Monday 31 March 2008
Every week I write a newspaper column, which needs to be submitted by around lunchtime on Monday. Normally I start thinking about it seriously on Saturday, perhaps composing it in my head in the course of a walk, then writing it when I get home. Then I rewrite it on Sunday (or do something completely different if the news agenda has moved on) before sitting down on Monday morning to make final amendments and send it off. Today I have done precisely sod all because I felt rotten all weekend. I did think that I could always bang out 650 blackly comic words on the crass incompetence of BA, with special reference to Terminal 5, but the paper’s Monday columnist has already done that. And done it with much more authority and conviction that I could ever muster, since he actually flies with BA quite frequently. I have not done so for years, and am unlikely to do so ever again. Along, I suspect, with several thousand people who have just been the victims of their latest hubristic illustration of how not to handle the opening of a major new facility.
As I am having my bath this morning, I think how it would make 14-year-old Olly’s day if I rang the paper and told them to stick one of his columns in tomorrow instead of mine. This gives me the willpower I need to get to my desk, where I spend half an hour tapping out the first thing that comes into my head. I have overwritten, as I usually do, but once I have pared back by stream of consciousness to the required number of words I simply press the button and send it off. I don’t have the energy to do anything else. I do put in an apologetic covering note explaining that I am unwell and will not be in the least upset if it is not considered to be of publishable standard; my editor’s reply implies that he thinks it is rather better than usual. Another columnist, to whom I have sent the draft for comment, responds that it is “great: one of your best ever”. This is all a bit worrying.
Every year I buy an Alnwick, Morpeth and Berwick parking permit, even though a rational calculation suggests that I could save about £75 by just buying a ticket on the comparatively few occasions I would need to (usually when I park on the cobbles in Alnwick, and there will soon be no occasion for that when the new Sainsbury’s has killed off the few remaining worthwhile town centre shops). But then I’d never have the right change, and it would almost certainly be raining, and the machine would be out of order … In short, anything for a quiet life. The old permit expires tonight so I drove into Alnwick to replace it, and took the opportunity to do a little light shopping. This enabled me to make supper tonight my first proper meal since I got back from London: Turnbull’s excellent sausages with mashed potatoes. I resisted the temptation to stick the sausages upright in the mash, as they always did in The Beano when I was a boy, but it was a close-run thing. Then I slumped in front of the television and watched Coronation Street, an excellent BBC4 documentary about Marty Feldman and an edition of his 1970s TV show, of which I remembered every sketch from the first time around (and only regretted that it was not the one featuring the monster in the basket).
As I was about to switch off the set on came Round the Horne Revisited – the stage show with some costumed inserts to keep the audience’s interest up. It is not so long ago that I went to see this at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, but this seemed completely different so I kept watching, thinking it must be another version of the show. Then they got to the Julian and Sandy sketch where the pair are lawyers and one says, “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time” – the best line of the evening. That was the moment when it dawned upon me that I had indeed sat through the whole thing and it had gone completely out of my head. The rule of thumb goes like this. Books read or shows watched in the 1960s and 70s: retained in their entirety; 1980s: patchy recall; 1990s onwards: no, it’s gone. It’s distressing to think that I would probably make a much more reliable witness of a crime that happened in 1968 than of one which occurred yesterday, but I have just got to face it. I am rapidly turning into Jack Woolley, Ambridge’s celebrated Alzheimer’s victim. It can only be a matter of time before I progress from going into rooms full of people I should know and thinking “Who the hell are you?” to the even more dreadful “Who the hell am I?”
Sunday 30 March 2008
I really was ill yesterday: I passed the Dog Test. It works like this. I go and lie on the sofa under a duvet. The dog comes bumbling into the sitting room, leaps up onto the duvet and lies down on my chest, looking me closely in the eyes. I say “I’m not going for a walk; I don’t feel well,” and the dog either (a) accepts this and remains lying on top of me and looking at me in a concerned way, or (b) divines that I am malingering and creates an immense fuss, culminating in our departure for a walk. The answer is usually (b), to be honest, but yesterday he was an absolute pushover for (a). And it wasn’t even raining or snowing, when he tends to go off the idea of walking in any case. I have this vision that one day he will not only fall for option (a), but will go off and bring me one of his biscuits to cheer me up. When that happens, I shall know that I am not only ill, but terminally so.
I finished reading the black “comedy” and started an 822-page sub-Dickensian epic about London low life and the pioneering days of Australia, which was given to me by a kind client last year. He had adored it. I can imagine it making a brilliant page-turner on a long haul flight, of which he takes many and I take none at all. Lying on a sofa in Northumberland, I couldn’t help feeling that I might as well be reading genuine Dickens rather than a pastiche. Then the dog came leaping up for today’s Test. And I failed, miserably. Which seemed a bit unfair since I still felt as weak as a kitten (maybe he found that image provocative) and was being racked by periodic stomach cramps.
When I limped out into the conservatory I became conscious that something strange had happened. I assumed that there was a fault with the electric heater that is timed to come on at night to protect the plants from frost, but it proved to be turned off. So the fact that it was warm enough to sit out there for the first time this year could only be the result of one thing: Spring. This impression was confirmed by our walk. The verges were full of daffodils and the fields that contained only fat ewes when I headed for London were now filled with the bleating of new-born lambs. There is only one word that covers it: aaaaaah (not sure about the spelling).
I’m a bit of an obsessive about e-mail but I did not even bother to turn on my computer yesterday, which is probably an even better indicator of illness than the Dog Test. When I finally did take a look this afternoon, there were the usual several dozen ads for Viagra, penis enlargements, bukkake videos and replica watches, and the first response in several years to the advert I placed on my other website seeking a wife, girlfriend or carer. The respondent claims to be writing on behalf of a friend who is “somewhat technophobic” and not in possession of an e-mail account, though the resulting impression that she is probably in possession of a pension book is countered by the description of her “Bambi legs” as the result of “drunkarexia”. There is a reference to an article in last week’s Daily Telegraph that will explain these terms, but it proves not to exist. However, I think I have got the drift. I am sure she would fit in perfectly down the Bigg Market, if indeed she exists at all. Whether she would be the partner of my dreams is more open to doubt. As regular readers of this blog will know (if there are any) I have been known to drink too much from time to time, but I have never been under the delusion that doing so is either clever or funny. This may prove an unbridgeable gulf. On the other hand, the fact that someone has bothered to respond at all after all this time has cheered me up no end.
Saturday 29 March 2008
I really and truly felt awful when I finally woke up this morning, and resolved to spend the day in bed. I could not decide whether my pitiful condition was the result of food poisoning, alcoholic excess or some passing bug, but then I did not really care. It seemed like the sort of issue that could be resolved with the aid of some traditional black humour once they had obtained the results of my post mortem. Then I remembered that I really ought to go and collect the newspapers I had ordered from the village shop, so I dragged myself there and back before spending the rest of the day under a duvet on the sofa, in front of a roaring log fire. It probably sounds better than it was.
I am so anal that I not only have all my books sorted into alphabetical order, but into various categories (fiction, biography, history, travel etc) and split between the read and the unread. This became important a few years ago when I realized that my failing memory meant that I could easily end up reading the same book over and over again for the rest of my life. As luck would have it, the bookcase next to my bed is reserved for unread paperback fiction, so I was able to lie there this morning feeling sorry for myself and scanning the rows of titles for something calculated to cheer me up. I picked out a novel billed as “hilarious”, written by a well-known TV comedy performer. When I had finished the day’s papers I opened it with high expectations of a good chuckle, but the “humour” proved to consist of baroque violence and murder. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t find anything funny about people being killed, however horrible they may be and however inventively they are despatched. But then I’m clearly in a tiny minority as I’ve been recommended an awful lot of “hilarious” books that prove to consist of just that. Maybe I’ve got a peculiar sense of humour. Yes, I even find this blog funny sometimes when I am writing it, so I guess that must be it.
Thank God for David Renwick’s Love Soup this evening At least that raised a smile, as it usually does. And a smile of recognition at that.
Friday 28 March 2008
The date that appears on top of this entry is not a particularly good guide to when I wrote it; things are currently running seven days late, a delay which might make even National Express East Coast’s director of operations pause to scratch himself thoughtfully. The easy thing to do would be just to skip a week and say “I’ve not been well”, in the way that mediaeval mapmakers thought “Oh sod it” and left blank patches inscribed “Here be dragons” so that no-one would be likely to go and check up on what they’d missed out. But illness would not be the whole truth, and I feel I should stick to my discipline of making some comment on every day that passes (or, in my case, screeches past). After all, it’s worked a treat up to now in maintaining my fragile morale and driving forward a surprisingly successful weight loss campaign. Even though the latter probably hasn’t exactly prospered while I’ve been in London for the last few days.
I started feeling really ill at lunchtime. Halfway through my fishcake, it was, which was a bit of a bugger as I simply couldn’t finish it and the waitress was moved to ask whether it had been all right. I nodded vigorously and said, “It’s not you, it’s me”, for all the world like a man ending a relationship. But they never look like they believe you, do they? Even though, in the present instance, I was eating in a restaurant that is positively legendary for its ability to transform fish and potatoes into something delicious. Visions of an angry, cleaver-wielding chef storming out of the kitchen to confront me sprang ineluctably to mind. At least he could not take his revenge in more traditional ways, as I could not face eating anything else. Mind you, the whiteish sauce drizzled on my guest’s treacle tart did look slightly odd, now I come to think of it.
