Monday: a quiet night in. Bath children. Read bedtime story. Colossal gin & tonic at 7.15. France vs Romania on box, chicken thighs in black bean sauce on stove, still-unread Times Lit Sup on sofa, late sunlight on suburban garden, economy on upturn etc. Nothing, you'd imagine, could disturb this mild, domestic idyll.

But what's this? A letter from senior daughter's school, one of many such cheery missives, usually reminding parents of tinies' forthcoming trip to Upper Kazakhstan ("NB: warm vests") or to matinee of dubious West End show. This one all about imminent School Music Day tomorrow - a day of scales, arpeggios, random honks by daughter on ruinously expensive brass bugle from Dulwich Music Shop, plus rendering by Louisa (child prodigy of Class 4a) of recent Oasis hit on Tyrolean glockenspiel. What could be more charming? But hang on: "...and I would like every child to create a musical instrument during the day. Could I ask you to help your child to design an instrument and bring all the necessary materials to school on Tuesday? House points will be awarded for each...."

Bloody hell. Child currently slumbering upstairs, in no state to help with anything. Romanian defence in tatters (judging by Gallic cheers) in living room as I sit in kitchen wondering how to construct, by the morn, a Stradivarius out of three egg boxes and some dental floss. Perhaps something less ambitious? Would broom handle, tea chest and twine make serviceable skiffle bass? Thirty minutes later, contemplate horrible spectacle of dilapidated box, listing stave and hairy string. Face it: nobody is going to summon Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini out of that. Perhaps could fill empty washing-up liquid bottle with rock-salt crystals and make salsa percussion object? But no (impossible to play tune on). How about tambourine (denuded Xmas wreath with Sellotaped fairy bells)? Nah (too pathetic). How about making whooping flute by stuffing sink plunger rhythmically up plastic drainpipe? But again, no (too suggestive).

And that is why, dear reader, I could be found, shortly after 2am on Tuesday morning, seated, water-jug in hand, adding a little here, extracting a little there, patiently trying to tune an octave of milk bottles, ambitiously marked C, D, E, F, G etc in poster paint. By 3am, I could play the "Ode to Joy" on them with my trusty tablespoon (dink-dink-dink-dink-donk-dink- dink-dink) - although, given the state of my brain by then, it could easily have been the Romanian national anthem.

The occasion is the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, in the bosky embrace of the Herefordshire hills. The time is last weekend. The place is Llangoed Hall, gorgeous country-house hotel owned by Sir Bernard Ashley, widower of Laura, famous designer of floral smocks and pastel frocks. The dramatis personae are: Mr Tom Maschler, legendary publisher of quality fiction, including most of the top novelists of the Eighties; Sir VS Naipaul, crotchety Trinidadian knight, crashing snob and knell-toller of the English novel; and lastly, Lady Naipaul, fragrant and supportive relict of the same.

The action: Mr Maschler, relaxing at the Hall, attempts to impress Sir Vidia by describing the lovely cottage he owns in nearby Capel-y-Finn. Oh yes, Maschler says airily, I've had many people to stay there. Once, you know, I rented it out to Bruce Chatwin, who wrote On the Black Hill there. Some think the hill of the title is the one you can see from the upstairs win... "Actually," interrupts Sir V, "I have never had a very high opinion of Mr Chatwin's work." Mr Maschler digests this dismissal of one of his major discoveries in silence, one broken only by Lady Naipaul saying, in faux-reassuring tones, "But my dear, I'm sure we once knew someone who had something good to say about him...." Mr Maschler, suddenly remembering an urgent appointment in a far-off country, makes like a tree and leaves.

Something new to New York is the yellow cab Tannoy, that crackles in your ear as you're tendering $10 to the driver and looking out for muggers. "Please make sure you have all your belongings with you," intones a no- nonsense, Cagney-and-Lacey voice, "and take your receipt from the driver." (The driver, who generally speaks only Paraguayan or Cantonese, sits through all this in a henpecked silence). Well now London's black taxis are going the same way. By the end of the millennium, I read, every ride will be accompanied by "a soothing, recorded female voice that will give general messages and sell products and services to customers". The voice will also "advise" you when the cab is reversing and that you can't smoke. Excellent, excellent - but among the Bodyform and Ferrero Rocher ads, wouldn't it be a shame if a digitised voice were to replace the driver's traditional cry of, "Wot? Course it's the quickest way. I mean, I could've gone froo Brixton but you never knah when there might be a riot, dooyer...?"

Extraordinary, the way people like to mangle their own names. I went to school with a Breffni Featherstonhaugh, pronounced "Fanshawe". My mama knew a Mrs Sidebotham, who would angrily respond to our humorous skewings of her surname by hissing "See. Day. Bo. Thumb". I cannot listen to people referring to the John Menzies bookstore chain as "Mingies" without wanting to strangle them, or to St John as "Sinjun" without feeling violently sick. But I think someone should have a word with the Swedish couple who are fighting in the courts to make their five-year-old son's life a misery. Having christened the hapless toddler "Albin", they've decided that, for some deranged cabbalistic reason of their own, it will in future be spelt: "Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116". I am not making this up; it was in the Swedish papers. Perhaps it's a family name....

Now the court have told the couple to come up with something a little more "conventional". Hmmm. They couldn't just spell it "Albin", could they?

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