The Weasel: Small is beautiful in my guide book

Click to follow
After coming a poor second when wrestling with the monumental Times Atlas of the World last week, I was grateful that a publishing outfit called Ellipsis kindly sent me a selection of its diminutive but stylish guide books. Measuring four inches by four inches, they are about the size of a chocolate bar but less melty in the pocket. Their best-known work is a guide to London's recent architecture by Samantha Hardingham. I particularly like her remark that MI6's immodest Thameside HQ is "theatrically ominous - apt that its neighbour to the west should be the Nine Elms Cold Store". The same author has produced a companion volume called Eat London. This must be one of the most unusual guides to the capital's nosheries ever published, since Ms Hardingham is concerned with design rather than scoff. She notes, for example, that the "distillation of references" in the fixtures and fittings at Noho in Charlotte Street "becomes over-simple and is indicative of a self-referential moment". In similar vein, she remarks that "the treatment of the stairwell" at Mash in Great Portland Street "achieves the ultimate in plasticity". The same seems to apply to Mash's menu which is described as "painful to peruse (confit of duck pizza) and hard to digest". The author permits herself another rare reference to food when assessing Quo Vadis in Dean Street, where the pale grey upholstery was "a similar shade to the seared tuna on my plate".

My appetite whetted, I plunged into Art London by Martin Coomer, which does much the same job for the galleries of the metropolis. Once again, this guide is extraordinary, largely because the photographs all look virtually the same. The fact is that one white-walled interior is pretty much like another. In fact, a single snap could almost have been used for all 60 entries with no one being any the wiser. Of course, Ellipsis has not taken this economical route. At Entwhistle, 6 Cork Street W1, we're treated to a shot of the receptionist's head peeping above her white desk. The austere emptiness of the Victoria Miro Gallery, 21 Cork Street, is lent interest by a shadow of someone's head.

Mr Coomer's text concentrates on the art-works shown to their best advantage in such pristine surroundings. I am irked beyond all telling at missing the "Spectacular Chunder Field" show ("elegant stains and vomit-inducing lime-green fabric") at the Duncan Cargill Gallery in Warren Street. I also seem to have missed out on the birth of a new artistic movement, judging by the "mountain of rat casts" shown at Chapman Fine Arts, E1, and the "wax model of rat under a plastic dome" at the Richard Salmon Gallery, W8.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the most conventional of Ellipsis's guides to the capital is Gay London. Though I wouldn't by any means describe myself as an expert on this milieu, I can confirm the account of the Coleherne pub on Brompton Road as "the biggest, oldest, sleaziest leather bar in town". The description is spot-on: "Men (and they are all men) don't look casually, they stare at you, glare even." And how come that I am such an expert on this scary spot? The truth (though nobody believes a word of it) is that a decade or so ago, I felt the need for a drink before going to a dinner party in Earl's Court. I slipped into a pub without looking at the name and it turned out to be the Coleherne. After receiving the aforementioned glare, I stayed for approximately 0.0001 seconds.

I am far more familiar with another of the book's recommendations. So frequent are my visits that I'm a little surprised that I don't appear in the full-page photo devoted to this attraction. No, it is not the Backstreet Club (where even the compilers of this guide were too scared to enter) or Chariots Roman Baths. It is Paxton & Whitfield of Jermyn Street, described as "probably the second best cheese shop in London". For that matter, I'm a regular at the National Portrait Gallery, the London Museum and Selfridges, also featured in this excellent work. I never knew I led such a racy life.

