The Weasel: Thanks, Tony, it's just what I've always wanted

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The Independent Culture
I could be wrong, but I do not get the impression that many readers are annoyed that this column has been (virtually) a Dome-free zone. Three years ago, I wrote that a model of this Ozymandian structure, which I came across in Greenwich Borough Hall, reminded me of a dustbin lid - and that's been it. Since then, my occasional efforts to see inside the real thing have not been marked by success.

All that changed the other day when a friend showed me a mysterious invitation she had received from the Design Council. It concerned a launch of selected "Millennium Products", where the main speaker was to be our great and glorious Prime Minister. "For security reasons, we are unable to reveal the location," read the invite. "But we can tell you that access is by river only and you will be travelling to a stunning, new London venue by boat." Coo-er! Now where that could possibly be?

After wangling a press invitation from the Design Council, I joined a pack of newshounds on a coach which, sure enough, nosed its way to east Greenwich. However, the stricture about "access by river only" proved to be correct. Our driver tried three times to get near the Dome. On his first attempt, we nearly landed up in the Thames. Second go, our way was blocked by a massive crane. On the third try, we ended up at a gate where a security guard steadfastly refused to let the bus through. Under the stern gaze of this modern Horatius, the gaggle of snappers and scribblers staggered the last 200 yards on foot.

In fact, the "stunning new London venue" turned out not to be the Dome, but a nearby structure called Skyscape (sponsorship from Sky TV). A shed- like cinema, it is some way from being the most stunning venue that I've ever seen. Nor was I impressed by the outside loos, where the urinals consisted of eight tiny steel basins. Even on this preview day, the defective aim of some users was apparent. What it will be like when the millions arrive - I imagine a good half will be male - doesn't bear thinking about.

This is exactly the sort of carping that was slammed by Tony Blair in his address to the hundreds of designers and entrepreneurs whose products have been selected to bear the Millennium logo. The great man arrived somewhat late after a brisk tour of the pounds 758m Dome, following his much- photographed journey on the Jubilee Line. After his trademark greeting ("Hi!"), the Prime Minister was given demonstrations of a pyrotechnic device for disposing of land mines ("Fantastic. Well done, you"), a technique for marking burglars with a immovable liquid that acts as a "bar code" linking them with a particular robbery ("Fantastic. Well done") and the fearsomely toothed head of a pterosaur that had a starring role in the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs ("Fantastic"). Despite the pleas of the lensmen, Mr Blair refused to put his head between the creature's 4ft jaws.

"It ate fish," chipped in a BBC man.

"I'm very pleased to hear that," responded the PM.

After briefly praising his audience, Mr Blair turned to a topic that was obviously a greater concern for him than the 1,012 Millennium Products, including Viagra and the Teletubbies. "I hope you'll be able to see the Dome afterwards for a few minutes," he urged. "I've seen it and it works." Though the project "had to see off cynics who despise everything new," he insisted that "the Dome works astonishingly well, as you can see when walking into it... critical journalists have had to admit they're converted... literally the greatest show on earth."

When this steamy peroration ended, I joined the throng of innovators who surged for a gander at the PM's pride and joy. We got to within 50 yards of the Dome when our progress was blocked by a line of anorak-clad security guards.

"Not beyond here, please," barked the commandant of the thin yellow line.

"Mr Blair said we could go in," pleaded one of the guests, but it was no good. We had to settle for a close-up view of the outside. As a result of this reappraisal, I am forced to admit that the Prime Minister is right. This cynical journalist has changed his mind. The Dome is not really like a dustbin lid. More like one of those grapefruits spiked with bits of cheese on cocktail sticks.

Nonsense! Twaddle! Pure apple sauce! It is clear to anyone with half an eye that it was not the boom in cyber-shopping that was responsible the unusually quiet run-up to Christmas this year. The real reason is obvious. Wise shoppers have been keeping their purses clamped tight and their wallets in mothballs until the Weasel's annual Pick of the Prezzies - the stress-free service that takes the resent out of present and the cross out of Xmas - is unveiled. As in previous years, my highly-paid legion of researchers (Mrs W) has been burning the midnight oil in order to fillet the best gift ideas from a veritable Everest of publications. But what am I doing gassing away, when Santa's stopwatch is ticking? Let's get at the gew-gaws!

