Wednesday 30 April 2008

Far more common than a Manchester tart

No idea of my weight, though presumably more than it was yesterday; a modest 5.0 units of alcohol with last night’s culinary extravaganza; 1,374; Dee, Mersey and the Shropshire Union Canal.

I woke with a start from a curious dream, in which I had just discovered that my companion’s hair smelt so strongly of coconut because her head actually was a coconut. By sinking a modest artesian well in the top of her cranium, I was able to enjoy a refreshing drink of milk while progressing my acquisition of carnal knowledge. But unfortunately the loud thumping which woke me was not the happy sound of my bed’s headboard bouncing off the wall, but music being played at high volume by some inconsiderate bastard in the next room. It was three in the morning, for God’s sake. I lay awake for about 45 minutes, thinking that I had not experienced anything quite like it since I lived in a flat above a reggae- and ganja-loving young West Indian couple in Wood Green in the late 1970s. Despite experience teaching me that it never happens, I hoped that it might just stop. Then I roused myself and accessed the Anal Emergency Pack I always carry in my suitcase, which includes a number of wax earplugs. (That’s Anal in reference to my nature rather than my particular obsessions, by the way, though the pack does include a tube of Anusol cream. And some suppositories. You can’t be too careful.)

This was great. I could no longer hear the noise. But I could still feel it. I did not really sleep again that night, and woke totally shattered. I suppose I could have complained, but in my experience the sort of people who are so boorishly insensitive as to play loud music in the early hours are not usually very responsive to polite requests to turn it down. And I still have a vivid memory of staying in this very hotel in the 1980s, when its tally of stars was a couple lighter than it is now, and I found myself next door to a party of young people who spent literally all night watching the Olympics on TV at top volume, and cheering on the participants in each race. When banging on the wall achieved only an increase in the noise level, I rang down to reception, who asked, “What do you expect us to do about it?” That sort of memory still rankles.

I got up at 7, to find that a pre-printed card had been shoved under my bedroom door saying that “We regret that owing to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to deliver the newspaper of your choice today. Should you require an alternative paper please contact the reception desk.” Huh? I stood there reflecting that it must happen quite a lot for them to bother having the cards printed. But how sodding difficult can it be to obtain a Daily Telegraph in the centre of a major British city, with a large branch of WH Smith practically opposite? As I was pondering that question, a disembodied hand appeared under the skewed, old door and searched the carpet, evidently trying to retrieve the card. The Addams Family meets Fawlty Towers. By the time I had put on a bathrobe so that I could decently open the door, the hand’s owner had gone. And shortly afterwards I did receive a copy of the paper, albeit one that had been conspicuously pre-read. Have they never heard of ironing?

After writing for a bit, I thought I might be perked up by a late breakfast. On my way to the restaurant, I encountered a similarly weary-looking couple waiting for the lift. They asked me if I knew where breakfast was served – or, at any rate, I eventually worked out that that was what they were trying to convey. They weren’t foreign, just so frightfully downmarket that I found their accents almost impenetrable. In the bad old days of Tory rule, I couldn’t understand my fellow guests in five star hotels because of their ludicrous, strangulated accents. Now I can’t work out what the hell they are saying because they are so frightfully common. I guess that must be what New Labour meant by the redistribution of wealth.

Out of misplaced politeness, I followed them into the restaurant, and was kept hanging around for about five minutes until someone deigned to show me to a table. Then for another ten minutes or more before anyone bothered to take an order. I was next to the couple from the lift, and entirely surrounded by their workmates, who were wolfing down huge platefuls of sausage, bacon and eggs and exchanging loud boasts about how late they had been up drinking – 3, 3.30, 4 a.m. Suddenly the racket from the next room made sense. It was some sort of sales reps’ convention. One particularly loud, fat, self-satisfied, stupid-looking berk was leaning back in his chair, entertaining three or four surrounding tables with tales of his exciting life on the road, with special reference to some of the more enthralling quirks of the company car policy. The urge to plant a fist in the middle of his smug face was almost overwhelming, and I thought perhaps I had better leave before I gave in to it. I’d spent three quarters of an hour waiting for a breakfast that never arrived, though I had had a pot of weak tea and a bowl full of insipid fruit salad. I was several degrees less than gruntled.

Later on, in an almost catatonic state, I caught a train from Chester to Liverpool and had a brief wander about the last surviving redoubt of the shell suit. I tried to take a look at Paddy’s Wigwam, but there was a service in progress so I could not get further than the main doors. As someone e-mailed to me after I wrote a newspaper column about the sad demise of the traditional English hymn, “these bloody Christians are ruining church for the rest of us”. Still, I was quite impressed that, even as recently as the 1960s, the west doors had been placed right at the top of quite such a spectacularly less-abled-unfriendly flight of steps. It looked more like an Aztec ziggurat than an English cathedral. I thought it would be rather a good joke to have “Jesus saith unto him, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (John V, 8)” carved into the bottom step, but clearly no-one in authority had agreed with me up to now.

Paddy's Ziggurat: how on earth would Dame Thora have coped?

Then I went to a restaurant in Hope Street and had lunch with my goddaughter, who is reading medicine at the University, to encourage her to specialize in geriatrics. Funnily enough, the place she had suggested was also the LTCB’s alternative selection for our Hot Date last night. Unusually, I had made the right choice as this was a vastly less romantic spot, featuring much bare wood in a brasserie style, with the tables packed close together. Added to which, there was no Allo Allo comedy Nazi pushing a bread trolley, or an eight course tasting menu. Though there was an actor I vaguely recognized sitting at one of the few other occupied tables, making it a bit like The Ivy would be if it didn’t have any customers. The food was good, too, in fairness, and it did enable me to say that I had got my tongue around a Manchester tart for the first time in my life.

A Manchester tart. In Liverpool. The local ones were too camera-shy

I made my way back to Chester on the train, too shattered to look at the exhibition I had planned to see at the Walker Art Gallery, and tried to get some sleep. Unsuccessfully, as ever when one is really tired. But last night’s Hot Date can’t have gone quite as badly as I feared, because the LTCB volunteered to meet me for a drink this evening, leading me along a towpath by a torpid canal into what appeared to be an area of some dereliction. I had a fleeting vision of waking up in an abandoned warehouse in a bath full of ice, with a pain in my back where my kidneys had formerly been. But, no, we were soon in just the sort of pub I like best: quiet, with books lining the walls, real ale pumps lining the bar and a range of excellent food. I downed three pints of Thwaite’s and some particularly delicious mushrooms with bacon and cheese on toast. Then the LTCB let me take her hand as we walked back in the general direction of my hotel, and …

Good Lord, is that the time?

Tuesday 29 April 2008

She didn't sweat much, for a fat lass

13st 10lb (which is a major improvement or a minor setback, depending on your previous reference point); only 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,375; Cheshire at long last.

So here it is at last; the most important day of my life since the last time I went on a fruitless blind date. Though this one at least starts from the encouraging premise that we have exchanged numerous e-mails and talked daily on the phone for the last week or so, and seem to have got on reasonably well. Much to the dog’s disgust, I left him in the tender care of my aunt and drove across to Chester in the early afternoon. I was outwardly calm, but the fact that I twice almost caused multiple pile-ups by trying to pull out to overtake when a car was already speeding past me suggested that I might be ever so slightly distracted. The only other obstacle I encountered was a distinct shortage of petrol, with the first service area I called at on the M62 having none at all, and the second rationing it. Clearly the Grangemouth refinery dispute is biting, and / or Gordon Brown has taken personal charge of fuel distribution.

My friend Tom had given me sound advice to smarten myself up a bit: buy a new suit by Armani or some similar fashionable designer, and a new shirt that would complement it. Whatever I did, I should not wear a tie. But even if that had appealed to me in principle, which it did not, I am far too mean to invest in a new wardrobe when I am still hoping to shed another stone. So I advised my date that I would be wearing a blue three piece suit with a watch and chain, to aid identification, adding that I would be carrying a copy of the North East daily paper for which I write a column, reasoning that this would make me stand out a bit in Cheshire if my comedic, olde worlde get-up did not quite do the trick.

After checking into the hotel, showering and putting on clean underwear, in a massive display of hope triumphing over experience, I took up a strategic position in the bar, from which I could keep a close eye on the door. About five minutes later, a woman answering the description of my date walked in. I should perhaps explain that she had so far sent me two photos: one of a dark-haired woman with her eyes shut, wearing a smile so huge that it looked like she was trying to eat a banana sideways, and accompanied by two other strikingly good looking women; and another of a red-haired woman with a vast stomach, enormous pendulous breasts and a pair of angel’s wings. The first was possibly the worst likeness ever sent by a person aiming to progress a relationship, while I very much hoped that the second was a joke in questionable taste.

However, this person could definitely be a much more attractive version of the one in the first photograph, and certainly had the key identifying feature I had been encouraged to look out for: masses of curly black hair. So I was a bit disconcerted by the fact that she made a cursory inspection of the other occupants of the bar, then went and sat down on her own about as far away from me as could have been arranged.

I looked around, and there were definitely no other men in there wearing a three-piece suit and a Victorian watch chain, or reading a copy of the Newcastle Journal. So I waved at her, hoping that this came across as a friendly and inviting action rather than the behaviour of a man who is anxious to expose himself or show off the contents of the Old Holborn tobacco tin in which he has assembled most of the ingredients for a viable nuclear device.

Eventually, she wandered over.

“Are you …”

“You must be …”

Her “You don’t look anything like your pictures” was the first complete sentence that either of us managed to utter, and I have to say that it did not come across as containing the hidden sub-text, “My goodness, you really have lost weight, haven’t you? Shall we skip dinner and go straight to your room?”

