Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Triumphant BoJo batted to whiff-whaff wheeze

Boris Johnson delighted delegates with his ripsnorting Conservative conference speech. But would David Cameron be happier if the London Mayor now vacated the spotlight?

Boris bounded into a drinks party thrown by Caroline Spelman, where the party’s official leader was trying not to look triumphalist. “Oi, Dave,” shouted BoJo, still on a high from his ovation. “Are you going to lend me your pass?” The look on Cameron’s face suggested this was not high on his agenda. “They’ve only given me a two-day pass for conference and you have a full week’s one,” complained the mayor, eyeballing the leader’s accreditation.

“That’s because you’re meant to be back in London running the capital,” said the boss. “We can’t have you loafing around here all week.” So, in the tradition of all great stand-ups, Boris is here for “one night only”. But he does have a wizard wheeze for when he returns to London: the resumption of his Beijing battle over the authorship of table tennis. “We’re going to have an exhibition in City Hall about the history of ping-pong, whiff-whaff and gossima. We will find out once and for all who invented the game.”


Divorced, I feel I need a man to complete me

It's hard getting used to not being part of a couple

I've recently woken up to a new world. Locked out of the one that I used to belong to, I've been banging on the door for membership to another that I didn't really want to join, but for which I have learnt to be grateful. It is the world of women. The women such as me whose husbands have thrown them off like old sweaters they no longer need for the unseasonably balmy climate where new love keeps them warm.

Eva, whose husband announced that he was gay after 25 years of marriage, bought a sports car and leather trousers and left her in a five-bedroom house with the rest of the jumble that they both spent their lives collecting. He gets the sex and she gets the pictures. One fiftysomething friend who divorced 15 years ago when she discovered her house-husband was having an affair with another mother at their child's school. A former colleague, who has been divorced for nearly 20 years and is married now to her job. Another, who has been looking after her ill sister for the past five years and whose long-term boyfriend began to stalk her, sending her abusive letters and ringing up to 20 times a night. Dee, recently and cruelly widowed and one of her friends, never married, while yet another, a fantastically bright academic, has never been able to find Mrs Right. On and on and on and on the list goes: the widows, the spinsters and the divorcées - the losers in love, the left behind and the never picked.

The news you usually hear from the other side is that life after marriage is freeing - and it is liberating to escape the numb desperation of a dead relationship. But people don't tell you about the disorientation you feel when you're suddenly single in the married world in which you have previously been quite comfortable - it's like having a phantom limb that you keep trying to walk on; your female friends become your crutches.

When the car breaks down we ring the AA, then each other. We offer sympathy and solace and encouragement and recipes. We cook meals and form book clubs and take long walks. We have learnt how to put up shelves. As families go on summer holidays we go on hers and hers breaks for yoga and painting full of other women exactly like us, with one token widower and a single gay man (who did not used to be married to Eva).

We accompany each other to gallery openings and exhi-fricking-bitions. We see plays together, whole tribes of us with our well-groomed hair, loose Shirin Guildesque clothes and quirky jewellery. We go to films, thinking that we're “naughty” when we eat a bag of popcorn, or have a cake with our genteel cup of tea in a café afterwards to postpone going back to our family-less marital homes, which are always tidy.

But despite this overpopulated world of ever-diminishing oestrogen, and highly intelligent and interesting single women, life still feels empty. I hate going to exhibitions. I want to wear the leather trousers. I am not, frankly, that interested in the theatre and when I'm bad I plan to be really, really, spectacularly bad and for it to have absolutely nothing to do with the number of calories I've consumed.

But still, there I am. I always did rely on my women friends, but in the past they were mostly other wives. Eva before her husband swung the other way; Dee before her husband died; Nel, a DIY widow; Fran without Joe, who would be playing tennis; Angie without Andrew, who would be hiking in Wales; and Mary without Michael, who would be at work. In fact, it was a world of women with invisible men. But at weekends we would pair off. The dinner parties, the cinemas, the concerts when our names elided to NelandTom, AndrewandAngie, and we would sit round a table in our couples as if we were about to dance an eightsome reel, each linking arms with another for a round of conversation and then back to your partner for the skip home to bed, to talk about the evening with your spouse, to think, secretly, that no matter how nice Tom and Dick are, you're much happier to be coming home with your own Harry.

Now I'm the hanger-on at these parties - the lame duck. Just as I once, I admit, slightly beneficently, included my single friends in our family life, inviting them to Sunday lunch and children's parties - the plus one, poor thing, not all loved-up like lucky, lucky me. Now I'm the one invited along to the pity party. I'm the plus-one appended to other people's family holidays.

I listen to the suburban WAGs using that magic “we” word in every sentence and it's like having a nail banged into my heart every time I hear it. “We're off to France for the summer”; “We can't do Tuesday as we're having the builders in”; “We're going to our house in Sussex.”

And I think, I used to have a “we”. I used to be a plural, too. I still find myself saying sentences in which I tie myself to the ankle of another in the great threelegged race of marriage, then I stop and remember. My we's are all in the past - “We used to”; “We had”; “We were”.

The life of coupledom doesn't include me any more, but still it gushes on, two by two, while I am cut adrift. A girl in the office, effusively talking about her new husband and how much he wanted to marry her, “we, we, we, we, we” all the way home. I feel disenfranchised from this world, and it hurts. Yes, I know it's ridiculous. I have a good life. I may not have the brand-new love, but I have the good old home, I have the children for company, I have an interesting job, a career, a talent, a novel coming out, an education. I also have all those great friends in the world of women without whom I would have floundered.

So I don't need a man to complete me. Except that, actually, I sort of do.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Boris Johnson's speech at the Tory conference

As reported by the amused Ann Treneman, a regular mocker of Britain's politicians. But there is no hiding the vast popularity of a great British eccentric

Just before the great BoJo event in the conference hall in Birmingham, there was a kerfuffle in the crowd. The cameras swung round to film the audience and, following their lenses, I could see the object of their adoration. It was David Cameron, who had “slipped” into a seat to listen and was now watching himself being filmed, his preternaturally squeaky-clean face looking even more squeegeed than usual.

