Friday 30 November 2007

Another day, another threesome

Today the weather has reverted to seasonal type. On the other hand, I was invited to participate in a wild threesome with two lovely ladies.

The younger of them was 83.

We had lunch in a pub on the outskirts of Newcastle, which might have been worth visiting if one happened to be on the outskirts of Newcastle anyway, and more than usually hungry. Say, because one had been chained to a radiator by terrorists for a month or so, and fed only on the occasional scrap of stale bread.

The 80-mile round trip it involved for me was justified only by the very high quality of the company. The ladies went wild and drank a half of lager - each, not between them - and we had quite a few laughs, mainly at my expense. I’d dressed up for the occasion in a comedy three-piece tweed suit, with my great-grandfather’s watch and chain. This had the dual benefits of enabling me to say that I couldn’t possibly help to stack the load of logs which was delivered to my house this morning, and of making the octogenarians feel thoroughly “with it.”

Afterwards the lady who had been brought over from Germany as war booty in 1945 invited us back to her swish Newcastle apartment for coffee, which turned out not to be just coffee, if you know what I mean. There were cherry brandy liqueur chocolates as well.

Thirty years ago I was so dense that, when a girl invited me in for coffee after a Saturday night out at the theatre, I said, “No thanks, it always keeps me awake if I drink it late at night”, pecked her on the cheek and went home. I’d only chivalrously walked her back to her flat because I lived just around the corner. Her flatmate, who had introduced us, gave me a real earful when we met at work on Monday.

“How could you be so bloody rude to Juliet when she asked if you wanted to sleep with her? Don’t you fancy her?”

“Yes, of course I do. She’s very attractive.”

“Well I wouldn’t rate your chances after that fiasco on Saturday.” [This proved to be an uncannily accurate assessment of my prospects.]

“But she didn’t actually use the words ‘sleep with’, you know. She asked me if I wanted a coffee. Which I didn’t.”

“For God’s sake, man, no girl’s ever going to come right out with it and offer to sleep with you.” [Wrong, but then British mores have changed rather a lot since the late 1970s.] “She’d sent me away for the night so that the two of you could get it together. Surely you realize that coffee is a CODE.”

Well, I hadn’t. But I did from then on. And every time I was invited in for coffee after a night out, I said yes. I would leer suggestively when she asked me how I took it, remarking that perhaps it would be more appropriate if I put that question to her. This often led to my swift ejection from the building. As did my habit of stripping naked and lounging suggestively across the sofa while she was away in the kitchen, pratting about with a cafetière. In fact, now I come to think about it, no woman since bloody Juliet in 1979 has ever invited me in for coffee and meant anything deeper and more meaningful than “do you fancy a cup of hot, caffeine-rich, black liquid made by roasting and grinding the seeds of a tree from the madder family?”

Knowing that, I suppose my behaviour after that second liqueur chocolate this afternoon really was unforgivable.

Still, at least it gave two very sweet old ladies a hearty chuckle. And sadly that may well be the best I can offer to the female population of Northumberland at the time of writing.

That and an introduction to a very cute dog.
The best a girl can get?

Thursday 29 November 2007

A land in need of heroes

It’s been one of those rare and special days when I truly appreciate the wisdom of returning to live in Northumberland full-time. The sun shone and the air was as sharp as a fishwife’s tongue. Under these atmospheric conditions, visibility seems almost limitless, offering breathtaking vistas of rolling hills almost untouched by any signs of modern industrial society. Indeed, one has to focus really hard to pick out the one line of electricity pylons advancing along the line of the A697, a single TV transmitter mast, and the golf ball shaped dome of the Brizlee Wood radar station guarding our airspace against Mr Putin.

All this is destined to change quite soon, in order to Save the Planet. Which most people would undoubtedly consider a Good Cause. I have my doubts myself, since what we are actually talking about is not the salvation of the planet, but of humanity. Would it really matter so much if we went the way of the dinosaurs? Given a few million years of evolution, the next dominant species (and my money is on the cockroach) might actually make a rather better fist of it.

But even if we accept that Saving the Planet is the right approach, are wind farms really the answer? They are monstrously inefficient and generate huge amounts of carbon dioxide in their construction. Nevertheless, in a rush that has echoes of the Klondike, assorted developers are pursuing plans to erect more than 300 giant turbines across the Northumberland uplands, in order to cash in on the generous subsidies arising from the UK’s “renewables obligation”. It is the most outrageous subsidy scam since the one that gave us countless acres of conifer forests to safeguard supplies of pit props for our now closed mines.

There is currently a public enquiry taking place in Alnwick, following the soon-to-be-abolished district council’s brave rejection of npower’s application to construct England’s biggest wind farm at Middlemoor, six miles north of the town. This proposes to plonk 18 giant (400ft) turbines across an unspoilt stretch of moorland midway between the coast and the Cheviot Hills, alongside what is, at present, one of the loveliest drives in the county: the single track road from North Charlton to Chillingham, passing the wonderful viewpoint of Ros Castle. The view may soon not be worth the effort of walking up to the summit.

Still, at least the press reports of the proceedings have afforded some much-needed amusement. My personal favourite was a Mr Urquhart, who appeared as witness last Friday. He assured the enquiry that the wind farm would be hardly noticeable, since looking at a 125 metre structure from a distance of two kilometres was the same as looking at a telegraph pole from a distance of 100 metres. For some reason, a vision of Father Ted holding up a model of a cow to Father Dougal and alternately pointing at it and gesturing out of the window while reciting the mantra “Small … far away … small … far away” sprang ineluctably to mind.

