Never mind about hitting below the belt - let's see what your navel is made of

In all my life I have only ever heard two funny things about the navel.

Other parts of the body are supposed to be funny, or capable of being funny, but there is nothing particularly comic or even very interesting about the navel. For one thing, it is about the most useless part of the body there is. You couldn't be born without it, and you can't do anything else with it. The day you are born and your umbilical cord is snipped, its usefulness is over, and for the rest of your life you carry it around as if it were an old sell-by-date label you had forgotten to remove.

After that, the navel acquires characteristics which the great designer of the world never intended it to have. It marks the belt line, so it become a symbol of fairness and unfairness, as when something is below the belt. It has acquired a nickname, the belly button, which I suppose ranks it above the middle finger and the elbow, two bits of the body which I have never heard referred to lightly. Sometimes, when little children are asking awkward questions about where babies come from, they are told that they come from their navel, and indeed I have heard of young children rubbing navels mutually in order to achieve this mysterious miracle known as having babies, but I am afraid there are not many less interesting things to rub together than navels. Which is exactly why navels were chosen to tell children about.

But what else ? Well, people who are inward-looking are often said to be contemplating their navel, which imputes a kind of hopelessness to the case. And what question do they ask themselves as they contemplate this strange cavity, which I once heard described as the perfect place to put salt if you eat celery in the bath?

The question they may well be asking themselves is: what two funny things can he possibly have heard about navels in the last 40 years ?

I am glad you asked that question.

The first I heard about 30 years ago, when Mort Sahl was a great name as the first of the improvising comedians, and what he said was this:

"I was listening to a folk singer the other night - you know what a folk singer is, don't you? A folk singer is an artiste who performs passionately with his shirt open, right to the navel. Only they have no navel. This is the ultimate rejection of the mother ..."

That has stuck in my mind for 30 years, not because it is funny (which it isn't) or because it is significant (it doesn't mean anything at all), but because it is a great example of something that sounds as if it should be funny - it has all the shape of being funny without actually being funny. I am very fond of it for that reason. But I now realise that I should have treasured it for another reason: it was probably the only use made of the navel in modern humour.

Until now.

Or until the other day, when Talaban, one of the few ruling parties in the world beside Labour to have dispensed with the definite article, made a pronouncement from its government offices in Kabul. Talaban, as you know, is an Islamic fundamentalist movement. They therefore think that being Islamic entitles them to pronounce on all matters in human life. (The late Ayatollah Khomeini had the same idea, until the fatwa pronounced on him by Salman Rushdie led to his untimely end.) And in this case they had come to a decision about morality in sportswear, which is something that not even Tony Banks has done yet.

If any person in Afghanistan should indulge in sport, they said, they should not go beyond the bounds laid down by Islamic propriety. In other words, anyone who wore shorts for their sport should make sure that the shorts went below their knees. And anyone who went bare-chested for a sport should make sure their navel was hidden.

So welcome back to 20th-century humour, the navel!

A reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, it is not so long ago that we too in this country had shorts below the knees. Have you seen pictures of pre- war Arsenal? Their shorts are nearly down to their ankles! You may well laugh, but we didn't have pitch violence, referee bribing and players throwing matches then. Maybe there was some connection between that and the long shorts. You hadn't thought of that, had you? And before the war you didn't get athletic kit so streamlined that you could see every sexual organ in 3D, including the navel, for all I know, did you? What have you got to say to that, eh?

Miles Kington: What have I got to say to that ? I'll tell you what I've got to say - come outside and say that again, that's what I say! Put your dukes up and let me not see your navel!

In tomorrow's episode, a Talaban agent fights three hotly contested rounds with Mr Kington behind the pub until both are arrested for boxing in trousers the wrong length.