UP & DOWN CANARY WHARF

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The living room at Weasel Villas looks like an earthquake in Woodcarving Land. You cannot move for cunningly wrought teak crocodiles and Giacometti-thin Mandinka figurines. Every surface is surmounted by naive wooden bowls of dubious utility and oddly detachable handles. The Weaslets, in their new uniform of typical native costume, cry that they look like pillocks, but to no avail. Mrs W complains that the fertility mask in the lavabo gives her the frights in the mornings when she confuses it with the mirror, but I am deaf to her entreaties. My straw hat with authentic tribal ribbon lies abandoned in the hallway ("Let me guess," said the weary taxi driver at Victoria Station, "Malaga?") but I still wear the impulse-buy ju-ju bracelets, despite the suppurating greenish tinge that is snailing up my arm. I have, in short, just returned from my holidays.

Thanks a lot, I must say, for the deafening display of concern shown by my loyal readers when I announced, two weeks ago, that I was off to Africa, bewildered by jabs, conflicting advice and an irrational fear of the Zaire virus. (The level of sympathy could be reduced to a single sentence: "Don't be such a weed"). I remained in a state of gibbering apprehension through the six-hour flight. During dinner I caught myself humming the OMD hit, "Ebola Gay", about the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb. As the lights dimmed. I wondered if the in-flight movie would be Francesco Rosi's classic Christ Stopped At Ebola (wasn't that the title?). Once I arrived, however, all such foolish notions fell away like peeling skin. A couple of Perfect Lovers (tequila, grenadine, orange and I can't remember the rest) by the pool, a plateful of "Speak to Me Sideways" (the amusingly titled local steak dish involving roasted garlic, garlic sauce and a balancing side-dish of garlic tomatoes), and you put thoughts of viruses and plague-bearing mosquitos aside and concentrate of the real business of being on holiday in the Gambia. Which is to be ripped off.

You remember the scene in LA Story, the Steve Martin movie, when Martin visits a cashpoint machine and meets a queue of footpads, one of whom greets him with the words, "Hi. I'm Larry, I'm going to be your mugger this evening..."? Same here. The charm offensive starts the moment you step outside the hotel: How long you staying? Which hotel would that be? You're from America? Canada? Austr... Oh England (huge beam, oh brilliant, the mugs' paradise). And, disconcerted by their greeting, you end up saying, why yes, I'd love to a) buy some mangoes from your sister every day, b) visit your father's interesting-sounding native-music shebeen in the whitewashed hut with the broken windows further up the beach, and c) view the Gambian bush in your top-of-the-range Jeep with commentary by a local anthropology D Phil called Chicken George...

It takes a whole 24 hours to discover how the place works. Which is, by a mixture of in-your-face hard-salesmanship, emotional blackmail and determined wheedling, to remind you from first dawn to final airport bus that you are there to spend money. As First World fatcats, you owe it to the Third World to unload huge and pointless sums of dalasi (the local currency, a corruption of dollars in more ways than the purely nominal) on its local entrepreneurs.

What's odd, though, is the way the beach hustlers choose you as their friend/victim while giving the impression that you have chosen them (and incidentally adopted their family). Western notions of picking and choosing among local merchandise do not come into it. Once you've bought a pineapple from Mrs Kumba Senya at Stall 27, woe betide you if you're seen contemplating a banana at Stall 28. Talk for more than five seconds to Frankie Boy, the gold-toothed disco king with the cousin in motorbike rental, and you find yourself signed up for a dozen mid-bush breakdowns without an escape clause. Call a taxi to one of the fancier local restaurants and you'll find you have co-opted a man called JJ (catchphrase "Ladies fost! Pliz! Ladies fost!") for the whole week - though given Mr J's habit of taking you to the most louche and hooker-strewn nightclubs, this is, perhaps, where the system justifies itself.

