Mouth ulcers. Probably brought on by combined stress of the weekend meeting and drinking unfamiliar brands of coffee. I find the best thing is to rinse my mouth out with tea tree oil. Must try and get hold of some.

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Ireland thoughts

Highlights from Board meeting:

Mark Eyskens re Benelux, and my reply that I felt uneasy talking about the Benelux in front of him and Wim Kok.

Wes Clark rowing behind my analysis that the troop reduction int he Balkans was driven by the Pentagon not by Brussels.

Gareth liked my line about the Contact Group versus the Great Powers.

Highlights from yesterday:

Farcical inability of UUP and SDLP to meet with me.

Trying to persuade Stephen to allow Euro-candidate to join whatever group necessary.

Peter Robinson’s prediction on SDLP meltdown (courtesy of Tom Kelly)

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Hilarity ensues

Reading Two Books at Once? Combine Them.

For example:

Of Stupid White Mice and Men searing indictment of the vast albino mouse conspiracy that controls America.

Three Musketeers in a Boat Genteel sail upriver with armed Frenchmen.

Amongst the Women’s Room Hero of the Irish struggle for liberation gets mixed up in a different kind of struggle for liberation altogether.

Little House of the Spirits Laura and her family build their own cabin and learn life lessons against a backdrop of revolution in Chile. There are psychic chickens.

King Henry the Fourth Protocol Henry snuffs out rebels, commies.

Men are from Red Mars, Women are from Blue Mars Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic about terraforming the relationship between the sexes.

At Swim Two Birdsong Sweeney climbs trees to escape trenchfoot and the horrors of war.

Tales of the Two Cities the gay scene in 18th century London and Paris.

Cold Comfort Animal Farm modern city girl tries to educate her primitive country relatives out of their communist ways.

The Player of Patriot Games Set in a anarchist/right-wing future where a government agent infiltrates a mysterious game organised by the IRA

Close Encounters Of The Third Policeman – Man is beset by strange visions of mountains and lights in the sky. Discovers it is all, in fact, about a bicycle.

Snow Crashing on Cedars Hacker uses futuristic technology to solve murder in Pacific Northwest. Jake Gyllenhaal to play lead in film version.

Underworlds in Collision A young boy finds a baseball, throws it into the air. It breaks the pull of gravity and becomes Venus. 900 pages of mythology back it up.

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Well, interesting…

OK, so of the four main parties here:

  • one set me up for a meeting with their deputy leader which was very entertaining and enlightening
  • one set me up for a meeting with their director of elections, who pulled out at the last moment but sent a well-briefed substitute
  • one set me up for a meeting with their deputy press officer, who forgot to show up and then promised to put me in touch with their campaign manager for the June election, once they’d decided who it would be
  • one completely failed to get their act together to set up any kind of meeting with me despite repeated phone calls

…and interestingly but not surprisingly there is a very high level of correlation between the relative levels of efficiency as revealed in the above list and their relative placings in the popular vote in last November’s election!

(Since I’m staying with the fifth party it can’t be fairly compared.)

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Change of view

I’m sitting at a borrowed computer in the parliament buildings in Stormont, looking down the avenue past the sttue of Edward Carson making rude gestures to the south, in the midst of meeting politicians here to talk about my elections website.

Very productive meeting with a well-known Northern Ireland politician, who is, er, rather far from my own political position. But he gave me some excellent feedback: a) do a better front page with better indexing; and he’s quite right; and b) more analysis of transfers and of shifts between elections; and he’s also quite right. He also discouraged me from thinking about putting in a biographical directory of candidates; which was something I had been considering, but with some concern on my part as to whether or not the effort would be appreciated by potential consumers, such as an elected representative for East Belfast. We also discussed various other issues which will not be recorded here.

Off for more meetings now.

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Chernobyl biker


It’s an extraordinary story, with photographs that will linger for a long time. And yet, when I think of the town of Kozarac (memorably described by Carl Bildt – scroll halfway down) whose ruins I used to know well in Bosnia, devastated by human malice, it’s comforting in a way that this all happened by accident. Of course the downside is that these days Kozarac has been largely rebuilt, mosques and all; it will be a long time before that can happen in Chernobyl.

