The Weasel

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Thumbing through the Sunday Times the other day, I was alarmed to learn that Britain's natural history museums are having the stuffing kicked out of them. In a fit of political correctness, many institutions are junking their displays of stuffed animals. "We are more squeamish and sensitive to causes of death than our forebears," explained Giles Clarke, head of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum. "We will always display the best, but much of the rest, I'm afraid, is fated to go the way of the dodo." This seemed an unfortunate way of putting it, since, on the previous day, I happened to visit the University Museum in Oxford, where a few surviving fragments of the great flightless bird of Mauritius form one of the most popular exhibits. There isn't much to see because the university, perhaps in an early "PC" gesture, torched most of its dodo skeleton in 1794. Only the skull, a patch of skin and a scaly foot were saved. Resembling the detritus of a particularly hearty banquet - though, in fact, dodo meat was said to "quickly cloy and nauseate the stomach" - the remnants serve as a poignant reminder of Dodus ineptus.

With many of its downstairs display cases given over to quaintly-named "Motorway Fossils", which turn out to be Jurassic fruits de mer discovered during the construction of the M40, the University Museum keeps its few examples of the taxidermist's art tucked away in a rarely visited upstairs gallery. And there, frozen between an American mink and pine marten, I came across me or, to be precise, the tiny animal after which this column is named. Contrary to the anthropomorphic conceits of certain readers, these words are being tapped out by a creature which is six feet four inches in length rather than eight inches. Nor do I possess the enviable ability to twist my backbone into a perfect S-shape. Still, I rather liked the description, of the weasel as being "cosmopolitan in habitat". Unfortunately, this turned out to mean "occurring from lowland farmland to mountain regions", rather than patronising the Cipriani in Venice or the Crillon in Paris.

Not far from the stuffed wildlife, it is possible to see a number of cleverly preserved specimens of another mammalian species, Homo sapiens. Via a small door at the back of the museum, visitors can enjoy the Alice- like experience of entering the fabulous, cluttered hoard of the Pitt- Rivers anthropological collection. Located somewhere between an 1898 Mauser rifle ("loaned by Cheltenham Ladies College") and a witch imprisoned in a stoppered silver bottle ("If you let un out, there be a peck o'trouble", warns a label), there is a much-viewed array of shrunken heads, acquired from the Jivaro indians of East Ecuador. If you fancy doing a spot of shrinking yourself, a note explains that the technique involves removal of brain and skull, then boiling for two hours in water containing the juice of the chinchipi vine, before burying in hot sand and stones.

Far from evincing any politically correct inclinations to withdraw its shrunken heads from public view, the Pitt-Rivers Museum recently introduced a souvenir puzzle, featuring two of its teensy, preserved conks. "Who don't you like?" said the saleswoman when I snapped one up. Of course, Mrs W polished off the jig-saw in quick-sticks but I'm not sure if I entirely like the speculative looks she's been giving me ever since. It's just as well that we're fresh out of chinchipi juice.

Determined to cool our anticipation of the warm months, a survey in the British Medical Journal reveals that one in three people suffer a brief but severe headache after eating ice-cream in summer. Depending on where the ice-cream touches the palate, a "stabbing, aching pain" may afflict various parts of the head for five to 20 seconds. Well, I can go one better than that. The last ice-cream I made, before Mrs W banned my use of the apparatus, not only gave one in three people a temporary headache, it endowed 100 per cent of consumers with a nasty stomach gripe approximately half an hour later. In most respects, my Gooseberry Surprise was a dazzling success. It was strikingly verdant in colour, with a tangy, slightly tart flavour. All who tasted it agreed that my gelato captured the elusive quintessence of goosegogs - unfortunately, they experienced the surprise shortly afterwards. Grilled by Mrs W about my culinary breakthrough, I was forced to admit that, in a moment of absent-mindedness, I had omitted to cook the fruit.

Since then, I have preferred to buy my ice-cream from the professionals. It strikes me that the mind-boggling choice offered at certain outlets is enough to bring on a headache. One company near us includes Bubble- gum, Christmas Pudding and Turkish Delight among its three dozen licks. My favourite was a bitter-sweet Marmalade variety which made a brief appearance last year. At a long-gone ice-cream parlour on Tottenham Court Road, I once tried Celery ice-cream. Once was enough - but I went back time and again for Ricotta flavour (In Elizabeth David's Harvest of the Cold Months, we learn that cheese-flavoured ices are nothing new. An ice-cream "with a strong flavouring of Parmesan" was popular around 1800.) I read recently of an outlet in Singapore which boasts over 300 different kinds, including Curry and Garlic. In view of the discovery that ice-cream induces mal de tete, I imagine that Aspirin flavour will be all the rage this summer. One person in three should go for it.

Where have all these scientists come from? Once safely closeted in their laboratories, hovering over bubbling alembics and retorts, boffins are suddenly everywhere. Radio 4's Start the Week has become their exclusive domain, and, more to the point, they have come to dominate my social life. It started when a cackling chemist latched on to me while on holiday in Italy. For the rest of the week, our talk on the beach was dominated by polymer chains. At a party in Leamington Spa the other day, a materials scientist button- holed me for not much more than an hour and three-quarters with the latest gossip about semi-conductors. But the nadir came at a house-warming in Camberwell, when I was cornered by a German bacteriologist. After informing me at infinite length about the malign ingenuity of bacillus, he decided to essay a spot of small-talk. "Zo, Mr Veasel," he enquired, "how much do you veigh, in grammes?" No wonder people refer to the art of conversation.

A notable event in Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon's best-selling 18th- century pastiche, occurs relatively early in the epic novel when Charles Mason, while observing the annual cheese-rolling in a Gloucestershire village, narrowly escapes from being squashed by a four-ton Giant Octuple cheese: "The homicidal ponderosity rolled by without the interruption of a flatten'd Mason to divert it from its Destiny." Unfortunately, I've never seen cheese-rolling take place - it involves the reckless pursuit of a round of fromage down a precipitously steep slope - though I once saw the aftermath in the Leicestershire village of Stilton. From a culinary viewpoint, this is one of the world's most disappointing destinations, since not a particle of the eponymous cheese is manufactured there. The sole local link with this lactic delicacy seems to be haring after the stuff. When I arrived there, an hour or so after the event, virtually every inhabitant seemed to be sozzled. Several young men bore bloody wounds from their chase for the curd. "Will the cheese be cut up now?" I asked, ravenous for a morsel. "Have you brought a saw?" chortled one of the less intoxicated residents. It turned out that the tumbling Stilton was actually made of wood. Hard cheese, indeed.

Comments