The Weasel: In a week of high-seas adventure, I encounter a Force Nine Gale in the Millennium Dome and then swallow a shark at the cinema

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's a trifle disconcerting when the crash of waves on shingle emerges from a patch of lawn in London SE10. I guess you could describe it as a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar (an expression of my own invention, owing scarcely anything to the poet Arnold). It turned out to be a "sound sculpture" by Bill Fontana, which thunders from subterranean loudspeakers along the path leading to the National Maritime Museum's new extension. Greenwich's other dome cost pounds 20m - pounds 11.8m of which was kindly contributed by those generous souls who do the Lottery - and was opened by the Queen last Tuesday.

According to a caption, Mr Fontana did "much travelling and listening to the natural sounds of Britain's coastline", before plumping for Chesil Beach for his splashy accompaniment. I don't know if Her Majesty was put in a seafaring mood by the noise of the Dorset littoral, perhaps executing a regal hornpipe as she entered the new development, but I thought it most evocative (those susceptible to mal de mer might consider investing in a packet of Kwells) when I attended the press launch on the previous day.

Inside, the pounding of the waves segued into another familiar maritime sound. A measured BBC voice intoned: "Thames: Three to Four, increasing Five. Fog patches." An image of the Thames Barrier filled a large screen. This proved to be a short film by Lucy Blakstad snappily entitled The Shipping Forecast 12.01hrs GMT Wednesday 9 December 1998. As the litany reached Rockall ("Seven to Eight or Severe Gale Nine"), accompanied by a shot of angry ocean, I found myself splattered by spots of spray. Lumme, that's clever, I thought, until I realised that it was rain entering through an open window in the dome.

After the impressive artistry of the museum's entrance, the items on display proved to be a bit of a hotch-potch. There's a Greenland kayak from 1932, a Greenpeace survival pod which once sheltered three activists on our old pal Rockall, and the drilling bit, Howard Hughes's second most famous invention (sadly, the cantilever bra is nowhere to be seen).

A high-tech diving suit of yellow-painted steel, resembling a giant jelly- baby, stands near a Ford Ka with a chunk taken out of its bonnet as if nibbled by some monster of the deep. The unpersuasive reason for the vehicle's presence is that it relies on parts which arrive by sea. An account of the transatlantic passenger trade includes a large model of the Star Line's Mauretania, which is mysteriously tilted, bow upwards, at 45 degrees. ("What a very unfortunate way of displaying it," commented one old salt.) Despite the implied reference to a sister vessel, the fact is that the Mauretania sailed happily for 27 years before being taken out of service in 1934.

A section devoted to breadfruit (Captain Bligh and all that) is ill-served by the example on show, which has been borrowed from the Kew collection. Dark brown and pickled in Formalin, it looks deeply unappetising. Is the museum unaware that fresh, green versions of this legendary vegetable are available at a modest price from Deptford High Street, less than a mile distant?

I was, however, much taken with an anecdote about rhubarb in a display on spices and medicines. When the Chinese first encountered Portuguese merchant-adventurers, they mistook their sunburnt appearance and aggressive behaviour for the symptoms of severe constipation and administered a powerful rhubarb-based laxative to "ease their manner".

Following my trip to Greenwich, I had another encounter with the briny in the heart of London. It happened when I popped along to the new pounds 20m Imax cinema (once again, many thanks to those generous-to-a-fault National Lottery punters who stumped up pounds 15m). The experience of clambering up to your seat is like scaling the battlements of a castle. Once installed, you wait on tenterhooks to be transported by the gargantuan screen. So it came as a let-down that the first images to be projected were some scratchy old Pearl & Dean adverts shown at normal size. The experience did not warm my heart to Honda or Maltesers.

The first Imax film was a space documentary narrated by Mr Spock. Both the dimensions and the clarity of the image were simply stunning. However, even the most astonishing of movies needs to be shown properly. About 10 minutes into the show, the house lights came on, then off, then on again. At first, I wondered if it was part of the performance, but the lights continued to flicker on and off for the remaining half-hour of the film. It is hard to concentrate on flying over the surface of Venus if you can see your neighbour probing his box of popcorn. The management apologised profusely. Teething problems. Never happened before. Please stay for the next show.

I'm glad I did. An underwater film called Into the Deep made ample amends. After donning my 3-D specs, I plunged off into the Californian Pacific. For sheer visual thrills, forget the forthcoming Star Wars twaddle - it can't possibly compare with this. Inches before my eyes, a silvery tiddler dodged behind my right ear. A bright orange fish dipped my wallet. A spiny lobster vamooshed up my left trouser leg. A jellyfish trailing gossamer veils - a Miss Havisham of the deep - pulsed past my nose. Finally, a school of mackerel parted to make way for a shark, which swam into my mouth. A second later, it emerged to give me a slap across the face with its tail. I swear my shoes squelched as I left my seat.

u

In my soft-hearted way, I have finally acceded to Mrs W's pleadings and allowed a video recorder to enter Weasel Villas. No, I haven't gone back on my word never to buy another after burglars successively relieved us of two of the damn things. After a six-year gap, the replacement gadget came from my credit card company's gifts-for-points scheme. I'd ignored the scheme until it was about to end. To my surprise, I discovered that I'd accumulated sufficient for a video recorder. Some 8,200 to be precise. Since the company gave one point for every pounds 10 spent, our new video recorder involved an outlay of a mere pounds 82,000. I envisage some interesting negotiations with the insurance company when the new gizmo goes the same way as the previous two.

u

It seems a strange idea for a man who is normally a teetotaller to write a book about boozing his way round Eastern Europe, but this is precisely what Vitali Vitaliev has done in his quaintly named Borders Up! (Scribner, pounds 9.99). Perhaps it was his unfamiliarity with the grape which led VV to include a weird reference to "Hugh Johnson, the American wine writer". It is less easy to explain his allegation that "the late Jeffrey Barnard used - disgracefully - to mix his vodka with lime". The great low-life specialist famously stuck to vodka and tonic. Mind you, he often added a sour look. I'm sure a certain Russian hack would have been one recipient.

Comments