Sam Leith

Diary - 7 December 2002

Explained: The twin phenomena of crop circles and exploding beverages

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The 13th Earl of Haddington (cr. 1619) was minded to revise his theory about crop circles to incorporate pixies, he told me the other day while we were enjoying a pre-dinner cigarette at the chimney piece of a grand dining-room in Chillingham Castle, Northumberland. Lord H. - a whiskery, engaging gent in tartan trousers - has done a good deal of research into the subject, and has come to some interesting conclusions. He has now established to his satisfaction that crop circles are not made by aliens but - if I understand him rightly - by dead people. His working theory is that the patterns are an effort to communicate using alchemical formulae associated with the god Hermes. Hermes being a prankish character, these can be a little opaque. Take the example he mentioned: a formation that seemed to be in the form of an animal. It had one big shape for the body, a head with two curly-wurly antennae, and a sort of ladder coming out of the back. When Lord H. arrived at the scene, he took out his dowsing rods in the hope of pinpointing the origins of the energy that had flattened the crops. To his surprise, the rods swivelled not, as he had expected, in the direction of the nearby long-barrow, but towards a thick patch of brambles. Hence, pixies. Lord H., little the wiser, asked the powers that be for clarification. On the motorway back home it came to him: it was a snail. ('My friend thought it was meant to be an insect. But it's not an insect. No legs, you see? And the ladder - a snail trail.') Now, here's the clever bit. The generic Latin name for the snail is Helix. There were two snails in the field. So: double-helix. So: DNA. And - aha! - the twined snakes of the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. Soon after, he saw a triangular formation with a moon on one corner, a sun on the other and a double-helix at the third. There are those who will say that the fine-tuning of an aristocratic bloodline over centuries has left the 13th Earl a little daffy. But I can't help wondering if he isn't on to something.

Our host, Sir Humphry Wakefield, had assembled a formidable number of titled folk for a black-tie dinner, which caused me considerable anxiety. I worked like mad spooning my soup away from myself, and trying to remember to say 'chimney piece' for 'mantelpiece' and not to say 'toilet', even in jest. But then, disaster. Someone told me that SHW had raised an eyebrow at the collar of my dress shirt, which was of the sticky-up-and-out pointy variety rather than the foldy-down-behind-your-tie variety. (It was the only one Austin Reed had in my size.) This was apparently a faux-pas. Sir Humphry, who is a very kind host, was so much at pains to reassure me that my shirt was all right that I was never able to find out why one sort is preferable to the other. Perhaps I should write to Dear Mary. SHW went on to tell against himself the story of disputing a point of etiquette with his late mother-in-law, Lady Mary Howick, who was very grand. He flies in, at last, copy of Debrett's held triumphantly open at the relevant page. Lady Mary, haughtily, 'And, Humphry, what on earth leads you to think that the editor of Debrett's would know more about it than I do?'

Exploding beverages are a social misfortune that respect no class distinctions. I met a girl in the pub on Saturday whose hair was as stiff and sticky as flypaper after a botched attempt at doing something called a 'strawpedo' with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice. This is, apparently, the new alcopop equivalent of shotgunning a can of beer: you put a bendy straw in the bottle, then clamp your mouth around the neck of the bottle with the straw protruding from the side. Glug, glug, glug. The straw lets in air, so the drink shoots into your stomach or, in her case, lungs, in one go. I was able to console her with the story of the time my girlfriend coughed into a flaming sambuca and napalmed the person opposite her. The following day I suffered a worse catastrophe. If you sneeze into a demitasse while trying to drink coffee from it, you are sunk. The force of a single sneeze, compressed into the crucible of the tiny mug, can propel coffee astonishingly far in a wholly unpredictable range of directions. In an instant I had covered with lukewarm espresso my entire face and hair, my favourite T-shirt, both arms of the chair, a small portion of the wall behind me and a large portion of the pretty girl next door whom I had been trying to impress with my sophistication. I wonder how the Queen recovers socially when this sort of thing happens to her.

Apparently the Star Trek exhibition about to open in Hyde Park is going to be the biggest there since the Great Exhibition of 1851. Extraordinary that there should be such a thirst for Star Trek's kitschy, antique view of the future. I suppose that now we are very nearly at the future, we find comfortingly homely the distant surmises of those for whom it was twice as far away. The other explanation is the historic British affection for crapness. Many of the things we seem to hold dear as a nation - Porridge and Dr Who; Carry On and Hammer films; and our cricket side - are slightly, if not completely, rubbish. Among the bleak Styrofoam rocks of Star Trek's unnumbered worlds, we recognised something that called out to us.

I still shudder with disgust when I consider the public autopsy conducted the other day by Dr Gunther von Kidney or whatever he is called. Has there ever been so cheap, cynical and disgusting a bid for attention as that man's fedora? Was he really worried that he would be ignored without it? Will the viewer at home think, 'Look, it's a man in a hat' rather than 'Look, it's a man up to his elbows in a former old-age pensioner'? Which said, it is hard to disapprove too strongly of the autopsy itself. Some have trotted out the line that the mark of a civilised society is the respect it shows to its dead. This is probably twaddle. If it is the dearest desire of your heart to be publicly chopped into 40 or more pieces by a horrid old ham in a fedora, what can be the harm in being indulged? When I am dead I should like my friends to eat me.