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It's all down to the ducks, Harry

WHILE Frank 'You-know-what-I-mean-Harry' Bruno was still asleep yesterday, or at least drinking his early morning tea, his trainer, George Francis, was out and about in Highgate, receiving the plaudits for his protege's most recent success (Frank beat an American called Carl Williams on Saturday night, putting him in line for a world title fight against fellow Englishman Lennox Lewis). I spotted him from the window of the Mozart Cafe, where I had been drinking mugs of coffee after taking an extremely cold early morning dip in one of the Highgate ponds.

I was in Highgate principally to write about the 100 years (come Saturday) since people first started swimming in the Men Only pond there - it's still free, and at least a handful of people continue to swim among the ducks and swans in the rainwater all year round - but also to establish the extent to which cold water training had contributed to Frank's success. Francis takes him there regularly, as he did John Conteh, a former world champion, and has been going there himself for 50 years.

(Despite a recent survey that suggested a cold bath each day makes us feel better, I was sceptical about anything cold being linked with Bruno's triumph; an African friend of your diarist deserted his football team-mates during a snowstorm the other year, and couldn't be cajoled back from the hot shower, however hard they tried. And my British Guyanese taxi driver had nearly jerked us off the road, so uncontrollably was he laughing when I told him I was about to go swimming outdoors.)

When I caught up with Francis, he confirmed that Frank hates cold water (although he can occasionally be persuaded to swim a few yards), but he did tell me some nostalgic stories that should encourage more of us to use the pond before it too goes the way of the Serpentine (entrance fees, chlorine and so on). Among them, I offer these: two female divers training for the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 on the pond's (now defunct) high diving boards were only permitted to do so from behind a curtain at the top of the board, thus preventing them the odd peek into the men's changing rooms.

And I particularly like the story about a man sitting thoughtfully beside the pond the morning after ferrying soldiers from Dunkirk in his small boat, only to have his reverie interrupted by an elderly gentleman shouting across the water: 'Young man, what do you think you are doing here? Don't you know there's a war on out there?'

THE Princess of Wales is learning fast - speaking at a conference yesterday on bulimia nervosa, she looked up at the audience packed with 'will-she-won't-she journalists' and opened thus: 'Ladies and gentlemen, I have it . . . (pause for suppressed gasp from the journos) on very good authority . . .'

Painful memories

IN THE last few months, Baroness Thatcher has led us to believe that she is enjoying her new life, considering the perfidies of the past just one of those things. I'm not so sure. For half an hour between arriving at Broadcasting House and delivering her broadside against the West for not acting over Bosnia, she was entertained by, among others, Peter Bell, the editor of news programmes, who chatted with her in his office in the run-up to the Six O'Clock News.

Among the pictures on his office wall is a photograph of the BBC's chief political correspondent, John Sergeant, during his finest hour - you will recall him broadcasting live from the British Embassy in Paris during the Tory leadership election, only to swing round as Mrs Thatcher emerged behind him to declare her candidature in the next round. Should the picture be turned to the wall? Bravely, Bell stood firm and, according to his version of events, a friendly conversation took place, with absolutely no mention of the picture. However, there are other versions of the encounter which insist that, triggered by seeing the picture, Thatcher poured out her heart about the lack of structure (Prime Minister's Questions, Cabinet meetings and so on) in her life.

WHILE BR is advertising unlimited rail travel in 19 countries, including Croatia and Yugoslavia, the transport select committee's report on rail privatisation has this piece of enlightenment: 'Because railways are a fixed system, any new development, such as the provision of new passenger stations and freight terminals, has to be located alongside the track.'


28 April 1958, Stephen Spender writes in his Tokyo diary: 'On Monday evening I went with Mrs Matsuoka to dinner with Kawabata (the Nobel Prize-winning novelist) at his house in Kamakura, about an hour's train ride from Tokyo. He lives in an old-style, rather elaborate, and very perfect Japanese house - all wood outside and mats and paper walls and screens and scrolls within. He provided a quite marvellous Japanese meal, of about 16 to 20 courses, washed down, a bit oddly, with whisky. Besides Mrs Matsuoka and him, there was a poet, a professor and his wife, and Kawabata's wife and daughter. The professor, who was a statistician it seemed, told me that the feelings of the young in Japan are disquieting. Whereas in other parts of the world the suicide rate among the old (40-60) goes up, in Japan this decreases and it goes up with the young. He found it difficult to account for this.'