THE WEASEL

The vertical forms of the bleached timber are mirrored by the electricity pylons marching from the nuclear plants to the northern horizon
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The news that the Vatican is to return, albeit temporarily, fragments of St Thomas a Becket reminds us that Canterbury was the favourite destination of English pilgrims in the Middle Ages. As Mrs W and I discovered the other day, perhaps the nearest modern equivalent to this shrine is situated approximately 25 miles south of the ancient cathedral. It must be admitted that Dungeness is a somewhat unlikely place for a pilgrimage. We headed off there after coming across an account in Arthur Mee's guide to Kent, published in 1936, which remarked on "the desolation of this dreary place. He who has been once will probably not wish to go again." Irresistible, don't you think? In recent years, the appeal of this shingle formation has scarcely been enhanced by the construction of two nuclear power stations.

I doubt if the depressing coastal road from Lydd would inspire a latter- day Chaucer. Its main features of interest are military in nature: a scattering of Martello Towers and an army firing range, where we observed a gaggle of squaddies blasting away at some gaily painted chalets which serve as targets (the experience should prove invaluable if Britain is ever obliged to invade Southwold). As you go further along, the tacky seaside developments decline to a single-file ribbon of houses and eventually disappear entirely. At Dungeness, the domestic architecture consists of isolated fishing huts. Along the tide line, a straggling line of boats and nets denotes the area's main non-radioactive source of income. Lacking a harbour, the vessels beach themselves by hitting the shingle bank at full-tilt, like those killer whales snatching basking seals in the celebrated nature film. It is one of these fishing huts, called Prospect Cottage, which is the destination of present-day pilgrims. Here, the film director and artist Derek Jarman created his famous garden between 1986 and his death three years ago. Even on a blustery day in mid-February, there were half a dozen cars parked opposite and visitors were contemplating the pebble circles painstakingly created in front of the black hut and the 100 or so pieces of driftwood erected to the rear. In early summer, the unfenced garden erupts with sea kale, valerian and yellow poppies. Right now, however, the driftwood rising from the bare Dungeness shingle resembles saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert. The vertical forms of the bleached timber are mirrored by the electricity pylons marching from the nuclear plants to the northern horizon.

As I was congratulating myself on deciphering the gnarled wooden script on the south wall of the cottage as being part of a Donne love poem ("Busie old foole, unruly Sunne..."), I heard a tinkling of mysterious, flutey jazz from within. Of course, I recalled, Jarman filmed his own version of The Tempest: "The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs." Round the back of the cottage, I encountered the Prospero who inhabits this magical spot. He was a young man struggling out of a pair of waders.

I explained more or less who I was, mentioning the Independent, but skipping over my role as the Weasel (sometimes modesty is the best policy). He seemed less than overwhelmed. "Not another journalist! There's been an article every week for the last five years," he muttered. "I've been fishing since dawn and I'm off to bed. Best of luck." Can't blame him, I thought, as the latest party of pilgrims began to crunch their way round his patio.

Though it is pleasing to see the utter indifference with which the British public has greeted Channel 5, there is another viewing option which I can whole-heartedly recommend following an experience in a darkened room in Greenwich Park. The picture before me was big and the colour rendered with remarkable subtlety and naturalness. I doubt if even the most technically advanced TV image could begin to compete with it. Moreover, the detail was extraordinary. Only a trundling red double-decker and the puffs of smoke floating up from a factory chimney acted as a reminder that I was viewing a moving image rather than a painting in the style of Canaletto. An earlier observer of the same mechanism shared my delight. "The prettiest landscape I ever saw was drawn on the walls of a dark room," declared the essayist Joseph Addison in 1712, following his visit to the camera obscura in Greenwich Observatory. As a booklet on the device points out: "Its enduring charm could be attributed to its magical quality which makes the projected view even more beautiful than reality."

Located in a 17th-century kiosk overlooking Greenwich Hill, the recently refurbished camera obscura now projects a stunning view of east London on to a table-top. The lens which gathers the light for this display is rotated by an electric motor. While a tape of harpsichord music tinkles in the background, a changing panorama gently swims below your eyes, from the dome of St Paul's (glimpsed for less than a second), past the glittering cliffs of Canary Wharf, the knotty rigging of the Cutty Sark, Wren's imposing Royal Naval College and Inigo Jones' restrained Queen's House, finally to the slightly less distinguished tower blocks of Poplar and the East Greenwich gas-holder, where Mrs W and I did our courting, before returning in the opposite direction.

Children enjoying a half-term tour of the Observatory were somewhat baffled by the image flowing before them. "Look, there's people walking round," shouted one sprog, before peering under the table to see where the magic picture was coming from. They were puzzled, thrilled and bored by it, well within the three-minute attention-span ascribed to modern youth. You would have thought they might have stayed a bit longer. After all, they were watching east-enders.

The news that Lord Lloyd Webber issued a threat to leave Britain if Tony Blair wins the election must have been a weighty consideration for many a floating voter. But shortly afterwards, he retracted his position somewhat. "I am deeply committed to Britain and have never been resident abroad," asserted his lordship, whose wealth is estimated at pounds 550 million. "I would never leave Britain unless forced to by punitive taxation." (Could Mr Gordon Brown be persuaded to extend his windfall tax to the composers of inexplicably popular musicals?) Lord L W's patriotism, however, did not apparently extend to his latest musical production Whistle Down the Wind, which closed in Washington recently. For reasons known only to himself, the great tunesmith chose to shift the setting of this brooding tale from the draughty crags of Yorkshire to the sultry swamplands of Louisiana. Eh bah gumbo!

In response to numerous expressions of concern about ghostly goings- on at Weasel Villas, I wish to announce that for the past month the mugs hanging in our dining-room cupboard have been notable for their inertia. Several readers with engineering associations were eager to offer rational explanations for the spooky oscillation previously displayed by one piece of crockery. Including a series of explanatory graphs in his letter, one correspondent insisted that Weasel Villas was afflicted not by a poltergeist but "ground transmitted vibration". He noted that the deviant hook must be "exactly on the frequency node of a sine wave", adding with more generosity than accuracy that "I'm sure you knew all about this". Well, I'll take his word for it. Not only can we cancel the exorcist, but Mrs W will be pleased to know that she can hang her Spode on a node.

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