Friday 29 February 2008

The windiest and loneliest spot on Planet Earth

More than it ought to be; more than it ought to have been (8.0 units, I reckon); 1,435; Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica.

This was probably the worst possible day I could have chosen to escape from London to a windswept hilltop in Northumberland, since doing so hardly maximized my chances of obtaining the Leap Year proposal of which I have long dreamed. As long ago as 29 February 1984, I was desperate enough to host a party for that express purpose. It wasn’t an unqualified success. As usual, I had not thought it through properly, and invited more men than women. Lots of the women came with partners, and I had failed to ensure that all the other single men present were real mingers (as they weren’t called in those days). Added to which, the women were all (like me) on the right side of 30 at the time, even if by a rather narrow margin. So, even allowing for their faster-ticking biological clocks, there was no way that any of them were going to be so desperate as to propose marriage to the likes of me. I grew increasingly frustrated as the evening wore on, and finally distinguished myself at around midnight by telling everyone to blank off home, just as they were getting down to some serious dancing. I had to be up at the crack of dawn to catch the 7.30 to Newcastle, for a meeting with the first financial PR client I had ever won through my own efforts. They’re still a client today, I’m still unmarried, and I’ve never given another party. Ever, not just on 29 February. Someone did tell me a few days later that if you want people to clear off, it’s kinder just to stop filling their glasses rather than swearing at them, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try it out.

The day actually got off to quite a promising start, when I hailed a taxi outside my London club and it proved to be driven by an attractive blonde. Finding a taxi driven by a woman of any description is still a rare enough event, but this was something really rather special. I idled away the journey to King’s Cross day-dreaming about a series of scenarios that might have been lifted straight from story-boards for the 1970s Confessions of … film series. I also composed in my head the sort of letter that might have appeared in Mayfair at around the same time: “Imagine my surprise when my reverie was interrupted by my driver pulling into a quiet mews and walking round to open the back door of the cab. As she did so, her mackintosh fell open to reveal that she was wearing only a black basque with …” At this point, we came to an abrupt stop in York Way and my driver politely requested £10, offering no extras. I toyed with the idea of telling her the old joke about the schoolboy who asked the bus conductress for a hand job, and got tossed off at the next stop, but I didn’t think it would do me much good. Let’s face it, it never has up to now.

The first class accommodation on the 09.00 to Newcastle was packed with upmarketish people on their way to a wedding in Edinburgh. (Not that upmarket, evidently, since it was presumably taking place on Saturday, the least posh day of the week to get married.) I found myself sitting diagonally opposite a mesmerizingly good-looking 30ish couple. He was tall, dark and handsome in the style of a 1930s matinee idol, though at least he was clearly none too bright, since he was reading a book of Jeremy Clarkson’s columns and I reckon he only got through one of them between London and Newcastle. His finger was not actually moving across the page, but I’m sure I caught his lips moving. She was simply gorgeous in a dark and voluptuous way, a bit like Nigella Lawson. In fact, come to think of it, maybe it was Nigella Lawson. She certainly packed some food away, including a hot sandwich from the buffet and a big, sticky bun. Eating for two, I reckoned, or sufficiently confident in her relationship that she saw no risk of it foundering when the matinee idol woke up one morning and found that he was sharing his bed with a whale.

It was incredibly cold when I got to Newcastle, and the traffic lights were flexing in the way that they always do in TV reports from US coastal cities that are battening down for a hurricane. By the time I had collected one hoarse dog from the kennels and driven home, the shrubs in the front garden and the swinger-friendly Pampas grass to the rear (yeah, well that’s what happens when you let someone else design your garden) were being blown horizontal by the gale, which was made even more fun by the addition of lashing rain. I started addressing the dog with “If you think you’re going for a walk in that …” but he shuddered at the very thought. So we huddled by the smoking fire and watched TV until it was time to go to bed. I had both my phones close to hand and checked my e-mail every half hour or so, but the proposals failed to come. (Late submissions will still be given sympathetic consideration at After a bit, we realized that there was absolutely no chance of getting to sleep because of the noise made by the howling wind doing its utmost to tear the roof off. I suggested a game of cards, but the dog gave me one of his looks, so we went to hide in a downstairs bedroom designed for the guests we never have, which proved marginally more peaceful. I finally drifted off to sleep and had vivid nightmares about the giant ash tree I no longer need to worry about flattening the house.

Thursday 28 February 2008

The strange case of the invisible jujube

I’m as out of touch with my weight as I am with the thought processes of the young or religious; I reckon I got through about nine units of alcohol with lunch yesterday (though at least I stuck to fizzy water in the evening); there are theoretically 1,436 days left in which to pull things together and turn them around; and even I’ve forgotten what the sea areas thing was all about.

Another day, another lunch at The Ivy. I hope my bank manager doesn’t read this. He’ll find out eventually, of course, but I don’t like to think of him fretting in anticipation. In my defence, I did go to Pizza Express instead last Friday, but found it wasn’t anything like as nice.

Today I lunched with an ex-girlfriend of some seven years ago, whose main preoccupation these days is caring for her five-year-old son. (Somehow that gap seems quite reassuring.) I’d forgotten what good fun she could be when not on maximum alert to prevent her loved one picking up the sort of casual obscenities that thoughtless Blokes like me tend to strew into our conversation. In fact, much though it goes against the whole spirit of this blog to admit it, I really enjoyed myself. Afterwards we strolled around to the National Gallery and took a look at the Pompeo Batoni exhibition. The heroic portraits of British aristocrats in Rome on the Grand Tour didn’t do a lot for me, perhaps because I’ve met enough of their descendants to be able to imagine how ghastly the subjects of the pictures must have been. On the other hand, I was very much taken with “Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty” and looked forward to buying several dozen postcards of it to send to my ageing friends. Typically, it was not available. Equally typically, my favourite picture in the whole paid-for exhibition proved to belong to the National Gallery anyway, so under normal circumstances it should have been possible to view it free of charge. I consoled myself with the thought that it had probably been tucked away in a vault for decades.

After an afternoon meeting in a Pall Mall club, whose rude members at least made me feel a lot more positive about my own club along the street, I wandered around to the Coliseum for Lucia di Lammermoor. I greatly enjoyed the moment when the doorkeeper practically rugby tackled a tall man for trying to sneak past her without a ticket, for it was the distinctive Paul Daniel, music director of English National Opera for eight years to 2005. In the circumstances, I thought his response of “I am conducting the show” was remarkably mild. I would never have got through that sentence without chucking in at least two expletives and the word “moron”. No wonder responsible mothers are so reluctant to let me loose in the presence of their five-year-olds.

It’s only the second time I have had the opportunity to see Lucia in more than 25 years of reasonably dedicated opera-going in the UK. On past form, this probably means that at least two other companies currently have new productions of it in the pipeline. Since I freely admit to knowing nothing about music (though I know what I like, in a Monty Python Yorkshire businessman sort of way), I probably should not pontificate about it. However, although Donizetti’s rum-ti-tum approach always seems to me to mesh more happily with comedy than tragedy, it is a cracking show. Both the principals have simply terrific voices. Anna Christy in the title role looks about 12, and the whole thing became a much more convincing case study on child abuse than last week’s Madam Butterfly, though I see from the programme that Walter Scott’s Lucia was supposed to be 17 to Cio-Cio-San’s 15. She is driven mad by an arranged marriage (ooh, little bit topical) to Arturo, who did look a bit of an effete blond poofter, but also struck me as being rather more appealing than the bearded, hairy Scotchman with whom she was besotted. There was a nasty moment when the latter burst into the wedding and was tumbled to the ground, leading my guest and I both to shield our eyes in case we were about to solve the mystery of what he wore under his kilt.

The celebrated mad scene in the second act was a cracker, involving gallons of prop blood and Ms Christy’s beautiful singing to the eerie sound of a glass harmonica. I also had the benefit of a further accompaniment from the nonagenarian cadaver next to me, which has been sitting quietly awaiting the arrival of its zip-up body bag throughout the first act, but now sprang into a sort of apology for life. At any rate, its ancient jaw started working up and down. With the mouth held open, this produced the sort of noise I’d expect to hear in the unlikely event that I ever chose to negotiate a particularly sticky swamp on the back of a camel with unusually large and flat feet. I tried to keep half an eye on him to see what on earth he was chewing, expecting him to extricate from his waistcoat pocket a type of fluff-covered jujube that had not been manufactured since the reign of King George V. But there was never any sign of input, so I concluded that he was either the world’s oldest devotee of chewing gum or simply exercising his dental plate. I shall now add him to my ongoing study on “Euthanasia: For and Against”. But which column to put him in? I’ll toss a coin. Heads for For, tails Against. Damn, heads. I should have known: “Tails, tails, never fails”. Oh well, best of three, then. Luckily I’ve got all day.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

The daughter who never was

Weight: who cares? I’ve consumed more than enough alcohol in the last 24 hours to stop me, or for that matter a charging bull elephant, from caring about anything much; 1,437; West End.

I’ve always believed that the key thing with restaurants is to keep going back to the same place. Eventually the maitre d’ will start greeting you as an old friend, which always goes down well with your more impressionable guests, while your familiarity with the menu and wine list will significantly reduce the amount of time you need to waste making difficult decisions.

