A portable india-rubber bath is an immense comfort in summer in a hot and dusty climate

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At the dismal fag-end of an English winter, I suspect that I am not alone in thumbing through travel literature. Ah, the wonderful descriptions of the warm south: "It was the filthiest place I ever beheld, and the smell was so intolerable that nothing but the excessive cold out of doors could have induced us to have remained a single moment in it." And the sage advice about vital necessities for the tourist: "A portable india- rubber bath, with bellows to distend it, packing into the compass of about a foot square, is an immense comfort in summer in a hot and dusty climate." Not to mention the invaluable foreign phrases intended to ensure a smooth passage in far-flung lands: "If you drive well, and behave yourself civilly, I shall give you something for drink-money."

These indispensable tips come from Alan Sillitoe's wonderful excursion round 19th-century guidebooks, Leading the Blind (Papermac, pounds 9), a volume which is certainly going to accompany Mrs W and me on all future jaunts. No modern guide is likely to include the warning, from Murray's 1853 Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy, that "the by-roads are still so much infested with robbers that no one should attempt to explore them without the advice of the local authorities". Yet, in my experience, which includes having our hire-car jemmied open in Apulia and several hundred pounds pinched, this statement is still perfectly true. (Fortunately, an Italian view of the English has not remained so accurate with the passing of the years. A certain Dr Gemelli-Careri said we were "rude, cruel, addicted to thieving and robbing, faithless, gluttonous and superstitiously addicted to the predictions of foolish astrologers". Doesn't sound like us at all.)

There are, however, obvious drawbacks to using out-of-date guidebooks. Mrs W still hasn't forgiven me for making her march round the back streets of Dublin on a filthy night in search of a picturesque pub near the Liffey which, it transpired, had been demolished around 1970. Something worse happened to a friend of mine who insisted on using a Baedeker from the 1860s (incomparably superior to the gaudy volumes now bearing that name) when leading a tour round Florence. The Renaissance church intended as a highlight for his party of aesthetes turned out to be a scooter showroom.

Since I can't make head or tail of the plethora of privatised rail companies which the Government has foisted upon us, I may be wrong in saying that it was the South, East & West Railway (SEWER) which recently announced that it would phase out its suburban trains with "slam doors". Good for them, I say. Though there is a strong case to be made against the automatic doors of the replacement carriages - not only are they a sore temptation for schoolboy pranksters, but, you'll recall, they were famously rendered inoperable by "the wrong kind of snow" a few years ago - I am all in favour of such labour-saving mechanisms. My conversion took place some time ago, even before automatic doors were introduced on mainline trains. Ever since a traumatic moment at Didcot, I have viewed "slam doors" with the utmost suspicion.

The incident took place on the Bristol-to-London express, which I joined one Saturday afternoon at Bath. An hour or so down the line, I felt the need for a whisky and sidled my way along the corridor to the buffet car, which I was less than overjoyed to find closed. Unslaked, I began the long slog back to my seat. It was at this point that the train began to slow down for its stop at Didcot. As we approached the station, I found myself between carriages and was unable to move for the crush of passengers waiting to get out. In order to make room, I squeezed against the door on the side which I presumed was farther from the platform, but was surprised to see the departing passengers glaring at me with some impatience. In a flash, I realised that I was in fact on the platform side and therefore obliged to open the door for them. Panicking slightly, I reached for the handle before the train had come to a halt. You can imagine my dismay as I felt the door, which I had opened by a few inches, clip something on the platform. Moreover, it felt like something softish.

When the express stopped, I braced myself for the worst and got out. Sure enough, a few dozen yards down the platform there was an elderly man clutching his arm. Understandably, my victim didn't look best pleased. After all, he had just been hit by a train. I had done no more than begin to stutter out my apologies when a porter ran up. Far from assisting, the official pointed at me and eagerly bellowed: "I SAW IT ALL. DO YOU WANT ME TO ARREST HIM? I CAN, YOU KNOW."

As the cracks of hell opened up all around me, it seemed wise to press harder on the apology pedal - though my insistence that I had not wanted to get out at Didcot in the first place did little to alleviate my predicament. Eventually, the injured party, who did not seem too disastrously damaged, said he did not want to press charges (the porter looked downcast) and contented himself by muttering "Bloody fool!", which was restrained enough, given the circs. Still manifesting a lavish display of submissive obeisances and hand-writhing, I scuttled back on board the train just as it was about to depart. Soon, I was sitting in my seat as quietly as I had been five minutes earlier.

If I thought I needed a drink somewhere before Didcot, by the time I reached Paddington my craving had increased approximately a thousand-fold. But I made sure someone else opened the door - and have done ever since.

Members of the Dracula Society, who are being threatened with court action to prevent them marching en travesti (cloaks and white pancake make-up) to the church of St Mary's, Whitby, in May, should take heart - if I may use that expression. Though it was in this graveyard that Bram Stoker's anti-hero claimed his first English victim, there is another location in the town which is almost equally suitable.

On top of the cliff facing the celebrated church, there is a 20ft-high arch formed by a whale's jawbone that should bring the necessary bite to the society's antics. The recent announcement that the badly-decayed jawbone is being replaced by a set of cetacean false gnashers only makes it more appropriate, for I doubt that many members of the Dracula Society can boast that their incisors are their own.

How fitting that the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising is to use the National Theatre's neon-lit set of Guys and Dolls, which I recently applauded on this page, as the venue for a spectacle called It Pays to Advertise, described as "one of the biggest advertising events ever staged".

Coincidentally, on the same day that this was announced, I received an irate letter from an Oxford reader complaining about one of the neon advertisements that make up the show's set.

"A sign exhorting the denizens of Broadway to `Take the Rock Island Rocket to Chicago' is as out of place as one encouraging Berliners to take the Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh," he exploded. "The crack expresses of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad never came within a thousand miles of New York City."

I hope that this misleading billboard is not too disturbing to the legal, decent, honest and truthful practitioners in advertising during their visit to the South Bank

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