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

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