The Weasel

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The train standing at Platform 5 was going nowhere. Cheerfully festooned with silvery helium balloons, it consisted of just two carriages - one somewhat elderly, the other spanking new. Boasting of its ability to metamorphose the former into the latter, a company of train builders invited commuters at Victoria station to climb aboard. The odd thing was that the gleaming new carriage was noticeably more cramped than the battered old one. I pointed out to a representative of the coachbuilder that a passenger of 6ft 4in - let's call him, for example, the Weasel - could only be accommodated in one of the seats if there were no one sitting opposite. This is a somewhat unlikely scenario since the refurbished carriages are intended to be held in reserve for rush-hours.

"The seats can be arranged in any configuration," my guide responded. "There are 77 seats here, which is the maximum number that can be fitted in, but operators may feel that more space is appropriate." I hope for my knees' sake that they will - but going by decisions in the past, railway companies (along with most airlines) appear to cherish the belief that, despite our greatly improved nutrition, each successive generation of travellers is miraculously diminishing in size.

You might think it odd, but I also harbour doubts about the toilets included in the refurbished carriages. In general, there is no greater fan of the loo than the Weasel, but I doubt if these facilities are vital, considering the relatively brief journey times of London commuter trains (the bowler- and-brolly brigade of yesteryear managed to keep themselves bottled up). Because they are so inadequately serviced, the incorporation of lavvies in the latest generation of the capital's commuter trains has proved to be little short of disastrous. They are often out of order and even when functioning, in many cases their richly fertile pong turns a large section of the carriage into a no-go area.

The conveniences must, I suppose, be cleaned out at some stage, but the "honey-wagons" which used to be a frequent sight on the platforms of Victoria station have quite disappeared. I regard it as a sign of my essentially optimistic disposition that for many years I believed these small cleansing vehicles, equipped with a stainless-steel tank for you-know-what, were delivering draught beer to the buffet cars.

I stick to my view that if economy is your prime consideration, it is pointless ever to buy a ticket on London's suburban rail system. Check- ups by inspectors appear to be becoming rarer. It is a far cry from the dear, dead days of British Rail. Years ago, I remember having my ticket clipped by an inspector on a train in the London area. He was accompanied by no fewer than three trainee inspectors, each of whom did a spot of clipping as part of their apprenticeship for this onerous task. By the time they'd finished, my ticket had more perforations than a punk's ear.

Though there is scant chance nowadays of your ticket ever being checked, most of us still cough up, prompted by the British dread of embarrassment. When a miscreant is apprehended by an inspector, other passengers slyly observe his predicament with a mixture of self-satisfaction and Schadenfreude. Mrs Weasel witnessed one of these piquant encounters the other day on her daily journey between Clapham Junction and Isleworth. It was, in fact, one of those few trains where you can buy your ticket while in transit.

"Clapham Junction to Isleworth," a smartly-dressed passenger told the inspector.

"Sorry, sir," said the inspector, "Are you sure you got on at Clapham Junction?"

"Yes," came the brisk reply. "Clapham Junction to Isleworth, please."

"I think you must mean Victoria to Isleworth, sir. Ticket barriers have now been installed at Clapham Junction and you couldn't possibly have got on there without a ticket."

The shame-faced fraudster coughed up for the full journey. When the train arrived, he tied up the pink ribbons of the legal briefs he had been scanning and scooted up the hill into Isleworth Crown Court. Whether he was counsel for the prosecution or defence, we will never know.

Those photographic panoramas revealing the same Thames-side stretches in 1937 and again in 1997, which appeared in this magazine two weeks ago, brought back unhappy memories of an abortive book project I was once involved in. It was dreamed up by an arty pal of mine. His wheeze was a book which would have drawings of all the structures on the north bank running consecutively along the top of the page and all the structures on the south bank running (inverted) along the bottom. My role was to append a few enlightening notes. In the end, as is customarily the case with such pipe dreams, not a drawing was limned, not a word was typed. The solitary publisher we approached said he could only conceive of the book working if Thames pleasure craft agreed to sell copies on board. Since a major part of their income comes from spieling exactly the same gen which we intended to retail, this seemed a bit of a long shot.

Poring over the Museum of London exhibition devoted to the two sets of photos, another reason for our singular lack of success dawned on me. We were 60 years too late. The ghastly Stalinist ziggurat of the Tower Hotel is a poor substitute for the long-demolished Irongate Wharf, its handsome brickwork enlivened by the filigree of dockside cranes. Even where the buildings have survived, a ubiquitous embourgeoisement has taken place. In the photos devoted to Rotherhithe waterfront, the manufactory which once proudly proclaimed itself "Union Oil & Cake Mills" now bears an estate agent's invitation to view "Exclusive Warehouse Apartments". A little way downriver, a workshop boasting of "Ship's Propellers: Manganese, Bronze & Brass" has been replaced by a row of chi-chi villas whose occupants are likely only to encounter such metals when dealing in commodities. Ironically, one of the few riverside structures to survive unscathed is the Prospect of Whitby pub, which I could have sworn I saw blown to bits in the film The Long Good Friday.

The instructions cannot be faulted for lack of precision. "Settle yourself in a clear and calm location," they begin, adding that the temperature should be between 18C and 20C. Clear, calm and comfortable, we can now begin the unexpectedly demanding task of chomping a Belgian chocolate according to the rigorous directions which accompany a box of Neuhaus pralines. "Select and delicately place a praline in your mouth," we're told, presumably in case we considered inserting one in our ear. "Let it melt for a moment to release the subtle flavours and aromas of the enrobing." Only then are we permitted to start probing the enrobing: "Slowly chew three to five times to mix the filling with the enrobing. Finally, let your mouth savour and be seduced by the most delicate of flavours." Phew! It's the first time I've come across hard-core soft centres

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