I, meanwhile, was able to say with total honesty and conviction that she was much more attractive than I had expected. And here we have a problem, of course. In fact, two of them. First, because, as my mother would have been the first to point out, “she” is the cat’s mother. And, secondly, because the Rules of Dating require you to play it cool at all times; any party expressing overt enthusiasm clearly has something radically wrong with them and must be dumped forthwith. So a blogger who is a bit smitten, as I was, is placed on the horns of a very tricky dilemma. Maybe you will now understand why this entry is being posted more than week in arrears.

I’ve tried to solve the name problem by proposing a series of pseudonyms to the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, given that she has not unreasonably forbidden me to use her real name. But each one has been deemed unacceptable for some reason, so LTCB it will have to be. Sorry.

Luckily things perked up a bit as we shared a drink and discussed whether to order from the a la carte or try the eight course gourmet tasting menu. We went for the latter, which meant that we only had to make one decision rather than three. I was going to tell you all about it, as it really was one of the very best meals I have ever eaten in my life, with each exquisite course somehow contriving to be just slightly more delicious than the one which had preceded it. But the soppily romantic fact is that I cannot remember a single detail of what I ate, and the menu posted on the hotel’s website is now completely different from the one we experienced. But I do strongly recommend the Arkle Restaurant of the Chester Grosvenor Hotel if you are ever passing that way. Only don’t bother with the obvious horse-related jokes like trying to order a Red Rum for an aperitif, or requesting Shergar with your coffee. They have already heard all those from me, and did not much care for them.

Entertainment was provided during the meal by a young German or Austrian (who would have made a perfect suitor for the eldest von Trapp daughter in any local production of the Sound of Music) wheeling a huge trolley laden with an almost infinite variety of breads. By the time he had finished the comprehensive litany of his range, delivered with characteristic Teutonic precision, it was, of course, completely impossible to remember anything from the start of the list, so were reduced to pointing and mumbling “some of that one, please”. He kept returning in the hope of tempting us to more of the stuff. Each time we sent him away, his face crumpled a little more, as if we had piled on another piece of bad news (first Stalingrad, then D-Day, now the Führer). I felt strongly tempted to make a formal apology for the Dresden firestorm in an attempt to cheer him up a bit.

Then my companion left the table briefly, in a polite and ladylike way, though only after I had insisted that she left her wrap as hostage in case she had decided to make a run for home. And I took the opportunity to send a surreptitious text to the male friend who had been bombarding me with helpful advice all evening. It said something like “F*** me! She’s gorgeous!” Eliciting the swift response “No thanks! Exactly how much have you had to drink?”

But the truth was: not that much. After dinner we had coffee together on a sofa, and I noted that the LTCB’s hair smelt strongly of coconuts. But not in a bad way, you understand. I even offered to walk her home, but luckily it proved to be pouring with rain and she left by taxi instead, thereby sparing both of us what would no doubt have been an unseemly tussle on her doorstep. There is surely nothing like a sharply raised knee in the testicles to bring a first date to an unsatisfactory close, at least from the viewpoint of the male participant.

Monday 28 April 2008

As sick as a dog

14st 4lb again, according to the best available local information; at least 6.0 units of alcohol again yesterday; 1,376 days left; Doncaster and Alnwick.

I woke at 5.30, which is not as crazy as it sounds as I must have fallen into a slightly drunken sleep at around half past ten. So I sat up brightly, avoiding banging my head on the ceiling with the sort of joyous swerve that Dick van Dyke used to effect around his pouffe in the alternative credits for his eponymous TV show in the 1960s. Then I whipped it out – my laptop, that is – and started happily tapping out some replies to assorted e-mails. At which point the dog, who normally has to be prised off the bed around noon, with threats of mild violence or completely mendacious promises of food or a walk, suddenly leapt to the floor and pointed to the door in a way which indicated that he would rather like to pass through it.

Given that he had kicked up merry hell about the concept of sharing the kitchen with another dog on his first night, and had insisted on sleeping with me, I did not feel minded to indulge him in his desire to go and play with his new canine chum. The idea that he might need to go out for some more serious purpose never occurred to me; he’s not that sort of dog. So I whispered that it was far too early to go anywhere, as he would disturb the rest of the household. Shortly afterwards, I was a little taken aback to be treated to the sound of a Border terrier vomiting copiously over someone else’s bedroom carpet.

My previous Border used to throw up about once a week, on average. Indeed, he used to eat copious amounts of grass to induce this little treat. His saving grace was that he did this “I’m about to be sick” sound effect which acted like the Fylingdales early warning station, providing ample time to locate a suitable broadsheet newspaper and to spread it out across the target area.

I sighed and escorted him downstairs, where I opened the back door in my underpants. The lady of the house appeared at this point and remarked that it was a most unusual place to have a back door. We chuckled and agreed that the old ones were always the best, then she supplied me with a bucket of warm water and a sponge. This came in jolly handy in the three subsequent spots where he was sick before I left.

As I was heading north, casting occasional uneasy glances at my canine passenger, I called on my friend the Lord in his office at Doncaster. Here my companion was treated to the warmest of welcomes in a “Hoochie, coochie, who’s a lovely little doggie, then?” sort of way. (I should perhaps emphasize that this was the reaction of the more susceptible female members of the staff, rather than of the august figure of the Lord himself. Just as I should make clear that this Lord is, so far as I know, completely unrelated to the one with whom I was encouraged to engage in church yesterday.)

He treated me to an excellent lunch in his staff canteen. As we reached the top of the stairs on our way back to his office, our paths crossed that of a woman with a mop, bucket and somewhat world-weary expression, who had been cleaning up after the dog’s latest demonstration of his projectile vomiting powers.

His predecessor used to pull this stunt whenever a holiday or particularly desirable social event loomed. Just as he was about to be despatched to kennels, he would contract some dread disease or inflict a physical injury upon himself so that he could not possibly be left on his own, and my trip had to be cancelled. Clearly this knowledge has been passed on through the generations, and this little fellow has picked up on the fact that I have a Hot Date in Chester tomorrow night, and is determined to screw it up. Though I don’t really understand why he feels he needs to bother, since my entire track record suggests that I am perfectly capable of doing that on my own.

As only fule kno, the only thing to do with a sick dog is to starve it for 24 hours and see what happens. But, as I was planning to leave him before that period was up, I felt that I had no alternative but to take him to the vet when I got home. He gave her that look when she produced her thermometer, clearly indicating what he thought she should do with it, but unfortunately for him she misinterpreted it and did it to him instead. That cheered me up a bit. A mere 22-mile drive, half hour wait, ten minute consultation, two injections and a £43 bill later, we were heading for home with a no doubt totally unnecessary ten day course of antibiotics. The dog did not say anything (and just think of the living I could make as a club act if he did) but I could tell that he was still silently plotting the destruction of all my plans for Love, Life and Happiness.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Not dead, but definitely not saved

14st 4lb, allegedly; at least 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,377; Oundle and Cambridge.

The house where I am staying has an upper storey that would be the perfect place to teach children about Pythagoras’s theorem. Not least because, being ickle, they wouldn’t keep banging their heads on the sloping ceiling as I do every time I stand up. The fact that it is providing a valuable reminder that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides does not make it hurt any less. I really thought I’d given myself concussion when I stepped onto the bathroom scales this morning and they told me that I was 14st 4lb, or a full 9lb heavier than I was at home yesterday. I shook my head purposefully, then tried again, but got the same result. Shaking the scales purposefully had equally little effect, so I gave up.

Still, when her sons feel that the time has come, I now know that the way to despatch my aunt in Morpeth humanely is simply to borrow these scales and sneak them into her bathroom, in place of the under-reading model she favours. These ones would make her 12 stone, thereby causing her instant expiry from apoplexy.

Luckily I am made of slightly sterner stuff, and took it in my stride. So I’m not dead, despite the hopes or fears expressed by a number of correspondents who have noted the non-appearance of this blog in recent days. I’ve just been a bit busy. Keep reading and you’ll find out why, though not necessarily instantaneously. Or in as much lurid detail as you would doubtless wish.

This morning I was persuaded to attend my first church service in years, under entirely false pretences. I was promised the Prayer Book of 1662 and some traditional hymns. And what did we kick off with? “Shine Jesus shine!” Which always sounds to me like the runner-up in the competition to be the Norwegian entry for the Eurovision song contest in a particularly thin year. In my view it should be banned except for use by the employers of Latino butlers, encouraging them to put their backs into polishing the family’s shoes and silverware.

Mind you, the last time I heard it was during a God-awful [sic] christening service, which featured no fewer than five hymns I did not know and had no wish ever to hear again. On that occasion the whole congregation was swaying and clapping like they were at some revivalist meeting in the Deep South, rather than in an ancient parish church in the north of England, so I suppose it must be accounted a bonus that these worshippers at least conducted itself with something like traditional decorum. They even got the message quite quickly when I glared at them during the “sign of peace”.

The liturgy bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Book of Common Prayer, though my friend tried to argue that the fact that there was some sort of attempt at any liturgy at all made it closer to 1662 than most places these days. I suppose he might have had a point.

There was a sermon, which concluded with three questions, two of which were “Are you still and quiet enough, often enough, to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in your life?” and “Can you take the same leap of faith as the disciples to carry the good news onwards and outwards?” I did not even understand the third question, but I expect the answer was “no”, as it was to the first two.

During the communion, I regret to report that I amused myself by playing that game I usually reserve for busy tube trains and stations, inspecting the females kneeling at the altar rail and deciding which of them I would be prepared to sleep with, and in which order. Having completed my league table, I was more than a little disconcerted when my number one and two choices advanced to a microphone and delivered a lisping report from the Junior Church group which they had been attending while the grown-ups got on with the main service. They were at least from the “Teens for Jesus” section rather than the Tiny Tots Team, so it could have been worse. But probably not much, now I come to reflect upon it.

