Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (19/02/12)

An exotic and irrational entertainment


Jeremy Paxman should stick to the night job and leave the teaching of history to historians. That's the message coming out of Oxford University on the eve of Paxo's major new BBC1 television series called Empire. While the 61-year-old hothead has perfected the art of sneering at undergraduates from 18 years of hosting University Challenge, he has met his match in a member of the Senior Common Room. Professor Alan Knight, who teaches history at St Antony's College, has written to The Daily Telegraph to say Paxo doesn't get the job of historian. "The point of history is not to advance moral judgements," he says, "but to understand what happened and why." Knight was responding to a piece by Paxo headlined "Our Empire was an amazing thing", part of a plug for his book and the TV series. The letter adds that a historian should not assume the role of hanging judge, by making moral verdicts, which are purely individual and "hence not amenable to empirical debate and argument". Paxo read English at Cambridge, so he's not to know.

Hurry, hurry – more than 100 original works of art by fashionable names are being sold off in a silent auction at the Chelsea Arts Club, ending on Wednesday. Paul Smith, Peter Blake, Ralph Steadman, Theo Fennell, Rolf Harris and Ken Howard are among those who have donated one of their daubings to the sale, which is raising money for more impoverished artists. Taking the title "The Body Clothed in Art", each has interpreted it in a different way: Howard is among the most literal, painting a nude in his studio, but jewellery designer Fennell has painted a triptych called the Three Graces – namely, Grace Jones, Gracie Fields and Grace Kelly. Rolf Harris has painted himself sprouting the third, trousered leg with which he entertained whole families of television viewers in the Sixties. Entitled Rolf The Peg, it looks distinctly strange to modern eyes....

Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the death, at 51, of the feminist novelist Angela Carter. Bloomsbury, publishers of Harry Potter, marked the occasion with a special salon at the Bloomsbury Institute on Friday, which doubled as a launch of Susannah Clapp's homage to the author, A Card from Angela Carter. Although Carter won the Somerset Maugham prize and used the money to run away from her first husband ("I'm sure Somerset Maugham would have been very pleased"), she never won or was even short-listed for the Booker, which prompted the creation of the controversial Orange Prize for fiction, awarded to women only. "People think she was grossly under-rated, but she wasn't," said Clapp, her literary executor. "She did get big reviews at the time and as much coverage as Salman Rushdie, but I think, because she's a woman, she hasn't been seen as fundamental to our reading as she should be." Carter was, however, once a Booker judge, in 1983, although TV presenter Selina Scott mistook her for a hanger-on and asked if she'd read any of the shortlisted books.

News that the National Trust has banned shooting at Polesden Lacey, infuriating locals, has prompted some to wonder what Mrs Ronnie Greville, who left the Surrey mansion to the trust, would have made of it. The millionaire brewing heiress was one of the most influential figures of the inter-war years, who alarmed the government by backing Hitler and hosting Hitler's foreign secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop for weekends. An appalling snob and notoriously belligerent – Harold Nicol- son called her "a fat slug filled with venom" – she was also a devoted animal-lover. In fact, she left part of her massive fortune to the RSPCA and the anti-vivisection league. So, despite the social cachet of shooting, she would probably have welcomed the shooting ban. As the trust starts retracting shooting licences, threatening a new countryside war, it looks like it's 1-0 to them.

Marina Hyde has laid into Blur bassist Alex James. Reviewing his new volume of autobiography, All Cheeses Great and Small in The Guardian last week, she noted how the cheese bore is a fan of the Cotswold farmshop Daylesford Organic –"the most twattish shop on the planet". She loathes this "insanely priced place of grocery pilgrimage", and its ghastly Chipping Norton types, like the Camerons and Brookses. Oddly, she didn't mention another Daylesford fan: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

Emma Hope says that wearing an MBE makes getting about a whole lot easier. The top shoe designer received the honour from Prince Charles on Tuesday, alongside her fashion heroine Barbara Hulanicki. "He was extraordinary – he knew something about all of us," she tells me. "I was so thrilled to receive it that I didn't take it off. It seemed to help when hailing taxis. In fact, I even wore it to the cinema."

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