THE WEASEL

The rot set in when the Hard Rock Cafe began to draw long queues of moneyed but culturally homeless international youth to a glorified burger bar at the wrong end of Piccadilly
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dining out in the late Nineties is going to be something of an ordeal. Gone will be the days when you took your lady companion (imagine Mrs Weasel then - a pre-nuptial dream in floaty organza and pearls with the appetite of a starving she-elephant miles from the nearest bamboo tree) for a slap-up supper at the Casa Pepe, there to be regaled with servile Mediterranean banter and laughing injunctions to leave some room for the tiramisu which the owner's peasant grandmother had spent the afternoon lashing up in her rudely unmodernised, Bayswater-meets-Palermo kitchen.

Not any more. The rot set in when the Hard Rock Cafe, supervised by an image-crazed philistine called Robert Earl, began to draw long queues of moneyed but culturally homeless international youth to a glorified burger bar at the wrong end of Piccadilly, on the understanding that the presence of rock 'n' roll memorabilia on the wall would somehow mitigate the experience of chewing indifferent guess-the-meat roundels and hot fragments of potato dipped in children's-party relish pots. Years later, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones pulled off the same trick with Sticky Fingers, just off Kensington High Street. The food was the same nourishment- free fare, but the walls were covered with photographs of macrocephalic instrumentalists in states of disarray, and that, mystifyingly, made up for it.

Then there was Planet Hollywood (same food plus fat actors), then the Fashion Cafe (same food plus thin models), then the Australian "Ned Kelly" chain (do the waiters clank around in cast-iron headgear and laughingly steal your wallet?) and the "Easy Rider" franchise, presumably characterised by hashish starters and someone talking bollocks about the cosmos at the next table.

Now everything's gone completely screwy. "Ted" Turner, the CNN television mogul, has linked up with a brace of elderly rock musicians (Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues and someone from Dire Straits, two generations of what we used to call ``Sob Rock'') to launch a multi-theme restaurant in London's West End next year. In one section, you'll apparently imagine you're in Rick's Bar in Casablanca, in another you'll be able to watch the burning of Tara, from Gone With the Wind, along with your banana milkshake and bacon-bits-burger.

I look at these developments with a tear glistening on my cheek. "Theme restaurants" indeed - as opposed to Food Restaurants or Pleasant Atmosphere Restaurants or, God save the mark, Conversation Restaurants... Where will it end? More to the point, when will somebody think of producing a British version of the theme restaurant in Pulp Fiction, the one where the waiters are got up to resemble James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly? I can imagine having a good time in the Graham Greene Cafe, in which solitary, conscience-stricken diners are seated at plastic-sheeted tables in a mocked- up Mexican estaminet with nasty bead curtains, where nobody is expected to eat much but any demand that the waiter "just leave the bottle, OK?" will be met by the line, "Don't you think you've had enough, Reverende?". Or the Carry On Noshing establishment, in which you are drawn into conversation over dinner by a Cockney wide-boy and persuaded to start a toilet-roll business involving a tiny blonde receptionist with a relaxed attitude to underwear. Or the House of Commons Diner, in which the only patrons are sweaty Old Carthusians attempting to impress Medusa-haired researchers, their lecherous urgings interrupted by mobile- phone negotiations about money with Max Clifford.

None of these places will be the sort to take Mrs W in her Jaeger twinset; but if we have to enter the theme-park race, I suspect they'd do better business than most of the media-land monstrosities (the Kate Moss Salad-and-Bulimia Bar?) that are heading our way.

The oddest literary event of recent weeks must surely be the recent television appearance of AS Byatt. This most regal of novelists and scholars was called upon, not to give her views on Coleridge and Wordsworth, nor to examine the state of the literary scene, but to liven up Home Front, a programme about decorating.

Squeezed in among various snippets calculated to titillate those benighted souls one bumps into when wandering the aisles at Do It All, she was found showing off the stained glass that ennobles the hallway of her Putney home.

The effect was oddly shocking, like bumping into Harold Pinter in Ikea, although there is no reason why it should be. After all Ms Byatt famously spent her Booker prize money on a swimming pool. I shall, however, be watching future episodes of Home Front with interest. I have always wondered about Salman Rushdie's wallpaper.

Connoisseurs of human misery should forthwith abandon their Smiths albums and slim volumes of Philip Larkin and seek out a magazine called Staying Alive, published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which I stumbled across recently at my local library.

What a parade of paranoia lurks within. Faulty gas boilers, lethal Halloween lanterns, the danger of playing Power Rangers in the playground, the terror of in-line roller skating... There is even a problem page, which answers such posers as "Is it better to strap your child into a high-chair or not, knowing that this will make it more difficult to deal with choking?" by pointing out, reassuringly, that while 20 children a year die of choking, 20,000 are injured in accidents involving seating.

Also appealing is the "Danger Spots" column, highlighting recent product withdrawals you may have missed. Did you know, for instance, that the Body Shop's "Goblet Aroma Jar" has been recalled because it "may shatter in use"? Frightening.

The magazine's high-point, though, is an investigation into a major scandal: the under-reporting of fires. It seems that fewer than a quarter of all domestic fires are reported to the fire brigade. Now, you and I might think that that was perhaps because they were the kind you could deal with by the use of a damp teatowel rather than calling out Fireman Sam and his friends from Pontypandy. Not so, according to Staying Alive. "If fires are under-reported in such a massive way," asks a quietly hysterical editorial, "what other home accidents suffer the same fate?"

For some reason, the phrase "catalogue of disasters" springs unbidden to the lips but - even here - the magazine has got in first. "Catalogue of Disaster" is a regular feature which cheerily offers up "a selection of accidents reported in recent weeks". These include tourists plunging to their death while taking holiday snaps, toddlers getting their fingers stuck in plugholes and even a "bizarre gardening accident" in which a man falls off his step-ladder and makes the fatal error of landing on his shears. You can't, it seems, be too careful.

The day of the video pet is finally upon us: the Japanese company NEC has just introduced an extraordinary device for those of us who'd like tropical fish but who can't find the time for them. Sakana Hakkei, which apparently means "Eight beautiful views with fish", includes a laser-disc player containing footage of various aquatic species, plus a special high- density television monitor mounted behind a tank that you fill from the kitchen tap. There is even one of those things that passes bubbles through the water. All you are missing, in fact, are the chores of feeding and cleaning, the distinctive odour, and the deep pleasure of banging the glass, every now and then, to see if your finny charges are still alive.

The same principles seem to lie behind Video Baby, a tape just produced in the States for those who fancy being parents but only in the abstract. A pair of delightful infants crawl around, take baths and all the rest of it. But they never have to be changed, and if you get bored, you can always switch them to fast-forward for a while. If only life were like that

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