The Weasel

While Mrs W is occupied with accumulating a haul of brinjal pickle and mint chutney, I strive to insinuate some rather more esoteric items into our basket

For the past 25 years or so, I have been a regular visitor to Drummond Street, a small Indian quartier immediately to the west of Euston station. Although this byway shows signs of going a bit "alternative" (the Lord Palmerston, an atmospheric if down-at-heel boozer, has become the Camden People's Theatre, and the army-surplus shop where I used to buy naval officers' buckskin shoes has become "Savita Patel - Polarity Specialist") you can still feast for an exceedingly modest price at the four or five Gujarati vegetarian restaurants which line the street. When Mrs Weasel and I emerge, our knees creaking slightly after a prodigious intake of masala dhosa (stuffed pancake fried to resemble a piece of polished oak) and thali (a kind of South Indian smorgasbord), we usually make our way first to the excellent Ambala confectionery, to pick up a box of the yoghurt-flavoured sweetmeats called burfi. Then we head for the neighbourhood supermarket to stock up on subcontinental specialities.

While Mrs W is occupied with accumulating a haul of brinjal pickle and mint chutney, I strive to insinuate some rather more esoteric items into our basket. Sadly, on our visit last week, my attempt to secret a two- kilo tin of Khanum ghee (handsomely decorated with an 18th-century English milkmaid) was instantly detected. However, I insisted on purchasing a couple of packets of betel nuts (roasted and unroasted). I have wanted to try this mild stimulant ever since coming across spectacular descriptions in the yarns I read as a stripling. In particular, evil thugees were invariably described as having "teeth stained black with betel" and were prone to expelling "an filthy stream of juice".

Much to Mrs W's relief, the shop manager came over and, after surveying my acquisitions, gently advised: "You don't need that, sir." If I was determined to sample a chaw of betel, he suggested I should ask across the street, where a shop called Dennis Traders had the wherewithal, in particular, a stock of the fresh leaves which are a necessary part of the chewing process. Though describing itself as "travel and news agents", Dennis Traders actually specialises in hiring out Bollywood videos. But in one corner, an array of pots suggested a sideline in the betel business.

I asked the shop's taciturn owner to explain the intricacies of the habit. He silently produced a green leaf, somewhat like a maple, and snipped off both ends. I asked what kind of leaf it was. "Leaves to eat," he replied, then smeared a murky goo on it and added a few chips of betel nut, together with lime powder and several spices. "What spices are those?" I enquired. "Different spices," he responded, After this unrevealing exposition, I was a bit disappointed when he popped the folded leaf into the corner of his own mouth.

While Mrs W made frantic signs of dissuasion through the shop window, I asked if I could try one myself. The shopkeeper shrugged and assigned the task to his young daughter. Unlike the dark unguent which her dad had favoured, she drizzled some bright red treacle on my leaf, and added some multicoloured fragments which looked like the "hundreds and thousands" cake decorations from my childhood. The girl dabbed on a few more innocuous-looking ingredients but steered well clear of the toe- nailed sized chips of betel. Finally, she folded the leaf into a perfect equilateral triangle.

Outside, when I nibbled the green envelope, I couldn't help thinking that I'd been given a child's version of the betel experience. It tasted sweet, minty and a bit crunchy, but I don't think I'll make a habit of it at 70p a time. On the plus side, my teeth haven't turned black.

Though there has been much talk recently about introducing charges for driving in London, inhabitants of the outlying corner of the metropolis where we happen to live have already been paying tolls for some little time. The tollgate operated by Alleyn's College of God's Gift, otherwise Dulwich College, has been in operation since 1789. "Oh, how colourful!" visitors to Weasel Villas are prone to say when they encounter this archaic phenomenon. Its charm is enhanced by an ancient sign near the barrier which notes: "For every motor car, motorcycle or motorcycle combination 6d. For sheep, lambs and hogs per score 2d."

But the prices (which allowed for a return journey through the gate) have increased something like 40-fold over the years. The charm wears a bit thin when you find yourself paying 50p each way for a return trip to the West End via the most direct route. Nowadays, it must be admitted, motorcycles go through for free, though I don't know what would happen if you tried take a score of hogs through in the morning rush hour.

Each weekday, around 1,500-2,000 cars negotiate the gate during the hours (7am-9pm) when charges are made. While the numbers decline at weekends and people living on the route qualify for free passes, the college obviously garners a substantial income from what it proudly calls "the last remaining tollgate in London". So you might expect the stretch of road owned by the college to be superbly metalled, resulting in a journey of blissful smoothness up the hill to Crystal Palace. In fact, the route is riven with clefts and pot-holes. "One day, a significant amount will have to be spent on the road," admitted a representative of the college. "But we're concerned that by raising it to full urban standard, the road would lose its character." He argued that the responsibility for the upkeep of the road does not lie with the college: "The college estate contends that the tollgate is there historically and we are not legally required to spend the income from the tollgate on the road. We see it as a resource."

It seems all too appropriate that Raymond Chandler, one of Dulwich College's most famous alumni coined the expression "mean streets".

I doubt it is the tollgate which prompted Desmond Shaw-Taylor, director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, to complain in The Spectator about the difficulty of drawing visitors to see the permanent collection, as opposed to the special exhibitions based on themes and ideas. Though the Dulwich collection includes Rembrandt's A Girl at the Window (which, until the gallery increased its security, had a habit of disappearing at regular intervals) along with works by Rubens, Gainsborough and Poussin, it is proving hard to lure people along for a gander. "Do the public prefer learning about paintings to looking at them?" Mr Shaw-Taylor muses about English puritanism. "The assumption is that any idea, however bad, is intrinsically and self-evidently superior to a lunch, however good."

Oddly enough, I have just come across the exact reverse of this point made by another distinguished member of the artistic fraternity. In his commonplace book Interplay, the poet DJ Enright approvingly quotes John Ruskin's remark of 1865: "How long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it!" I doubt the accuracy of this perception, having recently been mightily impressed by seeing a lady lash out pounds 14 for a large turbot at our local Waitrose.

Surely the English are far more inclined to spend this amount on a book than on a flatfish, however big. On the other hand, people seem prepared to spend any amount on lunch or dinner as long as it is cooked by someone else. The mind-blowing dinner I was treated to at the acclaimed Belair House, which happens to be located on Gallery Road, Dulwich, came to pounds 109.24 for two. Despite the price, it was a very good idea

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - C#, ASP.Net, MVC, jQuery

£42000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking for a C# ...

Recruitment Genius: General Driver - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food