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16 April 2014 Last updated at 08:06 ET

What was the mysterious black ring in Leamington Spa?

Unidentified black ring

A video of a mysterious black ring in the sky over Leamington Spa left people scratching their heads, and prompted a wave of speculation, writes Tom de Castella.

The ring was reportedly captured by a 16-year-old schoolgirl with her smartphone after she played tennis with her mother. The ring - which appeared to be close to Warwick Castle - remained in the sky for around three minutes before vanishing, it has been reported.

Several different theories were put forward as to what the ring could be. Some people speculated whether it would be possible to fake the video. In theory you can fake most things, says Iain McArthur, an expert at Audio Video Forensics. For instance, the footage wobbles. You can fake this handheld look. But other elements seem to ring true, he says. There's a "blob" on the top right and top left of the ring, suggesting movement - "something organic", he says. It's not clear how far away the ring is from the smartphone. The video footage is blurred at the sides. But he doesn't think it is suspicious. "Initially it doesn't look like it's faked." It's not like other video of unexplained sightings - in particular the hazy edges to the black circle. "The blurring element is different from any UFO footage I've seen," McArthur says.

Other people thought it might have been a strange weather phenomenon. But that's not so, according to the Met Office. "There's no meteorological reason why it's happened. And there was nothing unusual happening in Leamington Spa that day, we've checked," a Met Office spokeswoman says. The shape is said to have remained in the sky for three minutes. And it's very rare that a cloud circle "that perfect" would remain without being blown away at that height.

So could it have been a swarm of insects? Some insects do gather in groups like this at certain times of year, says Frederic Tripet, an entomologist at Keele University. The fuzziness of the black outline almost looks like insects leaving and joining the circle. One of the images has a very faint line curving up from below which might be seen as insects arriving and departing, he believes. Another has what looks like a fly in the foreground, he says. "When the winter is mild you can expect population explosions of some insects. They may be mating in that aggregation. Usually mating is not done as high [or] in ring formation."


If not insects, then could it have been birds? A strange black cloud was captured over Leamington last year. It was a flock of starlings. Birds are known to fly in tight formations, such as a V-shape. Could this ring also have been starlings? The answer is no, says Richard James, wildlife adviser at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "Starlings and waders can form fluid shapes. But they won't form a shape like this." You sometimes get a small number of buzzards circling around a thermal but it wouldn't resemble the Leamington ring. They would not be as close together. They're likely to be individually visible rather than an amorphous black mass, he says. "It's certainly not birds," he concludes.

The eventual answer came in the middle of Tuesday afternoon when a statement from Warwick Castle confirmed that they had been testing fireworks.

A Warwick Castle spokesman said they had been trying out "fire effects" to go with the daily firing of the Trebuchet Fireball - a giant catapult.

"We've seen a number of different effects, including the vortex images that have been reported," the spokesman said. "As yet we don't know what causes the phenomenon but it's certainly a spooky spectacle."

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Should demolition of buildings be used as entertainment?

Red Road flats 2013 One of the 30-storey blocks of Red Road flats was demolished last year

Plans to demolish five tower blocks as part of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening ceremony have been scotched. Is it appropriate for demolitions to be turned into public spectacles, asks Finlo Rohrer.

The five well-known blocks at Red Road will still be demolished. But this particular revolution in Glasgow's social housing will not be televised.

There was the threat of protests, a group letter from architects in Glasgow and a former MSP Carolyn Leckie, who criticised "the disrespect displayed by blowing up homes for entertainment". Her petition attracted thousands of signatures.

There have been many occasions when big demolitions using explosives - known colloquially as "implosions" - have been presented as entertainment. In February, about 30,000 gathered in Frankfurt to witness the controlled demolition of Frankfurt's university tower, one of the biggest demolitions ever carried out in Europe. Thousands gathered in 2000 in the streets near Seattle's Kingdome sports arena when it was blown up. When, in 1995, the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas was blown up, it featured in the movie Mars Attacks.

"The Americans do love an implosion, particularly around Las Vegas - every implosion of a hotel is a major event," says Mark Anthony, editor of Demolition News. There are TV crews and a kind of carnival atmosphere in some cases. "There are people in many countries who will travel thousands of miles to see one."

Landmark Hotel The 31-storey Landmark Hotel, which was built in 1961, was imploded in 1995

But in the UK, the phenomenon is much less spectator-led, suggests Anthony, although that's not to say that many haven't enjoyed the impressive sight of a block collapsing in on itself.

Architect Maxwell Hutchinson wrote that during the great wave of demolition of 1960s tower blocks, "picnic parties sat on London's Hackney Marshes as tower after tower exploded and crashed into a pile of wasted idealism and dreams".

But in the case of Red Road, it's wrong to have demolition as entertainment, says Miles Glendinning, professor of architectural conservation at the University of Edinburgh. "The proposal filled me with horror and disgust." The planners of previous eras may have made mistakes, with hindsight, but they often had good motives, he suggests.

There's no doubt that when the five towers are eventually demolished some spectators will gather. But Anthony will not be among those who are impressed by the sight. "I'm probably a bit jaded because I've seen so many," he says.

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The way drugs and prostitution boost the economy

Red light district

Later this year, the UK economy will get a £10bn boost from illegal drugs and prostitution, writes Anthony Reuben.

The Office for National Statistics, which has to calculate the figure, confirmed it at an economic forum last week and will publish more details next month. It will be £3bn from prostitution and £7bn from illegal drugs.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

The European Union has declared that illegal activities need to be included in national accounts so that comparisons can be made between countries. In the Netherlands, for example, some drugs are permitted that are illegal elsewhere in Europe, and there is legal prostitution. Given that the allocation of the EU budget is based on the size of a country's economy measured by gross domestic product (GDP), the EU wants to be sure that all countries are measuring it in the same way.

The inclusion of illegal activities in GDP is one of a range of changes to the national accounts which will be introduced across Europe from September. The activities involved are only supposed to be those in which both parties are, at least nominally, voluntary participants.

At first that will only include UK production of cannabis, drug smuggling and prostitution, but it is expected that illegal employment, gambling, pirating of software and fencing of stolen goods will also eventually be included. The European statistics authority Eurostat has brought out extensive guidelines on measuring illegal activities. It says we must assume that all illegal drugs and prostitution services are consumed by households and not businesses.

Statisticians need only be concerned with the takings of prostitutes who have been resident in the country for more than a year and research is recommended on the supply-side (prostitutes) rather than the demand side (their clients) as it is more reliable.

Look out for full details of how the ONS reached its estimates in May.

Knowing how much has been spent on illegal activities is important because otherwise there is a great deal of money that has been legally earned, but you don't know how it has been spent - creating a mismatch between figures for earnings and spending or saving.

Similarly, it would mean there was a lot of money being spent on legal products and services, of which you did not know the origin.

In other words, money from illegal activities, if its origin can be hidden, circulates round the economy just like any other money, and EU statisticians have decided it's important to be able to account for it.

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Five people compared to Adrian Mole

Mellor, Clark, Major

Sue Townsend, the creator of fictional diarist Adrian Mole, has died. The character who started life at 13 3/4 has permeated culture and led to unlikely comparisons to real life figures. Here are five.

The prime minister

John Major was compared so closely to Adrian Mole that a spoof column appeared in Private Eye called The Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47 3/4).

Townsend, herself, once said of Adrian in an interview: "I couldn't imagine what he looked like until I saw John Major on the television and Margaret Thatcher was introducing her Cabinet... There was this geeky looking man at the back of the group. I said to my children, 'My God that's Adrian Mole'."

After John Major's affair with Edwina Curry was made public, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop said in the Sunday Telegraph in 2002 that the details of the affair were in keeping with Mole.

"The extract in Edwina's diary that refers longingly to this man 'in his blue underpants' does not turn Major from an typically English joke figure into a suave and sophisticated French-style politician; it just makes him more ludicrous."

The aristocrat

One grew up in suburban Leicester, the other in the stately home Longleat in Wiltshire. But The Daily Mail's June Southworth found many similarities between a 19-year-old Viscount Weymouth, Ceawlin Thynn, and Adrian Mole. In 1993 she was struck by his "eyes shining with idealism behind his granny glasses".

Adrian Mole, The Cappuccino Years

"A skinny, pale youth, he sports jeans, T-shirt and a short-back-and-sides, and has the slightly prim and earnest air of a social worker trying to bring some order to the chaos of a problem family."

The diarist

Unrequited lust was a running theme in Adrian's life. Something David Mellor noted in 1998 in the Mail on Sunday was also present in Alan Clark's diaries.

"Alan reveals himself here to be not so much a mole at the Ministry, as Adrian Mole at the Ministry. Lots of breathless stuff about big-breasted Folkestone shop assistants and sad passages such as: 'At lunchtime I was on the news both going into and emerging from Number Ten. I do hope Jane sees it.'"

The king

He was alive more than 400 years before Adrian Mole was old enough to fret about pimples, but that didn't stop historian David Starkey comparing Edward VI to the diarist. The prince, like Mole, recorded his painful time growing up Starkey points out in his documentary Edward and Mary.

"Remarkably Edward has left us his own account of the turbulent years of his childhood, written as if he were a character in his own drama".

