What hope is there for republicanism when Eddie Izzard wisecracks with the Prince of Wales?
I am savouring the rare treat of watching something for which I have long campaigned actually happening, since I was the author of Charter 88's pamphlet, published back in 1995, urging reform of the House of Lords. But if a majority now agrees that the case against hereditary seats in parliament is "self-evident", as I wrote four years ago, how come the same does not apply to the office of head of state?
In his first few months in power, Tony Blair seemed to display a heartening indifference to the monarchy, even questioning the need to waste his time on the traditional weekly audience. Since he came to its rescue after Diana's death, then fawned all over the Queen on her golden wedding anniversary, this sine qua non of his "modernisation" plans for Britain seems to have dropped off the agenda.
Yet we all know that Blair, deep down, is a republican. Remember his "on-the-record" wink to Christopher Hitchens while muttering pre-election platitudes about the crown? Long-time friends of the Blairs recall Tony chortling merrily as Cherie trashed the royals over their pre-Downing Street dinner table. "You're the man who wants me to abolish the monarchy, aren't you?" he said to me warily over a glass of Chateau Millbank about a year before the election. "Yes," I replied, "but not until your third term." I can but hope.
But what hope have we republicans when Eddie Izzard wisecracks with the Prince of Wales and assorted luvvies lunch with the Queen? You have to hand it to the palace's new spin-doctor, Simon Lewis; these were brave attempts to lend street cred to a family not noted for its love, let alone patronage of the arts. Invited to the Royal Opera House for only the second time in her 47-year reign, the Queen declined because the work on offer was The Marriage of Figaro. "I've seen it before," she sighed. "That's the one about the girl losing a pin."
Lewis, too, is rumoured in public relations circles (whence he came) to have harboured republican sympathies in the past. He resigned his Labour Party membership, so they say, to take on a short-term job which would raise his long-term profile. No wonder he wants HM to schlep down from Balmoral and whoop it up in the Dome on New Year's Eve. That should strike even more fear into royalist hearts than the launch of the republican pressure group, Common Sense.
As one of its founder members, I can report a terrific response to our campaign to erect a statue of Tom Paine in London. As we battle bureaucracy, the best thing that could happen is for (Lord) Richard Attenborough finally to realise his longstanding dream of filming Paine's life. Trevor Griffiths has already written what Dickie calls a "stunning" script. So how about Daniel Day Lewis as Tom? Give him those great lines - "I have always considered monarchy to be a silly, contemptible thing", etc - and we would soon have a mass movement.
I fail to recognise myself or my fellow founders of Radio Einstein as the "nostalgic elitists" scorned in the Guardian by David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect, which he calls "an intellectual monthly in the tradition of Encounter and Marxism Today". Scanning its current issue, I find Frederic Raphael shabbily casting doubt on Jill Craigie's charge of rape against Arthur Koestler. Is this the "dumbing-down" of book reviewing? Or just another way to boost circulation? You won't be hearing anything so low-rent on Radio E.
It is not often that the subject of your work-in-progress is voted Man of the Millennium. As I struggle to the end of a life of Shakespeare, the man is everywhere. Thanks to the success of Shakespeare in Love, even tabloids have been running whole-page profiles of a writer who covered his tracks better than most. Now, with the imminence of Oscars for Tom Stoppard and others, it is starting all over again. The broadsheets reveal that the Bard had bad breath, while offering yet more fearless exposes of "fair" youths and "dark" ladies - the same old stuff by the same old names, reheated with the crafty opening: "Since the success of Shakespeare in Love . . ."
Last week the New Statesman joined in, with a cover-line trumpeting Bee Wilson's thoughts on "what Shakespeare ate". Well, Bee, I'm here to tell you that the Bard was partial to Italian cuisine.
How do I know? In Elizabethan London's Hart Street, in the parish of St Olave, one Marco Lucchese ran a popular Italian restaurant; in Act I of Othello, as the Venetian elders convene in emergency session, Shakespeare's Doge asks: "Marcus Lucchese, is he not in town?" Sounds to me like a hungry playwright offering a sly nod to his favourite restaurateur.
Nor is it often you are dining out with friends - in a favourite Italian restaurant, just like Shakespeare - when a man to whom you have recently dedicated a book, but met only once before, comes and settles at the next table. Such was the scene in Highbury's San Daniele del Friuli after that notorious FA Cup rematch. Arsene Wenger received a standing ovation when he came in, like Olivier entering the Ivy after playing Hamlet, and my fellow Gunners fans were duly impressed when I popped over for a quick word. Wenger had even read, or so he said, the tome I dedicated to him last year for sustaining me through its longueurs by doing the double.
"The generosity of the English is legendary," he said. "Now you have proved it true." And this from the Frenchman who had just given the British a lesson in fair play.