FLAT EARTH

Consumers' new (permanent) wave

SO THERE we were, on the very brink of the relaunch of this column as a world consumer guide called "How To Spend It". We'd talked to the designer - the brief was simple. "Think FT Weekend," I said. "Something crisp, clean, slightly vulgar. Remember: my readers have got cash to spend and lots of it. And if they haven't, I don't want them hanging round this part of the paper. So see them off."

And what happens? At the very last minute some data arrives from America which makes us delay, possibly suspend, the whole project, since it shows that the consumer urge is quite irrational and involuntary, and beyond the helping hand we intended to provide. The information came hidden away inside a survey of 213 shopping malls, which happened to reveal that the sales of men's "hair care products" shot up by 7 per cent when Kevin Costner's movie, Waterworld, started playing in the mall cinemas.

Certainly it's true that when the wretched film was being made, Kevin Costner, who's a bit thin on top, kept demanding reshoots because he wanted to look as if he had "more hair". Most films, however bad, leave you in a lingering atmosphere of their fictive world. A teenager is capable of walking down the road after a movie and identifying with the hero for a good 35 minutes. But when the lights go up after Waterworld, it seems, the audience rises as one man, and advances like automata towards a "hair- care" outlet with this sole thought in mind: to not look like Costner. Well, I suppose that's vaguely comprehensible. But how do you account for the fact that when Batman Forever is showing, sales of women's undergarments shoot up by 5 percent? Impossible to fathom.

Call of the civilised

SO WE'VE decided to return to our natural habitat - high politics, nature, people not going shopping, all that sort of thing. For instance, there's the surprising German report of an invasion of Western Europe by wild animals. Now a bear generally seems a heartless beast, and a wolf has a cold yellow stare; a lynx, one thinks, looks without pity or curiosity on the spectacle of human suffering. But all these species are apparently heading westward, unable any longer to bear the sight of mankind at war in in the Balkans.

"Bears, wolves, lynxes and elks are moving into Austria, Switzerland, Italy or Germany," Hartmut Gossow, director of the Vienna University Institute for Wild Animal Biology and Hunt Economics said on Tuesday. "We must reckon on such large animals encroaching ever more into civilised regions," he told the 69th annual conference of the German Society for Mammalian Studies. The main problem that the savant foresees is the cost of electric fences to protect our beehives.

Boot people

THESE creatures seem to have chosen an odd time to vote with their feet, just as the momentum for peace in former Yugoslavia is picking up. But the negotiations, we are constantly told, will be tough. Just how tough, I didn't realise until I was invited by mistake to lunch with some brilliant foreign affairs pundits at a sunny riverside restaurant. One, with a more capacious brow than most, called the waitress, who was gazing dreamily out of the door.

"Excuse me, could we have another bottle of wine?"

"What? Oh, sorry, I was looking at the boots."

"What boats are in harbour?"

"Sorry?"

"What boats are in port today?"

"I don't know. I'm from Yugoslavia."

"Oh."

"But I love boots."

"They do look beautiful, especially with the sun on the water."

"Knee-length - they are the ones I love."

"?"

General incomprehension - indeed the smirk of General Mladic - seems to loom all around.

Black Thai do

IT'S POSSIBLE that in the past we have too lightly mocked the Thai predilection for black magic: in fact, we sniggered only recently at the way some Thais greeted a partial eclipse of the sun, by lighting black candles and eating black-hued food. One silly chap, unable to find a black hen, dyed a white one black, then killed, plucked and roasted it - apparently a completely ineffective ruse. We've changed our minds, however, in the light of last week's demonstration in Bangkok, when about 100 people besieged the French embassy to call for an end to nuclear weapons and to place a curse on Jacques Chirac.

A large picture of the smarmy ex-mayor of Paris was duly burned, the ashes put in a clay pot along with herbs, incense and a candle, and a cloth placed over the top, thus capturing the "soul" of the French President and keeping all of us safe from its unpleasant emanations.

It all sounds very mad - but no madder than the claim by Chirac that you can capture 10 Chernobyls-worth of radioactivity inside a fissured submarine volcano with a coral frill on top and keep it safely there for the rest of its half-life - about 300,000 years.

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