Sunday, 19 October 2008

The story of my life

14st 4lb; 3.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,205 days before death; on the verge (but luckily only a grass one in need of cutting).

The day began in bed reading my press cuttings on my laptop. Well, one press cutting to be precise. An incisive piece pronouncing that “You know recession has hit when DFS is forced to put out Christmas adverts in mid-October”. Overlooking the fact that their sofas are made to order, typically with a six week lead time, and that they have therefore always advertised at precisely this time of year for pre-Christmas delivery. As has and does every other furniture retailer in the sodding land.

I remember now why I gave up working full time in PR. It was very bad indeed for my blood pressure.

Meanwhile in Cheshire, The Less Tall Brunette from those parts got her father to drive her back to the local A&E department this afternoon, as a result of continuing pain in her foot. I learned this evening that a nurse had dug out the X-rays they had had taken last time and pointed out a clear fracture, expressing surprise that anyone could have told her anything different on her previous visit, when they had in fact sucked through their teeth and shaken their heads about the difficulty of interpreting them.

Then, perhaps anticipating a costly medical negligence suit, this nurse went on to say that they would not have put her foot in plaster in any case, as the broken metatarsal was well splinted by the bones on either side and seemed to be healing nicely of its own accord.

Finally, the nurse said that the progress of healing suggested that the LTCB could not have broken the bone in the Great North Run itself, but must have sustained the injury when that rugby playing oik stamped on her foot at the hideous ball two weeks earlier. The LTCB seemed to derive great comfort from knowing that she really had completed a half marathon with a fracture, and had done so in what now looked like a pretty respectable time compared with some of my considerably younger, fitter and taller cousins. It can only be a matter of time before she starts walking around Chester wearing a T-shirt with the legend “I ran the Great North Run with a broken foot. How hard am I?”

I spent all day on tedious domestic tasks like ironing, cutting the lawn and walking the dog, while desperately trying to think of something that might fill the newspaper column that has to be written tomorrow morning. Then I watched the ITV news and had a eureka moment as I was struck by the remarkable similarity between Barack Obama and Lewis Hamilton, both just a little bit black and on course for victory in their respective championships (with the key difference that the worst thing Hamilton is likely to get in the head on the winner’s podium is a champagne cork). But then I visualized the inevitable reader’s letter saying “Ban this evil racist, who clearly thinks that ‘they all look the same’.” So it was back to square one yet again. The story of my life.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The deranged driver and the ceiling inspector

14st 4lb; 1.5 units of alcohol yesterday (a well-deserved whisky nightcap after driving back from my dry reunion dinner); 1,206 days to go; Morpeth.

Today’s bizarre early morning dream saw me working in an office with a dodgy lift and later standing by the side of a motorway with a woman I once rather fancied, watching a convoy of vehicles with their lights on moving against the flow of traffic and wondering how on earth a spectacular pile-up could be avoided. It wasn’t.

Rather discouraged by this, I drove my small convertible all the way to Newcastle for a haircut first thing this morning (have you ever tried looking in the mirror after a haircut in Alnwick?), and had a small outburst of road rage in the village just down the road on my way back. The way I look at it is that the Highway Code clearly specifies who should give way when there is an obstruction in the road, namely the person on whose side of the carriageway the blockage lies. So I stopped, only to find that the person coming the other way then did so too, and started fannying around flashing his lights to play “No, no, after you, Claude.” This strikes me as a total waste of everyone’s time, and irritates me accordingly. It was only after I had driven past him with my face contorted like that of a very angry orang-utan, ranting loudly to myself and making vigorous “wanker” gestures, that I reflected that he was probably one of my immediate neighbours. Oopsy.

Having had the damaged tyre of my 4 x 4 replaced in Alnwick (which is better on car parts than on hair styling), I drove back south to Morpeth for lunch with my aunt and cousin. I had suggested that we try a new restaurant in the town centre and was much tempted by both the regular menu and the specials board, eventually selecting from the latter a starter of wild mushrooms on toast with a poached egg, followed by pork loin with a black pudding mash. Though I nearly changed my order when I saw the enormous and delicious looking burger and chips being delivered to the next table. The waiter said that it was not too late to change my mind, then added “Don’t worry, you can always have it for dessert.” Which was, as my cousin observed, “a very Geordie comment”.

We sat around reminiscing about my late uncle, and his very dry sense of humour. My cousin particularly cherished the memory of introducing his father to his first wife not long after she had become his girlfriend, when he was taking her for a weekend at the family’s country cottage. My uncle’s main contribution to the conversation was to observe to the young lady, without the slightest hint of a smile, “I have recently painted the bedroom ceiling. Do take a close look at it, won’t you?”

I wonder whether anyone will still be chuckling about my lines more than a decade after I have progressed from deadpan to just plain dead?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Never go back

14st 4lb (better); zero alcohol yesterday (good); 1,207 days left (poor); Old School Reunion Dinner (very bad indeed).

Thanks a bunch, Northumberland County Council. I took my car in for a routine service this morning and the garage reported that there was nothing wrong with it apart from the fact that it was dangerous to drive because of a tear in one of the newish tyres, almost certainly caused by an impact with one of the council’s carefully nurtured potholes. Luckily it will only take 24 hours and £109.25 plus VAT to replace it. It’s lucky that I don’t pay taxes to have the sodding roads repaired, or I might begin to feel quite resentful.

My other car being too small to accommodate three overgrown (in the physical sense) adults, I thought that I had at least found a cast-iron excuse for not being the designated driver to our old school reunion dinner in Newcastle this evening. But then my aunt kindly insisted on lending me her car instead, despite my increasingly desperate protestations. So that was my fate sealed.

I collected my first passenger from a small trailer park in a village not too far from my home. Not all the products of my alma mater have discovered the secret of upward mobility. I found him completing the process of cramming his ample physique into a colourful waistcoat and a glaringly unmatching dinner jacket and dress trousers, both of which had seen better days (in, I would guess, the reign of King George V). The stuffing protruding from the shoulder of the tuxedo was a particularly appealing touch, I thought. Then we drove to Morpeth and picked up one of my cousins, who had misguidedly travelled all the way from Cambridge for this occasion.

I was surprised to find a parking space bang outside the school gates, and so little sign of activity within that we wondered aloud, in a hopeful sort of way, whether we might have come on the wrong night. This concern increased when we looked through the windows into the apparently empty school hall, though when we got through the unlocked door it transpired that the event was simply very sparsely attended, and those present were clustered towards the war memorial organ, bearing the names of the dead in two world wars, doubtless wishing that their names were among those inscribed there. There were some sticky name badges on a table by the door and, as I put mine on, a blonde woman standing nearby leaned across and peered at it. I smiled in response and she said rather curtly, “Oh no, I wasn’t looking for you!” I could think of no wittier response than “Evidently”, so perhaps I am losing my touch. When she later bothered to put on a badge herself I identified this woman as the person employed by the school to maintain good relations with its old members. She was bloody rude to me last time I made the mistake of returning to the place too, now I come to think of it. I wonder whether she should be having a quiet word with the school’s careers adviser?

I wandered across to a trestle table at the side of the hall and a woman with arms like tattooed hams poured me a couple of small tins of orange juice into an inelegant pint glass. Then I made desultory conversation with a few people I did not know and did not really wish to know, until it was time for dinner. I took a look at my name on the 1971 Honours Board as we passed by and wondered whether the next name on the alphabetical list was the same person whose sudden death in Hexham at the age of 55 had been recorded on page 12 of this morning’s Newcastle Journal.

I had never knowingly set foot in the new school dining hall before, since I avoided school lunches in my days at the place because of their catastrophic inedibility. I remember sitting through a history lesson and learning that one of Florence Nightingale’s great contributions to the welfare of the British soldier had been insisting that they received edible meals in hospital, rather than hunks of animal roughly allocated by weight, which might turn out to be all bone and gristle. I had to restrain myself from sticking a hand up to enquire how many more centuries it would take before the school applied the same standards in its kitchens.

In fact, I thought they had knocked down the new school dining hall of my day and built an even newer one, but they proved only to have clad the 1960s structure in some fancier brickwork when they built whatever replaced the old gymnasium next door. It is a soulless place, with noisy air conditioning and draughts strong enough to blow out the candles on most of the tables. I was seated at a table of eight which also contained three contemporaries of mine (the two I had brought with me plus a multi-millionaire TV producer), three other blokes who were about three years younger than I am, and an unfortunate youth who turned out to be the “senior prefect” or deputy head boy.

One of the three slightly younger chaps, who had the sort of double-barrelled name that would have inspired Evelyn Waugh to write a short story, said that, while he had never spoken to me, he had been watching me with interest since he went to Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School at the age of four, and I was the big boy who rang the bell. Luckily he wasn’t the unfortunate I accidentally struck in the face with it, while swinging it enthusiastically for the start of lessons one afternoon.

We had a surprisingly good dinner, during which we engaged the senior prefect in conversation and established that he hoped to go to Oxford to read law. In which case, one of my friends enquired, what did he know of Lord Eldon (of whose house the lad was a member), one of the school’s most distinguished old boys. The right answer would have been that he was the longest-serving and most reactionary Lord Chancellor in English history. Instead the young fellow mumbled something about him having been the man who built the Square in town, sending us off into a huge bout of hilarity at his expense. “Oh, you think he was the bloke who built the shopping centre, do you? What about Lord Stowell? The man who invented the Chinese restaurant? Or Lord Collingwood, the chap who invented the pub?”

My, how we laughed.

