Miles Kington: Twinkle, twinkle, little Supermarket Trolley

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The Independent Online

I was recently contacted by an old friend of mine who works for the Government and needed to appoint an extra member to a new quango.

"Would you be interested in joining?" he asked me. "It's a new group that has been set up to give the stars in the sky their own names."

"They've already got their own names," I said.

"Yes, I know," he said, "but we don't think that the names they have got are really very good names. People don't know any Latin any more, so they don't know, for example, that Ursa Major means the Great Bear. And even if they do know, they don't think that Ursa Major looks very much like a bear. Or a plough, either, come to that. And all those stars that are named after gods and after heroes – most people can't remember any mythology! So people are getting out of touch with the stars."

"The Government is worried about this?" I said.

"The Government is worried about everything at some time or another," he said. "The story goes that the Prime Minister was amazed while he was on holiday to look up at the sky at night and to realise that he hardly knew anything at all about what was up there – so now Mr Blair wants all the stars to be given new names that will go down well with the voters."

"I see," I said. "And why me?"

"Why not?" said my friend. "It's £20,000 a year and at the end there's probably a knighthood in it for you."

"I'll do it."

The quango finally met for the first time last week. Our chairman, who is the chief executive officer of a big supermarket chain, wasted no time and came straight to the point.

"I didn't get where I am today by knowing about the stars, but then perhaps if the stars had had sensible names I would have done. Anyway, let's kick off with the Plough, or Great Bear. And let's find a product name for it that the customer can identify with."

He projected a slide on to the wall.


"There it is. Now, what does it remind anyone of?"

"A pram," said someone.

"A soup spoon," said someone else. PD James, probably. Or Fay Weldon. They always seem to be members of these sorts of committees.

"A monkey with a big tail," a third voice responded.

"A half-unwrapped parcel with a lot of Sellotape flying off at an angle," I said.

The chairman gave me a suspicious look before saying: "Now, look, gents, we're not going to give astronomy a good name by announcing that the biggest constellation in the sky is going to be the Soup Spoon. We need something instantly recognisable. Something within everyone's experience. And it seems to me that the Plough looks like only one thing: a Supermarket Trolley."

We all looked again. There was a certain resemblance...

"And here's the clincher," said the chairman. "This constellation is, as often as not, upside down in the sky depending on the different seasons and which hemisphere you live in and so on. And supermarket trolleys are, as often as not, upside down in the nearest river or pond. Take a look."

Actually, he had a point. But the quango member who looked like Salman Rushdie didn't agree.

"Whichever way up it is, it looks more like a child's buggy to me," he said.

"Ah, that's where you're wrong!" said the chairman. "The one that looks like a child's buggy is the one that used to be called Ursa Minor. Take a look!"

"There you are!" he said. "The Push Chair! With the Pole Star on top. Or Push Chair Handle Star, as we now call it."

It got worse. I'll keep you informed.