Always demonstrating a Luddite reluctance to adapt to new technology, it took me until this afternoon to turn on the satellite navigation equipment in the car I acquired in January. And I now think that it’s absolutely bloody brilliant: the best invention since sliced bread or sexual intercourse, depending on how hungry I am feeling at the time of making the assessment. It piloted me effortlessly to my cousin’s new house in Cambridge, which rather disappointingly proved to be nothing like as hideous as it had appeared in the estate agent’s brochure. Perhaps compiled by an estate agent who was not really in the right job, this featured a selection of photographs suggesting that it was a shoo-in for the title of Ugliest Building in Cambridge; the absolute antithesis of King’s College Chapel. True, it does look a bit like an oversized council house, but it’s large and clearly has the potential to be very comfortable. Much champagne flowed (not that I drank any) while waitresses circulated with trays of delicious canapés produced by Chris The (Regional) Celebrity Chef. The dog covered my aunt’s smart pink suit with muddy paw prints and I met two fans of my newspaper column. So both of us, in our different ways, attained a certain level of satisfaction from our afternoons.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Who on earth was that frightfully rude bloke?

13st 9lb; 5.0 units of alcohol again last night; 1,378; betwixt Peterborough and Corby (as the estate agents do not put it, funnily enough).

I am normally the world’s least price conscious consumer, so I was rather taken aback to find myself thinking “What” (with multiple question and exclamation marks) on two occasions today. First when I stopped at a petrol station on the A1 somewhere south of Scotch Corner and found myself paying 114.9 pence per litre for a tankful of unleaded petrol; and again in the local pub, shortly after my arrival in this delightful Northamptonshire village, when they demanded 70p for a small packet of plain crisps. I thought they came in at around 6d, and included several free blue paper twists of salt. I don’t know what the world is coming to. Is this the result of the Global Food Crisis I keep hearing about?

Still, it was lucky I had those experiences as I was staying in a price-conscious and God-fearing household, and at least it gave us one thing in common that we could talk about.

I went to the pub for a pint of Landlord and a Grunter (a type of local snack salami which was the nearest thing they could offer to the desired packet of pork scratchings) because I was bloody hungry after my long drive from Northumberland; because I always feel that I can relax my dietary regime a bit when I away from the tyranny of my own bathroom scales; and, above all, because it was there. I can never resist a pub. It is only living five miles from the nearest one that has enabled me to lose as much weight as I have done since Christmas. If I lived in a village with a pub next door, I’d be back up to 16 stone before you could say “John Prescott”.

I was, accordingly, in a thoroughly mellow mood when I strolled back to my hosts’ house to intrude upon their little supper party with the local breakfast cereal heiress and her somewhat older husband, who was “something in the City”. Or had been, once. There aren’t many men of his age actually employed in the markets these days, though a fair few still take the train to town and have a very long lunch in order to avoid admitting to the missus that they are in fact free to devote themselves to domestic duties.

I did not distinguish myself. When the very pretty blonde guest made the disarming remark that her mother just lay in bed all day, I should not have asked “Is she an invalid or a whore?” (Answer: neither, apparently; just phenomenally lazy.)

Small wonder that they left early to “go and relieve our babysitter”.

A couple of minutes after they had departed, my host’s wife said, “Hang on, their children are 18 and 20.”

I expect she gave me a pointed look as she said it. And I have no doubt that I thoroughly deserved it.

I just can’t take me anywhere.

Friday 25 April 2008

And you, perverts

13st 9lb; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday (a rising trend that clearly needs to be Stamped Out); 1,379; Enfer.

It occurred to me that I might have caused needless offence yesterday (so what’s new?) by appearing only to welcome new readers of this blog from around the former British Empire, and indeed beyond it. I would therefore like to make it clear that I also greatly value the handful of loyal friends who have been following this account of my descent into total madness from the outset. And those who have joined the party ever so briefly as a result of typing into Google “dogging Northumberland”, “sick pussy”, “nude opera Lesley Garrett” or “Lesbury bukkake party”, to name but a view. But mainly “dogging Northumberland”, to be honest.

When I wrote on St Patrick’s Day that the Wooler Common car park appeared to be the dogging capital of Northumberland, I intended it as a joke. But thanks to the miracle of the internet, by now it probably is precisely that. There must be a lot of elderly couples driving up there for a nice thermos of tea and a packet of home-made ham sandwiches at lunchtime, wondering why there are a couple of strange men in parkas, wearing steamed-up Coke bottle glasses held together with sellotape, standing staring in through their windscreen and engaging in an activity they last witnessed on that rather distressing occasion when they took Auntie Mabel to the baboon house at Edinburgh Zoo, and she said how much it reminded her of dear old Uncle Jack, God rest his soul.

I hope they never find out that I am responsible.

I’m going away for the weekend, so felt obliged to do more than the usual quota of writing today, in the way that Banksy probably goes out and covers numerous walls in an absolute frenzy before his annual fortnight in Torremolinos. I couldn’t think of anything worth putting into next Tuesday’s newspaper column, mainly because my mind was chiefly preoccupied with what I’d like to put into … let’s not go there, in fact. However, I finally drew inspiration of sorts from the fact that the ballot paper for my postal vote in the forthcoming local elections has been sitting on my desk over a week now, covered in strident warnings to act immediately and avoid delay at all costs. On the one hand, I can see that it defeats the object of the exercise if the recipient just sticks his ballot paper behind the clock and forgets to do anything with it. But encouraging people to vote before they’ve even received election communications from most of the candidates also seems somewhat anti-democratic. As well as negating the effects of the traditional, shock eve-of-poll revelation that the favourite to win the seat is in fact a financially corrupt serial sex offender.

Yes, well, I told you I was struggling.

The lovely man who has been painting the interior of my house all week finished his third and final room this afternoon. As he was packing his stuff into his van, he and one of my neighbours stood and calmly surveyed the scene as huge clouds of acrid yellow smoke billowed from my sitting room chimney, after I had stupidly set it on fire by lighting my woodburning stove and leaving it unattended. They seemed to think it was deliberate.

I couldn’t complain, because I wondered much the same thing when I went out to the shops last October and saw flames leaping through the windows of my next door neighbour’s workshop. On reflection, “Do you know that your shed is on fire?” was probably a pretty stupid question to ask as I burst through their front door after an unaccustomed burst of speed up their garden path. They were entertaining a couple of elderly visitors and their reaction was immediate and decisive: they all looked at each other helplessly. So I repeated my question, even more forcefully, and one of them said “What’s he saying?” and their younger (but all things are relative) visitor shouted “Something about his shed being on fire”, so I virtually screamed “No, YOUR shed!” This finally got the message through and they all tottered incredibly slowly to the back door, with me bringing up the rear, and my neighbour went “Why, yerbugger!” (the traditional cry of surprise and distress among the indigenous population of Northumberland) and turned on a trickling hose, which was about as effective as calling on the services of an elderly man with severe prostate trouble.

So I asked whether I should call the fire brigade, and it was generally agreed that it would be a bloody good idea, licensing me to call 999 for the first and so far only time in my life. I discovered that you get put through to the desired service very quickly indeed, but are then unable to talk to them because a disembodied voice is reciting your own telephone number back to you with the sort of ponderous slowness usually reserved for the “please choose from the following options” section on premium rate phone lines. I should think this would prove a touch irritating if you were dealing with something slightly more serious than a shed fire, e.g. having a heart attack or listening to your golden haired children screaming to be rescued from an advancing blaze.

Not that there would be much hope for them if you lived where I do. When the fire engine eventually turned up half an hour later, the fire was long out but the firemen, sorry firefighters, enjoyed a nice cup of tea and got to play with their thermal imaging equipment in search of lingering “hot spots”. They explained that Alnwick was only a part-time “retained” fire station so they were allowed five to eight minutes to assemble, and it was then “a fair old drive” out to us, made no quicker (though obviously much more fun) by turning on their siren and blue flashing lights.

I made a resolution then to ensure that I never, ever set my house on fire. Since writing about it in this blog seems to have had such positive effects in getting my weight down and opening new avenues of amorous opportunity, I thought I had better record it here in the hope that I might actually be able to stick to it in future.

Oh, and I managed to get the chimney fire under control, thanks. So all ended well, even if the painter did miss a golden opportunity to come back and start all over again next week.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome

13st 9lb; 4.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,380; greeting the world with open arms (though tightly clenched buttocks).

I still have no very clear idea who this Drayton Bird bloke is, but he’s clearly got much more of a following than I have. (Yes, thank you; I know that’s not saying much.) Following his recommendation, readership of this blog almost quadrupled yesterday. Albeit, as people traditionally say in a lowered voice, from a very low base. For a few brief moments, I allowed myself to hope that I might be about to achieve my lifetime ambition of becoming a cult.

I thought I’d cracked it a few weeks ago when a white van driver told me that I was one, while I was out walking the dog. But it turned out that I had misheard him. Apparently he hadn’t taken kindly to my perfectly civil explanation that he was under a misapprehension when he addressed me as “mate”, given that I didn’t know him from Adam and certainly wasn’t his sexual partner. Though he went on to suggest some inventive ways in which I could extend my sexual repertoire, most of them involving travel.

Anyway (which I fear is becoming a tic; my equivalent of “whatever”) I’d like to extend a warm welcome to all those joining this expedition to the grave from places as varied as Japan, Jamaica, Malaysia, California and South Africa. And a multi-lingual welcome, too. Though if you don’t read English, I suspect frankly that you’re going to be ever so slightly buggered when it comes to spotting the jokes.

(Can I use that word on Blogger? I don’t want to cause needless offence, as a friend did when he was trying to sell the investment case for one of my erstwhile clients to a clearly gay fund manager, and accidentally used the unfortunate phrase “going like buggery” to describe their recent sales of ready meals. Apart from anything else, I’ve got quite enough on my hands trying to give offence deliberately.)

