Up & Down canary wharf
Saturday 11 February 1995
I wasn't even sure how I'd got there, half a mile above the bosky dells of Hampshire in a sort of minimally upholstered bucket. Half an hour earlier, I had been simply visiting the picturesque, if hardly sophisticated, environs of Old Sarum - a place otherwise known only for its status as the classic "rotten borough" in the run-up to the 1833 Reform Bill. Next thing I knew, I had stumbled on the local flying club and was bewitched.
Midget black helicopters, Airfix-model Tiger Moths and airplanes identified only by cryptic markings like disastrous Scrabble hands - g-bjng, g-bnog - grazed in a wide meadow. Serious-looking chaps in elaborate moustaches strode purposefully about. Tiny planes like mosquitoes took off and landed. A charming scene, but the idea that any sensible person would ever go up in one of these devices was clearly laughable. Instead, we had tea and sponge-cake and admired the view. Microlights and kamikaze biplanes meandered across the sky. Then someone said, with infinite casualness, "Care for a spin?" and that was that.
A recklessly handsome cove called Simon, all aviator shades and leather jacket, levered me into the passenger seat and applied some crude bondage apparatus to my quaking form. A dashboard full of antique instrumentation met my eyes, along with the notice: all aircraft eat fools. no acrobatics without training. Then, just as I was was asking some searching preliminary questions ("Where is the brake?"; "Does this radio play Melody FM?"), he surreptitiously took off. It was not until a squadron of ducks flew past the windscreen that I realised we were in mid-air. I glanced at Simon suspiciously. He was clutching a phallic lever intently, but none of his limbs had moved a millimetre since we got in. "Just levelling off," he said airily. "You want to take over?" Bloody hell. Take over what?
I have flown, I need hardly say, before. I am no stranger to the long-haul flight, the 11-hour red-eye, the Would-you-care-for-a-brandy-before-the-movie ride to the ends of the earth. I can hack the 30,000-feet stuff without a qualm. But put me in a tiny plane a hundred yards above the trees and it's a quite different cauldron of herrings. Try to remember the most vertiginously sick-making funfair ride from your misspent childhood, treble it and you have an inkling of the joy of recreational flying.
Back on the ground again, in the club shack, I found myself surrounded by instructors and tyro flyers, all sounding like the younger, two-legged Douglas Bader. It was the quintessence of Brit. Nobody actually said "Wizard prang", but it was close. Condemnation of the stupidity of others ("I said to him, you brought the Slingsby down with such a bump, you'll have to claim three landing-times, har har." "Just couldn't get near the strip. The other prats in the circuit totally carved me up.") vied with tales of near-misses and derring-do: "So there I was at flight-level nosebleed, nothing on the clock but the maker's name..." Suddenly I was converted. Forty hours' training, navigational exams, three thousand quid, but it would be worth it. I flung my white silk scarf over one shoulder. "Must fly," I murmured. "Have to be in Cherbourg in half an hour." The Weasel has landed.
H H H
There has been much excitement this week about John Major's alleged former career as a toyboy. But far more interesting is that hitherto unsung character, John Major's mum. In a tantalisingly brief series of vignettes we heard of Mrs Major's squabbling with his putative lover, Jean Kierans, over young John's smalls and, then, when the pair attempted to run off to the sun, following them on the next plane.
There seems here to be the makings of a promising television sitcom: And Mother Makes Three, starring Patricia Routledge as Gwen Major (or Ball, or Major-Ball), Harry Enfield as John and Leslie Ash as Jean:
A suburban living room. Jean and John sit on a sofa in the middle of the room.
Jean: Oh, John, at last we're alone. If only your mother would give us a bit of privacy. Why can't she understand that we're young and in love and we have...needs.
(Suggestive laugh from audience)
John: Yes, Jean, it is rather unsatisfactory. But she's trying.
Jean: Very trying! [More laughter]
John: Oh, Jean...
Jean: She's an interfering old boot and I wish she'd leave us in peace.
John: Don't be too hard on her, Jean. She means well. Only the other day she offered to come with us if we wanted to go on holiday to the West Indies.
John: No it was her idea. [Laughter] I expect she still thinks of me as a little boy. We used to enjoy holidays together. Indonesia, for instance.
John: No, she weighs 18 stone. [Prolonged applause] Anyway, she's not here now. Jean - [Softly] there's something I wunt. I wunt it more than I have ever wunted anything before.
Jean: More than you wanted that job as a bus conductor?
John: Much more. (Leans towards her romantically)
Gwen (appearing suddenly from behind sofa): John Major, you're a dirty, dirty boy.
John: What do you mean, Mother?
Gwen: I've been looking everywhere for your boxer shorts. Have you been wearing the same pair all this time?
John: No mother. It's Jean...
Gwen: What? Jean's been wearing your underpants?
(Hysterics from audience)
John: No, mother, it's not that.
Gwen: But you always used to give me your bundles of dirty washing.
John: Yes, but lately I've been giving her one.
(Collapse of audience. Ambulance called. 13-part series commissioned by Alan Yentob.)
H H H
I popped into the International Toy Fair at Olympia the other day. Though, of course, it holds a theoretical appeal for the 11-year-old in all of us, the reality was rather grim. It is, I'm afraid, just another trade show, full of tired-looking men in crumpled suits saying, "You've got to learn to delegate, Jeremy."
An astonishingly high proportion of the toys seemed to have been assembled from the component parts of previous successes; nearly every stand, for example, had a plastic construction kit with which you can make diminutive superheroes which transmogrify into something else, and tiny dolls, dogs, cats and ponies in little boxes with a range of loathsome accessories.
I am mystified as to why parents should want to buy their toddlers miniature versions of the accoutrements of adult domestic lives, but they do. I thought I'd seen everything in the way of miniature pushchairs, vacuum cleaners and shopping trolleys. But next year, your child will be able to have his own working photocopier.
Amid all this high-tech international hardware, the British games community was doing its best. A series of what looked like redundant bank managers sat crouched over the hand-crafted board games they'd produced in barns in Shropshire. How can they expect to compete with life-size electric motorbikes and build-your-own Harley-Davidson kits made from gleaming strips of chrome?
Not far removed from these doomed enterprises were the new products of Andrew Lloyd Webber's leisure division. I was very taken with And They're Off!, a board-game, although I was disappointed to see that it was based on horse-racing rather than on its inventor's interesting marital history.
H H H
I see the gauleiters of Lambeth Council, anxious to impress their new chief executive, have been investigating some suspicious characters in the Brixton area. I refer to my local kindergarten, a ramshackle but homely structure, where a group of three-year-old activists called Max and Saul and Daisy fight over the toy garage and indulge in Creative Water Play. The men from the council turned up last week to check the place's bona fides - in particular to check that the kindergarten went in for the appropriate ethnic "mix" of children, so that no particular race, creed or colour was seen to predominate. "Though how I'm to do anything about it," the group leader wailed to me, "short of kidnapping children in the street and dragging them inside, I don't know."
The inspectors crawled around the multicoloured classroom, checked the poster paints, the Duplo bricks, the plastic dinosaurs, the ergonomics, the heating and lighting and so forth and could find fault with none of it. Only on the way out did they pounce. Finding, on the doorstep, a length of trailing foliage clamped wetly against his brow, one of the inspectors grated: "That ivy is hanging down too far. It'll have to go."
Honour satisfied, they left. The playgroup leader surveyed the offending tendril. "I think I know what's really wrong with it," she said. "It's not sufficiently variegated..." The Weasel
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