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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS an outcry when Culture Secretary Chris Smith proposed abolishing the English Tourist Board as part of his Treasury-influenced budget cuts. But after finding an elegantly-produced little brochure from the Board, Pandora is beginning to see Smith's point. Entitled "London Borough of Hackney", the guide is entirely in Japanese. A bit esoteric, you might think, for our visitors from the Land of the Rising Sun. However, in view of Japan's current severe economic problems, the delights of Ridley Road Market may be far more attractive to our Japanese friends than Bond Street or Knightsbridge. And just as photogenic.

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ITALIANS ARE buzzing over the question of whether or not Luciano Pavarotti (below), who is engaged to a woman 34 years younger than himself, has become a devotee of male sexual wonder-drug Viagra. Viagra is not for sale in Italy, but apparently some Italians have been shipping it into the country through the Vatican (of all places) which is outside Italian customs jurisdiction.

The opera star's spokesman Henry Breslin told the `New York Daily News', "He may have invested in Pfizer [the manufacturers of Viagra], but I don't think he uses it. I don't know. I don't go to bed with him."

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COMIC PAUL Merton was in expansive mood the other day at the launch of a new biography of Tony Hancock held on Wardour Street, praising the late comedian to the skies. But his sense of humour began to fail when he got onto the subject of comic rivals Rob Newman and David Baddiel. "Newman and Baddiel never sold out Wembley Arena," Merton - who usually plays far smaller comedy venues - informed those gathered around him. "It was only a third full. It was only their PR people that said it was sold out."

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ONE MORE sign that Iran is moderating its Shi-ite conservatism is the news that former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will lead a study on the possible benefits of the Internet. Up until now, the Net has been banned from most Iranian homes. The Expediency Council, headed by Rafsanjani, debates Iran's most important legal and theological questions. "We have decided to discuss the constructive and efficient use of Internet to prevent any possible damage," Rafsanjani said. But will the mullahs find a way to put an electronic veil over the vast section of the Net devoted to pornography?

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THE ASSOCIATION of Tennis Professionals threw a bash at the K-Bar in Wimbledon last Friday but it drew few tennis stars. It's hardly surprising, as it conflicted with the England-Colombia match on television. The poor grass court game has really suffered this year as a result of the World Cup, with even gentlemanly Tim Henman complaining about football fans putting him off his game. Shouts of "Hurry up, Tim, we want to watch the football!" have disrupted least one of his matches. Since Tim failed to show up at the ATP party, can we conclude that he, too,is a footie fan?

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ALTHOUGH SHE keeps rather a low profile in this country, Fergie continues to nurture her celebrity status in the United States. Last Friday she held a press conference in New York to announce a new book deal with publisher Simon & Shuster. No, this is not another kiddie book about helicopters. It sounds, from its description in the `New York Post', more akin to a Thomas the Tank Engine for grown up ladies: "a guide for women trying to put their lives back on track". Meanwhile, Fergie continues to earn more than $1m a year fronting for Weight Watchers.

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SO MARIELLA Frostrup is a leading contender to replace Barry Norman as the BBC's cinema critic. This may come as a surprise to one of her chums, Elizabeth Murdoch, with whom she enjoyed many laughs at a recent charity dinner in support of the Royal Court Theatre. When Pandora happened by their table and asked Murdoch whether Frostrup might be joining the BSkyB team in the future, Liz happily showed that she, too, has some of her father's acquisitive instincts. "There's room for everybody," she said. But will Mariella be coming aboard?

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