I was having lunch with my former PA. I had not seen her for five years and she had not aged a day. In fact, she’d got younger as she’d reverted to a hairstyle quite similar to the one she’d favoured when we first met 21 years ago. If only she’d also worn a striped shirt with a turned-up collar, and a single string of pearls, it would have taken me right back. She was a bit peeved because she’d had her hair done specially for the occasion, and her Bishop’s Stortford hairdresser had reacted to the news that she was off to lunch in one of London’s swankier restaurants with a yawn and the words, “Oh yeah, I had lunch there yesterday”.
We exchanged reminiscences of former colleagues, and I was able to shock her with the scarcely believable story of how one of our former clients had managed to burn himself to a crisp by pouring petrol on a bonfire and then wandering off to conduct a lengthy search for some matches to light it with. A strange thing for anyone to do if they possessed even the faintest hint of intelligence. Quite extraordinary behaviour in the former chief executive of an oil and gas company.
Then she got out the pictures of her children. They all had red hair. This seemed most unfair, just on the law of averages, given that their mother is blonde, and I don’t mean “strawberry blonde”, either. What on earth do you say? “Oh well, at least the boys will be able to look forward to going bald, and not many men have that privilege”? Or “They can do wonders with wigs these days, you know” for the little girl? I have the sort of face that always betrays my feelings. I don’t think I acquitted myself very well.
I caught a train north at 6.20 after negotiating a blockade of the platform by a phalanx of ticket inspectors, who were holding everyone up and turning quite a few people away. Their presence must have deterred even more travellers, since the train was remarkably empty, and the last time I caught this particular service it was packed. I wonder where they all went instead?
Thursday 27 March 2008
I can’t remember when I felt worse than I did this morning. The serious pain in my abdomen was clearly caused by my liver trying to escape. I couldn’t blame it. The only thing going for the early part of the day proved to be a much better than usual crop of morale-raising stories in the newspaper. I particularly enjoyed the splendidly disloyal quotes from the elder sister of the 81-year-old woman who had driven for 15 miles the wrong way up the M65, emphasizing that she has always been a bloody awful driver. That and the story about the American attempting to install satellite TV who did not have an electric drill so decided to make the necessary hole in his wall with a .22 rifle and killed his wife standing on the other side. Can this really be true, or have the editorial staffs of the Daily Telegraph and Viz done a job swap in aid of Comic Relief?
I had lunch with a cousin who moonlights as a hotelier, and he was able to explain the striking polarization of views about the restaurant where I lunched yesterday. Apparently reactions to his hotels on the internet are similarly extreme, because the only people who bother to post comments on any of those numerous review sites are his friends (who exaggerate how wonderful everything is) and his competitors (who do precisely the opposite). Of course. Stupid of me not to have worked that one out for myself. At least I need never waste a minute looking at that whole category of websites ever again.
In the evening, I went to see Never So Good, Howard Brenton’s new play about Harold Macmillan, starring Jeremy Irons. I was halfway across the Jubilee Bridge to the South Bank when a most attractive young woman hove alongside and asked whether the large concrete building up ahead was the National Theatre. It wasn’t, being the Hayward Gallery, but she was not a million miles out. I asked whether she was off to see Jeremy and she said that she was, and we walked the rest of the way together. Pretty, animated, feisty, bit of a leftie by my standards (but then, let’s face it, who isn’t?): Andrea, you made my evening. It’s just a pity that I did not have the presence of mind to hand you a card when we parted, so you will never know that. But your face and our conversation have lodged in that part of my brain protected by the “save” button, and will stay there for the next 1,400-odd days until the whole thing is wiped.
The play was absolutely terrific, too. And it would be most unfair to the lady who accompanied me to it if I did not add that she was also very beautiful and charming company (if perhaps ever so slightly worn down by overwork). We sat in the Pizza Express by the Festival Hall as she took on fuel after the show, and she told me of her eagerness to get to bed. Not with me, obviously. When I was working full time in London, I felt similarly deprived of sleep, and always seemed to be forced to get up hours before I was properly rested. Now I never have any pressing reason to get out of bed, yet consider it a success if I manage to sleep for as much as five hours a night. Another one of life’s many little ironies, no doubt.
Wednesday 26 March 2008
This was a very exciting day for at least two reasons. First because my weight was marginally, infinitesimally below 14 stone when I stepped cautiously onto the scales at 5.30a.m. And, secondly but even more importantly, because I was going on a Blind Date for the first time in many years. Naturally I didn’t really believe it until the other person involved turned up in the evening and used the very words “Blind Date” to describe what we are about. Usually, in the distant past, when I have gone out for what I thought was a “date”, I have been informed in no uncertain terms that what was actually happening was a friendly drink or meal to establish whether there were any grounds for developing from total strangers into slightly cool acquaintances. But the lady definitely said “date” and that surely implies that, at some point, if you prove to be compatible and at least one of you has drunk life-endangering quantities of alcohol, you might end up in bed together. Doesn’t it?
But all this hypothetical stuff lay far in the future as I stood on the freezing platform at Morpeth station at five to eight this morning, awaiting the 08.00 to Newcastle. Things went much as one might have expected. Shortly after the appointed time, a woman approached the Bloke in the red anorak, who was standing on the edge of the platform next to me, apparently pondering whether or not to jump, and hissed, “It’s running half an hour late!” But she must have had a long track record as a practical joker because he clearly did not believe her, continuing to stand in exactly the same position and looking hopefully northwards for the next 39 minutes, until the next scheduled train to Newcastle wheezed out of a siding and conveyed us south. The overcrowding between Cramlington and Manors would have upset even cattle of a fairly robust disposition. And talking of animals, our original train had apparently been delayed for three quarters of an hour by “sheep on the line at Chathill”. Amazing. We’ve been running passenger railways in this country for over 180 years, and they still haven’t devised anything capable of keeping animals off the tracks. You’d think Brunel would have cracked that one a while back, wouldn’t you?
At least National Express allowed me to travel on the next available train to London, and I still managed to arrive for lunch in Soho on time. I made a speech to my host about how I was not going to eat or drink much as I was going out for supper with my Blind Date after the opera, then got stuck into three courses and a large amount of booze. Jolly good it was, too. A Michelin-starred restaurant called Arbutus which seems to attract only two sorts of reviews on the internet: the ecstatic and the almost unbelievably scathing. I’d have been quite close to the former if I could be bothered to provide details, which I can’t. (A tip for moaners about the meagre portion sizes: order the tarte tatin for pudding. There was certainly no shortage of that.)
The last time I hung around in the foyer of the Royal Opera House for a Not A Blind Date At All, just meeting the sister of a friend who shared my enthusiasm for music, I found myself being eyed up by a woman who was somewhat larger than Dawn French and nothing like as pretty. I was on the point of fleeing when a very slim and attractive girl bounded up and said “Hello, you must be …” I felt an overwhelming desire to throw my arms around her and kiss her, which would of course have been absolutely the wrong thing to do on a Not A Blind Date At All.
This time my Blind Date proved to be surprisingly and strikingly attractive, and nothing really went wrong with the early part of the evening apart from the opera. Which was, I suppose, a fairly major component. It was a revival of a production of Eugene Onegin by the late Steven Pimlott, which I had missed the first time around. The fact that two friends of mine were buying tickets to see it for a second time wrongly suggested to me that it might be rather good. But what it actually meant was that they have the memories of goldfish. There was a bloody great pond in the centre of the stage for no obvious reason. True, it was invisible from our seats in the stalls, but we were made aware of its presence by the fact that people periodically went for an inexplicable splash around in it. Just the sort of behaviour you’d expect in the Russian countryside in the nineteenth century. Despair set in quite early for me, when a load of overweight peasants come galumphing on to dance along with the harvest song, looking utterly ridiculous. In fairness, it did get better in the second half when the pond was transformed into a Muscovite ice rink, sadly without Torvill and Dean. And the singing was very good, even in the absence of Gerald Finley with bronchitis. In fact, if I shut my eyes against the embarrassing events on stage and the big head of the Bloke in front of me, it was almost as good as listening to it on a CD in the comfort of my own home.
Things started to go seriously awry when we walked out of the Royal Opera House into some light drizzle and my Blind Date announced "I can't possibly walk in the rain in these boots". Somehow I displayed commendable self-restraint in not asking what, then, she had bought them for.
Ladies: those boat-shaped objects at the end of your legs with the vaguely finger-like growths at their extremities are designed primarily for your conveyance from A to B. Do not, repeat NOT, invest in any footwear that impedes this essential purpose. Otherwise worn-out comparisons with chocolate fireguards and motorbike ashtrays will spring instantly to the mind of any male companion.
My companion’s preferred solution was for me to find a taxi to convey us to our restaurant, which was all of five minutes’ walk away. Something of a challenge when some 2,000 people are coming out of a theatre at the same time, of whom approximately 1,250 also want a cab. I made this point as succinctly as I could, adding with heavy but evidently misplaced sarcasm that we could always take one of those ghastly cycle rickshaws, one of which was wobbling down the middle of Bow Street at that moment, eagerly ringing its bell. Seconds later I found myself in the care of a monoglot East European who had never heard of The Ivy or West Street, which is where we wanted to be, and took us for a tour of Soho instead. I can safely say that I have never been more frightened than I was being pedalled up the wrong side of Shaftesbury Avenue with bendy buses flashing their lights at us. We escaped death under the wheels of a van by inches.