How do you discourage them? Po-faced hotel magazines suggest you simply ignore the freelance capitalists. I, however, had a craftier solution, taking my cue from London literary parties, where you can watch the more sensitive souls fleeing from the conversational onslaughts of bores and stiffs. On the beach, I began to reproduce the latter's conversational style. I took to hailing the hustlers with a cheery wave, a chat about the previous evening's entertainment, an enquiry about their mother's health, about the incidence of jellyfish in the shallows or the likely temperature at 4pm, about the deep joy they must feel in living under a military dictatorship...until eventually they were warning each other: steer clear of this quadruped, for he is possessed of much lousy, unlucrative, conversational ju-ju. It is, as Private Eye might say, the only language they don't understand.

H H H

Among the many strange things said about Harold Wilson was Gerald Kaufmann's comment that he thought he ought to have a sense of humour and so set about acquiring one. This was illustrated on the television with a clip of Wilson milking the Labour conference audience like a veteran stand- up. "People ask me what's going on," he said. Pause. "I'm going on."

It may not be the funniest thing ever, but at least it's better than the committee-designed, clunkily delivered one-liners employed by Mrs Thatcher when she was in power, of which "the Lady's not for turning" was a classic. But it's clear that someone has told her she ought to acquire a sense of humour, at least in her capacity as an author. Unfortunately, if the extracts from the second volume of her memoirs printed in the Sunday Times are representative, this may have been a miscalculation.

Ask yourself whether these examples have the authentic tone of voice of their supposed author: "Family tradition has it that I was a very quiet baby - which my political opponents might have some difficulty in believing." Ho, ho.

"I visited the zoo, rode on an elephant and recoiled from the reptiles - an early portent of my relations with Fleet Street." No, please, enough. My ribs may crack.

Indeed, what an oddly anonymous document this volume is turning out to be. Would Lady Thatcher really refer to a film as "a four-handkerchief weepie", as she does here, or say "I rejoiced to see Soviet Communism laughed out of court in Ninotchka"? It seems unlikely.

Only the strong vein of moralising catches the right tone: "Nothing in our house was wasted and we always lived within our means. The worst you could say about another family was that they 'lived up to the hilt'."

H H H

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is not, thank God, a man to ride the Queen's Highway of received opinion, or else this column would have been stuck for subjects of ridicule on umpteen occasions in the past. But he has, I fear, overdone it with his contribution to the debate about the proposed statue of Oscar Wilde.

Last week, Jeremy Isaacs and a jury-box of likeminded luminaries wrote to the Times suggesting the raising of a "public memorial" in London to the great man, to complement the recently inscribed window panel in Westminster Abbey. A fine idea, greeted with much rhubarbing by the Thunderer's correspondents. Enter Sir Peregrine. "About the justification for honouring the writer there can be no question," he wrote to the paper on Monday. "But the same does not apply to the man. For while addiction to the use and corruption of male prostitutes should no longer put a man in prison for two years' hard labour, neither should it necessarily justify putting him on a pedestal forever".

Leaving aside the conundrum of how one sets about "corrupting" a male prostitute (introduce him to smoking? take him to a Sharon Stone movie?), one still gasps at the cluelessness of Sir Perry's notions of human worth. Wilde himself famously declared, to Andre Gide, "Do you want to know the great drama of my life? It's that I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent." And it is as an icon of single-minded, coherent, unsinkable, passionate sensibility that he survives in the public mind. He is not celebrated for being a sodomite with dodgy working-class friends; he is celebrated despite his ill-advised adventures. One looks for an analogy to persuade Wilde's most recent tormentor that he is wrong. And one finds it in the anticipation that, when when they come to erect a statue of Sir Peregrine in the precincts of Fleet Street, it will be because of his talent as a one-time editor; not "necessarily" because he occasionally indulged his taste for sanctimonious piffle.

H H H

The privatisation of British Rail may be "a poll tax on wheels", but unlike the poll tax, there seems to be no stopping it. As the grand sell- off approaches, all manner of silly marketing ploys are under way, from grotesque new uniforms to "personality-testing". On South Eastern Trains, staff will be required to have "an outgoing personality, plus that certain something". With luck that certain something will be a wristwatch, but that may be asking too much.

There are also wide-ranging codes on be- haviour and appearance, couched in varying degrees of subtlety. Asked for the politeness guidelines at Anglia, I was told: "Staff are not allowed to bite their nails, pick their noses or scratch their bottoms. But we do want to treat them like adults..." The Weasel

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