Mr Urquhart also suggested that Middlemoor could become the focus of a carbon-neutral 3,000 home eco-community, for which he had even taken the trouble to dream up a name: “Nortopia”.

I think he was supposed to be appearing on behalf of npower. Surely the oddest decision since someone decided that it would be a cracking idea to call Paul Whitehouse as a defence witness for Chris Langham.

The paper cited Mr Urquhart’s qualification to pontificate on Saving the Planet as being a medical librarian at Newcastle University. It didn’t specify whether he had a straggly beard and wore sandals, but I think we can all make an educated guess.

As the distinguished environmental scientist James Lovelock has written, the proponents of wind farms in the wider community are motivated by exactly the same spirit of faith-based vandalism that led the Puritans to smash the icons and stained glass windows of our great cathedrals. While behind them lurk the spiritual (and in some cases actual) descendants of the fat cats who profited so hugely from the stripping of the altars.

Oh for a Milton to protect the hills of Northumberland, as the poet drew his sword to defend the stained glass of King’s College, Cambridge. Sadly, these days we must rely on public enquiries. We all know what answer the Government wants from them. And who doubts that, by one means or another, it will ultimately have its way?

Wednesday 28 November 2007

The elusive Mr Abrahams

David Who? From the Prime Minister down, leading Labour Party figures are lining up to claim that they have never met or even heard of the reclusive Newcastle landlord and property developer who has apparently been their third largest donor - until they had to pay it all back. I gather that there was a particularly impressive display of total ignorance by a prominent Newcastle Labour MP on last night’s ITV regional news.

It all seems mighty odd, given that the man at the centre of the controversy bears, at least some of the time, one of the best-known names in local politics. His father, sometime Lord Mayor of Newcastle Bennie Abrahams, truly was a local legend. I know, because I was brought up with him. Not literally; I’m not that old. In fact I’m exactly the same age as his son, according to the account that says he was born in 1954. Or not, if you believe the alternative theory that he was born in 1944. There seem to be at least two versions of reality in almost every line of this extraordinary story.

Anyway, to me and Bennie. He was my grandmother’s councillor and her hero. No other word will do. She lived for 65 years in a first floor rented flat in the West End of Newcastle, in a cobbled street which would now be classified as a slum. In fact, someone in authority must have reached that conclusion not long after Grandma died in 1973, at the age of 92, because it had been bulldozed out of existence when I went to pay a nostalgic visit a few years later.

Not that there was much to be nostalgic about. The flat had no heating apart from a coal-fired range in the kitchen. The lavatory was down a steep flight of steps in the backyard. There was no bathroom. Most incredibly of all, until the day she died the only lighting was from gas. I remember being despatched to the main Northern Gas showroom in Pilgrim Street, when I was in the sixth form at school, to buy her some new gas mantles. They eventually found some in a long forgotten store room, and handed them over with looks of frank astonishment.

When every other house in the street was converted to electricity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Grandma told her landlord not to bother as she would be dead soon, and it wasn’t worth the upheaval. Such is the family tradition of positive thinking, which I am proud to represent today.

In fairness, she might well have believed it. My other three grandparents had all died by 1943, aged 60, 63 and 65.

Every Sunday lunchtime for 36 years, plus high days such as New Year, Easter and Christmas, my father drove across Newcastle to bring his mother to our house for lunch. My mother detested her, and the feeling was mutual. Mum used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen on her own, making a great deal of noise with the pots and pans, and muttering things like “Only the good die young.” And she undoubtedly had a point. If Grandma was anything to go by, the key to reaching the age of 92 is total self-obsession and an utter determination to live in and for the present. She had actually had an interesting childhood, emigrating to America with her parents and crossing the Mid-West in a genuine wagon train. (Yes, they had railways by the 1890s, but maybe the wagons were cheaper; or maybe the trains were operated by Virgin.) Displaying the brilliant judgement which I have also inherited, my great-grandfather decided that the USA was a busted flush, and brought his family back to England, where Grandma had caught glimpses of, among others, Queen Victoria and King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. But could you get her to talk about any of this? Not a chance. Ask her about the price of Tide, though (or was it Oxydol?), and there was no stopping her.

Our fraught weekly lunches were frequently dominated by talk of Bennie Abrahams: Bennie had promised this, Bennie was doing that. Bennie was a saint. No other word would do. My father, who had clambered far enough up the social ladder to become a staunch Tory, could be observed physically fuming.

Then came the evening in or around 1970 when Grandma was run over on a pedestrian crossing on her way home from a whist drive. Always a well-padded individual (there really is something in this heredity stuff, isn’t there?) she bounced off the tarmac quite nicely, but was nevertheless carted off to the General Hospital with a broken arm. The first reaction of the shocked medical staff was to put her on a strict diet in an ill-fated attempt to tackle her obesity. For some time afterwards, they talked about the strident yells that had rung down the ward when she was denied ice cream for her pudding: “I’m 90 years old, for God’s sake! What difference can it make?”

I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that question.

This was in the days before the compensation culture became universal, but the car driver who had run her down was clearly at fault, and my father was keen to do his best for her. He pleaded with her to let him hire a decent solicitor. No need, she insisted. Bennie Abrahams knew all about it, Bennie Abrahams was on the case, Bennie Abrahams was the best advocate in Newcastle and the only one she needed, as he had faithfully promised to represent her in person.

Came the day of the court case. Bennie Abrahams did not turn up.

Perhaps elusiveness is another one of those traits with a strong hereditary component.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

You could not make it up

In an emergency statement to the House of Commons this morning, the Prime Minister apologized unreservedly for last night’s SAS raid on a sixth form production of The Tempest at a high school in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, which left one teacher in Wansbeck Hospital receiving treatment for a suspected heart attack. Over a hundred parents and children were discharged after treatment for the after-effects of inhaling CS gas.

