Monday, October 31, 2005

This Movie Is Gay*

The Sea Inside. Yeah, right.

I watched what is meant to be a great movie last night: The Sea Inside, by a Spanish director called Amenojebamon or something. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film last year, AND the equivalent Golden Globe. so, i thought, it should be pretty good, right?

Wrong. The story (based on real life events) concerns a quadriplegic guy in Spain, who campaigned for thirty years for the right to assisted suicide. Intriguingly, the director chose to re-enact the story on ice, employing top figure skaters from eastern Europe. I made that last sentence up, but frankly such a version of this tediously gay* story would have been an improvement on this mawkish, self-indulgent, rampantly sentimental pile of Hispanic pap. I never thought I'd reach the end of a film about a terribly afflicted cripple, yearning for death, with the thought: for fuck's sake you stupid spaz, just drink the poison.

This cynical mindset was not helped by a scene earlier in the film when a Catalonian lawyer with a neurodegenerative disease (this film is full of laughs) falls down the stairs. It was obviously meant to be a hugely powerful moment of sombre despair, but when the lawyer took her multiple sclerotic tumble onto the floor, my fiance and I started sniggering, which turned into helpless laughter, barely suppressed throughout the rest of the film.

I contrast this film about suicide with another, far superior film I saw recently: Downfall, about the last days in Hitler's bunker. Frankly, I had more sympathy with the Wehrmacht generals and Nazi leaders who topped themselves during the Battle of Berlin than with the Spanish wheelchair dude; at least the Nazis showed some guts.

This may be an unusual reaction.

*Note to homosexuals reading my blog. Please do not add comments complaining about my use of the word 'gay' to mean sadly naff and drearily tedious. You stole the word in the first place - you can hardly complain if someone else then does the same. No?

**Note to everyone else. I'm in quite a vituperative mood this morning.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Great Lighthouse Mystery

The dark, lonely, mysterious outpost of the Flannan Isles lighthouse...

Lighthouses attract stories. Whether its their isolation, their oddity, or their relationship with shipwreck and disaster, there's barely a lighthouse in the world that hasn't got some creepy and curious history, some tale of hauntings or sea monsters.

The difference with the lighthouse on the wild Flannan Islands, in north west Scotland, is that its eerie story is 'true'. Just over a century ago, something peculiar really did happen here: a 'disappearance' which remains one of the most mysterious ever recorded in Britain.

The Flannan Isles lighthouse was built in 1899, on the tallest of seven rocky islets. It is situated 15 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. For ten years the lighthouse was happily staffed by a three man crew, rotated every fortnight.

On 7 December, 1900, Head Keeper James Ducat arrived at the lighthouse to commence another two week shift. His First Assistant and Second Assistants joined him; temporarily alongside was Robert Muirhead, the Superintendent of Lighthouses.

Muirhead's job was to check things were OK. This occasion was no different: after his technical inspections were over, Muirhead chatted with the three keepers, and discussed various improvements. Then he climbed aboard the relief vessel, and set off for Lewis, leaving the lighthouse in safe hands, or so he thought. He was the last person to see any of the keepers alive.

Soon after Muirhead's visit, an unusually tenacious mist rolled in from the cold Atlantic. The sea-fog totally enveloped the isle and its lighthouse, and kept the lighthouse invisible from distant Lewis, at least by day.

Thankfully, the light from the lamp was easier to make out during the night. The lamp was visible, for instance, on the evening of December 7, but was obscured by severe weather on the following four evenings. It was seen again on the 12th December; then another fortnight passed with no confirmed sighting.

All this was worrying, but not so unusual as to cause panic. But then, on the 15th December, the steamship SS Archtor was sailing in the vicinity of the Flannan isles. Just before midnight, Captain Holman looked out from the deck of his steamer, expecting to see the reassuring flash of the Flannan Isles light, so near that no fog could obscure it.

There was no light.

