It rapidly became evident that, far from being a haven of ease, the river is a place of feverish activity. While far from being obsessively house- proud at home, my chums were applying Brasso as if their lives depended on it. After an eternity of buffing and stowing, we were at last able to embark. Happy as a grig, our hostess (the boat's owner) rapidly attained the statutory maximum of 3mph. Her partner, less entranced by life afloat, reached for the corkscrew. "For the comfort and safety of passengers," he announced, "we recommend you get lightly drunk."
Approximately two seconds later, he hopped over the side. It turned out to be our first lock and he had to do a spot of tying-up. A gallery of genial observers peered down at us from the riverbank. Back on board, our host murmured that I should not be taken in by their apparent bonhomie. "The technical term for the ghouls who gather at locks is `gongoozlers'. We try not to disappoint them - both our children have fallen in once." After only 30 minutes or so, we continued our snail's pace. Various exciting sights were pointed out - a new set of ruched curtains here, a floral wheelbarrow there. Our host attempted to dispel the suburban ambience by comparing our itinerary to the river voyage in Apocalypse Now: "If Marlow is the place where that bloke has an arrow through his neck, Henley is where everyone is taking LSD. We run into Marlon Brando at Shiplake."
The boat had been fitted with a host of accessories by the previous owner, though my friends have rarely used the electronic navigator since they've never ventured further seawards than Teddington. Similarly, the full set of signal flags have proved a trifle redundant - not knowing the codes, my pals are wary of accidentally declaring themselves to be a plague ship, with every tar convulsed by yellow jack.
After almost three hours on the water, which included four locks, we pulled in for lunch near Henley. A sign on a nearby road revealed that Marlow was just eight miles away. Never one to miss the chance of a dip, I gingerly inched through the mud and launched myself among the lampreys and gudgeon in the glacial water. I did not stay in long - it is disconcerting to be looked down on by a swan. Our host was amazed by my amphibious behaviour: "Are you OK? We never even put the anchor down here because it gets too dirty."
The houses along this stretch tend to be on the grand side - more like Toad Hall than Mr Rat's humble residence. My friend proved his intimate knowledge of the river by pointing out the homes of various celebs. "That was Robert Morley's place - at least I think so," he said, "but the real treat's coming up." A mile or two further, he pointed it out: "There, that's where Danny La Rue lives." I checked with a lock-keeper: "No, Mr La Rue left about seven years ago," he reflected, "but we've still got Raymond Baxter." There was no sign of the great man, but my friend was touchingly gratified. "Now, that really is something to look out for next time."
A story told by former marijuana magnate Howard Marks in his new autobiography, Mr Nice, rang a bell. He and his wife found themselves skint in a Swiss resort. Suddenly, Mrs Marks pointed at a bank. "Howard," she announced, "I'm pretty sure I opened an account there." Within half an hour, the couple were richer to the tune of pounds 20,000. A memorable anecdote, if from a rather dubious source - except that a girlfriend of mine, who was involved on the fringe of Marks's drug empire, told me something similar 15 years ago. Her yarn concerned a new car with a bootful of money that has been abandoned in a long-stay car-park in Stockholm. For all I know, it's still there - though it's a moot point whether the hidden cash will cover the parking fees.
Oddly enough, I also had a distant brush with the late Lord Moynihan, the no-goodnik who betrayed Marks to the US Drug Enforcement Agency. His obituary revealed that for a brief period in a career for which the word "chequered" scarcely does justice, he ran a coffee bar in Beckenham, Kent. I'm almost certain that I used to patronise this bohemian joint - it had a theatrical theme - in the mid-Seventies. While the owner might have been a bad egg, he did a decent bacon sandwich.
I was pleased as Punch at the sight of 16 tiny proscenium stages lined up in Covent Garden market last week. One bore the legend Sic Est Faciendum ("That's the way to do it").
Unfortunately, since the market authorities had forgotten about the 16th Punch & Judy Fellowship Festival, the "professors" - surely they are the only people who should use this faintly ridiculous title - had to perform their time-honoured act against a hugely amplified rockabilly band. I doubt if this was a problem faced by the first recorded Punch and Judy act, seen performing at the same site by Sam Pepys on 9 May 1662. While I admit that that Mr Punch is a far from ideal role-model for the young and would, indeed, be the neighbour from hell - most of the act consists of what police refer to as "a domestic" - he makes me laugh like a drain. I particularly relish the wheedling charm he uses to lull opponents into a false sense of security before batting them over the head. "People love him 'cos he takes the piss out of the establishment," explained Prof Bob Sacco, secretary of the Punch & Judy Fellowship. "He even hangs the hangman."
The men inside the little theatres or "set-ups" turned out to be amiable showmen, displaying scant sign of Hancockian melancholy. Surrounded by the surreal tools of his trade - a ghost, a crocodile, a devil, and a string of cloth sausages - Brian Clarke, who performs as "Prof Jingles" at Lowestoft, explained that adult shows are growing in vogue. They enable him to use the rarely seen, but traditional, figure of Pretty Polly. "I like the idea of Mr Punch having a girlfriend. She's very, er, forward. The best thing is her catch-phrase. Can't you guess? `That's the way to screw it.'"
As an erstwhile companion of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, I wish him godspeed on his solo Antarctic crossing. Perhaps I've never told you of the time I spent with the great explorer. Admittedly our adventure took place in somewhat more congenial circumstances than the earth's polar extremities - but I'm pleased to say I acquitted myself with honour, bringing no blot to the Weasel escutcheon. Given a little grit and determination, I'm sure almost anyone could have slogged their way through it. You ask what did we do exactly? Well, to be honest, we spent an afternoon drinking brandy in the Savoy Hotel. At the time, Ran (as I was chummily calling my new friend by the end of our session) was acting as a public relations man for Occidental, Armand Hammer's oil company. His time there should stand him in good stead for his new challenge. For anyone who survived the horrendous Hammer, traversing Antarctica should be a doddle