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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Independent Travel
Pompeii, Capri & the Bay of Naples
Seven Cities of Italy
Burgundy, the River Rhone & Provence
Prague, Budapest and Vienna
Lake Garda
3.	Provence 6 nights B&B by train from £599pp
Prices correct as of 12 March 2015
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss