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
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015