UP & DOWN CANARY WHARF

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The Independent Culture
Forget the Feel-Good Factor, whatever that idiotic chimera might ever have meant. It pales into insignificance alongside the far trendier Feel-Bad Factor that's apparently sweeping the nation's youth. A year after the suicide of Kurt Cobain - the most celebrated act of artistic self-destruction since Thomas Chatterton's - and a couple of months after the disappearance of Richey James of the Manic Street Preachers, the steady drip of teenage depression has reached Pool of Tears proportions. But it has brought a new emotional honesty in its wake.

Last week, the Melody Maker rock journal turned aside from its usual task of puffing negligible bands in unspeakable prose to consider suicide across six pages. The supplement was based on a discussion between various musicians, grieving fans, counsellors, Samaritans and magazine staff members. In a kindly attempt to suggest solidarity with the traumatised readership, contributors had their usual by-lines accompanied by a bit of medical history. "Once treated for depression," it says after a writer's name; "Diagnosed as a depressive," of another.

This seems an admirable trend. In future, when we read stories about health service cut-backs, should we not be told that the author "Is still waiting for a hernia operation," or "Had his tonsils out at eight and has never looked back"?

The same goes for economic analysts. Seeing the explanatory words, "In trouble over unauthorised overdraft" after a pundit's name, or "Wholly incapable of living on his salary" after another's, would put their fiscal pronouncements in a new light.

And then there's sport. "Couldn't trap a bag of sand" would bring a sense of proportion to many a football report. And "Unable to knock skin off rice pudding" would do the same for many a boxing correspondent. And then there's the Advice on Sexual Matters column...

H H H

London Sights, No 52. I was strolling through the bosky environs of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, home of the famously indestructible Chelsea Pensioners and a haven of tranquillity with its calm paths, thrusting begonias and the immemorial air of Victorian decency and rigour that pervades the place. I stopped for a breather by one of three park benches (the other two contained, respectively, a sweet-faced granny buried in a book, and a brace of red- uniformed pensioners reminiscing about the Peninsular war) and reflected that, whatever alarms and travails the world held, here at least one could pause to reflect... Then, just visible through the trees, a chap on the business end of a crane plummeted a hundred feet through the air.

It was a bungee jump, taking place on the other side of the Thames, on the embankment outside Battersea Park. (Later I discovered it was disrupting the traffic for miles around, as all the motorists crossing the bridge stopped to look.) There was the crane, the hoist, the weird little basket, the chap with the camcorder, the daredevil leaping backwards into oblivion - it was like a sudden eruption of the modern world into a Hardy novel or into the illustration on a Quality Street tin.

To their eternal credit, the oldsters didn't stir. When one of the successful bungeurs set up a triumphant yell on discovering he was not, after all, spreadeagled across the Thames, one of the pensioners looked up briefly but didn't bother alerting his companion. The lady with the book was not the sort of dame to be impressed by a flailing vertical windsurfer. What struck me about the scene was that, in its surreal embrace of ancient and modern, it embodied another classic image - the one in Brueghel's Icarus, as explained by WH Auden: "The sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water; and the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

H H H

The world is now so thoroughly trampled through that a truly unspoiled destination is hard to find. So it's with hesitation that I reveal the perfect away-from-it-all destination: North Korea, which has decided, gingerly, to admit its first tourists. Not that Pyongyang seems to have a lot to recommend it, unless you're particularly attached to heroic statues and paintings of Kim Jong-Il, patriotic songs about Kim Jong-Il and half- finished buildings augmented with neon-written slogans by, amazingly, Kim Jong-Il.

There are, however, certain compensations. Apparently, every Western tourist visiting Korea is provided with a personal chauffeur and a guide, whose task it is not so much to help you see things as to prevent you. It is said, at least in that unbiased journal Time, that these helpful souls are particularly keen on standing between you and any children rash enough not to smile. And this spring, North Korea hosts a "Sports & Culture Festival for Peace", to which all countries are invited, with one exception: South Korea. Spontaneous displays of international friendship with formerly warring neighbours are not yet on the agenda.

Old habits, however, die hard. The local phrasebook apparently contains the following helpful example: "In English one says, `Yankees are wolves in human shape'." In Korean the correct word order is "Yankees in human shape wolves are." Clearly, Koreans for reconciliation and harmony not quite ready yet are.

H H H

Fans of F Scott Fitzgerald will remember the scene in The Last Tycoon in which a lawyer plans to go into hiding in the event of serious social unrest, on the grounds that "they always needed lawyers after a revolution, to sort out the legal side".

It is almost eerily true that the current technological revolution is generating masses of work for the legal fraternity. The first Internet libel and obscenity cases are already under way, and now that innocuous device, the CD-rom, is in trouble.

Several reference books are now on the market in CD-rom form, and jolly good too, if you happen to like grainy film clips and tinkly bursts of music when looking something up. But the ease of finding things in CD- rom form means that the speed with which people can be offended is also enhanced.

There is already a dispute raging about Who Built America?, a handwringingly right-on account of American history, because of its references to such un-American topics as abortion and homosexuality. At least one nervous manufacturer has demanded the removal of "offending material" (like the portrayal of camp cowboys) after complaints from customers. This pales into insignificance, however, compared to the problems facing the publishers of a CD-rom encyclopaedia, who are facing a $40million compensation claim for emotional distress.

It seems that the complainant, a black man living in Omaha, mistyped the word "Niger" when looking for references to the river of that name. What he found instead were several uses of another, more offensive, word, one of them in the title of a novel by Joseph Conrad.

It remains to be seen where the encyclopaedia's publishers will draw the line between being offensive to some customers and incomplete for all of them. But at $40million per mistyping, the likelihood is they will choose the latter.

H H H

I am afraid I am unable to join in the extraordinary excitement which has greeted the reve-lations in the Mail on Sunday about Mark Thatcher, and particularly about the helpful calling card with which his Mamma provided him, before his journeys around the Middle East.

"Sheik Zayed," read the message, above and below a particularly menacing official photograph of La Thatcher, "I have asked my son to convey to you my personal message of warm regards and good wishes." The MoS had no truck with this innocent-sounding pleasantry. The idea was (according to them) that, once presented with this message, the Sheik would immediately hand over £3 million in used fivers.

Clearly, an awesomely powerful code was at work here. After hours of study, I can release a translation: "I have asked my son" ("I have authorised my accomplice") "to convey" ("to collect") "my personal message of warm regards and good wishes" ("as much money as you can squeeze into his sweaty Old Harrovian mitt").

Interesting, sure; but it's hard to resist the feeling that, as incriminating documents go, this is hardly the Zinoviev letter. What Messrs Halloran and Hollingsworth, authors of the book serialised in the Mail on Sunday, really ought to have found is a note that says "To whom it may concern. Please pay the bearer on demand the sum of..."

H H H

A charming letter arrived from Ms Becky Bailey, aged eight, a young lady without apparently any fixed abode but with some very jolly writing paper full of inky footprints (clearly a journalist in the making). She is a fan of the Weasel's - or at least of the illustrations of m'self and my associates that adorn this column. "I am making a scrapbook of the various weasels," Becky writes. "I think the best thing on Saturday morning is looking at the Weasel, they are very funny." What an unusually intelligent and perceptive child. Ms Bailey - and anybody else who collects the pictures - might care to know that Lucinda Rogers, the artist behind these whiskery features, is having an exhibition of Weasel prints at the Jack Duncan Gallery, 44 Museum Street, London WC1, for four weeks starting on Wednesday, 26 April. The Weasel will attend the first night in person, surreptitiously flooring brown ale and trying to remain incognito. See you there. The Weasel

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