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Miles Kington: Oh, true apothecary, thy drugs are quick. Mine's a pint...

Got that get-thee-to-a-nunnery feeling? Think you're going stark staring mad? Trouble with wild flowers in your hair? Take Ophelium and end it all

It was early evening in the pub, that delightful moment when people are still settling down with drinks and trying to get a view of the fire, and nobody says anything requiring an answer. But you know sooner or later someone will say something that shows he has been thinking.

This time it was the man with the dog: "I wonder if it's named after the chap in Hamlet."

No-one said anything. You can tell when a remark is merely a prelude to another remark.

"This stuff Polonium-210," he said. "The stuff that did for the Russian ex-KGB man. Think it's named after Polonius?"

"Makes sense, actually," said the resident Welshman. "Polonius was always engaged in petty politicking and then he got done by Hamlet in the arras. Polonius got done in the arras, Litvinenko got done in the sushi bar."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said the woman with the green hair-do, "who's going to go around naming poisons after characters in Hamlet?"

"Who ever thought a cigar would be named after Hamlet?" said the man with the dog.

"It's not a poison," said the Welshman. "It's a radioThink you're going madactive material of some kind which interferes with anything it touches. Very annoying. A bit like Polonius. I can see the sense in naming it after him."

"The difference being that Polonius got killed, and Polonium-210 does the killing," said the man with the dog.

"There is that small detail," said the Welshman.

"Well, where are all the other things named after characters in Hamlet?" said the green lady. "Where's the stuff called Claudium? Or Laertium? Or Horatium?"

"Claudium would have to be a poison you tipped into people's ears," said the Welshman. "I've often wondered about the strange death of Hamlet senior. Is there really something fatal you can tip into people's ears?"

"Yes, indeed," said the man with the dog. "It's new super-Claudium! It changes your life! One drop and you're on the throne of Denmark and in the Queen's bed! Get a bottle of Claudium today!"

"I'd hate to think what you need Ophelium for," said the green lady, "but I'd guess it would involve madness and drowning.:

"Got that get-thee-to-a-nunnery feeling?" said the man with the dog. "Think you're going stark raving mad? Do you have trouble with wild flowers in your hair? Take Ophelium - and end it all!"

"It would work the other way round as well," said the Welshman. "If Shakespeare was short of names for characters, he could take noxious substances and turn them back into people. Laudanus. A gentleman in attendance on the Prince."

"Opius. A buffoon," said the green lady.

"What on earth are you all talking about?" said the Major, who had just come in.

"It is usually easier to change the subject than explain a conversation, but we tried.

"... And as Polonius ended up stabbed in the arras," concluded the Welshman, "we thought that something called Polonium might be carrying on the same tradition of assassination."

The Major thought about it. "What's an arras?" he said.

"Well, it's a..."

The Welshman paused. "Do you know," he said, "I'm not entirely sure. Landlord, fetch the Great Big Book of Pub Arguments!"

But the landlord was there before him, already leafing through the one-volume encyclopaedia which all pubs should have behind the bar. "Polonium was discovered by Marie Curie," he said. "She was Polish. She wanted people to be reminded that Poland was not yet independent. So she named it after the country, Polonia being the Latin for Poland."

"There you are, then," said the green lady.

But he was not finished yet. "Arras is a tapestry, named for the northern French town which used to specialise in its manufacture."

"Well, there you are again," said the green lady. "They're all named after places. How boring."

"Any more questions?" said the landlord.

"Yes," said the Major. "Will you put that bloody book away and pour me a pint of best bitter?"

And so he did, and we talked about sackcloth and The Ashes.