Not so long ago I was overtaken by a small disaster: the woman who had cut my hair for years announced thawt she was returning to Spain. I went to try out the nearest competing establishment, an award-winner, according to the large certificate in its window. The music was deafening. The "stylists" danced around like skinny dervishes. One had purple hair, which suggested I was in quite the wrong place.
But worse was to follow. Instead of being ushered to a basin, I was steered to the leather sofa and given a form. It wanted my name, address, age, phone number, e-mail address and employment. Reaching "age", I suddenly saw sense, returned the form and walked out, but not before asking why a salon needed to know all this before it cut my hair.
I suppose I should have been grateful that the information was being requested upfront. I decline the multiple favours held out by supermarkets, with their Nectar cards and the like, because of an admittedly rather hazy idea of what they use the information for. They make shopping difficult enough as it is, with their continual rearrangement of shelves and "improvement" of their websites; why should they be able to mine information about my personal shopping habits for free?
Only this week, questions were asked about what use the authorities might make of the information contained on the Oyster cards we use to travel around London. Look inside the Oyster "shell" on the reader and you will find a record of your last week or so's journeys. That information will be available to other people as well. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous CCTV systems that snap you as you walk, ride or drive.
Is it really too late to offer a paean to the twin virtues of anonymity and discretion - or does it have to be an obituary? Whatever happened to a person's right - a rather British right, I always fancied - to go about your business as you saw fit, without attracting undue interest from anyone? Why do we now expect to know everything about everyone - and why does everyone expect to know everything about us?
And this passion to know is not only an invasion of our remaining privacy. It has consequences that are considerably more malign. I am not in the least surprised - although the Government appears to be - that the legislation lifting the anonymity of sperm donors has precipitated a shortage of sperm that is lengthening waiting lists for IVF treatment nationwide. Whoever believed that it could be otherwise? How would you like to be called up - or more likely texted - 18 years later by a young man or woman claiming to be your progeny?
The law, to be sure, will not require you to contribute to the upkeep of these new-found descendants - we should be thankful for small dispensations. But how many of these "fathers" would escape from a first encounter without feeling the tiniest flicker of responsibility? So the young person concerned has the right to know about his or her genetic make-up, because this is the way medicine is going. By all means, let them have their DNA analysed if that is what they want. But don't make an identity thing of it.
The last repository of discretion, I tend to think, is France, where discret applied to anyone is a term of the highest praise. Discretion means that someone keeps a respectful distance, doesn't pry, doesn't promote himself or herself, and doesn't invade your personal space. It also means that, as a woman, you can sit alone in a café being properly served and without attracting unwanted attention.
I fear, though, that with the self-promoting antics of Ségolène and Sarkozy, this last bastion of discretion may already be under siege.
* Another spate of laptop thefts, and we all ask how anyone can be so careless as to let out of their sight a computer containing, for instance, personal information about Nationwide customers, or the partial payroll of the Met. No wonder we worry about the confidentiality of our medical records if the NHS computer ever manages to go live.
But are we not perhaps asking the wrong question? Why is this sort of information being held on easily transportable (and steal-able) laptops at all? Why is it not restricted to heavy office desktops that no one would cart away? Of course, data can be transferred easily enough, but make such transfers a sackable offence. There is no reason why this data should be stored on a laptop - and every reason why it should not.
How to defeat Borat
Despite a valiant fight-back by President Nazarbaev during his official visit to Britain this week, Kazakhstan's image is still stuck in boorish Borat mode. If Mr Nazarbaev really wants to change things, he should deploy his handsome daughter, who some say has ambitions to succeed him. Dariga, pictured, is an accomplished singer and dancer, and a journalist who has headed the country's official news agency.
She understood early on the advantages of a clement media climate and lent her patronage to an international talkfest - the Eurasian Media Forum - which is going into its sixth year. The goodwill generated may have mitigated Western criticism of its rather patchy human rights record. That, and its compliant attitude to George Bush's "war on terror".
With her father now 66, and neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan recently afflicted by unrest, there is more than a little interest about what Dariga does next. She already has her own political party, now part of a pro-presidential coalition. Will she become the first female potentate of a Central Asian state, or will the men - already jostling for the succession - crowd her out?
At the Frontline ... for the last time
The Frontline Club is a journalists' hang-out of fairly recent provenance, with a pleasantly bohemian feel, decent wine and a civilised restaurant with good food. Founded by a former freelance war correspondent, Vaughan Smith, as a haven for foreign correspondents and their ilk, it survives financially - as behoves such an institution - by the skin of its teeth.
Its evening discussion forums held several times a week keep right up with the news. But I somehow doubt that the club ever intended to make the news - at least not in the way it has. Now, its bare brick walls, newstype logo and packed upper meeting room have featured in newscasts around the world. As it happens, I was in the audience at the session held last month to debate the murder of Russia's star investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.
The meeting room was packed; we were all trying to juggle wine glasses in one hand, biros in the other and balance a notebook on our knees. The atmosphere was earnest and at times angry. Even so, it was a stunned silence that greeted the words of a fit-looking man two rows back from me, who identified himself (in Russian) as a former member of Russia's internal security, now living in Britain, who knew - he emphasised the words "I know" - who had killed Politkovskaya. In the next sentence he named President Putin.
Afterwards, Alexander Litvinenko, pictured left, was mobbed by people desperate for his contact details. But his outburst went unreported. For my part, I was inclined to dismiss his accusation as the imaginings of a disillusioned and conspiratorial ex-agent. Tragically, we are unlikely now ever to know the truth.
Deborah Orr is awayReuse content