Philip Hensher: The war of the Great Scented Candle Divide

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When a widely practised social custom is discovered to be bad for you, there will be some shock and resentment. The habit of creating small fires in our own homes, polluting the air we breathe, doesn't sound like an obviously healthy or sensible idea.

But lots of people do it; lots of people gain, they say, some pleasure from it. I find it hard to believe, and now that doctors are against the practice, surely the Government can be expected to act to discourage it. Personally, I think the burning of candles is just disgusting.

Researchers have declared that paraffin candles trigger asthma attacks and may be behind some cancers. Beeswax candles are all right, or so they say. But the great majority of candles, made of paraffin, may be positively dangerous, and not just because they could easily fall over and set your house on fire. It is too soon to talk about banning them, but that day may come. It can't come too soon for me.

Partly, I dare say, my loathing of the horrid little things comes from the way they are sold. In the past, the high street was filled with greengrocers, a couple of butchers, a bookshop, an ironmonger and a fishmonger. Nowadays, it goes coffee shop, estate agent, bank, candle shop. Just count them. Those awful little shops selling candles, gift wrap, penis-shaped chocolates and nothing much else are proliferating. How on earth do they make a living? And how did we move from valuing someone who could sell you a screwdriver to someone who hoped to sell you a set of windchimes or, God forbid, an Ojibwa dreamcatcher? How many candles can you find space for in your home? Did you forget to pay your electricity bill, or are you under the impression that we're living in 1972?

My feeling is that the world divides into those who like cushions on their sofas, and those who don't; those who think scented candles create an intimate atmosphere, and those who think them more repulsive than dogs' farts and yesterday's stew. As someone who married someone on the other side of the Great Scented Candle Divide, I must constantly wage a largely wordless war. "What's this?" I say, producing a magnolia-and-kiwi-scented block of paraffin wax which has been surreptitiously added to the weekly shop. "Oh – I thought it would be nice," Zaved says, and though he knows better than to try to light it when it's just the two of us, the horrid thing does get lit whenever a guest comes round.

There seems no limit to the varieties of candles sold by those emporia of crap – the ones in strange little shot glasses, the whimsical ones in the shape of a cow, and the ones that are three feet square with 12 wicks. And there seems no limit to the fruit, herb, nut and spice combinations invented to make your home smell like Santa's grotto and render your dinner inedible. In my childhood, candles came out at powercuts and on top of your birthday cake, and were never scented. Now, you aren't free from them any day of the week.

So the news that scented paraffin candles can kill you doesn't come as a surprise. Something so awful had to be dangerous. Those candlephobes among us will not be happy until the scientists find a reason to get rid of the beeswax variants, too. If only they could discover that pashminas carry a risk of long-term lead poisoning; that having more than two cushions in your house is a factor in early-onset Alzheimers; that having a windchime outside your door correlates with lowered IQ test scores. There might, however, be a question of cause and effect to be investigated in that last one.

Play by the rules - it is, after all, only a game

The question of the South African runner Caster Semenya's sex has been raised very publicly and very indiscreetly, but some of the outrage seems bizarre. Some South African commentators are saying that to pose the question is racist, as if intersex status were somehow connected to race.

In fact, some rivals of the great tennis player Amélie Mauresmo, who is white, used to go around saying that she was "a man", so we can probably dismiss that one. The point is that Miss Semenya decided to play a game, no more than that, which has some rules which are agreed on.

One of those rules is that men may compete against men, and women against women, and those people who are neither, or both, break the rules by competing. I believe that transsexuals as well as intersex individuals are not welcome as competitors.

Well, it seems a little bit stupid to me, like the apparent rule that gay men are not allowed to play professional football and Asians are only allowed to play cricket. But it is only a game, and games, after all, have more or less arbitrarily decided rules.

If whoever decides on these rules says that a girl can't compete if she looks like a man, has a deep voice, or doesn't have breasts, then who are we to say they are wrong? So long as they state so clearly and unambiguously, and the rules aren't seen to be made up as they go along, I think we are all free not to care very much.

Golding age of literature reduced to one book

Was William Golding all he seemed to be? The newspapers last week were all over the question of whether he'd raped someone or not. He probably didn't, but there was a much more interesting and more urgent suggestion made in the pages of John Carey's new (and excellent) biography, which readers ought to care about rather more. At the end of the biography, Carey remarks that "nowadays mention of Lord of the Flies sparks instant recognition in a way that Golding's own name does not".

Can this be true? Growing up in the 1970s, I thought of Golding as a titan of English literature, and the publication of Darkness Visible made an immense impact on me as a young reader. I don't think anyone in the culture would have questioned the significance of The Spire or The Inheritors. When Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers went up against Golding's Rites of Passage for the Booker, it seemed an encounter between giants. Golding's still seem to me marvellous novels, and his name "rings out", as they say in The Wire. But perhaps Carey is right; perhaps we are going to start insisting on our boyhood favourites, and readers younger than us are going to shake their heads in embarrassment at the sort of unreadable stuff the old farts enjoy. It happened to Lawrence Durrell, after all, and if the worst comes to the worst, one novel which survives the wreck of a great reputation is better than nothing. How Golding would have hated the idea of being represented to posterity only by his first novel, though.

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