The Telegraph
Sunday , November 21 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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Return of the ratpack

The journalists and snappers who specialise in covering royal stories refer to themselves as the “ratpack” — at least, they did when Princess Diana was alive.

For a while, I was on its margins, more an associate than a full member but for a few years I did get to travel with Charles and Diana.

When they married, The Daily Telegraph drew up military style plans. Walkie-talkies were distributed to all reporters assigned to cover The Royal Wedding. As the most junior, I was assigned the call sign, “Weasel 43.”

From my position on the Strand, I confirmed to the chief reporter, Weasel 1: “This is Weasel 43 — the royal coach has just passed.”

My next position was in front of Buckingham Palace where I witnessed Charles and Diana emerge on the balcony. Later, I saw them off at Paddington Station as their train chugged out on its way to Lord Mountbatten’s home, Broadlands.

From the platform I scooped up a handful of colourful, paper confetti that had been tossed over the newly married couple, put it into an envelope and gave it to my wife as a “a bit of British history”.

Since Diana died, royal coverage has been kept up but it has never been the same.

Now, though, with Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton, the ratpack is seriously back in business.

The grooming of Kate, a nice, wholesome girl, has started — she is already being referred to in official circles as “Catherine” in readiness for one day being crowned Queen Catherine. She has been preceded in England’s history by Catherine of Valois; Catherine of Aragon; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr; and Catherine of Braganza.

All in all, the wedding will be a chance to sell Brand Britain. Indian holidaymakers intending to visit the UK should definitely come in wedding week, according to advice from Visit Britain.

Experts are making the shock assessment: “This could be one royal marriage that lasts.”

More soon on the Indians who are invited to The Wedding.

Beautiful Bengal

The people in the West Bengal stall at the World Travel Market (WTM) in London were very obliging: slightly puzzled, they rolled up and handed me the one poster I requested. It was of Bishnupur.

My interest was less in its terracotta temples than that it is the home of my good photographer friend Jay Mandal, who once cycled round the world starting in Bishnupur. The poster is now on its way to New York where Jay lives. Perhaps he will put it up in his apartment.

I also helped myself to a clutch of leaflets which show just how much Bengal has to offer: everything from going to Calcutta for its “colonial heritage” to using the city as a base for trips to Santiniketan, the Dooars, Malda, Cooch Behar, Murshidabad, Purulia, the Sunderbans, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.

“We are doing an inventory of our cultural products,” I was told by Raghvendra Singh, principal secretary in the tourism department, who had come with colleagues T.V.N. Rao and Debal Kumar Ghosh, managing director and general manager respectively of Bengal’s tourism development corporation.

I feel Mamata should have come as well, along with Raima, Bipasha, Paoli and Locket, to draw particular attention to Bengal for WTM is a huge affair that takes place in the cavernous Excel exhibition centre in the Docklands.

The Park Hotel group, which now has hotels in 10 cities, had taken a stall. Its flagship in Calcutta claims to have two restaurants with world cuisine, the Zen (“the first Terence Conran restaurant in Calcutta”) and the Bridge.

Calcutta was being sold as the gateway to the northeast — Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh — where infrastructure is apparently being upgraded.

The problem is getting to Calcutta: there are no direct flights from London or New York. But its attractions can be promoted with a suitable poster: “Come to Calcutta airport and relax all day by our pre-paid taxi counter.”

Doon vs Mayo

At this year’s very encouraging World Travel Market — it attracted 200 Indian executives from 100 companies — I encountered Doon vs Mayo College rivalry.

The companies promoted everything from ayurvedic treatment in Kerala to adventures in jungle lodges, rides on royal trains, self drive holidays, and stays in a Mumbai hotel with a suite that enhances guests’ “sexual energy”.

One hotel that caught my eye was the WelcomHeritage’s Khimsar Fort, on the edge of the Thar Desert 90km from Jodhpur.

“It is over 500 years old,” said Vandana Talwar, Khimsar’s vice-president of business development.

The owner of the 50-room property is Thakur Gajendra Singhji, a prince-turned-BJP member of the Rajasthan legislative assembly.

His 24-year-old son, Dhananjai Singh, who recently returned to India after studying hotel management in Switzerland, is now actively involved in running Khimsar — creditable since so many wonderful palaces and forts in Gujarat and UP are crumbling.

Dhananjai, an independent spirited young man, delights in telling me he chose Mayo College and not Doon, though it considers itself “the Eton of India”, because his father went to the latter.

Dhananjai is very keen on his collection of vintage cars which includes four Rolls-Royces from the 1920s, including a 1920 Silver Ghost and a 1925 Phantom I, and a 1928 Lancia Lambda.

Listening to Dhananjai was his friend, Dushyant Singh, a director of another heritage hotel, the Raj Niwas Palace in Dholpur in eastern Rajasthan.

Dushyant, who went to Doon and won’t hear of it being dismissed as a “school for dullards”, also has several vintage cars which will be used to ferry guests.

Small world: Vandana Talwar has a son of school-going age.

“Which school?” I asked.

“Doon,” she said. “There are lots of Doscos at WTM.”

Despite that, it has been a very successful WTM for India.

Saving Suu

Invited by the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson to be critical about India, Aung San Suu Kyi said Delhi’s accommodating policy towards the Burmese generals was “sad”.

If my father had been alive I would have asked him how India could balance human rights with commercial interests — born in Rangoon, he was best friends with Aung San, Suu’s father, at University College, Rangoon. They belonged to a youthful nationalist group. When the police came for my father, my grandfather packed him off to Calcutta. Now I understand why my father had a peacock, “symbol of Burmese nationalism”, tattooed on his forearm and proudly started a paper called the Peacock.

The West now expects India to protect Suu and bring the Burmese generals (“butchers from Myanmar”, according to Amartya Sen) in from the cold.

Tittle tattle

David Cameron held a belated Diwali reception at 10, Downing Street, last week, when he wished “Shubh Diwali” to British Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

“I think when we look at what British Hindus, British Indians have contributed to our country, in every single sphere they have excelled — and we should celebrate that here in this room tonight for all that you contribute to our country,” the Prime Minister said. “Thank you.”

He could have added: “I wouldn’t be here if British Indians hadn’t voted for me. Thank you even more for that.”

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