News from Elsewhere: Some signs of the times... swimming rabbits and the Essex village that lost its name

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The Independent Online

Good day. And a very warm welcome to the column that addresses issues, follows agendas, shadows trends, provokes debates, highlights hard truths and monitors developments all too often ignored by mainstream commentators and analysts, providing that wider context and deeper background vital to a more comprehensive comprehension of contemporary life.

Good day. And a very warm welcome to the column that addresses issues, follows agendas, shadows trends, provokes debates, highlights hard truths and monitors developments all too often ignored by mainstream commentators and analysts, providing that wider context and deeper background vital to a more comprehensive comprehension of contemporary life.

An example, if I may. There was some notice last week of the discovery of the remains of a 2,000-year-old rabbit dinner at a former Roman settlement in Norfolk. Now some observers took this as evidence that the Romans had first brought the rabbit to Britain; others pointed out that it disproved Norman claims to have effected the introduction.

And that was it. No one, apparently, thought to ask what seemed a fairly basic question: can rabbits swim? It's not that far across the Channel, after all, especially if you've got back feet built on the Ian Thorpe model, although there might be some drag from the ears. Front crawl or backstroke rather than breast stroke, and probably no goggles, I should have said; but, in any event, surely it's worth considering whether they could have got here on their own?

So can they swim? Yes, they can. The Netherlands Dwarf rabbit in particular is a bit of a whizz in the water (note the location; just over there). As it happens, Netherlands Dwarfs are also very popular with magicians, on account of the size. Most performers pull them out of hats, although I seem to recall the late Tommy Cooper sawing one in half. Sylvia Milner, the top-rated Hagley performer, has one called Poppet.

Anyway, the swimming. My principal witness - and here deep background really proves its worth - is the rabbit which attacked Jimmy Carter's boat while he was out fishing and rather did for him, image-wise, as it's difficult to retain gravitas when your audience knows you've only just managed to fight off a rabbit, particularly when it's having to tread water and you've got a paddle.

Wider context? Certainly. If the rabbit's going to be struck off the list, what exactly, I should like to know, did the Normans do for us? Feudalism, Domesday, Castles, Cathedrals. Big projects, top-down government, micro-management, own strange language, taste for invasions: sound familiar? And I understand that Nottingham's still in a bit of mess. Actually, the Romans also used to eat dormice, you know. But they don't swim, as it can be a bit of a problem, with the drowsiness. Next!

Which way now?

Traffic. That's another area of interest. Did you see that all our road signs are disappearing, stolen by resourceful criminals taking advantage of the sharp rise in the price of aluminium? More than 200 have disappeared from one Essex village alone, including the one with its name on. Sorry? What's the village called? Search me. Over to the west, in Sonning Common, near Reading, they're not long recovered from a car knocking over the sign that reads "Sonning Common welcomes careful drivers".

Where will it all end? The vicar in the Essex village says it's just like the war, when they took down the signs so that any invasion force would be confused. Pity that wasn't tried earlier, as it would have bought Harold precious time while the Normans tried to find Battle. Wider context? If this spreads, only women will be able to drive. And let's just pray we don't also have to re-introduce the black-out, because someone is stealing manhole covers, too. They are: 200 gone in Newham, 130 in Aberdeen. Police are still looking into ... all right, all right. But if you find yourself down the pub being bored to death by a man in an oddly bulky coat with a limp and a very firm view on the best way from Waltham Abbey to Chipping Ongar avoiding Theydon Bois, they would like to hear from you.

Trendy inventions

An important service that this column will also attempt to provide is the explosion and exposure of tired old cliches and clinging stereotypes. Which is why today I bring news from Geneva and the International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques and Products, where last year prizes were awarded to an Iranian for her work on fireproof cotton, to a Romanian for his work on phytotherapy complexes with ecologically cultivated plants, to a Swiss company for its electromechanical linear actuator, and to a British inventor for his intelligent golf trolley which follows you wherever you go.

Shuffling mice

The following may help during the coming week if at any time you find yourself caught short of things to ponder:

* Did you know that the Ancient Egyptian for beer is boozah?

* Train drivers in East Anglia are working to rule for the right to wear shorts. Do you, like me, have this really strong feeling that you would be far happier, safety-wise, with a driver in long trousers? Why?

* In the past year, on two separate occasions, regulars at a bar in Story, Indiana, have knocked themselves unconscious while getting into their cars. How is that done?

* Have you heard of the Aye-Aye? It's a Madagascan lemur, which, I understand, got its name from the involuntary reaction of people suddenly coming across it in the jungle hanging from a tree.

* That shuffling and coughing you keep hearing late at night: apparently elderly mice share many of our age-related problems, and are especially susceptible to arthritis. Have a nice week.

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