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GREAT STUKELEY'S PAPER CHASE

First came Threshergate, now it's Belchergate: the John Major newspaper bill affair. Doug Belcher is the owner of the village shop at Great Stukeley, near Huntingdon, and supplies newspapers to the Major family home down the road. Last week he became briefly famous when his bank tried to repossess the business. Mr Major's account is of not inconsiderable value to the shop - more than 30 papers a week, according to Mr Belcher (though not the Sunday Sport any more, Norma Major cancelled it some time ago). The bill is settled regularly by cheque from the Paymaster General. Which seems fair enough: Mr Major wouldn't have to read the papers if he wasn't Prime Minister; but should the taxpayer really be paying 45p a week for the footballing comic Roy of the Rovers (not to mention Radio Times at pounds 1.20)? Alan Williams, the Labour MP for Swansea West and a leading light of the Public Accounts Committee, is most excited by our revelation. 'The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, should certainly spend Christmas combing Roy of the Rovers to see if the public is getting value for money,' he says. But - and it's a big but - 10 Downing Street tells us that while the bill is settled by them, Mr Major always reimburses the Treasury for everything other than the daily and Sunday newspapers. So that's that. Meanwhile, the county court has ruled that Mr Belcher be allowed three months to find a buyer for the business. Which still has - at time of going to press - the patronage of the Majors.

GREENSHOOTS Lamont was on sparkling form at the Stock Exchange's Christmas party on Friday. 'They tell me Andrew Neil is a self-made man . . .' he said, and added, with startlingly good timing: 'Well, no one else would own up to it.'

HAWKING REFLECTS

Desert Island Discs on Christmas Day will feature Professor Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time - the book everyone owns (but few have read), and whose success has made him one of the few geniuses in history to have made a decent sum of money. Professor Hawking is, of course, almost completely disabled by motor neuron disease: as a result he will be the first desert islander to give his testimony by voice synthesiser. He contracted the disease while at Oxford University, but his feelings about it are not what you might immediately expect: 'I certainly am happier now. Before I got motor neuron disease, I was bored with life. But the prospect of an early death made me realise life was really worth living. There is so much one can do, so much that anyone can do. I have a real feeling of achievement, that I have made a modest, but significant, contribution to human knowledge.' Hawking's discs include a lot of Mozart, a liking he shares with Einstein.

SO WHAT went wrong with the Heathrow Customs and Excise Christmas party? Simple - management ordered a postponement after discovering that spirits were to be sold to guests. Without a licence.

TIDINGS FROM BEYOND

A touching Christmas card arrives, with some well-chosen words from Dickens's A Christmas Carol: 'The face was the same, the very same . . . The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel . . . 'I wear the chain I forged in life,' said the Ghost. 'I made it link- by-link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it' . . . 'A Merry Christmas, Bob]' said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back.' The card is from a committee representing 220 Maxwell pensioners in the printing industry in the Derby, Nottingham and East Kilbride areas, who still have a pounds 3m hole in their pension fund. Robert Maxwell's own Christmas cards, it will be recalled, bore a photograph of Robert Maxwell.

Q: WHY do elephants have big ears? (While you're thinking about that, here's a Diary Christmas comp. We want to find the world's worst cracker joke, so send us your nomination - documentary evidence required - and we'll give bottles of champagne in the new year for any we print.) A: Because Noddy didn't pay the ransom.

FACT AND FANTASY

And how pleasant to receive a Christmas card from Lord Mason of Barnsley that's not all Santa, snow and smiles. An original watercolour by the Yorkshire artist Ashley Jackson, it shows a desolate mining landscape with a headstone bearing the words 'RIP, Yorkshire Pits'. Much more welcome than the one from the press desk at North West Regional Railways, whose lovely Christmas card shows a train speeding through the night in driving snow. Right kind of snow, obviously.

A DAY LIKE THIS

22 December 1933 T E Lawrence writes to Edward Elgar: 'Dear Sir Edward, This is from my cottage and we have just been playing your Second Symphony. Three of us, a sailor, a Tank Corps soldier and myself. So there are all of the Services present; and we agree that you must be written to and told (if you are well enough to be bothered) that this Symphony gets further under our skins than anything else in the record library at Clouds Hill. We have the violin concerto, too; so that says quite a lot. Generally we play the Symphony last of all, towards the middle of the night, because nothing comes off very well after it. One seems to stop there.'

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