The Spectator Diary by Amanda Foreman

Derek Draper who gave us Blair’s One Hundred Days appeared on one of those chat shows this week and said it was a myth that referendums mean maximum democracy. ‘The people’s selectorate’ was how he categorised the small number who actually go out and vote. He is absolutely right, of course. Perhaps he would consider going on record to debunk a few more myths, such as that feminists berate men who open doors for them, eating chocolate standing up doesn’t count as caloric intake, and surfing the Net is the fastest way to obtain information. The www as in http://www really stands for world-wide wait.

The Internet may be agonisingly slow at times, but it hasn’t deterred me from wasting large chunks of the day in search of new web sites. It’s how I keep up with current trends. According to a glossary of the new Nineties office-speak which arrived from New York via e-mail last week, people like me are mouse potatoes,’ the wired equivalent of the couch potato. My favourite among the latest terms is ‘percussive maintenance’, the practice of hitting a computer until it starts to work again. A ‘cube farm’ is an open-plan office filled with cubicles. ‘Prairie dogging’ is what people do in cube farms when someone yells or drops something and heads suddenly pop up from nowhere. When a project fails, cube farmers go in for ‘blamestorming’, in which they hold a group discussion on why it went wrong and who’s responsible. A ‘flight risk’ is a disgruntled employee who is suspected of being in touch with head-hunters. Flight risks increase after the arrival of a ‘chainsaw consultant’, the expert brought in to reduce the employee head count so that the management can have clean hands. ‘Uninstalled’ is a euphemism for being fired, as is ‘decruited’. As a result of decruitment, yuppie couples frequently become ‘sitcoms’: single income, two children, oppressive mortgage. Decruitment can also induce a person to ‘go postal’, meaning to embark on a shooting rampage, referring to the recent number of incidents where United States postal employees have shot their colleagues. But most people cut their losses and set off for ‘generica’, which is any one of the hundreds of small cities in the United States.

As well as being a ‘mouse potato’, I have also turned into a ‘stress puppy’ – a perpetually anxious and whiny person. It’s all because of my book. I’ve been accustomed to writing on my own for the past five years, and just quietly toddling between my desk and the kitchen every day. But all that’s changed now that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is in the bookshops. I’m doing the stuff which authors are expected to do, only I get terribly nervous and when I’m nervous I become confused and forgetful. I did a book signing at Hatchard’s yesterday and was unable to spell quite ordinary words like ‘character’ (an ‘o’ appeared), and ‘sincerely’. You can’t cross out your mistakes on someone’s book either. I’m worse on the radio. ‘Why did you choose your subject?’ ‘Um, it was a long time ago.”What do you admire about her?’ ‘She was more neurotic than me.’ ‘Really?’ Well, perhaps not, at the rate I’m going. I don’t understand why the connection between what I’m thinking and what I say keeps flicking off. There was one episode in Friends when Monica advised Phoebe to think before she spoke, and Phoebe replied, ‘I know, but there isn’t always time.’ I know, I know.

People who can speak fluently whatever the occasion make me so envious. I watched Gitta Sereny struggle through a special episode of Booked two nights ago. Television is clearly not her metier but I admired her all the more for approaching every question in a brave and honest way. That a writer of Ms Sereny’s stature and integrity should be hounded and vilified by the tabloid press is a shame. That the government of the day – and a Labour government too – should feed the hysteria rather than act as a calming influence is unforgivable. I have often bumped into Labour figures at fund-raising events organised by Index on Censorship. This week I haven’t seen any of them take a public stand on freedom of speech, despite the calls for Cries Unheard to be banned. I don’t know if William Hague will thank me for writing this, but I wrote to him on a whim to find out the Conservative party’s position on free speech. His reply was an unambiguous statement that personal freedom is central to modern Conservative philosophy. This is obviously not a popular opinion among the new cultural puritans; nevertheless I admire Hague for taking the more difficult route. But what is going on in this country when a serious author, or any author for that matter, is forced to defend the publication of her work? Almost 50 years ago, Britain was a haven for American writers who were blacklisted under McCarthyism. That is a proud reputation to have and one which should not be cast aside lightly. If Anna Pasternak were to publish her book on Diana and James Hewitt, “Princess in Love” today, would there be an outcry for it to be banned? ‘Would shops refuse to stock it? After all, Princess Diana still retains the nation’s deep affection. Whatever ones feelings about decency and good taste, I hope the answer would be no.

Several people have asked me to comment on the similarities between Georgiana Devonshire’s life and Princess Diana’s. Briefly, both were Spencers, both forged a remarkable relationship with the public, both were successful campaigners, and both had ‘crowded’ marriages although Georgiana loved her husband’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, to distraction. Apart from the futility of such an exercise, historical parallels are only interesting in the way that a freak meteor shower is interesting. They look stunning but they don’t add much to the sum of our understanding. That said, my favourite historical parallel is the famous Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy conundrum.

  • Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, Kennedy in 1946.
  • Lincoln became president in 1860, Kennedy in 1960.
  • Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy, Kennedy’s was named Lincoln.
  • Both were assassinated on a Friday by Southerners.
  • John Wilkes Booth ran from the theatre and was caught in a warehouse.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald ran from the warehouse and was caught in a theatre.
  • Both Lincoln and Kennedy were succeeded by men named Johnson.
  • Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
  • Finally, both assassins, Booth and Oswald, were killed before their trials.

Now that is uncanny.