More on the creation of Adrian

"I wanted to know what he'd feel about getting older."

The generation

The New Statesman's Martin Bright noticed back in 2005 that the rising stars of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives were roughly the same age as Adrian.

Adrian Mole was born 2 April 1967, meaning both David Cameron and Nick Clegg would have been in the same school year, with Ed Miliband three school years below.

On age alone, he rightly predicted "whatever happens in the next few years. One way or another we will have Adrian Mole as Prime Minister."

He says the context they grew up in was bound to have an influence.

"The Moles, like Adrian himself, had their politics forged in the sectarian politics of the 1980s. Their university years - Oxbridge of course - were bracketed by the miners' strike and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The economic recession that followed made them cautious and socially conventional."

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Weekendish: Watches for the blind and Eiffel of the East

A round-up of some of the best reads from the BBC News Magazine this week, with your extra comments.

A mural of migrants

Altar: The town where migrants shop for a perilous journey

The Mexican town of Altar probably sells more camouflage clothing that any other town in the nation. Why? Because the US border is 100km (62 miles) away. For many migrants from across Mexico and Central America, a desert lies between them and a new life. A whole industry has sprung up in the town - shops line the square selling everything the prospective border-crosser could need. One vendor's best-seller is carpet slippers - a simple way to ensure tracks are not left in the sand. Will Grant meets the town's Stetson-wearing padre who reminds those about to set off on the potentially perilous journey that Jesus Christ walks among them. "Eye-opening," tweets Rory Carroll.

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Bradley timepiece The ball bearing on the front tells the minutes

A watch for blind people

It's a striking-looking timepiece - all titanium, no hands, no numbers and it's up for a design award at London's Design Museum. What really makes this watch unusual is that it was designed for blind people and yet, the vast majority of purchasers are sighted. It gives the lie to the idea that if something is designed for blind people it doesn't need to be aesthetically pleasing. It's called the Bradley Timepiece. But who is the Bradley it's named after? KAB ‏@kentblindtweets "Do you use a talking/vibrating watch at the moment? Would you prefer this?" Candice Diemer also tweets: "A watch for blind people that sighted people are buying. Great example of inclusive product design."

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Rev'd Paul Mundy

From pub to pulpit: Is this man any happier now?

Does Paul Mundy practise what he preaches? The former publican-turned-curate now occupies the enviable position of being in a category of jobs (although he wouldn't describe his "calling" as a job) that apparently offer the greatest levels of satisfaction. His former profession is one of the unhappiest, according to the government. In response to our previous story looking at the Cabinet Office's research, Mundy tweeted this: "I was a publican for 23 years before being ordained into the Church of England last year. Becoming a Clerk in Holy Orders really is the best job in the world, however my life as a publican has equipped me for being the person God intended me to be. Until we meet at the bar or in the pews, Cheers and God bless." In our short film, Mundy says there are similarities between the two paths his life has taken: "You see people in their best and in their worst of times." Arts Chaplain ‏@JamesOMCraig tweets: "Good to see a #Rev who's equally at home in the pub as he is in the PCC."

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Shukhov Tower, photographed from below

Shukhov Tower: The Eiffel of the East

Moscow's Soviet-era Shukhov radio tower rises like a single exclamation mark above the city's dense urban landscape. But a full stop could be looming if a proposed demolition goes ahead. It's filigree design and delicate, ephemeral quality is much loved by architects and conservationists and is said to have inspired elements of other landmark buildings. A campaign to prolong its life has been launched - the problem is, it sits on valuable real estate, and a building regulation loophole means its demolition could pave the way for a new development of equal height. Rob Hallifax tweeted "Amazing structure - a testimony to the power of constraints." RIBA Journal tweeted: "Shukhov's tower, a 'transcendent structure' hugely influential on today's architects."

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Azizul Raheem Awalludin, Shalwati Norshal and family The family's supporters have campaigned for the parents to be freed

Malaysia's love for the cane is questioned

In Sweden, a Malaysian couple have been jailed for smacking and caning their children. Malaysians have tended, on the whole, to sympathise with the parents who want their children to do well academically. Corporal punishment is clearly entrenched in society, but attitudes might be slowly changing. Our reporter Jennifer spoke to one mother who said her own father had tied her to a tree so she could not run away when he caned her. But she added that she would always talk to her children first if they misbehaved and would cane them only as a last resort.

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10 things we didn't know last week


1. Your taste buds go numb when you fly.

Find out more (Bloomberg)

2. Swedes will pay a lot for the first strawberries of the season.

Find out more (The Local)

3. Flies can completely change direction by rolling their bodies and giving a slight flick of their wings - all within five milliseconds.

Find out more

4. Hawaii consumes more spam than any other state in the US.

Find out more (Financial Times)

5. Professional musicians struggle to tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and modern instruments in blind testing.

Find out more (The Strad)

6. Bank of England workers in the 1980s had to do dexterity tests using tweezers and washers.

Find out more

7. Lawrence of Arabia was offered a job as a nightwatchman at the bank. He turned it down.

Find out more

8. Yellow sac spiders are strongly attracted to Mazda cars.

Find out more

9. Only a steel shortage stopped the Soviet Union creating the world's tallest structure in 1922.

Find out more

10. People called Eleanor are disproportionately likely to get into Oxford University.

Find out more

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Quiz of the week's news


It's the Magazine's 7 days, 7 questions quiz - an opportunity to prove to yourself and others that you are a news oracle. Failing that, you can always claim to have had better things to do during the past week than swot up on current affairs.

7 days

1.) Multiple Choice Question

A jar was sold for 5,250 yuan ($860, 512) by an artist in China, it was revealed this week. What was in it?

Artist holding jar
  1. Fresh air
  2. A "kiss"
  3. A grain of rice

2.) Multiple Choice Question

This dog hit the headlines in New York this week - what had it done?

  1. Raced a train along the tracks
  2. Rode on the roof of a Metro train
  3. Pulled a man who had fallen on train tracks off

3.) Multiple Choice Question

A seal ring, discovered in a rare sarcophagus containing the remains of a man, was shown to the public. Which ancient civilisation did it belong to?

  1. Mayan
  2. Aztec
  3. Egyptian

4.) Multiple Choice Question

A city in Sweden is experimenting with a shorter working day. How many hours?

Swedish flag
  1. 5
  2. 6
  3. 7

5.) Missing Word Question

Paxman to talk * in Edinburgh

  1. otters
  2. German
  3. beards

6.) Multiple Choice Question

A former prime minister this week wrote a newspaper article revealing their admiration for Game of Thrones. Who was it?

  1. Johanna Sigurdardottir, Iceland
  2. Julia Gillard, Australia
    Julia Gillard
  3. Gordon Brown, UK
    Gordon Brown

7.) Multiple Choice Question

French President Francois Hollande has banned what from cabinet meetings?

Francois Hollande waving French flag
  1. Use of English
  2. Mobile phones
  3. Food


  1. It's fresh air. Beijing artist Liang Kegang collected the Provence air while on a trip to southern France. He invited fellow artists and collectors to a special auction in protest against the pollution of his home city.
  2. The dog raced the Metro-North train from the Bronx to Manhattan on a parallel track, passing it at one point when it stopped at a red light. The train driver alerted the rail command centre.
  3. It's Egyptian. The 3,300-year-old broken coffin, containing the remains of an influential Canaanite man, was revealed in Israel after archaeologists salvaged artefacts from a trench dug for a new gas pipeline. It's the first time in around 50 years that a person-shaped coffin had been found in present-day Israel.
  4. It's six. The experiment is being undertaken by municipal staff in Gothenburg and it's hoped it will increase efficiency and reduce absenteeism.
  5. It was beards. The one-man show will cover such topics as pogonophobia, or fear of beards.
  6. It's Julia Gillard. Her piece in the Guardian revealed that when she was prime minister she felt the "addictive power" of Game of Thrones. "I was barracking for the Khaleesi. After all, what girl has not yearned for a few dragons when in a tight spot?"
  7. It was mobile phones, which must now be surrendered at the door to help ministers concentrate on the task at hand.

Your Score

0 - 3 : Zut alors

4 - 6 : Bof

7 - 7 : Lgion d'honneur

For past quizzes including our weekly news quiz, 7 days 7 questions, expand the grey drop-down below - also available on the Magazine page (and scroll down).

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Caption Challenge: Winning entries

Woman with sign

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week a woman with a sign reminds people to file their tax returns.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Paul Donlon:

"Slow Manicures Take Off in America".

5. Dave laycock:

"...or we'll get the nailclippers out..."

4. MukkaMonkey:

IRS PR Agency totally misunderstand their brief and hands out giant emery boards by mistake.

3. Mark Slade:

"GOLF SALE" man finally finds his dream date.

2. Richie_53:

Austerity hits Liberty who now has to take second job.

1. Thomas Poxton:

Nail bar predicts apocalypse.

PDF download Full rules can be seen here[16KB]

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How to memorise a new password

Rory Cellan-Jones looks at ways to manage strong online passwords

Computer users across the globe are being strongly urged to change all their online passwords because of the Heartbleed Bug. Memory expert Tony Buzan gives tips on how to remember new ones, which should be a long jumble of randomly generated letters and numbers.