Thirty years ago I encountered a pair of rich old spinster sisters who had applied the same principle to holidays. They were the landlords of a flat in Cambridge which I hoped to share with an already resident postgraduate student, and he took me around to their house for a nice cup of tea so that they could assess my suitability as a tenant. They could talk of little else but their annual break in Switzerland, from which they had just returned. “We always stay in the same hotel,” one purred as she stirred her Earl Grey. “We’ve been going there for so many years that it’s just like being at home.” Fortunately my friend had the presence of mind to wrestle me to the ground when I was only two words into my more or less inevitable response, “Why the bloody hell don’t you just stay at home, then?” Thanks to his timely action, I duly passed their Tenant Suitability Test.

However, I was moved to question my philosophy this lunchtime when I returned to the scene of last night’s supper, and our waiter addressed me quizzically. “Weren’t you in last night, sir? Sitting over there with your daughter?” True, in certain parts of the North East I would make a positively ancient parent for my PR lady friend. But in middle class circles, where late breeding is the norm, it seems positively insulting. It’s lucky for him that I got rather drunk by the time I left (just for a change, you understand) or I might have been tempted to knock the 12.5% service charge off the bill. As it was, I explained rather coldly that she was neither my daughter nor my girlfriend. I added that I knew he had made a very positive impression on her, and offered him her phone number. For some reason he ran screaming towards the kitchens.

Today’s lunch was with two Blokes who were friends at both school and university. One of them tried to order a main course as a starter, while the other had to have it pointed out to him that eggs followed by eggs for starter and main might be considered an odd choice, in an eerie echo of last night’s attempted steak extravaganza. I reckon it must be something in the air. He made a spirited comeback, though, by ordering Scotch woodcock for afters: a dish consisting of scrambled eggs and anchovies, his selection of which became all the odder when one realized that he didn’t actually like anchovies.

I seem to be surrounding myself with the adult equivalents of those tiresome children one encounters in the papers from time to time, who have attained celebrity status by eating absolutely nothing but chips or eggy bread since they were weaned. I think they need a good slap, and I don’t just mean the kids.

We were sitting next to a corner table occupied by three ladies who were clearly celebrating a significant birthday for one of their number. I scored maximum brownie points by raising a glass in their direction and saying that I well remembered what fun I had when I turned 25. They became quite matey under the influence of alcohol, insisting that we share their chocolates with our coffee. I wonder how things might have turned out if the one of our number pretending to be a high-powered lawyer hadn’t responded to the call of his BlackBerry and returned to the office.

I’ve always wanted to participate in an impromptu orgy with a group of ladies who lunch – though only, of course, in theory. Whenever any practical possibility of that sort has arisen, I’ve invariably made an excuse and left, in the finest traditions of the News of the World. I suppose the last opportunity was when I was in a bar in Newcastle with a well-lubricated (in the sense of drunk) bisexual woman who was pestering me to accompany her to the city’s most notorious gay pub, with a view to picking up some stray female for a spot of threesome action. I bribed a taxi driver to take her home instead.

On a much earlier occasion, a colleague and I conducted a job interview with a most attractive young lady, which extended over a spectacularly drunken dinner. In the course of this, she made it graphically clear that she would be prepared to do absolutely anything to secure a job. I suddenly remembered how late it was, and went home alone. The real mystery here is that we did not employ her, particularly given the calibre of some of the people who did make it onto payroll.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and with the benefit of rather a lot of it I can’t help thinking that my bank of deathbed reminiscences would have been considerably enhanced I have had gone along with these and the regrettably small number of similar proposals that have come my way over the years. Perhaps I have had too delicate a conscience about sparing the clearly barking mad from the consequences of their actions.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

One tragedy after another

I’ve no idea what I weigh, though I did have one more meal than usual yesterday, and about eight units of alcohol (in total, not on each eating occasion); 1,438; Lost.

I had a curious lunch today in a rather good Italian restaurant in St James’s with a couple of friends. Curious partly because the food was authentically Italian in taking a long time to appear and being utterly delicious when it did so, while the staff looked and sounded authentically Italian, too; yet when I asked for a glass of Prosecco as an aperitif, our waitress responded “still or sparkling?” and clearly imagined it to be a type of mineral water.

It was also curious for my host’s comprehensive disregard of English conventions. When our second friend arrived and asked him “How are you?” he replied “I’m having a breakdown”. Acceptable behaviour on an American daytime chat show, perhaps, but not what one expects in the land of the stiff upper lip. I e-mailed him afterwards to point out that this was the equivalent of blurting out “I’ve got terminal cancer” in a country where even “I’m a little bit poorly” is considered thoroughly over the top, the approved form of words being “Mustn’t grumble”.

I acknowledge that I’m not the best person to comment on this, as in my London PR career I often spotted colleagues frantically signalling to clients that they should not ask me how I was, as I’d more than likely give them a full and detailed answer. Still, at least I am able to bore for Britain on the subject of depression, after more than 30 years’ experience of it. Whatever today’s “major study” may have concluded, I believe that anti-depressant drugs do work, though the preferable solutions are working out what is making you depressed (if there is indeed an external cause – there rarely was for me) and doing something about it (if you can, which is not always possible).

More generally, the answers are to get up early, keep busy, take plenty of exercise, cut down on food and drink, keep socialising with real friends and constantly remind yourself that the feeling of despair won’t last forever. Writing is excellent therapy, too, which is why I won’t be stopping this blog however much sarcasm about self-obsession it may attract. It’s as good as cognitive behavioural therapy, and only wastes the time of half as many people. Surely this can only be a good thing?

This evening I took a London PR lady to the opera. I was frankly amazed when she turned up on the dot of 7p.m, as arranged, and only mildly surprised that she did so at the Royal Opera House, despite the fact that I had dropped a series of hints to the contrary in successive e-mails, including repeated use of the words "English National Opera", "the Coliseum" and "St Martin's Lane". I was rather more taken aback when she rang me at 7.15 to report that she was "lost", and proved to be walking purposefully along the Strand away from Trafalgar Square. Total ignorance of the location of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and its associated Lane might be forgivable in one visiting from Alnwick or Mars for the first time, but seemed a little bit odd in a long-term resident of the capital.

My guest finally panted into the Coliseum as the last bell was ringing, and paid rapt attention throughout Anthony Minghella’s ravishing production of Madam Butterfly. This was certainly preferable to the behaviour of one young man in the row in front of us, who was so bored that he started flicking through the e-mails on his BlackBerry during one of the most heart-rending arias in the whole of grand opera.

Afterwards we went for a late supper at The Ivy, where our waiter patiently explained every dish on the menu, and I patiently explained why many people would consider steak tartare for a starter, followed by steak as a main course, to be a slightly eccentric choice. I also gently made it clear that the Channel 4 presenter on a nearby table would probably prefer to remain in ignorance of the fact that she was a great admirer of his work. She kindly paid the bill and headed off to a distant part of west London in one of the fleet of limousines stationed outside the door, even though I knew for a fact that she had no means of paying for it. Not with cash, at any rate. But then top London PR ladies are renowned for their resourcefulness and negotiating skills, so I expect that the words “that will do nicely” were exchanged on the back seat later as he slid …

… her credit card into his terminal. Obviously.

Monday 25 February 2008

A twirl and a half in Covent Garden

14st 7lb; 4.0 units of alcohol; 1,439; Judaea.

I had a rather disturbed night, thanks to some early evening channel-hopping that led me to watching a chunk of the BBC’s 80th birthday tribute to Bruce Forsyth. Brucie himself is remarkably well-preserved, though perhaps best avoided in close-up. However, a glimpse of his former Generation Game colleague and ex-wife Anthea “Give us a Twirl” Redfern was enough to make anyone shudder. The effect was made worse by watching a subsequent drama, in which it became clear that the make-up artists had not had to work too hard to transform an actress I once much fancied into a haggard old crone. I woke up in a cold sweat as the objects of desire who normally inhabit my dreams transformed themselves into hideous memento mori.

Today I returned to London by National Express and my attempt to build up a dossier of serious moans received a catastrophic setback. Not only did I enjoy an excellent lunch in the restaurant car, but the cheerful lady steward even insisted on extending the restaurant by bringing a tablecloth, cutlery and glasses so that I didn’t need to move from my seat.

This evening I took a delightful lady barrister and viola player (which is one woman rather than two) to see David McVicar’s new production of Salome at the Royal Opera House. It contained many of the things I like most in life: the gorgeous music of Strauss (R) superbly played by a vast orchestra, world class singing and a generous dollop of depravity, with special emphasis on gratuitous nudity. There was an attractive young actress standing around in the buff from the minute the curtain went up, presumably to provide a subtle clue that this Herod bloke might be considered a bit of a sleazebag. The set was the kitchen of his palace, with the Tetrarch’s candle-lit dinner party going on above. There was a carcase hanging in the pantry in the background, and it looked pretty much like a pig to me. Making a subtle point, no doubt. I am still wondering what it was.

There was a near incident when Jokaanen emerged from his cistern and someone sitting in the row behind us boomed ““How can a bloke that fat possibly climb out of that hole?” He was loudly shushed and physical violence narrowly averted. The costume designer might indeed have paid attention to the fact that their star would end up paying as much attention to trying to hold his stomach in as to his actual singing.

