Boyd Tonkin: btw

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The Independent Online

'As predicted, Hank Bumblebee cleaned up with Pentecostalist rattlesnake-handlers in Appalachia. But will his appeal to reptile-friendly faith communities trump Chip McHawk's iron grip on the votes of used Chevy dealers in desert states? In the other camp, can Billary Frinton's coalition of poodle-walking psychotherapists on the Upper West Side and Korean grocers in the Rustbelt match the excitement inspired by Toastrack Oblimey among goateed computer-game designers in Silicon Valley who used to play in Grunge bands..." I slogged through pages and hours of this stuff in the wake of Super Tuesday. Never has the 51st-Statism of mainstream British culture felt more abject than it did this week. Meanwhile, back in boring Brussels (yawn...), discussions take place all the time that will shape every aspect of our daily life. Which media outlet will dare to devote even 5 per cent of the space and time reserved for transatlantic shenanigans to spotlight the EU system that really makes a difference to us all?

* Primary elections work like sporting tournaments, which explains their headline-grabbing power. Yet a real – and enthralling – continent-wide contest has been building to its climax through this week. On Sunday, Egypt will play Cameroon in the final of the African Cup of Nations. I was in Cairo as Egypt's footballers began the defence of their title in Ghana. At a publishing dinner, a giant screen planted in the centre of the room upstaged all literary chit-chat as the local boys thrashed Sudan 3-0 in a regional derby. On any normal day, Cairo's traffic already boasts a honk level that sounds like the delirious aftermath of a famous victory. Heaven knows what the decibel count might reach if Egypt triumphs this weekend.

* In comparison with Europe (even Greece), Egypt remains a smoker's paradise. Cairenes claim that tobacco at least promises some choice over the substances that seep into your lungs – the traffic fumes offer none. During that dinner, on a converted river steamer anchored in the sacred stream, plump cigars were not only passed around, but left to burn as smokers dashed off to check the football. It gave a whole new meaning to Death on the Nile.

* France may have yielded meekly to a public-smoking ban, but elsewhere the "French exception" thrives. This week I met Erik Orsenna, one of those multi-tasking mandarins that Paris still designs to a world-beating spec. Goncourt Prize-winning novelist, sailor, economist, jurist, presidential adviser (to Mitterrand), member of the Conseil d'Etat (like being a law lord for governmental matters), he launched his book, Portrait of the Gulf Stream: a blend of travel, science and ecological warning. Worse, he manages to be funny, mischievous and unstuffy too. He's also one of the 40 "immortals" of the Académie française, where he occupies the seat formerly held by another doyen of the life aquatic: Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It all makes my Lord Bragg look slightly under-employed.