THAT WAS THE WEEK: WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

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Indy Lifestyle Online
HOW late did you stay up last Thursday night? As Friday morning's papers bore witness, the national press were running a little competition to see who could stay awake longest at the Northern Ireland peace talks. "2am News" said the late editions of the Independent. "Deadline is missed, but parties hunt for breakthrough to make Ulster deal work." The Times proudly snored: "3am: Talks chief draws up new Ulster peace deal". But the Guardian took the staying-up-late prize, announcing through bleary eyes: "3.30am: Trimble last-minute move to dilute Dublin role pushes Adams to brink".

Ireland was the only real story in town last week. Phrases such as "historic occasion" and "defining moment" have lost their impact through over-use, but Thursday's midnight pseudo-deadline in Belfast offered the prospect - perhaps even a guarantee - of a true moment of history. So why on earth did the Mirror on Friday give most of its front page over to: "Wedding? What Wedding?", a story of "Robin Cook's shocked ex-wife" telling the Mirror how surprised she was to hear that her ex-hubby had married his mistress. The answer, I suppose, is that it was an "Exclusive" and Exclusives are deemed to deserve front-page splurging even if they are the not very surprising story that the Foreign Secretary didn't tell his ex-wife about the wedding. Why should he? He hardly told anyone else about it either. Still, the wedding of the man in the green anorak has at least given the papers the chance to print pictures of the new Mrs Cook with the glimmer of a smile on her face - which I think we hadn't seen before.

The Mail and the Express also seem to have gone to the wrong party on Thursday night, both leading Friday's front pages with the identical headline "Carry on Colonel", reporting on the new naval weapon of Stealth Screwing, which allows a senior officer to have adulterous sex with an underling, muffled by the sound of Harrier jump jets. Well, at least they didn't go at it all night, like the Ulster peace talks, which were therefore relegated to second feature status.

The Sun was another paper to find something more important than Ireland on Friday morning. "We're so in Lav" whined its headline, above the story of "Loo shame George and his boyfriend". George Michael's alleged lavatorial escapades are presumably more significant to Sun readers than the "Ulster hopes left on knife-edge" that ran as the second story on page one.

The progress of the talks made fascinating reading, largely because the journalists clearly had so little precise information to go on. Even when George Mitchell produced his 65-page draft, not a word of it was leaked to the press. Thursday's Telegraph came closest to giving an indication of the flavour of the document, reporting that "Both Alliance and Unionist delegates said the paper was couched in the language of 'Sinnfeinspeak' with the word 'equity' substituted by 'equality' and 'North-South' by 'All-Ireland'."

Two main themes emerged in the Telegraph's coverage of the talks: Sinn Fein are not to be trusted and Tony Blair should not be given too much credit if an agreement is reached. "History hands Blair the chance to reap immense rewards" was the headline above an article by Robert Shrimsley on Thursday. "Tony Blair may be feeling the 'hand of history' at his shoulder," he wrote, "but for the Prime Minister it is still a golden image - akin to the pointing lottery hand that implores punters to remember that for a small stake 'it could be you'... If a deal is struck today, Mr Blair knows he would not be the first British leader to clinch an Ulster settlement. The challenge is to be the last." In the same paper, Boris Johnson was also unimpressed: "Like some deus ex machina, like Kissinger arriving in some hopeless Middle Eastern tumult, the Prime Minister descended in all his boyish dynamism on the multi-party talks. In truth, he had no choice."

The Independent was more positive about Blair's role. On Thursday, its report from Ulster included a comment from "one of those who met Mr Blair yesterday" who, it reported, said privately: "He really is driving it on. He has total grasp of detail."

Some rejoiced at the signs of an agreement; others treated it all with caution. And the Times gave the best account of what the talks were really like, in Martin Fletcher's report on Thursday: "History can rarely have been made in such an uninspiring setting. For the past 22 months, Northern Ireland's peace negotiators have talked away inside a drab 1970s Civil Service office block known as Stormont Castle Buildings that they have all, without exception, grown to hate. They are the lucky ones. The media are huddled outside in what is most aptly compared to a frenzied, badly over-crowded Bosnian refugee camp."

The Never-Speak-Ill-of-the-Dead award of the week goes to the Evening Standard for its coverage of the death of Wendy O Williams. In its early editions on Wednesday, they began with an account of the "outrageous punk singer's" suicide in America, then continued: "The previous highlight of her career came in 1980...". In later editions, however, those words were changed to "She attained notoriety in 1980...". Even the queen of porn rock deserves some dignity in death.

QUIZ OF THE WEEK

Picture question: The monks hope the object in the casket will bring peace to Taiwan. What is it?

1. What won't be taking place, as previously announced, at Chevening on 19 April?

2. Why is there bad blood between Frank and Colin?

3. And whose refusal to give blood, because of a lifelong fear of needles, did not save him from the gossip that a conviction for drunken driving may lead to?

4. In which town did a 55-foot Martian appear 100 years late?

5. Which unearthly face has disappeared after 20 years?

6. In America last week, who were compared to the Beatles and described as a threat to Barney the Dinosaur?

7. Why has Cilla been blacked?

8. Which illustrious affair was revealed as noisy, but not scandalous or prejudicial?

9. Which songsmith's Fanfare has changed a collection of "Thou shalts" to "We wills"?

10. How did an old grape in Walworth Road add to the ranks of the unemployed? Answers Picture: One of Buddha's teeth. 1. Robin Cook's private marriage to Gaynor Regan. 2. Health Secretary Frank Dobson sacked Sir Colin Walker from his post as head of the National Blood Authority. 3. Gossip columnist Nigel Dempster. 4. A 55-foot statueof a Martian erected at Woking celebrating the centenary of HG Wells's War of the Worlds. 5. The "face" on Mars, apparently from a 1970s photograph, was revealed to look nothing like a face at all. 6. The Teletubbies, whose first US appearance has been greet ed with rave reviews. 7. Actors' union Equity accepted Cilla Black's resignation after she allegedly recorded a commercial during a union ban. 8. Lt Col Keith Pople was found not guilty by a court martial for his conduct with Lt-Cdr Karen Pearce, despite evidence of noisy love-making which had to be drowned by Harrier jump jets. 9. Cliff Richard is supporting the "Fanfare for a New Generation" campaign, with a new set of Ten Commandments designed to make the church user-friendlier. 10. Disabled worker S ylvester Boyne was sacked from Marks & Spencer's Walworth Road branch for eating a single grape that was two days past its sell-by date.

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