In a typically British accommodation, London Transport is considering having modern driver-operated buses, but with doors that would stay open while the bus is moving. But getting rid of the 600 surviving Routemasters will deprive Londoners of much free entertainment. For generations, the capital's clippies have utilised the open platform as a travelling performance space, their divertissements as varied and as polished as anything on the professional stage.
Some essayed a Beckettian role, mired in existential gloom, refusing to stir from their dark sanctuary at the foot of the stairs. Others adopted an heroic stance, along the lines of Horatius defending the Tiber bridge against Lars Porsena and Co. Standing at the front of the platform with arms outstretched, they sternly blocked any attempt to board. "Another one be'ind," they'd grate as the bus pulled away like an impetuous mustang.
But the stars of this mobile proscenium were the comedians. The best I ever saw operated on certain obscure routes in southeast London. Some days, he would insist on all transactions being conducted in French, to the confusion of shoppers en route to Lewisham market. Often he would give a running commentary on the skill of his driver. "Did you notice that gear change? Such finesse. Such elan. Truly a master of the synchromesh is at the helm of this galleon of the highway." Amid the onslaught of comic songs and patter, you would sometimes find yourself an unwilling accomplice in a ventriloquism act, with the conductor perched, dummy-like, on your lap. When especially energised, he would hang off the back of the platform, waving through the rear window at the passengers inside. No more. Safety, while laudable in many ways, adds little to the more active enjoyments of life.
Embarrassing times at Weasel Villas. Short of actually having a mad cow in the back garden, performing some act of bovine lunacy (applying suntan cream, filling in a Lottery form, attempting to read a Josephine Hart novel), the most mortifying thing to be seen with in my part of south London is a rat. When it comes to the collective consciousness of SE21, and its caring and kindly attitude to all of God's creatures, Rattus norvegicus simply need not apply. I could talk to the local butcher for hours about the succulent quality of Haunch of Rat Marinaded in Oyster Sauce with Lemon Grass, as a flavoursome, non-fatal alternative to Rib of Beef, but I might as well save my breath. They're just not a Dulwich thing, I'm afraid, rats.
Mrs Weasel and I have had rats before. Indeed, they seem to pursue us from house to house across the years and the miles, like revenant Pied Piper fans, pretending to succumb to that fake washing-powder stuff that rodent operatives traditionally sprinkle over your lawn, then appearing in triumph, thumbing their nose and indicating, with a satirical wave of the paw, their nine-strong family of midget ratlets sleepily ensconced in one's hand-painted souvenir-of-Umbria flowerpot.
On this occasion, the relocated rat set up house under the tool shed and formed a worrying alliance with a squirrel. The squirrel would pounce on the seed-dispenser we'd hung up for the birds, wrestling it from its moorings like Nightshade the Gladiator yanking a contestant off the Hang Tough rings, then nibbling its fill on the ground and leaving the rat to roll the half-empty canister up the hill to its lair. We watched the Rat and Squirrel Mafia at work and called the council. Yes indeed, they said, we have a rat policy. Oh good, Mrs W replied, How soon can you get here? "Our policy," said the council, "is not to interfere. We tend to leave householders to get rid of vermin themselves." It was the same, she said pre-emptively, in Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham. So the old days of bowler-hatted council ratmen, with their noosed pole and air of pinched and ratty depression, are gone, leaving you standing there with a bucket, a dustpan and a profound desire to pass the buck.
Watching the rat disappearing down the garden to schmooze with some black- furred homeboy cousins (probably planning to steal my car), it occurred to me: they came from the railway line which overlooks my garden. Well, the bloody railway could have them back. So I rang up and said, "This is a Railtrack rat. Come and get it instantly." No way, said a voice, it's not our policy. "You mean," I gasped, "that I've got to find a rat remover who'll put poison down on your railway lines?" "Don't you dare," said the man. "We don't allow people to trespass on the railway." So will you do the thing with the Warfarin? "We don't like to," came the reply, "In case of an accident."
An accident? Did he mean Railtrack are going to start using "Poison on the track" as an excuse for lateness or derailment? No. By "accident" they meant that they were worried in case someone fell off the train and - in a fit of temporary derangement - started eating the pebbles beside the line. Move over, Brothers Grimm.
That's how we leave it. Nobody can de-rodent the railway line. The council wash their hands of it. There's nothing else for it, I'll have to fall back on the old expedient for driving away everything in nature. I shall play old Ginger Baker drum solos, day and night, until the little beasts decamp to Penge.
There is a gigantic corroded molar in Noto, Sicily, which, until a few days ago, was the baroque dome of the city's 18th-century cathedral. Coming in the wake of the fire at La Fenice opera house in Venice, the collapse of the dome has prompted calls that more must be done to protect the country's architectural heritage. This is all very well, except that it's utterly contrary to the long-standing (perhaps not le mot juste in the circs) tradition of allowing buildings to keel over for centuries or self-destruct before rebuilding them entirely. La Fenice, you'll recall, means "the Phoenix".
The Campanile at Pisa was already tilting in the 12th century. By the 16th, it was about 12 feet from the true. Now it's nearly 20 feet out of whack. So far, all attempts to prevent the tower succumbing to the irresistible pull of gravity have proved futile.
I could have told them that. It seems obvious to me that, the way it was constructed by a fatalistic and pragmatic people, the thing was meant to fall down sooner or later. In Bologna, there are two adjacent leaning towers - one almost twice the height of the Pisa structure - both wildly corkscrewing into the sky. They are the sole survivors of a forest of medieval skyscrapers which, one by one, crumbled to the ground.
But the greatest example of the Italians' willingness to embrace entropy is to be found in Venice. Most visitors believe that the great tower of St Mark's Basilica has survived unchanged for more than a thousand years. In fact it is a replica dating all the way back to 1912. A decade earlier, the 320-feet structure toppled into the piazza. There is a photograph which captures the moment when it disintegrated. Fortunately there was no loss of life other than a tabby cat. As Venetians remarked at the time, "The Campanile has shown himself a gentleman." TypicalReuse content