Boris Johnson got the full celebrity treatment, including that most coveted of things, a pre-speech film tribute, in which we saw Dave watching Boris win on election night. So now, in the hall, we had Dave watching Dave watching Boris. And soon, when Boris arrived, we had Boris watching Dave watching Boris. Sometimes at the Tories you feel as though you are in a PR masterclass and not at a political convention at all.

Boris shambled on, his jacket flapping like a tarp that has lost its moorings in an autumn gale. His navy-blue tie didn't match, his hair needed thatching. His appearance was met by an instant standing ovation - the four Tory boys in front of me jumped up to video him on their mobiles - and wolf whistles. Yes, wolf whistles. What is going on? I'm sure Dave, his smile now so fixed that I suspected Superglue, hated that.

“That's really an extremely fine reception,” mumbled Boris. “Much more generous, I must say, than in 2006, when I was physically pelted with pork pies.” Cue hysterical laughter. “Or last year, when my speaking style was criticised by no less an expert than Arnold Schwarzenegger.” By the time he said Arnold they were guffawing.

The stand-up comic (also, of course, the most powerful Tory in the land) continued his schtick. “It was a low moment, my friends, to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg.” Now they were howling. His next joke, about terminating Ken Livingstone, brought actual screams of laughter.

How they love him! The buffoon has grown up but not, I am happy to say, entirely. This was his most accomplished speech, but he still takes risks when he speaks, although he no longer allows things to descend into pure anarchy, and the crowd loves him for it.

He had already thanked Dave once (so now we had Dave watching Boris praising Dave) when suddenly he pounced. “I notice from reading the papers that it's no time for triumphalism,” he noted drily, for this has been Dave's mantra. Now Boris peered into the crowd, already giggling, until he spotted his leader. “Dave!” he cried, his arm going up in mad salute. “Can I call you Dave?” he cried. “Yes I can!” Now he added: “I hope you will allow me to remind you in a strictly non-triumphalist way of some of the things we have done in City Hall.” Let the triumphalism begin! And so it did. Boris trotted out his achievements to date, flagged up more to come, attacked Labour, defended City bankers.

At the end there was an instant standing ovation, but even as the wolves whistled Boris slipped out and Dave, watching Boris but Boris no longer watching Dave, slipped out, too. The Dave and Boris show was over, for now.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Times puzzle is clueless about McCain


I am partly to blame. On Jan. 8, 2005, I purposefully and unapologetically became the first person to ever construct a crossword puzzle for The New York Times that featured this five-letter answer:


Earlier this week, Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s senior campaign adviser, lambasted the Times for being “totally, 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate.” The GOP, it seems, is finally catching on to a once-hidden truth:

Crossword puzzles heavily favor Democrats.

According to the puzzle database maintained by Cruciverb.com, ever since that game-changing day in 2005, OBAMA has appeared regularly as an answer in New York Times crossword puzzles. With its wonderfully convenient alternating series of commonly used vowels and consonants, OBAMA has been the answer to the clues “Senator who wrote ‘Dreams From My Father,’” “Future senator who delivered the 2004 Democratic convention keynote address” and “Presidential candidate born in Hawaii.”

But what about MCCAIN? Shockingly, not once has MCCAIN been an answer in a crossword in the New York Times, The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. No MCCAIN, no JOHNMCCAIN, no SENATORMCCAIN, not even his most recent sobriquet, the presidential-sounding JOHNSMCCAINIII.

Contacted by Politico, Diane McNulty, a New York Times spokeswoman, said, “The answer is obvious for anyone who does crosswords. It is because ‘Obama’ is a five-letter name that alternates vowels and consonants. It’s got three vowels out of five letters, starting and ending in vowels. So it is much more crossword-friendly than ‘McCain,’ which is a harder word to put in a crossword. If McCain’s name was Obama, then his name would have been used many more times in crosswords.”

Things fare no better for the Republicans when we compare the candidates for vice president. BIDEN is the clear favorite, appearing as the answer to the Washington Post clue “Delaware senator” and as the solution to the New York Times clue “1987-95 Senate Judiciary Committee head.” Even conservative crossword enthusiasts who solve the weekly puzzles in The Wall Street Journal have been forced to write in BIDEN when given the Journal’s clue “Head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.”

That leaves us, of course, wondering about Gov. Sarah PALIN.

Like a cruel joke, PALIN has appeared dozens of times as an answer in the crossword grids of the nation’s most esteemed news publications — but always with clues such as “Monty Python member” or “Cohort of Cleese and Idle.” It’s pretty obvious: The left-wing media elite is mocking her. For shame!

So, it’s proven. Crossword puzzles favor OBAMA over MCCAIN and BIDEN over PALIN. Is there any indication that crosswords can “right” themselves in the generations ahead? I’m not so sure. In perhaps the shrewdest political move of his career, the Democratic presidential nominee and his wife gave their oldest child another crossword-friendly five-letter name containing commonly used vowels and consonants: MALIA.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Churchill in the war cabinet

Burgis’s verbatim reports tell us a great deal about the way the War Cabinet worked, about why Churchill could dominate it and about how the soldiers and politicians interacted as decisions were made upon which the lives of tens of thousands depended. Speaking openly because they never expected their annotated remarks to survive the Cabinet Office fireplace, ministers argued passionately - and on occasion vehemently - for their view of grand strategy to prevail. Now, sixty-five years later, we can finally know what they said word-for-word. Our appreciation of many key decisions of the Second World War now need to be reassessed.

It is impossible to continue to argue, for example, that Franklin Roosevelt was merely naïve about the true nature of Stalinism during the Yalta Conference of February 1945, whereas Churchill was much more nuanced and doubtful. In fact Burgis records Churchill telling the first War Cabinet after his return from the Crimea that, 'Stalin I’m sure means well to the world and Poland. Stalin has offered the Polish people a free and more broadly based government to bring about an election; I cannot conceive any government has the right to be treated like that. Stalin about Poland said, 'Russia has committed many sins about Poland – pacts and partitions – it is not the intention of the Soviet Government to do such things but to make amends.’ Stalin had a very good feeling with the two Western democracies and wants to work quite easily with us. My hopes lie in a single man, he will not embark on bad adventures. Re: Greece – Stalin was jocular.’ Words that would have embarrassed Churchill deeply by the time of the Berlin airlift three years later were to stay hidden for six decades.

