Boyd Tonkin: btw

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Poets and politicians, priests and presenters: this week's party to mark the 50th birthday of the Today programme was as eclectic as the flagship show itself. What would Peter York say to Ming Campbell? Or Thom Yorke to Alan Johnson? Or, for that matter, John Humphrys to his boss, the BBC's axe-wielding director general Mark Thompson? The old curmudgeon didn't disappoint. He made merry with Jonathan Ross's salary: they paid for the party by sitting him on a deep sofa and collecting his loose change, he said. Strange, then, that the Humphrys ideal of high-minded frugality was tarnished by handing every guest a smart, burgundy-bound notebook as a going-away gift. And not just any scribble-pad but one designed by the artist Fiona Banner. Its cover carried a curious riff on the meanings of "today": "in the present age, in these times, nowadays, this day, a day that is here..." Concrete poetry? Mantras for morning meditation? Or a quote from the collected speeches of Donald Rumsfeld?

* For all the flak the Saudi royal visit caught, virtually no critic made clear that the kingdom's funding of export-strength extremism began as a policy to appease fundamentalists after the terrible blunders of 1979, when jihadis stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca. A hopelessly bungled operation by Saudi and French forces led to perhaps 1,000 deaths, yet the absence in 1979 of mobile phones, internet and satellite television means the Saudi regime has been able to bury the revolt. The Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov tells the whole story in his new book The Siege Of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising. After the mosque seizure, the National Guard commander did not even bother to go to Mecca but stayed in Riyadh. His name? Prince, now King, Abdullah.

* What to do if, as happened to me last week, a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers gives you an unscheduled day in Pisa? Ignore the Leaning Tower unless you really want to climb it. Head instead for the Gothic cloisters of the Camp Santo, where (until war damage in 1944) 14th-century frescoes covered the entire walls. Much of what survives – The Triumph Of Death and the Last Judgement – stands in a separate gallery, ignored by the crowds. They are beautifully nightmarish visions of the downfall of worldly vanity, painted as the Black Death ravaged Italy. Just the thing for any politician's wall.

* The Counterfactual History of 21st-century Britain, Chapter One: "As 1 November 2007 dawned fine and warm, over the swinging shires and suburbs of Middle England, Gordon Brown knew his election gamble would succeed. The Labour-friendly sunshine matched his mood as he heard of yet more bitter last-ditch rows between Tory trads and mods. The Lib Dems languished with a lame-duck leader, their marginals ripe for re-taking. The PM broke into a grin of sheer relief as he looked forward to the day that would destroy British Conservatism, scolding himself for those jitters of a month before. What a disaster it would have been to delay ..."

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