What disappeared in the Dance of the Seven Veils was not the soprano’s clothes, as recent convention dictates, but the set. Instead it became a Dance of the Seven Rooms, involving as much dressing up as stripping off. There was a lot of lunatic flailing around rather than dancing in any recognized sense of the word, which is pretty much how people used to describe my own technique in the days when I went to May Balls. The climax involved Nadja Michael in the title role splashing herself with water from a Belfast sink (a common feature of King Herod’s Judaea, apparently), producing much the same outcome as a Miss Wet T-Shirt contest. Her subsequent shenanigans with John the Baptist’s severed head were as depraved as anything I have ever seen, and I feared that I should have more nightmares. And I did, though they all turned out to feature the distinctly non-Biblical figure of Anthea Redfern and the severed head of Bruce Forsyth.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Sweetness and fading light

14st 7lb, dammit; zero alcohol; 1,440; Lethe.

It’s a hoary old cliché that nutters write in green ink. It’s also an observable fact. I therefore take some comfort from the fact that the handwritten letter forwarded to me by the local paper, in response to a recent column, has been composed in black ballpoint pen. It’s not abusive, either, which always makes a pleasant change. Quite the opposite: it tells me what a cracking writer I am (suggesting a certain lack of judgement in the sender) and sympathizes with my loneliness. And it’s from a woman, though perhaps rather an elderly one. I don’t know why I leap to that conclusion, but perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that she boasts about not owning a computer; or maybe because I’m sure I recognize her address as being some sort of sheltered accommodation. Or, of course, it could be the fact that she suggests that I might like to join her and the other old crocks on the programme of “cardiac walks” organized by the local GPs’ surgery as their contribution to the national drive against obesity. If she did have a computer, she could read this blog and know that I am actually a slightly more energetic walker than that; and could probably also deduce that my idea of hell is going out with a bunch of knobbly-kneed, elderly ramblers, whose banal conversation would ruin the silence and solitude that country walking should be all about. One of the funniest sights I ever saw was a large party of stereotypical, superannuated ramblers striding energetically along a road near Ilderton, faces wreathed in aimless smiles. Trailing along 50 yards behind the main group came a pair of underdressed and under-equipped women in their 20s, both puffing fags. One was loudly informing the other that, as a way of meeting eligible young men, joining this particular guided walk had been her worst idea yet.

So, sadly, I think I shall have to pass on the one and only response to my Valentine’s Day appeal. Of course this demonstrates a total lack of realism on my part. I’m still fantasizing about falling madly in love with some gorgeous woman in her late 30s, marrying and fathering a baby, even though I don’t actually like children, would hate having to go back to work to support a family, and would make an utterly appalling parent. Added to which, the fact that a distinctly slapdash approach to contraception throughout the 1980s never resulted in any offspring strongly suggests that I have a rather better chance of being struck by a meteorite than of procreating.

No, what I should be settling for now is a nice old lady who can hold my hand in the day room as we watch the light fade together. Only I don’t feel quite ready for that. So I spend an hour writing something for the paper that combines a spirited attack on IVF with a pathetic attempt to make a virtue out of childlessness. Which is, of course, motivated primarily by selfishness and disorganization, but turns out to be making an even greater contribution to “saving the planet” than giving up flying and driving, going veggie and disconnecting my house from the electricity grid. It’s funny how things turn out.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Getting to the root of the problem

Who can tell? Perhaps six units of alcohol at last night’s bash, to ease the pain of listening to an after-dinner speech that had clearly been written as a sermon, and was delivered like one for good measure; 1,441; Donnie (the place, not the 1970s teenage heartthrob).

I used to hang around in quite a few Godforsaken places during my so-called business life. But if I had to nominate my absolute least favourite, it would be a toss-up between the railway stations at Doncaster and Runcorn. The chauffeur employed by my client in north Wales regularly delivered me to Runcorn just as the tail lights of a London-bound train were disappearing around the corner, allowing me a full 59 minutes to savour the delights of the freezing bus shelter at the southern end of the platform. Though at least one could actually venture in there, unlike the similar shelter intended for first class passengers at Doncaster. This was always packed with trainspotters, emitting a powerful smell of junk food, unwashed clothing, greasy hair and other bodily odours too distressing to spell out. Unlike the North Eastern Railway company, which believed in splurging its shareholders’ money on vast, cathedral-like stations like York and Newcastle, the Great Northern Railway practised economy. There was never anywhere to go on Doncaster station apart from a refreshment room on the platform run by fresh-air fanatics, who propped open the doors to ensure that a year-round howling gale meant that there was never any temptation to linger. There was no station hotel next door. In later years, GNER came up with something called a first class lounge, but in my experience it was always kept locked shut, presumably to keep the trainspotters at bay.

For there can be no doubt that Doncaster is the trainspotting capital of Britain. As our train home pulls in this morning, I am strongly tempted to pull out a notebook and start ticking them off. All the stereotypes are there: obesity, spots, pebble glasses, Thermos flasks and huge Tupperware boxes full of sandwiches; notebooks, Dictaphones, video cameras; anoraks, trackie bottoms, trainers and a distressing lack of attention to personal hygiene. In fact, they look exactly like a tabloid Identikits of typical paedophiles, though one has to hope that the pointless collection of locomotive, carriage and even wagon numbers is sublimating any more sinister desires.

Yes, I think Doncaster has to take the palm, with Runcorn as a close runner-up. I must add a special mention for Most Cruelly Disappointing Station to Stalybridge, where I was also once delivered 30 seconds too late to catch my train home. Along the platform I found a wonderful station buffet, with a coal fire blazing in its grate and a fine set of real ale handpumps on its splendid mahogany bar. I couldn’t believe my luck, until I tried the door and found it was locked, as it remained throughout my 59.5 minutes on the freezing seat outside. After which I spent a couple of hours sitting on a stationary train in the middle of nowhere, because some total bastard had not only decided to commit suicide by chucking themselves in front of the preceding train, but had taken the trouble of walking to the middle of one of the longest tunnels under the Pennines before they did so. This naturally added to the time taken to collect and remove the resulting bits.

As we pull out of Doncaster, I reflect that I used to collect train and even bus numbers myself when I was a child. I’ve still got a collection of railway books and a train set in my loft. Dear God, is it any wonder that I am having so much difficulty in finding a girlfriend?

Friday 22 February 2008

The mother of hangovers though not of Parliaments

No idea; I dread to think; 1,442; Westminster.

I have what might be described as the mother of all hangovers. Yet somehow I get through a meeting at my bank to talk about theoretically important things like pensions and inheritance tax. This serves only to underline the fact that I am not particularly interested in money, which is doubtless why I never made anything like as much of it in 25 years in the City as most of my contemporaries. A pension seems pretty irrelevant, given the above assessment of my life expectancy; and even if deathclock turns out to be wrong, the pathetic size of my fund and the pitiful rates of return currently available make the chances that I will ever enjoy a comfortable retirement appear laughably small. As for tax, I’ve never objected to paying it since Nigel Lawson abolished the ludicrous, confiscatory top rates, and I feel particularly relaxed about one which will only be levied after I am dead. Having said that, I obviously do object to most of the things that the Government then wastes my money on, and would much prefer a hypothecated system which allowed me to direct all my tax payments into a fund for the construction of a new Royal yacht.

It seems very odd to me that participation in so much of the tax system has effectively become voluntary. Starting at the bottom of society with the Lottery, which is a voluntary tax on stupidity, and going all the way up to capital gains and inheritance taxes, which anyone with a bit of nous seems to be able to evade in their entirety. It pains me to sympathize with a chump like Alistair Darling, who is obviously floundering way out of his depth, but even as a right-wing Tory I find the squeals of pain about his “80% hike” in CGT rather overblown, considering 18% actually a pretty reasonable rate. Similarly my reaction to the threats of “non-doms” to flee the country if they are forced to pay up is one of “good riddance”.

This evening auntie and I go to the dinner of a literary society of which I have long been a member, though I joined in order to accumulate a set of books rather than to enhance my social life. The appeal of the evening was that it was being held in the House of Lords, which my aunt had never visited. We had a tour of the premises led by a man who knew rather too much detail (not all of it accurate) and who fancied himself as a comedian. Though he misses the obvious one about the sign on the lavatory door reading “Peers”. On the whole, I don’t think Ken Dodd needs to start worrying yet. Then we had dinner in that marquee-like structure on the terrace. Fine views, indifferent food and rather a struggle to make conversation. The trouble with all societies like these is that they attract obsessives to start with, and their popular events are attended by those whose obsession is at its most extreme: the sort of people who have nothing better to do than to stand by the letter box and fire off a cheque by return of post when the application form comes on. How on earth I ended up here must remain a mystery. I shall merely observe that there appears to be an exception to nearly every known rule.

Thursday 21 February 2008

The Code of the Bloke

14st 6lb; zero alcohol; 1,443; Thames.