On 26 October 1942 the War Cabinet discussed the rumour that had appeared in the Press that Rudolf Hess had had 'friends in the War Cabinet’, who had persuaded him to make his dramatic flight to Britain in May 1941. In reply to calls from the South African premier Jan Smuts and Sir Stafford Cripps to publish everything the Government knew about the flight, Churchill said: 'Hess arrived, hot from Hitler’s entourage, and came to do great service for Germany at great risk. He wanted to be conducted to the King to say that we had no backing here and get a Government of the pro-Munich complexion installed. Hess was suffering from melancholia. We tried to make him talk. He gave us last chance for peace with Germany and the chance of joining Hitler’s crusade against Russia. But he never said a word about his Cabinet friends who he had come to see. He had once met the Duke of Hamilton.’

A minister then suggested that the Government should 'Make [the] records available’, to which Churchill’s answer was 'No’. As a result, conspiracy theories about the Hess flight therefore swirled around until the papers were finally released somewhat piecemeal half a century later in the 1990s.

On another occasion, Churchill told Smuts: 'You are responsible for all our troubles in India – you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: 'When I put him in prison – three times – all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’ When the Mahatma went on hunger strike during the war, Churchill told the Cabinet: 'Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting. We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.’ Grigg then said that Gandhi was getting glucose in his orange juice, and another cabinet minister said 'he had oil rubbed into him which was nutritious’, allowing Churchill to claim that 'it is apparently not a fast merely a change of diet.’

Churchill usually wanted to adopt the most extreme option. In response to the Lidice massacre in Chelmno, Czechoslovakia – in which the Nazis had killed hundreds of villagers in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – the prime minister 'suggested wiping out German villages (three for one) by air attack’, proposing that one hundred bombers would be required to drop incendiaries from low levels in bright moonlight on three unprotected German villages, with the reason announced afterwards. If it was 'thought worthwhile’, Churchill would give the RAF discretion to carry out such a raid 'to fit it in when they can’. On this occasion the Cabinet blocked him, and the prime minister concluded: 'I submit (unwillingly) to the view of the Cabinet against.’

On 30 March 42 Lawrence Burgis took down Churchill’s comment about Hitler’s invasion of Russia, after Brooke estimated that it would cost Germany as many as two million German casualties, 'It came from God – we did nothing about it.’ He added that the 'War can’t end in 1942, but optimistically in 1943.’ Far too optimistically, as it turned out, but in the end the Eastern Front was to cost Germany over three million casualties and was to break the back of the Reich. The bombing of Germany in June 1942 encouraged Churchill to observe that he could not see why 'the disgusting stertorous slumber of the Boche should remain undisturbed,’ and on another occasion, urging that the size of bombs to be dropped on Germany be increased, he complained: 'We might as well drop roasted chestnuts.’

Whether the question was of sparing Heinrich Himmler after the war, or using gas against Germany, or describing Poland as, 'These heroic people dogged by their maladroitness in political affairs for three hundred years’, or explaining why he never parachuted – 'I would break like an egg’ - Churchill always occupied centre stage. Suddenly literally hundreds of new Churchill quotes, anecdotes, apercus and jokes have appeared, courtesy of the diligent note-taking of a man few people had ever heard of before today.

Through Lawrence Burgis’ shorthand emerge fine and moving speeches that we never before knew that Churchill ever gave. On his return from Washington in January 1942, for example, having conferred with Franklin Roosevelt, the prime minister reported to the War Cabinet how 'the last thing the President said when he came to see me off was “To the bitter end, trust me.” We are suffering heavy blows but the United States is setting about the war with great vigour. They have jumped right into it. There is a sense of resolve to fight it on. They have tactical ideas of war, Hitler is the enemy, they will do what can re: Japan, but nothing will get in the way of defeating Hitler.’


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

'Lost' Daniel rescues dog

The Veivers family and the Ray family were good friends in the old days in Kuranda. Great to see that the tough pioneer spirit of the old days lives on in one of the younger Vievers. In what this young guy did I can recognize what my father Frank and my grandfather Jack would have done

DANIEL Veivers shrugged off injuries, fatigue and the advice of his own rescuers to return to dense rainforest to find the dog he was forced to leave behind.

Mr Veivers last night emerged from Crystal Cascades with starving staffordshire terrier Max, after using the help of a professional tree climber to use a harness to lower the dog from a 14m-high cliff face.

Lost in the rugged wilderness between Speewah and Redlynch since Saturday, a desperate Mr Veivers had left his dog tied to a tree yesterday morning and jumped from the top of a waterfall into the water below in an attempt find a way out of the bushland.

Mr Veivers was first reported missing on Sunday and a full-scale SES search began early yesterday.

Fighting the cold, Mr Veivers spent two nights curled up next to Max. "Max saved my life," he said. "He kept me warm, he kept me company. It broke my heart to walk away but I had no choice. "I was always determined to go back for my best mate,"

Clearly shaken and fighting fatigue, Mr Veivers returned with a group of about 10 others with flashlights and climbing gear about 3pm yesterday to find Max.

They scaled a cliff face then lowered the dog on a harness. On returning last night, Max lapped up a can of sundried tomato and onion tuna in about 10 seconds.

However, emergency crews were furious the group of friends had gone back into the bush as nightfall approached.

They had told the family to stay away and had assured them a search team would find Max and bring him home when it was safe to do so. "They’re trying to get up to an area that Daniel said he couldn’t get down from earlier," a police spokesman said.

SES regional director Wayne Coutts said the group risked their lives by going back.

"It was absolutely ridiculous to try that at night," he said. "We would not send searchers into that country at night."

Mr Veivers wandered just 8km as the crow flies, Emergency Management Queensland Area Director Wayne Hepple said. "(But) where he’s gone and come back down you could double that," he said.

Good weather and clearly visible mountain peaks helped Mr Veivers navigate through the bush, eventually emerging at Crystal Cascades with just cuts and bruises.

"He popped out down the bottom, made a phone call on somebody’s mobile and called his father," Mr Hepple said.

