UP & DOWN CANARY WHARF
Saturday 18 March 1995
But what is the real Sweden? The Swedes themselves don't seem terribly sure. Once known as a warrior race whose idea of fun was raping, pillaging and worse, they are now celebrated for having the most generous maternity provision in Europe. It's not really enough, is it? So when my hosts took me to a restaurant that promised a bit of "the real Sweden", I felt a frisson of genuine excitement. But as we sat and drank Swedish vodka (you weren't allowed any other kind) and ate our way through the moose and reindeer stew, they inevitably decided to spoil the party: it was ethnic, sure - but its ethnicity was, you see, intended "ironically".
The parallel here is with Robert Elms taking you to a pie and mash shop, or Muriel Gray inviting you to pig out on neaps and tatties. You never know if they really like the stuff or whether you're supposed to be admiring the sheer awfulness of it. In Stockholm, my hosts clearly enjoyed the food. It's just that, on some level, they were obliged to feel guilty about it.
An anthropologist might say it's because they have a guilt culture: their policemen are inside their heads, rather than on the streets -I saw only three Swedish cops the whole time I was there, and they looked like they were out together doing a bit of shopping, possibly for something to wear to the crche.
We, another island race with a warlike past, used to have a guilt culture too. Then, somewhere along the line, we swapped it for a shame culture, where we do awful things, then wait to get caught. Looking at the British tabloids last weekend, which were full of the despicable spectacle of a certain MP's former mistress selling her story, I realised we'd gone past that stage. Now we have a no-shame culture.
H H H
The Weasel's famously dignified prose style owes a certain amount to Addison and Steele, a smidgen to Macauley, a scintilla to Walter Pater; but alert readers will have noticed, in his better-natured moods ("Pip pip, old horse!"), a special devotion to the works of the late PG Wodehouse. So naturally I trotted off to Dulwich College last Monday, when the illustrious school kicked off an exhibition of their most sainted alumnus's books and letters (it continues to 5 May) with a jolly drinks party.
It was a typically idiosyncratic affair. Family relics and crumbling devotees of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club rubbed shoulders with gentlemen of the Press and callow teacherly types in Jasper Conran jackets. Nearly a century after his first school stories appeared in Punch and the Strand magazine, Wodehouse fans remain as bewilderingly diverse as ever. At different times I spotted: a) the editor of the Good Hotel Guide; b) the former President of the Institute of Taxation, now embarked on a definitive guide to Wodehouse and Tax; c) the ex-managing director of Victor Gollancz Ltd, sporting a Radio 1 haircut; d) Patrick Wodehouse, nephew of the great man, reminiscing about Sir Pelham's habit of eating fruitcake for breakfast and impetuously scissoring the sleeves off his shirts in hot weather; and e) the Master of College's beautiful secretary discoursing with a bewildered publisher about the role (if any) of the apostrophe in classical literature.
Frankly, I shied away from this egregiously precious company and, steered by the college Wodehouse Library's Jan Piggott - a twinkling, slimmed- down version of Lord Emsworth, who can tell you the exact scholastic record of the school's other literary stars, from Raymond Chandler to Graham Swift, Michael Ondaatje and Mick Imlah - I checked out the Wodehouse letters on display, some of them only recently discovered. Whatever happened to PGW in the years 1896 to 1900, he never forgot it. No pupil has ever taken so wholeheartedly to college life, nor made it the lodestar of his subsequent, 70-year maturity. His letters - even during the War - are full of golly- gosh enthusiasm for his alma mater's cricketing victories against Haileybury and Stowe. In the Sixties, he can be found abusing the not-terribly-avant- garde school mag for reducing its sports coverage in favour of "art photography and bad poetry". But my favourite letter dates from 1904, when Wodehouse can be found urging his fellow Old Alleynians to adopt the new American practice of cheerleading.
