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It's not the pain, of course. That's only a tiny scratch, eons away from the drainpipe-long needles, the vast and searing agony, that one remembers from polio jabs in the Fifties. It's not the pain, it's the indignity that bothers me. Show me a more demeaning experience, for man or weasel, than being invited to drop one's unmentionables and be jabbed in the most grindingly sinewy part of the derriere, and I'll - well, I'll steer clear of that too in the future. And providing an unlovely soundtrack to the indignity of vaccination is the din of crappy advice that has for days been ringing in my ears. This is not what I had in mind at all. What I had in mind was a simple holiday.

West Africa, I thought, seemed nice. Lovely beaches, calm Atlantic, the flora and fauna of Mungo Park if I've got the location right, the sighing trade winds, the savannah, the sirocco - those natural phenomena whose names, according to ancient legend, derive from the marketing departments of car companies - the breadfruit, the, er, banyan trees, the ivory geegaws and ebony knick-knacks and (obviously I'm guessing a bit here) the cans of extra-strong Lilt enjoyed by the locals...well anyway, it sounded good to me. And I liked the sound of The Gambia, mainly because anything that so conspicuously parades a definite article must be quite posh and venerable (The Macallan. The McGillicuddy. The Rolling Stones...). But then the trouble started.

At The Gambia Experience, they couldn't have been sweeter. No, no, nooo, they cooed, there's no trouble there, no disease, no violence, no vast flying iguanas with slavering fangs - just lovely sun and lots of bronzed flesh in ruched bikinis buying Lilt-on-de-stick from infatigably grinning beach vendors. But wasn't there, I enquired (having done a little homework), a coup d'etat there a year ago? The likelihood of armed rebellion, they assured me, was not a factor that would interfere with my holiday enjoyment. OK then, what about the dreaded jabs? How many would I need? Oh none, they said airily, you don't actually need any at all.

With a light tread I packed a snorkel and sun-factor 86 (weasels' fronts are sensitive as hell). It was a week before leaving that I bumped into my GP and mentioned the imminent trip. How gratifying, I mused, that the old days of jabs were gone. Whaaaat? he replied. Five seconds later I was being force-fed malaria tablets at pounds 25 a pack and signed up for serial puncturing in the local clinic. "Polio, tetanus, typhoid," he ticked off on his fingers, "hepatitis, yellow fever, swamp virus. Snake bite, trench foot, Huntington's chorea..." But look, I demanded, if these vaccines are so important, so - how shall I put this? - life-non-endangering, shouldn't they be mandatory? And that's when I heard that, when it comes to places like the Gambia, no medication is actually compulsory by international law. The Department of Health, should you ever get through on their understaffed phone lines, may recommend you get vaccinated before venturing tropics-wards. Your doctor, on the other hand (and mine is no proxy hypochondriac), will get so exercised about it that he'll behave as if you were walking off the edge of a cliff.

Then your friends start. "Oh, not Africa? My God. I wouldn't go near Africa. I mean, that virus..." That's in Zaire, you say, coldly, it's some miles from the Gambia. "But it's pretty far west," they cry. "By the time you get there, it might have travelled..." In vain do you point out that their concern is as misplaced as someone suggesting that, because there's an outbreak of TB in Luxembourg, it would be foolhardy to think of holidaying in, say, Wales. Too late. One is suddenly assailed with details of the Ebola virus, and its habit of turning your liver and spleen to soup. And then, as you stand there pooh-poohing their ludicrous worries, you suddenly realise how much you sound like the Gambian travel agent...

I dunno. Caught between excessive caution and airy unconcern, I am now a nervous wreck with an arm and a gluteus maximus both dizzy with antibodies. Perhaps I should stay at home.


If there's one thing worse than a vulgar, low- life double-act, it's a vulgar, low-life trio. The thought unaccountably came into my mind on seeing photographs of that worthwhile pair of theatrical bookends, Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, standing on either side of the loud, red-haired woman who used to be in the Royal Family.

