Tourist's Charter ... Italian trifles ... hamster survey

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The Independent Online
SAY what you like about this old country of ours, but we can still provide stirring pieces of pageantry that are the envy of the world and make the hairs on the back of your neck go all funny. But do we have enough? After all, more than 22 million tourists are coming here this year, and we must find more for them to do than visit Madame Tussaud's, sit in Garfunkel restaurants and move those big rucksacks round the tube network. Yes, I know there's the VE jamboree coming up, but, after that, what? Royal weddings seem to be rather out of fashion. Despair not, though, the Captain has had an idea. You will have seen that David Hunt, the tough, dynamic Citizen's Charter minister, is threatening to remove British Gas's Charter Mark unless it improves its performance. Cor. But this is no time for faint hearts. Let it be done, I say. I have in mind a new ceremony, The Stripping of the Charter Mark. It will take place on Horseguard's Parade. John Major will be on a reviewing platform. Trumpets will sound. Mr Hunt will read out the Proclamation of the Stripping of the Mark. The Mark will then be rent in two by Mr Major, who will throw the pieces into the face of Cedric Brown, British Gas chief executive, while simultaneously 20 small-bore gas pipes are taken from a line of 20 fitters and snapped by 20 members of Group 4 (Charter Stripper Division). The crowd will then be at liberty to bombard Brown and his fitters with crumpled red bills as they withdraw backwards through a line of traffic cones. If you like the sound of this, write to Mr Major, c/o 10 Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA.

n THE Captain was not at all surprised to see that Michelin now ranks Italian cuisine below ours. The Italians are, predictably, outraged. Some chef in Rome called Derflingher has gone so far as to call it "impossible" and to accuse the British of copying Italian food. Excuse me, signore, if you don't mind, but can we take a few cases? Spaghetti Bolognese, for example, is quite clearly a pale and ridiculously difficult to eat imitation of Shepherd's Pie, though why anyone would prefer those twisty long white bits to potato is beyond me. Even I can see that this pizza stuff is simply an egg and bacon crusty (flan) of the type that has been eaten in Billinge for centuries. And, while we're at it, have you ever found a decent bacon sandwich over there? Or a sausage one, for that matter? But it won't be long, I'll be bound. No, back to the kitchen with you, Mr Derflingher, and put some more sherry in the zuppa inglese.

LET'S stay with Italy for a moment. In Pisa, they are beavering away at saving the Leaning Tower. The plan is to move it upright by an inch. Why stop there? Let's use this dull old oddity to show what modern technology can really do. My dedicated Moonlight team of backroom boffins, fired with enthusiasm for the task, ripped off their anoraks, blinked determinedly and worked through the night to bring you this impression of how a really improved tower would look. Forza!

n I WARNED you some time ago that there was going to be a fuss about Raquel Welch. You will have read the interviews and the reports about the difficulties she has been experiencing coming to the West End with her interesting interpretation of the eponymous role in Shaw's The Millionairess. Unkind things have been said about her acting ability; there has been a sadly predictable urge to follow my lead and dwell on the defining nature of her fur bikini in the film One Million Years BC. So I am indeed glad to report that Ms Welch has risen above it all and continues to behave in the best traditions of her craft. In Sheffield, at the Swallow Hotel, they knocked three bedrooms together in the hope of constructing a suite fit for her. She was not impressed and moved to another hotel. But there her suite overlooked a lake, and, apparently, she cannot stand being near water. And so she returned to the Swallow, still unhappy. As someone who has been to Sheffield, I would like to apologise. But the water thing is interesting: W C Fields, I remember, refused to touch it because of what fish did in it. What worries me about Ms Welch's aversion is that it presumably means we will never see her in tragic roles (all that weeping; do try to keep up).

CAPTAIN Moonlight's Diary Service. Have you noticed how many special weeks there are these days? So many, in fact, that a few of you could easily have been unaware that last week was National Eye Safety Week, World Animal Laboratory Week, Endangered Species Week and National Swimfit Week. I have already drawn your attention to National Dormouse Week, National Condom Week and National Prune Week. Up and Coming: National Pet Week, Worm Awareness Week, National Hay Fever Week, National Smile Week, and National Samaritans Week. What we need is a National Week Information Service. We could have a National Week Information Service Week. Write to me with your weeks now.

n CAPTAIN'S Compliments to Tim Clifford, director, National Galleries, Scotland, would-be director, Victoria & Albert Museum: Tim, my museums correspondent, Archie Fakt, tells me that your interview for the V&A job is this Tuesday. Archie also tells me that the trustees are a teensy bit worried that your character might be a bit too "larger than life" and "flamboyant". Particularly the chairman, the vero-economical and unflamboyant Lord Armstrong of Spycatcher, with whom, apparently, your deal-threatening suggestion that J Paul Getty Junior had given the money to buy the Three Graces to spite his late dad's museum went down almost as badly as it did with J Paul Getty Jnr. In the circumstances, I'd leave the kilt at home, turn up in a quiet suit and not mention that you have commissioned photos of the Graces taken by Koo Stark for your forthcoming Canova exhibition. Yours in Art.

NOW THEN, the great hamster debate. There was, you will remember, a complaint from Cumbria about the hamster dragster, a hamster-powered racing car featured exclusively in this column with a picture of a hamster called Nigel driving it. Lorraine Creed thought it "an obscene plastic toy" and wanted Nigel to run free in his own environment. I threw it open to debate, asking whether you thought Nigel looked happy and whether all hamsters should be forcibly repatriated to Syria, their country of origin. The result was a 60-40 split in favour of the dragster. Anne Connybeare of Charlbury, Oxon, wrote one of several eloquent letters arguing against, but even she had to concede that hamster repatriation "would surely give rise to major ecological, let alone diplomatic, problems". Not everyone, I have to say, took the debate quite so seriously. Glenn Platt of Norfolk thought the dragster would be useful for keeping Nigel away from Freddie Starr. There was also a strong entry from the Captain's younger readers, in connection with which I have a message for the parents of Tom from Worcester and Zoe from Tetbury: you buy them one.

Hot piping! Gordon Brown (right), Michael Meacher and Robin Cook (concealed by Meacher) pictured filming the next Labour Party political broadcast at Edinburgh Castle watched by other members of the Shadow Cabinet, including a foot-tapping Dr Jack Cunningham. The director, Roman Polanski, is on the extreme left. `We're very tired indeed with the adversarial nature of the party political broadcast, so this time we've gone for five minutes of good old-fashioned entertainment,' said Brown, before breaking into a lively rendition of `Stop Your Ticklin', Jock'. Other highlights of the broadcast will include Tony Blair singing `Ol' Man River'; Frank Dobson on spoons; Harriet Harman with `The Yellow Rose of Texas'; and Donald Dewar's acclaimed recital of `Eskimo Nell'. Actually, it's the world champion individual bagpiper, Roddy MacLeod, and Scott Drummond on the Great Wall of China. Why? Blessed if I know.


The Captain's catch-up Service

HERE IT is, once again, Britain's most easily digestible news digest, wherein all human life resides ... A bookcase which can easily be converted into a coffin when the reader dies is being marketed by a firm in Massachusetts ... A man in Hounslow exposed himself among the tanks of a pet shop. "He just kept saying he liked fish, then unzipped his trousers," said assistant Emma Riley ... Chris Gardner, a farmer in Fakenham, had to call the AA for help after he was locked out of his van by a piglet