"The fact is", he writes, "that half the spectators, the OAs, are too busy for applause, and the other half, the School, do not know what to say. When an OA comes down to the Sports he is so busy dodging other OAs that he has no time for frivolous applause; or if he is of the more degraded type, he is wondering if his cap is on straight; hence the silence." Wodehouse, displaying a relaxed attitude to sanity, suggests some kind of rudimentary "college yell" along the lines of:
Yah! Yah! Yah!
Yah! Yah! Yah!
PC! PC! Rah! Rah! Rah!
PC! PC! Rah! Rah! Rah!
"This is the right stuff," he concludes. "It would stun a caterpillar." What a guy.
H H H
Another chronicler of school life, Nigel Molesworth, used to fulminate about a magazine for small children, whose homely stories and bracing moral tendency he saw as the last word in loathsome piety. It was called (give or take his atrocious spelling) Chaterbox. Now the BBC is bringing out a new Chatterbox, but it's not something that the silver-tongued cavalier of St Custard's would recognise. Subtitled "The Mag with the Chat!", the first issue offers a plethora of features about young pop stars, Neighbours, a strip cartoon of the Gladiators ("Crikey! Wolf seems to be even grumpier than usual!") and pull-out'n'keep posters of Mr Blobby. Other things that have surely sent Lord Reith into an unscheduled, post-mortem spin cycle are the Sweet Valley High strip ("There's Todd! Every time he looks at me, I feel I've been jolted by a thousand watts!"), the confessions of a 14-year-old Baywatch actor with a dubious habit ("I'm one of those irritating people who sniffs everything back inside instead of using a hanky!") and its problem page ("I'm a nine-year-old boy and there's a girl in my year who keeps asking me out but I already have a girlfriend. The girl said she would do anything for me...").
Hang on a sec. Rewind. Scroll back. Did you say "nine"? I thought this was a publication for teenagers? "Oh no," said a nice lady from the Beeb when I rang. "It's directed at the pre-teen market." You mean 12 year olds? "No, no. Eight to 11 is the target age." You mean you think hot romance and girls who'd do anything for you are OK reading for eight year olds? "You should see our magazine Girl Talk," she said. "It's for seven to nines. It's got a problem page too."
I don't believe it. Stand by for Tot on the Pot, the only mag for three- to-five year olds, with features on poos, jimjams and peanut butter sandwiches, and a thrusting, no-holds-barred problem page ("Dear Sir, I have fallen in love with the warthog in The Lion King, but am unable to switch on the video...").
H H H
These are difficult days for satire, as real life continues to sprout into ever more monstrous and misshapen forms. Recently, the Weasel smirked that the parents whose child came home from hospital with a needle embedded in its spine were lucky not to be charged with theft. Then the hospital demanded the needle back, and that joke wasn't funny any more. But the latest instance of life imitating art is more bizarre.
Those who follow the dyspeptic columns of Auberon Waugh in the Daily Telegraph and the Oldie, will have noticed his "discovery" of "hamburger gas", a colourless, though sadly not odourless, fluid emanating from the ubiquitous meat patties. It is, he has claimed, responsible for damaging the brains first of Americans and now of the youth of the entire world. Regular readers of Mr Waugh will recognise the neat space this occupies between the palpably absurd and the deeply barking.
Guess what? He was right. Researchers at the University of California have recently discovered that the grilling of hamburgers and other fast foods in Los Angeles restaurants causes nine times as much pollution as the city's buses. According to the New Scientist, the grilling releases 13.7 tons of smoke and 19 tons of organic compounds into the air every day. This figure has been arrived at by a team of research students dutifully grilling thousands of burgers every day in controlled scientific conditions (they might have saved themselves a lot of trouble by nipping round to the back door of Burger King). The gases released could be responsible for cancer and respiratory problems. When this news gets out in the States, will we see - unimaginable thought - the nation's most popular nosh given the same treatment as cigarettes?
Oh, and in case you're wondering, no one has, as yet, managed to identify the "Waugh Effect" in which hamburger gas so attacks the intelligence that inhalers are unable to tie their own shoelaces, speak proper English or identify, with reasonable accuracy, a selection of good clarets. The Weasel
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