"We were quite fortunate he wasn’t injured and able to move, that he was able to keep moving downward and we’ve found him."

Mr Veivers was treated by ambulance officers.

Daniel’s mother Elly was yesterday relieved her son had been found and said he had little choice but to leave the dog to save his own life.

"When he reached the waterfall he sat there for four hours thinking what to do," she said. "He knew he had to tie Max up. He couldn’t carry such a heavy dog into the

After saving Max, Mr Veivers said he was glad the ordeal was over. "It was pretty scary at times," he said. "I was totally lost and had no sense of direction. I was pretty scared for my life," he said.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Some gentle British mockery

We are but in the middle of September, still several severe weather warnings away from the official end of summer. Yet my thoughts have already turned to Christmas. Barbara Cartland's Etiquette Handbook: A Guide to Good Behaviour from the Boudoir to the Boardroom is to be republished, 50 years after it first nannied us about our conduct.

Within its pages are dozens of tips to help us negotiate the minefield of modern manners. Such as: "Unless she is ill, a woman should get up and cook her husband's breakfast before he goes to work in the morning", and: "It is very wrong for a woman to chatter with other women across the dinner table unless it is on a subject likely to interest their male partners." That's my wife's present sorted, then.

Cartland died eight years ago, but she remains unsurpassed as a guide through the myriad pratfalls of social activity. Which isn't a bad effort for someone who, in her latter years, bore an uncanny resemblance to the racing tipster John McCririck. There was, under her forensic gaze, no area of life so obscure that it could not benefit from strict adherence to the done thing.

"I can see no social advantage," she writes, "in installing a toilet-roll holder bought in Lucerne that plays music when the roller moves." Without Cartland, who would have known? There must, even now, be Swiss entrepreneurs still bitter that their plan to dominate the world musical toilet-roll market was thwarted at the last by a romantic novelist who seemingly preferred to wear her lavatory novelties on her head.

Hers may not have been the first, but it was Cartland - and her meticulously recorded snobbery - who unleashed a succession of etiquette guides. Still they come and still they have their uses. Forewarned is always forearmed. It might, for instance, have been pertinent for some of us to learn that it is a good idea to ascertain what people do for a living early on in dinner-party conversation.

Some may regard this as the height of dullness, but it is a simple precaution which can prevent the kind of silence that ensues after you enthuse loudly about the justice of major redundancies in the City to several recently fired bankers.

Now, into this tricky world of social regulation steps a new escort. The man we must regard as the next Barbara Cartland is Liam Byrne, previously known as the Government's immigration minister. Yesterday he published his own pamphlet of manners. In particular, he is anxious to dispense advice on how best to pick our way through activities to mark the Government's proposed bank holiday to celebrate Britishness.

This was Gordon Brown's idea, launched soon after he moved into Number 10. You can tell it was his idea because it is thin, ill thought through and unlikely to work. It has yet to be decided, for instance, which day of the year is to be thus marked. There has been talk of a Monday at the end of August, but the Scottish Parliament didn't much like that (just as it doesn't much like the concept of Britishness). May Bank Holiday has also been mooted, which has the advantage of already being a bank holiday, so therefore won't actually give us any more time off.

But despite such apparently significant obstacles, Byrne has been busy suggesting ways in which we could spend this one day of the year "bringing together citizens throughout the United Kingdom as well as new immigrants".

In his booklet, A More United Kingdom, Byrne has thought of the following: a ceremony to remember the good things in the past year; Morris dancing; and town halls hosting community discussions. Not since the contents of the Millennium Dome were first unveiled has such a riveting catalogue of events been put together. Let's hope the police will be able to cope with the queues forming outside town halls across the nation of those anxious to secure their place at community discussions.

Emboldened by the reckless excitement of his programme, Byrne has also delivered suggestions about how we should behave as we wave our Union flag in time to the gentle clip-clop of the Morris man. We should, he says, talk about how we appreciate the weather. Cultural dress, he adds, is to be worn (what is cultural dress: a frock designed by Melvyn Bragg?). And, above all, we should spend our time drinking.

Yes, Byrne suggests that time be put aside on the day for the substantial public consumption of alcohol. And why not? Booze is what we're good at, after all. Mind, on that particular suggestion, Byrne's predecessor Barbara Cartland was uncharacteristically sane.

"Intoxication is neither amusing nor mannerly," she wrote. "It is objectionable."


The inimitable Boris Johnson again

The ping pong speech

Boris can't resist a joke

Friday, September 12, 2008

'How do you like it here in Sweden?'

As an immigrant to Sweden there will be many difficulties to overcome -- but there are few questions on earth more dastardly than this, writes Paul Jackson

You’ve lived here a few years. And you’ve learned some Swedish. But how do you answer the number one all-time favourite question without upsetting local sensibilities?

Be warned: there’s a question Swedes like to ask immigrants. But not all immigrants. If you come from a country south of the Mediterranean or east of Berlin you can stop reading here.

But if your home country has a) a sought-after culture (i.e. France), or b) a higher standard of living (the US) or a top place in any happiness index (Denmark), you are in the danger zone.

The question is easy to spot because the natives, without fail, use the same five words “Trivs du här i Sverige?” Now, a straight-forward translation would read “Do you like it here in Sweden?” But don’t be deceived. This is not a multiple-choice question. You do not a have a choice of boxes to tick: Yes, No, Don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong, I have never committed the crime of answering “no”. But I have, in the past, tried to reply honestly.

When I was young and green, I’d try the intellectual approach: “Yes, it’s a very civilized country, but people can be very rude. The other day I was down town and this older couple just cut straight across me.”

As I began to mellow, I’d keep it to the level of the weather: “Well, the winter is a bit dark and long, but Swedish springs…ah!” I even tried the subtle, best-left-unsaid approach: “Well, it’s a great place for children to grow up …”.

But I’m a slow learner. What I have come to realize over the years is that the questioner is not looking for a balanced, nuanced reply. They are not actually interested in your answer. In fact, they are not interested in you. What they want is confirmation. What they are really asking is: “Am I not living in the best country on God’s green and pleasant earth?”

