War, catastrophe and a bottle of Tabasco

The Weasel
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The Independent Culture
Scarborough's Peasholm Park is an unlikely venue for 80 years of naval warfare. I was greeted by the surreal sight of a family of four manoeuvring a swan-shaped pedalo under a Japanese bridge. "Coom on, we've to be out in two minutes," the mother urged her frantically pedalling spouse. Undaunted by a brief downpour, a steady stream of holidaymakers headed for the ornamental lake. Since 1927, this idyllic spot has been disrupted by the Battle of Peasholm, in which a downsized Royal Navy triumphs over an unnamed foe at 3.30pm on three days a week from June to September.

"We get an audience of 3-4,000 on a good day," said Kevin Barrand, Scarborough Council's Resort Officer. "Since the Second World War, it has been loosely based on the Battle of the River Plate. The enemy used to be identified as the Germans, but when Scarborough began advertising itself as a holiday destination in Europe about 15 years ago, they just become `the enemy'."

Away from public gaze, nine vessels, each around 20ft in length, were being prepared for battle. "Seven of the ships are manned," explained Mr Barrand, a well-upholstered chap with an appealing line in droll lugubriousness. "The captains have to be fairly compact. The battle loses something in credibility when the superstructure turns with the captain's head."

A few years ago, spectators had a rare sighting of one of the occupants when an explosion accidentally dislodged the hull of his craft. "He leapt about 14ft in the air", said my guide. "Gave the game away a bit."

Richard Thompson, who manages the conflict, had been installing smoke bombs and explosive charges from 6am that morning. "Bits of the battle are very good - when we get it right," he said. I noticed that the enemy battleship was extensively pock-marked with the wounds of battles. "Formerly the Admiral Graf Spee," said Mr Thompson. "Now it's called the Robert Eaves." It must be a somewhat ambiguous tribute for Mr Eaves, a retired superintendent of Peasholm Park.

Across the lake came a rowing boat containing several young men in their early-twenties. They were the captains. "One, two, three, four, five..." counted Mr Thompson. "Where's the other two?"

As the missing mariners hove into view, Mr Barrand and I joined the ranks of spectators. An organ tootled: "Yellow bird, up high in banana tree..." "You'll notice how the music is working everybody into a frenzy of indifference," observed my guide.

Over the loudspeakers, a commentator promised "lots of fun and a jolly good battle". At an early stage in the ensuing conflict, flames flickered on the deck of the Robert Eaves. "Oh, the captain will be all right," Mr Barrand assured me. "He's very well protected. Well, quite well protected. We haven't lost a man yet."

"The submarine will be firing on the SS British Pride - I think we should give it a rather large boo!" urged the commentator. "Boo!" hooted the audience.

"The sub is built around a domestic immersion heater tank," noted Mr Barrand. He then chorused the words of the commentator, which were evidently not unfamiliar to him: "There go the torpedoes streaking through the water... Can you see them?" The answer had to be in the negative, since the torpedoes didn't exist. Nevertheless, several watery explosions took place and the smitten vessel keeled over.

I slightly lost the plot during the subsequent five minutes of swirling black smoke and shell bursts. Bombers wobbled down on wires over the circling fleet. "Thanks to the combined efforts of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, the enemy installation is now in British hands," the commentator trumpeted. Sure enough, a Union Flag fluttered over a teensy harbour. The organist played a snatch of the National Anthem, rapidly followed by "You are my sunshine". A trio of ducks pursued the departing convoy. "If they were in scale," mused Mr Barrand, "those ducks would be 22ft high."

The Weasel rarely displays much in the way of machismo, but there are two exceptions to this general rule: my deep-rooted belief that I can repair electrical faults (a delusion that occasionally leads to life-threatening mishaps) and my fondness for Tabasco. The other day, when I produced an almost-empty bottle of this fiery American condiment, a pal remarked that it would have been a lifetime's supply for him.

