Make-'em-jump Jack saved my holiday

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN say what you like about Jack Straw, but he hasn't half made the Passport Office run on time. After waiting in vain six weeks for my son's passport, and with our holiday date approaching, queuing at dawn at the Passport Agency's Newport outpost was looming as the only chance of getting away. Phoning them to chase up the application seemed ludicrous. Yet they answered on practically the first ring, tracked down the application instantly and had the passport in the post the next day. Some will put this down to the efficiency of the German electronics company Siemens, who installed the maligned new computers (and this week even consented to compensate more of their wartime concentration-camp slaves). But I am more inclined to give the credit to make-'em-jump Jack Flash. For he has always, I discovered the other day, been one to get his own way. Scrolling through a microfilm of News of the World back copies, I came across a piece in November 1968 on the scandal of student radicalism. One of the subversives interviewed was a J Straw of Leeds University. "When he spoke," the NoW investigator noted, "he was short, sharp and emphatically confident. 'Let's face it, we can't lose. Any demonstration of action is action in the right direction. As long as people are dissatisfied with their lot, which most students are, we can keep the fires burning. We are bringing the authorities to their knees.'" Impressive stuff. No wonder the passport people got their act together 31 years later when he snapped his fingers.

A FEW months before Glenn Hoddle self-destructed his career as England football manager by means of some dopey comments about the disabled, he suffered what might have been an equally terminal embarrassment had he not been in the middle of the World Cup at the time. Paranormalist Uri Geller had given an interview to a Sunday paper in which he described a visit by Hoddle and the faith healer Eileen Drewery to the Geller family home in the village of Sonning-on-Thames. Hoddle and Drewery were said to have laid hands on Geller in some kind of healing ritual. Hoddle bizarrely broke off from preparations for the Cup to refute the story at a press conference. He accused Geller of being a liar, said he had never been to the Israeli's home or spoken to him - and sued the newspaper for libel. Geller then produced his itemised phone bills, which appeared to detail a series of quite lengthy calls to Hoddle in the days leading up to the alleged meeting. Although there's been no legal action in a year, the libel proceedings remain technically in train. You can imagine the excitement this week, then, in Sonning-on-Thames at the news that the village has a new celebrity resident - Glenn Hoddle. Did he like Sonning so much when he didn't go there last year that he decided to move to the place? Possibly, although it could be something to do with Hoddle's son starting in the autumn at the nearby Bluecoat School. Either way, there's fun on the way in rural Berks. Among Hoddle Jr's fellow pupils will be the two Geller children.

NOW HIS time has run out in Brussels, Sir Leon Brittan, the outgoing EU trade commissioner and former trade and industry secretary under Maggie Thatcher, is looking for a job. Sir Leon, whose stint as the EU's top trade negotiator was cut short amid allegations of corruption by some of his colleagues, has already let it be known privately that he would be interested in a new career in banking. Indeed, Sir Leon's achievements include brokering the World Trade Organisation's global financial services pact which forced Third World countries to open up their banking markets to the big boys from the West. One of the main beneficiaries of that pact, Morgan Stanley, might be interested in offering Sir Leon a job - though that would be enough to stop him taking it. He was spotted last Wednesday leaving the bank's spanking new Canary Wharf headquarters, followed almost immediately by two of the company's most senior executives, John Mack, who heads the bank's global operations, and Sir David Walker, executive chairman for Europe. However, as the Spanish telephone company Telefonica has discovered, hiring a former European commissioner can prove to be more trouble than it's worth. A political uproar followed the company's announcement that it was going to hire Martin Bangemann, formerly in charge of regulating the European telecoms industry. That could be why Sir Leon's spokesman didn't know about his meeting in London last week.

WHATEVER the fabulous Mo Mowlam does, it seems, is news. This week alone we've heard about her supposedly helping Lenny Henry and Dawn French with their matrimonial problems, devouring a cream bun while supporting the Labour candidate in the Eddisbury by-election, asking to be kept on as Northern Ireland Secretary and seeing her husband, Jon Norton, made redundant from his banking job. Repeatedly shown to be the most popular member of the Government, she looks like one of those delightfully scatty people who are just too busy and academic to bother about anything as petit bourgeois as having a tidy house or desk. On the strength of no evidence whatsoever, I have this image of her living in a chaos of half-eaten dinners, books and red boxes. Having drawn this picture for myself, I was not surprised to learn that she recently committed the prime breach of protocol of forgetting to turn off her bleeper during a Privy Council meeting. When it went off, she tells friends, the Queen peered over her glasses and said, with mock severity, "Must be someone important." And so it probably was.

WHILE WE'RE on the subject of really important people, does the news that Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her friend the model Normandie Keith are joining the anti-GM foods campaign tempt you even slightly to examine every label in the supermarket and stock your shelves with the most genetically modified products you can find?

A COLLEAGUE rang BT directory inquiries this week to ask for a number in Moscow. "Which country is that?" demanded the operator. When my colleague pressed him as to whether he really knew it was in Russia, the operator said he wasn't sure. There needs to be a way of getting BT to pay its customers the cost of a directory call when its staff are stupid. We should all devote time to tormenting bureaucrats and making them cry. Spike Milligan was once told his electricity bill was wrong because the meter was running in reverse. Aha, he replied, that meant he was supplying the electric company with power and not the other way round. He sent them a bill and so persistent was he that he got a cheque just to shut him up.

WHEN THE Queen opens London Tube lines, as she is prone to on occasion, she makes a point of pretending to drive a train between one station and another and of being photographed grinning glassily with the control known as the "dead man's handle" in her grip. It never quite convinces anyone that she plans to use public transport on a regular basis, but in a peculiar way it satisfies the commuting community that she is one of us at heart. Tony Blair and John Prescott are another matter. When they appeared at St James's Park station on Thursday to give a morale- boosting address to Tube managers, there was no attempt to make a grand entrance from below by escalator. Knowing, presumably, how sweaty and unreliable the Tube can be, they walked to the station across St James's Park. Whether they ruled out taking the Jags because a) it would look flash or b) the traffic can be terrible is for us to enjoy guessing.

THOSE self-confident full-page ads taken out this week by Action 2000, the official millennium bug-busting outfit, to report on how well prepared everyone is already for the 1 January microchip meltdown look to be a bit of a hostage to fortune. According to the propaganda, only a few local councils are likely on present showing to cause "severe risk of material disruption" which there may not be enough time to rectify. Nuclear installations (of course), telecommunications, air traffic control, the postal system and traffic signals are all said to be 100 per cent sorted. So, apart from a few red-faced councillors - and we always need those for amusement - 2 January should be a normal day. Do we think this is likely? That depends on whether we're scaremongers or not. The chances are there'll either be total anarchy on the day or one faulty traffic light in Bolton, with a hundred TV crews filming it not working. The key point is, can we trust computer people to get anything right?

A COLLEAGUE e-mailed a pounds 100 invoice to the BBC's Online service recently for a contribution he had made to their millennium website. "Sorry about the delay in getting back to you," came an electronic reply after some time, "I know the logical thing would be to add an invoice number to the e-mail and send it back so I can print it, but apparently this is not acceptable." They wanted one sent through the post. Wired, or what?

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