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Georgia Election results

It seems that president Saakashvili’s coalition has won all 150 seats that were up for grabs in yesterday’s election. That’s pretty impressive in a proportional system. (OK, so the threshold was a rather high 7%, but even so…)

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March books 14) The Master

14) The Master by TH White

A while back Ansible quoted an unintentionally humorous passage from this novel:

“Look,” said the practical Judy. “Do you approve of being spanked?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, then.”
“Well, then what?”
“If you can’t make people be good with a hair brush, you can’t with a vibrator, can you?”
“I don’t think it is the same.”
“It is the same,” said Judy.

But in fact the vibrators in question are the sinister machines with which the 157-year-old Master plans to Take Over The World from his island hide-out on Rockall in the North Atlantic. Judy and her brother Nicky, twins who, quite by coincidence, are the children of a duke and whose uncle is an American senator, happen to stumble across the Master’s secret plans; what can they do to foil his fiendish plan?

And yet that’s not fair to this remarkable book either. The Master’s entourage are beautifully sketched, and each of them has their own moral dilemma of how to prevent – or take over – the master plan. And most of the time we get the story from the children’s point of view (indeed the above dialogue is about as close as they get to a philosophical discussion); with one memorably sympathetic though brief chapter told from the point of view of their pet dog.

White of course is much better known for The Sword in the Stone and its expansion The Once and Future King, but this is a nice example of his skills.

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Dublin lj meetup

Congrats to and on organising this afternoon’s event. Good to see and again, and also to meet , amd . I think this makes me the first person who was there to blog the event!

Off for dinner with Dept of Foreign Affairs now.

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March Books 13) Kushiel’s Avatar

13) Kushiel’s Avatar, by Jacqueline Carey

The third and last in the hugely entertaining trilogy by Jacqueline Carey, after her earlier Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen, set in a medieval world strangely different from ours, but not so different as to be unrecognizable. Carey winds together familiar and completely invented legends for a richly imagined cultural background, and a tale of gripping political intrigue. Here her heroine, Phèdre nò Delaunay, ventures on a rescue mission combined with a quest for knowledge that takes her to a horrendous citadel on the shores of what we know as the Caspian Sea, and then to find the lost tribes of Israel on the shores of the lake we call Lake Victoria. As always the various settings are lushly imagined. And I haven’t even mentioned the kinky sex (though there is less of it in this than the previous two books).

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Our number two man in Tbilisi got his story published on the Observer web site. That will help raise the profile of the Ajara problem with the international community; we’re starting of course from a very low base…

But I do feel vindicated. I used up a lot of shoe leather three months ago warning people that there was trouble brewing; it duly brewed, but the problem was resolved. Always difficult to point to cause and effect in these things but it’s nice to know we at least got it right, whether or not we helped with the resolution of the problem.

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Further frustration

Safely arrived in Dublin, using terminal in my mother’s office, and I still can’t access our work email externally. And the famous Serbia report is actually going to be published within the next couple of hours.

So I’ve taken the unprecedented step of letting colleagues know my private email address; I’m not concerned about privacy, but concerned that they may try and send huge documents which will block my limited space…

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Delightful small being

I got home eventually to find Anne upstairs reading bedtime stories to F, helped by U. For the first time ever I can recall, U indicated clearly that she wanted to come downstairs with me when I set off to cook dinner; she has always previously wanted to stay with her mother. Very sweet, and of course it didn’t last all that long, but our baby is growing up!

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Shaving gel

My shaving gel is practically finished. And I’m about to go travelling for five days and was wondering how I would find time and opportunity to buy a new container of it in a strange city – not that I don’t know Dublin well, but I do think it is a strange city!

And then as I picked up the old document bag I hadn’t used for ages, I saw a cylindrical form at the bottom of it – yep – a barely used container of shaving gel, long forgotten from some previous trip. After a somewhat hassling day the evening is looking up.