Changing passwords is something many people avoid at all costs, because they fear they will forget the new password. However, you can make something memorable by simply using the power of association and location. In order to remember a string of online passwords, all you have to do is associate each individual letter and number with a known or fixed item, calling on your imagination throughout. The more you stimulate and use your imagination, the more connections you will be able to make, and the more you will be able to memorise.

Password tips

Here are security expert Prof Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey password tips

No pet's names Hackers can find out a lot about you from social media

No dictionary words Hackers can precalculate the encrypted forms of whole dictionaries and easily reverse engineer your password.

Mix unusual characters try a word or phrase where characters are substituted - Myd0gha2B1g3ars!

Have multiple passwords If hackers compromise one system, they won't be able to access other accounts.

Keep them safely Don't write them down - use a secure password vault on your phone

When you find that you have to remember a random formation of letters and numbers, devise your own memory image words for each number and letter. Say for example, I need to remember this random mix of numbers and letters: B5g3ars91fPpq1m2bn4d8Vc3. Start with a key image word that starts with the sound of each letter, and make sure the word is easy to imagine and easy to draw. For example, B = Banana. If you can think of several possibilities for a letter, use the one that comes first in the dictionary.

A similar rule is applied to remembering numbers - you devise key memory images for words that rhyme with the sound of the words for the numbers. For example, the key rhyming memory image word that most people use for the number five is "hive" and the images conjured up for it range from one enormous hive, from which emanates a sky-covering swarm of monster bees, to a microscopic hive, with only one tiny bee.

To remember a random string of passwords you need to "translate" each number and letter of the password you have to remember into an image whether it be in a form of a letter or story, devised from a basic code. Use the letters and numbers you have transcribed and make up catchy words and phrases that link you back to both the number and the letter.

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The controversy over which way a child seat faces

Child in car seat

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge courted controversy in New Zealand after they used a forward-facing baby seat. Are the seats unsafe, asks Tom de Castella.

A minor storm has blown up in New Zealand over the Royal couple's choice of baby seat. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose a forward-facing seat for Baby George, who is eight months old. It was fitted by Plunket, New Zealand's national childcare agency despite Plunket's own advice stating that children should face backwards until the age of two. The childcare body has since been attacked on Facebook for double standards.

The answer

  • Rear-facing seats safer
  • Forward-facing seats dangerous in head-on crash
  • Children's necks and heads especially vulnerable to being thrown forward

Forward-facing is what the Duke and Duchess asked for, according to newspaper reports. There are good reasons why they might prefer this. It's easier to see if the baby is asleep and to maintain eye contact. But which way is safer? The UK government's advice states that babies up to 13kg should have rear-facing baby seats. But it also says either forward or rear-facing seats are fine for children from 9-18kg.

Rear-facing for as long as possible is what many retailers, such as Mothercare, advise parents of young children. In 2009 the British Medical Journal reported that rear-facing seats are safer for children under four. However the study found that many parents move their child to a forward-facing seat at 9kg or eight months - the age of Prince George. "Excessive stretching or even transection of the spinal cord can result if a child is involved in a head-on crash while in a forward facing car seat," it reported.

Who, what, why?

Question mark from original drawing for Television Centre

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

A head-on crash is what causes the most serious injuries, says Matthew Avery, head of research at Thatcham, the car safety agency. The head shoots towards the windscreen if the seat is forward-facing. But if it is rear-facing the seat back will support the head and neck. This is doubly important for babies and young children who have disproportionately heavy heads and weak neck muscles, he says. Avery kept his two children in rear-facing seats until they were four - something that is common practice in Sweden, he says. Children are safer in the back than front. But if a child is put in the front in a rear-facing seat, the airbag must be deactivated, he warns.

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How many elephants in the room?

An elephant is being led onto some scales to be weighed Presumably weighs as much as one elephant

Elephants are a popular token of scale in measurements of very large things. Why, asks Anthony Reuben.

Why do I keep hearing about elephants? Hardly any animal-related stories come across my desk. I haven't been asked to do anything about the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo and their chances of conceiving this year. Nobody has asked me to investigate the new regulations relating to grey squirrels and how their population compares with red squirrels. But I got into the office the other day to an email asking whether I believed that 20,000 elephants had been killed in Africa in 2012. It turns out that it's surprisingly difficult to count elephants, as More or Less found out last October.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

Not long ago I was sent some research suggesting that the amount of stuff sent to landfill that could have been reused weighed the same as 90,000 elephants. I was asked recently by a statistician if the BBC could stop referring to things as being the size of Wales. I explained that without things being the height of a double-decker bus, the length of a jumbo jet, the capacity of an Olympic-sized swimming pool or Wembley Stadium, or indeed the size of Wales, news would be completely without reference points.

But I wonder if 90,000 elephants is a useful measure of weight. On the other hand, I'm not sure we have a viable alternative reference for such a big weight. Maybe we could do it in terms of the weight of Wembley Stadium, or indeed the weight of whales - or even Wales. Setting aside the fact that elephants can weigh anywhere between 2.25 and seven tons, is it a failure of the imagination or a useful comparison? Any suggestions for a new reference point for extreme weight in the news are welcome.

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Why do Britons drink so much instant coffee?

Instant coffee

It's UK coffee week, but despite years of cafe proliferation, instant coffee still dominates at home. Why do the British drink so much more instant than anyone else, asks Denise Winterman.

"It's like orange squash and orange juice, they're both called orange but that's pretty much where the similarities end," says Paul Meikle-Janney, managing director of coffee consultancy, Coffee Community. "Instant coffee and fresh coffee are different products. Each has its own place in the market but that place is narrowing when it comes to instant and that is as it should be."

But instant still accounts for 77% of the coffee Brits buy to drink at home, according to market research specialists Mintel. In Italy it accounts for just 1%, in France 4% and 7% in the US. The UK market for coffee at home is growing and is now worth in excess of £1bn annually. Instant has lost market share recently but still dominates over the likes of ground coffee and beans.

Use your granules

Coffee and walnut cake

It's the Americans who are largely credited with giving the UK the stuff. It came over in the ration packs of US troops during World War Two. For a nation of coffee drinkers it was a temporary solution to not having a freshly brewed "cup of Joe". For a nation of tea drinkers it was something new and exciting and caught on.

It's shunned in cafe culture. "It's simply not acceptable in any commercial or catering environment," says Meikle-Janney. But, as figures show, things are different in many British homes. Author Philip Hensher is a fan, calling it a "little piece of everyday private magic". "Private" being the operative word for those who hide their jar at the back of the kitchen cupboard. So what's the appeal? Simple - it's quick and easy, says Meikle-Janney. Granules, hot water, a dash of milk if that's how you take it, job done. "Convenience is the product's main strength but that won't last as freshly-brewed coffee is now much quicker and easier to make at home."

And instant coffee lovers will probably be cool with that because they are the most laid-back people, according to a psychological study into what your coffee reveals about your personality.

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10 things we didn't know last week

Man and woman kissing on cheek

1. Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the most expensive Major League Baseball ground in which to propose marriage.

Find out more (Swimmingly)

2. Female cockroaches make eggs more quickly if they cuddle with other roaches.

Find out more (Smithsonian)

3. Denmark consumes the most apples per head while Morocco has the highest orange, tangerine and mandarin consumption.

Find out more (Economist)

4. The Inuit language doesn't have a word for freedom - the closest is "annakpok" which means "not caught".

Find out more

5. Bretons traditionally kiss each other only once on the cheek, unlike their more effusive compatriots in the rest of France who opt for two, three or four pecks.

Find out more (the Times)

6. Adult characters on cereal packets look straight ahead, while children's characters look down at a 9.6 degree angle.

Find out more (Business Insider)

7. The biblical dimensions of Noah's Ark were probably realistic.

Find out more (Daily Mail)

8. Dollar squiggles on the pavement denote electric cables below.

Find out more

9. Sloths only defecate about once a week.

Find out more

10. Fanny, Gertrude, Gladys, Margery, Marjorie, Muriel, Cecil, Rowland, Willie, Bertha and Blodwen are "extinct" names in the UK - meaning none have been recorded in the latest record of births.

Find out more (Daily Telegraph)

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Weekendish: Freedom, sloths and ballpoint pens

A round-up of some of the best reads from the BBC News Magazine this week, with your extra comments.

Carmen and Loredana

How the secret police tracked my childhood

About a month after his son was born in 1983, Ion Bugan took to the streets of Bucharest to protest against the Ceausescu regime. He stood on top of his car, waved placards, blew a whistle. For him it was a statement of protest. For his family, wrote his daughter Carmen, it "marked the beginning of hell". He was jailed and state surveillance began on the family. After we published the article, Carmen received an email from someone who had been a 15-year-old boy at the time and who had seen Ion's protest. "For years I have wondered what happened to the man that displayed such courage and stared a criminal system in the face. A whole bus full of people went quiet, and when the bus was finally allowed on its route, nobody had the courage to talk about it for fear of the unknown Securitate people that were everywhere. A 30-year-old question has been answered for me. His struggle made lifelong imprints."

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Suddenly, she yells - a speech bubble appears with a picture of her key, but it is not the state key, it is more beautiful and individual.

