William Donaldson's Week: The fat man takes a powder

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I WON'T keep you in suspense with regard to last week's excitingly innovative 'You, The Jury' phone-in feature on whether Penny, my beloved's, fat man should be 'outed'.

A total of 17,654 people rang (confusingly - but with a point) to ask why, when BBC 2 only shows half an hour of the Kasparov-Short match, precious minutes are wasted by Dominic Lawson talking self-important nonsense outside the Savoy Theatre; 8,962 people thought that Reggie Kray should be released immediately; 6,853 people judged the Princess of Wales to be a victim rather than a manipulator; 27,969 people wanted to know why Rachel Garley hasn't appeared on Page Three of the Sun since August 1992; and 965 people, against 958, decided that the fat man should be named, resulting in demands for a recount.

That's the good news - or news of some sort, at least. The bad news is that my wife has cancelled her holiday in Cyprus on the grounds that I'm not a fit person, in her absence, to look after the cat; Honest John, in a startling act of treachery, has cut off my supply of Zantac and is even now driving to Fowey on the Cornish coast with a lorry-load of the stuff, having judged that the fat man's needs may well be greater than mine; and my friend Ted Honderich, Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London, gave me a 20- minute telephonic lecture on the difference between a dilemma and a hot potato.

'As far as I can discover,' Professor Honderich said, 'the term 'hot potato' plays no significant part in formal logic. It was disappointing, however, that you should have used the term 'dilemma' so loosely in your piece last week.'

'Forgive me,' I said, 'but you'll appreciate that I'm under some emotional stress at the moment.'

'That's as may be,' he said, 'but that's no excuse for citing as a dilemma something which is nothing of the sort. The example that you gave - should you double-cross your employers at the Independent by selling your 'hot potato' to the News of the World, or should you pinch the Times's 'You, The Jury' dodge? - is merely a problem.'

'Of course,' I said.

'In formal logic,' he said, 'a dilemma is an argument designed to push your opponent into a corner and there annihilate him. The first premise, which asserts that a pair of alternatives has certain undesirable consequences, consists of two conditional propositions linked by a conjunction - for example, 'and', 'but' or 'though'. The second premise, which offers the alternatives, is a disjunction. The conclusion may be another disjunction, offering alternatives, or it may be a categorical proposition. In the former case, the dilemma is said to be 'complex', in the latter case 'simple'.'

'I'm obliged to you,' I said.

'I haven't finished,' said Professor Honderich. 'It might be amusing to construct a dilemma of the sort you wanted. Consider this. Either the vote with regard to 'outing' the fat man would go against you, in which case you would look a fool. Or it would go in your favour, in which case you would look like a grass or a tell- tale. It would either go against you, or it wouldn't. Therefore you would either look a fool or a


'Oh dear,' I said. 'Is there a solution?'

'Indeed,' he said. 'I could go through the horns of the dilemma on your behalf by showing that the disjunctive premise - either the vote would go against you or it wouldn't - is false. As a voter, I could ignore the alternatives and suggest that the fat man, instead of wasting his money by humping business girls round the world, should invest it instead in the ever more brilliant Literary Review. He would have used his money usefully, and you would be perceived neither as a tell-tale nor a fool.'

My wife was no less lucid, and a trifle terser. 'You're contemptible,' she said. 'It's an outrage that you should use the resources of a great newspaper to victimise your beloved and her fat man. They're merely an ordinary couple, after all.'

'That's no excuse,' I said.

'Don't be pert with me,' she said. 'In the circumstances, I have decided to cancel my holiday in Cyprus since I can't trust a slime like you to look after Suzie Blue. Furthermore, I've given up the Independent and will in future take the Daily Telegraph. It occurs to me, incidentally, that the fat man would be better advised to invest his money in the Literary Review than to hump a speechless little tart from vulgar hotel suite to vulgar hotel suite. Don't call me, I'll call you.'

That's two votes, then, for the Literary Review, but it's as well, perhaps, that my wife's changed to the Telegraph rather than the Times. The Times won't take no for an answer and now wants to franchise this column for its residual rights. It plans to give away 'Out The Fat Man' car stickers with every copy sold, erect 'Guess The Fat Man's Weight' machines in newsagents throughout the land and, in South Coast resorts, organise 'You're The Fat Man] I Claim My pounds 5]' promotional stunts.

They'll be out of luck with the latter scam. If Bob, my once future father-in-law, is to be believed - which I don't suppose he is - the fat man is half-way up Everest with other ageing tourists, so punters will have to claim the reward in rupees or whatever.

Nor would I be in the fat man's boots, and carrying the Zantac supplied by Honest John. The counter-indications on my empty packet include: altered bowel habits, dizziness, rash, alopecia and reversible confusional states. I'd not want confusional states half-way up Everest. Every cloud, etc. The fat man would have done better to invest in the Literary Review.