'Fogg' rewritten as Shell steers clear of Africa

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The Independent Online

* He inspired Steve Coogan Michael Palin and a generation of Victorian explorers. Now Phileas Fogg has his strangest imitator yet: the multinational oil firm Shell.

In a bid to underline its "green" credentials, Shell is currently sending a fleet of Volkswagen Golfs in Fogg's footsteps, on an expedition "around the world in 50 fill-ups".

The big idea is to win a place in the Guinness Book of Records for circumnavigating the globe in the most fuel-efficient manner possible. This will require Shell's specially customised vehicles to stop for petrol fewer than 50 times.

It sounds like a simple enough PR stunt. But there is one major hitch: both Phileas Fogg and his later imitators travelled across north-east Africa.

Unfortunately, Shell has a - shall we say? - dodgy record in those parts, as a result of its ongoing operations in Nigeria.

Aside from occasional environmental difficulties, Shell's interests in Nigeria saw it on the receiving end of a widespread boycott during the Ken Saro-Wiwa affair of the 1990s.

With this in mind, the firm has decided against going near the continent of Africa. Instead, its Golfs, which left London 23 days ago, were flown straight from Greece to Pakistan.

Despite this strange itinerary, a spokesman for the firm insists politics had nothing to do with its route: "There are difficulties taking all the cars through customs," I'm told. "So it was decided going into Africa would cause too many problems."

* Sir Elton John is frequently said to possess the finest contacts book in showbusiness.

Interesting, then, to hear of Variety magazine's decision to sack Matt Wolf, its highly respected London theatre critic of the past 13 years.

The Hollywood "Bible" has dispensed with the likeable Wolf a few months after he wrote an unenthusiastic review of Sir Elton's musical, Billy Elliot.

That piece caused an almighty brouhaha at the magazine. Its editor-in-chief, Peter Bart - who is adept at sucking up to the likes of Sir Elton, left - went so far as to write and publish column slating Wolf.

"The job of critics is to deliver opinions, to be sure, but it is especially troubling for Variety critics to appear disdainful of 'audience' shows," it read.

Yesterday, Variety wouldn't discuss Wolf's sacking. However, the man himself smells fish.

"My review of Billy Elliot was mixed. I certainly didn't slam the show and liked parts," he said. "Was I sacked because of it? I've no idea. Stranger things have happened."

* Carol Thatcher cheerfully allowed the nation's couch potatoes to see her urinating on the floor of an Australian campsite.

She's got a similarly blasé attitude to news that her mother is the subject of an irreverent, Broadway-style revue called Thatcher: The Musical.

Indeed, tomorrow night, our former PM's daughter will travel to Warwick to see the show for herself.

"I'm looking forward to seeing it on Saturday very much indeed," she tells me. "In fact, I'm very lucky, because it has a very short run there before going on tour."

The show isn't entirely complimentary, though. It opens with an eight-foot tall handbag sliding across the stage, and features Lady T doing a seductive dance involving a feather boa.

Might Thatcher (jnr) take offence? "I'm not sure quite what to expect. But I shall be able to tell you what I think about it after I've seen the show."

* David Cameron's Tories ditched traditional "black tie" at their winter ball on Wednesday in favour of a modern dress code: "black and white".

The party's old guard was perturbed by the innovation, but members of the Notting Hill set took it in their stride.

Ed Vaizey, the MP for Wantage, underlined his trendy credentials by getting his new wife, Alex, to turn up in her wedding dress.

Friends spin this as an eco-friendly gesture, saying: "Bridal gowns take loads of energy to make, yet most people only wear them once."

Vaizey cites earthly reasons. "My wife's very economical," he says. "Besides, it was no meringue; it was an Alice Temperley evening dress."

* It's getting harder by the day to speak of Tessa Jowell without mentioning her nickname: "Nanny".

This week, Jowell's staff received a somewhat po-faced memo, banning them from bringing pets into work.

Apparently, a member of her PR team was recently spotted bringing a West Highland terrier called Angus into the office.

According to the memo, this is unacceptable, for reasons of health and safety.

These include: "hygiene, difficulties in evacuating the building in an emergency, and the possibility of the animal attacking employees and visitors, whether antagonised or not".

Under Jowell, staff at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have grown used to this sort of nonsense.

Last year, they were formally warned against picking their nose and leaving "nasal matter" on DCMS walls.

pandora@independent.co.uk

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