The good news, if you have come here in search of enlightenment, is that I can now tell you the answer to one of life’s most taxing conundrums. It’s malt. Though only if the issue chiefly troubling you is how to get a good night’s sleep. I had a mug of Horlicks and a glass of Macallan in bed last night, and enjoyed the longest and most refreshing uninterrupted kip I have enjoyed in years.

A few years ago, a client started banging on about my empty love life, clearly unable to believe that I had been celibate for as long as I claimed. I duly provided chapter and verse, and he brooded silently for a bit before saying, “But you do have a w*nk every night, right?” (You’d have died if you heard how he pronounced the asterisk.) I lied and denied that I ever succumbed to the act of self-pollution, at which he just looked at me in blank astonishment, before eventually sputtering, “Then how the hell do you ever get to sleep?”

Now I could answer him in one word: malt. Then I merely had to resort to pointing out that the room full of analysts had actually come to hear about his annual results rather than for a discussion of my sex life, and it might be quite a good idea if he got on with his presentation.

This evening I received a fan e-mail, inspired by Tuesday’s column about St George’s Day, concluding that “as long as we have Englishmen like yourself speaking for England, we can't go wrong.” I don’t think I’d bet the farm on that one if I were you, madam. I reckon that I am to political commentary what Northern Rock was to banking. With this difference: I won’t be retiring quietly with a huge pay-off when it all goes tits-up.

It’s lovely being praised for one’s writing. But why does so much of mine come from people who start their sentences with “I’m not a racist, but …”?

If only I’d been able to keep a straight face through that sort of thing, might I have amounted to something? And, if so, what?

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Cry God for Harry (not you, Ginger)

13st 9lb; 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,381; actually Newcastle Quayside, looking out over the “iconic” Gateshead Millennium Bridge but, in spirit, Cappadocia and Agincourt.

In the course of having tearful (theirs not mine) sex with a series of well-brought-up and therefore guilty young Roman Catholic ladies, in the distant past when I did that sort of thing, I often toyed with the idea of converting to their faith. I liked the spectacle of High Mass at Brompton Oratory or Westminster Cathedral: the music, bells and incense, the well-choreographed swinging of censers and raising of birettas, and the challenge of keeping a straight face through sermons delivered by priests with such plummy accents that they thought “Mass” rhymed with “Arse”. The idea of confession also appealed quite a lot, to be honest, particularly as it was free and at the time I was paying some bloke in Harley Street a fair old whack to hear me rambling on about myself for an hour every Wednesday afternoon.

I wonder who heard Tony Blair’s confession when he signed up? They probably had to do it in relays, over a period of several weeks. Or maybe it was a marathon under the supervision of the Guinness Book of Records, with “continuous” interpreted as allowing a ten minute refreshment and comfort break every four hours.

Anyway, strangely enough none of the young ladies in question ever encouraged me to join them in the faith. Presumably the thought of having to see me again in this life was quite bad enough, without the prospect of being lumbered with me for all eternity. So it did not happen, though after attending a christening at Westminster a few years ago, I did have a private interview with Britain’s number one celebrity priest. After a bit, he asked me whether I’d ever considered becoming a Methodist.

But the point towards which I was painfully working is this: confession really is good for the soul, or would be if I had one. I feel so much better since I got all that heavy stuff off my chest yesterday.

I also forgot to mention one bit of good news. When I took my car into the garage yesterday morning, they gleefully announced that their £200 estimate for the repairs had turned out to be a bit on the high side. Then handed me a bill for £199.10. The playful little scamps.

Today, being St George’s Day, I did exactly what it said on the tin of my weekly newspaper column and put on my increasingly ill-fitting (but still decent, thanks to powerful braces) suit, and drove to Newcastle for lunch. En route, I stopped to search for a suitable rose for my buttonhole at a village shop which has won an award for being the best in the whole of England, and then at the biggest garden centre in the North East. I drew a complete blank at both, but finally obtained a small bouquet at a garage whose chief recommendation, apart from its world class collection of top shelf whacking material, is its name: Tyred & Exhausted.

The roses were a rather peculiar orange colour, which seemed less than ideally traditional; but then I reasoned that beggars can’t be choosers; and, in any case, it would eliminate the risk of being mistaken for a Labour Party canvasser. Though my three piece suit and watch chain would probably do that anyway. Dungarees and body piercings are more the mark, in my experience. Though I haven’t actually spoken to a Labour Party canvasser since April 1997, when one approached me in a shopping centre in Bristol and asked me whether they could count on my support. “No, I only look working class and stupid,” I replied, which threw him for an instant. Then my fiancée of the time pulled me off, which was an unexpected pleasure in a retail mall.

Having got myself properly kitted out at last, I completed the drive to Newcastle and strode purposefully along the Quayside in the rain, singing “For he is an Englishman” from HMS Pinafore in a manner somewhere midway between lustily and softly. I am disappointed to report that I didn’t attract so much as a single funny look.

When my friend the top TV producer kindly invited me out for a celebratory lunch, he had asked me what I fancied. Something traditionally English, I said, like steak and kidney pie followed by spotted dick. Washed down with a glass or two of English real ale.

So he booked Malmaison.

It’s clearly a favourite of his, since he has already formed a relationship with the maître d’ that is almost as close as his long-standing one with Fernando at The Ivy. Though rather less useful, it has to be said, since we were just about the only customers. Still, I’ve no doubt it will prove a good investment for the future, when the imminent revival of world class TV production in the North East, which my friend is spearheading, will mean that one isn’t able to enter a Tyneside restaurant without falling over the likes of Jordan, Jade Goody, Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair.

I’d set my heart on the mutton I enjoyed so much the last time I ate here, but they had rationalized the menu, so I had to settle for fish and chips. Which were, it is only fair to record, very good indeed. Then I drove home, still singing, and tried to arrange an evening out in the pub so that I could raise that elusive glass of English ale to our patron saint.

But in this, as in so many things, I failed completely.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Looking for the answer in the wrong place

13st 10lb; just 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday (a whisky nightcap and, yes, I did use a proper spirits measure rather than sloshing out half a tumbler full as I always used to); 1,382; in the wardrobe looking for Narnia, but only finding fluff.

“So what,” a reader enquires. A common enough reaction to this blog, I must regretfully concede. But he goes on, “So what happened with the Tall Cheshire Blonde [TCB] and that letter you were struggling to write to her last Thursday?”

Well, this is very hard, as the bishop said to the actress. Because it’s all become a bit sensitive and delicate, as the actress said afterwards when she realized that she could not walk. Really, it would be so much in my best interests to keep shtoom. But then we are dealing with me, widely famed as the most indiscreet man in England.

Of course, I could argue that there have been enough little hints dropped into this blog already for you to have been able to work it out for yourselves. But then I know from my Sitemeter thingie that quite a few of you work in the City of London, and presumably failed to spot that lending countless billions to American trailer trash with no visible means of support wouldn’t actually prove to be the safest blue chip investment of all time. So I suppose it would be a bit much to hope that you could grasp anything a touch more subtle.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m drawing the curtains (the neighbours will just assume I’m accessing porn again) and lowering my voice to a whisper; and I’d ask you to turn your screen brightness down to the minimum, and ensure that no-one is looking over your shoulder, before going any further.

Done that? OK.

Well, the fact is that I finished the letter. Only five pages to her seven, but then mine was typed, so it probably contained just as many words. Only then it all became of somewhat academic interest, because I happened to mention to the person who had e-mailed me about the TCB in the first place that I had actually become quite fond of her during our exchange of e-mails over the previous couple of weeks. Which is when she replied saying that we seemed to be living through a remake of the Emma Woodhouse / Mr Knightley scenario to which I alluded in an earlier entry. Now do you understand?

(If you’re not a great Jane Austen fan, perhaps you can relate to the 1995 film with the identical plot. Called, most appropriately, Clueless.)

Anyway, the upshot of that and certain further exchanges was that I received a text message from the TCB that practically melted my mobile phone, making it quite clear that I need not add her to my Christmas card list. I was much relieved that my mobile was on a kitchen work surface rather than in my trouser pocket when it came through.

I naturally deeply regret that I may have been the cause of some temporary disaffection among the single female community of Cheshire. But as a friend of mine helpfully pointed out, all will be well as soon as one of them actually meets me and finds out what I am really like. She will then be able to go and enjoy a good cry on the shoulder of the one who hasn’t met me, describing the luckiest escape since that bloke who worked at the top of the World Trade Center decided to have his first lie-in of the new century on 9/11.

The lady that I may get around to meeting one day will be described hereinafter as the Sho…, no, Less Tall Cheshire Brunette. Or LTCB for short (appropriately enough, in one way, though it does make her sound like she ought to be the regulatory body for lawn tennis and croquet).

There are a number of important lessons in all this, though the main one is obviously the unsurprising revelation that, for all mainstream flirting purposes, e-mail has an unbeatable edge on handwritten letters delivered (if you’re lucky) by Royal Mail. And the other is that the operation of Sod’s Law is absolutely immutable in every context. Four long years it’s taken me to come up with a book proposal that seemed to stand half a chance of being accepted by a publisher: Must Have Own Teeth (Ageing Misanthrope Seeks One Last Shag), the definitive guide to the pitfalls of serial over-50s dating. And what happens? I prove incapable even of going out on one date with a woman who has written to me out of the blue explaining why she would be absolutely perfect for me.

There is no hope for me at all. Unless the LTCB comes good, of course. You may watch this space, if you wish, but I would strongly counsel against holding your breath while you are doing so.

In the meantime, why on earth can’t they list just Whores under “W” in Yellow Pages, rather than under “M” for “Massage”?

Monday 21 April 2008

You're having a laugh

13st 10lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,383; Windsor Castle.

It always gets my day off to a good start when I hear God Save The Queen blasting out of the wireless at seven o’clock, even though it annoys me that the BBC has pandered to republican elements by dropping the traditional words “We wish Her Majesty a very happy day” from their introduction to it. Still, I for one do wish her a happy day, today and every day.

