The Weasel: Travelling on the humour bypass to Blissville

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The Independent Culture
Despite currently being confined to barracks, I have found myself restlessly exploring our planet. Did you know that the rolling Mississippi becomes as wiggly as a telephone flex south of St Louis? Or that Novaya Zemlya is an island as long as Britain in the chilly seas north of Russia? Or that the Porcupine Abyssal Plain is a patch of the Atlantic off Ireland? Or that Fray Bentos is a town on the River Plate in Uruguay? Ever since a delivery man staggered to our door with the Millennium Edition of The Times Atlas of the World (pounds 125), I've become an armchair globe-trotter.

At first, I tried reading this vast tome - approximately the size and weight of a paving slab - in bed, but I felt a bit too much like a pressed flower for comfort. After arranging self, bad leg and atlas more or less comfortably on the sofa, I plunged in. It kicks off with a fabulous series of spreads devoted to satellite images of the Earth. New Zealand is an emerald birth-mark blemishing the limitless indigo of the Pacific. The rough rectangle of Saudi Arabia has been clipped a trifle too hastily from a sheet of sandpaper. Nuzzling up to the slushy fragments of northern Canada, Greenland is a pure white rip in the page.

Following such a visual feast, you may think it a bit of a let-down that the next page includes a photograph entitled "M6". Don't worry. This is a terrain as yet untraversed by Eddie Stobart. It is not the wind-blasted trans-Pennine motorway, but "a large spiral galaxy, located in the Virgo cluster". After a whistle-stop tour of the universe, the compilers return to Earth with 20-odd pages of sobering stuff about tidal waves, fossil fuel depletion, population growth, urbanisation...

It comes as a relief to get to reach the meat of the book - 211 pages of maps and 67 pages of place-names. You can't imagine the folks in Blissville, New Brunswick or Happy, Texas, letting the state of the world get them down. I was also pleased to discover that two places share the cheery name of Beer. One is a Devon seaside resort, the other is a Somali village in the Horn of Africa, so it would be best not to get them confused when making your holiday plans.

What joy it must be to live in the New Mexico community of Truth or Consequences, named in honour of a Fifties TV quiz. I dare say the repeated jokes if you happen to live on River Suck in Ireland or River Screw in Papua New Guinea might prove a trifle wearing, but far better to live there than Miseryfjellet, a gloomy salient within the Arctic Circle. Nor does a valley in Chad known as the Depression de Mourdi sound a bundle of laughs. It is hard to imagine that the citizens of Belcherville, Massachusetts, do not suffer from dyspepsia.Though there's a spot called God in Hungary, the Devil has 14 properties, including the Devil's Riding School, a volcanic crater on Ascension Island.

The new atlas boasts a 10 per cent increase in its index, but it remains a bit hit or miss whether smaller communities are included. The chocolate capital of Hershey, Pennsylvania appears, but not Bournville, Warwickshire. The amusing French town of Condom is there, but not Intercourse, a community which provokes similar chortles in the US.

Though numerous maps are scarred with lines of square dots ("disputed international boundary") or round dots ("ceasefire line"), there is one continent where peace prevails throughout, despite the surprisingly polyglot nature of the communities: Dumont d'Urville (France), Davis (Australia), Zhongshan (China), Melodezhnana (Russia), Maitri (India), Belgrano (Argentina), Neumayer (Germany), Halley (UK)...

How ironic that chilly Antarctica should promote such warmth between nations. Then you notice the dotted lines indicating various national claims which radiate from the South Pole like slices cut in a Brie.

"That's my lump of ice."

"No, it's mine."

As anyone who has ever caught an episode of Frasier or Larry Sanders knows, the widespread notion that Americans have no sense of irony is so much baloney. However, there is no doubt that the US has more than its fair share of stuffed shirts, particularly politicians and opinion- makers, who seem to have a void where the sterling quality of facetiousness occurs in ordinary folk. A case in point is that all-American boy, Harold Evans. Unlike his more famous wife Tina Brown, Mr Evans recently acquired American citizenship. Judging by a fatuous newspaper campaign he launched a couple of weeks ago, the celebrated hack appears to have undergone a humourectomy at the same time.