Now, there’s a lot to be said for living in a country with less than 10 million people. Things tend to work, for example. The Swedes are also, by and large, a humane lot. But you do get the sense that you are not in the centre of things. Plus, there is that long, dark and cold winter. And “schlager” music. But should you reply to the question with anything but an unequivocal, enthusiastic “yes” you are guaranteed to invite a hurt look.

If you find it difficult to offer a bright-faced affirmative, take heart: there is a quintessentially Swedish answer to this quintessentially Swedish question. And it is just one word long: “jorå”.

It translates, somewhat deceptively, as “I suppose so”. But don’t worry, Swedes will not get offended. On the surface, the word has that chirpy brevity so loved by the natives; however lurking beneath is that no-nonsense bedrock of reality, covered with a sprinkling of melancholy, that is one of the chief charms of the locals. You do, though, have to be fluent in Swedish to deliver the reply with any conviction.

So, how do you answer the question if you are not the gushing type or enjoy perfect command of the language? 1) Pretend your mobile phone has started to ring. 2) Lie. 3) Talk about the weather – but only in positive terms.


Italians vote for ugliest English words

For years it was the French who worked themselves into a lather over their native tongue being infected by English.

Now it is their southern neighbours across the Alps who are wringing their hands at the growing incursion of Anglo-Saxon words and phrases into every day use.

From 'il weekend' to 'lo stress' and 'le leadership', Italians increasingly sprinkle their conversations with English terms, some of them comically mangled and bizarre sounding to a native English speaker.

'Baby parking', for example, is a strange conflation which means child care centre or nursery. A 'baby gang', on the other hand, is a more sinister construct. It means a group of young criminals or hoodlums.

As with the French and their use of Franglais, Italians sometimes throw in English words to appear worldly and cosmopolitan, and at other times to describe things slightly alien to the Italian mindset, from 'il fitness' to 'il full immersion training'.

But now a cultural guardian of the Italian language is saying 'basta!' – enough.

The Dante Alighieri Society, a less strident equivalent of France's Academie Francaise which promotes Italian culture and language around the world, has called on Italians to reject Anglo-Saxon linguistic imports, 'Anglitaliano', and return to the true lingua italiana.

Over the last four months the society, named after the Florentine poet Dante, author of The Divine Comedy and regarded as the father of the Italian language, asked visitors to its website to nominate their least favourite Anglicisms.

The results judge the ugliest imports to be 'weekend', 'welfare' and 'OK', followed by 'briefing', 'mission', 'know how', 'shampoo' and 'cool'.

The worlds of business and politics contribute many of the alien words, from 'question time' to 'premier' and 'bipartisan'.

Other English words regularly used by Italians which escaped the ire of the society's correspondents include 'sexy', 'webmaster' and 'water', short for water closet or lavatory.

"Italians unite against il weekend", the society declared on its website. "In short, it is clear that Italians are calling for more respect and more protection for correct language."

Many Italians are unlikely to be swayed by such exhortations. "I don't think it matters if we use English words," said Alessandra, 25, a secretary in a Rome travel agency. "It's part of globalisation. Often it's faster – like using 'il weekend' instead of 'fine settimana'."

But her boss, Maria, disagreed. "People think it's chic to use English words but I don't like it at all. I want to speak either Italian or English, not an Esperanto mix of the two. It's important to keep language clean."


Kate Mulvey: 'Yes, I'm a fake fiancee'

Tired of being branded a mid-life singleton, Kate Mulvey got herself a ring and pretended to be engaged to a banker. It changed her life

My engagement ring has a turquoise stone set in diamonds; its delicate band is made of white gold. There is only one problem with it, I am not really engaged. I am a fake fiancee.

Since April this year, I have been wearing a divorced friend's engagement ring, and pretending that I am promised to a wonderful banker called Seb. "He chose it, not me," I trill delightedly, as I flash my glam rock. "And, yes, the proposal was very romantic."

I admit it is a drastic measure. But consider the facts. I am one of those modern anomalies, a mid-life singleton (I am 42). Women see you as competition, and men assume that you'd like nothing more than a snog behind the drinks cabinet.

Really, I might as well wear a flashing neon sign that reads "Woman gathering dust. One egg left. Please fertilise in the next five minutes."

The moment that made me realise it was time to turn the dating tables was when my date (a much older man) lunged at me in the taxi after dinner. As I removed his podgy fingers from my upper thigh, he swivelled round. "Well," he said, eyes popping with macho man rage, "you are hardly a spring chicken, are you?"

This was the tenth time I had been pounced on by an overweight bore with about as much appeal as a slavering old dog. I was beginning to despair of ever finding an intelligent single man. Then a friend told me how, a few years ago when she was engaged, young attractive men flocked round her. Best man magnet on the planet, she said.

I decided to give it a try. And since I have been wearing my tasteful bling, my life has completely changed.

I was chatting to a divorced man at a dinner party a few weeks ago.

Pre-fake fiancéedom, I was the woman with her arms clamped to her side (fear of showing batwings) and head buried in the soup (fear of showing advancing age). Yet now I felt curiously calm. For the first time, I had the edge. After all, I thought, I am not here to impress you, I already have my man. And it showed.

It is what psychiatrists call a self-fulfilling prophecy. I felt sexy. Ergo, I projected a sexy image. By the third course, Mr Divorce was practically on bended knee. Pity, I wasn't attracted to him, but it was the turning point.

At last, I can flirt without being branded a husband- hunter. I can wear all those unbelievably revealing dresses that you knew made you look desperate as a single woman, but now with a fake man in the background are simply seen as sexy.

Which brings me to my next point. The idea that another man wants "to have and to hold" me has transformed me from easy pickings into forbidden fruit.

"It is basic human nature to want what other people have," says Sandi Mann, a social psychologist. "It is called social barometer theory, if somebody wants you, it automatically raises your desirability."

At a gallery opening a few weeks ago, a handsome older man invited me out to dinner. He had seen me at a party the week before surrounded by men. They were just friends, but the sight of them was enough to up my romantic worth.

What better way to say you are a prize worth fighting for than the public declaration of desirability - a jewelled token of love on the fourth finger of the left hand?

