Thursday 31 January 2008
Of all the stupid mistakes of which I’ve been guilty in recent years, installing a large mirror in my bathroom must surely be amongst the very worst. It’s part of a more widespread error I made when I dispensed with my London flat and had most of the contents shipped home to Northumberland. As a result, superfluous furniture makes performing the simplest domestic task like negotiating an It’s a Knockout obstacle course. Every time the doorbell rings, I do that hilarious trick with the pouffe which used to be such a highlight of the opening credits of the Dick van Dyke Show (one for older readers only, there).
But nothing is ghastlier than the mirror. It takes up a whole wall right at the end of the bath, and every time I stand up – well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, frankly. It had been hanging around the house for weeks before I identified that blank wall as the only place it could go. And it’s in a very heavy gilt frame that really ought to be housing an Old Master painting, so I had to put in a lot of Rawlplugs and screws to ensure that it wouldn’t land on top of my head while I was lying in the bath, enjoying my usual rapt contemplation of the unemployed. That’s why I failed to remove it when I realized the true horror of what I had done. That, and laziness on a scale that would cause sharp intakes of breath among those cartoon Mexican peasants who spend their entire lives leaning against cactuses, with sombreros tipped over their eyes.
But this morning I accidentally caught a glimpse of my profile and thought I could recognize something resembling a human being emerging from the blubber. I knew in an instant just how Michelangelo must have felt when he made that crucial chip and his block of marble really began to turn into David. I can now actually envisage a time when I shall be able to consider allowing myself to be seen naked by other human beings.
How shall I exploit this new freedom? Going out with women again, or joining a naturist ping-pong club? That’s a hard one, as the naturists hope never to have to say. I think I’ll go for Option A, maybe seeing if I can make contact with an air hostess to satisfy my eager correspondent of the other day. Woolsington, watch out. Incoming, as they always put it in military circles, at any rate on the telly.
All of which goes to confirm the truth of two of my favourite observations by great twentieth century critics: Cyril Connolly’s heartfelt “Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signalling to be let out” and Katharine Whitehorn’s very shrewd “Outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in.”
Wednesday 30 January 2008
I’m seriously disappointed to report that my train back to Newcastle this morning departed and arrived on time, and that an attentive trolley service made frequent calls at my reserved seat. There was a well-advertised restaurant car if I’d wanted one, and the lavatory didn’t resemble one in a Third World shanty town during a dysentery epidemic. Damn. I’d been so looking forward to working myself up into a lather of indignation.
Searching through the inbox of my laptop in an attempt to track down the address of someone I met at the concert last night, I chanced upon an e-mail I’d received from my then secretary in 2002. It contained a joke I’d completely forgotten about, of the sort which women are supposed to find extremely offensive. So naturally it made me laugh immoderately. I only wish I felt that I could paste it into this entry.
It also made me think about the young lady in question, for the first time in many years. Rosie, as we shall call her, was a very pretty 31-year-old with a shock of curly blonde hair. She’d recently split up with her boyfriend and seemed to derive some temporary comfort from going out with older Blokes. It would have been positively rude not to chuck her the occasional invitation, so one evening I took her to a rather grand black tie dinner in one of the City livery halls. She certainly looked the part, after preparations which had included absenting herself from work for an hour or so in the afternoon for something described as “waxing”.
It was my fault for introducing the subject, but I’d recently read an article in the Daily Telegraph, of all places, about the growing fashion for things Brazilian, and it seemed as though the womenfolk of Britain were countering the rather repulsive trend for men to shave their heads by cultivating a similar baldness down below.
“Oh no,” said Rosie. “Just my legs. I think pubes are sexy, don’t you?”
And to help me make my mind up on that point, she raised her short skirt and pulled down her knickers so that I could take a look. More curly blonde hair, though the word “shock” in this case would be more accurately applied to the look on my face than to her front bottom. Luckily we had nipped outside into a courtyard so that she could smoke a fag, so I don’t think any of the assembled dignitaries witnessed this little incident, though it certainly cheered up the male caterer who happened to be passing at the time. He didn’t drop his tray of canapés, though. Those guys are true professionals.
It would be true to say that I regarded the prospects for the evening as looking highly promising from that point on.
Some hours later, we were in my flat, and Rosie was doing her best to demolish a bottle of whisky, on top of a considerable quantity of wine. She knocked back her glass in a decisive way and slurred that she was going to treat me to an experience of oral sexual pleasure such as I would never forget.
At this point, something very strange happened. I came over all responsible. I thought: here we have an emotionally vulnerable young woman who has drunk far more than is good for her. You are older, more (but not particularly) sober, and you are her employer. You owe her a duty of care. Added to which, how will it play in front of an industrial tribunal if she decides that you have taken advantage of her? Or a court, come to that?
I thanked her for her kind offer, explained why I thought it inappropriate, ordered her a taxi and sent her home.
Of course I was secretly hoping that she’d appreciate my immensely chivalrous behaviour and renew the offer at a time when she was considerably more sober. Instead she went right off me.
I racked my brains as to why that should have happened, and eventually concluded that it might have had something to do with the “send to all” e-mail I circulated around the office as soon as I got in the next morning, providing a full and graphic account of the above events. We all had a good chuckle and Rosie wasn’t actually there to witness it, being at home in bed with a Class A hangover. Still, I imagine that word got round.
There is probably an important lesson in this for a blogger, if only I could put my finger on it. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what I should have done back in 2002.
Tuesday 29 January 2008
You’ve got to hand it to National Express; they’re certainly trying. This morning they cancelled my train from Newcastle to London owing to “a technical fault” – and in all my years of commuting along the East Coast Main Line by GNER, I honestly can’t remember the last time they simply dispensed with a scheduled service.
Then the overcrowded substitute train onto which I crammed myself arrived in London over an hour late owing to “animals on the line in the Morpeth area” and “a failed train in the Bawtry area”. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that disgruntled members of the former GNER management team are conducting guerrilla raids to hold farm gates open and pour sugar into the diesel tanks of the ancient High Speed Trains.
Maybe these outcasts are also responsible for the catastrophic deterioration in the state of the lavatories, which was corroborated in ghastly detail by an e-mail I received from a friend in the course of my journey. I don’t believe that National Express are actually employing someone with a kidney defect and a high-saffron diet to ram a watering can rose onto his knob and systematically spray bright yellow urine all over their on-train toilets. But they certainly seem to have dispensed with the services of the unfortunate fellow who used to wander through the train cleaning them up en route.
Still, to more positive things. I went to a fantastic concert in Christ Church, Spitalfields, this evening: La Resurrezione by Handel, my all-time favourite composer. Someone cleverly obtained me a seat only about ten feet away from a blonde soprano soloist with whom I have been madly in love for years. A brilliantly well-judged distance. Close enough for me to appreciate the sparkle in her eyes and her evident enjoyment of the performance; but far enough away to ensure that I was not tempted to make a sudden, mad lunge onto the stage.
I love seeing women happy and fulfilled. I suppose this is why my sex life has been such a consistent let-down. On my way to the concert, I stood on the platform at Oxford Circus tube station next to a girl in her early 20s of absolutely transcendent beauty, with the most bewitching smile. A scruffy-looking, swarthy type with an Estuary twang masking an indeterminate foreign accent sidled up to her and started doing something I would never have dared to attempt when I was of an appropriate age to do so: chatting her up.
She sounded frightfully upmarket; surely he must recognize that she was way out of his league, as I would have done at a glance if I had spotted a similarly stunning girl 20 or 30 years ago?
But he ploughed on, asking a series of increasingly direct and personal questions. Oh God, I thought, is this going to get to the point where I feel obliged to ask “Excuse me, miss, is this person troubling you?” and end up with a knife sliding between my ribs? But she showed every sign of actually enjoying the experience. Did she fancy a bit of rough or had she just been brought up to be unbelievably polite? She claimed to be called Anastasia: the truth, or an inspired bit of improvisation? And said that she was sadly unavailable to pursue a future with her interlocutor as she had “just fallen in love with someone else”. Fascinating. The clincher, I suppose, is that a train turned up but neither of them got onto it, preferring to remain on the platform and continue their conversation. I wonder where it ended up? And particularly whether it ultimately featured the classic line “I suppose a blow job’s out of the question, then?”
I travelled to the concert lost in admiration of the chatter-up’s bottle, and thinking for some reason of the man from whom I bought my first London flat. He was a highly paid investment banker, but was so keen on his principal interest of sleeping with women that he spent his evenings working behind the bar of a local hotel, popular with young foreign tourists. He told me that at the end of the evening he simply worked his way round the remaining conscious women, asking whether they would care to go to bed with him. Eighteen out of 20 gave him a polite refusal, one in 20 slapped him, and one in 20 said “yes”. This five per cent success rate was enough to keep him happy, and to ensure that he got great value for money out of his season ticket at the Westminster Hospital Sexually Transmitted Diseases Unit.
At drinks before the concert, a beautiful woman I once tried to pursue, totally ineffectually as usual, expressed deep concern about my sudden and dramatic weight loss, and strongly expressed the view that I had no need at all to get any slimmer. I suggested that, if she saw me naked, she’d rapidly change her mind. From the look on her face, and the way that she suddenly remembered she had a friend to look for, I fear that she took it for an immediate and practical suggestion, like the ones being made by that fellow on the tube station platform, rather than the purely hypothetical illustration I had intended.
