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Messier and meaningless

ENOUGH of these ridiculous hobbies involving exercise, skill, strength and wearing special clothes with strange names written on them. Really Eighties. Leave them to the professionals. Now, in Major's Britain, is the time for more contemplative pursuits with absolutely no point to them beyond a quiet personal satisfaction. Last week I gave you train spotting. This week, courtesy of Mr Bernard Dale of London: collecting Messier numbers. Charles Messier was an 18th-century French astronomer who catalogued 103 nebulae and galaxies. Mr Dale, 72, has spotted a good many of them with the aid of binoculars and a star atlas, and hopes to complete his set when he retires. Keep them coming, but remember: no skill, no point and - please - no sweat.

TRICKY business, this Culture. The Guardian, having scanned the Book Trust's annual selection of Royal holiday reading, compiled a list of its own, and asked Julie Burchill, the belletrist, to contribute. Ms Burchill suggested, in addition to her own jeu de lit, Ambition, 'any collection of Baudelaire featuring 'The Drunken Boat' for the Queen Mother'. Unfortunately, as this bloke from the Institute of Romance Studies wrote to point out, 'Le Bateau Ivre' is by Rimbaud, another Frenchman who wrote poetry. When I called, Ms Burchill was unaware of the correction: 'I don't read the Guardian. It's not very good.' It would have been a stupid mistake to make, she said, but on balance she thought it was probably a typing error on the Guardian's part. More care on those keyboards, please.

THIS WEEK's political correctitude conundrum comes from Ukraine, always a mover in social affairs. Ukrainian officers volunteering for UN peacekeeping duties in the former Yugoslavia are required to produce written permission from their wives.

General Sir John Hackett, general man of military matters, is against: 'Any restriction of a man's freedom of action in the matter of serving as a soldier should be kept to a minimum. His choice should be left to his own assessment of what is right and wrong.' It is his life, says the General, and it is improper for domestic objections to play a part. The General sighs. 'I get rung up every day about things like this. Yesterday it was the Daily Express wanting to know if it was right that Prince Harry should be playing with a tank. They'll be stopping him using a cricket bat next in case he hits someone.'

THERE is a slight hesitation at the other end of the line, direct into that sophisticated, ever-flapping Ear of the Nation, GCHQ in Cheltenham. A hand goes discreetly over the mouthpiece as the answering officer turns to a colleague and asks: 'How do you transfer an outside call?'

The secret rhythms of T S Eliot

PERHAPS you could help with this theory I am developing about the link between literature and dance: that good dancers make better writers: a matter of rhythm, of life.

My researches are at an early stage, but I can share certain findings. T S Eliot, of course, was a renowned mover on the tea circuit; Scott Fitzgerald was pretty good early in the evening, less so later on. Hemingway despised everything but the tango. Anthony Powell once danced with Tallulah Bankhead. Henry James didn't (dance).

Trollope, I am told, was not keen; Dickens was, naturally, highly enthusiastic, but you did run the risk of getting knocked over if you got too close. In line with recent revisions, I can tell you that Jane Austen was no wallflower. George Eliot was accomplished, but would insist on leading. Burns risked his father's wrath to go to dancing school.

Henry Miller played the piano but was a stumbling dancer. Nabokov famously hated music. Norman Mailer, author of Tough Guys Don't Dance, prefers cooking, bullfighting, wrestling, and Lego (I promise you). According to a partner, 'there was never anyone on the floor who could dance those Latin rhythms' the way Truman Capote could.

Martin Amis, as you would expect, does a hectic impersonation of Mick Jagger. His father, Sir Kingsley, was not desperately keen but saw it as a useful way of 'getting your arms round a girl, that's all'. Julian Barnes doesn't like it, and there is no record of Ian McEwan on the floor. Salman Rushdie has been known to frug, but doesn't do ballroom, which he refers to as 'joined-up dancing'. No one ever asks his detectives. A N Wilson hates it; John Mortimer is a mover. Edna O'Brien, not. You will, by now, be discerning a pattern. I knew I was on to something when Lord Archer refused to discuss it. More sightings, please]

The dockland jewel in Ratner's crown

SO HERE we are again with the wary, worried look that went with all the stories about the big gaffe, the one Gerald Ratner doesn't want to talk about.

