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They don't want our money

When will the poll tax debacle come to an end? Five years after its abolition, the dreaded charge is still managing to provoke some of the silliest sagas ever seen in our courts. Last week a Manchester man, Ian Ransom, tried three times to pay five years' of arrears - and was rejected each time.

The problem? He was paying in pounds 290 of winnings from the amusement arcades in Blackpool's tourist site, the Golden Mile, in 5,800 five-pence pieces, weighing more than three and a half stone.

The debt collectors are highly unamused. According to an obscure coinage act of 1971, only pounds 5 worth of five and 10 pence coins may be accepted. The agency is therefore still waiting for Mr Ransom to exchange his winnings at the bank - but they could be in for a long wait.

Ransom, who is by now immune to the threat of court action, is most reluctant to exchange his coins. "I carted that bag all the way back from Blackpool," he says, "and the first two times I took it in they were, frankly, very unpleasant. I don't know why they won't take it - I'm even offering more than I owe. My debt's only pounds 289.50.... I'm not lugging the damn thing around any more."

His attitude, alas, cuts no ice with the collectors. "People had better think twice before they try and be silly and muck us around," warned an emotional spokesman. "You get people trying to write cheques to clear debts on banana skins and all sorts - we're not having it."

Any Peugeot so long as it's red ...

The new Peugeot 406 commercial, which has caused a bit of a rumpus with the Independent Television Commission because of its man-on-man kiss-of- life scene, has driven into yet more controversy. The pop star Mike Pickering of M People, whose song "Search for the Hero", currently in the top five in the charts, accompanies the ad, is still - after several weeks - awaiting delivery of his free, complimentary Peugeot Cabriolet. If that were not enough to irritate him, it now seems he won't get either of the colours he asked for (first choice, black; second, maroon). He has just heard, when it finally arrives, that it will be in something called Diablo Red.

"Doesn't that mean Red Devil?" he fumes down the phone.

It will be a brave Peugeot executive who faces Mr Pickering in this mood.

"At first I was saying, 'Good old Peugeot'," he tells me, "but now maybe I should just torch the car when it arrives."

Mrs Merton's only joking, geddit?

It would appear that Caroline Hook's trademark - the deadpan double entendre - is somewhat wasted on the very people who are on the receiving end of it. Last week the comedian (below, as Mrs Merton and herself) rang the office of Will Wyatt, BBC managing director, to accept his invitation to Aintree for this year's Grand National. Both times she said the same thing and both times Mr Wyatt's secretary slammed the phone down. Her exact words?

"Hello. I want to be in Mr Wyatt's box."

Slam from the other end. Clearly, assumed the secretary, here is some lunatic harassing senior BBC executives.

Now, of course, that the mistake has come to light, the BBC is not tremendously proud of it. Ms Hook's friend and scriptwriter, Craig Cash, has done his best to explain the incident, however.

"She just gets a bit flustered on the phone," he says.

Exactly what I thought.

A case of more braun than brain ...

Officials of the Cambridge Union Society might have been expected to be in favour of last week's motion: "This House believes brain is more important than brawn." Their letter inviting the chess grandmaster Nigel Short to speak at the debate, however, suggests that their own intellectual credentials fall somewhat short of a full endorsement of the motion. They spelt the final word as "braun".

Eagle Eye

Shaken and stirred by dashing de la Billiere

Forget Pierce Brosnan, he has been supplanted in the hearts of London's twentysomethings by the discovery of a real James Bond among their peer group, Edward de la Billiere (right), 25-year-old son of General Sir Peter, the former British Commander-in-Chief in the Gulf.

Edward has obviously learnt a trick or two from Daddy. He recently gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society about the expedition he made last summer up Mount McKinley, Alaska's tallest mountain. He and a friend climbed with Sgt Alan Perrin, who is blind and half-paralysed, having been blown up by a mine on an army exercise on Salisbury plain. Edward decided that his lecture needed spicing up. "We staged a mini-explosion and Alan abseiled in from the roof. I don't think anything like it has ever happened at the RGS before," he tells me proudly.

I, along, with London's female population, apparently, am impressed. The only sadness is that he tells me he has now got to give up climbing mountains and be a lawyer instead. Shame.

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