Lynn Barber’s Diary: Stockpiling sardines for Brexit, the need for free teeth and the genius of John Bercow

Someone on the radio said she’d been hoarding Shippam’s paste but I’ve never developed a Shippam’s paste habit. 

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Have just heard the very welcome news that the future of the Hans Tasiemka Archive has finally been secured. It is a vast collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings that Edda Tasiemka, a German refugee born in 1922, started in the Sixties to help her husband, Hans, who was London correspondent for various German publications. He died in 1979 but she carried on cutting, to the point that her semi-detached in Golders Green was completely buried under files. In the 1980s and 1990s it was much used by journalists because it included magazine cuttings, which the old Fleet Street morgues never did. Eddie Shah offered several million for the library when he founded Today but he wanted 51 per cent ownership, which Edda refused to give.

But then came the internet. She kept on cutting well into her nineties but no one was buying. The fear was that when she died the whole archive could be bundled into skips and lost forever. Salvation came in the shape of an entrepreneur called James Hyman, who was in the Guinness Book of Records as owning the largest magazine collection in the world. He promised Edda that he would preserve the archive and she, too frail to carry on, handed it over last summer. I went round the day after the removal vans moved in and was afraid that the shock might kill her. In fact, she was merry as a grig and thrilled to see the paintings on her walls that had been hidden behind piles of dusty files. Later, Hyman took me to see the archive installed in a temperature- controlled warehouse in Woolwich. He is proceeding with his grand plan of putting it all online. I hope he succeeds – but I also hope he keeps those dusty files.

The rich rewards of getting old

This spring I turn 75 so I will get my free TV licence. Bully for me. I already have my free bus pass, my free NHS prescriptions and eye tests, my £200-a-year winter fuel allowance, my residents’ parking discount and my “senior” concessions at various museums and cinemas. Truly, I am richly rewarded for being old. And of course I live in a socking great house that is now worth 20 times what we paid for it in 1984 – it is chastening to think that the house has earned more than me in that time. The really bizarre touch is that Islington Council awards me a 25 per cent council tax discount for living alone, which makes no sense given the desperate need for rented accommodation in the borough.

Politicians are always banging on about the need for joined-up thinking, but nothing illustrates their disjointedness more than their attitude to the old. They calculate that the old are more likely to vote than the young, so they must be kept on side at all costs. Yet what they forget in their blinkered materialism is that most oldies also have young. We have children who need to be housed; we have grandchildren who need to be schooled; we’d conceivably be willing to forgo our winter fuel allowance if it helped schools buy the occasional book.

Actually the one concession I really need, as an oldie, is free teeth. I’ve spent a fortune on my teeth over the years but they still keep falling out. I had two implants in my thirties but I wish I’d had more. This is becoming an obsession. Watching the Pet Shop Boys on an old Top of the Pops, I noticed that Neil Tennant had quite a big gap where his back teeth should be and seriously thought of emailing to tell him to get implants. I would vote for any party (perhaps not Ukip) that promised me free teeth.

Bob and the exploding tins

Rather than decluttering, I plan to spend the next month stockpiling for Brexit. But what should I stockpile? Well, wine and cigs, obviously, and Fixodent for my teeth, but what about food? Someone on the radio said she’d been stockpiling Shippam’s paste but I’ve never developed a Shippam’s paste habit, so I think I’ll go with the late Duchess of Devonshire, who advised me you need never starve provided you had enough tins of sardines. The great stockpiler, I remember, was the comedian Bob Monkhouse, who told me that he used to keep more than a thousand tins of food in his house. He would eat one of them occasionally “though it hurt me to do so”, but eventually the tins started swelling like footballs and exploding – pork and gravy splattered all over the walls – so he had to chuck them. But he liked having them because “they made him feel safe”. Would a thousand tins of sardines make me feel safe? Not really – I’d need the thousand cartons of cigs and cases of wine more.

Gossip according to Frank

Frank Field is my new best friend and favourite gossip in parliament. He tells me I must interview John Bercow, who he says “is our greatest speaker for 400 years”. Why? Because he grants urgent questions, which previous speakers very rarely did, and has thus enabled backbenchers to hold the government to account. Also, Field says, it’s a joy to watch Andrea Leadsom needling him. So OK, I’ll try to do him.

We were in the Strangers’ Dining Room and I was admiring the wine, and Field said the Houses of Parliament used to have the greatest cellar in the world till Robert Maxwell was put in charge of it, when it somehow dispersed. He recalled the late Lord Cuckney, “one of our great postwar spies”, telling him how Maxwell died. He was apparently in such financial trouble he wanted to disappear, so he made a plot with Mossad that he would jump off his yacht and they would rescue him and he would whizz off to Israel and live under an assumed name. Mossad did indeed send a boat – but they took one look at him and let him drown.

Tennis, travel and… talk shows

A friend has just joined a posh dating agency that charges £2,000 a year. They interview you at home to see if you are “suitable”. She is eminently suitable, given that she is slim, elegant, NS, GSOH and her interests include theatre, opera, tennis and travel. You’d imagine she’d be deluged with offers. Except unfortunately they misprinted opera as Oprah.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail

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