Can I have my OBE now, please?

It was a much less unsettling start to the day than yesterday’s, when the Radio 4 news led with John Prescott’s shock revelations about his bulimia. Which were motivated entirely by his concern for the welfare of vulnerable young women (not confined to diary secretaries) and totally unrelated to the fact that he has a book to plug. Obviously. I was actually moved to go and check my calendar to ensure that it wasn’t the first of the month, while I waited for the follow-up revelations that the Pope has converted to Protestantism, and that a group of grizzly bears in the Appalachians has clubbed together to fund the construction of a commodious downtown lavatory block.

But what a gift to a newspaper columnist, eh? Unfortunately for me, it was duly grabbed with both hands by my Monday counterpart, who shamelessly rolled his tanks all over my lawn by making a series of cruel jokes about the former Deputy Prime Minister (and this from a writer who calls himself a socialist – which may, now I come to think of it, be the root of his objection) followed by some frank confessions about his own mental stability, or lack thereof.

Knackers. I spent far longer than usual trying to think of something else of a topical nature to write about, but got no farther than St George’s Day on Wednesday. It may not amount to much, but it will have to do.

This morning I had a date with a stripper called Serena, which was unfortunately nothing like as exciting as it sounds. One of the nice things about owning a Border terrier – actually, on mature reflection, quite possibly the only nice thing about owning a Border terrier – is that you get two dogs for the price of one. Because they grow two coats. (And, while we’re on the subject, why couldn’t God have arranged for women to grow their own shoes?) Every six months or so I take the little scamp along to a professional stripper who pulls out his long, wiry outer coat to expose the short, soft one underneath it. The result is a completely different animal. See what I mean?

Before: a hairy dog with a cute paw action.

After: a smooth dog with a cute paw action. And a biscuit.

Of course the owner could perform this operation himself, if he had a couple of days to spare and didn’t mind being bitten quite a lot. But personally I’d rather be blogging than waiting in the Accident & Emergency Department of Ashington Hospital following a bloody good savaging.

I drove to the stripper in Shilbottle by a most circuitous route, then sprang it all on the dog with shocking suddenness. It is much the kindest way. I picked up the technique from the hangman Albert Pierrepoint’s memoirs.

On my way back, I called at the garage just to check that the nondescript piece of plastic that dropped off the underside of my car the other day was serving no useful purpose, and could be safely slung in the bin. Oh dear me no, sir, they said, that is affording vital protection to your engine and radiator. Well, can I have it replaced under my warranty, then? Oh dear me no, sir, that does not cover accident damage. Maybe not, I said, but then I haven’t had an accident. It’s the sort of thing I tend to notice. Oh yes you have, sir, said the top man extricated from the service department to deal with Mr Stroppy at the counter. Look at these fresh impact marks on your nondescript bit of plastic. What, the ones you made just now with a lump hammer? Oh dear me no, sir, that looks like stone or a concrete kerb to me, sir: you probably clipped one when you were pissed. (A reasonably safe bet in the Alnwick area, I’ll give them that, but in fact I haven’t been, at any rate not behind the wheel. And I have no recollection of hitting anything at all for weeks, despite the daily efforts of huge timber lorries to drive me off the road as they go around collecting the spoils from the Elfin Safety tree destruction campaign.)

Oh, all right then, I said. Then he told me it was going to cost £200 and I said “You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?” But he wasn’t. He did add that that was with labour, allowing me to make the crack about everything costing more with Labour, but I can’t say it cheered me up very much. Nor did making some acerbic remarks about how glad I was to have invested in a big, robust, off-road vehicle rather than some tinny little jalopy that would fall to bits at the slightest provocation. I think they may have gone over his head.

What did cheer me up was receiving an e-mail late this afternoon from some Bloke who liked my website and this blog. By bedtime he had posted the most extraordinarily adulatory comment on his own blog, saying that he had never been so pleased to find a writer since Dave Barry started writing his column for the Miami Herald. Blimey. He should clearly get out more, but even so: thanks. And here is a reciprocal plug for I’ll confess that I haven’t read all that much of it so far, but I do like his suggestion that the way to defeat extremist Muslim terrorism is to persuade Rowan Williams to convert and work the same sort of magic on Islam as he has done for the Church of England.

I wish I’d thought of that.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Wading well out of my depth

13st 10lb; 3.0 units of alcohol yesterday, which was 3.0 more than I had intended; 1,384; Cheshire or the Bermuda Triangle, whichever is less hazardous. That will be Bermuda, then.

My good mood persisted throughout the day yesterday. Even when I found myself sitting on the 10 o’clock to Newcastle, which they still call “The Flying Scotsman” even though it now stops at places like Northallerton, for Christ’s sake. Making it less like a flying Scotsman than one weaving his way unsteadily home after a pub crawl, and making frequent comfort stops en route. There was nothing wrong with the train as such, but someone kept making terse announcements in a voice that sounded like that of a leading counter tenor who had just inhaled the contents of a helium balloon. Close investigation established that the young mother opposite was entertaining her potentially screaming brat with an oversized, fake, gaily coloured, plastic mobile phone, which blurted out pre-recorded messages of truly mind-boggling inanity when its buttons were pressed. The infant’s favourite seemed to be, “Hello! How are you?” Somehow I restrained myself from leaning across and trying to teach him to say, “I’m a really annoying little twat, and I fear it may be hereditary”. Presumably mummy is hoping that his first real words will be “Hi, I’m on the train.” God help us.

I remained in a highly positive frame of mind through the evening’s concert by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham at the Alnwick Playhouse, even though I was really far too exhausted to go out, and the leg room between the rows was clearly determined by the architect who went on to design the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Their lovely tune “A Bright Star in Cepheus” will be joining Monteverdi’s concluding love duet from L’incoronazione di Poppea and a number of Handel arias on the list of desert island discs I keep constantly updated in case I receive an unexpected phone call from Kirsty Young. I also enjoyed much of their well-rehearsed banter, including the lovely old story of the great Jimmy Shand (of “And His Band” fame) casting a beady eye over his individual, portion-controlled sachet of honey at a hotel breakfast table, and saying witheringly to the proprietor, “I see you keep a bee.”

I even managed to chuckle to myself as I stopped on the drive home for the benefit of the two friends I had taken to the concert, so that they could “just nip in and pick up some fish and chips.” After a friendly chat of five minutes or so, the owner left the shop and got into his car to drive the 17 miles to Seahouses and put out to sea in his trawler to catch the principal ingredient. At any rate I think that’s what must have happened, judging by the length of time it took them to emerge. The fine, nutritious English staple of fish and chips has been unfairly derided in some quarters as being just another “fast food”. At least there is no danger of that in Alnwick.

Of course, throughout the day I had been chiefly pondering on the whole “too good to be true” situation. It seems strange to form such an instant and deep connection with a person one has never met. I finally understand how a 16-year-old schoolgirl can believe that she has fallen madly in love with an 18-year-old boy from a promising rock band, whom she has met on the internet, but who subsequently turns out to be a 50-year-old unemployed PR consultant living on hilltop in Northumberland, and who asks the court to take a couple of dozen similar offences into consideration.

Then, in the late evening, when I finally got back from Alnwick fish and chipless, I actually took the radical step of speaking to the young lady in question through the miracle of telephony, and the feeling of connection actually deepened. What could possibly go wrong, I asked myself?

Apart from meeting her, obviously.

Saturday 19 April 2008

Far too good to be true

I’ve no idea what I weigh; in fact, when I woke up I had no idea where I was; I must have drunk – let me see – at least 12 units of alcohol yesterday, but you’d probably do well to follow my doctor’s example and double that; there are 1,385 days of my life yet; and I’m in a sort of romantic yet ultimately no doubt deadly fog powerfully reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, though Donwell Abbey might be more relevant and appropriate.

I snapped awake surprisingly early, as you sometimes do after a heavy night on the ale (house red, actually, but I like to pretend I’m still a proper Geordie). I then devoted my first five minutes or so of consciousness to trying to solve the mystery of my whereabouts. I finally worked out that I was naked in my club, and gave a large sigh of relief that it was in a bedroom rather than the Ladies’ Drawing Room. I then noted with approval that I’d had the good sense to pick up a large bottle of fizzy water from the bar on my way in, and wished that I’d had actually had the presence of mind to drink it. Then I started piecing together details of the previous evening and … oh my God, I didn’t, did I? Surely I couldn’t possibly have sent an e-mail in the state I was in last night. But I checked, and I had. I was already in a cold sweat as one of the many symptoms of my hangover, but now wholesale panic set in.

The only positive thing one could say about my composition was that it contained absolutely no errors of spelling or syntax. One thing that working in the City 30 years ago taught me was the importance of being able to get howling drunk at lunchtime, but remember everything that was said and retain the capacity to act upon it when one eventually got back to the office. A friend in agricultural journalism (which brings together two industries never renowned for their abstemiousness) taught me the helpful habit of always carrying a small pocket notebook, and recording details of one’s conversation at regular intervals. He recommended standing with one’s forehead pressed to the cold tiles above the urinal as one scrawled, as this stimulated the brain cells and aided recall and concentration.

Writing this brings back happy memories of the afternoon long ago when we and a colleague of his got comprehensively hammered in the old Wig & Pen Club in Fleet Street, in the company of a nice old boy who was rather eccentrically dressed in a wing collar and various other nineteenth century trimmings. Sometime in the mid to late afternoon he raised himself unsteadily to his feet, at the third or fourth attempt, and slurred that it had been lovely talking to us, but he really must head back across the road and reconvene the court. We asked the barman who the hell he was, and he said … well, it would be indiscreet to reveal that, even though the old chap must long since have succumbed to cirrhosis. Added to which I can’t actually remember, beyond the fact that his names definitely included “Justice”. I am always impressed by the foresight and ambition of those parents who call their children “Justice”, and wish that mine had done the same. I’d have loved being a judge. Mainly for the dressing up, obviously. That and the opportunities for biting sarcasm, and the certainty of having my jokes laughed at by a load of sycophants.

