The Weasel: The demise of my priceless mink-coloured bath

The Weasel:
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The Independent Culture
In Alan Bennett's sublime public-school comedy Forty Years On, a small joke always gets a big laugh. It occurs during a slide show, when a juvenile projectionist shows one of the images upside-down. "Some of us are a little old to stand on our heads, Crabtree," barks the headmaster. This cameo flew into my mind the other evening at Waterstone's bookshop in Hampstead when Jonathan Miller, who was, of course, one of Alan Bennett's cohorts in Beyond the Fringe, encountered a spot of trouble while showing slides from his new book of photos, Nowhere in Particular (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 16.99).

"That's a textured door some place," he said, as a picture of scarred blue planks flashed on the screen. "Actually, it should be the other way round. Doesn't matter. There's no reason that it needs to be oriented in any particular direction."

Next to appear was a wrinkled bit of something red. "Oh, that's very badly reproduced," groaned the great polymath. "It's actually a tarpaulin."

"This is the most scenic picture I've got," he announced over the next unfathomable image. His audience chortled. "It's a broken window and a frameless mirror in upstate New York."

He wasn't very happy with the next slide, which was of a crushed cardboard box. "This is the wrong way round. Can we turn it over? I got very interested in rubbish. Superbly negligible." Next came a miscellaneous stack of doors and lumps of plywood. "Again, this is the wrong way round. It doesn't matter. I found them in an abandoned car park."

Successive images included "a dirty window in Camden Town", "a Budweiser box tramped into a gutter in the Bowery", "a piece of corrugated rubbish" and some painted hardboard. Dr Miller opined that "this was the only thing worth looking at in Monte Carlo - an utterly unpleasant, ghastly place - the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean."

"That's a piece of barn," he remarked, as a fragment of corrugated iron flashed on the screen. "And this is another piece of corrugated rubbish which I find very interesting. It's in Tel Aviv, actually. I was directing an opera there. I can't remember where this torn poster is from, but it's a most wonderful piece of figurative art. This is a bit of rusty corrugation from somewhere exotic. Oh yes, Shoreditch."

Though they sound mundane, Dr Miller's images of the "tiny configurations seen from the corner of the eye" are rather beautiful. "The only way I contributed," he said modestly, "was to cut off things around them." Some are pleasing abstractions, others reveal the influence of pop art. A series of almost obliterated white numerals could be by Jasper Johns, the tattered tarpaulins and packaging are reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg and the sculptures shrouded in plastic are a clear homage to Christo.

When a publisher wanted to reproduce his 30-year trawl of snaps in book form, Dr Miller was faced by an unfamiliar problem. For once, our most loquacious intellectual was lost for words. "The publisher asked, what did they signify?" he said. "I couldn't think of a single thing to say."

I'm pleased to report that the great man has recovered from this attack of taciturnity. Dr Miller's address to the literati of Hampstead touched on the following topics: William James's notion of feedback from the muscles; Holst's experiment of reaffirmation ("you inject Indian arrow-poison behind the eyeball"); the technique of electro-retinography; Constable's liking for "rotten banks and slimy posts"; Mathew Brady's photographs of the American Civil War; a character in ITMA who approached Tommy Handley with dirty postcards ("Very grimy, oh blimey"); Belloc's photos of whores in New Orleans; Elizabeth Franklin's research into phonemes; Erving Goffman's groundbreaking work on sub-lexical expressions; Jane Gibson's theory of affordances about our perception of the visual world; Tatlin and the Russian formalists; and "the buried Mondrian within Vermeer".

Our hero ended his discourse by saying he had grown "extremely bored with opera". Instead, he was getting "very interested in filthy, abandoned shop windows". In fact, he had installed a fine example of the genre in his kitchen. Very grimy, oh blimey.

Frequently referred to in this column, the long-anticipated moment finally arrived at 8am last Monday morning, when a small regiment of plumbers, plasterers and joiners arrived to install a new bathroom in Weasel Villas. First the old fittings had to go. "Cast-iron bath, that is. Cost you a small fortune to buy one today," said Bob, the guv'nor, as he took aim with a sledgehammer and whammed it into 10 trillion bits. He took a squint at one of the chunks. "Now that colour is your mink." "He's right," declared a deeply impressed Mrs W.

