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Pik uses his loaf

WHAT is civilisation? This is a question which of course often agitates Flat Earth, but nowhere has it been asked more urgently than in South Africa, where the idiocies of apartheid were always justified by the need to defend it. The trouble is, no one ever knew what was at stake. But now we do: civilisation is a sort of curried meat loaf containing raisins, irradiated so it doesn't go off. We know because last week, Pik Botha, moustachioed former foreign minister of matinee-villain appearance, came into parliament and, glaring sternly at his black colleagues, waved a packet of the stuff in the air as an example of the achievements of white rule. "You must stop ridiculing the achievements of the past in this country, otherwise you will go the way many other governments in Africa have gone," he cried. Then, presumably to prove that he is completely off his rocker, he added that it was safer to sleep alongside a nuclear power station than a woman, "because a woman has more radioactivity".

Force of habit

NOR WAS that the end of Mr Botha's big day in the House. He suddenly rounded on an ANC member and told him to "stop jumping up and down like a golliwog". Ulp. Even Pik knew he'd gone too far. He apologised, saying he didn't mean "golliwog", but "I had in mind the toy consisting of a figure on a tight spring in a box, which jumps out when the lid is opened . . . yes it was a jack-in-a-box that I had in mind." Icy silence in the chamber.

Royal Air Faux pas

THE GRAND sight of the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace on VE Day as bombers droned overhead inevitably brought to mind the wartime chat (and source of all later variations) Her Majesty had with a Polish airman decorated for valour: "I shot down one Fokker and there were two more on my tail but I managed to shoot them down as well."

"Oh - were they Messerschmitts?"

And on the subject of anniversaries - what a crop this year: Gallipoli, Vietnam, WWII . . . is there no end to them? No, is the answer, there isn't. Indeed the supply is increasing exponentially as people delve deeper into time and texts. In Israel for example, they are planning a big jamboree in September to mark David's conquest of Jerusalem 3,000 years ago - partly, of course, to do down the arriviste Palestinians who've been in town only 1,400 years. The possibilities are endless. A date could surely be found for the parting of the Red Sea - always one in the eye for an Egyptian government. And why not go the whole hog? If we follow the calculation made by an 18th century Bishop of Armagh, October 1996 will be the 6,000th anniversary of the expulsion from Eden and the first fratricide. Now there's something that could be celebrated in the Balkans and the Middle East with gusto.

Mass communication

SCENES from ecclesiastical life: a packed church in northern Italy. Rapt congregation listening to the sermon. Brrrrrng. Brrrrrng. The Consecration? No - it's a mobile phone calling. The sermon halts; the faithful peer round, seeking the culprit. But it's the priest himself who delves deep into his silken vestments, produces the phone, has a chat, hangs up, then resumes the homily. And who was calling? Well, it wasn't the Vatican, which has just sent a thunderbolt reprimand to the in-touch pastor.