But before you rush off to buy a fake engagement ring, a word of advice.

Keep the proposal story simple. "He took me for dinner at the Gherkin, and there, after the chocolate soufflé, went down on one knee and told me there was no other woman for him," will suffice. I nearly tripped up a few times with an over-imaginative account. Believe me, romantic egg on your face is not a good look.

So now that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, has it worked? Yes. I am now dating the wonderful man from the gallery. And, yes, he knows about the fake ring but doesn't seem to mind. The next step is a lot more difficult. Well, this bit is real life, isn't it?


Major League Baseball told their sport was invented in Surrey, not America

Baseball was not invented in America but in genteel Surrey, according to evidence that has just come to light.

A diary has been found which describes the game being played by a teenager in Guildford in 1755.

Previously it had been thought that the game developed in America in the 1790s.

But this new proof indicates that the British can claim to have invented yet another of the world's great games, formerly considered as American as apple pie.

The handwritten entry was discovered in the diary of lawyer William Bray. It documents a game with friends on Easter Monday 1755, when he was still a teenager.

Local historian Tricia St John Barry found the diary in a shed near Guildford and the entry was later verified as authentic by Julian Pooley, manager of the Surrey History Centre in Woking and an expert of Bray.

Surrey County Council later wrote to Major League Baseball (MLB), the governing body of the sport in the US, to inform the institution of the find.

It said the MLB had accepted that the diary did contain the earliest known manuscript reference to baseball in the world.

Councillor Helyn Clack of Surrey County Council, said: "Baseball is an integral part of American life and this news about a national obsession in the US, where home-grown sports have traditionally dominated, will reverberate far and wide.

"It is a game steeped in history and now Surrey County Council's History Centre and an inquisitive local historian have provided the earliest manuscript proof that the game the Americans gave to the world came from England."

A digital version of the entry is due to go on display at the Woking centre soon.

Mr Pooley has also worked closely with MLB on the production of a documentary film tracing the origins of the game, called Base Ball Discovered


Thursday, September 11, 2008

The amazing hardiness of tardigrades

TINY eight-legged creatures known as "water bears" can survive the vacuum and radiation of space, research published today claims.

It was the first time that an animal has been tested for survival under open-space conditions, the European scientists that authored the report wrote in this month's edition of the US journal Current Biology.

The creatures, known as tardigrades, are tiny - between 0.1mm and 1.5mm long - and are commonly found on wet lichens and moss.

They are resistant to drying out, show strong resistance to heat, cold and radiation, and can be brought back to life after years of dryness.

The animals have been able to survive in extreme environments ranging in temperature from -272C to more than 151C, as well as pressure equivalent to 300 times the pressure of the atmosphere.

Researchers exposed dried-up tardigrades to open space conditions - vacuum, ultra-violet radiation from the sun and cosmic radiation - while aboard the FOTON-M3, a European Space Agency spacecraft launched last September that orbited 270km above the Earth.

Upon returning home, scientists determined that most of the tardigrades survived exposure to vacuum and cosmic rays.

Some even survived the exposure to solar ultra-violet radiation that is more than 1000 times higher than ultra-violet radiation on the Earth's surface.

The survivors were even able to reproduce well after their space trip, the researchers wrote.

The tardigrades' extreme resistance to UV radiation "is perhaps most surprising", they added.

"How these animals were capable of reviving their body after receiving a dose of UV radiation ... under space vacuum conditions remains a mystery," wrote the team of authors led by Ingemar Jnsson of Kristianstad University in Sweden.

"It is conceivable that the same cellular adaptations that let them survive drying out might also account for their overall hardiness."

Tardigrades, of which there are some 600 species, are found across the Earth from mountaintops to the depths of oceans.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Just a few bites of an underdone steak left actor Matt paralysed - for FIVE months

Matt Milchard had never really worried about his health. For years, the strapping 6ft actor and singer had visited the gym and taken care to eat healthily, and, apart from the usual colds and viruses, had enjoyed good health.

But then, on the last day of a glorious holiday in Marbella before his 30th birthday, the former EastEnders actor ate something that nearly killed him. Spending the evening with a musician friend at a local restaurant, he ordered steak, salad and a glass of wine.

Matt, who played one of Kat Slater's disruptive boyfriends in the soap, left half of the steak, thinking it tasted odd. 'I actually said to my friend: "I'll probably get food poisoning" - but not for a second did I think that anything would really happen to me.'

The next day, he flew back to London and went to meet friends at Ascot, but turned back because he started feeling so ill.

'I had stomach pains, felt heady and was perspiring - I went home thinking I had severe stomach cramp or a tummy bug.'

The pain appeared to subside over the next two days. 'I didn't feel 100 per cent, but thinking I'd taken enough time off, I went on a modelling job in the West End - but during the middle of the shoot I found I couldn't keep my eyes open and my speech began to slur.

'At first I thought it was funny, and everyone around me was laughing, too, because it was almost as if I was drunk. But quickly people started realising this wasn't right.

'I managed to get myself back to my home in Docklands, although the journey seemed the longest it had ever felt. By the time I got there, the side of my face had dropped. Terrified, I rang my father, who immediately drove from Canterbury to get to my place.'

When Matt's father, a scientific consultant, arrived, he thought his son had had a stroke and phoned for an ambulance. 'The casualty department were puzzled. Gradually my face was getting worse. I was having to prop my eyes open and my speech was becoming even more slurred. I could hear this unintelligible drivel coming out. I was extremely frightened.

They gave me a drink of water, but when I tried to swallow it all came out of my nose. They said I needed to stay in intensive care overnight.

'In the night, I woke up unable to swallow. My mouth was building up with saliva and I kept having to spit it out. I could feel myself becoming paralysed from the head down. It was a strange, cold sensation. I called for help.'

The medics were mystified

He was given a tracheotomy - without it, he would have died. Meanwhile, his brain was unaffected and he remained perfectly alert.

Matt then suffered a heart attack. 'All I remember was staff rushing around me in a panic and lots of voices calling out instructions. It was like a scene out of Casualty. And then I was out of it.'

