Spaceman v brown blob

Kevin Fong narrowly avoids a kebab-stained diplomatic incident

April 23, 2009

How do you entertain a visiting astronaut? This isn't the prompt line at the start of a killer joke, but the beginning of a cautionary tale, a how-not-to-do-it guide to hosting international guests.

Our academic brethren, who visit from foreign climes to share their wisdom with us, generally do so for little or no financial remuneration. Rewards must come in different forms, in the shape of guided tours of native attractions or flashy local cuisine.

Food of the type that is going to convince a visiting dignitary to return for a repeat fixture tends to cost an arm, a leg and a commercial kidney transplant. So, cognizant of the need to protect the departmental budget, I generally opt to make the most of (free) local attractions.

Now, this is when being part of a college in a metropolitan location, sewn seamlessly into the surrounding city, is a real advantage. From where we're based, if you lead a visiting speaker from the building, turn left, walk briskly and distract them with idle chit-chat, you can give the slightly misleading impression that the British Museum is part of the college campus.

I have perfected this trick to the extent that it is only a matter of time before someone asks me precisely how the university came into possession of the Elgin Marbles.

Now back to that astronaut. There we are in my house, situated in South London on the corner of Shotgun Alley and Knife Attack Avenue. This is not a promising start. There is nothing of local interest, but as accommodation goes, from the departmental budget's perspective, it does have the advantage of being essentially free.

It is time for lunch and possibly a bit more sightseeing. I can get around the shortcomings of my less-than-salubrious postcode by heading straight to the train station and then on to the city's attractions. I can continue the subterfuge from there, perhaps by suggesting that we go and admire the provost's jewellery collection in the Tower of London.

But before I have the chance, Dan the astronaut tells me that he wants to do something quintessentially British. That should be pretty easy - there are a range of options. We could find a nice pub by the river somewhere, eat fish and chips, or perhaps lose badly at an international football fixture.

Dan has other ideas: "I'm in London and I've decided I'm going to have a doner kebab for lunch."

I am in trouble. His wife, of European origin, understands the hazards inherent in consuming doner kebabs during daylight hours while sober. She glances at me for reassurance that this isn't going to happen.

I search my mind for a less lethal alternative. Base-jumping from the Telecom Tower while on fire, perhaps? I get as far as saying, "Wouldn't you prefer ..." before Dan slaps the front of his thighs with both hands, jumps to his feet and declares: "Nope, I've decided. I'm having a kebab."

I peer over his shoulder at his open-mouthed wife. There is a determination here of the variety that only a man who has walked in space can muster.

We exit the house, heading for the high street. It is just after 1pm. Possibly I can still rescue the situation from here, but then a local eatery looms into view.

"Ah, the London Kebab Centre," says Dan. "Perfect!"

I am not sure that he is fully cognizant of the risks. Admittedly, he has travelled at 25 times the speed of sound on the top of a vehicle that, fully fuelled, has the explosive capacity of a small nuclear weapon, but this is a doner kebab we're talking about.

The best-case scenario is an awful lunch experience, plus or minus a high-street mugging that will convince my VIP never to return. At worst, he will suffer a nasty bout of gastroenteritis and I will find myself responsible for breaking an astronaut. In my mind's eye I can see an accident investigation team poking pens into a greasy kebab wrapper. It is all too much to bear.

We walk into the London Kebab Centre, startling the proprietors who have only just opened.

"I'm looking for a kebab," Dan says. The owner looks at him and then at me, partly to make sure he has heard Dan correctly, and partly to ensure that my American guest is right in the head. I shrug helplessly.

Kebab bloke lights the grill next to the amorphous mass of mystery meat. He turns on the motor that slowly rotates the brown blob. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion.

"Hey, what are those?" asks Dan, pointing at some chicken skewers on display in the cabinet. His astronautical survival instincts finally kick in, and not a moment too soon. He veers away from the mechanically reclaimed meat revolving menacingly in front of the gas fire, and towards a slightly less suspect, almost recognisable food item. I seize this final opportunity to save the day and his innards.

"It's a shish kebab. They're delicious," I say. "Very traditional British lunchtime fare."

"Hey, I've changed my mind. I'll have one of those!" Dan exclaims. Off clicks the grill and the turntable. Even the shop owner seems to breathe a sigh of relief. The future of space exploration is safe ...

Our extramural lecturers, both national and international, are a woefully undervalued resource. They so often deserve better than they actually get. For my small part, I have resolved to adopt a more mature attitude to hosting speakers - less chicanery, more honesty. Oh, and I'm learning to cook.

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