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The food meme

from both and :

What’s the last thing you ate? beefburgers, beans, peas and reheated pasta with pesto
What’s your favourite cheese? dolce latte
What’s your favourite fish? tuna – not tinned but in decent-sized steaks
What’s your favourite fruit? do lychees count?
When, if ever, did you start liking olives? when I was an undergraduate and started getting into pizzas
When, if ever, did you start liking beer? when I was a teenager and going to school discos
When, if ever, did you start liking shellfish? very early – scampi always a delicacy
What was the best thing your mum/dad/guardian used to make? garlic potatoes in milk
What’s the native specialty of your home town? the infamous Ulster Fry, breakfast with fried egg, fried bacon, fried sausage, fried tomato, fried mushrooms, fried bread, fried soda bread, fried potato bread, and if you’re lucky black and white puddings
What’s your comfort food? pizza
What’s your favourite type of chocolate? dark chocolate
How do you like your steak? medium
How do you like your burger? well done
How do you like your eggs? varies. I do like the American eggs florentine habit but have never dared try it at home.
How do you like your potatoes? mashed with loads of butte and milk and perhaps extra vegetable ingredients as well
How do you take your coffee? white, two sugars
How do you take your tea? normally milk, occasionally sugar – unless it’s herbal in which case always sugar and never milk
What’s your favourite mug? a Midvale School for the Gifted mug which my staff gave me as a birthday present while I was Deputy President of Cambridge University Students Union
What’s your biscuit or cookie of choice? Petit Beurre
What’s your ideal breakfast? I do like Eggs Florentine but couldn’t do it every day. Egg on toast (scrambled, fried or poached) will do fine.
What’s your ideal sandwich? Salmon and mozzarella
What’s your ideal pizza (topping and base)? anchovies
What’s your ideal pie (sweet or savory)? Pecan, with loads of ice cream
What’s your ideal salad? Greek. (Though in the Balkans you sometimes have to be careful about the terminology.)
What food do you always like to have in the fridge? mushrooms; I would say beer but we have a cellar.
What food do you always like to have in the freezer? peas
What food do you always like to have in the cupboard? tinned tuna
What spices can you not live without? garlic, sage, tarragon, basil, oregano, mint, parsley, coriander, cumin, rosemary, thyme, dill – in roughly that order.
What sauces can you not live without? None.
Where do you buy most of your food? supermarket. (And restaurants near work for lunch.)
How often do you go food shopping? at least once a month.
What’s the most you’ve spent on a single food item? €15 for our Christmas chunk of wild boar
What’s the most expensive piece of kitchen equipment you own (excluding ‘white goods’)? We had the whole kitchen redone six months ago so the cost of anything else had faded into distant memory
What’s the last piece of equipment you bought for your kitchen? saucepans
What piece of kitchen equipment could you not live without? one small knife
How many times a week/month do you cook from raw ingredients? two or three times a week
What’s the last thing you cooked from raw ingredients? See above: beefburgers, beans, peas and reheated pasta with pesto
What meats have you eaten besides cow, pig and poultry? venison, bison, lamb, rabbit, snails, goat, duck, kangaroo, crocodile, ostrich, bear. But not yet horse.
What’s the last time you ate something that had fallen on the floor? Weekend.
What’s the last time you ate something you’d picked in the wild? Last month – sage from the garden (if that counts)
Place in order of preference (greatest to least): Indian,Chinese, Thai, Sushi, French, Italian
Place in order of preference: whiskey (single malts), brandy, gin (the only one I really drink), vodka, dark rum, light rum, tequila
Place in order of preference: Garlic, Mint, Basil, Aniseed, Caramel, Lime, Ginger
Place in order of preference: watermelon, strawberry, pineapple, banana, orange, cherry, apple
Place in order of preference: Sex, Food, the Internet, Movies, Sport, Fashion
Bread and spread: heavy brown bread, and creamy butter
What’s your fast food restaurant of choice, and what do you usually order? Pizza Hut, Super Supreme
Pick a city. What are the three best dining experiences you’ve had in that city? Brussels, where I work: La Maison du CygneChez Marius, good for political conspiring.
What’s your choice of tipple at the end of a long day? Either a heavy Belgian beer or a chilled glass of Luxemburgish white wine. This evening it’s a Hoegaarden Grand Cru beer.
What’s the next thing you’ll eat? A pain au chocolat from the tea-lady in the office, for my breakfast tomorrow morning.