The Key

The Key was a work of comic art we published on Monday, telling a tale of freedom against state repression. It was written by graphic novelist Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes. Morrison told us: "The superhero for me is a symbolic figure. It has to be someone we can relate to, and it allows us to deal with things quite directly. What I love about comics is the way they allow you to talk about big ideas like freedom, meaning, what we're all here for and why." The Illogical Volume blog says that the Key was not actually a story "about freedom - but an advert for the idea of freedom". "Can't help but love this," tweets Amber Thomson. Chris Wales tweets that what it - and the BBC - missed was "that freedom is rarely seized by gun-toting goons, but pen-wielding lawmakers".

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Capt Mbaye Diagne

A good man in Rwanda

When a murderous militia in Rwanda tried to pull innocent people from a lorry, shouting "Kill the cockroaches", one man intervened. Mbaye Diagne, a UN peacekeeper, ran up and stood between the lorry and the thugs. He held his arms out wide and shouted "You cannot kill these people, they are my responsibility. I will not allow you to harm them - you'll have to kill me first." This is the story of Diagne, who our correspondent Mark Doyle says was the bravest man he ever met.

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Sloth being weighed

The woman who lost a dog and gained 200 sloths

Monique Pool's experience with sloths has given her a new word, "slothified". She defines it as being "1. Overwhelmed by sloths, 2. Overwhelmed by sloth - so tired after catching sloths all day that you don't want to get out of bed, 3. Overwhelmed by the cuteness of sloths (baby sloths in particular), 4. Overwhelmed by sloth lovers". They certainly are cute. Emma Freud, for one, tweets: "sloth photo heaven". Donald H Taylor says: "The way of the sloth: eat slowly, hang out and smile. Sounds good to me."

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Soviet tank in Budapest, 1956

The six key moments of the Cold War relived

For Patrick Devine, growing up in a Communist Party-supporting family in east London, the invasion of Hungary in 1956 was a divisive moment. "My family saw the Soviet Union as the first country in which the working class had broken through and taken power," he wrote. "The invasion came as a tremendous shock. There were families and friendship groups divided by it. My father continued to believe that the Soviet Union's actions were correct. Others, like my mother, were more critical. It took me two decades longer to realise that the Soviet Union wasn't a socialist country after all because you can't have socialism without democracy." The article will, it seems, be useful for various history teachers. One tweets: "What do Y13 think?" Another: "Yr 11: BBC piece is nice summary." Yet another: "Year 10 have a look at this."

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Which typefaces use the least ink?

You can talk about this subject all you like, but there's only really one way to find out. Draw the letters big and fill them in with ballpoint pen. Designer Matt Robinson, who was decent enough to do this on society's behalf, told us: "The remaining ink left in the barrel of the pen worked like a bar graph - the more ink-efficient the typeface was, the more ink was left in the pen." Steve Walsh tweets: "Gotta love the accompanying 'ink-fo-graphic'". AG Pate adds: "Glad to see Comic Sans near the bottom. Yet another reason to hate it."

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Caption Challenge: Winning entries

Curator poses with a doll and a horse on wheels.

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week a curator poses with a doll and a horse on wheels.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Richard Moody:


5. Peter Clarke:

The lower classes think we cannot manage the hoovering without them.

4. James Scott:

First Great Western's rail replacement service branded "inadequate" by passenger groups.

3. Andrew Sweet:

"Forgotten" Middleton sister forced to take on Kensington milk round to make ends meet.

2. Philip Woodall:

And here is Rachel who is demonstrating how even your children will love the latest Dyson "landed gentry super deluxe".

1. Ben Machell:

Woman in blue dress kneels down and pushes a horse on wheels plus there's a doll in a red outfit stood there too.

PDF download Full rules can be seen here[16KB]

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Should anyone have to explain being a 'larper'?

Jake Rush and his wife dressed as Superheroes Here Jake Rush and his wife are dressed as superheroes for Halloween

Jake Rush, a potential Republican candidate for Congress in Florida, has defended his participation in live-action roleplays (Larps). What does the case say about perceptions of the hobby, asks Aidan Lewis.

Rush was recently "outed" as being part of a roleplaying group, the Mind's Eye Society. Images have been circulated of him wearing black contact lenses and heavy make-up while posing as a vampire. There were also reports he was a leader in a group called the Covenant of the Poisoned Absinthe.

Rush responded by putting out a statement with a picture of him and his wife dressed as superheroes, saying he'd "never hid nor shied away from disclosing my hobby activities". It's "kinda nerdy", he acknowledged, but "bottom line - there is nothing wrong with being a gamer".

Larping has been spreading since the early 1980s, and is most popular in North America and northern Europe. There are various settings, including fantasy, science fiction and horror - and various styles. Some Larps involve battles in woods with latex weapons, others are "parlour Larps" in which those taking part play invented characters in an improvised, private performance. Larpers say the activity is creative and liberating, but lament that they've long been the subject of misperceptions.

Previously in the Magazine

The stories found in Larp are often martial but also involve investigative and diplomatic elements, writes Peter Ray Allison.

Styles of Larp vary from country to country. German festivals can attract up to 7,000 players. Scandinavian countries are noted for taking a more artistic approach.

"It can be very hard for people on the outside to look in and understand it," says Thomas Miller, creative director at It doesn't help that "Larpers do look silly and can do silly things. And sometimes taken out of context those things can be really destructive to the people that are involved."

Sarah Bowman, an academic and long-time Larper, says the stigma "originates from the fact that we're supposed to stop playing pretend pretty much in our teenage years". She describes Larpers as "geeks", and says they are increasingly accepted in the US and elsewhere. "We're going to see a lot less of the societal shame attached to this kind of activity in the future."

Pollster Steve Mitchell says the revelation could even count in Rush's favour. "Some voters may find it attractive," he says. "Even though his playacting is unreal, at least he's real - he's a real human being that does different things."

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Five low-tech ways to cope with air pollution

Woman in gas mask

High air pollution levels are expected across England and Wales. What are the best ways to stay comfortable, asks Jon Kelly.

Environmentalists insist the only long-term solution is to tackle the causes of poor air quality. But experts can offer a few hints to fend off the worst effects.

1. Exercise in a gym. The elderly and those with lung or heart disease have been urged by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to avoid strenuous exercise outside. It's equally valid advice for anyone who finds themselves coughing or wheezing during times of high pollution, says Dr Keith Prowse, medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation. "If the option is available, exercising in an air-conditioned gym or sports hall is preferable," he says.

2. Switch off your car's air conditioning. Because many cars' air inlets are to the front, exhaust fumes from the vehicle ahead are often sucked inside and circulated, says David Newby, professor of Cardiology at the University of Edinburgh. "If you measure the number of particles inside the car, it's often higher than on the outside," he adds. "The better thing to do is wind your window down."

3. Take the back road to work. "The worst place to be is on a very busy road with tall buildings on either side - you are in a really confined space," says Rob MacKenzie, professor of atmospheric science at Birmingham University. Even going one road back can make a significant difference, he says, as can avoiding rush hour altogether if possible.

4. Go out in the rain. Make the most of any precipitation. "When it rains it takes the pollution out of the air - the air is a lot cleaner," says Newby. Indeed, officials in Beijing have proposed using artificial showers to clear away smog.

5. Trust your eyes and nose. "Your senses are telling you when you're in a particularly bad spot," says MacKenzie. "Your eyes respond by watering, your lungs respond by producing a mucus membrane." If you're coughing and weeping because of pollution, it's a pretty obvious sign that you should take yourself somewhere else.

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R.I.P. Nuts magazine

Nuts magazine

Nuts is being shelved. Or should that be shelled. The once-massive lads' mag is now a shadow of its former self.

In 2004 it galloped on to the nation's news-stands promising 18-30-year-old men a diet of "girls, gadgets, footy and laughs". Along with its rival weekly Zoo - the Times Literary Supplement to Nuts' London Review of Books - it made longstanding lads' mags like FHM and Loaded look like Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. In its heyday, Nuts earned remarkable sales of 300,000 each issue thanks to its unswerving fidelity to a diet of cars, football and plentiful images of the likes of Lucy Pinder not wearing much in the way of clothes.

"Glamour" shots enjoyed prominence above all else, and Nuts' USP lay in putting less emphasis on professional models in favour of what it termed "real" girls. An early "no nipples" policy was jettisoned. The result was such features as "Assess My Breasts" and "The Street Strip Challenge". The "Real Girl Roadshow" would see a Nuts team dispatched to Coventry or Lancaster or Sheffield where they would encourage local women to disrobe for the camera. Such was Nuts' benefaction to the profession of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson.



The Magazine's obituaries for cultural icons

But friends of Nuts may have predicted its demise as, after the initial novelty, it was always in a fight to the death with something called "the internet". The digital piping of a seemingly limitless supply of smut into every bedroom made the process of shame-facedly visiting the local garage to spend £1.70 on a copy much less appealing. Campaigns such as Object and Lose the Lads Mags lobbied to have such titles taken off the shelves. Nuts' circulation dropped by one third year-on-year in the second half of 2013. It was pulled from Co-op stores, with the supermarket demanding the magazine be distributed in "modesty bags". It was a gloomy fate for a publication marketed under the title "When You Really Need Something Funny".