Still the alarm button was not pressed. After all, the relief vessel from Lewis would be arriving at Flannan Island on the 21st. As it happened, another savage run of weather delayed this vessel, the SS Hesperus, for a further five days.

As the Hesperus finally approached the tumbling seas around Flannan, on Boxing Day, the captain looked out. What normally happened on such occasions was that a flag would be flown from the lighthouse, to show that the boat had been spotted by the keepers. Then the lighthouse crew would come out onto the rocks, ready to help the men from the Hesperus, who would manfully row to the island in a dinghy.

This time, no dice. Watching from the Hesperus, Captain Harvie saw no flag, and no sign of the men living on the island. He gave orders to blow the steam whistle - but it was met with silence.

There was now little choice. Two seamen, Joseph Moore, and Jim McCormack, climbed from the Hesperus onto the dinghy, and rowed ashore. As McCormack lashed the dinghy to the harbour rings, Moore went up to check on the Station, with a rising sense of disquiet.

The outer door to the lighthouse was locked. But Moore had a set of keys, so he opened the door for himself. As he scanned the scene inside, it became obvious the place was deserted. There was no sign of anyone. The clock on the wall had stopped. There was also no fire in the freezing grate. A meal had been prepared - but was uneaten. Upstairs, the beds were empty.

Alarmed, Moore hurried back to the Hesperus, where he explained to his cap'n that the crew were AWOL. At this point a thorough search of the island was conducted. They even went into the booming sea caves.

They found nothing. The original crew had inexplicably vanished.

At a loss, the Hesperus sailed back to Lewis. There, a telegram was sent to the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners, informing them of the strange disappearance.

Meanwhile, on Flannan Isle, the remaining crew from the Hesperus, left to tend the abandoned lighthouse, were conducting an even more thorough and painstaking search. This time a picture of events began to emerge.

It seemed that everything had been running smoothly on the island, up to a point. The Head Keeper's log showed that there had been a mighty storm on the 14th. A storm that, by the next morning, had blown itself out. There the log ended. Whatever had happened to the three men, it must have started that afternoon - the 15th.

On the 29th, Superintendent Muirhead sailed from Lewis to the fateful Flannans, to make an official investigation. His report is the most detailed account of the state of the island at that time.

Muirhead's conclusions were tragic, but prosaic. The great Atlantic storm on the night of 14th December had clearly caused substantial damage. The jetty was bent out of shape and the railings were battered. So powerful were the waves and surges, great rocks had been dislodged and hurled about, and ropes had become snared on a temporary crane fully 70 feet above sea level.

Confronted with this evidence, Muirhead therefore concluded that all three men had left the lighthouse in order to secure the station's equipment, following this terrible storm. One by one they had taken waterproof oilskins and boots from the lighthouse (Muirhead knew this because the kit was missing); the last one had apparently locked the outer door behind him. Then, Muirhead believed, an unexpectedly large wave had crashed over the top of them. The wild Atlantic had swept the three men to their deaths.

Case closed? Not at all. Ever since Muirhead's report, many questions have been raised. There were serious oddities in the story: such as the discovery of an unused set of oilskins, which indicated that one of the men went out of the lighthouse without protective clothing. Why? When the others didn't? Most notably, why on earth did any of them lock the door?

Furthermore, these 'natural' explanations for the disaster ran contrary to a rigid lighthouse-keeping rule: this insisted one man stay in the lighthouse to guard the lamp, come what may. It was unheard-of for this rule to be broken.

Finally there was the storm. The log said that the keepers had calmly waited out the tempest. Yet the meal had been left uneaten - as if they had rushed out. And if the storm had blown itself out - why were they wearing their oilskins? The whole thing was very confusing, more confusing than Muirhead's report indicated.

But perhaps Muirhead had a reason for being a little glib. Trinity House didn't want rumours of weirdness putting off any replacement keepers - there were enough who were already freaked by the events on Flannan. Of those men on the Hesperus, who landed on Flannan on that spooky Boxing Day, several were soon to take emergency leave, or even retire - so unsettled were they by the strangeness of the 'Flannan disappearance'.

