LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
After a week in which the transfer of power has been so stark that Westminster feels like Saigon-on-Thames, two anecdotes only.

I meet Michael Foot in celebratory mood at an outdoor party. There is talk of Labour's cautious economic programme. ''I'm not cautious,'' roars Foot suddenly. ''Put up taxes, I say. Put 'em UP [skywards jab of stick] and up ... the higher the better!'' A New Labour couple swivel, mouths flapping open with gloriously Bateman-esque expressions of horror.

A few days later, I meet Alan Howarth, the former Tory minister who defected to Labour and was elected under new colours this month. As an education minister, he tells me, he finds himself sitting in the same chair behind the same desk as he last occupied when education minister in John Major's government. Strange days.

As a Proust-lover (and therefore a member of a small, fanatical, quasi- religious sect) I have news of great moment: Penguin has barmily and delightfully embarked on a complete new translation of the great work. It will owe nothing to the marvellous original C K Scott-Moncrieff translation - whose instantly recognisable slim blue volumes have changed many lives and can be glimpsed in one of David Hockney's new flower paintings at the Annely Juda gallery in London.

The "new Proust" will even have a different name; instead of the Shakespearean ''Remembrance of Things Past'' (which Proust himself was never happy with) it will be called, more accurately, ''In Search of Lost Time". Six translators are now engaged in the mammoth task, under the direction of Christopher Prendergast of King's College, Cambridge, and they hope to publish the hardback three-volume version from Allen Lane in 2000.

Meanwhile, Penguin is to establish a Web-site for Proustians to compare translations. They will also republish Scott-Moncrieff's version this October. I should also mention that Alain de Botton's just-published How Proust Can Change Your Life is the funniest book I've read for ages - a self-help manual, if you please, based on Proust's life and work. Since Proust was a famously daylight-shunning, self-pitying hypochondriac who failed in every attempt at conventional life or employment, this may seem bonkers. It is; but it is also full of truth and laughter. Anyway, Proust can change your life: that's why there's a cult.

A very strange experience, which you could almost call Proustian: I was leafing through the Daily Mail and was suddenly transported back to Dundee High School, circa 1967 - the smell of chalk and floor-polish, ink-stained, carved desks, much yelling of teachers and forming of lines. Why? Because the paper had a long feature about Heather Ripley, who played Dick Van Dyke's flaxen-haired daughter in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

It turns out that she is an eco-protester in the Swampy mould, living on a Scottish farm. The film broke up her parents' marriage and condemned her to loneliness during filming in London and then on the television celebrity circuit as a child star.

But 30 years ago, before that, the stunningly beautiful Heather sat in front of me at school. She was the first girl I had something like a crush on. Being a typical Scottish male, however, I was unable to express my feelings other than by leaning over and repeatedly yanking her spectacular golden pigtails until she cried. I got the strap. She went off to be a film star. Life seemed hard. But maybe I had the best of it after all.

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