Romans don't get

the Rifkind effect

WHAT with the lottery, snobbery and yobbery, the organisation of the cultural life of Britain is not an easy thing to understand. They certainly haven't got the hang of it in Italy: there we were the other day in Rome, having our capuccino and pastry on the pavement, when there was sudden clamour and the tramp of marching feet. A procession hoved into view, consisting of agitated young Italians on their way to the British Embassy to demand that Britain prevent the departure of Robbie from Take That.

Well, it's true, it's a big question . . . should Robbie stay or should Robbie go? We can never make up our minds, because just as we're on the point of working out which one Robbie is, our attention wanders. "He's the good-looking but useless one," a brilliant colleague tells us, but even this straightforward description has been no use.

In a way the Italians are right - at any rate the Foreign Office should at least make its views known. On this desk we have reached a point hitherto unknown to ethics: a moral dependency on Malcolm Rifkind. This means being unable to make up your mind on any topic until Mr Rifkind has spoken. No sooner has he done so, his eyes - and vowels - bulging with strange asperities, than we hurriedly embrace the opposite view. This is proving such a useful route through the moral maze that Malcom should be drawn out of himself more, and encouraged to give his opinions on the widest range of issues - arts, letters, gangsta rap, what's up on Bodmin Moor - so we all know immediately what to think.

Nordic sports

AWAY from these Italian fevers, and in search of something cool, we spent last week hunched over the catalogue of an exhibition of European Decadent Art held 300 miles north of Oslo at the Trondheim Kunstforening. Ah, Trondheim. "What's Trondheim like?" I ask our old friend, the Swedish Iceberg. "Horrific," she snaps. "The bloody birds start singing at two in the morning and - well, an hour is quite long enough to spend in Trondheim." It seems an odd place for the children of Huysmann to foregather but the catalogue displays a Scandinavian gloom which perhaps is fitting.

"If God is dead and you cannot just unflinchingly stare death in the eye - and you cannot do that, if for no other than for the fact that it would lead you away from life: if this is the case, then moving inwards must nowadays mean evading death, without however entertaining any hope of eternal health," it says, puzzlingly, then snaps "What

does that mean?" as if the reader was somehow to blame for any confusion.

Still, the works themselves seem harmless enough, even rather likeable. Admittedly there are several menacing pots, but the curators have managed to locate a completely inoffensive Mapplethorpe self-portrait, and most other things on show have a daffy charm. We liked this figure in wrinkled tights (above), who, long study reveals, is the Female Aspect of Mr Murdoch Acquiring another Bit of the Media.

Uncivil servants

AFTER four decades of proletarian bluntness, China has launched a national campaign for polite discourse. The Guangming Daily lists 50 rude phrases commonly heard at airports, train stations, hospitals, department stores and post offices across the land: "Ask someone else." "It's none of my business." "Can't you see I'm busy." "What's your hurry?" You get the flavour. We have rushed copies to British Rail, Paddington, and the Home Office in Croydon, to its splendidly named Lunar House, which deals with immigrants to the UK mostly by shouting at them, and which always seems to me to be the place where the sun really did set on the British Empire.

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