OK, I confess. It was me. I ran off with Darwin’s great-great-grand-daughter’s monkey
Rory Bremner worries that Britain is suffering from a political character crunch. Perhaps we should be more concerned about a political joke crunch. The former home secretary David Blunkett wheeled out exactly the same gag at the Channel 4 Political Awards the other day as he used at the last Labour conference, and doubtless the one before that.
If you have heard it before, please look away now. "Professor Bernard Crick went to the gents' loo once at party conference next to Aneurin Bevan. They both had a stammer and Bevan had just got through his speech. Crick said to Bevan, 'That was a w-w-ww-wonderful sppppeech.' Bevan replied, 'Are you taking the p-pp-p-piss?'" It's a good gag, but isn't it t-t-time he extended his repertoire? Or Blunkett may go down in history as a one-joke politician (and it would be ungentlemanly to take that as a reference to Ms Kimberly Fortier).
He is far from alone, though, when it comes to recycling. How many times have you heard Tony Benn bring out his old favourite? "I got a death threat the other day. I haven't had one of those for years and I was chuffed that someone thought I was still dangerous."
Michael Portillo once told the exact same joke at a dinner as he had told at the same gathering a few years earlier. Ann Widdecombe has her "Christian principles joke" (not worth repeating), David Davis his "diamond ring joke" (ditto) and so on. We demand better of our politicians. Fresh jokes for a new age. Yes, we can.
It is hard to imagine a profanity passing the lips of Keith Vaz, the silkily smooth chairman of the home affairs committee. Last week the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, got into hot water for allegedly using the F-word more than ten times in conversation with him. Vaz is far more suave when it comes to getting his own way. Even before he won a parliamentary seat he was renowned for ringing up newspaper diary columns with titbits about an obscure lawyer and prospective Labour candidate called . . . Keith Vaz. It was a practice that continued long after he won his Leicester East seat in 1987.
Some years ago the Foreign Office telephoned me out of the blue to let me know of a joint visit by seven British ministers to Prague and Bratislava: the FO stirringly called them "the Magnificent Seven". Who were these men of action who evoked the memory of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and those other gunslinging heroes of the Wild West? Why, Joyce Quin, Nick Raynsford, Barbara Roche, David Lock, David Hanson, Angela Eagle and the group's intrepid leader, the minister for Europe - one Keith Vaz.
Charles Darwin's descendants have made a successful cottage industry out of their ancestor. At Somerset House last week the scientist's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes shared a platform with his great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, to mark the bicentenary of his birth.
"What poetry and science have in common is clarity, focus and precision," said Padel. Another panellist, the geneticist Jonathan Howard, said how much he respected the Darwinians for finding new things to say about the great man's life. No doubt Darwin would be proud to see his descendants have adapted so well to the challenges of the commercial world. On Thursday Padel popped up again for the launch of her new book, Darwin: a Life in Poems, at the London Review Bookshop by the British Museum. Jo Shapcott presented her with a plastic monkey keyring to celebrate the anniversary. Unfortunately a guest mistakenly walked off with it and sent a contrite email to Padel the next day. OK, I confess. It was me. I ran off with Darwin's great-great-granddaughter's monkey. Now that would make a good headline, if not a jolly poem.
To the launch of In Bed With . . ., a new collection of erotic short stories by prominent women writers including Kathy Lette, Maggie Alderson and Imogen Edwards-Jones. Given the amount of sex in the book it was perhaps no surprise there were so many Freuds on the scene. Sir Clement Freud and his niece Susie Boyt were among the pullulating crowd at the Artesian bar at the Langham. I asked the Times writer Sarah Vine whether she’d been asked to contribute a story to the anthology, and if not, why not. “No,” she told me. “Tories don’t have sex.” Tell that to the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, Michael Gove MP – aka Mr Sarah Vine. Or perhaps it is already official Conservative Party policy.
It is a common complaint that every year thousands leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Those schools would seem to include Eton College (annual fees: £26,490). Zac Goldsmith, billionaire’s son and Old Etonian, published a campaign pamphlet in Richmond, the seat he will contest at the next election for the Tories. Emblazoned across its front was the declaration: “Zac Goldsmith Want’s To Know Your Views”. To think that Goldsmith edited the Ecologist for a decade. Forget about the environment, Zac. Perhaps you should first save the English language. l
Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary