Our strange need for Scarlet Woman

Some call it romanticism, others prurience. Whatever the label, a fervent interest in the love lives (that is, the sex lives) of others is now as deeply embedded in the psyche of the nation as its affection for grand public events involving the royal family.

British voyeurism has its traditions and rituals, too. At any one time, a small number of attractive women in public life will be the focus of mass longing, and its first cousin, disapproval. Quite how the role of National Scarlet Woman is attained is something of a mystery. Ambition helps, but is not enough in itself. Age, perhaps rather encouragingly, is no barrier to NSW status, and nor is nationality.

The past few days have seen lip-smacking and ogling of an unusual intensity. Nancy Dell’Olio, who is something of a veteran among NSWs, has made a comeback by going on holiday with the married theatrical knight, Sir Trevor Nunn.

Nancy plays this game quite beautifully, making herself available for interview and photographs, and giving a good quote. “When I am in a relationship, I am usually the one in control, although I also like to lose control,” she told one journalist. “I like to be led, not always to lead.”

It is important for the NSW to be bad in the conventional sense – Nancy claims that, as a law student, she had affairs with all three of her professors – but good where it matters. Like Ulrika Jonsson, another member of this exclusive club, she has had an eventful, occasionally sad romantic life, every new turn of which is reported in the press.

The British are surprisingly loyal to their fantasy objects. They may be reviled by the press on occasions (too vulgar, too brazen, “a maneater”) but, quite suddenly, the sun will shine on them again.

Prurience unites the classes as little else does. Where the middle-class media has Nancy or Ulrika, their tabloid rivals dwell lovingly on the latest excitements in the life of Jordan, also known as Katie Price. While the others have a hint of the enigmatic and foreign to them, Katie offers an old favourite of the sex-starved British, pneumatic randiness.

It is, one assumes, something of an act for her, just as it was for those who have played the role in the past, Barbara Windsor or Samantha Fox. Here the fantasy has nothing to do with mystery, with leading or being led. What matters is perceived availability. The tabloid NSW is always up for it.

Not all of our fantasy figures need to be scarlet in their approach. Another favourite is the wholesome, blooming, nicely brought up girl who, so the dream goes, misbehaves only when appropriate.

One of the creepier aspects surrounding the royal wedding has been the sense that, as interest in the event itself has faded, something clammy and voyeuristic has kicked in. There was Huw Edwards’ rather odd remark about the bride’s breasts (“a limited view, but a splendid view”), the eagerly-recounted stories of Kate Middleton’s trips to lingerie shops, even a photograph in one Sunday newspaper of the bed in which the couple would spend their first night as man and wife.

If Princess Diana had once complained there were “three of us in this marriage”, her son and daughter-in-law must feel there are a few million in theirs.

Because it is not seemly for the British to lust openly over a member of the Royal Family, the hunt has been on for a substitute. It is the bride’s sister, Philippa, who has won this unhappy prize. The tabloids now refer hungrily to her as “Her Royal Hotness”.

Poor woman. She did her best to look attractive and respectable at a royal occasion, and has woken up to discover that her behind has suddenly become a focus of erotic yearning for the strange nation over which her sister will one day reign.

I’m all in favour of show trials for litter-throwers

The more that crazed libertarians in government prate about declaring war on rules and regulations, the more essential much of the derided legislation seems to be. For example, some excellent red tape is about to be rolled out to counter the rising tide of litter around our roads.

Motorists who chuck waste out of the windows of their cars will be liable to an £80 fine, even if the offender is a passenger.

Should the fine not be paid, magistrates can impose penalties of up to £2500. Already there have been whingeing complaints about “the war on the motorist” and how local councils should take responsibility rather than clobbering citizens. They should be ignored.

One or two show-trials of those who discard the remains of their lunch on to the road would be a marvellous way to encourage people to support the big, litter-free society.

Shame on those who hunt the lovely turtle dove

One of our most beautiful and best-loved birds, the turtle dove, is disappearing from our skies. According to new research by the British Trust for Ornithology, the turtle dove is no longer to be found in 40 per cent of the territories where it was breeding 20 years ago, and its numbers have declined by a shocking 71 per cent in the past decade.

Some blame can be attached to changing agricultural practices here and habitat loss in Africa, where the turtle doves live in the winter months, but the main problem is that they are shot and trapped in their millions as they migrate over Malta, Cyprus and parts of southern Europe.

That this symbol of love could be destroyed by human ignorance and cruelty should be a source of species shame.

Independent, Tuesday, 3 May 2011