For anyone who fancies themselves as the new Delia, what could be better than The Times Magazine's suggestion of kitchen scales from Theo Fennell? Weighing quantities up to 7lbs, they cost pounds 15,000. What? A bit pricey? Sorry, forgot to mention that they're made from sterling silver. Thinking on similar lines is Vogue, which recommends a silver yo-yo (pounds 75). Guardian Weekend readers, meanwhile, will doubtless have found themselves irresistibly attracted to its suggestion of a magnetic cricket ball (pounds 19.99). It is hard to picture the joy with which another Guardian gift will be greeted: a can of cold Japanese tea (65p).

Time Out's present ideas are ideally suited to its young, penurious readership: the Sony Albo, "the world's first interactive robotic pet" (pounds 1,600) and the Pioneer Plasma TV (pounds 12,000). At the other end of the demographic curve, The Oldie feels that someone's life will be incomplete without a travelling night-light holder (pounds 19.99), described as "utterly pointless but rather beautiful". The FT's How To Spend It magazine advocates a set of six slate coasters (pounds 19.95), noting a special advantage at the dinner table: "They can be written on with chalk."

On the home front, the ever-tasteful Elle Decoration suggests a light bulb in the shape of a crucifix (pounds 4.95), while House & Garden eggs its readers into snapping up a small, wobbly vase made of black rubber (pounds 35.95). The "For Him" gift page in Decor magazine insists that no bachelor pad will be complete without a 1-metre-diameter "real coffee table" (a layer of beans below the glass top) for just pounds 675. From the dizzy, fun-packed pages of Living etc comes the thrilling suggestion of an enamel colander (pounds 18). And for that someone special in your life, what could be more romantic than a stainless-steel toilet brush (pounds 18)? Finally, in the great Pick- of-the-Prezzies tradition, we end up at The Independent, which encourages a revival of the epistolary habit with "dung writing paper" (pounds 7.50).

Call me a soppy old sausage, but when I start bellowing carols in church, I get a feeling right here in the pit of my stomach. This is caused by a short, sharp jab from Mrs W's elbow, as she hisses at me to pipe down. Though the world is denied my caterwauling, I've been happily singing along in my head to the new Penguin Book of Carols (pounds 7.99). The selection includes challenging contemporary works - I must admit that "Mary, Blessed Teenage Mother" is new to me - but all the lachrymose old faithfuls are here as well.

Ian Bradley, who edited this Christmas collation, subjects the songs that we usually sing on alcohol-fuelled autopilot to an enjoyable scrutiny. On the topic of "I Saw Three Ships", he wonders why three vessels were required to transport "My Saviour Christ and his lady"? Who is she, anyway? And how on earth was it that "they sailed into Bethlehem"? Though located in a region known as the West Bank, Bethlehem is in fact a hilltop community in the middle of a desert.

Dr Bradley notes that the original Wenceslas (actually called Vaclav) was a duke not a king, who ruled from 925 to 929, when he was murdered by his brother. The story of the song is "entirely fanciful" and full of incongruities. Why on earth should King Wenceslas and his wimp of a page go miles for pine logs when the poor man lived "right against the forest fence"? Then there is the funny business of Wenceslas's claim that his snowy footprints, if the page is careful to tread in them, will "freeze thy blood less coldly". A bit like Baked Alaska, as one sceptic remarked.

"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" was not only adapted by schoolchildren during the abdication crisis ("Mrs Simpson's pinched our king"), but also suffered the indignity of being adapted as an advertising jingle ("Beecham's pills are quite the thing"). I was intrigued to learn that "While Shepherds Watched" was originally sung to the tune of "On Ilkley Moor Baht`at". (All together now!) The words were probably written by poet laureate Nahum Tate, who also supplied a happy ending for King Lear before hitting the bottle and dying in a debtors' prison in 1715.

Another unlikely carol writer is Joseph Mohr, an Austrian curate who came in for some fierce criticism from his ecclesiastical superior: "He gambles and drinks at night, sings unwholesome songs and jokes with members of the opposite sex."

And what all-time favourite was inspired by this carousing? Yep, you guessed it - "Silent Night".

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