Flat Earth

Nelson's saint

Nelson's saint

I shook Nelson Mandela's hand, mainly because I had the opportunity (at the press conference after his Trafalgar Square appearance) and in the course of last week I had seen so many others who desperately wanted to but could not.

The desire to set eyes on him is eminently understandable. Who else can rank with Mr Mandela among late 20th-century politicans? But the near- frenzy to touch him took one back many centuries, to a time when men of his stature were reckoned to have healing powers. It is not surprising that so many commentators have yielded to the temptation to label him "Saint Nelson".

If one looks at his history - emerging as president of post-apartheid South Africa after 27 years in prison - it seems he must have prayed to Jude, the apostle and patron saint of lost causes. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints tells us that "St Jude enjoys great popularity as a powerful intercessor for those in desperate straits, as students of the publicity columns of the Times newspaper are aware."

Blair everywhere

YOU can feel a little cut off from the mainstream in the mountains of Afghanistan, so perhaps it was not surprising that when my colleague, Robert Fisk, found Osama Bin Laden in a remote corner of Nangarhar province, he discovered that the Saudi radical was eager for news of the outside world.

Did he want to know about the health of King Fahd, or whether Bill Clinton was still ahead of Bob Dole in the polls? Not a bit of it. "Tell me," he demanded of Fisk, "about this man Tony Blair. What are his opinions? Is he important?" It's official: there is now no escape from talk of New Labour.

It was not like this when I was in Afghanistan in 1992. I explained to the group of mujahedin I was with that it was election day in Inglistan, and they obligingly tried to discover the outcome on a portable radio. Sadly, Tehran Radio's results service was poor to non-existent, and it took me another two days to find out that John Major was still in Downing Street. I can't say I was any poorer for not knowing this - and in Mr Bin Laden's shoes I would do my best to preserve my ignorance of Tony Blair.

Guilt-free zone

THERE will be sniggering over the sauerkraut in Strasbourg this week. As members of the European Parliament gather for their monthly plenary session, the British have much to celebrate.

Their salary is based directly on those of British MPs; so when Westminster voted itself an extra pounds 9,000, their counterparts in the mother-in-law of all parliaments pocketed an extra 7,000 ecus a year. British MEPs are still among the worst-paid in Europe, but at least on this occasion, nobody can call them greedy, venal or corrupt. They got a present, given to them without even having to ask. Perhaps those accommodating chaps in London will be kind enough to hand over a few more of their parliamentary powers, while they're in a generous mood.

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