Matthew Bell: The <i>IoS</i> Diary

Last in the land to work a seven-day week
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The Independent Online

Richard Branson has been holed up in Switzerland skiing and taking in the World Economic Forum, but I gather he made a brief excursion back to the UK last week. Estate agents in Dorset are putting champagne on ice after the Virgin boss swooped in for the day to inspect Encombe House which, with an asking price of £25m, is the most expensive country house currently on the market. The 12-bedroom Georgian pile has only changed hands five times in its history, and previous owners include former Lord Chancellor Lord Eldon. The Bransons already own houses in London and Oxfordshire, not to mention a bulging international portfolio, but with its two and a half miles of prime Jurassic coastline and 2,000 acres of rolling Hardy country, Encombe is considered something of a jewel.

Peers have hit back angrily after 'The Sunday Times' published allegations of sleaze last weekend. The paper is sticking to its story but two of the four peers have instructed their lawyers to take action. The paper is certainly not frightened of the upper House – they've found room today for a full-page ad from an organisation called Enough's Enough, which calls for greater transparency in lobbying. Even if the story turns out to be wrong, at least they've sold some ad space. Kerching!

Boris Johnson's response to accusations of racism is to claim he is the epitome of multiculturalism, being partly Turkish and having an Indian wife. But Oxford contemporaries don't recall him as such an ethno-ya. Back then he was a member of the highly Anglo-Saxon Bullingdon Club, and he managed to marry the most eligible debutante of his year, blonde bombshell Allegra Mostyn-Owen. Although that marriage didn't last, it's intriguing to read now of her own eastern pull in the current 'Reader's Digest'. Mostyn-Owen, an artist living in London, writes about finding hope and happiness – after years of swearing, smoking and drinking – through working in a mosque. No mention is made of Boris, though, who is no longer a part of her life.

It's not often this column encourages pity for local government bureaucrats, but spare a moment's reflection for the gaggle of Transport For London (TFL) officials on a fact-finding mission to Paris last week. The team was off to research the city's bicycle-sharing scheme, which Mayor Boris hopes to introduce in London as soon as possible. Alas, when it arrived the city was overrun by 1968-style riots, not quite the vision of eco-harmony the team had been expecting. Returning dejectedly to London they picked up a copy of the 'Evening Standard' to learn that 2,000 TFL employees face the chop. How cruel!

We salute Katie Price, formerly known as Jordan, for triumphing over the deranged snobbery of the luxury goods PR world. Last summer she found herself barred from the Cartier International Polo Tournament at Windsor for being "not the sort of person they wanted", despite having shelled out £6,000 for a table. Now Price, an accomplished horsewoman, has been selected to play in a polo match at the forthcoming British Open showjumping event. "I'm really excited," she says. "Unlike some polo matches I could mention, this one is open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket. See you there!"

Poetry champion Josephine Hart was among guests at last week's Costa Book Awards with husband, Maurice Saatchi. Before dinner, Hart confided to me that she was in a state of some anxiety ahead of the publication of her new novel this week, which bears the bold but memorable title, 'The Truth About Love'. She has no cause for concern, judging by early reviews, and could go on to win next year's Costa, although that may be small comfort. This year's winner, Sebastian Barry, endured a humiliating speech by Matthew Parris, one of the prize's judges, outlining his book's deficiencies. "It was flawed in many ways, almost no one liked its ending," he said, as Barry looked at his shoes. As long as being flawed doesn't become a criterion for a winning book, Hart must be in with a chance.