I poll a dozen or so people at the Hay-on-Wye festival. No, they can't get through Martin Amis's novels, either

It is a great education for a hack to find himself on the wrong end of a story for once. The past fortnight of press comment on my appointment as the BBC's political editor from August has included hilariously wrong and unchecked facts, made-up quotations, some unexpected generosity and a fair amount of green-eyed bile. Every journalist I know who's been directly involved in a story eventually asks the same question: is it possible, just possible, that we are as sloppy about everything as we were about this? (Answer: probably.) Anyway, the caravan moves quickly on; in this case, from my alleged biases to my appearance - not, I readily concede, a major new asset for the BBC. Sky's Adam Boulton congratulated me on having acquired a gimmick already, not John Cole's famous herringbone coat, but my prominent ears. I'm clearly going to have to get used to this - although being mocked for my looks by the New Statesman's Paul Routledge, a slurry-faced barfly* who uncannily resembles the old git in the Royle family, was a bit of a surprise. And it's odd to be told that my ears are a gimmick; the terrible truth is that they have been growing out of my head like that ever since I can remember.

As Her Majesty's Press continued to debate the Marr Ears Question, clearly up there with various small foreign wars and long-awaited green papers, I bumped into Alan Yentob, the BBC boss. He looked shifty, as well he might, having helpfully told the Daily Mail that the Corporation would pay for plastic surgery if necessary. A joke, a joke, he said. But I wasn't entirely convinced. Maybe there is a team of suits with scalpels waiting to pounce when I arrive at Television Centre.


Off to Hay-on-Wye, the eccentric Welsh border town devoted to second-hand books and, once a year, a literary festival, to take part in a debate on democracy with Rhodri Morgan, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and - the heart quickens - Gore Vidal, a longtime hero I've never met. It is torrenting (no other word fits) with rain. It is a scene that makes you proud to be British: a brave little encampment of tents in a sea of mud, with flags flying and famous authors and audiences alike struggling, dung-brown from the knees down, to the next event. Everywhere, people are carefully unwrapping packets of sandwiches, struggling with Thermos lids and arguing about the condition of Portuguese poetry. TV names and big star writers attract the best crowds, but there is a mass relish for self-betterment, a tolerance for even the second-string talkers - a completely different nation from the soap-engorged, low attention-span one we are supposed to be.


Gore Vidal is everything I'd hoped: a stately, lemon-tongued patrician whose bon mots about his native land - "the United States of Amnesia", he calls it - have the audience whooping. Afterwards, he is wry about another Hay guest, Norman Mailer - "poor old sweetie, as deaf as a post; but, of course, it takes it out of you being the US heavyweight champion of literature all those years". Later, at a party, a woman compliments him on how well he is ageing and he replies with carefully enunciated deliberation: "Ma'am, I may be 75, but I still f**k like a minnow." At the same party, I spot Martin Amis, looking amazingly small and 1890s-ish, a crushed flower in his buttonhole, long hair and a very beady look. Since I've just finished an uncomplimentary article about him, I try to make sure I'm not introduced. He is a brilliant prose-maker, but just to check that I am not completely off-beam, I carry out an unofficial poll of a dozen or so people in Hay. No, they can't get through his novels, either.


Hay was not, however, the main cultural highlight of the week. No, that had to be the Steps concert at Wembley Arena, where we took Isabel (8) and two friends. A pink-and-white sea of girls blowing whistles and waving flashing batons, accompanied by grim-faced mothers and a few desperate, hunted-looking males, poured into the vast, hot hangar for what seemed like many hours of gyrating, pumping merriment. We not only got Steps, but also Atomic Kitten, Buffalo G and Northern Line, acts united by their energetic, clean-cut dancing and music. Isabel: "Dad, you just stood there with your arms folded and that sad face on. You looked really stupid." In fact, I was just thinking about how, next time Steps are on (November, if you're interested), I'd like to get a gang of people together - Sir Nicholas Serota, Sir Roy Strong, Lord Bragg, that kind of thing. Sadly, I will be otherwise engaged of an evening. Curses on you, BBC.


Among the cards of congratulation, abuse, etc, that arrive about the new job, there is a very fine cream envelope, which turns out to be from J Rothschild Assurance Group, inviting me to a seminar at the Hurlingham Club where I can discuss my capital assets, gain "security and peace of mind, both in the medium and long term" and hear about the "potential burden of inheritance tax". How exciting. I already have a capital asset strategy; which is that some of that stuff would be nice. As for the inheritance question, if there is anything left by the time the little blighters have left home, it's all going on grain alcohol and chunky Kit Kats. Somehow, I suspect this is not the message that J Rothschild wants to hear.

* Note to editor: if "barfly" is considered unusably offensive to Routledge, suggest try sot, lardbucket, human meat pudding, Yorkshire puff-adder, or similar, as seems appropriate

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