Ironically, it has emerged that the incident occurred because a 23-year-old Northumberland man, employed by GCHQ in Cheltenham to monitor mobile telephone calls in the North East, mistakenly transcribed “Caliban” as “Taliban”.

Mr Brown said “No-one can be blamed for this simple human error, which could have happened to anyone. In the ongoing War on Terror, our first priority must be to protect the public. We must act promptly on all intelligence in order to ensure their safety. I can assure the House that lessons will be learned from this unfortunate incident, which mercifully resulted in no loss of life.”

Sir Ian Blair held a press conference at New Scotland Yard to point out that it had nothing to do with him.

In a further emergency statement to the House of Commons this afternoon, the Prime Minister repeated his apologies to the Italian people for last week’s Trident missile attack which obliterated most of their major centres of population. He informed the House that a 23-year-old Able Seaman from North Shields had confused the missile launching equipment on HMS Vengeance for a cappuccino machine. “It appears that the unfortunate young man was attempting to order a double espresso, which is how he came to press the button marked ‘Italy’. No-one can be blamed for this simple human error, which could have happened to anyone. I can assure the House that lessons will be learned from this unfortunate incident, which tragically resulted in such a massive loss of life.”

Sources at HM Naval Base in Faslane confirmed that the 23-year-old Able Seaman had expressed regret for his actions. “If aa’d knawn what t’bugger was, I’d have pressed ‘Iran’ when I was scrolling down through the ‘I’s”, he reportedly told senior officers. Asked how he felt about having killed an estimated 20 million people, and destroyed some of the greatest centres of Western civilization, he apparently replied, “Whey, it’s a reet shame, like. But to look on the bright side, it should give wor lads a bit of a leg-up in Euro 2008.” He was later led away in tears, after counsellors broke the bad news about the Croatia match, which had taken place while his vessel was out of radio contact on patrol.

Meanwhile the 23-year-old junior official of HM Revenue & Customs in Washington, who put the unencrypted records of 25 million people into the internal post, continues to be shielded from the media at a secret location. Officials are reportedly planning to offer him an early free transfer to the Home Office’s Identity & Passport Identity Service, so that lessons can be learned when establishing the new National Identity Register.

Monday 26 November 2007

The North leads again

The North East continues to dominate the national news agenda. This morning’s seven o’clock bulletin on Radio 4 was led by The Abominable Showman (known affectionately in the City as “The Bearded Git”) attempting to ride to the rescue of Northern Rock. Although, of course, he won’t be doing anything as pedestrian as riding. (Spot the oxymoron). Dropping in by parachute from low space orbit, or walking across the Tyne (or at any rate the ornamental lake in Leazes Park) seems much more likely. The only ludicrous stunt we can probably rule out for sure is abseiling, judging by the agonized look in his eyes in that clip of a recent exploit which the BBC delights in replaying.

I find almost everything Branson does cringeworthy, to borrow a handy coinage from a driver for another train company. I heard him using it to beard [sic] a Virgin guard (or whatever they’re called these days) about Sir Richard’s extraordinary paean of praise for his “hero” driver who stayed at his post to steer the train to safety after the Grayrigg crash in Westmorland in February. “Does he think these ****ing things have a ****ing steering wheel up at the front, then?” It may say something for Sir Richard as an employer that, while his subordinate, sorry colleague, did not exactly leap to his defence, he did not join in the abuse, either. Though of course this might have been related to the fact that he was wearing a name badge, and there was a fat Bloke with a notebook taking an unseemly interest in his private conversation.

Still, in the case of the abseiling, it’s jolly nice to see the cringe internalized. Along with his testicles, to judge from his facial expression.

My only experience of “one of the world's most recognised and respected brands”, to quote their website, is Virgin Trains. It’s also the only privatized train operator to have made me think that dear old British Rail had quite a lot going for it. I did a little jig of glee when they weren’t awarded the East Coast franchise. My reluctance to be criminalized by submitting to fingerprinting and intrusive questioning means that I shall be unable to renew my passport when it expires, so I already face being trapped in the UK for the rest of my life. If I had to face a Virgin Train to get me anywhere, I’d probably never leave Northumberland again.

After the Beardie latest, the second item on the seven o’clock news was about the Newcastle property developer who gave £400,000 to the Labour party through a couple of associates, in order to protect his privacy. Well, that’s certainly worked a treat.

I’m beginning to wonder whether people in the North East are terminally incapable of achieving either basic competence or compliance with elementary rules. So far in 2007 we’ve managed to tip one of the country’s top mortgage banks into effective insolvency, and put the financial security and peace of mind of half the population at risk by casually losing their personal details. What fresh heights can there be to scale in the remaining 36 days of the year?

Sunday 25 November 2007

Things can only get better

I’ve put on 4lbs overnight, the dog has peed on the bathroom carpet and I’ve got a throat so sore that it feels like I have swallowed battery acid (using my imagination a bit there, as I’ve never actually ingested battery or indeed any other sort of acid, including LSD). In fact, the highlight of my entire day proves to be watching the second episode of the BBC’s Cranford – the sort of “nice” costume drama that my late mother would have greeted with unalloyed approval. It seems strange to be watching a programme of this sort that hasn’t been adapted by Andrew Davies; I keep forgetting and remain on needlessly high alert in case one of the prettier young actresses suddenly and surprisingly tears all her clothes off.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Legendary friendliness

I go to my local farm shop. My usual joke about the disappointingly small range of farms on offer meets with the usual response. Still, the meat is absolutely first class, and reassuringly expensive. It’s quite important, I find, to get out before they start telling you what the animal was called, leading on to a discussion of its favourite field, colour, friends, hobbies etc. I’ve never considered becoming a vegetarian, but I couldn’t eat an animal with which I’d formed a personal relationship. It would be like putting a pet in a sandwich, or sleeping with a friend. Always a mistake, even if it seems like fun at the time.