It seems there are no plans, as yet, for the Duchess to join the cast of Birds of a Feather, perhaps because the series is already choc-a-bloc with man-hungry divorcees of a certain age. Fergie was pictured with them, it turns out, because they had come along to one of her charity events, playing the part of charity organisers for that annoying television series in which they and a team of researchers go round trying to do other people's jobs (though not, of course, for other people's levels of pay). Thankfully, since the Duchess's fall from grace, her fondness for the pair will not be enough to put them on the fast track to nobility. We are spared, for a while anyway, the sight of Dame Pauline and Dame Linda sharing a joke outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.

The phenomenon of nobs carousing with thespians has a notable anniversary this week. Next Wednesday, 24 May, is the centenary of The Day The Rot Set In, 100 years since Henry Irving, the great Victorian ham, became the first mere theatrical to be touched on the shoulders by the royal Wilkinson. Since then, of course, they've all had knighthoods, usually when they're too old to play Hamlet but too young to play butlers in Hollywood movies.

Irving was, of course, a serious force in English drama, singlehandedly rescuing it from near-lethal neglect (he was the first actor in decades to insist on playing Shakespeare's Richard III rather than Collet Cibber's); but he seems to have been as keen on the Crown and its hangers-on as, ooh, Jonathan Dimbleby. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes, "He numbered among his personal friends the leading men in the country, was invited to meet royalty and entertained magnificently in his own theatre."

I commend this approach to Mesdames Quirke and Robson. Send those invites (jellied eels, pie'n'mash, bring a bottle) off to the Palace now, girls, before they all decamp to Balmoral.


Things are getting out of hand in American legal circles. First Judge Lance Ito, the inscrutable star of the OJ Simpson trial, lost his rag with two of the attorneys last weekend and summarily fined them $250 each, the money (he insisted) to be taken directly from their personal accounts rather than simply charged to their clients' bill. I forget what their offence was (time-wasting? wilful obscurantism? droning?), but it certainly wasn't a matter of legality or illegality. What it actually was hardly matters. More important is the news that a senior judge can now fine people because they irritate him, with no more thought than a district policeman swatting a mosquito.

Then a crackpot female psychologist, one June Stephenson, came up with a breathtak- ing proposition: that, because the majority of criminals are men, and cost the state billions of dollars, the male population of the US should pay a "gender tax" of $65 a year, by way of reparation for being born chaps. The Testicle Tax is, frankly, not going down a storm among American males, who have quite enough guilt to cope with already, thanks very much. But something very weird is surely happening in a country where you could be penalised simply for being dull in a courtroom or inappropriately endowed in the chromosome department.


I look forward to seeing the results of the London Tourist Board's efforts to acquire, for the first time, a "brand marque" for the capital city. Because London's share of the tourist trade has been slipping, the decision has been taken to promote it separately from the rest of the country; and the "branding" campaign, undertaken by a firm called Beresfords, is part of that. According to the Tourist Board, the idea is to promote London as "modern, vibrant and exciting". Predictably, the campaign will aim to match the success of the I--New-York campaign of the Seventies. The board's managing director, Colin Dobbs, is very excited about all this. "For the first time," he said, "we have a secretary of state, Stephen Dorrell, who is interested in tourism."

Well, thank God for that. It's about time somebody found something our beloved Mr Millennium is interested in. We already know he doesn't go to the movies. Nobody has come across him reading poetry. He hasn't exactly declared a passion for the theatre, either, although, coming from a family of uniform makers, he ought to have a professional interest in the costumes at least.

The latest group to feel their amour propre wither under the full beam of Mr Dorrell's blazing indifference are the architects. Asked by Building magazine for his favourite building, he fell back on a series of formulae that would have done Sir Humphrey proud. "One building that's been regularly praised to me is Stansted airport," he said boldly. But there was more. The new Waterloo terminal is "often praised as an attractive building". I say, steady on. And the palatial new Inland Revenue building? Why it's "regarded as a reasonably good project".

Phew. If it all goes wrong for the National Heritage secretary, he can always follow his predecessor, Mr David Mellor, into the media. As a reviewer, perhaps. The Weasel