Actually, come to think of it I have been more frightened, the time one of my barmier ex-fiancées similarly insisted on her inability to walk in the rain, and we ended up taking a rickshaw from St Martin’s Lane to the far end of Pall Mall. I have a vivid recollection of shooting through a series of red traffic lights in Trafalgar Square, partly because the rider was in a frantic hurry, but mainly because he clearly had no way of stopping the bloody thing. Something of a tropical downpour was taking place at the time, and I remember thinking that none of the motorized traffic would have much in the way of braking power, either. That was also worse because it was one of those rickshaws where the passengers sit in front of the rider. On the present occasion, I would at least have had the satisfaction of seeing the Romanian killed first. In the satisfying slow motion in which accidents always take place.
I never normally drink cocktails, but I needed a stiff drink to try and restore my equanimity when we finally arrived at the restaurant. It did not work, nor did the subsequent bottle of wine. This has rendered memories of our conversation somewhat hazy, and doubtless meant that my Blind Date went home thinking that I was a chronic drunk. While my friend with the short memory helpfully took the opportunity to tell her at the interval that I had just lost the best part of two stone. So the evening will have established in her mind that I am a dipsomaniac who, at any minute, will also reveal his true colours as a Fat Bastard. Excellent. I should think that will have done it nicely.
In the somewhat unlikely event that I ever go out on another Blind Date, Lessons Will Be Learned, as the Government likes to say. I wonder what they are?
Tuesday 25 March 2008
Now, what was the absolute highlight of today? Was it making the ten mile round trip to buy the newspapers, or ferrying eight baskets of logs and three scuttles of coal into the house when I got back from that? Was it taking the dog for a walk and not encountering any more blind rabbits? Or was it standing on the bathroom scales first thing this morning and finding that yesterday’s weight gain had miraculously melted away? So painlessly, indeed, that I am beginning to wonder whether I am losing weight because I am dieting, or because I have got something seriously wrong with me. I must have another look at “throat cancer symptoms” on Google. Or maybe I’ve finally got one of those things my mother always threatened me with in childhood: worms. They ranked almost as high on her list of worries as chilblains. More than half a century on, I still don’t know what the hell chilblains are, nor have I ever met anyone who has suffered from them. But I still can’t rest my feet on a hot water bottle for as much as nanosecond without worrying about them.
Yes, the weight thing had it. No contest.
I spent all day at my desk writing things that no-one will want to read, and the evening reading things that no-one should have written. Mainly a book about Colonel Despard, who became in 1803 the last man to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. My high hopes for a suitably gory denouement were shattered in the first few pages, when it was revealed that the sentence had been commuted to hanging (to death), followed by beheading of the corpse. Then it became clear that the author believed “drawing”, in the sentence, to refer to the dragging of the condemned man to the place of execution on a hurdle, rather than his disembowelment while still alive, which made me doubt the veracity of anything else he wrote. Later it emerged that he also believed that a major in the British army outranked a lieutenant-colonel, which brought me closer to despair than Colonel Despard apparently was when they placed the noose around his neck. He was still cracking jokes, by all accounts. At times like these, I really do wish that I hadn’t been brought up to believe that a book, once started, must be finished. Feel free to give up on this blog any time you like.
Monday 24 March 2008
The day started promisingly, after I got over my initial, depressing rendezvous with the bathroom scales, and the outside world looked even whiter than it did yesterday. People keep going on about the cold weather being exceptional for Easter, but that is not my memory at all. For two decades I lived in London and sought relief by visiting a cottage on the Northumberland moors for holidays. I never came before Easter or after August Bank Holiday, because the weather on those dates was always unbelievably awful. (I have genuinely stood in that cottage window watching a snowstorm rage outside on an August Bank Holiday Monday.) This is a cunning trick played by God, in association with the Northumbrian Discouragement of Tourism Board, to deter anyone from visiting in the intervening months. Unless you lived here, who would ever guess that October and even February often offer mild and sunny weather that is ideal for hill walking?
There didn’t seem much point restraining myself after yesterday’s blow-out, so I went out to a pub lunch with an old friend and ordered a pint of beer and probably the two most fattening dishes on the menu. At least I had the foresight to turn up at 12.15, enabling me to grab the last unreserved table in the place and adopt a look of pitying superiority as a long crocodile of less well-organized types trailed through the door in search of sustenance. My friend, who lives in London, explained his difficulties with the forthcoming mayoral election, in which he does not feel he can vote for Ken (despite being a lifelong socialist) or for Boris, in view of the latter’s “racism” (citing specifically his references to “picaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”). Having looked into this, I find that the offending expressions were dredged up by a Labour think tank from a 2002 Daily Telegraph column in which Johnson was trying to be funny about one of the Blessed Tony’s triumphalist visits as the Saviour of Africa. Which just goes to show how careful one must be about making jokes if one ever intends to run for public office. Since I don’t, I’m probably safe in describing the candidate my friend has decided to vote for as The Odd Copper. Since he stands absolutely no chance of winning, I asked my friend who he intended to put as his second preference, and he said “no-one”. This will achieve precisely the same result as spoiling his ballot paper or indeed staying at home with his feet up, but I suppose at least he will feel as though he has played some part in the democratic process.
Actually, on reflection, I don’t know why he thinks he has an unusual difficulty in not really fancying (no, stop it, one Odd Copper joke is enough) any of the main candidates. In most recent elections, I’d have put my cross in a “None of the Above” box if one had been available. Indeed making just such a provision, combined with compulsory voting, might be precisely what we need to shake up the so-called political class and force them to start taking notice of the people.
Having completed our walk in sunshine, a blizzard broke out within minutes of shutting the back door on our return home. This is precisely the reverse of the expected sequence of events. Also taking into account my fairly swift and relatively painless weight loss, I am beginning to wonder whether I have slipped through a chink in the space-time continuum into a parallel universe where everything operates like a photographic negative: the opposite of what one actually expects.
Sunday 23 March 2008
In the old days, the thing I liked best about dieting was the variety it introduced to my dreams. Visions of steak and kidney pie made a hugely refreshing change from my usual nightly cabaret of naked ladies. But this time around, I am waking early after bizarre fantasies that seem to have nothing to do with either food or sex. Today I was lost in a very large theatre and unable to find my seat before the curtain went up. Yesterday I intercepted a strange old man rootling through a bin I haven’t got, and he then reversed his 4WD through my garden wall. I expect a psychiatrist would have a field day. Coming soon: ink blots and what they mean.
Still, it’s worth waking at dawn when one is rewarded with the fantastic sight I enjoyed this morning, of the dying snowdrops on the front lawn covered in the most spectacularly thick frost I have ever seen (with a bit of snow mixed in). It’s rather a shame that I decided to have breakfast and a bath before venturing outside with my camera, by which time most of the white stuff had melted. I’m sure you’d have enjoyed a picture.
I’d pondered long and hard whether I cared enough about meeting my Easter Day weight target to cheat, but in fact I didn’t need to. And what better way could there be to celebrate than by driving to my rival’s house and enjoying a light lunch? The table setting alone was such a work of art that it seemed a shame to disturb it, but somehow we forced ourselves.
Frankly it was hardly worth the drive for such meagre fare: a wonderful pea and scallop risotto, followed by lamb done three ways (rack, shoulder and haggis, the last served on the top of an intricately layered tower of mashed potato, neeps and leeks). Then a choice of desserts: grapefruit syllabub, Amaretto tiramisu and another of those fabulous bread and butter puddings about which I went into such extravagant ecstasies on Christmas Day. I tried all of them, just out of politeness you understand, but had four helpings of the bread and butter pudding to make sure that it was every bit as good as the last one. The glamorous lady off the telly who was sitting to my right proved to do a very fine impersonation of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted saying “Go on, go on, go on”, which did nothing to encourage restraint. At least I only had a couple of miniature chocolate eggs with my coffee.
It would have been churlish to turn down a glass of champagne on my arrival, and the lamb would not have tasted quite as good without an accompanying glass of claret, or the puddings without a little dessert wine. I was profoundly relieved that I had not brought a calorie counter with me.
I made an excuse and left as soon as the lovely television person started removing her clothes, or at any rate her boots (which were closer to the kinky than the walking variety). This is a strict policy of mine when visiting households in the Tyne Valley, an area notorious for staid lunch and dinner parties descending into orgies (at any rate, that’s what it’s always been like in my fantasy world, and I’m too old to face up to reality now). But lunch had lasted the best part of five hours by then, so I did not feel that I was being aggressively anti-social.
Of course, there would have been one advantage of participating in a bit of communal nudity: it would have stopped everyone telling me that I looked absolutely perfect and did not need to lose another ounce, so must stop dieting forthwith. I have the daily disbenefit of seeing myself in the stupidly positioned mirror at the end of my bath, and know that there is still quite a way to go. I may be slightly overdoing it in aiming for 12st 7lb, as I pledged to do in the newspaper column I wrote this morning, given that I have only attained that weight twice in my life before: once at about the age of 12, on my first run up to 15 stone, and again in the summer of 1974 after an aggressive diet. But I have never yet undressed in front of a woman and had her say, “No, I’m really sorry but I can’t go through with this – you’re just too thin.” So I shall persevere for a while yet, always alert to the possibility that one day I may glance into my shaving mirror and find the cadaverous Nigel Lawson staring back at me. At which point I shall complete my ablutions as quickly as possible and make a bee-line for the nearest fish and chip shop.
