High Street Ken takes a trip down memory lane

From the pathos of David Miliband to the pluck of Lembit Opik, 'The Independent's' diarist recalls his highlights of 201

Monday 03 January 2011 01:00

Why Rory the Great is beyond our Ken

With apologies to the fratricidal Miliband (E), Nick "29 Shags" Clegg and George (né Gideon) Osborne – and with thanks to Radio 4's James Naughtie – the inaugural High Street Ken Culture Secretary of the Year award must go to Rory Stewart, MP: former soldier, adventurer, diplomat, academic, prince among men and man among princes (he once locked himself in the loo at Highgrove). Pre-election, my predecessor Pandora quoted Stewart suggesting that the Lib Dems reminded him of the Taliban: "Neither go away, [but they'll] never form a government," he joked. ("Never form a government"? Whoops.) The suddenly humourless Stewart – who recently compared himself to TE Lawrence, Alexander the Great and the fictional demigod Achilles – subsequently refused to speak to any representative of this newspaper ever again, which would certainly make things awkward should he, as some predict, go on to become the 20th Old Etonian Prime Minister. Luckily for The Independent, the humble-as-humble-pie polymath insists he's less interested in being PM than he is in making a "lasting contribution to political thought."


Racked with concern, this column kept a close eye on the movements of former future Labour leader Miliband (D) following his defeat by the dastardly Miliband (E). Tragically, it emerged, Miliband (D) had even missed an opportunity, while Foreign Secretary, to attract Rory Stewart to the Labour Party – an act that would surely have sealed victory in the later leadership battle. While on a much-needed autumn break in Lyme Regis, I reported, he was overheard discussing with his wife Miliband (L) the possibility of establishing his own cheese shop. It's a toss-up between that and Ambassador to the US, apparently.

Tony Blair never gave explicit backing to his young protégé, but he did endorse the prime ministerial potential of another chum. No, not Gordon Brown, silly; Bono. The U2 front man and self-confessed "pain in the arse" could, wrote Blair, "have been a president or prime minister standing on his head. He had an absolutely natural gift for politicking, was great with people, very smart and an inspirational speaker ... I knew he would work with George [W Bush] well, and with none of the prissy disdain of most of his ilk". Bono's nationality (not to say his tax arrangements) might preclude him from leading a British political party. But familiarity with the world of finance would, I speculated, qualify him for government in Dublin: his investment fund, Elevation Partners, has been described as "arguably the worst-run institutional fund of any size in the United States".


I was the first to reveal that ITV bosses planned to name their revamped breakfast show Daybreak. Unfortunately, I reported that they'd scrapped the idea due to the imminent release of Morning Glory, a Hollywood dramedy about a struggling breakfast show of the same name. In said film, Harrison Ford portrays a veteran anchor whose greed leads him to the breakfast show slot, where he faces a desperate struggle to improve Daybreak's awful ratings. ITV called my bluff. And lo, it came to pass...

Despite the Adrian Chiles Effect (a term coined rather unfairly by the Government's fairness tsar, Will Hutton, to describe the damaging trend towards overpaying star CEOs), this column's most-covered TV personality was the Sky News anchor Kay Burley (sorry, Lembit). "Hurly" Burley, also the three-time recipient of What Satellite TV magazine's "Most Desirable Woman on TV" award, had a vintage year. In February, she made Peter Andre cry. In May, members of the public yelled for her to be sacked on live TV (she soldiered on). In September, the renowned self-portraitist MP Chris Bryant told her she was "a bit dim". Perhaps Kay's crowning achievement, however, was a mercilessly patronising interview with 96-year-old Harry Beckhough at the Tory conference in October. Among other things, she asked a perfectly compos mentis Beckhough whether he'd fought for "the Stafford Cripps", mistaking a Labour chancellor for a Midlands-based army regiment. "I didn't fight for him, I fought against him," the unimpressed Beckhough corrected her. "I wonder what it's like being interviewed on live telly," Kay mused mumsily. "You ever had that happen to you before?" He had, many times.

As for the BBC's 2010 travails, I wrote in August of the support the Corporation could expect from the Burmese democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who, even before her release from house arrest in November, had issued a statement via her lawyer expressing concern about potential cuts to the World Service – specifically the vital BBC Burmese Service, which celebrated its 70th birthday this year. Reports that Nelson Mandela added his name to the petition to save 6Music remain unconfirmed.