On my way back, I call at the local garage for some milk and am struck once more by the huge range of hardcore pornography they have on sale above the copies of The Field and opposite the Lyles’ Golden Syrup (I suppose there could be a synergy there). I wonder who buys it? Would they let me sit there with a clipboard and conduct a consumer survey? Thought not.

Today’s Daily Telegraph hilariously suggests that Alnwick is the capital of female entrepreneurship in the UK. The list is headed by the photogenic Duchess of Northumberland, who started off with nothing (apart from being married to one of the country’s richest landowners) and has battled through against all the odds to create an award-winning tourist attraction. Then there are a couple of farmers’ wives who have diversified, forming an equestrian centre and knocking up some seriously good puddings. The best laugh, though, comes from the closing line about this “beautiful, friendly and empty part of the country”. Beautiful and empty, yes. But friendly? For monosyllabic (and that’s on a good day) gruffness, I’d put money on a Northumbrian to outdo all-comers.

For example, a few months ago the best food pub within a feasible driving distance of my house changed hands. The first time I went to check out the new regime, it was randomly closed, as is the way of pubs in these parts. The second time, I wished it had been. I stood at the deserted bar for an inordinate amount of time, idly examining a disappointing menu to distract me from the fact that I was gasping for a drink. Eventually a young man appeared and announced, portentously, “the soup of the day is leek and potato”. I thanked him, whereupon he glared at me and repeated his speech rather more loudly. I said that I’d heard him the first time, which is why I’d said “thank you”, as opposed to “What?”, “Sorry?” or (had I been lower class) “Pardon?” and was there any chance that he could spare the time to pull me a pint of beer? By now he was giving me the sort of look that must have curdled any milk on the premises, and stopped all clocks within a radius of at least 50 yards. I knew it was going to be a mistake to order food, but in the fearless spirit of investigation I did so anyway. He clearly toyed with the idea of throwing the menu at my head before contenting himself with hurling it onto a distant pile with quite unnecessary force and stomping off to the kitchen with my order.

I don’t know whether my steak pie got the traditional Michael Winner treatment, but they had certainly spent some time rummaging through the bin to find some vegetables a week or so beyond their use-by date, and then carefully not bothering to cook them.

In the village shop the next morning, the sub-postmaster asked how it had been. “The food was crap,” I replied, “and the staff were quite unbelievably rude and surly.”

“Just like everywhere else round here, then,” he replied. “They should do well.”

Friday 23 November 2007

The social highlight of my week

The social highlight of my week: one of my exes comes round with her husband, bringing with them a seriously good Chinese takeaway. We then watch one of the implausibly cheap videos I have tracked down while browsing through my endless list of recommendations on Amazon. Tonight’s is Borat, a fine example of exactly the sort of cruel comedy I theoretically dislike intensely, but which is so well done that it performs the rare feat of making me laugh out loud repeatedly.

My ex’s husband (not my ex-husband: an important distinction) can’t understand how Sacha Baron Cohen can get away with the film’s outrageous anti-Semitism. We explain that it is for the same reason that black people can call each other by the N-word, but we can’t.

“What N-word?” he asks, clearly genuinely puzzled.

“We can’t say it,” I explain, “because we’re not black. Walls have ears.”

Despite the risks from spy satellites and implants in our mobile phones, his wife bravely spells it out for him. He harrumphs donnishly and announces that “In all my years in Oxford, I never once came across a black man called Nigel.”

Thursday 22 November 2007

Where do words come from?

I’m depressed and the weather is bloody awful. Could be cause and effect, though even I am not so self-obsessed as to imagine that my mood can drag down the climate of an entire planet.

I try to distract myself from obsessive-compulsive searches for things I don’t need by musing about words, with special reference to the way that new ones suddenly enter the language. This year everything we like a lot is “iconic”. What was it before? What were the bereaved before they became “devastated”? Sorrowful, grieving, heartbroken?

My favourite “new” word is “tsunami”, which shot from total obscurity to top of the charts on Boxing Day 2004. I happened to be up early that morning, and distinctly remember the early BBC radio news reports referring to “a giant tidal wave” until someone presumably pointed out that there was a word precisely describing this phenomenon. Distressing reports later emerged of people who knew exactly what the sudden and dramatic low tide betokened, running up the beaches screaming “Tsunami!” and being ignored.

“What’s he saying, darling?”
“It sounds like ‘Toon Army’.”
“He’s never a Newcastle supporter. Where’s his shirt?”
“No, hang on, I think I’ve got it. It’s ‘tsunami’.”
“What’s that when it’s at home?”
“Isn’t it that rather divine kitchen showroom in Wigmore Street?”
“Oh yes! Must be some new type of viral marketing.”
“Of course, that will be it. What the f---…”

Wednesday 21 November 2007

I take it all back

Actually, I take back everything I wrote yesterday. Clearly we as a nation cannot be trusted to run our own affairs when some goon can copy the entire child benefit database, comprising half the population, onto two unencrypted computer discs and casually lose them in the post. I must admit that my first reaction was amazement that you could get 25 million names, addresses, National Insurance numbers and bank details onto two computer discs. Isn’t modern technology amazing?

