It was a tough mission. We had been shipped out to join the great and the good of Berks for the launch of a glitzy new restaurant called The Vineyard, which is a "personal project" of the entrepreneur Sir Peter Michael. In case you didn't know, he is the founder of Classic FM and a grand fromage in the world of business. The highlight of the event was to be the unveiling of "a major and dramatic piece of sculpture" called Fire and Water.
"When you get to my age, a lot of men settle down and buy yachts," Sir Peter informed the well-heeled gathering, who appeared to see nothing exceptional in this statement, "but they have to eat out at restaurants. I decided to have my own restaurant and sail on their yachts." Musing on the intellectual underpinnings of his new enterprise, Sir Peter observed: "If there is a philosophy to the design of this restaurant, it is a place where women would want to be brought and where men would want to bring them." As befits such an ardent feminist, Sir Peter is the guiding light behind a local trust which recently purchased Greenham Common from the government.
The sculpture turned out to be a circle of black granite, 40 feet in diameter, on which rested an inch-deep reservoir of water. Protruding from the gleaming pond were seven flambeaux or gas torches. To the untutored eye, it might have been a tableau of oil tankers aflame during the Gulf War. However, Sir Roy Strong, who performed the unveiling, thought otherwise.
"A mirror, as it were, let down from the heavens," opined the legendary aesthete. "A perfect circle reflecting clouds and heaven. An absolute triumph of enlightened patronage." Once the speechifying had concluded, the creator of the work, William Pye, told me: "The intention is that the flames should come up through the water." But there turned out to be a problem with hiding the flambeaux. In my indelicate way, I asked how much it had cost. "Don't know yet," clipped in Sir Peter, who happened to be passing by. "Cheap at the price," noted the sculptor when his patron had moved on. "Artists have to survive by the fruits of their labour." Moving on to the manufacturer of the flambeaux, Chris Sugg, I discovered that he thought there was nothing wrong with the gas torches protruding. "Fire and water don't mix," he insisted unarguably.
The hotel was formerly a Victorian hunting lodge which has been expanded by glossy additions in several directions. Inside, all is creamy, louche luxury. The hotel's pounds 500-a-night grand suites are generously endowed with languorous nudes. I refer, of course, to the somewhat specialised artwork - Sleeping Nude, La Toilette, Baigneuses - which suggests the guests' appetites might not be restricted to the purely gastronomic.
Culinary concerns are catered for by a pounds 1.5-million kitchen. I only wish I could praise its output. Unfortunately, lunch was restricted to an amuse- bouche consisting of no more than five mouthfuls and a fragment of pud. By way of compensation, the Vineyard's extensive press pack included a photograph of Seared Tuna with Guacamole, together with three other exquisitely arranged main courses. Following this virtual meal, we were invited to a tasting of wine from Sir Peter's Californian winery ("Others tell me that it is one of the two or three best vineyards in the world"), but no sooner had his classy grog been poured than we were hauled off to the 'copter. Twenty minutes later, I was once more traipsing the pavements of SW11.
It's been 1864 in Weasel Villas ever since I saw BBC 2's splendid adaptation of Our Mutual Friend. Images from the four films still gleam in my mind. In particular, Silas Wegg gleefully whirling round on his single leg, his crutches flying in and out, like a frenetic steam contraption. Also, the incongruous silvery beauty of the moonlit river where the dredgermen pursued their grisly occupation. Dickens was spot-on in his depiction of this dark milieu, as I discovered a few years ago when interviewing a riverman who had more than a touch of Rogue Riderhood in his make-up. "Oh yes, we get the odd dead 'un floating by 'ere," he cackled. "They pull 'em in by putting a chain round their belts. When they pull one by here, I generally shout: 'What's he looking for, Tiddlers?'"
On a cheerier note, I was delighted to discover that I have something in common with Noddy Boffin, the character who inherited immense wealth in the form of mountainous dust-piles. No, it's not these that we have in common. Thanks to the efforts of Mrs W, our dust-piles are no more than hillocks. My kinship with Mr Boffin stems from the fact that I recently received a generous gift of an aspidistra, just as he did in episode two. This magnificent plant now occupies centre-stage in our drawing room and I am attempting to add to the Victorian ambience by growing a crop of Dundreary whiskers. In the meantime, where do you think I can get some covers for the piano legs?
Richard Branson's bizarrely diverse empire is so familiar that, by now, we take its very odd name for granted. What on earth has "virgin" to do with airlines, cinemas, Peps, fizzy drinks or even, nowadays, bridal gowns? If you think about it, a virgin pilot is the very last person you'd want to take you across the Atlantic. The name originated with the bearded tycoon's early venture into record shop retailing. Though the pubescent nude which used to decorate his LP label has long disappeared, the brand continues to be carried by a weird hotchpotch of products and services.
However, I recently came across one item from the group which has an undeniable association with virginity. Meetings with Mary by Janice T Connell (Virgin, pounds 6.99) is an extensive and irreproachably serious collection of visions of the Virgin Mary. The ceaselessly voluble Mr Branson may care to consider Mary's message on 31 March 1989 to Annie Ross Fitch of Scottsdale, Arizona. "Silence, my dear one, is crucial. Silence is a gift. A grace. Silence is difficult and sometimes painful for the beginner ... "Reuse content