Friday, 11 August 2017

You are old, Father William

To each of us who is fortunate enough to live long enough, there comes a point when we must reluctantly recognise that we are old.

It is usually quite sudden. I can remember it happening to my father when he was taking my pet Sheltie for a walk around the block in Longbenton in the 1960s. Some lads paused their kickabout, saying “Let’s wait until this old bloke has gone past.” Dad looked around for the old bloke, only to realise that he was it. I suppose he would have been in his late 50s at the time. He came home thoroughly dispirited. I can remember laughing at him.

For me, it happened on the afternoon of Wednesday, 9 August 2017. I’d had an agreeable lunch with my wife and two sons, aged eight and five, before they headed for a matinee at the open air theatre nearby. (Amazingly, it did not rain.) On my way back to the office I thought I’d call in at B&Q to pick up some paint I’d promised to buy to enhance the appearance of our summerhouse. I also added four bags of potting compost to the legendarily unmanoeuvrable flatbed trolley and headed towards the checkout, where I was intercepted by a solicitous, orange-clad matron with the words:

“Are you all right, dear? Would you like someone to help you with that?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Come to this till, I can open it up for you.”

Never before in many years of shopping at B&Q have I ever known more than one or two tills to be open, and have often wondered why they installed the other four in the first place. So this was a genuine first.

“Have you got one of our cards, dear?”


“Would you like one? You are over 60, aren’t you?”

“Yes I am, as it happens. But I haven’t got anything on me to prove it.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that, dear. I can see you are. Only it’s 10% off on Wednesdays for our Diamond Club members.”

So there I stood, with £80 worth of goods on my trolley, and a straight choice to make between my self-respect and a saving of eight quid (which actually proved to be only six quid, because the compost had already been discounted).

Naturally I went for the six quid, but still returned to the office feeling far, far older than I had been when I set out, and contemplating a future in which “a nice cup of tea and a sit down” will feature extensively, along with pensioners’ specials at lunchtime, whist drives in the day room, and lively discussions about the deaths column in the local paper.

To be fair, the ticket office staff at Newcastle Central station regularly asked me “Have you got a card, pet?” when I was still in my 40s, after the stress caused by my demanding clients turned my hair grey somewhat prematurely. But back then I could always kid myself that they had mistaken me for a student.

Now there can be no doubt. I am a Diamond Club member, my foot is poised on the edge of the grave and the ground feels distinctly slippery. But at least I’ve got Wednesdays sorted for my few remaining months, and I’ll be able to put the savings on home improvement products towards my funeral expenses.

Everyone to whom I have retailed this story in my search for sympathy has laughed at me, just as I laughed at my father half a century ago. So I have also finally learned the true meaning of karma. And all thanks to B&Q.

Friday, 3 February 2017

If you go down in the woods today

Last week Mrs H volunteered to drive our elder son and two his school friends to an eighth birthday party. It didn’t seem too much of a challenge, on the face of it: the party was being held within a few minutes’ drive of our house, albeit at an address Mrs H had not visited before. But she had said address, the benefit of verbal directions (“we live in the woods”), and the support of a fully functioning sat nav. What’s more, she had taken the precaution of calling en route at the office of the local estate, from which the house is rented, to make absolutely sure she went to the right one of the two identically named cottages in their possession. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what:

Yes, we’ve all read about the people who have driven into canals, onto railway lines, or got their HGVs irretrievably jammed between two ancient and fragile buildings because “the sat nav told me to do it”, but this is the first time I have encountered this phenomenon quite so close to home.

I don’t think I can do better than to let Mrs H’s White Knight tell the story in his own words:

I’m not quite sure I can express my sheer delight/awe/dismay in a word that summarises all of the emotions I felt when I realised the true extent of Mrs H’s predicament. I can say, though, that one of my initial reactions was relief: if only that I am not the only man alive with a wife capable of making such a manoeuvre.

When I first got the call to duty (4.15pm) we still had failing daylight. The message was as clear as it was urgent: three 7/8 year olds and a distraught mother stuck in the deepest, darkest depths of the woods, and the mist was closing in fast.