Then I thought, not for the first time: what a stroke of luck I haven’t got any children.

After that, I began puzzling as to what the Inland Revenue (a tax collecting department, I always thought) was doing doling out benefits. I always assumed that this was the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, which is apparently the current incarnation of what was once the Department for Health and Social Security, and before that the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I knew it well, because I grew up in the shadow of its rambling, single-storey quarters in Longbenton. Local legend had it that the building had been constructed with a view to its easy conversion into a military hospital when World War III started (which was provisionally scheduled for August 1964).

It was only after I had got through all that I began to think: what an unbelievable, world class, laughing-stock-making cock-up. And, yet again, there was a local angle, because the nameless (for the moment) mug with his name in the blame frame is apparently a “junior official” in Washington CD, as we traditionalists call it. CD being County Durham. You’ve got to admit that it sounds a lot snappier than the bogus Heath-Walker “county” of “Tyne and Wear”.

Then I thought: what sort of total arses would create a system which afforded the potential for screwing up on such a truly Biblical scale, and then try to pin the blame on some hapless junior when it duly happened? Say what you like about the late and unlamented board of Northern Rock, at least the directors have never tried to pretend that their £24 billion shortfall was down to some junior clerk pressing the wrong keys on his computer. But then, I guess, that’s the public sector for you. When things go really wrong, your superiors rally round, shop you to the media and you end up mysteriously bleeding to death on some path in the countryside.

As luck would have it, while all this was going on I was furnishing a load of information to HMRC, for them to lose in the next fiasco but two. A couple of weeks ago, I received out of the blue a completely incomprehensible form about the winding up of the pension scheme of my one and only former employee. It came as news to me, but apparently I am the administrator of this piffling arrangement. My first inclination was to chuck the thing in the bin, but a covering letter warned of all sorts of dire penalties if I did not send it back without delay. So I did. It was returned to me with remarkable promptness, given that it was sent to an address that bore only the haziest relationship to the one I had written on it, with a note curtly informing me that it was now “mandatory” to supply this information online. So in order to advise the authorities that I am no longer the administrator of a pension scheme, because it has been wound up, I have to go through the rigmarole of playing Twenty Questions so that I can register as a pension scheme administrator online. And then wait for them to send me a Scheme Administrator ID by post, which seems to run rather counter to the whole spirit of the brave new mandatory online world.

At least there is one ray of sunshine in all this. If the British public proves idiotic enough to allow this shower to set up and run an ID card database, then I will know for certain that the country is finished and can make other arrangements without delay.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

The English, the English, the English are best

I’ve always been a staunch opponent of regionalism, which is a con perpetrated by the European Union on the age-old imperial principle of “divide and rule”.

Luckily I now have a cast-iron supporting argument in the shape of the large pile of smouldering wreckage once known as Northern Rock. “Of course we can do anything for ourselves in this region that those fancy southern poofs can do in London.” Er, no. Despite having occasional access to the local media, I’ve refrained from commenting on this truly monumental cock-up because of the fierce regional loyalties it excites, and because I feel that I don’t really know much about banking. But then, clearly, neither did the company’s board.

The recipe seems to have been: take a cross section of the great and good of the North East (names that would sound equally appropriate as directors of any middle-ranking local railway company in the heyday of George Hudson); add a chief executive born and educated in the region, who joined the business as a graduate trainee; sprinkle a little bit of star dust and … oh dear.

Sadly, the Regent Centre in Gosforth was never destined to rank alongside Threadneedle Street or Wall Street in the list of global financial centres. Though the £40 billion black hole that its denizens have apparently created for HM Treasury may well earn them a sort of immortality in toilet books about Great Financial Disasters.

The real danger for me is that this regional failure becomes yet another weapon for those who seek to chip away at our national self-confidence. Already we have heard mutterings that the Bank of England mishandled the whole thing, precipitating the very run on the bank that they were seeking to avert. If only Northern Rock had been able to access the European Central Bank, they say, things might have been very different.

While it is true that the tripartite system of bank regulation invented by Chancellor G. Brown failed its first real test quite spectacularly, that must not be an excuse for throwing in the towel and going cap-in-hand to Brussels. We live in the most mature capitalist democracy on the planet. Within the lifetime of today’s old age pensioners, we were capable of governing a quarter of it. How can we suddenly have become so droolingly incapable that virtually every detail of our lives must be micro-managed from across the Channel?

I retain every confidence in England’s ability to compete with the very best in the world (except in football and cricket, obviously). But in the North East, we must continue to search for the global championship skills that will replace our former supremacy in exporting coal and building warships, guns and railways. What we can say with certainty is that mortgage banking ain’t it. Perhaps we should have stuck to the things we knew we were really good at, like baking stottie cakes, rather than trying to beat the Gnomes of Zurich at their own game.

Monday 19 November 2007

An earthly paradise?

I live alone on a windswept hilltop in Northumberland, five miles from the nearest shop and pub. The views are good, the air is fresh and, er, that’s about it.

View from my back door on a snowy February morning (though we tell the tourists this is August to put them off).

View from my house on a misty May morning.

Reactions to my lifestyle choice tend to be sharply polarized between those who imagine that it is an earthly paradise (which tends to be the view of those with unhappy marriages, troublesome children and /or noisy neighbours) and those who think it sounds like a living hell. Today, when darkness has never really lifted, I am inclining towards the latter camp. Frankly, I’d much rather be in The Ivy in London. So would my Border terrier but, on the other hand, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t let him in.

