Stars are, so to speak, in the air all of a sudden. After beaming prettily for ten billion years, a gaggle of galaxies finally had their snap taken by the Hubble Space Telescope last week. A month earlier, Hubble photographed an immense pink cloud of interstellar gas, like a nine-billion- mile-high helping of candy floss. Back on terra firma, our own dear Radio 4 has launched a series of programmes with a space theme. As an introduction, the station's homely platoon of Met-men offered suggestions for star-gazing. "It's find-the-fuzzy-patch time," joshed John Kettley, before describing "the dim oval shape of the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2,000 million light years away or, in plain English, 12 million, million miles away." Well, you can't say plainer than that.
Astro-fever struck Weasel Villas a few years ago (ahead of the pack as always) when, hoping to entrance Mrs W with the beauty of the celestial regions, I invested in something called a planisphere. Despite the fancy name, it is merely a map of the heavens printed on a plastic disc, which you can adjust to show the night sky at any particular time on any day of the year (Chaucer wrote a guide to using a medieval version of a similar gizmo). The instructions tell you to hold it over your head, with the centre of the map directly above your eye. As a result you look as if you're steering an imaginary car skywards.
It was then I realised that south London is scarcely an ideal location for star-spotting. Aside from the light pollution, you are likely to encounter a certain amount of abuse when the pubs turn out. ("What's that geezer doin? Polishing yer halo, mate?") No wonder the Royal Greenwich Observatory decamped to Majorca.
Despite these hindrances, we identified the Plough easily enough, and Orion's Belt was a doddle. But after that we came a little unstuck. Instead of the elaborate detail and cross-hatching with which constellations are endowed in astronomical etchings, you have to solve a dim and incredibly confusing game of join-the-dots. It's a gallimaufry up there, with kings and queens, gods and nymphs jostling alongside a whole menagerie of beasts, real and mythological. Serpents and sea-snakes are particularly popular, their curls being ideal for linking a raggedy line of stars.
After a while, of course, you start making your own connections between the dots of light, and inventing your own stellar configurations. I've been doing it for a while and have high hopes of adding to the 88 constellations which currently revolve around our heads. A couple of clear nights ought to wrap it up. So when in the future you see putorius nivalis marked on a star map, you'll know which small, whiskery creature it purports to resemble.
The trouble with space exploration, of course, is that, for everything you discover about what's Out There, three things have to be undiscovered because they're revealed as untrue. Virtually the first thing the Hubble told us was that the universe isn't composed of whatever we thought it was made of, and all our notions of matter being concentrated into Red Dwarfs and Black Suns were no more than wild guesswork.
Now the Galileo spacecraft that's orbiting Jupiter has come up with the news that the biggest planet in the solar system isn't, as expected, covered with water. And that, instead of having the same chemical make-up as the sun, it's stiff with weirdie elements like xenon and krypton. "If we find there is a non-solar mix of chemical elements on Jupiter, it sends all theories of how it was formed back to the drawing board," said an Oxford science prof called Taylor. "We need to find out whether this water exists somewhere else on the planet."
Let me get this straight. Jupiter, far from being a stolid and boring old lake at the end of the universe, is actually a mysterious and groovy place where you can find a gas named after a sprauncy Piccadilly nightclub (Xenon) and a real-life pile of that supposedly fictional green stuff that Superman's afraid of. Plus, if Prof Taylor is right, there's some kind of speakeasy over on the dark, Las Vegas side of the planet where supplies of water are being secretly stockpiled, like a warehouse of Evian, by a madman with a pointy head. Gosh. Who said science was dull?
Fans of The Archers will not need me to tell them of the upheaval which has recently befallen us. All over the country, listeners heard with horror the words of Phil Archer, the dreary sage of Ambridge: "I thought my salsa went down rather well last night," he witters. "Jill, did you remember to get the polenta?"
Today Brookfield Farm, tomorrow the world. When Phil, the most paternalistic figure in entertainment history, starts sporting an apron, the writing is on the wall. A new ingredient has arrived in Britain's domestic kitchens, and it's called testosterone. It's now the man who wields the skillet in the garlicky larders of suburbia.
What surprises me is that it hasn't happened before. Culinary creativity offers incomparable opportunities for one of man's greatest pleasures: showing off. Whether flashily crushing cloves of garlic with a slam of his favourite Sabatier or flaring a pond of eau de vie for some killer pudding, your host knows he's going to be the centre of attention.
But where amateur chefs go wrong is in having pipe-dreams about turning professional. As soon as the first warning signs appear - buying the trade papers, eyeing vacant premises, indulging in Marco-Pierre-style tantrums - it's time to deflate the fellow's ego. Open the oven door while his souffles are rising. Make sure his creme brulees are really burnt. Give the polenta to Rags the Rottweiler. Be sensible and hide that River Cafe Cookbook.
Age overcame the Weasel's father-in-law last week. It descended upon him like a cloudburst, dampening his ardour and all but ruining his holiday. Worst of all, it came in the post.
The old boy, I should point out, is an unusually hale and well-preserved example of the species. His teeth are his own. His coat is glossy. And he takes rather more exercise than anyone else in the family, including (shamefully) oneself. Every January for the past 40 years, he has taken his wife skiing down some gentle declivity in Austria, and this year he booked their trip, as usual, just before Christmas.
They were all set to go. Skis packed, his and hers acrylic'n'goosedown jumpsuits safely stowed, sponge-bags crammed with Phyllosan and Iron Jelloids, tickets in hand, passports in pocket, they were about to ring a cab to go to Heathrow, when a letter arrived. Sorry, wrote the ski-holiday firm, but we aren't able to insure you for this holiday. We've just noticed that you will shortly be 65.
Bloody hell, thought the master of a thousand snow-plough turns, I'd no idea I was past it. He tried to feel grateful to the holiday people for breaking it to him before the actual dawn of that most damning of anniversaries. Otherwise, it could have been pretty nasty. Why, he could have ceased to be an insurance proposition at the stroke of noon on his 65th birthday, at the very moment when he was careering down a black run at 98 mph, his wiry frame clenched like an acrobat's, as he scattered flaxen-haired instructors and vacationing Eurotrash in his spectacular wake. That's the thing about suddenly becoming old and tragically over the hill. If you're lucky, you may be travelling too fast to noticeReuse content