Swish Cottage: the A to Z of the Vauxhall Tavern
The A to Z of the Vauxhall Tavern

This originally appeared at
Swish Cottage
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A is for Almighty Records
Without Almighty Records, the Vauxhall on a Sunday just wouldn't be the same. Some would say it would be a lot better, and I used to be one of those. I remember writing a long rant to my friend Steven about the evils of Almighty Records, how they had become the be-all and end-all of gay music, the lowest common denominator, ubiquitous in gay pubs and clubs throughout the country.

The Almighty formula is simple: taken a proven pop song, add some cheesy handclaps and some tacky keyboards, and there you have it - sure-fire queen-friendly fodder. The formula has been applied to S Club 7, Cher, Celine Dion, Kylie, Billie, Pet Shop Boys, Lolly, Geri Halliwell, A1, Roxette and Savage Garden.

A is also for Andy Almighty, the DJ responsible for foisting this lot on us, and an all-round lovely bloke: "There's nothing tacky about what we're doing," claims Andy Wetson, of the Deja Vu cover of Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On'. "To take a ballad and transform it into a stomping club tune takes thought."

Well, I thought it was dreadful. Week after week, I'd snobbishly, grudgingly dance, one eyebrow raised, tongue firmly in (my own) cheek. And then one day, possibly under the influence of the fifth letter of the alphabet, I felt my right arm flinging heaven-ward to the chorus of S Club 7's "Reach!". And both arms raising involuntarily to Geri Halliwell's "Lift Me Up". And I realised that's exactly what the music was: uplifting. And on a Sunday evening, in a blacked-out shit-hole in the middle of an exhaust-fume-clogged roundabout, what more could you possibly want?

Without Almighty Records, the Vauxhall on a Sunday just wouldn't be the same.
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B is for Beer
And lots of it. The general idea at the Vauxhall seems to be to chuck as much beer as possible down your neck before the show, during the show and immediately after the show. Thereafter, almost everyone switches to water. But I don't think it's conscientiousness...

Trying to carry three pints from one end of a pub to the other is difficult enough as it is. Now turn the lights way down. Now cram in as many people as health and safety regulations allow. And then lots more. Now play S Club 7, so that the throng all [Reach!] fling their arms in the air simultaneously... A couple of my friends (you know who you are) insist on drinking Guinness. I've had one too many white shirts ruined by having half a pint of the black stuff spilled down me. I now refuse to get people pints. It's cans of Red Stripe or nothing. The handy thing with cans is that if you're wearing combat trousers, you can carry an entire round of six drinks in one go - one can in each hand, one in each of the top pockets of your trousers, and one in each of those silly pockets halfway down your legs which seem to have no other purpose in the world.

I have a great deal of respect for the Vauxhall's glass collectors, who manage to negotiate the crowds while balancing implausibly tall columns of empty pint glasses on one shoulder. As the Dame Edna Experience says: "Spare a thought for our glass collectors, and when you've finished your pint, put the glass on the floor! œ3.25 an hour? What more do they expect?"
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C is for Chill-Out
The Sunday afternoon session at the Vauxhall is called a "chill-out" session. What a misnomer. A chill-out session normally runs something like this:

You all emerge from Crash or Trade, saucer-eyed and blinking in the sunlight. Some poor fool mumbles "all back to mine" and you pile into some stranger's car. He drives very carefully and very slowly, jaw working manically. You get back to theirs and they put on a CD - inevitably Cafe Del Mar, Massive Attack or Chilled Euphoria. Everyone flops onto cushions. Someone spends the next 20 minutes trying to roll a joint. Red wine is opened. And spilled on the flokati (oh, yeah, sorry, man).

The ritual phrases are repeated: "blinding set", "we'll always be together, us", "Pete Wardman is like God, man", "top banana!" (some fag hag that no-one will admit to inviting always says that). One strange soul will decide that everyone should eat bacon sarnies, and those brave enough to attempt them will spend 15 minutes chewing one mouthful and then giving up and staring at the food suspiciously, wondering what to do with a half-eaten sarnie, before hiding it down the back of the sofa.

