Matthew Bell: Ths <i>IoS</i> Diary (10/01/10)

So that's where all the grit is...
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The Independent Online

This time last year rumours were swirling about Simon Schama and his friendship with top literary agent Caroline Michel; these were finally laid to rest with denials of any impropriety all round. Now the 64-year-old married historian has revealed his crush on actress Charlotte Rampling in embarrassing detail. In a "frank and revealing interview" in Harper's Bazaar, Schama drools over the glamorous star like an ill-mannered puppy, starting by describing her body as "a thing of beauty" that "turned men into warm puddles on the floor". He goes on to describe their meeting, in a restaurant booth, "she doing her cat impersonation, me the floppy terrier who just wants to woof and play". On he goes, slobbering and fawning, until finally the interview is over and she tells him she has time to kill before going to the theatre, and his imagination runs amok. "'What am I going to do to pass the time?' she teases, giving me the full-on charm. I am speechless." Down boy!

Intriguing to note that a senior Ministry of Defence official has now admitted to the Iraq Inquiry that there was a deal (he calls it an 'understanding') under which the British troops pulled out of central Basra in exchange for a quiet life and the release of dozens of Shia prisoners, as revealed 18 months ago in the IoS. (The result of the deal, according to one senior soldier, was that "lawlessness took over".) Can we expect a similar admission from Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, who wrote, rather curiously: "There was no 'deal' that left Basra prey to militias"? We're all ears, Sir Jock.

Some good news emerges from the world of big-name scientists after the sacking of Baroness Greenfield from the Royal Institution. Over at the Royal Society – quite what the difference is between them is one of those remaining unsolved problems – Lord Rees, president and also the Astronomer Royal, has cause for celebration after being chosen as this year's Reith lecturer. The honour is bestowed by the BBC on only the most eminent thinkers, which have included the philosopher Bertrand Russell and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. The Reith lectures are broadcast in June, and are aimed at "advancing public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest." Ah yes, those old, forgotten Reithian values.

As the nation awaits the start of Monty Don's new Channel 4 series My Dream Farm in 10 days' time, locals near his own farm in Wales – who have generally welcomed Don's arrival – are expressing wry amusement at the presence of the cameras. Don's sheep and cattle, it has been noticed, are immaculate in their blackness. "They are far superior to anything else you see in the valley," says my mole over the five-bar gate. "They are glossy and well-fed, and don't look remotely like the rough-looking animals you get round here." Camera! Lights! Spray-on mud! Action!

News of Tory spin-doctor Steve Hilton's criminal record is thought to have been leaked by someone with a grudge. But might it not have been an official leak? Mad as it sounds, last week was a good time to bury bad PR, coming right after the story about Hilton's emails, which shadow cabinet ministers say are irritating and patronising. The incident at Birmingham New Street, in which Hilton was arrested and cautioned after verbally abusing a ticket inspector, happened 16 months ago, so it's odd for it to have emerged now. It would only have been known about by Hilton and Andy Coulson, who was with Hilton at the time, and perhaps it was deemed better to get it out in the open before the election. If only Andy would reveal his own skeletons.

Election campaigning is getting under way months before polling day, but Tory party chairman Eric Pickles already appears to be using slightly desperate measures. His latest round-robin email has as its subject: "RE: What do you want to ask me about the NHS?" As everyone knows, an email headed 'RE' is a reply to a previous email, but I don't recall ever sending Mr Pickles an email about the NHS. This tactic of tricking recipients into opening emails by making them think it is a response to one they sent is increasingly used by spammers and Viagra-mongers. Is this another of Steve Hilton's cool new directives?