I should perhaps explain for non-residents of Newcastle that the two latter peers were also distinguished old boys who had school houses named in their honour. Stowell was Eldon’s brother, and a notable judge, and the street named after him is now at the heart of Newcastle’s Chinatown; while Collingwood was Nelson’s deputy at Trafalgar and is commemorated in the names of many North East pubs, including the one nearest to the school. Convention in those days dictated that the boys went to the Collingwood and the masters to the Brandling nearby, and I duly I spent virtually every lunch hour and evening in the Collie, as we called it, when I was a sixth former.

Having destroyed this no doubt estimable young man’s self-confidence, and completely wrecked his chances of shining at his Oxford interview, we also established that he was the tenth best tennis player of his age in the whole of the United Kingdom, and that he lived right next to the tennis club up the road. I joked that when I was his age I had lived right next to the Stoll cinema in Westgate Road, which in those days was the city’s specialist in Scandinavian films, and that consequently I had been rated the tenth best wanker in the country. It went down like a lead balloon, and did not get any better when I explained it.

Before this we had told him horror stories of our own schooldays, which he clearly found incredible, including the beatings (which the head prefect was allowed to administer) and the fact that we were forced to submit to compulsory nude swimming lessons supervised by an elderly paedophile. But the thing that really made his jaw drop and “grossed him out”, as I believe the young like to say, was the intelligence that the man seated to my right was expecting to become a father again early in the new year, at the age of 56.

We went through the tedious ritual of various age groups “taking wine” with the president of the old boys’ association, giving loud rounds of applause to the one surviving old sod who had started at the school in the 1920s, and the rather more numerous survivors of its wartime evacuation to Penrith. I nipped out to the loo and evidently missed the loyal toast, but when I came back the president gave the toast of the school, and the new headmaster (who apparently started his career as a music teacher) sportingly played a Hammond organ to accompany the singing of the ludicrous old school song, banned by his predecessor. After this the head made a brisk speech painting himself as an accident-prone buffoon, and containing a number of old but reasonably good jokes with well-signalled punch lines. Then someone called Jonathan Webb, who made it clear that he had not much liked the school during his time there, gave a speech about his subsequent experiences as an international rugby player and orthopaedic surgeon. I thought it was pretty good effort, and could see that I might have found it interesting if I had even the slightest interest in rugger or surgery, but it went on far too long for one old bugger on the next table who kept heckling him to wind up because he had more important things to get on with, like preparing for his luckily imminent death.

When he had finished we sat around for a bit and I reminded the TV producer that he owed me £25 for the dinner, which I had booked on his behalf. He produced two £20 notes, but I had no suitable change. After pondering the problem for a bit, he suggested that perhaps I might keep the £15 balance and give it to the cancer charity for which the LTCB had done the Great North Run. I said that I had been hoping that a self-declared multi-millionaire might do a bit better than that, and he stared at me in utter shock, like something out of a Bateman cartoon. “What???” he spluttered. “You want MORE???”

He then helpfully suggested that I could waive my own reimbursement, and donate the whole £40 to charity if I so wished.

And that, my friends, is in my experience nearly always how the rich got to be and stay that way.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The axeman returneth

14st 8lb (which is a disgrace, to be honest); 8.9 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,208; Newcastle.

Another day, another stock market crash, with the Far Eastern markets plummeting overnight and the sheep who man the dealing desks in London naturally following suit as soon as trading started at eight. Marvellous thing, globalization. I reflected gloomily on (a) the steadily diminishing value of my pension fund, and (b) my ballooning weight, which really must be down to the beer last night as I counted the calories of the accompanying food and they were not particularly excessive. I felt so fat this morning that I was moved to dress in some of the clothes that would have been gracing one of Alnwick’s many charity shops by now if the LTCB had had her way: some baggy brown cord trousers, a checked country shirt with a brown tie, and a classic Old Bloke’s light brown cardigan. I was half tempted to light a pipe and be done with it. But at least I thought of the LTCB when I spent the morning revising my plans for the weeks ahead so that I could spend more time with her. I was particularly pleased with myself for cleverly booking myself onto the same trains as her for our next trip to London, until I realized that I had misread the Bearded Git’s website and had actually booked myself onto one leaving from Chester half an hour later than hers, and involving a tiresome change at Crewe. Knackers.

After this tiresome balls-up I put on the coat of my comedy green tweed suit over my nice warm cardigan and drove to Newcastle for lunch in the city’s top restaurant with the North East’s leading business journalist and one of its most distinguished PR men. Clearly it would be improper to reveal any of the confidences we exchanged, or the searingly brilliant insights into the current economic difficulties that we offered to each other. Mainly because there weren’t any. It was a jolly good meal, though.

Taking the dog for his walk on my return home, in pleasant if chilly late afternoon sunshine, I was shocked to discover that the Elfin Safety tree vandals have been back in action, felling a particularly fine looking clump of mature ashes. I had assumed that the January campaign of destruction marked an end rather than a beginning, but now it looks as though we are to be subject to a series of unpredictable guerrilla attacks with chainsaws until all the trees with yellow identifying tags (which is most of the mature trees hereabouts) are gone. A series of Baedeker raids after the Blitz, so to speak. A shame, I think, particularly as I see no sign whatsoever of the promised, extensive replacement planting.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The most useless boyfriend on the planet

14st 4lb; zero alcohol yesterday; life expectancy 1,209 days; The Wrong Place.

The best thing about being in a relationship … well, there is that stuff I am not allowed to write about in the blog, I suppose, but even so I think I have to agree that the best thing about being in a relationship is the sense that one is no longer alone; that there will always be someone on (and ideally at) my side in the never-ending battle with the Government, police, utilities, banks, retailers, clients, service providers, neighbours etc etc etc.

And where was I when my beloved Less Tall Cheshire Brunette came to the dreaded conclusion that she would have to have her beloved cat put to sleep? Holding her hand and whispering words of encouragement and consolation? No, sitting on my ample backside 220 miles away in Northumberland, quite probably scratching myself. I must confess that I was rather taken aback by the speed both of the cat’s decline, and of her decision that the kindest thing to do would be to end the animal’s suffering. I made a mental note never to look poorly in her presence, particularly if the Government goes down the route of legalizing voluntary euthanasia, as it probably will since it seems such a lousy idea. My aunt used to cast a beady eye on her Border terrier years ago and say “One cough and he’s off!” I shall clearly have to invest in an ample supply of soothing jujubes if the LTCB and I decide to stay together.

Which might not be a foregone conclusion after my lousy performance today. I did offer to return when she told me that she had booked the cat into the vet’s for the last time, though in reality I could not possibly have driven to Chester in the time available. So while she was making the saddest journey that any pet owner can embark upon, mercifully in the company of a sympathetic friend, I was faffing around taking an old computer to the council tip and closing a couple of building society accounts, since even I have finally twigged that there are unlikely to be any more handy windfalls for carpetbaggers in the foreseeable future. I felt utterly useless as well as completely knackered, so I did what any self-respecting Bloke would do in the circumstances: I spent the evening drinking a great deal of beer.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Reasonably demanding his 454 grams of flesh

No idea; 7.0 units of alcohol yesterday (it was my way of coping with the whole cat trauma); 1,210 more days to fill; The Old Lady of Grey Street.

Two lives hung in the balance today. The cat’s, judging from the rather gloomy bulletin I received from the vet when he dialled the wrong number at 10 this morning, hoping to speak to the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette. And my own, after I nearly fell asleep on the A1 while driving home to Northumberland after a not particularly heavy and most definitely alcohol-free lunch. Perhaps it had something to do with my choice of listening material on Radio 4: a programme about Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What a Wonderful World”, The Archers, a play with Sir [sic – at every mention] Anthony Sher as the Prime Minister and finally an earnest half hour about the history of Eyemouth. It pissed with rain all the way, too.

I had an early supper at my aunt’s, the highlight of which was some “very special” potatoes presented to her as a great favour by her sometime gardener. She could not name the variety, but observed that they had been “very nobbly” before she peeled them. Which had not really been worth the effort as they had the texture of wax candles (not that I have ever eaten a wax candle) and tasted of nothing at all. Could this be another illustration of my theory that now rare breeds of plants and animals became so because they were crap?

After this we went to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice. My aunt kept telling me that playing Portia had been the highlight of her school theatrical career, but luckily after 70 years she could not remember enough of the lines to make a nuisance of herself by blurting them out just before they were uttered on stage. It played to a packed house and went down well, particularly with the younger contingent upstairs who whooped at the curtain call like those people we are no longer allowed to call Red Indians. I did not care for the modern dress, found the jolly opening and closing dance routines a bit out of place in a tragedy, and wondered whether it was right for Shylock to be played with such extreme understatement that one felt he was actually being pretty reasonable about the whole thing (as was no doubt the intent). Antonio looked unsettlingly like a former client I particularly disliked, while Portia kept exposing arms that seemed to be a couple of decades older than the rest of her, perhaps as part of a Government propaganda effort to draw public attention to the appalling shortage of limbs for transplants.

I rang the LTCB when I got home at almost midnight and received a gloomy bulletin about the cat, which was refusing to eat and was so desperate to go out (contrary to the vet’s orders) that she had smashed all the crockery on the kitchen draining board in an attempt to get out of the adjacent window. I sensed that a troubled night lay ahead.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Not a lot of laughs

No idea; 9.0 units (at a guess); 1,211, which seems curiously familiar (oh yeah, it’s the number to reactivate the answering service on my mobile: perhaps it’s A Sign); Chester.

Well, blow me down. The Government is bailing out and effectively nationalizing the Royal Bank of Scotland, and taking a huge stake in HBoS/Lloyds TSB, just as they leaked in outline to all the Sunday papers (apart from the Sunday Sport, apparently) and in detail to Robert Peston for the BBC news last night. At least it gave me a decent subject for a newspaper column, and a ready-made title: Far From Quiet on the Peston Front.