It’s high time for a change of scene. The only snag is that I can’t leave the dog at home to fend for himself, and last year the two local kennels that he actually liked both closed down. I got around this by persuading my ancient aunt that what she really needed to brighten her declining years was a visiting Border terrier; but that won’t work this time as I’ve arranged to take her away with me as a hugely belated birthday treat. So I took him to the new kennels I identified late last year, to which he had already paid what I thought was a successful trial visit. Unfortunately I evidently misread his reaction completely, judging by the mega-sulk into which he went as soon as we arrived there. He even did that classic Border terrier thing of turning his back on me and refusing to acknowledge my presence; a favourite trick of my previous dog, who would make himself positively dizzy going round in circles on the platform of Alnmouth station to avoid eye contact with me. This was intended to underline his displeasure whenever I went off to work in London, and my then girlfriend drove us to the station to wave me off. But I’ve never known the current office holder do it, so he must feel pretty strongly on the subject.

I regret to report that the National Express train journey to London was pretty painless, if one overlooked the fact that the lavatories at both ends of the carriage were awash with what one could only hope was water. An early supper for six at The Ivy was a positive pleasure, apart from paying the bill at the end of it. And Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado at the Coliseum greatly pleased everyone else in the party, since they had not seen it before. I have seen it on numerous occasions over the 20 years or so that it has been in the repertoire, and I have to confess that memories of Lesley Garrett as Yum-Yum and Bonaventura Bottone as Nanki-Poo eclipsed those currently performing the roles – perfectly well, I am sure. Yes, I confess that there was a time when I fancied Lesley Garrett.

I have moved on to other sopranos now. I e-mailed a conductor (orchestra, not bus) friend of mine after a particularly stunning concert last month, congratulating him on his performance and confessing the lustful feelings I have long harboured towards his principal soprano. I had been stunningly well placed, only about ten feet from the stage and directly in front of her, so that I could appreciate the sparkle in her lovely eyes; yet with two rows of people between me and the object of my desire, preventing me from making a sudden lunge on top of her. I added that her appearance naked in one of my favourite Handel operas had been perhaps the absolute high point of my theatre-going life, then made some further general observations on what I would have done if I had made a dash for the stage, assuming that I was 20 years younger and had ingested life-threatening quantities of Viagra. Now the conductor has replied saying how much he enjoyed my e-mail, and adding that he had taken the liberty of forwarding it to the object of my desire “who also found it most amusing”. Amusing. Not flattering or intriguing, you will note. How am I ever to look the woman in the eye now, if we are actually introduced? I can’t help feeling that the Code of the Bloke has been offended in some way (with special reference to Section VIII: Solidarity), but perhaps there is a different version of the Code which applies in musical and theatrical circles. Louche. That’s the word traditionally applied to artistes, is it not?

Wednesday 20 February 2008

The energy shortage

14st 6lb; zero alcohol; 1,444; Sage (next to Baltic, sharp right from Fisher).

I’ve been doing something most unusual for the last couple of days. What’s it called again? Oh, yes: work. The curse of the drinking classes. As I sat at my desk yesterday, churning out someone’s annual report, a man with a chainsaw, a sort of bulldozer and a box of matches converted the remains of the tree in the field opposite into a small pile of smouldering ash. Which is ironic, considering that it was an ash when it was alive. With all traces obliterated, apart from a few sections of trunk piled by the roadside to await collection, I considered how I would react if a genie suddenly appeared and offered me the chance to put the tree back. I concluded that I would decline politely, which made me feel both guilty and insincere. After all, when have I ever been known to do anything politely in the normal course of events?

Thinking of the genie reminded me of the big laugh a client of mine got at a dinner some years ago, when he told the one about the genie emerging from the battered old lamp and offering to fulfil his dearest wish. Naturally he asked for his company to become a market leading member of the FTSE-100, with a peerage for himself. The genie pondered and said that it seemed a bit of a tall order. Was there anything else? Well, he said, you could stop my PR adviser moaning by finding him a girlfriend. “Hmmm,” replied the genie. “Run that FTSE-100 thing past me again, would you?”

Today I finished the annual report, completing the unenviable task of translating its Corporate Social Responsibility section into something resembling English. I’ve always felt the urge to make this sort of task more interesting by burying some jokes in the text, for example by making the first letters of every sentence spell out some horrifically obscene message. But luckily, perhaps, I’ve never had the energy to follow it through.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Rocking in the bedroom

14st 7lb; 4.0 units of alcohol; 1,445; Hebrides. I start the day in bed, which is where I invariably start the day now I come to think of it, listening to someone I know talking sensibly on the Today programme about Northern Rock. He is followed by an emotional Geordie, who embarrassingly bursts into tears over the terrible tragedy of it all. Well, I can think off the top of my head of at least a dozen tragedies that are more deserving of tears than Northern Rock; and an almost limitless number of better causes on which up to £100 billion of taxpayers’ money could be hazarded. Indeed, the only glimmer of light in the whole situation is that it hasn’t fallen into the hands of the egregious Richard Branson. But it seems a hellish price to pay even for that.

Such is the weight of the chips carried around on Geordie shoulders that one detects in the local media a distinct whiff of the belief that this near-collapse and nationalization is all part of some sort of evil Southern plot against the poor old North East. In fact, the simple truth seems to be that the management pursued a high growth, high risk business plan which proved – under admittedly exceptional circumstances – to be fatally flawed. Personally, I’d have allowed it to go bust but I concede that there may be something in argument that doing so would have set off a domino effect which would have brought down a series of other small banks. What I think is certainly true is that the institution and its depositors and staff would have got much shorter shrift if it had been called Southern Rock and based in a region with a high proportion of Conservative MPs.

As for the shareholders, if they receive one penny of compensation out of my taxes I shall be as angry as a Sunderland supporter realizing that he is now paying for the Northern Rock logo on Newcastle United’s shirts through his PAYE. The big hedge funds who took a punt deserve as much sympathy as the local greyhound trainer who is suing William Hill for letting him lose £2 million. The small holders who got free shares in the demutualization have lost something they did not pay for in the first place. And did not they all read the inevitable rubric: share prices can go down as well as up?

Monday 18 February 2008

The sad death of a very old friend

14st 5lb; zero alcohol; 1,446; Faroes. I believe that there are no trees in the Faeroe Islands; I know how the inhabitants must feel.

I accidentally achieved a dramatic reduction in my weight yesterday, by spending almost all the hours of daylight out of doors hacking back the overgrown trees and shrubs in my front garden. I became so fixated on getting the job finished before dark that I even forgot to eat lunch. And I did it, with the sun setting as I carted the last of the pruned branches from my holly tree round to my next door neighbour’s front garden, which is considerably larger than mine, and where he had generously said that I might build a bonfire.

The result of all this hard work is a dramatic increase in the amount of light entering the house. Though it is nothing compared to the effects of what happened while I was out this afternoon, at a rare business meeting in Newcastle. Just before I left, a man arrived in a 4WD vehicle and began looking meaningfully at the huge and ancient ash tree which has towered over my house throughout the two decades I have lived here. I knew what his arrival portended, for in 2006 the agents for the surrounding estate wrote to explain their Elfin Safety concerns about roadside trees, which had led them to conduct a Risk Assessment.

All this was apparently sparked off by an incident on New Year’s Day 2005 at the National Trust’s Dunham Massey Park in Cheshire, when a freak gust of wind toppled a 260-year-old beech tree which happened to have a most unlucky eight-year-old boy standing underneath it at the time. Since the dawn of civilization in these islands, this would have been regarded as a most regrettable Act of God. However, in the twenty-first century the Elfin Safety Executive started doing its utmost to pursue the National Trust and its managers for manslaughter or at least criminal negligence, thereby putting fear of the aforementioned God into every landowner in the country. Why run the risk of being sued by some ambulance-chasing lawyer if a roadside tree should fall onto a passing car? Safer by far to cut them all down, to eliminate that risk. Or at any rate cut most of them down, to show that you’ve done your best.

The agents had warned that they intended to fell or conduct major surgery on “a significant number” of trees, and I had established that the ash opposite my house was scheduled for removal. Still, the tradition in these parts is of what their letter beautifully described as “a previous long term policy of non-intervention”: the tree management equivalent of sitting in an armchair in your underwear with a can of lager and the TV remote control. And as the masterly inactivity continued throughout 2007, I had begun to hope that the tree might yet see me out, like one of those long-stay prisoners on death row in America.

Now it was clear that its time had finally come. I thought of chaining myself to it, but I had already made a thoroughly selfish cost benefit analysis, rating on the one hand its undoubted beauty and the habitat it provided for a host of insects, birds and small mammals; and, on the other hand, the fact that I had to pay someone to come round every year to clear leaves from my gutters, and lay awake during every nocturnal, equinoctial gale wondering whether a huge chunk of tree was about to join me in my bed.

Farewell, old friend: a last look at 226 years of history

Hello, brave new world: the same corner five hours later

So I drove off to Newcastle after taking one final photograph. I felt rather like a disloyal son absenting himself from a deathbed. By the time I got back it was all over and I felt a bit guilty, as I so often do. An admittedly non-expert inspection of the remains suggested that the main trunk was perfectly sound, though there were some signs of rot in the upper boughs. But then there might well have been; a count of the rings revealed 226 years of growth, so it had been there about a century longer than my house, first coming to life just after the American Declaration of Independence and before the French Revolution. Over two centuries to grow and less than an hour to destroy, judging by the fact that the team also felled in the course of the afternoon an ash of equal size and age along the road, which was at least spectacularly rotten; and three more large trees to the rear of my house, which were not part of the roadside tree exercise but were apparently causing nervousness to my neighbours in The Hovel. It seems to me that the alternative strategy of leaving the trees and felling The Hovel was not given the consideration it merited.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Why didn't I think of that before?