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Diploma mills

I just got one of those fake degree spams, you know:

no degree = no job = no money
get an instant university degree = higher salary

no required tests, classes, books, or interviews!
get a Bachelors, Masters, MBA, and Doctorate (P-h-D) diploma!


–> call 1-240-352-7337 (24hrs)

no neeed [sic] study or test

>> call 1-240-352-7337 (24hrs)

I did the usual by reporting it through spamcop and then wondered if there might be some official body in the US to report this to. And discovered to my surprise that the Deputy Chief Information Officer at the US Dept of Homeland Security, who had previously been a webmaster in the Clinton White House, has been suspended on full pay since last summer for citing bogus degrees from a diploma mill in her CV.

That’s extraordinary enough, that the government department most concerned with security failed to vet its own officials. But I was also stunned by the press coverage describing her as a “Clinton official”. As far as I can tell she actually only faked the degrees when she wanted the Homeland Security job under President Bush. Surely that makes her a “Bush official”?

Vetting your potential employees is so damn important. I’m in the process of hiring someone for one of our very politically sensitive field positions. At this level I tend to ignore the referees provided by the applicant – in this case there were none anyway – and use my own network of contacts to take soundings from friends who I know were previously serving in the same place at the same time – in this case there were three, so I sent off emails to Washington, Stockholm, and another capital city further to the east, all three of which elicited very positive responses. It’s still not enough; the candidate claims to be about to finish a postgraduate degree and I will want sight of at least part of the thesis before I make a decision.

I’m just stunned that the Department of Homeland Security can’t be bothered to take the same degree of care. Slate, as so often, has a kick-ass article about the latest revelations of Bush’s failure on terrorism. I’m beginning to feel that even a war-time president is vulnerable if he appears to be incompetent in fighting the war. American commentators have a tendency to concentrate on the precedents of Lincoln, Wilson and FDR who were all re-elected in wartime. They shouldn’t forget Asquith and Chamberlain. (And the fact that Wilson wasn’t actually at war when the election came.)

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Everyone’s here today

Well, this afternoon we had the president of a small African state (though not one that has gained international recognition, which makes it less impressive) meeting my colleagues at one end of the office, and me meeting some of the people I should have met last month at the other end. Still loads of work to do before I go to Dublin on Friday.

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Email from Kosovo

Subject: Tonight’s movie at the OSCE has been changed…

Dear All,

Please be advised that tonight’s originally scheduled film, “The Terrorist,” has been canceled and that the somewhat more lighthearted movie, “Lost in Translation,” will be shown in its place.

Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you–

Best regards,

Senior Public Information Officer
OSCE Mission in Kosovo

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I just shook hands with the Prime Minister of New South Wales, who was visiting a colleague.

And then an advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo dropped in for a quick chat.

Now I’m going for lunch. On my own.

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Horrible story

William Mayne, author of such great children’s books as Earthfasts and A Swarm in May, is on trial for raping his fans in the 1960s and 70s. Horrible.

[Later edit:] He’s pleaded guilty to 11 counts of indecent assault, in return for the rape charges being dropped.

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Coming attractions

Up early to see if at least I can get the Serbia paper out the door today. I see there’ve been two policemen killed in Kosovo overnight; it just goes on…

To a more cheerful topic, I hope. I’m going to be in Ireland from Friday to Wednesday, including Tuesday in Belfast. The evenings are busy over the weekend (plus must actually make some time to see my mother with whom I am staying) but I hope to make it to the on Sunday afternoon, though I won’t be there until some time after 3 pm when it starts. On Tuesday I’m lining up meetings with political types during the day, but hope to have Monday and Tuesday evenings free in Belfast, and am available for drinks etc. Let me know if anything is up.

