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
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