The Weasel

The Oscars prompt a visit to see the Virgin Queen, while south London proves too remote for a pair of famous literary explorers
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The Independent Culture
SINCE SHE scooped one Oscar this week and was nominated for another, I popped along to see Britain's unchallenged queen of the silver screen. To be honest, there was a distinct shortage of dewy-eyed fans clustering round the three large images of Queen Elizabeth I on show in the National Portrait Gallery. This was rather a shame, since in the earliest of these works, painted in 1559 at the start of her long reign, she looks not unlike Cate Blanchett, who portrayed her so strikingly in Elizabeth.

With a face as oval and unblemished as an egg, and long blond hair, the slender monarch might be a Vogue model. Her garish green orb, topped by a pearly cross, cries out for the credit "by Versace". Peering at the young queen across the gallery is Geoffrey Rush - sorry, I mean Elizabeth's ruthless spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, brooding and melancholic; his searing gaze still sends shivers down your spine.

Though I found Elizabeth to be a far more enthralling and credible film than Shakespeare in Love, its account of the monarch's sexual shenanigans is pretty much hokum. According to Alison Weir's excellent new biography, Elizabeth the Queen, "it is hardly likely that she would have risked her reputation, or the possible security of her throne, for physical pleasure". Not much box-office appeal there.

In a portrait from 1575, her hair has turned red and is in tight Mrs Mopp curls. Her face is now sharp as a knife and bisected by a knobbly nose. This is not a woman to cross. By 1592, a decade before her death, she resembles the late Edith Sitwell.

If Elizabeth I fails to attract many star-struck admirers, the same applies to her namesake from the House of Windsor, who, at the time of my visit, stared glumly out of her gold frame at a completely empty room.

Over at Westminster Abbey, however, about 5,000 visitors trudge dutifully past the Virgin Queen's memorial every day. Her tootsies warmed by a minuscule lion, the marble monarch has spent the past 400 years gazing at the sublime fan-vaulting overhead. "Film fans do make a point of seeing her," one of the Abbey's servants assured me. "The same thing happened after The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, came out in 1939. After she'd seen Elizabeth's memorial, an American lady asked: `Is Errol Flynn buried here as well?'"

ONE BONUS of living at Weasel Villas is that we're only 30 yards from our neighbourhood bottle-recycling dump. Lucky you, you'll doubtless be thinking. However, it's no good pretending there are no drawbacks. When these three large containers of clear, brown and green glass were first emptied, the thunderous crash of tumbling bottles was so loud and prolonged that I thought the final trumpet had sounded. Similarly, those tidy souls who choose to make their deposits at four in the morning are scarcely conducive to the peace of the neighbourhood. The unnerving spectacle of Mrs W, who has been known to stomp outside in order to comment on the antisocial nature of such behaviour, usually puts a stop to the habit.

Not being averse to the odd bot ourselves, the Weasel family is among the most enthusiastic users of this facility. In fact, it became a trifle embarrassing when workmen, engaged in prolonged repairs in the street outside, took to remarking loudly on the extent and regularity of our deposits. ("Blimey, it's Jilly Goolden! Bin 'avin' a tastin'?")

It is noticeable, however, that the green container fills up well before either its brown or its clear counterpart. Whether this is because more wine than beer is guzzled in this middle-class patch of south London, or because beer drinkers feel little urge to recycle their empties, is an interesting topic for debate. Whatever the cause, when such a blockage happens, frustrated depositers are inclined to put their heartfelt ecological beliefs on hold. Instead of taking their green bottles back home with them, they arrange them around the base of the container like so many soldiers on parade, thereby providing handy missiles for passing drunks.

Ironically, I heard a representative of a glass-recycling company moaning on the radio the other day that not much could be done with this avalanche of green glass. Having no wine industry to speak of, we don't manufacture many green bottles in Britain. French wine-producers are therefore being urged to switch to clear or brown bottles for their products. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, "Most wine bottles are, for reasons of both tradition and the orientation of glass furnaces, sold in some shade of green." But I'm sure that our dear friends across the Channel will be only too willing to change this fuddy-duddy practice. Of course, it would be quite impossible for our brewers to switch from brown to green.

THE WEEK-LONG London Festival of Literature, aka The Word, which finishes tomorrow, adopted the centrifuge-like tactic of spinning its star turns to the outermost fringes of the metropolis. As denizens of one of these benighted regions, Mrs W and I snatched at the chance to see two literary illuminati who were making the perilous trek south of the Thames to appear at Dulwich Library on Thursday night. I must admit that I was more interested in seeing Iain Sinclair, the acclaimed cartographer of metaphysical London, than Michael Moorcock, the legendary sci-fi master, but it promised to be an unusual evening.

And so it proved. We got there a few minutes after the 7pm kick-off, but that was OK. A librarian explained that the celebs hadn't turned up yet. After helping ourselves to coffee and custard creams, we joined the packed audience of perhaps 90 fantasy fans. Goatee beards waggled and designer specs glinted as they chatted cheerfully while waiting for the star attractions. However, there were increasingly frequent lulls in the hubbub as 10, 20, then 30 minutes passed. Eventually, after 45 minutes, an embarrassed chap announced that, since there had been no communication from the authors and it was impossible to get hold of any officials from The Word, it appeared that, er, we had been stood up.

As we made our way through the rain for a glass of wine, I can't say I was too downcast. But it seems strange that Moorcroft, whose massive oeuvre includes Mother London (devoted to "strange, neglected parts of the capital"), and Sinclair, the celebrated author of Downriver and other explorations of the city's ghostly meridians, should find it impossible to reach the mysterious realm of SE22. Even for these doughty explorers of London's hidden nooks, Dulwich proved to be a suburb too far.

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