Flat Earth: It's a funny old world... The best of flat earth

From Internet myths to French women's taste in men, Raymond Whitaker takes a sidelong look back at 1997

Nippon myths

The Japanese are very strange people, as everyone knows. Or do they? Anyone who has ever been to Japan always finds the same few myths being repeated back to them on their return. Among the things everyone "knows" about the Japanese are:

q Their trains are so crowded that they have special "shovers" to get the commuters in. No more than the tiniest grain of truth, actually: every Japanese station has smartly uniformed men with little to do bar blowing whistles and waving little flags. During rush hour at Tokyo Central and maybe one other station, they have been known to give passengers a bit of a push to move them down inside the cars.

q Middle-aged Japanese men are so obsessed with schoolgirls that they buy their discarded underwear from vending machines. Only about three of these machines were ever deployed. They were removed after the authorities ruled that their owner had failed to obtain a licence to sell second-hand goods.

q Half the Japanese population takes part in game shows where they are obliged to walk through pits of fire, eat live slugs and cross the Antarctic in nothing but boxer shorts. Er, no: the Endurance show so beloved of Clive James ran a long time ago on an obscure channel. No one in Japan has ever heard of it.

Flight frights

LEAFING through an in-flight publication on the way to Bali, a colleague found a double-page spread on Indonesia's first world-class stunt pilot, extolling his feats and the credit he had brought on his nation in international competition. A photograph showed the bold airman with one of his friends.

Turning over the page, readers discovered the same picture, only this time with the friend cropped out. It accompanied an obituary of the stunt pilot, sadly taken from us in a crash.

Over for Rover

THE Internet is a rich source of urban legends these days, though on reflection this is more of a rural tale.

This (American) man buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee for $30,000 (pounds 18,000) plus. He decides to take it out duck-hunting, but all the lakes are frozen. No problem: to open up enough water to float a decoy in, our friend parks on the ice and gets out a stick of dynamite with a short fuse, lights it and hurls it a safe distance away.

Trouble is, his Labrador chases off and starts bringing the dynamite back. Two barrels of birdshot are needed before the unhappy dog begins to think twice. But instead of dropping the dynamite it decides to seek refuge - you guessed it, under the Jeep.

End of fuse, end of dog and goodbye brand-new Grand Cherokee. The owner had yet to make his first $400 monthly payment, this e-mail says, and insurance companies don't cough up when illegal explosives are involved.

It's the pits

IN South Africa they are considering incarcerating the hardest nuts in the prison system in disused mine shafts. The prisons commissioner, Khulekani Sithole, described the type of convict who would qualify for an underground jail as "animals that must never see sunlight again".

South Africa, of course, has the deepest mine shafts in the world, so it must be tempting to shove the worst riff-raff a mile down and invite them to dig their way out if they want to. The idea has been greeted with some scorn, not to say indignation; a spokesman for the prisons service conceded that apart from the practical difficulties, "you also have to look at your constitution and bill of rights". That never seems to be a problem for our Home Secretary. And while they might not be as deep as Klipfontein or Vaal Reefs, there are plenty of disused collieries around which could be used for anyone Parkhurst or Broadmoor doesn't want.

The King and I

BILL CLINTON has been going on to watchers of a cable music channel about the special kinship he feels with Elvis Presley, because "he was from Mississippi, he was a poor white kid, he sang with a lot of soul. He was sort of my roots". Not to mention their mutual addiction to junk food.

Since this interview took place while Clinton's lawyers were arguing (unsuccessfully) that the President was too busy with important matters to devote time to defending Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against him, he came in for a certain amount of ridicule. She says that Clinton, while Governor of Arkansas six years ago, had one of his security detail bring her up to his hotel room, where he made unwanted advances and, when these were rebuffed, exposed himself and demanded oral sex.

Given this, there is a certain poignancy to the Elvis tunes Bill mentioned as striking a chord with him: "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel".

Voulez vous?

WHAT has happened to Frenchwomen's taste in men? A survey of more than 500 French females in Paris Match disclosed that the male they most fantasise having a one-night stand with is ... Kevin Costner. I know it's none of my business, but the list is depressingly conventional, with Costner being followed by Paul Newman (popular with the older respondents), Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.

There are two English in the list - Hugh Grant (15th) and Daniel Day Lewis (19th, if you are allowed to call him English). Ho hum. I'm sure any survey of English or American women would be a lot kinder to Frenchmen than their own women are.

Canada-speak

THERE is a move afoot to classify the English spoken in Quebec as a regional dialect. The Guide to Canadian English Usage, published by Oxford University Press, points out that French words are creeping into the conversation of the English-speaking minority, such as depanneur (convenience store) and poutine (chips with gravy, apparently).