The LTCB collected our animals from the boarding kennels and cattery after work this evening, and took her two cats to the vet’s. The snag was that she only brought one of them home, the other being pronounced to be so severely dehydrated that she needed to be kept in overnight and fed through a tube. I am by no means an expert on cats, but it occurred even to me that this did not sound too good. The LTCB was perhaps not completely inconsolable, but consoling her certainly presented a major challenge. I did my best to rise to it, pointing out that it might well have happened even if she had remembered to buy the cat some more of her favourite biscuits, or take her to the vet before we went to London, or abandon the idea of going to London and staying at home 24/7 with the cats instead. My efforts were neatly balanced by various members of her family having sharp intakes of breath down the phone and saying “Well, you have been away a lot”. But isn’t that what families are for? Sometimes – well, most of the time, to be honest – I am glad that I do not have one to speak of.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The chucklesome appeal of a Scotch bank failure

No idea (perhaps I should be in Government); 12.0 units of alcohol yesterday (surely qualifying me to be an MP, at the very least); 1,212 days left; Sarf London.

I spent an odd night dreaming of babies, specifically the illegitimate son I apparently had 20 years ago with a friend who had best remain nameless. The boy had had been taken into care and I had remained blissfully unaware of his existence until he turned up on my doorstep. At least he had not been brandishing an axe, at any rate up to the point when I awoke, perspiring gently. I do hope he is a figment of my imagination. But then I am not renowned for having one, which is why this blog is so depressingly reliant on True Stories.

It was a positive relief to turn to the Sunday Telegraph, with its tales of mounting financial disaster. The Government is apparently planning a semi- if not total nationalization of the weakest banks, and the London stock market may be closed for the day tomorrow to allow if to digest the implications. I was particularly amused by the reports that Royal Bank of Scotland is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, while my own bank has had to close its doors to new business because it cannot cope with the flood of money seeking a secure home. I was moved to send a text to a friend who had declined to follow me when I moved my bank account from Coutts, a subsidiary of RBS, on the grounds that his vast wealth required the security of a large organization which could be guaranteed never to go bust.

The LTCB and I passed the morning in St James’s Park, starting with a circuit of the lake to admire the black swans and pelicans, then searching with increasing desperation for a place to sit in the sun. Every bench was occupied by tramps or well-spread-out foreigners, while other likely resting places proved to within close earshot of ranting lunatics. Eventually we found space in an al fresco dining area which had not yet been populated by diners.

Greatly daring, we then took an armoured taxi to Kennington (“Yes, my good man, I really did say Kennington, not Kensington”) for lunch with a former colleague, his family and a couple of his neighbours. These last came with a daughter called Oriana, and it was lucky that the LTCB was present or I should undoubtedly have disgraced myself by enquiring whether she was conceived on the eponymous P&O liner, then embarking on a ludicrous fantasy about my Great Aunts Lusitania, Mauretania and Skylark (born after a sad decline in the family fortunes). We had a splendid lunch of roast pheasant, then enquired about our chances of finding a taxi back to civilization in the street outside, only to be greeted with regretful shakings of the locals’ heads. Luckily I had one of my rare brainwaves and established that my long disused Computer Cab account still worked; the LTCB and I greeted the arrival of our taxi in much the same spirit as the crowds at the US embassy in Saigon in 1975 seeing the final helicopter coming in to land. The Bearded Git got us back to Chester from Euston in a mere 3.25 hours, after a diversion around Birmingham in the interests of the “West Coast Main Line upgrade”, but at least he kept us well cared for with the splendid at-seat service in first class, comprising one small cardboard cup of tea. I began to find myself growing positively nostalgic for National Express East Coast, let alone the glory days of GNER and “The Route of the Flying Scotsman”.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Not a dog's

No idea again, though I feel slimmer after 24 hours of uncharacteristic self-restraint; 2.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,213 days to go; Gomorrah.

Another day, another screaming headline in the Daily Telegraph. Today it was “Blind Panic”, and surprisingly it wasn’t about unsatisfactory behaviour during a fire at a centre for the visually impaired. But I was swiftly distracted from it by trying to work out what the Oriental lady who delivered our morning tea was trying to convey when she kept shouting “Aygo!” Had she previously worked in Italy, and slightly misheard “prego”? I finally worked out that it was meant to be a cheery “There you go!” But I haven’t struggled so much with a word since “Whuffo!” enjoyed a temporary and puzzling vogue during my time as an undergraduate at Cambridge. A group of us proposed an expedition to a public school type who responded, apparently enthusiastically, “Whuffo!” So we all took to chanting “Whuffo!” in unison whenever anyone came up with a good idea. Months elapsed before one of us worked out that the poor chap had actually been trying to ask “What for?”

This morning we wandered up to Fortnum & Mason, then on to a particularly exclusive Bond Street jeweller where, under cover of buying a refill for the LTCB’s ballpoint pen, I politely enquired whether they might be interested in taking back one of their more expensive engagement rings in some sort of part exchange deal. They seemed markedly less enthusiastic about their product than they had been when they sold it to me in 2005. “Oh no,” said the snooty girl in Customer Services, “we never take back anything worn”, with the same sort of disgust as if I had tried to claim a refund on a soiled pair of undercrackers. She suggested that I take it to Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

I was then much cheered when we looked in at the ring department, purely for hypothetical research purposes you understand, and a much nicer man showed the LTCB her dream engagement ring. It cost about a fifth of what I had paid for the previous one, suggesting to me that I am dealing with (a) a lady of rare taste, discernment and restraint, and (b) a bunch of c***s who had missed a brilliant trading opportunity, since I would happily have simply swapped ring A for ring B, whatever the nominal difference in their values. Mind you, that would assume that the LTCB actually wants to wear my ring. She did ask, not for the first time, whether I was trying to propose, and when I denied it, she said that was a good thing as it was Too Soon. A phrase with which I have become very familiar over the last few months.

We walked on up Bond Street, calling at the first of a long succession of shoe shops as the LTCB endeavoured to find a pair of flattish boots in which she could walk in comfort with her injured foot. Though, funnily enough, said painful disability did not prevent her from trudging what seemed like a hell of a long way when there was an Aladdin’s cave of ladies’ footwear at the end of the rainbow or maybe the top of the beanstalk, depending on how mixed you like your metaphors to be. We even … well, I hesitate to admit it, but we even went to Oxford Street EAST of the Circus. My dear, can you imagine?

Finally, after elbowing my way through yet another tat-filled shop packed with eager punters (what the hell happened to the recession?) I lost the will to live and volunteered to pay for a taxi back to Bond Street plus whatever it took to get her the pair of boots she had fancied at our first port of call there, but then rejected on the grounds of cost. Never has a couple of hundred quid been better spent. I almost wept with joy when we got back to the peace and quiet of my club and I took the first sip of a deliciously refreshing pint of ginger beer shandy.

After the minimum period of recuperation required by a man of my age, we took another taxi to a rather newer and more fashionable club, with the aim of treating a friend to the lavish afternoon tea advertised on their website. Which would have been lovely, if the staff had not flatly denied being able to provide any such thing. Which just goes to show that you should not believe everything you read on the internet. Who would ever have thought it?

After cocktails the LTCB and I strolled (or, in her case, hobbled) to the Coliseum for Cav & Pag – both works I had somehow managed to miss during more than two decades of pretty dedicated opera-going. Lovely tunes conveying stories of depressing misery and brutality. So pretty much par for the course in opera, then. Someone hurriedly left the middle of our row, vomiting, about 15 minutes into the show. I could not say whether this represented a considered critical verdict.

Afterwards I took the LTCB to her favourite restaurant, where we ate an assortment of oysters and reached the unsurprising conclusion that the largest and most expensive native variety is also much the nicest. Then my girlfriend had to tackle the apparently simple task of eating a baked gilthead bream. Not something that you would expect to challenge a person of allegedly higher than average intelligence, but she managed to distinguish herself by detaching the aforementioned head and flicking it quite some distance across the restaurant floor. Her efforts to retrieve it without making a spectacle of herself, before the departing foursome at the next table stood up and slipped over on it, as though on some casually discarded banana skin, was the absolute comic highlight of my day.

By contrast, staggering out of the restaurant some time after midnight we found ourselves in a world of blackness and horror. Shouting drunks staggered everywhere, urine streamed across the pavements and in Pall Mall, right outside the Reform Club, we encountered a pile of excrement over which the LTCB cast a critical eye before observing “That’s not a dog’s, is it?” Neatly summarising, I felt, the state of Britain after 14 glorious years of the New Labour Project.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Falling in unison: the market and me

No idea what I weigh; little idea how much I drank last night, but I’ll take a wild guess at perhaps 11.0 units of alcohol; 1,214 days left; Covent Garden.

I woke up at 2.15 a.m. in one of those mercifully rare states of total disorientation in which it takes an implausibly long time to work out where the hell one is. The feel of the bed and the shape of the room suggested that there should be a Less Tall Cheshire Brunette beside me, but there was none. After much fumbling (which I would never have got away with in the LTCB’s house), I finally located a light switch and grasped that I was in a Gothic boutique hotel somewhere in the Newcastle area. I also established that either (a) I had been drinking quite a lot, or (b) the late David Lean had requisitioned my mouth as the set for his eagerly awaited sequel to Lawrence of Arabia.

There was no such confusion when I woke again at 4.45, because the colossal amount of banging and crashing could only come from a hotel kitchen, above which my room was so conveniently located. Well, or from Shepherd’s scrapyard on a particularly busy day, perhaps. Having a skip load of empty bottles tipped onto a lorry shortly afterwards struck me as a particularly masterly piece of planning, with the peace and comfort of their guests clearly always at the forefront of the management’s minds. I almost whooped with unseemly joy when the time came to check out.

