Monday 31 December 2007

Not necessarily Strictly Primate

I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rothbury this morning. He was in the driver’s seat of a Kia 4x4, double parked outside Lloyds TSB, and he was talking enthusiastically on his mobile phone. I expect he was comparing notes with the Pope on the contents of their respective New Year messages. If they both make exactly the same points, it must be like two women turning up at a party in identical frocks.

The fact that he was talking on a mobile was, in itself, a remarkable sign of progress. A few years back, Rothbury was a mobile phone blackspot so notorious that a gang cut the land lines into the town one night and proceeded to rob the post office at their leisure, secure in the knowledge that no-one would be able to call the police.

A friend of mine has a second home in a similar Happy Valley in Cornwall. One night the local restaurant was ruined by a City type loudly negotiating the details of a major transaction on his phone throughout dinner. When the proprietor presented him with the bill, he said, “Incidentally, sir, everyone else here is aware that there is absolutely no mobile phone reception in this area” and was rewarded with a tumultuous round of applause.

But I digress. Now I come to think about it, there has been a robbery in Rothbury since the great post office raid. An East European gunman wandered into none other than Lloyds TSB and demanded that they hand over their cash. A week or two later, I attempted to nip in at 3.55 to deposit some cheques, and found the bank shut. Slightly irritated at having to make a special return trip the next day, I said, “I thought you closed at 4” and received the enigmatic reply: “We used to until the raid, but after that we decided it was safer to close at 3.30.” Then they started closing all day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, too, doubtless on the basis of in-depth research into the habits of bank robbers from behind the former Iron Curtain. I moved my account elsewhere.

So when I saw the Archbishop outside there today, he could in fact have been a getaway driver. Maybe the Anglican Dean of Bucharest was inside filling a sack with the takings just deposited by the owner of the Penny Cascade who was always in the queue directly in front of me whenever I went in there. Did he have his engine running? I really don’t recall. Nor did I commit the registration number to memory, but it was definitely a Kia (odd name for a car, that) and it was grey. Or just very dirty. I suppose it could have been an underlying orange, which would be great colour for a Kia, particularly if the model is an Ora.

Legal note: the person I saw really did look exactly like the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I have no reason to suspect that Dr Rowan Williams drives a Kia or participates in bank heists. Though it would certainly make tomorrow’s tabloids a lot more interesting if he did.

Sunday 30 December 2007

The power of prayer - and of ballads

Reading yesterday’s post reminds me that I actually had relationships with two secretaries who were former air hostesses. At least I didn’t actually recruit the first one myself. She joined the firm as a temp, and was quite the hardest worker we’d ever taken on. After she had been furiously typing for the best part of a week, I tentatively enquired when she might have a window to produce a letter for me. Looking over her shoulder at this point, I realized that we had been unwittingly paying her to type up a collection of sermons for a South London monastic community.

She was a woman of strong religious convictions and outstanding good looks. When love blossomed between us (at least on my side), the experience of sleeping with her was marred only by the fact that she invariably burst into floods of tears immediately afterwards. Catholic guilt, you see.

Over the years this phenomenon has recurred with depressing frequency. “Oh” I’d say between puffs of my post-coital cigarette, “I didn’t know you were a Catholic.” This attracted a number of dispiriting responses, though the most memorable was perhaps “I’m not. I’m just staring into a bottomless void of almost unbearable disappointment.”

Three other memories stand out about my first ex-air hostess. For a kick-off, she was the world’s worst cook. I’ll never forgot being invited back to her South London council flat to meet her mother (who was lovely, unlike so many mothers I have known). My new girlfriend proudly presented me with a main course comprising some white fish in a cheesy sauce (probably a Bird’s Eye boil-in-the-bag) with boiled potatoes. I was trying to work out what the black bits in the sauce were, thinking that they looked a bit big to be cracked pepper, when her mother gently pointed out that it was usually a good idea to scrub or at any rate wash potatoes before boiling them. Evidently her daughter had skipped the home economics classes at school in favour of double Religious Education.

The second was the time that she sent the chairman of my company to an important meeting with a potential new client. This being in pre-mobile phone days, he rang her from a public call box across the street and described in some detail how a crane with a gigantic wrecking ball was just bringing down the last bits of the building she had sent him to. She had failed to ask for the company’s address when making the appointment, but had used her initiative and looked up their HQ in a two-year-old telephone directory.

The third memory, and my personal favourite, was her claim to have been sacked from Gulf Air over an unfortunate misunderstanding when she had climbed on top of a sheikh and given him the kiss of life after she had spotted that he was suffering a potentially fatal heart attack. It turned out that he was actually only enjoying a refreshing nap. This story always seemed to me to be a touch implausible, but she swore that it was the Gospel truth. And, let’s face it, if she had made it up to distract attention from something even more embarrassing, just what the hell could that have been?

You’ll find that you have plenty of time to ponder that sort of question if you become a Recluse like me. Other advantages include the ability to eat and sleep whenever you like, and having exclusive rights over the TV remote control. What’s more, you don’t need to bother about cleaning the house all that often. Unless, of course, people insist on visiting you. I do my best to deter this by such expedients as never answering the telephone or front door bell, and saying things like, “Oh yes, that would be lovely. Only I’m a Recluse, you see, so I can’t.”

It takes particular determination to break through this, but a trio managed it last night. They said they were going to come for dinner, and overcame the obvious objections by bringing all the food with them, and then cooking it. They even brought their own potato peeler. God knows what they thought conditions in my kitchen were going to be like.

Maybe it was a trial for a new guerrilla Meals on Wheels service. Anyway, I have to concede that it was absolutely delicious and most enjoyable even though I don’t, in principle, eat dinner, as it invariably results in chronic indigestion throughout the following night. I did provide the drink, and proceeded to consume far more of it than anyone else. I knew I’d overdone it when I stopped playing them Handel and Corelli, and put on Benny Hill’s Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West. Followed by Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker’s epic cover version of You’re the One that I Want and Bernard Cribbins’s Right Said Fred. Then there was a series of patriotic songs, up to and including the National Anthem (all three verses). Finally, I moved on to my 45s of 1980s Power Ballads. It was Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart that finally stimulated one of them to look at her watch and say, “Good heavens, is that the time?”

Just as well, as I had nothing left in reserve before the Llandaff & Treorchy Massed Male Voice Choir’s classic 1974 recording of Go home, you bums, go home.

Doing the ironing with a massive hangover this morning, I found myself listening to Desert Island Discs with one Karren Brady, managing director of Birmingham FC and a woman of such overpowering self-confidence that she made Nicola Horlick seem like a shrinking violet. And her choice for the one record she would run through the waves to save if they came crashing onto the shore? None other than Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. I think she might be alone on that island for quite some time.

Saturday 29 December 2007

A routine check-up

When I turned back from the nightmare traffic jam on Thursday, I’d driven several miles back north, looking at the poor, stationary suckers in the opposite carriageway, before I finally found a safe and convenient spot to pull off the road and ring my friends with the news that I wasn’t coming. I nearly got away with it: the answering machine was just picking up as the phone was snatched from its cradle by a human being. I was reminded once more that my friend’s social skills are massively greater than mine. If our roles had been reversed, I’m sure he’d have detected beneath my “Oh dear, that is a shame” the fact that I was silently shouting “Yippee!” and doing a little jig around my sitting room. He even tried to persuade me that I should persevere, until I pointed out that I had sat through the jam once and driven back to a point before its start, so there was no way I was going to do it all over again.

Shortly afterwards, he rang me back to leave a message on my mobile reporting that there were indeed two major blockages on the A1 in North Yorkshire, one near Harrogate and the other around the latitude of Wetherby. Since I was speeding in the opposite direction at the time, I couldn’t help wondering what had inspired this research. Could he just have been checking that the traffic jam wasn’t entirely fictional, suspecting that in reality I had never even left home?

My mind drifted back 22 years to a time when I was a rising 31-year-old PR executive, enjoying a passionate relationship with his 21-year-old PA. (I should qualify the word “passionate” in the previous sentence with “by my standards”, since I’ve just remembered that there was a certain amount of moaning of a decidedly non-orgasmic nature on that subject from my then partner.)

I was supposed to share her professional services with another director of our company, and she’d been recruited over his dead body. He’d wanted to appoint the reliable old boiler who could take dictation and achieve some phenomenal typing speed. Whereas I’d been strangely attracted to the gorgeous, pouting, young, blonde ex-air hostess who’d scored 100 per cent in answer to my key question: “Have you got a boyfriend?”

“Look,” I said, in the course of somewhat heated argument with my colleague, “she can serve a cup of coffee and swim 50 yards without a buoyancy aid. What more do you want in a secretary?”

What I wanted in a secretary was in place not too long afterwards. Oh come on, this was the 1980s. That sort of thing happened then.

The only snag about this beautiful and sweet-natured paragon was that she had the Mother From Hell, and still lived with her. I realized the full extent of my (heartily reciprocated) dislike for this woman the first time that I persuaded her daughter to go out for a drink or two with me on a night when she had promised Mama that she would be home straight from work. “Oh, tell her the train broke down,” I said airily, calculating that anyone familiar with the then Network South East would consider that a wholly plausible excuse. I’d reckoned without Mother, who went off and rang British Rail to establish that the train her daughter should have caught had run precisely on time, doubtless setting some kind of record in the process. This provided the kicking-off point for an all-evening inquisition and row from which I was mercifully absent, but was compelled to re-live the next day.

