Tuesday 1 April 2008

The abominable showman

13st 13lb; zero alcohol; 1,403; Seville.

I don’t think anything in life is more important than humour, and I pride myself on the catholicity of my tastes. From Viz to the most esoteric of high table talk; music hall knockabout to contemporary stand-up; pantomime to Pinter – there’s not much that I am not prepared to laugh at. But I do draw the line at practical jokes, which usually strike me as being needlessly cruel. Accordingly this is by no means my favourite day of the year. I was therefore encouraged to find remarkably few signs of contrived japes in the media, apart from an item on the Today programme about the RSPB air-freighting finches back to Denmark, which even I had to concede was quite amusing.

I was woken in the early hours by something pretty substantial being dashed against the skylight above my bed, and the high wind persisted all day. When I took the dog out for a walk in the late afternoon, we reached a point where it was almost impossible to make headway against the gale. After the massive campaign of destruction waged against the local roadside trees in the name of Elfin Safety, I almost wished for a large bough to come crashing onto my head, just to prove that it had all been a waste of time. My last words would have been “I told you so”. There is a more than sporting chance that they still will be.

Today’s practical joke at my expense comes at around 7p.m. (seven hours after what my mother always claimed to be the deadline for that sort of thing) when I wanted to hop into my car and drive to the theatre in Alnwick, and the remote control for my garage door wouldn’t work. It had operated perfectly at lunchtime. Having excluded the possibilities that it might be held back by the force of the wind or disabled by a temporary power cut, I let myself back into the house to collect the key for the side door. Which I couldn’t, because when I come to think about it I had left it in the lock on the inside of the garage door, so that I’d know exactly where it was the next time I needed it. Brilliant. Fortunately I had had the presence of mind to leave a spare remote control with a neighbour many years ago, and after sprinting around there and disturbing them I found that it did still work. Great joke, God. I hope you are proud of yourself.

The attraction [sic] in Alnwick was An Audience with Michael Portillo at the Playhouse, which had seemed like an appropriate thing to attend on All Fools’ Day. When I booked my seat in the front row, they had only sold about a dozen others, and I expected it to be a very intimate evening indeed (not in that way). But to my amazement, given that this is not exactly a Tory heartland, they had completely filled the theatre. Even more remarkably, no-one had come to heckle or jeer. The first half of the performance comprised a series of well-worn and not particularly original political jokes. They were delivered very professionally, but Michael Portillo is to William Hague what Little & Large were to Morecambe & Wise. The second half of the evening was devoted to answering questions from the audience, most of which were sympathetic and sensible, with the notable exception of the excruciatingly long and rambling one from a world class bore who was interested in Portuguese contribution to the Spanish Civil War. Fortunately the length of the question was nicely balanced by the brevity of Mr Portillo’s response, which can be summarized as “F***ed if I know”.

I enjoyed being reminded of the striking parallel between John Major and Alec Guinness’s colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai, with Major becoming fixated on meeting what he felt was his obligation to the other European leaders to force through the Maastricht Treaty, rather than on the interests of Britain or the Conservative Party. Mr Portillo felt that something remarkably similar had happened over the Lisbon Treaty to Gordon Brown “who is at least as eurosceptical as most Tories”. I suspect that he is right. The question is: what can we do to stop our political leaders falling in thrall to the European “project” as soon as they cross the threshold in Downing Street? Do Foreign Office mandarins whisper some killer strategic or economic fact into their ear, which means that they always have to roll over and concede whatever our “partners” want? If so, would they mind awfully sharing that fact with the rest of us, so that we can begin to grasp what the hell is going on?

For the first time ever, a nice old boy approached me at the interval and asked if I was who he thought I was. I confirmed the fact with some trepidation, but he just wanted to shake me by the hand and tell me how much pleasure he derived from my weekly newspaper columns – and particularly from today’s, which had been one of my very best. That was also the verdict of numerous e-mails, replying to which wasted most of my working day. Clearly it won’t be difficult trying to replicate this success by simply getting to my desk next Monday morning and writing down the first thing that comes into my head. But how to reproduce the feeling of total languor in which I wrote yesterday, in the aftermath of my illness? The only thing that springs to mind is that I could perhaps try staying awake all night and engaging in some sort of vigorous physical activity. But I might well nod off and ruin everything if I attempt to do it on my own. Any young ladies who feel that they might be able to make a practical contribution to this potentially important literary experiment are encouraged to forward their particulars to blokeinthenorth@googlemail.com.

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