The Weasel: My eye was taken by the interior of a nuclear reactor (`Please keep off the core')
Saturday 03 January 1998
Wandering through this weirdly eclectic cornucopia, my eye was taken by a pair of Vivienne Westwood high-heels covered in Axminster carpet, a collection of ancient ploughs, a Ford Edsel containing a smooching pair of mannequins, a model of "a typical gasworks of the 1930s", a display of early thermometers and the interior of a nuclear reactor ("Please keep off the core").
Despite the swarms of shorn-headed urchins in the hands-on exhibitions, large areas of the museum seemed unpopulated. The sole sign of life in the "Food for Thought" gallery was a video noisily elucidating mysteries of the sugar-beet industry: "Sugar beet is grown under the watchful, constantly attentive care of British Sugar before going to British Sugar's 13 strategically- situated sugar factories..." Corporate sponsorship was also evident in the retail section where visitors were given the exciting opportunity to scan the bar-codes on tins of Sainsbury's Beans and Pork Sausages and Sainsbury's Lentil and Bacon Soup so they can print out their own supermarket bill. Nearby, there was a rebuilt section of a J Sainsbury shop from 1920, though the vile replica cheese and rancid-looking bacon, which also appeared to date from the Twenties, were scarcely a tempting advertisement for the chain.
The school playground aspect of the Science Museum detracts from its remarkable collection. On the third floor, the scientific instruments of George III are displayed in exemplary fashion - there is a vacuum pump which might have come straight from the painting by Joseph Wright of Derby - but these burnished marvels hold scant appeal compared with the chance to play disc-jockey in the museum's "On Air" radio studio or be tumbled around in a Flight Simulator.
Some of the exhibits are slightly inexplicable. A group of French schoolchildren stared in perplexity at the whirling threshers of a combine harvester from the Fifties. A tableau on Britain's docks consisted of a pile of tea-chests and an elderly black-and-white film of cloth-capped stevedores. "Advanced planning and paperwork makes everything go smoothly," barked the commentary in the tones of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner.
For obvious reasons, there are few national contributions in the "Space Exploration" section. Unless you include a "Pains-Wessex Line-Carrying Rocket", the solitary British item appeared to be a Black Arrow, "Britain's first and only satellite launch vehicle." We learn that four of the five Black Arrows were launched. "The fifth, displayed here, was not flown following the cancellation of the project on 29 July 1971." Polished by the hands of millions of schoolchildren, the all-British projectile still looked in pretty good nick. Perhaps we can revive the project as a national firework for 31 December 1999?
Like nearly everybody else in this benighted country, I am consumed with desire for oxtail. What on earth possessed Jack Cunningham to issue such a batty diktat? My own belief is that, as a Geordie lad, the kitchen is utterly alien territory to "Union" Jack. Since stottie cake, chips and pease-pudding have satisfied the nutritional needs of generations of north-easterners, why should the rest of us wish for anything more? This farcical ban, which has done such irretrievable damage to the Blair government, is so extreme and groundless that our old friend the conspiracy theory has inevitably bobbed into view. "This decision makes me feel anxious," frets my fellow columnist Nigella Lawson in The Times. "What is going on - and why?"
Ridiculous, of course. And, yet, there is evidence for the pernicious effect of oxtail. Sad to say, this delicious cut is a "signature dish" of the uniquely gruesome TV chef de cuisine Gary Rhodes. If his oleaginous performances are anything to go by, the consequences of long-term oxtail consumption are dire indeed. In this light, Dr Jack's interdict suddenly becomes more intelligible. Still, it would have been simpler to ban Gary Rhodes.
As I've remarked before, we should pinch the French celebration of Twelfth Night which falls on Monday. They consume a delicious cake called a galette des rois containing a small figurine. Whoever gets it in their slice is declared king or queen (according to sexual orientation) for the night. In his acclaimed book, Simple French Food, Richard Olney remarks "Nowadays the game is an excuse for friends to gather together and drink champagne. Quite distinguished company is apt to turn loud and bawdy in this joyous atmosphere."
I was interested to discover that the British also have the custom of making a Twelfth Night cake - but, to be honest, it somehow lacks the finesse of the French version. Our tradition involves baking a "cow cake" intended to keep cattle healthy (the evidence suggests that it has fallen into desuetude). It is not eaten but hung over the horns of a cow by a gang of drunken wassailers who stay in the cowshed until the cake falls off and is trampled to bits. It certainly sounds a hoot, but if you're thinking of baking a cow cake, I wouldn't let Dr Cunningham know.
A pal of mine returned with a salutory tale after popping for a pint in Penge. A canny sort of chap, he regards pounds 3 as a more-than-adequate outlay for a jacket. Yet he fell victim to a salesman for whom the word "irresistible" is an understatement. Opening his holdall, the huckster started his spiel by producing a calculator on a key-ring. "I gave it away later," my friend recalled, "but it was only a pound." Then followed a purse. "My wife will have nothing to do with it," said my chum, "but that was only a pound as well." Then followed a fancy vegetable- peeler for pounds 3. "He claimed they sold for pounds 18 on the Shopping Channel," muttered my pal. "You wouldn't like it, would you?" Finally, the salesman produced his piece de resistance, a radio which has to be tuned using a computer "mouse". "Yes, I know I only listen to Radio 4, but it was only a fiver," my crony explained, a touch testily. "No, I haven't got it to work yet." The odd thing is that everyone in the pub bought the same four items. Resistance is useless. If you encounter the bloke, give him pounds 10 immediately and save yourself the trouble of getting rid of the tat.
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