At something like pounds 35 a ticket in the dusty old Albert Hall, I expected at least some decent elephants shambling round the ring and rearing in droll subservience at the ringmaster's command. No such luck
The other day I was asked what I thought of saltimbocca. A gourmet to the tip of my furry tail, I was deep into a passionate tirade on the toothsome, hi-flavour, jump- in-the-mouth loveliness of this harmonious marriage between veal and Parma ham, when they said, no, no, it's Saltimbanco, and it's a kind of circus. I confess that I harrumphed a bit. It's disappointing to find people whom you have always regarded as grown-up banging on about the milieu of the strongman, the bearded lady and the flying trapeze. No, no, no they cried in chorus, you don't understand. This is the Cirque du Soleil, a Montreal-based troupe of acrobatic visionaries, of art-house calisthenists and tumbling dreamers. They have been praised by Bill Clinton! by Madonna! by Elizabeth Taylor (in French)! Critics have noted, my friends concluded unstoppably, how its dazzling costumes, computerised light systems and live rock band have brought dusty preconceptions about the circus up-to-date with a bang.

Forgive me if I sound like Mr Grumpy-Shorts but I didn't enjoy it. At something like pounds 35 a ticket in the dusty old Albert Hall, I expected at least some decent elephants shambling round the ring and rearing in droll subservience at the ringmaster's command. No such luck. I waited for the clowns to appear, tumbling out of their Krazy Kar and flinging custard pies around. Zilch. I thought the evening might be saved by the arrival of Wild Bill Hickock on his frisky palomino, dismounting to shoot a cigarette from the lips of a nervy but glamorous cowgirl in diamante chaps. Nada.

But as time went on, something ancient and darkly magical did appear, in the show's ritualistic choreography. At one point, while some ludicrous feat of skill was occurring overhead, a group of performers slithered across the arena in an unnervingly saurian fashion. Peripheral to the action, they were like the frieze of fantastical creatures running round an illuminated manuscript. Another such moment came during a performance by an androgynous quartet of contortionists. Twisted into fleshy hoops, their heads appearing from their fundaments, their arms and legs transposed, they were the chimeras of Hieronymus Bosch brought to life. One realised with a start that the gargoyles and grotesques so relished by medieval artists were not necessarily imagined.

A letter arrives from Majestic Wine Warehouse, that chain of draughty but delicious vine-shrines where the stuff you're allowed to taste is invariably the pounds 2.99 Armenian Hogspew but the stuff you lug home (untasted) is always the pounds 8.99 Chateauneuf du Pape. A good place, none the less, and one is always glad to receive in the post their amusing new offers ("Collapsing Bastard Australian lager, down 10p!"; "Chateau Petrus '59 reduced to pounds 4,989 a half-case - Buy now!"). But this letter was a little different. It was canvassing for new members for the American Express credit card.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Advertising link-ups and marketing co-productions are not new. What amuses me is the tone of voice adopted by the letter, which purports to be the personal effusions of Tim How, the Majestic's ebullient managing director.

Mr How chattily introduces "a special offer we thought you would enjoy which is not directly to do with wine". The offer turns out to be a magnum of free pink champagne for any Majestic subscriber who joins Amex because of Mr How's enthusiastic urging. There is, of course, no suggestion that you may be condemning yourself to a lifetime's monthly service charges in order to watch yourself plunch steadily into debt. The letter is couched so as to imply that the only thing going on is the chance to get some buckshee designer bubbles. "Apparently," Mr How concludes, "you need do little more than sign the enclosed form and return it..."

Don't you love that "Apparently"? As if the Moet-swilling Tim were either a blissfully unworldly ass ("This man shuffles the three cards and puts them face down. Apparently you need do little more than tender pounds 10 to win") or else an unusually obvious snake in the grass ("Notice the smooth running of this attractive guillotine. Apparently you need do little more than introduce your head through this aperture to derive the full benefit...").

With 1996 scarcely five minutes old, several film critics have said that the metaphysical shocker Seven will be a racing cert for their Best of the Year selection. Set in an anonymous, grungy city afflicted by an incessant downpour, it concerns a couple of cops pursuing a gruesomely inventive serial killer whose victims are thematically dispatched using the seven deadly sins as inspiration.

One reason for the film's critical acclaim is that, uniquely for a Hollywood product, it bristles with literary references. One of the detectives is a world-weary intellectual type, who suggests that a key to the killings might be found in the works of Chaucer, Dante, Milton and de Sade (pronounced "Sharday" by his cocky young partner, who is more familiar with the willowy chanteuse of the same name).

To underline the bookishness of his character, this literary gumshoe is named William Somerset. The link with Maugham is pressed home with a passing reference to Of Human Bondage (although it was hard to be sure. A combination of murky soundtrack and my cloth ears contrived to render the line as "Fred Trueman's bandage"). At first glance, admittedly, there may appear to be scant link between the sophisticated doyen of Cap Ferrat and the sadistic murderer of prostitutes and others on the torrential pavements of a mythic America. But consider for a moment. One of Maugham's best-known short stories culminates in violent death and involves an American whore called Sadie. Its title is, of course, "Rain". All the elements are there, they just got rearranged a little.

The success of Seven may even start a trend for the dramatis personae of genre movies to take the names of leading writers. And while you're at it, why not title the movies after famous literary works? Nick Nolte, say, as gorgeous hunk Willie Yeats in the sex romp The Second Coming. And who but Arnie Schwarzenegger for the role of Tom Eliot in the SF blockbuster Wasteland?

Glancing over the hundreds of column inches devoted to Francois Mitterrand in the past couple of weeks, it was hard to give the same attention to his politicial achievements - such as his support of the Single European Act - as to his undoubted prowess as a ladies' man.

I encountered this appealing aspect of an otherwise forbidding character when, ten years ago, strolling by the Seine with some friends, we came across a small apartment block with a pair of languid gendarmes outside, flourishing their automatic weapons. Was it, I asked, the house of the President? "Pas la maison, mais la maitresse de Mitterrand," I was corrected.

When my reaction lacked the traditional English quality of sang-froid, my friends didn't miss the opportunity for some heavy-duty shrugging. "So what?" they pouted. "E ees a man. She ees a woman. Eet 'appens. Eetas 'appen before. What ees the big deal?" and so on.

Then it turned out, years later, that the woman in question and her daughter by Mitterrand, born in 1974, were both long-standing recipients of public funds. It turned out that their apartment was also state-owned. When the news broke, my friends went collectively ballistic. The French may be blase about affaires de coeur. But money? Jamais!

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