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Virginia's dawn raids on M & S

SO OCCUPIED is the Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, with the important issues of hospital closures and other medical matters that she has run out of time to do her shopping. At least that is what she told the Oxford Street branch of Marks & Spencer three weeks ago, when it negotiated an unusual deal under which she is able to shop outside normal opening hours, at 8am.

'It is highly irregular,' says an M & S spokeswoman. 'No other cabinet minister, or indeed Prime Minister, has ever asked for this before. None the less, if people are finding it difficult to shop we are prepared to be flexible, as we were in this case.'

Reports, however, that Mrs Bottomley was harassed during normal hours by fellow shoppers complaining about the health service have been denied by her office. 'Nevertheless,' admits a spokesman, 'it is impossible for any cabinet minister to complete a shopping expedition without encountering obstacles.'

Marks & Spencer's 'flexibility' policy, therefore, looks likely to continue: 'Our Brighton branch set a good precedent after the hotel bombing in 1984,' adds the spokeswoman. 'We opened early so that all the MPs, clad in their nightshirts, could buy clothes.'

FOLLOWING John Major's potentially damaging libel action over rumours about his alleged affair with caterer Clare Latimer, the satirical magazine, Scallywag - whose attributes include a regular column by the fugitive Asil Nadir - has decided to protect itself against future writs; it has set up hundreds of little offshore funds - said to be worth approximately 10p each.

'The idea is confuse future claimants,' admits its editor, Simon Regan, who has been lunching eminent QCs to glean advice on tax havens . . . pause . . . 'Cyprus seems the ideal place . . .'

Palace bard THE PRINCE of Wales looks set to emulate Elizabeth I when, next Thursday, he hosts and finances the first 'Shakespeare evening' at Buckingham Palace.

In an attempt to replicate the court atmosphere in which the bard's plays were originally produced, a stage, upon which RSC members will perform Shakespearian extracts, is being specially erected in the ballroom where the audience will sit.

A banquet - in suitably high style - is being prepared for the 350 guests, and so special is the evening expected to be that according to a Palace spokesman no fewer than 12 members of the Royal Family have changed their schedules in order to attend.

'The Queen herself will not be there,' admits the spokesman, 'but the programme, directed by the RSC's Adrian Noble, was actually dreamt up by the Prince.'

Quite what the agenda contains is being kept a state secret; those privileged to a preview, however, simply sigh: 'Marvellous.'

PERHAPS surprisingly, not everyone is pleased by Monday's changes to the House of Commons' wine list. After 10 years of complaints of 'muck' and 'filth', the catering committee has rejected 64 of the old varieties in favour of more expensive types.

According to Menzies Campbell, MP for Fife North East, 'there's doom and gloom in the Lib Dem camp becasue the reasonably priced claret that we used to drink has gone . . . only the Tories can afford the new kind.' Indeed, at pounds 6 a bottle, the house red is not cheap, but to some, including Don Dixon, Labour MP for Jarrow, the issue is irrelevant. 'I'm a brown ale man myself,' he says, wrily.

Museum types THE Sunday Times building is to become a newspaper museum - after, that is, the paper's staff are transferred to ritzier premises beside the Sun next year. The move has caused a ripple of consternation among older hacks. 'We're wondering who'll be left behind as token relics,' one quipped.

A DAY LIKE THIS

20 October 1917 The Rev Andrew Clark writes in his diary: 'M E Hughes-Hughes called. An army paper has been issued suggesting that parents of soldiers (who have been killed) should apply for an allowance to make up for the weekly sum formerly received from their sons. Herbert George Wright's father is now aged 77; the mother is blind; Ethel Wright, daughter, has now had to leave domestic service to look after her parents. M E H H came to ask if I could verify the statements on the application form. Arthur Stoddart was wounded on 20 Sept. They have to sleep in dugouts. On some mornings the Post Corporal had to swim from the dugouts to get the letters. Air raid of Friday evening. Fred Fuller says that several people were killed outside Swan & Edgar's. When there is an air raid, London police go about the streets with a placard 'Take Shelter' hung around their necks. When the raid is over, they go out with another placard 'All Clear'.'

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