A bloke with a trailer came round last week and delivered £70-worth of logs. I’m getting through them at the rate of two baskets full a day. Or, to put it another way, I reckon they’re already about half gone. If I didn’t get a nostalgic kick out of wood smoke, and the self-satisfaction of helping to Save the Planet by using a “renewable” for heating, I’d plug in an electric fire instead. Or burn coal, if only I could lay my hands on some of decent quality. Until the 1980s, they used to mine the finest house coal in Britain about a dozen miles away, at Shilbottle. Now it’s shipped in from Russia, Colombia or somewhere even more exotic. It certainly looks like coal, and has superficial similarities with the real thing in being black and dirty. But it differs markedly from the domestic product in generating little heat and massive amounts of clogging, white ash. Are there no limits to the superiority of England? It turns out that we must even have had better quality forests 300 million years ago.

I wonder if there is a black (no, don’t laugh) market in British coal? Are there furtive, fag-smoking pushers on street corners who, in return for a wad of used notes, could help you lay your hands on a bag of cobbles or nutty slack? Are there connoisseurs who laid down a few hundredweight of the output from now vanished mines? Like the malts from closed distilleries, they would probably have turned out to be a rather good investment.

If there is anyone out there with a good line in house coal, feel free to bombard me with e-mails about it. They would stand a much greater chance of arousing my interest than the ones I normally receive, about penis enlargements and Viagra.

Oh God, I really must be getting old.

Sunday 18 November 2007

North dog sets new world record

Yesterday my Border terrier achieved a new personal best by remaining in or on my bed for an uninterrupted 16 hours, until 2.30 p.m. He only got up then because I clumped upstairs and enquired, rather sardonically, whether he could be bothered to go for a walk. After an appropriate pause for reflection, yawning, stretching and shaking, he decided that he probably could.

My dog in his natural habitatMy dog in his natural habitat.

Today, when the weather was totally unsuitable, he really wanted to go for a walk and followed me around staring in that pointed way which is the Border terrier’s favoured form of communication. Eventually I gave in and put on my coat and flat hat, making me look uncannily like a fatter version of Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine. Halfway down the sloping track to the next farm, my feet shot out from under me on the mud, and I landed on my side with a terrific thud. Lumps of grit penetrated a bloody wound on my wrist, almost certainly guaranteeing tetanus. The dog ran off, thinking that this interruption afforded a great opportunity to get on with his dream occupation of chasing sheep. Amazingly enough, he returned when I called for him. But I could swear he was grinning.

My other dog is much less trouble these days. He’s just sitting in the box from which he came back from the crematorium, snugly tucked up in his basket by the study fire, with his collar and his favourite toy. He smells a lot better than he did when he was alive, and is much less demanding of walks and food. On the other hand, it has to be said that he is nothing like as much as fun.

Not sleeping, only dead.Not sleeping only dead.

My dog, before he was dead. Handsome devil, wasn't he?

A number of correspondents have suggested that there is something rather morbid about this arrangement, and that I should get him out of his box and scatter him in his favourite place. Unfortunately, I point out, that was my sofa in the sitting room. I can’t think that sharing it with a box full of assorted ash is going to do a lot for my comfort when watching TV.

In an ideal world, of course, I’d have carted the sofa outside and used it as his funeral pyre. It would have been like a Viking chieftain being pushed out to sea on his blazing longship. But unfortunately the funeral arrangements were taken out of my hands by a saner ex-partner, and conventional thinking prevailed.

If I follow the same approach when my current dog dies, I’ll have to burn my bed. Bearing in mind what a nightmare it was to get it upstairs and assemble it, I don’t think that’s going to be a runner. Unless, of course, I leave it in situ, and burn down the entire house. Now there’s a thought. I’m sure it’s what he would have wanted.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Not Dying of Ignorance

My timing was perfect, really. I might only have been nine when sexual intercourse began in 1963, on the reckoning of the poet Larkin, but I was in my prime throughout that blessed interlude between the general acceptance of the contraceptive pill and the realization that we were all doomed by AIDS. I vividly remember getting the 1987 Government leaflet (“Don’t Die of Ignorance”) in the mailbox of my remote cottage. In fact, I had to walk a mile across the fields so that the Department of Health could scare the crap out of me. Which they certainly did. I was celibate for the best part of a decade afterwards. Though admittedly this had less to with my fear of sexually transmitted infection than with the fact that I had suddenly become desperately unattractive to women. I was no fatter or ruder than before, but I’d taken a career break and was therefore clearly the sort of unreliable nutter who should be avoided when making those wedding-house-car-holidays-children plans about which young women seem to like day-dreaming during the duller parts of first dates.

The sexual urge seems to diminish sharply when one gets past 50, which is a considerable bonus. Much more by accident than design, I have managed to sleep with two women in the last year, each of whom was young enough to be my daughter. But luckily wasn’t. My real sadness is that I did not manage to entice them into bed simultaneously. Not because I’ve always fantasized about a threesome, but because it would have saved some time that I could then have spent having a nice cup of tea and reading The Daily Telegraph.

One of them, on undressing, proved to have a fine collection of body piercings, including something she called a “clit ring”. I’ve spent a lot of time since speculating on the state of mind one would have to be in to wander into a backstreet tattoo and piercing parlour in one the more deprived parts of the “Tyne-Wear city region”, and ask some total stranger if they’d mind hammering a piece of metal through one’s genitalia. I’m prepared to concede that it had the distinct practical advantage of enabling one to find the bloody thing. She told me that it also enabled her to “multi-task” (as women so love to do) since, when she went running in her tight lycra shorts, the friction enabled her to enjoy a refreshing orgasm while taking her daily ration of healthy exercise.

Yet again it’s one law for the female of the species, and another for us men. Just think of all those headmasters and vicars who have been arrested for having a quick fumble in their tracksuit trousers while jogging slowly past the kiddies’ playground.

