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Two communications from New York drew my attention to the papal visit. First a fax from my friend Priscilla beginning: "Somewhere hidden among the megaliths of mid-town Manhattan there is a lone infidel bellowing out the lyrics to 'No Pope of Rome' " - a loyalist ditty she learnt when I took her last year to observe an Orange march and she rediscovered her Ulster Presbyterian roots.

My four-year-old godson, Aidan (born a lapsed Presbyterian, which is why a lapsed Catholic was deemed a suitable godmother), provided balance by sending me a request from Cardinal O'Connor to make a donation towards the costs of the papal visit in exchange for being listed on the "St Patrick's Cathedral Papal Honor Roll of Donors". He sent me also a green bookmark featuring St Patrick's in gilt, with a note saying, "Mummy hunted in the shop for something to go with your new Gerry-Adams-and-Nelson-Mandela mug and Orangeman's bowler, but she couldn't find anything sufficiently inappropriate."

No, Aidan, this is fine, for if I place the bookmark in the mug it may stop people drinking out of it. Last week my houseguest Kathy thoughtlessly used the mug. Equally thoughtlessly I put it in the dishwasher. I have to report that while Mandela still looks fine, Gerry Adams is fraying badly round the edges. Is this a miracle? Or a touch of the Dorian Grays?

I had no room last week for the story of Saturday night in the provinces. I arrived at the international crime writers' conference in Nottingham just in time for dinner with those mates who - like me - couldn't face the banquet. When we left the hotel, we were plunged immediately into what in Irish mythology is known as Tir na ng (the Land of the Young), for the streets were packed with several thousand under-25s eyeing each other up.

Feeling like a quintet of Rip Van Winkles, we raced for the first eateriefor grown-ups. "The whole city is pulsating with life and sexual energy," observed John, surveying the cavernous and almost empty rooms, "yet we find ourselves in a restaurant whose only other customers seem to be husbands and wives who have run out of conversation."

We fell out a bit as to whose first course was the worst. But since we had all ordered the same main course there was unanimity: it was really, really terrible. "We should complain," we agreed, but added wimpishly, "What's the use?" Then the Italian waiter made a cardinal error. "Did you like it?" he asked Julia.

Now the publisher Julia Wisdom may for a good reason be known as "Midget" but she is a brave and truthful midget. "No," she said.

"You didn't like the saltimbocca? Why not?"

"Because it didn't taste nice."

Had he had hair, he would have tossed it. "Perhaps by the year 2000 because of the Common Market you will appreciate good food," he said.

That did it. "I didn't like it either," I said.

"The sauce was awful," said John Malcolm, writer of cultivated mysteries, shocked out of his normal amiability.

"Made with Bisto," I muttered.

"The chef might at least have used fresh sage," growled Val McDermid, exaggerating her already intimidating Scots accent. "Tell him it's easy to grow."

The waiter avoided Val, who looks as if she kick-boxes as lethally as her private-eye heroine, and turned threateningly on Janet Laurence, who superficially resembles the kind of Tory wife who stands by her husband. "Tell me what was wrong with it!" he demanded.

"Everything," she responded calmly. "To start with, the meat was not fresh." And as befits someone who writes culinary mystery stories of great authority, she explained how saltimbocca should be cooked. The waiter crumpled and slunk away.

We harboured no ill-will, for everything about the restaurant and the meal was so frightful that we all hugely enjoyed bitching about it. Besides, we were entranced by our introduction to the Euro-insult.

Further to the matter of Joseph Pujol, Le Petomane. "Now you really will be well informed," said Ron Bateman in the note accompanying his kind present of a biography of the champion farter, which proved to be exactly as John Miller described it - "in that interesting category of things that inform the mind without necessarily improving it!"

"Is a peter thief someone who has stolen your thunder?" asks Bob Benzies.

Peter Fisk eschews scatological interpretations of peter in favour of "to explode" (but then - as he admits - he has long had a personal interest in the verb). He thinks that in the phrase "hoist by his own petar(d)" Shakespeare was referring to the small bomb of that name rather than meaning "that someone rose in the air from the result of an intestinal disorder".

However John Mattock - who was married to me for 16 years and informs me in a resigned way that he told me all about Le Petomane long ago - thinks many of Shakespeare's audience would have known of the vulgar derivation. "I think when most people show off with the 'hoist with his own petard' quote," he adds, "they think it means 'hanged with his own rope', or 'yerked with his own dagger'."

I had to look up "yerk", which means "struck". And yes, John, I bet you told me that, too. But you more than most will know the deficiencies of my memory.

Reporter Una alleges that last week she heard President Clinton advising combatants in the former Yugoslavia to lay down their arms and pull up their sleeves.

Hidebound in prosody

Ruthie the Diarist

Boringly limits her

Metrical range,

Telling her readership,


"Fed up with limericks?

Next week we change!"

OK, OK, S Robinson. I can take a hint. However I would like you to know that the first time I met Seamus Heaney properly we sniggered over a rude limerick that our mutual friend George had told me to remind him about. I'm not going to abandon limericks completely and next week I'll be publishing some of the Euro variety, but yes, you can get cracking on treating topical themes in new verse-forms - the double dactyl, as seen above, and the clerihew, modelled today by Andrew Belsey.

Mr Anthony Blair

Demonstrated considerable flair

In turning his outfit, Labour,

Into a party of the good neighbour.

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