The Weasel: Dinosaurs, fossilised fruit and... Red Ken

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The Independent Culture
Which of London's would-be mayors was sequestered with a small army of lawyers this week? Red Ken, of course. Last Wednesday night, the great man addressed the annual dinner of the Insolvency Lawyers' Association, which was held amid the zoomorphic splendours of the Natural History Museum. When the offer of a ticket came my way, I snapped it up like billy-o. The 450-strong throng was composed of lawyers, the lawyers who employ them and one hack. The penance of wearing black tie was a small price to pay for the possibility of gaining an exclusive interview with the man of the moment.

The pre-dinner drinks party, held in the Human Biology section ("An Exhibition of Ourselves") was a very jolly affair. I spent a while talking to a couple of accountants who gave me the low-down on the insolvency lark. "Dealing with lawyers is always a MUF job," one murmured. "Money up front."

"Not bin a good year," the other chipped in. "What we need is a good old recession to keep our wives in designer clothes." After this cheery exchange, I had a chat with a friendly lawyer who described the exuberant behaviour at last year's dinner of one very senior legal figure. Sadly, there were no such high jinks at my table in the museum's vast Central Hall, situated directly under the skull of a 50ft diplodocus skeleton. After laying waste to the salade nicoise and roast duck breast (not bad), I sought out the guest speaker, who was at the other end of the hall, somewhere under the great lizard's tail. I introduced myself and Mr Livingstone surveyed me with a saurian eye. "You're not a working journalist are you? I've run out of jokes."

But he did his best when I asked what his policy on newts would be. "I shall encourage people to build ponds, so the newt population will increase, and then give them votes in the mayoral election," he replied. "John Aspinall wants to give animals votes, you know."

Then I bowled a googly. "What are you doing here with all these lawyers?" "Raising money for my mayoral campaign. I need pounds 1m." With Paxman-like persistence, I asked his opinion of Sir Norman Foster's bubble-like design for the 10-floor mayoral HQ on the South Bank.

"What, the glass testicle?" But I could tell that Red Ken was not exactly spellbound by my line of questioning. "What are all these candles for?" he suddenly blurted, noticing the guttering flames that illuminated Waterhouse's magnificent Gothic staircase behind him.

"Looks like a set for Hamlet," I suggested. "More like the Hell-Fire Club," opined the candidate.

He won over his audience from the opening words of his address. "It's the first time I've had dinner looking up the arse of a 200-million-year- old dinosaur." Our hero offered a brief precis of recent events - "I was so rude to the selection committee that they had to ask me back" - before musing on the leadership of New Labour.

"Gordon Brown hopes to take over - he's got another bloody thought coming." Unsurprisingly, the idea of being a government apparatchik did not appeal to him. "Would you like to be No 9 in John Prescott's team responsible for sewage in the Orkneys?"

Then came the inevitable. "I don't want to talk about politics. I want to talk about Jeffrey Archer." The museum shook with guffaws, but Mr Livingstone was quite gentle.

"I don't want to be one of those who gloats over Jeffrey Archer. The bugger got up earlier than anyone else and worked harder than anyone else. I soon realised that Jeffrey Archer was more serious than me when I saw him at a posh dinner having a bowl of pasta with a tomato squeezed all over it."

Returning to his own travails, Mr Livingstone scoffed at the notion of accepting the diktats of the Deputy Prime Minister. "I love John Prescott, but descriptive powers are not his strong point."

"What if you're not chosen as a Labour candidate?" someone asked. "I'm fully confident that sense will prevail," replied Red Ken. "It looks like it's 3 per cent between me and Dobbo. And that's before we hit the mud-bath. (Pause for laughter.) Glenda's up for it." A final questioner declared himself to be a long-term Livingstone supporter. "Are you the same person that you were 10 years ago?"

"Well, everyone changes and grows in 10 years," he began. It sounded tediously New Labour, but Mr Livingstone produced a disarming codicil. "What I've discovered is that I can get away with murder if I make you laugh while I dip my hand in your pocket." The dinosaur all but disintegrated in the resulting eruption. If Red Ken can haul in a shoal of well-heeled insolvency lawyers with such ease, the whole of London is in his pocket.

