Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (28/11/10)

Still talking turkey

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What qualifies Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, to be chairman of the Booker Prize? Although she has five novels to her name, she is known to have enjoyed the services of a ghost writer. "It is odd," says A S Byatt, a former Booker judge, whose novel Persuasion won the prize in 1990. "If she doesn't write her own books, it's not ideal." "It's a good thing if judges of the Booker are literary, especially the judge," adds Hermione Lee, herself a former chairman. It's not the first time eyebrows have been raised, though Michael Portillo and Sir George Walden proved to be excellent chairmen. "It's actually very hard to get anyone to do it," explains Byatt, "It's an awful lot of work, and most women already have a lot on their plate. Stella Rimington is clearly intelligent and is likely to be good at chairing meetings. The main thing is that the judges actually read all the books, unlike in other prizes, which means it is still a good prize."

The London Review of Books has been accused of using state money to peddle anti-Israeli attacks. The charge is made in a report by a supposedly neutral research body, Just Journalism, which has analysed articles from the past ten years. A Freedom of Information request has revealed the LRB received £767,000 in grants from the Arts Council. Apparently, the LRB "consistently portrayed Israel as a bloodthirsty and genocidal regime out of all proportion to reality". It's not the most objective report, and one can't help feeling that they're over-egging things by claiming that the LRB is propped up by the state: the grants were over 30 years, amounting to around £26,000 a year. And everyone knows the LRB survives only thanks to the deep pockets of its editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, an American heiress who, besides, is herself Jewish. The timing is telling, though, as the Arts Council must make cuts of 30 per cent. No prizes for guessing where Just Journalism thinks they should start.

Eton has taken a blasé attitude to having an old boy as Prime Minister (well, he's hardly its first). Not so St Helen & St Katharine's, the Abingdon girls' school where Samantha Cameron spent five years. The latest edition of its newsletter boasts that it is "now being delivered to a new address – No 10 Downing Street". "We are very proud and excited of the important role that is being played by Old Girl Samantha Cameron, who attended St Helen's from 1982 to 1987." It adds that she keeps in touch with many "Helkats", though they only name one, Alice Thomson, who, as a journalist on The Times, might have other reasons for staying in touch. Also, just how fond of St Helen's was Samantha? She left the minute she finished her GCSEs, and spent the sixth form at the more rock and roll Marlborough, where there were boys.

There are shades of Maurice Chevalier's song "I remember it well" to the anecdote about when Chris Moyles first met Carol Vorderman. We know the nine-year-old Moyles was once a teaboy at Radio Aire in Leeds, and that Vorders hosted a weekend show at the time. But he has always denied her claim he used to call her "Auntie Carol," which seems rather bumptious even for him. Now, in her memoirs, she reels the story out again, this time claiming that "the angelic-looking 10-year-old" was shy, and hid behind his mother when they were introduced. "Such a sweet child!" she beams. No doubt he'll be thrilled.

David Cameron's cousin Ferdinand Mount drew the biggest-ever audience to the annual George Orwell Memorial lecture on Friday, which he delivered on the subject of "Orwell and the Oligarchs". The author and former TLS editor was withering about bankers, pointing out that, as Orwell predicted, this is the trouble when managers take control of society. Waving a tatty old five-pound note, he quipped that the only legacy of that pantomime villain, Sir Fred "the shred" Goodwin – the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland – was his signature on it. "And it's just as vague and all over the place as he was."

Some felt Hugh Bonneville lacked gravitas as master of Downton Abbey, in which he played Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham. Aged only 47, Bonneville is perhaps the wrong side of 50 to play a redoubtable patriarch. But Bonneville has never been afraid to throw his ample frame about – the 6ft 2in actor has spoken of his fondness for bacon butties and "having to wear a bra in the gym". Now he tells me of a hair-raising moment during filming, when a chair he was sitting on began to give way. "It was an awful moment: it started going and I sat there, thinking, shit, oh God." Mercifully, it turned out to be a prop, and not a Highclere original.

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