Monday 28 January 2008
In the four years that I have been writing for the local paper, I have only once received a personal letter from a reader. I’d written as a joke that the organizers of late-night motor rallies through the Northumberland countryside should be strung up from lampposts and have rotten fruit hurled at their decaying corpses. Someone dropped me a line warmly agreeing with the proposition, and suggesting an ideal lamppost for the purpose.
So imagine my excitement today when I received my second letter. I eagerly sliced it open, and out dropped a clipping from Private Eye. The It’s Grim Up North London strip containing the following quote: "Blogs are sooo depressing. Look at all this inane drivel ... total nobodies droning on about every nuance of their empty lives ... and then wanting to share their banal musings with the entire planet!"
Nothing else. In a typed envelope with a second class stamp and a Tyneside postmark. I suppose I should think myself lucky that it wasn’t accompanied by razor blades, anthrax spores or Polonium-210.
I can’t disagree too strongly with the anonymous writer. I’d only read one blog before I started writing this one, and I wouldn’t have bothered if the one I read hadn’t got ever so slightly up my nose. Not so much for its content as the fact that it quickly established a huge readership and allegedly secured its author a “six figure book deal” (admittedly probably including the pence). The bleak emptiness of my life is what it’s all about, don’t you see? Pointlessness is the point.
Still, if you don’t like it, I feel that it would be a lot less effort simply not to read the bloody thing. And if you are going to send razor blades next time, I use Gillette Mach 3. Thanking you in anticipation, as my father always used to write. Though the one time I used the phrase, in my letter to Jim’ll Fix It 30 years ago asking if he could fix it for me to shag Felicity Kendal, it completely failed to produce the desired response.
Sunday 27 January 2008
The snowdrops are out in my front lawn. A veritable carpet of them. It’s probably the high point of my non-gardening year. I reckon that lack of enthusiasm and skill in this department must be a hereditary condition; my father used to look out of the window and beam whenever it snowed, because it was the only time of the year when our garden looked as good as all the neighbours’. Now that we hardly ever get proper snow, my one major opportunity to shine in the horticultural world has been cruelly denied to me.
Nothing much happened today, even by my low standards: doing the ironing while listening to the Archers omnibus; proving to my own satisfaction that I can still mix one of the finest Bloody Marys on the planet; going for a long walk with the dog.
I’m still reeling from the blow administered by my doctor when I last saw him, and he asked me how much exercise I took. I gave him a comprehensive list, adding that I’d often read that sex was excellent aerobic exercise. “Not when you do it on your own, it’s not,” he replied coldly.
I think I’d better make a real effort to find myself one last girlfriend. I might seem quite appealing if I didn’t reveal that I intended to squander all my savings and mortgage the house to the hilt before my premature death.
Maybe that second Bloody Mary was a bit of a mistake.
Saturday 26 January 2008
A day of shock revelations, unsuccessful experimentation and mind-numbing labour. The first shock revelation was a letter from my doctor telling me that my cholesterol reading of 6.5 was excessive for a man with high blood pressure. I did think of writing back and pointing out that, according to his nurse, I don’t actually have high blood pressure any more. Then I remembered that nobody likes a smartarse. But this really isn’t the sort of score I’m used to. In my schooldays I was one of those easily dislikeable (some things never change) kids who always got 9 or 10 out of 10. Well, except in maths and physics, obviously. And chemistry. And German. Luckily they didn’t hand out marks for gym, swimming, cross-country running or rugby.
So I did some research on a BUPA website (thinking that I’d get a better class of answer than from the NHS) and found that, in the cholesterol league table, you are supposed to score less than 5. I don’t know whether it is worth doing anything about it, given that I’m supposed to be dead in four years’ time anyway. What the doctor would like is for me to go back on statins, the universal wonder drug of the twenty-first century, but friends have given me off-putting accounts of the side-effects. Admittedly the worst of these was from a woman who claimed that all her husband’s muscles had wasted away. Hardly a big worry for me, as I haven’t actually got any muscles to start with.
My next shock revelation was the discovery that I have, for the first time, told an outright lie in this blog. On Tuesday I wrote that my usual newspaper column had been replaced by one written by a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Then someone wrote a letter agreeing with it (something that never happens to me), in the course of which they referred to the author several times as “he”. I chuckled at this howler, then began to wonder why the paper had not silently corrected it. Today, before embarking on a hilarious article about the confusion, I thought perhaps I should do a quick Google search. From which I quickly discovered that the person in question is, in fact, a 14-year-old schoolboy.
I dug the paper out and had another look at the picture which so misled me. He does bear an uncanny resemblance to a lesbian ex-client of mine, and appears to be wearing lipstick. He also devoted his column to musical theatre rather than boxing, cars or football, though at least he did not mention Judy Garland.
I don’t know where the poor kid goes to school but, if it is in Newcastle, I’d be prepared to bet that he does not have the easiest of times.
The unsuccessful experimentation involved using my breadmaking machine for the first time since 2005, judging by the use-by dates on all the ingredients in my cupboard. I’ve always treated these in a very cavalier fashion. Can flour actually go off? Perhaps not, but in case it is of some practical use, I can tell you that using yeast two years past its use-by date produces a loaf of truly astonishing density. It’s the black hole of granary loaves, probably more use as an offensive weapon than a means of sustenance. Though if you’re that way inclined, you’re probably better to go down the tried-and-tested Roald Dahl route and use a frozen leg of lamb. Disposing of the evidence will prove much more pleasurable, I am sure.
The mind-numbing labour involved getting the last of the mountain of logs in the back yard under cover. Now they will have to be loaded into baskets, stacked by the stove to dry out, and finally burned. Apparently using wood as a fuel ticks all the right environmental boxes. Even so, I can’t help wondering whether I am not approaching an age where I would be happier in a nice cosy flat with a nice cosy girlfriend and nice cosy underfloor heating.
Friday 25 January 2008
Last night a howling gale blew up, making so much of a chimney-whistling, slate-rattling racket that I concluded that there was no chance of getting to sleep in my bedroom upstairs. So I decided to make use of the quieter spare bedroom on the ground floor, which also luckily happens to be on the lee side of the house. Only it turned out that there was not much chance of sleeping there, either. Partly because of the grandfather clock in the room next door, which woke me as it struck each hour (albeit only for long enough to think “I really must get up and stop that”). But mainly because it was still noisy enough outside to frighten the dog, which kept trying to join me under my single duvet. There wasn’t actually room for both of us, so it became something of a trial of strength and nerves.
I conceded defeat at six and spent a couple of hours finishing I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith, a book I hugely enjoyed to begin with, and which I had stupidly never read because I reckoned anyone who could come up with 101 Dalmatians couldn’t be up to much. But about halfway through, my enthusiasm tailed off [there’s a definite dog theme in this entry] and it took me, in total, 18 days to get through its measly 335 pages. Considering that around half the 3,401 books on my shelves are unread, at the pathetic rate of 20 books per year I would need to live another 85 years to get through them, as opposed to the four years I’ve actually got. And that calculation does not take account of the fact that a lot of them are much longer than 335 pages, or that I keep adding to the collection at the rate of about a book a day, on average.
On the other hand, it won’t make much difference either way, as one of the things no-one told me until it was too late was that the books you read in your teens and early twenties remain imprinted on your brain for life; whereas those you read in your thirties and beyond are unmemorable even one week after you’ve put them down. Since the early 1990s I have been in the habit of scribbling in my books (apart from the oldest, rarest and most valuable first editions, in which I use Post-It notes), to record (a) the fact that I have read them, in the hope of not doing so again by mistake, and (b) any lines or passages I particularly enjoyed.
I noted nothing in I Capture The Castle after page 172.
During my first flush of enthusiasm, I mentioned how much I was enjoying the book to a female friend, who has since transformed herself into a female ex-friend. She said that she hadn’t read it, but could recommend the film version with Bill Nighy and Romola Garai. I asked my friend the professional film critic if he could verify that it was worth seeing, and he replied that he couldn’t remember anything about it apart from the nude scene, which didn’t last anything like long enough for his money. Typical 50-year-old Bloke. I bet he’s got fantastic recall of all the films he saw in his teens and early twenties. Particularly the Confessions of a ... series.
My piano tuner rang in the morning to report that he was running late owing to two blockages on the A1. One caused by an overturned caravan at Stannington, which sounded perfectly plausible, and the other resulting from an office chair blowing around the carriageway in the Swarland area. That began to sound a bit too much like a Monty Python sketch for my taste. But the dog still insisted on going out this afternoon, gale or no gale, and I’d probably have passed an audition for the Ministry of Silly Walks as I battled to make any progress at all across the prairie-like fields to the south of my house.
This must be as severe a gale as we have had in my two decades here, so I walked with due trepidation under the roadside trees, many of which bear little yellow tags to show that they have been earmarked for felling by a forestry expert on the grounds of public Elfin Safety. And guess how many have blown down during this most violent of storms? That’s right. Absolutely none of them.