Some time after this, the daughter and I were standing on one of those north Norfolk beaches I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and a similarly beautiful blonde arrived with her husband and three perfectly spaced blonde children. They seemed to be having a wonderful time. I thought perhaps I had reached the age when I should be getting married and starting a family. Then I reflected that, while my wife would be ten years younger than me, my mother-in-law would be only ten years my senior. A glance at an actuarial table confirmed my suspicion that she would almost certainly outlive me. I just couldn’t face it.

So instead of proposing I gave up my job, became a Recluse and spent a year writing a long novel instead. It’s never been published. The three black ring binders containing it are my children. Though to look on the bright side, at least none of them has ever cheeked me, had themselves tattooed or pierced, or become a drug addict.

Friday 28 December 2007

The road to hell

Today has been devoted entirely to recuperating from yet another classic miscalculation: the belief that the roads would be quieter yesterday than on Boxing Day. So I confidently packed my car and set off for Northamptonshire a little before lunchtime, after a fruitful morning writing abusive letters to the likes of Royal Mail.

It was an interesting trip for anyone listening to a car radio who is as tired as I am of the news always being about what is going to happen rather than what has actually taken place. Deaths tend to be the only exception to this rule (though in some cases, like that of the late Pope, the media try to keep one step ahead by publishing their obituaries before their subject has drawn his last breath).

Some way down the running order of the bulletin at the start of The World at One there was mention of a suicide bombing at a political rally in Rawalpindi after Benazir Bhutto had left it. By mid-programme, there were suggestions that she might have been injured, perhaps seriously. By 1.30, she was probably dead. Thoughts of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo sprang ineluctably to mind, with the added alarm of reflecting that if this latter-day Serbia does descend into chaos, it possesses a nuclear arsenal and is already the main base for Al Qaeda.

Fortunately I had lots and lots of time for deep thought, because I ended up in a truly colossal traffic jam on the newish stretch of the A1(M) north of Wetherby. Three lanes of vehicles achieving a stop-start 5-10mph. As a taxpayer, I was overwhelmingly delighted that the Highways Agency had spent my money so wisely, erecting a series of overhead gantries bearing ruddy great illuminated signs to advise drivers that there was a queue and that they should not exceed 40mph. A great help. Why would we be interested in other details like the cause of the hold-up or how long it was likely to last, whether expressed in miles or minutes?

I began wondering who all those people were, and how their journeys could possibly be so important that they would be prepared to put up with this. Thinking “is your journey really necessary?” always has one outcome for me, and I duly turned round and went back home when the opportunity finally presented itself. Five hours on the road covering 242 miles and consuming a tank full of petrol, never leaving the car and ending up precisely where I started. Why do people in Northumberland waste so much energy whingeing about the single carriageway A1 here, when in my experience the region’s main problem is being cut off from the rest of the country by the total inadequacy of road capacity in Yorkshire, particularly north of that point where the M1 and A1(M) converge?

Of course, it can be argued that there are plenty of roads available for all the cars in Britain. We just need to be persuaded that we really want to go to Sutherland or the Lleyn Peninsula at 3 a.m. in mid-January, rather than to London or Newcastle during a weekday morning rush hour. I am reminded of a conversation I overheard in the summer of 1994, when the splendid new opera house at Glyndebourne had just opened. An aggrieved dowager was reporting to her companions that she had run into the owner and been unable to resist giving him some customer feedback. “I told him that it was all absolutely wonderful, of course. But, Sir George, I said, when you have spent all this money creating such a wonderful building, why couldn’t you have provided some more ladies’ lavatories? And do you know what he told me? ‘The number of ladies’ lavatories is perfectly adequate, if only you wouldn’t all insist on trying to visit them at precisely the same time.’”

Well, I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I hereby resolve that I’m never going to try to drive to Northamptonshire, or to visit the ladies’ loos at Glyndebourne, ever again.

Thursday 27 December 2007

What will you send?

There are so many arguments against identity cards that I could easily write down one a day for the next year. But I’ll just stick to a single objection for now: the fact that almost every attempt to deal with databases puts me in imminent danger of apoplexy.

You’ll have noticed that it’s just about impossible these days to tell a company your name and address. They’ll want you to provide just your postcode and house number, then insist that they’ll do the rest. Which is fine if they’re working from an accurate database, but becomes a minor nightmare if they are relying on one which omits your address, or records it incorrectly.

I live in a little group of nine houses that share the same postcode; eight of them have numbers and the ninth has a silly and rather demeaning name, along the lines of The Hovel.

Most of the comprehensive databases of UK addresses in common use record my house correctly. Some of them do not recognize the existence of my house or any of its numbered neighbours, and assert that the only property with our postcode is The Hovel. Others, in the interests of equity, take precisely the opposite approach and list the numbered houses but wipe The Hovel off the map (which might, it has to be said, be no bad thing).

As a result of this multi-layered incompetence, some organizations insist on sending me mail with the first line of my address missing completely. These include two credit card companies, whose bills seem to get through unfailingly despite this omission, which I have drawn to their attention on numerous occasions to precisely zero effect. Other bodies which persistently get my address wrong include, amusingly enough, Northumberland County Council. How I wish that their invaluable magazine about what a cracking job they are doing could get lost as a result of this, but it never does.

The thing that annoys me most, however, is that from time to time letters for me are wrongly addressed to The Hovel, while other companies address things intended for the Hovel-dwelling family to me. So long as our regular postman is at work, this presents no problem as he uses his initiative and is guided by the name on the letter rather than the address. However, from time to time I receive a misdirected letter and have to walk 400 yards or so, muttering to myself, in order to put it through the correct door. It’s not much of an imposition, to be sure, but there is an issue of principle here.

My career is now on a sufficiently sharp downward trajectory for me to have to recognize that I may well have to “downshift” before too long. If I am still alive in five years’ time, it would not surprise me in the least to find myself living somewhere with a name like The Little Cottage or The Old Caravan. But I am enough of a snob to be sure that I would always draw the line at moving into a house called The Hovel.

So whenever a communication addressed to me at The Hovel gets delivered, I make a point of returning it to the sender with a covering note politely pointing out their error. This sometimes does the trick. However, there is one particular organization that has been seriously trying my patience for the last year. I’ve written to them three times, and I’ve also rung them up on several occasions for good measure. Every time I’ve spoken to them, someone has read out my correct address from their database and said that they really can’t understand how things are being sent out addressed to The Hovel, and assuring me that there in no way that the error will ever recur.

Today I received another letter from them, addressed to The Hovel. It contained a free gift to thank me for being such a good customer, so I suppose it might have been a bit ungracious to send it back, as I did, with a note saying that this was the last straw and asking them to close my account and never write to me ever again.

And the name of these people who simply cannot get the message? Well, that’s the funny thing. They call themselves Royal Mail.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Going like buggery

If I were a branding consultant, which thank the Lord I’m not, I’d be seriously worried about the potential damage that yesterday’s posting might do to the developing Bloke in the North brand. There are times when I almost sound like I might be enjoying myself, which is not at all the point of this daily record of decay, futility and failure. Still, at least I can point to a most depressing weight gain when I foolishly step on the bathroom scales this morning, after a night much disturbed by my bed companion growling, barking, running and enthusiastically wagging his tail in his sleep, as he relived yesterday’s unaccustomed excitements.

We were supposed to be driving to Northamptonshire today, to visit some friends, but I feel that a day of peaceful recuperation is required – and surely the roads will be quieter tomorrow? So I spend the day at my desk quietly contemplating the fact that everything is going to hell in a handcart.

One of the things I find myself pondering is anal sex. It seems to be everywhere and not just in places like Brighton, where it is only to be expected. While I was indeed lulled to sleep last night by Penelope Keith, I had the misfortune to come round in time for the Catherine Tate Christmas Show. Her first sketch sought to raise a laugh from nothing more than the rapidly diminishing shock value of the F-word. The next one derived its humour from a retarded Irishwoman’s painful experience of sodomy. The studio audience fell about.

At least half the jokes in Viz seem to revolve around buggery. Many porn films concern themselves with little or nothing else. A 30-something Bloke, considered to be something of a ladies’ man, with whom I discussed the subject earlier in the year, said that it is “an age thing” and all women under 30 expect it. And, well, noblesse oblige. The Code of the Woosters, 2007-style.

How did this come about in the age of AIDS? Has the current generation of young women really been universally corrupted by the international porn industry, and is this another sound argument for the universal adoption of Islamic values? (Actually, that question might be best answered in two separate parts.) Will they all regret it when they end up, in middle age, wearing huge nappies like the late Freddie Mercury? Allegedly.

I can’t comment because I have almost no experience of the subject. Tried it once, didn’t like it. Actually, I didn’t mind at all but my girlfriend of the time complained about it so extensively that I never had the energy to raise the subject again, either with her or anyone else.

