Yes, Zippergate is unedifying - but have you heard the latest joke...

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You couldn't escape Zippergate '98 anywhere this week, even at the Whitbread Book of the Year party on Tuesday. Despite the presence of Commons luminaries (Chris Smith, Mark Fisher), literary controversialists (Raymond Seitz, Salman Rushdie) and assorted televisual dreamboats (Mariella Frostrup, Kate Adie, Clive Anderson, Alexei Sayle), the level of conversation remained distressingly groinal. "What's the difference between Bill Clinton and the Titanic?" I was asked by a serious bluestocking in black crepe. "Only 1,500 people went down on the Titanic." As Sir Michael Angus, the sponsor's bluff chairman, praised the world of imaginative literature, a note was pushed across to me by a famously dour publisher. "Why does Bill Clinton wear underpants?" it read. "To keep his ankles warm." We ate delicious breast of guinea fowl with pancetta and shallots, and discussed the first stirrings of magic realism in 19th-century Irish writing. On stage, Jeremy Treglown made an impassioned plea for more enlightened subsidies for writers. "Have you any idea," hissed a passing voice, "what Bill Clinton says to his wife, immediately after sex? He says, `I'll be home in half an hour, darling'." It went on like that, intermingled with some awed discussion of the spectacular resurrection of Ted Hughes's reputation (his Tales from Ovid won the big prize, while the Plath poems, Birthday Letters, will be the country's number one bestseller this weekend, the most popular verse collection since Larkin's Collected Poems). Alas, it wasn't long before someone was asking, "What's the most popular game at the White House? Swallow My Leader."

Seeking intellectual stimulation, I fled to talk to Graham Robb, the talented young author of the life of Victor Hugo which win the Biography prize. No trace of politico-sexual shenanigans about that life, I trust. Only honest creative endeavour, tireless imaginative toil, moral focus, old decency, The Hunchback of Notre - "Hugo was of course a serial adulterer," said Robb gravely. "Even after he was ennobled by the king and made a peer of the realm in 1845. He was having an affair with the wife of a famous painter, who had him tailed by a private detective and raided by the police commissioner in the middle of the night in a house where he'd booked a room under the name `Monsieur Apollo', and where they were discovered `in uncluttered attire and criminal conversation', because adultery was then a crime, and they let him off because he was a lord, while she was taken to St Lazare Prison for Adulterous Women ..." Nom d'un chien. The embroilments of sex and power seem to have been around longer than we thought. "It was shortly after that," mused Robb, "that he started writing Les Miserables." Maybe Mr Clinton should start writing a blockbuster novel. It needs a snappy title, though, something trendy and up-to-the-minute. How about Nil by Mouth?

Speaking of parties, I was furious not to be invited to last week's unusual beano at Scotland Yard. Into the Peeler's Restaurant on the fourth floor was crammed a rather unusual gathering - a hundred or so Special Branch minders and the exciting people they are paid to look after. Everywhere you looked, there were politicians and their attendant flatfeet; Ulster- bound negotiators and their heavily-suited bodyguards; beleaguered authors and their necessarily bookish cicerones; broadcasters in receipt of death threats, and their gun-toting companions. It's not often that Special Branch can relax its 24-hour vigilance, but this was a party to say a gruff thank you to people who help smooth their path. Friends who attended report sightings of Tony and Cherie Blair, Jack Straw and Jeremy Paxman, Michael Howard and Graham Swift, Kathy Lette and Geoffrey Robertson, but no sign of Mo Mowlam or Jeremy Beadle. All levels of social hierarchy were represented, I'm glad to say. A friend approached one capable-looking dame with a Home Office sort of face and said, "Are you with MI5?" "No," came the reply. "I'm Salman Rushdie's cleaner."

Fans of Nick Hornby who have long ago devoured Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, must have fallen like starving buzzards on the extract from his new novel, About a Boy, which appeared in a recent New Yorker. They could read all about the new Hornby alter ego, one Will Lightman, a self- consciously hip mid-30s singleton with an aversion to children, who nonetheless falls into a supportive relationship with a distressed 12-year-old boy. One person who found the extract more than usually interesting was a chap called Will Lightman. He rang the magazine to point the coincidence of his name, and was referred to Hornby's agent. The agent duly referred him to the publishers, Victor Gollancz, where eventually Mr Lightman encountered Gollancz's feisty and flame-haired commercial diva, Adrienne Maguire.

"Do you realise," asked Mr Lightman histrionically, "that I'm Will Lightman? The man in this story is called after me. What's going on?" "That's no problem," said the brisk Ms Maguire, "we'll change the name. Goodbye." And she phoned Hornby to tell him about his character's real-life eponym and to discuss alternative names. But guess what happened then? Mr Lightman (the real one) phoned back. "Look," he said, "This book I'm in - what's it about? What's it like? Is it worth buying?" Whereupon Ms Maguire told him the history of Hornby's meteoric career, his rave reviews and bestseller status, his second life in movies, how the plot of About a Boy is a touching story of a terribly nice bloke saving a wretched adolescent from bullying, a real hero for our times, "... and of course," she concluded, "they'll probably want to film it, and when they do, half of Hollywood will want to play Will Lightman, and the part'll probably go to Leonardo DiCaprio, and then everyone you meet in future will say, `Your name's Lightman? Will Lightman? As in that wonderful movie?' and they'll always remember meeting you, and you'll be famous for ever. Or you would be, if we hadn't changed the name." There was a silence as Mr Lightman pondered this nomenclatural slant. "Perhaps," he said, "I was a bit hasty ..." "It's too late," snarled the pitiless Maguire. "He's Will Freeman now." Mr Lightman sounded a little bemused, I'm told, as he watched his 15 minutes of fame swirl down the plughole.

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