Saturday 31 May 2008
So this is what it is like being three days off turning 54. Most unusually, I am suffering from constipation, and fear that I am about to suffer a recurrence of piles as a result. My gums bled profusely when I brushed my teeth this morning, and I am unusually conscious of my long-standing tinnitus. On top of which, I have had a sore throat for more than six months and am more than ever convinced that it betokens something sinister and ultimately fatal. All I need now is for someone to confirm that diagnosis so that I can stop fretting about the need to go back to work, and crack on with squandering the remainder of my meagre life savings.
But apart from that, I’m absolutely on top of the world.
I took a taxi from my club to Victoria in the late morning, feeling slightly guilty about asking him to make such a pathetically short journey, but the closure of The Mall for a Trooping the Colour rehearsal meant that he was able to rack up a respectable fare by going a remarkably long way around. I’d allowed more than half an hour to buy a ticket, but everything progressed remarkably smoothly until I asked for a return to Brighton, coming back early on Monday morning. I was informed that no such thing was obtainable, even for ready money. However, the lady behind the prudently reinforced glass did graciously consent to sell me two individual tickets: a “cheap day single” for my outward journey, which was a bargain at £19.00; and a full price single for my return during Monday’s rush hour, which cost an eye-watering £19.50.
There is presumably some sort of logic behind this pricing structure and the names given to the various categories of ticket. I wonder what it is?
I stood slap bang in the middle of the concourse where the LTCB could not possibly miss me as she made her way from the tube to the Brighton departure platform, so of course she did. Miss me, that is. But through the miracle of text messaging we were soon united on the 12.06 train. Well, not literally united. We are still very fond of each other, but certain standards of decorum must prevail. We took a taxi from the station to my friends’ flat on Marine Parade and sat on their terrace in the sunshine happily drinking New Zealand fizz and admiring the view. After a couple of bottles we walked along the front to the Regency fish restaurant, where my host explained for the umpteenth time how superbly retsina went with fish and chips, and I explained that I would much prefer to have almost anything else. Yet ended up drinking retsina again, as I always do.
It’s what they call a ritual, I expect.
I’d originally expected this meal to take place in the evening, but our hosts had received a late invitation to a birthday party, so announced that they would be leaving us to our own devices. Casting about for alternative entertainment, I rang an old school and university friend who lives in Lewes, and asked if he and his wife would like to meet us instead. As it happened, they were already coming to Brighton to see a production of La Boheme at the Theatre Royal, and asked whether we would like to join them for that. The correct answer to this question, as it turned out, was a categorical “no”, but I made the mistake of consulting the LTCB and she thought it sounded like a pleasant enough way to pass the time. And I remembered the story about King George V being asked which was his favourite opera, and why, and instantly replying, “La Boheme. Because it’s much the shortest.” So off we went.
Our host in Marine Parade had gleefully predicted that we would have an absolutely SH*T evening, and I had countered his remarks by pointing out that some of these obscure east European opera companies are surprisingly good. For example, the best production I have ever seen of Gounod’s Faust was given at the Edinburgh Festival many years ago by the Slovak National Opera of Bratislava. However, on this occasion he was bang right. I knew that it was going to be truly dreadful from the minute that the fat old bloke playing Rodolfo opened his mouth. He looked disturbingly like Gordon Brown, only minus the ready smile and powerful charisma; and, if he hit any right notes in the course of the evening, it can only have been by accident.
To look on the bright side, Marcello sang quite respectably and, in this company at least, Musetta actually seemed reasonably good. The orchestra meanwhile seemed to be of altogether higher quality than the singers. Perhaps they had come to the wrong theatre by mistake. The sets were little more than painted cloths, and the bed on which Mimi expired was so rickety that one had fears that she might well meet an accidental death before her scheduled demise from consumption. In fairness, the woman playing her wasn’t altogether bad if one shut one’s eyes, but the fact that she appeared to be well past pensionable age took away much of the pathos of her death. Instead of the customary sobs at the end, one heard whispers of “Well, at least she had a good innings.” In fact, the audience talked to each other quite extensively throughout, mainly saying things like “Oh dear”. Normally this would have annoyed the hell out of me at an opera, but on this occasion it did not seem to matter in the slightest.
A particular highlight for me was the exchange I witnessed when we foolishly returned to our seats after the interval. The old boy next to us turned to his wife and said, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse”, at which point the woman sitting behind him accidentally tipped a full glass of pomegranate juice over his freshly laundered white shirt. Which just goes to show the folly of making positive predictions.