No, definitely not my Specialist Subject. But if you ever looking for an expert on banal sex – ah now, sadly, that is another matter entirely.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

Peppermint bark beats humbug any day

As tradition demands, I start the day by opening all my presents in bed, watched by my loyal Border terrier. There’s a garlic press from my aunt, a ceramic salt and pepper set in the shape of a postman and an angry bulldog from my goddaughter, and what looks like a CD but which turns out to be a set of emergency collar stiffeners, buttons and cufflinks from a former girlfriend. A shame, as I’d been looking forward to listening to a stirring seasonal medley from the Swindon Catholic Ladies’ Sewing Guild and Glee Club. That’s it on the present front. On the one hand, the brevity of the ceremony leaves 23 hours and 59 minutes of Christmas Day free for other purposes. On the other hand, I could swear I caught the dog smirking. I resolve to withhold the squeaky toy I bought him when we were in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago.

It is actually a White Christmas here, as there is an amazingly thick frost, which would have made for some wonderful photographs if I had had the presence of mind to go out and take them, rather than sitting at my desk scribbling. By the time I do go out, however, there is no time for photography as I’m already late for an urgent appointment with a glass of champagne at the other end of the county. I am made even later by leaving the A1 every time there is a sign for “Services”, only to find the establishment in question shuttered and coned off. This would be perfectly understandable if there were no cars on the road; but, after many years during which I never ventured more than a mile or two from home on Christmas Day, I am amazed by the high volume of traffic. Clearly they have all been equipped with considerably more foresight than me, or the AA and RAC are going to be in for a very busy afternoon.

An improvised electronic sign by the roadside in Newcastle saying “CHECK YOUR FUEL” seems designed just to add insult to injury; but, while I do not really expect such joined-up thinking from the Highways Agency, it occurs to me that there might just be someone retailing petroleum spirit somewhere shortly after the next turn-off. So I take it, and find a BP garage on the West Road open and doing a roaring trade. This does little for my own peace of mind, as I know I have ample fuel to reach my destination. But it will doubtless gladden my hosts to be assured that I also have enough to get back home.

I’d been invited to lunch on the strict understanding that I’d be able to watch the Queen on TV; I had not appreciated that this meant we would not be sitting down to eat until 3.10. Still, a walk through the surrounding fields fills much of the time most agreeably, and the food was certainly worth waiting for. Indeed, I think I can safely say that it was the most delicious Christmas dinner I have ever eaten, and not just compared with the cottage pie I had at home on my own in the two previous years. We begin with some utterly delicious wild smoked salmon, which I had taken the precaution of bringing with me from Seahouses, then my host bears in a Tudor feast of three perfectly roast Gressingham ducks. He suggests that the simplest way to serve these between six people is simply to divide them in half, but rejects my helpful suggestion of splitting them with cleavers to the tune of David Rose’s The Stripper, in the style made famous by Morecambe and Wise. Much work with heavy duty scissors ensues.

The orange sauce, which has more of the qualities of gravy than usual, is utterly delicious. The duck is tender, the sprouts are cooked to perfection, and the home-grown parsnips and potatoes, roasted in duck fat, are simply wonderful. With it we drink a good 2000 claret.

A big fat man, digging his grave with his teeth; the Northumbrian approach to portion control.

It would clearly be impossible to eat anything else after this, so it is a source of lasting shame that I feel obliged to bring up the fact that my host and one of his other guests had been busily preparing the ingredients for a bread and butter pudding when I arrived. But I am glad that I was so shamefully greedy, as what emerges from the kitchen some 45 minutes later is quite simply the most delicious pudding I have ever eaten; amazingly light yet with a wonderfully crispy topping caramelized with a blow torch. Simply perfect. I then make another unfortunate discovery in the shape of a delicious American sweetmeat called Peppermint Bark.

My talented host, down to his last grand; his girlfriend wishes he had an upright instead.

After our host has been serenading us on the piano for a while, his girlfriend remarks dreamily, “You know, it’s funny: he plays the piano beautifully, he’s a fantastic cook and he produces ballet. On paper, he’s got to be gay.” I naturally respond with a needlessly explicit question of a sexually related nature, and very shortly afterwards I sense that my dog and I have delighted the company long enough. Though I’m not sure that that’s necessarily true in the case of the dog.

We drive back home, bearing with us as presents the softest cashmere scarf I have ever owned, and an exceptionally squeaky toy. Despite myself, I am almost beginning to think that I could get to enjoy Christmas after all.

It is somehow reassuring to find that the evening’s television is as predictably disappointing as it always used to be in my childhood, when the likes of Harry Worth and Terry Scott performed tired old sketches in Christmas Night With The Stars. I fall asleep to Penelope Keith emoting in a revival of a programme that should have been put to sleep and laid to rest rather than cryogenically preserved, wondering in what sense a person who can clearly only play one part can be described as an actor or actress.

Monday 24 December 2007

Things missed and better missed

I’ve finally got over my pre-Christmas blues – and in the nick of time, too. I spent a productive day at my desk, then took the dog for his usual walk at 3, just as the light was beginning to fade. Completely forgetting as I did so that this was also the moment at which a boy chorister would be stepping into the global limelight at King’s College Chapel, and launching into the solo first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of those rare and precious things that has not been mucked around with in the name of “relevance” or “modernization”, and listening to it has been one of my favourite Christmas rituals for as long as I can remember. I’m really rather disappointed when I flick on the radio on our return, and realize that I’ve missed nearly all of it. At least I get the opportunity to sing along lustily to Hark! The herald angels sing. The dog gives me rather a strange look.

Channel-hopping this evening after watching ITV’s “star-studded, hilarious comedy drama” (which was by no means as bad as that billing suggests), I find myself face to face with someone I know reasonably well. It is North East TV producer Tom Gutteridge, explaining how he was entirely responsible for Grace Jones hitting Russell Harty, as he had had the brilliant idea of breaking the chat show mould by placing guests on either side of the host, rather than in a row facing him. I hardly needed to hear the story, as it had been the centrepiece of his column in The Journal this very morning, but he told it with panache.

The funny thing was that this proved to be No 22 in the chart of Channel 5’s Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of the 80s, while Number 21 was the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. I couldn’t help feeling that this wasn’t strictly comparing like with like. The mind boggles as to what came out at No 1: a mass murder or a minor wardrobe malfunction.

Unfortunately I am unable to provide a report on this, as I decided to conclude the evening by watching the 1984 Christmas edition of Blankety Blank, to satisfy a nostalgic longing to see Les Dawson. Thanks to this, I can at least state with some authority that the belief that British television has dumbed down and become less entertaining over the last two decades is completely incorrect. The most insightful words on the programme were spoken by the late Derek Nimmo, resplendent in his Garrick Club tie, who was surely speaking from the heart when he started banging on about what a dreadful show it had become. His only error there being to omit the fact that it was really a pretty feeble one to start with.

Sunday 23 December 2007

Just because you're paranoid

Last night I watched on TV the big-budget Hollywood film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which Douglas Adams wasted so much of his life struggling to get made. In fairness, he would have wasted it anyway, as he had the unfortunate handicap for a writer of absolutely hating writing. I hope he would have approved of the movie; it filled part of an evening quite painlessly, though I preferred the book, which I think I liked marginally more than the original radio series. I cannot make any comparison with TV adaptation as I never watched that. For my money, his best book is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I did not know Douglas Adams. We attended the same Cambridge college, where he was a year above me. He shared rooms for a year with someone I knew quite well, and of course I saw him around. He was strikingly tall and even more strikingly funny. But the fact is that we never spoke to each other. I think it is important to spell this out in order to dispel once and for all the rumour that he might have taken me as the model for Hitchhiker’s incredibly depressed robot, Marvin the paranoid android. I’m much more miserable than that.

There’s not much of note to report today, other than that the dog was sick on my bed. But it could have been worse; at least I wasn’t in my bed at the time.

Saturday 22 December 2007

Honoured, modernized and haggard

I have an extraordinarily vivid dream in the early morning. I am at some sort of bazaar in a church hall, where old biddies are manning stalls at a series of wooden trestle tables. Only they’re not selling hand-knitted cardies or homemade marmalade; they’re handing over honours, but only to people whose names appear on the lists pinned up at the end of the hall, like the seating plan for a formal dinner. I am extremely superior and dismissive of the whole concept, until I find that I am on the list for an OBE. Suddenly I find that I am very much in favour of this utterly brilliant idea. I derive particular pleasure from totting up the largeish number of MBEs of my acquaintance, whom I will now outrank. I’m just looking forward to my investiture by the Queen when I am kicked awake by the dog. What can it all mean?

I take the unusual step of listening to Any Questions at lunchtime, mainly because I am curious to find out what A.N. Wilson sounds like. I should have known: he sounds exactly like A.N. Wilson. Also on the programme is someone from the Ministry of Justice, a repulsive, totalitarian designation which can be considered British only in the sense that it is Orwellian. He is called Wills and is apparently a rising star among the Brownites. In answer to practically every question, he trots out an ironically learnt-by-rote mantra: “the important thing is that we must learn lessons”. The collapse of the Omagh bomb trial: we must learn lessons. The disastrous loss of personal data and the implications for ID cards: we must learn lessons. And so on.

Learning lessons is for schoolchildren. By the time they have grown up and found jobs as Government Ministers, one vaguely hopes that they might be ready to move beyond learning, holding enquiries and commissioning reviews. Onto harder things like making decisions and solving problems for themselves.

The post arrives during the programme and proves a mixed bag. There are no Christmas cards from people I have overlooked, which is an unexpected pleasure; there is a dividend cheque from a company I had completely forgotten about owning shares in (Christ, could I have forgotten buying shares in Northern Rock?); and there is a new cheque book from my bank, in a hideously modernized and dumbed-down style which I find thoroughly depressing.

