The Weasel: Can scarecrows pass the acid test?
We might have been in a particularly cranky episode of The Avengers, but the straw which emerges from the wrists of Muston's immobile populace gives the game away. For two weeks, the village has been occupied by 60- odd scarecrows. The figures provide a self-portrait of English rural life. One creosotes a fence. Another pops his head over the wall of a cow-shed, his herd lowing behind him. A genial minister welcomes you into the Primitive Methodist Chapel. The finest rendition is a poacher, with ferret on his shoulder and cartridges in his pocket. His dog cocks an irreverent leg over a (real) sign: "This tree was planted to commemorate the coronation of King George VI."
Though rain was falling, a host of human visitors were examining the taxidermal residents (most had a brolly wedged into their straw mitts). "The idea for the scarecrows came from our millennium committee," a villager told me. "Most people joined in, except for the new landlord of the village pub who complained that he'd moved to Muston for a bit of peace." When I told my interviewee that "The Old Crows of Muston" would appear in the Weasel column, he was not exactly overwhelmed. "We've had quite a lot of TV coverage already, on both sides of the Atlantic."
"Your scarecrows were on American TV?"
"Yeah. Muston's scarecrows were shown coast to coast."
Thirty years after he conceived the idea, McLuhan's "Global Village" has arrived.
The good folk of Cornwall were vouchsafed an unearthly spectacle last week in the form of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, once notorious for their Kool-Aid Acid Tests. Now grey and grizzled, this bunch of antique acidheads drove a new version of their celebrated Magic Bus (destination sign: "Further") to the West Country in order to impart a touch of colour to the momentary celestial monochrome. Going by a Channel 4 documentary last Saturday, the Pranksters are, for all their hoary locks, pretty much unreformed in attitude. It is to be hoped that they do not fall foul of the Cornwall Constabulary, who are possibly less liberal in outlook than their counterparts in Oregon.
Fortunately, Mr Kesey and his colleagues can make use of a temptingly- titled reference work, The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances by Richard Rudgley (Abacus, pounds 8.99). This reveals that any number of mind- blowing compounds are still perfectly legal in Britain. Admittedly, some may be a trifle difficult to obtain in the Penzance area, such as the hallucinogenic potion called umm nyolokh concocted from the liver and bone marrow of the giraffe by the Humr Arabs of the Sudan. Similarly, examples of ayahuasca, a psychoactive Amazonian vine which induces visions of being eaten by jaguars or crushed by anacondas, are probably something of a rarity in the garden centres of Polperro.
However, I recently spotted examples of guarana seeds, a South American stimulant three times as rich in caffeine as coffee, in Kew Garden's Museum of Economic Botany. The museum also displays the device traditionally used as a grater - the dried tongue of the piraruca fish - but it is doubtful whether Kew would be willing be spare Mr Kesey a few buzz-packed seeds for pharmacological research.
Qat, the non-addictive drogue de choix in the Yemen, is also legal in the UK, but Mr Rudgley is probably understating the effect of chewing the leaves when he describes it as "akin to tea or coffee". Kevin Rushby, whose book Eating the Flowers of Paradise is largely a paean to qat, says that it "stirs the mind and stills the body until the moorings have slipped and the one has sailed free from the other", which doesn't sound much like PG Tips. The author managed to procure some of this privet-like stimulant in the East End of London. Sadly, it was too dry and elderly to retain much potency.
Perhaps the easiest course for Mr Kesey's troupe would be to lay in a stash of Cornwall's best-known gastronomic specialities. The Electric Cornish Pasty Test might not get the Pranksters very high, but at least these savoury behemoths, recently excoriated in The New York Times as "leaden, potato-stuffed footballs", should induce the most sincere expression of hippie approbation: "Heavy, man, heavy."
Earlier this week, the novelist Cressida Connolly treated readers of The Daily Telegraph to the revelation that she lost her virginity "in the attic of a vicarage in Eastbourne". Insisting that "all that sea air tickles the appetite", Ms Connolly provided a check-list of seductive venues: "Even the place names - Margate, Broadstairs, Weston-super-Mare, Studland Bay - evoke sensual memories." It is notable that this lascivious litany excludes the resorts of the Yorkshire coast. Going by my observations, Filey is not transformed into a modern Gomorrah in the summer. The appetites of visitors to Scarborough and Whitby tend more towards fish and chips than carnality.
This restraint could be something to do with a local phenomenon known as the "sea fret", a thick mist which often envelopes this area when the rest of the country is basking in the sun. Mrs W and I have sometimes driven from south London with every car window open, only to find ourselves donning pullovers and turning on the highlights within three miles of the Yorkshire coast. Last week, the holidaymakers on Scarborough's beach were barely visible as an opaque mist eddied round their deck chairs.
Possibly Ms Connolly is telling her readers more than they want to know when she recalls: "Me and my friends used to instruct boys to give us love bites in as prominent a place as possible." Up here, such amorous gnawings would have stiff competition in the form of tattoos. On a warm day, we "blanks" (as the unadorned are termed by the tattooed) are outnumbered. Eagles, oriental calligraphy, Celtic squiggles and Pamela Anderson-style "barb wire" are among the most frequent motifs for the younger generation, though more traditional etchings can also be seen. I'm sure the youth who went home with the words "MAM" and "DAD" forming a cross in the middle of his back received a warm welcome from his parents.
After giving it much thought, I've decided that, in the unlikely event of my going in for one of these epidermal engravings, I would plump for a recipe. Rick Stein's "Hot Shellfish with Garlic and Lemon Juice" should inflame a few female appetites. But which way up should it go?
So many thousands of words expended on two minutes of gloom - I wasn't thinking of adding an extra one, until I heard the asinine comments of Peter York on Radio 4. "Oh, what a predictable bore," declared the twerpy marketing guru. One admirable aspect of the eclipse - there, I've gone and said it - was that it wasn't marketable. It was simply there, on tap for all. In fact, the more effort you invested in the experience, the less you got. The eclipse was itself eclipsed in Cornwall, while the poor souls who paid pounds 1,550 for an excursion in Concorde came away grumbling.
My excellent illustrator Lucinder Rogers trekked to Primrose Hill for a gander at the partial eclipse in London, only to find a Primrose Hill- sized cloud hovering over her. Much the same happened to my pal Dave, who sailed the 24 miles from Guernsey to Alderney in order to experience totality. Along with a small armada of visiting craft, he anchored a short distance offshore in an area which, unlike Alderney itself, remained cloudy. Perversely, the period of totality was marked by a sudden brilliance as thousands of flashlights blazed on the island. Contrary to the predicted silence, a whiffy colony of gannets kicked up a tremendous racket. The reappearance of the Sun was marked by a fusillade of champagne corks as the Channel Island's zillionaires celebrated on their yachts.
Up on the Yorkshire coast, conditions were perfect. Bearing any number of Blue Peter-style viewing devices, we went no further than our back garden. But the best results, better even than Mrs W's partially-masked make-up mirror, came from the leaves of our apple tree, which magically produced a multitude of crescent-shaped patches of light as the partial eclipse approached. At its peak, the sun's 150-watt dazzle was swopped for a cheerless 20-watt twinkle. Of course, scientists assured us that the sudden chill and watery light would only be of brief duration - but I, for one, was relieved when normal service resumed.
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