The dramatic impact of the urgently whispered “Marcello, she’s dead!” in the final scene was somewhat reduced by having it bellowed in a tone that would have woken a stone deaf centenarian having a deep sleep in the Pavilion Gardens down the road. Even allowing for the fact that Rodolfo was evidently several potatoes short of a Russian banquet, this made it very hard indeed to understand his subsequent puzzlement and his traditional question of “Why are you all looking at me like that?”
For some reason I was reminded of my father’s favourite theatrical story, of attending a performance of Murder at the Red Barn in the Grand Theatre, Byker, when he was a young man. After the foul deed had been committed, the villain inquired rhetorically, “What shall I do with the body?” And a loud Geordie voice from the balcony helpfully suggested another foul deed that he could advantageously commit while the corpse was still warm.
It seems needlessly cruel to name the company responsible for this fiasco, so I shall merely observe that they were indeed Russian, and from a part of that great country to which no-one has ever been sent as a reward.
After this treat, we walked through Brighton to another fish restaurant, which had apparently attained a sort of distinction by being sorted out by that Gordon Ramsay on TV. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry, but overcame my prejudice against ordering oysters when there is no “R” in the month as I remembered their reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac. An old wives’ tale, it would seem. Perhaps I should have offered to suck the pomegranate juice out of that old man’s shirt instead.
Friday 30 May 2008
After a night filled with truly bizarre dreams, I got up implausibly early and decided to repack my suitcase, shortly after realizing that I could not actually lift it. So I removed several changes of clothing which I had originally packed in case I got drenched twice a day, every day (always a high risk in the English summer). This operation made the case lighter but still highly unmanouverable, so that I inflicted two livid scars on my new paintwork as I dragged it downstairs. This did not put me in the best of moods for the day.
I then drove my convertible to Alnmouth station, hoping that someone might steal or at the very least seriously vandalize it while I was away, so that I could submit a baroque insurance claim that would also cover removal of all the scratches and bumps acquired through my own carelessness and the unseen malice of others. Or the seen malice, in the case of the 20-stone, shaven-headed, tattooed hulk who was leaning heavily on the door of his own car, which he had smashed into mine, when I returned to it in Morrisons car park in Alnwick last year. He took his fag out of his mouth long enough to grunt at me when I indicated that I would quite like to get into my vehicle, then slowly moved out of the way. For some reason I refrained from saying, “By the way, you’ve just made a huge dent in my car door. Could I possibly have your insurance details?” But, to look on the bright side, at least my head is still attached to my body at the time of writing.
In defiance of expectations and precedent, the 07.03 both departed Alnmouth and reached its King’s Cross destination on schedule. This allowed me ample time to check into my club, where I found the front hall festooned with new blue ropes of the sort that the aristocracy deploy when they are opening their houses to the public, to keep hoi polloi off the Wilton and reduce the chances of their stealing the spoons. They had also instituted an elaborate new system for checking in luggage, which previously one just dumped unacknowledged. I sense that there has been an embarrassing incident of some sort, perhaps on the scale of the one that occurred some years ago when two men in brown coats turned up with a ladder and unscrewed the valuable hall clock “for maintenance”, unaccountably failing to mention that they were actually antiques thieves. But all attempts to extract a juicy story for this blog were fended off with Jeeves-like enigmatic smiles and the explanation, “It’s just for safety, sir.”
I lunched at my favourite restaurant with the greatest, indeed perhaps the only, fan of this blog. I had at least been consoling myself with the thought that the three or four visits made each day from his firm meant that he had successfully recommended this site to all his colleagues. Imagine my horror when I discovered that he is so underemployed that he has been constantly revisiting it himself, in case I have updated it. (A pretty unlikely eventuality, as you will know.) He claims to be “worried” about me. I couldn’t help thinking that any worries should be flowing in precisely the opposite direction. Particularly when he leaned forward, confidentially, after a certain amount of drink had been taken, and asked me to level with him: did the LTCB exist or was she a figment of my imagination? His reason for suspecting the latter was that her name is an anagram of that of my last secretary, when I worked in London. (Her real name, that is, not the LTCB acronym.) I pointed out that this would require Machiavellian thinking at a level which I stand no chance of ever attaining, and showed him my mobile inbox, filled with messages from her. He did not actually accuse me of sending them all to myself, but I could see in his eyes how much he wanted to do so.
