Deborah Orr: It all makes sensational reading, but does anyone think about the children?

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It's been a vintage week for armchair gossips, with personal revelations that one would normally have to twitch the curtains feverishly to happen upon simply falling into the laps of a nation agog. Merry pontification about Madonna, who adopted a Malawian non-orphan, centred on whether David was being rescued from poverty for selfless enough reasons and, as usual, everyone agreed that since the world's thirst for details about the child would be insatiable, he'd never get a minute's peace. Tut, tut.

This story of a child snatched from the tender ministrations of a hard-pressed African state was merely made more piquant by the grim news that right-to-life baby Charlotte Wyatt hardly ever saw her mother any more. For some while, she has been cared for completely by medical staff - the very people her now-separated parents took to court over the hospital's wish to withhold resuscitation, because of the baby's poor quality of life.

Charlotte, who turns three today, can theoretically leave hospital now, even though she needs to be attached to an oxygen tank, fed via nose tube, and relies on a panoply of powerful drugs to keep her alive. Her parents say - with some justification as they don't appear to be in good shape themselves - they cannot cope with such care. Charlotte, like very many other severely disabled children, and unlike David, is likely to continue to be looked after for by the state.

Yet if the strange vicissitudes of modern parenting looked to have been aired quite comprehensively enough for one week, there was another shocker in store. Enter Beatrice, a child with parents just as wealthy as Madonna - and in perfect health as well. What could go wrong here then? Whoops, absolutely bloody everything.

Not long ago, Paul McCartney was tapping messages on to his newly estranged wife's website, explaining that she was a good mother, no gold-digger, and that the two of them would be sharing their parental responsibilities in a happy and amicable fashion.

Now it's Heather Mills who is being called a fantasist, as she describes such supposed abuses as her husband being sick, being drunk, being huffy about breast-feeding, and smoking joints (which we all knew anyway). These supposedly terrible accusations sound to me to be fairly commonplace symptoms of a marriage that wasn't working (and even fairly commonplace symptoms of one that's perfectly all right, really). Even the alleged domestic violence, I'm afraid, sounds like a reprehensibly hysterical consequence of deep incompatibility, rather than an indication of systematic one-sided abuse.

The most upsetting thing about the awful legal imbroglio that the former Beatle and his estranged wife have got themselves into is that it is played out up and down the country every year by about 28,000 other warring parents. The damage is horrific, for the messed-up adults involved as well as the poor, traduced, fought-over children. David's life is never going to be perfect and nor is Charlotte's. But Beatrice's could have been fine if her parents, together or apart, could have put her first.

* The size zero scandal continues apace and has even eclipsed itself, with the development of a new tiny size, the "00". What is to be done? How can the world of fashion rid itself of its body dysmorphia? The banning of teensy models in Madrid has made little impact. Endless articles in the media have achieved even less. Perhaps it's the papers that should take up the Spanish challenge and stop printing "concerned" pictures of skeletons in metallic swimsuits whenever the opportunity arises. Bony frames make clothes look good. But not if nobody gets to see them.

Everything in the garden's much too lovely

Australian farmers are blowing their brains out as dry weather turns their land into dust. The Gobi desert is spreading at a rate of 4,000 square miles a year, forcing Chinese peasants to abandon their land. One in five Brazilians born in the north-east is moving to avoid drought. And I can't get a thing done in my garden, because autumn just won't come.

It all looks great. The dahlias are awesome, even though their frost-tender tubers haven't been lifted for years. The roses are in a second bloom far finer than the first. The magnolias are in heavy bud, and the willow has shot out its first little lamb's tails. The only trouble is that is all a bit mental.

My Bishop of Llandalfs should be slime, turned into sad little mounds by light but decisive frosts. Roses, it's true, ought to be flowering, but only in the manner of plucky survivors, with a few defiant blooms fighting a rearguard action against winter. As for the magnolias, they shouldn't be out until February. And the lamb's tails - they're your classic little promise spring is on its way. Traditionally.

The really frustrating thing is that without the seasonal switch-off and the start of the period of abeyance, it's impossible to get the garden ready for next year. This should be the gardener's busiest time, with the cutting back, the moving and dividing and the bulb planting under way. Get it done now and you barely have to lift a finger the rest of the year. But one can't get it done now, because everything is growingmore lushly than it did in the drought-stricken summer.

Right now, the sky is blue, the sun out and the occasional butterfly is still flapping into view. Everything in the garden is lovely. Which is appalling.

Not that grim up North

The quango everyone loves to hate, The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, is under fire again. This time it is being excoriated over a leaked report into the cancer drug Velcade, which it is allegedly about to blacklist for reasons of economy. Janice Wrigglesworth, one of three West Yorkshire women who want the drug, is particularly incensed because it is available in Scotland. "Are they saying a Scottish life is worth more than an English one?" she asks.

It's a valid question, but it's really about the anomalies of devolution, rather than the value of life. Nice has had some success in tackling the postcode lottery that so incenses taxpayers. But because Scotland makes its own decisions about matters such as health and education, Nice rulings are not applicable there, and nor is much other government economic policy.

That's why elderly Scots get free personal care and young ones don't have to pay top-up fees, even though the Scottish economy is so moribund that the latter pretty often have to head south the moment they have graduated (then whizz back again, presumably, when old age starts looming).

Interestingly though, in the years since devolution, it is the Scots, rather than the English, who have developed an enthusiasm for fiscal autonomy. Even the Scottish Tories - a few years ago dead against devolution - are preparing to make it an election issue. This brings them into line with the SNP and makes Labour the most conservative party in the North. All good stuff.

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