For some years now, I have been using cheques so ludicrously old-fashioned that I obtained a genuine frisson of pleasure every time I wrote one, despite my natural aversion to spending money. They were the last printed document of my acquaintance containing the word “Messrs”, which my father taught me should come before the company name in all business correspondence. In future they will look just like the cheques of any other bank or building society. They’ve also taken to describing themselves as “Private Bankers”, one of those voguish catchphrases which is completely meaningless to me, and always sets me thinking of Tina Turner singing Private Dancer instead (not that I need much encouragement to do that). I suppose I should just be grateful that this small pocket of old world charm survived into the twenty-first century. At least it is too insignificant a change for Gordon Brown to be able to record it as another triumph for the hated concept of “modernization” in his Age of Change.

As I am lying on the sofa this evening, aimlessly flicking through the papers, a Top of the Pops compilation of old Christmas hits plays in the background. I perk up and take an active interest towards the end, when they get to the recently controversial Fairytale of New York. This is a recording of a supposedly live performance and, when she gets to the line “you faggot”, which recently caused so much anguish to the controller of Radio 1, I swear that Kirsty MacColl actually sings “you’re haggard” instead. A line which could not possibly cause any offence to our friends in the gay community, and has the additional virtue of being a 100 per cent accurate description of the ravaged and toothless Shane MacGowan.

Now why couldn’t they have used that instead of a wretched bleep?

Friday 21 December 2007

Two's company, three's an orgy

Expert opinion seems to be agreed that this is the shortest day of the year. Well, they can’t have formed that view sitting at a desk in Northumberland writing letters to accompany Christmas cards. So far as I’m concerned, it is the longest day of the year. It is also the coldest. Freezing fog lingers outside throughout the hours of daylight and, despite fuelling my two domestic fires with four baskets of logs and two scuttles of coal, my fingers are so numb with cold that from time to time I have to tear them away from the computer keyboard and run them under a hot tap to restore some sort of sensation.

Still, by the time of the last post I’ve written to every single person on my extensive contact list, apart from all the women with whom I ended up sharing a bed during 2007. Their cards are signed, but the accompanying missives seem to require further thought, to ensure especial care in my choice of words. I’d like to pretend that these remaining cards are stacked in a huge, teetering pile, such as one might find in Russell Brand’s study in like circumstances. It would obviously be ungallant (as well as depressing) to reveal the precise numbers concerned, but a pedant would point out that the word “all” in the first sentence of this paragraph is technically incorrect, and that “both” would cover it nicely.

Despite the shortness of today’s ration of daylight, the awfulness of the weather and the fact that there are only three panicking days left before Christmas, my journey to the post office at lunchtime is impeded by a vandal busily playing with the hedge-trimmer mounted on his tractor. He is gaily strewing fragments of hedge across the road, and I know from bitter experience how surprisingly sharp these can be; I have had both cycle and car tyres punctured by them. On my way back, I get a good view of the driver’s face, and he appears to be at least 80; he doesn’t spot my car until it is a few yards away from him, and I suspect that this might be related to the fact that he is wearing the sort of glasses constructed by sawing the bottoms off a couple of Coke bottles, and looping them together with an old wire coat hanger.

Small wonder, then, that most of the attractive, old, cast iron signposts in these parts have fallen victim to hedge trimmers and other agricultural machinery. I used to gather up the arms of these signs as they were lopped off, and lobby the parish and county councils to do something about them. The Government issued a timely leaflet in 2005 stating that old signposts should be maintained and restored, which seemed helpful to my cause. Shortly afterwards, a county council worker called on me and gathered up the fallen arms that I had collected in my garage, promising to see what could be done with them. The lack of action since then suggests that the answer is “not a lot”; cast iron cannot be welded and no-one in the area seems to posses the ancient and no doubt comparatively expensive technology required to produce complete replacement arms.

Still, perhaps as a result of my stirring, the county council did at least start repainting the remaining signs, which they had previously been allowing to rust into illegibility. One of the first they tackled was a very fine example I passed every day on my way to the village shop. It really was magnificent. Then this old fellow came along with his hedge trimmer …

Thursday 20 December 2007

A bigger bang, an older child

Someone who has read my observations about British Railways in the 1950s, in my posting of 8 December, e-mails to point out that they were actually rank amateurs when it came to getting services back to normal after a little local difficulty like a massive train crash. He claims that the trams in Hiroshima were running to schedule within 12 hours of the atomic bomb blast, and that all the city’s surviving banks opened on time the following morning (though they only mustered one customer between them, presumably the owner of the Hiroshima Penny Arcade). In fairness, I suppose the authorities wouldn’t have felt the need to use miles of white tape to cordon off the “crime scene” and begin to investigate who on earth could be responsible for it.

I mention these curious facts because there is nothing much more to report other than my cancellation of my last remaining pre-Christmas booze-up, the painful writing of yet more laboured humour for the press and the scrawling of messages on several dozen Christmas cards. Plus one birthday card, which always represents something of a challenge to acquire at this time of year. My father’s birthday was in mid-November, and even then the choice of cards used to be sadly depleted to make way for rack upon rack of seasonal, robins, angels and the like. My personal favourite was always the one with the passengers pushing their stagecoach through a sodding great snowdrift. They always had red, jolly faces and broad smiles. Which is odd, when you think about it, because when you see homeward bound passengers dumped off a failed Virgin train, or pushing their broken down car onto the hard shoulder of the motorway, the last thing they look like is people who are having the time of their lives. Perhaps we have lost the ability to laugh at adversity. Or perhaps the stagecoach card artists are a bunch of mendacious bastards.

But I digress. I needed one birthday card for a friend’s son, born on Christmas Eve (as so many babies seem to be these days, doubtless to ensure that no-one in hospital has to do any unnecessary work on 25 December). I was rather proud of myself for remembering, and bought a suitable card in the village shop. Then, when I was in Newcastle yesterday, I spotted a really fabulous card bearing a big picture of his favourite thing in the whole world, a witty message and a most appealing “4 Today” badge, much better than the “I am 4” sticker on my original purchase. “He’s going to love that,” I thought. I spoke to his mother at lunchtime, just as I was heading for the post box, and said, “Is Adam looking forward to being f…”

“Five, yes, very much so,” she replied

Doesn’t time fly, even when you’re not enjoying yourself?

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Hairline craic

Tragically, the deeply meaningful work of writing Christmas cards has to be put aside so that I can respond to a request to write something amusing for my favourite local newspaper, to fill a gap in the business pages on a day when one can be fairly sure that no-one will be looking at the business pages anyway.

Why do people always want you to be funny when you are feeling thoroughly miserable? It works the other way around, too. Send me to a funeral and I immediately start thinking of jokes, and tend to start giggling uncontrollably. I have to disguise it as grief-induced hysteria.

Then in the afternoon I have to drive to Newcastle to have my hair cut by the Best Hairdresser in the North East, if not the World. [Pause to place mental bet with self on how long it will be before he reads this and asks me to mention his name and phone number.] I used to get my hair cut in Alnwick for £6, which was clearly dead posh because the going rate for a men’s haircut in Alnwick is a fiver. Then I started going to a place with a Royal Warrant near my club in London, which cost six times as much. It wasn’t six times as good, but it was appreciably better and you got to share the place with a marginally more notorious type of customer. I had that Sir John Major in the next chair once. I mentioned it over lunch afterwards and my companion said “That would doubtless explain why your hair looks exactly like John Major’s”, which put me off a bit.

At this point my aunt told me that I should go to the Best Hairdresser in the North East, who had been attending to her own perm every week since Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. So I gave him a try, and liked it. That’s me sorted until he retires or dies, then. Unless someone opens one of those legendary topless hairdressers in the area, and I don’t mean one that specializes in shaving the top of your head.

I do regret never trying one hairdresser: Denny’s Barber Shop in Liverpool, which I used to pass regularly on the taxi journey from Lime Street Station to visit a client. His slogan, proudly painted across the front of the shop, was “It’ll be all right when it’s washed”. It always struck me as the absolute epitome of Scouse self-deprecation.

Though, of course, as I always observe about myself, having a taste and a talent for self-deprecation does not guarantee that you are not actually crap at your job.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

What a card

A few years ago I was visiting my popular next door neighbours at around this stage in December, when I noticed something odd about their sitting room. Where were the dozens of Christmas cards that I would normally expect to see occupying every flat surface, from the sideboard to the piano, not to mention being liberally festooned across their walls?

In answer to my question, a powerfully built octogenarian, widely revered as the area’s leading repository of folk wisdom, delivered the following verdict: “What’s the point of putting the bloody things up? You only have to take them down again.”

I instantly adopted the same approach in my own house, and felt no sense of loss. The trouble is moving on to the next logical stage and not sending any cards. Every year around October I decide that I’m definitely not going to bother this time. Then in November I weaken and order 150 personalized cards. It’s always 150, because I look at my list and work out that I actually need about 102, and you can only order them in multiples of 50. If any of my near neighbours fancies a substantial number of tasteful cards with a reasonable approximation to their address printed in them, and you don’t mind tippexing off my name, I can offer you an outstanding deal.

