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WHEN John 'Powder Puff' Patten was likened to 'a latter-day King Canute' by Sir Malcolm Thornton, the Tory chairman of the Commons education select committee, we assumed Sir Malcolm was merely drawing on his own experiences at the Liverpool Nautical College to help him with the metaphor. On reflection, however, there is something rather Canute-ish about the Secretary of State for Education, symbolised not only by his insistence on meeting the teachers head- on, but also by a custom he introduced as a fellow at Hertford College, Oxford. While there he defied, no doubt unwittingly, no less a person than John Turk, the keeper of the royal swans.

Turk is adamant that no swans have been killed and served for dinner at Oxford during his 30 years in charge. However, in the interests of justice and the preservation of Her Majesty's birds, we have informed Turk that while other dons contented themselves with turkey, goose and so on when entertaining undergraduates who had just finished their finals, on one occasion in the Seventies the rather grand geography don served up swan at the high table.

Being a fair-minded lot, we tried to contact Patten yesterday to tip him off (a man was fined pounds 50 for shooting at a swan in Staines this year, presumably spared the maximum pounds 400 fine per dead bird because he failed to kill it). Though there is no suggestion that Patten personally killed the bird, which had been legally culled, he might like to reassure Turk that the swans were either tame, or he had been given permission to own them by the Queen. We're sure he can.

LIBRARIANS are increasingly helpful these days, particularly in Welwyn Garden City where one borrower wanted to know why categories of books were identified by symbols (a heart for romance and so on) rather than words. 'Simple,' said the librarian, 'they're for people who can't read.'


For those still puzzled by the 'Pakistani cricketers and marijuana' affair, the diary offers the following theory: the arrest of the leading lights of the Pakistani team on a Grenada beach for alleged possession of marijuana may not be unconnected to a gross miscarriage of justice against a Barbadian showjumper called Oliver Skeete.

Skeete, known as the 'lone rasta' because of his dreadlocks, had just started making an impact on showjumping in Britain - he told next month's Esquire magazine that he started jumping last year - when he was arrested by Customs and Excise for allegedly conspiring to import pounds 30,000 of marijuana.

After being held in a police cell for a month - he kept himself cheerful by pinning pictures of his horse on the wall - Skeete was released with all charges dropped, apparently the victim of mistaken identity. Who did they think he was? The (totally blameless) West Indies captain?

IT SHOULDN'T be a problem in Welwyn Garden City, but Century, the publishing imprint, wants everyone to ignore the words 'The Authorised Biography' on the spine of Daniel Farson's biography of Francis Bacon - words, says Century, which have 'subsequently come to our attention' since sending out the review copies - because, well, it isn't.


Lady Archer does not want this story to appear but, as a paper of record, we would like to point out that Jeffrey and Mary Archer's gardener Richard Overy should from now on be referred to as Rachael.

The fragrant one issued a statement from the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, where Rachael busies herself among the blooms after commuting on a small motorbike from her semi- detached home nearby. It reads: 'Rachael Overy discussed her gender reassignment with my husband and myself nearly a year ago, and we are fully supportive of the course of action she has taken.' We will never refer to it again.

A CONVICTED arsonist was on the run from Wormwood Scrubs yesterday after being allowed out of prison to take part in a fund-raising event. Who for? A fire brigade charity at Canvey Island.


14 April 1944 Norman Lewis, in Naples, writes in his journal: 'To Santa Maria to investigate a Contessa della Peruta who wished to marry a British officer. I went to her huge house and was shown into a room furnished with tapestry and antiques. Even by Italian standards the Contessa was beautiful, and dressed with quiet elegance. We had a short talk in which she showed liveliness and charm. I found myself envying the man involved, and I went back to HQ to turn in an almost lyrical report. Four days later, I found myself in Santa Maria again and called on the Contessa. The vast room was now completely empty. A long wait while the Contessa was found, still as beautiful as ever but dressed in coarse jumper and skirt. She burst into tears and the truth came out. One neighbour had lent her the empty house, others the clothing. Although an aristocrat, she had no more than any other poor village girl. I assured her the marriage would almost certainly go through.'