Charles Nevin: As Mr Prescott shows, the unlikely does happen

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The Independent Online

Doubtless many readers will be familiar with the television advertisement where the youth snatching up the dropped purse from the pavement is intent on returning it to its owner rather than diverting its contents to his own use. There are at least two morals to this. One is also familiar: I can't remember what the advertisement is advertising. The second is that things are not always what they seem.

A striking illustration of the latter is John Prescott's explanation that he visited the Colorado ranch of Philip Anschutz because of a love of Westerns. This came as a surprise to most observers because they had imagined it was in some way connected with Mr Prescott's influence and Mr Anschutz's ownership of the Millennium Dome.

Most observers: not this one. By some happy combination of nature and nurture, I lack that inclination to distrust which affects so many of my peers. Where they tend to ask themselves, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?", my instinct is to tell myself, "Now let's not forget it certainly is a funny old world and stranger things have happened." And it would be difficult for the bastard-baiters to deny that my position is more open-minded, and, well, Independent.

I do have plenty of evidence. You might think that England's exit from the World Cup was the result of poor play. But Ian Cawsey, Labour MP for North Lincs, is blaming it on the decision by Margaret Thatcher when Education Secretary to end free school milk, thus fatally weakening the bones, including, presumably, the back ones, of Messrs Rooney, Owen, Beckham, etc. Fascinating: I should add that milk is also a good source of vitamin A, vital for healthy eyes, which must explain the weeping, the penalties and Wayne's misplaced boot.

I also note the research showing that "White Van Man" passes much more closely to cyclists than other motorists. This is being used to portray him as more dangerous; might I suggest that he's just more friendly? I also recall Jeremy Clarkson's assertion that WVM drives in his no-nonsense way because he is anxious to get to his clients as quickly as possible. Marvellous. I'm still thinking about Mr Clarkson.

This openness to the alternative has wide application. There is, for example, concern at present about a decline in the hedgehog population, based on the reduced numbers found dead by the roadside. But is this not because hedgehogs, in common with the other mammals surveyed, including foxes, rabbits and badgers, are learning to cross the road? Experts deem it unlikely; but as, say, Mr Prescott's career shows, the unlikely does happen.

Indeed, the above reminds me that another leading Labour politician, Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, was similarly disbelieved when he explained that his presence hard by a layby near Bath had nothing to do with the spot's popularity with the gay cruising community but was in fact in pursuit of badgers, probably as an adjunct to the said survey.

Sex has always been a fertile field for these misunderstandings. One thinks of Chico Marx, accused of kissing a chorus girl by his wife: "I wasn't kissing her; I was whispering in her mouth"; but the most vivid example of things not being what they seem came from Sir Noel Coward, when asked by a godchild to explain a close coupling of the canine kind: "Well, the doggie in front has suddenly gone blind and the other one has very kindly offered to push her all the way to St Dunstan's". So: yeehaw!

A town for a long and boring life

Bury St Edmunds, according to official statistics, has the country's longest-lived citizenry. A fine place, Bury, gardened and hanging-basketed, containing The Nutshell, at 7½ft by 15ft the smallest pub in Britain, with a mummified cat called Lucky hanging from the ceiling. But not a great deal has happened there since that big riot in 1327. It is also the epicentre of the area of the country that has produced the fewest comic entertainers (after John Le Mesurier, born there, you have to go to Norwich for Mr Pastry). Salford, at the other end, has inspired Coronation Street, Engels, Lowry, Frank Evans (Britain's greatest bullfighter), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett based it on a Salford garden) and an occasionally whimsical attitude to law, order and life that can make survival an achievement. You choose.

* Finland is a remarkable country, alert to the new, aware of the past. Very big on mobile phones, obviously: did you know they have a football team which takes votes by text for substitutions? Pity we couldn't do it in Germany. Keen on the classics, too, marking their European Union presidency by introducing a weekly newsletter in Latin.

Excellent. These phrases might come in handy: Ad praesens ova cras pullis sunt meliora: eggs today are better than chickens tomorrow; ubi mel ibi apes: where there's honey, there's bees; mendacem memorem esse oportet: a liar should have a good memory; ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret: the cobbler should not judge above the shoe; sapiens de asini umbra non disceptat: the wise man does not argue over the shadow of an ass; forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit: one day we'll laugh about this. Gratias (mostly to Mr E Ehrlich's splendid dictionary).