So what did happen on the Flannans that day? Since the vanishing, many competing theories have sprung up: the men were kidnapped by slavers or pirates; a sea-monster dragged the trio to a watery grave; a much later theory claimed that the men were abducted by aliens.

The only problem with these theories is that they are entirely devoid of evidence. But there is one other sinister and unsettling theory that does hold up rather better. This theory depends on the history of lighthouses driving men mad.

Let's look at some of those other stories. That of the Solva lighthouse in Pembrokeshire, Wales, is a classic example. This small lighthouse was completed in 1776. In 1780 one of the keepers Thomas Griffith died during a storm. Because the other keeper did not want to be suspected of murder, he hung the body of his colleague outside the house, rather than hurling it into the sea.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sight of a bloodied cadaver swinging outside the window every morning had a deleterious affect on that other keeper, Thomas Howell. He became severely distressed. However he could not be taken off the lighthouse, for two whole months, because of the weather. When the authorities belatedly sent relief, the new keepers found Howell running around the lighthouse in a frenzy. He had gone completely mad.

Similar horrors occurred in the St Simons lighthouse, in Georgia, USA. According to local newspaper reports, in 1880 the keeper and assistant keeper had been alone together for several weeks. One evening they began fighting over a chicken supper. Eventually the assistant became so incensed, he murdered his colleague. Like poor Thomas Howell, this assistant had to be taken from his lighthouse in a straitjacket, although he later recovered and confessed.

And what about the Little Ross lighthouse in Scotland? In August 1960, two keepers were stationed on the island, Hugh Clark, a former postman from Dalry, and Robert Dickson, a 24 year-old ex-sailor.

A few weeks after the keepers were both installed, Clark's body was found by a passer-by, in the lighthouse. It was riddled with rifle wounds. Dickson was nowhere to be seen. However, a nation-wide hunt tracked him down to Yorkshire, where he was arrested. Months later, Robert Dickson was charged with the murder of Hugh Clark. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang - four days before Christmas. In the event, Dickson was reprieved - but he slit his own throat in jail, apparently driven insane by the horrors of his crime. The reason for the murder was never fully established. Perhaps there wasn't one.

Finally, there is a notorious tale from Australia. In early 1950, Herbert Yates and girlfriend Rita arrived at remote Tasman Isle Lighthouse. The isolation quickly got to Yates, and he was transformed from a relatively normal young man into a drunken monster that constantly menaced his young partner. The woman's terror was heightened by Yates' formidable arsenal of weapons, including abbatoir knives and a marksman's rifle.

Then a young assistant keeper, Bob Tregenza, arrived at the remote outpost. He protected Rita, and the two began a passionate but clandestine affair. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Yates discovered the pair in an embrace; he slaughtered them in cold blood with the butchers' knives before turning a gun on himself.

All in all, the history of lighthouses is a tapestry of madness and murder. So, taking into account these stories, what can we say really happened on the Flannan Isles on those stormy days of 1900?

For weeks the Flannans had experienced unusual isolation and confinement, in the great storm. This was followed by long days of deep fog, cutting the lighthouse off from all contact. It is far from inconceivable that this intense isolation tipped one of the keepers into psychosis.

If one man did run amok, his lunacy might have led to the deaths of the others in various ways. Maybe he tried to kill the second member, and when the third crewman intervened, they all ended up in the sea. Perhaps he stabbed the others to death, and then dumped their bodies over a cliff. And then he locked the door for a final time, before hurling himself off the rocks. It's a chilling and bizarre image, but it does answer the questions better than any other theory.

It's also an image that somehow fits the dangerous world of the Flannan Isles. Even today this place has a deathly atmosphere. When you watch the seabirds wheel against a leaden sky, around a lonely and very deserted lighthouse, its difficult not to experience a shudder of dread and despair.

The lighthouse today is electrified and solar-powered. And unmanned.