Thursday 24 January 2008
I swore to myself that I would never, ever allow my weight to go above 15 stone again, except by putting on heavy shoes and clothing, and carrying a baseball bat when visiting that takeaway on Alnwick’s roughest council estate. And what happens?
I blame Sir Stuart Rose. If it’s good enough for Paxo and his dodgy gusset, it’ll do for me and yesterday’s questionably calorie-counted ready meals. I mean, would I have gained 2lbs overnight if there were really only 275 calories in Marks & Spencer’s “melting middle” fishcakes (presumably developed as a piscine “me too”, riding on the back of their successful – indeed “iconic” – melting middle chocolate pudding)?
Of course, it was wrong of me to eat two of them rather than just the one, but that’s always the temptation when you’re on your own (sigh) and everything comes packaged up for couples (food, holidays, you name it). Even so, I’ve just done the maths and there were only a total of 1,061 calories in everything I ate yesterday.
Apart from all the things I ate that weren’t calorie counted, like the slice of thickly buttered toast with marmalade at breakfast, and the generous hunk of Auntie’s Christmas cake for tea. Oh, and half a bottle of white wine with the fishcakes.
Must try harder.
As a first gesture in that direction, I drove to Newcastle and had lunch with my rival in the Great Weight Loss Challenge: the fourth time I have met him for lunch in the last month. This must equal the total number of times I saw him for any reason whatsoever in the preceding half century. At least they were all arranged for a purpose, and before the Great Weight Loss Challenge actually started. This one came about because I accidentally discovered that my solicitor used to work for my rival’s parents, 35 years ago. It was a rather touching reunion, marred for them only by having some fat Bloke at the table eating too much and cracking jokes.
Two things amused me during my visit to the big city. First, the fact that a suspiciously unbranded cash dispenser has been installed in the outer wall of my solicitor’s offices, which they are presumably using to boost their meagre fee income by cloning credit cards. And secondly a fine leaflet on display in their reception which just bore the words “Criminal Negligence” and the practice name. Not much of an advert, it seemed to me. Actually, in truth it also bore a picture of three broadly grinning solicitors, two of whom were rather attractive blondes who could come round and be criminally negligent with me any time they liked.
What’s the betting that if I limped into their offices on crutches and said I wanted to pursue a negligence action, I’d find that the picture was posed by models and that my legal representative bore an uncanny resemblance to the late comedy actress Rita Webb?
Wednesday 23 January 2008
I had to drive to Newcastle for a business meeting yesterday afternoon. For years now, I’d have considered that a real chore. But this time it was a pleasure. I haven’t enjoyed driving a car so much for as long as I can remember. Having no friends in the area, I tried to share my excitement with the local sub-postmaster when I collected my newspapers this morning, but he just said “That’s a real Clarkson car, isn’t it?” and somehow I don’t think he was trying to be complimentary.
Ah well, so long as the planet lasts for another 1,474 days that will be just fine with me. Or maybe 1,476. It would be quite good to allow time for a jolly funeral. I must remember to make provision in my will for a decent booze-up afterwards, where everyone can get completely paralytic while endlessly repeating “It’s what he would have wanted.”
Only I suppose the absence of friends in the area might be a bit of a handicap. I’ll have to make provision for transport, too. Perhaps a steam-hauled special train from London, connecting with vintage charabancs at Alnmouth station. Or even horse-drawn carriages.
On the other hand, if word gets round that I’ve provided a load of whisky to drink after my funeral, I expect my popularity in the immediate area will take off like one of the more reliable classes of rocket.
I’m a bit peeved that the stock market is recovering, on the back of the Fed’s dramatic rate cut. I’ve only been able to afford a new car because I sold a lot of shares last week, and I’d obviously feel better about driving around in this rapidly depreciating environmental disaster if the stock I sold to buy it was continuing to plummet. My stockbroker told me on Monday that he was seriously impressed by my timing, thinking that I must have known something. I wish.
It’s a thoroughly grey and miserable day today and I spend as much of it as I can indoors, writing. However, I have to go out for a walk at three (a) to catch the last post with a pile of letters, and (b) to avoid being savaged by an irked Border terrier. When we return, I get my own back by making him stand outside in the cold with me while I try to make some inroads into the huge pile of logs dumped outside the relevant shed during Monday’s blizzard. I spent about 45 minutes before nightfall chucking them into the store and reckon I accounted for, ooh, about a sixth of them. The dog made it clear that he was not in the least impressed.
After all that effort, I felt I deserved a slice of Auntie’s Christmas cake with my tea, and a decent, albeit closely calorie-counted, supper. Even as I was lifting the first delicious forkful towards my quivering lips, I began to wonder whether I might not be making a terrible mistake. In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt such a sense of foreboding since the last time someone accepted one of my periodic proposals of marriage.
Tuesday 22 January 2008
Could there be anything sadder than a man in late middle age whose only meaningful activity is writing a weekly column in the local newspaper, which on the evidence of two years’ accumulated fan mail is read and enjoyed only by a handful of eccentric female coffin-dodgers?
Well, there could, actually. How about being a late middle aged etc who drank most of a bottle of wine last night to get over his feeling of non-fulfilment, and then woke up this morning to find that his slot had been filled by a 14-year-old schoolgirl. Now then, now then. No smut, please.
She’s certainly a much better writer than I was at her age. The worrying thing is that she might also be a better writer than I am now, almost 40 years later.
Still, mustn’t brood. So I head off to Alnwick to pick up my new car, on roads rendered extremely hazardous by the fact that yesterday’s snow turned to rain before I could get out to take some atmospheric pictures, and the whole lot then froze overnight.
There is a veritable mountain of paperwork to complete at the garage, then a “handover” ceremony which proves to be as ritualistic as anything practised in a Japanese tea house. Only without the geishas.
First the sales Bloke stands up like an air hostess pointing out the emergency exits, and draws my attention to the salient points of the garage, which I have been visiting for years. “Over there is the parts department …”
“What, under that bloody great sign that says ‘Parts’? How amazing.”
Then he takes me outside and does the whole thing again with the car. “If you pull that lever there it will release the bonnet. Now if you come with me, this big black thing is called an engine. You probably don’t need to bother too much with that except for this thing here called a dipstick and that stuff there called coolant. And this is where you top up the windscreen washer fluid.”
“What, under that cap with a picture of a windscreen being sprayed with water? Who’d ever have thought it?”
Eventually the “procedures” are completed and I drive away, very slowly and carefully. Because the roads are like glass and I realized, about three quarters of the way to Alnwick, just as I was congratulating myself on my attention to detail in remembering to clear everything out of the old car and bring all the paperwork with me, that I had forgotten to put the new one onto my insurance.
It would make a much funnier story for you if I’d skidded and written the thing off on the way home. It would also have been typical of my luck. Remarkably enough, though, the journey was completed without any hilarious incidents whatsoever.
Monday 21 January 2008
I’m up early this morning to visit my doctor’s surgery, where the usual cast of consumptive OAPs are coughing their guts up in the waiting room to ensure that, even if you aren’t ill when you arrive, you will be by the time you leave. Fortunately I am quickly whisked away for a blood pressure test and the extraction of some blood samples. The former confirms that I am no longer suffering from hypertension, which is a small triumph since I took medication for it for years. The nurse tells me that I have the body of a 45-year-old, which I deny hotly as she was 39 and, in any case, I disposed of it weeks ago. This makes her look very uneasy, though not as much as my subsequent enquiry as to whether something could be done to increase my blood pressure, very selectively, in fact just here …
She pushes the panic alarm under her desk and I feel that it is time to leave and complain to my builder about the continuing leak in my roof. Comically, as I am sitting there another old Bloke bursts in and starts berating him about the continuing leak in his roof.
“I thought we’d fixed that.”
“Well, you bloody haven’t. I wouldn’t mind so much myself, but it’s the wife …”
At least that’s one problem I haven’t got.
I waste a fair chunk of the rest of the morning counting all the books in my house, to support a frankly implausible claim in a newspaper column that I am not a total Philistine. The total is 3,398, which I find a bit disappointing. I now know exactly how Churchill felt when he asked someone how deeply the swimming pool by which they were sitting would be filled if he had emptied into it all the bottles of Pol Roger champagne he had drunk over the previous 60 years, and they worked it out as about one foot.
After all that, the paper refuses to print my column because it is rude about National Express, with whom they are running a promotion to shift train tickets. The irony is that I was not, in my opinion, anything like as rude as I should have been.
There is a distinct whiff of Teesside about my study, as I was reduced yesterday afternoon to chopping up for firewood the old electricity poles that were lying about in my wood store. These are well soaked with creosote and not only does the resulting fire smell horrible, but there are distinct black particulates descending in front of my computer screen. Bearing in mind that you can be fined £2,500 for throwing a window envelope on a fire, because of the EU’s prohibition on burning plastic in domestic grates, I wonder exactly how many laws I am violating, and about the potential consequences to my health.
On the other hand, my octogenarian neighbours have been chucking everything on their open fire for at least half a century: plastic bags, milk containers, you name it. True, everyone living downwind of them has died of cancer before the age of 40, leaving a range of orphans with rather more than the usual number of limbs, but my neighbours are right as 1s 6d (being ninepence twice).