Still, it must have been even more frustrating being Mr James Robertson Justice, who presumably brooded over a whisky bottle each night on how much further he could have gone in life if only his parents had got his names in the right sodding order.

But I digress from my main point, which was my outright panic about this e-mail I had sent. My correspondent had previously suggested that we were living through a remake of Emma, a book which we both studied for A level, albeit many years apart. She was taking the role of Emma Woodhouse, the foolish and unsuccessful matchmaker, while I was Mr Knightley. Only I suspect that she must have failed her A level, as she spelt it “Nightly” and clearly thought that Jane Austen was alluding to his sexual prowess rather than the mediaeval traditions of courtly love. Last night’s e-mail had put her right, though adding mischievously that, in an earlier draft, he had been called Mr Twysse-Knightley, and including a parody far too rude to repeat here. Concluding, most regrettably, with a phrase I have memorized from Viz: “with all spunk coming out the end.”

I vaguely remembered that there was some mechanism for recalling sent e-mails, but was more inclined just to despatch a one-liner saying “Last e-mail sent in error: please delete unread”. I was clearly still heavily under the influence of alcohol at the time, since on mature reflection I can think of nothing more likely to make anyone read anything. I must use the trick next time I want to draw people’s attention to something important.

Then I looked in my inbox and there was a positively affectionate note, written in the early hours, expressing great admiration for my ability to write coherently while under the influence of life-threatening quantities of alcohol, and describing how she was giggling as she read it. Giggling.

Can I finally have encountered a female who actually shares my sense of humour, in all its baroque obscenity? Surely it is much too good to be true. And, as I have spent decades pointing out to clients, first as an investment analyst and then as a PR consultant: if something seems too good to be true, that’s almost certainly because it is.

Friday 18 April 2008

Defective scales and other errors of judgement.

13st 5lb (no, not really); 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,386; Ivoucho.

I had my heartening weight check this morning on my aunt’s joke bathroom scales. They actually look really serious: great big, quasi-industrial ones like you get in well-appointed doctors’ surgeries. But, as you can see, they don’t bloody work. A year or two back the ridicule got too much for her and she bought a new set, then immediately got one of her younger grandchildren around to jump up and down on them, egging him on with banshee-like cries of “Gan on, son! Haway! Knack the buggers!” in an exaggeratedly working class Geordie accent. Which is really odd, given that she is rather posh and comes from Leicestershire.

As if that weren’t enough, she fiddles with the little wheel at the back, so that their starting point is minus 4lb. But I’ve adjusted for that in my reading of 13st 5lb, which must be all down to the physical violence inflicted upon the machine. Then she smiles sweetly and says “I’m still only 11 stone you know.” Why she doesn’t just draw a dial stuck at 11 stone on a bath mat, and stand on that every morning, I shall never know.

As well as banging on about her fictitious weight, she has a really annoying habit of saying “Oh no, I never eat a cooked breakfast, thank you” when you take her away to a hotel, as I do occasionally. Just as I am about to order the mega all-day heart-stopper. She doesn’t actually add, “And that’s the reason why I’m still remarkably fit and healthy at nearly 84, whereas you’re going to be fertiliser before you’re 60.” She doesn’t need to say it. You can tell she’s thinking it, and that’s enough to put you right off and mumble an order for prunes and brown toast instead.

Still, I love her dearly and it was very sporting of her to have me to stay last night, making it considerably less of pain to catch the 7.19 to London from Morpeth this morning. I had lunch at my favourite restaurant with a couple of old friends who started their City careers at about the same time as me 30 years ago, and in the same place. One has emigrated to Australia, and was baffled by my choice of venue, while the other is an Essex boy who kept telling Sydney Man that it was the most famous restaurant in London and he was incredibly lucky to have got in there. “Look, look! It’s Dickie Attenborough!” he screamed shortly afterwards, in flagrant breach of all the rules, though at least he didn’t try to whip out an autograph book.

We reminisced about many former colleagues, a surprising number of whom seem to have made the journey for which there is no return ticket. One from Aids, another from some equally horrible dread disease. While, on the other hand, the old Bloke who looked like a cadaver in 1978 is still alive and well and living in the same road as my mate from Essex. We had no difficulty at all in agreeing that it is a rum old world.

No-one had any intelligence on The Nudist, who used to invite new colleagues for weekend visits to his Surrey home, where they would be surprised to find their boss and his family frolicking bollock naked in the garden. It was, of course, a point of honour not to warn the visitor beforehand. Nor can either of them help me with my quest for news of the pretty blonde analyst with whom I was madly in love in about 1980. Yet another one on the surprisingly long list of women with whom I have managed to share a bed, naked, yet not had sex with. Like John Betjeman, I am heading for my grave filled with regret that I did not have more of it.

Still, there were some brighter moments, including a classic re-telling of the true story of our former colleague whose principal recreation was taking his dog for long walks on Wimbledon Common. Until he met a young woman on one of these outings, and started taking much shorter walks to her bedroom instead. All went swimmingly until the day that he was too ill to go out, and his wife walked the dog instead. She was surprised to find that it bounded down the road and went and sat outside someone’s front door, wagging its tail. Out of curiosity, she rang the bell and the dog and her husband’s mistress greeted each other warmly, like the old friends they were. I don’t know whether she literally cut her husband’s balls off when she got back home, but it certainly wasn’t pretty.

Of course, the biggest laughs were reserved for my even more implausible stories about my tangled yet fundamentally non-existent love life, but you know all those already.

This evening, I sat drinking with a friend in the Groucho Club for a bit, stupidly positioning myself with my back to a blonde of absolutely stunning beauty. Then we went to a leaving party for one of his friends who is forsaking London for the Cotswolds. She claimed that this was partly my fault, as looking at the occasional pictures of Northumberland on this blog had made her yearn for country life. A lovely girl, though the fact that she hankered after Northumberland and wound up in Gloucestershire suggests that geography probably isn’t her strongest subject.

Back at my club, I foolishly lay in bed and composed an e-mail of truly colossal obscenity to a young lady correspondent. A massively uphill struggle it was, too, as I was so drunk that it took about four keystrokes to form each letter. It was a remarkably stupid thing to do, with the benefit of hindsight, though not quite as stupid as what I did next: hitting the “send” button.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Perhaps the ultimate writing challenge

13st 10lb (which surprised me, I have to admit, after yesterday’s lunch: it must have been banoffee roulade lite); 6.0 units of alcohol (because there are three units in a pint of Guinness, at least according to the University of Dundee student medical service; it’s funny where Google can take you, as several luckless readers of this blog can testify); 1,387 days left to try and put things right; on the final approach to Loveland International, with the runway lights having just failed and the engines refusing to respond to the throttle.

So far two people have e-mailed me to say that they have read this blog from beginning to end, and fallen in love with me as a result. One of them was a Bloke, unfortunately. And the other one, to be fair, has not actually used the words “fallen in love”, though the symptoms she describes as a result of our subsequent correspondence (particularly the distractedness and the big silly grin) are symptomatic of little else. I feel the same when I read her e-mails to me. But then I remembered a piece in the Telegraph agony column a couple of weeks ago, from a Bloke who had fallen in love with someone he had encountered on an Internet dating site, just because of her wonderful way with e-mails. He’d fired off one saying “I adore you”, and couldn’t understand why she then refused to meet him in person. “I can, you sad loser,” I thought. Which was pretty much what the agony aunt said, too, suggesting a new career opportunity for me when I fail to sell my book idea about very mature (like a 1954 Gorgonzola, frankly) dating.

I caught myself typing “I ado…” yesterday, but luckily I caught it in time and managed to turn it into “I, Adonis? Don’t make me laugh!” Which sounds uncannily like a clue from a cryptic crossword. Another career opening, perhaps? Though not the opening that is foremost in my mind as I write.

Anyway, all this falling in love stuff constitutes further powerful testimony to the redemptive power of blogging. It represents an infinite increase in the number of people who might have fallen in love with me if I hadn’t started writing it. Added to which, since I started I have lost two stone, apparently seen off the curses of depression and superstition (though I am touching wood as I type that) and significantly increased my writing productivity (not just here, either).

I’ve even started thinking that I might not actually want to die in early 2012. I checked deathclock again today, putting in my new Body Mass Index of 26.0, and it offered me an extension to 2031 if I remained “pessimistic” (which means realistic, in my view), or 2047 if I upgraded my attitude to “normal”. I didn’t check the prospects if I claimed to be “optimistic”, but presumably I would be as near immortal as makes no difference.

However, sadly it’s not on as my male admirer wrote that he is really enjoying the countdown and hoping that, by February 2012, the blog will have built up enough of a following to form a Bloke in the North Fan Club, who could all get together for a fantastic piss-up after my funeral.

I struggle to see what’s in that for me, for some reason.

Meanwhile I have spent the whole afternoon trying to respond to a closely argued, seven page, handwritten letter from the Tall Cheshire Blonde, comprehensively demolishing my detailed analysis of our incompatibility. She gets big ticks for effort, wit, the quality of her writing paper and the fact that she looks very attractive in the enclosed photograph. In fact, my fundamental problem is that I can’t for the life of me work out what she is doing writing to a sad old git like me in search of love, marriage and babies. I’d have thought she would be fending off admirers with the proverbial shitty stick. What is wrong with the men of Cheshire? Surely they can’t all be gay?