Two people who have just met that evening will declare their love for each other, and they'll curl up, head in lap, stroking what little hair the other has. Eventually they'll make their way upstairs, close the curtains and try to make love, but they won't be able to find their cocks, let alone get hard-ons. But they'll have a really deep and meaningful experience, you know?

Eventually you'll feel "together" enough to ask for directions to the tube, and still later you'll be together enough to understand the directions, and you'll make your wobbly way home, avoiding the eyes of your fellow passengers.

The Vauxhall "Chill-Out" is nothing like that. Yes, many of the guys there have been to Crash or Trade. Or both. But the idea is not to chill out and get your head together. Oh no, quite the opposite...
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D is for the DE Experience

How to describe the DE Experience? Well, she comes on as Dame Edna, does a bit of comedy and sings a few songs. Sounds like your average drag show, right? Wrong!

That does even begin to describe her. She's guaranteed to offend everyone. She's a drug-taking, cock-sucking, dog-shagging, Widdecombe-licking, Myra-Hindley-babysitting comic genius.

And then there's the voice: spot-on vocal impressions of everyone from Karen Carpenter to Marc Almond; Whitney Houston to Freddie Mercury; Nat King Cole to Natalie Cole; Michael Jackson to Dusty Springfield.

She really should have her own TV (pun intended) show. See the DE Experience at 5pm at the Vauxhall Tavern - sorry: "Rrrroyal Vauxhall Tavern" - every Sunday. I do.
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E is for Ecstasy
It would be disingenuous to suggest that everyone at the Vauxhall on a Sunday is "on one", but a lot of them are - more than one, of course, as they've been out all weekend. This undeniably contributes to the atmosphere which could be described as "up" and "friendly"; or "chaotic" and "unhinged".

Now, other people's drug stories are about as dull as reconstructed dreams, but that's never stopped bloggers from relating their dreams. Or their drug experiences. I'd love to tell you about the times I've done ecstasy at the Vauxhall, but strangely I find myself unable to remember any. I do, however, remember my first E:

As I've said elsewhere, I grew up in South Africa. This was way before South Africa became a hip destination for Trade DJs to get a tan and cheap booze. Ecstasy only hit South Africa in the mid-90s, so I had to wait till I arrived in the UK at the age of 30 for my first pill.

One night, I went to FF, the infamous Sunday late-night gay club at Turnmills. I'd heard that Marc Almond was somehow involved in the club, and it was also rumoured that you could easily get E there.

I was standing in a dark corner, trying to work out where the dealers could be, or even what a dealer might look like outside of the movies (the answer - the same as in the movies) when I spotted a familiar face: It was Marc, drinking a mug of tea with the teabag hanging out. I was about to rush up to him and babble "I'm your biggest fan!", but realised I'd better think about what I was going to say. Composing myself, I casually walked up to him and said: "Mm babba shingle uhnunuhn adored mmnm xplored. I mean, I really like the new single, Adored and Explored. When's the album due out?" We chatted for about 20 minutes, and when I realised the conversation had pretty much run its course, I managed to blurt out that I wanted to try E for the first time, but didn't know where to get it, or how.

With that, he took me by the hand, led me under an archway and introduced me to someone. The rest is hysteria.
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F is for five o' clock, four quid, full, fags, fashion, Fred Perrys, footie kit, fraternising with friends, fancying, flirting, feeling-up, free-for-all, fun, frothy festive frolics, foetid fragrant fug, frantic, fuddled, falling off the stage, finally leaving, fucking, fornicating, feeling like shit the next day. Fabulous!
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G is for Gay
adj. 1. carefree and merry: a gay temperament.
2. brightly coloured; brilliant: a gay hat.
3. given to pleasure, esp. in social entertainment: a gay life.
4. rakish or dissolute; licentious; a gay old dog.
5. a. Inf. homosexual (used esp. by homosexuals of themselves). b. (as n.): a group of gays.

These definitions from the Collins English Dictionary could all apply to Sundays at the Vauxhall. Apart from the 'brightly coloured' one, perhaps. Try this dictionary.
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H is for hair - or the lack thereof

This pic was taken at the Vauxhall one Sunday about three weeks ago, on the occasion of Matthew's 30th birthday. Spot the man with hair!

