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That was The Group that was

THIRTY-THREE years after the dissolution of an intellectual Oxford society that, unwittingly, sowed many of the seeds that later gave rise to the SDP, 16 former members of 'The Group' will be reunited at a 'where-did-it-all-go-wrong' gathering at the Reform Club on 8 September.

Not that all the luminaries who attend will see it that way. While Bill Rodgers, one of the Gang of Four, and Dick Taverne will rue missed opportunities, others, such as Peter Shore, a former Labour cabinet minister, and David Wedgwood-Benn, brother of Tony Benn, will no doubt feel politics is none the worse for the demise of the short-lived party.

The Group, which last met in 1960, consisted of 26 mainly Oxford graduates, most of them political activists, who met regularly for five years to research and discuss issues of the day. Mostly members of the Labour Party, five were elected to Parliament, while others went into journalism, broadcasting, academe and the law.

The action that gave The Group its political credo was the decision by six of its members to sign a letter in February 1960 in support of the then embattled Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Michael Summerskill, one of the members who has co-written a book about The Group to will be published on the day of the reunion, said this action constituted at least a germ of the idea for the SDP.

One 'honorary' member of The Group is Shirley Williams, another co-founder of the SDP, who was not invited to join in the Fifties on grounds of her sex. She says now that she felt the male members regarded her then as a political threat, but has, nevertheless, agreed to attend the reunion.

Another member, David Vaughan Williams, realised his future did not lie in politics when he found himself in a queue at a government stationery office with Dick Taverne. The latter was buying a copy of a White Paper. Mr Vaughan Williams was looking for a guide to beekeeping.

ON TUESDAY I noted how Elisabeth Hoodless had to pay a pounds 30 taxi fare because British Rail had made her late for a conference she was addressing in Didcot. The train from Paddington failed to stop at Didcot, and despite assurances from the guard that the train back to Didcot from Swindon would wait for Mrs Hoodless and the other passengers, it did not. Hence the taxi fare. In response to her claim for a refund, Mrs Hoodless received a pounds 5 BR voucher - something I suggested would probably remain unspent for some time.

I'm delighted to report a development in this story. BR rang yesterday to tell me that as a result of my report, Mrs Hoodless's case has been reviewed. 'Her full circumstances were not appreciated at the time,' the BR man said. 'A cheque (not tokens, furthermore) for pounds 35 is in the post.'

Oddity abroad

SIFTING through the 50-odd letters received so far in the Diary's summer competition to spot the funniest example of 'foreign' English, I am struck by the regularity with which bellboys and chambermaids come in for abuse. David Ford, of Cambridge, Massachusetts (this competition is truly international), recalls advice given to him in a Tokyo hotel: 'Please put your laundry in the bag and hand over the bellboy.' Meanwhile W Smith, of Disley, Cheshire, was told: 'Flattening of the underwear is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her with pleasure.'

If not a chambermaid, why not 'come and try our tasty Greek cousin', as advertised by a hotel restaurant on the island of Karpathos (Anna de Chassiron, of London). In China, don't drive, at least not 'over 15 km/hr within the hotel'. Otherwise, reports Helen Baker, of Bedford, 'the hotel management has the authority to impose a fire'. Two bottles of champagne or a bottle of single malt whisky to the winner. Entries must be received by 31 August.

THE FRONT-page story in Auto Express 2 (Auto Express's free supplement) has some hard-hitting stuff about how women wanting to buy cars are patronised by male staff. But what else does one find on the front page? A photograph of the latest Renault Clio, covered with lipstick 'kisses', and a brunette in a red dress draped across the bonnet under a heading that reads: 'Lipsmackin' model.'


20 August 1933 Edith Oliver describes in her diary a weekend spent at Renishaw, the Sitwells' house: 'Sir George is always angry if he hears people laugh when he is not there, so we saw him in the garden when we were having tea and we staged two outbursts of maniacal laughter. Edith incredible in her shrill scream and Colin and I shattered with laughter by the others. Sir G looked sharply up and then turned to Robins his servant and said he would come down to dinner. But he did not appear when dinner was over and we sat and talked terrific scandal, everyone swearing everyone else to secrecy. This grand beautiful house is filled with conversation pictures of bygone Sitwell family groups ending with this group (the Sargent portrait of Sir George and Lady Sitwell, with Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell) and yet what haunts it so horribly is the nightmare hatred of Sir George for his whole family. He moves about like a poisoner's ghost with his thin cruel smile.'