I know there are more important things going on in the world that you should get stirred up about, but I found myself oddly moved by an account of a lunch. It cropped up in Lynn Barber's interview with the great painter Sir Howard Hodgkin in The Observer. Despite being a devotee of his work, she made him cry. Sir Howard's tears flowed in response to a casual sideswipe from the notoriously abrasive Ms Barber: "Why do you have to give your paintings such hideous titles?" To underline her point, she quotes a few examples: In Tangier; On the Riviera; The Green Chateau. Not the sort of thing that would make most people go ballistic, but they certainly seem to rub the Barber fur the wrong way. "Why couldn't he just title them with a date or a neutral location?" she groans. "What did he think he was doing - writing captions for Vanity Fair?" Presumably, she'd prefer a few austere numerals, the sort of thing that German car manufacturers stick on their gleaming machines. It seems an odd sort of preference for someone who makes her living from words. Certainly, it was not the right thing to say to Sir Howard. "Hodgkin by now was sobbing helplessly, with heaving shoulders... eventually he rallied enough to say: `My titles are my pictures, and the pictures are my titles.'" Of course, his dizzyingly beautiful works - comparable to Matisse in the sheer pleasure they deliver to the eye - may be abstractions to the viewer, but for him they are reflections on real events, experienced moments. The odd thing is that the titles of the works in his current show at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery (running until 15 January), which prompted Lynn Barber's piece, are far from exotic. Autumn Foliage is a swirly veil of brown, grey and tarnished silver. Moonlight is a chocolatey slab set among navy-blue dabs. Good Morning is a narrow aperture of white-gold within a roughly daubed earth-green frame. Other titles include Theatre, Small Rain, and Afternoon. Could anything be more "hideous"? Coincidentally, Lynn Barber's latest collection of interviews came out last week.

Among the subjects in Demon Barber (Penguin, pounds 8.99) is Damien Hirst. The master of formaldehyde did not shed any tears in the course of their encounter. This is possibly because Ms B did not take him to task concerning the title of his great work The Physical Impossibility Death in the Mind of Someone Living. It is, of course, a large pickled fish.

It seems strange that the Americans, so fussy about their food in many respects, are blase about GM crops, but did you know that they also wolf down large quantities of chemical "slime", a "slippery gooey stuff" made by the Dow Chemical Co? An article headlined "Slime is sublime" enlivened the grey columns of The Wall Street Journal this week. Apparently, the gunk is called Methocel, otherwise methyl-cellulose produced from wood pulp. Developed in the Thirties, it was used as a thickener in tile putty until the mid-Eighties when Dow started searching for a new profit stream. An employee called Dr Don Coffey sought other applications for Methocel. Since it is "tasteless, odourless and calorie-free", what could be better than to use the slime as a food additive? As with tile putty, it is an efficient thickener in sauces and gravies. The Wall Street Journal assures readers: "Though chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, the end product is all natural wood cellulose." What could be more yummy? Nevertheless, it was an uphill struggle for Dr Coffey, who met "a wall of scepticism" from manufacturers. To win over the food industry, he explained: "You need to be able to help them figure out why the cheese sauce is lumpy." His sales pitch must have been persuasive, because Dow's slime is now used in over 400 foods (usually listed as "vegetable gums"). Thanks to the perverse appetite of the American nation, it has become the premier product in Dow's speciality chemicals and plastics portfolio.

"Without it," said one food manufacturer, "you'd have something that was either too soft or too hard or too mushy." Aside from overcoming the danger of food having a discernible texture, Methocel is also used for cleaning art-works, in shampoo and pills. It also took the title role in the recent remake of "The Blob".

It hardly need be added that no cook worth his salt on this side of the Atlantic would dream of using Methocel. At least, so I thought, until I read Dr Coffey's final statement about the limitless applications for his precious slime: "You can rub it in your hair and make your hair stand up." At last, the secret of the uniquely gruesome Gary Rhodes is out.

When a cat from down the street started tucking into our moggies' grub, I felt obliged to bring the intruder into close proximity with my foot. Mrs W objected to this manner of ejection: "You wouldn't like to be booted out."

"Well, I don't go round to people's houses demanding food."

"Excuse me," she scoffed. "How often times have I seen you sitting at other people's tables and heard you demanding `What are we going to eat?' and `When's it coming?' eh?"

Hmm. If you happen to see a spectacled face coming through your cat-flap, followed by 6ft 4in of human male, I'd be grateful if you didn't apply the boot.