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Old paras never die, they drop

IN A MOVE likely to embarrass the British government, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, 82, and the Dutch Royal Air Force have come to the rescue of 60 former British paratroopers, determined to re-enact their descent on to the Dutch battlefields of Arnhem next September, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of their ill-fated assault there.

The survivors of the landings - immortalised in Richard Attenborough's 1977 film A Bridge Too Far - started retraining for the jump several months ago and asked the RAF to provide them with air transport - they hoped for Second World War Dakotas.

The MoD, however, refused, saying that it was not insured for civilian parachutists. 'We are only covered for RAF Falcons and paratroopers,' said a spokesman, 'and cannot bend the rules.'

Now, however, the Dutch have proffered not only enough air transport for the veterans, but a pilot in the form of Prince Bernhard himself. Rehearsals are therefore continuing apace.

'We have to do five jumps this year and two next year - to make sure we are still up to it,' says group leader Geoff Holmes. 'Last week saw one colleague landing 2 1/2 miles off target . . . I think it's safe to say he will be jumping in tandem with an instructor.'

THE SHADOW health minister, David Blunkett ('wet' Blunkett as he has been dubbed by his opposite number, Virginia Bottomley), recently received a curious package from Canada containing a large wool blanket.

'I send you a blanket because you are a Blunkett,' read a note inside from a Mr D Sawcher of Vancouver. 'I don't know what to send to MP Gordon Brown,' he continued.

Touchingly, Blunkett has given the yellow and green blanket to his retiring guide dog, Offa. 'She will be making good use of it in what looks like being a very cold winter,' he tells me.

Princes in the shower IF THE Princess of Wales looks a little anxious at the moment, she has good cause; there has been an outbreak of nits at Ludgrove, the pounds 2,100-a-term Berkshire prep school attended by Princes Harry and William.

So far the royal crowns - subjected to regular head checks - have escaped unharmed; however, the lice tend to be difficult to control. 'You can pick them up anywhere,' says a spokesman nervously. 'Our boys are no different from any others. Those affected are not bullied - they take it in their stride.'

Officially, the Princes' parents were said to be relaxed about the epidemic: 'We are confident the school can deal with the problem,' said the Princess's secretary. None the less, I am told that both parents are vigilant about school hygiene and even pay the occasional visit to Ludgrove to chat to the boys' matrons.

THAT Baroness Thatcher should consider Ronald Reagan 'underrated' by 'lesser men' comes as no surprise to those paying sharp attention to the pictorial content of her memoirs, The Downing Street Years.

Opposite page 435 is a postcard from the former US President to Lady T; the picture is of the two sitting side by side at a dinner in 1988. Scrawled beneath is Reagan's script: 'Dear Margaret, As you can see I agree with every word you are saying. I always do. Warmest friendship. Sincerely Ron.'

The last of Les IN WHAT may be viewed as a brave literary effort, Tracy Dawson, former barmaid and widow of comedian Les, is to complete her husband's unfinished last work: The Survival Guide to the Older


It may be a while though before the handbook, based on the Dawsons' experiences of nurturing their daughter Charlotte, aged one, are completed. Mrs Dawson is busy arranging a Westminster Abbey memorial service for Les, which she quips, keeping up the family tradition of humour, won't be ready till after Christmas since: 'We've got to fit it in with the panto season.'

A day like this

19 October, 1765 James Boswell, in Corsica, records in his journal: 'While I stopped to refresh my mules at a little village, the inhabitants came crowding about me. When they were informed of my country, a strong, black fellow said, 'English] They are barbarians; they don't believe in the great God.' I told him, 'We do believe in the great God, and in Jesus Christ too.' 'And the Pope?' 'No.' 'And why?' This was a puzzling question in these circumstances, for there was a great audience to the controversy. I thought I would try a method of my own, and gravely replied, 'Because we are too far off.' A very new argument against the Pope's universal infallibility. 'Too far off? Why, Sicily is as far off as England. Yet in Sicily they believe in the Pope.' 'Oh,' said I. 'We are ten times further off than Sicily.' 'Aha]' said he, and seemed satisfied. I question whether any of the learned reasonings of our Protestant divines would have had so good an effect.'