The Weasel: Comedy's worse than Sir Robin's blank verse

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The Independent Culture
As successive occupants of 10 Downing Street can doubtless testify, it is a daunting experience to be on the receiving end of a probing glint from the spectacles of Sir Robin Day. It happened to me the other day in the Garrick Club. Though not a usual haunt of mine (the club tie does little for my complexion), I happened to be attending a launch party for a new volume by the great man. I was chatting to a young woman from his publisher's publicity department when Sir Robin strode over and asked her for the guest-list.

"I'm not sure," he growled, "that some of these johnnies from the papers are the ones I invited." It somehow seemed unlikely that he was referring to Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, Bernard Levin and Nigella Lawson, who also happened to be present. Shooting the Weasel a dubious glance, he harrumphed back to the throng. My charming publicity friend said that, despite his bear-like manner, Sir Robin was a sweetie - and she should know, having just accompanied the old boy on a book-signing tour.

At first, Speaking for Myself (Ebury Press, pounds 14.99) seems an unlikely work from the former TV inquisitor. Its short, unjustified lines, resemble a book of verse. Occasionally, rhymes crop up, as in a section on Churchill ("down-to-earth English and baroque oratory/in the style inspired by Gibbon and Macaulay"), but mostly it seems to be vers libre. Sometimes WS Gilbert's influence may be perceived ("It's all very bewildering, not to say alarming/The Home Secretary has been informed"); elsewhere, a hint of Betjeman: "I failed at the Bar. I failed in Politics. I failed in Television./I am a serial failure."

In fact, Sir Robin's exercises are in a genre far more recondite than poetry. They are his after-dinner speeches, printed in what he insists is "psalm form", as used by Churchill. (This also pads out the book to 272 pages.)

The gathering at the Garrick offered yet another opportunity for a few brief words. "Speech-making after dinner is a dying artform," Sir Robin told us. "It should be humorous, not savage or acid - an older, gentler, more civilised humour." This view certainly hit home with me, even though I am no great lover of after-dinner speeches. On the previous evening, I had happened to attend a large dinner held by a major company. Instead of an orthodox after-dinner speech, the organisers saw fit to hire an alternative comedian. The result was an hour of egocentric ranting, liberally spattered with obscenity.

As a result of this god-awful experience, I warmly applauded Sir Robin's sentiments. Later on at his party, he once again tackled the young woman from Ebury Press whom I was still monopolising. "Will you stop talking to this young man and sell some books?" he urged. "Most of the people here will have had free copies," she replied.

I have a rare spot of good news for users of south London's rail services. The carriages may be overcrowded, the seats designed for midgets, the services may cease at midnight for suburban Cinderellas - but the toilets are getting cleaner.

A curious incident that I witnessed the other day gave an undeniable indication of this fact. I was heading into town on a train from Lewisham, London SE13, when I happened to notice a young man and woman slip into the loo together.

As a keen observer of la condition humaine, I felt obliged to keep a close eye on proceedings. Though no perceptible noise emerged from the toilet, equally there was no sign of the couple emerging. Finally, we arrived at Charing Cross. I watched to see what would happen. Nothing. Like everyone, except the occupants of the lavatory, I left the train. Out on the platform, I decided to, well, hang about for a bit. Not wanting to appear too prying, I took up a casual stance as if waiting for an outgoing service. After three or four minutes, the train left. As far as I could tell, the intimate twosome were still in the loo, heading once more for outer London. Your guess is as good as mine what they were up to. Going by the state of the lavvies last year, no one would have wanted to spend a micro-second in there longer than they had to. .

The brouhaha that erupted this week in Wetherby came as no surprise to the Weasel family, since a close friend of ours happens to live in this West Yorkshire community. We encountered the casus belli a fortnight ago. In the middle of the countryside, a few miles east of Wetherby, a large, new sign declares: "Welcome to the City of Leeds". You can hardly blame Wetherbyites for feeling narked at this act of urban imperialism, since the spot is about 12 miles from Leeds city centre. It is like reading "Welcome to the City of Bristol" when approaching Bath. Leeds has also plonked its marker down outside several other towns which lie in its shadow. Quite why it feels the need to do this is a mystery, since its name is already spread across the globe.

You can encounter signs saying "Welcome to the City of Leeds" in places as far-flung as Massachusetts, Alabama, Utah and North Dakota. But that wasn't enough for the Thousand Year Reich which holds sway in Yorkshire's largest city. Apparently, Wetherby, Otley and Boston Spa are now all Leeds. It's like the Sudetenland all over again.

Greenwich Park is currently being spruced up for the millennium wing- ding. Crowned by Wren's Royal Observatory, this Arcadia does not look very much different from its 18th- century heyday when the park provided a favourite pleasure garden for Londoners enjoying a day out of town. It was, you might suppose, a time of elegance and refinement, quite different from today. Well, no. According to Clive Aslet's new book The Story of Greenwich (Fourth Estate, pounds 25), one favourite pastime of the era was far from decorous.

Known as "tumbling", it involved men and women holding hands and running pell-mell down Greenwich Hill. "Inevitably they fell over and ended up in a highly immodest tangle of arms and legs," Aslet writes. "Women's dress was disarrayed, and undergarments - if worn - were put on view." This attracted undesirable spectators, but worse could befall participants. The Daily Journal of 4 April 1730 reported that "one young lady broke her neck, another broke her jaw-bone and a third broke her leg". In the 19th century, up to 200,000 funsters would head for the park. Aslet says a favourite amusement was "scratching". This involved running a wooden wheel on a stick across people's backs. The serrated wheel produced a noise like tearing cloth. What a hoot! Perhaps it should be revived next New Year's Eve. A guaranteed ripping time.