Sunday 6 April 2008

Trapped under a heavy duvet in a frozen world

14st 0lb; zero alcohol; 1,398 days left to live (which, to provide a bit of context, compares with the 25,658 days my brother had enjoyed up to and including his 70th birthday yesterday; though maybe, on reflection, delete “enjoyed” and insert “endured”); tied up rusting gently on a dockside in Leith.

It is such a shame that the village shop is closed on Sundays. Otherwise, I could have gone there and someone would have said, “Cold enough for you?”, allowing me to embark on a 200-word riff on the banality of rustic conversations. Of course, that would assume that there was someone else in the village shop at the time of my visit, which is actually a bit of a long shot. Most of the villagers prefer to make the 52 mile round trip to Asda in Ashington to do their shopping, though that will not stop them complaining vociferously when their village shop closes down.

As it is, all I can do is report that the wind in my face as I reluctantly trudged around the dog’s favourite walk this afternoon was as marrow-chillingly, bitterly cold as anything I have experienced this winter. I expected to see the fields littered with the frozen corpses of new-born lambs, but they all seemed to be coping with the conditions surprisingly well. They weren’t even wearing the makeshift plastic macs that the shepherds sometimes fashion out of old fertiliser sacks. Of course they breed them tough Up North. For some reason I was reminded of the Viz character Rock Lobster, a tattooed, fag-smoking crustacean which climbs out of pans of boiling water proclaiming “That’s nowt, man!”

Trust me, it was colder than it looks

I’d spent the morning doing the sort of mindless things with which reclusive old bachelors fill their Sundays, like ironing shirts and making some cuttings from last month’s newspapers before I chucked them in the recycling bin. As I did so, I thought with increasing desperation of what I could write to fill my weekly newspaper column. For some reason (and it’s nothing to do with fancying him, I can assure you) my mind kept turning back to Michael Portillo. Then I remembered that he has a unique distinction: he is the only politician to whom I have ever been moved to write a fan letter.

It was in January 1997, and he had just mounted a virtuoso defence on the Today programme of the Government’s decision to order a new Royal Yacht. Being Mr Anal (which should lead to some interesting referrals to this site from Google), it was the work of seconds to locate not only my letter but the reply to it, which was penned on his behalf by the secretary to the Director General Surface Ships. This emphasised the huge contribution made by HMY Britannia during over a million miles of service over the previous 43 years, and concluded that “The new Yacht will continue her work as a symbol of the Crown, the Kingdom and its maritime traditions. It should also assist in promoting British interests, and add powerfully to official occasions when it enters service in time for the Golden Jubilee in 2002.”

If only. Of course I realized at the time that the belated decision to replace Britannia was an entirely cynical attempt to rally the support of Tory loyalists like me, who had been disgusted by the performance of the Major government, and that the failure to secure all-party support for the announcement made it totally pointless. The new yacht was duly cancelled by incoming Chancellor Gordon Brown shortly after the election, in a characteristic act of petty spite. It must have been about the last decision he actually managed to make without several weeks of frenzied dithering beforehand. Or maybe he did that even then, but it was just less obvious when he was at the Treasury rather than 10 Downing Street.

In any event, it all looks splendidly ironic now that he has become so keen on the symbols of British nationhood. I can think of very few things that did more for our standing in the world than Britannia, and its replacement would no doubt have been more useful for that purpose than one of those long-promised aircraft carriers, which are in any event clearly never going to be built. So I happily wrote about that, and about Mr Portillo’s other illuminating comments on John Major, already revealed on this blog on All Fools’ Day. Ah, the relief of getting something onto paper and not having to worry about it immediately before tomorrow’s deadline. I gladly slumped onto the sofa in the evening and watched BBC3’s new sitcoms, thinking that the barn dance on Barry Island in Gavin and Stacey, performed to a duet sung by Rob Brydon and Ruth Jones, was probably enough in itself to justify my annual licence fee. Such moments of contentment are rare enough to deserve recording (as the programme would have been, if I hadn’t been too reluctant to brave the intense cold by emerging from under my duvet).

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