Saturday 22 March 2008
I was woken at the crack of dawn by what sounded like an avalanche, momentarily creating a vision of the house lying under a deep carpet of snow, as in a pre-Global Warming Christmas card. But a level-headed investigation quickly established that the noise was in fact the result of a comparatively small amount of ice descending from my bedroom skylight.
I believe that it’s always a good idea to focus on something, and today I decided to focus on being bloody cold and losing one last pound so that I could claim to be just 14 stone on Easter morning, and to have met the challenge I took up with another columnist in the local paper in January. He had pledged to lose 21lbs by Easter, not realizing at the time that we were in for the earliest Easter since 1913 (and, indeed, as people keep telling me on the wireless, almost the earliest possible, since the formula of the first Sunday of the first full moon after the Spring equinox can throw up any date between 22 March and 25 April). He wasn’t doing too badly, albeit not as well as me. Then he went off on a two week jaunt to California, which proved less than helpful. He e-mailed me this evening, graciously conceding defeat. I was almost too weak to open the message.
The brain-numbing chill must surely mean that I am consuming lots and lots of calories just to stay alive. But I do miss the howling wind that came with the snow yesterday. In its absence, the background noises of the log fire crackling and my grandfather clock ticking are comprehensively drowned by the sound of my stomach rumbling.
Friday 21 March 2008
When I was a boy, Good Friday was – appropriately enough, I suppose – just about the most miserable day of the year. Everywhere was shut, and the newspapers weren’t published. My primary school headmaster even impressed upon us that we should not play outdoors during the sacred hours between noon and 3p.m. It’s reassuring in a way, I suppose, that the independent shopkeepers of Alnwick proved to be living up to the old standards when I drove there this morning. The Post Office, too, has turned back the clock in a way that I might even welcome, if it weren’t part of a much wider pattern of raising two fingers to the public. I can remember being astonished a few years ago, when my regular postman knocked on my front door with a parcel to be signed for on Good Friday morning. My paternal grandfather was a postman in central Newcastle, and I had been brought up on the story that Good Friday was the only public holiday he was allowed off (Christmas Day, when all the cards posted on Christmas Eve were delivered, was the busiest day of the year). I could tell that my postman thought I was barmy, so I explained that I was talking about a period before the First World War, which made things even worse. That’s what comes of having a family tree which features a lot of breeding late in life.
I made slow progress towards Alnwick this morning, as for some way I was on a winding road following a horse box with the arresting number plate CUM. I was surprised that this had made it past the censors, particularly as I read an article years ago in which a Ministry of Transport official boasted that they had not only excluded every offensive combination in English, but in every major foreign language, too. After all, a couple of innocent spinster sisters might decide to take their Morris Minor for a nice motoring tour of the Continent, and it would never do for them to be laughed at because their number plate spelt out the Serbo-Croat for lesbian. I was sufficiently intrigued to check the DVLA website, and found that they have now cottoned onto this one and taken CUM off sale (and how often am I ever going to be able to write that?)
The incident also brought back memories of the finance director of a client company who was driven almost mad by his inability to collect financial reports from his subsidiaries, because the corporate e-mail censor blocked anything that used the obvious abbreviation for “cumulative”.
Talking of car registrations, on my way into Newcastle on Wednesday I followed a spanking new Land Rover Discovery with the number plate P111 KEV. I concluded that this must belong to a Bloke called Kevin who was involved in the pill trade. But the car seemed perhaps ever so slightly ritzy for a pharmacist, while the plate was surely recklessly blatant for a drug dealer. If you’re reading this, Kevin, do feel free to elucidate.
I’d again intended this to be a day of wholesome exertion in the hills, but the weather proved an even more powerful deterrent than it did yesterday. For most of the afternoon and evening, the wind whistled around and indeed through the house like something from the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic, bringing with it first driving rain, then sleet, then hail and finally snow. When I let the dog out before we went to bed, I could not help thinking of brave Captain Oates. The dog too was gone for some time, but came back in and shook himself vigorously, spreading crap all over my kitchen floor. Maybe the real story is that Oates did precisely the same thing, and was then beaten to death by his comrades for fouling the tent.
Thursday 20 March 2008
A correspondent has challenged my theory that the Wooler Common car park is the dogging capital of north Northumberland, on the grounds that the good folk of the Wooler area are far too busy lambing to be bothered with all that malarkey. I am dubious about this, since the old Northumbrian formula, as I understood it, was always “Tup on Guy Fawkes Night, lamb on April Fool’s Day”. In support of my belief, there are no lambs at all in the fields around my house (and, in anticipation of your pedantic objection, there are quite a lot of ewes).
Another correspondent claims that the sign about dog fouling in the same car park is entirely genuine, as this is apparently an issue which much exercises the Northumberland National Park authorities. All I can say to that is that I hope they never re-introduce bears to Kielder Forest, as the resulting signage will make it look like the very worst kind of seaside boarding house.
There’s not a lot else to report, to be honest. I’d intended to make this a day of extreme hill-walking, to assist my final push for 14st 0lb on Easter Day, but the weather proved a powerful deterrent. The dog and I managed only a gentle stroll around some local lanes, where I probably suffered a net calorie gain thanks to the sweet old lady who habitually pops out of her cottage halfway round and presents me with a Werther’s Original toffee. (She also gives the dog two small biscuits, in case you are concerned about him.) In the absence of vigorous exercise, I had to fall back on extreme dieting, which resulted in a distinct falling off in my creativity and vigour. I wonder if anyone apart from me can tell the difference?
Wednesday 19 March 2008
I wrote a column in the paper yesterday, much savaged by someone in the design department who found it less interesting than yet another bloody picture of Bamburgh Castle, which expressed my great enthusiasm for tasteless jokes, and my disappointment that the City specialists in this area had not yet come up with a real cracker about Bear Stearns. I have now spent the best part of 48 hours thinking of little else, and drawn a blank. I feel that there must be something to be made of the fact that my next-door neighbour would say “Bear Stearns” if he were trying to convey the concept of bare stones. Rock, stones … is there a lesson here somewhere? Maybe it’s just that you should never entrust your savings to any organization that sounds like it might once have boasted Fred Flintstone as a customer.
Today I had lunch in Newcastle’s substitute for The Ivy with one of my very few remaining clients and a couple of the region’s top business journalists. My contribution was confined to filling any gaps in the conversation with Heather Mills jokes, and really, really enjoying my food. I had not realized how much my appreciation of flavours and textures would improve if I stopped stuffing myself all the time. I carefully chose what looked like the least fattening things on the menu, though for some reason they both came on a base of undercooked spuds, proudly billed as “Heritage potatoes”, presumably because the Heritage people had outbid the National Trust in some sort of sponsorship deal. Then I went mad and ordered the bitter chocolate mousse with blood orange granita, mainly because my provincial ignorance is so vast that I had no idea what a granita was (and partly to test their assurance that there were no Heritage potatoes at all involved in this course). Now I know exactly what a granita is, I’m wondering whether that infamous former restaurant in Islington, where Blair legged over Brown, would have done half as well if they had called it by its English name: Slush Puppy.
I drove back home in good time to take the dog for a walk up the hill from Biddlestone, past the isolated cottage of Singmoor. I had forgotten what a superb short walk this is, offering one of the best effort to reward ratios in the county. After a comparatively gentle climb, panoramic views open out in all directions, from the coast to the Simonsides and Cheviots.
On my descent, I passed a man reversing his van at high speed up the rocky track towards Singmoor. From the speed at which he was doing it, I deduced that he had a lot of practice in this art, and that it was his usual way of tackling the hill. It took me back to the ancient book called How To Drive A Car, which my father kindly lent me when I turned 17. That advocated tackling steep hills in reverse to increase traction, in the same helpful spirit that it recommended opening the windscreen to improve visibility in fog. It devoted an entire chapter to the art of double de-clutching. I was greatly disappointed when I got to my first driving lesson and found that this arcane knowledge was no longer required, but then I was also a bit flummoxed by the fact that the handbrake turned out to be on the inside of the car.
Now I come to think of it, something very similar happened with The Joy Of Sex and what Viz refers to as the female “go” button, but that’s a story for another time and place.
Tuesday 18 March 2008
I always know when it’s a really cold night, as the dog gets into bed with me. I’ve never encouraged this. But somehow, without ever intending it to be so, this has become a household in which the dog’s needs and desires take precedence over my own. Given my hideous difficulties in finding any human being prepared to share my bed, I suppose I should be grateful for his condescension.
I experienced a further sharp chill when I listened to the one o’clock news bulletin on Radio 4, which baldly announced the death of film director Anthony Minghella at the age of 54, without providing any explanation. He was five months older than I am. Have I already reached an age when the deaths of my contemporaries are regarded simply as a matter of course? I did not think that happened to people until they reached their 80s. I was much relieved when the evening bulletin made it clear that he had expired unexpectedly, from complications after a routine operation. (“The procedure was a complete success, but unfortunately the patient died,” as surgeons like to say.)