My other young lady had no body piercings, but shortly after sleeping with me, she announced that she had made an error in believing herself to be bisexual, and was in fact a lesbian. I’d always suspected that I might be having this effect on women, but it was still a bit depressing to have it confirmed.

I shared my concerns with a long-standing female friend. She asked me why I was looking so down-hearted and, trying to sound “giving” and “new mannish”, I said, “I’m 53 and I’ve just realized that I may never taste pussy again.” She squeezed my hand and gave me the address of a Chinese takeaway in Newcastle which apparently has a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing. I understand that it also does a locally celebrated Alsatian chow mein.

Friday 16 November 2007

The land of lost content

A shock headline in my morning paper reveals that a record 0.5 million foreigners settled in the UK last year (not including EU nationals who indicated they would be staying in the country for less than 12 months), while 200,000 Britons left the country. The article concludes that “little research has been done into the reasons for the current exodus of Britons”. Well, at the risk of doing some former polytechnic out of a massive grant to spend a couple of years establishing the bleeding obvious, I can offer an instant explanation. They’re going in search of a vanished England.

As Housman put it:

This is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways were I went

And cannot come again.

Unfortunately, our intrepid travellers all seem to overlook the last line.

Friends who have emigrated to New Zealand and rural France invariably say “it’s just like England used to be”, often citing the 1950s as the golden age they are struggling to recapture (even though most of them were, at most, babes in arms at the time, gurgling happily as they breathed in the toxic fall-out from the Windscale fire).

Of course they aren’t returning to anything of the sort; and, like mass tourists the world over, they are helping to destroy the very culture and communities they profess to admire. But I know what they mean. They are attracted, for example, by the chance to buy food that is grown locally and sold on market stalls and in small shops rather than identikit superstores; and by a slower pace of life where civility and a sense of community still prevail.

The unspeakable but unavoidable truth is also that these other countries appeal because they are less cosmopolitan and “multi-cultural” than contemporary Britain. For similar reasons, 20 years ago I took the less radical step of relocating from London to a part of Northumberland where my family had lived for generations. Here something resembling the ancient life of England still goes on, despite the best efforts of successive Governments to destroy it. I shall be a suspect townie incomer until the day I die, even though, 150 years ago, my great-great-grandfather and two of my great-grandfathers all lived less than a mile from my current home.

Unless, that is, I throw in the towel and emigrate myself. The tightening hand of authoritarianism has made me wonder whether Britain offers any future for a Bloke like me. Unfortunately much of the coming repression is EU-driven, so most of the countries to which I could travel freely would soon prove equally uncongenial.

An exhaustive discussion over lunch the other day concluded that the only viable alternatives for me were the Isle of Man or suicide. My friend advised that topping myself was, as the young say, “a no brainer”. However, I have since received encouraging reports of the quality of the real ale on the island, as well as the tramway and steam railway systems. Could it be the way forward? Or, more to the point, the way back?

Thursday 15 November 2007

Working insecurity

The SAS and SBS are both elite bodies of trained killers. So how come SCS is a shed full of cut-priced sofas? When it was just a local business in the North East, I used to murmur “I served in the SCS” to suggestible young women at London parties, confident that they would never twig what it meant. Now that that grinning bloke out of Eastenders is endlessly on the box nationwide, advertising their unrepeatable bargains, that particular line in harmless mendacity is closed to me.

I had dinner on the train from London years ago with a bloke on his way back from a meeting of a high level working party on foam. As in the stuff they use to pack sofas, rather than the stuff they use to put out fires. At that stage, the two sorts of foam had completely different properties, with the sofa kind being inclined to burst into flames whenever a slumbering member of the working class casually allowed a cigarette to drop from his or her fingers. Served them right, I thought, until my dinner companion pointed out that it was a bit hard on their innocent kiddiz, asleep in their cots upstairs, who tended to perish from the resulting toxic fumes.

Anyway, this bloke claimed to have founded SCS, so I asked him what it stood for. “Sunderland Suite Centre”, he replied. Yes, I’m still trying to work it out, too.

The nearest I’ve ever come to contact with the SAS was in March this year. I’d spent an agreeable evening at the theatre in Newcastle with an attractive young lady, then we’d driven back to her remote home in the Northumberland countryside. She’d cooked me supper and we’d drunk a couple of bottles of wine. As bedtime approached, she announced that she had something she felt she had to tell me. This proved to be the hitherto unsuspected existence of what she described as a “f***-buddy”, who had moved on from the special forces to international security, and who had promised her that any man who ever hurt her would “disappear”.

My throat went very dry.

“Does he have much of a track record of making people disappear?” I enquired, as casually as I could manage.

“Oh yes.”

“You don’t find that in any way troubling?”

“Quite the reverse. Knowing that he’s around makes me feel very secure.”

Funny, I thought. It’s having precisely the opposite effect on me.

“Tell me,” I said, reflecting that I was about three times over the drink drive limit and that in any event my car contained about half a pint of petrol. “If we go to bed together now, what are the chances of this fellow kicking your front door down in the middle of the night?”

“Absolutely none whatsoever. You can set your mind at rest on that.”

All my tension left me in an instant, like the hydrogen exiting the R101 as it ploughed into that French mountainside.

“Thank Christ for that,” I said. “He’s on an assignment overseas, is he?”

“No,” she replied. “He’s got a key. Why would he kick the door down when he’s got a key? He’s not some sort of idiot.”

It was a very long and sleepless night. I never got to meet the SAS man, but I still look over my shoulder far more often than I ever used to.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

How will it all end?