I arrived at King’s Cross fractionally before the LTCB’s train pulled into Euston, and so was able to make a valuable saving by picking her up in my taxi. Every little helps. Shortly afterwards we found ourselves in my bank in Fleet Street, collecting the horrendously expensive engagement ring I had been storing in their vaults since the end of an unsuccessful previous relationship. We were shown into a private room, where I unveiled the shiny trinket to the LTCB in much the same spirit as an eighteenth century European explorer opening a sack full of beads in front of a group of natives. She proved well able to contain her excitement, indicating that she would never want to wear anything quite so ostentatious. So far, so good. I shoved it in my pocket, faintly hoping that the sodding thing might fall out in our taxi and allow me to claim for it on my home insurance (though I seem to recall that the small print of the policy precluded me from claiming for loss in almost any circumstances except if it was on my fiancée’s ring finger, and she had the digit severed by a machete-wielding attacker (though only in England and Wales, excluding Greater London, Sunderland and Hull, and during the hours of daylight) or had it plucked from her by a golden eagle (excluding Scotland, Continental Europe, Africa, Asia and North America).

Stopping briefly in the bar of my club this evening for a reviving Coca Cola, I found that I have become so inured to financial catastrophe that I was completely unmoved by the Evening Standard’s screaming banner headline about “Black Friday For Shares” and the news that the London market had sustained its biggest one day fall of all time. Clearly the only way forward is to splurge what little money I have left, so we headed purposefully to Covent Garden and watched a fantastical imported production of Cavalli’s La Calisto, a work which had its premiere in 1659 but has only just made its way into the repertoire of the Royal Opera House. The costumes were remarkable, notably those of Pan and the half-goat played by the splendid Dominique Visse, and the two sexy peacocks accompanying Juno. The playing and singing were sublimely lovely, too, which I always consider an advantage in an opera.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the evening was the fact that the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette clearly enjoyed it as much as I did. Given the gulf in age, beauty and good nature that lies between us, I never cease to be amazed by how closely our tastes correspond. Now that we have got over the hurdle of obscure early opera, I wonder whether I should try her on miniature steam trains and the various other collections I keep hidden in my attics?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

So, farewell then

I dread to think what I weigh after last night’s splendid meal, which was accompanied by 7.0 units of alcohol (though that description, while technically correct, does not really do justice to the wine); 1,215 days to go; Newcastle upon Tyne.

The brilliant plan for this week was that I would drive across to Chester on Tuesday and the LTCB and I would both travel to London on the train together tomorrow morning. Only some fat berk had forgotten that he had accepted an invitation to a retirement dinner in Newcastle this evening, and therefore had to backtrack most of the way home again. In the unlikely event of anyone reading this in 50 years’ time, I would like to extend a personal apology for my contribution to the global warming which has now made your life unbearable. What, you haven’t heard of it? Oh, it was all the rage in 2008. A bit hard to swallow for those of us who lived through the great scare about the New Ice Age, which was apparently the overwhelming threat to the future of humanity in the 1970s. So what IS making your life impossible in 2058, then?

Blimey. We never even thought of that.

At least I made the journey on the train rather than in my gas guzzling car. It was quite a civilized trip, but then it bloody well should have been given that a first class ticket from Chester to Newcastle cost me far more than I normally pay to travel first class from Newcastle to London, which is about 100 miles further. Though, as a waggish Virgin guard pointed out several years ago, when I queried why the first class fare from London to Liverpool had risen so outrageously that it now exceeded that from London to Newcastle, the distance may be shorter but you do get to spend longer on the train.

There were two changes of train involved in this case, at Manchester Oxford Road and York, but in each case the next service pulled into the same platform as the train I had just left, after a wait of no more than ten minutes, so even I felt hard pressed to find grounds for complaint. My only disappointment came after I had watched a fat, blonde scratter sidle into my first class compartment at Leeds, and wander up and down it looking furtive and guilty before sliding into a seat as unobtrusively as a person who is at least 100% overweight can manage. I greatly looked forward to watching the ticket collector sling her out, but when he came through she turned out to be in possession of a first class ticket. It is surprising how often this happens. Where does the guilty look come from, then? A bad conscience about consuming more than her share of the planet’s resources?

The retirement dinner was being held in perhaps my least favourite hotel in the world, where I was also staying overnight. My hosts were very kindly picking up the bill, so no doubt it should not have mattered to me that they were being stung £175 for my night in a tiny, dark, gloomy room with a close-up view of some uninteresting trees and located immediately above the kitchen. Nevertheless, I felt a distinct stab of referred pain when I attempted to check my e-mails and discovered that, despite charging all that money for the use of what was little more than a beautifully appointed broom cupboard, the place still had the cheek to sting punters another £12 for access to the internet, through a clunking “system” which required their valued guests to ring reception for authorization before logging on.

Dinner was edible and the portions less insultingly small than when I last dined here, and the evening was distinguished by the presentation of a retirement gift chosen by someone with a fine sense of humour. There were also some amusing speeches. Not including my own, as I had seriously overestimated the number of those likely to be present and concluded that I would be doing everyone a big favour by keeping schtoom. As it was, I felt moved to say something to acknowledge my genuine appreciation of having been included on such a select guest list, even though this had to be balanced against the consideration that I am completely useless at speaking off the cuff. I am quite sure that I did not constitute a good advertisement for my services as a speechwriter. On the other hand, rising unsteadily to my feet, totally unprepared and unrehearsed, seemed only fair on the guest of honour since that is exactly how he had approached every presentation to City analysts and investors over the previous 25 years, in glorious defiance of my advice on the matter.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Probably the world's most understanding ape in drag

No idea of my weight this morning; 3.2 units of alcohol gratefully necked in the form of a bottle of Adnams’ Broadside, when we finally got back from the hospital last night; 1,216 days to go; Chester.

The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette is taking a few days’ holiday, though our plans to spend this bit of it enjoying a lovely autumnal walk in the Cheshire or North Wales countryside were slightly spoilt by the fact that she actually spent much of it sitting in agony on her sofa with her foot up, wrapped in a makeshift ice pack. The most exciting thing we managed during the day was an outing to buy the dog a new squeaky toy (which he knackered in record time), visit a specialist dry cleaner located in the middle of nowhere in Flintshire (and therefore clearly a cover for something altogether more sinister), and call on the LTCB’s parents to pick up a pair of crutches that they happened to have going spare. Presumably on the optimistic assumption that my amputation theory is incorrect, we were also presented with an excellent, plump book of country walks in Flintshire, which is apparently obtainable free of charge from the county’s public libraries. I have spent a considerable sum over the years buying comparable books of walks in Northumberland, and cannot fail to wonder whether this is not yet another example of the higher levels of public spending enjoyed by those living in the UK’s over-indulged Celtic fringe. I bet the hospital would have handed out a free pair of crutches if it had been on the other side of the border, too.

After this the LTCB took me on an adventurous drive down a series of narrow lanes to a park where she thought she might manage a shortish walk with the dog. I was not wildly keen on this since (a) it was now after 5pm and the place was festooned with signs warning that the gates would be locked at dusk; and (b) mine would be just about the only vehicle in an otherwise deserted car park, sandwiched between a large council estate and a skateboarding arena full of scratters on trail bikes. Hardly the ideal place to leave a car with an expensive laptop in the back, I felt, though no doubt if I had been a Ministry of Defence employee and had a PC containing the country’s nuclear missile release codes on my parcel shelf, I would have gone right ahead. So we returned to England and the LTCB’s house through the same network of narrow Welsh lanes, now made even more exciting by a flood of rush hour traffic heading in the opposite direction at warp speed, with a cavalier disregard for what might lie around the corner. One began to understand how the Welsh acquitted themselves with such reckless bravery at Rorke’s Drift.

This evening the LTCB insisted on driving me to one of her favourite restaurants as a thank you from her to me for my support in the Great North Run. Which, as any reader of this blog will already know, did not amount to much at all. When she came down dressed for dinner and asked me how she looked, I was able to say “Beautiful” without having my fingers crossed. Unfortunately I then rather spoilt things by adding, as I observed her limping to the car in the flat shoes which are all that she can bear to wear at present, that she looked like an ape in drag. I don’t know why she puts up with me. I really don’t.

I felt suitably guilty when she yelped with pain as she depressed the clutch when we set off; when she paid the bill at the conclusion of our excellent dinner at what would once have been a seafront restaurant in Parkgate on the Wirral, before the sea took itself elsewhere; and when we got back and found, for the first time ever, that there was absolutely nowhere to park anywhere near her house and she had to drive several hundred yards further on and then hobble painfully back. I would obviously have parked the car for her but for the fact that I was well over the drink drive limit and have a clear idea of the limitations on my luck. After all, I have found the world’s most understanding girlfriend, in defiance of the odds and all available precedent. Why would even I be mad enough to try and push my luck just that little bit further?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

An unlucky break?

14st 4lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,217 days left; M62 yet again.

My neighbours told me this morning that there was some sort of dog trial taking place on the estate on which we live, which explained the coach mysteriously parked in the middle of nowhere and the large trailer full of people being towed around by a tractor when I took the dog for his walk yesterday afternoon. Since we are well out of the way of the way of the police and busybodies who love animals (though there are unfounded rumours that some of the local hill farmers do indeed love their animals, in a very real sense), it struck me that this would be an ideal place for an illegal hare coursing extravaganza. I looked forward to writing in this blog about finding the Waterloo Cup Mark 2 being staged in my own paddock while my back was turned, but a glance at the internet confirmed that it was an entirely legitimate event organized by something called the Golden Retriever Club of Northumbria. Which was rather a disappointment, to be honest.

