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Arts and Entertainment

Of all the subjects for a thrilling tale of espionage, war and diplomacy, ping-pong seems an unlikely contender. All the more intriguing then is the story behind a détente between America and China in 1971, which occurred seemingly out of the blue after 22 years of hostility.

'Voice of Rugby' McLaren falls silent aged 86

There was a kind of hush all over the rugby world last night. Bill McLaren, the great voice of rugby union, died yesterday morning, aged 86. It is eight years now since the former schoolmaster hung up his microphone in the BBC television commentary box, but for half a century his gentle Borders burr – painting a vivid picture of the game he played, taught and loved – made him not so much a national as an international institution. From Hawick, his beloved home town in the Scottish Borders, to Invercargill, the southernmost tip of All Black country, McLaren and his words were fondly cherished. He was an MBE, an OBE, a CBE and, in what proved to be the final year of his life, the subject of a huge Facebook campaign for a knighthood.

Legendary commentator Bill McLaren dies

Rugby union commentator Bill McLaren has died aged 86.

Matterson vows to continue after loss of finger

The Castleford coach, Terry Matterson, intends to carry on regardless despite the loss of a finger in an horrific training ground accident.

Varekai, Royal Albert Hall, London

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Cirque du Soleil has become the biggest brand in world circus. "Brand" is the word, because there's something very corporate about this Canadian company's approach to circus. The performers are spectacular: Varekai includes some astonishing feats, from intricate balancing acts to Russian swings. The framing show is blandly predictable.

Observations: Book club open to browsers

If you thought book clubs were a bunch of people sitting around, discussing what they had read the night before, you'd be wrong – well, about this book club, anyway. Since it opened in London's Shoreditch in the autumn, visitors to the Book Club, which describes itself as taking an intelligent approach to social activity, have taken part in talks, cultural happenings, workshops and the odd unconventional club night.

Blair boots the Blues past Toulouse

Cardiff Blues 15 Toulouse 9: Kiwi full-back kicks four penalties and wing Halfpenny another to bring misfiring French giants down to earth

Lives Remembered: Eric Dehn

Eric Harold Dehn, my former colleague at Bristol Grammar School, was a remarkable man, of short stature but huge personality, who was born in 1916 and spent his working life between 1939 and 1976, apart from the years of the Second World War, as a French teacher at Bristol Grammar School. His teaching methods were idiosyncratic, conducting the whole of an 11-year-old's first lesson entirely in French and giving each boy a French name based on his surname, for example, but he gave the same care and attention to the pupil having trouble with French verbs as he did to the potential Open Scholar.

The Sketch: Lords bowled over by Sugar's maiden speech

Lord Sugar's debut in the Lords can't be called a maiden speech. It was more demi-mondaine, with a touch of street-walker, a bit of pole dancing and one of those tricks that Thai strippers do with a ping-pong ball.

Travel challenge A new year get-together in England

Every week we invite competing companies to give us their best deal for a specified holiday. Today: a self-catering break over the new year. Prices are for seven nights' rental (commencing 28 December) for properties that sleep at least 10 guests.

Sarkozy challenged over claims of smashing Wall

President Nicolas Sarkozy became embroiled in a bizarre verbal ping-pong match yesterday after he announced that he had personally helped to demolish the Berlin Wall on the first day of its fall 20 years ago.

Observations: Give the Coraline puppet masters a hand

More often than not, when we watch a film, we don't give too much thought to the amount of work involved in putting it together. Which, refreshingly, is something that director Henry Selick decided to fix during trailers for his latest stop-frame animation film, Coraline, which hit our cinema screens earlier this year. To highlight just how meticulous the process can be, he flashed a few facts fleetingly across the screen: thousands of hands for puppets were each made by hand, a forest of cherry blossoms made of popcorn, five miles of gold thread for a five-inch wig and 3,500 flowers that all light up.

Brian Ashton: Coaches must go with the flow, free of jargon

Tackling the issues

Evra defends Ronaldo's character

Manchester United defender Patrice Evra has leapt to the defence of former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, insisting the Portugal star is portrayed unjustly by the media.

Observations: How cinema's inside man manages to do the right thing

Spike Lee was on typically rambunctious form at The Independent Interview on Monday at London's BFI. In a wide-ranging discussion, guided gently and not always successfully by David Lammy, MP, the director covered everything from the release of Do the Right Thing 20 years ago and the racism of critics, to how Barack Obama is coping with a post-election onslaught from "redneck crackers" ("The euphoria of him winning has gone. He's under attack"), and the changing face of cinema, where funding is scarce. "Unless you're Spielberg, Lucas or Tyler Perry, it's hard to get a film made." Nevertheless, the single-minded director (he demands final cut on all of his movies) revealed that he had turned down big-budget directing jobs in the aftermath of his most successful film, Inside Man. "Every available bank-heist movie that had been lying around was dusted off and sent to me".

Pixar: The real toon army

Toy Story, Wall-E, Finding Nemo – and next month, Up. How does Pixar stay on top? The secret's in its incredible studios in California. Guy Adams takes an exclusive tour
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Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
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Arts and Entertainment
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The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
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Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

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Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
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How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
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Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
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Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
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'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
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Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

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England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
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Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

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