Diary: Patriotic effort to save our effigy

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The Independent Online
IN A MOVE likely to put an even greater chill on Anglo-French relations, Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, has blocked the export of an effigy of one of Queen Victoria's best-loved cousins. The 7ft marble monument to Victoire Auguste Antoinette de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Duchesse de Nemours, was bought by the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, last year for pounds 80,000, having aroused little interest among British museums. The Government has - rather belatedly - given them another month to raise more enthusiasm, and the cash.

'The subject is intimately bound up with the British royal family,' declared a patriotic Whitehall voice, but France may not see it that way. Although the Duchess became one of the queen's closest friends and confidantes after she fled to Britain in 1848, both she and her husband, who was the second son of King Louis-Phillipe, were French - as was the sculptor who portrayed her, Henri Chapu.

The Government is undeterred by this fact. 'Generations of the French royal family found a haven in Britain during the 19th century and this effigy exemplifies that long tradition,' a spokesman told me yesterday. I'm told British museums have now woken up and are preparing a generous rival bid.

BRITISH Rail isn't terribly well versed in English literature, as I pointed out last year when it printed 60,000 leaflets advertising services to Windsor without realising that its plug line for the castle was written by Wordsworth, and not Tennyson as advertised. Now Railfreight Distribution has named its first 20 Class 92 locomotives after literary and musical figures. Pride of place, according to the press release, has been awarded to . . . Jane Austin.

EUROGONGS

With Britain once again at loggerheads with the rest of Europe, it's good to know that at least one (albeit adopted) British man is still in favour on the Continent. The President of Portugal, Mario Soares, recently presented a large, ornate cross to the octogenarian conductor Sir Georg Solti, who was born in Hungary but became a British citizen in 1972. And I now learn that Albert II, King of Belgium, is to honour Sir Georg with that country's highest chivalric order, making him a Commander of the Order of Leopold.

Solti's award, to be presented at the Belgian Embassy in London tomorrow, is a tribute to his music, but the Belgians are also grateful for his services to their economy. When the maestro's 23-year- old daughter, Gabrielle, was enjoying herself as a European Commission stagiaire (the beneficiary of an exclusive training scheme for aspiring Eurocrats) in Brussels not so long ago, Sir Georg was a regular weekend visitor. 'He and his wife must have spent a phenomenal amount on Sabena flights,' said a fellow trainee. 'As for the phone bill, Belgian Telecom did extremely well out of their evening chats.'

ON THIS day of all days for the Irish - St Patrick's Day - the South Bank Centre in London appears to have got its emblems in a twist. The centre will tonight favour thistle, not shamrock, as 'three of Scotland's leading writers' perform readings at the Purcell Room. So much for Celtic solidarity.

STERN WIGGING

Presumably no senior judicial appointment is in the offing for the London barrister who was taken to task on Tuesday by Judge Graham Neville after appearing before him at Exeter Crown Court wearing old blue jeans and suede shoes, which he had tried to conceal under his gown. 'It is a disrespect to the court bordering on contempt,' stormed His Honour. 'In any subsequent hearing before me, I shall require you to appear before any other member of the Bar so I can inspect your dress.'

A DAY LIKE THIS

17 March 1801 William Wilberforce writes to a Leeds magistrate: 'Mr Brown and Mr Fisher informed me that the sufferings of the poor in Leeds itself were much less than in the surrounding district; yet they spoke of Leeds itself as exhibiting a face of great wretchedness. I am therefore surprised to hear from you that your rates are no higher, and surely you might lay on a few shillings without inconvenience, and thereby place your own poor in a situation, which, considering the times, might be justly considered comfortable. Great and numerous as are the objections against granting public money for the relief of individual distress, yet on full consideration, and after weighing all other schemes which have been devised and suggested, I find it indispensable to resort to the national purse; and Mr Pitt, though always backward, from constitution, from habit, from official feelings, etc, has been compelled to consent to this mode of relief.'

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