UP & DOWN CANARY WHARF

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The Independent Online
I expect by now you've scoured the contents of today's papers with an April-Fool detector, pooh-poohing all mentions of islands with funny names, reports of dubious inventions by Uv Binhaad, promises of exclusive interviews with JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, fashion pieces about Headscarves for Today's Man, recipes for Cod Fax la bonne femme, stories about eccentric philanthropists anxious to give away their lottery winnings, complete with telephone numbers which turn out to be London Zoo ("Ask for Mr C Lion or Mr G Raafe..."). But could you confidently tell? Because the way the ways of modern society are going, it's getting harder to spot the real thing.

Take, for example, the case of Mr Jeremy Hanley, the luckless Tory chairman, the security of whose tenure in office is now comparable to a mayfly in a blizzard. Earlier this week Mr Hanley sent a fund-raising letter to 4,000 putative supporters, brashly proclaiming his party's achievements and decrying the threat of the Opposition. Unfortunately, a line went missing and Hanley's correspondents read that he was apparently undertaking, on behalf of the Tories, to "slash our defences, to sell out to Europe... and indeed to smash the British constitution itself". Many people would have assumed a mistake had been made. But many others, I fear, wouldn't have found it odd at all. Frankly, if Mr Hanley were tomorrow to publish an article in the Sunday Express pledging the Conservatives to abolish religion, establish a one-party state and make the consumption of mayonnaise unlawful except on Tuesdays, you might raise just one eyebrow maybe just a millimetre, you might mutter "April Foo-", but then you'd stop. An awful recognition, that political life has now caught up with the furthest reaches of caricature, would steal over you and you would have to admit it was probably true. You'd go meekly to the fridge to throw out your jar of Hellman's.

But this is a gloomy reflection on a day of japes and innocent fun. Leafing through The Book of Brilliant Hoaxes, nodding sagely as the April Fool classics are retold (the Panorama spaghetti harvest; the San Seriffe spectacular, the Radio Three Dutch Elm Disease contagion scare, the Big Ben-goes-digital shock) I was surprised not to see my favourite included.

It happened in Oxford, 1 April, 1975. A student with a plausibly querulous manner telephoned the police and reported that a gang of students, as part of their revolting "rag week", had dressed up as labourers and were even now, with picks and shovels, digging up a stretch of the Cornmarket. They were all young and robust, the caller remarked, so I suggest you send a similar crew down to sort them out. The police thanked him for the tip-off. Discarding his old-sod persona, he approached the crew of Wimpy labourers. Did they know, he asked, that a group of rag-week students was going around dressed as policemen, trying to interfere with people and making bogus arrests? Jasus, said the workmen, let 'em try. At which point the shameless double-hoaxer retired to a nearby coign of vantage and watched a pitched battle ensue...

H H H

Another reputation bites the dust. I speak not of that man from the Bank of England, nor even of the gaffe-prone Mr Hanley, but of a more noble and ancient institution than either: Tyrannosaurus rex. After years of basking in glory as the most terrifying predator of prehistoric times, the dinosaur has been outed as a bit of a wimp.

According to a new study at Montana State University, rather than roaring around the primeval savannah hunting down other tough and spiky animals and fighting them to the death, the 40ft-long beast apparently preferred to hang around waiting for them to die of natural causes before tucking in.

It gets worse. Those stumpy little front legs look impressive, what with their nasty claws, until you learn they have only a two-inch movement capacity at the elbow, making it impos-sible for them actually to grab anything. And, far from running down the road in pursuit of a speeding jeep, as we saw it do in Jurassic Park, T rex would have been hard pushed to exceed 15mph with a following wind. The chap who, in the film, took refuge in a hut, waiting to be eaten, would have done better to walk briskly away. In any case, the creature probably wouldn't have seen him: it was virtually blind, although it did have a very good sense of smell.

The dinosaur's worst problem, though, was balance. Tyrannosaurus rex was, apparently, so top-heavy that if it attempted to corner, it was liable to fall over and stay there. Less despotic lizard, then, more prehistoric Routefinder bus.