The medics were still mystified as Matt remained paralysed. Over the next six weeks, he underwent a series of painful tests, and specialists were brought from other hospitals to see whether they could throw any light on his condition. As a precaution, his visitors had to wear a gown and gloves.

Matt's parents were warned it would be a miracle if their son survived, and so they moved to London to be by his side.

Then came the breakthrough. The hospital called on Professor Michael Swash, consultant neurologist and professor of neuropathology, who was about to retire, but agreed to take on Matt's case.

The professor diagnosed botulism - an extremely rare form of food poisoning. Indeed, Matt was the first case Professor Swash had seen in 40 years, but he recognised the symptoms and saved Matt's life.

Botulism is caused by the clostridium botulinum bacterium. The toxin attacks the nervous system, causing progressive paralysis of the body - including the heart and respiratory muscles.

Most foods contain the botulism toxin in very small amounts, explains Professor Mike Peck, of the Institute of Food Research. 'If food is heated properly, then the toxin is destroyed,' he says. 'Problems occur only when food isn't stored or prepared correctly.

'Botulism is very rare in the UK. There have been only 60 cases since the first one in the 1920s, but it is more common abroad.'

Matt recalls: 'Once botulism was diagnosed, Environmental Health became involved and they even went to my London flat and cleared out all the food and tested it.

'But, of course, it wasn't anything at my flat that had been the trouble.

'I told them how I had not been happy with a steak I had eaten in Spain. They were convinced this was the source of the illness, explaining that it had probably not been cooked properly and in the warm climate could easily have been full of bacteria.'

As Professor Peck says: 'While meat isn't a common form of transmission, it is possible - certainly, if the steak was served rare.'

Initially, Matt was treated using a special serum flown in from Germany. But he had an allergic reaction to it, turning his body purple. A few days later, the doctors tried dialysis, basically pumping out his blood, filtering it and pumping it back in again.

His body reacted badly

At first his body reacted badly and he developed Guillan-Barre Syndrome, which can occur after an infection and makes the body's immune cells attack the brain.

One effect of this was that his body stopped producing the fluid needed to keep the eyes lubricated.

'My eyes had to be taped shut, and every few hours a nurse would undo them, squirt lotion into them and tape them back up, otherwise I would have gone blind.

'I was also dribbling. I couldn't eat and lost so much weight - dropping from 13 stone to seven-and-a-half.

'I thought I was either going to remain paralysed or I was going to die. The drugs caused me to hallucinate and I did see what they call "the white light". But then I heard my family crying and I started fighting back.'

It wasn't until after Matt had been in hospital for five months that there was a real turning point, when he had a second dialysis treatment. He started to get some feeling back in his limbs - only to catch MRSA because his immune system was so weak. He was put into quarantine for three months.

Fortunately, he started to improve and was given intensive physiotherapy to walk again. 'At first, I couldn't even walk around my bed because I was so weak. I had a neck brace because I couldn't lift my head up. But I have a strong willpower.'

Eight months after falling ill, he was discharged. 'My parents had to move into my apartment as my carers. I used to have to plug myself into a feeding machine every night, and a speech therapist came regularly because my tongue was still slightly paralysed.'

But after a further four months, Matt was able to start getting his life back to normal. He returned to his vigorous daily workouts at the gym and is now back to a fit 13 stone.

Matt adds: 'The illness has left me with no taste or smell, and I'm very cautious about what I eat now.'

And the first proper meal he had after his ordeal? Surprisingly, it was steak - 'but my mum burnt the hell out of it just to make sure it was all right,' recalls Matt with a grin.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Prince Philip has 51-year-old trousers altered to fit latest trend

Prince Philip has asked his Savile Row tailor John Kent to change a favourite pair from the baggy style more popular in the 1950s into something more contemporary.

The original suit was made of heavyweight worsted cloth, with a distinctive grey and brown herring-bone stripe.

The seams have now been unpicked and resewn to narrow the legs.

Patrick Grant, one of the directors of the firm Norton & Sons, who Mr Kent works for, said: "John has been making the Prince's clothes for many years and has a Royal warrant. "About six weeks ago, the Prince sent him a pair of trousers that he wanted recutting to give a slimmer, more fashionable look." He added: "The Prince likes substantial cloth. He certainly gets plenty of wear out of all his clothes."

The Prince is known to keep some of his favourite items of clothing for years, repairing or altering when necessary.

At naval events he is often seen in the same uniform that he wore at his wedding in 1947, while he is also praised for managing to maintain his waist size even aged 87.

He is still lauded by fashion experts for his impeccable taste, and in the latest list of the best-dressed men in Britain, compiled by GQ magazine, he appeared at number 33.

Buckingham Palace decline to comment, saying it was a personal matter for the Prince.


Alistair Darling, things are even worse - our damsons are in distress

By the inimitable Boris Johnson

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, said the poet Keats. Yeah, well. He was right about one thing. We had plenty of mist yesterday morning. Then we had rain, then drizzle, then a bit of a downpour.

In fact the whole of August has been an exhibition match by the English weather, an opportunity to show off all the interesting ways of making water vapour condense and precipitate upon the heads of the suffering people.

I have no doubt Keats was spot on in thinking there will be more mist ahead. It's the mellow fruitfulness that's missing, frankly, and if the poet Keats had been with me in the garden, and if he had stared up - through the mist - at the damson tree, he would have seen a catastrophe of biblical proportions.

It was only last year that this tree had fruited so prodigiously that the boughs sagged with vast grape-like bunches of damsons. We picked thousands, literally thousands, off a single bush.

We filled bag after bag, and then we boiled them up in dozens of pans with about a hundredweight of sugar, and we marvelled at the properties of the damson, this plum of Damascus, given to this island by the Romans.

We watched the weird alchemy by which the yellow flesh turns bright red in the vat, and then we poured the arterial gloop into so many pots that we not only sorted out everybody's Christmas present but I was thinking of going commercial.

It may sound odd, but I have actually been looking forward to autumn and the return of the damsons, and mentally rubbing my hands every time I pass the trees. The general level of anticipation has been so high that in June some friends gave me about 30 jam pots for my birthday.