Luckily my reliance on the old poles (no ethnic jokes in this blog: it’s a rule) is ended in mid-afternoon when the Seventh Cavalry arrives with a lorry-load of top quality split hardwood logs, which are dumped in the middle of my backyard. It would have been better, on the whole, if this delivery had not coincided with the onset of the first serious blizzard of 2008. But, as I’ve surely remarked before, you can’t have everything.
Sunday 20 January 2008
I’m at my desk from 7.30 this morning, writing drivel. Not too long after I complete my first joke, the house starts being shaken by the crump of heavy artillery on the Otterburn ranges, more than ten miles away. This goes on all day. For some reason the most disturbing sound is the periodic rat-tat-tat of what must be an exceptionally heavy machine gun, given the distances involved, unless one of my neighbours has run spectacularly amok and started massacring his sheep.
I once had lunch on a train to London with a small, rubicund, heavy drinking Bloke who divided his time between growing a ginger moustache and making training films for the Ministry of Defence. He’d just been to Otterburn, so I asked him to satisfy my long-standing curiosity about what happened to all the sheep on the range when the military embarked on one of their periodic barrages or bombing runs.
“We ring the tenant farmers in advance and give them the opportunity to move their sheep,” he said, between glugs of claret. “But of course the idle bastards can never be bothered.”
“So you just shell the sheep?”
“Exactly. Very encouraging for the troops, it is.”
I awaited some fine military black humour, likely to affect my enjoyment of the remainder of my lunch, but it turned out that he was absolutely serious.
“You see, we can blast the hell out of a hillside covered with sheep all afternoon, but we hardly ever hit one of the bloody things. Makes the chaps much more sanguine about their own prospects under artillery fire.”
I suppose it would.
Nothing much else happened today apart from sawing down a wind-damaged tree, chopping up some logs and taking the dog for a walk. After a day like that, there is nothing I like more than settling down to watch a lovely costume drama. Unfortunately the only one on offer is Lark Rise to Candleford, a book I remember much enjoying 35 years ago. Only I don’t remember it being quite so dull. And what genius in the BBC thought it would be a good idea to cast Dawn French, a woman built like a whole brick lavatory block, as a Victorian housewife who struggles to put enough food on the table? She can’t act, she’s not funny – but she is, for reasons I find completely unfathomable, a national treasure. They might as well have cast Coco the Clown as Othello. Though thinking of Shakespeare makes me realize that there would be one role in which I would find Dawn French hilarious: Cordelia in King Lear. Though only after she had died. I’d split my sides watching some poor bastard trying to carry her onto the stage.
Saturday 19 January 2008
My lovely aunt last night and the BBC this morning are completely agreed on one thing: today’s weather is going to be crap. So I am surprised to find myself looking out of the study window in the middle of the morning, thinking that it actually looks quite reasonable. I decide to put it to a practical test, and take the dog for an 8.5 mile walk up into the hills from Ingram. It’s not such wonderful walking weather as we enjoyed at this time last week, since the sunshine is much weaker and the air temperature correspondingly lower; while the ground temperature is far higher, so we do a lot of plodging (as we Geordies say) through improvised streams taking away the last few days’ rainfall, and occasional patches of viscous mud.
We don’t see a lot of other people, though we are puzzled by an immense racket in the distance as we near the top of Ewe Hill. It sounds like an approaching protest march by S&M fans whose speech is constrained by ill-fitting gimp masks. Eventually it resolves itself into a remarkably small group of mentally defective youths, honking and whooping as they lope through the rough grass and heather, some way ahead of their nominal carers. They are far noisier than the hunt we encountered last week, though regrettably somewhat less picturesque. Fortunately they are exercising their “right to roam” (Mr Blair’s equivalent of the John Major “cones hotline”) so cut diagonally across the public bridleway rather than joining it. Soon they have disappeared in the direction of a notorious peat bog. I cross my fingers, but would prefer not to disclose why.
We pass the remote farmhouse of Chesters, now supposedly a “Scouts Adventure Centre”, though I have been walking past it for 20 years and never seen a single scout. I can’t see the words “Scouts Adventure Centre” without giggling, ever since I read about an unfortunate court case in which a scoutmaster was convicted for bribing his charges with Mars bars to induce them to leap naked over a large log, during which it was his pleasure to capture them in mid-air action photographs. There is another “Scouts Adventure Centre” back on the main road which seems to be much better used. That one is within a short walk of a garage that is well stocked with Mars bars. But I draw no conclusions.
The dog and I sit on the top of Chesters hill fort, admiring the view of snow-flecked Cheviot. The dog and I have a pronounced difference of opinion about what constitutes a fair division of a sandwich. Then we walk along the red stone track to Prendwick, pausing as we always do at the gate above Thieves Rode plantation, where in one direction the view encompasses the fertile and civilized Whittingham Vale, while in the other lies all the bleak rugged grandeur of the Cheviots. It’s not been a bad day at all; and in the evening there will be dry trousers, a crackling log fire; a little comforting food; and the touching demise of Vera Duckworth to catch up with on DVD.
Friday 18 January 2008
Fortunately I was able to while away the worst hours of yesterday’s monumental hangover traipsing around London’s fashionable West End, trying to obtain a new mains power adapter for my laptop. By the time I finally succeeded, I found that I was due at a trendy new restaurant by the Thames for a fizzy-water-fuelled lunch with the man I worked with for more than 20 years. He probably taught me everything I know about public relations, which is admittedly not saying all that much.
We exchanged a lot of amusing stories about the subsequent career histories of various people who had once employed us. For me, though, the undoubted highlight was stepping out of the restaurant and running into a short, squat, grey-haired, bespectacled Scotchman, accompanied by a much taller and far from unattractive blonde of about half his age. He and my lunch companion both eyed each other in the way that people do when they feel they ought to know each other. But it was the Scotchman who cracked and said “Hello, er …”, before making the epic mistake of gesturing to the blonde and saying “This is my niece, Olivia”. My friend and I fell about. At which the Scotchman began to protest, “No, no, she really is my niece.” My ex-colleague and I were by now giggling uncontrollably, like a pair of schoolboys. “My flat’s just along here …” We guffawed and slapped our sides. “… and she’s doing some work for me.” We begged him to stop. Thank God he didn’t use the word “job” rather than “work”, or I fear that I really would have ruptured myself.
Even better, a few hundred yards later, when I had finally recovered the power of speech, I asked “Who the hell is he, anyway?” and my friend replied “I’m not really sure.”
Marvellous. Though I did witness an even better bit of theatre in the evening, when I went to the National to see Simon Russell Beale in Much Ado About Nothing. I could be enthralled by watching him read extracts from the telephone directory, so had booked even though I have a powerful prejudice against his co-star, Zeo Amawanker, the well-known anagram. She is one of those actresses, like Judi Dench, whose huge popularity with absolutely everyone else totally mystifies me. So you can be sure that I am telling the truth when I say that not only did Russell Beale fulfil all my expectations, but Ms Wanabeanactress also proved extremely funny and surprisingly touching in the role of Beatrice.
And so to the day I am actually supposed to be writing about: Friday. Today, absurdly, I went for lunch at The Ivy with the very person I am supposed to be competing with in a charity weight loss challenge. I’d set it up so that I could introduce the top TV producer to my friend the depressed screenwriter. I reckoned that we all had something in common (we’re all from Newcastle, we all went to the same school, albeit not at exactly the same time … er, that’s it). Still, it wasn’t a total waste of time, as the producer was able to cast an eye over a contract with a TV company produced by the screenwriter, and point out that it promised him absolutely nothing and allowed the other party to pinch his idea and remove his kidneys and corneas for transplantation if it took their fancy. A pity, on the whole, that I didn’t arrange the lunch before he actually signed it.
Nevertheless, it must be accounted a successful occasion since at no point were punches exchanged; quite a result when three Geordie males are gathered together, and particularly when alcoholic beverages are being consumed.
After one of those gaps in consciousness that occur regularly to dedicated drinkers, I found myself on a train to Newcastle, sitting opposite a man with an implausibly large, bald head, covered in painful-looking sores. I refrained from asking whether he was playing Humpty Dumpty in a panto in which the slapstick was getting ever so slightly out of hand. However, it was a very close-run thing. National Express had bothered themselves to put out seat reservations on this occasion, but not to clean the lavatories since they took over the franchise, by the look and smell of things. Fortunately the need to visit them was much reduced by a distinct shortage of refreshments. There was a trolley service in first class, but the team providing it were clearly much more focused on their preparations for the 2012 Olympics. They achieved something close to warp speed as they hurtled through the carriage, carefully avoiding all eye contact. Under the new regime, the only sure way to obtain a cuppa will be to develop a technique like one of those frogs that sits unobserved for hours, then unrolls an immensely long tongue at quite incredible speed to capture any passing fly.
In fact, the only good thing about the journey was that I ran into an ex-client who is now, amazingly enough, a senior executive with National Express. I began to give him the executive summary of my views on the service but tragically he remembered that he had to get off at the next stop, Newark (the only town in Britain that is an anagram of “Wanker”). A bit after he left, the mantra “Attention train crew, disabled passenger alarm operated” began to issue from the tannoy at considerable volume. This tends to be activated by people who can’t tell the difference between a lever marked “Flush” and a bright red handle emblazoned “Emergency Alarm”. Someone bothered themselves to turn it off after a bit, but it started again and played continuously for the last quarter of the journey, as the inattentive and no doubt thoroughly demoralized train crew huddled together in the restaurant car, pretending that they could not hear it.
