The Weasel

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Sadly, I missed most of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (sponsored by this very newspaper), but on the final Saturday I made a special effort to get down there in time for a session entitled "The Passing Parade". You may understand my enthusiasm when I reveal that it was devoted to the dark art of the newspaper columnist. The star attractions were two eminent practitioners of the genre, Keith Waterhouse, who writes a thrice-weekly column for the Daily Mail, and Auberon Waugh, who produces a regular droll commentary called "Way of the World" for the Daily Telegraph.

After giving some wise advice ("The first thing any columnist has to bear in mind is that all statistics - well, 95 per cent of statistics - are bogus"), Mr Waterhouse brought the house down by reading a couple of columns from years gone by. This quotidian material stood up wonderfully well to the passing of time. The man is a nonpareil. By contrast, Mr Waugh seemed petulant and ill-at-ease. He repeatedly dismissed the chairman's questions with the breezy admission "I can't remember anything any more." Despite giving a brace of perfunctory readings, it was evident that he merely viewed the event as an opportunity for the hard sell of a new collection of his columns.

When the meeting was thrown open to the floor, it occurred to me to ask about something which appeared in one of Mr Waugh's columns last year and has remained in my mind. "About 18 months ago," I inquired, "you wrote in The Spectator that there was nothing worse than having to write a regular column. I wondered why you continued when it was such hell?"

"I wasn't writing for The Spectator 18 months ago," spluttered my fellow columnist, his specs flashing angrily. "In any case, I would never write anything of the sort. Writing a column is heaven not hell." And so I was dispatched, tail between legs. Back home, I reread the item in question. It turned out to have been published on 3 February 1996, not quite 21 months ago. What Mr Waugh actually wrote was: "Anything is better than the fate of the humorous columnist required to produce pleasant, light-hearted, jocular commentary on the world's oddities." I need scarcely add that I've never, ever felt that way myself. I can't imagine why I felt the urge to pin the piece on my wall.

Becalmed in the dog days of middle age, I'd forgotten how much energy it takes to be decadent. This irony was impressed on me during an evening- long session at Cheltenham entitled "The Decadence Cabaret", devoted to the "perverse and the unnatural". I was in fine fettle during the early stages, and relished a reading from The Decadent Cookbook ("Pluck and gut a flamingo...") by its suspiciously fruity compilers, Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray. But once it got past midnight, I was not in prime form for a ranting recitation by Will Self, the lupine litterateur whose name is invoked by desperate mothers to scare the bejazus out of errant children. His eyes starting from their sockets, the author restlessly prowled the stage as he spat out a grisly yarn about opium-smoking in Limehouse. I admit that my own eyes moistened, not in an emotional response to Mr Self's tender prose, but the thousand or so joss-sticks which had been lit in a brave attempt to transform Cheltenham Town Hall into a den of depravity.

Opiates also made an appearance on the following day, when Richard Holmes reported on his on-going biography of Coleridge. The first half appeared to thunderous acclaim a few years ago, but Mr Holmes pursued other projects while his anxious readers waited with bated breath for the conclusion. We needn't have worried, for the biographer gave an enrapturing performance, as if he had come hot foot from the presence of this laudanum-addicted genius. (Mr Holmes noted that when Coleridge lived in Covent Garden he displayed an uncharacteristic practicality by taking lodgings above a chemist's shop.)

In the course of research, the biographer had an unexpected encounter with other intoxicants. It occurred while visiting the poet's residence in Keswick. This is now a girls' college, and Coleridge's study has become the sixth-form dormitory. As Mr Holmes climbed out of the window to appreciate the view from a balcony, he noticed a blonde student looking at him with profound concern. The reason became clear when he spotted five bottles of Vladivar vodka and several cartons of Black Russian cigarettes hidden below the window. After climbing back in, Mr Holmes was asked by the college matron if had found anything of interest. "Oh yes," replied the honest fellow. "Signs of inspiration."

Since she was deprived of the thrill of a foreign holiday this summer, I treated Mrs Weasel to the next-best thing. The "Airport" exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery captures with remarkable accuracy the dreary, oppressive and noisy environments which customarily precede air travel. No connoisseur of the vacuous should miss these images of empty corridors and deserted check- in desks. However, I wonder if the show's proud sponsor, the British Airports Authority, is aware that it also includes a photographic record of an art event by American performance artist Chris Burden on 5 January 1973: "At about 8am on a beach near the LA International Airport I fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747".

The centrepiece is a darkened room where visitors can watch a film of a plane landing and taking off every three minutes. The sound of the jet engines roars deafeningly overhead as the image moves from one screen to another. I must admit that this experience was a busman's holiday for Mrs Weasel, who enjoys the dubious pleasure of working at Isleworth near Heathrow. She tutted at the inaccuracy of the display: "They're every 30 seconds not three minutes - and that's just coming in."

After this treat, we moved on to the Architectural Association, where a companion show explores advances in airport design. It includes a model of Heathrow's Terminal Five designed by the ubiquitous Richard Rogers Partnership. Work is due to start on this behemoth, currently the subject of a public inquiry, in 2000. A caption cheerily boasts that the facility "will serve 30 million people a year and will have 60 airport stands with provision being made for Super Jumbos carrying up to 800 passengers".

Can this ghastly prospect be the work of the same Richard Rogers who wrote in 1980 that "traffic has become the single most important destroyer of the city fabric" and pronounced in the 1995 Reith Lectures that "the single-minded goal of mobility employs technology for the wrong ends"? Of course, the great advocate of urban renewal was writing about motor transport, but those who live near Heathrow may find his words useful when addressing the Terminal Five public inquiry.

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