That is why it has been so heartbreaking to look up, this year, at the damson trees and their branches - naked, desolate, mystifyingly barren. In the places where they clustered, fat and round with their denim-blue bloom, there is nothing this season but twigs and yellowing leaves.

Here and there, in solitary silhouette, you can see the pitiful survivors of the damson massacre of 2008, shrivelled like the sad dugs of some sub-Saharan famine, or white-spotted with premature mould. There is no doubt about it: this year the jam jars will remain as tragically empty and unused as the bath that Andromache ran for Hector.

I turn my peasant face to the watery sky and I want to know why. Why, oh Lord, has the damson crop failed so spectacularly this year? Why now, on top of the rain and the credit crunch and everything else?

And then an answer comes through the fog. It is a sign. It is a portent. It is a lesson from nature. In this season of gloom and economic woefulness, I believe we can learn and profit from the tragedy of my damson trees, and I say this particularly to the Comment Editor, who had the nerve to complain last time I wrote at length, on this page, about making jam.

Look here, he said, it's all very well, this Tolstoyan jam stuff. But where's it going? Where's the relevance to British politics? Where is the cutting-edge economic analysis that the readers expect?

Well, I can tell him that if you want to understand the recession, and where Alistair Darling is going wrong, then you need to have a grasp of the essentials of damsonomics.

Lesson number one is that nobody knows quite what caused the problem - and, in case you think I am making heavy weather of this, my damsons are not alone in experiencing a disastrous downturn.

According to Christine Walling of the Westmorland Damson Association, the harvest is likely to be the worst since that body was founded in 1996. Prices are up 300 per cent.

Jam manufacturers are being forced to use frozen stock. In the damson heartlands of England - Herefordshire, Kent, Somerset - local papers are running stories headlined "Damson in Distress" and, as with the general economic conjuncture, the experts are divided as to the primary cause.

Some put the blame on the shortage of bees, essential for pollination. Some say it was a late frost; some say it was the torrential rain. But which was the real killer? We don't know, any more than we understand the exact chain of events that has led to our current economic plight.

Was it really American sub-prime mortgages? Was it the Chinese lust for oil and grain, and the surge in commodity prices? Was it too much easy credit?

Damsonomics teaches us that we cannot predict when disaster will strike, because the field of causation is too vast, and we cannot predict when the crisis will end. Alistair Darling may be right to say that this downturn is the worst for 60 years; and there again, he may be wrong.

It is quite possible that next year the damson trees will burgeon and put forth their plenty, just as it may be that confidence will next year (or the year after) return to the economy as swiftly and inexplicably as it went.

And this year's damson tragedy teaches us an important lesson about the limits upon our powers to intervene.

I could try pruning the trees, snipping here and there in the vague hope of getting rid of the unproductive twigs, just as the Government could always try new regulations for the diseased parts of the banking and mortgage sector, and in our blundering we could both of us end up making the position worse, creating the next crisis by trying to solve the last one; and then there is the final, vital lesson of damsonomics, and that is the importance of flexibility.

Britain - and especially London - should be well-placed to survive the recession, because we are, or should be, an increasingly high-skilled workforce, capable of adapting to all manner of shake-outs and disappointments.

Even in our forties and fifties we need to be psychologically prepared to use our talents wherever they are most fruitful. And that is why I find myself eyeing up those blackberry bushes, which seem to be coming on nicely, and look at those apples: they could be apple sauce, or maybe even cider.

Yes, folks, that's the final lesson of damsonomics: adaptability. You may find yourself picking blackberries and not damsons, but it's still a plum job.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Capsicum spray used on rampaging possum

POLICE officers have used capsicum spray to subdue a rampant possum that had been terrorising a family in their home for hours.

The brushtail possum, described as being "as big as a fat cat", went on a two-hour rampage after attacking a friend of the family, then bailing up mum Andrea Norris and her two children in a car.

Mrs Norris was forced to call police for help after she was unable to contact wildlife officers.

The incident happened at the Norris family home in Warrnambool, in southwest Victoria.

"We had some visitors around for tea, Mark Hammond and his son Andrew. Mark went around to feed the possum a bit of bread with my five-year-old son Lachlan so he could tell his kinder mates about it," Ms Norris said.

"Mark always wears shorts and the possum jumped on his leg and sank in the claws and teeth. He was trying to shake it off but it was well attached. Mark finished with a couple of holes in his leg and a few scratches."

Ms Norris was unable to reach Department of Sustainability and Environment wildlife officers so she called Warrnambool police.

"They walked straight up and capsicum sprayed the possum," she said.

"Unfortunately, at the same time I wound down the car window and we all got a dose as well and spent the night coughing. Then police grabbed one of the kids' toy rake and chased the possum away."

The possum remains at large.


Monday, September 1, 2008

HMAS Sydney safety drills 'not kept up'

It's clear that the infinitely better management by Capt. Dettmers was what totally reversed an initially huge disadvantage for his ship and crew

A FORMER sailor on HMAS Sydney has cast doubt on the management of the ship in the months before it was sunk by a German raider in 1941.

Francis Sheldon-Collins gave evidence at the first day today of public hearings at the commission of inquiry into the sinking.

The Sydney sank with the loss of all 645 crew off the West Australian coast after a World War II battle with the German raider Kormoran on November 19, 1941. The Kormoran also sank after the battle, but more than 300 of its crew survived.

Speculation has arisen about whether the Sydney came too close to Kormoran before determining her identity.

Mr Sheldon-Collins, who was a cook on the Sydney for more than two years, spent his last two weeks under the command of Captain Joseph Burnett, who was in charge of the ship when it was sunk.

The former cook departed the ship in April 1941 and said it was a daily routine under the previous captain for hands to come to action stations as a preparation drill in case HMAS Sydney sighted unidentified ships, but the routine had not been followed under Captain Burnett.

"All ships were treated as suspicious," he told the inquiry.

Mr Sheldon-Collins' job was to help man a six-inch machine gun magazine.

He said at one time a ship was in the area but he was never called to action stations.

"I don't recall going to action stations at any time under Captain Burnett," he said.

Counsel acting for the inquiry told him the ship's log showed the crew were called to action stations every morning.

"Well, I never went if it was," Mr Sheldon-Collins said.