According to the Queer Skinhead Brotherhood, "gay skinheads in Europe, especially London, have created a lively culture of their own; though they are primarily sadomasochists who took on a skinhead identity as a replacement for the biker and lumberjack styles of the leathermen." Nowadays, though, the London gay scene has got over its flirtation with skinhead culture, and it's generally only in fetish clubs that you'll still see guys insisting they are "real" skinheads.

The club which did most to increase the popularity and profile of gay skinheads was Oi!. When Oi! was started in the mid-90s, it attempted to foster a real skinhead culture in the gay scene - the look, the lifestyle, the music - but queens don't really go for that ska thing. Oh, they pretended to, but were secretly relieved when Oi! grew to encompass two dancefloors: one playing the dreaded skinhead stuff and the other playing the more acceptable trance. Of course, they didn't really go to Oi! for the music at all, but that's another story.

The Vauxhall on a Sunday tends to attract guys who could best be described as "post-skinhead". Back in the 90s, they'd have been Oi! regulars, and they still like the look - birds of a feather, and all that. But now they want a bit of a laugh and a twirl to some camp pop tunes after all those years of macho posing. None of the people in the pic above indentify themselves as skinheads. I should know - they're all my friends.

And none of them will be talking to me after tomorrow's entry in my A to Z of the Vauxhall - I for "Incestuous"...!
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I is for Incestuous
Thanks for hosting my pics, Ian
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J is for jobs.
Do these people have to go to work on a Monday morning? Or do they all pull a sickie?
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K is for Karaoke
No, wait, come back! There isn't really karaoke at the Vauxhall on a Sunday. But there is something of the flavour of a karaoke evening in the show's sing-songs. The finale of this week's show was a rousing rendition of Robbie Williams' "Angels", and the DE Experience was drowned out by a cats' chorus of "and through it aaaallllll...". Pick a key, guys, any key.

At times, the atmosphere in the Vauxhall Tavern is that of a stadium gig - everyone pretending they're dead butch, pitching their voices an octave lower to shout "we will, we will rock you" and clapping their hands like it's Live Aid at Wembley. This week's most rousing moment was when the DE Experience sang Kylie's "Better The Devil You Know" and did the whole "first this side of the room, now this side": "Whoah whoah whoah-oh whoah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh"

Lord knows what newcomers to the Vauxhall make of 300 men, crammed together, eyes rapturously closed, faces lifted, sincerely bellowing stirring anthems. But we love it, so all together now: "you don't have to say you love me, just be close at hand..."
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L is for Love
There's a lot of love in the Tavern on a Sunday. True love, transitory love, chemical love, loved-upness, you're-my-besht-mate love, and a whole load of real love. I'm not going to claim it's unique, but the depth of caring I've encountered in the Vauxhall is rare on London's gay scene. The friendships I have built up over the years at the Vauxhall are with some of the nicest people I have ever known. One of our group is going off to live in Spain for six months, and it's like a member of the family leaving home. Richard, we're going to miss you.
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M is for Midnight
Which is when the place shuts. This might seem early to non-Brits, but you've got to remember, this is England - the pubs shut at 10:30 on a Sunday.

Come midnight, the faithful die-hards are scraped up and swept out onto the pavement, where they mill around bewildered, hoping someone will decide for them where they're going next. "Should go home, but really want to go on." "Is Habit still on a Sunday?" "We could go to DTPM, I suppose." "Has anyone been to 333 yet?" Eventually everyone piles into cars or queues at the cab office, already inventing the excuse to tell the boss on Monday morning.

And, of course, M is also for Minkered
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N is for Normal people
Normal people driving past the Tavern, shouting abuse.
Normal people walking past the Tavern, eyes staring straight ahead, clutching their children to them.
Normal people writing letters of complaint about the foul language they can apparently hear all the way across the park.
Normal people queerbashing us abnormal people in nearby dark railway subways.
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O is for Outdoors
Spring is here, so summer can't be far behind. All the signs are there: the days are getting longer, fruit trees are turning pastel shades and daffodils are trumpeting their yellowness. On the pavements in Vauxhall, an equally glorious phenomenon indicates the start of summer - clusters of bare-chested men dotted around the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

It gets damned hot inside the RVT. The two industrial air conditioning units rented by the Tavern management for the summer months try valiantly, but in vain, to combat the heat created by 400 men dancing wildly in a windowless room. Going outdoors is not merely a pleasant relief from the heat, it is essential.

