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Harriet Harman: even more charismatic than Stephen Byers

A surprising early morning call comes in from Labour Party headquarters. It is my new friend Tony Topspin-Smythe, who works in the party's information control module. Ever since we met at a Tina Brown launch party, Tony has been promising me an off-the-record exclusive from within government. "The word on the street is that you're writing one of those satirical-but-not-too-serious columns," he said. "That's not how I would... " "Great, great. I've got a perfect subject for you. Are you ready for this? I can reveal, completely off the record, something which will be totally dynamite when it gets out. Are you ready for this? Harriet Harman is not as dull as everybody thinks. No, really. I can let you have some of the hilarious stuff that she's done. It'd be perfect for your column." "Write it yourself, then. I'm pretty busy, as it happens. This is your column from...

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Sometimes a stint in jail can be a smart career move

In what has been described as the most momentous jail release since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in 1990, America's heiress celebrity Paris Hilton is due to be released today from the Lynwood Correctional Facility after a harrowing 23 days behind bars. Naturally this world-shattering event will detonate an international media blitz. People magazine has paid $300,000 for photographs of Paris's tearful homecoming. There was said to have been brisk competition between the ABC and NBC channels for the first post-prison TV interview, but in the end it will be CNN's firm but fair Larry King who will do the honours. Merely by being arrested for drink-driving while already banned, Paris Hilton has taken another momentous step in her career as a celebrity. Not particularly pretty - Donaldson and Eyre's authoritative Dictionary of National Celebrity describes her as looking like "a shivering whippet dipped in bleach" - and certainly not...

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It was the summer of love, but I wasn’t getting any

The summer of love has had a gentle makeover in the years since it took place 40 years ago. The colours are mellower now. The girls, usually with flowers painted on their proudly naked breasts, seem to have grown lovelier down the years. Even the drugs seem essentially benign. It is as if an ad agency has been at work, making the whole event rather more tasteful and momentous than it actually was. As the Small Faces sang at the time, it's all too beautiful. Four decades on, as the summer solstice marks the official anniversary of the dawning of the summer of love, its legacy lives on. It was the ultimate, flowering moment of a decade during which it had at last, after the distinctly middle-aged 1950s, become cool to be young. An alternative universe was in place. The best of the music was astonishingly confident - Dylan had...

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Save us from this unisex uniformity

It is probably a great scandal, what will be going on next month at the 125th gathering of the Bohemian Grove club. Some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men will be meeting in the redwoods of northern California. There will be millionaires, defence chiefs, bankers, media magnates, heads of university and, a recent innovation, one or two artists and musicians. In the past, George Bush and Dick Cheney have attended. Richard Nixon was a guest, but found it "the most faggy thing imaginable". Every year the keynote speech is made by Dr Henry Kissinger who, by hilarious tradition, is interrupted by a Mexican band as he starts to speak. Bohos, as they call themselves, talk about world events, but also are known to run about naked in the woods, get drunk, appear in shows wearing women's clothing. At some point, a Druidic ritual known as the Cremation of...

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A nation in thrall to the tyranny of tears

That popular British sport, the mass back-pedal, is back in fashion this week. Bob Geldof is not a saint. The question of world poverty is not as straightforward as it seemed. It was not necessarily a good thing to allow a revered comedy writer to insert Make Poverty History propaganda into one of his sitcoms. The BBC was wrong to trundle along in the comfy middle carriages of the liberal bandwagon. Only two years ago, it was all different. The people were uniting to show those cynical G8 leaders that something had to be done about the Third World. The good guys - Geldof, Bono, Richard Curtis - were articulating this popular anger and the BBC, the people's channel, gave them a platform. It was all rather moving. Now, feet whirring backwards on the pedals, politicians, commentators and even the BBC itself seem to have concluded that the corporation has...

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Give us our daily supply of outrage

Signed any good petitions recently? There is a whole range of causes that concerned citizens are able to support or oppose by going online and adding their names to a list. The Save Our Post Offices petition urgently needs support. The Global Campaign for Education, set up to remind world leaders of the importance of education, is attracting celebrity backing - the boy band McFly recently decided that, on balance, they were in favour of education and signed up. Courtesy of The Sun, there is a petition to "protect the UK's kids from paedos", surely a worthy cause if ever there was one, while the group holding the BBC man Alan Johnston in Gaza may or may not be influenced by the 80,000 or so people who are urging his release on a BBC website. There are many others. In fact, a brisk 10-minute surf would enable you to vote...

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The bishop and his daring suggestion

Under the deceptively calm leadership of Dr Rowan Williams, the Church of England is going through one of its proactive phases. Whenever some new survey causes a fuss about the way society is going, there will be a bishop, one of God's marketing team, on hand to add that all-important spiritual element. Messages from the church tend to be an exercise in stating the obvious, and so it was a surprise to read that the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading, has come up with a startling and original idea. The answer to many of our personal problems is apparently not, as the gurus of the self-help industry proclaim, to face up to them and to take action, but the very opposite. In his book Do Nothing to Change Your Life, the bishop is suggesting that creative idleness can be wonderful, life-enhancing thing. It is a more daring proposal...

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Can a public figure any longer be a serious person?

There was a time not so long ago when most of those in public and private life could be divided into players and referees. The players saw individualism and flair as the keys to forward progress, while for the refs, order and organisation were what mattered. Both had their virtues and both believed they had the capacity to be a leader of men and women. Often, when the country had been run for a while by a player - Mrs Thatcher, for example - the turn of a solid but dull ref, John Major, came along to steady things down. There was a sort of tension between progress and consolidation, brio and caution. Occasionally, as a result of some genetic screw-up, a crossbreed might emerge, but most people, by the time they reached 35, had a good idea whether they were one of life's players or refs. But now, with...

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Harry Potter and the childish politician

The good news is that Gordon Brown has broken with the recent tradition which requires party leaders to name Ian McEwan as their favourite novelist. Rather less welcome is the revelation that one of the first things he will do once he becomes Prime Minister is to read a children's book, the final Harry Potter adventure by J K Rowling. Of course, there are many adult Potter fans, or "Potties" as perhaps they should be known. They can be seen on trains, rapt and absorbed, transported back to a simpler world of dorms, pals, and the sun-dappled gardens of childhood. It is rather touching, in a slightly creepy way. But among politicians, Gordon Brown had always seemed reassuringly adult. One can only assume that, among his image-shapers, being a grown-up is now seen as an electoral liability. They want their man to be cosier, more approachable, and the first step...

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Being wasteful is not a personal liberty

We are being watched from every street corner. Those slightly creepy men from Google are turning our computers into domestic spies. But the surveillance that really has the British people worried, at least if one believes reports in the family-values wing of the press, is the microchip that could be included in our dustbins. A Tory shadow minister has even pronounced upon the subject. "We face the prospect of bin chips quietly being fitted in bins across the country to spy on families without their knowledge," says a man called Eric Pickles. There is something oddly primal about the British and their waste. It represents a personal liberty, rather as the right to carry a gun does for many Americans. We may chunter on about global warming, moan about supermarket packaging or fret over the carbon footprint left by air travel to holiday destinations, but when it is suggested that...

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