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The Independent Online
I spent the tail-end of Christmas in the west of Ireland, where the snow locks the flat fields in an iron embrace, everyone rides to hounds without the slightest concern over saboteurs or party policy, and the first thing you see on arriving at Shannon airport is a big sign saying "Welcome Home", as if nobody could possibly be visiting the place in the depths of winter. I noticed that the citizens of Galway have temporarily stopped drinking the traditional winter tipple of hot whiskey (which fills the air in any remotely fashionable bar with the combined aromas of sugar, cloves and turf); brandy has now become the snort du choix on the Atlantic seaboard. Brandy on its own to be sociable, brandy and port if you're feeling poorly, or brandy with lemonade if you're in need of something, you know, thirst-quenching. God knows what they drink if they just want to get plastered.

Listening to the relatives and in-laws exchanging news, it struck me once again that Ireland, among its many merits, really is the place for freak accidents. Every winter you can be sure of hearing some local piece of Grand Guignol, whether it's of a man drowning in his own corn in some ghastly threshing incident, or a woman whose hair is sucked from her head by an industrial pulpit-cleaning device at St Bridget's Church, or how the rotating ornamental brass fan recently installed in a Galway bar abruptly fell off the ceiling and decapitated a second cousin of Micksy Whatsisname, the guy in an RTE sitcom.

This year was well up to scratch. I heard about an old friend, now 77, who was out in the woods with his son-in-law, felling trees and cutting them up. As they wrestled to free a recalcitrant saw, they failed to notice that their efforts had destabilised another tree, a large and extremely dead one, which slowly but spectacularly fell on them both. The younger man broke both his legs, but my friend suffered a weirder fate. His ribs were crushed and his vertebrae truncated so that when his family next saw him walking, he was fully four inches shorter than the last time they'd seen him. Thus does life occasionally imitate, not art, but the cheaper kind of cartoon.

Have you come across Barney the Purple Dinosaur? He's a furry, friendly little chap invented for US television (the educational network that Newt Gingrich tried to close down) and his madcap exploits are thought to appeal to children everywhere. Penguin Books publishes his encounters with barnyard animals, and a wide range of merchandising, soft toys and the like is available for undemanding three-year-olds.

In fact, most children absolutely loathe Barney and the cosy-sweet world he inhabits. I discovered this when I heard my offspring singing (to the tune of Nick Nack Paddy-Wack) this little song: "I hate you/You hate me/We're a horrid familee/With a big shotgun, bang, Barney on the floor/No more purple dinosaur". Charming, eh? It had, they said, been made up by a nine- year-old satirist at school. Then a week later in Ireland, they sang it to their little cousins, who immediately responded with their own version: "I hate you/You hate me/Let's gang up and kill Barnee/With a great big bang and a bullet through the head/Sorry, kids, but Barney's dead". Where did they hear it? Oh, somebody at school ...

How could it happen? Five hundred miles apart, two sets of children come up with the same disobliging song. It's not in the charts, it certainly didn't come from Barney's publishers, the children watch different TV channels ... I have to conclude it's some form of "morphic resonance", that quasi-scientific phenomenon dreamed up by Rupert Sheldrake to explain why all the birds in the British Isles know - at the same time - that you get to some milk by sticking your beak through the metallic bottle- top.

Readers of Loaded magazine, and freelance seducers everywhere, will raise a glass to Mr Muslum Gunduz, the swivel-eyed leader of the Azcmendis, a radical Islamic sect in Turkey characterised by black turbans, flowing robes and a passionate desire to establish a separate Islamic republic. It is not, however, the holy Mr Gunduz's secessionist initiatives that have put him in the news; it is his arrest by the police, who reportedly found him in flagrante with 24-year-old Fadime Sahin at his flat last weekend.

According to Ms Sahin, she was only the last in a lengthy procession of gullible lovelies who had been used as "sex slaves" by the dreadlocked Rasputin. And how had he made the unwise virgins come across? "Gunduz said my body was infested with djinns," explained a tearful Fadime, "and that the only way I could be freed was by giving him my underwear and sleeping with him".

You've got to hand it to him. As persuasive tactics go, that's right up there with, "If you won't have sex with me, all the sperm will be banked up through my system until it reaches my brain, which will explode and it'll be all your fault." And persuading Fadime to part with her lingerie as well strikes me as masterly.

I'm sorry to hear the enterprising Muslim has been criticised by small- minded Turkish clerics who talked about "charlatans passing themselves off as religious leaders". This man deserves better. He is an inspiration. He is a stimulation. He is a tonic. He is, indeed, a djinn and tonic.

Tuesday saw the first literary thrash of the year, at London's Ivy restaurant, where all manner of writerly types gathered to say goodbye to Peter Strauss, the lycanthropic publisher who turned the Picador list from a swanky paperbacker of other publishers' hit titles into a swanky hardbacker of its own original titles, and signed up an impressive family of good writers, from John Banville and Colm Toibin to Mark Lawson and John Lanchester.

Mr Strauss, famed throughout the publishing world for his ability to converse in 43 different accents without having any identifiable speaking voice of his own, is off to be a freelance publishing "scout" in the depths of Syracuse, upstate New York. Rumours that he is leaving to pursue New Challenges or investigate the Soul of American Fiction proved to be red herrings. Mr Strauss is in fact decamping because he has fallen in love with the American writer Mary Karr, author of an affecting memoir of her father, The Liar's Club, and simply wishes to be closer to his beloved.

The party featured a moment of literary history. Ian McEwan, the novelist, arrived at 8pm with the manuscript of his new novel, Enduring Love, which he intended to deliver to his agent, Deborah Rogers. He plonked it on a table and, crippled with hunger pangs, went looking for a tray of canapes. When he next looked round, the parcel had gone. "I assume Deborah picked it up," said McEwan philosophically. "I can't imagine who else would have a use for it."

Did anyone notice Mr Strauss departing for Syracuse with a suspicious bulge in his designer suit?

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