The Weasel

The rocket took off with a tremendous thunder. I don't know if it had been damaged during the storage period, but the trajectory was less than satisfactory

For some reason I tend to be out of doors at the moment when one year slithers woozily into the next. A couple of years ago, Mrs W and I found ourselves at the riverside in Greenwich. First one ship's whistle, then another, then a couple more, commemorated the moment in a distant, haunting chorus. They were probably pleasure craft some way upstream but, nevertheless, it was a slightly magical marker for the New Year. Having our French pals in tow 12 months later, we headed for the same spot. Rubbing our shoulders to counter the estuarial chill, the Parisians did not look best pleased after being prised out of the cosy wine bar, where an hour earlier (their New Year) they had sung the Marseillaise. "Just wait," we said through chattering teeth. "Trust us." The minute hand of my watch finally ticked to midnight and we held our breath, ears straining. Nothing. Not a toot. After a few silent minutes on the dank, Stygian riverbank, our amis declared they had seen quite enough to appreciate the unique way in which the English celebrated this joyful moment.

Last year, we joined in the growing practice of letting off fireworks to mark the first seconds of January. Mrs W conjured up a wacking big rocket which she had secreted on 5 November, and we lugged it over to Richmond (the London one), where we had been invited to have supper on New Year's Eve. At five to 12, everyone stamped out into the back garden. I took on the task of ignition. In fact, there was no competition for this role. The rocket, when I came to look at it, was quite the largest I had ever seen in a domestic context. As usual, the instructions demanded an unfeasible safety margin - 25 metres, I think, which would have resulted in me and the pyrotechnics being three or four gardens away. Squelching through a herbaceous border at the far end of our hosts' property, no more than 40 feet from the house, I prepared to light the professional- looking fuse. My companions, displaying a marked lack of British phlegm, cowered against the house wall.

Having applied match to fuse, which resulted in a satisfactory sizzling, I began a dignified retreat across the quagmire. Almost immediately, the rocket took off with a tremendous thunder. I don't know if it had been damaged during the storage period, but the trajectory was less than satisfactory. After reaching a height perhaps three times that of the house, the missile executed a perfect U-turn and, still roaring away, headed for its launch site, where I was dithering, match in hand. Fortunately, the Ariane-style explosion took place a foot above the next-door neighbour's fish pond. The bang was simply devastating. Car alarms shrilled into the night as we scuttled indoors. This time round, I think I'll settle for a more traditional pop associated with the turn of the year.

"Go on - shout at the television. That's sure to stop him using apple juice," Mrs W announced in her irritating way. My eruption was provoked by a familiar torment, the TV chef Michael Barry. This cold-eyed media baron (he runs Classic FM) enjoys a lucrative sideline as resident cook on the Food & Drink programme. On this occasion, it was his mince pies which sent me ballistic. The bristling chef reached for his trusty apple juice when making the mincemeat. As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with this Christmas confection knows, the whole point of making your own mincemeat is to ensure it contains a decent glug or two of brandy, whisky or rum. A mince pie needs some fire in its innards.

For whatever reason, Barry has animus against using alcohol in the kitchen. Now this is quite fair and reasonable - as long as one is not a prominent TV chef. Admittedly, he has used wine in one or two recipes during the long, patronising and infinitely irritating existence of Food & Drink - but it is only with the utmost reluctance and I doubt if he has even mentioned the use of spirits. Almost always, Barry advocates apple juice. This is bad enough in his characterless mince pies, but in his idiosyncratic versions of the classic dishes of French cuisine, it is disastrous.

If this makes you think I've a personal grudge, you're spot on. It stems from one night a few years ago, when I'd purchased a few pounds of mussels for self and Mrs W. While I was de-bearding the bivalves, she turned on the box. Coincidentally, Michael Barry was cooking moules a la creme using cream, cornflour and the juice of a certain English fruit instead of the customary dry white wine. In my innocence, I was persuaded to give it a whirl. The result was a strange, crustless apple pie with a wholly unappealing maritime tang. Staring down at my poor molluscs, I wished I was able to de-beard the originator of the ghastly concoction.

Where did this craze for funny hats come from? Last summer, it was the jester's cap, complete with tiny, tinkling bells. The Christmas version, which I saw the other day worn by a gang of young sprigs at Waterloo Station, appears to be a misshapen top hat in distressing green, more than a foot in height and decorated with numerous small red horns. The youngsters were, it need hardly be said, the only people on the whole packed concourse who were wearing hats of any kind.

The truth is that all hats have become funny. Unless one is of the age when warmth becomes imperative (the body loses 25 per cent of its heat through the head), the hat has become a rather iffy affectation, like a bow-tie or malacca walking cane. Whether he's wearing a cheeky-chappie titfer or a louche fedora, if a man in a hat approaches, you can be fairly certain that there's going to be a certain amount of funny business in store. It might be merely orotund oratory ("Hapchance you possess the means of combustion for my cigarillo?"), on the other hand you may walk away from the encounter having just bought Tower Bridge. The hat's decline can be judged from an assertion by the late Tom Driberg, which is quoted by Alan Watkins in The Spectator: "British electors will never vote for a man who doesn't wear a hat." Scarcely true today. If a pol popped up in a trilby, people would remark on his resemblance to Jeremy Thorpe.

For better or worse, the hat has gone the way of the ticker-tape machine and the gas mantle. Discussing Edward Hopper and other Thirties painters in his stunning series on American art, Robert Hughes instantly stepped into the era merely by donning a headpiece. The garment has become irrevocably vieux chapeau.

For the most part, Time magazine's special issue "Europe: 50 Remarkable Years" is as dreary as its title, with contributions from such irresistible figures as Giscard d'Estaing, Maurice Couve de Murville and David Bowie ("I think the new community [young people], as I call them, are very, very together").

But one tiny item in the journal's patchwork retrospective took my eye. It seems that the Paris council took the terrible decision to remove the city's iron pissoirs (Time uses the more respectable term "vespasienne") on 24 March 1961. Should we not consider reviving these atmospheric conveniences, so redolent of the belle epoque, on this side of the Channel? Since England's golden youth has increasingly taken to relieving itself at the side of the road, the charming metal modesty panels of Paris, so wantonly destroyed in the Sixties, offer a perfect solution

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor