I AM intrigued by the publication of the newly revised Berlitz Chinese Phrase Book & Dictionary: 'This invaluable travel companion provides the essential phrases and basic expressions that the business or holiday traveller needs to know toget around this vast, exotic and sometimes unpredictable country.'

To attempt to navigate one's way around vast and exotic China by means only of a Berlitz phrase book seems a wonderfully quixotic enterprise. In Italy or Spain, with the aid of phrase book and some phonetically arranged questions, you can achieve answers which you have some small hope of understanding. With the Chinese phrase book, however, you ask questions which presumably have little hope of being understood. And even if they are, you have not the smallest prayer of comprehending the answer.

The handy 'Guide to pronunciation' hints at the troubles in store. 'Every syllable in Chinese has a definite tone, and therefore tones are as important as vowels and consonants in forming syllables. The difference in tone is the deciding factor in the meaning of words. For example, mai with falling tone means 'sell', and mai with falling-rising tone means 'buy'.'

Get that? No matter, let's head on to page 10 for some basic greetings. 'How's life?' (This, of course, being the sort of greeting we all use regularly) translates as zen-me yang mang ma. There is no hint on the rising or falling of tones, so, with the wrong tone, maybe this question could be understood as: 'Hello big boy, fancy coming back to my place?'

Indeed, should 'How's life?' prove a success, you can race on to page 95, Dating, where the question: 'Do you have a light, please?' (it seems that pick-up lines in China are somewhere back in the Dark Ages) eventually leads to, 'Why are you laughing?' (a sadly familiar experience for many men).

My experience of phrase books is that they are something you go to great trouble to buy and pack, but which you never take out of your bag when you get to your destination. I would love to know if anybody has actually bought a phrase book and found it useful - particularly if it was a Chinese phrase book.

Ferry tales

HOW do cross-channel ferry companies arrive at their very high fares? asks Betty Skern of Hornsea. Last September, she and her husband took their car on the Color Line ferry for the four-hour crossing from Kristiansand, Norway, to Hirtshals, Denmark. 'The crossing cost us 234 Norwegian krone (about pounds 24). Even allowing for the fact that this was a midweek, mid- September journey and we were given an OAP price concession, I cannot help wondering how our our cross-channel ferry companies work out their prices.'

In Scandinavia, ferry prices have less to do with the actual cost involved in transporting people from A to B. Fares are low because the operators make huge profits from duty-free shops and bar sales. Of course, ferry companies on the English Channel also make handsome profits on duty- free and tax-free sales, but, as Mrs Skern points out, they still manage to charge high fares.

Next week: more on Bordeaux ferry services.

A sad man writes

PEOPLE always say to me: 'I'd love your job. Travel writing sounds like the perfect life.' Well, this Thursday at 9.30am, if you happen to be near a television, tune in to Channel 4, and the horrific truth of my professional life will be revealed.

A film production company rang and said it would like to do a schools programme about travel writing, 'to show how you actually research and write a piece'. 'We will pay for the whole trip,' I was assured.

'At last]', I thought. Perhaps now I could break the surly bonds of the Independent's paltry Weekend pages budget. I dreamt of the South Pacific or the Caribbean: white beaches, nodding palm trees, azure seas, sweet zephyrs . . .

Then the production company rang back. 'Brighton,' said the producer. 'Be at Victoria station at 8am.' So it was that, one day last June, I caught the train to Brighton to be filmed doing my job - or, at least, attempting a reasonable impression of what I thought I ought to be doing in my job (it's pathetic what some people will do just to get themselves on television).

Instead of being shown researching the challenging business of reclining on a tropical beach, I was filmed literally going down the drain. A fitting tribute to my sad career.