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IN COLONEL PERCY'S FORGOTTEN FOOTSTEPS

A FEW weeks after the return of the much-heralded Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Michael Stroud from their Antarctic journeying, another explorer, Benedict Allen, has crept back to Britain, unannounced but with an equally stirring achievement. However, before we detail it, here is a tale about the man that makes his exploits appear all the more remarkable.

Ten years ago, Allen went to the Amazon and befriended a dog. One day, the two were confronted by hostile gold miners and fled in a canoe. It sank, and they swam ashore. But worse was to befall them. After several days of tiredness and hunger, Allen faced the moment of truth: was he going to be forced to eat his companion in order to survive?

He did so, much to the fascination of newspaper readers around the world, but we'll skip the gory details. (Allen was not so mindful of people's sensibilities at the time, recounting how he started a fire and made a rather tasty meal, albeit one that gave him stomach complaints for some months afterwards.)

Last year he returned to the Amazon, forcing himself through a psychological barrier not unconnected with memories of the dog. After seven months in the jungle, Allen, who returned last week, became the first Westerner (he cannot swear an Indian has not done it) to cross the Amazon basin from Cotopaxi in the Andes mountains to its south-eastern edge in Brazil. The last man to attempt the crossing was Colonel Percy Fawcett, who ventured into the jungle in 1925 and was never seen again.

And, yes, Allen's most recent trip was no less eventful than the one 10 years ago. He was chased by cocaine smugglers and then fell foul of gold miners who raided his forest camp, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he was standing in. Recovering his machete from the miners' camp, Allen completed a five-day trek back to civilisation. This time, you'll be glad to know, he survived by eating the fruit of palm trees.

FOR ALMOST 20 years, Sir Dick White vetted spies as director-general of MI5 and MI6. Next month, the Guards Chapel in Birdcage Walk, London, will be packed for his memorial service - but the vetting goes on. Friends must apply in writing, and admission will be by ticket only.

BIRTHDAY BASH

John Major was 50 yesterday, and celebrated in a quiet way. Not like the evening when he became an MP and shinned up a drainpipe, banging on the window of a friend who he thought would like to share his moment.

Yesterday was different: a private family dinner, a time to reminisce and perhaps look to the future. To help the Prime Minister to do so, we rang the Daily Express astrologer, Marjorie Orr, who offered some words of advice to all those who share birthdays on that day.

'Work is still erratic and unpredictable: you are up, down, all over the place,' warns Ms Orr. 'Things may just put you a little bit on edge at times. You are going to have to watch workwise that you don't wrongfoot yourself, being your own worst enemy as it were.'

Worst enemy? Who are we to say, but there is little doubt who represents the foe for another birthday boy, the anti-Maastricht campaigner Lord Tebbit. Yesterday at a London hotel he was presented with a birthday cake, inscribed thus: 'Happy birthday Norman. Rule Britannia. Up yours, Delors.'

READERS of Wilbur Smith have been invited to enter a competition organised by the author's publishers, Pan Macmillan, and British Airways Holidays. Entries close on 31 October, so no need to rush, if only because of the prize - an eight-day holiday in Egypt. (Islamic terrorists need not enter: they're already there.)

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Police and barristers are the best of friends, of course, but there have been incidents when the wigs have forgotten their manners in the name of justice (Guildford and Birmingham will know what we mean). We just hope the cordiality remains, given the police's decision to put their public image in the hands of the lobbyists Westminster Strategy. The police should have no problem sharing the firm's expertise with another influential client, the Bar Council, whose interests are looked after one floor below.

A DAY LIKE THIS

30 March 1835 Stendhal, then French consul at Civitavecchia, near Rome, writes to a friend: 'I live here on the fringe of barbarism, I

have gout and gravel and am very fat, excessively nervous and 52 years of age] I am so stupefied by boredom that I have no desires; I am in black gloom. You will understand how excessive is my stagnation when I confess that I read the advertisements in the Quotidienne] Being reduced to such a diet simply bores me to death] In this bewitched sojourn I have no knowledge of anything. The only unhappiness is a life of boredom. Do see if there is a way of earning 2,000 francs in Paris; a room facing south, on a fifth storey. Such a little room, with an income of five francs and five francs earned by a novel, would be supreme happiness. It is my natural bent to live with two candles and a writing-table.'

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