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Town v gown: it's time for a rematch

IT WAS 31 years ago that the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, gathered his cabinet colleagues together and demanded a solution to the 'Oxford problem' - a dispute between Christ Church and Oxford city council over a projected road through the college meadows. Now I learn that this constitutional difficulty has returned.

In a confidential memo, Butler said it was 'a matter of urgency' that the dispute should be resolved, because he was worried about the effect it would have on Oxonian members of the House of Lords, who were joining forces to defeat the plan. Ultimately, it seems, they won the battle, but not the war.

Now the council is proposing to build new cycle and pedestrian routes across the meadows in an attempt to avoid congestion in the city centre, where there were 149 bicycle casualties last year.

Butler is gone, but the Christ Church men are fighting on. Dr William Thomas, a history don, told me that 'with the exception of Sam Howison, a mathematics lecturer, none of us wants the proposal to go ahead. He just happens to find the new cycle route quite convenient - it goes straight from his home to the college.'

I think the dons have again got the council on the run. Peter Mann, the city planner, tells me: 'There may well be lots of alternatives to a route through the meadows. We'll have to see.'

WHILE one young woman was turned away from the stewards' enclosure at this year's Henley Regatta because her skirt was just above her knee, I'm told a Jason Donovan lookalike was waved through despite his 'flashy and ridiculous' garb, namely two enormous hoop ear-rings which he could almost have thrown himself through. Sexism?

Not according to the assistant secretary, Daniel Grist. 'If it was Jason Donovan - and I didn't see him - he wasn't breaking the rules. Men must wear a lounge suit or jacket or blazer with flannels and a tie or cravat. What people do with their heads is up to them.'

My friend the gripper DAVID BLUNKETT likes people with firm handshakes, as I reported yesterday, but I'm sure he would agree that there are exceptions to the rule.

Lord Longford, the penal reformer, told me yesterday that Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer, has always greeted him with a strong grip - something only to be expected, he indelicately points out, of a man who used his hands to strangle his victims. And not even Lord Longford could claim that Nilsen was a pleasant man.

Or could he? He is a bit equivocal about Nilsen, although he admits he finds him easy to talk to and enjoys his sense of humour. However, during a chat about 'lifers' at his home in Chelsea, I was surprised at quite how many of the country's most evil men and women appear to have found a place in the affections of the octogenarian peer.

Everyone knows about his admiration - I don't think that's too strong a word - for Myra Hindley. He feels she has paid too high a price for her obsession with Ian Brady. But what about Harry Roberts, who killed three policeman in 1966 and was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years? 'I liked him,' he said. Liked him?

Then there's Peter Cook, the Cambridge rapist: 'He wanted a sex change, and I took it up with the Home Office. I failed, and he didn't want to see me after that.'

I'm not surprised. Lord Longford is too good a man to realise, I'm sure, that he is in most cases being taken for a ride. The same thing will happen, no doubt, when he visits Darius Guppy, the old Etonian fraudster whose mother used to own the flat we were chatting in. 'His mother is good friends with three of my daughters. I've written to ask whether I can come along and see him,' he said. Guppy's handshake is as solid as a rock, I'm sure.

Perhaps Mr Blunkett has got it slightly wrong somewhere.

ELDORADO's champion, Gwen Lamb, rang to complain about my note on Tuesday in which I said I found it incredible that a large number of people were protesting against the dropping of the programme. Well, don't you?

But in a spirit of fairness I watched some of yesterday's episode to check I wasn't being too harsh. It does seem to have improved since the early days. But 'absolutely electrifying', Gwen Lamb? I think not.


8 July 1974 Peter Hall writes in his diary: 'To a N T Board meeting in the afternoon. Much droning on from a few about Spring Awakening (by Frank Wedekind), its filthiness, its unsuitability both for their elderly mothers and their young daughters. Would it not be more artistic to have something suggested than a large man waving a large penis and then literal and lengthy masturbation? I said that the actors were not really masturbating, and that if it were done more discreetly it would inevitably be more titillating. The scene should be horrible. It was suggested it should be toned down for the regions for they, after all, were not ready to accept the deparavities of London. I said I wasn't prepared to censor our work for the provinces. John Mortimer said he welcomed the masturbation scene as it livened up proceedings in what he regarded as a boring, old and tendentious play. There was hearty laughter.'