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.

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