I’m in London for a drinks party. The Evening Standard billboard screams “Christmas turkeys to hit £100” and I just know it’s going to be one of their classic exaggerations. When I lived in London, my favourite was always the pre-printed poster that read “Film Star Dies”. Deaths being practically the only items of news that are not written about endlessly before they actually happen, I was rarely able to resist buying a copy of the paper. Even though I knew full well that I would end up flicking through it fruitlessly, until I came across a small piece towards the bottom of page 24, revealing that an actor I had never heard of, who played a bit part in a much-loved Ealing comedy in the early 1950s, had just handed in his dinner pail.

I’ve gained enough wisdom in 53 years not to buy the paper this time, but I do look at it when I get back to my club. As predicted, certain types of very rare organic turkey may indeed cost more than £100 this Christmas, particularly if they’re personally delivered from an exclusive specialist retailer by a topless supermodel. This allegedly has something to do with the outbreak of the “deadly H5N1 variety of bird flu” in Suffolk. Though, funnily enough, a quick Internet search reveals that other papers were running the “£100 turkey” story well before this happened, and attributing it to the soaring cost of animal feed.

The frozen turkeys that the common people buy from Iceland or Farm Foods won’t be affected by any of this, as they’re already dead and in the deep freeze. It always amuses me that the better-off are willing to pay such a premium for “fresh”. Do they seriously believe that millions of turkeys can be despatched and dressed for the shops within a couple of days just before Christmas? Of course not. They’re blast frozen and defrosted. Bakers do the same thing to meet demand for hot cross buns at Easter. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with it. But having worked in my time for both frozen and fresh food companies, and for bakers, I merely present it as a curious fact.

Why is it billed as “the deadly H5N1 virus” anyway? It’s certainly deadly for the unfortunate turkeys, since men in ludicrous white jump suits turn up and gas them. (Memo: if you ever see a man in a white jump suit walking up your front path, say goodbye to your domestic pets and feel free to fill your trousers.) However, the only people actually to have died of it appear to have physically slept with their birds (and I don’t wish to speculate on whether they were doing so in order to huddle together for warmth, or in pursuit of some obscure form of sexual gratification).

The British Government allegedly has a detailed master plan for the next flu epidemic, with warehouses full of stockpiled coffins. This should pretty much guarantee that it never happens. The world will end soon enough, no doubt, but I don’t think the agency will be bird flu, Islamic terrorism or even global warming. It will be that thing no-one has thought about but which will seem incredibly bleeding obvious as we are all fighting for our last breaths. I just hope we’ll feel able to laugh about the oversight as consciousness fades away.

My local newspaper from the North East this morning included the splendid headline “Experts reassure the public”. Could this be the ultimate oxymoron?

Meanwhile, my national paper announces the forthcoming marriage of a man with the splendid double-barrelled name of Page-Turner. Please God, let him be a popular novelist.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Far better off up North

What is it with Suffolk? The last twelve months alone has seen the mass slaughter of prostitutes in Ipswich, two separate outbreaks of bird flu, the arrival of midge-borne bluetongue disease, and an almost deadly tidal surge. One of my cousins is married to a Suffolk vicar. I can’t help thinking that his prayers are proving singularly ineffective. Indeed, they seem to have been positively counter-productive, calling down the twenty-first century equivalent of a Biblical curse.

In fact, the only redeeming feature I can detect is that it gives us all the chance to cloak a well-known obscenity in geographical decency:

“How are you feeling, old man?”
“Completely and utterly Suffolked.”

Monday 12 November 2007

Four million and one

Apparently there are now four million bloggers in Britain. Or nearly seven million if you believe what they print in The Guardian, though I find it hard to believe that any of my readers would be guilty of such an egregious error.

My first reaction to this news was what one might have expected from Roger Mellie out of Viz: “Aw, bollocks.” And there was I thinking that I’d write a blog rather than another unpublishable novel, because the fiction market is so thoroughly overcrowded.

Then I reflected that 3,999,995 (Guardian readers please insert higher number) of those blogs are probably by women, whingeing on about how awful it is being a woman. Mainly, of course, because of the awfulness of men. Whereas this will be a Bloke Blog. Only not what you might consider a typical Bloke Blog, because I’m not very interested in most of the conventional blokeish things like games. As distinct from sport, which means killing things, preferably with a shotgun rather than your bare hands. These important distinctions were drummed into me by more senior blokes, who had had the benefit of top public school educations, when I went to work in the City in the 1970s. In similar vein, I know that only potatoes ever wear jackets, and that the thing you put on after your suit trousers (unless you have a very strange sense of priorities) is actually a coat. While the thing you always thought of as a coat is, in fact, an overcoat. It all makes a sort of sense once you have got the hang of it, like the ranks of the British peerage and their various courtesy titles.

In short, I loathe all ball games with the exception of sex and croquet, and these days it’s mainly croquet I get to have a whack at. I like opera, theatre, classical music, comedy, films, history, hill-walking, Border terriers and Coronation Street. In fact, just about the only conventionally blokeish things I indulge in are drinking beer, eating pork scratchings and being incredibly ill from time to time (the third may indeed be related to the first two, and particularly the second).

Despite all the powerful contrary indications noted above, I am not gay. I’ve been engaged three times, but somehow avoided actually getting married. OId school friends, reunited after three decades or more, invariably shake their heads in wonderment and utter the same three words: “You lucky bastard!”

Perhaps. I don’t feel lucky. What I feel is the tightening grip of the Hand of Death upon my shoulder. This blog will explore my ducking and weaving to avoid my Date With Destiny until such time as it happens.