[It surely goes without saying that Mrs H had got stuck in a spot with zero mobile reception, and had had to walk some way from the car before she could despatch a text message pleading for help.]

After about 20 minutes “off–roading” I happened on a gaggle of desperately waving children in the near dark of the woods shouting excitedly “Are you in a four-wheel drive?” and “Thank God - we thought we were going to die!” “Thank Christ!” etc. All very biblical anyway … 

[This is good, as it shows that their education in a Church of England school is delivering at least some of the hoped-for benefits.]

Behind the young Christians was a fraught-looking Mrs H, obviously downplaying the youngsters’ prophesy of doom had I not found them…. “I’ve got my car stuck up there” (gestures into the jungle). “It’s not badly stuck though!”

All very Hansel and Gretel, actually, come to think of it.

On that cheerful note they all, relieved, jumped into the car and we got back to the house so they could be duly terrified by tarantulas and snakes, this being the order of the day apparently. 

I took the opportunity to steal away from the frivolities of the killer animals in our kitchen to see if I could free the vehicle from the mud…… not being “badly stuck” etc.

Having picked them up in the woods off a moderately muddy but not impassable path (if you happened to be in a tracked vehicle, that is) I had assumed that where I had been pointed towards to find the stuck vehicle must have been on a similar woodland path. I took myself back towards where I had picked them up, to realise that where the car was actually stuck appeared to be on a track further up into the woods, and not accessible by line of sight…….. 

Mrs H had in fact decided (because the Sat Nav had dictated) that she turn off what must have been a questionable track in the first place into the woods literally off road. The SAS would have struggled to navigate the course she/the Nav had chosen to take.

A friend helped us pull the car out with his tractor in the dark after we gave up digging it out and trying to move it with his pick-up truck: having exclaimed on first sight “It looks like it’s fallen out of that fucking tree - how did that get there?!”

I have told my wife never again to describe where we live as “in the woods” in case anyone else takes it quite so literally!

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Lifelong comical material.

I find it hard to disagree with that verdict. Mrs H described it all as “a bit of a ‘mare with the car” while my son’s verdict was slightly more dramatic: “Daddy, we nearly died in the woods!”

By way of a postscript, over the subsequent weekend one of Mrs H’s front tyres developed what appeared to be a slow puncture. I pumped it up, but it kept losing pressure, so on Monday Mrs H took it to those nice people at the local Kwik Fit.

Their first question, after examining the car, was “Do you do a lot of off-roading?”

Because obviously, if you did, your first choice of motor would be a two-wheel drive Nissan Qashqai. We wanted a four-wheel drive model, as Mrs H had before, but at the time of order Nissan had decided that its customers could have a 4WD Qashqai or an automatic Qashqai, but not both in one car, and the automatic gearbox won.

I would say that we had made the wrong choice, but my own car is supposed to be one of the most capable off-road vehicles on the market, and I don’t think it would have fared any better in the circumstances.

I am currently on eBay looking for a competitively priced second hand tank.

I conclude with many thanks to Mrs H’s rescuers, narrator and photographer, and the assurance that I will, without fail, report here with equal fullness and frankness any car-related misfortunes that may occur when I am behind the wheel myself. How’s that for making myself a hostage to fortune?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Having Santa arrested

Yesterday Mrs H took the boys to the traditional Christingle service in our parish church, then on to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Lowry in Manchester, while I lay on the sitting room sofa attempting to pull myself together from the total exhaustion that has afflicted me since Friday.

Luckily a friend of our older son was able to use the theatre ticket I had bought for myself.

The boys having made donations to the Children’s Society during the church service (which is to say, having handed over the candle-shaped cardboard collecting boxes that Mummy had filled for them), Mrs H attempted to interest them in another good deed: buying extra Christmas presents for needy children.

“Will that be with our money?” Charlie, the elder, asked suspiciously.

“No, Mummy will pay for them.”

“But why do we need to buy presents for other people?”

“Well, because these are for children who might otherwise have nothing at all on Christmas Day. How would you feel, Jamie, if you came down on Christmas morning, and Santa hadn’t left you anything?”

Jamie, aged four, had no doubts about that.