14st 8lb; umpteen units of alcohol and countless calories; 1,447; Porkland [sic].

The highlight of my lunch party yesterday was probably the electrical fire, which filled the kitchen with acrid smoke and produced an impressive black stain on one of my work surfaces, surrounding the molten remains of what had been my fairly new and respectably branded electric kettle. It made me feel much more sympathetic to my next-door neighbour, whose garden shed caught fire in spectacular fashion last summer, after what he claimed to have been a similarly random and inexplicable electrical malfunction. Whisper it ever so softly, but until lunchtime yesterday I had been harbouring an unworthy suspicion that it might have been in some way his fault.

Apart from that, the patés from the defunct farm shop went down exceedingly well, once my guests had got over their double disappointment that I evidently couldn’t be bothered (a) to make them a starter myself; or (b) even to disguise the fact by decanting the bought goods out of their original plastic tubs. I call that honesty. It’s the same approach that’s got me where I am today in the worlds of PR and relationships with women.

At least they were all politely enthusiastic about the main course, which I had gone to the trouble of making. It’s an unusual dish, principally involving pork fillet, avocado pears, a little curry powder and a great deal of cream. The only challenging thing about it, which I re-remember every time I feel the urge to make it, is the complete unobtainability of edible avocado pears in this neck of the woods. The shops either don’t hold with that fancy foreign muck or expect you to have thought about it a couple of weeks in advance so that you can allow time for the bloody things to ripen. Luckily I finally tracked down a couple of suitable specimens in the splendid Longframlington shop of David Carr, one of the few Englishmen who really does understand the art of grocery retailing.

What with all the cream, the butter, the rich patés, the cheese for afters (and the sticky toffee pudding for after-afters, for those who hung around long enough), not to mention the fine assortment of wines, it really was a brilliant way of sabotaging the dietary efforts of my rival in the 2008 Great Weight Loss Challenge, who was one of my guests. On the other hand, it can’t be said to have done my own campaign a powerful lot of good, either. Once again, I’d failed to think things through.

One of my other guests works for the BBC and had to watch the evening’s final of The One and Only out of a sense of professional duty. I don’t even begin to understand the appeal of all these shows devoted to tribute acts. And what exactly is the point of a tribute act imitating someone who is still alive and well and performing himself? We agreed that the most convincing impersonator was the man doing Lionel Richie, but that he wouldn’t win because the Great British Public probably doesn’t care that much for the real Lionel Richie, never mind a counterfeit. And we were right. They went for Dusty Springfield, who at least has the virtue of being dead.

Saturday 16 February 2008

A nation of would-be butchers

14st 7lb; 3.0 units of alcohol, or maybe a bit more as I don’t know how many units of alcohol there are in each small bottle of Foreign Guinness (the authorities in Nigeria seem to have more pressing things on their minds than drinks labelling); 1,448; Finisterre.

We were dismissed as “a nation of shopkeepers” by Napoleon (quoting the original Sage of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith) and it is a fact that many of our most successful companies are indeed retailers. Which is odd, really, when you consider how little natural aptitude most of us appear to have for the essential arts of shopkeeping: a willingness to be open when it suits the customer, for example, or to pretend that you are interested in what he or she wants and how to find it. In principle, I am a great supporter of local shops, and felt terribly guilty on Wednesday when a cynical calculation about range, price and convenience of parking led me to go to the spanking new Homebase on the outskirts of Alnwick to buy some replacement secateurs and loppers, rather than one of the established hardware shops in town.

Yesterday I tried to make amends when I went looking for a new ash pan and grate for the fire in my study. I wandered around both packed floors of the fine old hardware shop, looking intently, before seeking help from the man in the coat standing at the desk by the front door. He sucked through his teeth as though I’d asked for his professional opinion of a car repair or wiring job, and said what a pity it was that I didn’t want a Firemaster rather than a Baxi. He didn’t think they had any of those. But, in the unlikely event that they did, they’d be on a stand at the back of the shop. “You can’t miss it,” he concluded.

I resisted the temptation to point out that I evidently had just missed it, and that a bit of service would be quite welcome at this point. And, indeed, with the aid of his clue I found that they actually had exactly what I wanted. So I suppose it worked out all right at the end. Similarly at the delicatessen, where I eventually came away with the cheese I wanted and a pack of expensive chocolates I had had no intention of buying. Though the first interaction I had with the staff was a request to move as I was making the place a bit untidy standing at the counter, and the second, some time later, was a rather surprised enquiry from the proprietor as to whether I wanted something. It’s hard to resist sarcasm in the circumstances. “Well, you see, I made the stupid mistake of thinking that this was a shop, and what usually happens in shops is that people come in and stand in front of the counter looking hopeful, and then someone comes and serves them. Ever encountered that concept before?” He didn’t appreciate my joke about the incredible price of the Duchy Original confectionery, either. Perhaps he’s a republican or a Diana fan.

They were pretty miserable in my excellent local farm shop, too, but then they had all just been fired after umpteen years of loyal service so I suppose they had some sort of excuse. I don’t ever receiving so little in the way of thanks for spending over £100.

Still, at least they were cheerful and helpful in the butcher’s. Leading me to wonder whether the key fact about the English approach to shopkeeping is that we all loathe each other. I don’t suppose the butcher is any different from the rest of them, but at least he’s been able to work out his feelings on a carcase, using a cleaver and a bloody great knife. Whereas the hardware man and the delicatessen owner are full to the back teeth with bottled up anger, just wishing that they could lay their hands on something cold and sharp to do precisely the same sort of thing to us.

The butcher also sold me a truly excellent pie, a re-creation of one from Alnwick’s legendary past. It didn’t do much for my diet but, by God, it was worth it. And perhaps it too, in its compact yet highly calorific way, was intended as a small act of revenge upon society.

Friday 15 February 2008

Not you, Ffion

14st 7lb; a mere 1.0 unit of alcohol; 1,449; Roseden (R.I.P.)

After yesterday, which was the romantic equivalent one of those Western ghost towns with tumbleweed blowing down the street, I feel it behoves me to spell out what I am looking for. A woman, obviously. Ideally one still of child-bearing age, though actual child-bearing will probably not be required. I don’t think I’d be much of a father, even if I could manage the necessary preliminaries. Added to which I’ve got five godchildren who are all counting on their inheritances, hoping against hope that I don’t manage to spend it all before I go.

So what am I after?

Let’s start with the obvious, for a man. Looks …

It’s difficult to be specific, so let me put it like this. Many years ago I arranged a dinner in York for a well-known confectionery manufacturer and a group of City analysts, and made the elementary mistake of not producing a seating plan. (I was new to the job in those days.) Having left things to chance in this foolish way, I happily found myself sitting next to a fine old gentleman stockbroker who had picked up an MC during the Second World War. Across the table sat the luckless chairman of the confectionery company, next to the incredibly pushy and almost unbelievably ugly woman who had replaced me as an analyst when I moved from stockbroking into public relations. The old war hero quizzed me politely about my career, and I told him where I had come from. “Aye,” he said, for he was of Scottish origin, “yon firm disnae follow food companies any more now you’ve left, does it?”

“Oh yes it does,” I said. “My replacement is sitting just there, right next to the chairman.”

He looked up and for the first time she registered in his rheumy old eyes. A stunned silence then fell upon the room as he yelled, in a voice that would have carried right across any regimental parade ground, “Oh, Jesus Christ! What a terrible sight!”

Ideally, I’m looking for someone who doesn’t produce that sort of reaction. At least not every time.

Additional desirable qualities include a sense of humour. Indeed, getting down to specifics, it would be quite helpful if you were one of those people who find William Hague amusing (apart from you, Ffion). That’s because I have stupidly bought two tickets for a glittering dinner with the funniest man on the Conservative front bench in Gateshead (Ah! The glamour!) next month, and I’m going to look an even bigger idiot than I actually am if I end up going with either my cardboard cut-out of Margaret Thatcher or a blow-up doll from Ann Summers. You don’t need to be a Tory, but it would obviously be helpful if you could remain vaguely civil in their company, even after you have had a drink or two. A tendency to spit noisily on the ground every time the Blessed Margaret is mentioned would probably be a no-no, I fear.

On the whole, a tendency to snog other women at the dinner table is not desirable in principle, though it certainly added to the hilarity of the occasion when the last woman I took to a Tory Ball did just that. She claimed afterwards that one of her drinks must have been spiked, though she didn’t suggest for a moment that I had been responsible for doing so. And I wasn’t, though it would certainly have served me right if I had done, given that the result was so spectacularly counter-productive.

Looking slightly longer term and further afield than Gateshead, it would be pretty useful if you liked (or, at the very least, felt you could tolerate) opera and were either (a) in possession of five posh frocks, or (b) were the sort of woman who didn’t mind wearing the same posh frock five times. Hang on, I got distracted there by the large Middle White pig buzzing around my standard lamp. The reason for this stipulation is that I’ve just taken delivery of my 2008 batch of Glyndebourne tickets and it would be quite handy to have some company, to be honest. You get some odd looks when you picnic on your own.