This evening I trekked to Newcastle to see Alan Bennett’s Single Spies at the Theatre Royal with my aunt. (I really must crack on with my campaign to start doing some proper dating.) The house was almost full; the audience all white, mainly elderly (defined as anyone who appears older than I am), and clearly all aspiring to be middle class, if they did not already consider themselves to be so. The one obvious exception on the age front was a disgusting young man immediately behind me, who sniffed loudly and persistently throughout the performance. I think this was the result of a blocked nose and a catastrophic lack of consideration, rather than a critical commentary. Still, he was nothing like as irritating as the person seated immediately in front of me when I went to see the West End transfer of the original National Theatre production on 6 March 1989. He appeared to be suffering from some variant of St Vitus’s dance. In particular, his head swung from left to right with such maddening, metronymic frequency that I eventually gave up trying to watch the performance and just focused on the audio version of Prunella Scales’s definitive representation of Her Majesty the Queen.
I most confess that the point of this revival eluded me. Over and above the bleeding obvious point of raking in money from middle class punters keen to see Nigel Havers, TV heartthrob by appointment to the almost gaga, in the flesh. Not much flesh, it has to be said, so I found him unconvincing as Guy Burgess, whom I have always pictured as a rather chunkier individual. Perhaps because my mental image was fixed by the definitive 1983 TV version of An Englishman Abroad, in which he was played by Alan Bates. And who could possibly hope to play Coral Browne better than she herself did then, even if she was 25 years too old for the part? Havers did better in A Question of Attribution as Anthony Blunt, a role which Bennett himself had taken in the London version (while Simon Callow played Burgess), but Diana Quick did not measure up to my memories of Prunella.
I had not spotted the threat to my enjoyment from the rogue sniffer because I had been more concerned about a woman a couple of rows behind who, during the exchange of pre-performance pleasantries with her neighbours, gave vent to the loudest and dirtiest laugh I have ever heard. She must spend her working days laying down the soundtracks to Jim Davidson and Roy “Chubby” Brown DVDs. If she gets going, I thought, we won’t hear a bloody word. But I needed have worried, because there was only one decent laugh all evening, and I don’t think she got the joke.
While being an admirer of Bennett’s work in general, and of the original TV version of An Englishman Abroad in particular, I left the theatre pondering a truly dreadful thought: was this actually a fruitful or enjoyable way to pass an evening? The very short Burgess play is a true story, albeit deftly told; the slightly longer Blunt one is a work of imagination, but the allegory with the Titian painting concealing five men is clunkingly obvious. I felt unsatisfied, as after the sort of meal I have been eating of late to meet my dietary target. Of course, I kept these heretical opinions to myself since Alan Bennett is an unassailable national treasure. Criticizing him in any way would be like laying into her late majesty Queen Elizabeth. And if he reaches the age of 90 and is still capable of eating a boiled egg, not only will the English think that he deserves the Nobel Prize, they’ll probably make damn sure that he gets it.
Monday 17 March 2008
This has long been a very important day in my life, for reasons that have nothing to do with Ireland or the Irish. It is my first Border terrier’s birthday, his 17th to be precise. I gave his box from the crematorium a once-over with a duster when I got up this morning, and asked whether there was anything in particular he would like to do by way of celebration. He did not reply, but then I did not get much more of a response in 2007, when he was still nominally alive.
I spent the morning writing a column for the paper, hoping against hope that someone would e-mail me a bad taste joke about Bear Stearns that I could plagiarize before my deadline, but I was sorely disappointed. After a quick sandwich lunch I drove out for a long walk in the hills as part of my weight loss campaign. My rival e-mailed yesterday to admit that he was still 14st 10lb, so he doesn’t have a hope in hell unless he has a leg off, and I’m pretty sure that I had the presence of mind to specify that amputations would not count when I was drawing up the rules at the start of the competition.
I haven’t done today’s planned walk since 1997 and was surprised, on arriving at Wooler Common, to find that the former parking space on the grass verge had become a large tarmac car park, with an information board and adjoining picnic site. I pulled up next to another parked car and was further surprised to find four eyes examining me closely: two belonging to the blonde woman in the driver’s seat, and the other two to her dog in the back. I got out to change into my walking boots and became keenly aware that she had the diesel engine of her Freelander running. She continued to observe me with close interest, even though I was behaving surprisingly normally for a man in a car park in walking country. As I tied up my boots, I became aware of another diesel car a little way off, also with its engine running. Odd, I thought.
It was only when I was some way into my walk that I suddenly twigged that I must have blundered into the Dogging Capital of North Northumberland during the lunchtime peak. That would explain why the middle-aged lady who walked across the car park as I was going to inspect the aforementioned notice board looked so thoroughly alarmed when I gave her a friendly greeting and remarked that her Border terrier looked much smarter than mine. It was probably Dogger’s code for something frightfully rude like “I want to come all over your tits.” It would also explain the strange notice on the board getting quite hysterical about a practice it described as “disgusting, anti-social and illegal”. It purported to be about dog fouling, but this is the countryside, for God’s sake. Animals shit in it. That’s what it’s for.
No, it has to a coded warning to the Dogging community.
Fortunately or otherwise, all action had to be put on hold as a crocodile of ancient ramblers made their way across the car park. They were all equipped with those twin carbon fibre poles which geriatrics like to use in the hills. I thought they were to stop them falling over, but apparently it’s so that they get to exercise their upper bodies, too. Whatever, as they say, they made them look like large insects or smaller versions of the Martians out of The War of the Worlds. I fled to ensure that I didn’t have to listen to them mithering on throughout my walk, but they kept up remarkably well for some time. Various words kept reaching me on the breeze, including pension, hip, warden, nice cup of tea, biscuits and rimming, though I think I might have misheard that last one.
I was so keen to get away from them that I did not consult my map until I had lost voice contact. Amazingly I was not on the wrong route, but I was shortly afterwards when I wilfully ignored the bridleway arrow pointing across a rough section of felled woodland, and decided to stick with the nice clear track instead. The ultimate result of that was that I missed the opportunity to walk down Hellpath, a wonderfully named section of the route which becomes a lot less enticing when you realize that it is just a corruption of “hill path”. In consequence, I did not make it to Commonburn House and only walked for two hours and five miles, rather than the seven and a half miles intended.
Still, to look on the bright side, I’ll now have to come back to do it properly. And next time I’ll be mentally and physically equipped to take full advantage of the Dogging opportunities while I’m about it.
Sunday 16 March 2008
I didn’t know him from Adam, but I really liked the style of Colin Anthony Graham, a retired insurance broker from Surrey whose unexpected death was recorded in the Daily Telegraph on Friday. Instead of the usual boiler-plate about “no flowers by request” or “please wear any colour except black” (a specification, incidentally, which guarantees that I will boycott your funeral), his grieving family wrote: “Donations may be needed by restaurateurs in mourning around London. ‘Born with the gift of laughter and [the] sense that the world was mad.’” My executors please note: your challenge is to do better than this. Or maybe I should just write the thing myself, and hope that the papers manage to reproduce it without any misprints.
My local walks over the last two days have brought home to me the fact that the campaign of tree destruction is going much further than the elimination of alleged Elfin Safety risks from the roadside. Yesterday I was sad to note the disappearance from beside a neighbouring farmhouse of a mature wood whose tall treetops were home to a large rookery. A number of the birds were flying around, cawing disconsolately. Today I discovered that a group of splendid beeches had also been felled, presumably because of their proximity to another house. They included a copper beech which I had always admired. Indeed, it has long been my favourite type of tree: the arboricultural equivalent of the Border terrier. I was particularly sad when I returned to my old college some years ago, and found that they had felt obliged to remove the gigantic copper beech which shaded the river by one of their bridges over the Cam. It was the scene of the single most embarrassing parental gaffe I have ever heard, when a mother announced to her son in a piercing cut glass voice, “Did I ever tell you that I lost my virginity under that tree?”
True, trees are a natural resource like any other, and one must expect them to be harvested. It is just unfortunate that more than a century of not-so-benign neglect (or, as the land agent memorably described it in a letter, “a previous long term policy of non-intervention”) means that there is so much catching up to do. If the promises of new planting are fulfilled, I am sure that the place will look absolutely splendid again in 50 or 100 years’ time, though this will be of little use to me. But then, frankly, how things will look in ten years’ time seems pretty irrelevant, too.
Saturday 15 March 2008
It’s a grey, wet, miserable day, ideally spent in front of a fire working my way through a great stack of newspapers, and periodically nodding off to sleep.
I’m convinced I’ve got throat cancer. I’ve had a sore throat for months now. In fact, I’d had it for months when I went to the doctor about it in January, and he told me it was nothing to worry about. When I went back in February he refused even to look at it. What a superb case this would make for an ambulance-chasing solicitor if I turned out to be right. And what a pointless one, given that I haven’t got any descendants to benefit from the windfall. It seems a bit late to start trying to beget children, and far from the most promising of chat-up lines. “Hello, would you like to go out with me with a view to having a child who can benefit from a potential medical negligence claim in the event of my imminent death?” Nah, I can’t see that one taking. I suppose I could try to adopt, but fear that I can predict the reaction if I were to try and adopt, say, a 16-year-old girl. Notably from the 16-year-old girl herself.
