The Weasel

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It's hard to imagine that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who seems a quiet, ruminative sort of chap, was overwhelmed with joy at the sight of the Prime Minister's Fender Stratocaster electric guitar arriving in Downing Street. Ceaselessly pursued by tunes myself, I sympathise with Mr Brown's predicament. It won't be easy to ponder on post-Keynsian endogenous growth theory while accompanied by the cheery strains of "Voodoo Chile" or "Desolation Row" eddying through the wall from next door. Though the Weasel family also occupies a terrace house, we are fortunate in being flanked on both sides by neighbours whose loudest intrusions are no more than an occasional volcanic sneeze or an early-morning flush. So how come I am dogged by music, even here in the quiet suburbs? One reason is that the decaying state of Weasel Villas necessitates constant attention by a stream of professional handymen. We used to employ a decrepit Teddy boy, his once-flamboyant quiff reduced to a few greasy locks. who was addicted to Capital Gold. His propensity to mislay radios provided no relief, since on the following morning he would turn up with yet another paint-spattered trannie. Eventually, there were four or five of them, all blaring out the sounds of the Sixties.

Though his replacement is happy to work without a broadcast background, he rarely lacks a musical accompaniment. If whistling ever comes to be recognised as an Olympic sport, this genial cove will be assured a place in our national team. Once you make the mistake of listening to his incessant warblings, it is impossible to tune out. Last Friday, I goggled mindlessly at my computer screen while his fruity version of "Big Spender" segued into "Blaydon Races" which melded seamlessly with "On Mother Kelly's Doorstep" and a patriotic melody comprising "English Country Garden", "Scotland the Brave" and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". When he embarked on extended improvisations based on "The Runaway Train" and "76 Trombones". I was overcome by a desire to cram his tin of Dulux over his melody-packed noggin. Instead, I went on a long, brooding walk comforted by the prospect of a silent Saturday.

So you can imagine my feelings when the first thing I heard on the following morning was a honking sax rendition of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" followed by "King of the Road" and "Girl from Ipanema". Squinting out of the window, I spotted the first- ever busker to set up his pitch within earshot of Weasel Villas. Whatever he lacked in musical prowess, he more than compensated in volume. His interpretations of jazz standards were so approximate that I became enthralled in guessing what they were. "Is that `Satin Doll'," I mused to a less- than-interested Mrs Weasel. "No, tell a lie, it's `Take The `A' Train'." I stuck it out through "The Pink Panther" and "Summertime" but was finally driven to take refuge in the local Waitrose by "Blowing in the Wind". "Never mind," Mrs W mollified me. "He won't be there tomorrow." True enough. Instead of the saxman, there was a bagpipe ensemble which enlivened the Sabbath for a couple of hours with the skirl of the pibroch. Perhaps Mr Brown might consider a wind-blow tax as well as a wind-fall tax?

My recent reflections regarding a rash bulk purchase of Brittany sardines (34 tins, all sans openers, are currently cluttering Weasel Villas) prompted several readers to contribute their memories of this piscine snack. An adventurous type from Herefordshire noted that the silvery savouries forever lost their appeal for him after he had been obliged to survive on them for a month when trapped during a Patagonian winter. Another correspondent from Derbyshire recalled an incident involving sardines when he was working in Arizona (the desert state is not the first place which springs to mind as a source of maritime yarns). It seems that in the Forties, the US Government supplied sardines in the rations for Hopi Indians who had been hired to construct a road through their reservation. Though they found the fish quite toothsome, the Hopi workers were suspicious of this addition to their traditional diet. In order to secure a continued supply, a tribal chief insisted that the tins actually contained local lizards. Thus placated, the Hopis happily consumed the fish.

While admitting to certain doubts about this tale - you'd think that the eagle-eyed Hopi, with their profound knowledge of the natural world, might have been able to spot the difference between saurians and sardines - I can confirm that the indigenous people of the American south-west do indeed have a partiality for the tinned tiddlers. In fact, their shops sell little else, as Mrs W and I discovered when touring the region a few years ago. We had driven into Utah from Arizona and checked into an isolated motel in Monument Valley. After watching the sun set over the prodigious, mitten-shaped rocks made famous by John Ford's Stagecoach. I ignored Mrs W's groans that she was famished and went off for a swim in the motel pool. Though it had only just turned 9pm when we arrived at the restaurant, a scowling waiter implacably shook his head behind the window of the bolted door. It transpired that the only place to obtain food at such an ungodly hour was a government store on the adjoining Navaho reservation. The expression on Mrs W's face as she surveyed the all-but-empty shelves is still etched on my memory. Being no great fish lover, she refused the banquet of tinned sardines au naturel which I prepared in our room. Maybe I should have told her that they were lizards.

It was, of course, Stagecoach which made a star of Marion Morrison, otherwise John "Duke" Wayne, in 1939. According to a revealing new biography, the rugged thespian detested horses when off-set, and dodged the draft in World War II. In fact, there was evidence two decades ago that Duke was not quite the fearless cowpoke he appeared. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Hunter Thompson describes how Wayne refused to meet a group of Vietnam war protesters in Miami and took off in a cab. "Playboy Plaza," he barked. "Jesus, I need a drink!" It's hardly "Take 'em to Missouri, Matt!" Incidentally, in the same volume, the notorious Dr Thompson describes his experience on the press plane of "smoking this very peculiar-looking hash pipe, a strange Lebanese flower pipe which was clearly a drug implement. And right next to us were four, straight- looking cameramen just looking in stone horror that here on a presidential campaign there were these addicts and loonies, all of them being paid, presumably well, by respectable newspapers." Will Self was 12 at the time.

Though I usually count myself a fan of the rumbustious Jennifer Paterson who gained televisual fame as 50 per cent of Two Fat Ladies, I don't think I'll be trying out the banana recipes in her latest Spectator column. In explaining her sudden obsession with the fruit, Ms Paterson tells us slightly more than most readers will want to know: "As a cure for my foot warts, I am having to bind each toe in fresh banana skins every day, so I have been trying to find ways of using the fruit..." Speaking personally, I would find it hard to nibble Jennifer's "Banana and Bacon Rolls" without thinking of her sadly afflicted tootsies. After reading recently that "turnip water" was regarded as a sure-fire cure for chilblains in the 18th century, I wouldn't be at all surprised to encounter a recipe for bashed neeps or turnip souffle (very good, according to Jane Grigson) in a future Spectator