Land of hope and glory gets darker still and darker

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The Independent Online
REMEMBER the unions? Those mean-eyed men who brought us the Winter of Discontent in which rubbish piled up on the streets and corpses lay unburied? The last Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, was pilloried in 1979 for his failure to respond to the crisis and shortly afterwards turfed out of office.

These days strikes are few and far between and life proceeds more smoothly. Or does it? On Tuesday I was among the 4,000 people who had to leave the Albert Hall half-way through a Prom when London Electricity was unable to supply sufficient power for the evening's performance. The lights went out minutes before the UK premiere of a work by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, who had flown over from New York specially for the occasion, prompting ironic chants of "put a shilling in the meter".

The emergency electricity supply came on and we waited for normal service to resume: when it didn't, the Proms director, John Drummond, asked us to wait outside where we milled around in the eerie half-dark which had descended on the streets south of Kensington Gardens. I was surprised by how good-natured everyone was, including a family who followed us into a nearby restaurant when the performance was finally abandoned - they'd made a special trip to London that evening, they said sadly, for their very first Prom.

The following night, the power failed again three minutes before the end of Schubert's Fourth Symphony. On Thursday, it went off at lunch-time, during rehearsals, and London Electricity had to be persuaded to feed the Albert Hall from generators for the rest of the Proms season.

Imagine the headlines if these power cuts, affecting up to three-quarters of a million people if you include the inhabitants of South Kensington and the Radio 3 audience, had been caused by lightning strikes or low coal stocks as a result of industrial action by the NUM. But the culprit was only a "high voltage fault" at the Old Brompton Road sub-station, so that's all right then.

I'm beginning to wonder, as the privatised utilities pitch us into darkness and seek drought orders to prevent us using water, whether it isn't time to organise an angry Summer of Discontent. We can't vote their boards out of office but we might be able to shift their focus from profit to reliable service.

JUST before the lights went out I was anxiously studying the programme notes for the next piece, "Orchestral Theatre II: Re". Tan Dun believes that "in a ritual there is no audience, only participants" and there are two points in the work where everyone is asked to hum or chant. My companion was rather keen on the idea and had already begun to try out the words in various tones and pitches; I was glumly reflecting that I like a clear distinction between myself and the performers - they're on stage, I'm in the stalls; they play, I watch; that sort of thing.

I couldn't readily imagine myself chanting "HONG MI LA GA YI GO" repetitively for 30 seconds as instructed in the programme but I was willing to give it a try. I might even have enjoyed it. Thanks to London Electricity (which has, by the way, achieved something that only Hitler previously managed to do - the Proms were last interrupted on 1 September 1939, after he invaded Poland), I'll never find out.

I'M HOPELESS at maths but I spent part of last week scribbling sums on pieces of paper, trying to divide my weight in kilograms by my height in metres (squared). The result is the happy knowledge that I'm not overweight, something I usually ascertain by the less scientific method of seeing whether I can still get into my tightest 501s.

The reason for this sudden anxiety is an astonishing statistic in Social Focus on Women, a government report published this week: nearly half the women in England are either overweight or obese. My initial reaction was scepticism, for women are notoriously bad at assessing their physical shape; the pressure to look like Cindy Crawford or Kate Moss has driven many perfectly healthy young women on to unnecessary diets.

But the report isn't talking about perception. The statistic comes from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys which in 1993 measured body mass, a figure arrived at by the calculation I mentioned above. The survey found that weight rises with age, peaking in the 55-64 age group in which more than three-fifths of English women are overweight or obese.

The only sure-fire method of losing weight, in my experience, is falling in or out of love; since I haven't done either lately, it's just as well the calculation came out all right. What the government figures do show rather dramatically is the ineffectiveness of the diet industry, in spite of its low-cal drinks and tasteless concoctions to suppress appetite. Unless, of course, you accept that its real object is to make pounds rather than take them off.

The other startling thing about Social Focus on Women - hardly a snappy title, after all - is how widely it was reported. The Daily Express put it on the front page, welcoming the progress women have made in recent years. The Daily Telegraph's coverage was favourable too, under the headline "A woman's place is in the wider world".

This unexpected outbreak of feminism continued on Radio 4's Today programme, where I found myself disagreeing with Eve Pollard; the woman on the cover of the report, she said, all power suit and pearls and baby, made her want to cry. Women are struggling to cope, she argued, a point echoed by a Guardian leader.

Well, up to a point. For once I find myself siding with the Telegraph, which concluded that women are better educated and more assertive than they used to be while traditional woman-man stereotypes of home-maker and breadwinner have been eroded beyond recall. You've got it - the drinks are on me.