I’m glad to be home, and feel that it may well be a mistake ever to leave it again.
Thursday 17 January 2008
This blog is true to my life in so many ways. For a start it’s out of synch, as I seem to have started describing things a day in arrears.
Yesterday is a day perhaps best forgotten, though I did at least spend a reasonably productive morning writing in the library of the club where I am staying; and a reasonably productive afternoon discussing a writing project with the creative person who actually came up with the idea.
A home from home; only a bit less grand, obviously
Between those, I had a surely very healthy and non-fattening Japanese lunch at a self-service place by St Paul’s called Itsu, to which I was introduced by an old friend now working for the thundering herd of Merrill Lynch. Unlike the unfortunate Mr Litvinenko, I managed to enjoy my meal without ingesting fatal quantities of Polonium-210. I wonder if there is potential for a similarly high turnover English chain called Etsu, which would major on suet puddings (served with thick onion gravy or lumpy custard, according to taste) and be staffed entirely by hugely obese school dinner lady types called Su.
Stone me, I’ve just checked Google and there is already an establishment on London’s fashionable South Bank called Etsu, though it sounds like they have just bagged the name, not the concept.
It’s the same whenever I come up with a brilliant idea for a book. Someone always explains (in unnecessary and somehow gloating detail) that it’s been done. Perhaps I should major on TV instead, where the fact that it’s already been done seems to be the number one selling point for any series.
Where things went seriously off the rails yesterday was in the evening, when I was scheduled to have drinks and dinner with my friend the temporarily unemployed investment banker (a.k.a. The Luckiest Man in the World). He failed to turn up for drinks at my club, which had been entirely his idea; then he failed to turn up at the restaurant in Victoria. I began to detect a pattern. Fortunately the third Bloke scheduled to meet us for dinner did turn up, relieving me of that worrying feeling that I might have got it all wrong.
Having been ringing an unanswered mobile phone at regular intervals for well over an hour, I decided that drastic action was required. I know that it is a dreadful thing to do to any Bloke, but what was the alternative? I didn’t have a land line number for his London flat, so I rang his country home, faintly hoping that the phone would be answered by the man himself, who would spin some tale about a malfunctioning electronic diary; but knowing in my heart that it would almost certainly be picked up by his wife. Which it was. To make it worse, she had also been ringing her husband’s mobile at regular intervals since 2pm, with no result.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked, which is always a sign of extreme desperation since women invariably have a much clearer idea of what to do in a crisis than any Bloke. Obviously she was expecting me to volunteer to ring round all the London hospitals, while she got on with initiating the “Missing Person” process with the police. Instead I blurted out, massively unhelpfully, “Oh, don’t worry, I expect he’s just drunk in a ditch somewhere.” For some unknown reason, this did not play particularly well.
As I was sitting there, wondering how the hell to get off the phone and trying to clear an image of the amnesiac Hartlepool canoeist from my mind, my companion’s mobile rang. The Luckiest Man in the World was on his way!
When he finally pitched up something over an hour late, he told a story of truly epic implausibility. After an unusually light and sober luncheon he had returned to his flat and decided to have a refreshing nap, for which purpose he had donned his pyjamas (yes, really: I told you it was implausible) and climbed into bed. When his alarm clock went off at 5.30pm, he took it for 5.30am, congratulated himself on not having to keep City hours any more, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Now, if he’d told a vaguely believable story, we’d both naturally have assumed that he was trying to cover up a passionate affair that had got a bit out of hand. As it was (and having due regard to his looks and character) we believed him. Suggesting a lesson for Blokes everywhere attempting a cover-up: the more ludicrous your story, the better.
As for me, I’d drunk three aperitifs and the best part of a bottle of white wine on an empty stomach before he turned up. I can’t recall what we actually talked about over dinner itself, but I think I can state with some confidence that my own contribution to the conversation was a good deal less than sparkling.
Wednesday 16 January 2008
When I abandoned this exciting story yesterday, I was speeding through the London traffic in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Only I wasn’t, really. I was crawling through the London traffic in a chauffer-driven limousine, because cars like that aren’t allowed into bus and taxi lanes unless they’ve got a little blue light in the front, several escorting police motorcyclists, and a member of the Royal family in the back.
The lesson is: never feel envious of the rich, and remember that the quickest way around town is by tube, so long as you don’t mind taking the remote chance of having your head blown off.
We got to our destination of the House of Lords eventually, and I went to have lunch with my friend The Lord. Unfortunately my experience of National Express made me feel much in need of drink, and I responded rather too enthusiastically to his enquiry about wine, with the words, “Well, perhaps some white to start.”
Even so, I thought I had ordered quite responsibly and was a bit shocked by what happened next. No doubt as part of some Government Elfin Fitness strategy, there was a shiny new set of metric scales in the Peers’ khazi when we called in there en route to lunch. So I stepped aboard and they swung round to 99.5kg, or 15st 9lbs. Given that I put on 2lbs the minute I drink my first cup of tea in the morning, and that I was wearing a heavy wool three-piece suit and great big hobnail boots (I always dress with a keen sense of place), this seemed quite compatible with the weight recorded yesterday morning. Satisfyingly, The Lord was 100.5kg.
We then repeated the exercise after lunch, and the machine claimed that I was now 105kg, a gain of 5.5kg. Or, to put it another way, the whole 12lbs I had lost so painfully since starting my diet. I looked around, confidently expecting to find Lord Cheeky Chappie’s foot resting on the scales, but he was nowhere near me. The only word for how I felt at this point was “demoralized”.
To cheer me up, he took me into the House for Questions. I was seated just below the Bar on the Conservative side, and it was uncannily like attending a reunion of the great characters from Spitting Image in the 1980s. There they all were: Prior, Hurd, Lamont, Bottomley. Only The Lady herself seemed to be missing. On the benches opposite sat the Archbishop of Canterbury in his robes, looking as though he had stepped straight out of a Trollope novel (Anthony, not Joanna).
Actually, I had a nagging feeling that there was one other notable 1980s character absent. I finally worked it out when the chauffeur nearly reversed over him in the car park as we left. He banged angrily on the roof and window, like a mad old bag lady. It was the one memorably portrayed as a giant slug, which would no doubt explain why he was a bit on the slow side getting there. I suggested that the chauffeur buy a big tub of salt that he could pour over him if the problem ever recurred.
In the evening, I took a beautiful woman to The Ivy. I’ve known said beautiful woman for seven years and she has never made the slightest public (or for that matter, private) display of affection towards me. Yet clearly my diet has started working much more quickly than I expected; or I have become even more charming than usual; or The Ivy exerts a peculiar sort of magic. Because she started holding my hand in an almost fond sort of way. I decided rapidly that my money was on the magic of The Ivy, and began calculating (in my sordid, Blokeish way) where I would have to take her to qualify for a blow job. For some reason Nobu sprang to mind.
The trouble with women (I mean, one of the troubles with women) is that they do like puddings. I was determined to let her go ahead on her own, but what with the hand-holding, and the moving story about how the great love of her life had dumped her for someone who might be more use to him in his career (the utter, utter cad) and the great selling job done by our waitress, I ended up ordering the Baked Alaska for two. The resulting, brandy-fuelled conflagration by our table kept half the restaurant entertained while they waited for Elton or Kylie to put in an appearance. And as the performance went on, I reflected that it was not just sponge, ice cream and meringue going up in blue flames, but any remote chance I had ever had of winning the Great Weight Loss Challenge.
I did the only thing a Bloke could possibly do in the circumstances, and ordered two large glasses of port.
Tuesday 15 January 2008
During my not particularly illustrious career as a City PR man, I twice defeated takeover bids before they even started. On one occasion I just put out a press release exposing the machinations of a company which was using a bizarre network of mainly Panamian trusts to build up a strategic share stake in one of my clients. The would-be acquirer had grown like Topsy by snapping up businesses from entrepreneurs, to whom it had issued shed loads of its own equity. These major shareholders were horrified at the prospect of their management now attempting to buy my client, which was about three times the size of the “fast growing” intended bidder. So they killed the idea stone dead. I was frightfully proud of myself until my colleagues said, “You ****ing idiot, if you’d let the bid go ahead we could have racked up hundreds of thousands in fees defending it.” Oh, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that.
On another occasion I simply encouraged a city editor to meet the man who had another of my clients in his sights. The resulting character assassination, sorry profile, under the headline, “Is this Britain’s most shambolic corporate raider?” did the job nicely. I’ve been inordinately fond of the word “shambolic” ever since, but reserve it for very special occasions. Like my first trip to London today with the new East Coast rail franchisee, National Express.
I hadn’t had high hopes since I read a column in The Journal a couple of weeks ago, by a Mr Angry who suggested that National Express had gone one better than satnav with a new technology called DID’NAV. Because whatever you wanted on his train, they DID’NAV it. No seat reservations on a packed post-Christmas service, guaranteeing a round of heated argy-bargy after every station stop. No trolley service because of “staff shortages”. And – the pièce de resistance – no hot drinks from the buffet. Not for the usual reason of a broken boiler, but because they didn’t have any little paper carrier bags in which to place the cups. And you weren’t allowed to take one away in your hand for Elfin Safety reasons; you might spill it and scald yourself or, God forbid, someone else.
