The Weasel

A climb up 192 steps brings insights into a lighthouse keeper's hosiery, while the sweet folly of youth takes its toll with a trip to the dentist
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The Independent Culture
Like a pair of puddings, Mrs Weasel and I formed a queue of two for a 30-minute tour of Flamborough Head lighthouse. Since 1806, this 90-ft beacon has warned mariners of a great chalk outcrop on the Yorkshire coast. No great lover of heights, Mrs W squirmed at the ordeal ahead of her. "It will be 15 minutes to climb the bloody steps and 15 minutes to climb down again," she grizzled in a rather unladylike manner.

At close quarters, the structure is undeniably phallic in form. It is, no doubt, a coincidence that the quarterly newsletter of Trinity House is called Flash!

Coming across the Yorkshire wolds at night, we have often been impressed by the eerie sweep of the Flamborough light over the empty terrain. I was prompted to make closer acquaintance with the lighthouse after reading an unusual work associated with the great Robert Louis Stevenson. The Lighthouse Stevensons (HarperCollins, pounds 15.99) by Bella Bathurst is an illuminating account of the novelist's family, who were collectively responsible for constructing 97 Scottish lighthouses, "a ragged grammar of full stops marking the end of Britain".

At last, a stream of visitors emerged from the Flamborough pharos. "You haven't got high blood pressure, have you?" one gent chortled, as he passed our tiny queue. After coughing up a quid each, we entered the ground floor. Over our heads, 192 steps curled upwards and inwards like the coils of an ammonite. "It's my eighth tour so far today," said our guide, Bob Wilkinson. "I took up three parties of Girl Guides this morning." Even this stalwart of countless gales appeared slightly shaken by the experience.

To Mrs W's dismay, the final leg of the ascent involved a cast-iron ladder. As we puffed our way into the lantern room, Mr Wilkinson revealed that he had been employed in the service for 26 years. Sadly, all British lighthouses are now automated, so two years ago his job title lost a certain elan when it was changed from lighthouse keeper to part-time attendant. However, his enthusiasm appeared undiminished as he blitzed us with facts: "A 1,000-kilowatt halogen bulb... changed every 5,000 hours... 650,000 candlepower... seen 24 miles away... four flashes in six seconds, then nine seconds of darkness."

This luminous signature emerges from a cylindrical greenhouse, ornamented by some splendid 19th-century ironwork. The star designers of BBC's Changing Rooms would kill to get their hands on the fixtures and fittings, particularly the wonderful arrangement of lenses and prisms that chews up the halogen beam into staccato flashes. The device weighs 2.5 tons, and continuously revolves on a bath of mercury. Bella Bathurst's simile is spot on: "It turns as smoothly as cream in a churn." Her book reveals that the ingenious optic was invented by Thomas Stevenson, the father of Robert Louis.

Though Mr Wilkinson was unexpectedly gregarious for one who had chosen to make his career in the lighthouse service, he left me in the dark about one vital aspect of his work. So I put it to him bluntly: "What colour are your socks?" I should explain that this strange inquiry did not arise because my brain was affected by the altitude. It was prompted by an incident a few years ago when, accompanied by a photographer, I went to interview a lighthouse keeper on the south coast. Shortly afterwards, he rang up in a flap. We couldn't possibly use the photos. Why? Wrong colour socks. Should have been dark blue instead of grey. All hell to pay. Trinity House very particular. With the help of some computer jiggery- pokery, his sock colour was rectified and ignominy avoided. In response to my enquiry, Mr Wilkinson hoicked up a trouser leg. Dark blue, of course. "Is that why you made us come up?" spluttered Mrs W, as we began the long spiral to ground level.

I suffered another Martin Amis-style dental disaster the other day, when a sizeable filling fell out of a molar. My dentist peered into the resulting cavern and tutted. An extensive X-ray - it involved my having my head clamped in position like the subject of a Victorian photograph, while the gizmo described a semi-circle around my gnashers - confirmed the worst. "Sorry," said this latter-day Painless Potter, "it'll have to come out."

Not even Martin's millions could have spared me. I couldn't believe it. Extractions are surely a thing of the past, like bath-chairs and hearing- trumpets. My dentist shook his head at my protests. "You could keep it," he said, "but it would be a prime candidate for halitosis." Even taking into account the Weasel's charm, I could see that this new attribute would scarcely enhance my social life. So, a few days later, I turned up for the yank.

Despite my last-minute pleading, my dentist was adamant. As I slouched home, gappy and numb, my mind whizzed back to the tidal wave of antique confectionery that, decades ago, propelled me towards the dental pliers: love hearts, Parma violets, sherbet fountains, gobstoppers, flying saucers, acid drops, Spangles, fizzy lemons, liquorice boot-laces... Wine gums to bare gums, you might say.


Film stars aren't like the rest of us. They're thinner. The mysterious nature of their metabolism is underlined by Newman's Own Cookbook (Ebury Press, pounds 17.99), described as "sparkling recipes from Paul Newman and his Hollywood friends". Take "Nicole Kidman's crispy orecchiette with broccoli, pine nuts and garlic", which involves boiling 2lb of pasta, then frying it until crisp. Merely by reading it, you can feel your midriff expanding.

Going by reports of Ms Kidman's recent appearance on the London stage, such calorific provender appears to have had little impact on her figure, but I doubt whether the rest of us could get away with it. The same goes for "Julia Roberts's fresh peach crisp", which contains 12oz of unsalted butter. It's conceivable that you might end up as slender as the smiling star of Notting Hill by scoffing it - but I wouldn't bet on that.

Equally remarkable is a recipe from Paul Newman's housekeeper. Requiring four smoked ham hocks and four 10oz packets of frozen broad beans, it is intended to feed four. Mr Newman declares that this table-creaker is "to kill for", yet, judging by the snapshots reproduced in the book, you would never take him for a dedicated trencherperson.

Though it runs against the nature of film stardom, I wish that the book's author had restricted the number of photos of himself, mugging furiously at social gatherings of the Newman's Own company.

However, I was unexpectedly entertained by the quirky letters of praise for his products which are scattered throughout the book. One, from an auctioneer, reads: "On occasion, my throat will get dry and have phlegm in it. When this happens, nothing else will cut this phlegm and dryness except Newman's Own Lemonade. You should put it on the bottle - 'cuts through phlegm'."