If I have any viable sperm left at all, which I rather doubt, they will be lolling by the pool on the testicular equivalent of sun loungers, not training hard for a Mark Spitz-like sprint finish in the race towards someone’s cervix. And the fact that my correspondent will be thinking “Who the hell is Mark Spitz?” (because his Olympic triumphs took place before she was even born) rather underlines the gulf in age and experience that lies between us. Still, it makes me think about how I would cope with fatherhood. Not well, I fear, mainly because I’ve always hated kids. But then I had lunch not long ago with my lovely former PA, who has three of them, and she said that she had always hated kids, too; and indeed still hated other people’s. But, as everyone says, “Your own are different.”

I can just about understand that, because I adore my Border terrier but dislike dogs in general.

Still, it would clearly be mad for me to start a family at my age, not least because I’d have to go back to full time work until I was at least 75 in order to finance it (overlooking, for the moment, the fact that I am going to die when I am 57).

On the other hand, the dream of a happy home life with a loving younger partner is remarkably seductive. No wonder that, even though I make a living of sorts as a professional writer, I find it quite impossible to finish my letter.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

The curse of the flirtatious e-mail

13st 10lb (so it’s true: bingeing really does help you to lose weight); zero alcohol; 1,388; Longframlington.

Obviously I won’t actually qualify for an obituary in The Daily Telegraph when I die on 4 February 2012, but if I did I’d like to think it could be as succinct as today’s summary of Patrick Hillery, President of the Republic of Ireland from 1976 to 1990: “As president, Hillery’s main achievement was the restoration of stability to the office; this he accomplished largely through invisibility and silence.” Sounds like the ideal job for me. I could do that. I shall write off for an application form immediately.

Meanwhile, in the “you could not make it up” department, the PR genius in 10 Downing Street, about whom I wrote rather scathingly in the local paper yesterday, has now despatched his master on a profile-raising visit to the United States - arriving at precisely the same time as the Pope. Clearly my observations were nothing like rude enough. The essence of public relations is little more than the application of common sense, and that seems to be singularly lacking here. When you want to achieve big headlines with some positive news, pick a day when there is not much going on. When you’ve got bad news, try to sneak it out when the media will be otherwise engaged, but don’t be too bleeding obvious (e.g. putting out lousy company results on Budget Day or Christmas Eve) or it will undoubtedly backfire. And if you want to get some interest from the US media, don’t arrange for your boss to turn up on the same day as a head of state who is also the leader of one of the world’s great religions, and celebrating his 81st birthday.

Still, it does confirm a trend of Gordon being unable to do anything right. And it is quite funny.

Even without all that, the day would have started rather well, with my rendezvous with the scales revealing that I am now a full two stone lighter than when I started my efforts to shed a few pounds on Boxing Day. But things went rapidly downhill as soon as I got to my desk, as I fell victim once again to the monstrous tyranny of the e-mail. When they come to prepare my tombstone, I rather fancy “Unfortunately, e-mail got in the way” for my epitaph.

In need of slight amendment: the shape of things to come

Every morning I sit down intending to get on with the book that is supposed to make me rich and famous (though I’d settle for a small amount of either of those) and every evening I get up again having spent most of the day exchanging supposedly amusing messages about nothing in particular. I’m getting very keen on one lady who keeps e-mailing me; in fact, I think I am falling in love with her and find myself in an unusually good mood as a result, smiling at people and animals when I set foot outside the house. I even helped an eensy-weensy spider out of the bath this morning, and I don’t like spiders in the slightest. (Actually, it was a bloody great big spider that looked like something out of Doctor Who, if I take off my love-tinted spectacles for a second.)

It is therefore important for me to remind myself that, the last time I felt myself losing my footing on the slippery path to Love, it was with a similarly amusing and flirtatious e-mail correspondent. After a bit I looked her up on Facebook and found myself staring open-mouthed at a big, fat, spiky-haired lesbian who might well have been the model for Millie Tant in Viz. I can’t swear for a fact that she is, in fact, a lesbian, but let me put it this way: any other lesbian who received a brush-off after trying to pick her up in a bar would be fully entitled to initiate an action under the Trades Description Act, with every chance of success.

At lunchtime, I met my aunt and my brother to celebrate the latter’s recent 70th birthday: two pints of Guinness, baked mussels with a garlic crust, roast beef with all the trimmings, bannoffee roulade with chocolate ice cream, and coffee and mints. No, not between us. That was just mine. I don’t think it will have done my diet a power of good, somehow. But on the other hand I felt I had a duty to world science to put the bingeing theory of weight reduction to a really serious test.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

There but for the grace of God

13st 12lb (phew!); zero alcohol; 1,389; the jungles of Borneo.

The Today programme this morning reported that, from today, all petrol and diesel sold in the UK must contain at least 2.5% biofuel, to conform (inevitably) with yet another EU Directive. Recently the same programme reported riots in Haiti as a result of the soaring price of basic foodstuffs, and there have been similar rumblings from other parts of what we are probably no longer permitted to call the Third World. And, of course, orang-utans are being wiped out as the remaining rain forests of South East Asia are grubbed up to grow palm oil. Now, children, do we think that these three stories might be in some way connected. Come on, Gordon! Yes, you at the back with the wonky eye! Think, boy, think!

Honestly, you could not make it up. Personally, I could not give a monkey’s (appropriately enough) about the orang-utan, even though I rather warmed to the only one I can recall meeting in person, which was at Dublin Zoo many years ago. His speciality was picking up his own excrement and lobbing it at the spectators. I remember thinking it was a great shame that he presumably had Irish citizenship, as he’d have made a most useful addition to the English Test squad. Nevertheless, given the choice, I’d much rather have rain forests than palm oil plantations. I’d rather we didn’t have to comply with half-witted Directives from the European Union. And, so long as we do, I wish the bureaucrats would think through the consequences of their actions. If there really is a threat to the future of civilization from excess carbon emissions, which I rather doubt, let us put ourselves on a proper war footing and ban all unnecessary travel rather than pratting about with token gestures that produce dire unintended results.

The local paper duly published my column this morning, eliciting a complimentary e-mail about my cleverness in writing about the Titanic on the 96th anniversary of its sinking. Which would indeed have been rather clever timing if I’d actually been aware of it. Still, I’ve now squirreled the fact away as further valuable ammunition for my next pub quiz. Not that I’ve ever attended a pub quiz in my life, even though I know more or less everything unconnected with games. (“Sport”, of course, involves killing things.) If you’d like me on your team, drop me a line at I feel that I really ought to get out more rather than sitting at home writing this. But then I feel that every Tuesday after I’ve listened to the splendid Ed Reardon’s Week on Radio 4, about a catastrophically unsuccessful and cantankerous writer. The funniest thing on the wireless at present, I think, though I am getting increasingly depressed by the number of people who say that it always reminds them of me.

Monday 14 April 2008

Because, as Sir Stuart says, there is no Plan B

14st 0lb (disaster!); 9.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,390; North Atlantic.

I blame the pub, frankly. Normally I have a proper stodgy lunch of steak and kidney pie or the like, perhaps with a spot of treacle tart for afters, then I don’t feel able to face anything in the evening and my diet progresses smoothly on its way. Yesterday’s fishcakes and salad represented such an exiguous portion that they would have raised eyebrows if served as a starter in most of the establishments I frequent; while the admittedly delicious pint of real ale which accompanied them merely raised the appetite for more. So yesterday evening, for the first time in many months (or, to be accurate, for the first time at home in many months), I went completely off the rails. Luckily I had prepared for this possibility by simply keeping my fridge, freezer and cupboards clear of the most obvious high-calorie indulgences like crisps, nuts, biscuits, cakes and ice cream. However, I had stupidly bought some very fine cheese when I was in Rothbury on Saturday, and ate all of it with an assortment of fruit and pickles after my main course of a rib-eye steak with salad. I also necked a large gin and tonic and the best part of a bottle of claret. By halfway through Foyle’s War, I was reduced to trying to satisfy my craving for something sweet by licking out a tin of Charbonnel et Walker drinking chocolate (I’ve put it like that mainly for the twisted satisfaction of seeing how many people arrive on this site by typing “licking out” into Google) and eating handfuls of sultanas from my store of cooking ingredients. Mercifully I fell asleep shortly afterwards, or it could have been even worse.

The only crumb of comfort I can find lies in that Telegraph article suggesting that occasional binges help you to lose weight in the long run. For now, I am thoroughly ashamed of myself and spend a blameless day not eating, writing stuff and endeavouring to burn some calories on a longer than usual walk.

Having written a newspaper column a few days ago comparing the Brown government to James Cameron’s film of Titanic, I am naturally a good deal less than gruntled when the Today programme highlights in its newspaper review a Trevor Kavanagh column from today’s Sun comparing the Brown government to a sinking ship. Shortly afterwards, while I am still lying in the bath, a man comes on who claims to have accidentally left his £180,000 violin on the luggage rack of a Great Western train when he got off at Bedwyn, and is now appealing for its return. I don’t fancy his chances much, not least because he’s dealing with the same railway which failed to spot a body hanging in Paddington station for almost a full week. I toy with the idea of writing an alternative column on this theme instead, but of course Monday’s columnist has already said pretty much everything about Mark Speight (whom he claims to have “discovered”) and in any case a whole load of old jokes on that theme would fail to meet the taste test and probably land me with an expensive libel action from the violinist. So I stick with Plan A, even if typing “Gordon Brown Titanic” into Google does throw up 498,000 results. Or, as of now, 498,001.

Sunday 13 April 2008

The charm of deafened birds

13st 12lb (clearly a delayed reaction to my Thai feeding frenzy of Friday); zero alcohol yesterday; 1,391; Northumberland Heritage Coast.

