Michael Flatley turns pugilist, Allen Ginsberg sings, and plants learn to talk

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The Independent Online
THE news that Michael "Riverdance" Flatley, the twinkle-toed Irish- American hoofer and sex god, is "very seriously planning" a new career in boxing, is a worrier. For Mr Flatley is the most popular performer anywhere in the world, rich as Nubar Gulbenkian and at the age when a pugilist might be thinking of swapping his gumshield for an economy tube of Dentu-fix, not starting a career. What mid-life crise has got Flatley so firmly in its grip that he should risk having his handsome features re-cast like Plasticine by some murderous opponent with only a limited appreciation of Irish dancing?

The answer lies in the Flatley videos. Michael has been role-playing the hard man, the fistic roustabout, the don't-feck-with-me Leader of the Pack for so long, he now believes in his own creation. Those who've seen Lord of the Dance will recall that he appears in the show as, variously, the saviour of a Celtic sprite, the boss of a bike gang and the dictator figure who commands a platoon of jackbooted myrmidons. Mr Flatley's new ambition is simply to firm up those delusions, to reify these hero dreams on the stage of Real Life.

It's the natural next step for an egomaniacal performer - along the lines of, say, Michael Jackson deciding to become a bishop. I suppose we should be grateful that Mr Flatley stops at boxing, rather than going the whole hog and joining the Hell's Angels or applying to Sandline to be included in their next African sortie.

On the other hand, he can actually box. His father taught him when he was a Chicago schoolboy. He once won a Golden Gloves tournament and, his people tell me, "He's always used boxing as a way of keeping fit." But it's a big step from being a playground scrapper with a prize on the living- room sideboard to being a millionaire thirtysomething climbing into the ring with a chap who could maim you for life. And it would give us no pleasure to watch Mr Flatley being brutalised, duffed up, thumped and belaboured for, ooh, several rounds and to see that conceited smirk wiped off his face at last. Or would it?

I SPENT Sunday night, somewhat to my surprise, with the voice of Allen Ginsberg running round my head, singing: "Do the meditation/Do the meditation/Do the meditation/ Try a little patience and generosity." Weird but strangely irresistible. I had spent three hours at St James's, Piccadilly, where the rump of the British poetry Underground (ie Adrian Mitchell and Michael Horovitz) marshalled some friends and fans in celebration of the hairy Beat poet who died a year ago.

At the end, after Lawrence Ferlinghetti (publisher of the Beats' work, including Ginsberg's Howl, via his City Lights bookshop in San Francisco) had read three moving elegies to his late friend, the church was filled with the recorded sound of Ginsberg on vocals. It was a revelation.

My colleague Michael Glover, writing yesterday about the Ginsberg tribute, remembered how "tuneless" he had always found the master's attempts at singing. On Sunday, crooning from beyond the grave, he sounded wonderful - cool, amused, sprightly, enjoying himself. He sang a grim little number called "Father Death" in a vibrant baritone like Leonard Cohen on nitrous oxide. He did the "Meditation Rag" as a fast, jolly hoedown, until the congregation joined in the chorus. He sounded like someone who'd been indulged all his life, followed every whim and sexual overture and remained a naughty subversive student for ever.

Tell me, I asked Lawerence Ferlinghetti, did anyone ever try to edit Ginsberg? "Oh sure", said the storm-bearded publisher, "I got him to drop a whole section of Howl because it didn't suit. And the title was originally Howl for Carl Solomon, but I persuaded him it wouldn't go on the title page. He went through six drafts of Howl in the end. He started out saying, `First thought - best thought', but by the end I believe he preferred `First thought - worst thought'." Well, well - so even the wild guru of the counter-culture succumbed to the Eternal Sub-Editor in the end.

I AM indebted to the Institute of Arable Crops Research in Herefordshire for the news that, in future, plants will be genetically encoded with alarm signals. According to the Institute's predictions, when plants feel threatened by ants, or need water or are desperate for some fertiliser, they will emit different colours under an ultraviolet lamp in order to signal that they're in some kind of trouble. "We are tapping into [the plant's] internal mechanisms to allow it to report to us what it needs at least a week before it shows any physical signs of deficiency," says one Dr Brian Forde of the IACR, sounding like a social worker fretting about an underprivileged kid.

The messages that plants will be able to convey strike me as a bit unsophisticated: if they turn blue, it means "I need a drink"; yellow means "I need feeding" and red means "Oh no, here come the ants". We can anticipate more elaborate messages from plants in the future.

The dahlias at Highgrove will be programmed to enquire "Have you come far?" to visiting dignitaries, and signal alarm at the sight of Earl Spencer's limo coming up the drive. The climbing roses in Rosemary Verey's garden will get hysterical about March and give out polychromatic messages which translate as "It's that bloody woman with the trug and the pruning shears again." And down at the Chanel exhibit in the Chelsea Flower Show, a whole line of puzzled camelias will be looking at the retreating figure of Karl Lagerfeld and asking each other, "What on earth are we doing flowering in May?"

HAPPY birthday to George Best, who is 52 tomorrow. As he was 26 when he retired from football and turned to full-time drinking, this means he has spent half his life as a post-celebrity. He has, in the meantime, become Mr Ubiquitous. No football occasion, from the televised World Cup to a junior five-a-side match in Penge can now take place without his gruff, hirsute and curiously sweet presence.

He's a guest speaker at the National Sporting Club dinner next month, and presiding genius at the United Nations of Football all-day extravaganza in the South Bank Centre. He's become an object of pity to the tabloids since losing his house through non-payment of mortgage, but an object of admiration to Joe Lovejoy, his most recent biographer, whose Bestie: A Portrait of a Legend. out tomorrow, reminds you of the great man's legendary wit.

Lovejoy's book records in odiferous detail the famous prison sentence in 1984, when Best was nicked for drunken driving and assaulting a policeman. He got three months and a five-year ban. The defence appealed. Hugh McIlvanney, the great sports journalist, was a character witness and remembers trying to cheer up the horrified, nick-dreading George, "but such feeble efforts were stifled by the realisation that he was probably going to jail, and before long everyone was staring into the bottom of the coffee cup with nothing to say. Then he glanced across at me with a smile. `Well I suppose that's the knighthood fucked,' he said." Legends have no need of knighthoods.