Diary

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The Independent Online
The other day, apropos the photograph of Gerry Adams meeting Nelson Mandela, I was asked to explain the significance of the objects on Adam's lapel, so I thought I'd share the information with you. The round silver emblem is a fainne (ring), which signals competence in oral Irish and has no political significance. The little green ribbons are the symbol of the Saoirse (freedom) campaign, which calls for the immediate release of IRA prisoners: Adams's propaganda in South Africa was so effective that all the young Afrikaners in his protection unit were wearing them.

Today Northern Ireland will see the launch of a light blue ribbon to be worn by campaigners for the Families of the Disappeared - people whose loved ones were abducted and murdered by the IRA and who want their remains back so they can bury them decently. I doubt Adams will be wearing the blue ribbon: it would make his lapel too cluttered.

I had a few virtuous catching-up days early last week. I dealt with outstanding jobs, such as grinding out an article for a German academic journal relating to a book I wrote 10 years ago (a classic example of the request you agree to six months ahead but forget about until two days before you have to deliver). On Wednesday I became mildly stir-crazy and needed an excuse to walk in the sun, so I decided I must buy a hat for an imminent wedding (not mine). So I set off on a charity-shop crawl, which instead of a hat yielded a first edition of a history book my father gave me for my fifth birthday. Called Kings and Things, it was of the genre that inspired 1066 And All That, and was written in no-nonsense, brisk, good-humoured nanny style with plenty of moral judgements. Henry V, for instance, scores well for having a lovely smile and nice ways, and being good at Ruling, but was given "One Bad Mark. It's rather a Big Black Mark. He had no Business to go Conquering in France."

I noticed the word "Bother" being used to describe the antisocial activities of the Picts and the Scots, and flicked through the book idly to see what else earned this epithet. It occurred next in the 12th century, when after visiting Ireland and establishing himself as "Top King", Henry II returned home thinking all was well. But, alas, it was "just the beginning of Lots Of Bothers with Ireland". Henry VII was afflicted, too; some of the people grew cross with him because "they liked Glory more than Peace and Quiet", so he had Bothers with usurpers. Then there was Charles I, who had "a Lot of Bother with Parliament". It was at this moment I realised it was a book just made for John Major.

"You won't even fork out the few pence to buy your own copy of the Sun," writes Mike Cox. "You break Uncle Rupert's copyright, and you earhole the pen and paper to do it with. Tight Welsh git." Just for that, Mike - for I do not take kindly to being accused of being Welsh - here is a further free lifting from the Sun.

Last Tuesday the lead story was that Paula Yates, wife of Bob Geldof and lover of a famous sex symbol called Michael Hutchence, had spent pounds 2,000 on breast enlargement: the headline was "Paula's Hutch A Big Girl". And the uplifting "Thought" the Sun offers daily under its banner read "Chest the job!" Further research yielded a page of back views of female tennis players headed "Spot the Wimblebot". At which stage I made my excuses and left.

The Labour MP Frank Field is fast becoming my hero, for he manages simultaneously to be on the side of the poor but against means-tested benefits. Carol, my beloved assistant, and I are well acquainted with the lunacy of the present system. "Look here," I say periodically, shamed once more that I pay her a pittance, "we've got to sort this out for once and for all - I must pay you more."

"Forget it," she says. "You know I'll only be worse off."

The problem is that to avail herself of family credit (designed to encourage those on benefits to work), she has to clock up at least 16 hours weekly; but if she earns a decent hourly rate, she loses more in benefits than she gains. So unless we both lie on the relevant forms, I have to underpay her ludicrously.

At least, we think this is the position, but we're not sure, since we can't understand the rules or the explanations from the DSS and her MP. She's afraid to risk penalties by altering the status quo, having completely lost her nerve since the time her sister was given a bonus and the DSS refused to believe it wasn't a salary increase and axed most of her benefit; it took three months to sort that out and she was almost evicted. And last year the intervention of the CSA caused Carol's senior ex-husband to give up work and her junior to declare himself bankrupt, thus robbing her of even the miserly sums they used to contribute.

We daydream about next year when her teenage children will be gone and she can afford to support her young son on the wages I would pay her now if the state let me. In the meantime, she works for no net gain and I am forced to exploit her. I hope before anyone imposes a minimum wage they will make sure its recipients don't pay heavily for the privilege.

I am well aware that what most of you versifiers are panting for is news of "the young lady of Sestos/Whose knickers were made of asbestos", but you will have to wait. This week we address ourselves to the matter of "A poet who hailed from Thermopylae" and "Was addicted to playing Monopoly". Most of you decided that nothing rhymed with this properly except "properly", but two of the daring exceptions worked: "He thought of an ode/For the Pentonville Road,/But found Leicester Square scanned quite sloppily" (Janet Holdcroft); "With a leg lost to Persians/But no other aversions/He'd rhyme 'long the Boardwalk quite hoppily" (George Hummer). From the more orthodox here are: "For when he got the boot/He built hotels with his loot/And bankrupted them all good and properly" (Rex Davies); and "But dead Lacedaemonians/Caused such pandemonium/And stopped him from playing it properly" (Jackie Murphy).

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