All applications should be sent in the strictest confidence to Oh, all right, Ffion, you can give it a go if you absolutely insist.

P.S. The above-mentioned analysts’ visit to York was also the occasion of the finest ad lib I heard in my City career. It came at the end of a long talk about the origins of the Yorkie bar. Which, as any fule kno, was actually made in Norwich. However, the brand manager explained, they decided to name it after the city where the company was based. Cue voice off from bored analyst: “Bloody good job you’re not based in Goole, then.”

Thursday 14 February 2008

A point slightly lower than the Marianas Trench

14st 7lb; 9.4 units of alcohol yesterday – no, let’s be honest and call it 10; 1,450 days to go (a nice round number); Rockall.

So here it is again; the day of the year which only Christmas Day can hope to rival as the low point of every singleton’s life. And, let’s face it, Valentine’s Day wins the contest hands down every time.

It didn’t start well when I found that my recent weight loss had gone into reverse, but then I suppose it’s hardly surprising given the amount of alcohol I consumed yesterday. But I was working hard outdoors under what might be described as a blazing sun, certainly by the standards of Northumberland in February, and I felt I deserved a glass of beer with my lunch. So I opened a bottle of Adnams, which advised me in the small print on the back that it contained 2.8 units of alcohol. (You get into the habit of reading the small print on the backs of bottles, jars and packets, when the only obvious alternative is attempting to strike up an intelligent conversation with a Border terrier.)

Then I felt I deserved another one with my supper, and of course it’s frightfully moreish so one bottle wasn’t quite enough. That got me to an outrageous total of 8.4 units, but I was still perfectly sober and hardly felt as though I’d participated in some sort of binge drinking orgy, even though the Government tells me that I shouldn’t be consuming more than 3 – 4 units a day and 21 per week. More fool me to put this on a blog, I suppose. There goes my chance of ever getting any treatment on the NHS, even before I confess to having had a large malt whisky as a nightcap.

Guess how many cards I got this morning. Go on, guess. You’re right, of course, and not just on the technicality that Royal Mail don’t actually manage to deliver around here until the afternoon.

I kept checking my e-mails in the hope that someone would respond to my column and encourage me to whisk myself away from all this. Preferably to some sort of orgy, at which binge drinking would be permissible but not obligatory. No such luck. As predicted, I ended up alone on the sofa (even the dog sugared off to bed rather than cosying up to me) watching Ashes to Ashes. Which is, as numerous correspondents have pointed out to me, markedly inferior to the original and best Life on Mars. But there is one critical difference from the point of view of the late-middle-aged male viewer from the North East, namely that I never actually fancied John Simm. Keeley Hawes, on the other hand … well, the name alone does it for me. There can’t be many actresses named after a brothel in Tokyo entirely staffed by girls from New Zealand. I wonder whether it was the inspiration of her parents or of Equity?

Wednesday 13 February 2008

A perfect day for it

14st 6lb; 2.0 medicinal units of alcohol to promote sleep; 1,451; Viking.

For the last two years I’ve written supposedly humorous newspaper columns for Valentine’s Day, mentioning in passing that I shall be spending it alone. Each has produced some response, even though I didn’t provide anything as helpful as an e-mail address, so the ladies concerned had to go to all the trouble of Googling me to track me down. This year I did get the paper to print an address and – so far – absolutely nothing. Which just goes to show the wisdom of that old advice about playing a bit hard to get. And maybe not making it clear that you are absolutely desperate. Now with the added disincentive that I may well choose to write about the resulting disaster on this blog (though, to look on the positive side from the point of view of a shy female, there is virtually no evidence that anyone reads it).

It would be another perfect day for a long walk, being warm and sunny without the slightest breath of wind. But, instead, I decide to spend it out in the garden hacking back overgrown trees and shrubs, of which I seem to have an inordinate number given the modest dimensions of the plot on which my house stands. When I bought it, I worked in London all week and the last thing I wanted was to spend every summer weekend trying to keep a large garden in some sort of order. Now I’ve got much more time on my hands but no greater inclination to get them dirty and / or torn to ribbons. The dog is pretty cheesed off, too. No, give me a bracing walk in the hills or a bottle of something chilled and an amusing female companion any day. Any day at all. But preferably tomorrow, God, if you're listening.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Unsustainable, unlucky and rather unimpressed

14st 6lb; 3.0 units of alcohol; 1,452; Coquet (thinking ahead to the effect on sea levels of global warming).

I seem to be losing weight at the rate of a pound a day, which is clearly unsustainable. On the other hand, I don’t see how a regime which yesterday included a pint of real ale and a huge plateful of fish and chips in a Wooler pub could be classified by anyone as a “crash diet”.

Today I decided on more healthy exercise in the hills, taking advantage of the good (ooh, short-sighted value judgement there: I mean “unseasonal”) weather. I therefore drove to Rothbury to collect a picnic lunch before another long walk. I was much gratified by my reception at Barclays Bank, to whose staff I gave some well-deserved compliments in my newspaper column a few weeks ago. Unfortunately this did not have the ultimately desired result of a small wad of notes being passed across the counter with a sly wink, in the style perfected by the butcher George Jones in Dad’s Army.

I then walked up to the Home Bakery to pick up a delicious steak and onion pie and a caramel slice. Such is my luck that I realized too late that the vaguely familiar Bloke standing next to me at the counter, waiting while they assembled his healthy wholemeal salad roll, was none other than my doctor. I fear that he will now treat my claims to have adopted a vastly improved lifestyle with severe scepticism.

The dog and I did a circular walk from Lordenshaws to Spylaw and Coquet Cairn, then back over the summits of the Simonside Hills. I last did it in August 1995, and had stored fond memories of it for 12½ years. In fact, I’ve been thinking during these last few days of revisiting walks that the things which have stuck most firmly in my memory during the last couple of decades are walks and travel. Work is a hazy memory, along with books and films. Perhaps physical activity helps to fix things in the ageing brain? In which case, maybe I should try doing my reading on a treadmill?

Of course, if physicality is the key, I should also be consoled by some wonderful memories of sex. The fact that I’m not is a bit discouraging on all sorts of levels.

Anyway, perhaps like sex (if I ever experience it again) the walk proved nothing like as marvellous as I had expected it to be. There were wonderful if smokily hazy views across to the Cheviots from Simonside and the other summits, but I could have benefited from those just by climbing straight to the top, thereby saving myself three hours trudging across heather moors, peat bogs and ankle-turning, felled conifer plantations.

Intrepid expedition leader reaches the top of Simonside; his Sherpa collapses

They’ve assembled all the materials to build one of those granite paths right across the top of the Simonsides, and the initial scramble up from the car park towards The Beacon has already been replaced by a stone staircase. I’m not a purist about this; I’d rather walk across the top of Cheviot on stone setts than experience the previous, lovingly accurate re-creation of the Battle of the Somme. Even so, it can’t be long before they get around to supplementing the paving with Stannah stair lifts to promote disabled access.

Hikers' highway under construction across Dove Crag, Simonside Hills

Give it another 12½ years, and I’ll probably need one. Oh no, I’ve just remembered, I’ll have been dead for some time.

Monday 11 February 2008

The fires of doom and the breasts of opportunity

14st 7lb; 3.0 (approx) units of alcohol; 1,453 (fall of Constantinople to the Turks); Farne (not so much a sea area, more a local real ale).

Well, we certainly carped that diem, the dog and I. A morning sleeping and writing, respectively (maybe we should try swapping roles sometime), then out for a sustaining pub lunch and a longish walk into the Cheviot Hills from Humbleton, just north of Wooler. The sun shone and visibility was marred only by the smoke from a series of fires set to burn off the heather, thus encouraging the young growth on which grouse apparently subsist. Personally, I’m a little puzzled by the evolution of a species which requires humans to manage its habitat quite so intensively. The gamekeepers also need to provide it with strategically placed piles of white grit, which the birds store in their gizzards to break up the heather shoots so that they can digest them. When we finally destroy ourselves, my money is definitely not going to go on grouse inheriting the earth, no matter how unfavourable the odds may look on cockroaches.

The true spirit of Northumberland: Hedgehope defies the smoking ban

I always fondly imagine that the Blokes in charge of this “controlled burning” know what they are doing, then pick up the Northumberland Gazette and see reports of how the resulting conflagrations have kept every fire appliance in the county fully occupied all week.

Talking of fire appliances, I noted on the way back that someone has erected an enormous poster outside Wooler fire station, proclaiming “BREASTFEEDING – the best possible start in life”. What next? “FOOD – the best thing to keep you alive”? (I originally wrote “to put in your mouth”, then another possibility sprang ineluctably to mind). The poster is decorated with a huge picture of a particularly gormless looking baby that might be described as “hideously white” if it were not so pink. If I were from an ethnic minority, I’d definitely make a point of being offended. And it looks decidedly male, too. Though, to look on the bright side in the never-ending battle to promote diversity, it could easily be Polish.

Personally, I’d have thought a picture of a nice pair of breasts would have conveyed the message just as effectively, while adding to the gaiety of approximately half the population, but what any of it has to do with the fire service continues to elude me.

