The Weasel

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Coincidentally, on the very day that Buckingham Palace admitted it was undertaking an in-depth probe into the future of the monarchy, I mounted my own investigation into Buckingham Palace. By joining a group of pensioners from Kent - distressingly little disguise was required - I found myself among the vanguard of an estimated 400,000 visitors expected to shuffle round at pounds 8.50 a time while the Queen is on her eight-week Scottish sojourn. The hard-sell begins even before visitors pass through the metal detector, as each is presented with a catalogue of gewgaws (from choccy bars at pounds 2 to a musical box costing pounds 495) available from the Buckingham Palace Shop. The crocodile of gawpers is then led through a hut solely devoted to the sale of Official Guides (pounds 3.50).

After skirting a vaguely municipal courtyard, we were finally admitted to the state rooms open to the public. The accumulation of gilt ornamentation, marble staircases, etched skylights and over-sized settees closely resembled a child's vision of heaven and was much to the taste of a wide-eyed group from the American Mid-West. "It's just awesome," gasped an ecstatic matron at a room filled with mediocre portraits of courtiers - a Steward of the Household from 1832 was a spit for the actor who plays Q in the Bond films.

In the Throne Room, visitors stared in rapt concentration at a pair of empty chairs, embroidered respectively with "ER" and "P". If there was any truth in the notion of telekinesis, the regal duo would have instantly materialised on the over-stuffed cushions.

The prose of the Official Guide is as rococo as the decoration. It describes the Blue Drawing Room as "the ne plus ultra of Georgian sumptuousness". Though it usefully notes that the Music Room was where "the Queen's three eldest children were all baptised in water brought from the River Jordan," the Guide unfortunately omits any mention of the greatest artefact in the Palace, Vermeer's Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, recently returned from The Hague.

Moreover, there is such a yawning cordon sanitaire dividing the visitors from the artworks that it is difficult to see much of the jewel-like Dutch masterpiece. Obviously, the Palace regards the idea of labels as impossibly vulgar. In order to discern the identity of the paintings - it is hard to tell one murky Poussin from another - the public is obliged to decode the hieroglyph-like plans in the Guide. Most people attempted to accomplish this by holding the booklet upside down.

Buckingham Palace was not, to be honest, a homely kind of place. A hint of quotidian domesticity was, however, to be found in the fireplaces. Some of these were decorated with pieces of white card snipped so as to resemble flames (perhaps Her Majesty herself plies the scissors to while away winter nights) but most contained a rather unexpected heating device - a two-bar electric fire. In each case, this grand version of the student's stand-by was oddly accompanied by a lavish assortment of pokers and coal- tongs. Latter-day Jacobins might see these burnished but redundant fire- irons as a metaphor for the members of a certain Northern European island monarchy. Not me, of course.

Sometimes, it seems that every second pub in London has suddenly gone "Oirish". One minute your local is the drab Marquess of Granby, with broken juke-box and fossilised sausage rolls; the next it's O'Neill's Shamrock Bar, painted a virulent green and decorated with specially distressed shillelaghs and plastic fiddles. Loudspeakers blast out jigs and come- all-ye's, while patrons, obviously concerned for the financial welfare of the Guinness family, selflessly apply themselves to the task of flooring stout by the gallon. Sadly, this wave of popularity for Hibernian hostelries came too late for one such haunt. Ward's Irish Bar, a catacomb-like establishment in Piccadilly Circus, was demolished to make way for a gimcrack tourist trap some years ago. This subterranean parlour could not in turn be described as the jolliest emanation of the Celtic spirit. Nevertheless, the gloomy, wood-panelled rooms, decorated with sepia prints of rainswept peaks, were not without a certain charm.

The dank, brumous atmosphere was not conducive to tumult or upset, but shortly after opening time one evening, I experienced an untoward incident. I was taking a scoop in the Leinster Room with a few friends, when I noticed a young man standing a few feet from our table and staring intently at me. Two things were immediately apparent: firstly, he was already well- refreshed; secondly, he had inexplicably taken against your own friend, the genial Mr Weasel.

After glaring for several minutes, he bellowed: "D'ye know the name of a doctor?"

"Er, no," I spluttered, desperately attempting to resume the conversation at our table.

"D'ye know the name of a doctor?" he repeated, even louder.

"No. Maybe someone at the bar can help." I nodded towards the counter, which, as always in this kind of situation, was completely empty.

"D'YE KNOW THE NAME OF A DOCTOR?"

"No, I've told you I don't." Those were not my exact words, for I was tiring of my new acquaintance's medical inquiries.

"WELL, YOU'RE GOING TO NEED ONE." And with that, he drew back his arm in preparation for delivering a haymaker. I wasn't too concerned, recognising early on that John Barleycorn was going to be on my side in the event of a fracas. It was, however, slightly daunting to see my opponent remove his false teeth. This was obviously a familiar routine to him.

Fortunately, the bar staff had been observing proceedings and, in a well- practised manoeuvre, gave him the bum's rush into Shaftesbury Avenue. I don't know if the brewing conglomerates responsible for the recent rash of Irish drinking houses wish to install fellows like this to add a bit of atmosphere, but it shouldn't be too hard to round up a few.

In the fashion of much modern fiction, Philip Norman's novel, Everyone's Gone to the Moon, set in Swinging London, incorporates a number of real- life figures. At one point, the hero encounters Mick and Marianne at Paddington Station. He observes an army of screaming fans surrounding a "bronze Tommy in the Great War memorial [who] gazed down with a philosophical air, as if he'd seen all this before at Mons or Passchendaele". Mr Norman doesn't remark on the fact - perhaps he doesn't know - but this fine sculpture, which stands at Platform 1, is the work of Charles Sergeant Jagger (1885- 1934). And, yes, he was a distant relation.

A recent survey reports that sales of white sliced bread have declined, while exotic varieties, including ciabetta, olive and tomato breads, have continued to grow in popularity. The political implications of this trend are made clear in a new tome, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775, by Steven Laurence Kaplan (Duke University Press). He notes that, for most of the 18th century, Parisians were proud of eating a "better, softer, whiter, wheat-based bread" than that produced in other regions. It was only when exotic loaves, incorporating bean and potato flour, were introduced by the government that the populace began to cut up rough. Will the same pattern repeat itself in Britain 220 years on? Can the ciabatta convert us into citizens? Could the guillotine be the best thing since sliced bread?

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