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Matthew Bell: The <i>IoS</i> Diary (28/03/10)

Always one hour ahead

The media is frequently criticised for promoting atheism, but Classic FM has landed itself in a shallow fry for seeming to suppress it. Adverts for Eric Idle's show Not the Messiah have been pulled from the classical music station after listeners objected to the promotion of a "militant atheist production". Now the British Humanist Association has whipped itself into a lather over free speech and is lobbying for a U-turn. "There are no blasphemy laws in this country any more and this decision is entirely unjustifiable," thunders a spokesman. We decline to pronounce either way, though we're sure there was once a time when comedians were allowed to make jokes.

Why is Rosie Alison's debut novel, The Very Thought of You, up for the Orange Prize despite being ignored by almost all literary editors (the Telegraph quickly reviewed it after this was pointed out)? Those who believe in the internet's democratisation of literature say it is a triumph for the undiscovered author, as the book has thrived, thanks to Amazon and online recommendations. Others, of a conspiratorial disposition, may notice that when Alison is not writing she is an influential TV figure, having been a documentary-maker for more than 10 years for LWT, the BBC and Talkback. Three of the Orange's five judges list themselves as TV producers or broadcasters, including chairwoman Daisy Goodwin, who was once editorial director of Talkback Thames for many years. Piccolo mondo!

Two cheers for Michael Gove, who pledges to reintroduce learning by rote to tackle the ignorance epidemic sweeping the country. It couldn't come a moment too soon, judging by a speech recently delivered by a senior Tory containing the following howler: "Famed for his obscenity-laden briefings delivered in Westminster pubs, Tony Blair expelled Whelan from his position at Gordon Brown's side in 1999". As IoS readers will know, (puts on mortar board), the subject of the sentence (Whelan) should follow the comma, rather than Blair. And who was the minister responsible for the clanger? Step forward one M Gove. Gamma minus, Gove. See me.

Andrew Marr drew mixed reviews for his TV series A History of Modern Britain: Tristram Hunt praised his confrontational style while others, such as Charles Moore, felt it was all too PC. Now Marr has revealed how an episode would depend on whether he was presenting, ahem, "cock in or cock out". Speaking at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, he explained that this was shorthand for his two types of delivery. "There were times when I would ask the question and I would see a look of abject horror on the faces of passers-by," he mused. Marr is usually rather less forthcoming about his peccadilloes, which he has previously prevented newspapers from reporting. But he was on gregarious form on Friday, and described his TV crew as "a family where all the members are amiable alcoholics". Not so PC after all, then.

Confessions all round at the BBC: also at the above ceremony was head prefect Kirsty Young, who disclosed how she hit the bottle while on the job. Well, sort of. During her interview with Morrissey for Desert Island Discs, in which he admitted to contemplating suicide, she was knocking back spirits. "He was sipping neat vodka throughout, it helped his performance," she explained. "And so was I. It would have been rude not to join him." The Beeb would normally take a dim view of staff boozing, but not in Kirsty's case: she's far too special.

So, Geoffrey Hill has been nominated Oxford Professor of Poetry, following last year's brouhaha which saw Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott bow out over an alleged smear scandal. Finding a serious contender has caused dons to delve deep into their contacts books, and Hill, a 77-year-old alumnus, fits the bill well. Indeed he has an impeccable provenance, as he is one of an elite coterie of British poets that includes Shakespeare, Wordsworth, T S Eliot and Ted Hughes: all the objects of parody by Wendy Cope. In her early collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Cope takes pot shots at all the greats, up to and including Hill, whose collection Mercian Hymns, about the Anglo Saxon king Offa, she mocks with a poem called Duffa.