• Emily Prescott

The Times Diary

Updated: May 22, 2020


Sarah Wollaston, the pro-Remain chairwoman of the health select committee, has often been taunted by Arron Banks, the bumptious Ukip donor, who calls her Slippery Sarah. “I’ve had some lovely letters from Arron,” she told Matt Forde’s political podcast. And she has just the Christmas present for him. With the National Crime Agency investigating Banks’s finances, Wollaston says she intends to send him her latest select committee report. “It’s on prison healthcare.”


Michael Rosen contrasted writing for children with his odd dabble in adult literature at an event at Daunt Books in Marylebone. “The children’s book world is very welcoming,” he said. “When you do a children’s book the first reaction of people is ‘hooray’. It’s not like in the adult world, where people are slightly cross that you’ve written a book.” He wrote one last year about Émile Zola and received some tetchy complaints. One person asked why he had written a book about Zola when a friend of the novelist had already done one. “Yes,” Rosen conceded, “but that was in 1899.”


Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli, was bemused to see a sign in the foyer warning that the play contained smoking, gun shots and male nudity. “I don’t remember any male nudity,” he declared. “There isn’t, is there?” He racked his brains for a bit, wondering what liberties had been taken with his work, before admitting: “Ah yes, there is, but only a back view.” He then told a TMS elf that his book, written 25 years ago, “hasn’t aged badly at all. Whereas I have.”


There was a hair-raising moment at the premiere of Dame Emma Thompson’s latest film, Late Night, when she recalled being asked as a young actress to wear a swimming costume for a film scene with Tim Roth, on whom she had a huge crush. As Thompson changed, she realised that she ought to shave her bikini line but no matter how hard she scraped at her thighs with a razor the hair would not shift.

Now mortified that she was some sort of yeti, Thompson went to the director and said that her character would have a problem with being in a swimsuit. “She’s quite buttoned up so I am going to do this scene in tweed trousers,” she insisted. It was only when she returned later to her dressing room that she realised she hadn’t taken the cap off the razor.


Bruno Tonioli, the Strictly Come Dancing judge, was surprisingly coy when asked at the opening night of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre if he would like Ann Widdecombe, a Strictly alumna, to swap Brussels for a return to the ballroom.

Well, for about two seconds. “No comment,” said Toniolo. One, two . . . “But she was a disaster! A catastrophe! She looked like a Dalek in drag!” Brexterminate!


The broadcaster Lauren Laverne despairs at the social media generation’s lax approach to spelling. “Friends say, ‘Spelling doesn’t matter, language evolves’,” she complains. Laverne has a ready supply of examples, such as the woman who complimented a chap on the smell of his “colon”, rather than cologne.


Salman Rushdie may be a paid-up member of the liberal elite but, to adapt the basketball player Michael Jordan’s comment about sneakers, “Republicans buy books too”. And so he found himself promoting his latest novel in a very conservative town in Florida, where the audience were 90 per cent Trump voters. Rushdie, left, told an Intelligence Squared event that while his audience were clearly educated, they had “completely drunk the Kool-Aid” and kept claiming there was an elite conspiracy. “Do you really believe The New York Times doesn’t lie every day?” one asked. “I do,” Rushdie began, and then recalled a recent article he had read. “Except,” he continued, “when reviewing my books.”

Rushdie’s latest, Quichotte, is inspired by Don Quixote, whose author, Cervantes, died on the same date [April 23, 1616] as Shakespeare. “But not the same day,” Rushdie said, since Spain had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582 while England stuck with the Julian until 1752, at which point we lost 11 days. Don’t tell Dominic Cummings or he’ll introduce a Borisian calendar to bypass the next Brexit roadblock.


Theresa May could still be in Downing Street if only she had revealed her inner Sid James in public. Whispering to a Diary elf at the launch of Haven’t You Heard?, Marie Le Conte’s book on political gossip, the Tory chairman confided that in private his former boss has a fruity, almost smutty, sense of humour.

“When she makes a knob gag, it’s really funny,” said James Cleverly, “especially as she’s a vicar’s daughter.” He recalled a dinner in his Essex constituency when May told a flirtatiously saucy joke and delighted the audience. “If only she’d admitted to that when asked for the naughtiest thing she had done,” he said, “rather than ‘I ran through a field of wheat’. She’d have won the general election.”

SURREAL SPECTACLE Hans-Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery where the Booker prize shortlist was revealed, says that the most memorable literary event there was when Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist, gave a reading and someone ran on to the stage and stole his glasses. “There was a police helicopter chase,” he said. “It was surreal.” The evening ended with Obrist’s head of press trying to find if there was a 24-hour Specsavers near by. The Booker event, alas, was less of a spectacle.


Three weeks ago, when he might have had other things on his mind, as well as his chest, Boris Johnson still took time to write a letter to the photographer Gemma Levine about “overcoming adversity” for her to use as a preface to her next book. Aqua, a collection of photographs of water, will be sold to raise awareness of and funds to fight lymphoedema, a condition in which excess fluid in the body causes swelling.

Levine has photographed every prime minister from Harold Wilson — “I was so nervous I dropped the camera in front of him,” she says — to David Cameron but says that Theresa May’s office told her she didn’t have time. Johnson has more of an excuse but hopes to sit for her in due course. Levine says she reduced John Major to giggles when he asked her how he looked and she replied by tutting that his tie wasn’t straight. “I don’t think Boris cares how he looks,” she said.


The late Cambridge clergyman David Johnson was, as our recent obituary noted, an eccentric fellow. He used to write spoof letters to people in the persona of Francis Wagstaffe. My favourite was to the hyper-serious Martin Amis, which began as a fan letter. “There has not been a finer novel in English than your excellent Lucky Jim,” Wagstaffe gushed, pretending not to know it was by Amis’s father. He then said that he had just read Money, Martin’s own work. “What a sad falling-off there has been,” he wrote. “Still, never mind. I am sure you will regain your form. Second novels are often difficult.” It is not known whether Amis replied.

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