Ha! What a milquetoast! I should explain that the bottle in question was not one of those dinky tiddlers that most people acquire for an occasional Bloody Mary. In my hairy-chested way, I make a point of procuring what are known as chef-size bottles, six times as large as the standard size (you can get these jeroboams from Harvey Nicks). Pure testosterone. The chef-size doesn't work out much cheaper, but it certainly puts the fear of God into anyone who catches me splatting it over the jambalaya they'll shortly be tucking into.

Shockingly, I find I'm taken to task for this gung-ho application by none other than the manufacturer of Tabasco. In a recipe leaflet entitled What's Hot, the McIlhenny Co of Avery Island, Louisiana, points out that an ordinary-sized bottle contains 720 drops, which should not be squirted out ad lib if you're essaying the recipes. "Now we're counting drops," the leaflet sternly admonishes. "If you're shaking Tabasco instead of measuring, you're on your own." And by counting, they mean just what they say. Cheeky Cheese Wafers is not too bad with a mere 15 drops but Zippy Cola Marinade begins to cause problems with 45 drops. However, the Tabasco addict has only just started totting. Hot-N-Spicy Chicken Wings demands 60 drops, while Quick and Sassy Bayou Sauce calls for 90 globules to be painstakingly enumerated. Demanding no fewer than 180 drops, the production of Hot Grilled Trout is as much about mathematics as cooking.

A further problem is that it takes an age for an unassisted drop to emerge from a Tabasco bottle. A slight tap on the heel of the bottle helps no end in coaxing out the reluctant blobs, but when does a tap become a splat? Admittedly, the leaflet also offers measurements in fractions of a teaspoon - but these are notoriously variable. In order to tackle this peppery predicament, I contacted Tabasco's publicity agency in Britain. Though I've long been been partial to the celebrated elixir, I said, but, nudge, nudge, I've never been to Avery Island, which happens to be 150 miles west of New Orleans. This heavy hint failed to elicit any air tickets, but I received a host of invaluable gen about the sauce (did you know that Howard Carter had a bottle with him when he discovered King Tut, and Hillary took some to Everest?), along with The Tabasco Cookbook.

I was also promised a new chef-size bottle of the stuff. Sadly, when I received the parcel, there was an ominous trickle of red juice and the tell-tale tinkle of broken glass. When I opened it, the air filled with eye-watering fumes - a pungent combination of oak barrels, fermented peppers and vinegar. Though I may never have been to the Tabasco factory, at least I know what it smells like. You may wish to reproduce the effect yourself. By my calculation, it requires exactly 2,520 drops.

According to the Scarborough Evening News, a terrible curse has afflicted The Futurist Theatre, the resort's premier entertainment venue. First, Paul Chuckle of the Chuckle Brothers was injured on stage last Sunday. Then a member of the Bandit Beatles was smitten by laryngitis, prompting the cancellation of their show on the following night. Finally - oh, woe and calamity! - Roy "Chubby" Brown was forced to scrub his notoriously salacious act following a mysterious fall in the shower on Wednesday.

"Huh! Why couldn't it have happened last year?" declared an unfeeling Mrs W, who hasn't quite recovered from being forced to see Ken Dodd at the Futurist. We scarpered when the unstoppable Scouser had been on stage for a mere three and a half hours.

Fortunately, there is a host of alternative entertainment for Scarborough's visitors. The other night, Mrs W and I spent a happy half-hour at the harbour watching a fisherman sort a massive quantity of freshly landed flatfish into different varieties. (I sure know how to treat a girl.)

Another diverting spot, which scarcely fails to draw a crowd, is the site of the great landslip which put the resort in the headlines in 1993 when Holbeck Hall Hotel ended up in the briny. Even during a rainstorm, there were three or four people reading a notice which describes the local terrain ("Middle and Upper Jurassic rocks topped with boulder clay") and outlines the progressive demise of the hotel ("By midnight the rose garden had fallen by four feet").

But I wonder if Scarborough is making the most of this unusual asset? Surely, some entrepreneur might be induced to capitalise on the famous disappearance by establishing the Slipaway Nite Spot or the Deep Slide Disco. It might even draw a sponsor. Perhaps Rolling Rock beer.