The Walloon has gone up. It is all the fault of the Belgians. Belgium, in spite of all the jokes, has made some significant contributions to world culture, but the Smurfs are not among them. It seems, though, as if they might be one of the more enduring. Invented nearly 40 years ago by a cartoonist by the name of Peyo, these blue monsters give a whole new meaning to the word Phlegmisch. None the less, in their last incarnation, almost 20 years ago, sales of the spin-off figurines in garages across the continent topped 250,000 a week. Not all of these can have been to children, however hard it is for us to accept the idea that a section of our adult population has obviously only recently emerged from the sludge floating on the surface of canals. In 1978, the Smurfs had three top-20 hits in Britain. They disappeared from view, or at least went into retreat, around the time that Margaret Thatcher came into power, possibly because her son was admirably fitted to fill their place in our nation's consciousness. At least we have that to thank her for.
But somehow, they have resurfaced. Believe it or not, the dirty dozen have sold more than three million CDs, had hit singles in France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Holland, and are now riding high in our own charts with a version of Whigfield's summer dance hit, "Saturday Night". To do them credit, it would be hard to top the awfulness of that particular aberration of taste, but they have managed to do so. An album, Smurfs Go Pop! (we wish), number four in the charts, contains retreads of Shaggy's "Mr Boombastic", Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet", Supergrass's "Alright" and Wet Wet Wet's "Love is All Around"; copies are walking off the shelves.
Who exactly is putting their hands in their pockets to buy this record? Is this an excess of E? The Seventies revival taken too far? There is only one joke to a Smurfs' record: to replace lyrics with the word "Smurf". Quite a simple joke, like that schoolkid version of Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" in which words are removed to produce the most basic of double entendres. Almost funny the first time you hear it. I must have laughed for a good half-second back in the Seventies. One could even imagine someone with a hangover so bad they'd eat Cornish pasties, going nuts and buying the single. But an album? Who? Why? I know Barbara Cartland Sings the Love Songs was a success, but the joke there was that she wasn't trying to make us laugh. Somewhere in Bradford there is an adult sitting with their curtains closed and the speakers turned up high who is actually enjoying this thing. I guess I shouldn't be so surprised: at least 10 people this year have recommended I read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
Still, it's not all bad. At least the dreariness of Britpop rivalry has been muted for a bit: Oasis and Blur are finally standing shoulder to shoulder on one issue, which is that they would not allow covers of their hits to be included in Smurfs Go Pop!. "Wonderwall" was to be redubbed "Wondersmurf". Blimey. That's a riot. "Maybe/ you're gonna be the one that saves me/ and after all/ you're my Wondersmurf". Funny, really, that such a tough line should be taken, given the similarities between the two bands and the high regard in which the Gallagher brothers hold Father Abraham and his merry band. Gallagher Minor, leaving his house on Thursday to return to their American tour, overcame his laryngitis to say to waiting newsmen: "The Smurfs? One of me and my brother's greatest influences. I have always contended that their 1978 hit 'The Smurf Song' was as incisive a comment on the post-modern malaise as anything Jacques Derrida has ever written." Well, he didn't, actually. What he actually said was, "Get that ****** out of my ***ing face and ram it up your ********", but we all knew what he meant.
So it's a bit surprising that the cave boys' record label, Sony, have slapped a ban on the use of their romantic ditty. Noel, after all, must have got considerable pleasure from tucking those cheques into his back pocket when Mike Flowers Pops covered it. Still, as Noel himself said, all the roads we have to walk are winding, and the same must be true of his thought processes. He was reputed to have said that the Smurfs were "about as funny as losing your legs in an industrial accident". What he meant, of course, was that they are almost as funny as swearing on stage at the Brit Awards.
