Diary: Curtain twitchers under scrutiny

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UNTIL now, Richard Hoggart's masterly sociological treatises have concentrated on the attitudes and customs of working-class people, particularly in his seminal study, The Uses of Literacy, and the first part of his autobiography, A Local Habitation. In both works, he creeps under people's skins in a way few other living writers can do, which can make people feel uncomfortable from time to time.

Now the middle classes are getting the treatment. At the age of 74, Hoggart, who was brought up in a small house in Leeds between the wars, has just finished a book based on the curtain-twitching activities of his neighbours in Farnham, Surrey, where he has lived for the past 18 years.

Provisionally called Earth's Axis: A Townscape With Figures, it is the result of three years of typically painstaking research.

Hoggart tells me: 'I have been walking around the town. I have been listening. I have hung around the checkouts at Sainsbury's until I think they thought I was trying to nick the chewing gum. You build up this picture of people, their homes and their connections and then suddenly I go whuff and get out my notebook.'

Rather surprisingly, the author (who says he has only been recognised once in the town, which is probably just as well) concludes that Farnham man and woman have not changed that much since the turn of the century. 'If you pick any of them up and dropped them back in England in about 1903, you would hardly notice the difference in attitudes,' he says.

However, I must take the precaution of warning his neighbours that they should not expect the book to be a gentle exercise in nostalgia: Hoggart has a finely tuned ear for those 'appalling accent-affected, middle-class, middle-aged housewives who are the holy terrors of the town.'

THE DISCERNING Alan Coren is choosy where he works, to a certain degree. Taking part in the BBC 2 quiz programme Have I Got News For You, he was introduced by the presenter, Angus Deayton, as Alan Coren of the Sunday Express (for which he writes a weekly column).

As is customary, Deayton asked the panelists at the end of the recording whether there were any parts of the programme they would like to have changed. Coren, who also writes a column for the Times, piped up: 'Do I have to be the Sunday Express's man? My newspaper is the Times, not that haddock sheet.'

VAPOURS over Turner

I HAVE not consulted a wills lawyer on the subject, but it does seem unorthodox to defy the conditions of Turner's last testament by failing to exhibit all his paintings together (the artist only excluded his Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour, which he wanted in the National Gallery alongside paintings by Claude).

Prompted by an initial salvo by Selby Whittingham, founder of the Turner Society, who wants the paintings together in a Turner gallery, various luminaries have been debating the issue over the weekend.

Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, where most of the Turners are displayed, yesterday described Whittingham's plans for a separate gallery as 'bizarre', and said that he expected the Turners would continue to be shown to advantage in both the Tate and National galleries.

To establish whether Serota is speaking for the galleries or the people who visit them, I canvassed opinion among aficionados at the Tate's Clore Gallery yesterday.

The findings were, I fear, inconclusive, best summed up by a retired couple, Olive and Curtis Alfred, who couldn't agree with each other, let alone Serota, Whittingham et al. Olive would like them together, Curtis would prefer the odd Turner to appear outside London.

I'm sure countless other non-Londoners would agree with Curtis.

PADDY ASHDOWN, I know, is a keen user of the Commons gym, and I gather that another party leader, John Smith, has started using the amenities. A bottle of champagne to anyone spotting that other (probable) party leader, Kenneth Clarke, taking any form of exercise, anywhere in the world (other than playing snooker).


1 June 1868 The Goncourt brothers write in their journal: 'Dinner at Magny's. We heard some curious details about the German scholar Froehner, a pedant who is no more learned than anybody else but to whom the present-day cult of Germanism in the world of learning has brought ironic blessings. One of our number had known Froehner when he was humble, poor and wretched. When he met him again, Froehner was wearing a cravat with pink spots and an astonishing suit, the sort you can imagine a German scholar turned dandy would wear. 'I dare say you find me changed. The fact is that I discovered that hard work and application is just nonsense. The only way to get to the top here is through women.' Froehner anxiously asked him if a German like himself would ever be able to talk smut to women as Frenchmen did, saying that he had tried but that it always became so coarse and filthy he could never finish it.'