flat earth

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Meat balls and spaghetti sauce

ALTHOUGH some might think that the Italian magistrates investigating corruption had their clean hands pretty full, they've turned their attention to the universities. Plenty of scope there, says an academic friend, who recalls being offered the odd cask of extra vergine rather close to exam time. But the magistrates are after bigger fish: the commissions that sit in Rome and dish out top lectureships and chairs for the entire country.

The method of their appointment has always appeared to be inviolable, involving a complex rite of drawing numbered balls unseen out of a bag. And yet suspicions kept surfacing that the process was in fact being rigged. But how could such a thing be done?

An informant in Rome reveals all. Just before the commission gathered, certain balls were secretly heated up in an oven so the selectors would simply feel around in the bag for the warmest balls. It's true that around this simple fact seem to hover all kinds of jokes in quite poor taste. But don't worry yourself trying to think of them. With majestic Roman severity, my informant sums up: "So you see, before selection the balls of the chosen professor would be warmed in the oven."

Hi chair

THERE IS no reason whatever for printing this picture of a large wooden chair recently erected by a German footballer in the main square of Udine in Italy. Indeed, it's already appeared in other papers. But we wanted to put it in (a) because the previous Italian item seems to defy illustration and (b) because we happen to like it so much. We don't know why, we just do.

Die laughing

FUNNY PEOPLE, the Swedes: you'd never think they'd let slip the opportunity for a bit of introspective gloom, so it comes as a surprise to learn that in the two centuries of a Swedish press, they never made much of the obituary as a form. This was rectified only last November by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and we're pleased to pass on the news that their obituary page has now become "cult reading" among the young. Now that's more like it - and before you mock the solemnity of these northern ducklings, consider how preferable that is to Swedes in convivial mood. A new CD has been released of 100 favourite Swedish "drinking songs", entitled The Big Drinking Song CD. Here is a sample lyric - and I'm assured this is not a translation - it is fashionable to sing in English:

"Vodka tastes damn fab

"Tastes better the more you've had

"But if you fall to the floor

"Between midnight or more

"You hit yourself damn bad."

This is so toe-curlingly awful - those "damns" - that... no, we can't even think about it. Quick, the death notices.

Nightmare scenario

THEY ARE a cult object in the US - Bill Clinton has got one on the bedroom wall and so has every hip kid in the suburbs. I'm talking about an American Indian "dreamcatcher". This is a web of fine twigs, twine and perhaps feathers, which is designed not, as I at first assumed, to trap pleasant dreams which you'd like to remember, but rather for keeping nightmares at bay. In other words, a very handy item around the home, especially in a country where the voice of Michael Howard on Radio 4's Today programme can so torment your last moments of sleep.

In fact you can now buy a dreamcatcher in London for pounds 5 - call Tales from the Earth, 0171 720 4990. But don't at any cost send one as a gift to Hillary Clinton. A certain Peggy Bargon of Urbana, Illinois, did and was immediately enmeshed in a nightmare: the haughty First Lady turned her in to the feds. Arrest and conviction followed. You could argue that it's a creepy thing to do, sending gifts to First Ladies and so on, and Bargon deserves everything she got. But her offence seems quite trivial - she'd used an American bald eagle's feather in her dreamcatcher, a feather she'd picked up from the ground outside a cage at a South Carolina zoo. It is illegal to own a bald eagle's feather, no matter where you found it. Fined $1200. Then wake up gasping.

Immortal heritage

I DARE SAY you thought you lived in the country that gave to the world the rule of law, the works of Shakespeare, fair play, the industrial revolution. But elsewhere they see it differently. In Argentina, a bit of a rumpus has been raised at the news that the Princess of Wales is going to pay a visit. Veterans of the Falklands war are particularly suspicious. "We mustn't let Diana lull us into forgetting what the British did in 1982," says a veterans' spokesman, although he does admit that Britain has given some great things to the world. What, for example? "Soccer. And the Hereford cow."