Alexe Sayle column

I suffer from mild paranoia. I don't like going to rugby matches because when the players go into a scrum, I think they are talking about me
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In the better kind of book- shop, there is often a whole section devoted to a type of book whose purpose is to help you make your life better than it is. This section is generally aimed at, and bought by, women (men think they're perfect already) and have titles such as Women Who Love Men Too Much and Smart Women, Foolish Choices and The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships.

Well, I plan to start a whole new publishing trend - books to help you make your life much worse than it already is. After all, if it takes a book full of sage advice and constant effort to transform your existence into a sea of tranquillity, it must follow that you need the help of an expert to make your life a complete disaster area.

I think I'll call my books something like How to Completely Bollocks up Your Own Life. Here's a few pre-publication tips to whet your appetite:

"Career men and women - why not try to do all your drinking between 7am and 9am? This will give you the charming reek of early-morning alcohol as you enter the office."

"Women - always try to go out with men who don't know how to wire a plug and are far too fond of their mothers."

And here's a top tip I've just been following myself: "If you're feeling in a slightly fragile emotional state, why not pack yourself off to a bizarre alien country with a group of people who know each other really well but who you don't know at all."

This is the second week of my sojourn in the Syrian Arab Republic making a Great Railway Journeys programme for the BBC. Syria is a country that manages to combine the Arab love of prompt time-keeping, unemotional behaviour and tireless work ethic with the well-known benefits of old Soviet-style state socialism. It's a sort of East Germany with humus.

Apart from my other problems, I suffer from mild paranoia. I don't like to go to rugby matches because when the players go into a scrum, I think they're all talking about me.

But for the first time in my life, I really am being followed everywhere by swarthy thuggish men, my phone really is being tapped and everywhere I go I need papers of permission from sinister ministries housed in frightening, faceless concrete Lubyankas. Believe me, this state of affairs works wonders as a short-cut to total insanity.

Syria also has one of the last-remaining, old-style personality cults. Everywhere you go, there are posters, statues and wall paintings of President Hafez Al-Assad who came to power in 1970 in a bloodless coupe - or maybe it was an under-powered hatchback.

I wonder if, when he is being driven through the streets of Damascus, Assad thinks, "Oooh look, there's a big photo of me. Oooh look, there I am again. And who's that big statue of? Why, gee-willikers, it's me!"

The effect this Big Brother omnipresence is supposed to induce is one of thorough intimidation, and I'm sure it works on the average Syrian - indeed one man I interviewed tried to tell me that the weather was much better under Assad than it had been under previous administrations - but as I'm only temporarily subject to the capricious whims of his security police, all this hagiography has a differenteffect on me.

For a start, old Hafez doesn't look like the cruel tyrant he undoubtedly is; his photos fail to conjure up in me that chilling Orwellian image of the future, of a boot stamping on a human face forever.

Rather, he resembles some slightly seedy Levantine lounge act, so that the posters plastered everywhere give the impression that this geezer with the toothbrush moustache and comb-over is in town to give a concert, something like "Achmed Tabouleh and his Bazouki Music of the Mountains" at the Sheraton Hotel Oasis Rooms, and the tickets have been selling really slowly so the concert promoter has been forced to stick up posters everywhere in a desperate attempt to drum up some interest.

That's a general rule of showbiz - if you see tons and tons of advertising for a live concert, it means the tickets are selling slowly as every poster costs the promoter money he doesn't want to spend. The most successful gigs are the ones you don't know about unless you were actually there - unless you're taking drugs, when the most successful gigs are the ones you don't know about and you were actually there.

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