Flat Earth

Largesse is a French word

Nasty business, wasn't it, in Bangui, where rioters sacked and burned the French cultural centre after French troops intervened to protect President Ange-Felix Patasse from an army mutiny?

You know, of course, that Bangui is the capital of the Central African Republic, a former French colony where Jean-Bedel Bokassa once declared himself emperor, stored human body parts in his fridge and presented his French counterpart, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, with some extremely expensive diamonds.

What interested me was that the French deemed the place worthy of a cultural centre, but then France has never stinted public funds in the pursuit of its mission civilatrice. Here, by contrast, it took a backbench revolt last week to make the Foreign Office stump up the cash to keep the British Council operating in 14 countries. The BBC World Service, which also has to rely on the diplomats for its funding, is suffering the death of a thousand cuts.

I sometimes wonder how much these institutions would receive if they were French - undoubtedly a huge amount more. How about reversing the relationship with King Charles Street, and putting the World Service and the British Council in charge of drawing up the Foreign Office budget? They have learnt everything there is to know about "efficiency savings", and I doubt whether British interests would suffer. Quite the reverse, probably.

Better off in Beirut

It cannot be good for South Africa's image abroad, or its hopes of attracting tourists, that foreign diplomats are falling victim to the country's crime wave. This month a Greek consular attache, Minas Heroukias, had his car hijacked at gunpoint by three men in Durban. Asked if he felt safe in South Africa, he said: "Of course not." The dean of the diplomatic corps, Taiwanese Ambassador I-cheng Loh, demanded better protection, but the killer quote came from the Lebanese charge d'affaires, Charbel Stephan, who said after his Johannesburg residence was robbed for the second time in 10 days that he would be safer in Beirut.

"Johannesburg is a jungle. The problem in Beirut is political, not criminal. We don't lock our doors in Beirut." The diplomat, who needed stitches after being beaten during the latest robbery, said he was going to Beirut in three days: "I'm not coming back if conditions remain the same. Maybe my government will send someone more courageous."

Doggone in Texas

I don't know what the animal rights activists will make of this, but if you are a prairie dog somewhere under Amarillo, Texas, a vacuum tube may come down your burrow and suck up the kids, never to be seen again.

A pest control company called Dog Gone has devised a vacuum truck which sucks lighter prairie dogs from their holes, leaving heavier adults alone. The fate of the youngsters does not involve anything nasty, unless one counts being sold off to Japan.

"They make good pets," said Dog Gone's Dave Honaker. "They're real trainable and social animals." His partner, Gay Balfour, who invented the vacuum, added: "These little guys are worth $700 apiece." All helps to cure the trade imbalance...

Autoroute action

Can you imagine stopping at Scratchwood for a rugby match, or at Knutsford for a spot of sailing? The ever-inventive French are turning their motorway rest stops into sports centres in an effort to persuade their suicidal motorists, who all tend to leave on holiday at once, to take a break.

This summer you can try mountain biking at Haut Forez, gymnastics at Montelimar and baseball at Agen. Port-Lauragais offers rugby and sailing, along with, fencing, skate-boarding and goodness knows what else. Archery, for some reason, is the most widely offered sport.

If this goes any further, I can see some frugal Brits taking their holidays next to the autoroute. It would be perfectly feasible, what with the Formule 1 capsule hotels, the passable if expensive restaurants and now the sports facilities.

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