Diary

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I was somewhat aggrieved, at first, to read that Keith Waterhouse and his pals had decided to keep the relaunch dinner of The Useless Information Society stag - on the grounds that women have no use for facts that are of not the slightest value to anybody.

"Dammit," I cried. "Am I not a woman? And do I not know in chronological order the names of all Elizabeth Taylor's husbands?" But then I realised that Miss Taylor might find that litany useful should she write her autobiography, so it didn't qualify.

In bed that night I tried and tried to think of a piece of wholly useless information and fell asleep from sheer boredom. So fair enough, Keith. You may be right. I, at least, will not be leading a protest march or complaining to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

I squirmed a bit at a gentle rebuke from Vanessa Stern of Chichester and Bognor Regis Victim Support about my remarks last week re the help offered me over my burglary. She points out that such groups do not counsel, but give practical advice to people in need.

Of course, I applaud the volunteers who provide such support, but like some of my similarly crabby friends who fear the Californianisation of this once sturdy people, I am put off by the language they use. A voice on the phone saying, "Sorry to hear of your burglary. Are you OK or are there some practical problems with which we can assist you?" is one thing. But if having had some property stolen and the contents of drawers tossed around the house makes me a "victim" who has "suffered", what terminology will he appropriate if my limbs are blown off by a car-bomb?

A friend backed me up by giggling about the experience of her father. In his time a war-hero, a businessman and an MP, who has also experienced great personal tragedy, he was no more than irritated recently when his golf-clubs were stolen at a railway station. But as he was leaving the office of the transport police, one of the officers pressed a card into his hand and said: "If you ring this number, someone will counsel you on your loss."

Apropos the suggestion that the perpetrators of the burglary might have been from the IRA, my friend Eoin points out that rather than call them "Provos", I should adopt their own terminology and substitute "volunteers on active service".

I was diverted to learn that Sir Terry Burns, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, is trying to teach his staff manners with the help of a memorandum instructing them to greet messengers and security staff, apologise to each other if they have spoken sharply and generally try to behave like normal people. This sent me down memory lane to the day during my civil service career when I was assigned a new recruit, a brilliant graduate - whom I shall call Ebenezer - whose intelligence and industry were exceeded only by his arrogance and rudeness.

"What are we to do about Ebenezer?" asked the rest of my staff after a few frightful days. "Break his legs," suggested the clerical assistant - to popular acclaim. Often I wished we could act on her advice, but instead we laboured on trying to enlighten him through example, constructive criticism and explaining through gritted teeth that to make enemies all around the department was counter-productive. Daily I wearily tried to repair the damage he wreaked so effortlessly.

Ebenezer's natural boorishness was exacerbated by his distress at having been posted not to the Treasury, which he felt to be his natural home, but to what he used to explain to anyone who would listen was an inferior department full of mediocrities. Eventually I was called upon to assess Ebenezer's performance and I wrote that despite his considerable intellectual gifts, I considered him so ill-mannered as to be unemployable anywhere except in the Treasury. Reader, they accepted him enthusiastically.

Speaking of arrogance, the tenant of my affections would like you to know that a French restaurant which we frequent has a wine list with a section called "Les Vins du Nouveau Monde", featuring wine from California, Chile, New Zealand and - wait for it - Spain.

I dimple shyly at Hugh Mitchell's response to my request for verse to avenge the wrong President Clinton did me recently in having Belfast cleaned out of transformers:

What he does in the States is ancillary,

But that scoundrel, the husband of Hillary,

For upsetting our Ruth

Should be sentenced, forsooth,

To a couple of days in the pillory.

And George Hummer rubs it in:

Bill Clinton

Has never been to Frinton.

The curl of his nose and lip

is nothing to do

With the unsatisfactory state of

that town's public loo.

My thanks to you and the other balm-providers. I feel much better now.

JST Looms was anxious you be informed about the 1937 limerick celebrating Petomania:

There was a young fellow called Carter

Who was famed as a musical farter.

He could play anything

From "God save the King"

To Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Today's compulsory homework is set by Kate Odgers, whose family has been preoccupied since the late 1940s with finding the beginning of a riddle her father brought home after an evening with friends. "The answer is: 'One rode a horse and the other rhododendron.' I wonder if you, or any of your readers, know the question?"

Please solve this one and thus release the Odgerses to do something useful with the rest of their lives.

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