No flowers.

Add your tributes using the form on the right.

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Which typefaces use the least ink?


A 14-year-old claimed the US government could save $136m by swapping the typeface it used on its public documents to one that consumed less ink. Experts have since debunked the theory, but it's caused a major hubbub among typeface obsessives, writes designer Matt Robinson.

The "ink efficiency" of different typefaces is something the design industry has been aware of for some time. However, it's not until calculations are made on such a large scale that these small design differences really catch the public's attention. I worked on a similar project myself at university with creative partner Tom Wrigglesworth. We investigated the ink-efficiency of different typefaces and created a simple way to measure them. We actually sketched out large words in a particular typeface using a ballpoint pen. The remaining ink left in the barrel of the pen worked like a bar graph - the more ink-efficient the typeface was, the more ink was left in the pen.

We chose eight of the most common typefaces. Like teenager Suvir Mirchandani, the most "eco" one turned out to be Garamond - the worst offender was the heavy, bold, suitably named Impact.


The idea of an "eco typeface" isn't particularly new. Ecofont is a program you can download that puts holes in typefaces so that when you print them, they use up less ink. The stationery shop Ryman has also done a similar thing with its Ryman Eco typeface. As both of these are created by design companies, they've been carefully designed to look good while also saving you ink.

So why hasn't everyone else already switched to Garamond? While these all make for interesting experiments, the reality of font choice isn't just as simple as ink efficiency. In terms of average day-to-day use, you won't notice any difference in printing costs by making the switch. As well as this, keen typographers are quick to point out that Garamond isn't necessarily more efficient, it just uses smaller letters, which in turn make it much harder to read when used at the same "font size". So it's not really a fair test.

The most important factor when it comes to choosing the right font isn't printing cost but clarity in terms of reading and comprehension. Therefore, the font you use for a birthday message or quick sign around the office is almost certainly not going to be suitable for writing an entire novel. Assuming you want to people to actually enjoy reading it.


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The great birthday robbery

Girl eating cake

More than 170,000 people celebrated their birthdays on 30 March in the UK, writes Anthony Reuben.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

That's not an easy figure to come by, by the way. You can get official figures for live births on a particular day, but they don't go back far enough to cover all the people who are alive today.

If you ask the Office for National Statistics nicely they will give you figures for the number of live births per month going back to 1963. The figure for March is average or slightly below average going back to 1990. Before that, it was more popular, and every year from 1963 to 1976, March was the most common month to be born in.

All of this averages out over the 50 years, though, and if you look at these proportions together with the latest population estimates, you get to the figure of a little over 150,000 for England and Wales. You can add to that about another 15,000 in Scotland and 5,000 in Northern Ireland.

If you were one of them, happy birthday! But also commiserations, because the switch to daylight saving time robbed you of 4.2% of your birthday.

Last year, I lost an hour of my birthday, as I had in 2002, 1996, 1991 and 1985, but I decided I wasn't standing for it. Some said the right response would be to save it up, so I could declare an hour of birthday at some other point in the year when I really needed it. My son suggested I should take it a minute at a time for the rest of the year, so I'd have 60 opportunities to ask people to do things and they'd have to because it was my birthday.

Eventually, I decided that it would make the most sense to get my hour of birthday back on the day that the lost hour was officially returned - the day when British Summer Time ended.

So, on 27 October I declared that it would be my birthday from 13:00 until 14:00 and took my family to a cafe for lunch and then to an ice cream shop for pudding.

Honour was satisfied. I hope all you 30 March birthdays will do the same thing on 26 October this year. Perhaps you could throw a party - there are more than 170,000 people you could invite.

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Victorian strangeness: Grave tale of daughterly love

Victorian angel on grave

On the weekend of Mothering Sunday, author Jeremy Clay tells the singular story of a dying wish, a dutiful daughter and a mum with two graves - 4,000 miles apart.

Claire Taylor was as good as her word. She'd made her promise, and she was going to stick to it. And so, on a spring day in 1891, she set out from her home in Midwestern America to honour her mum's dying wish. It wasn't a simple undertaking. For a start, there was the matter of an 8,000-mile round journey to Europe and back. And then… well, then there was the contents of her luggage. Dr Taylor was travelling with three ebony cases, each numbered and bearing a single-word inscription in silver-headed nails: Mother. In one, was her mum's heart, in the second, her feet, in the last, her hands. All had been pickled for three years in alcohol.

Victorian strangeness

A series of bizarre episodes culled from 19th Century newspapers by Jeremy Clay.

Struck blind by lightning in her 60s, the unfortunate Mrs Verge had died of a stomach tumour in 1888 in her daughter's house in the Indiana town of Peru. She was buried without a service in nearby Somerset. It was a one part of a macabre compromise. Mrs Verge was French, and wanted to be laid to rest in Normandy. Knowing that wasn't to be, for reasons left untold in the newspaper reports of the time, she agreed to be buried largely in the US, if her daughter vowed to take a small selection of her anatomical highlights on a return trip across the ocean.

More from the Magazine


Life hadn't been kind to Jack McKenna. His wife ran off with his best friend and left for America. His daughter was dying of influenza. He, too, was struck down with the flu. Only a few shillings stood between him and starvation. Read more

Soon after she died, two doctors, the undertakers and what the Miami County Sentinel called "a few curious spectators" gathered at Dr Taylor's home to segment Mrs Verge. It would be three years before Dr Taylor left for New York, on the first leg of her pilgrimage to Normandy, with what the Gloucester Citizen called her "ghastly burden". "But her fame preceded her," said the Citizen, "and the landlord of the hotel in New York refused to admit her unless the boxes were sent to the baggage room and left there."

Dr Taylor agreed and busied herself until her Atlantic crossing. Until it was discovered that Box No. 2, containing the feet, had vanished. "There was a dreadful scene," said the Citizen. The hotel was searched and telegrams were fired off in every direction, but to no avail. It wasn't until several hours later, with Dr Taylor frantic with worry, that a message arrived from Boston, from a traveller who had been staying at the same hotel. "Have among my trunks a small black box marked Mother No. 2. Did I take this with me by mistake?"

"This morning they were returned by express and Mrs Taylor is once more quite happy," noted the Citizen. "She will now sail for England on Wednesday and unless the steamship company make objection to her bringing her three rather gruesome ebony boxes with her, she will within two weeks be able to carry out her mother's wishes and bury the hands feet and heart in the spot indicated."

Discover more about what life was like in Victorian times and 10 truly bizarre Victorian deaths.

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The Loop: Rainbow mash

Coloured mash

Welcome to The Loop, the Magazine's weekly letters column, including the best of your thoughts from Twitter and Facebook.

Most of your comments this week focus on Denise Winterman's short feature on mindless eating, asking if this is the way to get children to eat their greens.

Mindless eating is when you eat food without really registering it and nearly all of us do it, explained Jane Ogden, professor in health psychology at the University of Surrey and author of The Good Parenting Food Guide. The idea is to put good food out for children while they are, say, watching telly and hopefully they will tuck in without thinking.

"Surely, letting your children lounge around watching TV is just as unhealthy as them not eating enough vegetables," suggests Alfons Zimmermann.

"Try giving them uncooked vegetables and include colourful ones perhaps with a little fruit juice, raw they're not so bitter to a child's taste buds," says Suzanne Ross from Twickenham.

But David Hurst from Worcester is sure that his child would quickly see "through this ingenious plan, as cunningly developed as it may be".

David, we think you might have exhausted all trickery known to man.

"He bides his time, waits, gets his staple brioche and laughs in to the smiley face of grape eyes, red pepper lips and lettuce hair. He simply eats the bread stick nose once the brioche has been shovelled in and then back to Cbeebies. Any other ideas? I favour the threat of all woes betiding him coupled with complicated and convoluted sanctions."

For Steve Haywood, the article brings back fond childhood memories.

"My mother would get me as a child to shell peas in the garden and believe me I didn't know she was tricking me into eating them! Stolen peas are pure gold. They were lovely until she cooked them. Once she coloured our mashed potatoes with food colouring and I thought I was eating a rainbow! Apples were not very exciting until she covered them with toffee and put them on the end of a stick." We're not sure about the covering it in toffee approach, though - seems to be something of a step backwards.

On Monday, our stats watcher Anthony Reuben revealed that there are 49 lucky people who get to have a sneak preview of the Office for National Statistics (ONS)'s official inflation figures - a day before the rest of the world. So other than the actual people who have worked them out (and their spouses and partners - everyone talks about work at home don't they?), there are just short of 50 key movers and shakers who simply can't wait. The prime minister for one, and the governor of the Bank of England. There are those who don't think this is fair.

Mike Teulon from London thinks the reason for the select few being given a look-see is a poor one.

"The government excuse "that the public and the media expected ministers to be able to answer questions about statistics as soon as they are released" is clearly nonsense as ministers don't understand statistics ever - even a year after they've been released. Ministers are only ministers because they understand politics."

Design Museum Me.We Car, Toyota (Image: Small Dots)

The London's Design Museum opened its doors to Paul Kerley to talk through some of its finalists in its Designs of the Year 2014 exhibition. The resulting audio-slideshow featured striking architectural structures, curvaceous chairs, a floating school and concept cars made of polystyrene.

