Beggars to the classless society

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The Independent Online
IS THIS the year we're supposed to be getting our classless society, or has John Major forgotten about it? Far from seeing any signs of new classlessness, I note an increasingly stark division between those who have something - a job, a home - and those who have nothing at all. One evening over Christmas there was a knock at our door and I went to open it, thinking it would be some carol singers. It was a quite respectable-looking woman with a couple of children in tow. She said: 'Have you got any food?' I was so surprised I said: 'Why?' And she said: 'We're hungry.' She meant it too: she looked quite nonplussed when I gave her some money and told her there was a fish and chip shop down the road. Friends I mentioned it to said cynically, 'Oh it's just some new begging ploy - they'll all be doing it soon', and maybe they're right, but what sort of society does that make us, where women and children traipse the streets at night, knocking on doors, for subsistence? Let's hope that 1993 really does bring some moves towards classlessness, and not just cosmetic changes such as tinkering with the Honours List.

WHEN I wrote my battle-cry against garden squirrels before Christmas, I was a little afraid I'd get zillions of letters from animal lovers denouncing me for cruelty. On the contrary, I've got zillions of letters from squirrel haters with long, bloodthirsty directions on how to murder the buggers. Here is one typical suggestion: 'You cloak the bird table in a close-fitting coat of chicken wire, and suspend the metal nut-cage from it by nylon. From the house you run an extension cable to the bird table and attach the live wire to the nut-cage and the neutral to the chicken wire (or vice versa). The current is switched off until you see a squirrel hanging from the bird table eating the nuts from the cage. Switch on the current and, completing the circuit, the squirrel has 13 amps punched through it by 240 volts. Leave the current on for five to ten seconds and turn off. The squirrel drops into a bucket of water underneath the cage and drowns.' Crikey - much as I hate squirrels, I'm not sure that I fancy electrocuting them.

Other letters recommend 'Big Nipper' rat traps and various exciting poisons. Only one reader speaks up for squirrels, and then only to make the point that the Timmy Tiptoes or London grey squirrel should not be confused with the Squirrel Nutkin or native red, which is a sweet creature deserving our protection. I see from the Sun that a pounds 50,000 bridge is to be built across a new motorway between Southport and Liverpool so that the local red squirrels can get from one side of their wood to the other. No wonder the red squirrel has lost out - with London squirrels you'd just give them a few nails and some string and they'd build the bridge themselves.

THE Mail on Sunday's You magazine has a popular back-page feature called 'Photo Finish' which consists of cutey-pie pictures of baby owls, or kittens snuggling up to Rottweilers. The Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal also has a back-page feature called Photo Finish, but it is not one you could stick on the nursery wall - it consists of photographs of bungee jumping bruises and horrible things that can happen to your legs on intercontinental flights. But my absolute favourite is the two-metre tapeworm passed by a 34-year-old man shortly after his wife delivered a baby. The caption maintains that this is an example of couvade, or sympathetic pregnancy.

MY NEW YEAR resolution is to become an intellectual, but it is quite difficult to know where to start. So it was handy that a new volume from Bloomsbury plopped from my pigeonhole called Read a Book a Week and Be Well Read in a Year. I must say I find the title a bit puzzling: I probably read a book a week anyway and I wouldn't call myself well read, but then I read a lot of trash. What are these 52 books that can make me well read? Well, they are all fiction for a start, and mainly English though not entirely - Gunter Grass is included and Tove Jansson, whoever he might be, Mark Twain, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut and Irving Stone, but no Fitzgerald or Hemingway, no Joyce, no Proust.

Instead, we have Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Dunnett, Douglas Adams, and someone called Terry Pratchett, whose The Colour of Magic is summarised thus: 'Rincewind is taking Twoflower on an expedition through Discworld. Twoflower is a tourist with enough gold to buy the universe, a picture-taking box and luggage with a temper of its own. Every pirate, troll, hoodlum, dragon-lord and drunk feels certain that Twoflower's gold is a burden to him, and that it would be a kindness to remove it. The Patrician of Ankh-wants Twoflower dead.' Me too, already, and it's only the precis.

I sometimes wonder if there's a worldwide conspiracy afoot to kill the art of reading. As soon as children enjoy any book at all - Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Madonna's Sex - some bossy adult will snatch it from their grasp and substitute Silas Marner and that's it - back to television. What is particularly puzzling is that many so-called 'light' novels are actually more turgid than the classics: reading Proust is a doddle compared with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or The French Lieutenant's Woman. However, I must not give up so easily. Back to Pratchett: 'The brown-clad one reached into his tunic and took out a golden disc on a short chain. Bravd raised his eyebrows . . .'