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The police in Oxford are offering an imaginative new service: telephone counselling. They don't actually do anything about certain categories of crime, but they don't mind listening while you describe your unpleasant experience. I discovered this from a friend whose car has just been vandalised for the third time since October. She rang to report the incident and was told by a sympathetic policeman that they don't record such things any more - it just generates paperwork. However, the policeman offered, 'You can tell me about it if it will make you feel better.'

This was more than I got from my local police when I rang to report strange goings-on in the churchyard across the road. I heard whispered voices among the tombstones as I was parking my car the other night; a couple of days later my elderly neighbours woke to find their front garden littered with beer cans and other detritus. The presence of empty crisp packets suggested we were dealing with teenagers rather than Satanists, but my neighbours were anxious and I told them I'd phone the police.

The woman I spoke to didn't even offer to take my name and number. She couldn't promise anything, not even the occasional evening visit from a patrol car, even though I live only a mile from the headquarters of Thames Valley Police. 'You can always dial 999,' she offered, which seems a bit of an overreaction if it's just kids behaving badly. I had hoped for a middle way, something between complete inaction and squad cars with flashing blue lights, but apparently at Thames Valley there isn't one.

GARAGE mechanics and gas fitters, I've noticed, are uncomfortable talking to women; engines and pipes are, you know, a man's thing. Now I've heard of an insurance company that operates on the same principle. A magazine editor rang to complain it had taken money it wasn't entitled to from her bank account and got back a letter of apology addressed to her husband.

'Dear Mr Baker,' the letter began, 'I refer to my telephone conversation with Mrs Baker on such- and-such a date'; it confirmed that, 'as advised to Mrs Baker', the company was enclosing a cheque and would not remove any more unauthorised sums from Mr Baker's account.

Mrs Baker is delighted that Bank of Scotland Insurance Services won't be troubling her ex-husband, whom she divorced 15 years ago, but she is still waiting to find out whether the company has any further designs on her bank account.

THE JAPANESE government has belatedly owned up to a war crime of massive proportions. Two hundred thousand women, mainly Koreans and other Asians, 'were forcibly drafted, transported and managed' in brothels set up for Japanese soldiers before and during the Second World War, Yohei Kono, chief cabinet secretary to the outgoing government, admitted last week.

Mr Kono's statement followed tradition by referring to the victims as 'comfort women' rather than the brutal but accurate 'sex slaves' preferred by headline writers. There is also a perfectly good word for non-consensual sexual intercourse which the Japanese authorities seem keen to avoid: what they have admitted to is mass, organised rape.

If it is true that the women were forced to have sex with up to a dozen soldiers a day, we are talking about an official policy that encouraged almost two and a half million acts of rape per day. And what have successive Japanese governments done for these women? For 48 years they flatly denied that they had been coerced: yesterday's admission follows the courageous decision in 1991 of three elderly Korean women to defy cultural taboos and publicly identify themselves as former sex slaves in order to take the Japanese government to court.

It is progress of a sort that the outgoing government has extended its 'sincere apologies and remorse' to the women, although it has left the question of compensation for Japan's new leaders to decide.

But last week's reports hinted that the authorities had found evidence relating to the setting up of military brothels, beginning in Shanghai in 1932. If this is true they should publish it at once. Until the whole shameful affair is out in the open, Mr Kono's apology will continue to be too little, too late.

I WONDER if the Pope, who is putting the final touches to a new and by all reports highly authoritarian encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, has given any thought to the question of whether women forced to work in brothels are entitled to protect themselves against disease and pregnancy by using condoms. Earlier this year John Paul II reiterated the Church's opposition to abortion and, with unfortunate phrasing, called on Bosnian rape victims to 'accept the enemy' into them and make him 'flesh of their own flesh'. 'These images of God,' he said, 'must be respected and loved.' A Jesuit cardinal took a slightly softer line, venturing the opinion that it might be permissible for Bosnian nuns who fear they are about to be raped to take the contraceptive pill. His advice applies strictly to nuns, and envisages a considerate type of rapist who gives his victim enough notice of his intent for the contraceptive properties of the pill to take effect. I wonder why, as I write these words, the title of a Philip Larkin poem - 'The Old Fools' - comes unbidden into my head?

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