In the early summer months, before it really warms up, steam clouds billow out from the doors. Vapour can also be clearly seen billowing from the hard-nippled torsos of the guys outside, creating a strange climatic condition - sweat clouds. Perhaps this is why it's called a "chill out"?

On sizzling summer Sundays there are far more people outside than in; sitting on the railings or leaning against the building. And there's always one wide-eyed half-naked zealot dancing wildly on top of a bollard. There are many more sprawled on the grassy banks behind the Tavern. Which brings us neatly to tomorrow's entry...
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P is for Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall, 1809

Spring Gardens, the patch of green behind the Vauxhall Tavern, is all that remains of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which opened in 1661. These gardens provided all sorts of entertainment from drinking and eating to music, fireworks and balloon rides.

The Gardens were also notoriously frequented by prostitutes and men of loose morals. When the respectable heroine of Frances Burney's Evelina (1778) makes the mistake of walking through the Gardens, she is accosted by a large party of riotous gentlemen who assume she is for hire.

In 1771 Tobias Smollett described Vauxhall as "filled with crowds of noisy people, sucking up the nocturnal rheums of an aguish climate; and through these gay scenes, a few lamps glimmer like so many farthing candles." He continued: "I no sooner entered, than I was dazzled and confounded with the variety of beauties that rushed all at once upon my eye, the place crowded with the gayest company. Among the vocal performers I had the happiness to hear the celebrated Mrs. -----, whose voice was so loud and so shrill, that it made my head ake through excess of pleasure.

"I despise their want of taste and decorum but when they crowd together, listening to a song, which one half of them cannot possibly hear, how can I help supposing they are actually possessed by a spirit, more absurd and pernicious than any thing we meet with in the precincts of Bedlam?"

Blogadoon notes: Boswell described the Vauxhall music as "not too refined for the general ear" and, despite one punter's complaint that the venue needed "more nightingales and fewer strumpets", contemporary engravings show huge crowds avidly enjoying the loud histrionics of over-dressed entertainers.

One such performer was Madame Saqui whose "appearance was rather masculine, her legs worthy of a circus strong man. Dressed in tinsel, spangles and plumes, it was rumoured that she earned around one hundred guineas per week."

In his book "Travels" (1795), Karl Moritz, a German contemporary of Blake, mentions his delight at the Vauxhall gardens and the music, although he thought the women "over-bold".

A number of brothels became well established in the surrounding streets, including one called "Slut's Hole".

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens opened for the last time on the night of Monday, 25 July, 1859, but their spirit lives on today at the Vauxhall Tavern.

Thanks to Ian for inspiring today's entry.
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Q is for Queues
The Chill Out has become far too popular. I don't know how many people the Vauxhall is licensed for, but I'll wager it's about a hundred less than are packed in every Sunday.

Arriving after 5:30 virtually guarantees you'll have to wait outside, in the rain, till the show is over. Then it's one-in-one-out. Once you get in, join the queue for the coatcheck. Which intermingles with the queue for the bar. Holding your beer aloft, fight your way through the crowds and find a spot where you can see the show - preferably not behind the group of 7-foot-tall lagered-up bears. All that beer means you need a pee, so join the 5-minute queue for the gents'. Or the 15-minute queue for the ladies'. Learn to dance in an area of one-square foot, without actually moving any body parts. Finally, when you want to leave, there's that coatcheck queue again.

It's not as though this is a fancy West End club or anything - it's just a pub south of the river, for crying out loud!
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R is for Royal
Except I can find no explanation, anywhere on the web, for why it is called the "Royal Vauxhall Tavern". What's so Royal about it? [Apart from the fact it's full of queens, of course.] Did the place once have the royal seal of approval? Did kings once sup here? Is that Prince Edward over there?

