The Weasel: Faced by a vast brown stain on the dining-room ceiling, caused by a corroded radiator, I recognised that something had to be done
Saturday 08 February 1997
Mrs W's initial report on the feng shui of chez nous was fairly rosy. Fortunately, the source of energy from our stove (the "fire-mouth") does not face the back door and our dining-room chairs possess an "auspicious horseshoe shape". Furthermore, we benefit by having our toilet on the north side of the house - but this is nothing to swank about down at the golf club. Because of the shar chi (nothing personal, but it means "pernicious, noxious breath") which emanates from such spots, there simply isn't a good place for a lavvy. If Lillian Too had her way, she'd get rid of them entirely: "toilets give trouble wherever they are placed".
But as Mrs W went deeper into the arcane secrets of this ancient, cosmic wisdom, her brow furrowed with concern. The fact that we have an excess of spikey leaved plants and distinct lack of wind-chimes can easily be remedied, but a more serious problem is posed by our windows. For a start, they are sash windows, which is bad enough ("the Chinese do not like windows that slide up and down"). Worse still, on one side, our windows are afflicted by glare from the setting sun, on the other by car headlights. Both are considered malign and, according to feng shui, should be blocked out. The resulting murk will at least enable us to take full advantage of the bowl of floating blue candles we are advised to install on the north side of our house to "spark career prospects".
The staircase brought more bad news. Apparently, the rules of feng shui "strenuously insist that staircases should never start directly in front of the main door", which is exactly what ours does (as in 99 per cent of British houses). But worst of all, we're told that feng shui masters do not like land that is "situated too close to churches" ("their strong Yin vibrations overwhelm the breath of life"). Spires are particularly malevolent since they "create harmful poison arrows" which "cause all kinds of difficulties and misfortunes". All most unfortunate, since one of the most impressive church spires in south-east London is approximately 20 yards from our front door. The obvious remedy is a bulldozer, but Lillian Too helpfully suggests that a row of trees or a swimming pool ("representative of wealth") may counter our bad fortune. Since she says sharp angles are also to be avoided, I might add that a certain rectangular object, containing 224 pages of credulous, authoritarian twaddle, is already sitting in my rubbish bin.
The appearance of the crooning gardener Roddy Llewellyn on Channel 4's profile of Princess Margaret brought back happy memories of my bachelor days. Not that Her Royal Highness's erstwhile inamorato was a frequent visitor to the heroically grungey accommodation which I shared in Lewisham with three equally easy-going fellows - but his LP, With Love From Roddy, was a treasured item in our eclectic record collection. The gatefold sleeve featured a full-length portrait of His Roddyness, with a hand provocatively inserted into the waistband of his tight jeans. Of course, his singing was terrible beyond words, but, nevertheless, this dire disc was brought out as a special treat whenever any of us managed to lure a young lady or two back to our flat for a nightcap. How we roared. Inevitably, his caterwauling was succeeded by another waxing with regal connections, Dame Barbara Cartland's record of love songs. (It's strange to think that Babs and Roddy would have been related if things had worked out differently.) I forget most of what she sang in her high, reedy voice, but I recall one spoken intro: "And I swear that for me a nightingale really did sing in Berkeley Square..."
Clutching our aching ribs, we reached for yet another rotten record to entertain our fair visitors. Who better to follow the Dame than the Duke? And John Wayne's America, Why I Love Her, an excruciating collection of patriotic ditties delivered in his distinctive growl ("A fireman who climbs a tree, To set a little kitten free"), would take a spin on the turntable. Wiping away our tears, we pulled down a further appalling platter. Like "Duke" Wayne, Sir Dirk Bogarde prefers to use the spoken word in his Lyrics for Lovers, but with terrible actorish inflections and pauses: "A foggy day [long gap] in London town [even longer gap], it had me low, it had me down [very fast, with great feeling]."
Scarcely able to speak for laughter, we then put on the piece de resistance of our collection: a double LP of speeches and sermons by Dr Ian Paisley. It's hard to say how much our female guests appreciated this torrent of entertainment because they always scuttled off after the first hour or so, never to return. Odd creatures, women.
There may have been grumblings about Rick Stein's feisty temper and burgeoning empire (Padstow is now referred to as Padstein by some disgruntled locals), but I will not hear a word said against the man. I have been a devotee for years. His two TV series are, by some distance, the most salivatory programmes ever seen on the box and his books are equally toothsome. His simple, inventive recipes have even won over Mrs Weasel, who previously eschewed the maritime riches which surround us on all sides - though I must admit that I have not yet persuaded her to test out Mr Stein's assertion, in his first book English Seafood Cookery, that "whelks... when freshly boiled in salt waster can taste almost like lobster, albeit a bit tough".
When I interviewed him at his restaurant seven years ago, he was charm itself. Though he didn't finish in the kitchen until after midnight, Mr Stein talked genially for almost an hour. His sterling qualities may be judged by his response to Mrs W, who took it upon herself (perhaps it was the lateness of the hour) to inform Britain's leading expert on fish cooking about the life-cycle of the crab. "They're particularly good at this time of year," she declared, "because they've grown winter coats under their shells." "Oh, really," he replied, with what appeared to be genuine astonishment at this curious piece of ichthyological intelligence, "I never knew that."
Surprisingly, the part of the meal which lingered longest in my mind was not lobster ravioli with basil and spinach, nor grilled sea bass with Pernod and fennel - though both were heavenly - but the creme brulee ice-cream. When I cheekily called Mr Stein a year later and asked for the recipe, so I could publish it in an ephemeral quarterly, he simply dictated it down the phone without a second's pause. You can try it yourself because it appears on page 196 of his new book, Fruits of the Sea. But for a really different ice-cream, you must turn to English Seafood Cookery. It's made with anchovies.
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