Diary

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The Independent Online
Jam Yesterday, Jam Tomorrow, but Never Jam Today Department. Spare some sympathy for Malcolm Love, the BBC documentary-maker, who set out the other day to make a programme about the British traffic jam. Armed with several irritating questions to ask fuming suburbanites stranded in a nine-mile tailback ("Is it quite warm in there?" "Have you thought of playing I-Spy?"), Love looked for a likely snarl-up. "We discovered that, on a Friday night, on the eve of a Bank Holiday and - get this - at the start of half-term, they were shutting down the North Circular Road all the way from Hanger Lane to the M4, and closing off the first two junctions. Absolutely brilliant, we thought. It'll be the mother and father of all jams. So we went down to the motorway, sat in with the traffic police and waited ..." And nothing happened. The traffic flowed airily along. Policemen beamed. Cones glistened in the sunshine. It was as inexplicable as it was appalling. After a horribly frustrating few hours, Love and his crew trudged back to their HQ in Bristol - and discovered that, because of the weight of traffic heading north on the M5, a vast 25-mile anaconda of angry motorists had straggled, all afternoon, from Junction 19 to just outside their front door.

I've been to some odd book events in my time, but Tuesday's launch of Man Enough To Be a Woman? by the rock personality Jayne County took some beating. The turn-out was some way removed from the average thrash at the Ivy or the Groucho Club, featuring, as it did, a lot of enormous men en travestie: one chap accessorised his explosive sideburns with pearl drop ear-rings and a Queen Mary toque; another disported himself in a vast wig like a bolted auburn cauliflower surmounted by a diamante tiara.

When Ms County took the stage in an abbreviated black-crochet frock and stockings that had, frankly, seen better days, a slew of enthusiasts yelled "Get 'em off!" - again, hardly the thing you'd see at Lord Weidenfeld's Chelsea parties. The author proceeded to yell a medley of risque songs entitled, if my notes are correct, "Everyone's an Asshole ('Cept Me)" and "If You Don't Wanna F**k Me Baby ...". At one point she changed into a home-made ensemble of Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer carrier bags Sellotaped together and asked the audience: "Is it OK if I sing 'Toilet Love' without the plunger?" (Huge cheers.) I remained mystified as to her appeal until the climax of the recital, when Ms County crawled across the stage and inserted her beehived head into the bass drum, her spangled rump nosing the air like a vast, questing hippo. Then I looked down and discovered I'd been dancing like a fool for several minutes. I sought out the author but unaccountably - no Baroness Thatcher, clearly - she had no desire to autograph her book.

When it comes to spicy food, I'm as macho as the next man. No Tex-Mex dish of salsafied peppers, no prawn vindaloo or jalapeno hecatomb can faze me. Years of ill-advised doner kebabs ("Do I want extra chilli sauce? Does Rob Andrew know how to kick?") have left me inured to heat-generating equatorial cuisine. But I met my match last weekend.

For pounds 1.20 in Sainsbury, a carton of Habanero Chillis can be yours. Little pale green and peachy-orange fondant fancies, they sit in their inoffensive plastic box like blown greengages and stunted apricots. The label claims they have "a fruit flavour" that's "ideal for Mexican cooking. Use in sauces and soups". So I did - a modest Saturday night affair of chicken breasts in black bean sauce, broccoli, noodles and a single Habanero, finely chopped.

Within seconds of serving it, one dinner guest had become hand- wavingly speechless, another (possibly pregnant) diner was phoning her gynaecologist between gulps of Evian, a third was yelping from the end of the garden under the sprinkler and I, suddenly alone, was thinking, mmmm, this is nice, but perhaps a little pungent, as scalding tears coursed down my cheeks.

I took care (as you do with chilli dishes) to wash my hands before retiring, but that night I was assailed by awful dreams of burning. At 4am, having sleepily twiddled some bit of my person, I was bent double over the bath, applying a cold flannel to an unmentionable agony.

Next morning, I dug out the carton. On the bottom, out of range of human scrutiny, it read: "Warning: extremely hot. Wear gloves when handling and preparing, avoid contact with eyes and other sensitive areas." Wear gloves? Is this stuff radioactive? Does Sainsbury know it's selling a benign-seeming efflorescence of hydrochloric acid disguised as a vegetable?

I wonder if I could interest Hollywood in the phenomenon: David Cronenberg's Habanero Chilli. I'd volunteer to write the screenplay, were the first three fingers of my right hand not blistered beyond repair.

Tomorrow is Bloomsday, the day on which the action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place in 1904. In Dublin, they've marked the anniversary for years with pilgrim walks through the streets down which Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus peregrinated. You start at the Martello Tower on Sandymount Strand (where Stephen rises in Chapter 1), progress to Eccles Street (where Mr Bloom has a pork kidney for breakfast), and attend, in sequence, a funeral procession, a newspaper office, O'Connell Street, Grafton Street, Bewley's restaurant at lunchtime, Davy Byrne's pub for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy, a music shop, another pub, a beach, a maternity hospital, a whorehouse and a cabman's shelter. (Technically, you're supposed to visit them all, but the whorehouse is optional these days.)

Despite the high proportion of Irish in the metropolis, London has done little to celebrate Bloomsday in the past (I suppose it would have helped if the novel had been set here). But a small contingent of Joycean scholars is doing its bit tomorrow, at Filthy McNasty's select bar in Islington, where there will be readings throughout the day, Irish music and the odd Guinness, I expect. Steven Berkoff, Richard Harris, Shane McGowan and the American actor Patrick Bergin, the one who terrorised Julia Roberts with his matching tea-towels in Sleeping With the Enemy, are all promised, as is (uncontainable rapture) the fair-to-good prospect of Edna O'Brien reading from Molly Bloom's monologue. See you there, begob.

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