Margaritas are more fun than medals, Diana

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HAVING rashly promised my publisher that I'd deliver my new book by the end of October, I felt a twinge of guilt about slipping out to the Mexican Embassy in London on Thursday night for someone else's publication party. Several margaritas later, discussing erotic fiction with the ambassador and my friend Maureen Freely, I had one of those mad rushes of optimism which made the prospect of writing 12,000 words in five weeks seem no more than a delightful divertissement.

The party was for Carlos Fuentes, whose new novel, Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, is a thinly disguised roman-a-clef about his affair with an "androgynous blonde" called - well, Diana. It's an elegy to lost love in which the narrator, Carlos (I said it was thinly disguised), says: "She gave me everything and took everything away from me."

The novel is frank, describing Diana's underwear ("a madness of sensuality", apparently) and her "fruit-flavoured vaginal cream". But things soon go wrong. "While passion burned", according to the blurb, "Diana became a slave to irrational manias and nocturnal frights". Sounds familiar? At this point I was devastated to learn that the dapper Fuentes was not describing nights of passion with our own dear Princess of Wales but a long-ago affair with the American actress Jean Seberg.

Damn. Doesn't the girl deserve some fun? After all those early nights, she needs to get out and enjoy herself a bit. Even if she's never met Fuentes, I expect she'd have liked the margaritas.

INSTEAD, what does the poor thing get the very next day? A "world award for kindness", according to a baffling front-page "exclusive" in the Sun. The princess, it turns out, has joined an "exclusive list of past winners including Lady Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Norman Schwarzkopf".

Lady Thatcher? Kind? It's a challenge to any writer to get both words into the same sentence. Diana is sharing this year's award with General Colin Powell, which isn't much of a clue to what they all have in common; so far we've got a bellicose British prime minister, a similarly-inclined American president, two professional soldiers (whose job, unless I'm very much mistaken, is more to do with killing people than helping them across roads) and a woman who, like Diana, happens to be a world figure.

Other past winners are the immensely kind Gerald Ford and sweet-natured Henry Kissinger - the man who gave us the bombing of Cambodia. I think I'm beginning to get the picture: It's an award for very famous people who get to go to a dinner in New York in December where they will be watched by other famous people - I mean "a black-tie audience of government leaders and showbiz stars".

I suppose the cerebral palsy charity, which chooses the winner, gets some publicity out of this idiotic event; the Princess of Wales is said by Buckingham Palace to be "honoured and overwhelmed" rather than embarrassed and bewildered, which is what any sensible person would be. Personally, I'd rather be a character in a Fuentes novel than "Saint Diana", as the Sun dutifully calls her.

APART from an instinctual feeling that nasty people ought to have nasty things done to them, I don't understand the thinking behind "short, sharp shock" regimes or "boot camps" for young offenders. Michael Howard's latest gimmick is to place selected 18- to 21-year-olds under military discipline - lots of pointless activity like kit inspection, drill and circuit training - while simultaneously sending them to workshops or "anger management training".

I have no quarrel with the latter; but it suggests confusion on the part of the people who have devised it. The point of boot camps, according to the American model, is to turn out fighting machines, people who will do insane things like charge enemy machine-gun posts single-handed. Boot camps inculcate a cult of rigid, unthinking masculinity which scoffs at the merest hint of weakness and is, in effect, a preparation for killing people.

Someone who went through a very similar regime at Annapolis, the US Marine Academy, in the late 1960s described it as "a lot like living in a combination monastery and prison work camp. The inmates were isolated from women and the outside world, so much so that they didn't know, or care, what the rest of the world was thinking". This could easily happen to Michael Howard's "trainees", who will have to earn credits for good behaviour before they're allowed to watch television or listen to the radio.

The idea of the Home Office churning out fighting-fit young men with very little idea of what's going on in the outside world does not fill me with joy. On the other hand, the marine I quoted above turned out all right. Remember Colonel Oliver North?

FUNNY things, miracles. Friday's news was dominated by reports of milk- drinking statues in Hindu temples around the world, with reporters here dispatched to Southall to see whether a marble ox was sipping the white stuff from a teaspoon. The liquid had gone down, Radio 4's Norman Smith reported, although some of it seemed to have dribbled down the statue ...

Of course it had. I've never understood why, if there are supernatural beings of the type claimed by the major religions, they should stoop to pulling off what amount to party tricks - weeping Madonnas, Turin shrouds and the like. At the very least it suggests that the deities are somewhat inattentive and have failed to notice all the crises that really cry out for intervention. Or that they're cynical about their audience and know exactly how to impress.

Ending the war in Bosnia. Rescuing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. Accelerating the peace process in northern Ireland. These are my ideas of a miracle. Not causing a milk shortage.

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