Jonathan Stiles leaves this message on our Facebook page: "A polystyrene body? Hmmm . . . Fine in a perfect world but I foresee vandals with their cigarettes enjoying the opportunity that presents. Careful where you park."

Severine Labarthe thinks the design of the car is "lovely" but wouldn't stand much of a chance in a strong wind.

To round off, we come to curious phrase of the week - the Martin-Paltrow "conscious uncoupling". (Yes, we covered it too). Those of us who thought uncoupling was something which happened to trains at Carstairs were wrong, it seems. According to Tom de Castella's article, this description of separation derives from an essay by Gwyneth's spiritual advisers: "Although it looks like everything is coming apart; it's actually all coming back together."

Steevo, from Thetford is still confused: "So subconsciously they are a couple?"

All change.

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10 things we didn't know last week

batsman about to hit ball

1. Goats are surprisingly quick witted.

Find out more (Science Daily)

2. Helsinki is the most expensive city in the world to order room service.

Find out more (the Times)

3. Ukraine's navy is equipped with combat sea lions.

Find out more (CNN)

4. There have been three cricket matches played at the North Pole.

Find out more (the Times)

5. When crows drop stones into water to make food more accessible, they display the reasoning skills of children aged 5-7.

Find out more (New Scientist)

6. Michael Gove is a fan of chap hop.

Find out more (Mail on Sunday)

7. Tuberculosis can be passed from cats to their owners.

Find out more

8. An aircraft's "black box" is actually two boxes.

Find out more

9. Chimpanzees have bromances too.

Find out more (Smithsonian)

10. North Korea's "leader's haircut" - reportedly being rolled out to students across the country - is aesthetically similar to an earlier style known as the "Chinese smuggler haircut".

Find out more

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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The tale of Mandela's rabbit

The rabbit inside the ear of Nelson Mandela's statue in Pretoria, January 2014

Once upon a time there was a little rabbit who lived in the ear of a statue - the statue of a man called Nelson Mandela.

The statue lived on a green in Pretoria and the rabbit, which was made of bronze like the statue, didn't get into mischief until one day somebody saw it.

Why, people asked, is a rabbit sitting inside the ear of this monument to the first black leader of South Africa, the man who helped end white minority rule, who promoted reconciliation, and who touched all our lives before he passed away in December?

"We don't think it's appropriate," government spokesman Mogomotsi Mogodiri told the BBC in January, "because Nelson Mandela never had a rabbit in his ear."

The sculptors pleaded that the little figure was just their trademark, and a way of saying how fast they had worked to get the statue made in time - the Afrikaans word for rabbit is haas, and that also means haste. And furthermore - you would need to look really hard to notice the tiny rabbit up there on the 9m (30ft) statue.

None of these arguments convinced the men in suits in the government offices in Pretoria. "It was agreed that it should be removed and that was done," said one of them this week. The rabbit is now gone - and all we know is that it was given back to one of the men who helped bring the statue to life, Dali Tambo.

Will appeals by tweeters to #savetherabbit fall on bronze ears? Will a suggestion by the animal rights charity Peta to adopt it be adopted? "We would be honoured," Peta says, "to use the bronze rabbit, the same animal who proudly leaps across Peta's logo, to honour Mandela's vision of a more peaceful, kinder world." Mr Tambo has said only that it might "end up in the garden near Mandela".

The lesson for small, cute bronze rabbits is clear: you may go into the fields or down the lane, but not into history.

The statue of Nelson Mandela statue in Pretoria, January 2014

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Caption Challenge: Comic capers

comic con at NEC Pic: Jonathan Pow/PA Wire

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week fans dress up as super heroes at a Comic Con in Birmingham's NEC.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Tony Auffret:

The Cleckheaton amateur Spiderman Ninja Morris Dance were disqualified for having the dance routine pinned to their chests.

5. Valerie Johnson:

We don't care how big the rat is, we're ready!

4. Vince:

All right guys, you CAN get tickets to Kate Bush.

3. James Hood:

Scotland Yard unveil new undercover team to infiltrate Fathers for Justice.

2. Nick Wakelin:

I'm Spidercus.

1. Trevor Spedding:

The superheroes party unfortunately turned into a bit of a sworded affair.

PDF download Full rules can be seen here[16KB]

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Is mindless eating the way to get children to eat their greens?

A girl eating in front of a television

Could "mindless eating" be the answer to the perennial problem of getting children to eat their greens, asks Denise Winterman.

Most parents have experienced a tense stand-off with their offspring over a dinner plate, a floret of broccoli standing in the way of everyone involved getting on with their lives. But utilising a certain bad eating habit could be the trick to get your child to eat their greens, says one expert.

Mindless eating is when you eat food without really registering it and nearly all of us do it, says Jane Ogden, professor in health psychology at the University of Surrey and author of The Good Parenting Food Guide. It's why many people overeat - they unthinkingly munch on what's in front of them regardless of what it is, portion size or if they're even hungry. But if it's properly controlled parents can make good use of it.

Healthy dinners for children

Sausage casserole

"It's going to happen so utilise it," says Ogden. "When your kids are watching TV slip a bowl of chopped apple or carrots in front of them. Be casual, the trick is to get them to eat without realising what they're doing. If they eat carrots in front of the TV one day put them on their dinner plate the next, they can't argue they don't like them. Kids learn to eat food through familiarity, it's about getting them into the habit of eating fruit and vegetables. Snacking on rubbish is not good for children but eating fruit and vegetables between meals is not a problem."

Make it as simple as possible, use food that is easy to hold and eat. Frozen peas are good, they can easily be popped in the mouth rather like Smarties. But like most things with children there is a golden rule, even if they eat their own body weight in broccoli don't make a fuss or a big deal of it. Praise will give them power and they will use it against you, warns Ogden. You'll be back to face-offs over those florets.

Discover more about how to get children to eat healthily.

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Just what is 'consciously uncoupling'?

Unhappy couple

Gwyneth Paltrow has described her separation from Chris Martin as a "conscious uncoupling". But what is that, asks Tom de Castella.

The couple said they had "come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much, we will remain separate". It went on: "We hope that as we consciously uncouple and co-parent, we will be able to continue in the same manner."

It's a new one in the celebrity split lexicon. Seal and Heidi Klum said they'd "grown apart". Dawn French and Lenny Henry, on splitting, said they "fully intend to maintain their close friendship". Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston said: "We happily remain committed and caring friends with great love and admiration for one another."

First use of "uncoupled"

Circa 1330: To release (dogs) from being fastened together in couples; to set free for the chase.

The new formulation comes from an essay, On Conscious Uncoupling, written by Paltrow's spiritual advisers Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami. "Although it looks like everything is coming apart; it's actually all coming back together," they conclude. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of the use of "uncoupling" to describe the end of relationships from 1942.

Divorce lawyer Sarah Thompson, of Slater and Gordon, says uncoupling reminds her of two railway carriages being separated. The addition of the word "conscious" is there to tell people it's amicable. She says she wouldn't be surprised if Paltrow and Martin use collaborative law - both parties sitting down at a table with a lawyer each and going through everything. "It's often described as the nicest way to get divorced."

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow

When, as in the Paltrow-Martin case, there are children involved, it's a good idea to use age-appropriate language, says Denise Knowles, a counsellor at Relate. People getting divorced have a lot of "anger, sadness and conflict," she says. But agreeing to split can be a step in the right direction.

These phrases can smack a little of euphemism, says relationship expert Judi James - the uncoupling terminology hints at an attempt to suggest that rather than being a wholly bad thing, this could actually be another step in life's surprising journey.

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The lucky 49 who find out early

Man zipping lip

Official statistics can have major effects when they're released. But there are always some people who get to find out early, writes Anthony Reuben.

On Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will release official inflation figures, showing the latest estimates of how much prices have been rising.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

Everyone gets to see the figures at 09:30 GMT. Everyone, that is, except for 49 lucky people, who get to see it on Monday morning.

I'm not talking about the people who work it out - obviously people at the ONS have known the number for days. These 49 people include the country's most powerful people, such as the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, the governor of the Bank of England and the press officer at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The deputy prime minister's chief of staff gets it in advance, as does the permanent secretary to the Treasury, and his private secretary. And the pre-release number is even higher if the Bank of England's interest rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is meeting at the time. Members of the MPC and their assistants can get official statistics as much as three-and-a-half days early if they're holding their monthly meeting in that time. Also, slightly strangely, if the MPC is having a meeting in the three days before the figures are due out, the chancellor gets the figures three-and-a-half days early, but the prime minister gets them only 24 hours in advance as usual.

Can you imagine the "I know something you don't know" expressions at 11 Downing Street?

Some people think it's a bit dodgy that anyone gets to see official statistics in advance. Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said in a recent letter: "We will continue to argue against government ministers and officials having privileged access to statistics before Parliament or the public."

The government reviewed its position in 2010 and decided not to change it. It explained that the public and the media expected ministers to be able to answer questions about statistics as soon as they had been released.

So pre-release access continues for the lucky 49.

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The Loop: Awkward sneezing

A woman sneezing

Welcome to The Loop, the Magazine's weekly letters column, including the best of your thoughts from Twitter and Facebook.

