The Weasel: I am no chainsaw-wielding dendrophobe. I love elder, beech, willow and their immemorial usefulness - yeah, yeah, trees, frightfully British. But there's this ash in my garden which is, frankly, a pain
Saturday 16 March 1996
I am no chainsaw-wielding dendrophobe. I love the things. Elder, beech, willow and their immemorial usefulness - Crecy arrows, cathedral rood screens, Edgbaston stumps - yeah, yeah, trees, frightfully British. But there's this ash in my garden which is, frankly, a pain. It shuts out the light in summer and dangles tendrils of poison ivy over us in winter. It sprang from a delinquent fallen sapling and now stands oafishly by the kitchen window like a bouncer. It had, we decided, got to go.
But this is Dulwich, where any action by local Forestry Horizontalising Operatives (as I believe tree fellers are known) has to be ratified by the local Estates Governors, a shadowy cabal who, for steely authoritarianism, would give the Venetian doges a run for their money. They sent round a Tree Consultant ("I'm afraid you've got a bad case of ingrowing bough..."), who duly scrutinised the sullen ash, like a Kyoto minimalist entranced by a flowering cherry.
We naturally assumed it would be a formality, since permission to chop the tree down had already been granted to the previous owners, who never got round to doing it. Could we go ahead? "No, I can't decide," said the consultant Delphically. But, said I, the Estates people had already approved it. "That was with a different owner." But it was the same tree and the same garden, wasn't it? "I'm afraid you'll have to be patient." He gazed at a garden rake under the reprieved ash and said, "I'll have to bring in the Committee."
We roared with laughter, Mrs Weasel and I, when he'd gone. The very idea that there might exist something called the Dulwich Estates Governors Tree Committee... (Did it have branches in Tulse Hill?) We imagined a trio of elderly burghers in sensible cardigans, swapping seed catalogues and singing glutinous ditties about the Mighty Redwood. And then they turned up.
They came like a posse out of the Old West. They came at 8.30am (Mrs W a stroppy vision in her Terylene housecoat and fluffy mules) and came mob-handed: we stood open-mouthed as ten of them, clipboards at the ready, trooped through the house. They took up position like Iroquois round a totem pole and scrutinised away, occasionally asking the odd question ("Couldn't you just prune it?"; "Were you planning to be here long?"). I got the impression they were also checking for signs of satellite dishes, pot-noodle cartons, copies of the Sun and other un-Dulwich things. Finally they left, as indecisive as when they'd come, leaving me with this picture in my head: of a ten-strong, middle-aged, bourgeois, round-the-wrong-way counterpart to the Newbury protesters in the garden of Weasel Villas, putting me to shame.
One of the incidental pleasures of Casino, Martin Scorsese's epic account of Las Vegas during its final gangster period in the Seventies, is the chance to see fashions of inconceivable ghastliness. Even for the decade that taste forgot, they mark a pastel-coloured nadir. The film starts with casino boss Robert de Niro being blown up while wearing a suit of strawberry hue. Later (the whole film is a three-hour flashback) there's an amusing moment when de Niro, surprised without his trousers, struggles into a pair of acid-green pants which match not only the jacket but also the virulent shoes he is already wearing. How we chortled. Did anyone ever wear such tints by choice (except, perhaps, on the ski slopes)? Imagine my astonishment on finding Gucci advertising exactly the same footwear in last week's Spectator - a pair of Kryptonite-coloured loafers adorned by fancy brass snaffles. They appear to have been made from the phosphorescent hide of a Martian lizard. Does this mean we will soon be wearing the flapping lapels and distressing shades of the Seventies once more? Or simply that gangster taste has never moved on - and, implicitly, that the Spectator remains their journal of choice?
Regarding myself as something of a literary animal, I'm normally the last to object to writing of any kind. But there seems to be a sight too much of it around. I don't mean the philosophical works of Santayana or the novels of Bulwer-Lytton. What I object to is the growing clamour of print on even the tiniest bits of ephemera. Supermarket receipts, bus tickets, windscreen stickers for car parks - all have been appropriated as miniature placards. The bill I got from a local sausage shop even had a joke on it ("Heard about the prawn who went to a disco and pulled a mussel?") and a Safeway receipt not only had advertisements for five local businesses on the back, but also a ticket offer for Madame Tussaud's on the front. Coming from the home of the hard sell, the big fast-food chains have shown a Yankee pizzazz in finding new ways of promoting their noisome products. Your cinema ticket clamours with a "two-for-one" deal on its reverse. On Tube station stairs, the name of a leading hamburger company is repeated, mantra-like, on every step. And advertisers do not restrict themselves to the small-scale gimmick. Last year, a confectionery company decided that St Paul's Cathedral, so sadly under-exploited for the past 300 years, would be greatly improved by projecting an advertisement for a chocolate bar on to the dome. Jumbo jets, Tube trains, even a space rocket have been converted into travelling billboards. In an article in this paper on such "terrorist advertising", Jim Davies noted that even the tops of buses and bus shelters, lavatory doors, and the cups in golf holes have become repositories of advertising scribble.
All very clever, but scarcely new. Almost every knock-'em-dead wheeze of the admen has been done before. In his entertaining survey, The Shocking History of Advertising, ES Turner points out that ads for pills and watches were illegally projected on to Nelson's Column in 1894. For sheer size, what is ever going to beat the Citroen sign which enhanced the Eiffel Tower from 1925 to 1936? Incorporating a quarter of a million electric bulbs, it was visible 24 miles away. For ingenuity, who is going to outdo the entrepreneur who persuaded the British government to carry ads for Pear's soap on the back of postage stamps? What could be more eye-catching than the 1950 aerial advertising campaign in which "Pepsi-Cola" was written in multi-coloured smoke by formation aircraft flying over 5,000 towns and cities, from Canada to Venezuela? Or have more olfactory appeal than the pounds 7,000-worth of French perfume sprayed over San Fernando, California, in 1962 to announce the opening of a new store?
But my favourite stunt occurred in Piazza San Marco, Venice, in the early years of this century. At the start of each day, a large quantity of peanuts would be arranged in the shape of five immense letters in the middle of the square. When tourists returned home and processed films of their Italian break, they discovered a fluttering mass of pigeons spelling out the word kodak. Beat that
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