Millennia dilemma ... sticking a neck out ... Greer soundbite

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OUR RULERS have just made the most important, nay apocalyptic, decision ever made by a British government. And you are about to read it here first, exclusive, and all that guff. It has decided when the new millennium will start. You thought that was determined by simple mathematics or complicated theology? Forget it. The calendar for the next thousand years is a matter for the Department of National Heritage. Up until now the DNH has been unmoved by all those lavish parties being booked for 31 December 1999, and insisted that the millennium doesn't begin until 2001 (impeccable logic: first one started in year one not year zero etc). So all those partygoers would find themselves celebrating just another New Year's Eve. But Stephen Dorrell, recently translated from the DNH to Health, tells me that before giving up his role as the man in charge of all things millennial, he decided that the new millennium would start on 1 Jan 2000 after all. What it must be to have such power. And the apocalyptic reasoning? "Well, the rest of the world will be starting it then, so we'd look a bit odd to be out on our own."

That's settled then. But I have a far more important millennial problem to solve. It has been keeping me awake at night, and I want to keep Virginia Bottomley, the new National Heritage Secretary, awake at night until she solves it. I want to know what the first decade of the next century is to be called? The Sixties are the Sixties, the Nineties the Nineties and so on. But what is an opening decade? The noughts? The ones? Lacks a certain resonance. Who would want to be a child of the noughts? Perhaps there is a reader old enough to remember what the first decade of this century was called. The Millennium Commission should start addressing its collective brain to the problem, or headline writers, television documentary makers and sociologists are going to be stuck in five years' time.

n ROCK STARS. Do you not just love them? Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, writing about David Bowie in the magazine Modern Painters, made my day with this unforgettable sentence. "The song 'The Jean Genie' led me to an interest in the work of Jean Genet." So, altogether now - "Jean Genet, he lives in France, Jean Genet, he lurves to dance..."

ONE PLUS point in having children is it gives you an excuse to reread books that you've been dying to read again but could get you arrested if you carried them about in public. I know that people would surreptitiously slink away from me on the Tube if I was engrossed in Charlotte's Web or chuckling over Winnie The Pooh. Bedtime stories legitimise such suspicious behaviour. Under cover of twilight, I've been rereading Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. And it strikes me that the Walt Disney corporation has missed a trick. "How the Camel Got His Hump" and my own role model, "The Cat Who Walked Alone", would make rather good animated cinema. Why indeed has Britain's own much acclaimed new school of animation not seized on these tales? Do so. But in the words of Kipling, "do not forget, O best beloved" to send me my commission.

n THE CURIOUS affair, or non-affair, of the Dean of Lincoln and a female verger has brought into the public domain a particular peccadillo which I take very seriously. The Dean has been cleared of having a relationship with the verger. But I note that he admitted during the case that he may have blown on her neck. Neck blowing, I feel obliged to point out, causes a stiffening of the muscles and, if practised frequently and without precautions, rheumatic pain for the victim. And then there are the legal considerations. I have long campaigned for anonymity for alleged neck blowers. There are women who dress with their necks utterly bare, all but inciting such behaviour. That a man might be hauled through the courts when he could be merely exhaling vigorously is scant justice.

WHO'D BE a female artist, particularly a squeamish one? Now that Mona Hatoum's video of her internal organs has been placed on the Turner Prize shortlist, endoscopy as art is legitimised, and the trend is set. Ms Hatoum had a camera inserted into her every orifice, exploring her insides, and the resulting video was exhibited to the accompaniment of the sound of her heartbeat and breathing. For those philistines among you who remain unconvinced about the validity of intestinal artwork, here is a passage from the Tate Gallery's catalogue about Ms Hatoum's exhibit. "As the camera encounters an orifice, it enters, and the interminable forested landscape of the surface gives way to glowing subterranean tunnels lined with pulsating animate tissue, moist and glistening." I'll bet you say that to all the girls. But read on, for intestinal art inspires not just lyrical blank verse. It also provokes philosophical propositions. "As we penetrate the body, via the eye of the camera we are in turn haplessly sucked in and absorbed. Are these perhaps as Desa Philippi has argued 'the two sides of the coin that constitutes the stereotype of femininity: on the one the passive victim and (natural) body submitted to the operations of science (culture), on the other hand the Sphinx, Preying [sic] Mantis, Vagina Denta'?" Answers on a postcard please.

