CAPTAIN MOONLIGHT : Stung by the stars? ... on the buses, off the rails ... sponsors dry up

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The Independent Online
ANYONE who reads this column regularly will know that the Captain is nothing if not even-handed. Show me an argument and, almost instinctively, I assess the pros and cons carefully and then come to a considered view. Take the debate over astrology that has been raging around our pages since that nice Professor Dawkins had a bash at it. I must say I was a little surprised at the number of letters we had in support of astrology, considering what a dreadful load of old tosh it is. But I was struck by the letter from Mr Hewett of Norwich saying that the resolution to it all would be for the Prof to do an astrologer under the Trade Descriptions Act. This seems to me an excellent idea, so I consulted with m'learned friend, Mr Anthony Scrivener QC, top brief and former chairman of the Bar Council, who readily furnished me with an opinion, free of charge (my italics). Sadly, it was his view, if I understood him aright, that no action would lie against astrologers under the TDA as their activities would not fall under the Act's definition of goods and services. But do not despair. Mr Scrivener then referred to a line of torts in which doctors had told patients that they had only a short time to live and those patients had acted on this diagnosis by spending all they had on one last magnificent splurge only to find that they remained, extant and penniless. Moonlighters: our course is clear. We need someone who has acted on the advice of an astrologer to clear financial detriment. Write to me now!

n EXAMINE carefully the stamp on the letter I reproduce below. Yes, you're right, all franked and everything, but it isn't the Queen, is it? Don't worry, you'll place her in a minute. I received this letter last week. Another one arrived on Friday morning. They were sent by one of my extensive network of correspondents, Mr Long of Loughton, Essex. (Mr Stallybrass of Bognor: all very interesting, but you have yet to match the coincidence of Bognor fire station being struck by lightning on Jung's birthday.) Why is Mr Long doing this? I'm not sure, but he's a bit of a joker, and it is timely. What does the Royal Mail say? They can't understand how Mr Long's stamps have satisfied their sophisticated electronic machinery. Has he committed an offence? They won't prosecute unless he starts sending them in large numbers. The Captain writes: don't try this at home because it will get me up on a conspiracy charge.

ACTUALLY, while we're on correspondence, let's go straight on into Interactive Corner and continue our discussions about eating squirrels. Ms Mitchell of Ashford tells me that hedgehog tastes very like squirrel and wonders if I know that you can eat a panda's paw, while Ms O'Shaunessy, from nearby Tenterden, asks if it might not be possible for fancy chefs to start cooking squirrel as a help in the battle against "the grey vermin". Concluding that they would probably insist on red ones, she then goes into reminiscence mode about the way her old grandmother used regularly to give them rook pie. It was, she says, perfectly disgusting.

n SOMETIMES, I wonder why I bother. Quiet at the back, please! Anyway, at the end of '95, those who can remember that far back will recall that I published a list of things we could do without in the new year. One of them was prattling on about the Millennium. But already, I see, there has been at least one outbreak of columnar musing about what to call the first decade of the next thousand years. Can we settle this one now: it's quite simple, they should be called the Noughties. Also, despite another stricture, people are still ringing up Terry Major-Ball. It is with a heavy sense of foreboding that I note that 1996 is the Diamond Jubilee of Butlin's, Terry's favourite holiday venue. Stand by. By the way, does anybody know anything entertaining about Bill Blair, Tony's brother? Will he match up to Terry? Does he also enjoy DIY? Let me know, usual terms.

YES, it's Memory Lane with Captain Moonlight! And today's ramble is prompted by the call from Lord Stoddart of Swindon in the Lords last week for the return of the trolley bus, which he described as "the cleanest and best, most efficient form of public transport that we have invented". Up to a point, Lord Stoddart. I remember the old trolley buses when we were young, living on Prescot Road, St Helens, just up from that tricky corner at Toll Bar, where there's the junction with the road to Thatto Heath, the one that goes up to Elephant Lane past the chemist near Owen Street. Frank Flynn was another chemist in St Helens, used to make his own cough medicine, Flynn's Black Magic. But back to the trolley buses. They were always coming off the wires on that corner at Toll Bar. Just thought I'd mention it.

n BUT it does give me the opportunity to tell you my bus joke. A boy is standing with a man in the aisle of a bus. "Move farther up the bus, please," shouts the conductor. The boy, puzzled, replies: "It isn't my father, it's my grandfather." Oi!