“I’d ring the police and have Santa arrested,” he replied.

Continuing a robust turn of phrase for which he has become noted in the Hann family. Indeed, we can recall only one recent concession.

Jamie has a particular aversion to having his hair washed and, subsequent to that, receiving the attentions of a nit comb. (Head lice, a phenomenon completely unknown to me and my childhood friends in 1950s Newcastle, are now commonplace even among the denizens of overwhelmingly middle class church schools in Cheshire; which seems odd given the vast improvement in standards of personal hygiene over the intervening half century).

In the course of these regular bathroom battles, a certain amount of personal abuse tends to be directed at Mummy.

During one of these recently, Mrs H provided a summary: “Yes, I know, I am the worst, unkindest, most cruel and evil Mummy that ever lived.”

Jamie looked at her coldly and replied: “I never said you were evil.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

This is all your fault, Mummy

Today we lunched at home and took our walk at the far end of the beautiful Breamish valley. It must have been getting on for 20 years since I paid my last (and only) visit to the waterfall called Linhope Spout, but I was conscious that it was pretty and, more importantly, that the three-mile round trip there and back should be within the walking abilities of both the children and our 15-year-old Border terrier.

Though, to be honest, I seriously doubted whether we would actually make it to our intended destination.

These doubts seemed well-founded when we reached the bridge in the little hamlet of Linhope, about 20 minutes after starting our walk, and the boys noted the water tumbling over a few rocks in the stream below.

“That’s it. We’ve seen the waterfall! Let’s go back!” they announced.

But Mummy was made of sterner stuff than that, and insisted on persevering. So we secured their reluctant agreement to walk up the grassy hill on the path that led away from the tarmac road. Towards the top of this we came to a well-worn sign that read “Linhope Spout ¼”. The inaccuracy of this became clear some way further on, when we passed another sign pointing in the opposite direction that read “Hartside 1”, Hartside being the place where we had parked the car, close to a sign that correctly declared the total distance to Linhope Spout to be 1½.

“Come on, team Hann!” said Mummy, enthusiastically. “It’s only a quarter of a mile! We can do this!”

So we set off, with the expedition naturally dividing into two parts. The first, or pathfinder, group comprised me, my seven-year-old son and heir, and our three-year-old Border terrier. The second consisted of Mummy, the four-year-old child and the aforementioned geriatric dog, who has the turn of speed you might expect from a 105-year-old blind human.

As the ground descended on the approach to the Spout the boy lost sight of me and began to doubt his mother’s sense of direction.

“Mummy, we need to go straight on!”

“No, we turn right. I saw Daddy go this way.”

“No, it’s straight on!”

“Look, there’s a sign. It’s pointing this way.”

“No, no, no! You’re going the wrong way! We’re lost! Lost in the hills! I’ll never see Charlie or my house ever again! Ring Daddy!”

“I can’t ring Daddy.”

“Oh for God’s sake don’t tell me you’ve forgotten to bring your phone!”

“No, it's just that the reception isn't very good here and ...”

“This is all your fault! If you hadn’t walked so slowly we wouldn’t have lost them in the first place!” 

And so on and so forth until the Spout finally hove into view with an elderly man and a small boy standing beside it, and a smaller boy started trying to hurl himself down a rocky slope to join them.

We took a commemorative photograph and made our way back to the car shortly before nightfall, with approximately half of us moaning all the way as we went.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Pining for the truant catcher

The rural local authorities of Cheshire, in an act of collective madness, decided that this week would be their school half term. A week after everyone else’s. Which was no doubt good news for those teachers and parents looking to secure cut-price tickets to jet off to somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. But it was decidedly bad news for those of us who had elected to stay here, given that pretty much all the preserved railways, castles, country houses, petting farms and other child-friendly tourist attractions that had been enthusiastically touting for business all last week put up their shutters and closed for the winter at dusk on Sunday.

This left us with two main options to keep our little darlings entertained during our holiday break in Northumberland: pub lunches and healthy walks. A key objective of the latter being to tire them out in the hope that they might sleep slightly later than their traditional 6am BST (or, as it became yesterday, 5am GMT).