n THE SEASON of charter flights is upon us, and I shall be watching for an interesting trend developing among charter flight passengers. On the last couple of holiday flights I have taken, the passengers burst into a round of applause when the captain touched down. I am all in favour of this. Why should sport and the performing arts have a monopoly on applause? A pilot bringing down a 747 without disturbing the peace deserves a good old clap as much as a tenor hitting a high C. Indeed, why stop at a round of applause. Let's have flowers thrown into the cockpit. But these things cut both ways. A bumpy landing, and I expect to hear the cabin resound with boos and catcalls.

SID THE sexist, alias Donald Trump, had a good old go at Selina Scott's journalistic integrity. But how, I wonder, would it have sounded if we had substituted for Ms Scott another TV interviewer, say Brian Walden. Here goes: "When Mr Walden arrived in New York he looked tired and beaten ... so totally uptight and insecure about himself ... I felt sorry for him in that he is obviously a man who has seen better days ... King Constantine of Greece did me no favours by asking me to do an interview with a very sleazy and unattractive Brian Walden." Oddly enough some of the insults now become compliments. Insecurity, even the occasional soupcon of uptightness, would be rather endearing in Brian. Seen better days becomes inappropriate as wrinkles and a craggy brow are de rigueur for a male interviewer. As for sleazy and unattractive, simply not the sort of thing one chap says about another chap.

So Sid Trump fails the sexism test. But he, at least, did not stoop to: "My teeth were in her arse and they're not out yet." This charming soundbite was made by Germaine Greer on television referring to her spat with fellow columnist Suzanne Moore. Now here we have something a woman can say about another woman, but a man cannot say about a woman without facing legal action. All very confusing.

n UNUSUAL jobs number 346: the Royal Albert Hall hinge oiler. Take pity on this man this week. The proms began on Friday, and the organisers insist on a complete lack of atonal squeaks. So prior to the first prom the hinges on every seat and on every door to every box are oiled. Total 2,573 hinges. And each one oiled by the same faithful employee. Salute the man with the worst backache in London.

Charles Nevin is on holiday.


CHILD LABOUR: Charles Kingsley's Water Babies exposed the scandal of the young children used to sweep chimneys; Lord Shaftesbury's Coal Mines Act (1842) prohibited underground employment of children under 13 (he promoted schools for the children of the poor instead); 5-year-olds knot carpets for 12-14 hours a day in some Asian factories; the UN believes there to be 2 million child prostitutes worldwide of which 300,000 are in the United States; in 1973 the school leaving age in Britain was raised to 16; Gillian Shephard, Education and Employment Secretary, has inaugurated the new merged department by proposing that 14-year-olds should undertake work- based training.

TODAY is the feast day of The Three Wise Men, who we usually think of only in the week before Christmas. The gospels do not state that there were three (though three gifts - gold, frankincense and myrrh - are brought to the infant Christ) and some early murals suggest two, four and even seven visitors to Jesus. Their portrayal as kings is first recorded in the 6th century, relating perhaps to an Old Testament prediction. By the 8th century a manuscript gives them the names "Bithisarea, Melchio and Gathaspa", now universally designated Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar. By the middle ages they had begun to acquire distinct physical characteristics (a youth, a bearded old man and a middle-aged man) and in the 15th century the practice of depicting one of the wise men (or kings) as black had begun. Until popularly usurped by Saint Christopher they were venerated as the patrons of travellers.

23 July, 1951: Henri Philippe Petain, soldier and Vichy leader, died. Born in Cauchy-a-la-Tour, the son of peasants, he joined the army as a youth. An early report on his conduct as a junior officer read: "If this officer rises above the rank of major it will be a disaster for France." By 1916 he was in command of an army corps and became a national hero in the defence of Verdun. By 1934 he was minister for war, and a proponent of the useless Maginot Line. The fall of France in 1940 put Petain, by now 84, at the head of the defeated government, and he immediately sought terms with Germany. With the liberation of France Petain was brought to trial and sentenced to death for treason. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the Ile de Yeu, where he died.