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.”

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