The week began with a squawk. Tom Heyden told the story of the unlucky trombonist who sneezed while playing his instrument during a performance. But it was more tut tut than toot toot, with many people pointing out a case of musical illiteracy on our behalf. Lewis Hindley, in Wales, is particularly brassed off: "This is plainly a brass band, not an orchestra. It's ignorance like this that is assisting the demise of more than 150 years of Britain's musical heritage. It's not all cloth caps, pits and whippets."

"Orchestra?!?!? It's a brass band!!!" writes an exasperated Zoe Rodgers in Wincanton. And with the Magazine's exclamation mark barometer in overdrive, it's clear we made a significant error. Fair enough, we hold up our hands. So please consider our mea culpa to apply not only to you readers but also to centuries of British musical heritage.

But others who overlooked our mistake offered their own examples of awkward sneezing episodes.

"I once felt the intense need to sneeze during one of my violin performances," writes Candace Padmore in Aldershot. "The moment was exacerbated by the fact that I was the soloist at somebody's wedding. I tried to sniff my sneeze away but my efforts were in vain. A sneeze erupted from my mouth and nose and caused my bow to careen all over the strings of my violin. I was able to complete my performance but I was mildly perturbed that such a moment of serenity should have been punctuated by such a horrid and annoying sound."

It seems there's too much pollen in the wedding flowers because Jim in Oxford explains: "At my wedding back in 1980, when asked to repeat my name for the vows, I accidentally sneezed over my now ex-wife." Presumably the sneezing is unrelated to the ex part, but it's not the best start.

But if one poorly timed sneeze is bad enough, spare a thought for those who have endured the rapid fire version. "Whilst serving in the RAF, I was on an escape and evasion exercise. I had a sneezing fit, epic fail, I never escaped," recalls Allen Syms in Swindon.

Fortunately for Syms it was only a simulated war experience. But explosive sneezes do occasionally cause unfortunate collateral damage, as Mark Speers in London explains: "I have always had a very very loud sneeze and it startles everyone around, especially in the office. I once sneezed so loud in the street that a cyclist was [so] startled he fell off his bike."

Roderick Hunt in Exeter went one further: "A few colleagues and I were drinking coffee and reading newspapers in the peace of the senior common room at my former university (I know, but someone has to do it). I had just sipped the last of my cup when I felt a sneeze coming on. I thought to myself, 'This is good coffee, I'll get the sneeze out of the way so that I can enjoy my last mouthful a little longer'. Big mistake. The coffee was nebulised right across the SCR, dripping down my astonished colleagues' faces and ruining their newspapers. Sometimes an apology doesn't seem enough."

But while Hunt admits it was his mistake, there's not much that Mark Harmer from Cheltenham could have done: "I once sneezed while giving an organ recital at Southampton University. Unfortunately at that point I had both hands (and both feet) occupied. Not noisy... but... ewww." Although we'd like to know how he would have used his feet had they been free.

The old pound coin and the new 12-sided one

Ouch's Damon Rose welcomed the new pound coin, explaining that as a blind person it will be easier to identify.

But three years away from its introduction the haters are already emerging. Although to call Newcastle's Joe Casey a hater is too harsh, as his angst clearly comes more from a position of love for the current coin: "I hate the new pound coin, it's clunky, ugly and impractical. The current pound coin is elegant, voluptuous and unmistakable. Also, why do we still have 1ps and 2ps when they are utterly useless and time consuming? The Royal Mint is Royally wasting taxpayers' money!"

And anybody who has coined (yes, couldn't resist, let's move on) the best ever adjective for a coin in the illustrious history of coin-describing - "voluptuous" - probably deserves some sort of knighthood. Now that wouldn't be a royal waste of taxpayers' money.

But Casey is not alone in his contempt for the penny coins. "Wouldn't it be a good opportunity to get rid of those annoying and irritating penny and 2p coins at the same time?" asks David L Reynolds in Bristol. "The 2p coin now has less value than the half new penny coin that older readers may remember from 1971. The press christened that one 'the tiddler' and it was soon withdrawn."

Elsewhere, Stephen Smith tried on a codpiece and revealed it was not just a way of showing off to the lads but also a practical place to keep your keys.

It proved to be a revelation for Mike Yeaman: "I'm always losing my keys. This clearly is the answer." And there appears to be scope for the codpiece's reintroduction on purely fashion taste considerations, according Jennifer Sanchez: "The codpiece leaves less to the imagination than some skinny jeans I've witnessed. Funny read!"

And finally Dean Marquis outdoes the story on using a plastic bag to cross a river, alerting us to the fact that apparently the "Ancient Spanish used to cross rivers by inflating goats' stomachs." We might need some gonzo-style confirmation of this possibility. Any takers? (On second thoughts, perhaps better for our liability if we leave that to the... hmm, professional goat stomach river crossers?)

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10 things we didn't know last week

Cuckoo chick in nest

1. Ear wax can be used to monitor pollution.

Find out more

2. Clarissa Dickson Wright's full name was Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright.

Find out more (Daily Telegraph)

3. Narwhals' long tusks - an exaggerated front tooth used for courtship - are super sensitive.

Find out more

4. Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev keeps a private library of 500 scents at the office.

Find out more (Guardian)

5. Crow families that unwittingly host a cuckoo chick in the nest tend to have better survival rates.

Find out more (the Times)

6. Guinness in 1982 came close to re-launching the brand as an English beer brewed in west London.

Find out more (Economist)

7. It's often been reported that the human nose can only distinguish between 10,000 smells but that is wrong - it's more like a trillion.

Find out more (Smithsonian)

8. Vicars and priests have the highest job satisfaction of UK workers.

Find out more

9. Until this week's decision to remove the law from the statute book, it was a criminal offence in the UK not to report grey squirrels spotted on your land.

Find out more (Daily Mail)

10. Dark chocolate is feasted on by "good" microbes in the gut, resulting in the production of anti-inflammatory compounds.

Find out more (New York Daily News)

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Roland TR-808: The drum machine that refused to die

Roland 808

The Roland TR-808 flopped commercially. So how did this drum machine become a defining sound in dance music, pop and rock, asks Tom de Castella.

You may not recognise the name. But you'll have heard it. The Roland TR-808 drum machine was a commercial disaster when it launched in 1980. Only 12,000 units were shifted. Keyboard Magazine described its hi-hat sound as like "marching anteaters". It failed to match the sophistication of more expensive drum machines and was discontinued after three years. And yet it's become a cult bit of kit, recently updated and relaunched.

Musician and producer Graham Massey loved it so much that, even if he didn't quite buy the company, he named his band 808 State after it. "The sound palette of this machine made it a cut above the other drum machines around at the time," Massey told Radio 4's Today programme. "It has this devastating bass drum, which if you turn it up can absolutely shake a room."

Its influence is everywhere from the clanging cowbell beat on Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing to the tinny bounce of Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Early hip hop is what made the 808's name. Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa took the eerie synths of Kraftwerk and by adding the 808 beat, gave it muscle. Since then it's been used by everyone from rockers like Talking Heads, rappers Public Enemy and drum & bass DJs such as LTJ Bukem.

Afrika Bambaataa Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock used the Roland 808

Drum machines are supposed to be clean and metronomic, says the FT's music critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney. "In the past, technology was sci-fi, that Kraftwerk idea of people turning into machines," he says. But there was a messy, human quality to the 808 sound. It's not to be confused with the Roland TB-303, a synthesizer (with a built in sequencer for playing samples) that became synonymous with acid house. A layman might think they're all the same, says Massey. But for him these "humble little black boxes", that look like the dashboard of a Cold War nuclear facility, take on personalities. Indeed no less an expert than Britney Spears once sang: "You got my heart beating like an 808."

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Caption Challenge: Winning entries

Sword-wielding child mimics attack on mounted knight

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

This week a mounted knight is accosted by a sword-wielding child in a reconstruction to mark the launch of "Bannockburn Live" at Stirling Castle.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Rogueslr:

If only devolution were this simple

5. Ian Moore:

Boy: Come on then!

Horse (to rider): Leave it! He's not worth it

4. Dick Langford:

Horse to knight: I thought you said these little people would be playing bingo and drinking

3. Mike Emmett:

A stepladder, a stepladder, my kingdom for a stepladder!

2. Andrew Knight:

Budget cuts force Game of Thrones new series to be scaled down

1. Robandav:

Since the clocks went forward I've noticed the knights are getting shorter

PDF download Full rules can be seen here[16KB]

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The trouble blind people have with £1 coins

Old pound coin, new pound coin

A new 12-sided British pound coin is to replace the round one after 30 years. With very different edges to other coins, it'll make it easier to identify if you're blind, writes Ouch's Damon Rose.

I must be one of the most trusting souls in the UK. When I buy a pint, a packet of mints or anything really, I am often to be seen holding up a note and asking the seller: "Is this a fiver or a tenner?" Being blind it's hard to distinguish which note is which.

They're a little different in size but if you really want to know what paper money you're holding, blind people will either use a keyring note measuring gauge or a little electronic device that vibrates once if it's a £5, twice if it's a £10, three times if it's £20 and so on. Phone apps also exist. But it's a faff.

