The Weasel

In which I saw a little too much of myself at an exhibition, felt nostalgic about a building, and recalled the taste of smear
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The Independent Culture
YOU ENTER Mirror Image, Dr Jonathan Miller's popular exploration of reflections in art at the National Gallery, under a large reproduction of Alice clambering through the looking- glass. The experience of viewing the show, which is installed in several small rooms, turned out to be reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's parallel universe. There were, of course, the vertiginous effects produced by the numerous mirrors mixed in among the works of art. It was particularly jarring to encounter a lumbering figure taking notes in each of them. Seeing his face once a day shrouded in shaving-foam is quite enough for me.

Even odder was the behaviour of visitors to the exhibition. For one thing, they were unnaturally silent. There was none of that showy chit- chat which you only seem to hear in art galleries. Moreover, the art- lovers appeared to be obeying the directions of a hidden ringmaster. After gazing at a certain painting, each viewer would suddenly turn to the left, sometimes barging into other viewers, in order to commune with another masterpiece.

Eventually, I discovered that the choreographer of this bizarre ballet was none other than Dr Miller himself. Virtually every visitor was receiving the great polymath's reflections on reflection via an earphone attached to a digital device. It transpired that this treat was included in the pounds 5.50 entrance charge, so I acquired one myself.

No slouch at the directing game, the doctor bosses around his audience with a genial briskness: "If we now turn to face the rest of the room..." In his commentary on the work which is the centrepiece of the show, The Arnolfini Portrait, he admonishes: "Please don't alarm the warders by standing too close..." Unfortunately, this came a little late for me because on my first tour, when I was still sans earpiece, I took a close squint at van Eyck's masterpiece. This is because Dr Miller is solely concerned with the small circular mirror at the heart of the work. An enlargement of this fragment enables us to appreciate the painter's skill while at the same time avoiding Signor Arnolfini's fishy stare.

The show is replete with marvels, both obscure and predictable. There cannot be many exhibitions which include a Rembrandt alongside a Norman Rockwell, especially since the former is an original and the latter a reproduction. The catalogue is equally eclectic, with Whistler's Symphony in white No 2 (1864) being followed a page later by two large photographs of a plastic mirror in a waste bin, duly catalogued as Miller Untitled (1998). Despite the triple elucidation provided by caption, commentary and catalogue, Dr Miller's explanation of the final work in the show is inadequate, confusing and plain wrong. Gustave Caillebotte's wonderfully atmospheric In A Cafe (1860) concerns a figure lounging before a large mirror in the catalogue. Dr Miller breezily insists: "There is no doubt about Caillebotte's cafe interior in which the room is miraculously enlarged - by what we know for certain to be the brilliantly daylit window behind us". Yet in his 1997 monograph on this artist, the world's leading expert on Caillebotte, Kirk Varnedoe describes the same work as "amazingly contrived" and "a confounding game of optics". Professor Varnedoe reveals that the "daylit window" is not behind us but before us, reflected in two mirrors. Perhaps by this stage, Dr Miller was finding the whole business of reflection and art a touch wearisome, for his recorded commentary on the Caillebotte painting concludes with the extraordinary assertion that "the modern obsession with looking is no substitute for meaningful human contact". Seeing the automaton-like spectators at his show, it was hard to disagree.

THE DECISION to flog Shell-Mex House, the monolithic HQ of Shell UK on the Strand, prompted oleaginous outpourings from the Telegraph's property man: "Thirties classic... elegance surpasses that of the Savoy Hotel next door". Pevsner is less effusive, though his opinion of the 11-storey structure ("thoroughly unsubtle") is unlikely to put off any of the hoteliers who are thought to be the most likely purchasers.

Ever since a friend who is a Shell employee pointed out the striking resemblance, I have never been able to view Shell-Mex House as anything other than a gigantic mantelpiece clock. This is due to the fact that on its Thames-side facade, the building boasts the largest clockface in London, dubbed Big Benzene by AP Herbert.

No doubt some estate agent will shortly be extolling the virtues of this Grade II structure (recently modernised throughout) in a much sought- after area. The estate agent could draw attention to the fact that Caning Lane, which runs down the eastern side of the building, was designated a ley line by Alfred Watkins in The Old Straight Track, his seminal work on such phenomena. A distinctive feature of this unfragrant alleyway is an ornate Victorian gas light which was fuelled by sewer gas until the Fifties. One authority suggests that the facility utilised "afterproducts unknowingly donated by the Savoy's guests", doubtless a richly combustible mixture. Since a distinct whiff of drains hovers hereabouts, it might be an idea to reinstate this economic illumination.

WHILE PORING over The Man Who Ate Everything (Headline pounds 14.99) by Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic of American Vogue, I was intrigued to learn that I have recently eaten something which the Japanese refer to as "children- of-the-clouds". Noting that it was "a welcome euphemism for the sperm of fish, often cod", the omnivorous Mr Steingarten encountered this delicacy in a Kyoto restaurant. "Its texture and appearance resemble unset custard," Mr Steingarten writes. "I do not expect to find children-of- the-clouds stalls popping up in mini-malls across America."

However, no such fastidiousness exists in North Yorkshire, where children- of-the-clouds is sold under the slightly less romantic term "smear". While feeling no great urge to repeat the experience, I found it not unpalatable. Mrs W ran a mile.

If this temptation isn't enough to lure Mr Steingarten from Manhattan to Filey, perhaps I might point out that most northern fish and chip shops fry their produce in dripping. I am sure this will appeal because the Vogue gastronome used the same stuff in an attempt to produce the perfect chip. "Let us just say that my work with rendered beef fat was the last straw," Mr S reported. "My wife becomes unaccountably grumpy when her hair smells like a steak."

After this experiment, Mr Steingarten turned to rendered horse-fat, as recommended by a top Parisian chef. Unfortunately, the equine dripping, which was specially imported to New York from Vienna, was not a success. It went rancid. Though I'm sure that Filey's fish and chip shops would welcome Mr Steingarten, I doubt if the donkeys on the beach would be so keen.

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