Well, it’s certainly a nice day for it, and it hasn’t been possible to say that often of late. I managed an uninterrupted and refreshing night’s sleep for a change, though I did wake with a start, convinced that I had blown it with the Tall Cheshire Blonde by writing to her yesterday that our only shared interests appeared to be drinking to excess and cunnilingus. I suddenly thought that I might have misinterpreted her e-mail, and that she was actually picking up on my persistent sore throat, in a sympathetic sort of way, and recommending a brand of soothing linctus. I hastily beetled downstairs and checked my inbox. No, the linctus thing was definitely a bad dream, but she doesn’t actually mention oral sex as such, either. Though there is perhaps a hint of it in the appended list of things her girlfriends have warned her about, which includes her habit of wrapping her legs around friends’ necks while sitting at the bar. Anyway, it’s a fairly safe bet, isn’t it? Women liking that sort of thing? Surely it falls into the same sort of category as dogs and bones, or politicians and big wads of unmarked bank notes? Fingers crossed, at any rate.

This morning, immediately after the Archers cliff-hanger about the Kathy Perks rape trial, I went for an absolutely delightful walk along the coast from Newton-by-the-Sea to Dunstanburgh, in the company of someone I met at a recent lunch who proved to be most entertaining and informative company. The sun shone on a perfect, silver sea; a skylark sang above the fields nearby; and eider ducks paddled picturesquely in the gentle swell. It would be hard to imagine a more delightful and peaceful scene. In marked contrast to the one which we would have experienced if we had made the trip a few hours earlier. One huge purple marquee and a slightly smaller one in a frankly unimaginative sort of natural canvas colour stood by the dunes a little way from Newton village. The larger, open-sided tent had accommodated a band with an evidently powerful sound system, which must have kept the puffins on the Farne Islands up all night, with their wings pressed tightly over their ears, and probably led to a few irritated calls to environmental health departments from coastal settlements along the Norwegian coast. The smaller marquee was home to an evidently well-stocked bar. A few bleary-eyed survivors lay around in the sun, evidently trying to adjust gently to the fact that they were still alive. I was impressed by the level of organization that had evidently gone into this event, and wondered whether it included obtaining some sort of permission from the local authority, or whether one just went ahead and did it. A question which has always troubled me in a wide variety of contexts, much as it did the Bloke who ended up in the dock in Bournemouth in The Archers.

Apart from the fact that my dog misbehaved comprehensively from beginning to end of the exercise, it was one of the very best walks I have had in the last year. It concluded most agreeably with a pint of beer and fishcakes in a very Farrow and Balled pub, which actually looked like it would be more at home on the Dorset coast than in Northumberland. The clientele seemed a bit out of place, too, including as they did an ageing would-be rock star with long grey hair and ludicrous wraparound shades. My sort of Northumberland pub contains old men in flat caps drinking bottles of Brown Ale, playing dominoes and smoking tabs. The last, alas, is now one with Nineveh and Tyre. Still, to look on the bright side, the large woman behind the bar was completely charmless, so at least one ancient regional tradition is being kept up even here.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Can opposites attract?

13st 11lb, surprisingly, despite 9.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,392; The Wirral.

I could not sleep last night, lying awake till around three then waking again at six, when my brain regrettably turned itself on. So I began thinking about the letter I need to write to the perhaps ever so slightly eccentric young lady who kindly applied over a week ago for the vacant position of wife/girlfriend/carer which has been advertised on my other website for some four years, and which should really be in line for some sort of industry award for advertising ineffectiveness.

As I lay there, I felt an unusually powerful urge to have the soft, warm body of a woman beside me. Now, as it happened, I already had a soft, warm body in that position, but it was the hairy one of a Border terrier overdue to have its coat stripped. The urge continued to make itself felt, and then to my surprise something quite remarkable happened. Like an ancient steam engine, finally coaxed back to life after years of loving restoration by the late Fred Dibnah, the old Patent Lady Pleasurer suddenly lurched back into action, to the accompaniment of much grinding of rusted cogs and the hiss of steam escaping through worn-out joints. I half expected a whistle to go off, but luckily it did not happen.

The dog gave me a funny look and moved with unusual speed to the furthest corner of the bed, where it lay looking at me uneasily. As for me, I was so amazed that I leapt up and ran downstairs to find my camera, so that I could capture a digital image of the phenomenon in case it never happened again. I now know how the man must feel who took the last picture of a Yangtse dolphin: proud, yet sad at the same time.

It’s a shame that they did not invent digital photography a decade or two earlier, or I’d have a whole library of interesting pictures to console me in the old age I don’t expect to have, or at least to make the old ladies in the day room squeal when I passed them around. I did occasionally persuade the odd young lady to indulge me in my feigned interest in photography, but the quality of Polaroids is poor and they are inclined to fade. I could never face taking unconventional photographs on conventional film into Boots to be developed, particularly as they always used to open the envelope at the counter and show you the pictures to make sure that you were getting the right film back.

Though of course that small sorrow is nothing to my intense regret that I am no longer in a more of less permanent state of sexual arousal, of the sort which prevailed between the ages of about 14 to 24 (a period, ironically, when I was of about as much interest to females as a Vintage Diesel Day on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway). Even ten years after that, I could only risk taking secretaries out to pubs or wine bars with good, old, solid, cast iron Victorian tables, as there was every chance that I would knock over a more flimsy one in my excitement if they showed the slightest chance of responding positively to my flirtation. Now it’s a recordable special event that almost merits a commentary from Sir David Attenborough.

I got up soon after this, even though it was still early and I was completely exhausted, and settled down to write to my alleged admirer. First I drew up a comprehensive table analyzing our compatibility, and bending over backwards to be positive. Even so, I could not get to a score of more than 34%, given that she claims to be 35 (absolutely perfect on that old Victorian formula of half my age plus eight, but in practice perhaps a little on the young side); 5’ 10” (so we’d look like Nicolas and Carla, unless she too binned all her high heels); “curvaceous” (which is one of those words that always sets off alarm bells in my head when spotted in the small ads, rather like “bubbly”); a vegetarian (oh dear); and a party-lover (I’ve always been with Mr Woodhouse on that one). Oh, and she lives 200-odd miles away in Cheshire, and it takes me the best part of a week of mental preparation to work up the energy to drive the 40 miles to Newcastle. In fact, all we appear to have in common is that we both like a drink, on which basis I might as well go and pick up one of those bag ladies you occasionally see wandering around, swigging from a two litre bottle of White Lightning cider. On the other hand, by the time I’ve finished the covering letter I’m definitely on the brink of falling in love with her, and planning our wedding and the names of our first-born. I do hope I haven’t put her off, I think shortly after I have pressed the “send” button.

Friday 11 April 2008

Putting the world to rights

13st 11lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,393; Dunelm.

One of the most positive developments of recent years, to my mind, has been the availability of rail tickets on the internet. Not primarily because they are a lot cheaper than they were when I used to buy them at the station, but because it means I usually avoid the maddening exchange I had at Morpeth this morning.

Me: “A day return to Durham, please.”
Lady Ticket Clerk: “Would that be an ordinary day return?”
Me: “What other sort of day returns would there be?”
LTC: “Well, I thought you might have a railcard you’d like to use.”

No wonder they protect their employees with shatter-proof security glass. I trotted out my standard, good-humoured line about being over 26, amazingly enough, but inwardly I was seething. I’ve had railway staff asking me if I am an OAP since I was about 45, and I’ve never yet seen the funny side. I bet if I do pass 60, in defiance of’s prediction, everyone will start querying it, in the same way that no-one ever asked to see proof of my age in a pub or off-licence when I was 16, but I was challenged quite regularly when I was 20.

I was heading for Durham to buy lunch for a fellow newspaper columnist who somehow got overlooked when invitations were being dished out to the Quinquennial Columnists’ Lunch described on 2 April. The limited availability of direct trains from Morpeth meant that I was arriving an hour too early for lunch, but he sportingly offered to meet me and take me for a culturally improving walk. I guessed that this was probably going to mean the cathedral, but in fact it involved nothing so predictable: just a very old-fashioned tobacconist’s and an equally old-fashioned pub with a fine selection of real ales and pork scratchings, and classic nicotine-coloured walls and ceiling, sadly now uncomplemented by an appropriate carcinogenic fug.

After a pint we wandered off in search of our restaurant, which was a Thai place but not the Thai place he had taken me to when I last passed this way. Presumably Durham has other restaurants that aren’t Thai; but, if it does, I’ve never been in one.

This Thai restaurant, when we finally tracked it down, had much less of a view than the one we went to on my previous visit, and the food wasn’t as good. What’s more, they had adapted their native traditions to those of County Durham by assuming that we would prefer knives and forks to chopsticks, and that we would rather choose just the one dish each, rather than ordering a few and sharing them. On the other hand, it had more and prettier Thai girls than the other place. But none of these issues was of the slightest interest to my guide. All that mattered to him – and his eyes lit up when he spotted it on our arrival – was that it had a smoking terrace. Not a terrace that was on fire, you understand, but a covered area where the punters could go and indulge themselves in traditional activities of a tobacco-related nature.

And so we whiled away the afternoon sitting listening to the rain pelting off the canvas awning, drinking wine (and, in my case, coffee) and smoking cigars. There may well be those in places like 10 Downing Street who believe that there was not too much wrong with the world even when we started our lunch, but I can assure you that it had been thoroughly put to rights by the time we got to the end of it at about five o’clock. A particularly pretty little Thai lady kept coming in and out of the restaurant to run short errands in a Mini car (which must, to her, have had the dimensions that a stretch limousine would have for me). She kept looking at the elderly Englishmen on the terrace with a mischievous smile that seemed to be nicely poised midway between mild curiosity and outright pity.

I nearly missed the train back to Morpeth because my guide insisted that we had time for a “swift half” en route to the station, but I caught it by the skin of my teeth and eventually arrived home with the faint consciousness that I was missing something. It took some time to work out what it was, but eventually I got there. Since I smoked a couple of cigars this afternoon, the sore throat from which I have been suffering for months has completely disappeared. I am now going to devote myself to finding similarly counter-intuitive cures for tinnitus and erectile dysfunction, probably involving the use of explosives and some choice images of Cherie Blair.