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The Independent Online
The Gazelle D'Or in Taroudant is one of the finest hotels in Morocco. Jacques Chirac has stayed there, as have umpteen spoilt rock stars, blocked writers, lotus-eating politicians and bolted royals: Fergie and Johnny Bryant chilled out at the Gazelle at the height of their star-cross'd romance. The swimming pool alone has seen sights of unbuttoned celebrity that it would blush to tell its grandchildren about. So it was with a lively interest that a friend of mine wondered about the identity of the chap sitting on the next sun-lounger along from him, a couple of weeks ago. The man was kitted out in full dandy-by-the-pool regalia, in a startling Ralph Lauren creation of horizontal stripes with matching beach shorts, the ensemble topped off with a wide-brimmed Australian bush hat, as worn by Barry McKenzie in the Sixties strip cartoon. It took a certain amount of neck-craning to establish that the fashion victim beneath was Michael Portillo, enjoying a much-needed holiday with his wife after his upsetting experience in the small hours of 2 May. And how piquant to discover what the great man was reading in his north African hideaway: volume one of Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the longest novel ever published. Just the thing to embark on, when you've several free months stretching before you.

My conversations with other men have taken a rather smutty turn this week, and all because of Louisa Young and the Unconscious Willy. Ms Young is a phenomenally blonde journalist and biographer, whose first novel Baby Love is published this summer. Meeting her at a party to wish bon voyage to Joanna Coles, The Guardian's gimlet-eyed star feature writer who is off to become the paper's New York correspondent, I enquired about the book's fortunes. Why, said Ms Young, I happen to have it here, and extracted a proof copy from her clutch bag. Leafing through it, I came quite by accident upon a remarkable sex scene, in which the heroine is assailed by a nasty and bullying man with an erection, slugs him with a poker, lays him out cold and becomes unexpectedly turned on by her own counter-attack. Finding herself in possession, as it were, of an aroused membrum virile with an unconscious man on the end of it, she proceeds to have sex with it, taking a kind of revenge for all the times she has been monstered by brutal masculinity. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I congratulated Ms Young on a brilliant fantasy, "though of course," I said, "it's anatomically impossible". She bridled, as authors will. "It is not," she said. "I've talked to doctors about it and three out of four said they couldn't swear it wasn't possible." But such things can't happen when you're unconscious, I said. Asleep yes; out for the count, no. The nervous system packs up and ... "One doctor said it was possible if you'd killed somebody and rigor mortis was setting in," said the know-it-all Ms Young, "but I had to remind him that there aren't any muscles in the penis."

Blimey, I thought, aren't there? And that, I'm afraid, set the tone for the week. Everywhere, chaps scratched their heads and said "Aren't there?" "Are there?" and "Whereabouts exactly ...?". They talked about nerves and sinews and engorged tissue and blood and capillaries and spasm this and contraction that; and all the time they revealed, like me, an extraordinary ignorance of their most precious bits. They settled with relief into discussing Ms Young's fictional sex scene and its plausibility level. "Not a chance," said Jeremy Laurence, The Independent's magisterial medical correspondent. "Not after being hit by a poker. Now if she'd strangled him, on the other hand ..." I rang Ms Young in triumph. "Men," she said, "know nothing about it. They only know about their own willies. We meet a lot more willies than men do ..."

You have to hand it to Madame Louise Beaudoin, Quebec's formidable Minister of Culture. When it comes to linguistic correctness, she walks off with le bourbon chocolat. When it comes to the enforced speaking of French in Canada's Francophone province, she is as unmoving as Marshal Petain. A fascinating article by Mordecai Richler in this week's New York Times Book Review explains the extraordinary grip exerted by the French Language Charter and its various ramifications over the past 20 years. The charter's explicit goal is to make French the first language of all citizens of Quebec. And to that end, they make things as hard as possible for English speakers. Shop names have to be rendered in French. Shops whose names end with a matey apostrophe - Gerry's, Nolan's - are forced to revert to Gerry and Nolan. Road signs may be in English as well as French, provided the English version is half the size of the French one. Mme Beaudoin has now ruled that civil servants will in future need special authorisation before they are allowed to make speeches in English. And she has demanded that a hospital take down its bilingual signs despite the recent arrival of scores of elderly, English-only patients after the closure of another hospital. If they lose their way in the corridors or cannot find the intensive- care ward because they don't know its French name, that's just fromage dur.

The untranslatability of certain words offers moments of amusement. One politician, as dirigiste as Mme Beaudoin, pathetically complained "I feel like a foreigner in my own country" because he had seen a sign advertising Blockbuster Video. "But how do you translate `Blockbuster Video'?" a journalist asked Mme Beaudoin, who was stuck for a reply. Other linguists get past the language police by being smartly inventive: the word `hamburger" in Quebec has been given a new middle-class sheen and renamed "le hambourgeois" ...

But then I don't really get it about Americans. While the whole nation seems to have turned into one gigantic lynch mob, calling for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, to be dragged to the electric chair and "fried" (although lethal injection is the worst that the federal law allows), on the other side of the country they've come over all nervous about how the execution furniture actually works. The oldest electric chair in America, folksily nicknamed "Old Sparky", has just been temporarily de-commissioned by the Supreme Court of Florida. It's 74 years old and famously temperamental; the last hapless victim, one Pedro Medina, virtually exploded, foot-long flames shooting from his head and gobfuls of smoke pouring from under the mask on his face. A local circuit judge investigated and pronounced that there was nothing "cruel and unusual" about the Floridan chair, but while they are debating it, the chair is out of action. How extraordinary that, once you've gone so far as to sanction the death of someone judged guilty by a jury, and then elect to kill them by whacking 100,000 volts through their body, you should then get all fastidious about the chance that it might hurt a bit. The sub-text is obvious, of course - the Supreme Court just wants a chair whose effects aren't quite so disgustingly obvious to the naked eye. But when it comes to Mr McVeigh and his likely fate, they're probably the only people in the United States who do. Cruel and unusual, eh? I foresee a swift and dramatic return to popularity for "Old Sparky" at a courthouse in Denver, Colorado, very soon.

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