A strong gin Martini and a bottle of wine each pushed the bill above the psychologically important £200 mark, and put me in such a condition that I demolished a vase of flowers as I extricated myself from the table, though at least I just managed not to upset the wine cooler attached to the table next door. I could not help thinking that it was a shame not to have stuck it onto his expense account while he still had one. The prudent thing now would have been to go for a lie-down, so naturally I allowed myself to be lured to the Lamb & Flag for a couple of pints of Harvey’s fine Lewes bitter. I came close to collapsing into a heap in the gutter as I finally made my way back to my club, after stopping to lean against a pillar box while I made a series of attempts to tie up a shoelace. No doubt this performance will have been captured on multiple CCTV cameras, and I look forward to its appearance on one of those compilation TV shows, to provide light relief between the couples shagging over their desks or in the car park.
Eventually, I had a restful late afternoon. On my own. And in anticipation of a further comment from the person who took my previous use of those words as a coy reference to sexual activity: it ain’t necessarily so. This blended seamlessly into a restful evening, followed by a predictably sleep-free night, which I was able to devote to entirely justified self-loathing.
Thursday 29 May 2008
I spent the day feeling lousy and disinclined to do anything very much, which was bad. I was also racked with periodic, violent stomach cramps, which was even worse. (Honestly, Tom, I am not blaming you in the slightest. It was a very fine meal indeed. You did remember to wash your hands, didn’t you?)
The highlight of my morning was completing a VAT return, which says it all. After receiving some more mis-addressed mail (which was at least better than the alternative of not receiving it), I also devoted a little time to pondering how I could tackle the problem of some databases failing to recognize the existence of my house, and insisting that I live in The Hovel. The Hovel is actually occupied by a man known to all as Dodgy Reg, who moved into the area a few years ago to carry out a massive building project for The Squire. Paradoxically, this involved converting some old Victorian stables into a stately home of about the same size as the Castle which The Squire’s grandfather vacated at the end of the 1980s on the grounds that it was far too big. When I asked one of my neighbours why Dodgy Reg was so called, he replied “Because that’s what The Squire calls him”, leading me to wonder whether he acquired the soubriquet before or after he started work and submitted his first bill.
Dodgy Reg is currently building a vast extension to The Hovel – for which, most unusually for these parts, he has actually obtained planning permission. It seems to me that it would help to distinguish his house from the neighbouring properties if he gave it a new name more appropriate to its status. Dodgingham Palace springs irresistibly to mind, and perhaps its occupant could have an appropriate title, too. I rather fancy His Dodginess The Maharaja of Dodgipore. I shall send a letter to that name and address and see what happens, with special emphasis on whether it ends up being delivered to me by mistake.
I tore myself away from these pointless reflections to call upon my aunt, who had been entertaining the greatest fan of my newspaper column to lunch. This provided me with the nearest thing I am ever likely to experience to enjoying celebrity status. It’s quite nice, really. I then drove to Newcastle for a haircut, and gloomily concluded the afternoon by depositing the dog at the kennels. There was a poster about a missing dog prominently displayed on the office door, which did not exactly inspire confidence. As he was led away to his cell by a man so lugubrious that he made me look like the Laughing Policeman, the dog pointedly refused to look at me, which is the traditional Border terrier way of expressing disapproval. But he had caught my eye with his soulful brown pair as we drove up, and I could tell that he was thinking “You rotten sod.” I wish he could read this blog and know how guilty I felt as I drove away.
But mainly, of course, because gaining even one extra reader would help to dilute the overpowering sense of wasted time that hangs over these pages like the smoke from a funeral pyre.
Wednesday 28 May 2008
I was awake most of the night with the sort of indigestion that feels as though a substantial demon has taken up residence in one’s stomach and installed a large coke boiler to keep himself extremely warm. He spends most of his time stoking it industriously, but fills every spare moment drinking industrial alcohol and performing crazy dances, in the course of which he lashes out randomly with his trident. Hang on, he’s just stolen one of those large cranes with a wrecking ball and … oh Christ.
It’s not your fault, Tom, really it isn’t. I’m just not equipped to eat dinner any more. Lunch is the only acceptable meal for a man of my age.
What is your fault, Tom, is not ringing me at 9 a.m. as you said you would, so I just cracked on and wrote my review without any firm guidance on length beyond a suggestion some time ago of “around 400 words, which could maybe be stretched a bit”. That would be “stretched” as in “compressed” as it turns out, as I wrote 850 words and the eventual answer from the paper was “Oh, we can’t possibly use more than 200.” Which did not even give me room to list all the dishes I had sampled. I might as well have stayed at home and got Tom to fax me the menu. As it is I have spent a night in agony, wasted a fair chunk of my morning writing and laid out £100 on food for three and a further £25 or so on petrol for the 80-mile round trip. With no mention of a fee or expenses, as usual.
I don’t think I’m going to be A.A. Gill after all. Still, all is not completely lost. Any resemblance between yesterday’s posting and an 850 word restaurant review is not entirely coincidental.