The hills are ablaze, without the sound of music
Anyway, I stood towards the top of Gains Law and admired a vista of the whole Till Valley lying under a pall of high, black smoke. I’ve not seen anything like it since the EU outlawed post-harvest stubble burning in the 1990s (in the interests, I always assumed, of “saving the planet”). I predict one of those splendidly enjoyable conflicts where I don’t give a toss about the final result (of which the Iran-Iraq war was the supreme exemplar). If we don’t burn the heather, the grouse will die; but if we do burn the heather, we’ll all die. Probably. Though now I come to think of it, hasn’t James Lovelock written that atmospheric pollution actually helps to protect us against global warming?

There was a truly splendid sunset as we drove home, bringing to mind that classic line of Eric Morecambe’s: “Red sky at night means a shepherd’s cottage is on fire.”

Sunday 10 February 2008

Humming the theme from The Great Escape

14st 8lb; 4.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,455; Portland.

This is a story of escape; an attempt to free myself from the surplus pounds that are weighing down my body and to lift away the useless possessions under which my free spirit is trapped. I will then advance purposefully onto the broad sunlit uplands of happiness and fulfilment, hand-in-hand with some delightful new partner, and live happily ever after or at any rate until 4 February 2012 if deathclock has got its calculations right (though, as my brother pointed out in an e-mail the other day, according to them he has been dead for 14 years, and it has proved really quite pleasant and enjoyable).

I wouldn’t hold your breath for the happy ending, if I were you.

But at least advances were made on all fronts today, when I spent a productive morning filling bin bags with the sort of clothes that I would be too embarrassed to offer to Oxfam; hideous suits and shirts with a high polyester content predominated, and there was the small bonus of finding an IOU for £10 in one pocket, from a man who is amazingly still alive.

The River Coquet at Shillmoor

After an early lunch the dog and I drove up the Coquet Valley to Shillmoor, intending to take full advantage of the late afternoon sunshine with a healthy walk. As so often happens when one parks in a deserted spot in the middle of nowhere, a Land Rover Discovery containing a couple and a large Alsatian drew up seconds after I did. We proved to be doing exactly the same walk, but they tackled it in the opposite direction, so our interaction was confined to grunting at each other at the halfway point. Whether they always intended to do it that way round, or adapted their plans to avoid dogging me (in the nicest possible sense), I do not know; but if the latter, I shall take this opportunity to say that their consideration is all too rare and very much appreciated.

The road to Batailsheil Haugh (not one to say when drunk)

I’d done the circular walk along the Usway Burn to Batailshiel Haugh, then over Saughty Hill to Clennell Street, a number of times before. The last occasion was seared in my memory because it was a day of exceptionally high winds; indeed, I chose the walk quite deliberately because the first section is in a very deep and sheltered valley, and there are absolutely no trees liable to blow onto one’s head. But I’d failed to take account of the fact that the final stretch over Copper Snout and Saugh Rig is very exposed, and found myself struggling to stay upright in the teeth of the gale. When I got back today, after an altogether calmer experience, I looked in my diary to see when this was, and found that the answer was 29 January 2000. Eight years ago, and I remember it rather more clearly than yesterday. Where does all the time go, and why is it determined to reach its destination with such indecent haste?

Dawn French or a breeze-block shed? This one's Out of Bounds to Troops

Shortly after finding that IOU this morning, I made a much less welcome discovery. Some 25 years ago, a client presented me with a magnum of Dow’s 1955 port to show his gratitude for my work on an unsuccessful takeover bid. This was in the innocent days before I’d started slapping in absolutely vast bills for this sort of thing (which should have been inflated in this case by the fact that it ruined my Christmas, now I come to think about it). I’d put the port aside for a “special occasion” that never quite arrived. Although it had been stored quite properly on its side, this was under far from optimum cellar conditions and I noted this morning that the cork had dried out and around an eighth of the contents had evaporated. Unable to face simply pouring a few hundred quid’s worth of port down the drain, I tried to salvage the residue to the best of my ability. And this evening I sat in front of the television and drank a fair bit of it alone. It would certainly offend the eye of a connoisseur, but it tastes all right to me. I’d have to spend £250 on another bottle of Dow’s 55 to find out whether it’s anything like as good as it ought to be, and I don’t feel that I am up for that. However, I am finally absorbing one important lesson along with the cloudy port: carpe diem. Never again shall I reserve for a special occasion something that I might enjoy today.

Saturday 9 February 2008

Unproductive and spineless

14st 9lb again this morning; two units of alcohol yesterday evening (orange Curaçao and Drambuie, which is probably something of a nadir. On the one hand, at least they weren’t mixed together. On the other, it’s a thoroughly depressing thought that, once upon a time, “experimentation” late on a Friday night would have had sexual connotations); 1,456 days left; Fair Isle.

In my determination to get back to a calorie-reducing writing regime yesterday, I decided that I should re-start the Big Novel that has been my theoretical life’s work for as long as I can remember. So I dug out my numerous previous efforts in an attempt to assist the creative process by working out where I had been going wrong. As a result, I again spent the whole day reading instead of writing, with predictable results so far as my waistline was concerned. I was also slightly unnerved by reading a critique I had produced of my third attempt to reduce my magnum opus on the last days of the pre-Big Bang City to manageable size, and finding that it was dated 8 February 2007. So perhaps my life really is not merely in a rut, but a loop.

Today I made an excellent start by getting up early and actually doing some writing in the morning. But then my aunt rang up, in the role of the inevitable man from Porlock, and proposed popping up to see me. At least we found a pub within ten miles that does a perfectly acceptable lunch (though it will no doubt have changed hands and gone completely off the rails by the time I return to it), and had an agreeable, gentle walk in the afternoon sunshine. As Beryl Bainbridge remarked on the repeat of Desert Island Discs I heard yesterday morning, if she’d led a normal, happy life she would probably never have written a word. It seems very strange, in the circumstances, that there aren’t several yards of books on the shelves of the nation’s copyright libraries with my name emblazoned on their spines.

Friday 8 February 2008

Why books should carry health warnings

14st 9lb (unfortunately not a misprint); one lousy unit of alcohol; 1,457; Heligoland.

I take just one day off writing and put on two pounds: how fair is that? Clearly moving my fingers across a keyboard consumes vastly more calories than sitting slumped in a chair, turning the pages of a book. Maybe this is the real reason why dieticians recommend that persistent fatties keep a “food diary” of precisely what they have stuffed down their over-active throats. (And I’m not writing that last sentence from personal experience; I’m merely quoting press reports.)

This adds another important element to the established therapeutic value of writing this. There was another cartoon in this week’s Private Eye about the pointless self-absorption of bloggers (so no need to clip it out and post it to me anonymously; I’ve already seen it) but the potential annoyance to others (which can always be avoided by not looking at the thing) must surely be weighed against the good it may be doing to the writer.

Depression seems to be a hereditary condition. My father certainly suffered from it by the time he reached the age I am now, when I would have been seven. (I was an afterthought, if that’s the word I want; it’s certainly one beginning with an “a” and ending with “t”.) Maybe five years later, he was sitting with his head in his hands saying “I wish I was dead” and I piped up “So do I!” He was utterly horrified, and began explaining to me that he was an old man who had known many disappointments (I now know exactly how he felt), but I was just a young lad with my whole life in front of me: how could I possibly wish that I was dead? “Oh”, I replied cheekily, “I don’t wish I was dead; I wish you were.” I don’t think I really meant it, and at least it stopped him moaning for a bit.

Anyway, for some 35 years now I have been subject to periodic bouts of what Churchill called Black Dog, but I haven’t had so much as the hint of one since I started writing this thing. True, there may be suicide victims all over the planet who have been tipped over the edge by reading it, but I’m all right, Jack. Long may the therapy continue. Because, you see, it’s “saving the NHS money”. Can there be any higher moral purpose in the Britain of 2008?

In an attempt to cheer myself up over the whole weight thing, I spent some time this morning going through my wardrobe. Around the turn of the century, I had a number of suits made with a spare pair of trousers, which I told the tailor to make with a waist some two inches smaller than my regular pair, to allow for the huge amount of weight that I was just about to lose. I am happy to report that these finally fit me perfectly. So if you spot a Bloke walking through Newcastle in absolutely pristine, smart, snugly fitting suit trousers, paired with a knackered old jacket that is clearly far too big for him, that will be me.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Two big mistakes

14st 7lb; two units of alcohol; 1,458; Thames. Not because I’m in the South East but because it’s the nearest sea area to Reading, which is what I spent all day doing. As an antidote to yesterday, when I spent all day Writing.

What I mainly read were books, unoriginally enough, but I also made a thorough examination of the local press. From which I learned that I was completely wrong in asserting that none of the participants in the Alnwick Shrove Tuesday football match would even have been born when I last attended it in 1987. The scorer of the first hale for the victorious St Paul’s side was 35, and it was his eighth hale in the 25 years he has been playing. He now plans to retire.

I was also shocked to learn that my local farm shop is closing down for good next Friday, after 20 years in business. Going rather against the trend, one feels. The lady who established it handed it over just over a year ago to her daughter-in-law, who has decided that she needs to spend “more time with her children”. If she’s got any going spare when they are off at school (they are six and 10), she could write a much-needed counterblast to that book of Nicola Horlick’s, explaining why you can’t in fact have it all.