The box of cards has been sitting by my desk since the beginning of the month, and I’ve got thoroughly sick of tripping over it. But I haven’t actually summoned the energy to open it. As it happens, I am in the habit of e-mailing a substantial number of my friends each week, so today I take the opportunity to repeat next door’s aperçu and suggest that we skip an exchange of cards in 2007. I receive a number of replies, none of them containing the expected words “Great idea – Merry Christmas!” Instead, they can all be summarized as “You miserable bastard”.

I truly cannot see the point of sending a printed card to people one sees every day. And as for the people one never sees, what use is there in just sending them a signed card? To make the exercise worthwhile, one surely has to provide some supplementary information on one’s own life and make some solicitous enquiries about theirs. In a personalized sort of way, so that one does not end up producing one of those self-congratulatory round robins that come in for so much ridicule (though personally I have to confess that I rather like them).

So that’s my fate sealed, then. If I spend every day until the end of the week writing cards, I might just get all 102 of them into the post in time for them to arrive on Christmas Eve. Which will, with any luck, embarrass several people who have decided not to bother sending cards this year.

Monday 17 December 2007

I knew it all along

Another day of stunning achievement. Two Blokes spend the morning removing two water tanks from my airing cupboard and then report – would you believe it? – that the overflow pipe from one of them has been leaking. Well, that would explain why the tanks have been sitting in a pool of water for the last six weeks, and why a bucket beneath them has been collecting a couple of pints of water every day, and why that whole part of my house stinks of damp. Imagine my surprise. I politely suggest that it might be quite a good idea to repair the thing, if they have absolutely nothing better to do, and they do so. I could say “I told you so” to someone, but just in the nick of time I remember hearing that no-one likes a smart-arse.

Instead I cheer myself up by cancelling a big boozy lunch in Newcastle tomorrow, for which I do not really have the stomach, and booking two big boozy lunches in mid-January instead. I might have cheered up by then. Oh, and my house might no longer smell like a pair of schoolboy swimming trunks that have been put away in a locker for a week while they were still soaking wet. And Northern Rock might have been sold at a price that will satisfy all its remaining shareholders, and Gordon Brown might once again have a ten point lead in the opinion polls, and the Pope might announce his conversion to Islam.

Sunday 16 December 2007

I don't like the look of yours much

There was a programme late tonight on Channel 4 (where else?) called Addicted to Porn. In it, a mixed race young man called Eldon explained how sex with real women somehow never matched up to the experience offered by pornography. I know how he feels. In fact, I think the programme would have been even more credible if it had centred on some broken-down old 50-something rather than what I (admittedly not an expert) would have classed as a good looking young man. They showed him trying to wean himself off his addiction by burning his collection of video tapes (who uses those any more? DVD has a much sharper freeze-frame capability … I’ve been told) and going out on a date with a woman who would definitely have passed my personal “Would you?” test. But apparently he wasn’t cured.

When I was a lad, real pornography was virtually unobtainable. There was stuff on the top shelves of newsagents, but it reached standards of titillation which would now be considered commonplace in a mainstream tabloid newspaper. Stronger meat was allegedly on sale in the “sex shops” of Soho, or their equivalents in other major cities. The classic magazine format was of a size that could slip easily into a coat pocket, and it was always sold shrink-wrapped, so that the luckless punter would get it home before realizing that the contents weren’t actually pornographic at all.

One of my favourite scams was a magazine called something like Women and Animals. This featured a thoroughly lurid picture on the cover, but when the pervert who had bought it ripped the plastic covering off in the privacy of his bedroom, he would find himself flicking through an entirely respectable collection of photographs: the Queen walking her corgis, Princess Anne show-jumping and so forth. And if he was a thinking type, he would admire the brilliance with which the publisher had avoided offending in any way against the Trades Description Act.

I hasten to add that I never fell for this scam myself, but was told about it by a colleague. Obviously, he in turn claimed that it had happened to “a friend”.

However, just supposing that one could actually track down some hardcore pornography 20 years ago, who would have featured in it? Horrible old slappers, that’s who. The denizens of the sort of massage parlours once allegedly favoured by Wayne Rooney. In those days I was able to go out with beautiful young women. Why on earth would I be interested in looking at that sort of filth?

Scroll forward a couple of decades and things have turned absolutely full circle. My local garage has a shelf full of hardcore pornographic magazines in which outstandingly beautiful young women are shown performing sexual acts that are more physically demanding than anything I have ever attempted. On the other hand, in real life a man of my age and wealth can only aspire to go out with the sort of woman who might have attracted the attention of a talent scout from a porno film-maker in about 1985. Every time I go out on a date, I’m haunted by the image of a spud-faced nipper saying, in a Scouse accent, “Blimey, I don’t like the look of yours much.”

In those circumstances, it’s not hard to see why some prefer the printed or moving image to reality.

True, at least I still have some memories. It’s just unfortunate that my brain seems to have recorded them, not just on video rather than in high definition DVD, but in glorious Betamax.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Cold grips the heart

It’s really, bitterly cold here on this Northumberland hilltop. That white stuff in the air outside can only be freezing fog. I’ve lit blazing log fires in all three reception rooms of my house (defined as the rooms that haven’t got a bed, a bath or a gas stove in them) and the only effect has been to raise the ambient temperature from ****ing cold to bloody freezing.

In a doomed attempt to cheer myself up, I open the Harvey Nichols Christmas box that one of my clients most generously sent me yesterday. I reflect on my excessive weight for a bit, then I sit down as close to the largest fire as is humanly possible without actually climbing onto it, and eat half a tin of biscuits and a packet of blueberries coated in white chocolate. Before I did this, I was cold and depressed. Now I’m cold, depressed, fat and guilty.

My lovely aunt pops in this afternoon, to deliver her annual gift of a delicious, home-made Christmas cake. Just in case I was running short of food, you understand. She asks why I am feeling so down, and I hand her my album of north Norfolk snaps from the mid-1980s, with special reference to the lost love interest. She helpfully says “What a pretty girl”, then draws my attention to the striking resemblance she bears to the other beautiful woman who agreed to marry me in 2005. I hadn’t thought about it, since if nothing else I’ve never been a slave to a “type”. But she’s right: same physique, same sort of face, same age (in the sense of being born in the same year), same good nature.

Bugger it. To lose one beautiful woman may be misfortune, but to do it twice, particularly after almost 20 years allegedly spent acquiring wisdom, smacks of … well, criminal folly to put it at its gentlest.

I eat the maple and walnut fudge and the marc de champagne truffles from my Christmas box, and drink a bottle of white wine. It doesn’t make me feel any better, but it least it will produce a hangover tomorrow morning that should ensure that the day improves steadily from a low base.

Friday 14 December 2007

There's no place like it

I’ve never understood the attraction of holidays. Just the horror of packing to go away is usually enough to put me off. And when you get back, there is always a huge pile of bills to pay; water running down your walls; fallen trees lying about the garden; notes about parcels that sadly could not be delivered but can be collected from a depot 40 miles away if you make an appointment and turn up with three different sorts of approved ID; a fridge full of rotting food and a load of dead plants to dispose of both indoors and out (not to mention dead animals and children if you are particularly careless). Added to which, you have to face this mountain of unwanted tasks in a comprehensively exhausted condition as the result of all the stress of travelling. I’ve only come from Norfolk by car, but I’m totally knackered. In fact, I feel like I need a hol … no, I don’t. Definitely not.

Never again.

The last time I took a really extensive overseas holiday was in 1983, when I embarked on a Far Eastern tour embracing the then Crown Colony of Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang and Bangkok, where I became probably the only single Englishman in modern history not to visit a massage parlour. I haven’t been out of the country since February 2005, when I took a romantic Valentine’s Day trip to Venice with my then fiancée. I have no plans to renew my passport when it expires. If I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere, I wouldn’t renew my driving licence, either.

What’s the point of physically travelling around the place when we can experience all the delights of travel on the Internet or the television, without the stress, the smell and (if you care about that sort of thing) the carbon emissions? Why go all the way to Nepal on the remote off-chance of catching a fleeting glimpse of a snow leopard, when some idiotically brave and patient cameraman has spent the best part of a year of his life holed up in a cave so that it can be shown against a soundtrack of Sir David Attenborough saying, “Oooh, will you look at that?”

Don’t worry about all the jobs that will be lost in the tourist industry. They’ll find something else to do, like the coal miners of Northumberland or the fishermen of Grimsby or the former hereditary members of the House of Lords.

Stay at Home. You know it makes sense.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Irresponsible,scared, bored and fed up

We’re supposed to be staying in Norfolk until Friday but apparently we’ve had enough, even though two stereotypical men on the cusp of old age, wearing blue overalls and equipped with a set of ladders, had managed to restore the television to working order in time for the last segment of yesterday’s Countdown. We walk through the town, dodging perhaps the world’s largest fleet of motorized wheelchairs and pondering the effects of centuries of inbreeding in this all-white community; one suspects that the local branch of Mensa does not struggle to find a room large enough for its meetings. I take the opportunity to stock up on some local delicacies which are either very bad for me (pork scratchings) or very bad for the planet (smoked cod’s roe, which is presumably doing nothing at all to help rebuild the population of adult cod in the North Sea). Still, I can’t resist them. I once joined a London club simply because it reliably served smoked cod’s roe as a lunchtime starter. I’d still be a member if I had not decided – in a rare burst of prudence – that paying a near-£1,000 annual subscription was perhaps rather steep for a once-a-year treat.

