Why we need this pesky little organ

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The Independent Online
WHY IS EVERYONE so surprised that John Major has brought his libel action? Why shouldn't he? He has the money, which is the only usual deterrent to libel suits, and he obviously felt he needed to squash the Clare Latimer rumours before they got completely out of hand. The New Statesman's article was such a lamentable piece of journalism - a transparent attempt to attain the circulation-boosting effects of scandal without any of the attendant ungentlemanly foot-in-the-door research - that it was as good a sticking-point as any.

What is far more regrettable is that Scallywag is likely to go down with the Statesman. Despite the fact that most of the newspapers described it as an 'obscure' magazine, it actually has a circulation of 115,000, which is 92,000 more than the Staggers' 23,000, and is a more vivacious publication altogether. It is only obscure because it is new and young: potentially it is - or was, until this libel action - what Private Eye was 30 years ago, a little beacon of energy in a generally tired and stale and complacent media scene. Its January issue, for instance, contained not only the 'Rude Feasts at No. 10' piece which is subject to libel action (and incidentally is its second article on the subject) but also articles on 'Camilla and the Dorset Connection', HM Customs and the Iraqi supergun, and British Nazis.

Scallywag boasts on its masthead that it is published 'by the gifted, inebriated and insane' and that it does not accept responsibility for anything at all. This seems to me absolutely the correct stance for journalists who have become altogether too keen on respectability in recent years and have started taking themselves almost as seriously as politicians. Surely it is not journalists' business to be 'responsible', which means, in practice, tailoring what they write to some supposedly higher purpose; their job is to get the story out, come what may, and let others worry about its implications. Anyway, if, as seems likely, a lot of lawyers get very rich and two magazines go down the pan as a result of John Major's libel action, my tears shall be shed, not for the geriatric Statesman, but for Simon Regan's pesky, promising, vibrant little organ.

GOOD INVECTIVE is a rarity these days, so I was pleased to come across BAD or, the Dumbing of America (Simon & Schuster) - a splendidly bad-tempered rant by Paul Fussell, who wrote a similar tirade, Class, a few years ago. Fussell's BAD is not the same as ordinary bad - a bad restaurant, for instance, serves lousy food, but a BAD one lists its lousy food in French in a tasselled, 'Spanish leather' menu and serves its lousy Beaujolais in a basket.

BADness, in other words, implies elements of pretentiousness or genteel kitsch and Fussell is very good at spotting it. He pinpointed my own pet hate - the 'turndown service', 'offered' (but in fact inescapable) in American hotels, whereby a maid crashes into your room in the evening to disrupt your bed and leave an 'individual' (ie, solitary) chocolate on your pillow. American hotel bedspreads are now so complicated, with the pillows somehow triple-wrapped inside the cover and the whole thing as elaborately structured and moulded as a car body, that only someone familiar with the design can achieve bed-entry. What is really alarming is Fussell's chapter on BAD engineering, which lists all the American buildings and bridges and dams that have fallen down. He says that a recent survey of 4,000 dams by the Army Corps of Engineers found that 988 were 'unsafe' and 58 'urgently unsafe'. That's bad.

NO DOUBT many public-spirited communities are even now planning to erect statues to our great health saviour, Miss Veronica Bland, and her glorious victory over the evils of nicotine will be hymned throughout the land. Naturally, I have pinned her photograph over my ashtray to inspire me . . .

Miss Veronica Bland, Miss Veronica Bland,

How mad I am, sad I am, glad of your stand.

Your 'useful' soprano still rings in my ears

The loss to your choir almost moves me to tears.

Miss Veronice Bland, Miss Veronica Bland,

Oh how I wish you would take me in hand.

You would sniff at my ciggie and wave at my smoke,

You would cough once, discreetly, if I ventured a joke.

London hath need of thee; why should Stockport have all

The charm of your presence, your power to enthrall?

Without you my pleasures would still not be banned,

I am weak from your loveliness, Veronica Bland.

AND WHILE I am on the subject of health fascism: last week I received an invitation to a Mercury Gallery private view which said at the bottom: 'Drinks, alcoholic and non'. Since every party I have ever been to has featured drinks, alcoholic and non, this note would seem redundant. But a friend tells me of an alarming social development in Hampshire: the dry cocktail party. Apparently 'everyone' in Hampshire lost money on Lloyd's and they are also terrified of being nicked for drunk driving. But far from staying at home, which would seem the obvious solution, they whizz merrily from Alton to Petersfield night after night to drink grapefruit and cranberry juice in one another's houses. And their invitations just say 'Drinks'.