Prince Andrew's real handicap - and it's got nothing to do with golf

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Sporting life-wise, the only place to be this weekend is Valderrama, the fashionable golf course near Gibraltar where the swarthy Europeans led by Seve Ballesteros are preparing to trash the whey-faced Yanks in the Ryder Cup. The Valderrama course, created for maximum impossibility by the Bolivian tin billionaire Jaime Ortiz-Patino, has become a terrific draw for powerful, well-heeled international niblick fans. Should you and I, for instance, find ourselves momentarily distracted from the driving technique of Mr Tiger Woods and glance up at the VIP box, we shall be able to spot Prince Andrew (handicap 7, two better than James Bond) sitting beside ex-Prez George Bush (handicap 20 and rising) and the King of Spain (kings don't have handicaps).

It's quite a line-up (and that's before you've started on the golfers). Looking for further enlightenment about the Duke's prowess on fairway and green, one turns to Golf International, a glamorous new arrival in the suddenly-crowded field of sporting magazines. And there one learns an intriguing morsel about one of the Duke's obsessions.

It's a book. According to Peter Alliss, the veteran broadcaster, who hung out with the Queen's second son while filming A Golfer's Travels in Royal Dornoch, Andrew has a thing about a certain novel and he reads it all the time. About four times a year, every year, in fact. This smacks of morbid self-identification. What can this absorbing volume be?

It's by an American woman called Margaret Craven and it's called I Heard The Owl Call My Name (Picador, pounds 5.99, all good bookshops) and it tells the story of a young Anglican vicar called Mark Brian, who is sent by his bishop into the wilds of British Columbia, to hang out with the Indian tribesmen ("There was pride in his eyes without arrogance. Behind the pride was a sadness so deep it seemed to stretch back into ancient mysteries Mark could not even imagine") in a village named, with awful portentousness, Kingcome. The young vicar is dying, and the bishop knows he is dying, and has sent him to live among the eagles and totems to learn the secrets of the tribe ("Each February we come here to clam") and to discover that The Way is Long and The Road is Hard and other bromides so dear to the frontiersman's heart ("There is no word for `Thank you' in Kwakwala ...").

The title refers to the recognition of death in Indian culture, as the hapless vicar discovers one night when, having achieved wisdom, he hears an owl getting its hooting equipment round the words "Mark Brian", presumably in the style of Bruce Forsythe inviting a contestant to come on down. It's an earnest and desperately solemn piece of work, inhabiting that territory of elemental baloney somewhere between The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County, and shows, I fear, that the Duke of York is gradually turning into his big brother. Healthy red-blooded pursuits, like the action at Valderrama, are battling with morbid introspection for his soul and I hope the former wins. (I Heard the Birdie Four Call My Name? I Heard the Eagle at the Sixteenth Call My Name?)

*

Revolting news story of the week was that of the poor woman in Melbourne, Australia, whose face was torn off after she caught her hair in a milking machine. Yeesh. The plastic surgeons (obviously the only medically-inclined Australians who haven't decamped to England to become dentists) amazingly managed to glue it all back on again, after packing it in ice, like caviar, and she may turn out to be just-recognisable, now they've sewn up a few thousand tiny blood vessels and nerves and capillaries.

The phenomenon of having the outer skin on the front of your head flayed is known by the quaint modern locution, "de-gloved". I suppose it's just too gross to say you've been "defaced", as if you were a library book. And once you start, there's no end to the number of metaphorical uses to which we've put the outer covering of ourselves, the skin-as-persona. If what happened to the Melbourne woman were, unimaginably, done deliberately by herself, would you call her self-effacing? Suddenly you realise how much must be at stake for Oriental diplomats to worry about "losing face" and "saving face". The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door" (packed in ice?) was clearly 30 years ahead of her time. The real meaning of "face-off" is the moment of battle between two hockey players with a puck between them on the centre line, but the expression has a popular figurative side, as in a head-to-head battle. Becoming "off your face" and having people "in your face" (like, say, surgeons) are recent bad habits. And, of course, given the details of the milking machine accident, the word "face-lift" will never sound quite so homely again.

It's in the area of face transplants, of course, that the world beyond Melbourne is so intrigued. Will we end up in the plastic surgeon's waiting- room, consulting pages of mini-photographs, as with a Dulux swatch, mix 'n' matching an earlobe here, a corner of eye there, an endearing dimple and a masterful curl of the upper lip? Or will we be offered a full-on transformation into one of a range of public faces? Shall we say, "I'm going on holiday to a country where they only watch Channel 4. Gimme a Matt Le Blanc ..." or "I've been invited to dinner with nine research chemists and I won't know what they're talking about. Give me a Jennifer Ehle, with extra I'm-having-a-delicious-time smile ..."

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