The Weasel: Surreal treats - and the ministerial marinade

Click to follow
In his fine book on surrealist Paris, George Melly laments the paucity of surreal sights in London. However, he cites one notable exception that travellers can enjoy on the rail approach to Victoria station. Look out on the left-hand side after crossing the Thames and you'll see a handsome Italianate building and campanile on Chelsea Embankment. Instead of the offices, art gallery or restaurant which you would normally expect to occupy such a grand edifice, there are several giant mechanisms of inexplicable function. The enigmatic effect is akin to a Max Ernst collage.

Thanks to the excellent London Open House scheme, which legitimised nosey- parkering in 450 buildings last weekend, I was able to probe this Thameside mystery. Since his humour tends towards the cloacal, it's a shame Mr Melly didn't pop along for a sniff round the Western Pumping Station. An employee of Thames Water described the function of the plant with a pleasing lack of euphemism. "It comes in as shit and we pump it out as shit. Mind you, it's good quality shit from Chelsea, Fulham and Hammersmith." I hope the citizens of Beckton in the East End, where the sewerage is eventually treated, are duely grateful for this generous donation from the wealthy folks upstream.

The 1876 plant drew an appreciative crowd of visitors. Devotees of Victorian engineering, a manic glitter in their eyes, rattled off rolls of film as the tappets on a mammoth diesel engine hopped up and down in a mechanical ballet. As a special treat, a chap from Thames Water heaved the cover off a sewer pipe. "Now, this is what you lot produce every day," he announced in a sergeant-major bellow. Everyone clustered round for a peep into the foetid depths. "You can't see anything floating, can you? That's because they lie flat on the bottom like submarines."

Following his injunction to "wander round and have a good time", we were surprised to discover a substantial four-bedroom house in the shadow of the 170-ft campanile (actually a sewer vent). If it were only 50 yards to the west or east, it would be worth perhaps pounds 2m, maybe more, since it overlooks a large pool stocked with perch, tench and bream. But the official residence of the plant superintendent is now empty, though well- nourished cabbages and carrots still grow in the weed-clogged garden. By next year, the pumping station will be equally empty. Electric pumps are due to replace the diesel monsters loved by Mr Melly, so Thames Water is planning to de-man the plant.

Following the Open House trail south of the river, we found another surreal treat. Once again, it was an impressive Victorian building containing a rather daunting mechanism. Passing under the motto "Facts Not Opinions", we entered Kirkaldy's Testing and Experimenting Works in Southwark Street. It was built to house a 47ft "all-purpose testing machine", designed by a Victorian patriarch called David Kirkaldy. With an engineer's eloquence, he described its functions as "pulling, crushing, bending, twisting, shearing, punching, bulging, buckling, collapsing or bursting." Sounds fun, eh? This titanic bludgeon operated commercially for a century until 1974. Since then, it has been run as a museum.

Again, a bevy of glinty-eyed engineers hovered in attendance. There was much muttering about "calibration" and "1,000 psi". "Do you still test to destruction?" I asked one of the volunteer boffins who keep the machine up to snuff. "Yes, absolutely," he enthused. "The tests go off with a bit of a bang. You'll see lots of broken bits all around." "This a technical place," admitted Denis Smith, who found the machine lurking behind grimy windows in 1974. "But it's very popular. There's a destructive streak in everyone." Inexplicably, Mrs Weasel did not seem too distressed that no tests were due to take place that day.

By this stage of our Open House explorations, my spouse was freely expressing her view that London had an excess of surrealism avant la lettre, so we switched to modern architecture. Our first stop was in Camberwell, where we popped into an erstwhile button factory that had been converted into the open-plan home and practice of an architectural couple. It looked divine, but the "crunchy" nature of the district caused a few problems during the alterations. "It took a little longer than we planned because of invasions by burglars," explained Selina Eger.

After clanking up the industrial metal stairs, we emerged into a kitchen and roof garden ("Very nice," salivated Mrs W) with a vista of Victorian spires and office blocks. "God and mammon," observed our hostess. Mrs Eger was particularly proud of her staircase balustrades made from the corrugated plastic customarily used for greenhouse roofing. "My husband argued against it," she remarked, "but I won."