I left this earthly paradise once again at lunchtime, to face the grim 222-mile slog along the motorways to see the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette on her home territory. I reached her house feeling completely shattered and looking forward to her getting home from work and cooking me an agreeable supper while I unwound with a long drink. Instead I received a phone call to report that she was at her sports physiotherapist, who believed that her foot was broken and that she should go straight to A&E for an X-ray, with a recommendation that she should get someone to drive her there as they would more than likely put her foot in plaster, making it a bit of a challenge to drive back.

Many people would have found this rather depressing news. I did so myself, as I saw the prospect of a hot supper vanishing over the horizon. But not the LTCB, who had clearly brightened up immensely from the moment when she announced that she had completed the Great North Run on Sunday and her physiotherapist replied “You did WHAT???” The diagnosis instantly converted what she had hitherto considered a rather embarrassing finishing time into an incredible triumph of the human spirit over physical adversity. It also invited cheering comparisons with younger, fitter members of my extended family who had taken nearly as long to cover the distance even though they were equipped with two conventionally intact feet.

So I drove her to the Countess of Chester Hospital, rather disappointed to discover that it is not nicknamed Camilla’s or Saint Diana’s, and dropped her off for her estimated two and a half hour wait in the X-ray queue, while I returned to her house to tackle the work assignment which had been conveniently e-mailed to me just before we set off. Shortly before 10 she rang me with the good news that her foot wasn’t broken after all – or, at any rate, that they weren’t able to detect a fracture on the X-ray, and weren’t going to put her in plaster. Though she was a bit miffed that they wouldn’t let her have the pair of the crutches that her physio had recommended her to use, whatever the hospital concluded about the precise nature of her injury.

Driving her back home, I naturally pointed out that I had suggested that it might not be such a brilliant idea to do the Great North Run with an injured foot. She replied, as she had done before the race, that she was doing it for charity and could not let them down. I queried whether the funds raised for Maggie’s Centres for cancer support (without doubt an excellent cause) might not be outweighed by the cost to the public purse of X-rays, surgery, prosthetics and rehabilitation if she ended up having her foot amputated. She contended that this was not going to happen. No doubt time will tell.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The sort of bastard I am

14st 6lb; 8.2 units of alcohol last night (I felt that I needed a drink or two after the trauma of the Great North Run); 1,218 more days to fill; Newcastle.

You might well be wondering what sort of total bastard would dump his injured and exhausted girlfriend on a packed train to make the 200 mile journey home on her own, still in her sweaty running kit and with an injured foot so swollen that she did not dare take off her trainers. Well, I’ll tell you. The sort of bloke who volunteered to drive her home to ensure that she was back at work for a vital meeting first thing on Monday morning. And who then told one of his few remaining clients that he could not possibly attend an equally vital business meeting in Newcastle at the same time, as he would be in Cheshire, but would participate by phone. At which point the LTCB told him that her meeting had been postponed and she would stay an extra night, so he rang his client and said he could come to their meeting after all.

Shortly afterwards the LTCB’s vital meeting was reinstated, but by this point I had lost the will to live and did not feel able to ring my clients and tell them that I wanted to change my plans yet again. I hope this may be considered forgivable in the circumstances. At least the LTCB still seems to be speaking to me. Apparently looking and smelling like you have just run 13 miles is a pretty good way of getting a pair of seats to yourself on the train, though it is probably easier just to pretend to be a lunatic eager to strike up a conversation.

At least one member of my small family enjoyed an unalloyed triumph yesterday. When I went to pick the dog up from the friends who had kindly rescued him from my house at lunchtime, he proved to have distinguished himself by catching a rat in their garden and shaking it to death. What’s more it was a genuine, feral rat, of the sort that allegedly spreads disease and which people pay good money for Rentokil to eliminate. Not, as you and I might have expected, a harmless and much-loved domestic pet. I was taken out to inspect the corpse. It was only a youngster, but its demise still merits a place in the record as the most useful act of public service ever performed by either of my Border terriers. In fact, the only act of public etc.

I was supposed to go to my desk and write a newspaper column when I got back last night, but I was so exhausted by my non-participation in the Great North Run that I felt capable only of drinking bottled strong ale and over-eating. But unluckily for the readers of the local paper, and particularly for the 15-year-old boy who normally fills in when I throw a sickie, I woke up at 2.30, with my MacBook to hand, and dashed off the required 650 words on autopilot. When I woke up properly I had no recollection at all of what I had written; but, rather depressingly, it proved to be no worse than usual. What I did recollect was a series of bizarre dreams which had filled the intervening hours, in one of which bad people had been drilling small holes in my sitting room windows and removing all the putty from around the glass; while in another I was living in a rambling maisonette on the Rows in Chester. Experts on dream interpretation are invited to leave a comment explaining these, so long as it is free of charge at the point of use.

I can reveal nothing of my vital business meeting on the grounds of client confidentiality, and more importantly because they would no doubt sack me if I did so. However, it was serious enough for me to wear a suit, which is a pretty rare event these days. I have a nasty feeling that it smelt of balls. I just hope that they were strictly of the moth repellent variety.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The agony of the long distance runner, and her boyfriend

14st 5lb; 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,219 days to go (including four Great North Runs); South Shields (eventually).

Throughout the run-up [sic] to today’s Big Event, I had been bombarded with helpful advice on how best to get to South Shields to cheer my beloved as she sprinted triumphantly across the finishing line of the world’s largest half marathon. Drive there early and park, then take the Metro back to the start. Don’t do that, because you’ll never get out of the car park at the end. Drive to North Shields, and use the ferry across the river. Don’t do that, because the ferry service is infrequent and there will be lots and lots of Metro trains, making that a much better bet. Yes, use the Metro there and back, like everyone else. No, don’t do that, because you will never be able to get onto it because of the enormous crowds. And so on and so forth, more or less ad infinitum.

Having experienced the event myself, I can state with some authority that the only sensible ways to be at both the start and finish of the Great North Run on the same day are (a) to run the distance yourself, or (b) to cadge a lift on a passing helicopter, if you don’t share my aversion to that form of transport. Though perhaps the best approach would be to follow the advice of that profoundly irritating Harry Enfield character, Mr “You Didn’t Wanna Do That” and abandon the idea of going to South Shields at all. Ever.

The day started well enough. Yesterday’s torrential rain had stopped, for a kick-off, which was good. In fact it looked pretty much the perfect day for running 13.1 miles, if you were daft enough to want to do that sort of thing: sunny, crisp and cool. We set off from my house bang on schedule at 8.30, allowing masses of time because several helpful people had told me that I Didn’t Wanna drive the LTCB to the start, whatever her charity’s fact sheet might advise, as the massive volume of traffic would ensure that I never got anywhere near it. In fact I found the traffic going into Newcastle so much lighter than usual that I wondered whether the bloody thing had been cancelled. We had so much time in hand that I had the bright idea of calling on one of my cousins in Jesmond until it was time to walk across the Town Moor to the start. The LTCB was corralled in her designated starting zone a good half hour before the 10.30 “lock down”, after which would-be runners were supposed to be sent right to the back of the field as a punishment for their unpunctuality. Though in practice there was no attempt to police this, and I watched scores of participants turning up after the official closing time and simply climbing over the fences into the enclosures.

Warming up with calisthenics and a bit of light photography before the off

Even I have to admit that I was impressed by the atmosphere – the huge size of the crowd, the blaring music and the rabble-rousing commentary as the huge field shuffled forwards to the official start. Not to mention the Red Arrows roaring overhead. I later found out that Tony Blair had fired the starting gun. I wondered whether he was thinking of Gordon Brown as he pulled the trigger.

Really quite an impressive crowd, one has to admit

Having waved the LTCB off, I walked back to my car and repositioned it in the city centre, near to my club where I was supposed to be holding a family lunch party after the race. Then, clutching the LTCB’s bag of post-race essentials, I made my way on foot across the Tyne Bridge to rendezvous with another cousin, whose fiancée and sons were running, and who was staying at the Gateshead Hilton hotel. A few participants in the race were still trickling across the bridge at the time, some hampered by heavy costumes. Another was pushing a wheelchair containing someone with the posture, if not necessarily the brainpower, of Stephen Hawking, and zig-zagging back and forth across the road so that the occupant of the chair could brandish a collecting bucket at the roadside crowd. I could not help noticing that I was making rather more rapid progress across the bridge than any of the people who were actually supposed to be taking part in the race.

My cousin was standing by the Hilton and we popped into the hotel so that I could use the facilities, then sought their advice on the whereabouts of the nearest Metro station. Having been assured that it was “just around the corner” we spurned the offer of a taxi standing right outside and walked to Gateshead station, where we found (a) a long queue of people prevented from making their way onto the dangerously overcrowded platform for South Shields for Elfin Safety reasons, and (b) no way of buying a ticket unless one happened to have exactly the right money. Enquiring of a Metro employee where I might obtain some change, he asked where we were going; and, on being told “South Shields”, he gestured at the massive queue and suggested that we would do far better to go by bus. “That one is going straight to South Shields” he said, with a mendacious sweep of his arm towards a vehicle throbbing gently outside, so we paid £2.50 each and took our seats at the back of a single-decker, which set off promptly and with impressive speed. The only snag being, as it turned out, that it wasn’t going to South Shields at all, but to Heworth Metro station where we were told that the closure of a roundabout for the race meant that we had to cross to “the other side” to continue our journey. We did that, but found no sign of any bus. Indeed, our first enquiries about how to get to South Shields produced the helpful suggestion that we should continue our journey by Metro, when the queue was at least three times longer than at Gateshead, and any train arriving could be guaranteed to be completely full when it did so.