There is a choice for the long drive home to Northumberland: let my ancient aunt do it and be terrified and guilty; or do it myself and be a bit scared and thoroughly bored. As a compromise, I let her drive for the scenic bit along the north Norfolk coast and the dull, flat section across to the A1. Then, after a sandwich at the sadly under-patronized Jolly Farmer service area near Newark, I take over for the mind-bogglingly dull flog back up to the North East. My aunt’s car is somewhat less powerful than my own, so when a big yellow lorry flashes its lights at me I take that as an invitation to pull out after refuelling; whereas in fact it meant “Don’t even think of steering that slow-moving heap of crap into my way”. Still, he eases off the accelerator so that he can focus on sounding the horn, and we make our getaway unscathed.

I’m glad to get home until I inspect my airing cupboard. Teams of skilled Northumbrian builders have been inspecting and repairing the roof above it over the last six weeks or so, to cure what is described as a “damp” problem; in the way that killer whales at the Sea Life Centre like to be accommodated in a nice big tank of damp. The water running down the walls this evening is hardly on the scale of High Force, or even Old Mother Shipton’s cave in Knaresborough; but there is no denying that it is a pain in place where I would much prefer not to have one.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

I know I've had my chips

Driving back from Holkham in the fading light yesterday afternoon, I spotted this amusing van parked on the quayside at Somewhere-next-the-Sea. Well, I think you’ve got to admit that it’s more witty than the usual “I wish my wife was this dirty” or “Also available in white”. In fact, it shot straight into my All-Time Top Three, alongside “Singh Brothers, Builders: You’ve Tried the Cowboys, Now Try the Indians”; and the beautifully produced sign on the back of a truck I was stuck behind for an age somewhere near Reigate 20 years ago: “Motorway Maintenance: Jam Makers Since 1980”.

The fisherfolk of north Norfolk exceed their drollery quota
It also gives me an excuse to re-tell the ancient legal anecdote, doubtless copyrighted by Sir John Mortimer circa 1953, in which a man charged with a long series of unspeakable sexual offences is rendered all but inaudible by a rasping cough. The exasperated judge calls a halt to proceedings and asks the defending barrister:

“Can nothing be done for your client?”

“I fear not, M’Lud.”

“Couldn’t you get him to suck a Fisherman’s Friend?”

“M’Lud, I fear that he is in quite enough trouble already.”

Today my aunt and I buy excellent fish and chips from a shop on the quayside then drive to eat them on another quay a few miles along the coast. This is the sort of wisdom you build up over 80-odd years; if we’d eaten them straight away in Somewhere-next-the-Sea, they’d have been Too Hot and we might have burned our fingers. On the other hand, I’d have been in a rather better position to go back and apply the salt and vinegar I forgot to ask for in the shop. They didn’t offer it, and I’m pretty sure there was no salt or non-brewed condiment on the counter; perhaps the result of yet another Health Police crackdown.

We take a pleasant if slightly muddy circular walk through the salt marshes from Blakeney to Cley-next-the-Sea. This is an old squelching ground, and it brings back bittersweet memories that help to erase my regrets about my lost love of 2005. Unfortunately that’s because they are now overlain with multiple regrets about my numerous lost loves of the mid-1980s, when north Norfolk was one of my favourite spots for getting away from it all for a Good Old English Dirty Weekend. At least I was fortunate enough to live through a period when a middle-ranking executive could invite his secretary away for the weekend without facing expensive and career-endangering accusations of sexual harassment.

Cley windmill looking exactly as it did when I last photographed it in 1985; I wish the same could be said for the Bloke behind the camera

Only once did things threaten to go really horribly wrong, when a particularly beautiful young woman for whom I had booked her own room, like the perfect gentleman I am, announced that she would be “scared” on her own in the creaking old hotel (that’s old in the sense of historic and charming, by the way, not in the sense of run-down) and asked if she could share with me. Some phrase involving the Pope and bears passed my probably slightly drunken lips. Where I went wrong was in assuming that getting into a bed with a man, after carefully removing your underwear, constitutes some sort of invitation. No, no, no, no, no, as it turned out.

I lay awake for several hours wondering how this one would play in court.

Luckily for me, about six in the morning she had a comprehensive change of heart. Though this was very bad news indeed for the elderly couples in the rooms on either side, who glared at us throughout breakfast with a venom I have rarely seen replicated anywhere. Now, I reflect as I plod through the marshes, I have brilliantly managed to transform myself into one of those miserable, elderly curmudgeons, without even the benefit of a matching, boot-faced old missus to enable glaring in glorious stereo.

What was that my friend used to say about never going back to the same place twice?

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Wizzard get it wrong; the Authorized Version gets it right

I’m beginning to feel better, though puzzled as to why I ever felt so bad in the first place. The only logical explanation seems to be that my body staged an all-out strike (with extensive secondary picketing) in protest against being forced to attempt to digest three incredibly large and rich meals (including two traditional Christmas dinners) in the shortish space of 36 hours.

Fair enough, I suppose, but how come that Bloke gets away with it who celebrates Christmas 365 days a year (except in Leap Years, when it’s 366)? He’s always on the wireless as a seasonal filler at some point in December, explaining how he puts on his party hat every day and sits down to a full turkey spread with all the trimmings before watching his recording of the Queen’s Christmas Message. The silly sod. Come to think about it, I’ve never seen him on the TV. He’s probably 35 stone and bright yellow. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure he’s got a girlfriend, which puts him one giant leap ahead of me.

A piece I wrote in my local newspaper about the coming Apocalypse produces a flurry of e-mails. One supports my contention that all attempts to prophesy the date are doomed to failure with the following Biblical quotations:

“Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Matt. 24:36)

“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matt. 24:42)

“Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.” (Mark 13:33)

“If the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.” (Luke 12:39-40)

Glad to have got that one cleared up. Meanwhile, a devout Catholic friend I cited in the article writes that “I believe in the eventual Apocalypse not because of what the Bible says (that is Protestantism) but because of what the Church teaches. Where the Church derives her teaching from is a matter for her.”

Perhaps I should stick to writing about things I know something about. But then I wouldn’t do much writing at all.

This afternoon we drive to Holkham and park by the Hall for a circular walk around the lake, striding out through a huge herd of fallow deer and taking in the church within the park. It has the unusual name of St Withburga’s, which is the oddest thing I have heard since some woman decided to call her hedgehog sanctuary St Tiggywinkle’s. I suspect that the latter is not a name that my Catholic friend would recognize from his calendar.

It is alleged that the Parochial Church Council of St Withburga’s came within a whisker of signing up a major ten-year sponsorship deal with McDonald’s, but it fell through when the company insisted that they change the name to St Withfries.

An English Bloke's home

The sort of modest tribute to which every Bloke aspires

A inscription likely to inspire hollow laughter among the hill farmers of Northumberland

Monday 10 December 2007

Thing can't only get better

It is always a mistake to think that things can’t get any worse; they always do. Just ask Gordon Brown. Last night I was woken by a violent storm raging outside the hotel. Getting up this morning, I was relieved to find that it had caused no obvious damage. A misapprehension which persisted until I turned on the television in the house I am supposed to be sharing with my aunt for the rest of the week, and found that the gale had blown down the sodding aerial. Have you ever been trapped in a remote part of the country with an octogenarian who can’t get her daily fix of Des O’Connor and Carol Vorderman on “Countdown”? I’ll spare you the details but I certainly don’t recommend it.

Still, I’m running ahead of myself. First I had to check out of the hotel. The last time I stayed here I fell in love. I was drunk after a lunch to celebrate my aunt’s 80th birthday when I bumped into this lovely woman with an infectious smile (but it cleared up in no time with antibiotics). She was banging on about her children and I slurred, “Why are all the attractive women I meet married?”

Concluding, perhaps rather presumptuously, that I was referring to her, she said, “But I’m not married. I'm divorced.”

Within the hour she was feeding me morsels of birthday cake and telling me that I was very sweet. Within two months we were engaged. Within three months we had split up. It was all my fault. The best that can be said for compressing an entire relationship into such a short period is that it saves a lot of time, money and grief compared with actually getting married and divorced.

Still smiling; an ex-fiancee before she realized what I was Really Like

Oh dear, I’m getting all maudlin just thinking about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back here. I’ve got a friend who makes a positive fetish of that. When he used to come up to see me in Northumberland, I’d say “Why don’t we go to the Jolly Fisherman in Craster and then do that lovely walk to Dunstanburgh Castle?”, and he’d reply, “Ooh no, I’ve done that and it was absolutely magical. It would spoil those memories if I did it again.” Repeat ad infinitum to any number of conventionally attractive suggestions, until we got to “Right then, why don’t we go and look at an opencast mine and a landfill site? You haven’t done that before, have you? You prat.”

He did make certain exceptions to the rule, obviously, or he’d have had to buy a new house every day. He even had two children by the same wife.

I ask the woman at reception ever so nicely, but she tells me that Love is most definitely not on the menu today. Not even as a special (supplement payable). So that’s that, then. My aunt spares no effort to console me by preparing a lunch suitable for an invalid, walking all the way to the Costcutter supermarket to buy a tin of Baxter’s chicken broth, and lovingly heating it up on the stove.

