Our host attempted to dispel the suburban ambience by comparing our itinenerary to the river voyage in `Apocalypse Now': `We run into Marlon Brando at Shiplake,' he said

While it's odd for a weasel to prosecute a python, I believe I could mulct Terry Jones of substantial damages as a result of the gross libel directed at my species in his new film The Wind in the Willows. I decided to investigate the setting for this grotesque calumny at first hand and took up the kind invitation of some friends to explore a stretch of the upper Thames in their motor cruiser. Aptly, I joined them at Marlow, near the original "wild wood" of Kenneth Grahame's book.

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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect