Did the ghost train have an interior which defied the laws of physics, like Dr Who's Tardis?
Saturday 22 November 1997
The exhausting experience of slogging round this corner of Croydon which is forever Sweden was much in my mind when I visited the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum devoted to "Carl and Karin Larsson, Creators of the Swedish Style", which happens to be sponsored by Ikea. Somewhat reminiscent of Norman Rockwell's genial illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, Larsson's instantly appealing paintings are detailed evocations of "the poetry of everyday life". Reproductions featuring his impossibly wholesome family in their sun-filled cottage sold in prodigious numbers in the early years of this century.
Those of a misanthropic inclination may concur with the playwright August Strindberg who savagely attacked the Larssons for being too good to be true. In fact, Carl Larsson suffered from manic-depression, which lends an ironic tinge to the title of his best-seller, At Solsida (On the Sunny Side). In a publication associated with the exhibition, Ikea's UK boss, Anders Dahlvig, stresses the luminous philosophy of the influential duo: "Here at Ikea, we acknowledge a tremendous debt to the Larssons, whose principles of light, simplicity and clarity of design are also fundamental to our own approach. Our Swedish heritage is uniquely important to us." Given their love of light, it seems doubtful that Carl and Karin would be entirely happy at being closely associated with a certain retail chain which operates from gargantuan, windowless sheds.
Oddly enough, I found myself back in the cloistered precincts of Ikea on the following day. While Mrs W foraged, I found myself peering at Billy, described as "A bookcase your books will love!" As always, I was attracted to the eccentric selection of volumes intended to bring the shelves alive. Along with Fopredrag med Ljusbilder by Adam Mars-Jones and Den Ooda Timmen by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there were an odd sprinkling of titles in English. From Advances in Parasitology (1965), I learned that "the transmission of Trichomonas vaginalis by routes other than sexual intercourse must be extremely rare." In The Miracle of Life (1930), there was an enlightening account of how "spermatozoa are manufactured in a pair of glands about the size of walnuts called the testes... during coition, the seminal fluid is squeezed out." I trust that this isn't the renowned aspect of Swedish heritage which Mr Dahlvig regards as uniquely important.
When a funfair enlivened our lacklustre corner of south London, I was unwillingly dragged along by Mrs Weasel and her best friend, a spirited gel for whom I have great affection. Away from the deafening cacophony of the white-knuckle rides, I was delighted to discover a ghost train. But even this held an unexpected surprise. Not for me, of course, I've too much sense to travel on a supernatural chemin de fer. Ever the generous paterfamilias, I offered to treat my female companions. Maybe it's not very chivalrous to remark on the fact, but the combined age of the twosome who trundled, giggling furiously, into the darkness was not far short of a century.
I waited outside as the drizzle gently sifted down. The minutes ticked by and there was no sign of my partner and her pal. This seemed a bit rum, since the outside walls of the ghost train did not suggest a particularly extended circuit inside. Perhaps, I mused, it had an interior which defied the laws of physics, like Dr Who's Tardis. More time went by. I wondered whether to approach the somnolent custodian, But what could I say? "Should I have asked for return tickets?" "Is there a bar inside?"
Just as I'd abandoned all hope and was wondering how to explain things to Mrs W's mum, the little vehicle plus occupants emerged. When the two adventurers managed to struggle out, they were laughing so hard that they could scarcely stand up. "Got stuck... stopped dead in our tracks... pitch black... dangly bits ... heard someone coming from behind... jiggled around until we got started again..." Course, I told them, this kind of thing is only to be expected at this time of year. Never heard of wraiths on the line?
If you find it hard to summon up interest in the business world, may I direct your attention to the directory of America's 400 richest people published by Forbes magazine? This index of modern Croesuses, which kicks off with William Henry Gates III ("about $40 billion"), is spiced with a dash of tittle-tattle. We discover that another Microsoft titan, Steve Ballmer ($8.3 billion), required throat surgery after shouting too much at a company meeting. Hotelier Leonora Helmsley aka "The Queen of Mean" ("estimated $1.8 billion") served just one of her 750 hours of community service for tax evasion. Department store heir Frederick Woodruff Field ($1.1 billion), "divorced three times, six daughters", is "one of the biggest purveyors of so-called gangsta rap".
Perhaps the most significant sign of our times occurs in the entry for cable magnate Alan Gerry ($937 million), who recently bought the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival for $1 million. Max Yasgur's farm is to become an "outdoor arts and entertainment facility". As Joni Mitchell so astutely noted in her Woodstock anthem: "We are stardust, we are golden."
Perhaps you have come across a short story by the wonderful Argentinean wordsmith, Jorge Luis Borges, called The Man Who Wrote Don Quixote. It concerns an author, who, tired of the dreary convention that all writing should say something new, sets himself the infinitely more demanding task of imagining the story of Don Quixote and re-writing the exact words of Cervantes. Keen readers of the Weasel may have noticed a similar exercise in last Saturday's column, which bore an uncanny resemblance to that of a previous week. It was a tough act to pull off, but, with all due modesty, I think I managed it to perfection
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