The Weasel

`Over 50 per cent of our rocking horses go to adults who buy them for themselves. The king-size is for grown-ups. Lots of people like to have a ride after a hard day's work'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ever keen to learn of le dernier cri in domestic design, I raced hot-foot to Olympia for the Daily Telegraph/House & Garden Fair '97. Mingling among the squadrons of gimlet-eyed Sloanes prowling round the 350 exhibitors, I discovered that the cutting edge of British taste is firmly lodged in the 18th century - 1718, to be precise. At least, that is the date of a near life-size lead greyhound (pounds 495), handsomely reproduced by the Bulbeck Foundry of Burwell, Cambs. Nearby, stood a lead statue of a small, naked boy (pounds 620), who was either blowing a rather narrow conch or nibbling the end of a croissant. "He's quite popular, usually as a fountain," said Bulbeck's Hugo Smith. "But the sphinx (pounds 890) has few takers. In fact, no one buys it at all." For those of more slender means, Tina Art, of Alfie's Antiques Market, London NW8, offers plaster casts of classical sculptures, ranging from a foot-high nose (pounds 8) and a bust of Caesar (pounds 65) to a glowering, beetle-browed head of Hercules (pounds 125). "Looks like you with a beard," Ms Art told the Weasel. I suppose it's a compliment to be compared to a Roman god, even one in a shocking grump.

Classical imagery loomed large in the Gentleman's Writing Room by Stephanie Dunning Interior Design, of Micheldever Station, Hants. Being sold by the foot, the ancient tomes lining the walls included some odd neighbours: a bound volume of Punch for 1917, flanked by the Methodist Magazine (1859) and Fairy Frisket or Peeps at Insect Life (1885). Adding a touch of verisimilitude, an unfinished letter lay on the writing table. "Not withstanding your appalling behaviour last night," it read, "behaving like that in front of my mother was to say the least..." Sadly, it was there that the missive tailed off, but they obviously lead racy lives in Micheldever Station.

Continuing the manly theme, Sir William Bentley Billiards, of Hungerford, Berks, provides billiard tables, new and old, ranging from pounds 1,750 for a refurbished job to pounds 80,000 for an elaborately carved Victorian Gothic affair. And that's just for starters. You'll also need an antique scoreboard (pounds 2,000), a rotating cue stand (pounds 600) and a triangular ball box (pounds 600). I asked a salesman who Sir William Bentley was? "Well, we were just William Bentley Billiards, but decided to knight ourselves to bring a bit of class. It was a bit of a surprise when a real Sir William Bentley turned up. He was not very happy. It cost us a table to keep the name."

Though torn between a Thirties brass fire-hose reel-holder (pounds 245) from Posterity Architectural Antiques, of Norton, Glos, and a mirror (pounds 370) made of recycled French floor boards from Oliver Bonas Furniture, of London W8, my heart was won by a stable of knot-holed nags. Alec Kinane, of Legends Rocking-Horses, High Wycombe, Bucks, explained that racing was in his blood. "Michael, my cousin, won The Derby in 1994, and my Uncle Tommy won the Irish National a few years back." Alec's timber trotters offer obvious advantages in both stabling and fodder. "Over 50 per cent of our horses go to adults who buy them for themselves. The king-size (from pounds 2,495) is for grown-ups. Lots of people like to have a ride after a hard day's work."

Just the steed for a modern Hercules.

One of the few outfits at the Olympia show which acknowledges the 20th century in any way was Hansen's the Chef's Shop, of London SW10. "We're the leading supplier of heavy-duty cookers to the domestic market," said the company's Wayne Cuomo, pointing out a massive stove by Lacanche, called the Cluny (pounds 2,800). "Anthony Worrall-Thompson's got one at home, and so has that American chap from MasterChef." I gasped in amazement. Here it was. The same device on which Loyd Grossman perfected his legendary sauces. "We also do some pretty impressive fridges," Mr Cuomo continued. "Damien Hirst bought a pounds 7,000 American refrigerator called a Traulsen. Yes, it would be big enough to hold half a cow." But that's one fridge I would prefer not to look inside.

My recent visit to Big Time, the current exhibition by electronic artist Tatsuo Miyajima at the Hayward Gallery, had a profound effect on me. His work consists entirely of flashing electronic numbers in darkened rooms. Some of them whirl enigmatically in the gloom. Others, mounted on 40 tiny dodgems, scuttle to and fro beneath your feet as you edge nervously across a long observation bridge. This swirling conglomeration of meaningless figures - each one incessantly counting from one to nine and back again - instantly transported me back to the classroom, where I spent fruitless hours ensnared by equations and tangled up with tangents.

After consuming quires of paper in blundering pursuit of a solution, it always seemed to be to be grossly unfair that there should only be one correct answer. Oddly enough, the day has yet to dawn when I am called on to apply my hard-won knowledge of algebraic long division or to calculate the height of a mountain by trigonometry. Perhaps it's for the best, since I have forgotten all but the names of these techniques. Furthermore, my lack of success with sums continued unabated, with my quarterly VAT calculations often being returned for correction, accompanied by a curt note from HM Customs & Excise reminiscent of my maths teacher's "See me".

Far from being entranced by their elegant, ineluctable logic, I have always found numbers to be slippery, deceitful things - and letters are worse still, once a mathematician has got his nail-bitten digits on them. So I was more than a little surprised to find myself absorbed by Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh's acclaimed account of how this 358-year old puzzle was solved by Andrew Wiles, an English professor of mathematics based at Princeton. (In a nutshell, he explained why Pythagoras's Theorem about the square on the hypotenuse does not apply to cubes).

Carefully pushing any indigestible nuggets of mathematics to the side of the plate, I'd like to truffle out three plums from Singh's rich pudding. First, he reveals that the nutty Chudovsky brothers, previously lauded in this column for their calculations performed on a home-made super-computer, are rumoured to be calculating pi to a trillion decimal places. A mere 39 decimal places are sufficient to calculate the circumference of the universe accurate to the radius of a hydrogen atom. Second, it turns out that Fermat's exasperating note, "I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain," was written some 30 years before his death, so you'd think he could have got round to it at some stage. Third, it is somehow piquant that Andrew Wiles's wife is called Nada, which means "nothing" in Spanish.

When a press release headed "Elders and Betters, by Quentin Blake" fluttered from a new book published by the Pimlico paperback house, I immediately began thumbing through the pages. Surprisingly, I discovered that the much-imitated illustrator, famous for his amiable drawings in Roald Dahl's children's books, was closely associated with the Bloomsbury group. The book contains memoirs of Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Ottoline Morrell, Maynard Keynes and many other WC1 literati. I began to smell a rat, however, after reading a sentence "My father, Clive Bell, was in those days a left- wing radical." After a little research (looking at the cover), I found that the book was actually Elders and Betters by Quentin Bell, son of Vanessa and nephew of Virginia Woolf. I think Pimlico had better mind its P's and Q's