Try explaining Pooh to the Americans: David Lister hits coast-to-coast TV and discovers he is woefully unprepared on the really big issues

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I HAD hoped that if I were to appear on coast-to-coast television in America it would be to offer wise words on the future of democracy, or popular culture, or even sexual harassment and the presidency: a historical perspective.

Alas, not to be. Last week I was indeed invited to give an expert opinion to the United States: the subject was Pooh, the Prince of Wales's lost Jack Russell terrier. An informed view about the nation's grief over the affair was required, with information on whether the Princess of Wales was also a dog lover, and speculation as to which was stronger, her affection for the little mutt or her delight at her estranged husband's loss.

In vain I tried to explain that this newspaper had broken ground among Western Europe's media in having neither a court correspondent nor a canine correspondent, that we had clung to the moral high ground in ignoring this footnote to constitutional history.

No dice; 'You're British - talk', was the thrust of the television company's response. So I researched a story I and possibly other readers of this paper had been unaware of. Prince Charles, it appears, has - or had - two doggies, Pooh and Tigger, named after characters in AA Milne's stories (or after characters in a Walt Disney movie, depending on one's childhood). Out walking his two charges in the grounds of Balmoral, His Royal Highness mislaid Pooh.

Anxious or distraught, depending upon which paper one reads, he then put, anonymously, a small ad in the local paper offering a reward for Pooh's return. An Aberdeen journalist, who gets my scoop-of-the-year award, scoured the ads column, recognised the phone number as the Balmoral estates office, put two and two together and became one of the highest paid freelances of the year.

If anyone finds the dog they will benefit, too. The amount of the Prince of Wales's reward is unspecified, but the Sun has offered pounds 500 and the Daily Mail pounds 1,000.

Was all this bad or good PR for the Prince, the Americans asked me. Both, I thought. Bad, because to lose a wife may be regarded as unfortunate, but to lose both wife and dog has to be carelessness. Yet also good, as the British will have deep admiration for a man who can remain sanguine about a broken marriage and burnt-out castle, but goes to pieces over the loss of his dog.

My own theory was that the dog had upped and run not so much out of disillusion with the monarchy, but because his name had been changed. Pooh had originally been called Roo, another AA Milne character. But the young princes, William and Harry, who evidently had not read sufficiently far into the book, must have assumed their pet's name to be a misprint, and changed Roo to Pooh.

The royals have a thing about changing names. George VI was a Bertie and should really have been Bertie the First. Edward VIII was a David but rejected being David the First. As a David myself I am none too happy about this. Royal personages may be able to change their names at the drop of a hat, but dogs are far more emotional about their identity, and I suspect the confusion over his name caused Pooh/Roo to forsake his master.

But much more interesting, I believe, than the relationship between Prince Charles and his dog, is the heir to the throne's resort to the small ads. Here he has shown himself a true man of the people. The British Establishment flirts from time to time with egalitarianism, dabbling in pop music or soccer or even venturing on to the Underground. But the small ads and the personals, as they are known in America, have been up to now the sole province of hoi polloi.

Prince Charles is right to take the plunge and widen their constituency. For few greater insights are offered into our fellow citizens than seeing what they choose to buy and sell, how they word the ads, the little exaggerations and inventions, and, in the more personal columns, the glimpses into their hearts.

Members of the Cabinet ought not to be above celebrating their joys with the rest of the population in the Valentine's Day messages. Peter could send his love to Hilda Brunette, with only the initiated recognising these as the middle names of Virginia Bottomley. The Heritage Secretary, Peter Brooke, who has responsibility for sport but is not a football lover, could offer his Cup Final tickets for sale among the scores of similar adverts that appear at this time of year. And John Major could attract the sharpest- eyed high fliers in the country by placing an ad requesting a brand new Kitchen Cabinet.

Inevitably, though, it will be the royal small ads that catch the eye. The quality press will vie with each other to publish vignettes such as: 'Good home wanted for corgis. House trained.'

Now that the Prince has set the pace, the classified ad sales girls could be speaking to a better class of person on a daily basis. 'Bundle of old letters lost. Sentimental value only. Contact M in Kensington'; 'Single parent seeks financial adviser'; 'Another single parent seeks school for young children. Exclusive but caring. Must be different from their father's school. No cold showers.'

On second thoughts, should I stumble across poor old Pooh I think I'll forgo the reward and try to find the sensitive pooch a stress-free home.