Editor-At-Large: Send a fiver to Bono to ease our suffering

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The Independent Online

About two weeks ago I saw the chilling sight of a woman lugging home a carrier bag full of rolls of Christmas wrapping paper. She'd taken advantage of a special offer down at the newsagents - obviously planning ahead. Then my local supermarket removed shelf after shelf of food and clothing and replaced it with "seasonal" offers

About two weeks ago I saw the chilling sight of a woman lugging home a carrier bag full of rolls of Christmas wrapping paper. She'd taken advantage of a special offer down at the newsagents - obviously planning ahead. Then my local supermarket removed shelf after shelf of food and clothing and replaced it with "seasonal" offers

like glittering tablecloths and furry slippers shaped like reindeer. Next, Raymond Briggs, the curmudgeon to end them all, announced he'd designed a special set of Snowman stamps for the Royal Mail. Sadly he revealed that the Snowman would not be seen sitting on the toilet or washing, as in Mr Briggs's best-selling book, because in the precious world of philately it might seem disrespectful to portray a jolly bottom too close to HRH's profile. The final icing on the Christmas cake was the grim news that Fab Macca has joined the line-up for the new Band Aid single, now expected to be the seasonal number one.

Don't get me wrong, I adore Christmas, in spite of everything I have just listed. I love giving and receiving presents, cooking, carol services, cold weather, turkey, and pass the parcel. I specially like Christmas because my birthday is two days later and I can segue straight from one celebration to another to New Year's Eve without a break, and then start the new year in an orgy of self-loathing, dieting and shunning alcohol. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was, without doubt, one of the most feeble pop songs of all time, and now we are getting a new version featuring everyone from Bono to St Paul to Robbie Williams to Fran Healy to Dido. The original record sold 3.5 million copies in the UK alone in 1984 and raised £8m to aid famine relief in Ethiopia. It led to the Live Aid concert and Band Aid II in 1989. The need to raise money to help starving people in Africa is undoubtedly a worthy cause, but aren't you tempted to ask why all these talented people can't just give a tithe from their millions without inflicting third-rate music on the public and then calling on us to buy it in the name of charidee?

Raising money for charity in the UK is bound up with pranks, jokes, silly costumes, bad records, lousy comedy and mind-numbing stunts. In spite of the hideously accurate jibes mouthed by Smashie and Nicey (Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse) years ago, celebrities all want to do their bit for the underprivileged. From Comic Relief to Help a London Child we aren't comfortable with the idea of giving money to help a worthy cause unless it entails a ritual spectacle. And if you carp because you don't want to participate, preferring to donate money in private, then you are seen as tightfisted, uncharitable and weird. So be it. I long for the day when a month passes without a bloody charity appeal fronted by Terry Wogan or Lenny Henry littering up my viewing time. Charity records are another manifestation of our inability just to donate, with no strings attached. Bono and his mates could donate money from all the decent records they've made but that's not seen as "fun".

Recording a crap song line by line in expensive recording studios all over the world and dubbing it together in a fricassee of talent just produces one result - rubbish. In fact, why don't we start sending money to Bono now in the hope that there's still time to abort the project. I'm putting my tenner in the post, with a Snowman stamp, of course!

Whole new package

A new survey shows that the number of Britons organising their own holidays abroad has overtaken those who book through a tour operator for the first time. It would be tempting to think that because the old-style bargain package holiday has declined in popularity it means that British travellers have become more discerning. Far from it - in fact these days package holidays, where the flight, the hotel and the food are included, have become something the middle classes do, while working-class people save money by buying cheap flights on the internet and booking their own car hire and hotels, still clustering in packs in the grimmest bits of Majorca, coastal Spain and Tenerife or Florida. Plenty of pensioners will be spending chunks of time this winter avoiding the cold by taking extended breaks in Benidorm, Malaga, the Canary Islands or Malta. It's the cash-rich, time-poor middle-class professionals who will be the package holiday-makers of the future.

All-inclusive holidays remove the need to search out decent hotels, good food, and solitude. A new breed of travel agents spend all their time devising trips to "undiscovered" bits of the globe. If you look carefully at upmarket travel brochures, they offer holidays as diverse as safari trips in Africa, walking all over Europe, city breaks in Scandinavia or cultural tours of Italy. These holidays are carefully researched to appeal to like-minded souls who would feel guilty just lying in a deckchair without some form of input. I've been on plenty of them myself, from hiking in the Cévennes to trekking in the desert in Chile. So don't write off the package holiday - it's just called something different these days.

¿ Why am I not bothered by the news that two-thirds of state schools no longer make the teaching of languages compulsory? Because teaching any language to British teenagers is a waste of effort. This is the age when they are at their most difficult. The time to teach young people French, Spanish or German is when they are seven and eight, before they have become self-consciousness. This is the age group to which teachers have the most chance to get the message across. We already spend two hours a day teaching primary schoolchildren numeracy and literacy, and should be spending at least half an hour a day on a second language; indeed, the Government has said it would like to teach every seven-year-old another language by 2010. But if they started now, it would be possible to complete a second language to examination level by the time primary education is finished. And once you've mastered one language, learning another is relatively easy.

Many secondary schools drop languages for subjects like business studies and tourism - but surely both of these need pupils to be able to converse in more than one language? Or are we planning to operate as a nation of businessmen and women and tour operators who can converse only with each other? Teaching 15-year-olds about leisure and tourism when they have no experience of either except the annual holiday or the local gym is just barmy. Our hotel industry is staffed by many young people who've never stayed in one and have no concept of service, so let's declare 2005 the year that all seven-year-olds will learn to speak French.

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