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Back and working

Back to find email working again and large parts of the new Kosovo paper on my desk. Now to try and clear it this evening…

A real shame to be in Budapest for such a short time. Had good meetings with an ambassador, my MP contact and then a seminar at the Central European University. But zero time for sightseeing.

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Here in Budapest for a seminar this afternoon, and hoping to work on some stuff by remote control this morning – but office webmail is disabled. Well, I did at least save some of it to my laptop yesterday, so I can work on that for the next two hours.

And then I have a noon meeting with a member of parliament. The Hungarian parliament building is one of the loveliest in the world, but unfortunately the MPs’ offices are all in an office block across the road known (with no sense of irony) as the White House. Can’t wait (!)

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Dutch royalty

Ex-Queen Juliana of the Netherlands died yesterday morning at the age of 94; this morning her eighth great-grandchild was born. My family lived in the Netherlands for a year in 1979-80, just at the time when Juliana abdicated in favour of her daughter Beatrix, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dutch royals. They somehow seem a lot less stuffy than the British and considerably brighter than the Belgians, not just on TV but also in person – I’ve met three of Juliana’s grandsons one way or another, and find them – this sounds dreadful – surprisingly intelligent given their family background. Also, though this is irrelevant, Robert Heinlein makes them supreme rulers of the solar system in his novel Double Star. I’ve never dared ask any of the Dutch royals if they have read it. Perhaps at the wedding next month I will acquire enough Dutch courage to do so.

My favourite Dutch royal anecdote was one I first got from someone who claimed to have it directly from Queen Beatrix, but I’ve heard it from several other sources since (there’s at least two internet versions) and my informant is, I know, capable of exaggeration for the sake of a good story. The Queen and her late husband Prince Claus were partly responsible for organising the famous “Bilderberg” conferences, beloved of conspiracy theorists everywhere, where leading policymakers from around the world get together for thinking and drinking. (I’ve been on the fringes of various such events myself, though nothing quite as exalted as Bilderberg, and can confirm that they are a lot less exciting, let alone conspiratorial, than people like to think.)

At these conferences the Queen used to hang around in the back just to keep an ear on what was going on. At one such conference in the late 1980s, Dr David Owen, then the leader of a failing British opposition party, was invited to make a presentation on something or other. He misjudged his audience, his speech went down badly, and he stalked down from the lectern. He spotted this woman he vaguely recognised and assumed, in the heat of the moment, to be one of the conference secretaries, thrust the notes from his speech into her hands and snarled at her that he needed thirty copies of it done immediately. She did the photocopying and had it delivered to his room with a slip of paper saying “with the compliments of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands”. Dr Owen was not invited back to the conferences again for several years.

But what was striking about the Dutch press coverage of Juliana’s death was the sense of emotion even from those who surely cannot remember her as Queen – it’s 24 years ago next month that she abdicated – and also a sense of continuity – the coincidence of the royal birth certainly helps – and of a life lived to its proper span – she abdicated on her 71st birthday, having reigned for more than three decades, and enjoyed a long retirement before old age took its toll a few years ago. Quite different from what I remember of the mood around the British Queen Mother’s death two years ago at the age of 101; there the sense was of the end of an era; I happened to be at a meeting in the Foreign Office when the cortege went past down Whitehall, and one of the younger diplomats present sighed and said, “There’ll only be one more like this.” Somehow the Dutch royals have managed to tap into the Zeitgeist in a way that the Windsors have not.

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Illustrious ancestor

Going through my late aunt’s genealogy papers, and cross-checking them against the internet, I’ve discovered that the glamorous Colonel Ninian Beall was my 7xgreat grandfather. There seem to be a whole clutch of ancestors who were active in politics in 18th-century Maryland. I knew I must get it from somewhere…

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Bike ride

Feeling very virtuous, and also a little tired, as I managed my first bike ride of the year. Not that I got very far, only to the Doode Bemde nature reserve, then the villages of Neerijse and Korbeek-Dijle, with much dismounting and pushing the bike up the hills and through the muddy bits, but it was probably about 8 km and made me feel a bit less horribly unfit. As well as being half-decent weather it’s also the first day for four weeks that I’ve really felt well enough to try, and I’m glad I did.

