground – in this instance that of the Minister Without Portfolio Baroness Warsi – not only a woman but a Muslim. But this was not enough for the feminist lobby, urged on by all the Glenda Slaggs in the newspapers, who complained that once again the female sex had been rudely snubbed and was inadequately represented.

It is interesting that when you hear this argument made, you don't actually hear the names of any individual women whose claims have been overlooked. It is the female sex in general that is champion. This is perhaps not surprising in view of the way so many of the Blair women have come a cropper – Hazel Blears, Margaret Hodge, Baroness Scotland, Ruth Kelly and notably Jacqui Smith, Gordon Brown's former Home Secretary. Will history repeat itself in the case of Theresa May, another woman who looks as if she's out of her depth doing the arduous job of Home Secretary?

When men select women like this, not really on merit but simply to appease the feminists, they tend to pick the wrong ones, the ones who they think won't make trouble. Meanwhile, independently minded women like Clare Short and Ann Widdecombe are getting out of politics altogether.

Winged creatures invade the home

In case you hadn't noticed it, tonight is National Moth Night when we are all being asked to keep a tally of any moth that may come our way and report the results to the moth census authorities. Though no friend of the moth – an excitable creature that flaps around my reading lamp causing intense irritation – I shall do my best to oblige, but I am at present more interested in the crows that have made a nest in the chimney above my bedroom. This means being woken up most mornings by raucous calls and croakings. Never mind. The crows have my support, particularly as they seem to share my dislike for the ubiquitous red kites.

However, there are problems involved when it comes to being kind to the bird population. The other day two small boys known to me found an abandoned bird's egg in the garden and took it inside hoping to be able to hatch it artificially. When their mother rang the RSPB to seek advice, she was warned that by harbouring a bird's egg she was committing a criminal offence.