Coins are much easier to distinguish by touch because, unlike notes, they don't bend or get soggy with age. Fifty pence pieces are a particularly feelable delight, closely followed by 20 pence pieces which can feel a bit like the other round coins in your pocket because you always find yourself sorting money at speed at point of purchase.

Side view of new pound coin

Presently, the big, chunky £2 pound coins are the most distinguishable. The milling on the edge of a £1 coin for some reason can get rubbed away so you have to bear this in mind. I've found myself trying to buy a coffee with a couple of two pence pieces and being told quizzically: "The coffee is two pounds, not 4p," by a barista who thought I was trying to con him.

But a unique, hefty 12-sided coin is an accessibility masterstroke - it won't be mistaken for either a 50 or 20 pence piece. The Royal Mint consults with interested parties such as Age Concern and the RNIB when designing new currency.

I'm hoping the new plastic notes, due out in 2016, are either robust enough to judge without a gauge or will have Braille. Current notes aren't suitable as the dots get squashed.

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The people who are happy to call themselves 'fat'

Dawn French, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jack Black

Clarissa Dickson Wright, of cookery show Two Fat Ladies, has died. She was one of a select group of celebrities happy to admit being "fat", writes Tom Heyden.

Dickson Wright and her late co-host Jennifer Paterson were relative rarities in being unashamedly "fat" in an era obsessed with size. "If you're fat you're fat. I hate this modern-day political correctness, that you don't call things by their proper name," she told the Guardian in 2009. But from musician Fats Domino, whose first recording was The Fat Man in 1950, to rapper Fat Joe, there have always been some who have based their stage names on their frames - and others have also played on the theme.

Comedians are well-represented. Jo Brand has labelled herself "a middle-aged, menopausal fat feminist" and made fat references part of her routine for several decades, explaining in a 2011 The Guardian interview that: "It's almost a thing that I can't stop because I've been doing it for so long." That's not to say comedians are invulnerable to downsizing pressures. Dawn French's weight has fluctuated in recent years, even drawing accusations of "betraying the fat club" - a telling example of how much size can become part of one's celebrity identity. French told the Daily Mail last year: "I am perfectly happy with how I look and I always have been. I'll always be a fat girl and I am happy with that."

Hollywood is often held up as one of the drivers of size-zero celebrities and body image issues. But there's also the opportunity to exploit one's weight. Actor Jack Black, promoting Tropic Thunder in 2008, joked: "I've got a lot of fat guys trying to knock me off fat mountain. They're all coming. They're like, 'I want to be the fat guy.' I'm like, 'No I'm the fattest fat guy. I'll beat you fat guys.'" Kirstie Alley turned her widely-documented struggles with weight into the satirical sitcom Fat Actress. Then there are more peculiar acknowledgements, with Jack Nicholson once quoted as saying: "With my sunglasses on I'm Jack Nicholson. Without them, I'm fat and 60."

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Sneezing into a trombone

Church in Tiptree

A man sneezing into his trombone during a band performance in a church is racking up views on YouTube. What do you do when you need to sneeze in awkward places, asks Tom Heyden.

There are two main options when a sneeze is coming - let it happen, or try to ride it out. The decision often depends on your situation. For one unlucky trombonist, it was while playing in an orchestra at a church in Tiptree, Essex. He tried to ride the sneeze. He failed. During a quiet piece of the performance, an elephant-like noise erupts with the timing more associated with comedians than musicians. Julian Bright, conductor and bandmaster of the Salvation Army's amateur London Central Band, which was playing at the time, says he's never experienced anything like it, despite his 35 years' experience playing in brass band and various music groups. "I actually thought something in the PA system had blown up," he said.

Normally you'd move the instrument away, or tactically sneak the sneeze into a loud segment of music, says Bright. But that's not always possible. "If the band had been playing something loud and boisterous, it would have gone unnoticed," he says. The trombonist was seemingly caught between sticking or twisting, with the mental "Abort!" arriving too late. "He says he knew that a sneeze was coming but he was so conscious [about] not playing his part that it all just happened too quickly and he couldn't get his trombone out the way," Bright says. It's a risk all wind or brass players face, explains cornet-player Bright. A sneeze, burp or hiccup is inconsequential for a percussionist, while the trombone is probably the worst of all, he says. The instrument is often used to provide an edgy, aggressive sound. "When you then add a sneeze to the natural tendencies of the instrument, it's a lethal combination."

"I sneeze like an elephant, but never down the cornet," says Bright. The closest he came was while playing in a brass quartet as a teenager. "I was actually physically sick down the instrument, and I just felt the teacher pulling the back of my chair and slowly dragging me offstage leaving the other three playing." The show must go on.

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What is the most awkward moment when you've ever had to sneeze? Send us your examples using the form on the right hand side.

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

A lightning storm in Uruguay

Being killed by lightning is extremely unlikely, which is a good thing.

Apparently, the chances are 300,000 to one, according to David Hand in his new book: The Improbability Principle. But while 300,000 to one looks like a minor risk for an individual, there are lots of people on the planet.

Small Data

  • A series on curious numbers cropping up in the news, by stats watcher Anthony Reuben

As a result, about 24,000 people are killed by lightning each year. Remember, you don't have to be struck by lightning to be killed by it - you could be in a house that's struck by lightning and burns down with you inside. Indeed, with seven billion people on the planet, what would be really, really unlikely would be that nobody was killed by lightning.

Of course, 300,000 to one is an average - people in the developing world who spend less time indoors and have fewer tall buildings and more flammable ones are much more likely to be killed by lightning than people in developed ones.

On average, three people are killed each year by lightning in the UK, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which are odds 66 times shorter than the global average.

Hand's book sets out to explain why things that are considered to be very unlikely keep on happening. It's not just that people win the lottery. Again, while that's unlikely for an individual, it's pretty likely that someone will win it each week. No, we're talking about really unlikely things, like the lottery drawing the same numbers in two consecutive weeks, as happened on the Bulgarian Lottery in 2009.

So, if you wait around long enough, it looks like you'll get to see almost anything happen. But not a man being struck by lightning twice in succession, seen on a security camera. The video of that, which Hand showed as part of a talk to the Royal Statistical Society on Thursday, is widely described on the internet as having been a fake.

Maybe we'll have to wait a bit longer to see that.

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Six Toe, Fritter Nose and other readers' nicknames

BBC News feature

The Magazine features about Somali nicknames prompted many readers to respond with stories about the amusing ones they've heard - or earned.

Here's a selection of their experiences, sparked by the original article - some are ironic, some a little cruel and the odd one on the rude side.

Nicknaming is endemic in the Highlands of Scotland. Since babies were traditionally named for relatives, after a while everyone in a locality tended to have the same name. There are a multitude of Donald MacDonalds, Norman MacLeods, and John Campbells in Scotland. I have even seen a phone book for the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where the nicknames were supplied to help identify someone. My father was from the area in the Carolinas [US] settled by the Scots and he was called Shorty because he was six feet six inches tall. James MacDonald, Williamsburg, USA

The same practice exists in Trinidad and Tobago and is at times revealed during the death announcements. Some examples: Hop And Drop (a person with a limp); White Line (a beggar who stands on the dividing white line in the road); Deafy (a deaf person); Clock (a person with one arm of normal length and a shorter arm). Trini, Brussels, Belgium

As kid, I was very thin - so thin that my collarbone could be used as to soap holder. The school kids use to call me " Tiibishooley" meaning I had tuberculosis . As you might know, people with untreated TB are very skinny. It was hurtful though. Fartun Weli, [Somali in]Minnesota, USA

Southern India, where my parents grew up, is fond of nicknames. My mother was known as "Bonda Muku" ("Fritter Nose") because she was the only one in her fine-featured family to have a flat nose. Anand K, Indianapolis, USA

For sake of clarity and due to limited range of surnames, most Icelanders adopt a nickname. Early 1970s, a friend of mine, surname Jones, studying Germanic and Old Norse languages at Cambridge, spent a holiday in Iceland combining work with study. He found work on Iceland's largest chicken farm. One night, he fell into an enormous cess-pit full of chicken droppings. He survived, but from then on was known in Icelandic as "Jones The Shit". He later left the farm and found work on a trawler. A bad move, because the Cod War then broke out... James Reid, Stockport

Whilst serving in the RAF 20 years ago, we had a Pizza Face (acne), Silver Fox (white hair), Pluto, Chalky, and I was called Thumbs because of my bilateral brachydactyly. Richard, Berkshire, UK

Growing up I would hear stories about my Jamaican parents' and grandparents' friends nicknamed such flattering things as Turtle, Feeble and, my favourite, Double Ugly. If nothing else, it teaches not to take oneself too seriously. Fulani, Miami, USA

I once had a hired car driver from Somalia taking me from Philadelphia to New York. He introduced himself as Six Toe. He was a good driver but I spent the entire 90-minute drive wondering if the name meant he had an extra, or suffered a loss. Paul Astle, Lansdale, USA

St Helena has a history of nicknames with a lot which are inherited - there are four generations of "Nails" and they don't seem to remember where it came from. My partner is Dogbone; there are Fishcakes, Buffalo, Oxie, Greek, Newpence, Small Change. Fifi Goldsmith, Jamestown, St Helena, South Atlantic

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