I may have to resort to the old fashioned method of looking it up in - gasp! - a book. If anyone does know where the "Royal" bit comes from, please let me know.
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S is for Sweat
Slick, slippery, smelly, steamy, soaking, slithering, sexy, salty, sweaty sweat.

Rivers of sweat streaming off naked chests. Clouds of sweat steaming off naked backs. Puddles forming in the small of your back. Puddles growing in the back of your smalls. Sweatshirts. Wet shirts. Sweat shirtless. Cheek to cheek to nose to armpit.

S is also for SLAGS - the South London Action Girls Society
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T is for Trains

"the universe rumbles over Vauxhall Tavern, illuminating boys on the verge of things." Christopher Rye, The Accidental Londoner

As your train rumbles from Waterloo to Vauxhall, look out of the window to your left, just past the gaily-coloured tethered balloon. There it is, faded gold lettering on a black background running around the building's curved facade: "The Royal Vauxhall Tavern".

Or take the Victoria line tube around 5pm one Sunday and see how the carriage gets gayer and gayer the nearer you get to Vauxhall. I call it the RVT Express. The tourists get off at Victoria, leaving a curious mixture of Brixton-bound elderly black women and shaven-headed men in bomber jackets. While you hang around in the ticket hall, see if you can spot 'The Hoist Nightclub' on the 'Local Information' map. Then follow the shaved heads, the bomber jackets...
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U is for Undercover police
I have been at the RVT during two police raids. By all accounts, we're due for another one. The excellent discodamaged reports: "Jonathan [aka the DE Experience] got up and told us all that there were two of the Met's finest in attendance, and that all should be circumspect. Didn't see checked shirts or smell Kouros."

The police are there, of course, on the lookout for drugs offences, unlike the bad old days of AIDS paranoia when, as Derek Jarman reported, "more than 20 police raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London on friday night wearing masks and rubber gloves."

I haven't seen masks and rubber gloves at the RVT since their short-lived fetish night. Yes, I have performed onstage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern...
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V is for Vauxhall
The word 'Vauxhall' is derived from the 13th Century mercenary soldier Fulk le Breant. He was hired to do some of the dirtier military deeds of King John. As a reward, he was granted the manor of Luton. He married a wealthy young widow and acquired her London house whose site came to be known as Fulk's Hall. This became corrupted over the years to Fawkes Hall, Foxhall and then Vauxhall.

Fulk le Breant was given the right to bear his own coat of arms and chose the mythical griffin as his heraldic emblem. The griffin thus became associated with both Vauxhall and Luton. In 1857 Alexander Wilson founded an engineering company on Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall. This company became Vauxhall Motors, and adopted the griffin as the company badge. It is probably a coincidence that Vauxhall Motors later moved to Fulkes' old stomping ground, Luton.

The Russian word for 'railway station' is voksal. There is a theory - probably apocryphal - that Vauxhall station was visited in the late 1900s by a delegation sent to Britain by Tsar Nicholas I. The delegation learned that Vauxhall, the last stop before Waterloo, was a ticket collecting point and thought 'Vauxhall' meant 'railway station'.

Speaking of Russians, the headquarters of MI6 - the Secret Intelligence Service, or 'spies' to you and me - are at Vauxhall Cross, a stone's throw (or missile's launch) from the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Indeed, in September 2000, a missile attack on the MI6 building was launched from Spring Gardens behind the RVT.

Vauxhall has long been a hive of gay clubbing activity. Before Sunday licensing laws were relaxed, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern had to close in th eafternoon. I have fond memories of trooping off in a crowd to the nearby Market Tavern, where the condition of buying a drink was that you also had to buy lunch - a somewhat dessicated roast. At 5pm or so, the RVT was allowed to open again, and the crowds would stream back from the Market in time to catch Lily Savage's show, or Adrella's famous Liza Minnelli routine.
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W is for Widdecombe
You may know Ann Widdecombe as the celibate spinster shown in the photos on her website, but she has a secret life. She and the Vauxhall's drag queen the DE Experience have been having a wild, torrid affair for years. Allegedly. Every week the DE updates us on their latest sexual shenanigans. The word 'furburger' is often mentioned...
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X is for Xylophone
The DE Experience's show invariably begins with her welcoming to the stage "that skinny bitch, Karen Carpenter":

I'm on the top of the world
Looking down on creation
And the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found
Ever since you've been around
Your love puts me at the top of the world.

