Before us lay perhaps a dozen yards of tussocky grass and the surging waves, though the two were separated by 400 feet of sheer chalk face. A sedentary life in the suburbs of south London is scarcely the best training for such perilous terrain, and I had to resist the urge to get down on hands and knees and whimper like a dog as we approached the nightmarish precipice. "You have to be a bit barmy - there's no coming back if you go over," joshed the angler as he took up his familiar stance overlooking the abyss. "It's best at night - we use miners' helmets so we can see the edge - but you need the wind against your back to take the line out to sea. You'll have to come back in winter. There's nowhere better for cod." I tentatively agreed, while silently resolving never to look at another piece of cod unless it happens to be at no greater altitude than the average fish and chip shop,
Unlike Mr Paxman's trout stream, this patch of the North Sea was about as tranquil as the Cup Final. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Bempton cliffs provide temporary accommodation for upwards of 200,000 seabirds. Each crumbling ledge, each hairline cranny, was crammed with kittiwakes, gannets and other beaky mariners. Puffins lined up on a fissure like a mass, dinner-jacketed suicide. Every so often, a feathery fragment of this vertical city would launch itself into space and join the squadrons coasting in the richly pungent updraught. Oblivious to the whiff of guano, the bird-watchers focused their paraphernalia. To the nesting seabirds, we humans must appear a sorry lot, chained to the ground by gravity and obliged to goggle at the world through monstrous black lenses.
The three-mile line of cliffs, which houses England's largest seabird colony, was acquired a few years ago by the RSPB. Until the Fifties, the population was checked by the activities of cliff-climbers, who descended on ropes in order to snaffle up seagull eggs. Though this practice was made illegal in 1954, my guide was curiously well-informed about the taste of fried guillemot egg. "Quite nice. Bigger than a goose egg. A bit salty, but not fishy."
Despite the cluttered state of the Bempton colony, it seems unlikely that the RSPB will ever offer a sideline in exotic fried eggs ("Kittiwake, sunnyside-up, please".) Yet, this embarras de richesses in the avian department seems alien to the twitcher's deep-seated urge to seek out the rare and glamorous. I caught one asking an RSPB official if there was anything special to be seen. "No," he replied. "We've been plagued by north-easterlies. There's been literally nothing coming in."
As if I hadn't had a superfluity of the natural world in Yorkshire, Mrs W insisted on going to see Microcosmos on our return to the south. I couldn't quite understand her eagerness to view this cinematic epic about the microscopic population of a field in Provence. One celebrated sequence is devoted to a pair of snails enjoying a prolonged snog. Yet when the same bivalves appear on our garden path, as they do en masse following a spot of rain, my spouse trumpets like an enraged jumbo and dances a crunchy fandango on their shells. The starring roles in the movie were taken by insects. From dung-beetles to ladybirds, they were revealed as uncannily anthropomorphic.
There seems to be a fashion for viewing insect forms through powerful lenses. The April issue of National Geographic magazine, for example, has a strange double-page image of something called "Ant in Tutu". It appears that the twin globes of the insect's body are fringed by a gauzy riff. But, you don't need a microscope to view this wonder of nature. Quite the reverse, in fact. The formic curiosity was captured by the Hubble telescope and is actually an exploding celestial body called Eta Carinae. Now that's a real star.
Though I'm not much of a military man, I have discovered an unexpected kinship with "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, the Gulf War hero. It seems that we both have a soft spot for bitteck au roquefort. Not that I want to get into a bragging match with the generalissimo, but I don't mind telling you that I also have a powerful partiality for Roquefort in its uncooked state, described so winningly in French Cheeses (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99) as having "an amazing flavour of salt and mould." At a dinner party the other day, I almost had apoplexy when a fellow guest, the possessor of a sadly untutored palate, nibbled a fragment of this sublime delicacy and shockingly inquired: "Is it Danish Blue?" A while ago, I even had a dream about the deep, damp caves in southern France where the cultures of Penicillum roqueforti slowly induce a magical metamorphosis in the great rounds of ewe's milk cheese.
So you can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that we in Britain are being diddled, short-changed and generally being given a bum deal by the main Roquefort producer, the Societe des Caves et des Producteurs Reunis. During my recent hols in Britanny, I grew into the habit of popping into the supermarche for a pre-packed slice of Societe Roquefort. The 150g chunk (costing 17 francs or just under pounds 2), while not being over-generous, just about sufficed to provide a savoury finishing note for supper. Back in south London, I bought a similar-looking Societe pack (costing pounds 2.09). But on opening it, I was dismayed to find that it contained a measly 100g slice, a pitifully slender sliver. Two tiddly mouthfuls and it was gone. Poof! Do the French think that we English can't manage a decent-sized fragment of fromage? Do they believe that the debilitated Anglo-Saxon appetite would be over- faced by the extra 50 per cent which they tuck into? Talk about the thin end of the wedge. It's certainly the last time that I'm going to allow roquefort into my dreams.
What is it about the Ritz Hotel in Paris? I'd scarcely heard about this upmarket lodging until the Neil Hamilton affair and now everyone wants to get in there. In the latest issue of Vanity Fair the sultry pen-pusher Jackie Collins reveals that she has programmed her in-car phone with the Ritz's number (42 60 38 30, if you really want to know), so she can book her digs in the Place Vendome while still purring round Beverly Hills. A few pages on in the same journal, the silver screen femme fatale Isabella Rossellini declares that, of all the places in the world, she would most like to live in the Paris Ritz. She also insists that, if she could choose to come back after death, "I would like to come back as myself but invisible." A bit like Neil Hamilton, come to thinkReuse content