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The Independent Culture

The glitz and glamour of Bollywood come up a treat on the Web, thanks in large part to a host of fan sites, most of them created by people of Indian descent in the US and Canada. They offer video clips, songs and pin-ups galore, along with the attention to detail that marks out the true fan. Some of it is excessive, comprising what appear to be home addresses and phone numbers of the stars. Not all of it is flattering, either. Aamir Khan might not be thrilled at occupying the bottom place in Jimmy Mehra's table of "Big Guys", on Vajid Khan's Bollapalooza site. This chart ranks the stars by height, working upwards from the 5ft 512in Aamir. Mehra's accompanying article, "The Tall Vs the Short in Bollywood", describes the tensions caused by the Indian film industry's stature norms. Five foot two used to be the standard for actresses, apparently, with models and beauty queens over 5ft 4in "relegated to playing vamp or dancer". Vamp might be OK in Hollywood, but not in Bollywood. Women have gradually pushed through this celluloid ceiling, but they have not reached the heights commanded by the supermodels of the West. Topping Mehra's table of "Tall Dolls" is Sushmita Sen, 5ft 912in tall; at the bottom is Twinkle Khanna, measuring just 5ft 4in. "Poor Tabu is so conscious of her height" - 5ft 8in - "that she sort of crumples into herself and never poses standing proudly erect," observes her costume designer Simple Kapadia. Although she is but half an inch shorter, no such inhibitions afflict the sublime Aishwarya Rai, the former Miss World to whom a large proportion of Bollywood sites appear to be devoted. "Few of us realise how good a person Ash is from the inside too!" writes Prateek Rastogi, creator of one such work of homage. "Did you know that she has pledged to donate her eyes?"


David Macaulay's phlegmatic mammoths, seen to charming effect in DK's The Way Things Work CD-ROM, return in Pinball Science (DK, Windows, pounds 24.99), shown right. This equally delightful sequel unfolds around the journal of an eccentric inventor, who succeeds in reaching the Moon despite an erratic grasp of the laws of physics and a woeful lack of social insight. The spirit of Heath Robinson lives on in the puzzles, which require the reconstruction of the inventor's three Great Projects. With the aid of technical notes, providing a discreet but insidious education in the Newtonian properties of energy and matter, the player gradually puts three giant pinball machines back together again. Mammoth fun.


The frisson that comes from consulting documents in the Public Record Office is in the margins, the notes pencilled in by civil servants long since filed in their celestial pigeon-holes, in the dulled signatures, the faded cast of the paper, the honest irregularities of old typewriters. In short, it comes from the impressions of age, authenticity, and personal contact: the knowledge that you are holding the actual document held by those who made and used it. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find that the sensation can also be evoked by the information itself.

In the wake of the international controversies surrounding financial assets held since the Second World War, the British government has instigated a website giving access to 25,000 records of "enemy property" seized by Britain during the hostilities. Although the government has disposed of all such assets, the information has been made available - along with a fund of pounds 2m - to help claimants pursue property belonging to victims of Nazi persecution. At this stage there is not much to see behind the pages' cool marbled textures, other than the records themselves. Updates are promised as the initiative develops; in the meantime, the site's keepers could usefully reduce the display size so that it better fits into a screen window, and fix various bugs which either result in no response or false replies that no records exist, in response to search requests.

To provide some background for the terse summaries, a historical report can be downloaded from the Foreign Office website. It explains how the scope of the measures widened as the war progressed, as Britain's worsening financial predicament increased pressure to draw upon the assets, and as German conquests added to the list of "enemy nations". Occupied countries were classed as "technical enemies", rather than "belligerent enemies" which were actually at war with Britain. Their citizens' property was seized all the same, as was that of people who were not enemy nationals, but whose addresses were in enemy countries.

Many of these individuals were, of course, victims of Nazism. It seems impertinent to dip into the PRO files at random; like flicking through strangers' bank statements. So I searched on my own surname, on the flimsy rationalisation that I have some sort of privilege over any instance of it, even though I am unlikely to be related to its bearer. Sure enough, there were a couple of dozen Kohns with addresses in Germany, Romania and Hungary. They are likely, though not certain, to have been Jews, and therefore they may well have perished at Nazi hands.

Even without the patina of antique bureaucracy, the names and addresses evoke the Middle Europe that has gone for ever; not just the Jews but the world of which they were part. It is simply the fact that there were Jewish names above Central European addresses. And also poignant is the illustration these records provide of how the state counted small change while fighting for the world's future. Whoever Otto Kohn of Budapest may have been, whatever his fate, whatever Britain did or might have done for him, or to him, there remains the official record; that Britain seized from him "securities" to the value of two shillings and sixpence.


The Internet Public Library boasts 7,000 online texts, Teen, Youth, Reference and lit crit sections, magazines and newspapers you can read for free, just like in a real public library, and a list of Frequently Asked Reference Questions, including how many English words end in "-gry". People keep asking, apparently.