As I was staggering round Highbury Fields in a pair of shorts, I saw one I knew and hailed him crying, ‘Tom!’, because it was Tom Baldwin, the political reporter of the Times and arch-friend of Alastair Campbell. To my surprise, there was not a flicker on those Shelleyesque features. He continued his stride. ‘Tom!’ I shouted again. Had he somehow failed to recognise me, at a distance of a few feet? Could it be, even at 8 a.m., that he was under the influence of some stimulant? It was only when I started jumping up and down in front of him, sticking both thumbs up, way up, and shouting ‘Hey!’ that I suddenly understood. He was cutting me. I was being cut dead. Thus has the war of Gilligan’s scoop set hack against hack, brother against brother. There are some families, I understand, which are in a state of civil war between the partisans of the BBC, and those who are rooting for Alastair Campbell.
Of course, I may have been mistaken. Perhaps it wasn’t Tom Baldwin at all. Perhaps it was a Dutch tourist. If so, I would be grateful if the real Tom Baldwin could let me know. A couple of years ago I went up to Sir Christopher Bland and engaged him in what I believed to be good-natured raillery. ‘Didn’t you notice?’ snapped the titan of industry and former BBC chairman, his wattles mottling, ‘I cut you dead five minutes ago.’ This was shortly after a particularly brilliant Spectator interview, which revealed that he shouts at people on tennis courts (the words, addressed to his own partner after a missed volley, were ‘pull your finger out, you fat wanker!’).
Still, as Danbert Nobacon of Chumbawumba put it, I get knocked down, I get up again, you ain’t never gonna keep me down, etc. This was my text during a recent sermon at an end-of-term speech day at one of the many good schools in south Oxfordshire. ‘Boys and girls,’ I said with a horrible smirk, ‘if I may quote the poet Chumbawumba, I get knocked down, I get up again…’ And I became aware of a total Baldwinian blankness on their faces. Then it hit me. Chumbawumba. That was six years ago. They must have thought me demented. That was more than half their lives away.
Life is like taking a taxi to the airport. The years seem to go so slowly at first, and every increment of time is metered as slowly and perceptibly as the traffic-bound click of each 20p on the fare. Then you begin to pick up speed as you reach the Hammersmith or Chiswick of life. And then suddenly you are on the M4 of middle age, and the years spool into each other with such rapidity that you can hardly tell one from the other. Before you know it, of course, you are in the departure lounge.
Talking of spooling digits, the outlines of the Tory attack on this government are surely now clear. They Blew It: that’s the slogan. They took your money. They wasted it. In the year to June 2002, there were 86,000 jobs created in the public sector, as opposed to 89,000 in the private sector (the bit that actually creates wealth). As Ross Clark shows in his Job of the Week item and in the cover story, the taxpayer is being cleaned out to pay for an ontological explosion of health-and-safety-driven, litigation-generated, politically correct non-jobs, and public services are not improving. The Tories – no, dash it, WE Tories – have a fantastic opportunity to offer ourselves as the party of taxpayer value.
I was walking on to a television set this week when a man with a mike said, and these were his exact words, ‘For health-and-safety reasons I am obliged to point out to you that this walkway has no hand-rail.’ I told him that I was very grateful, but not blind. At one point the producers wanted me to light a cigar on camera, and I happily consented. Afterwards they showed me a ten-page risk assessment they had been required to do for insurance purposes, including an account of what they would do if my hair caught fire. The terrifying thing is that some bureaucrat is paid to read that form.
The show was called Room 101, where you have to consign nuisances to perdition. I have taken my life in my hands by nominating Lynda Lee-Potter of the Daily Mail. I know she is popular and all that, but honestly: the other day she wrote that Carol Vorderman should leave her partner ‘because they are never seen out together’. The following day the wretched pair were ‘pictured’ in a restaurant. Can you imagine anything worse than being forced out to a restaurant, with your loved one, by this bullying Lee-Potter and her impertinent psychobabble?
What little cash Gordon has left me I am now about to blow on the annual bucket-and-spade job. I know I have left it a bit late, but it glooms me out to find there is not a villa left in the whole of Corsica. The girl who cuts my hair, a Croat, says we should go to Split, which sounds just the place for a divorce-inducing family holiday. I muse on other Balkan destinations. How long before middle-class doormats are adorned with brochures called ‘Simply Kosovo’, full of aquamarine swimming pools that belonged to the Serb nomenklatura?
In the Mediterranean, my idea of bliss is to drink a fair amount of wine and then swim out so far that the beach and its people and umbrellas have vanished, and there is nothing but the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea (Homer). This can take hours. Once I crawled back on to the shingle, like some key chapter in evolution, to find my then girlfriend weeping bitterly. Oh no, she wasn’t worried about me, she said. She just didn’t know where the plane tickets were.
Or else we could just stay in Oxfordshire, where we have bought a fantabulous and cripplingly expensive house. The countryside has many joys, but also inexplicable nightly noises, and startling smells. The first thing I found the other day was a crow in a state of pungent decomposition. I was moving it to a compost heap when I was assailed, visually and nasally, by a ziggurat – no, an alp – of manure in an adjoining field. I thought with new appreciation of the mediaeval chronicler who said of some corpse-strewn battlefield, ‘The stench was so bad that the very crows fell from the skies.’
This diary was meant to be written by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who was shamelessly going to plug his book on Stalin. Since I am fed up with book plugs in the Diary, I decided to exercise droit de seigneur. In case he is cross, here is a plug: Sebag; Stalin; beach; book; buy.