In the afternoon I feel well enough to go for a short walk, so we drive to the beach I failed to reach on foot yesterday. The first thing we see is an immensely complicated machine in which you have to enter your car’s registration number and pay a pound in order to occupy a space in an otherwise completely empty car park. The next thing we see is a big sign proclaiming “No Dogs”. Eventually we find a stretch of sand where dogs are permitted. There is a sandstorm blowing that would have delighted the makers of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The English Patient”. I let the dog off his lead for a run and he stands absolutely still, his eyes narrowed against the wind-borne sand, and glares at me. I throw a ball for him and he very clearly communicates the thought “Fetch your own f***ing ball, you ****.” What a great holiday this is proving to be. We come back through the pinewoods and get torn to pieces by brambles. We’ll laugh about this in years to come, I tell myself, though I have to confess that I am thoroughly unconvinced.

In the circumstances, it was probably a mistake to delete the chain e-mail that arrived from a friend last night, promising me great good fortune so long as I copied said e-mail to another 20 friends within 48 hours (or was it 48 friends within 20 hours?) This is not really an option for me, since I haven’t actually got 20 friends, and I suspect that the small number I do have might diminish if I start sending them this sort of garbage. The only thing is that it also threatened some really, seriously bad luck if one ignored the instruction. Surely not?

Sunday 9 December 2007

Like death warmed up, inadequately

It’s a funny expression, “feeling like death”. Because I imagine that the main feature of being dead is a total lack of feeling. At any rate, that’s what I hope. I’ll be pretty peeved if I discover on Christmas Eve 2012 that I’ve made a catastrophic miscalculation, and that death actually features the sensations of being excessively hot, smelling ordure, and being poked with a trident from all sorts of inventive angles.

Nevertheless, I feel like death. Or, to put it another way, so bad that death would come as a joyous release. I woke up in agony in the early hours of the morning, and have swallowed enough strong painkillers to halt a charging rhinoceros, to precisely no effect. In addition to the pains in my stomach, all my limbs ache like very sensitive and sore things. My only consolation, on staggering down not to eat breakfast, is to discover that at least one member of my extended family probably feels even worse. That would be the one who was found unconscious at 2 a.m. after the interesting experiment in the bar. Maybe we should have used the traditional white mice instead.

At half past ten precisely, there is a Grand Exchange of Presents in my cousin’s house across the road. My role is confined to sitting on the sidelines, like a UN observer on the Green Line in Cyprus. I’m astonished by the scale of this extravaganza, and by the number of evidently carefully chosen, expensive and tasteful gifts being handed around. Some might question the appropriateness of the large golliwog which one of my cousins found in the “Educational and Progressive Toys” section of a local general store, but it could have been worse. At least the lucky recipient sensibly rejected my suggestion that it would be a fun idea to call it Mohammed.

There is nothing I covet for myself, apart from a rather fine coffee table picture book of the historic buildings of Newcastle upon Tyne, but then I’ve never actually liked receiving presents. Even as a child, I preferred to be given cash so that I could go and buy exactly what I wanted. Knowing that, if an adult were presented with a choice of two items by an assistant in a toyshop, they would unfailingly pick the wrong one. Particularly if it happened to be marginally cheaper.

Haven’t we done well, I think, as the discarded wrapping paper mounts up; it eventually fills an entire black bin bag. Compare this with my childhood Christmases, where I would be enjoined to unwrap my presents carefully so that my mother could fold up the paper and put it aside in the biscuit tin she reserved for this purpose, so that it could be re-used next year. It’s a wonder that the Government hasn’t asked us to appear in a series of TV advertisements about this upward social mobility they claim to be in favour of.

Then someone suggests a walk. We’re staying in one of those Norfolk towns with -next-the-Sea at the end of its name, but it has evidently been put there by some mediaeval precursor of the Tourist Board. Or maybe the sea has moved – yes, now I come to think about it, someone was droning on last night about the Great Storm that shifted the tidal channel and blah, blah, blah. Still, I think they should have renamed it -short-drive-from-the-Sea in the interests of accuracy, though it’s probably not worth going to the trouble and expense of changing all the signage now. A forward-thinking town council would take a look at the projections on global warming and rename it -under-the-Sea: twinned with New Orleans, Dunwich and Atlantis.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I get halfway through the interminable walk to the rumoured beach and think “Blank this for a lark, I’d rather be in bed.” So that’s where I spend most of the rest of the day. I drag myself up in the evening to have a glass of water with the Bloke I hoped to talk to at some length during my stay, in order to progress the book we are supposed to be writing together.

“Ah no, mate,” he says, avoiding the usual offence I take at being addressed as “mate” since he is a licensed Antipodean, “I’m off on holiday in the morning. I did tell you.”

Er, no you didn’t.

Still, the way I feel it’s a bit of a relief.

And where do you suppose people from Norfolk go for a pre-Christmas holiday? The Caribbean, Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Maldives, Thailand, Tahiti?

No, none of the above.

Suffolk. The sunny south. It’s obvious when you think about it.

Saturday 8 December 2007

The romance of the railway (and the replacement bus)

I’m off to Norfolk for a week’s holiday. Great, said the only avowed reader of this stuff, you’ll be able to provide a daily postcard on your blog. Well I would, I said, but what would happen if my readers turned out to include, say, a notorious Tyneside housebreaker?

Good point, my friend conceded. He’d watched a chat show once where a comic asked a rather pompous actor where he lived. “Weybridge,” said the actor. “Oh yes,” said the comedian, “I know it well. In fact, my brother’s working there tonight. [Pause for maximum comic impact.] He’s a burglar!” The actor apparently blanched. But then he might just have been acting.

Note to notorious Tyneside housebreakers: non-appearances of this blog are highly unlikely to be the result of my absence from home, which frankly hardly ever happens. In fact, they’re almost certainly because I am lying face-down on the sofa feeling vaguely sorry for myself in the short intervals between sharpening my huge collection of offensive weapons.

I went to Norfolk on the train from King’s Cross to King’s Lynn, which had a nice symmetry to it from the viewpoint of a diehard royalist. The train had two lavatories. These could be distinguished by the fact that one had an “Out of Order” notice slapped on the door, while the other was just permanently locked. I was sitting with my legs crossed, calculating whether I could hold out for the remaining 20 minutes of the journey, when the driver announced that owing to “a fatality on the line”, the train would be “terminating” at Downham Market, wherever that is. Bloody marvellous. The Harrow & Wealdstone train crash of 8 October 1952 involved three trains and killed 112 people, yet they had two of the four lines through the station open again for the following morning’s rush hour. Now it would be cordoned off as a “crime scene” for at least a month. No, make that three months.

Luckily, as I am the last off the train because I’d paid extra to go first class, I am able to stand around in the pissing rain in the car park for long enough to strike up a conversation with the station staff, and establish that there is in fact a gents on the platform, though there is no sign drawing attention to its presence, presumably as a safeguard against vandals. I get back from it just in time to limp aboard the bus that is going to travel to King’s Lynn via the intermediate station of Watlington. This will, I am warned, add rather considerably to my journey time.

But lucky old me. I’d wanted to visit Watlington since 1994, when I read Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s “Off the Rails”. She lived in a castle nearby, and made Watlington sound like one of the world’s most romantic stations (admittedly helped by the fact that it then traded under the rather more unusual and appealing name of Magdalen Road).

After a prolonged mystery tour through the bleak, wet flatlands of the Norfolk Fens, all I can say is that Ms St Aubin de Teran is a much more brilliant writer than I had previously appreciated.

My aunt and Border terrier pick me up when I finally get to King’s Lynn, and take me to the north Norfolk hotel where we are having a family Christmas meal to take account of the fact that half the family will be spending their actual Christmas in New Zealand. The meal has been rescheduled from lunchtime to the evening for the convenience of two children who disappear halfway through their starters and are never seen again. (Until the next morning, that is. It’s not one of those Murder Mystery Weekends.)

I bravely munch my way through my second roast turkey with all the trimmings in two days, and it’s entirely my own fault as there were two alternatives for each course. I feel even sicker than I did last night, which is saying something.

By going to bed reasonably early, I miss an interesting sociological experiment designed to find out what would happen if you leave a Geordie in a bar with the ability to charge anything he fancies to his room account. The answer is: exactly what you would expect. But to look on the bright side, at least the hotel finally sold some of the £70-a-shot Louis Treize brandy they had been keeping behind the bar as a talking point for the last few years.

Friday 7 December 2007

A day of lasts (but luckily not James)

My last trip to London by GNER, on the 7.20 from Morpeth. It is on time, the WiFi service works faultlessly and my coffee cup is refilled whenever I empty it. It has not always been so, but they have undoubtedly been the best by far of the privatized train operators, and I shall miss them. I feel the makings of a lump in my throat as we pull into King’s Cross and see the line-up of blue trains, all with a white stripe down their sides where the GNER insignia has already been stripped off. All these old-fashioned crests and shit are “irrelevant”, according to new operators National Express, who are committed to giving their “customers” something more “contemporary”. But where railways are concerned, give me nostalgia every time. Surely there must be room on the line for a rival service featuring table lamps, crested antimacassars, proper afternoon teas and additional heating from the hot coals hurled in through the carriage windows? With genuine open cattle trucks for the third class passengers, offering all the fun of Alton Towers without the queues or the tiresome Elfin Safety regulations.