On his third or fourth attempt my cousin eventually persuaded someone to direct us to the correct bus stop, some way from the station, from which we might stand a statistically significant chance of continuing our journey. This proved to be outside an unprepossessing pub, and came complete with a short, ragged and demoralized queue that looked as though it might qualify for listing by English Heritage if it hung around much longer. After a while a bus duly arrived, but an inspector (a breed I had believed to be long extinct) appeared from nowhere to explain that it could not take us to South Shields as its driver had to return to Newcastle, and it would be more than his job was worth to do anything else. He promised that another driver would be with us shortly to take the now abandoned bus onwards, and promptly buggered off. We were immediately behind a party of Welsh women who were close to tears as they realized that they were going to miss their daughter/granddaughter/niece crossing the finish line, to see which they had, by the sound of things, endured an arduous journey from the valleys of Carmarthenshire. Only to fall, so to speak, at the very last hurdle. Though they did at least cheer us up by telling us that they had tried to hire a taxi and been told by the driver that he did not have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near South Shields, which made us feel better about our lost opportunity outside the Hilton.

A yellow double-decker turned up after a further life-sapping delay and took us to South Shields Metro station, where there were absolutely no helpful signs telling us how to get to the finish; and, perhaps more surprisingly, no throng of people to follow there. The bloke at the back of the taxi rank suggested that we would do well to take a cab as it was a fair old way, but his colleague at the front evidently did not want the business, as he claimed that it was “just round the corner and a couple of hundred yards”. Naturally the first bloke was telling the truth. My cousin had been receiving texts asking where the hell he was even before we got off the bus, and had surprisingly had the presence of mind to delete his first response, “Having a nightmare journey.” Which, he spotted in the nick of time, might be fairly unlikely to elicit the sympathy of someone who had just run all the way.

So we stepped out as fast as we could and eventually made it to the inadequately signposted Great North Run "charity village", where I expected the LTCB to have been standing outside her charity’s tent looking a her watch for quite some time. But she was distinctly absent from the group of successful runners being feted and photographed by the charity’s staff. Attempts to ring her were defeated by the severe overloading of the mobile telephone system, which seemed to be under the same sort of strain I experienced in the West End of London on the day those bombs went off in July 2005. She finally limped in the best part of an hour after I had expected her to arrive, clearly in considerable pain from her foot and seriously disappointed with her finishing time of 2hrs 50mins. After she had recuperated with a polystyrene cup of sweet, milky tea and an unwanted pep talk from some earnest charity worker, we hobbled off and joined the world’s longest bus queue in an attempt to get back to Newcastle. We finally boarded a yellow double-decker, loading of which was painfully slow as everyone scrabbled for the £2.70 fare, like pensioners at a supermarket checkout. Then, when we were finally ready to go, the sodding bus was blocked in by some twat of a driver who had slewed his bus across the road in front of ours. It must have taken a good ten minutes for an inspector to come along with the intelligence to stop people boarding and ask the other driver to pull forward to let our bus depart.

We eventually reached Newcastle Haymarket at 4.30, half an hour too late for the magnificent roast lunch at my club to which we had been much looking forward. But all was not lost; there was always Burger King at the Central Station, and the delightful opportunity to dine on a bench on platform three as we awaited the 5.30 train to York. When it arrived it offered the classic East Coast Main Line combination of a huge crowd battling onto a train on which every seat was already occupied or reserved. I lost sight of the LTCB in the crush, but felt confident that at least no-one could have stood on her foot as I would have heard the resulting scream out on the platform. Indeed, I would probably have heard it at home, 40 miles away.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Great North Rain

14st 4lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,220 days until the deathclock strikes one, as The Queen might put it; Mount Ararat.

I spent my morning performing a series of tedious domestic tasks, mainly of a cleaning and tidying nature, then drove into Alnwick clutching the shopping list that the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette had e-mailed to me yesterday. This contained details of all the slow-release, high-energy foodstuffs she would need to consume to ensure a surprisingly strong performance in tomorrow’s Great North Run, without recruiting a savage dog or a fat, amorous lesbian to snap at her heels.

I also tried to get my watch mended, as I am fed up with missing things because of its recent habit of randomly stopping and restarting again. I had temporarily forgotten that no-one actually mends anything these days, so the response of the shop where I bought it was confined to checking the battery and pronouncing that there was nothing wrong with that (which I could have told them, as it is not so long since they installed a replacement for me). Beyond that, they could only advise me to dig out my receipt and check whether I had bought the watch less than two years ago, in which case it was still under guarantee and they would graciously return it to the manufacturer for me, no doubt with a note suggesting that they might like to try a bit harder. Failing which, I could chuck it in the bin and buy a new one. The twenty-first century answer to everything, after “Have you tried switching it off and back on again?” has failed to produce the desired result.

I am, of course, one of the few people in Britain anal enough to be able to assert with confidence that I will indeed have filed their receipt, and be in a position to retrieve it. On the other hand, I am equally sure that the watch will prove to have been purchased something like two years and one day ago. F*** my luck, as we say so often in the North East.

A lot of people think that farmers are stupid. I have to confess that I wonder myself sometimes, but they certainly weren’t so dumb last night when they disturbed my sleep by running their combine harvesters and the supporting cast of tractors and trailers until well past midnight. Because it was absolutely chucking it down by this afternoon, as they had no doubt anticipated from the twinges in their bunions, the look of the seaweed they keep nailed up on the inside of the back door, or looking at the Met Office site on that there new-fangled tinterweb thingumajig.

By the time I came to drive down the A697 to pick up the LTCB from Newcastle Central Station (so called to distinguish it from, er …) there was almost as much surface water on the road as there had been at the time of last month’s floods. To add to the joy of life, the centre of Newcastle was close to gridlock and, when I finally reached the station, the short stay car park proved to be closed as the forecourt was once again full of “rail replacement buses”. What could be more natural than identifying a weekend when several tens of thousands of runners and their families will be trying to get to Tyneside, and closing half the sodding rail routes into it? That way they can undertake the work with minimal inconvenience to travellers, ensuring that the infrastructure will be working perfectly the next time it is really in demand.

When we finally got home I traipsed off for a walk with the dog in the pissing rain, while the LTCB sat on the sofa right in front of the sitting room fire, where I found her on my return complaining about the cold. This despite the thermometer I have hung by the door demonstrating that the room temperature was a positively sweltering (by local standards) 70ºF. I gave her a short demonstration of how the heat could be raised even further by rising from the sofa and adding a shovel full of the black rock-like things from the adjacent bucket to the blaze. She expressed amazement. I think she may be having difficulty adjusting to the concept of a house without a central heating boiler or thermostat.

The LTCB made supper, majoring on athlete-friendly wholewheat pasta, and chose the DVD we watched after it: a film called Run, Fat Boy, Run. Have I mentioned before that the first thing that attracted me to her was her highly compatible sense of humour?

Friday, 3 October 2008

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

14st 4lb; 3.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,221 days left to fill somehow; Northumberland.

After four hours’ sleep I woke up in a blind panic about money, which kept me occupied for the remainder of the night. The tape machine in my head kept re-running the conversation I had with my stockbroker in June, when I rang up and suggested selling all my remaining shares. “Ooh, no,” he said, “you don’t want to do that. Not now they have fallen so much. Leave it till the autumn. Conditions will be different then.”

Well, he was certainly right about that. I just wish that he had been slightly clearer about what he meant. It turns out to have been like consulting an oracle, or encountering one of those genies that are forever springing out of battered old bottles in battered old jokes. Like the long one about the bloke who ends up leaning gloomily on a bar with an ostrich and the world’s meanest cat, because he wished for the company of a bird with long legs and a tight pussy.

It is particularly frustrating that my stockbroker left the firm shortly afterwards, so I cannot even have the pleasure of ringing him up and offering him a piece of what passes for my mind on his brilliance as an adviser.

Of course, I could ring up now and sell my shares at their depressed value today, which is almost certainly going to be a better result than selling them at their even more depressed value in a week or a month’s or a year’s time. But then this would have the adverse effect of providing a temporary respite from the need to find some form of profitable employment, allowing me a little longer to waste sitting on my ample backside writing free gibberish for a select audience of blog readers, sitting in the best seats in opera houses and dining in top restaurants.

Which actually sounds all right, put like that, though during my nocturnal debate with myself I somehow concluded that it would be a Bad Thing.

Still, it could be worse. I may be 6lb heavier than I was when I had my life-transforming meeting with the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette in April, and a full 25lb heavier than I intended to be at this point in my life, but the answer from the oracle of the bathroom scales this morning struck me as not too bad, all things considered. And particularly considering the fact that I consumed a full 1,365 calories of confectionery alone yesterday, as I endeavoured to keep up my blood sugar during the long drive from Chester. I feel a bit like a goose heading for the foie gras factory, with the entirely understandable difference that there aren’t any animal rights activists who give a flying f*** about my fate.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Big Book of Breasts

No idea of my weight, which is probably just as well; 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,222 days to go; South Yorkshire.

Two nice things happened after yesterday’s depressing crossing of my path with those of the local trainee scratters. First, the LTCB’s friend, who had taken some pictures of the dog ten days ago, and swore that he looked exactly like a Steiff teddy bear, finally got around to sending them to me. She has a point, don’t you think?

Cheaper, more loyal and marginally more animated than a Steiff teddy

... but admittedly probably less use as burglar deterrent

Secondly, the LTCB insisted on taking me “somewhere nice” on my last evening in Chester. She did not go so far as to insist on paying when we left it, but I have long been informed that it is the thought that counts. Her choice was a restaurant in Chester’s interpretation of the Belgian tradition, specializing in moules and frites. The food was good and the service splendidly attentive and enthusiastic. I felt that I had had a really cracking time right up to the moment when I woke at 4.30 a.m. with the most agonizing indigestion I can remember. Perhaps it had something to do with choosing a cream-based sauce with my mussels, followed by hot chocolate topped with about a quarter of a pint of solid whipped cream. Or perhaps it was just a well-deserved consequence of eating far too much, full stop.

