10 MARCH 1990, Page 27

Narks and jokes

Sir: If the counter girls in Boots are reporting buyers of large amounts of nail varnish remover ('A nation of narks', 17 February) they are wasting their time. Apart from being astonishingly expensive for the very small amount you get, the stuff is not pure acetone: it is mixed with ethyl acetate (which gives it its fruity smell) and a little oil. Heaven knows what any drugs made with it would be like. You can buy pure acetone from Boots, unless they have recently withdrawn it. On these lines, I have often thought that a good way of crippling the drugs trade would be to adulterate the legal raw materials secretly,

occasionally, and randomly with various chemicals which the drug refining process would convert into fatal poisons. I'm sure a good organic chemist could think of half a dozen such substances But perhaps it would be unkind.

On another matter entirely, I think Christopher Fildes was rather hasty in awarding his bottle of champagne for the source of the barber joke ('City and suburban', 10 and 17 February). This is not only the oldest joke in the Financial Times; it's generally reckoned to be the oldest joke in the world. It is told of many rulers. The oldest one I know of is Solon the lawgiver of Athens (c. BC 638-558); another is King Archelaus of Macedonia (reigned BC 413-399 before Philip), I forbore to write to him about this because he was asking for proof, and there isn't a shred of proof for any of these attributions.

Ralph Hancock

17 Queen's Gate Place, London SW7