Stripped of its old-fashioned GNER paraphernalia, my train looks frankly seedy. And, what’s more, it’s got no seat reservations. This begins to look less like a cock-up and more like a settled policy. We soon learn that the corporate motto of National Express must be “never apologize, never explain” as their absence is never mentioned, despite the massive amounts of ill-will that are generated as people clamber aboard and find that the seats they have gone to the trouble of booking are occupied by someone else. But it gradually dawns on me why they haven’t put the usual reservation slips out: they can’t, because they’ve sold each seat more than once. I am twice confronted by people brandishing bits of paper demonstrating that they have indeed reserved the very seat I have also booked, on this train today.
In the old days, you had to pay about £300 for a first class return from Newcastle to London, but at least you got half a carriage to yourself. After they overpaid for the renewal of their franchise, GNER introduced a pricing strategy designed to sell every seat. National Express have committed themselves to paying even more, so I suppose selling every seat more than once is the next logical development. I expect they got the idea from airlines overbooking. When Gordon has got his airport-style security installed at every mainline station, at least some of us may be able to make a nice little earner out of turning up and being bribed not to travel to ease overcrowding.
At Durham, I’m joined at my table by three teenagers. One male is wearing a lot of hair gel, a vacant expression and an “18 Today” badge; a rather more boisterous and perhaps slightly older male is seated to my left, while opposite me I have a dyed blonde female wearing a huge Tiffany & Co silver pendant in the shape of a heart, and more slap than I have seen on the face of any human being since the demise of Dame Barbara Cartland. It has to be kept topped up every few miles – particularly the lip gloss. Between Durham and Darlington, though, we are treated to the powerful aroma of nail varnish as she enthusiastically applies a fresh coat of black gloss to her fingernails (I suppose her toes would have been a bit hard to reach). In fairness, this is actually considerably less offensive than the smell of stale alcohol which surrounds them when she stops. They keep that topped up, too, starting on a bottle of Pinot Grigio once the sun tops the yard-arm at 9.30 a.m., which is a bit early even for me.
Not that they offer me a glass. In fact, they don’t impinge at all, really, as I sit there with Handel playing on my headphones, tapping away on my laptop. Until we get to Alexandra Palace, where I open an e-mail from my wine merchant offering Cloudy Bay Sauvignon. “Hey,” says the lad to my left, “That’s really good stuff. You want to have some of that.” Leading me to realize, belatedly, that he must have been looking at my computer screen all the way from Durham. My bank statements, penis enlarger and Viagra ads, credit card details while ordering the same, full and frank accounts of the people I am travelling with …
And there was I, thinking I was too old ever to be embarrassed.
As I am whisked away from King’s Cross in my chauffeur-driven limousine, it occurs to me that it might all be a dastardly plot by the outgoing GNER management team.
“What can we do to leg these bastards over? I know, we’ll cancel the order for those little paper bags you need in the buffet car.”
“And put an axe through the printers that churn out the seat reservations.”
“Even better – we’ll sell all the seats more than once before we do that!”
Well done, chaps, it’s working a treat. Never in the history of public transport can so many people have become so nostalgic so quickly as they are doing for GNER. I’ve even heard people muttering about their fond memories of British Rail, and who would ever have predicted that?
Monday 14 January 2008
I share a bed with a dog. No, really. People say “What about the smell?” but after a couple of years he got used to it. On the extremely rare occasions lately when another human being has been persuaded to share my bed (or, as he sees it, his bed) he has very considerately taken himself off and lain on the hearthrug with his paws over his eyes. Then hopped back up on the duvet the morning after, looking suitably sympathetic. Not at me.
The main differences between a dog and a woman, I find, are that the dog is more cuddly, less talkative and substantially less inhibited. For example, I’ve never known a woman get up, shake herself vigorously and then spend a good five minutes noisily scratching the back of her neck with her foot, as the dog did at 2.35 this morning. I never got back to sleep. It’s just as well I love him – and not in that way, either.
Despite being substantially less than half awake, I spent the morning at my desk analysing my income and expenditure during 2007. One figure exceeded the other by almost exactly £10,000. Unfortunately it was the wrong way round. Result: misery. Or I could just bridge the gap by selling some shares that would only go down anyway. How do I know this? Because I own them. That’s how my investments work. I can’t think how I came to miss out on Northern Rock.
Having rung my stockbroker, I spent some time pondering how to respond to the scorching e-mail I received on Friday from a lady I mentioned in passing last week; the one I allegedly converted to lesbyterianism. How dare I write about her? And, in any case, she has no recollection of me attempting to have what I believe is correctly known as penetrative sex with her. (Funnily enough, I’ve heard that one before. Sometimes when I’ve actually been doing it.) If it did happen, it must have been because she was drugged (though at least she is not accusing me of administering said drugs, which I suppose is something). The bottom line is that she will never speak to me again. Or e-mail me, she adds in an afterthought sent by, er, e-mail.
The funny thing is that only a few days ago she’d been e-mailing to say how much she enjoyed the (entirely true) story about my date with the lady in the wheelchair. Nearly all of this stuff is true, amazingly, because I’ve got no imagination. And given that I’ve been a Recluse on a hilltop in Northumberland for the last 20 years, I’m not exactly long on experience, either. It’s the absence of imagination and experience that have prevented me from forging a successful career as the new J.K. Macdonald Fraser or George Rowling. So every last drop of even half amusing actualité has to be carefully collected and recycled, like water in the Sahara.
Because I actually like her, I only toy momentarily with the idea of re-posting the disputed entry to include her name, photograph, address and phone number, and compose a balanced reply pointing out some of the above, plus the fact that she is entirely anonymous. So that the only way anyone will be able to connect the story with her will be if she goes around wearing a T-shirt inscribed: “Bloke in the North™ made me a full-time rug muncher. Send him the wool and he’ll make you one, too.”
After I’d sent it, I compared notes with a couple of friends who both offered the same helpful advice: “Why didn’t you just say: ‘What on earth makes you think I was writing about you?’”. Pithy, I grant, but on the other hand it implies that I’m a serial converter of women to Sapphism, and I don’t think my remaining, faltering spark of self-esteem could cope with a blow like that.
What’s really beginning to worry me is the thought that that her attitude to being mentioned here might be generally shared, so that no woman will ever go out with me again in case I write about her. This would completely undermine one of the two points of writing this stuff. So here’s an idea. If you’re an attractive woman and you would like to go out with me, I hereby faithfully promise that I won’t put a word about you in this blog until after our relationship has gone horribly wrong.
It will be like that short loop they put in phone-ins so that they can cut people off before they blurt out **** on the wireless. In my case, I reckon it will involve an average time delay of approximately 72 hours.
Sunday 13 January 2008
I woke up with a start. I’m not complaining. Even a couple of years ago I’d have aspired to wake up with an erection, and a couple of decades ago I’d have hoped to wake up alongside someone who could help me out with it. Now just waking up at all inspires profound gratitude.
I was having that nightmare again: the one where I’m in bed with the really pretty Asian actress out of Party Animals and now Mistresses, and she stops her close inspection of the ceiling to yawn and ask “Is it in yet?”
It’s not the best possible start to the day, but then it doesn’t need to be. Because when I stagger downstairs and climb onto the bathroom scales, I weigh less than 15 stone for the first time since 1997. Oh yes, as John Major might be not inconsiderably inclined to say.
I’m almost tempted to change the heading to this blog … but maybe not just yet. I have a heavy week of what one of my former colleagues liked to call “knife and fork work” coming up.
Still, it clearly demonstrates that the prospect of public humiliation in the media is a far more effective motivator than the faint bat squeak of sexual aspiration. Given that it clearly works so well for me, I wonder why it isn’t doing more for the performance of Newcastle United?
Saturday 12 January 2008
This was a day to make even the most suicidal among us feel that life is worth living after all. I drove along the icy single-track road from North Charlton towards Chillingham and parked just beyond Quarryhouse, at the start of the track to Blawearie. The otherwise muddy ground was frozen solid, making for excellent walking. The crisp air guaranteed superb views in all directions, while the sunshine generated an almost spring-like warmth on my face. In short, one could not wish for a more perfect day for a longish walk. The dog and I managed about eight miles.
These moors are within walking distance of the cottage that my family rented as a holiday home for most of the twentieth century, and where I lived for three years in the 1980s. It is one of my favourite places on Earth. Indeed, for most of my life, if asked where I would live if I could choose anywhere at all, I wouldn’t have gone for somewhere with palm-lined, sun-kissed beaches, but the shepherd’s cottage at Blawearie. After his death, I discovered that my uncle felt exactly the same, so maybe it is a hereditary longing.
One of the great attractions of the area for me is that remarkably few people ever visit it. This is also its weakness when it comes to resisting the designs of greedy developers. I was driven out of my cottage by a short-lived and apparently satisfyingly unprofitable opencast coal scheme. Now the area is firmly in the sights of wind energy promoters; and, although Alnwick District Council has bravely rejected the Middlemoor scheme to turn it into England’s largest onshore wind farm, it takes a real optimist (which I’m not) to believe that it will not ultimately come to pass.
