FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
What's a frogman

doing in here?

HARDLY, it seems, had we noted that the French navy prefers to go into action against unarmed enemies, like Greenpeace and Rarotongan islanders, than we look out the window to see seven French warships, led by a larger vessel, A785, materialise out of the fog and sail up the Thames towards us. As we write, they are lined up menacingly 18 floors below our Canary Wharf desk.

Being an unarmed column, and furthermore on the side of the anti-nucleaire Tahitians, we fear some risk from Frog commandos who love nothing better than putting an axe through an Apple Mac. But then we are distracted by another fact. The British Government - of course - denies that this visit has anything to do with Britain's warm support for the filthy explosions beneath the Pacific. According to Le Monde, the first test in September was officially given the rather obscure name "Thetis", after the Greek woman who dipped her son in the Underworld's River Styx. And what is the name of A785, moored below us? We look it up in Jane's Fighting Ships. The answer: Thetis. A sly nudge and wink to Major and "Mole" Rifkind from their cronies in Paris?

Greek tragedy

MORE ECHOES of the classical world. We were interested to hear that 400 wronged Greeks from Piraeus turned up in Venice last week demanding the return of a 4th century BC marble lion which the Doge Morosini stole in 1688 and set up outside the Venice Arsenal.

Our sympathy goes to the Greeks on this, if only because Morosini was the military genius who managed to blow up the Parthenon and scatter much of what later became the Elgin Marbles in all directions.

And since we're setting the world to rights, isn't it time someone was brought to book for the graffiti which disfigures the Piraeus lion? For years no one could work out even what language this graffiti, "rudely and brusquely chiselled" was written in. It wasn't Greek and it certainly wasn't in the exquisite calligraphy that might be left behind by a passing Arab hooligan. Then a visiting Dane realised that the words were 11th century Norse runes, which, on the left shoulder, read:

"Haakon conquered this port and Harold the Tall imposed large fines on account of the revolt of the Greeks. Dalk has been detained in distant lands." And on the right haunch: "Asmund engraved these runes by desire of Harold the Tall, although the Greeks on reflection opposed it." I like "on reflection". But what about all this conquering and fining and defiling of statues by the tall and troublesome Harold? There's an unspoken thought that often floats around in the EU that we - the hard-working well-behaved people of northern Europe - are unfairly subsidising the indolent and rascally south. Such payments from Brussels are, if anything, reparations 900 years late.

This won't wash

OUR fat friends - sorry, that sounds harsh, plump - have been excited by reports from China and Japan about something called Soft Seaweed Defating [sic] Soap, a herbal product which, its manufacturers claim, can "suck subcutaneous fat from human bodies" and remove five kilos of body fat from thighs and buttocks after three months of use. Demand is at fever pitch in Japan, where 28 million bars have been sold this year at $30 each, and it is already appearing on the grey market in New York for $50. The Chinese Ministry of Health and the Chukyo University of Nagoya in Japan both say that the claims are true. No one knows how Soft works, though. One Hong Kong herbalist suggests that the most effective way to use this mysterious substance might be to eat it.

Lama excuse

THE fantastic vanity of Marxists, who always knew the answer to everything, must be one reason for their downfall in eastern Europe. The phenomenon continues in China. One watches open-mouthed as the godless cadres take over the task of selecting the child into whom the soul of the last Panchen Lama has migrated, and bitterly dispute the ability of the Dalai Lama to operate in this subtle spiritual area. "Our work to select the reincarnated soul boy is still under way," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tells us. "The Dalai Lama's selection of a soul boy is null and void," he adds, "as it violated rules on the selection of a reincarnated soul boy." The Party Knows Best!

We shop Major

THIS weekend, Commonwealth leaders are closeted together for talks in the mountains of New Zealand's South Island, but they are allowed out from time to time for a bit of fun - horse-trekking, watching sheep being shorn (that's always a laugh), wilderness safaris and so on. Malaysia's PM, Dr Mahathir, went white-water jet-boating, while the dashing Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana played squash with the world's richest man, the Sultan of Brunei. Mr Major went shopping.

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