Michael White

Diary - 24 August 2002

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Despite feeling ghoulish, my wife and I found ourselves drawn to the television set whenever an important development took place during the grim vigil at Soham. By the very nature of the event much of the footage and commentary was banal and, like the press, unavoidably intrusive. Sky was sharper, the BBC's much-mocked News 24 had better tone - a bit like the difference between tabloids and broadsheets, I suppose. Both deployed retired ex-detectives, including John Stalker, in ways I'd not noticed before, knowledgeable, discreet and wise. Yet, rare in the age of 24/7 TV news, there weren't any pictures of what this was really all about: unfathomable evil at large in a sleepy English village. We each had to use our imagination. Much worse.

An American friend, recently returned to work in London, says that foreigners would feel very unflattered if they realised how much of the Bush team's bellicose rhetoric towards Iraq is for domestic electoral consumption. That would at least make sense. I'm not a peacenik, nor anti-American, though the sound of the White House national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, sounding like a sixth-form debater on Radio Four the other day further strained my affection. I just don't believe that Washington's 'hairy-chested tub-thumpers' (another distinguished Republican's description) will get their war even if George W. wins back the Senate in November. Too risky for all concerned. What troubles me is not who governs Baghdad next year, but who governs Kabul.

Still, it gives hawks and doves the chance to fill their columns with reciprocal contempt. I can't remember a quieter (so far) August now that our political masters have finally exhausted the notion of the 'permanent campaign', which required them to harry voters throughout the summer. True, David Blunkett picked a fight over asylum as soon as he got off the plane from Majorca. But that's his nature, and this Cabinet, more than most, needs a bruiser. 'There are no defence ministers around this week,' reports a chum (so much for war fever). Others kept their heads down. John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, who have been staying in an apartment block on the South Bank (it's called the White House) while their flats in the Admiralty have been stripped of asbestos, have quietly moved back this month. Peter Hain has also moved flat. When I tracked him down for a quote, the acting foreign secretary said, 'I am just putting together some furniture from Ikea.' Tories of the old school inherited their furniture. Hezza bought his. New Labour makes its own.

If Prezza had the time to look out of his South Bank window, he might have noticed that the two-mile stretch of the riverbank outside gets better all the time. From old County Hall opposite Westminster down to Norman Foster's new City Hall hunched in self-deprecation by Tower Bridge, it used to be so depressing. Now planners and anti-planners have, between them, created a lively hotchpotch that draws in vast crowds. Why so? Two new footbridges across the river, Tate Modern and the Design Museum now accessible from St Paul's, the London Eye, the Aquarium (at a party there I once watched a shark eyeing Rupert Murdoch) and McDonald's at the western end, a more user-friendly National Theatre in the middle. Oh yes, and welcome shade from now mature plane trees. This month on the South Bank we saw Matisse/Picasso (wonderful), two Stoppards (editing, please), and discovered the preserved ruins of the Bishop of Winchester's mediaeval palace next to the old prison in Clink Street. Nearby a sad graffiti artist proclaims, 'This revolution is for display purposes only.'

David Davis's recent misfortunes reminded me of the time he wrote to John Major threatening to resign as Europe minister (Peter Hain's job) unless he was promised a Cabinet post next time. After I reported this on the eve of an EU summit, Tristan Garel-Jones asked me to ring Davis at home and assure him that TG-J was not my source. 'It won't do any good,' I said, and it didn't. Years later when I spotted David leaving Alan Clark's memorial service, I decided the time had come to reveal that the great diarist had accidentally let slip the threat. That's why we miss him. Gossip.

Next week number two son is due back from his honeymoon in the Maldives and Kerala. This year we have been to three weddings, two funerals and Easter Communion at Zennor parish church, where the vicar said, 'Maureen, please take the chalice outside and wash it in the rain trough.' Each event was marvellous in its own way, but naturally the one we liked best was Joe and Wendy's wedding. It was a rather grand event (by my standards), at Syon House and its conservatory on a perfect summer's afternoon, with two sopranos filling the absence of God with music. As the singers handed out their cards Simon Hoggart said, 'I see. You're actually buskers.' Even more enjoyable is going to be exploring our new family, Wendy Tan being a diaspora Chinese as well as a dotcom MBA. Her father is an emigrZ Burmese. Mother, one of six Ngu sisters, grew up in a town in Sarawak accessible only by river. Now they live all over the place, and three turned up for the wedding. 'But, Mary,' I heard myself saying to Wendy's senior aunt, 'you have to go to Italy. If there was a Food World Cup, China and Italy would probably make the finals.' One night the sisters went off to the West End to 'talk dialect together' and see a show. Their shrewd choice was Kiss Me, Kate. That's globalisation for you.

Since the resignation of Max Hastings as its editor, the London Evening Standard has become a cultural satrap of its sister paper, the Daily Mail. This alarms Downing Street, where wits now refer to the pair as an 'axis of evil'. My theory, that to thrive under Paul Dacre you must be fundamentally depressed (try reading Mail headlines out loud), is undermined by the cheerful normality of my counterpart in the Lobby. David Hughes even sports a beard, and his job interview with John Junor at the Sunday Express lasted as long as it took JJ to spot it. 'Ah, Mr Hughes, people speak highly of you. Thank you for coming in.'

Michael White is political editor of the Guardian.