Glamour model-bothering Lembit Opik – stand-up comedian, serial reality TV contestant and former member for Montgomeryshire – contacted me some weeks ago to express his interest in my proposed sitcom Anyone but Lembit. Sadly, I've so far been unable to interest BBC3, ITV2 or Channel Five in the treatment for the show, which stars Lembit as himself trying vainly to persuade the Lib Dems to let him be their London mayoral candidate. Each week, the party leadership pleads with a more popular figure to take on the job (currently in talks to appear: Peaches Geldof, Ashley Cole, Bob Crow, Peter Stringfellow and Wagner from The X Factor). Our hopes are high, however, for 2011 – some might say delusionally so.

My erstwhile boss and another close friend of the column, new parent Sir Elton John, told me in December that no, he would not be singing at Wills and Kate's wedding; and yes, he was very partial to the executive editor's lemon-glazed pistachio cake. Another world exclusive inexplicably ignored by the world.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, an in-depth investigation by this column revealed that the Johnson family, already responsible for one Mayor of London (Boris), one editor of The Lady magazine (Rachel) and one Member of Parliament (Jo, aka the "nice" one), also boasts a shy, retiring fourth sibling: Leo, whose long-lost directorial debut Eating and Weeping (2002), was described by Sam Goldwyn Jnr of MGM as the worst story he'd ever heard. "It's the mainstream Hollywood tale of Stanko, a Bulgarian pastry chef who accidentally causes the collapse of capitalism," Leo explained. Is it still available on Amazon, I asked. "Lord, no. It's unwatchable to the human eyeball."


This year's New Labour memoirs coincided with the launch of the website I Write Like (iwl.me), which analyses blocks of prose and matches them to the work of late, great writers. Naturally, I ran Blair, Brown and Mandelson through the machine. Tony Blair's A Journey, it turns out, recalls the work of James Joyce – presumably the algorithm recognised echoes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road..." and so on. Meanwhile Gordon Brown's book, Beyond the Crash, reads like a tedious tale by Edgar Allen Poe: all the horror and none of the thrill. Finally Peter Mandelson, the machine assured me, writes very much like Margaret Mitchell, author of the tragic romance Gone With the Wind.

Blair's near-relative Lauren Booth converted to Islam in September, much to the amusement of her father Tony, who told me he thought her "a committed worshipper of mammon... The girl [hasn't] had a spiritual experience in her life." A defiant Lauren insisted in early November that she'd reached page 200 of the Koran, which by my estimate meant she'd be finished by Christmas. Lauren, send us a quick review when you have a moment between prayers.

Among the most literary of new MPs, Louise Bagshawe gave new meaning to the phrase "in-house publicity" by plugging her recent chick-lit novel Passion during a Commons debate. She sent copies to a number of other members, including her Conservative colleague, culture minister Ed Vaizey, who kindly commended it to the House himself. Bagshawe exclusively revealed the plot of her next novel to readers of this column in November: "A trophy wife marries for money, divorces her rich husband ... then falls for another rich bloke."

Bagshawe's literary role model, she told me, was Jeffrey Archer. Sadly, it seems no buyers have yet come forward to purchase Archer's classic Mini, now available on eBay for less than £10,000 and famously the vehicle in which he enjoyed an extramarital encounter in a Mayfair carpark. Its fully reclining leather Recaro seats, say Mini specialists Wood & Pickett, are still in perfect working order.


If this column could give a single piece of advice to businessmen in 2011, it would be to prune their leylandii. Upon moving into his £3.5m mansion in the charming Edinburgh suburb of Colinton, Sir Fred Goodwin discovered the locals were none too happy with his hedging. (He's used to that.) The 25ft trees, neighbours complained, blocked sunlight to their gardens, so they summoned him to a local association meeting to face demands for cutbacks. (He's used to that as well.) In June, I'd learned that private equity boss Jon Moulton was moving out of his home in Shoreham, Kent – and that a disgruntled villager had taken it upon themselves to chop down his leylandii. I asked Moulton if he had any advice for the Shred. "Fred," he said, "was always known for wanting his to be bigger than everyone else's."

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