Strangely, the attitude of the Gnomes of Brussels to the great Mancunians doesn't seem to be much more complimentary. I tracked down Liam Smurf, scooter-riding frontman of the notorious hellraising band, to the rented house he shares in North Brussels with the talented starlet Patsy Smurf, and asked him for his views on the controversy. "To be honest, we have all put it down to sour grapes," he said in that Jackson Five falsetto we have all learnt to love. "It dates back to the time when they covered our hit '(What's the Story) Smurfing Glory' and changed the lyrics from the original 'Chained to a Smurf and a razorblade' to the frankly obscene 'mirror'. We had to object, and I guess it was all too much for him to take."
Smurf is currently working on a collaborative venture with footballing pal Robbie Smurf, whose defection last year caused the premature breakup of Smurf That!. Their hit "A Million Smurf Songs Later" was one of the biggest hits of the Nineties, despite the fact that lead singer Gary Smurf "isn't blue, doesn't wear a condom on his head and couldn't dance his way off a hotplate". They plan to re-record Michael Jackson's ecology- saving "Smurf Song". "Obviously, it's a controversial move," he giggled impishly, "although as long as we can keep Jarvis Smurf from squatting down in front of a live TV audience this time it should be a sure-fire Christmas hit."
The question, though, is this: exactly what is missing from people's lives that means this hoary old act is suddenly poised for world domination? Is it as simple as the fact that Terry Major-Ball has been quiet of late about the Prime Minister's antecedents in the garden market in Brixton? Or is there a more invidious explanation: additives in the water, perhaps? "I couldn't possibly comment," says Liam Smurf, "although our single 'Smurfing USA' is due for release in California in the next couple of weeks."
I have a feeling that this may be one of those obscure Euro-jokes aimed at keeping the populace of a country humble, like Nana Mouskouri, Rene and Renata, or the occasional revival of David Bowie's "The Laughing Gnome". Or is it something more sinister? A fiendish plot, perhaps, by the Referendum Party to convince us that Europe really is the great Satan? Rumour has it that Smurfs records played slowly have caused outbreaks of mass insanity. The last explosion of Smurf mania resulted in 17 years of monetarism. Could this be the end of life as we know it?
Wasps: readers reply
Last week Colin Tudge stung readers with a defence of Vespula vulgaris
Bright and fierce, wasps remind us that for all our complex modern lives, we live on a dangerous planet, a world in which most animals live in fear and constant alertness. Wasps are nature rampant, uncontrollable; messengers from a past that suddenly becomes the present as they buzz towards us. Remember and take care: this is reality.
Mary Rhodes, Hove, East Sussex
Of course we need wasps. They're nature's way of helping us evolve from arm-flapping picnic-panickers to thoughtful ecologists. Last summer, a large wasp was annoying our small group of beer-guzzlers on the terrace. The third time I found it in my glass, I tried a new tactic. I wet a fingertip with beer, and held it out. After a few wary circuits, the wasp succumbed to temptation. Twice it went off and returned for more. Then it flew off, permanently. Problem solved. Drinkers wiser. Wasp sozzled.
Len Clarke, Uxbridge, Middlesex
By assisting in the philosophical education of a certain young naturalist, a humble species of wasp contributed to what is arguably the greatest scientific paradigm. Observing its pitiless habit of paralysing other insects to provide fresh meat for its newly hatched young, he wrote: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars." Such observations encouraged his seeking an alternative to "design" and thus to The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, used and abused ever since.
Mark Walmsley, Stoke-on-Trent
No, we do not need wasps - their existence for people like myself turns the summer into a nightmare. Their sting is a deadly weapon which can kill within minutes should it cause an anaphylactic reaction in a victim.
I have been stung, without provocation, several times and have needed hospital treatment as a result. Within minutes my body swells, my eyes can't open, I break out in a rash and my asthma becomes so uncontrollable I cannot breathe.
I now need to carry with me everywhere an injection of adrenaline, steroids and antihistamines. In short, they are not "pretty", as Colin Tudge suggests. They are lethal and life-threatening.
Mrs PJ Lamb, Brockham, Surrey
What do you think?
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