Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary

Never far from someone’s bunker

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Why is Andy Burnham avoiding the nice people of Stafford? Since taking over as Health Secretary in June he has yet to visit Stafford hospital, which is at the centre of an investigation over its unusually high death rate.

A pressure group, called Cure the NHS, has issued repeated invitations for him to come and have a look, and were looking forward to a meeting this Thursday. But, alas, he has had to cancel again, perhaps not the canniest move. "We think he's a coward and challenge him to come and have a debate with our members that the press can record," says campaigner Julie Bailey. "There you are, Andy, we challenge you." Stafford is only a short hop from Andy's Leigh constituency, so what is it, I wonder, about these angry NHS activists that's keeping him away?

***

A glance at the cover of any Peter James thriller will tell you they are set in Brighton. His latest, Dead Tomorrow, currently No 1 on the Tesco chart, bears a moody picture of Brighton's burnt-out pier. So imagine the author's surprise when, in talks with the BBC to adapt the novels for TV, he was told that Auntie wanted to relocate them to Aberdeen. A succinct Foxtrot Oscar summarily ended the talks. Happily he has since signed a deal with ITV, and Bafta-winning screenwriter Neil McKay has written the first series. Best to leave Aberdeen to the oilmen.

***

There's trouble in them there hills. Fashionable novelist Rachel Cusk appears to have been a little too accurate in her portrayal of life among the expats of a certain Tuscan valley in her recent book The Last Supper. Published in July to great acclaim – it was Radio 4's book of the week – the book chronicles the three months during which Cusk abandoned middle-class Bristol for a rented farmhouse in Chiantishire. Now some of the locals she met during that time have read the book and feel their absurdities and foibles have been too cruelly exposed, and little effort has been made to disguise their identities. I'm told there is talk of legal action, which could delay publication of the paperback. But it's news to a Faber spokesman when I call, who says it remains scheduled for June. Meanwhile, hardbacks are selling like hot cakes.

***

Are standards slipping at Eton? Old boys have been sent an elaborate brochure asking for more money and its tagline is: "Keeping Eton, Eton." Nobody likes a pedant, but isn't that comma redundant? (Answers on a postcard please.) No word from headmaster Tony Little, but we'll pop him a copy of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves in the post for Christmas just in case.

***

She's back: Farah Damji, the serial mistress, jailbird and perennial trouble-maker, once hailed London's most dangerous woman, is holding a reading of her "explosive" autobiography on Wednesday. Try Me came out in July but Damji was arrested on fraud charges soon after and has been busy defending herself in court ever since. The book is chock-full of scandal, chronicling her claims to have had affairs with two high-profile figures – one an executive from The Guardian, the other a well-known travel writer – and even includes intimate email and text exchanges. Tom Cain, Gavin James Bower and Darcus Howe are lined up to read extracts at The Lamb on Holborn's Lamb's Conduit Street. Should be a big night out for the libel lawyers.

***

She once stepped out with George Clooney, but Lisa Snowdon's new walker is even better connected – step forward Nicky Haslam. The interior designer and master of reinvention accompanied the Strictly Come Dancing star to Alan Bennett's new play The Habit of Art on Thursday. They make an unlikely friendship, occupying opposite ends of the celebrity spectrum as they do, although Nicky's recently published memoir, Redeeming Features, suggests he has known just about every famous name of the last century – Greta Garbo, Diana Cooper, you name it. Catching up with him, he admitted he was having doubts about all that name-dropping. "I worry they are names of the past and nobody is interested in them any more," he sighed. At least Lisa Snowdon is very now.

m.bell@independent.co.uk

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