You will note that I exclude the possibility that my cancer might be cured. One of the exceptionally beautiful young women I went drinking with in Soho the other night worked for a pharmaceutical company, and she described their star new product as giving lung cancer sufferers a whole three months of additional life. So long as they didn’t mind feeling nauseous throughout, and coming out in a horrible rash. Mind you, she didn’t work for the marketing department, who might have put it slightly differently. I didn’t dare ask how many thousands of pounds a course of this wonder drug costs the NHS. I just sat there sipping my red wine and reflecting on the eternal truth of Evelyn Waugh’s dictum: all fates are worse than death.
Friday 14 March 2008
This morning I called on some neighbours to see whether they could shed any light on the extraordinary behaviour I encountered at the Tory fund-raiser last night. Had there been any reports of out-of-control alcoholism or Alzheimer’s which might explain or excuse the verbal assault I suffered? They had heard nothing out of the ordinary, though both pointed out that my assailant’s wife has been palpably off her trolley for years, and that sort of thing might well be catching, or at any rate inclined to push a spouse dangerously close to the edge. After some thought, one shrewdly observed that the gentleman in question had also spent much time and effort brown-nosing his way onto the board of a local institution, which had promptly sunk with all hands, and that this disappointment might well have had an adverse effect on his mental balance.
In short, I learned nothing; but at least I hoped I might have set off an avalanche of malicious gossip that will now cascade through the locality.
With truly astonishing hypocrisy, even by my standards, I next paid an eager visit to Alnwick’s new, out-of-town Sainsbury’s, which will undoubtedly squeeze what little life is left out of the town centre shops that haven’t already been converted into charity recycling centres. I have been publicly championing small retailers for years, and genuinely do as much of shopping as I can at my local village shop, and at the independent butchers, grocers and delicatessens of Rothbury, Alnwick and Longframlington. Yet there are some things which only a supermarket seems to sell, and for these I have had to trek 40 miles to Newcastle, given my reluctance to shop at what has been variously called Broughs / Liptons / Amos Hinton / Presto / Safeway / Morrisons in Alnwick. Now some serious local competition has finally arrived. It looked much like any other new Sainsbury’s, and all around one heard the classic Alnwick complaint, “There’s a lot of good stuff here, but it’s very expensive.” I don’t suppose that’s true for a minute, but if the belief keeps the riff-raff out, then it’s just fine by me. One striking contrast with the town’s established supermarket is that the staff have evidently been trained to smile and converse with their customers. My last memorable interaction at the other place was when an overweight youth took me to task for attempting to use force to release one of their defective trolleys, into which I had inserted a pound coin to no avail. I don’t think you can sink much lower than to be accused of stupidity by the sort of fat moron who is engaged to collect up the used trolleys from a supermarket car park.
After a commendably light lunch, the dog and I took a spirit-raising walk in the hills from Prendwick, up past the splendidly named Thieves Road plantation and out into the glorious Cheviot Hills.
The glorious Cheviot Hills (David in NZ, eat your heart out)
What could possibly mar the peace and beauty of this wonderful place? Absolutely nothing apart from some idiot roaring around in the distance on an unsilenced trail bike, which made a racket varying in pitch from the buzzing of a very large and angry hornet trapped in glass lampshade to the scream of a Stuka divebomber with airbrake failure. Which just goes to show that there is nowhere in this island so remote or beautiful that some selfish twat will not attempt to ruin it for everyone else.
The dog and I paused to pay our respects at the lonely stone erected at the spot where Eleanor Heron expired of hypothermia while attempting to walk home across the hills to Hartside on 3 December 1863.
As we walked on, I thought of that other apparent victim of the hills whose death has been so extensively reported in the last few days, and the numerous highly inappropriate jokes on the subject subsequently circulated by text and e-mail. Many of these have involved plays on the word “copper” or made upsetting references to the flying abilities of pigs. I shook my head sadly. Then I laughed out loud. I do hope that nobody heard me.
Thursday 13 March 2008
Long ago I bought two tickets for a Tory dinner in Gateshead this evening, in the mistaken belief that, by the time it came around, I’d have found a lovely lady to take with me. I even advertised the event on this blog, to precisely zero effect. Ah well, I thought, at least I can now forget about it and drift quietly home to recuperate from my week of overindulgence in London. Until, that is, one of the organisers rang me yesterday to say that she had found me a “hot date”. Even though I accepted this statement with a very large pinch of salt, it seemed to me that it would be impossibly rude not to put in an appearance.
So I set off bright and early this morning, tired yet resigned, only to have my already fragile spirits lowered by the cabbie who took me to King’s Cross. He described with all too evident relish the horrible scenes of chaos that I would encounter when I got there, and my train was indeed cancelled, along with every train hoping to progress beyond Leeds. On the other hand, the dire warnings that customers should travel only if their journey was essential seemed to have suppressed demand most successfully, and I had a perfectly comfortable journey to Doncaster, even more infested with trainspotters than usual as a result of the ghoulish delights of “major disruption”. Then, after an acceptably short delay, we boarded a diesel train which made its way slowly to York by some mysterious back route, then sped on to Newcastle and ultimately Aberdeen.
I had booked a long overdue haircut this afternoon, which proved to be considerably delayed because some early stage Alzheimer’s sufferer had turned up for her appointment 24 hours early, and my soft-hearted hairdresser could not bring himself to send her away. All very commendable, I suppose, and I’ll no doubt be grateful for similar understanding before too long. But I do wish that he would extend the range of reading matter in his waiting area beyond superannuated hairstyling magazines, and the worst volume of amateur poetry it has ever been my misfortune to pick up.
Someone in Tory High Command with a wicked sense of humour had decided to hold this evening’s bash in the Lancastrian Suite, a grim, gigantic working men’s club attached to the former Federation Brewery in the middle of an industrial estate in Dunston (not the smarter end of Gateshead). As usual, my PR man’s sense of propriety was offended by the fact that everyone arriving at the event chose to congregate immediately inside the door. So I grabbed a glass of orange juice and fought my way through to the hall itself, where I took up a position in a corner of the bar to do a bit of people watching. I was surprised to be joined there shortly afterwards by a neighbour of mine who has latterly done an excellent impression of hating the sight of me, and further surprised by his apparent affability. Until, that is, we started comparing notes on our attitude to the Conservative Party, and he remarked that he rarely attended events of this sort any more.
“Well, apart from that Ball at Alnwick Castle in September,” I said, cheerily.
“That Ball we were both at in Alnwick in September.”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Well, you were actually, because I talked to you and …”
“I have never been to a Ball at Alnwick Castle in my life,” he asserted with surprising vehemence, which was odd since we not only spoke at it, but bid against each other in a silent auction. Still, things seemed to calm down after that and we had a further period of rational conversation about matters of mutual interest like music and dogs. Then he made to walk off, before turning on his heels like Columbo with one last question. Only it was not so much an enquiry as an assertion that I must be terrifically pleased to have got rid of the enormous ash tree outside my house. My real feelings, as described elsewhere, are mixed, though if it had been my property I would have left it there on the grounds that its right to life was at least equal to mine, and that it was arguably both more decorative and more useful than I am. However, my expression of mild scepticism about the need for the whole Elfin Safety anti-tree campaign was taken as the cue for a tirade of foul-mouthed abuse which left me reeling. Derangement is regrettably common in my part of Northumberland, usually caused by alcoholic excess, but this was a bit of a stunner even by local standards. When Sir John Hall remarked that I was looking “forlorn” as I stood alone by my designated table shortly afterwards, he hit the nail squarely on the head.
My “hot date” either did not turn up at all (there was an empty seat at the table) or turned up with someone else and failed to introduce herself to me. However, all was not lost by any means, as a very beautiful and charming blonde lady provided a perfect demonstration of traditional Conservative good manners by taking pity on me and engaging me in conversation throughout dinner. (For this, when the party is returned to office, I trust that David Cameron will recommend her for an OBE at the very least.) Sadly for me she was happily married to a gentleman on the opposite side of the table, who bore a truly astonishing resemblance to Boris Johnson in both physical appearance and mannerisms.
William Hague made a speech containing some good, but well-worn, jokes about the likes of David Blunkett, John Prescott and Hillary Clinton, though the best laughs I had from the evening came when someone introduced the diminutive Alan Duncan as “the shadow miniature for Teesside”, and later when the Boris Johnson lookalike shared with me a most inappropriate text message joke about the late Chief Constable of Manchester.
There were some excellent bargains to be had in the auction for party funds, in which I would undoubtedly have participated if I had not been stone cold sober. Looking around the room, I noticed a number of well-known multi-millionaires, all of whom kept their hands firmly in their pockets. But then that, no doubt, is how they got to be multi-millionaires in the first place.
The auctioneer sadly misjudged his audience when he tried to raise interest in a bottle of House of Commons whisky signed by Margaret Thatcher by quipping that “It’s the one that Denis did not drink”. One of those silences ensued that Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer would have filled with the tolling of a bell and tumbleweed blowing across the set. Jolly unlucky, I thought, as any other room full of drunks in the North East would have been guaranteed to fall about. What’s more, having once met Denis at a similar event, I feel sure that he too would have seen the funny side.