"Late Sixties, your mink was very big," Bob continued. "There was also your Sorrento blue, your Sun King, which was a kind of yellow, and your burgundy. That was the most expensive because it contained gold filings. By the Seventies, the colours had changed to blue, primrose, pink and, of course, your avocado. By the mid-Eighties, it was your Indian ivory and your champagne. Now, it's all white. The last 25 bathroom suites I've installed have been all white. Course, you could have had your bath repainted, but it's a bit late now."

No, we couldn't, because we've taken the plunge and gone for a shower. Almost all our friends have clucked at this rash act. "Couldn't live without my bath," they tut, particularly the females. Can't see it myself. In my experience, the water turns icy as soon as you're in. Moreover, I've never mastered the tricky art of reading in the bath - though I must admit that my reading of Sebastian Junger's stirring bestseller The Perfect Storm gained an additional vividness when the pages suddenly became saturated.

Choosing a shower sounds simple, but it isn't. When she came up with her slippery maxim "a rose is a rose is a rose", Gertrude Stein can't have surveyed the bewildering range of showerheads displayed at CP Hart, London's supplier of sanitary ware to the gentry. We'd just got it sorted out, when a know-all crony asserted: "Get a power-shower or you'll regret it for every minute of your lives." The resulting pump was installed this morning, complete with Surrey and Essex flanges, you'll be pleased to learn.

The week has gone more or less without incident, unless you count the time when ferocious hammering in our first-floor bathroom prompted the partial disintegration of the kitchen ceiling and a deluge of Edwardian plaster descended on some marlin steaks I was about to pop under the grill. (The resulting fishcakes earned high praise from Mrs W for their interesting flavour.) But it has been a slightly challenging period since, as well as having no bath, we've had no lavatory for the past five days. A friend two doors away has kindly allowed us free use of her facilities, but there remains the problem of the nocturnal call. In her prudish way, Mrs W has issued a blanket ban on my giving details. However, I might remark that while adding my widow's mite to a downpour in our back garden at 3am one morning, I was forcibly reminded of just how invigorating a cold shower can be.

It's called A Bookshop Idyll. You know it, don't you? Poem by Kingsley Amis from the early Sixties. Poignant reflections on the human heart prompted by the stingy amount of space given to poetry in a bookshop. I forget exactly how it goes, something about poetry being squeezed in next to the gardening books. In my ironic way, I thought it was just the thing to look up in the new Piccadilly branch of Waterstone's which occupies the former Simpson's building. Largest bookshop in Europe. Seven floors of the damn things.

After a reviving cappuccino in the basement (during the Simpson's regime, it housed a hairdressing salon of Geo F Trumper which once inflicted a Prince Chas-style crop on me), I started my assault on this Borgesian literary maze. You encounter the gardening section on the third floor. It is no shrinking violet. Thirteen four-shelf bookcases packed with irresistible titles ranging from The Gardener's Book of Pests and Diseases (pounds 22.99) to The Tool Book: A Celebration of Good and Honest Gardening Tools (pounds 25) - the section on trowels appeared to be particularly thorough. No sign of poetry, though.

This turned out to be on the fifth floor. Verse-lovers who find themselves enervated by the climb (the lifts were more efficient during the Simpson's era) may care to restore their flagging spirits at a handily placed bar, which was doing a roaring trade the other evening. Unlike the anorexic selection in the Amis poem, no fewer than 12 seven-shelf bookcases were crammed with rhyme and vers libre, ranging from An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry to Ginsberg's Howl.

I doubt, however, if old Kingers would have been much bucked - there wasn't a single volume by him on the shelves. Similarly, the humour section (a measly five bookcases) was bereft of my heroes Perleman and Thurber. As so often happens in life, Waterstone's Piccadilly is packed with everything except what you want.

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