The Flannan Isles viewed from a distance. Perhaps the best way of seeing them..

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sweet Charity

I was walking through an unseasonably warm and sunny Soho Square this lunchtime, when I came across this. It was a big marquee, with a sign saying 'Come and smash up our edible life-sized chocolate Aga'. Apparently it was all being done for charity.

I'd like to have been in on the ideas meeting, at the charity concerned, when they came up with this promotional idea.

"What people really like is smashing things up which are made out of chocolate!"

"Yes. But that's been done to death. How can we give it a new spin?"

"I know! Let's make something out of chocolate that they can smash up which is really unexpected - but exciting!"

"Like what?"

"A tractor."

"No. Too Soviet."

"A computer?"

"Too boring."

"A massive model of a woodlouse."

"Hmmm. Not bad. But..."

"Wait. I've got. It. Let's make a life sized edible chocolat model of an Aga!"

"Yes! Brilliant! A full-scale chocolate facsimile of an upper middle class Swedish-manufactured oven! Of course!"

Here's a picture of the edible life-sized chocolate Aga being smashed up.

And here's another. What larks!

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Scars of London

Damage from Red Army bullets and shells, in central Berlin.

A year or two ago I went to Berlin for the first time. It's a fascinating and quite seductive place, full of agreeable museums, cute girls, and stalls selling takeaway sausages in delicious curry sauce.

But what I found most intriguing about Berlin was not the bangers or the brothels - but all the terrible war damage. I hadn't expected to find quite so much evidence of the Battle of Berlin. After all, I thought, this Battle took place in 1945 - now we're in 2004. Sixty years have gone by: haven't they had time to repair the place? Bizarre. Seeing all the shrapnelled, pock-marked, bullet-strafed Berlin buildings - and there are hundreds of them, especially in the East - was rather like finding sabres from the battle of Waterloo on a modern Brussels pavement.

But then I came home to London. And I started noticing, for the first time in twenty years of living here, just how much World War 2 bomb damage is still visible in my city. OK, it's nothing to compare to the hideous scars of the Gotterdammerung that was the Red Army's march on Berlin, but still - these shrapnel marks, typical sprays of brick-damage from exploding bombs, are still quite obvious once you know what to look for. And they are also extremely poignant. Every one of these bomb sites in London marks the place where people suffered and died. The chips and gouges are the chalk mark around a murder victim's corpse; stone flowers on a metaphorical grave; the fighter's scars on the face of a brave and historic city.

Why am I banging on about this now? Because it occurred to me recently that these scars might still be forming. From the jihadist terrorist attacks. Are there any marks left from the July 7 bombs? The other day I went to have a look at one of the World War 2 bomb sites, so I could compare that 60 year old damage with the damage from the July 7 outrages.

Here's what I found.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

This is a 1930s building on the corner of Portland Place and Weymouth Street; for those that know London that's right in the middle of the city, near the BBC. You can see big chunks of this pillar have been blasted away by a Luftwaffe bomb - and rather clumsily filled in with grey plaster later on.

You can tell it was a bomb that did this, rather than, say, a lorry reversing very badly - because this whole block is covered with large and small shrapnel marks, as is the building opposite. Moreover, the chips and scars get more numerous as you approach the corner of the street - which is where the bomb must surely have landed. I wonder how many people died here.

This is a section of 30s walling from the same World War 2 bomb site as above. Here you can see the classic splattergun effect of shrapnel from an exploding bomb. The chips and gouges have, as above, been filled in - but the new stone has discoloured to reveal the pattern.

After taking this photo I walked five minutes, through Fitzrovia, to Tavistock Square...

The most noticeable "result", at the moment, of the July 7 attack in Tavistock Square (that's the one where the bus blew up) is not great arcs of shrapnel pox, but this sign on the British Medical Association headquarters, a building which sits directly opposite the site of the suicide bomb. It's self-evidently a temporary sign, presumably the previous signs were splattered with hot metal, and worse.