Well, people seem to think that I'm so rude
When each dinner-time I'm yakking up my food.
Bits of sweetcorn and bread
Seem to gush from my head
And I'm like a xylophone when I am nude.

One day I might learn to keep my meal
But you wouldn't know how sick it makes me feel.
Forty doughnuts per hour
They come up with such power
And I cram them all back down
Ain't that unreeeeal.
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Y is for Youth
The average age of the combat-wearing Vauxhall-goer is 30. In G.A.Y, it is n-n-n-n-n-nineteen.

The punters at the RVT are older than in your average gay club - I've just paraphrased a Paul Hardcastle record, ferchrissakes - how much more proof of, er, maturity do you need? Those shaved heads are not just fashion statements - they're follicular necessities.

However, they certainly don't act their age - but then who does these days? Little Women, last week's BBC documentary, looked at the "tweenager" - a powerful market force. The programme followed a group of pre-pubescent girls as young as seven, as they shopped for labels at Selfridges, and bopped around to S Club 7 while wearing leather trousers. "I'm going for the biker-babe look," said 10-year-old Alex.

A casual listener outside the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on a Sunday afternoon might assume it was a pre-teen disco. Kylie, Steps, S Club 7, Geri - anodyne pop. The "pink pound" is another market force, with exactly the same music being aimed at it. Gay men are virtually encouraged to act like little girls - and boy, do they ever! All the way through "Little Women", I was struck by the parallels between the tastes and clothing of the tweenaged girls and your average bunch of gay men. There were, of course, a few noticeable differences. Sex [in both senses of the word] for one. And the documentary opened with two little girls getting ready to go out: "She's not my sister - she's my best friend." With two gay guys, that would be the other way round!
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Z is for Zoo
David Attenborough: [in patented stage whisper] I am standing at the entrance to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern Zoo. Let us pay our four pounds entrance fee and go inside to take a look at the animals. We'll have to be very careful - some of these creatures could misinterpret it if taken suddenly from behind. Come with me on a journey around the zoo...

On the right you can see the watering hole. Herds of parched animals clamour here, trying to push through for a refreshing drink. Many of these beasts have developed a camel-like ability to drink huge amounts, storing it up in their vast pot-bellies. The warders on the other side of the trough tend to their needs as fast as they can, but never fast enough for these impatient hordes.

Ah, now here is a splendid sight. The brilliantly-plumed, bespectacled, pink-legged Dame Edna bird of paradise [purplehairus sequinanus]. Note her strange courting dance and her unforgettable mating call: "turnitdown itsmyshow". Note too, how all the other creatures carefully observe her every move, echoing her cry: "parTICKularly! parTICKularly!".

Down here near the front we see the minkered hedgehog [boyes minkerii] and a rare tattooed Knapp's gayzelle [tattlad africensis].

You see this white-tiled room? Here you'll find pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas. Or, more usually, earthworms, wrinkled sea-slugs and assorted tiddlers.

Up in the booth you can see the striped anteater [shaggus almightius].

Continuing round, we come to my favourite animals in the zoo: the push-me-pull-you [andy'n'alexiis campastits], the hairy-backed shag [dorianus langridgii] - watch out for his deadly bite, Moore's starfish, Guy's lemming, which regularly falls to its death off high cliffs, and Ruffy's bulldog (once its gets its teeth into someone, it doesn't let go). Over there, somewhat camouflaged, you can just about see Martin's lynx [iansie dotcommus]. Look away, there's Barker's beaver [richardii awol] and Hooper's hoopoo [phill tonganus].

But it is time for us to leave the zoo. We cannot show the feeding frenzy that ensues once the creatures wolf down their vitamin pills. So we bid a fond farewell to Vauxhall. Perhaps we will see you there next Sunday.

This originally appeared at Swish Cottage
Contact me