Today we went to an establishment in Newton-by-the-Sea that bills itself as a “gastropub”, something I have always found more than a little off-putting. Many years ago I observed from the top deck of my bus to and from school the opening of a modest little shop by the Cradlewell in Jesmond that billed itself as a “high class tailor”. Even as a schoolboy, I harboured grave doubts about that business. Would an establishment that really was “high class” need to proclaim the fact on its fascia? I was very surprised when, years later, a friend from a more prosperous family than mine told me that his father had all his suits made there, and it was actually pretty good.

The “gastropub” had its pretensions quite effectively deflated by my friend The Secret Diner (food critic of The Journal in Newcastle) more than a year ago.  At the time I thought he was being frightfully unfair as I only ever ordered the fish and chips or seafood chowder, both of which were ace. I also appreciated the reliably prompt and efficient service, which becomes of critical importance when one is in charge of two small human beings who will become “hangry” if their needs are not satisfied at high speed.

Considerable disappointment thus ensued when the pub proved to have seriously downgraded both its signature dishes, and I ended up paying £16.95 for an absurd (and dangerously hot) “bin lid” thinly smeared with a “chowder” in which the main ingredients appeared to be flour and undercooked, sliced potatoes.

Perhaps it wise, in the circumstances, that the staff had also developed new skills in the avoidance of eye contact.

Still, no one has yet managed to spoil the beach at Low Newton and we spent a pleasant and surprisingly clement afternoon watching the children running around and getting as much of the North Sea as possible inside their wellies.

Though it was a little disappointing that we did not receive a visit from the uniformed individual who featured with such regularity in the comics of my childhood: the Truant Catcher. I could, of course, have patiently explained that my children were enjoying a legitimate holiday, in much the same way as I explain nearly every day that I am not, in fact, their grandfather. On the other hand if he had come all that way with a big net and a van with barred windows, it might have been cruel to deprive them of an educational experience of unjustified incarceration.

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I carved a pumpkin lantern. It took about ten minutes, compared with the couple of evenings I used to spend attacking a turnip (as we call swedes on Tyneside) with a blunt kitchen knife 50-odd years ago. We lit the candle and awaited callers, having armed ourselves with a couple of bags of fun-size chocolate bars from Iceland in Alnwick.

Unsurprisingly, in the middle of nowhere in rural Northumberland, absolutely no one came.

Monday, 17 October 2016

In training

I can’t explain how I acquired my love of trains. It certainly wasn’t nurtured by my parents, who most definitely preferred cars. Understandably enough, as my mother’s father had been a champion cyclist whose Alnwick cycle shop gradually developed into a small chain of north Northumberland garages; and who, as a pioneer motorist, could proudly claim to have driven the first car to reach a number of valleys in the Cheviots (I forget exactly which).

Ford's Garage in Alnwick; grandfather in straw boater
My father, meanwhile, had earnestly saved the earnings from his first job until the glad day when he was able to walk into a garage on Northumberland Road in Newcastle city centre, and drive back to Philip Street in the West End in his first car. No driving lessons or test in those days. Just hand over the cash and get on with it. I don’t know exactly when that was, but I can remember him telling me that the price of gallon of petrol at the time was 1s (5p), and that the nation came close to rioting when it shot up to an eye-watering 1s 1½d (5.6p).

We simply never travelled by train. My first ever journey by rail was with my father on a third rail electric train from Newcastle to the coast when I was eight or so, secured after much nagging by me. For a main line trip I had to wait for my mother to take me on a day trip from Newcastle to York. From the fact that I can distinctly remember one of British Railway’s very last steam locomotives pottering around the station while we were waiting for our return train home, I guess that was in the summer of 1967 when I was 13.

Once they indulged me by obtaining a brochure to satisfy my rail obsession by spending a summer holiday in a camping coach on a rural branch line, but the plan collapsed when my father grasped that they were only made available to those who reached them by train.

Still, they did buy me train sets (first Hornby O-gauge, then second-hand three-rail Hornby Dublo) and take me for walks. From the start, my favourite outings were always to the East Coast Main Line, a mile or so from our house. Particularly to the sidings at Little Benton, where there were usually steam engines to be observed chuntering up and down sort coal waggons and hoppers as the expresses between London and Edinburgh thundered past. My mother was fond of trying to convince me that the clangs of shunting were rumbles of distant thunder, requiring us to head for home without delay.

