Robert Winder's Notebook: Rocks, fossils and a rock wife

This is going to sound like name-dropping, but there I was, looking at some Jurassic fossils in a Notting Hill art gallery the other day, when who should come in but Jerry Hall. She walked around enthusiastically, peering for a closer look at the ancient trilobites and ammonites on display. "That's sooo cooool," she kept saying. "I'll take it." A few moments (and a few thousand pounds) later, out she swept again, pausing good-naturedly in the doorway to have her photo taken with the smiling staff, against a backdrop of fossilised fish.

What to do? Where to look? It is easy enough to scoff at the trashy, celebrity-conscious times we live in, but sudden visitations from the famous can't help being luminous and exciting. They seem to demand something of us. It's a bit like glimpsing a tiger or a shooting star - you almost missed it, and you're not quite sure what you saw, but you want to hang on to the moment somehow. They make us feel simultaneously chic - suggesting that we are moving in the smartest circles - and deflated. Celebrities take their glamour with them when they leave.

I remember a teacher at City University once boasting about such a sighting. "I saw Colin Welland on a bus once," he began brightly, before adding, crestfallen: "Didn't talk to him, though." At the time, we all thought he was being a drip, but in fact he had his finger firmly on the uneasy sadness of such occasions. You feel that they need to be risen to in some way, but how? Would the News of the World pay handsomely for the information that Jerry Hall's friends - perhaps even her notorious ex-husband - can look forward to a chunk of meteorite or a dollop of million-year-old turtle poo for Christmas? Would Jerry be interested in a half of shandy at the pub over the road? Would Jerry like these gift-wrapped (quick, someone: run and get some paper for Christ's sake)?

I suppose that these days we have to call this a classic Notting Hill moment. It was certainly an uncanny echo of this year's hit movie. We were only a short walk from the bookshop where Julia Roberts first smiled at Hugh Grant, after all, and Hall's sudden entrance was an almost exact reprise of the teasing fantasy that made the film so successful. What do you do when a world-famous beauty wanders into your shop? In real life (even in Notting Hill) the answer, of course, is: nothing.

As it happened, the shop wasn't even open. The staff inside were busy preparing an exhibition which opens today. In fact, they very nearly turned away the curious tall blonde visitor by telling her that the show didn't open till the weekend - maybe she could come back then? But such is celebrity: as soon as she had been identified she was welcome (but of course, madam...) to her own little private view. Everyone strained hard to act natural, while (equally naturally) the supermodel snaffled up many of the exhibition's most remarkable treasures before anyone else had even had a squint at them. They all knew that Hall was a rock wife; but who would have thought that the rock in question would be calcite?

Still, it was an uplifting moment for the Hugh Grant of this story, an eager-beaver fossil-hunter called Dale Rogers. For the last decade or so, he has financed trips around the world by running a weekly stall (number 88) in Notting Hill's Portobello Road market, selling ancient rocks trawled from adventures in the fossil fields of Morocco, Madagascar or China. I only live up the road myself, and must have wandered past many times, without (I must admit) feeling the need to push through the knot of crystal-gazers and palaeontologists to fondle the Pleistocene bones and Mexican gypsum on the barrow.

But this weekend's exhibition, his first, is a more ambitious presentation of his 20-ton collection of old rocks. In a gallery borrowed from the war-artist Nik Bashell there are dinosaur eggs from China and sharks' teeth from Morocco. There's a spider preserved in amber, a handful of emeralds, the fossilised horns of a bison, and the fierce jawbone of a mososaur. Some are, oh, half-a-billion years old.

