Women don't need men to put us down. We do it better ourselves

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What a modest lot we ladies are. How keen the fair sex is to hide its light under a bushel. There may be complaints that the modern woman is thrusting and brash. But among really excellent women, it is still considered proper to be coy and compliant. A number of the 180 women who lunched with the Queen this week, at a special celebration of "Women of Excellence", professed great surprise that such an honour had been conferred upon them.

What a modest lot we ladies are. How keen the fair sex is to hide its light under a bushel. There may be complaints that the modern woman is thrusting and brash. But among really excellent women, it is still considered proper to be coy and compliant. A number of the 180 women who lunched with the Queen this week, at a special celebration of "Women of Excellence", professed great surprise that such an honour had been conferred upon them.

Jemima Khan said that she felt "very undeserving" to be included on the guest list. Charlotte Church confessed, "I don't think I'm worthy when all I do is sing." Baroness Boothroyd declared delight that "an old has-been like me has been invited". Even Baroness Thatcher used a word that has never passed her lips before and announced that she was "very grateful".

It pains me, this lack of confidence, it really does. If even the women of excellence in our midst get all bashful when their achievements are recognised, then what hope is there for the rest of us? Jemima Khan has raised millions for charity. Charlotte Church has officially got the voice of an angel. Betty Boothroyd was the first female speaker of the house, and Margaret Thatcher was the most significant prime minister of the 20th century.

If these women are undeserving of a once-in-a-lifetime buffet lunch with wine clipped to the plate, and a few minutes of strained conversation with a grim-faced Lilibet, then God help those of us who are merely "average" or "good". Frankly, the old girl should be grateful instead that all these excellent women turned up at such an empty and meaningless public relations event at all, let alone offering services above the call of duty by behaving as though it actually had some significance.

Shirley Bassey, honoured at the event for her services to tax exile, told the press, "I'm glad Her Majesty has done this. Men have had it their own way for too long." What is she on about? Has the Queen decided that male primogeniture is wrong, and vowed to do something about it? No, the monarchy still upholds discrimination against its own daughters.

Vivienne Westwood, honoured for her services to anarchy in the UK, gushed, "The Queen's a real working woman. I can't think of anyone who's working harder." One can only be charitable to Ms Westwood, and assume that she only meets women who are rich and idle enough to come round and be fitted up for her couture clothing. Because, quite contrarily, I can think of plenty of women who are working harder than the Queen, sometimes even for a slightly smaller salary-and-perks package, and without any servants.

My favourite woman of excellence, though, has to be Cherie Booth, who was very much at the event as a non-married, independent career woman and famous lawyer in her own right. "The palace called me Cherie Booth QC, which I was thrilled about," she told the press. She also said that she thought it was "very important we celebrate women's achievements. The leader of the country is a woman - the Queen."

This, though, is highly disingenuous, for two reasons. We know that the leader of the country is really a man called Tony Blair who is married to a woman called Cherie, who was there because of her marital connections, whatever she wants to believe. We also know that the Queen isn't the Queen because of her "achievements" but because she had no brothers.

The Queen, just to point up the absurdity of the event, only agreed to it under pressure from her media-savvy courtiers. She didn't want to host it because she "is not a feminist". She's not the only one. Britain is teeming, it seems to me, with people falling over themselves not to be feminists, even if they're keen to pay lip service to the idea.

On the day after the Queen's excellent lunch, jostling alongside the photographs the event was staged to generate, was the news that Maxine Carr is to be prosecuted for lying in an application for a job at a seafood-packing factory. One can only assume that she was playing her qualifications down.

Ms Booth, the human rights lawyer, will understand that this woman is being persecuted because of her partner's crimes. Mrs Blair, the woman married to the famous guy, will understand it even better. Let's hope that she can galvanise her fellow women of excellence to challenge this pathetic distortion of justice, instead of modestly upholding the status quo.

How to undermine democracy without terrorism

They may not know who committed the Madrid atrocities. But, nevertheless, they do know why. World leaders are united in their claim that whether in the name of Eta or of al-Qa'ida, the attack on Spain was an attack on democracy.

I wonder if it is, though. If the "attack on democracy" was carried out by Eta, then it has not worked well. Amid the unbearable pictures of appalling suffering, Thursday's images of the citizens of Bilbao gathering in silent condemnation of the terrorism undertaken in the name of their Basque identity were a dignified affirmation of decent human values.

The people of Bilbao chose to unite with the people of Madrid against the cruel extremism of Eta. In Spain, on Thursday, if it is true that Eta carried out the bombing, then democracy was strengthened. The turnout for Sunday's elections is likely to confirm this.

José Maria Aznar, the outgoing Spanish prime minister, no doubt acted out of conviction in identifying himself so strongly against Eta. But he is also just one of many Western leaders who understand that a hard line against terrorism is appreciated by democratic voters. The 11 September atrocities immediately made popular a leader who just a few months before had gained his presidency by means amounting to fraud.

George Bush is keen to capitalise on the mass murder visited upon his countrymen by using images of it in his re-election campaign. If anything undermines democracy, it's stunts like that.

Follow that bird

There's a long tradition of amateur phenology in Britain, and it's standing the country in good stead as the importance of monitoring climate change becomes ever more apparent. Today around 13,500 people in Britain are watching the rhythms of nature, pooling the information they glean and comparing it to similar observations going as far back as the mid-18th century.

So hats off to Jean Coombes, who began in 1947 to record the time at which her local oaks came into bud. And to Robert Marsham, who started the ball rolling in 1736, when he penned his first "Indications of Spring".

Thanks to these conscientious souls, we know that trees are going into leaf much sooner, that bees are coming out of hibernation ridiculously early, that frogs are spawning quite perilously ahead of time, and that migrant birds are arriving weeks before they used to.

But there is another indicator, perhaps more significant than those contained within the natural world, that spring is indeed coming earlier than ever. Phenologists, I think, should start monitoring, Melanie Phillips, the left-wing commentator turned right-wing commentator, who like all converts, is all the more stubbornly ideological for her change of heart.

Two years ago, Ms Phillips's article claiming that all those greeting spring with dire warnings about global warning were frauds was published on 25 February. This year, however, a similar piece arrived more than six weeks earlier, on 12 January. Not so long ago, the call of the cuckoo was considered to herald the arrival of spring. But, I find the cry of Ms Phillips much more reliable.

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