The Observer gave Mr Evans virtually an entire page to argue the case that Heathrow should change its name to Churchill, along the lines of Kennedy Airport in New York. Instead of commemorating "a small hamlet flattened to make way for the aerodrome", the new name would celebrate "nothing less than the survival of Western civilisation". Swept up in the jet-stream of his own invective, Mr Evans insisted that "Churchill is not so much a name as a flourish of trumpets." He ended by quoting his hero: "Pray don't argue the difficulties. The difficulties will argue themselves. Just do it."

Leaving aside the pros and cons of Churchill the man, there remains an unavoidable problem in adopting his name for one of the world's busiest airports. Like JFK in New York, it is inevitable that Churchill Airport would be referred to by its initials - "WC". Childish, vulgar, unworthy, but there it is. More of a flush than a flourish of trumpets.

The likelihood of this unfortunate abbreviation being adopted does not appear to have occurred to the po-faced Mr Evans, but it was the instant response of everyone to whom I mentioned his heartfelt initiative. My friends even volunteered possible headlines: "Discomfort for passengers as WC clogs up," and "Why WC drives you round the bend" were among the fertile suggestions.

Sadly, the campaign for rebranding Heathrow has not fermented much national debate. Last Sunday, The Observer obviously experienced difficulty in eking half a page out of readers' responses and alternative suggestions. Personally, I'd rather like London's main airport to become Stan Laurel International, but I can't really see anything wrong with Heathrow, which has the advantage of being a real name rather than a spurious made-up one In fact, I think JFK should return to its original, evocative name of Idlewild, just as Cape Kennedy switched back to Cape Canaveral a few years ago. But I wouldn't dream of hectoring the US to do such a thing. After all, I'm not an American citizen.

Did you notice the brouhaha this week about London's millennium fireworks display between Tower Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge? Quite reasonably, the organisers wanted to light the blue touch paper at midnight on the 31st, but the BBC and other TV johnnies insisted that the display shouldn't start until Big Ben's final bong, which occurs 45 seconds after midnight. Apparently, they want to show us the Queen in the Dome and other exciting sights around the country.

It is all rather reminiscent of one of those New Year's Eve parties where there's a bit of an argy-bargy about whose watch is right, so someone tries to tune in a radio, by which time it's all too late and all you hear is Michael Fish droning on about nasty storms at Cape Wrath. In the end, the telly people (you'll recall that Evelyn Waugh referred to the BBC as "the electricians") won. They always do.

I was, however, intrigued to hear about the planned "river of fire", in which a 200ft wall of flame will race up the Thames. Now, where had I seen that before, I wondered? Of course - it was the climax of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. An odd combination of punk alienation and sentimentality, this was the most expensive French film ever made, partly because the producers had to build a full-size replica of Paris's oldest bridge and partly because of the massive firework display at the end of the movie. For minutes on end, the banks of the Seine are transformed into dazzling waterfalls of light. It sounds pretty much like the "river of fire", except for the fact that the only observers are the film's two young lovers in a motor boat.

Considering the millions who will assemble on the banks and bridges of the Thames, you might be best off staying at home with the video.

Lured by a half-price offer in Safeway, Mrs W snapped up a couple of tins of chicken broth made by Baxter's of Speyside, "purveyors of Scottish specialties" to HM the Queen. While plying the can-opener, my eye was caught by a signed statement from Ena Baxter, doyenne of this rather superior concern, describing the product: "A traditional Scottish recipe...which combines rice and vegetables in a delicious chicken stock."

It's a rum thing, but I was never reviously aware that there were paddy fields in the Speyside area. No wonder the Scots wear kilts.

There is no doubt, however, about the local origin of the first item in the list of ingredients. Of course, you'd be able to detect the tartan tang immediately. But, just in case, it is proudly described as "Highland Water". With such a delicious ingredient, it seems pointless to add such superfluous elements as chicken, rice and vegetables. It should be served pure and unadulterated in the form of a highland consomme.

Could any broth be more Scotch?