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Changing rooms

THE first time I went to South Africa House in London was to hear a former hit-squad member testify about his crimes. The apartheid government was still in power - just. The next time I was there, President Nelson Mandela received us.

Disorientating, certainly, but not as much as my latest visit. This was to meet the new High Commissioner, Cheryl Carolus, who had just returned from presenting her credentials to the Queen in a costume and turban made of crimson Xhosa cloth. (Her husband Graeme's outfit was described by an unkind observer as "Elton John meets Nelson Mandela".) Cheryl looked splendid, but Carolus is not exactly a Xhosa name - she grew up, as I did, in the impeccably urban surroundings of Cape Town.

Even odder, though, are her new surroundings. Nothing about the fabric of South Africa House has changed since the days of apartheid: there are ancient topographical models of South African cities that must date from the 1950s, and cringe-making "historical" murals showing happy slaves cultivating the land while their Dutch masters look on. I asked one of Ms Carolus's colleagues, who had chosen West African traditional robes for the occasion, when something might be done about the place. "We're thinking about contemporising it," he assured me.

Accent on anger

THE tilde - the characteristic squiggle over the letter n - is as dear to Spain as the cedilla is to the French and the umlaut to the Germans. The Spanish government has been fighting hard to keep it on the keyboards of Europe, so you can imagine the shock and horror in the Ministry of Culture when it discovered that 17,000 computer terminals installed by the Ministry of Health in more than 1,000 health centres do not have the letter n.

Almost as bad, the new keyboards don't offer upside-down question marks or exclamation marks - which Spaniards use to herald a question or exclamation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa led a successful campaign in 1991 to secure on Europe's computers the n key, threatened with extinction by EU rules on free circulation of commodities.

A socialist senator has accused the government of neglecting its duty to protect, preserve and promote the Spanish language. The Culture Minister, Esperanza Aguirre, promised immediate action to correct this "extremely grave occurrence".

A lot of neck

FROM time to time we like to keep you abreast of the latest surreal court case in America, that most litigious of nations. This week we welcome to the column Jennifer Jordan, of Sylvester, Georgia, who is suing Zoo World, a Florida theme park, after she was licked by a giraffe.

The animal put its head over the fence when a zookeeper came to feed it, said Ms Jordan's lawyer, and its long tongue got caught in her ponytail. "It ... lifted her several feet off the ground. She was dropped from a height. They did nothing to stop the giraffe from putting its head over the fence and perhaps did nothing to save her from further harm." Ms Jordan is seeking damages for more than $8,000 (pounds 5,000) in medical bills plus, of course, pain and suffering.