At last I've seen it. The item that is the pride and joy of "London Eats Out", an exhibition devoted to "500 years of capital dining" at the Museum of London. It is, of course, a 16th-century banana skin. Since it was found in an ancient rubbish pit on the South Bank, the skin might have been used as a prop at the Globe Theatre in order to enliven one of Shakespeare's notoriously unfunny comic passages. Personally, I have my doubts about the antiquity of this fruity detritus. Though small, black and suspended in preservative, it looks in suspiciously good nick to me. I've seen far worse in forgotten corners of Weasel Villas, often with banana still inside. Such objects have not yet made their way into any public displays, though Mrs W makes plenty of fuss when they're discovered.

"We have to remain uncertain about the banana skin," admitted Hazel Forsyth, one of the exhibition's curators. "We haven't had it scientifically analysed yet."

There are, however, no such doubts about other leftovers. Visitors to the exhibition can enjoy a peek at some 16th-century piglet bones, a 17th-century turkey leg and an 18th-century partridge leg. And two orange pips, looking a little lonely in a glass jar. Inexplicably, this gnarled duo are the only early orange pips to have been found in London. Maybe Nell Gwyn's clients swallowed them in their excited expectation of other pleasures.

The first thing you see is a small cowpat. While it is possible that such items were an economic savoury for the Baldricks of Elizabethan London, this turns out to be a lump of ambergris. As I dare say you know, it is a viscous liquid regurgitated by whales, which dries to a waxy solid. Despite its distressing appearance, ambergris was "very highly valued in the 16th century for perfuming puddings". I hope to see this rare ingredient making an appearance soon on Ready, Steady, Cook. Another Elizabethan snack which could be revived is Heron Pie. Certainly the main ingredient is much in evidence at our local lake. (At last count, 11 of the blighters were directing their beady stare at the lake's rapidly diminishing fish population.) One item from the 16th century was very familiar. It was an "almost unique 16th-century bread oven". Vaguely conical in shape with a broad, letter-box mouth, it was made of terracotta. We've got one virtually the same in our back garden. Ours is called "The Beehive" and was imported from Portugal by an Oxford company. First you get a good old blaze going with kindling, then add logs. You scrape out the resulting ash and cook using the radiant heat from the thick terracotta walls. My ciabatta rolls were a triumph.

Perhaps the major difference between our stove and the Elizabethan one is that ours looks older. Blackened and riven with cracks, it looks like a real museum piece. Perhaps the Museum of London would care to swap. We could even throw in a few bananas at the same time.

While I'm not one to kick a guy while he's down, I feel unable to resist adding a small pebble to the Everest of obloquy currently sitting on Lord Archer's head. My beef dates back to his brief period as proprietor of the Playhouse Theatre, near Whitehall. Mrs W and I went there to see a play about Boswell starring Leo McKern. Since our tickets declared "You can park right outside the theatre", we did that very thing.

When we came out, the Weaselmobile was notable by its absence. On payment of approximately pounds 118, I recovered the vehicle from the Elephant & Castle car pound. In retrospect, ignoring a temporary "No Parking" sign in the immediate aftermath of the IRA attack on Downing Street was rather a rash act. But you know whom I blame.

In common, I'd guess, with many others, I made a rare purchase of The Economist yesterday. Adam Raphael's article on his doubts about the Archer libel case hinges on whether or not Mr Archer was at the Caprice restaurant on 8 September 1986. I've never in fact set foot inside this swish joint, but it certainly sounds a perfect venue for alibi purposes.

I refer you to a curious new cookbook called The Caprice by AA Gill (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25). It is mainly filled with glossy photos of the clientele, but occasionally Mr Gill, who regards himself as a culinary philosopher on a par with Brillat-Savarin, offers a few vaporous musings. He notes, for example, that "a good restaurant is... a reflection and a distillation of the person you would like to be". Presumably, whether you're there or not is beside the point.