In the back of the cab, I heard about that Mao Tse-tung and his visits to Walthamstow

Every time I undress, small pieces of white tissue paper float to the floor. They drift from my pockets, from behind my collar, and God knows where else. There's a continual and faintly surprising snowfall of them. I feel a bit like an out-of-season Snow Queen. It's occurred since I sat with my slightly sceptical teenage children and our friends in the stalls of the Piccadilly Theatre, waiting to see Slava Polounine, one of the great Russian clowns, and his Snow Show. The white paper was ankle-deep on the theatre floor and had the extraordinary and instant effect of dispelling all inhibition. Not just children, but serious-looking City types, old ladies with handsome grey hair and everyone else started chucking the stuff about. By the time the curtains opened, we were like a field of snowmen in a hoar-frost.

Slava is as still and watchful as a bird, with dark, unblinking eyes. His hair is wild and grey, his height seems to ebb and flow as he pleases. His assistant, small, squat, wide-eyed under an extraordinary invention of a hat with moose-like ear-flaps, has terrible trouble trying to fold her arms. They mime, talk and whistle their way through a dream-like fantasy which culminates in a ferocious blizzard. Slava is a folk hero in Russia, has fans throughout Europe and, like all great clowns, opens the door for our escape into hallucination and the relief of indulging in a sort of zany madness that we usually feel we should repress.

Hallucinatory experiences are not confined to the theatre, as I found on climbing into a cab outside Broadcasting House with my old friend Paul Gambaccini. We were talking about China, I can't remember why, and Paul mentioned Mao Tse-tung. The cab driver interrupted. "Excuse me. I couldn't 'elp over-'earing you talking about Mao Tse-tung . . . I was talking to 'im myself only the other night. I've learnt a lot from 'im, I 'ave. The wife knows 'im better'n what I do, but 'e's a regular at our 'ouse."


"Almost every week. Tuesday nights."

"How fascinating. Where do you live?"

"Lived in Wal'amstow for years, we 'ave. 'E's told us all abaht Chinese 'istory. Very interesting man. My wife's what you call a medium and all sorts of people come along. We've our regulars, of course. You'd never guess 'oo that Mao Tse-tung gets on with really well. Really likes 'er, 'e does. You won't remember 'er, you're too young, but it's that Alma Cogan. You know, good singer. East End kid. She 'ad a sad life, but she says she's learnt things she never knew about China from Mao Tse-tung."

I had to get out at that point, but I shall forever regret not asking what Mao Tse-tung had learnt from Alma Cogan.

I've just come back from Costa Rica but I'm already planning another, longer trip to this Central American paradise. Lying between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, it's no bigger than the state of West Virginia, but has an almost unbelievable biological diversity.

With 1,000 miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, active volcanos, rain- and cloudforests, dry jungle, arable farmland, mangrove swamps and streams and rivers cascading over volcanic cliffs, Costa Rica has a rich wildlife, with more species of birds than the whole of the US and Canada put together. Recently they've stopped cutting down their rainforests in favour of sustainable development and a burgeoning eco-tourist trade.

I stayed on the Pacific coast, in a small village backed by jungle and with a long beach that never had more than a handful of people on it. The best swim was at sunset, when the sun dipped down over the horizon in a sky of breathtaking stillness, silence and beauty.

I saw a coati-mundi, a humming-bird and monkeys just yards away, and if I'd been concentrating I might have been lucky enough to see one of the world's shyest and most beautiful birds, the now endangered quetzal. Its metallic green feathers, crimson stomach and long iridescent tail streamers were more highly prized by the ancient Mayans than gold, and gave rise to the legend of "the plumed serpent". For them this legendary "bird of life" symbolised supreme freedom, because it could never be kept in captivity.

This sense of freedom finds echo in the people, the Ticos. Because, geologically, the country is so young, it never boasted the precious minerals sought by the Spaniards. The Ticos, who were hardy, self-sufficient individuals, were thus never subjected to the conquistadors.

They held their first free popular election 100 years ago, and have practised open democracy with a free press since. The army was disbanded in 1948 and a national police force created. Visitors to Costa Rica are clearly informed that the police have no rights to take away your personal papers. There's free education up to the age of 18, 93 per cent literacy and a good level of public health and medical care.

Costa Ricans are noted for their rather formal good manners and constant good humour. I would add to that, generosity. When this small country - population three and a half million - was faced with 400,000 Nicaraguan and 300,000 Honduran refugees, all fleeing the recent hurricane, it immediately offered them all a permanent home and Costa Rican nationality. Most of the refugees said yes.

I asked an official about the effect of this influx and he admitted it had put "a bit of a strain on national resources, but we'll cope with that".

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words