29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 11

T his column — over the weeks and months to come

— is hoping to compile a modest anthology of stories designed

to cast Richard Desmond, the banana-smoking proprietor of Asian Babes and Spunk-Loving Sluts, in an agreeable light. To that end, I'll be offering bottles of exclusive Vole champagne to the providers of the best insights into the character of this admired public man and patron of letters. To kick off, let me remind readers of the story which first introduced us to Desmond the Man of Contemplation. The scene: the Thames-side offices of Desmond's newspaper empire. Around him are his loyal lieutenants. He gazes out of the window, master of all he surveys. 'I wonder,' he says, 'what that fucking cormorant's thinking.'

Rejoicing at England's sensational victory in the rugby is not confined to the sporting world. At most publishing houses, you could not rely on coming across someone who could tell the front end of a rugby ball from the back, but the offices of Headline Books are resounding to the sound of whooping, shouting, simulated line-outs and impromptu hakas in the corridors. Why? This week they publish Martin Johnson's autobiography — a property that has just substantially increased in value. Oh, and two years ago someone had the foresight to tie a promising young kicker named Jonny Wilkinson to a cheap-as-chips two-book deal...

nglish rugby's most photographed supporter, Prince Harry, meanwhile, is reported to have enraged the team's sponsors (in hopes of annoying them further, I'll omit their name) by insisting on attending matches wearing the 'lucky' England shirt given him by Jonny Wilkinson — a shirt which bears the old (therefore 'wrong') logo. He's not the only member of his entourage to have committed a shirt faux pas. Harry's chaperon, Mark Dyer. is a former officer in the Welsh Guards and as Welsh as a daffodil pasty. When his friends both in and out of the Welsh Guards saw him on television alongside Harry, and sporting an England shirt — emblem of the hated conquerors, the very team that put out the Taffs in the quarter-finals — his mobile phone was bombarded with colourfully expressed text messages. 'mveryexercised at the moment by Susie the shark, who lives in the toilet of my local pub. That is, she appears prominently on a poster, showing us her teeth, with the line 'a nice name doesn't make something less deadly'. Susie is the 'face' of a new campaign by the charity Cancer Research UK, which aims to warn people of the dangers of 'mild', 'light', and low-tar' cigarettes. It is, the poster boasts, sponsored by the NHS. Go, however, to your tobacconist, and can you buy 'mild', 'light' and low-tar' cigarettes? No! You can't! Because since September it has been against the law to put those words on cigarette packets. So, to be absolutely clear, the government is spending our money — millions of pounds of it — on a campaign to prevent us buying something which it has already made, literally, impossible to buy. Brilliant.

Atruly eirenic character is the historian and socialite Andrew Roberts. In the very week the Mail on Sunday 'turned him over', as we say in our trade, with an account of his adventures which purported to investigate the question 'Is the Beast in the Bedroom a Great Historian or Just A Sycophantic Snob?', he shrugged off the insult to attend a handsome lunch for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, which that paper sponsors. Not only that, but he was vocal in his outrage when the winner of the prize, Hari Kunzru, refused to collect it out of distaste for the Mail on Sunday's ethical standards.

rr his rodent's sympathies are extended 1 without reservation to Lynda Chalker (Baroness Chalker of Leigh-on-Sea to you), our well-liked former Overseas Development Minister. On a recent trip to

Africa, she was bitten by a venomous tropical spider, and she now has to be kept refrigerated; if she gets too warm she suffers debilitating waves of hot flushes. The spider — to do an old joke the honour of retelling it — is said to be recovering well.

The royal family will miss Giles Gordon — the genial literary agent who represented, inter alios, Princes Andrew and Philip. Mr Gordon who nicknamed the former 'Randy Andy' and the latter 'Physical Phil' — had a good chance to observe the Firm close-up. The first time Prince Andrew telephoned his office, a colleague of Mr Gordon took the call. 'Who's calling?' he heard her say. There was a short pause. 'Oh come off it!' she scoffed. Andrew's original plan — though it came to nothing — was to launch himself as a photographer by producing a calendar; and before she hit on Budgie the Little Helicopter, it was the Duchess of York's ambition to bring out a coffee-table book about extraordinary clocks. Prince Charles in action was also something. At the launch party for his children's book The Old Man of Lochnagar, Charles was introduced for the first time to his literary agent (not, in this case, Mr Gordon). 'This is your agent, Sir.' he was told. 'Oh. Hullo. Jolly good. Which agency is it? Is it Curtis Brown?"No, Sir. Sheil Land.'

f a more anti-establishment cast of 44.-1 mind is the enchanting veteran literary agent Deborah Rogers. She announced that staff at Rogers, Coleridge and White would all be given last Thursday afternoon off in order to attend the march against President Bush's state visit. was certainly there myself,' she says. 'I adored the banners. My favourite was one which asked, "If I shoot President Bush will I get diplomatic immunity?" ' My telephone rings. It is my sports reporter, Houlighan. He is, as ever, in a state of some excitement. On this occasion, his rattle is being whirled by reports that the Poet Laureate, a man who will do more or less anything to secure publicity (for poetry), has agreed to chair a panel of disc-jockeys and suchlike to anoint a 'Chant Laureate'. `If Andrew Motion's interested, it proves it,' hollers Houlighan happily. 'Just as the proverb predicted: chants is a fine thing!'