I loved the sound and smell of steam locomotives from my first encounter with them. As I grew a little older, I also came to appreciate the living history they represented, with a fair part of the motive power in the Northumberland coalfield having been designed and built before the First World War, yet still gamely plodding on into the 1960s.

Against that background, it is easy enough to understand how my seven-year-old son comes to be something of a rail enthusiast. Though perhaps not a particularly well-informed one. Over-exposure to Thomas the Tank Engine led to a certain amount of devastation when he finally grasped, just over a year ago, that regular main line express trains are not still customarily powered by steam.

The seeds do not always take root, either. My four-year-old has been subjected to exactly the same drip of pro-train propaganda, but still prefers cars. Particularly racing cars.

Even so, having two die-hard rail enthusiasts in a family of four certainly constitutes a quorum, and permits me to indulge my own fancies while pretending that I am doing something nice to please the children.

Two weekends ago we spent a most agreeable day in the National Railway Museum in York, which I can heartily recommend to any parent. Unlike the national museums in London it is not what Jeremy Corbyn would doubtless call ram-packed. Even though entry is – rather bizarrely to my mind – completely free.

The exhibits and attractions kept the boys’ boredom at bay for several hours, which is frankly one hell of an achievement, and the cafeteria does a very decent pork and black pudding sausage roll. What’s not to like? They were also very nice about retrieving my younger son’s souvenir sticker book from the roof of a carriage when he dropped it there from a footbridge, remarking as they did so that it was a remarkable achievement to have got it to lodge where he did. Minutes after the man with the grab on the end of a long pole had gone away, another child managed precisely the same feat.

The next day, after a comfortable night in a friendly pub in Kirbymoorside, we took steam trains from Pickering to Whitby and back on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, spending long enough at the seaside to enjoy fish and chips in the Magpie Café and take a bracing walk on the beach.

I have been a member of the NYMR preservation society since 1973, when the best it could offer was a diesel multiple unit ride from Grosmont to a little way beyond Goathland, but I had not visited the line for well over a decade. It was a most enjoyable experience, particularly on the outward journey. Because my sons have the compressed attention span of the internet generation and their view of return journeys tends to be “been there, seen that”. Or, as the elder wearily put when I tried to encourage him to take another look out of the window somewhere in Newtondale, “Trees, bracken, bracken, trees, trees, trees.”

An image from the outward journey
A latter-day camping coach on the NYMR. Next summer's holiday sorted?
Perhaps the single most annoying thing about the elder boy is that he is even more observant than I am, and virtually impossible to catch out. Because even the things I feel sure he cannot possibly have seen because he has been, at best, half paying attention, have all been clocked, absorbed and stored away in his capacious memory banks. “I told you so” is fast becoming one of his favourite phrases or sayings.

We had one bit of unfinished business at the end of that weekend in Yorkshire. Although we had duly seen and admired the fastest steam engine of all time, Mallard, we had not encountered what has become the most famous locomotive of them all.

So it was lucky that I had also managed to secure perhaps the last four tickets on the final train of Flying Scotsman’s weekend stint on the East Lancashire Railway late yesterday afternoon.

It would be fair to say that even the child who prefers racing cars was highly excited.

We counted the minutes on the platform at Bury Bolton Street station until the legend drifted into view, and we were the first to take our booked seats on its train, the best part of half an hour before it departed.

The boys admired the scenery of the Irwell Valley – both industrial and rustic – all the way to Rawtenstall, where they wisely did not join me and the rest of the passengers in disembarking to try to take identical photographs of the locomotive.

On the way back, as ever, ennui set in, alleviated a little by an iPad. But then Mummy went to stand by an open window at the end of the carriage, where the boys joined her. And as the shadows lengthened, the elder boy was heard to say, “Mummy we’re on the actual Flying Scotsman and it's getting dark, could this day get any better?” On the strength of which, I feel entitled to mark the day down as a success.