And here it is. The only noticeable damage to any stonework that I could find, resulting from the July 7 attacks. It's to the right of the BMA sign. If you look closely (click on the image) you can also see evidence that this wall has been washed. Reports on the day of the terrorist attacks say that the entire front of the BMA building was splashed with blood.

What is remarkable, in a way, is that already people are walking past this site of mass murder like it's just another bit of London pavement. And why not. Because it is just another bit of London pavement, albeit one that shows one of the many scars of this strange, brutal, callous, extraordinary city.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Have They or Haven't They?

"Alien" star Sigourney Weaver, before her rumoured lip operation.

It's the question everyone's asking: have those celebs we love had plastic surgery? Have they submitted to the laser beam, the scalpel and the silicon implant, so as to preserve or prolong their careers? The only way to find out is to look and see for ourselves - so here at The Toffeewomble, we chose three famous people, each of whom is rumoured to have had that little "nip and tuck". Then we chose three pairs of photos, taken before and after the rumoured surgery - and we showed them to experts in the field. What would the experts say? Would they confirm that the trichologists and the dermatologists had been at work? - or would they put it all down to gossip-mongering?

Our first celeb is amazonian Aussie actress Sigourney Weaver. Six months ago Variety Magazine alleged that La Weaver had submitted to collagen implants in her lips. What do you think? Check the photo above, of Sigourney before her op. Now look at this one...

Here's Sigourney after the alleged collagen lip implants. Has she or hasn't she? The expert view comes from Tomas Szarney, a Hungarian collagenist who works in Bel Air, California. His view: "This is a tricky one. Seen from a certain angle there is.. maybe.. an extra plumpness in Sigourney's lips. But then again it could just be a trick of the light! Case unproven, I think."

British actress Helena Bonham Carter was recently "exposed" in Heat Magazine as having had the classic Hollywood surgery - double breast implants. But are these rumours justified? Here's a snap of the diminutive period film star, taken just before the alleged op, in May of this year...

And here's a picture of Helena, relaxing at home after the supposed breast augmentation. "Actually," says Laura Basten, of Basten & Partners, Santa Monica's top plastic surgeons, '"I'm not convinced that Helena has had a boob job. To me they look pretty similar, quite small... but perky... nothing to be ashamed of! I reckon the gossip surrounding her breasts is just that - idle tittle-tattle. These pictures prove that she's avoided the knife."

Tony Blair is another "celeb" who's suspected, in some circles, of surgical enhancement. In the case of Blair, it's his hairline that's come in for some scrutiny - and questioning. Has he had hair transplant work? This picture was taken a few weeks before Christmas 2004, when the alleged hair transplant took place. Now compare...

.. with this photo of Blair, after the alleged scalp surgery, taken at a recent G7 meeting of world leaders. "Seeing these pictures side by side, I think it is unquestionable that Blair has had some hair transplant work", says Brett Walbronk, of the Australian Trichology Institute. "To the untrained eye, he may look exactly the same. But an expert like me can spot it within minutes - you can see a slightly lower hairline, if you look very closely. And the classic male pattern baldness is definitely less marked. So, yes, it may be subtle, but there's been some trichological work here."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

World's Worst Wildlife Photography

There's a treefrog in there. Somewhere.

As regular toffeewomblers know, I have recently returned from a two week jaunt around the remarkable island of Madagascar. Famous for many things - like its unique traditions and beliefs - Madagsacar is also well known for its dazzling flora and fauna, for its lemurs and chameleons, its orchids and cacti - many of them found only on the 'red island'. Naturally I went well prepared for this opportunity - I took my mobile phone, which has a crap camera in it. The result is, I think, perhaps the world's worst wildlife photography, as the above and following photos amply display.

Up there, for instance, is a tree frog. It's in the middle of the leaves. To my mind, this is a virtually flawless wildlife shot, apart from the fact that the whole image is horribly blurred, and you can't actually see the frog.

