Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (15/01/12)


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The Duchess of Cambridge is to suffer the indignity of undergoing a CRB check for her new role with the Scouts. But she can take comfort that even the grandest families are into CRBs these days. The Duchess of Devonshire has placed an advert in The Lady appealing for a "first-rate PA/secretary", to assist her in her "very busy business and private schedule", and stipulating that "a CRB check will be required". In this case, perhaps it's no bad thing. Sarah Ferguson found her assistant Jane Andrews through the small ads of The Lady, and she ended up murdering her own boyfriend. Anyone thinking of submitting an application should note they'll be working for the current chatelaine of Chatsworth, Amanda, not her more famous mother-in-law, Debo, youngest of the witty Mitford sisters. A "sense of humour" is, all the same, required.

Fatima Whitbread suffered a nervous breakdown when she wrote her autobiography in 1988, so traumatic was the experience of reliving her childhood. But now I can disclose that the ex-Olympic javelin thrower, who recently did a spell in the celebrity jungle, is putting herself through the ordeal all over again. "I've almost finished it and hope to bring it out this year," she tells me. "I'm talking about everything that has happened in the last twenty-odd years, so it has been a tricky process but I have enjoyed it." She admits that it is a "rehash" of her first book, which told how she was orphaned and abused as a child. But a lot has happened in the intervening years, including getting married and divorced, having a child, grieving the death of her ex-husband and coping with financial insecurity. Though she is devoted to her son, Ryan, it may not make easy reading for him. "He has read sections but not the whole thing. I have had to be honest in it. I don't know how to be any other way."

George Bush awarded Paul Johnson a medal for services to freedom; now, the BBC has recognised the polymath journalist by inviting him on to Desert Island Discs. The 83-year-old ex-News Statesman editor, who swung dramatically to the right later in his career, tells me he chose mainly pop songs for today's show, repeated on Friday, because they mean more to him. "The only classical piece I have chosen is Mozart's Ave verum corpus, because it is so short they can play the whole thing," he says. "I don't like them playing just snatches." Other tunes include Patsy Cline's "Crazy", and Shirley Temple singing "Animal Crackers in my Soup", a childhood favourite. Johnson has had a busy weekend: last night, his son Luke, founder of Pizza Express, and Daniel, editor of Standpoint, was throwing a surprise party for the 80th birthday of their mother, Marigold, at Leighton House, west London. Marigold is no wallflower herself, having once been awarded the MBE for services to Anglo-Irish relations. Happy birthday!

Contrary to reports that Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, has landed a £1m deal to write two books about ancient Rome, she tells me the figure is considerably south of that. "A million?" she splutters when I ask. "Do tell Profile [her publisher] that I am worth that. It was a very nice advance for a labouring academic like me, but NOT a million!" In any case, Beard, who is classics editor of the TLS, has certainly hit the big time. The books will be sold in the US and here, and publishers are already promising plenty of sex. "The second has more sex," says Professor Beard. "But it is really about the figure of the emperor. Why are we and the Romans so interested in them? What are all those stories about the sex and excess of the emperors all about? What kind of jokes did emperors tell and why. And what does it all add up to?" One critic no doubt looking forward to penning a review is Robert Hughes, whose own history of Rome was devastatingly panned by Beard last year. Is she worried? "I anticipate Robert Hughes scouring them for errors!"

Take your seats, please, for a cacophony of classical music puns. An enterprising young pianist is cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats with his piano in tow, performing concerts at every stop. He's called the Olympianist (boom tish!), and he's planning more than a song cycle (boom tish!). Anthony Hewitt is aiming to cover 1,200 miles over 20 days in May, raising money for a variety of musical charities. Some of the recitals will be in formal venues, others will be performed spontaneously in remote locations. His repertoire includes the Janacek sonata On the Street (boom tish!). But while soft-pedalling the streets himself, he will not be hooked up to the grand piano. It will travel behind him – in the BeethoVan. Encore!