What the authors don't tell us is whether this has reversed the tide of English - or American - words in use by French speakers in Canada, where you regularly hear comments such as: "Mon goddamn fender est bent encore." My introduction to this dialect came in the men's loo in the CN Tower in Toronto, where I overheard two French Canadians discussing a third. "Tu connais ce Jean-Francois?" asked one. "Oui," said the other. "Quel asshole."

Knives out

EVERY time a boy is born in Yemen, a rhino dies. Well, not quite, but no self-respecting male on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula would feel dressed without his rhino- handled dagger, known as a jambiya, and according to conservation bodies that means about 25 horns a year.

Yemen claims it is doing its best to stop smuggling, but one traveller there tells me they could make a start by closing the souvenir shop at Sanaa airport, where all sorts of fearsome ironmongery is snapped up by tourists. Apart from the threat to African pachyderms, it causes security nightmares for the airlines.

"You feel sorry for the ground staff," says my informant. "The dialogue with every Yemeni passenger goes like this: 'Are you armed?' 'No.' 'Any daggers?' 'Dagger? Well, of course I've got my dagger.' They don't consider anything short of a sub-machine-gun to be a proper weapon."

Mine hosts

FOR those planning to holiday in Chechnya, a gap has been filled with the publication of a Chechen-English phrasebook. The first thing one realises is that the two languages have few common roots - "man" is stag, "child" is beer - the next is that tourism as we know it leaves something to be desired.

"In the absence of any good guidebook," say our lexicographers, "there is always the immense natural beauty of Chechnya, particularly the forests, teeming with wildlife." Sadly, they are also teeming with mines. Probably the most useful phrases are "Gerza ma tooghala'!" (Don't shoot!) and "Quzah' ts'h'aa guuranash yui?" (Are there any booby traps nearby?). The authors clearly know the secret of survival in places like Chechnya - "Is it safe?" is immediately followed by "Show me", while the section on mines is admirably detailed, equipping you to determine their number, size, colour, location, composition and when they were laid.

The main thing this new work helped me to understand, however, is why there seem to be so few decent guidebooks to this scenic part of the world.

Hanging loose

SMALL notices have appeared on the windows of Washington's newly refurbished buses. "Do not hang body parts out of the window opening," they say. What do DC's commuters get up to?

Chez Chirac

FOR some reason Bernard Caussade decided to name his Paris restaurant "Chez Monsieur le President", and the result has been that he keeps getting letters intended for Jacques Chirac. Complaints about immigration problems, insurers who won't pay up, failure to obtain jobs or places on courses, they all come in, often accompanied by CVs.

Mr Caussade, a former journalist who could probably use the missives as fodder for a lucrative freelance career if he chose, sends them on to the Elysee Palace. He has also invited Mr Chirac to dine at his restaurant, which would give a spokesman the opportunity to announce: "Monsieur le President est chez Chez Monsieur le President."

Pink porkies

ISRAELI police are being taught how to tell when a suspect is lying by studying a television interview with the Prime Minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu, according to Gavriel Raam, who gives them lectures on "non-verbal signals".

Benjamin Netanyahu's spouse, who is known for her obsessiveness and imperious behaviour, has trouble keeping staff. Last year she went through a private secretary and two nannies, one of whom said she was thrown out on the street after burning the soup.

At the police academy, Mr Raam shows his students the video of an interview in which Mrs Netanyahu denies being bothered by the nanny row. "But at the same moment she swallows her lower lip," he points out. "When a person says a word and swallows their lip it means they have a problem with what they just said." The PM's office said it was all nonsense.

Just the other day, though, I heard of a policeman in another country who obtained the evidence to put an upper-crust Englishman in jail. He always knew when the suspect was lying, he said, because although his well-bred adversary looked him steadfastly in the eye while denying the incriminating facts, he could not stop the tips of his ears going pink.

Denver dead?

IT IS sad, of course, that John Denver is no longer with us to squall "Rocky Mountain High" or "Country Roads".

Reading the obituaries, though, I began to wonder whether, like Elvis, he is really dead at all. Consider the facts: he was born in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1943 - just before a UFO is supposed to have crash-landed there. His father was in the air force - which is said to have covered up the UFO incident, including the autopsies carried out on alien corpses. And did you know that they couldn't find his dental records?

I think I have done enough to show "John Denver" was an alien child who survived the Roswell crash, was adopted by an air force officer and has now returned whence he came. I wouldn't be surprised if he is duetting with Elvis right now.

It's criminal

If you want to insult a flic in Paris, don't comment on the smallness of his brain or private parts, but of his salary. We owe this insight to the French football star, Patrice Loko, who lived up to his name outside a Paris nightclub, kicking cars, spitting at police and exposing himself to a policewoman.

One officer told the court that Loko abused them, boasted that high-placed friends would soon spring him, and compared his huge income to their pittances. "In 18 years as a policeman," he complained, "I had never been so insulted. I could not sleep for two days."

Le pauvre! Since reading this, I myself have been unable to sleep for thinking of the hurt to his feelings.

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