The futility of the technology was well illustrated by the tall anemometer mast we passed shortly after leaving the road; on one of the coldest mornings of the year, both its wind measurement gauges were totally stationary in the flat calm. Proposing to stick up ranks of giant 450 foot turbines is just the twenty-first century equivalent of cutting down all those railings during the darkest days of the Second World War, and pretending that they were going to be used to make battleships or Spitfires. It shows the man in the street that we are up against it and that “something must be done”.
Ironically, Blawearie was abandoned at the start of the Second World War, when the Army moved in. Another noble sacrifice in the wider public interest, no doubt. I paused to take some photographs and then continued to Harehope for a sandwich lunch, and back in a loop over Cateran Hill. Near the summit, I caught the evocative sound of a hunting horn and leant on my stick to watch a hunt in full cry below. They’ll be following an artificial trail, then. Yeah, right. Although I’ve never felt the faintest desire to go hunting, or felt the slightest personal sympathy with those who participate in it, there is no denying that it is one of the most magnificent spectacles the English countryside can offer.
And is there anything sexier than a beautiful woman in a close-fitting riding jacket, white jodhpurs and a well-tied stock? Preferably wearing a traditional top hat rather than sensible protective headgear, to demonstrate her disdain for Elfin Safety. As I drive back, I wonder whether the extensive selection in my local garage includes a “special interest” publication devoted to this field.
Friday 11 January 2008
I’ve been suffering from a sore throat since at least the beginning of December, so before it even got light this morning I went off to see my doctor. It took over a week to get an appointment, because he’s signed up to this wizard new NHS website which allows patients to make up to two appointments as much as 60 days in advance, thereby ensuring that every other hypochondriac in Northumberland had got in before me. God alone knows what happens if you’re actually taken seriously ill. Apart from the obvious, involving a period in a zipped bag prior to a longer-term solution involving a wooden box. Or a wicker basket, for the more environmentally conscious.
And you’d think that the really early appointments would be the ones most in demand from people with jobs to go to, wouldn’t you? Not the only ones left.
To cap it all I nearly killed myself slipping on the ice outside the surgery, which would have been ironic to say the least.
I’d convinced myself that there was something seriously wrong with me, over and above the obvious mental issues, so I was a bit disappointed when he said that it was a secondary infection that would clear up eventually. I got gloomily excited for about a nanosecond when he used the word “secondary”.
“Well, that’s my big break in journalism out of the window, then,” I said. “I’d been thinking I could be the next John Diamond.”
“Ooh, you wouldn’t want to do that,” he replied, and I thought he meant the long and painful death from cancer, which was indeed a bit of a bummer. “He’s a bloody awful singer.”
“Well, I don’t suppose having his tongue removed exactly helped him, did it?”
“I didn’t know about that. I suppose it might account for it. But there’s still no excuse for Song Sung Blue or Sweet Caroline – sweet Jesus, more like.”
“Er, I think you mean Neil Diamond. I’m talking about John.”
“Oh, the awful pilot. I don’t like him either. ‘You fill up my senses, like a night in the forest.’ What’s all that about?”
He had a point there. I once spent part of a night in a forest and the only thing that got filled up was my trousers, when a fox started screaming like a baby being murdered. Or what I imagine a baby being murdered sounds like, I should say in case this is being read by the Unsolved Crimes Unit of Northumbria Police.
But what I said was “That’s John Denver. I’m talking about John Diamond.”
“Who’s he, then?”
“Deceased journalist, married to Nigella Lawson. Wrote a moving weekly column about his cancer in The Times, and a rather good book called C.”
“Nah, never heard of him.”
Not a great meeting of minds then, on the whole. Still, he wholeheartedly supported my plans to lose 21lbs by Easter, while baulking at the suggestion that he might like to join my £10 per lb charity sponsorship scheme. And after all I’ve read about GPs’ whacking pay rises, too. His parting suggestion was that I should come back in a week or two to see a phlebotomist. Is there no limit to the number of immigrants the NHS will employ? And so far as I can see from my atlas, Phlebotomia isn’t even a member of the Commonwealth.
This afternoon I took my car to be serviced and had an extended test run in the vehicle that the world’s greatest car salesman thinks I should be driving instead. It’s a big step backwards environmentally, will consume petrol like a Premiership footballer knocking back flaming sambucas, and won’t fit into my garage. But then it also drives like a top-of-the-range DFS sofa mounted on a medium-range jet engine. I’ve got to have it.
In an attempt to inject a bit of sanity, I went round to see one of my more balanced ex-fiancées and set out the facts of the case. She told me that I should definitely not spend the money. Then I took her with me for a test drive, and 200 yards down the road she said “You’ve got to have it.”
Aren’t women reliably marvellous?
Thursday 10 January 2008
For the first time this year I woke up feeling faintly depressed, as a result of my dietary lapse yesterday evening. Still, the gloom soon lifted when I got to Newcastle for lunch and made my first new friend in months! I know this for a fact because this Bloke in Northumberland Street addressed me as “my friend”. I was really flattered. Admittedly it was in the context of “Yes, Jesus really loved you, my friend. He loved you so much that He died for you. Will you accept Him into your heart?”
I didn’t find it quite such a compelling sales pitch as the DFS Double Discount Sale, to be honest, so I decided not to take him up on it. And God responded by making the pavement very slippery in the Bigg Market, so that I nearly fell flat on my back and cracked my head open.
But fortunately I didn’t. It was the first thing to go right all day.
My car has suddenly and mysteriously begun to reek of decaying vegetables, so powerfully that I reeled back in shock when I opened the driver’s door. I spent half an hour peering under the seats with a torch, looking for a rotting mangel-wurzel or similar, but to no avail. I think it must be some sort of ghostly manifestation. A turnip turned up from the Other Side.
Then my cruise control has suddenly gone haywire, so that whatever speed one sets it at, the car steadily and relentlessly accelerates to over 90mph. Er, or it would have done if I hadn’t stopped it when I reached the statutory speed limit of 70, obviously. This sort of thing is particularly disturbing when one has set the thing at 30 to ensure a trouble-free run through the camera-strewn Gosforth High Street.
“Dear Denise, I believe that a deceased root vegetable is trying to kill me, or at any rate to make me lose my driving licence.” Nurse, the screens!
Then I reached Newcastle, bang on time, and found that the Dex Garage multi-storey, where I had intended to park, is now a cordoned-off demolition site. Fair enough, but why hasn’t someone had the wit to remove all the signs for “New Bridge Street MCP” still directing traffic to this now useless dead-end?
I’m glad that preacher lifted my morale so soon afterwards.
I had a good lunch with my rival in the Great Weight Loss Challenge and our editor; a lunch I had arranged long before the mad idea of a competitive diet came up. I had soup, lamb, bread and butter pudding and two glasses of wine. The competition just had the soup and lamb, and he ostentatiously cut the fat off that. I’ve a nasty feeling that he might win. On the other hand, while I may always be fatter than him, I shall also always be younger. What’s more, the actual age difference of a couple of years will look about ten times greater if he perseveres with growing a beard, which has so far reached the George Michael stage of glorified stubble.
I grew a beard in 2006; snow white it was. I’d grown beards in the past because I’m incredibly virile, obviously, and my facial hair therefore grows so rapidly that any woman kissing me finds that it is rather like osculation with a Brillo pad (though obviously one tastes a bit better than the other. I won’t say which.) Sadly there was no similar motivation this time, but at least I’d hoped to generate a bit of seasonal income. Then somebody broke it to me that they run all sorts of criminal records checks before they let you into a grotto these days, and in any case you’re no longer allowed to have the little girls sitting on your knee. So I shaved it off. Maybe my rival has a cunning plan to do the same and also have a bath and cut his nails on the last day of the Challenge, thereby giving him a late boost as he breasts the finishing tape.
Wednesday 9 January 2008
As if all that wasn’t good enough, up pops Sir Stuart Rose on Today trying to put a positive spin on his lousy sales, which would be enough to make a cat laugh. The head of Network Rail was also knighted in the New Year Honours List, immediately before their debacles at Rugby and Liverpool Street. I must go back and check on the other new knights, to ensure that I don’t own any shares in their companies.
The last woman I slept with (and frankly we’ve reached a point where “last” could well mean exactly that, not just “the most recent”) has taken to e-mailing me again, after a gap of several months. I mention that I’m thinking of including her in my blog, as it would be a shame to miss out her epic morning-after punch line, “No, that’s it. I’m definitely a lesbian.”
I’d had a sneaking suspicion for, ooh, about 30 years that I might be having that effect on women, but this was the first time one had spelt it out quite so explicitly. Prior to that, she’d thought she was bisexual, which must be rather nice if you’re a woman. It’s certainly nice for a Bloke to go out with a woman who thinks she’s bisexual, as you can nod enthusiastically in response to the question “Have you ever fancied a threesome?”, secure in the knowledge that you’re not about to find yourself staring at some hairy great rugby player on the other side of your bed.