I duly felt absolutely terrible when I got up at 6, and when I set off in the general direction of home at 7.45. I had allowed 2hrs 15mins for the first stage, a drive to Doncaster which my sat nav reckoned should take half an hour less than that. But the LTCB had advised me that I actually needed to leave at 7.30, to allow for rush hour congestion, and I duly arrived for my meeting precisely 15 minutes late. Could there be anything more annoying than having to admit that?

My sat nav kept coming up with recommendations to avoid the jams, but they seemed so eccentric (e.g. “head south on the M6”) that I decided to ignore them. Shortly after I had stopped at a service area on the M62 to answer a pressing call of nature and to advise my client that I would be late, the sat nav instructed me to take the M606 exit to Bradford, which seemed a bit peculiar, but I was not entirely sure of the best route to my destination so I complied. It then immediately instructed me to rejoin the M62, on which I had been heading eastwards in the first place. This seemed so utterly barmy that I drove all the way round the roundabout beneath the motorway a couple of times, waiting for the machine to come to a more rational conclusion, but it did not. I think it must have been taking revenge on me for ignoring it earlier. At least I finally grasped why it is equipped with a female speaking voice.

I greatly enjoyed her discomfiture a little later when we joined a new stretch of the A1 motorway which she did not know about, and the little red arrow on the screen showed me advancing boldly across ploughed fields at 70mph, or thereabouts.

I had a surprisingly productive meeting with my client and left clutching assorted loot including Sotheby’s three volume catalogue for Damien Hirst’s “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” £111 million money-making extravaganza, and a huge, shrink-wrapped coffee table volume entitled The Big Book of Breasts, which my client seemed to think I might find of interest. I duly placed it on the coffee table when I got home, but it looked like buckling under the weight so I moved it to the sturdier table in the dining room. I think I shall wait for a special occasion before opening the shrink wrap, treating it like one of those emergency hammers they keep behind glass on the trains for smashing the carriage windows when it overturns. (Although I have never spotted it, there is presumably supposed to be an even smaller hammer somewhere, like the delicate ones they used to give away with trays of Harrogate toffee, to be used to break the glass to release the real emergency hammer).

But until I screw things up (which surely cannot be far off, since it is what I always do) why would I need to look at glossy pictures of breasts when the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette is so happily endowed that even my most obviously gay friend was moved to deliver a pithy quote on her perfectly proportioned chest shortly after I had introduced him to her?

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The case for mercy killing

14st 7lb, 9lb or 10lb, according to taste, the LTCB’s electronic scales having evidently been turned out as a side-line by the company best known for creating the ERNIE machine to make the monthly premium bonds draw; 4.8 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,223 days left; Bog Standard.

The day started badly with the discovery that some technical glitch at Blogger.com was denying me access to this blog, but I was soon mollified by the discovery that it had deprived the world of Wife in the North, too. My spirits rose even further when I remembered that it was the first day of the final quarter of the year, and I could despatch some entirely unjustified bills to those companies still crazed enough to retain my services as a PR adviser / licensed jester.

After lunch I did my good deed for the day, which was going to the Post Office to get the LTCB’s car taxed. She had offered some implausible explanation of why she had failed to do this online, as any sensible person would, but I am pretty sure that a keen desire to support her local post office did not come into it. Her local post office is, in any event, already closed and boarded up, and I had to traipse all the way to the remaining one in the centre of Chester to make the transaction.

Something about these places always reminds me of Soviet Russia, or at any rate the depressing picture of Soviet Russia presented by the western media. Perhaps this was as distorted as Pravda’s famous piece on Newcastle many years ago, which featured a picture of flat-capped pensioners standing patiently outside a Greggs Seconds Shop, which sold day-old bakery goods at bargain prices, captioned “Long bread queues in Britain”. But then again, given that the BBC for one was consistently and vociferously on Russia’s side throughout the cold war, probably not.

I joined the long queue zigzagging towards the counter at 2.17, when there were 16 people in front of me – well, I say people, but most of them looked like cadavers that had been incompetently stuffed and unconvincingly re-animated by a crazed amateur taxidermist. Owing to the surprising absence of screens blasting us with advertisements, no doubt as the result of some technical malfunction, I had a choice between staring at these freaks of nature and looking reflectively at the wooden war memorial nailed high up on the wall. By the time I left, I had more or less learned it off by heart. Each transaction seemed to take something as close to forever as made no difference, and only three of the seven counters were apparently manned. I had considerable freedom to reflect on the irony of being a bloke who had found a girlfriend when what he really wanted was a PA, and then been conned into becoming her PA instead. The whole process was further delayed by a woman giving the superannuated robot behind the counter a piece of her mind about the ridiculous length of the queue yesterday, which had meant that she was unable to tax her car and had felt obliged to take a taxi into work today rather than driving. Showing, perhaps, an exaggerated respect for the technical detail of the law. At any rate the LTCB must have been relying on a rather more liberal interpretation when she cheerfully drove off this morning.

I would have been out of the place within half an hour, by my watch, if only I hadn’t been so worn down by the whole experience that I crazily agreed with the proposition that the LTCB might be interested in a quote for her about-to-expire motor insurance. No, I don’t know what made me do it, either. I think that the queuing must work like water boarding or sleep deprivation in breaking down resistance. To obtain this unwanted information, one of the handful of counter clerks gleefully put up a “position closed” sign and moved to a computer terminal on the other side of the establishment. Those remaining in the queue were too demoralized even to groan, or to shout “Oh, for f***’s sake!” as I would undoubtedly have done in their position.

The pointless quote took some time to produce, owing to a malfunctioning printer, but I finally walked out into the street with all the expected pieces of paper in my hand, feeling like an old lag being released from HMP Chester after a reasonably long stretch for robbery with violence. I looked at my watch and it read 2.40, which was a pleasant surprise until I worked out that the sodding thing had stopped again, doubtless bored into catatonia by the whole experience, and that the real time was 2.57. So that was forty whole minutes of my life wasted, which is no small matter when you have little more than 1,200 days left.

I went to Marks & Spencer and bought myself some new boxer shorts, despite the dire warnings from Jeremy Paxman still ringing in my ears, and was diverted on my way back by a new sign erected on the main road for the Curmudgeon’s Arms, designed to tempt passing trade down its obscure side street with lines like “Strict Entry Code: Family Hostile – Dog Friendly.” I wonder how effective it is?

As I walked across river (on a bridge, I have my limitations), at a few minutes past three, numerous ghastly products of the local Bog Standard Comprehensive were already loping in the opposite direction, the only signs of animation in their brain-dead faces being the fags blazing between most of their lips. Three of them tore out of a side road on their bikes as I approached the junction for the LTCB’s street, and swore and made obscene gestures at the driver of the slow-moving car who had the temerity to sound his horn as he braked savagely to avoid them. How I would have loved to be a witness for the defence if he had mown one or more of them down. In fact, I would have had the gravest difficulty in restraining myself from shaking him by the hand and offering to buy him a pint. Some half-baked, bespectacled tit in shiny trousers was standing by the school gates instructing the brats to take care as they poured out into the road. He looked barely older than they were, but I deduced from the contemptuous way in which
they were completely ignoring him that he must be a member of the staff. The poor sod. I expect he must have sinned grievously in an earlier life.

The interesting question, if the brats at the comprehensive are let out as early as 3, is what they do all day? I envisage a typical day comprising:

9:00: Cheek
9.40: Home economics (watching a Jamie Oliver DVD)
10.20: Computer games
11.00: Smoking
11.20: Self-abuse
12.00: Smoking, drinking, chip-eating and terrorizing the elderly
1.40: Media studies (watching a porn DVD)
2.20: Teenage pregnancy (discussion and practical)

Yes, that should do it nicely. Why do discussions of euthanasia always focus on the old, when there are so many much more deserving cases among the young?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

From misery to free love

No idea what I weigh; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,224 days to go; Zegg.

I am definitely in a downward spiral. I felt almost tearful this morning as I contemplated the dreadful prospect of returning to Northumberland. Even though my house there is, on more or less any objective measure, more comfortable than the LTCB’s in Chester. Well, apart from the objective measure concerned with the availability of central heating, obviously.

All right, so it may be no more comfortable than the LTCB’s, but it is a hell of a lot roomier and it hasn’t got a sort of Borstal right next door. Its critical failing is that it hasn’t got the LTCB in it, and I have grown very fond of her company. So much so that I would contemplate relocating to enjoy more of it, had we not met just before the housing market collapsed and the credit system froze up, making it impossible for either of us to stand a snowball in hell’s chance of selling or renting out our houses if we should feel minded to set up home together.

Life is a bitch, is it not?

I may not have got almost tearful just about going home, come to think of it. I may have sneaked a look at my bank balance and investment portfolio, too, the state of which would be enough to make anyone weep.

Fortunately the LTCB was on hand, before she went to work, and was able to point out with her usual brisk good sense that the only reason for going home was that I had scheduled it, and that there was no reason why I could not unschedule it again. So I did just that, and attempted to cheer myself up with a fine lunch in the Curmudgeon’s Arms. Sadly its positive effects were only temporary.

Most of the rest of the day passed in a useless blur, though I did stir myself to take radical action in the early evening and go out to buy a couple of 100 watt bulbs, one of which raised the light level in the LTCB’s sitting room from sepulchral to merely gloomy, and made it possible to read a newspaper without the sense that one was straining one’s eyes and that blindness would inevitably follow. I’m sure my mother warned me about that risk, as well as the other obvious cause of blindness in teenage boys.

