Celebrity power proves its worth

George Clooney's and Michael Palin's favourite causes, the hazards of being a modern mother (or child), and the comfort of pen and paper.

The actor George Clooney outside a polling station on the first day of voting in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba.
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The power of celebrity is amazing. How many column inches of newsprint would the Sudan elections have merited had it not been for the presence of the actor George Clooney? Undoubtedly, serious newspapers would have given it due attention but not the endless pictures of the star greeting Sudanese people or having a chat with a politician or voter about what the hoped-for new state will bring.

For once it is hard to have any objection to a movie star deliberately seeking photo opportunities. Clooney is already an A-lister and doesn't need that sort of fame. Also, the actor doesn't seem to be getting any special star treatment in the sweaty heat where there are few home comforts. He just mucks in with the aid workers, who are clearly grateful for his support.

Clooney himself is unrepentant about turning up for the second time in three months to make sure the spotlight remains firmly on the elections. This is not a flash in the pan for the actor, who has been supporting the plight of the beleaguered south since 2005.

Time and time again he faces a camera or newspaper reporter to repeat that the "chance of something very bad happening up to and including genocide" is very real. Both north and south are heavily armed and the last time they went to war 2.5 million people died. Clooney, like many others, believes that diplomacy can go a long way to saving lives in a volatile situation.

"I keep coming back to keep the attention on it," he says. "I've always felt as if the more light that is shed on a subject, the less ability for humanitarian crisis to happen. You don't abandon a place when it's going through its changes. Everybody has their thing that they're into, some people like to skydive. There's a lot worse ways to spend your time than coming down here and attempting to look out for people."

The world understood far too late what was happening in the Congo or in the Darfur region of the Sudan and Clooney says quite simply that this is an opportunity to stop another war before it starts.

Who could possibly argue with that?

Navigating the competitive schoolyard

As if modern parenthood wasn't tricky enough without the mothering website Mumsnet identifying 11 different types of school-gate mothers.

There's the Late Mum, the mother of the Disruptive Child, there's Sporty Mum who always bounces up in a track suit and trainers, Glam Mum, who dresses to the nines just to do the school run, much to the fury of Slovenly Mum, the one who arrives in her slippers with her hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail.

She and her friends are the ones who stare with ill-concealed dislike at the Yummy Mummies in their four-wheel drives who bowl up promptly in all their well-coiffed glory.

You can only imagine the competitive nature of the gathering outside the school where Stella McCartney, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer all send their kids.

As I remember, it's hard enough to get your child properly dressed for school with the right set of kit in their satchel without having to worry about outdoing the other mothers in the grown-up style stakes.

It's not as if the teachers are marking you out of 10 and sending you home with "could do better" written in your notebook. Oh no, it's much worse than that. The other mums are eyeing you up and down and mentally rating you and trying to work out if you are worth cultivating - especially when it's birthday-party time. You'll know if you've passed the test if your kid is invited.

During my years at the school gates, birthday parties involved pass the parcel, musical chairs, fancy dress and, if they were very lucky, a conjuror. The whole class was invited whether they were special friends or not because it wasn't nice to leave anyone out.

Nowadays, it's all about designer goodie bags, a full-scale banquet and expensive trips to theme parks. I don't know how they can afford it, either financially or mentally.

Over the years I've definitely been "sporty mum", "working mum" and sometimes "late mum". I was once mortified to receive a phone call from the head asking if I had forgotten my daughter, and I had.

Some of the more interesting categories these days are Wacky Mum, the one with the blue hair and dangly earrings who used to live in a commune. And then there's Dumped Mum - whose husband may well have hit it off with Impossibly Glam Mum whom he happened to meet on the school run.

Dads tend to be blissfully ignorant of the whole thing and are not often drawn into the little witches' coven outside the school gates, although it doesn't stop them being classified.

What a minefield it is these days, and how glad am I that my daughters are grown up.

Palin praises The King's Speech

The agonies faced by people who suffer from a stammer, eloquently highlighted in the movie The King's Speech, brought back painful memories for the actor, comedian and world traveller Michael Palin, whose father had a bad stammer.

The film stars Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the controversial speech therapist Lionel Logue, who helped him to overcome his stammer. It has been tipped to win several Oscars and Palin says he's pleased the film treated a difficult subject so sensitively.

"My father had quite a severe stammer. Since the film has come out, a lot of people have been talking about it," Palin told me during an interview in London that will be published on Sunday in Arts & Life.

A number of years ago, the 67-year-old star was asked to give his name to a specialist centre for speech and language therapy in north London. He says that helping The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children is his way of helping his father in retrospect because in those days there was little on offer in the way of therapy. "Seeing children now, who probably have stammers like my father did when he was young, learn to manage their stammers and change in two or three years to being able to be reasonably fluent makes me think what it could have been like for my dad."

Palin will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Literary Festival when he will speak at a Gala Evening at the Al Mamsar Theatre, Festival City, on March 8.

A diary and a pen are joys forever

The world used to be divided into people who loved either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. They rarely loved both. These days, you tend to be classified as a BlackBerry person or an iPhone person, a PC or an Apple Mac user or a Kindle or an iPad owner.

I thought I was firmly entrenched in the Apple empire until my MacBook's hard drive crashed at Christmas. I've had this before with other laptops and the early palm-held organisers, so this time most of my stuff was backed up, but I lost all my recent photos, my e-mail addresses and my calendar, which is both irritating and inconvenient.

So my presents to myself this year are going to include an old-fashioned Filofax and probably a separate diary as well. I'm also investing in a leather-bound address book like the one I used to have with addresses scratched out and rewritten on a new page in different coloured inks. I know exactly where they are and can find them in an instant.

Then I'm going to get proper holders for the hundreds of business cards that are stuffed into drawers "just in case". Technology is wonderful when it works but when it lets you down, it can make you crazy.

So if I've forgotten somebody's birthday or that I was supposed to meet up, please forgive me and put it down to an unwise dependence on gadgets. Believe me, it won't happen again - and I don't care who laughs at me when I take out my old fountain pen and write an appointment in my new diary.

The expanding Beckham clan

Victoria Beckham says she doesn't want to know the sex of her new baby until it is born but it would be a reasonable guess to suggest she might love to have a daughter - that is unless she's planning a football team.

With her middle son Romeo already featuring in the best-dressed lists and all three boys turned out like latter-day Little Lord Fauntleroys, it's probably for the best they've decided not to find out the sex yet. Otherwise, the style magazines would soon be lining up the new arrival as Beautiful Baby, Elegant Embryo or Fantastic Foetus of the Year.

A baby girl Beckham would undoubtedly follow in the dainty footsteps of little Suri Cruise, dressed in designer gear, watched and photographed and criticised for wearing this or that before she was even four years old.

Sensibly, both parents have said they don't care if it's a boy or girl and that the three boys are excited about the newcomer. Chances are it could well be a fourth boy.

The likelihood of the child having an ordinary name such as David, Victoria or Ted or Sandra after Beckham's parents, is very slim. Poor child; all it can hope for is that a slew of sufficiently high-profile celebrity births come along this year to take the heat off the latest Beckham.