PS – beware, the Doode Bemde site I linked to above sings a little chant when you open it.

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March books 12) Chance Witness

12) Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics, by Matthew Parris.

I have a certain sense of loyalty to Clare College, Cambridge, where I spent five mostly happy years between 1986 and 1991, and part of that includes following the careers of my fellow alumni not just from my own year but those who attended after I left (like the sf writer China Miéville) and who graduated before me, or even those who, like the entertainer Richard Stilgoe, the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the mystic philosopher Thomas Merton, had attended for a few terms and got thrown out. (Interestingly my wife, who was also there for four years, cannot relate to my loyalty for the place at all.)

When I arrived, and challenged the Senior Tutor at one of those embarrassing get-to-know-you sherry parties to name someone famous in contemporary public life who had been at Clare, he named Matthew Parris, who had just a few months before resigned one of the safest Tory seats in the country to become presenter of ITV’s best known current affairs program, Weekend World. I didn’t know it at the time, but I encountered his legacy in the college when I served on the committee of the Clare College Students Association and became the resident wonk on constitutional issues; Parris had written the constitution and given the CCSA its name back in 1969. (The year after my term of office the name was again changed, to the Union of Clare Students.)

So I’ve followed his progress since. I’ve seen him in the flesh precisely once, at a Cambridge Union Society debate on the anti-homosexual Clause 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, where he made a moving and effective speech about being a lonely and shy gay undergraduate at the tail end of the swinging sixties. It went better than his first speech in the Union Society chamber, an embarrassing debacle which he describes in painful detail. In fact much of this autobiography is taken up with embarrassing events described in painful detail. He fails as a diplomat, fails as a politician, and fails as a TV presenter (Weekend World was axed, largely because of Parris’ own lacklustre performance in the chair), before finding his element in written journalism.

As with a lot of autobiography, particularly if it’s written in a confessional style, one has to be cautious about feeling that one has got to know the author; what is written is fascinating, especially about his colonial childhood in Africa and Cyprus, but presumably much is unwritten as well. But I feel I would like Matthew Parris if I were ever to meet him socially. We are both fascinated by politics. I am gradually and reluctantly growing out of the kneejerk reaction that I acquired in the Thatcher years (years which he helped to bring about) that all Tories are irredeemably evil. Much of his thinking is also taken up with gay rights problems, to which I am very sympathetic though much less directly concerned. Also if he has a favourite continent it is probably Africa; I’m a devoted and practising European.

And in fact my career has eerily mapped his. Like him, I graduated from Clare College and headed for a niche which didn’t suit me (in his case, the Foreign Office, in my case, academe). Both of us started working for the research department of a political party in our mid-20s (in his case, a decently paid berth under Chris Patten in the Conservative Party; in my case an unpaid position in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland). Both our lives were changed by an election when we were 29 (he won his, and became the MP for West Derbyshire; I lost mine – badly – and emigrated to the Balkans). Now I am 36, the age at which he resigned his safe seat to embark on the risky path of a media career. I don’t think the media will be my next destination, and I have more to lose than he did so cannot take the same risks, but my feet sometimes feel itchy…

The other thing I take from the book is what a difference a split second decision can make. The most significant act of Parris’ political career was to rescue a small dog which was drowning in the River Thames, shortly before the 1979 election. The resultant favourable publicity was enough to get him the nomination for West Derbyshire, beating out not only another Clare graduate, Peter Lilley, who later became deputy leader of the party under William Hague, but also a smart London lawyer called Michael Howard, who is now the party’s leader. The most hilarious moment in the book is when a reluctant Mrs Thatcher is compelled to present Parris with an award for his bravery at a ceremony attended also by the dog and its owners. The dog, excited by the occasion, humps Mrs Thatcher’s leg in front of the full scrutiny of the press. Alas, those days were more discreet, and nobody mentioned it at the time. But it gave me a good laugh.

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