Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (27/11/11)

'Downton' and 'Strictly' don't even come close

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The Independent Online

Writers who savage each other in print will be rewarded by a new prize, the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. The prize will go to "the funniest bad book review", with the winner chosen by a panel of four expert judges, including two Independent on Sunday writers: DJ Taylor and former books editor Suzi Feay. They will be joined by Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, and hack-turned-novelist Sam Leith. The inaugural ceremony is scheduled for February, and is being organised by The Omnivore literary magazine. "We're going to hold it at The Coach & Horses," says editor Fleur Macdonald, referring to the Soho pub made famous by Jeffrey Bernard, where Britain's rudest landlord, Norman Balon, presided. "We're probably going to extend it to prizes for theatre and film reviews too," she adds. Next month sees the annual Bad Sex Award, which commends lamentable erotic scenes in fiction. Some suspect authors of deliberately inserting tawdry sex scenes, such is the publicity the prize generates. Can we now expect a rise in hatchet jobs too?

The funeral of Count Andrzej Skarbek – husband of mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace – who died last week, aged 86, will be a musical affair, in tribute to the Count's family connections. The Skarbeks were an aristocratic Polish family, and it was on their estate that Frédéric Chopin was born, while his father, Nicholas, was the family tutor. The first piece of music Chopin ever wrote, aged 8, was dedicated to the Skarbeks. Wallace, who is chief executive of Sane, has three sons by the late Count, one of whom, song-writer Sacha Skarbek, co-wrote James Blunt's "You're Beautiful". Marjorie, 67, has been separated from the Count for the past 30 years, living instead with Tom Margerison, who founded New Scientist and London Weekend Television. "There's going to be a funerary Mass on 2 December," she tells me. "Chopin will be played, and some old Polish tangos." She will continue to be styled Countess Skarbek.

Much staring at shoes at Monday's quiz in aid of PEN, the charity that campaigns for free speech. Martin Rowson, The Guardian's political cartoonist, had been tasked with encouraging assembled literary types to cough up more money – they had already shelled out £1,500 per table of 10. Clutching the podium, his strategy was to dispense with niceties and simply bawl at the audience to "give us some f***ing money", in the hope that guests might be embarrassed into submission. It didn't appear to do him much good, as after several minutes he only had a tenner. And in the cold light of dawn, I wonder if he regretted demanding that Alan Rusbridger, his editor and ultimate boss, hand over half his salary (of £400,000) straightaway?

Geoffrey Boycott paid tribute to Basil D'Oliveira after the cricketer's death last week, hailing him as "the man who changed the course of history", in relation to apartheid in South Africa. Odd, then, that the usually free-speaking Yorkshire man omitted to mention his own involvement in apartheid cricket. In 1982, he helped organise a secret month-long tour of the republic with Graham Gooch and 13 other players, in defiance of the ICC's and the UN's position on boycotting apartheid. All 15 were punished with a three-year ban from international cricket. Why so coy, Geoffrey?

David Cameron offered himself up for questioning from celebrities in yesterday's Guardian, batting off questions about Eton pot-smoking and his friendship with Rupert Murdoch. But he didn't quite get off without embarrassment: replying to Mariella Frostrup, who asked what his favourite line in literature was, the PM replied, "Henry V's speech at Agincourt: 'Men of England who lie in bed...'." Er, come again? Methinks he means "... gentlemen in England now abed". Next week: Hamlet's immortal soliloquy, "Shall I, shan't I? – I just can't make up my mind...".

My colleague Joan Smith memorably described tabloid journalists on Monday as "going around like children who've just discovered... their parents had sex". Thankfully, some newspapers are more grown up about all that. Take The Daily Telegraph. The cover of its business section last Thursday was illustrated with a painting of a bare-breasted woman by Tiepolo, which Silvio Berlusconi always used as a backdrop to press conferences, but which Mario Monti wants replaced. How thoughtful of someone at the Telegraph to alter the painting so that her naked breasts were "digitally covered".

m.bell@independent.co.uk

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