H H H

I spent last weekend feeling dizzy with luxury at a house-party near Nottingham - a real old-style house-party, from the days when everyone knew their lines and behaved as if they were in a play by Terence Rattigan.

Wherever you looked there were four-posters and escritoires. There was a shimmery butler in the library, who would manifest himself alongside as you were trying to control your squalling infant, and murmur, "I wonder, sir, if a Wagon Wheel would help?" (God yes - and how about something for the kid?) The lady of the house was a spectacular chatelaine who, at 11pm, smoothed the dinner tablecloth before her and murmured, without the least show of bunny-eared inverted commas, "I think perhaps we should leave the gentlemen to their port..." There were chafing-dishes at breakfast. There was a summer-house, a boathouse, an ice-house and a potting shed, a ha-ha and a gazebo (probably even an escutcheon, if I'd known what it looked like). There was a Labrador and a King Charles and a picturesque Aylesbury Duck...

It was my kind of place, no question. Though the weasel family tree might suggest otherwise, it's the sort of den I was born for. All the (admittedly rather specialised) charm of Weasel Villa seemed to have leaked into the south London sludge by the time we got home. Mrs W was predictably inconsolable. "If you were a real man," she snarled, "we would have a gazebo by now." But I am not, I replied mildly. I am a weasel.

The only false, or at least anachronistic, note struck all weekend was the technology. In a world where the girls wear moir silk for dinner and the ex-Guards footman entertains you with bugle solos in the scullery, the electronic bleeps and pings of the modern Nineties are as welcome as that moment in Stanley Kubrick's The Vikings when Kirk Douglas's horned lieutenants raise their arms in triumph after a pillaging bout, to reveal that one of them is wearing a Rolex Oyster Royal. The technology in question was not a hi-fi, nor (thank God) a Sony Walkman. It was that modern pain in the arse, the baby intercom.

You've seen them - little white telephones on metal legs, with winking red lights. They record any murmur or wail from the slumbering infant upstairs, mediated through a similar device underneath its cot. No country- house conver-sation ("Does your ipicanthus need a lot of attention?") is safe from a sudden outbreak of techno-gurgling in the horrible little box on the mantelpiece. But why, I asked, was it necessary to put these things on open display? "To remind people that it's there," came the reply. "So that nobody makes a Terrible Mistake..."

A Terrible Mistake? And into my shocked ears, dear reader, came a story that has been passed on from Aga-side to poolside across middle-class Britain, a story that may be only a cautionary tale, but has an awful ring of truth about it. It concerns a house party in Dorset a couple of years ago, at which several couples and a quantity of babies were staying. When one went upstairs to attend to her child, she was accompanied to the nursery by a baby-free chum, who proceeded to rubbish the host and hostess. "Such a bloody dinner. I thought I was going to throw up... Where did Geraldine get that awful dress - it can't be curtain material, can it? And as for that husband of hers..."

Realising that every word of her friend's tirade was being beamed down the intercom to the dozen fascinated guests, the mother waved her hands and made shushing noises, but to no avail: "...Well he - don't pretend you don't know - he's been shagging Laura for months, and she's been sitting there all through dinner, looking as if butter wouldn't..."

H H H

I was intrigued by the report that the youth of today are too soft to join the Army. More than 40 per cent of would-be recruits are rejected, because of their lack of fitness or their lack of mental "robustness". Of those who do get in, many fail to stay longer than the minimum three years, apparently because they have been so pampered at home they are unwilling to accept the sergeant-major's reluctance to bring them cups of tea as they slump in front of the video. Some even find overnight manoeuvres too much of an ordeal (though presumably they'd feel different if they were attending a rave).

Poor darlings. The Army has come up with some solutions. It says it will "make allowances" for the new breed of would-be soldiers if they have potential, even though they may fail to fit the desired profile of the modern fighting machine. Since (for instance) they don't like standard-issue army boots, it is letting them wear training shoes. An admirable start, but this new military flexibility shouldn't stop there. Cannot something be done about those nasty scratchy uniforms? Something colourful in soft cotton would be more suitable for military daywear, plus some chenille or brocade for those tougher moments stalking the enemy across no-man's land. And of course those guns. They have their uses, I'm sure, but do they have to be so noisy...? The Weasel

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