If you bug someone's conversations it seems rather pointless to tell them about it later

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The Independent Online
Leafing through my back copies of Isis, the Oxford University students' magazine, I noticed a prescient piece of writing from October 1981. It's the "Isis Idol" column, a slot that was once reserved for the chic, the witty, the bold, the talented or the glamorously doomed. Once, people like Kenneth Tynan were Isis Idols. In October 1981, it was the turn of William Hague.

The precocious-but-wizened Hague, currently favourite to lead the Tory party to electoral glory at some unspecified future date, was of course already known to Conservative futurologists when he went up to Oxford, because of his broken-voiced intervention at a Tory party conference when he was still a teenager. But the Isis article - by "David Taylor" later to metamorphose as D J Taylor, the critic, novelist and biographer of Thackeray - offers a fascinating snapshot of William the Young Pretender, a leading light of the university's Conservative Association, laying out their manifesto from his rooms at Magdalen (where a book called The Pursuit of Power has pride of place on his shelves) and radiating ordinariness, reasonableness and patience - a commonplace young-politician-in-the-making. Undisturbed by liberal and reform-minded factions, "William shakes his head, gives them his brisk homily on party loyalty, snug in the knowledge that in the end there will still be a Tory party, whatever the tribulations of its dog days, and a nook in it for diehards like himself." How times have changed, not. "Hague is inexorable," Taylor concludes in awestruck tones. "Who knows what he will or will not do?" One thing he might do, however, is suggested by an unusual revelation: that Hague once secretly tape-recorded the dinner conversation of an executive member of the Conservative Association whom he suspected of disloyalty. But even this Nixonesque manoeuvre seems to have shown the Boy Wonder in a good light. "If you are going to bug someone's conversations," says Taylor acidly, " ... it seems rather pointless to tell them about it afterwards."

Strolling last weekend through Menton, the Eastbourne of the Cote d'Azure, I was pulled up short by an advertisement in the window of a chemist's shop. Above a picture of a shagged-out- looking girl student in Brainy Specs, resting her head in her hands and surrounded by tottering piles of revision books, a headline reads "Cogitum - un medicament contre la fatigue intellectuelle." Only the French would have the execrable taste to borrow Descartes's most famous dictum from Le Discours de la Methode - "Cogito, ergo sum" - and truncate the words into a name that sounds like a cure for diarrhoea ("Cogitum - for your dodgy tum"). But then only the French would allude so airily to "intellectual fatigue" as if it were a condition like a pulled hamstring. One tries to imagine Jean Baudrillard, after another gruelling afternoon spent trying to synthesise bollards, Marvel comics and The Rite of Spring into a single postmodernist braid, ringing up Bernard-Henri Levy or Marguerite Duras and saying, "Sacrebleu, I am intellectually knackerred. 'Ave you a blister pack of Cogitum I can borrow ... ?"

A closer look at the girl student in the advertisement reveals an odd thing. The books that are piled up on either side of her aching head are a rum collection indeed. You'd almost imagine they'd been hoicked off a shelf in someone's living room rather than found in a college library. There's a grim-looking business tome called Commercial Correspondence, a vast medical textbook, a coffee-table volume of photographs called Famille 2000, an Histoire d'Allemagne, a Penguin novel and another picture book called Making Miniature Lampshades ... Frankly, if they are expected to revise for exams in literature, biology, sociology, business management and domestic handicraft, simultaneously and in two languages, it's no wonder French students turn out so odd.

President Clinton is a sufficiently shrewd man to know how to avoid political banana skins. So it seems a little foolish of him to have run splat into the biggest banana-shaped controversy of the modern world. This is not, you'll be amazed to hear, the unending dispute between Brussels and the British tabloid press about how only nine-inch bananas with freckles and zips on them will, henceforth, be deemed saleable in the European Union. This is the other banana dispute, out in the Caribbean. For many of the island countries, the squishy yellow phallus is as crucial to their economies as the humble potato once was to Irish subsistence farmers. And now Mr Clinton is trying, through the World Trade Organisation, to block an agreement that guarantees Caribbean farmers a share of the EU market. "For many of our countries, bananas are to us what cars are to Detroit," said the Jamaican PM. And in the future, they suspect, Clinton is hoping that Europe will get more of its bananas from South America.

I mention this riveting piece of geopolitical finagling because the hapless, banano-centric Caribbeans have found a fan and a spokeswoman from an unusual source. Step forward, Glenys Kinnock, MEP for South Wales East and scourge of quota-busters everywhere. In an as-yet-unpublished article, the wife of the former Labour leader hints darkly that President Clinton is in deep cahoots with the South American banana-trading Chiquita organisation; that in return for Clinton's recommending them to the World Trade Organisation, the Chiquita boss, Carl Linden, shovelled half a million dollars into Democrat campaign funds. In return for which, Mrs Kinnock suspiciously notes, "Linden subsequently had coffee with President Clinton and slept over in Lincoln's bedroom." I think that clinches it. She herself has recently been to the Windward Islands, she reveals, for a close, fact- finding look at the locals' plight. She even refers to the whole bendy- fruit imbroglio as "Bananagate".

Blimey. Should Glenys ever tire of the European Parliament, she has a fine future as an investigative journalist. In the meantime, I hope the citizens of South Wales East, not itself a conspicuously large banana- growing region, feel they are being appropriately represented by their glamorous MEP.

It's one of those tricky social minefields that no amount of etiquette books will help you out of. You are on the phone to someone and suddenly decide you want to go and do something else. But how to get them off the phone without seeming rude? Only an inspired excuse will do. So I must take my hat off to Harold Evans, former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, now running Random House US and clearly a man of phenomenal social skills. A colleague of mine was on the phone to Evans earlier this week. Their conversation was terminated thus: "Sorry, I've got to ring off now. I've got Chris Reeve on the other line and he's, you know, on a life support machine ..."

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