As you might imagine, the place has been gussied up in recent years. As we wandered the grounds, signs of serious wealth became evident. Mrs W was much smitten by a new, two-storey conservatory tacked on to a crenellated folly at the back of the garden. A largish lagoon was also under construction. Called Lake Oscar, it immortalises a deceased Abyssinian moggy of the Archer's. The workmen engaged in this task, ostentatiously busy even though it was a Sunday, brought a surreal note to the proceedings since they wore tie-dyed black-and-white garments in the livery of their company, Zebra Garden Design.
I was musing on the possibility that this Alice in Wonderland troupe might start painting the roses, when Mrs W jerked me from my reverie: "Come on or we'll miss the madrigals." You can imagine how I sprang into action. Prominent among a score of singers was Dr Mary Archer (she lists her recreation in Who's Who as "village choirmistress, cats, picking up litter"), who was elegant in red, peep-toe sandals and a print skirt. With lyrics consisting mainly of the phrase "merry, merry, merry" and something about the "nymphs of Diana", the performance was reminiscent of the twee entertainments in Mapp and Lucia.
Perhaps understandably, Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare chose not to subject himself to public gaze - though he was present in the form of a stone caricature, whose grotesque grin lived with me for days afterwards. Commissioned by his wife, it bore the mysterious legend: "A well-experienced Archer hits the mark." But I felt that I could detect the great man's hand in a certain thematic unity linking the other sculptures dotted around the property. A life-size, modern bronze of a frisky nude entitled Girl doing a Handstand was complemented by Girl in a Deckchair (not quite nude - she wears a sun hat). Nearby, there was a smaller bronze of a female nude swimming through the arms of a sea-god. On the steps of the house, there lay an amply endowed statue called Sun Worshipper. Located high on the wall of the folly, there was a small stone Eve, whose rounded bosoms were echoed in the apple which she proffered.
Dr Archer kindly inscribed ("To Mr W") my copy of her book Rupert Brooke and The Old Vicarage, Granchester. "How enigmatic," she remarked. I asked who was responsible for choosing the sculptures. "Oh we've just accumulated them over the years," she replied noncommittally, smiled slightly and drifted off. But I swear a hint of fragrance hung in the air.
Last weekend, I made the mistake of returning to Henley Regatta. It turned out to be just as pointless and disastrously expensive as my previous visit several years ago. This clan gathering of the rowing classes in full fig resembles nothing so much as a huge, posh wedding from which the bride and groom are mysteriously absent. Its sole redeeming feature is the chance to see elderly and distinguished buffers wearing supremely garish blazers and caps. A senior judge was pointed out to me, who would not have looked one jot out of place driving round the circus-ring in the clowns' Krazy Kar.
Our day started with a few pints of Pimms at the bar, followed by a prodigious picnic in the soggy field which acted as a car-park, then a few more pints of Pimms before returning to the car-park for a barbecue in the rain. The actual rowing seems negligibly peripheral. I never saw a race, scarcely even saw the river, from start to finish. The whole thing could have taken place in any field anywhere in the country - except you wouldn't have to pay pounds 35 per person (including parking) for the privilege.
At least on this occasion, I took the precaution of wearing a tie. Last time, being unaware of the rigid dress code obtaining at the Stewards' Enclosure, my entrance was barred by a pair of genial but resolute security guards. The problem was two-fold. Not only was I lacking a tie, but even if I was able to obtain one, it wouldn't have been much use because I was wearing a collarless shirt. "Perhaps sir has a handkerchief he could wear as a cravat," one of the guards helpfully suggested.
I tried unfolding the scrap of Kleenex I found in my pocket, but even I recognised that it wouldn't pass muster. Alternatively, the security men suggested that I could buy a ladies' silk scarf from the Regatta shop - but pounds 45 seemed a rather high price to pay for a garment that I would only wear for a couple of hours. I went off to stroll the streets of Henley in search of a solution. By this stage, it was late in the afternoon and almost all the shops were closed. Only a newsagent was open - but, as it turned out, they sold exactly the garment which gained me admission into the Stewards' Enclosure.
My tip to anyone who wears a pair of yellow tights round their neck as a substitute cravat is: keep the gusset well to the rear and fluff up the material at the front. The arbiter elegantiarum at the gate nodded me through without a second glance. Strangely enough, after all this effort, I failed to find the friends I was due to meet inside. You don't think they could have been hiding?
Almost three decades after the battle of Grosvenor Square, the hippies finally occupied the American Embassy. At any rate, Ben & Jerry launched their latest ice-cream there, under the vigilant gaze of the US Marines.
You've doubtless heard enough about "Cool Britannia" already, but it's worth remarking that this "great British flavour" is made in Vermont and was invented by an expatriate American. The name, however, is as British as you can get. Though B & J were unaware of the fact, it was a song on the first Bonzo Dog record in 1967. ("Cool Britannia, Britannia takes a trip. Britons ever, ever, ever will be hip.")
But the toothsome twosome's best-known link with music is "Cherry Garcia" (slogan: "What a long, strange dip it's been"). Ben Cohen (the beardy one) informed me that they first came up with the name, then spent three years "actualising the flavour concept". When the first batch was produced, they air-freighted a sample to Jerry Garcia. "His wife called us to say that he was in a diabetic coma - but she liked it." The brand also happens to be Ben's favourite - but I wouldn't set too much store by that, since he cheerfully admitted: "I don't really have too much of a sense of taste, I'm more oriented to texture." When the Grateful Dead stalwart took his last trip, the company was inundated with suggestions for black cornets and crepe-wrapped tubs. Ben was unable to say if sales enjoyed a valedictory spurt: "I guess we never really measured it."
Adopting a we're-all-men-of-the-world manner, I asked Ben if, er, they'd ever tried making a dope-flavoured ice-cream. "Why, certainly not," he replied, eyes wide with surprise. "I believe that would be illegal." What a fine ambassador for his country
Did you hear about the London pub which changed its name from the Prince of wales to the Princess of Wales? Fed up with the Chas & Di soap opera, it has once more undergone a change of nomenclature to "The Wild Swans at Coole", the title of a poem by W.B.Yeats. Still not right, I'm afraid. Willie Yeats only visited a pub once in his entire life. Lured into a Dublin boozer by a bibulous crony, he took one glance at the plebian hedonists at the bar and dashed for the door without taking a sip.Reuse content