The Weasel: Conceptual Cup for daft-looking cookbooks proudly presents, in reverse order, its three finalists

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The Independent Culture
THIS TIME last year, you may recall, I drew attention to the most self-indulgent examples of cookery book design to appear in 1997. The River Cafe Cook Book Two had eight consecutive pages devoted to a man washing Parmesan cheeses, but The Ivy: The Restaurant and its Recipes was even more absurd, with photo-spreads that included 13 slices of toast, empty bottles of Coca-Cola and Kia-Ora, a pile of dirty plates and, best of all, the nasty burns on a chef's arms. Since there have been several equally barmy efforts this year, I have decided to institute the Weasel Conceptual Cup for daft-looking cookbooks.

We have three outstanding finalists. Nigel Slater's Real Food (pounds 18.99) made the short-list owing to its grotesquely enlarged photos, often so unfocused that they would have merited one of those admonitory stickers at the developers. Thanks to the creative eye of the photographer, the mushroom & potato pie occupying page 31 resembles a crumbling glacier. The blobs of speckled mash on page 41 might be the twirly turrets of a Russian cathedral; the huddle of red peppers on page 145 could be mistaken for deflating Li-Los.

Another contender was How to Eat by Nigella Lawson (pounds 25), though the design of this tome commits no sins of excess. Quite the reverse. Going by the dreary nature of its illustrations, it might be a Ministry of Food publication from the austerity years of the early Fifties. A double- page spread on pages 84-5 is given over to a Tupperware box, while pages 404-5 are devoted to a plastic lemon squeezer. Yummy.

Despite such stiff competition, the Weasel Conceptual Cup goes to a restaurant cookbook. Harvey Nichols: The Fifth Floor Cookbook by Henry Harris (pounds 25) starts promisingly, with a photo of a dirty plate on the cover. Its ring- bound format enables readers to study with ease the squeezed tube of harissa chilli sauce on page 29, the oily, screwed-up paper towel on page 48 and the lugubrious pig's head on page 69. But the book reserves its greatest treats for the end. Page 281 is taken up by a smashed bottle of armagnac, while page 283 reveals the soles of a pair of well-worn shoes. Which of Mr Harris's recipes includes these succulent ingredients is not made clear.

DESPITE BEING associated with the blaring John Prescott, hypothecation is not a medical condition resulting from excessive political windbaggery. This pinstriped neologism is, of course, Whitehall gobbledegook for taxes dedicated to a single end. The Deputy PM insists that the estimated pounds 1bn per year raised from city tolls on cars will be spent on "local transport improvements". Though I'm no great friend of the motorist, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such schemes, judging by the efforts of our local council. Stingy in all other respects, our London borough seems to have bottomless pockets when it comes to tinkering with roads.

The forest of hectoring signs that clutters up the pavement grows thicker by the day. Scarcely a yard of Tarmac remains unmarked by colourful restrictions. Recently, green patches appeared at many road junctions with the intention of giving cyclists a head start when the traffic lights change. While OK in principle, I have yet to see them being used by a single cyclist. (Round here, they usually use the pavement.) The impact of this torrent of money upon traffic conditions is more or less zilch.

For all Mr Prescott's trumpeting, hypothecation is nothing new. I recall the notion of using road tax purely for roads being raised during the tenure of Lord Marples, transport minister from 1959 to 1964. The late, great Ernie would have nothing of it. "Ridiculous idea," he scoffed. "You wouldn't expect the taxes raised from tobacco to be spent on improving pipes."

IT IS reassuring to think that the magnates and superstars who fly Concorde have at least three hours' freedom from the sales pitches that must ceaselessly pursue them at ground level. Well, not exactly. The temptation of having a captive audience of plutocrats at 62,000ft has proved too much for British Airways. The world's favourite airline has introduced a duty-free brochure to help fat cats while away the Atlantic crossing. With each page bearing a reassuring quotation ("Succeeding is the coming together of all that is beautiful" - I Ching), high-fliers are invited to cough up pounds 250 for a Cartier inkwell or a box of five cedarwood pencils (including sharpener) for pounds 199. Prompted by the opaque musing of Tao Te Ching, "There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind, a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest", they may choose to splash out pounds 740 on a Baume & Mercier Dual-Time Watch, which has two dials to overcome all the tedious calculation involved in deducting or adding five hours. Don't scoff. On a recent crossing, one passenger spent almost pounds 4,000 on such trinkets.

Still, Concorde zillionaires can rest assured that the stratospheric fares will at least exclude unmoneyed hoi polloi. Well, not exactly. Some pals of mine who recently returned from the Big Apple on Concorde (round trip fare: pounds 6,000 each) found that most of the seats were occupied by the American winners of a British Airways prize draw called "Ride the Rocket". These fortunate couples scooped not only a weekend in London, but also $10,000 in spending-money. "What luck!" my chums gasped at their "Ride the Rocket" neighbours, who came from the West Coast. "Well, not exactly," the two Californians responded. "Between us, we filled in 13,500 entries."

PLUS cA change... I was pleased to discover that the V&A exhibition on Aubrey Beardsley includes an illustration of "the modern woman", which he contributed to the September 1894 issue of The Idler. Despite a hiatus of a mere 90 years or so, a periodical with this name continues to appear, still proudly flaunting the yellow banner of decadence. Only last week, it was instrumental in securing the return of absinthe to Britain.

Though a century has passed since his death, Beardsley's work retains the power to shock. As Brian Sewell so astutely noted in the Evening Standard: "His drawings of the phallus are evidence that he had undertaken close scrutiny of others than his own." If only Beardsley had kept his eyes to himself, the world might have been spared much unpleasantness.

It's not every Victorian exhibition whose souvenirs include books described as "Decadence/Erotica", the classification on the cover of Beardsley's porn fantasy Under the Hill. The V&A shop even contains one item that would have surprised the rapier-thin artist: Aubrey Beardsley milk chocolate bars (pounds 1.95). Now that's what I call unnatural.

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