HEY, let's do some more on buses. Scandinavian buses! Yes, thank you, I know all about the cheap sneers. Mention Norway, and you can expect a lot of feeble jokes about the Eurovision Song Contest delivered in a sing-song accent; but how many of these people know that it was a Norwegian who invented the paper clip? Similar cheap cliches abound about the Swedes: gloomy, dull, humourless. To which I respond: Stefan Edberg. Nevertheless, I expect more mockery will greet an entirely sensible initiative on the Swedish buses, a four-minute safety video just like the ones they have on airplanes, complete with helpful information about where the doors are and such. As I said, entirely sensible, so please don't expect any jokes from me about coming round with the duty free. And while we're on ridiculous stereotypes, I suppose much fun will be had about this trip Jack Cunningham and his shadow heritage sidekick, Mark Fisher, are planning to Australia to study the way they handle culture there.

n SPONSORSHIP latest: not good, I'm afraid. I had to send out my own champagne last week, and there's not much of that left, I can tell you. You remember I had high hopes of The Glenlivet stumping up a couple of cases? Well, the lady from The Glenlivet is not returning my calls, which I do not interpret optimistically. My friend Dick from the sports department did say that he would have a word with his Dad, who works for a brewery up north, but I've not heard since. If things don't improve, I might have to approach the family firm for more of the lager beyond the sell-by date they sometimes foist on me.

YOU will be wanting to know what happened to my readers' poll on whether the regular item "Observer Shame" should continue. Well, the result was exactly neck-and-neck, so I suppose I shall have to make a decision myself. Meanwhile, let me tell you about this Christmas drinks party given by the editor of the Observer, Andrew Jaspan, or Jockey Jaspan, as I understand he is known, on account of his stature. Anyway, Jockey made a speech which began ordinarily enough but then descended into a series of Queegish imprecations about disloyal staff complaining and talking the newspaper down (Captain's note: it's not doing very well at the moment). He's right, too, you know: the principal reason I'm telling you all this is to stop his staff ringing up and telling me about it. See you next week, if we're spared!

"FIGHT? I have not yet begun to fight." Thus, last week, John Major, rallying his support in the face of Tony Blair's stakeholders, and quoting John Paul Jones, the Scottish sailor who fought for the Americans in their War of Independence. It was, sadly, a misquote. Jones was not being invited to fight: he had been called upon to surrender; his response was simply "I have not yet begun to fight". Even so, I'm not sure Jones is a good Major role model. True, he also changed his name (lengthened from John Paul, while the Prime Minister has shortened his from Major- Ball) and he did win that fight, against the Royal Navy's Serapis off the Scottish coast in 1779; but he was also a slaver and smuggler and he died in complete obscurity in 1790. His faults, notes the Dictionary of National Biography, were due to defective training and a desire for "glory". Most of his crew, by the way, were French.

The Captain's catch-up Service

BORED with the really important news? Try my exclusive review of some of the other things that happened last week ... Toto the dog, who starred in the Wizard of Oz in 1939 and was later preserved by a taxidermist, went on sale in Hollywood for pounds 2,300 ... A museum dedicated to the pork pie is to be built in Melton Mowbray ... Yasmine Bleeth, star of Baywatch, the television series about lifeguards, revealed that her male co-stars have their armpits trimmed ... Deep-sea fishermen in the Barents Sea were disappointed when a heavy catch turned out to be a Ford Fiesta ... Sporting Lisbon and Chaves played for two minutes to complete a soccer match abandoned 12 days before because of a power cut. Sporting made a 625-mile round trip. The score remained at 1-1 ... A Dutch motorist was run over and killed after he stopped on a motorway near Amsterdam to give first aid to a rabbit ... and, finally, Llanwrtyd Wells has revived the Roman festival of Saturnalia. "It's really a case of when in Mid-Wales, do as the Romans did," said Gordon Green, owner of the Neuadd Arms Hotel.