She did say that if I mentioned her, she’d start up a rival blog principally devoted to the subject of erectile dysfunction in the over 50s. But then I might learn something useful from that. If I were ever to encounter that particular problem.
It’s a lovely, sunny day so the dog and I go out for an especially long walk in the afternoon.
The best view on our walk - and we hadn't even left home when I snapped it
Predictably enough, exactly half way round, the clouds roll in and it becomes absolutely, bitingly cold. If it wasn’t for the clear evidence of the wind blast-freezing my left cheek as I walk due north, I’d swear that it was blowing straight from Siberia.
Crags and stuff before the clouds rolled in
No sign of the mob to burn the house down, either. I thought they’d turn up after dark with blazing torches, like the villagers turning up at Castle Frankenstein to ask the Count if he’d mind awfully not disturbing the local graveyard on quite such a regular basis.
I said they were an idle bunch. Though, to continue on a fire-related theme, I did add with the utmost sincerity that no-one could hold the proverbial candle to me when it came to sloth and under-achievement.
Tuesday 8 January 2008
I landed myself in serious trouble with my beloved aunt last year, when I described myself in the local paper as “an alcoholic”. This was intended as a joke, and I could not understand why she found it so much more mortifying than it would have been if I had used a more accurate description, like “habitual drunk”. Alcoholics are people who have had the courage to face up to their problem, and who spend time meeting in draughty church halls to try and support each other in overcoming it. Drunks refuse to recognize that there is a problem, and meet in pubs (all of which, since the smoking ban, smell exactly like public lavatories) to argue about whose round it is. Is that intrinsically more admirable?
One of the features of all the genuine alcoholics I have known is that they much prefer drink to food. I’d take them out to expensive restaurants and they’d half-heartedly push stuff around their plate while they focused on the main task of getting the booze down their necks. On this measure, I am definitely not one of them. The only reason I am trying to steer off drink during the current Great Weight Loss Challenge is that alcohol simultaneously stimulates my appetite and weakens my self-discipline, which has never been brilliant at the best of times.
It’s pouring today and I’m staying indoors in front of a crackling log fire (you have to pay extra for the sort of logs that roar). I was thinking for some reason about Cheryl the matchmaker, about whom I wrote last Thursday, and remembered that I actually gave her another chance after my encounter with the midget sociopath previously recounted. I don’t have a particularly forgiving nature, but I had paid her several hundred pounds to be introduced to the life partner of my dreams, and I was too mean just to do the sensible thing and write that off.
I was to be introduced to this latest paragon at yet another of Cheryl’s social gatherings (which were, I suppose, another nice little earner on the side). This one was in a basement restaurant, which turned out not to be the best bit of logistical planning of all time.
Cheryl buttonholed me as soon as I arrived, and told me at great length how lovely Jayne was, and how we were going to get on like a house on fire. Then her mobile rang. “Ah”, she announced, “She’s here. Maybe you could go with Peter and bring her down?”
Yup. Among all the many good things she had eagerly told me about Jayne, she had omitted to mention that she was confined to a wheelchair.
Now, if I were in a relationship and my partner became disabled through accident or disease, I would consider myself beneath contempt if I attempted to find an excuse for walking away. I’m not saying that I definitely wouldn’t do it, just that I know I would be beneath contempt if I did.
But I don’t think most able-bodied people would put paraplegia close to the top of their list of desires when drawing up a specification for a new partner.
Even so, Jayne was undeniably pretty and love might yet have triumphed but for one small detail. Once again, we had absolutely nothing in common. Even after her misfortune, she was vastly fitter and more active than I was. Indeed, she was heading off on a ski-ing holiday later that week, and explained in some detail how it was still possible for her to get out on the slopes. I in turn explained why nothing on Earth would make me want to strap a couple of planks to my feet and launch myself down a mountainside.
Despite bearing physical witness to the consequences, she remained a fan of a wide range of dangerous sports, whereas the bravest thing I had ever done was telling an Irish joke in the Collingwood Arms in Jesmond, almost within earshot of a man who professed to be a keen supporter of the IRA.
She had no interest whatsoever in any of my vaguely artistic and intellectual pursuits. In short, it was another waste of an evening.
The next day a client asked me how my introduction had gone, and laughed uproariously when I told him the story.
“Actually,” he said, “your best chance of getting a bird into bed is probably to wheel her there and tip her into it.”
“And, of course, if she’s lost all feeling from the waist down, she presumably won’t notice how usel …”
“Yes, thank you. That will be quite enough of that.”
As I look back now, though, I cannot avoid the uncomfortable feeling that he might well have been absolutely right on both points.
Monday 7 January 2008
I suspect that my continued weight loss probably reflects temporary dehydration after the three large whiskies I drank last night, to try and prolong the good mood into which had been lifted by the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I missed the first part on New Year’s Day thanks to my participation in a strictly non-sexual orgy with my neighbours, but at least I had the presence of mind to press the “record” button before I lapsed into a coma. Hence I was able to watch both parts one and two yesterday evening. While it did not live up to the smutty promise of the opening seduction scene, and I kept expecting Sir John Middleton to launch into the “suits you, sir” routine from The Fast Show, I thoroughly enjoyed it, old romantic that I am.
My only small reservation is that I find this critically acclaimed Elinor a bit on the plain side, and preferred Emma Thompson in the Oscar-winning film. But then I was in love for many years with a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Emma Thompson. I’m sure I mentioned it to her at the time, though it clearly didn’t register as she quite recently announced, as an amazing new development in her life, that strangers at airports and the like often mistook her for Emma Thompson.
No-one has ever mistaken me for anyone else. Not just anyone famous. Anyone at all.
Perhaps I should set myself a goal for 2008, over and above the whole weight loss thing. Getting into bed with a celebrity lookalike would be quite a good one, really. If I fancied the celebrity in question something rotten, it should be a foolproof way of avoiding that sure-fire slap-round-the-face moment when your partner stops inspecting the ceiling and starts trying to catch a glimpse of the clock radio.
“What’s taking you so long?”
“Sorry, I can’t think of anyone.”
The only snag I can see is that, if they were a convincing lookalike, they’d have to be incredibly fanciable, too.
No, I don’t think I’ve got the wherewithal for that.
Oh well, back to the drawing board. Again.
Sunday 6 January 2008
Yesterday brought the shocking news that the man who displaced me in the affections of one of my ex-fiancées was in hospital after suffering a heart attack. It would clearly be in the worst possible taste to speculate on what might have caused his seizure. However, it does bring back to mind his partner’s refreshingly open and enthusiastic approach to sex.
In fact her second question on our very first date, right after “Have you had a good journey?” was “Are you interested in sex?” I gave the right answer, helped by the clue in her following sentence, “Because if you’re not I might as well run you back to the station now.” I omitted to mention that I was by now mainly interested in it as a spectator sport. She found that out later, but by then we were “in lurve” and she presumably felt honour bound to pretend that it didn’t really matter. In any case, if things had gone according to plan we would have been married within six months. And then, if all my married friends are to be believed, sex would have vanished from the agenda forever anyway.
Or at any rate sex with your spouse. “A bit of strange” still seems to exert a powerful appeal to the married male. And, helpfully, most of the single young women I have got to know in the last couple of years have had somewhere in their lives what they disarmingly call a “f***-buddy”, who in some cases has been a married man.
I have been fascinated by this modern phenomenon ever since I was introduced to it by the above-mentioned ex-fiancée. Having led a life sheltered from many things, including such TV programmes as Sex and the City, it meant absolutely nothing to me until she brought it up.
It happened like this. A Bloke we shall call Jon had temporarily moved into rented accommodation to finance a rather radical career change, and was storing many of his belongings in my fiancée’s loft. Every now and then he would pop round to retrieve something and chat with us over a glass of wine or a cup of tea.
One evening when we were alone, my fiancée brought up a subject which I have already been attacked for discussing on 26 December (too much information and all that) and said that the only man she knew who was really keen on that particular sexual practice was Jon. In fact, she displayed a truly stunning knowledge of this Jon’s tastes in the bedroom.
“Er, which Jon are you talking about, exactly?”
“You know, Jon who was round last night.”
“But I didn’t realize that you and he were …”
“Oh, we’re not NOW” she said, not quite as quickly as I’d have liked. “It’s nothing serious – he is, er was, my f***-buddy.”
“What’s one of those then?”
“It’s a friend you have passionate meaningless sex with when you’re both in the mood, with no strings attached.”
“Christ, I like the sound of that. Can I be one?”
“Oh no, we’ve got love and commitment and all that, which is so much better. You wouldn’t want to be just a f***-buddy.”
Wouldn’t I? For most of my adult life, it would have been as close to total perfection as made no difference. Why on earth couldn’t someone have stuck it on the menu of relationship options when I was about 18? I felt like a man who had been told by his doctor that he was permanently impotent on the day the contraceptive pill went on sale for the first time.
I’ve never met my ex’s new lover, but I wish him a speedy recovery and suggest that he takes it easy for a bit. They say that having a heart attack feels like having an elephant sitting on your chest, which must be nasty. Though preferable, at least, to an elephant sitting on your face. Now that really is the stuff of nightmares. Damn. I'm going to have an image of the Fat Slags from Viz on my mind for the rest of the evening.