And who should blame him? One word, no ruder than a Major 'bastard', one unfavourable comparison with a prawn sandwich, and it all began inexorably to end, the profits, the chairmanship, the company house in Mayfair, the job. It was too silly, too Ealing, to be one of the great tragedies, but it was still pretty sad for Gerald, his fellow Ratners' shareholders and 2,500 redundant employees.

But now Gerald is back, as consultant to a scheme to revive the failed Tobacco Dock shopping centre in London's docklands with American-style direct factory outlets. Now Gerald is sitting in the offices of the Rowland Company, a Saatchi satellite, minded by a silent but watchful PR as he urges the advantages of direct selling of surplus stock.

He got the idea on the holiday he took in America immediately after his exit from Ratners last November, forced out by the fall-out from the word, and from his over-optimistic expansion and borrowings. Gerald said he hadn't wanted to go on holiday because it was coming up to Christmas and he really thought he should be opening up a jewellery shop, but wiser counsel and a non-competition agreement with Ratners prevailed.

Factory shops, discounted direct selling of big brand names were the 'new angle' he was looking for. He discounted, too, suggestions that retailers wouldn't stand for it and would discourage suppliers. It worked in America, said Gerald, it would work here. Tobacco Dock, where he is working with the Kuwaiti-owned Bisley Properties, is the start. He might open more. 'It's very important it succeeds,' he said. 'This is the thing I have committed myself to, this is the thing I have put my head above the parapet for.'

There has been scepticism, particularly over Gerald's claim that the new Tobacco Dock will be bringing them in from as far away as Scotland. 'Maybe I was getting a little carried away there,' he says. This is how it is with Gerald: he is so open, in such an unorthodox, or honest, way that you begin to feel protective and find yourself dreading the gaffe rather than praying for one.

And so, when he mentions that he has had a sandwich for lunch, you change the conversation swiftly. But, no, he says, he is not working anything like as hard as he used to. 'Now I have more time with, as they say, my family.' (He has two daughters by his first wife, one by his second.) 'I enjoy it. I'm riding a bicycle, I've just come from a swim. I'm reading books.' He has read Alan Clark's diaries - 'beautifully written. He was at Eton so I suppose it would be' - and some John Grisham thrillers, which he enjoyed but thinks 'a load of rubbish'. Time to move swiftly again. He has also just read Oedipus, given to him by his daughter, 'incredibly enjoyable', apart from the bit where the eyes get put out.

Ratners is a closed chapter, and he has nothing much to say, not even about the proposed name change, to Signet. 'What I've learnt is that in the Eighties everybody was rushing about too much, when it wasn't really necessary to be in quite such a rush.'

He has been to museums, galleries; he has gone beyond automatic focus on his camera. He still plays chess, but not poker, 'because I can't afford to lose'.

Which brought us to his enforced period of cycling in January, when he was banned from driving for three weeks and fined pounds 160 for speeding. The magistrates decided that his income was pounds 20 a week. More stories, more grim Gerald photographs.

He condemns this 'bandying around' of his private finances. 'They got it wrong, of course.' Pause. 'It's really pounds 30 a week.' Another pause, and then the Ratner face cracks into a great, unfamiliar, crooked grin.

Back to Tobacco Dock. Had anybody signed up yet? 'I'm not in a position as yet to say anything about that. It would be inappropriate,' says Gerald, with the grin again, 'because I haven't got anyone]' But the prospectuses had only been out two days; they would come. Recession over? Gerald thought 'his recent experience' precluded him from pontificating.

And, yes, he was resigned to the media interest and his stereotype. He had just been named fifth in the list of Britain's most clumsy communicators, and the press, of course, had been on. 'I think I was supposed to be disappointed that I'd only come fifth.' The grin appears again.

Say what you like about . . .

. . . by-elections, but:

they get the bastards out of London for a while

the results never interrupt anything good on television

they exercise Sir Norman Fowler's imagination

they keep Paddy Ashdown smug

they keep David Dimbleby up

. . . no one will be listening at 3 in the morning

(Photograph omitted)