Flat Earth

Forgetfulness lops off arm of UK law

THERE you were, thinking that Britain would wait until 1997 before giving up governing Hong Kong. It now appears we've stopped already, and the last 125 pieces of legislation in the colony are probably invalid. It would take hours to explain, but roughly what happened is that someone in the FO forgot something important while amending letters patent for the new post of president of the Legislative Council.

Last week red-faced officials were fumbling for excuses and explanations. Well, actually, no they weren't. Officials nowadays, when detected in sin, adopt a cool and amused air, copied, no doubt, from Tory ministers. Their response to the horrible constitutional mess is blithe. 'Never mind, it's all a lot of hooey really,' is the line.

This is not the first time London has been absent-minded about distant possessions. In 1987, the term of office expired for the Queen's Representative, who is head of state in the Cook Islands. But no one noticed. Neither the Foreign Office nor Buckingham Palace - or the Queen's Rep himself - remembered the date, and for several months, as the trade winds soughed through the palms, this private citizen continued graciously giving his vice-regal assent to a range of legislation, all of it invalid.

School crocodile

REPORTS reach us of a splendid innovation for maintaining the youthful discipline so valued in Asian societies. You may remember that in the last anti- government demonstrations in Bangkok in 1991, dozens of students went missing. Ugly rumours surfaced that they had been taken to an army camp and disposed of in a handy crocodile pit there. Now a private school in Thailand has installed a reptile pit of its own. Some parents have objected, fearing for the safety of the thousand children on the roll. The headmaster, Chira Samittichote, dismisses these faint hearts. The crocodiles, he says, teach 'about nature' (menacing little phrase, that). But anyway, he adds emolliently, not one single pupil has so far fallen into the waiting jaws.

Executive tyranny

AND now - Despot Watch,

our weekly look at the lifestyles of those world leaders who bring a hint of danger and excitement to so many lives. You will be pleased to learn that Mengistu Haile Mariam, former strongman of Ethiopia now in exile in Zimbabwe, is not sitting on his hands, poor and alone. No - the mastermind of one of the most successful terror campaigns ever mounted in a Marxist state lives in a luxurious Harare house and, according to the Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg, he has a congenial new job: consulting with senior state security officers on acquisition of armaments.

There was a time when tyrants who waded through blood in their maintenance of power might expect a rendezvous with justice. But no more. Ethiopia wants Mengistu back for trial; Zimbabwe says his extradition is 'not a priority' in relations with Addis Ababa.

Major to minor

WE WHO live in this country with John Major and must consider his existence quite frequently, have some excuse for complaint. But it comes as a surprise to learn that the Grey Factor is not diminished by distance. On the other side of the world, David Lange - the former New Zealand PM with the stapled stomach and glittering specs - described our leader as such a nonentity that 'if his life flashed before his eyes, he wouldn't be in it'.