Comment: The Weasel

The good people of Beckenham are subjected to a torrent of risque anecdotes in church, while we sports-haters find a new champion
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The churches of Beckenham are a thoroughly pedestrian lot," grizzles Pevsner in his volume on south London. I'd be the last to disagree, having had ample opportunity to study one of these uninspired spires about 20 yards from Weasel Villas. Once a year, however, the parish church of St George gathers up its skirts and throws caution to the winds by holding a week-long arts festival. The attractions at last week's Bacchanalia ranged from Julian Bream in concert to an evening with Jack Charlton. Though tempted beyond words at the prospect of a few hours of aesthetic chit-chat with Jackie Mrs Weasel and decided to save ourselves for the Friday Jazz Night.

After scoring signal successes with Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk on previous occasions, the organisers got rather more than they bargained for this year when they booked George Melly. "Not my usual sort of venue - let's say it's been deconsecrated for the night," he observed, after he'd belted out an introductory ditty called "Good Time George" from the chancel. ("Ragstone, with generous buff ashlar dressings," notes Pevsner.) Aside from a smattering of grey-bearded jazz buffs, the genteel congregation looked as if it might have come from Mapp and Lucia's Tilling. They twittered anxiously as the rotund vocalist let fly a stream of Viagra jokes.

The passing of the years have left Mr Melly looking like a cross between Sir Edward Heath and Mae West - but in a suit of virulent scarlet hue he mainly resembled a large pillar-box, particularly when he had his mouth open (a not infrequent occurrence). His second choice of song showed untypical restraint: "Not on the First Night, Baby". But any ecclesiastical hopes for the mellowing of Melly must have evaporated when the star of the evening raised the topic of biological stains. In case anyone remained in the dark, he elucidated with relish: "What we refer to as skid marks". The audience could be seen glancing round about to see whether it was OK to laugh.

It should not be forgotten that, as well as being a jazz singer, Mr Melly is one of Britain's foremost authorities on Surrealism. It has always been his unswerving policy to epater les bourgeois - and, since few places in south London are more bourgeois than Beckenham, we were in for a thorough epating. Strutting before the choir-stalls, he growled a Twenties lyric about transvestism called "Masculine Women and Feminine Men", which gave him ample opportunity to display a well-honed talent for risque gestures. Before the interval, he announced, "I'll go into the vestry and slip into something loose..." (here, a lascivious wink) "...that's if she's bothered to cycle over from Bromley." During the break, the good burghers of Beckenham chatted about how the winds had done for their peonies, and weren't the snails terrible this year? A torrential deluge made escape impossible for those who felt they were spending an evening with the Antichrist.

Rejuvenated by his break, Mr Melly noted that the ambience had improved: "Ah, better now it's dark, like the Granada, Tooting." He wobbled into action with a number by his beloved Bessie Smith. "I need a little sugar in my bowl," he hollered, "I need a little hot dog between my roll." Then, as an entr'acte, he treated us to a somewhat improper exchange that he claimed to have overheard between two women in Shepherd's Bush. (I suppose you'll want to know. After spotting her husband buying half a dozen red roses, one of the women groaned: "This means I'm going to spend all weekend on my back with my legs in the air." The other replied, "Why don't you buy a vase?") Half of the church was in fits at this sally, while the other half looked as if it needed a good whiff of sal volatile.

After a rousing rendition of "My Canary's Got Circles Under his Eyes", this incongruous festivity drew to a close. Our celebrant withdrew to his vestry, while his congregation went home to their snails. Mr Melly is 73.

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A humane suggestion that competitive sports should not be compulsory in our schools drew howls of protest from Darren Gough, Sir Bobby Charlton and the National Playing Fields Association (scarcely disinterested parties, I'd have thought). In his sports column in The Daily Telegraph, Donald Trelford frothed about the importance of team sports for "physical health, bonding and character-building". Can this Victorian piffle come from the same Trelford who spouted liberal opinion at The Observer?

Speaking personally, I did not find the experience of consistently being the last to be picked for Rugby and cricket teams ("Oh no, sir! We had Weasel last week!") or coming last in an all-school cross-country race, to be particularly character-building. How I regret that my lack of sporting prowess failed to equip me with the sterling character of, say, Will Carling or Geoffrey Boycott. Until I learnt to scoff at sports teachers and those ghastly competitive types who enjoy taking part, sports periods were a combination of tedium and terror. Things got better in the sixth form, when we did ballroom dancing, believed to be a vital requirement for university social life. (Since this was the late Sixties, they'd have been better off teaching us how to roll a decent joint.)

Needless to say, Tony Banks (a man whose resemblance to a yapping terrier is so pronounced that he would be in danger of winning a silver cup if he popped up at Cruft's) announced that he would resign as Sports Minister if team games disappeared from the curriculum. So, the torment continues for the unsporty. I only wish I could supply an excusatory note for every sports-hating pupil in Britain. Anyone who finds himself or herself unwillingly on a soggy field being barked at by a lobotomised lunk has a pal in the Weasel.

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The American magazine The New Yorker is famous for the relentless assiduity of its fact-checking department. You may recall that Jay McInerney, who briefly performed this task, utilised the experience in his novel Bright Lights, Big City. "If an error slips into the magazine, it is one of you, and not the writer, who will be crucified," he wrote. "Not fired, but scolded, perhaps even demoted to the messenger room or the typing pool." For that reason, it is with some misgiving that I draw attention to a small filler which appeared in last week's issue.

I'm sure that these items are read with far greater interest than the surrounding grey columns which roll on like the Mississippi for page after page of the magazine. The snippet in question is entitled "There'll always be an England". It concerns a milkman called Trevor Jones who refused to visit Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE. "Jones the Milk", as he is known, declined to make the journey to London because of the disruption it would cause to his round in Tredegar, South Wales.

Perhaps a spell in the messenger room will give someone a chance to bone up on the atlas.

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