It looked, to my untrained eye, like a sumptuous collection of treasures, the kind of booty you expect would have required complicated expeditions, mounted with the full backing of the Natural History Museum or the Geographical Society. But Rogers, like the great fossil-hunters of the 19th century, is a loner. He grew up in Colchester and fell in love with fossils in Morocco. It has been a hand-to-mouth decade: he has used the market stall to raise just enough cash to fund further trips. "Every time I could afford it I'd go off," he said. "Basically I just like haring around mad places, finding amazing things." It's a low-budget operation. "Christ, it's been ridiculous. I've been driving around the Sahara in a Ford Avenger I bought for pounds 50, with a slab of marble hanging out the back. Or stuck in sand- dunes in a Fiat Uno. But I love it. It's time I settled down, I suppose, but I'm always planning the next trip." He is itching to go to West Timor or Tanzania. "I was in Dar es Salaam recently," he said. "And I thought, everything's here. People concentrate on human remains, the cradle of mankind and so on. But everything's there, everything."

Palaeontology sounds like a dry-as-dust discipline, the preserve of bespectacled scholars. But of course it also has its Indiana Jones resonances, and Rogers does a fair job living up to them. He hasn't studied his subject, but has taught himself Arabic - the Casablancan dialect, handy for dealings with the police. We tend to think of the Victorians as dry-as-dust too, but Rogers reminds us that their global wanderings were inspired by just this sort of hippy travel bug. "My grandfather was in the Raj," he said. "And he collected anything, we had trinkets everywhere. So I grew up with that mania to gather things. I had a quarry in the Sahara once. Amazing place, just this mountain full of great stuff. But now I buy mostly from dealers."

Fossils are not actually all that rare. Millions of them are casually crushed in phosphate or marble quarries - it's too much bother to extract them. You might have a few ground up in your fireplace. The reason they are expensive (the Lyme Regis Ichthyosaurus in the exhibition is pounds 16,500) is that it is very labour-intensive to tease them out of the rock. That is one of the reasons why fossil-hunters head for Africa and China. "They used to use a sculptor's hammer and chisel," said Rogers. "Now they use dentists' drills. But the top guys in Dorset or wherever cost pounds 120 per hour. In Morocco it's pounds 2 per day. Otherwise fossils would be unaffordable."

If life were a movie, Rogers would be slipping into the Ritz by now, or leaping the railings with Jerry Hall in the moonlight. It isn't though, is it?

Speaking of fossils, I went to the annual Varsity match at Twickenham this week. I wasn't the only one. Around 50,000 people paid good money (about the price of two shark's teeth) to watch Oxford and Cambridge continue their 118-year-old tussle. The standard reaction to this is that the fixture is an anachronism: our class-consciousness is such that the game is seen as little more than a picnic for toffs. But as it happens, this is itself rather an anachronistic attitude. It is not as if the game were genuinely a contest between two of our top universities: it is usually a question of whether our South Africans are better than their South Africans. This year, Oxford's captain was from Stellenbosch, Cambridge's from Brisbane.

Not that this is something we need to bemoan, as such. If anything, we ought to wonder why, if the match is so out-of-date, so many ambitious young players from real rugby powers in the southern hemisphere want to come and play in it. Is it really the case that even Oxbridge can't rely on British talent any more? Given the pitch and frequency of the moaning that accompanies each new nadir in the story of British sport, you might have thought we would take such a well-appointed athletic breeding-ground a bit more seriously.

In America, college games between Notre Dame and Indiana command a national TV audience, and pundits fall over one another to spot the stars of tomorrow. The Varsity match, on the other hand, feels childish. Groups from schools chant "Oxford! Cambridge!" in high-pitched voices. A Tannoy asks the schoolmaster from St Neot's to collect Josh from Information. And the programme notes are full of sophomoric quips about how this prop has been turning heads all year, or how that fly-half could fill the stadium with pretty admirers (if only he could be bothered to get out of bed!!!!).

An Oxford man myself, I tried to feel partisan, to punch the air when the dark blues scored. But it wasn't easy. Perhaps, when we berate our sportsmen for failing to project more dynamic images of our nation, what we are truly dismayed by is our own vexed failure of pride.

Fossils and Minerals Exhibition, 275 Kensal Road, W10. Saturday and Sunday

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

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?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015