FLAT EARTH

Mach 2 men in their

flying machines

AS THE French Air Force streaked across Balkan skies last week, it was also in action on the other side of the globe, up against an enemy just as insolent and cunning as the Bosnian Serbs. Sixty miles from Mururoa, out of sight of prying TV cameras, a traditional double-hulled canoe from the Cook Islands on its way to the protests was repeatedly buzzed at low levels by French helicopters and jet fighters, probably Mirages. There was a heavy swell at the time. The canoe or vaka is 72 ft long and made of wood, rope and flax. A Mirage is 47 ft 1in long, is made of steel and sections of light alloys and boron/carbon/epoxy, and can hit Mach 2.2.

I really do feel curious about what went through the minds of those chevaliers of the sky, heirs to Saint-Exupery, as they terrorised the Polynesians and showed who was master in the Pacific. Triumph? Contempt? Sadism? Well, perhaps I shouldn't ask - they were doing it for us, remember. Paris has now announced that its nuclear bombs are not just for the defence of France but for the whole EU, and that's you and me, kid. Certainly there wasn't a peep of protest out of London in defence of its fellow Commonwealth citizens being harassed on the high seas. But remember - as Robin Cook pointed out last week - the exclusive club which refuses to express even mild regret at the French tests contains: Moldova, Kirghizstan, and Her Britannic Majesty's Government.

Flaming expensive

THE Eternal Flame has always seemed to me a rather shaky concept as a war memorial - if you really want to outbrave sad mortality, is it wise to rely on the gas mains supply? It hasn't worked out at all well in the New Zealand town of Morrinsville, which on 15 August switched on an Eternal Flame to honour the war dead. Then the first gas bill arrived, for $250. The strong streak of parsimony in the New Zealand character surged to the surface: town councillors tumbled over each other to turn the thing off. Instead of the Eternal Flame, Morrinsville now commemorates its fallen sons with the Eternal Gas Fitting. At the going out of the pilot light, we will remember them . . .

Babes are in

SOMEONE - I think it was Louis MacNeice, though I don't know why I think so - once came back from South Africa and was asked what it was like. "Imagine," he said, "a country run by mad babies." The mad babies in South Africa have now, thankfully, died or tottered from sight, but last week there were plenty of other mad babies - or at least quite bad babies - sighted elsewhere.

First there's a certain Look Pla, or Baby Fish, the 23-year-old wife of a Thai prince and, I'm sorry to say, a girl who's no better than she ought to be. She became the prince's mistress at 14, married him last year when he was 60, but spent most her time in the palace listening in on the prince's citizen band radio and running away with men she met through it.

So far, much like the home life of some of our own royals. But last year she met a chestnut vendor aged 19 and the two of them are now under suspicion of using poison to murder the prince. All Thailand - that incomparably monarchist land - is agog.

Next we go to Maryland to meet Tina Sigafoose, and Baby Huey Sigafoose who last week fell into Delaware Bay off a 38ft cabin cruiser. Tina, a chiropractor, has offered a $50,000 reward to get Baby Huey back, dead or alive. Baby Huey is a one-year-old terrier, and is wearing a purple collar, but no ID tags.

And finally we head off to Wyoming to encounter that strange presidential phenomenon, Baby Talk. This is the impulse that overcomes intelligent and even well-educated American presidents who have been to Oxford, and makes them address their fellow citizens in the tones of a four-year- old.

Here, for example, is President Clinton talking about the night he camped out in the Grand Tetons last week. "It was a tad nippy," he said, but also "just wonderful". Two guitar-strumming cowpokes led the singsong around the campfire. "We sang some old songs together," said the President. "It was just great." The songs included Sweet Baby James, and Bobby Magee.

On the way out the President saw two moose but "no bear". He went to and from the camp by horseback. That apparently was the best part of the expedition. "It was the best horseback ride I ever had," the President told an eager nation.

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