I hope you enjoy the rest of this portfolio. Picture editors who wish to use some or all of these shots can contact me through the comments section.

It's not everyone who can use a simple 1.3 megapixel cellphone camera to take brilliant shots of lizards. I think the dextrous use of close-up focus here is especially notable. I might send this one off to National Geographic.

Here is a chameleon. Notice how I have mastered the difficult lighting conditions, to fully capture the colour and shape of this unique Madagascan reptile.

And, finally, perhaps the ultimate in bad wildlife photography. This may look like a shapeless blob stuck to a twig, but it's actually a nocturnal mouse lemur. Really.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Toffeewomble: Autumn Tour 2005

A painting, of fanatics. But where?

Yes, I'm off on my travels again. But not for long, and not as far as Madagascar. There's a clue in the painting above as to my destination, correct guessers will receive the usual part-furnished bedsit in Tottenham Hale.

While I'm away, I'm wondering if regular toffeewomblers could help me out. I'm doing a book proposal for a follow-up to the story of my chequered lovelife (Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You; Bloomsbury Books; May 2006).

The book is another memoir, this time of all the bad and wacky stuff - the mayhem, drugs and strange parties - that didn't get in the first book. The conceit this time is that I am trying to find out the world's ultimate pleasure: is it crack cocaine or rolling down grass hills? A cup of tea or heroin? Maybe its a nice big breakfast, or maybe its a brace of call-girls in Bangkok?

On this line, I will hang the exuberantly dirty washing of my life. Should be fun.

So far, the titles I've come up with are:

Fifteen Ways of Falling Over

Lick it and See

Try Everything Twice

Things That Made Me Go Mmmmm

Love, Sex or Chocolate Biscuits

God Made Me Do It

[they will all be subtitled: One Man's Pursuit of the Ultimate Pleasure]

Are any of these any good? Or are they all crap? Can you think of something better? If you can, I promise to give you a big fat mention in the book. Shukran.


Friday, October 07, 2005

The Waugh on Drugs

The addiction-inducing fops of Granada TV's 'Brideshead Revisited'.

Whaddaya mean, you didn't read my column in last week's Sunday Telegraph? Cuh! It took me five hours to file, as well, as I had to use the only phone in the Ranomafana Rainforest, in Madagscar, to ring the copytakers at the newspaper - a rickety old French phone that kept cutting out, and only accepted $3 phone cards, of which I needed several hundred. Talk about dedication to the job. And to think I used to be a layabout heroin addict..

Which neatly leads me into the column itself. For those that missed it, yertiz:


Sunday Telegraph; 25/09/05

It's not often you can trace the source of a 15-year drug habit to a television series, but I think I can do that with Brideshead Revisited, which is being re-released on DVD to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Evelyn Waugh novel.

The programme was first broadcast on ITV in 1981. That, as it happened, was the year I first went up to University College London. I can remember avidly watching the early episodes in my little hall of residence bed-sit - and everyone else in my year doing exactly the same.

Why were we all so transfixed? One obvious reason was the unusually lavish production values. Granada's Brideshead was blessed with a John Mortimer script. The leads - Anthony Andrews as the gay, posh, Oxford student Sebastian Flyte; Jeremy Irons as his impressed bourgeois sidekick Charles Ryder - were perfectly handsome, and cinematically famous. The Oxbridge locations were glossy and honeyed; even the cardigans looked fabulous.

But there was something else in the DNA of that Brideshead that made it oddly potent and perniciously effecting: particularly to any impressionable young undergraduates watching this series about impressionable young undergraduates going to pot.

To my generation, Brideshead seemed to offer a primer on how to behave, how to be glamorous, a primer we desperately wanted and needed. Because we were the generation that had been raised on a diet of 1970s dreariness, of safety-pinned punks and urban grot. Then came this fatally seductive drama, telling us we didn't have to live in a world of three-day weeks and keg bitter. Instead, we could look to an earlier, happier time of upper-class excess, of plovers' eggs and liqueurs, of wind-up gramophones in purple-cushioned punts. We may have missed Evelyn Waugh's subtler allegories about Catholicism, but we understood the appeal of too many brandy Alexandres.