The LTCB was out on her own this evening, at supper with some girlfriends, but returned in time to watch a Channel 4 programme which had caught her eye in the schedules. She had billed it to me as a load of filth calculated to appeal to elderly blokes everywhere, but had omitted to mention the dread words “presented by Dawn Porter”. The appeal of this woman to commissioning editors is completely beyond me. Predictably we ended up with a programme in which pretty much f*** all happened, and nothing of interest was revealed. During her time at some German free love commune she kept asking, rhetorically, why she let herself in for these things and did not get a proper job. Why, indeed, Dawn? Why, indeed? And, more to the point, just how does a nice enough, not particularly attractive, conventional, dim middle class girl manage to land series on two different, publicly funded television channels in such quick succession?

Monday, 29 September 2008

It's a crazy jungle out there

14st 8lb; 6.4 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,225; Great Rift Valley.

I slept badly. My neck hurts in the place where I landed on it when I fell down the stairs just over a week ago. And now my wallet hurts owing to the nationalization of Bradford & Bingley, in which I had failed to sell my shares despite more warning signs than you would expect to find on a cliff edge in an area of rapid coastal erosion where the local authority has a bit of a fetish about Elfin Safety. It was my own fault. Pure laziness as usual. Made worse in this case by my initial indolence in failing to ask for a share certificate, and leaving the shares in some account arrangement, meaning that I had no idea how to go about selling the bloody things even when I occasionally meant to do so. I would say that I shall never make that mistake again, but clearly the chances of any other society ever going down the demutualization route and handing out free shares to its members are precisely nil, so it all seems a bit academic. Ah well, it’s only a theroretical £1,300 down the gurgler, assuming I had sold at the absolute top. And I did get the shares for nothing and collected nearly £300 in dividends before it all went tits up, so I suppose I should not complain. It’s just that, for some strange reason, I had never looked upon a former northern building society as a high risk investment.

I wrote a couple of newspaper columns this morning then took the dog for a walk, being greeted as I stepped outside the LTCB’s front door by a party of feral youths from the dreadful local school, who were dragging their knuckles along the pavement. Most of their ape-like grunts were mercifully incomprehensible, but one of the animal noises was followed by a distinct call of “dickhead”, which was clearly aimed in my direction. A witty, traditional riposte about “takes one to know one” sprang to mind, but as there were six or seven of them to me plus a small terrier, I concluded that a dignified silence was probably the best way forward, as being less likely to result in a frenzied knife attack and a spate of “Why oh why?” articles in the local papers.

The impression that I had walked out into a jungle was powerfully reinforced when we got to the River Dee, which contained the unmistakable sight of a couple of basking hippopotami. On closer inspection, it turned out that they were not, in fact, unmistakable. They were largely submerged logs floating serenely along, one with a seagull perched nonchalantly on top of it. But my error can surely be excused by the fact that they were moving quite briskly upstream, which is hardly natural behaviour in an inanimate object. The river at this point, above the weir, is not supposed to be tidal, so it was hard to fathom out how it could be defying the normal laws of nature in this way, unless someone had pulled out a gigantic plug a little further upstream. But I think that only happens with canals.

Having written a column this morning on the assumption that the US bank bail-out would go through, it was disconcerting to turn on BBC News 24 this evening and find that the House of Representatives had rejected it, sending Wall Street into free-fall. The Congressmen are evidently pandering to the wishes of their constituents, who wish to see greedy bankers suffering. Quite right, too. Though it might be better if they recognized that we are all on this plummeting aircraft together, and a desire to make the pilot know that we are angry with him for his incompetence is not going to make it any better for the rest of us when it ploughs into the mountainside. Particularly as the pilot is the one person on the plane who has a parachute, and will no doubt make use of it before impact.

A little later Peter Mandelson popped up on Newsnight, leading me to embark on one of my traditional tirades about him. I stopped to find the LTCB staring at me in silence, clearly fearing for my sanity. But that was not the most extraordinary thing about it. No, the reason I shut up was that Mandelson was asked what he thought of the Congressional rejection of the bail-out bill, and he replied “I think they have taken leave of their senses.” This is indeed a historic day. Peter Mandelson has said something I agree with. Can the world possibly get any crazier than this as October approaches?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Welsh lavatory mystery

14st 9lb; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,226; Flintshire.

Another day, another squirrel hunt in the park. Today I was encouraged to note that the miniature railway actually boasts a genuine steam engine, in addition to the yellow Union Pacific diesel I saw chugging around yesterday. The latter was out again today, hauling a couple of kids around the circuit to humour their accompanying fathers, but an oversized kettle was sitting gently simmering and hissing outside the engine shed, with a miserable-looking fat man squeezed tightly behind the controls, eating a white bread doorstop sandwich to keep his strength up. How very like the real thing.

We had an enormous lunch at the LTCB’s parents’ house, where I committed a horrible gaffe by announcing with some feeling that her mother’s apple pie was the best I had ever tasted. Which would probably have gone down a bit better if she had not bought it from Tesco. On the other hand, I could hardly have announced ingratiatingly that her delicious Iranian chicken and celery stew was the best I had ever tasted, since everyone knew damn well that I had never tried it before in my life.

By the time we left I was practically comatose owing to an excess of food and drink, but somehow I managed to get through a visit on the way back to a Welsh branch of Tesco. Quite apart from the gibberish signage, I could tell I was in Wales because all the people in the store seemed to be drawn from a backward sub-set of the human species; they all moved unnaturally slowly and looked like they were struggling to comprehend reality. Which is exactly what one would expect to happen to a group that has saddled itself with a language with no vowels.

I needed a comfort break when we got to the store and duly followed the signs to the café, reasoning that the customer lavatories would be alongside it. And they were, but only a single cubicle for each sex with the male one bearing a large “out of order” sign. A couple of queueing women started gently explaining the notice to me, evidently under the impression that I was a Welshman and could not be expected to have learned to read, when a big Welsh bloke burst out of the door announcing proudly, “It’s not really out of order; it just won’t flush!”

Lovely. Funnily enough at that point I decided that I would rather go downstairs and see if I could find the other customer toilets that the sign claimed I would find near the tills. Amazingly these too were largely out of order, with white “scene of crime” tape cordoning off the urinals, but at least there was a functioning cubicle. People used to joke about the natives of the North East thinking that indoor baths were only of use as coal stores. I wonder what on earth the men of Wales use their lavatories for, that they manage to wreak such havoc?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Cutting down the rain forest

14st 9lb (on the disputed Chester scale); 12.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,227 days left; The Jungle.

One of the more unusual features of the LTCB’s modest Chester terraced house is the fact that it has a chunk of tropical rain forest for a back garden. Or at least that was what I thought it was, until she announced that our task for the day was going to be “tidying up the back yard”. I looked up hopefully, as the dog does when the LTCB makes her cats their breakfasts, vaguely hoping that this might be a euphemism for some sort of sexual activity. But, sadly, not. It proved to be exactly what it said on the tin. Standing on a dodgy pair of stepladders, wielding some blunt secateurs as I gamely tried to hack back a Triffid-like creeper which had migrated from next door, and coiled itself around just about everything in sight. One of its advance parties had even sneaked through the frame of the back door and attempted to strangle the LTCB’s gas boiler. I could swear that I looked down at one point and saw it winding itself around my cutting arm like a living, green tourniquet.

I then took an executive decision to cut up and dispose of a three quarters dead superannuated Christmas tree in a pot, even though the LTCB claimed to feel a continuing attachment to it on the grounds that it was “still alive”. On the one hand I could not help thinking that her attitude on this contrasted markedly with her robust willingness to dispose of a large number of things from my house, including some of the less appealing conservatory plants. On the other hand, it probably augurs reasonably well for the day when the home advises her to withdraw my feeding and up my dose of morphine.

Things deteriorated markedly after this, into a completely hellish couple of hours of thoroughly filthy tidying and cleaning. We worked our way down through several archaeological layers of dead autumn leaves and chip papers slung over the fence by the scratters from the local comprehensive. Then, shortly before five, we drove to the municipal tip and gleefully disposed of the lot. I can’t remember when I was last so glad to see the back of something. Not even Tony Blair could compete.

The LTCB had invited a French lady friend to supper, and my Border terrier fell madly in love with her as soon as she walked through the door. He was most put out when I suggested that we go for a walk so that they could have some time on their own to talk about girlie things, and insisted on leading me at an unnaturally high speed on the very shortest of his regular walks. He then spent the rest of the evening gazing adoringly at his object of desire, occasionally placing a paw on her thigh. An approach he has clearly picked up from his master.

The LTCB had made a real effort to make her refurbished back yard into a beautiful spot to enjoy an outdoor supper on a mildish early autumn evening. She had lit a small stove to counteract any chill in the air, and lit numerous candles for decoration as well as illumination. The only snag was that her guest proved to be an arachnophobe of truly epic proportions, who sat constantly on the edge of her chair, keeping track of the movements of the large local spider population. Eventually she spotted one that really did look like it had stepped out of a David Attenborough documentary, and we had no alternative but to go back indoors. Perhaps it was not so fanciful to view the back yard as a chunk of the rain forest after all.

So that was half a day invested for a return of approximately ten minutes drinking wine and eating olives outside, during which 33.3% of the participants had been terrified out of their wits. Even I have managed to do better than that with most of my punts on the stock market. I did mention, as we went back indoors for delicious home-made lasagne, that there is a spider residing in the LTCB’s gas meter cupboard which is about the size of a soup plate, has legs like a Romanian weight-lifter, and can easily be mistaken for a lobster when it makes one of its periodic forays into the sitting room. I was doing my imitation of David Attenborough saying “F*** me, will you take a look at the size of that!” when the LTCB caught my eye, and I had to spend the rest of the evening pretending that I was only joking.