15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 7


RORY BREMNER My hopes of a weekend lie-in were shattered last week when a friend told me he was taking part in the London to Brighton veteran car rally, and would I see him off at 7 a.m.? The lingering doubts as to what on earth I thought I was doing at this hour on a Sunday were dispelled as I walked through Hyde Park while these extraordinary machines rattled, chuffed or whirred through the freezing fog beside the Serpentine. It was atavistically moving — as if at any moment a carriage would trot by conveying Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to an assignation. Heroic, too: at the time these cars were made (c. 1900) engineers were still experimenting with first principles, and some of the earliest cars appeared to be propelled by solid fuel. `Look, darling! It's an 1879 Aga!' Indeed, last year, one competitor actually cooked his breakfast on his engine (a pastime described in an American book, Manifold Destiny, which I'm desperate to trace), while another had more of an adventure than he bargained for when his trousers caught fire. Two years ago a steam-pow- ered car broke down and would only go in reverse. The owner promptly reversed the last 15 miles to Brighton — into his own steam. Some years ago my friend had the life frightened out of him as the car behind bore down on his 1903 De Dion Bouton. `Poop-poop! Out of the way!' Straining to see who this modern-day Mr Toad might be, he found himself looking at Prince Michael of Kent, who swept past, only to break down very gratifyingly half a mile up the road. Hurrah! Pausing to tinker entire- ly superfluously with his own engine before resuming the journey, my friend overheard a frustrated Prince crying, 'Come on! we must make it to Brighton – the crowds will be very disappointed not to see us!' This year many participants in the rally (not officially called London-Brighton, presum- ably because that would be a considerable exaggeration in some cases, London to Brixton being nearer the mark) had the added benefit of mobile phones to assist recovery. I like this. (`Talk to Henry he's got an 1898 Ericsson.') Crossing West- minster Bridge, Earth really didn't have anything to show more fair. The gold on the Palace of Westminster was just emerg- ing through the freezing fog as that majes- tic building took shape like a developing photograph or a Monet painting. For the connoisseur, too, a vintage piece of irony: as 300 or more petrol-, steam- or gas-pow- ered vehicles move along in a cloud of car- bon dioxide, two participants compare notes: 'It's amazing, you know, we've been coming here every November for 20 years and every year it seems to get warmer. It's like our whole climate's changing. Why do you think that should be?' Every Wednesday from October until Christmas I spend the day staring into a mirror in a tiny Soho dressing-room while my make-up artist Helen Barrett pulls, pushes and stretches my bland features into those of the various characters in my show. The days are tiring and, slumped in the make-up chair, I frequently fall asleep as one character and wake up as another one altogether; a trait I apparently now share with Michael Portillo. Quite apart from her skill with blusher and prosthetic, Helen's sense of humour is unfailing and infectious. In the old days at the BBC, she had a habit of making up extras or minor characters to look exactly like the director or the cameraman and seeing just how long after the rest of the crew it took them to notice. During the 1983 election she had occasion to touch up Sir Edward Heath and, caught unawares as the presen- ter cut to Heath's studio, she found herself shoved under the desk with her head jammed against his leg for the duration of the piece. To his great credit Sir Edward completed the interview unflappably. To his greater credit, the interviewer did not balk at the sight of the former Conserva- tive leader sitting with as much dignity as he could muster behind a gardening trug containing a pot of baby wipes, assorted brushes and a can of Elnett firm-hold hair- spray.

Derek Draper's story about Clare Short's pager going off in front of the Queen (`I do hope it wasn't anyone impor- tant') reinforces my suspicion that behind that sucked-lemon expression Her Majesty has a wicked sense of humour. And it's not just the clothes. At the recent re-opening of Broadcasting House she encountered Terry Wogan. `Ah,' she said, 'I was listen- ing to you on the radio this morning.' Leg- end has it that as the Greatest Living Irish- man's cheeks flushed with pride, Her Majesty delivered the follow-up. 'Tell me,' she said, 'have you ever done any televi- sion at all?' This may be apocryphal, but I want it to be true. She did, however, fail to identify the cast of EastEnders (thank goodness) and completely blanked June Whitfield, who was wearing her OBE and threw in an outrageous curtsy for good measure. Nope. Nothing doing. Now she can't be that out of touch, can she? Can she?

Listening to Gordon Brown's Specta- tor/Allied Dunbar lecture on Britishness, I wondered how much he finds his idea of Britishness reflected in our Eurosceptic press. Either his analysis of British toler- ance is wrong or the press is not British, in which case when is Tony Blair going to call Rupert Murdoch's bluff?

To the CBI conference in Birmingham, where I meet again their former director general Howard Davies — a great laugh and no mean sportsman, though this week he's hobbling from a football injury. At a cricket match this summer I asked what he thought of William Hague. 'I gave him his first job,' he said. 'At McKinsey's. He did the photocopying.' But what was he like? Pause. 'Very good at photocopying.' Per- haps the Conservative leader should take a leaf from Nigel Kennedy's book and change his moniker to a new one chosen to bring him great popularity and overwhelm- ing public support. How about 'Louise Woodward'?

Sleep was further interrupted last Tues- day morning as I got up at 4 a.m. to watch the Melbourne Cup, Australia's biggest horse race. My hero (at 33-1) was Har- bour Dues, trained in Sussex by Lady Her- ries and Maxine Cowdrey. He came in fourth, finishing stronger than any other horse in the field and would unquestion- ably have taken the race had there been another furlong. As it is, fourth place is the best achievement by any British horse at Melbourne, and a real credit to the yard. But thereby hangs another tale, for it had been a dream of Sir Colin (now Lord) Cowdrey to have one of his wife's string run in the Cup. She and Maxine made it happen, and some time this week Sir Colin will drop in on Don Bradman and two of the greatest cricketers ever to grace Lord's will sit down and reminisce together. No cameras, no interview, just two men and their long and fond memories of the game that shaped their lives. As winter deepens, isn't that a thought to warm your heart?