Finally, Granada's Brideshead infiltrated this thought into socially insecure young Englishmen of the time: that the true essence of English elegance lay not just in effortless superiority (we knew that) but in wasting that superiority, in deliberately destroying oneself and one's talents so as to give two fingers to a mediocre and unappreciative world.

Soon after Brideshead, my friends and I started experimenting with dangerous drugs. I believe that somewhere in our immature brains there lurked the notion that hard drugs were a short cut to the wasted beauty of upper class decadence, à la Brideshead. It took me 15 years to realise that it was a tragic, sickly delusion.

Interestingly, Waugh himself had doubts in later life about his novel. "The book is infused with a kind of gluttony," is the way he put it. He should have said it is infused with the dangerous glamour of a very English nihilism.


Talking of undergraduates, last week the Government announced that it intends to "roll out" a scheme of scholastic aptitude tests for 18-year-olds; these SATs will be piloted on 50,000 UK students, and will be based on American models in use since 1948. The idea is that with these souped up IQ tests, our perplexed universities, confronted by tides of sixth formers all with A grade A-levels, will be able to winnow out the very bright from the merely sharpish.

The curious thing is that in America, SATs are hideously controversial. This is because they seem to discriminate against ethnic minorities and women. An average white student's SAT score in the States is about 1,000 plus; black and Hispanic candidates score 100-200 less than that on average, and women average about 30 points less than men.

Several explanations for these results have been suggested: some brave souls have even claimed that they show that men are smarter than women. Others aver that SATs are timed and women, being more risk averse, do less well in timed tests. As for the ethnic differentials, the arguments have raged for decades; what is inarguable is that they are one of the main reasons American universities have affirmative action programmes for non-white students. In other words, it's an unholy mess.


In the midst of all this depressing stuff, I should say this column is being written, rather incongruously, in the Madagascan national park of Ranomafana, where the lemurs, with their petite forms and wide-eyed grace, look like so many furry Helena Bonham-Carters swinging through the trees.

My guide here, a charming man called Mark, has just told me his life's ambition. There is a bird on the island called the Sakalava Rail, which is on the verge of extinction: down to 100 pairs. Mark has decided to spend the rest of his life saving this one, beautiful bird for the future of the world.

I find that moving and oddly humbling. I wish I'd had a species to save when I was wafting around in a daft cardigan, nibbling quails' eggs, on drugs.

• Nigel Farndale is away

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The French: Some Second Thoughts

Look at this sour faced French cunt. I fucking hate the French. With their miserable little dogs and their stupid pouting faces and their horrible smelly toilets and their cheese that looks like an alien's number twos after a night on the Ricard, AND their fucking stupid metro systems and their ludicrous bread that you have to break to get in a bag and their noisome 'bidets' and their fucking arsey attitude and their determination to believe themselves a serious power in a world that regards them a sa joke and their frigging tolls on the motorway and their shrugs and their noxious politicians with aneurysms and their stupid fucking names like Jacques and Pierre and their idiotic berets and that waste of a summer day called 'boules' and their vain, preening, dreary, selfish, mean-spirited way of looking at everything and everyone and the way they cover up their national neurotic self doubt and secret self loathing by pretending to be superior and their utterly boring television and their dialect of a dying language and their fucking eclairs and croissants for breakfast when you want a proper breakfast and their dreadful hygiene and lazy arrogance and apathetic vileness and spiteful hatred of anything that makes them realise what a sad, bygone, pompous, dried-up, humourless, left-behind bunch of wine-sodden dwarf-heads they really are, and most of all I hate that stained, urinous, crappy, toilet-esque dump of a concrete shithouse that is Charles de Gaulle airport wherein my luggage from Madagascar is STILL languishing THREE DAYS after I got back due to a Parisian baggage handler's strike.