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Playing Santa can be bad for your elf

IT'S not an easy job, this Santa business. If the police aren't arresting you for running amok in a San Francisco department store, or the Swedes aren't expressing outrage because you were once convicted of molesting children, the kids are making unreasonable demands or beating you up. You're not even safe in the Australian outback.

In the heat and dust of Bourke, Santa and an elf assistant ran to the police station after being attacked by 30 children after a candle-lit carol-singing concert. ``They were kicking me in the groin, pinching, punching in the kidneys and trying to grab the sweets and remove my disguise,'' Santa complained. One brat even made off with his red cap.

With a police escort, Santa later continued his sweet-distribution work from a police vehicle, the window partially opened. Officers drove him back to the crowd after a group of good little children begged: ``Don't let them hurt Santa.''

Still, he doesn't plan to return to Bourke ever again, even to leave lumps of coal in the stockings of the naughty ones. No doubt the old man would appreciate a double shot of whisky with the mince pie this year.

French letters

FROM the backwater of an overburdened postal sorting office west of Paris, a Christmas card arrives. This one, somehow, has slid off the French Postal Mountain, created in the last month by the collision of the Juppe and Ouvrier tectonic plates, and drifted to London on the wind.

How did this lone greeting make it in time for Christmas, through the huge backlog of mail? Perhaps it was the stamp. For there, in the patriotic hues of the French tricolour, was a philatelic tribute to the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and its ``50 years of service to the nation''.

Even the most bored and lackadaisical mail-sorter might feel a faint sense of public service upon seeing this stamp, and would dispatch the accompanying card as if it were special registered insured express post. If he didn't destroy it first.

The ENA, of course, is one of the Grandes Ecoles, an elitist post-graduate civil service college in Paris that has long cranked out the mandarins and technocrats who run France, the ``secular priests of progress'' with a vocation for bureaucracy. Among its alumni - les enarques - are Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppe, the President and Prime Minister who are now stamping on the workers' expectations.

Royal of the year

AS THE year winds up, it's time to honour those who have contributed so much to the life of their nations over the past 12 months. In Saudi Arabia, the newspaper Al-Bilad has made a surprising choice of ``Man of the Year 1995'': King Fahd. Yes, Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques himself, was found by ``the vast majority of a varied group'' to be ``the most significant and pivotal personality of the year'' for his role in supporting Arab and Islamic causes.

As the playwright Jean Anouilh said: ``God is on everyone's side ... And in the last analysis, He is on the side of those with plenty of money and large armies.''

Equally surprising, perhaps, is Time magazine's choice of Newt Gingrich. As Time always points out, its ``Man of the Year'' isn't necessarily someone the magazine likes, but one who has made a significant impact on events during the year.

And whatever one thinks of Newt, the Speaker of the House has made an impact via his ``Contract with America'', known to critics as the "Contract on America''. Even little children know him. As a five-year-old Atlanta girl told us: ``He's the Cleaner of the House''.

The Cleaner? Where have we heard that one? Oh, yes. Harvey Keitel's character in John Badham's 1993 film The Assassin - the ultimate hitman, the coldest of killers by contract.

Matchless high

BACK when Gerald Ford was the US president, his frequent fumblings were attributed to his having ``played football too long without a helmet''. But what about an oxygen mask?

Bolivians recently staged a ``strike of national unity in defence of our youth and children'' to protest against moves to ban international soccer at altitudes above 8,250ft. ``No one has ever died because of playing football at altitude,'' said one official.

Bolivia qualified for the World Cup finals after matches in La Paz, which - at 11,900ft - gave some visitors altitude sickness. Could there have been woozy Fifa officials - without coca leaves to munch - among them?