Those disturbed souls who so identify with the railway life that they desire to acquire the accoutrements may obtain BR caps for pounds 5 and whistles for pounds 4.50

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why all the fuss about the great British Rail sell-off? It's been going on for years. I realised this when I saw signs from two of my local stations, West Dulwich and Beckenham Junction, lending an exotic touch to the restaurant of Universal Studios in Los Angeles. It turns out that BR has been raking in a handsome income from its ephemera shop, Collector's Corner, located near Euston Station, since 1969. Choo-choo buffs are willing to pay such extortionate prices for almost any particle of railway junk that I'm somewhat surprised our car-besotted government hasn't sawn up the whole network and flogged it off by the foot.

A waiting room clock in a wooden case will set you back pounds 800, while a locomotive name-plate ("Royal County of Berkshire" is currently available) commands no less than pounds 1,100. But there are items to suit more modest means, such as the notice declaring ladies waiting room for pounds 25. Those disturbed souls who so identify with the railway life that they desire to acquire the accoutrements may obtain BR caps for pounds 5 and whistles for pounds 4.50. (In the course of my visit, one of the latter was sold to a gent who gave the bizarre explanation: "It's for a friend - he broke his the other day.") A scarcely-used luggage trolley seems a snip for pounds 50 - considering the complete absence of porters on railway platforms for many years it is unsurprising that this item is surplus to requirements - but I admit that it's hard to imagine even the most insanely dedicated rail fan being tempted by an extremely battered metal salver (attributed to GWR Hotels) for pounds 8. A carriage sticker bearing the legend reserved for schoolgirls struck me as offering far better value at 25p.

Some unexceptional sugar basins, given the dubious provenance "believed to have been used on the Royal Train", appeared overpriced at pounds 3 apiece. But even I was sorely tempted by some large soup bowls, decorated with the insignia of the "Railway Convalescent Homes", on sale for the same price. I came to my senses, however, when I realised that the probable reaction of Mrs W might make these utensils only too appropriate.

The imminent break-up of British Rail means that the future of Collector's Corner is far from assured, so it may seem strange that the shop sells railway shares. Admittedly, the tattered certificates are for the long- extinct Fishguard & Rosslare Railways and Harbours Company and date from early this century - but, as BR continues its relentless journey towards atomisation, at pounds 2 each they may just prove a wise investment.

Like the Weasel family, whose vacations are generally accompanied by typhoons and hurricanoes, Emperor Napoleon I was unlucky with the weather. Only last week, The Geographical Magazine revealed that the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia, may have been the deciding factor in his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815. The ash ejected in the eruption - one of the biggest ever known - caused heavy worldwide rainfall which bogged down Boney's 72,000-strong army. "Tsk, just my luck," the diminutive Corsican must have tutted, as he glared at the deluge which had its origins halfway round the world.

Doubtless, this unseasonal inclemency prompted memories of the nasty frost which was such an inconvenience during his retreat from Moscow three years earlier. Like the rains preceding Waterloo, this event was not as straightforward as it may first appear. I remember being told about it at school - curiously, during a chemistry lesson. Our science master explained that the real reason for the failure of Bonaparte's Russian adventure was that the buttons on French uniforms were made from pure tin. At very low temperatures, the molecular structure of the metal changes. In effect, the buttons disintegrate. "That's why Napoleon made his famous remark about an army marching on his stomach," he quipped, dispatching a nubbin of chalk which flew like a heat-seeking missile to rouse the slumbering Weasel. "Because their trousers wouldn't stay up."

I wonder how often the trustees of the Victoria & Albert Museum take a stroll round the outlying regions of their sprawling Cromwell Road empire? Obviously, they feel a pressing need to have more space - hence the V&A's proposed pounds 43 million extension. Requiring a hand- out of pounds 30 million from the National Lottery, the adventurous design resembles a pile of children's building blocks frozen in mid-tumble. But, having recently slogged my way round this peculiar institution, I can't help thinking that a cheaper solution might lie in a little reorganisation.

After forking out a pounds 4.50 "voluntary" entrance charge, I found the V&A's much-praised William Morris exhibition doing excellent business. But the same cannot be said for its massive collection of ceramics located in 13 huge galleries (several of them more than 100 feet long) on the second floor. It must be one of the least-visited exhibition areas of any major British museum. I found room after room with only one other person in it. In fact, it was the same person - a museum attendant who was pursuing me, after observing my solitary progress between cabinets crammed with Ming and Meissen, with understandable suspicion.

Eventually, I came across a couple of middle-aged women peering at a shelf of 19th-century kitsch called Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre. "My mother had two ornaments that she used to call lustreware," one of them remarked dubiously, "but they weren't like this." In another room, I was surprised to encounter about a dozen immaculate young French women being lectured on English porcelain. "Staffordshire was the real centre of lead-glazed earthenware," their tutor droned. Her elegant students unsuccessfully tried to stifle yawns.

In fact, a personal tutor is something of a necessity if you happen to lack an in-depth knowledge of antique ceramics, because not a word of elucidation is given in any of these galleries, other than a terse description typed on a tiny card in front of each piece - though I must admit that I rather liked the label attached to a small display of colourful shards in the Islamic room: "Fragments found in digging the new post office in Constantinople. Byzantine 9th-14th century."

Obviously, this is a world-class collection of artefacts, but no attempt has been made to unlock its interest for the general public. The result is an unbelievable accumulation of riches displayed in utterly unpopulated rooms - rather like the aftermath of a neutron bomb, which destroys all life while leaving property intact. You might reasonably think that this treasure trove will be more effectively displayed in the V&A's new extension. 'Fraid not. The seven-storey structure is intended for special exhibitions, together with a restaurant and a cafe. Still, I know where they can find some very nice crockery.

Why this sudden craze for zoomorphic disguise? In the past week, I have been induced to sample lager by a "kangaroo", had a leaflet for a party shop given me by a tatty "lion", and been urged to make a charitable donation by a pair dressed respectively as a tiger and a malignant cell. I also read of "lobsters" from the Crustacean Liberation Front picketing restaurants which keep these expensive fruits de mer alive in tanks. A vegetable variation was recently adopted by the French bank robber who was disguised as an aubergine. Obviously the whole thing is getting out of hand. I think the idea of one species adopting the persona of another is utterly ridiculous - and so does Mrs Weasel