A long time ago, 20 years at least, we decided to visit parts of Britain we did not know. We started with a trip to the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, dreaming of mountains and seascapes and lava bread with dinner.
Needless to say, it turned out differently. Of scenery there was none; the clouds were well and truly down. And the further we drove, the fiercer and more encompassing the rain. Where we stayed, the sole source of youth entertainment was the telephone kiosk below our window, while scampi-in-a-basket (remember?) was the reality that replaced lava bread.
For me, that trip had an additional purpose. It was intended by way of a catharsis for the dismal summer treks to Snowdonia I had endured in childhood, which involved an hour or more between trains at Crewe and, if you were unlucky, a missed connection at Caernarvon. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my mother, shepherding four children under 10 and distributing packed lunch for everyone that included home-made trifles in individual plastic beakers. Wales couldn't really be that awful, could it?
Well, the Lleyn Peninsular inoculated us against any more familiarisation trips to Wales – until a recent weekend, when we went to Cardiff and drove around the Brecon Beacons, defying an inclement weather forecast that turned out to be wrong. But even if weather makes a difference, so – I think – does something else. Wales, now it is "devolved", seems to have a sense of itself that is clearer, more positive and more modern than before.
There always were the costume dolls with their tall black hats, the model spinning-wheels and the dragons, but they seemed to represent a Welshness frozen in a clichéd past. Now, there are more dragons than ever, but they are bright, newly gilded and somehow livelier. Signs are bilingual. All right, most people aren't native Welsh speakers. But the public display of language fosters a sense of legitimate nationhood in place of the subdued rebelliousness before. In Cardiff, the Assembly and the civic complex around it – all Welsh materials, Welsh character, Welsh pride – say that this is a nation in a way that goes beyond the rugby and the choirs.
In Scotland, the process of assertion is more advanced, making itself felt in social attitudes and policy. There is a renaissance in art and crafts; and something similar is afoot in Wales. Devolution, for all its constitutional roughness, seems to have bestowed something akin to contentment, if not happiness. And, for me, this echoes something else.
No one – well, let's say almost no one – would liken British rule in Scotland and Wales to Soviet repression of the Baltic states, or even Spanish rule over Catalonia. But another's suzerainty, however benign, still seems to be a state that leaves much to be desired. The palpable delight of the Baltic states after regaining independence – the revival of identity, the flags, the restored buildings, the life breathed into ossified culture – made the streets of Riga, for instance, a pleasure to walk – and still does, for all the exigencies of recession. If Scotland and Wales in time become separate countries – why not? There are smaller countries in Europe than these.
As we drove home from Wales, it was impossible not to contrast the well-groomed dragon bidding us a bilingual farewell with the scuffed and faded lion, announcing our return. Come on, England, it's beyond time to get your act together. Those pesky Celts are showing how.
Could all this condescension be 'cos he's...?
My sympathy for the disgraced golfer, as you might imagine, has been limited. How could one big spoilt kid mess up his near-perfect life so comprehensively? Even at his "re-launch" earlier this week, his minders wrapped him in cotton-wool to dull any probing questions. But yesterday I revised my opinion – and not because Tiger was back earning his keep on the golf course. It was because of what the chairman of the Augusta National Club said on the eve of the US Masters.
"As he ascended in our rankings of the world's great golfers," said Billy Payne, "he became an example to our kids that success is directly attributable to hard work and effort." But, he went on, "our hero did not live up to his expectations of the role model we saw for our children". And there was more: "Certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
Now it might be a bit politically incorrect to mention this, but I wonder whether anyone in authority would have said anything so patronising of a white sportsman? It seems particularly insensitive coming from a white official in the US Deep South, where segregation is not so long gone. There are white golfers whose prolific personal flaws have routinely escaped public criticism. Why should Tiger be uniquely vilified as a fallen role model?
Freed from the farce of your 5-a-day
Little gave me more pleasure this week than the finding that eating more fruit and vegetable has a negligible effect in preventing cancer. I have long found that phrase "5-a-day" intensely irritating, never more so than when prefaced with "your". It didn't even really mean what it said. One of "your 5-a-day", it turned out, could be a glass of fruit juice; a "smoothie" counts for more. No wonder it didn't work.
Even if you did treat the five items seriously, though, as the half-million in the survey seem to have done, it still didn't make a great difference. In the best-case scenario, the study found, an extra two portions of fruit and veg a day might prevent 2.6 per cent of cancers in men and 2.3 per cent in women. Or, as Professor Walter Willet of Harvard summed it up, "any association of intake of fruits and vegetables with risk of cancer is weak at best". Bravo!
So now we can go back to nibbling our fruit and veg for their taste and texture rather than out of duty. We won't have to count them any more, either; they'll return to being part of that elusive balanced diet, which was always the most sensible way.
Alas, though, we're not out of the woods yet. The same researchers now want to establish whether some fruit and veg might do more good than others. Down the line, that means more hype about "super-foods", a price premium on the "useful" stuff, and more tasteless, farmed berries mouldering on the supermarket shelves out of season.