I was by no means her best customer, but the shop’s meat was superb and they made some excellent pies and other pastries. Added to which, I went in one Saturday last year to buy some paté for a dinner party (obviously intending to pretend that I’d made it myself) and was served by some young posh totty so jaw-droppingly gorgeous that I completely lost the power of speech. For the first time I really identified with my sometime stockbroking colleague Merv the Perv, who used to organize an annual cricket match between the Stock Exchange and Roedean School. In those days Merv suffered from a heart condition (but not any more, because he’s died of it) and he had the misfortune to black out while at the wicket. He came round to find 11 concerned, 18-year-old Roedean fielders gathered around his prostrate form, and announced afterwards that he really did think that he’d died and gone to heaven. I hope it lived up to expectations when he finally got there.

It’s enormously frustrating to live surrounded by naturally raised animals and not to be able to buy meat (and for that matter milk and other dairy products) direct from a nearby farm. Added to which, many of my neighbours were totally reliant upon this particular farm shop for their dinner party supplies (and for job lots of delicious canapés for their other social events). I reckon that we could be on the verge of a great exodus of the middle and upper classes, trekking across the veldt in their 4x4s to establish a new laager within striking distance of Northumberland’s only branch of Waitrose, more than 40 miles away in Hexham. Anyway, let’s hope so, eh?

Wednesday 6 February 2008

A swivel-eyed lunatic speaks the truth

14st 8lb; one unit of alcohol as a nightcap; 1,459; Tyne.

Accession Day; the 56th anniversary of the demise of His Majesty King George VI. I interrupt my reading in bed to turn on Radio 4 at 7, in the hope of hearing the National Anthem to mark the occasion; I am not surprised to be disappointed. If I were in London, I might well wander along to Hyde Park to witness the 41-gun salute fired to mark the day. A spectacle which even a diehad reactionary has to admit has been enhanced in some respects by having so many of the horsemen manning the guns of the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, replaced by pretty girls.

Still, it is an odd fact that these traditional centrepieces of patriotic rejoicing should have been downgraded to the point of almost total invisibility at precisely the time that the Prime Minister is banging on about the need to promote “Britishness”. But then no odder than his decision, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to have Britannia removed from our coinage in its imminent re-launch to promote a more “modern” image. The fate of the traditional symbols of Royal authority remains cloudy, but there are enough straws in the wind: the preference for fatuous logos to define Government departments rather than the Royal arms, for example, and the search for a new national “motto” in place of “Dieu et Mon Droit”.

The sad reality, of course, is that neither monarch nor Prime Minister matters very much these days. All important decisions are handed down to us in the form of directives or regulations from the European Union, and Her Majesty has been reduced to the status of one of those tribal chiefs who are permitted to go on practising their traditional rituals with the witch doctors in some African republics. The outstandingly odd thing, given the staggering way in which we betrayed their economic interests when we applied to join the then Common Market in the 1960s, is that she remains the nominal head of some genuinely sovereign states such as Canada and Australia.

The more I read on the subject, the more staggering the deception practised on the British public to drag us into this anti-democratic dictatorship becomes. We entered an organization following a clear and explicit blueprint to create a federal United States of Europe with a single government, currency, legal system and foreign policy, in which the constituent nations were to be allowed less autonomy than the 50 states of the USA. And we did so under the influence of a pack of lies about it all being about “trade” and “jobs”. The lies have continued unabated to the present day, in the claims that the Lisbon Treaty is radically different from the Constitution (which it isn’t) and that a referendum is in any case unnecessary because it will receive detailed, line-by-line Parliamentary scrutiny (which it is now clear that it won’t).

The trouble is that the great mass of the British public seem to care far more about the standing of their local football team or the celebrities on Dancing on Ice than they do about the removal of their most fundamental rights and freedoms. And anyone who speaks the truth on the issue is instantly portrayed as some sort of swivel-eyed lunatic. I wrote a piece in the local paper yesterday which was mainly devoted to cracking what I thought were some not altogether bad jokes about Derek Conway. Knowing what a turn-off it is, I carefully introduced the subject of the non-referendum right at the end, since I am convinced that the fact that we all know that they are a bunch of powerless liars is at the root of the contempt in which the British political class is now held. To my dismay, the paper chose to highlight my European point in their “call-out” quote, probably halving my readership at a stroke.

As well as being Accession Day, it is by pure coincidence Ash Wednesday. Most appropriately, as I start the morning covered in the stuff, after attempting to empty the ashpan of the Baxi grate in my study. Normally I tip the contents into a plastic bag, but today they are too hot to make this practicable. The attempt to use a galvanized bucket instead ends in the sort of mess to which I have not been party since I reluctantly gave up sex. As I am cleaning up afterwards, it occurs to me that I could avoid this in future if I simply bought myself a second ashpan, which could be slotted into place while the other was left somewhere to cool down, like one of Fanny Craddock’s cakes. Given that I have numerous certificates purporting to prove that I am an intelligent human being, how can it have taken me all of 20 years to work that one out?

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Prejudice and pride

14st 8lb; two units of alcohol; 1,460; Bailey.

I finally achieved the supreme accolade of having my name dropped in someone else’s column in the local paper yesterday; albeit only by my losing rival in the Great Weight Loss Challenge. Worse still, it was mentioned in same breath as that of his pal Richard Stilgoe, the minor 1970s TV personality turned fabulously high-earning lyricist. It’s not the company I would have chosen, though I consoled myself with the thought that it could have been much worse: he could so easily have been writing about the recently deceased Jeremy Beadle.

Whenever Stilgoe appeared on Nationwide in the far distant days of my youth, I felt a powerful urge (a) to switch the set off, and (b) to hit him. Jeremy Beadle apparently had the same effect on the entire nation, and only the personal intervention of Greg Dyke prevented him from suing one tabloid for incitement after they urged their readers to give him the punch in the face he so richly deserved. Yet I don’t believe it was just the convention of not speaking ill of the dead that led everyone who actually knew Beadle to say last week what a genuinely decent and likeable Bloke he was. Similarly, my rival states that Stilgoe is “one of the world’s genuinely nice chaps”.

So what can my prejudice be based on? The common factor seems to be beards. My knuckles certainly itch whenever I see Richard Branson (who seems to be the exception to the “actually, he’s a really nice Bloke” rule). But – and here’s the odd thing – I have worn a beard myself for significant chunks of my adult life, shaving off the last, hideous example as recently as 1 January 2007.

I am also powerfully prejudiced against fat people, as readers of yesterday’s entry will have noted, and that has done nothing to prevent me being overweight for most of the last half century. I think I detect a pattern. The same sort of distorted thinking that might lead a black man to try and join the BNP.

Musing on whether other people’s urge to punch me in the face increased exponentially when I had a beard, I drove into Alnwick to observe that focus of local pride, the Shrove Tuesday football match. I hadn’t been since 1987, and was a bit depressed to reflect that nearly all the participants hadn’t actually been born then. Most of them looked as though they should have been at school, but perhaps an enlightened head teacher told them to look upon it as an unconventional PE lesson. An American “university” occupies part of Alnwick Castle, meaning that there were quite a few American accents among the players, which must have added considerably to the pleasure that the local bruisers derived from the ensuing mindless violence.

On our way to the Big Match

We assembled outside the bailey of the castle (you see, those sea areas I put in the first line aren’t just meaningless babble on the lines of “Mornington Crescent”, though I’ll admit that they are mainly that) and only pure technical incompetence prevents me from bringing you a stunning action shot of the match ball being flung from the battlements, as tradition demands. Tradition also demands that the ceremony be performed by the Duke of Northumberland, but he had clearly found something better to do and his younger brother Lord James Percy stood in for him. We then trooped down to the pastures by the River Aln behind the Duke’s personal piper and a couple of flag-bearers.

One of England's grander football stands

The pre-Match entertainment

The only word to describe the pastures was “waterlogged”. The players divided themselves into two teams, theoretically representing the old Alnwick parishes of St Michael and St Paul, though membership apparently fluctuate in the course of the match depending on which team looks most like winning. The object of the game is to get the ball through one of two house door frames wrapped in greenery, which are called “hales”. A bloke in a bowler hat blew a bugle from time to time, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me, and a lot of people ran around making a great deal of noise and falling over almost every time they tried to kick the ball, thereby getting very wet indeed. A number of them were girls, which I am sure is a change since 1987, but I never actually saw a female foot making contact with the ball. But then I didn’t hang around that long on the grounds that it was absolutely bloody freezing.
I was planning a witty caption about muddied oafs - but apparently that's rugby

The match goes on until one side scores two hales, however long that takes. Then the only prize – the match ball – is awarded to the person daft enough to retrieve it after it has been kicked into the freezing river. Given that the Aln today was swollen with murky floodwater, the chances of some participants being halfway to Denmark by now must be quite high. It would seem an awful lot easier to me to go and buy oneself a ball at one of that nice Mike Ashley’s warm and cosy sports shops.

According to tradition, the match was originally played not with a ball, but a Scotchman’s head. Next year, perhaps.

I wonder whether Gordon Brown has any plans to visit Alnwick in the early part of 2009?