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Natural beauty and the Beast

DENNIS Edward Skinner MP, the Beast of Bolsover, is famous for skewering his political opponents on the point of a memorable phrase or image. Only last week he described John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, as 'a puffed-up peacock on heat' transformed by his retreat on testing in schools into 'a bedraggled battery hen that has laid its last egg.'

But from what fount does the former Derbyshire miner - clubs Miners' Welfare (several) and Bestwood Working Men's - draw his inspiration? In a bid to increase the sum of human knowledge yesterday the Diary cornered the Beast in the central lobby of the Palace of Westminister.

Here, in between signing autographs and accepting greetings from enthusiastic visitors up from the sticks, Skinner - who also coined 'The House of Windsor has pushed the self-destruct button' and once described John Gummer as 'a wart on Thatcher's nose' - revealed that, like Wordsworth, he often draws his inspiration from nature.

Almost every day when the House is sitting, the tribune of the working classes goes for a walk in one of London's parks. Most often he strolls around St James's Park, but if he has the time he will venture farther afield to Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park or Kew. It is during these solitary perambulations that he alights upon the images most likely to embarrass his political opponents, most usually Tory ministers.

'You don't get inspiration,' he says, 'from just looking at four walls. I don't think you get inspired here (the House of Commons). I feel that you have to be away from it. I think things through in the park.

'There's a wonderful little garden in the middle of Richmond Park, Isabella Plantation, full of magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, the azaleas are out now . . . beautiful. I also go to Richmond when the chestnuts are ready - you know, the ones that you eat - in November. I know where all the trees are, so I go and get a few chestnuts to roast because I used to do that at home as a miner . . .'

And the inspiration for his memorable description of the hapless Mr Patten? While walking round the lake in St James's Park he spotted some pelicans strutting about. 'I were thinking, yeah, that's what he does, he sort of struts. Obviously I couldn't compare him to a pelican. And then suddenly it hit me, yeah, a peacock, that's it, a peacock.'

AND here's the May edition of Psychic World ('Supporting the voice of spiritualism'), containing an interview with the late Gordon Higginson, former president of the Spiritualists' National Union. 'Gordon Higginson - His Final Interview' the headline declares. Which poses just one question: How do they know?

Opposing Derrida JACQUES Derrida will be deconstructing in private during a visit to Sussex University on Monday. While not exactly a secret, the French philosopher's seminar is not being publicised and will not be open to the public.

Geoffrey Bennington, Professor of French, who has invited Derrida to talk to some of his graduate students, says: 'I did suggest to them that because it wasn't a public occasion it might be better if they didn't talk about it as if it were.'

Pressed for a lay person's definition of the deconstructionism that Derrida espouses, Bennington offers the suggestion that it questions 'the way traditional philosophy works in terms of binary conceptual oppositions'. The conceptual opposition most commonly associated with Derrida in Britain, of course, is the spate of objections to the honorary degree he received from Cambridge University last year.

THE folk-song enthusiast Michael Ancram MP, Conservative member for Devizes, is compiling a Parliamentary songbook to raise money for charity. He had the idea after a friend sent him a copy of a Swiss parliamentary songbook containing a medley of mountain songs and yodels. Early contenders for the British version include 'D'you Wanna Be in My Gang?' and 'Those Little White Lies'.

HOW thoughtful. The Safeway supermarket group offers the following assurance in the nutrition fact information box on a pack of six fruit pies: 'Acceptable for a cow's milk-free diet'.

A Day Like This

19 May 1926 Robert Byron writes to his mother from Greece: 'Leaving Sparta by car, we drove to Gytheuri right in the south. Huge oak trees rose from the red earth among the rocks. Reaching the port we could communicate with no one - but knowing the name Monemvasia, we uttered it to discover there was a boat leaving in quarter of an hour. We arrived about 6 and put our luggage in a room in a sort of public house, reached by an outside staircase shared by three families, a cat and its kittens that all had lupus, a sheep which befouled the well and several dogs so indistinguishable from the compound of dung, dust and refuse which covered the courtyard that it was impossible to count them. Alistair picked many fleas off my bed and a number of bugs - but as they never come near me I slept in peace. He did not, and now has a body like a leopard.'