Wednesday 12 March 2008
Whenever the press covers a story that one knows a bit about, one cannot fail to be struck by their inaccuracies. Incidental pleasures in this morning’s cuttings on my client included one paper (which, fortunately, nobody reads) interpreting “a year of progress in 2008” as a profit warning, and another printing a picture of completely the wrong person. Not a bad result, then. Give self a modest pat on back.
I had lunch at my club with one superannuated stockbroker and another who is continuing to work at a most unfashionable age. Both have grown-up daughters and spent some time comparing notes on the cost of weddings. One (quite rightly, in my view) considers them to be a colossal waste of money and has set both his daughters a maximum budget, adding that they may elect to accept a cheque for that amount rather than splurging it all on a big party. This is clearly intended as a major test of their prudence, and I can foresee a significant rebalancing of his will if they jump in the wrong direction.
We had two very fine bottles of Puligny-Montrachet and the man who did not have an office to return to headed off into Pall Mall, perhaps ever so slightly unsteadily, at 3.30 p.m. I myself closed my eyes for an instant and found that it was time to walk to the National Theatre for tonight’s performance of Major Barbara, a play with much contemporary resonance given that it was first performed in 1905. That, no doubt, is why the National chose to resurrect it. Various Shavian aphorisms about the purchases of peerages and the powerlessness of politicians in the face of capital set heads nodding in agreement, though the line that got the whole row in front of me performing like the back parcel shelf of a 1970s Cortina was “A father’s love for a grown-up daughter is the most dangerous of all infatuations.” Which took me neatly back to the conversation over lunch. Not the best play I have ever seen, by any means; not even the best Shaw play I have ever seen, but a worthwhile evening of top class acting, notably by the peerless Simon Russell Beale.
Walking back across Waterloo Bridge, I noted that someone had been stencilling on the paving stones: “Life is Boring”. Well, I suppose it might be if you could think of nothing better to do than applying ink to the pavement. On the other hand, it might be some form of viral marketing: a subtle, consciousness-raising campaign for an oil exploration company, perhaps? Traversing Trafalgar Square, I was surprised when a swarthy man in a small red car suddenly mounted the pavement and drove at a fair lick across the pedestrianized area in front of the National Gallery. He was wearing one of those woolly hats that I always associate with Benny from Crossroads, and take to be an infallible badge of a total moron. I wondered whether he was a terrorist planning to destroy the traditional Heart of the Empire. It then occurred to me that, if anyone in the area was a moron, it was me for standing around gawping to see what would happen next. What certainly did not occur is the sequence of events that would undoubtedly have unfolded if I were to attempt to drive across Trafalgar Square, namely being surrounded by armed police, dragged from my vehicle and disabled with a Taser gun. Still, no doubt his image and car registration number will have been captured by at least a couple of dozen CCTV cameras, and I consoled myself with the thought that this would greatly assist the subsequent enquiry if an atrocity did take place.
Tuesday 11 March 2008
I spent a large part of the morning in my former London office attempting to open a dialogue with a pigeon. It arrived on the window sill very much in the style of the huge bird which used to commune with Bristow in Frank Dickens’s long-running cartoon strip, and seemed to be taking an intelligent interest in what we were doing. Which is probably more than I did, though at least I wasn’t caught out passing the time updating my blog, as happened yesterday. I breakfasted on a couple of “iconic” sausage rolls and listened attentively to a series of conference calls with the media, and an analysts’ meeting to which people actually deigned to come in person. I was wondering throughout, as I always do, “What could possibly go wrong?” But amazingly, so far as I could see, nothing did.
Bristow's bird (the only one I had the presence of mind to photograph today)
At lunchtime we visited an old Smithfield pub, once lauded by no less an authority than Sir Clement Freud as the home of the finest mixed grill in Britain. It had been closed for months for a comprehensive revamp yet, when we opened the door, it appeared that nothing had changed at all. Apart from the curious omission from the menu of the “signature dish” that had made the place famous. Probably just as well for my diet, though, as it was something in the nature of an eating challenge, to be ranked alongside the late Abdul Latif’s infamous “Curry Hell”. I had a couple of pints of a very decent IPA and gammon, egg and chips, which for some unknown reason was served with a savoury brown sauce that tasted a bit like last night’s faux brown Windsor soup. This added nothing to the experience. As I got stuck into the chips and my second pint, one of my clients observed rather acidly that he looked forward to buying the forthcoming book which would reveal the secrets of my successful diet.
I spent the afternoon wandering rather aimlessly around St James’s and Jermyn Street looking in shop windows. The only place I actually bought anything was an old-fasioned barber’s shop, which charged me £28 for a bottle of shampoo and another of hair tonic. I’m sure they just make up the first number that comes into their heads, depending on how prosperous or how big a mug the customer looks.
In the early evening my friend the film critic kindly took me to a screening of Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky. While a feelgood Mike Leigh movie seemed like a contraction in terms, I had been greatly looking forward to it since a columnist in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph gave it a rave recommendation, asserting that it could not fail to cheer anyone up. Since the critic is the one man I know who is reliably more miserable than I am, I realized that we were going to constitute some sort of ultimate test, but I really did go along with an open mind and my laughing gear well lubricated. I’m sorry to say that I’ve spent shorter and happier two hour stretches in school physics exams, and that far from the heroine displaying what the Telegraph called an “inner glow challeng[ing] at every turn the overwhelming condition of gloom”, I just found her the most irritating and childish female I had ever encountered, and would have been prepared to appear in court as a character witness for anyone who clocked her one.
The critic concurred, suggesting that the praise being lavished on the film could only result from the same sort of relief that people experience when an old man who has been sitting in a corner for 20 years, muttering to himself between occasional Private Frazerish pronouncements that we are all doomed, finally says something vaguely civil and positive.
We felt we needed a drink to recover, and spent the remainder of the evening in his Soho club, in the company of two extraordinarily beautiful and charming young women. It made me realize how much I miss by living a reclusive life on top of a hill in Northumberland. On the other hand, if I had stayed in London and gone out drinking on that scale every night, I would undoubtedly have died of liver failure long ago. One of the young women was nursing a broken heart after splitting up with a man described as “challenging”, who must be almost as old as I am. While sympathizing hugely, I could not help thinking that these facts held out a faint glimmer of hope for my own future, like a Ronson lighter which is rather low on gas being held aloft to light the way through a raging hurricane.
Monday 10 March 2008
So here it is: the day of “the worst storm of the whole winter”. True, there was a high wind and driving sleet when I left home, but I’ve actually encountered worse conditions in Northumberland on August Bank Holiday Monday, in line with the sweeping, traditional definition of our climate as nine months of winter and three months of bad weather. Although National Express kept apologizing for the fact that our train could only run at 80mph owing to the high winds, it somehow contrived to pull into King’s Cross a couple of minutes early. When I emerged from the tube at my final destination, I was greeted by a row of Evening Standard billboards, all screaming “STORMS CAUSE TRAVEL CHAOS”. Really? One couldn’t help feeling that they had them printed well in advance, like the ubiquitous and almost always highly misleading “FILM STAR DEAD”. The real truth of the matter seems to be that no-one wants to be the next Michael Fish. If in doubt, forecast the worst.
I’d made this 320-mile journey to attend the rehearsal of a presentation I wrote. Before it started, I popped out for a quick bite of lunch with an old friend, leaving strict instructions to summon me back as soon as they are ready to start. I walked back into the office as the company’s managing director was flicking to his last slide and saying, “So, in conclusion …” Marvellous.
Still, at least I’d had a pretty decent meal, though I wouldn’t have minded if they’d cooked my lamb for a bit longer. Or indeed at all.
That left me with only one arguably useful function to perform: going out to dinner with the management so that they had a handy butt for their jokes. Looking at me always seems to make people feel better about their own lives, and I suppose being the lonely, miserable Bloke that everyone else can laugh at has been at the centre of my career for the last 25 years. I’m sure there are many worse fates.
We’d booked ourselves into a restaurant which trades on its antiquity. This was a bit like eating in a museum, though luckily the food did not seem to have been stuck in a display case since the reign of George III. George VI, possibly.
For the first time in my life, I was excited to find Brown Windsor Soup on a menu and ordered it with keen anticipation. What arrived was French onion soup with what tasted like a dash of Worcester sauce. Far from unpleasant, but not the thick, beefy treat that a Google recipe search would have led me to expect. The middle-aged waiters were splendidly grumpy in the fine old English tradition, muttering about us under their breath when we were a bit slow to make our selections from the menu. Their accents were Continental, but I felt sure that they were the true heirs of a verbally transmitted tradition of rudeness, handed down through more than two centuries of regarding the customer as a bloody nuisance.
After a piece of chargrilled halibut that tasted only of the chargrill, and something involving Yorkshire rhubarb in quantities that suggested it had suddenly become a very rare and special delicacy, I wandered back to bed at my club at an extraordinarily early hour. There the full fury of the storm was finally unleashed, in the form of a persistent slap-slap-slap noise from the direction of Marlborough House. I guess it was caused by a halyard being blown against a flagpole, and tried to conjure up restful images of being lulled to sleep by the same sort of noise emanating from yachts riding gently at anchor on the Beaulieu River. Such is the state of my mind, though, that I couldn’t help thinking that it bore an even stronger resemblance to the soundtrack of the more basic sort of porn film. Hardly the mental image I want to hold onto as I finally managed to drift into blessed unconsciousness. I prefer my porn to be rather classier than that.
