Christina Patterson: Cracking the code of the Da Vinci nuts

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The Independent Online

In 1995, an aspiring writer wrote a book called 187 Men To Avoid: A Survival Guide For The Romantically Frustrated Woman. Snappy title, eh? Slightly depressing, perhaps, what with the weirdly specific number wiping out pretty much every known category of the male species, and the euphemistically pseudo-scientific labelling of the women (I mean, why not go the whole hog, and call them sad spinsters?) but wonderfully publicly spirited, no doubt.

In my experience, a key category of men to avoid, if you earn your living as a writer, is, in fact, the aspiring writer. There is always that moment, leaning over the candles at that first dinner, or perhaps even after that first, long, lingering kiss when the adoring swain will lean into your ear and mutter those magic words: "can I show you some of my writing"? And your heart, which has been thawing nicely, maybe even doing little frolics and leaps, sinks.

But the absolute, No.1, near-as-dammit-to-married-serial-killers, category of men to avoid is one that the book manages, unaccountably, to omit. Perhaps, however, the author can be forgiven. 187 Men To Avoid: And Why You Should Top Yourself (or have I got that wrong?) was written by "Danielle Brown", a composite creature made up of Mrs Blythe Brown and her wannabe-novelist husband, Dan. And perhaps he didn't yet know he was about to unleash on the world that terminally tedious, loopily lethal, heart-crushingly cretinous subspecies of the human male, Men Who Read Dan Brown.

Since the day when Mary Magdalen went chasing round the Louvre, or the Garden of Gethsemane or The Priory (no, not that Priory), plotting secret ways to communicate with Isaac Newton, Botticelli and Victor Hugo (or something), the world's greatest minds have been dreaming up a secret formula that would render great swathes of the world's population even more inert, intellectually lazy and paranoid than they would otherwise be. In The Da Vinci Code they cracked it. Hey presto! Shudder-inducingly awful prose. More cliff-hangers than the Grand Canyon. Crazy, galloping, surreal-but-it's-not-meant-to-be, plot. And sales of more than 70 million. That's the population of Egypt; the population of Iran.

Men love a little puzzle, bless them. Quiz games, sudoku, balancing the fiscal deficit of the Western world – these are the things that keep those brain cells ticking over (and subsequently too exhausted to do much more than tap the "on" switch of the remote). Wrap 'em up in some words and – well, at least they're words. At least it's fiction! It's nice when men read fiction. Isn't it?

Well, yes, it's nice when men read Tolstoy. When they read Tolstoy, they see men dying in battle or falling in love or playing with their children and they might think the world is a terrible, wonderful, baffling and nearly-always-interesting place. They don't necessarily start thinking that any death you can think of (JFK, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe) was planned by somebody else, and that prominent acts of terrorism (the bombing of the World Trade Centre or 9/11) were dreamt up and executed by their own governments, or that most of the affairs of state, and men, are carefully plotted by little cabals. Which, I'm afraid, an increasing number of people (mostly men) do believe. I know, because I've met quite a few of them.

If Dan Brown can't be blamed for some of the wider reaches of the conspiratorial imagination – its solipsism, paranoia and puerile refusal to acknowledge the arbritrary – he certainly taps into it. This is baby food for the baby-brained. And soon there will be more of it. The Lost Symbol hits bookshops this autumn. It's about a global cult, a secret formula and a race against time. Again.

Not bad (for an older woman)

Yes, she looks gorgeous. We can all agree that Helen Mirren looks gorgeous. Gorgeous in that cream dress she wore at the premiere of State of Play on Tuesday night, gorgeous in that red bikini she wore on the beach in Italy last summer, and gorgeous in the birthday suit that has graced some of her more memorable performances. But might it be possible, just for once, not to add "heading towards her 64th birthday" or "still beautiful at 63" or any of the other ways people find to belittle women beyond the first flush of youth – by reminding them that really they ought to be looking bloody awful and it's nothing less than a miracle that they aren't.

Dame Helen is, in fact, a member of a minuscule elite of post-menopausal women still allowed by the media to be sexy. Other members include Felicity Kendal, Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve. Ditsy, glacial and luscious respectively, each catering to a different male fantasy and one allowed, in certain cases, to endure beyond middle age – but only in certain cases. Ditsy works only if you're tiny; glacial works only if your cheekbones aren't matched by several chins; luscious works only if you're drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, they all work only if you are drop-dead gorgeous. You have to be gorgeous, you have to be gracious and you have to be grateful. If you're a woman over 50, you always have to be grateful.

Surreal lives of the 'Slumdog' child stars

If ever proof were needed that the feel-good factor of Slumdog Millionaire was limited to those who felt pretty good anyway, it can be found in the stranger-than-fiction events that have followed the multi-Oscar-winning film's release.

This urban fairy tale, set in the slums of Mumbai, has made £185m at box offices worldwide. It has also triggered a great deal of controversy: about poverty porn, the hidden price of India's globalised economy, and child exploitation. The film's two real "slumdog" child stars, Rubina Ali (who lives in a slum overlooking a drain) and Azharuddin Ismail (who sleeps under a tarpaulin), were promised a lump sum on completing their education, but paid relatively little, in the hope that their lives, and those of their families, would be minimally disrupted. The chances of this were about as high as those of the protagonist's escape from poverty through a quiz show.

This week, Rubina's father has been accused of trying to sell his daughter for adoption abroad for the sum of £200,000. He denies the allegation but Rubina's sister, Sana, has backed it up. The film, she says, has "destroyed" her family. The girls' mother has been filmed fighting their stepmother in the street.

If there weren't real lives involved, it would almost be funny, but actually it's just a horrible, sad, surreal reminder that poverty is ugly and makes people behave in ugly ways.

And that if you have spent your life yards away from other people's excrement (or, like Azharuddin at one point in the film, swimming in it) you're not, in spite of the film's fantasies, that likely to come up smelling of roses.

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