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The "Thunderer's" Gentler Side: 50 Years Of The Times Diary


The Times newspaper was for many years also known as "The Thunderer" but for the last 50 years it has supplied a gentler, more light-hearted section in its daily "diary" page - a witty collection of individual anecdotal paragraphs, many of them insider gossip, intended to provide an "antidote" to the news.

The column started life in 1966 - the same year it resumed putting news on its front page after many years of front-page advertising. It started life as PHS - the initials of the newspaper's then home in Printing House Square, just off Fleet Street. Its current name, TMS, derives from Thomas More Square in where the newspaper was based during the confrontational union battles in Wapping during the early 1980s.

Since 2013, the TMS diary has been in the care of the witty Patrick Kidd (his punchlines are rather good), who somehow finds time to write a regular Parliamentary Sketch for the newspaper too. In 2016 Kidd also managed to put together some of the best items from 50 years of the diary in a book entitled Diary at 50.

I found it fascinating to look back at some of the earlier items, and note (with help from Kidd's footnotes) when people who would go on to be famous and/or infamous were first mentioned in the diary. Margaret Thatcher's name, for example, first appeared in 1966 itself, but her talents were not discussed till 1968, when readers were told she was "the daughter of a Grantham grocer who became a golden-voiced local alderman" who "used a brilliant Oxford career to make herself an industrial chemist" - add "she is a blonde bluestocking of peat charm, and not only Tories in the house think she has a better brain , if less demagogic skill, than Barbara Castle, to whom she is the Tory Party's answer."

Jeremy Corbyn got his first mention in 1983 - 32 years before he became the "surprising" leader of the Labour party.

Many "diary paragraphs" as they are commonly referred to, are apocryphal (and it's worth reminding readers here that this doesn't mean they didn't happen - just that they might not have done). The following, for me at least, falls into that category.

In 1998, it was reported that Lord Puttnam, the film producer who made his name with Chariots of Fire, found himself giving a talk to an audience of just one at Tiverton Labour Society. The lone listener, readers were told, "applauded wildly." But when Puttnam told him there wasn't much point in having a question and answer session, and he was off to catch his train, his listener pleaded with him not to. "I'm the next speaker!" he said.

Jonathan Aitken, the former cabinet minister jailed for perjury in 1999 was seen by the prison psychiatrist who was unaware of his patient's fame. "Does anyone other than your family know you are in prison" he asked. "About 20 million people" said Aitken. At which point the psychiatrist asked: "Have you ever suffered from delusions?"

In another example of unappreciated fame, in 2015 readers were told that when Sir Bob Kerslake, the former chief mandarin, was buying a flat, was asked by an estate agent what his job title was. "Permanent secretary" he replied. "That's a good job" said the agent. "And isn't it great they've made it permanent?"

There are some excellent train stories. This early (1966) tale, for example. "Two harassed mothers were travelling on the London underground the other day, each with half a dozen small and rebellious children milling around her. The train stopped and as the door was about to close, one of the mothers had still not removed all her small charges from the train. A man in a bowler hat, eager to help, seized on the nearest child and deposited it on the platform. The doors closed, but to his horror he found himself faced by the outraged mother of the second contingent. He had thrown out the wrong child."

Two years later, diary readers learnt that Alan Civil, a celebrated French horn player travelling on the London underground found himself next to blaring personal stereo. When he asked the owner would mind turning down the volume, he replied: "It's a free world, isn't it?" Civil, as if agreeing, reached for his horn and "proceeded to give the entire carriage a rendition of the rondo from Mozart's Horn Concerto No 4.

One of my favourites features in "The Americans" section. And involves students at Brigham Young University in Utah protesting about a planned appearance by Vice-President Dick Cheney in terms of persona integrity. "Cheney just doesn't measure up" said one professor at the university, which was named after a Mormon who had 52 wives and 57 known children (2007).

The Times Diary at 50 by Patrick Kidd is published by Times Books/Harper Collins at £12.99

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