I’m not sure whether I can write about my Fat Boys’ Lunch without having my tongue cut out and buried at high water mark. Oh no, that’s the Masons, isn’t it? (Amusingly enough, my maternal grandfather and uncles were all imperial grand wizards or something in the Masons, yet neither I nor my cousins were ever invited to join. At least, I think it was the Masons. Though I’ve never heard of another Lodge where they wear long, flowing white robes and burn crosses.)

Anyway, it was the annual Christmas lunch of the Saints and Sinners Club, and my last chance to have a meal at The Savoy before it closes for refurbishment. It’s many years since I attended an all-male gathering of this nature. I felt an interloper, not because I was concealing a vagina about my person (though I do have a reasonably sized pair of breasts) but because everyone else on my table turned out to be from Yorkshire. This was brought home to me at the end of the main course (roast turkey with all the trimmings) when the Bloke to my right leaned over and said to his other neighbour, “Excuse me, you’re not leaving that, are you?” just before spearing a couple of bacon-wrapped chipolatas and a big slice of turkey breast off his plate. I hadn’t heard that line since I went to Mole’s fish restaurant in Seahouses with my friend Fat Ted in 1971, and he got his eye on the half dozen battered fish skins reposing on the plates of the family at the next table. (“That’s the best bit, that is.”) I remember it very clearly, because it was the point in my life at which I learned that very useful word “mortified”.

Then I asked the Bloke to my left, who is a bit of an opera buff, if he had been to see the production of Aida for which I had tickets that evening. He confirmed that he had, so I asked him what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, “some Egyptian blokes come on towards the end of the first half and it really picks up from there.” This would be a true masterpiece of Yorkshire understatement for almost any performance of Verdi’s great triumphal march. It was particularly brilliant as a description of this evening’s production, which went over the top like a drug-crazed battalion on the Somme. The cast of hundreds included numerous on-stage trumpeters, a troupe of Ethiopians cunningly disguised as Australian Aborigines, an elephant (admittedly not a real one) and some surprisingly chunky lesbian tumblers, all strikingly clad by Zandra Rhodes.

In short, the only traditional Yorkshire line I did not hear was “How much???” when they came round with the drinks bill. But then my host is renowned as a man of extraordinary generosity.

There were lots of showbiz stars at the lunch, many of whom I had wrongly believed to be long dead (and some of whom I am still far from sure about). Some of them serenaded us with allegedly comic carols over the coffee and mince pies. Then we all went away.

The opera was better than the reviewers had led me to believe, and being with a Bloke I did not need to spend all evening worrying about whether I was saying or doing the right thing. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred him to dress a little less like an ageing gay rock star, but at least we fitted in a treat in the Exclusive Restaurant afterwards. Not being in the least bit hungry, I just had the pink champagne, half a dozen oysters, chicken masala, bottle of New Zealand sauvignon, apple and blackberry pie with custard, mint tea and two ports. As they used to say in ancient Egypt: Mummy, I think I’m going to be sick.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Bothersome women, bothering God

Unable to sleep because of the weight of trivia on my mind, I resolve to get up and deal with all outstanding issues in my life in a manly and decisive fashion. Unfortunately I have failed to allow for the fact that this involves making a series of telephone calls to women. These delightful creatures prove very persuasive when it comes to convincing me that I really ought to do the things I don’t actually want to do; and very unreliable when it comes to doing the things I want them to do with me. I think that both my lunch and dinner guests for tomorrow claiming to be sick must be some sort of record. Fortunately I am able to adopt a foolproof Plan B: going along to a traditional, all-male Fat Boys’ Lunch and inviting a Bloke to the opera and dinner in the evening. Obviously I won’t actually want any dinner, as I’ll still be full of my Fat Boys’ Lunch, but I’ve already pushed my luck with London’s hardest-to-book restaurant by converting a lunch reservation into a post-theatre supper, and I don’t feel inclined to find exactly how far their goodwill stretches.

I ring my friendly local builder to see when he might get round to mending the hole in my roof that has been troubling me for the last month, and find myself involved in a long discussion with his wife about the awfulness of the contemporary Church of England. I asked for this by writing something in the local paper about the limited appeal of the modern liturgy; a piece which provoked the classic e-mail response: “Spot on! These sodding Christians are ruining church for the rest of us.” Why anyone should confuse me with someone who actually gives a toss is a bit of a mystery, but I “hmmm” sympathetically as she tells me that “I was brought up to treat church with a certain respect … not like people these days who just want to use it for drinking coffee and charging around shaking hands … I can’t abide that ‘kiss of peace’ … the Bishop told me I must do whatever I felt comfortable with, so now I just stay on my knees with my eyes tightly shut until it’s over”.

I didn’t tell her the discouraging story of my friend who adopted the identical strategy and found that it worked precisely for one week. The following Sunday, he was treated to a hand descending firmly on his shoulder and a voice booming: “Excuse me!” He looked up into the shining eyes of a man built like a brick lavatory, who had evidently just returned from auditioning for the part of Hoss Cartwright in a new film version of the popular 1960s Western series “Bonanza”. A ham-like hand was firmly extended in my friend’s direction. Clearly the situation offered three options: telling Dan Blocker to f*** off, punching him in the stomach (since his face was out of reach) or shaking his hand. The first two seemed vaguely unchristian as well as almost certainly life-shortening. So my friend shook his hand, and it proved an epiphany. Not in the sense that he immediately signed up for the Alpha course, began talking in tongues and loving his fellow human beings. But because he took his crushed fingers home on the bus and resolved never to go to church again.

It took me all bloody afternoon to pack enough stuff to keep me decently clothed and one Border terrier adequately fed during the forthcoming week away from home. No wonder nearly every attempt I have made in recent years to take a foreign holiday has concluded with me deciding that the packing is more trouble than it is worth, and that what I really need is a nice rest at home, with a decent pot of tea, some proper English biscuits and the Daily Telegraph.

To cap it all, late this evening I found myself in the middle of a huge gathering of bright-eyed God-botherers, who all eagerly agreed with my published views. I regret to say that I was singularly ungracious to them, in the very worst tradition of minor local celebrities. I guess it must go with the territory, whatever that means.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

A meeting with a dead man

If there was one thing I hated in my business life, it was meetings. They are the lazy person’s way of filling the day without actually doing any work. I loathed in more or less equal measure board meetings, “brainstorming” meetings to work out how to frame a new business pitch or “move the business forward”, and “all parties meetings” where clients, bankers, lawyers, brokers and PR consultants [the lowest form of advisory life] gathered to plan or progress a major corporate transaction. Everyone was charging by the hour at a rate that would make even a west London plumber envious, and I suppose I should have been grateful to be out of the cold and earning my firm a small fortune, a tiny fraction of which might ultimately make it into my personal bonus pool. But I just sat there thinking that it was a complete and utter waste of my life.

Unless, of course, there was the opportunity to crack an unsuitable joke. Once we were producing a bid defence circular for a well-known Midlands brewer, whose merchant bank had decided to include a table to demonstrate that its shares were worth vastly more than the market appreciated. This was headed “Where should MidBrew trade?” The debate droned on interminably, while I sat daydreaming, with special reference to the very attractive blonde lawyer across the room. Then someone asked me a direct question: “Where should MidBrew trade?” After the man in charge had repeated it more slowly, I ventured, “Er, the South East?” You probably had to be there, but it got a reasonable laugh.

Though not as big a laugh as I had the time I was sitting with just MidBrew’s chairman and the head honcho from his law firm. A nervous banker came in and announced that they had the chairman of the firm we were bidding for on the line. “That’s it!” cried le grand fromage du litege, “He’s throwing in the towel!” Au contraire. It was a courtesy call to announce that they were about to launch a counter-bid for MidBrew, a manoeuvre known by computer games nostalgics as “the PacMan defence”. When things get really bad, I still recall the look on that lawyer’s face and unfailingly enjoy a little chuckle.

Shortly after this, I mastered texting on my mobile and meetings could be enlivened by exchanging messages with MidBrew’s stockbroker, mainly relating to the aforementioned blonde lawyer. We invented an elaborate fantasy in which she was enjoying an unbelievably passionate affair with her boss. Luckily no-one ever asked why we were constantly fumbling under the boardroom table and giggling like a pair of schoolboys.

Anyway, I only mention all that because this morning I went to a business meeting for the first time in months, and really enjoyed it. Maybe it had something to do with actually getting out of bed and talking to some people with IQs higher than their height in inches. Mind you, it really was a complete waste of time because I sat taking notes for an hour and said, “Right, that’s fine. Just let me know when I can come back and talk to your Chief Executive, and I’ll get the report written early in the New Year.”

“Oh, he can’t possibly spare the time to talk to you. And we were rather hoping you could get it done by the middle of next week.”

“A bit hard without a briefing, I’m afraid.”

“This WAS the briefing.”

Oops, silly of me to have missed that. It’s clearly past time I retired.

After that triumph, I went to Halfords at Kingston Park to buy a bicycle bell, but they could only sell me one in bright pink bearing a portrait of Barbie, and I didn’t think that really fitted with my image.

Then I drove to a country pub for lunch with my aunt and elder brother, who is still talking about the time that the police uncovered a brothel in a flat on the premises of the Benton Conservative Club. Strictly from the perspective of a Club member, you understand. He also said that he’d tried that deathclock website I’d been writing about, and it was utter rubbish as he put in all his details and it told him he’d been dead since 1994.

My aunt and I looked at each other. Then we looked at him. Then we carefully changed the subject.