Afterwards, we whizzed along to another architectural studio in Battersea. Responsible for such modest projects as Stansted Airport, the refurbished Reichstag, the new Canary Wharf tube station, not to mention a proposed Volcano Theme Park in California, Foster & Associates operates from a single room - though you can forget any idea of an artist's garret. This atelier happens to be a great, airy space 60 metres long by 24 metres wide. Like his fellow architects in Camberwell, Sir Norman literally lives above the shop. He occupies the penthouse of a block built over the studio. Kate Bush and Christine McVie are his stellar neighbours.

Seen through the wall of plate-glass, the Thames was elegant, stylish and grey, as if it too had been designed by Sir Norman and his chums. In the vast studio, screen-savers on the seemingly infinite rows of VDUs flashed up images of Foster buildings. So peaceful and spacious, I remarked to our architect guide. "You should see it on Monday morning when we've got 470 people in here," he replied.

Under the high ceiling hung odd circles of material. "A new design of loudspeaker," explained our guide. Envisaging all these top-flight creative types beavering away to the strains of Radio Two, I asked what these fancy- pants tannoys were used for. "Oh announcements," our guide replied. " `It's Norman's birthday, please come for a drink.' That sort of thing."

In a mezzanine area, we saw models of structures currently being planned by Foster & Associates. A colossal glass pine cone turned out to be a 40-floor City HQ for an insurance company. An elongated, tilted bubble was the 10-floor home for the Greater London Authority, proposed for a site near Tower Bridge. Red Ken, Shifty Jeff or whoever will rule the roost from the 8th Floor. Scattered here and there on the mezzanine were examples of a Foster product you can have in your own home: a steel and glass table (retail price: pounds 2,491). Glancing at the tangle of computer spaghetti visible through the glass top, one of the visitors remarked: "I see they haven't solved the wiring problem yet."

And now (roll of drums, clash of cymbals), a rare political scoop in the Weasel column. My world exclusive comes from the Hon Richard Court. Never heard of the chap? Huh! He just happens to govern a patch of land the size of India. A politician in the clear-eyed, clean-cut, square-jawed style, the Hon Richard is Premier of Western Australia. I ran into him in Selfridges the other evening. He was there for the launch of "The Land of Plenty", a promotion of grub and grog from his prodigious state.

As usual, I arrived somewhat late for the event. I had my first encounter with the exotic antipodes in the fragrant expanse of the perfume hall, which was completely empty apart from an aboriginal dancer clutching a didgeridoo. Up in the store's restaurant, a drone of speechifying was in progress. I entertained myself by examining a tempting display of Western Australian seafood on a dripping bed of ice. Flanked by dismembered crayfish, lobster, scallops the size of dinner plates and a striking scaly fish called a barramundi, the prize item was an unusual electric-blue crustacean. "Only three of those in this country," whispered a Selfridges high-flier. I picked it up and was somewhat surprised when this fruit de mer suddenly snapped its azure claws, elegant as a supermodel's talons, in my direction.

"That's a freshwater marron," Mr Court later explained. "My brother Ken farms them." It seems that most marrons are brown. Only one in 800 is blue. "Tell you what," the Premier continued. "Would the readers of The Independent like my special shellfish marinade recipe? You can use it on marron, lobster, crayfish, yabbies (a kind of Aussie langoustine)..." With that, he took my notebook and started scribbling: "Squeeze orange, lemon. Grate ginger. Two tablespoons honey. Melted butter."

How much butter?, I asked. "Oh, a decent dob," came the reply. (I must admit that the measure is new to me.) "Mix everything together and use as a marinade or brush on at the barbie."

When Mr Court was snaffled by another hack, I went back to staring at my piscine pals. A few minutes later, I felt a tap on the shoulder. "I forgot the shallots," said the Premier of Western Australia. "Just a few, chopped up finely." On the following day, I tried out the ministerial marinade on a much-prized gift of crayfish, fresh in from Perth. The result was simply fabulous. I don't know what party Mr Court represents, but if I lived in Western Australia, he'd certainly get my vote. Unless I were a marron or yabby, of course.