The Weasel

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"The Moon under Water", you will recall, was George Orwell's conception of a platonically ideal pub. Its essential elements were "draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio". For my part, I keep dreaming of finding the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. It would be either French or Italian, not part of a chain, and serve unpretentious bistro food at reasonable prices. I'm not adamant about not having music - I love the John Coltrane at our local Pizza Express - but loud rock is out of the question. Not much to ask, is it? There must be one in south- east London, it just hasn't been my luck to ply eating irons in it.

But hope springs eternal. In recent months, I've been keeping an eye on a nearby Italian eatery. Formerly a lacklustre Chinese place, it has been thronged since changing ownership. Finally taking the plunge, I co- opted a couple of friends to join us on a Friday night. The bar was perfectly OK and there was no music, but the clientele aroused suspicions. In the main, they appeared to be bottle blondes partnered by bouffant blokes who bore a marked resemblance to Swiss Tony ("Selling a car is like making love to a beautiful woman...") from The Fast Show.

The menu came as a surprise. The Italian dishes on the first page looked fine, but there followed a page of Spanish cuisine, then a page of Greek recipes, and finally a page of French standards. The Euro-nosh, when it arrived, turned out to be disappointingly slapdash, though a first-rate tomato sauce hinted at what might have been if the proprietors had not tried to hedge their bets. Just when things appeared to be reaching a nadir - and my friends were shooting accusatory gimlets in my direction - the music started. It wasn't quiet and it wasn't jazz.

Of course, the joint was packed. On one side, the table was occupied by cold-eyed gangster types (though they might have been computer salesmen), on the other by a gaggle of loudmouths who cheerfully mixed obscene cackles with sentimental vignettes about their offspring. If you were to mention "Moon under Water" in this company, they would view it as an activity rather than a pub. Oh well, back to Pizza Express.

This column rarely ventures on to the blasted heath of Shakespearean scholarship, but I wonder if learned editions of Cymbeline will require amendment because of the humble dandelion? The question stems from the play's best-known lines: "Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers come to dust." As an example of bitter-sweet wit, the poignant couplet is memorable enough. However, I did not appreciate its full brilliance until I read in the Flora Britannica Book of Wild Herbs by Richard Mabey (Chatto, pounds 10) that "golden lads" and "chimney sweepers" are Midlands colloquialisms for the various stages of the dandelion.

The word dandelion is supposed to derive from dent de lion but, according to another august - and masterly - tome, Geoffrey Grigson's The Englishman's Flora, the teeth in question are a bit of a mystery: perhaps from the jagged leaf or parts of the flower. I think it is a tribute to the essentially romantic nature of the British that we use such an engaging name, rather than the vulgar French pissenlit, for this handsome, if notoriously diuretic weed. Nevertheless, I quite see why the daughter of Rolling Stones stalwart Keith Richards has dropped her moniker of Dandelion and now prefers to be known as Angela.

Do I detect a blatant air-brushing of history in an IBM advert currently appearing in US magazines? "Diversity works," it declares, above an idealised cartoon of a company meeting. Not a suit or a tie is in sight among this casual clan. Five of the nine execs are women. "It has long made sense to us at IBM to welcome and value individual differences," reads the copy. "We prove this commitment to our workforce every day." The accuracy of this statement depends on your definition of "long". Until a very few years ago, the company was notorious for the Reservoir Dogs-style uniformity it imposed on employees.

As Thomas Hine notes in his excellent study The Total Package: "Thomas J Watson Jr, longtime chairman at IBM, justified his company's famously conservative and inflexible dress code - dark suits, white shirts and muted ties for all male employees - as `set-packaging'." Admittedly, things may be very different in "Big Blue" now, with goatee beards and body-piercing being the order of the day. However, I hope that IBM computers have better memories than its corporate advertising.

In next week's issue, it will be Weasels on Main Street. Mrs W and self are hopping over the pond for a few days in the US. These easy words may make this sound like the casual jaunt of a seasoned globe-trotter, but I assure you that the reality is different. The pauperising expense of our trip has reduced me to a gibbering monomaniac ("Nothing new there," chips in Mrs W), buttonholing complete strangers about the stratospheric price of flights in the States. Don't tell me, you thought they cost next to nothing. Well, so did I until I learnt the hard way.

The raison d'etre for our trip is a British Airways two-for-one offer, which flies us both to New York for pounds 340. All well and good. The only drawback is that, in the mysterious ways of airlines, we have to stay for at least a week. So we decided to inflict ourselves for a few days on some old friends in a major city 400 miles from New York. "Return internal flight from JFK ..." the travel agent pecked at her computer keyboard "... that'll be pounds 118 plus around pounds 35 tax." Just about bearable, I thought, before she added the fatal word: "Each".

"WHAAAT?" I sputtered and swiftly curtailed negotiations. Thinking it would be cheaper to arrange things in the US, I rang up my American pals. They seemed to think the price quoted was pretty good. "But what about all those no-frills economy airlines?" I sputtered. All gone belly-up, they replied.

After two weeks of my dithering, Mrs W decided to take things in hand. "There, all settled," she said, slamming down the receiver. "Only, the price has now gone up to pounds 202 each." After scraping me from the ceiling, she added another cheerful nugget of news. On the Monday that we want to return to New York, the only available seats are on a 6.15am flight. Though the debtor's prison awaits me on my return, there is a bright side. It's not every column that can promise a report from the sun-kissed paradise of Cleveland, Ohio.

Emptying the fridge is one nuisance about going abroad. This problem is exacerbated if the departing parties happen to be dedicated foodies. "Why don't we take them for our pals in the States?" I helpfully suggested, as Mrs W extracted various items approaching their "use by" date. "That's a good idea," she said in a marked manner, pointing out the gastronomic treasures she had retrieved: a Lancashire black pudding, two large slabs of salt cod and a pot of Spanish elvers. "As American as mom's apple pie."

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