The Weasel

Ever since a "tall, powerfully built" Yorkshireman with "a bushy, reddish brown beard", who adopted the somewhat unimaginative nom de guerre of "John Johnson", was discovered on 5 November 1605 with 36 barrels of gunpowder in a building adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, we have all experienced a few moments of pyrotechnical drama at the same time of year. The incident so enthrallingly described by Antonia Fraser in her new narrative history The Gunpowder Plot literally resonates through our history. In Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, you can see the lantern, now battered and much decayed, said to have been carried by Guy Fawkes (as John Johnson turned out to be) on his ill-fated mission. The museum sells a kit which enables visitors to construct a model version of the lantern - but being made of cardboard, it is not a very practical source of illumination, whether one's intentions are legitimate or nefarious.

An experience I had a couple of years ago in the vicinity of Weasel Villas gave me a peculiar insight into the stirring events of almost four centuries ago. I should explain that we live in the middle of a short terrace and, at that time, the two adjoining houses on one side of us were empty. One day, a bearded man wearing a large wooden cross round his neck knocked on our door and asked if we could lend him a broom. He turned out to be a squatter who had taken up residence in the empty house next door but one. I thought little more about him until one afternoon, early in November, I was disturbed by a series of explosions.

Glaring out of my bedroom window, I saw our new neighbour giggling to himself, while smoke from his most recent eruption eddied about his scurrying form. On the following day, he gleefully detonated another battery of industrial-strength bangers. It occurred to me that he was probably storing up something really big for 5 November.

On the night itself, we were invited to a neighbour's firework party. This passed most cheerfully until sometime around midnight when our hostess wove her way through the crowded kitchen to where Mrs W and I were absorbing a spot of punch. "Don't worry, your house is all right," she said mystifyingly. "But the house next door but one to you is on fire." In my case, the implications of this statement took a while to sink in, but Mrs W zoomed out into the street at a speed scarcely surpassed by Eurostar on the Calais-Paris stretch. When, glass still in hand, I joined her a few moments later, there were five fire appliances outside, their blue lights revolving like miniature lighthouses. I was heartened by the fact that it was raining heavily.

"Everything will be OK," I told Mrs W, "the rain will soon put the fire out." At that precise moment, the roof of the squatter's house fell in, sending a tremendous flurry of sparks and flames high into the air.

Of course, the fire brigade expertly extinguished the blaze and no harm came to Weasel Villas (unless you count Mrs W being soaked by a fire hose). There was not a sign of the hirsute incendiary. But he turned up a few months later, driving an elderly van covered in cabalistic symbols. When he showed signs of wanting to take up residence in the vacant house immediately next door to ours, I felt obliged to release a few fireworks from our side of the fence. Though only of the verbal variety, they did the trick.

The sudden ubiquity of Redmond O'Hanlon, who is energetically publicising his latest book Congo Journey will have awakened disturbing memories for many people - men in particular. Few chaps who saw the genial explorer's appearance on Terry Wogan's TV chat show in 1988 will ever forget it. On that occasion, he was banging the gong for In Trouble Again, about a foray into deepest Amazonia. Conjuring from his pocket something resembling a modified tea-strainer, O'Hanlon sent shock waves through the male populace when he explained that it was a home-made device intended to protect against a kind of super-stickleback prone to swimming up the human penis. Having raised its spines, the creature was immovable. The only treatment was amputation. I suspect I am not alone in crossing the Amazon basin off my list of potential holiday destinations after absorbing this nugget of natural history.

After reading this week's New Scientist, the Philippines has become another no-go area. I learned that this far-flung archipelago is home to several species of marine snails which reverse the customary order of the food chain. Instead of lying docilely in a yummy butter-and-garlic sauce, the cone-shell snail bites back. It has been discovered that these ingenious molluscs manufacture "hundreds and thousands" of different toxins which they inject via a hollow barb. The poison made by one animal is similar to that of the infamous Japanese fugu fish, while another produces an "electric-eel-like-shock". Fortunately, attacks on humans are rare - though there was one holidaymaker who, admiring a snail's handsome shell, decided to take it ashore. According to the report: "With nowhere better to put it, he stowed it in the lining of his swimming trunks..." And I bet he didn't have a tea-strainer down there.

The minimalist architect John Pawson has produced a picture book devoted to his fashionable creed of bare walls and spartan rooms. As is frequently the case with architects, this admirable restraint does not extend to the price (pounds 60). Entitled Minimum, his glossy scrap-book contains an eclectic variety of structures which receive the Pawson seal of approval. These range from "conical grain silos" in Mexico to the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, from the grid-plan of Manhattan to a three-pronged Georgian fork.

But the example which best enshrines the principle of minimalism is the Humber Bridge - though the reason for this is not made clear by Pawson's somewhat opaque caption: "The extreme forces that the structure has to withstand are rendered almost invisible by the elegance of the structural solution adapted." (Surely the forces of wind and gravity are invisible to begin with?) As a Yorkshireman (born Halifax, 1949 - the same place and year as the Weasel), Pawson should know the real reason why the Humber Bridge is a perfect paradigm of his doctrine. As local folk have pointed out from the moment that the structure, which links rural Lincolnshire with the outskirts of Hull, was first announced by Barbara Castle: "It joins nowt to nowt."

Have you noticed any strange vibrations of spectral illuminations in your newsagents recently? Well, you will do soon, because issue No 1 of Uri Geller's Encounters ("The World's Most Paranormal Magazine") boasts a "free Uri Geller Empowered Quartz Crystal". Inside, we can learn "10 Facts You Never Knew About Uri Geller", including the revelation that: "Mysterious objects resembling archaeological relics often appear around Uri - nobody has any idea how they got there." Exploring life beyond Geller, the journal reveals that "Britain's No 1 Ghost Buster" Graham Wyley is "one of only two people" who can touch a 9-inch-tall skeleton "without falling victim to a terrible incident". But weirdest of all is the fact that this inaugural edition advertises back numbers. Apparently, issues 5-12 are available, but numbers 1-4 have sold out. Close inspection reveals that these are entitled Encounters rather than Uri Geller's Encounters - but it's still spooky for a publication which describes itself as "NEW!"

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