Sunday 9 March 2008
It would be hard for even a towering literary genius of the calibre of Jeffrey Archer to construct a readably interesting blog entry out of my typical Sunday: lying in bed reading the newspapers I failed to get through yesterday; doing the ironing while listening to the Archers Omnibus and Desert Island Discs (Liz Smith has had to wait until she is 86 for her invitation, so there is hope yet); packing my bags for a trip to London; taking the dog for a walk. Yet without these interludes of domestic tedium I’d undoubtedly burn myself out by spending every evening on the ale. It is the Geordie way, after all.
I sometimes think that these quiet and homely days would be more pleasant if shared with someone I loved, over and above my Border terrier. But then wouldn’t the fact that my companion was bored out of her mind make for friction and a combined assault on the drinks cabinet that meant we might as well have gone out after all? Unless, of course, I landed one of those sweet old ladies who are never bored because they have got their embroidery and their Sudoku puzzles, the complete works of Mills & Boon and the People’s Friend; plus, if all else fails, the chance to spend an enthralling evening counting their own liver spots. It won’t be long now before I’m with them in the day room, waiting for the cheery jangling of the undertaker’s bells. Oh no, that’s ice cream vans rather than hearses, isn’t it? I’m always making that mistake. I’m not sure what the man from the funeral home put on my last cornet when I asked for chopped nuts, but it was certainly smokier and grittier than I'd hoped.
Saturday 8 March 2008
A day of high winds and lashing rain on which the most exciting thing I did was eating for my lunch an M&S ready meal that was two days past its use-by date. It was quite a comedown from Newcastle’s very own version of The Ivy, with its entrancingly beautiful girl on the next table and its erotically wobbling rhubarb jellies for dessert. Eventually. But on the other hand it gave me the same sort of buzz as any successful gamble, when I got through the day without having to make an Olympic-contending sprint for the lavatory.
I’d been looking forward to an evening in front of the television, watching the programmes I had recorded while I was out at the theatre during the week. But a bizarre malfunction of my DVD recorder meant that they had been captured only in black and white. I have a long debate with myself on whether watching Coronation Street in this format would lend it some special period charm, but eventually opted for catching the omnibus edition tomorrow instead. With this crucial issue resolved, I was able to settle back with a two-week-old edition of Ashes to Ashes to explore the crucial question surrounding Keeley Hawes in her tapered 1980s jeans: does your bum look big in this? No true gentleman could possibly publish the answer.
Friday 7 March 2008
Today I decided to embark on a little experiment and dug out a new bow tie in the striped colours of my old college, which I must have bought in Cambridge years ago. By wearing it with a three-piece suit and a watch chain, I wanted to discover whether it made me look as big a prat as the Fat Bloke from the theatre earlier in the week. It is my equivalent of those bold journalistic experiments in which people smoke skunk cannabis or live for a month on nothing but McDonald’s Super Meals.
The first test came when a leading PR man kindly took me for lunch at Newcastle’s very own version of The Ivy. He had made the mistake of also inviting a leading journalist, so we were kept waiting for 45 minutes while the hack made his way from some mysterious hospital appointment. He denied that it was at Ward 34, but then it became clear that neither of them had the foggiest idea of the significance of “Ward 34”, which was the euphemism favoured for Newcastle’s clap clinic. It made me feel very old, particularly as I am sure that it remained a staple of Viz cartoons until quite recently. They’ll be telling me next that there isn’t a special ward in the General Hospital devoted exclusively to Brown Ale drinkers.
It was typical of my luck that I’d driven to this assignation, and was therefore unable to use the time profitably by getting completely palatick, as they once used to say on Tyneside.
The food, when we finally got to order, was very good. But I discovered that the effect of wearing my bow tie was to render me completely invisible. After our fishcakes, I sat for some time waving at two waitresses, one of whom had moved on from the classic technique of avoiding eye contact to making eye contact and then tossing her head aside contemptuously. True, attracting their attention should have been our host’s job, not mine, but as luck would have it he had positioned himself with his back to them. Eventually the top journalist rose to his feet, walked across the restaurant and stood 18 inches away from the less rude of them, asking in his best Sergeant Wilson style if she’d mind awfully popping across and taking our order for puddings and coffee, which she then did.
I think my inability to attract attention it must be a personal thing rather than the effect of the bow tie. If it were down to that, how did the Fat Bloke ever get to be so fat? Still, if it really does make me invisible, might it be worth trying a further experiment in the changing room of a netball team? My companions dissuade me from trying it.
My host offered the implausible excuse that the staff were a little distracted because we were lunching in the presence of local royalty: the centre forward of Newcastle United and Sir Bobby Robson. I’ve vaguely heard of Sir Bobby, but have no idea who the footballer is. Indeed, it came as surprise to me to learn that they still employed anyone as old-fashioned as a “centre forward”, which sounded to me like a curiously 1950s concept. Maybe that is indeed the secret of their lack of success.
Still, at least it made a pleasant change to have some company. Normally our regular lunchtime visits to Newcastle’s top restaurants are distinguished by the fact that we are their only customers. Inviting the question why they choose to open in the middle of the day at all.
In the evening I went for my third dose of opera this week: The Adventures of Pinocchio, with music by Jonathan Dove. It would be fair to say that I went more out of curiosity than in anticipation of a good night out, but the latter is what it proved to be. They hadn’t sold as many seats as they deserved to, but quite a lot of them were occupied by the children at whom the opera was aimed. The Theatre Royal had even thoughtfully provided tailor-made green booster cushions for their seats. It was touching to watch a solicitous parent or guardian making sure that his pretty blonde charge was seated comfortably nearby, even if it was a bit unsettling that he bore such a striking resemblance to the classic tabloid photofit of a paedophile monster.
If I had one bit of advice to offer Opera North, it would be not to schedule a performance of a child-friendly opera at 7.15p.m. on a schoolday. To which I would add the strong recommendation to avoid an unexplained delay of a quarter of an hour before the curtain actually goes up. That sort of thing makes the kiddies fractious, and has a remarkably similar effect on the late-middle-aged, too. True, all parties soon quietened down and behaved remarkably well. But in the case of the children, on the evidence of those closest to me, this was mainly because they were fast asleep. A shame, because they missed some fabulous sets, wonderful special effects and very fine singing.
Only two things marred a most enjoyable evening. First, the Fat Bloke was not there so I could not stand next to him in the bar at the interval to perform a definitive “Who Looks the Biggest Prat?” test. Secondly, the Metro back to West Jesmond had streams of urine running down the carriage and, as we mounted Jesmond Bank, I feared that we might be about to be swept away in an evil-smelling tidal wave. All very Hogarthian, no doubt, but I wondered whether it was the sort of thing that might just have influenced the selectors of the European City of Culture 2008?
Thursday 6 March 2008
I’m writing this almost a week after the event. Not that there was an event today, as such, since I’d granted myself a night off opera-going for good behaviour. The reason for the delay can be simply described: e-mail. As a relatively shy person who thinks he comes across better on paper than in person (my God, can you imagine what it must be like to talk to me?) I took to e-mail instantaneously when the technology was introduced to me. Now I can easily spend all day doing nothing at all apart from keeping up to date with my correspondence. So if you think that writing this blog is a total waste of my time, just consider the alternative. In the afternoon, I felt compelled to send a rather sharp note to one importunate correspondent, who complained that I hadn’t sent the requested “detailed reply” to his third e-mail of the day. A line has to be drawn somewhere if I am ever to do anything else.
I was invited out to lunch by the youngest member of my entourage at Madama Butterfly, who disclosed the other night that she had a bit of a thing about men in bow ties (in the context of my comments about the Fat Bloke wearing one in the bar, though at no point did she descend to saying that she fancied him). Accordingly I put on my only non-black one, in the orange and lime green colours of the Trollope Society. The only virtue of these is that they are sometimes mistaken, in a poor light, for the altogether more distinguished stripes of the Garrick Club. In the days before they were compelled to work more or less naked in the name of “infection control”, surgeons used to have a reasonable excuse for wearing bow ties as conventional ones would have kept dipping into the blood and guts, making for an uncomfortable dry cleaning bill. But in anyone else they seem to be a bit of an affectation. Added to which, I am so incredibly virile that mine get ragged from rubbing against my stubbly chin, though this problem may have diminished now that I have reduced my number of chins somewhat.
Anyway, the lady who requested it claims to derive pleasure from seeing me wear it, and that’s the main thing. I don’t think anyone else in the pub is wearing a tie at all, the tone being set by an impressively muscled young man in a tight T-shirt, accompanied by a pneumatic, bottle-assisted blonde. My hostess and my aunt are convinced that he is a sporting personality of some sort, without having a clue as to his actual identity. I rather favour the view that the couple are actors taking a short break from making a porn film in the neighbouring country house hotel, but decide to keep that thought to myself. Until now, obviously.
When I get home, the Elfin Safety work of roadside tree destruction has moved on from huge ashes and beeches to eensy-weensy little trees like silver birches, which would hardly make a dent on a car if they chanced to topple onto it. I have no idea why they have been earmarked for removal, but I am gaining an increasing sense of what it is like to be an endangered animal in a patch of rainforest, on which loggers are encroaching from all sides.