The next Lady Birt

Much to my astonishment, John ‘Lord’ Birt (who likes to put it about that he is Tony Blair’s Best Pal), has announced his intention to divorce his wife of umpteen years, and take up with one Eithne Wallis, a former head of the National Probation Service. Curious to see what his new inamorata looks like, I went searching on Google Images, which turned up a solitary photograph of the lady (with Princess Anne). Result shown above, with Her Royal Highness callously removed.

Click to remember

From this morning’s New York Times.

The funeral rites for popes stipulated by John Paul in 1996 specifically prohibited photographing the pope on “his sickbed or after death,” except for specially accredited photographers. Signs in St. Peter’s Basilica also prohibit photography.

But this week, the heavy air around the pope’s bier has not been filled with prayer so much as with tiny popping flashes and clicking shutters.

“Of course everyone is taking pictures,” said Antonio Parente, 19 , who had managed to take eight pictures in the 30 seconds it took to walk by the body. “They want to remember this moment.”

Here’s a great marketing opportunity for Nokia — offer to sponsor the funeral of the next pope!

Saul Bellow: big ideas and wandering fools

Lovely tribute in OpenDemocracy by Tom McBride. Excerpt:

Ideas for him were about action, and action was about ideas. Originally a Russian Jew from Montreal, he came of age during the depression in Chicago where the banker and butcher alike were reading Shakespeare and talking about ideas because, as he said later, they had little faith in material success. How could you back then? He freely admitted that as a novelist he was formed in the cauldron of urban life, with its terrific literacy and intellectuality. He never ran with bulls in Pamplona, as did Hemingway, or sought concord with talented ex-cons, as did Norman Mailer. He mainly just hung out in Chicago.

Quote of the day

I sometimes enjoy saying that anybody’s life can be encompassed in about 10 wonderful jokes. One of my favorites is about an American singer who makes his debut at La Scala. He sings his first aria to great applause. And the crowd calls ‘Ancora, vita, vita.’ He sings it a second time, and again they call for an encore. Then a third time and a fourth … Finally, panting and exhausted, he asks, ‘How many times must I sing this aria?’ Then someone tells him, ‘Until you get it right.’

That’s how it is with me – I always feel I haven’t gotten it quite right, and so I go on singing.”

Saul Bellow, in an interview with the NYT, 1981

Thanks to Gerard for the quote.

Saul Bellow is dead


NEW YORK – Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, a master of comic melancholy who in “Herzog,” “Humboldt’s Gift” and other novels both championed and mourned the soul’s fate in the modern world, died Tuesday. He was 89.

New York Times obit here.


… is the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen.

How I wish my friend Elias, who wrote the definitive biography, had lived to see the day. He died in August 2002, a few days before my Sue, who was mad about him, as were my kids. Elias had been in the Danish Resistance during the war and had known both Leon Trotsky and Bertrand Russell. My children loved him because he was tall and elegant and courteous in an old-world way, and they recognised immediately that he was, in some way, genuinely distinguished. To this day, every time we pass his Cambridge College — Peterhouse — they sing out “Elias’s college!”

John DeLorean, RIP

John Zachary DeLorean, a handsome chap who gave innocent amusement to millions (and relieved the British taxpayer of quite a lot of dosh), has died at the age of 80. His company, DeLorean Motor, produced only one model, the DMC-12, but it made a lasting impression as an unpainted, stainless steel-bodied sports car with gull-wing doors. (It was the car in the Back to the Future movies.)

DeLorean Motor corporation had a hectic but brief life. Its founder set it up in Northern Ireland during the height of the ‘troubles’ when nobody would invest in the embattled province. The UK government, unable to believe its luck, gave DeLorean massive subsidies and tax-breaks to come to Northern Ireland. He produced about 9,000 cars before going bankrupt in 1982. Soon afterwards, US authorities charged him with selling cocaine to prop up its finances. This led my fellow-countrymen to propose a new marketing slogan for the company: “Things go better with Coke”. (JZD was acquitted in 1984 after a sensational trial.) The taxpayer may be richer as a result of his passing, but the world is poorer! The NYT says that restored DMC-12s sell for $30k. Wonder if there’s one on eBay.

Top of the mornin’ to ye all!

Er, it’s St Patrick’s Day. More importantly, Sinn Fein have not been invited to the White House and the McCartney family have. And of course it’s Cheltenham week. Sue and I used to go every year with a group of friends. We had a rule that if anyone had a winner in a race, they had to buy a bottle of champagne at the end of the race. On one unforgettable day we had six bottles. Ah, those were the days… (dozes off into daydream about the time when marmalade was thicker and 640k of RAM was enough for anyone.)

What? (Shakes himself abruptly) Where was I? Oh, yes, I remember. People are always attributing to Bill Gates the quote that “640k should be enough for anyone”. But Gates has vehemently denied that he said it. And, for once, I believe him.

Frolics in Berchtesgaden again

Observer | A world of evil and hope amid the dark pine trees

To build a five-star spa hotel on this spot was always going to be controversial. For an American corporate hotel chain to do so seems, at the very least, eccentric. From my chic, minimalist £130-a-night room with its flat-screen TV, Villeroy and Boch porcelain and Molton Brown toiletries I can look down the Obersalzberg mountain to the town of Berchtesgaden in the valley below, I can see the woods where Hitler walked with his mistress Eva Braun; see where his henchmen, Goering and Bormann, had their houses; see the site of the old SS barracks. Unlovely ghosts.

Most of the original buildings have long since been demolished. Hitler’s own residence, the Berghof, was flattened by Allied bombers in 1945. But the legacy of the Nazi era, when the party annexed a 100-acre area, turfing out farmers and creating a summer holiday resort for the top brass of the Third Reich, is not comfortable baggage for any hotel to carry. All the feng shui in China cannot sweeten this site.

Inevitably, the building of the InterContinental – a striking modern edifice with cool, white walls and huge windows affording panoramic views – sparked fierce debate in Germany. Last year, Michel Friedman, a former deputy head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, led the protests. ‘The use of the site as a hotel masks the historical reality. Such places should be preserved and used for a totally different purpose.’

I went to Berchtesgaden once, just to see what remained. It’s an eerie place, with stunning views — and those ghosts.