I felt steadily worse as the day wore on. While I was walking the dog before going out for the evening, it occurred to me that the last thing I wanted was the scheduled supper at my aunt’s and to sit through a concert at The Sage, even by the glorious Andreas Scholl. So I rang Auntie to see whether she would be hugely disappointed if we did not go, and it immediately became apparent that she did not have the slightest clue who we were supposed to be seeing. So I told her that it was the Grand Final March-Off of the Tyneside Juvenile Jazz Bands’ Annual Kazoo Playing Competition, which put her off a treat. Then I went and lay down on the sofa and put one of my many Andreas Scholl CDs on the stereo, where it swiftly lulled me into a deep sleep. During which I dreamed of Trooping the Colour being performed by juvenile jazz bands as a result of the latest defence cuts, and wondered why those enterprising people on Gateshead council had so far failed to continue their redevelopment of the quayside with a new landmark building called The Onion.
Tuesday 27 May 2008
This was potentially the most important day of my life for years: the first step on my glittering path to success as a top restaurant reviewer. It had been in my diary for weeks, so naturally I left it until last night before bothering myself to ring up to book a table. By which time they could not fit me in at 8, as I wanted, and could only offer 7 or 9. The former would have suited me perfectly, since the later I eat the more certain I am to spend the night awake with agonizing indigestion, but I had asked some friends to accompany me so that I could attempt to sample more than one dish per course. And they, being upmarket types, could not possibly don a nosebag a second before 8. I reflected gloomily, after I had made the inevitable 9 o’clock booking, that I would probably be kept hanging around for at least an hour until the previous occupants were persuaded to vacate the table. Partly because they would be having such a wonderful time, and partly because the kitchen would not be operating at peak efficiency owing to the presence in it of a TV producer who has always fancied having a go at being a chef. Just as he always fancied having a go at being a newspaper columnist, which is how we both come to be writing about his experience in Thursday’s paper.
Things got off to an unpromising start less than a mile from home, when a lamb which had been peacefully nibbling the grass on the right hand verge decided to make a dash for the much more tempting grass on the left hand side of the road, just as I was about to pass it. The resulting combined swerve and emergency stop raised my blood pressure to danger levels before I had even started on my cream-laden dinner.
I arrived at the Queen’s Head in Great Whittington about five minutes later than planned, to find my guests awaiting me. It was clear from the excited buzz that greeted me as I walked through the door that my fellow columnist had taken two important precautions to ensure that the evening went well: encouraging all his friends to book tables, and providing a warm greeting with free pink sparkling wine at the bar.
I knew from reading A.A. Gill that all top restaurant reviewers go equipped with a Blonde, so I’d invited one to accompany me, the only slight disappointment being that she’d insisted on bring her grey-haired husband along with her. Somewhat ahead of schedule, we made our way through to the comfortable and well-appointed restaurant and studied the special menus for “Dinner with Tom” with keen anticipation, the only snag being that we fancied more or less everything on them. Sadly for the comic potential of this posting, there were no anguished screams emanating from the kitchen, still less signs of a man with a grey beard running amok with a meat cleaver.
There was a bit of a delay in serving our starters because another large table had sat down later than intended, and I did think that, given the choice, I’d probably have given priority to the bloke writing a review for the paper, but we were kept amused with lashings of what the Blonde called “jolly nice bread”.
When they did arrive, my male guest’s seared scallops with sweet chilli and ginger dressing were simply delicious as they melted in our mouths, and no lesser praise could possibly be lavished on the Blonde’s carpaccio of local Galloway beef. Perhaps the one weak link in the whole evening was the dish I had chosen for myself, a homemade chicken and spring vegetable terrine, which tasted of little but refrigerator.
To follow that, the Blonde’s husband had again lucked out by bagging the local Galloway fillet steak, on which his verdict was simply “you couldn’t have a better steak than that”. He was kind enough to share a couple of mouthfuls with me, and I concurred most heartily. It was simply superb meat, cooked to perfection for our tastes (though the Blonde complained that she could still hear it mooing). She was equally delighted with her Halibut Viennoise, served on a bed of taglioni, while my dish of “Tom’s slow braised spiced pork belly” was unlike any other pork belly I have ever eaten – and in a good way: lean, tender and succulent, with the flavour of really well cooked spare ribs, served on a perfect bed of tasty, wilted greens. We all shared a side order of Tom’s signature dish of roasted butternut squash risotto, which was every bit as good as the other main courses.
Battling on, purely in the interests of investigative journalism, I then nobly consumed a plate of Tom’s legendary bread and butter pudding, topped with homemade cinnamon ice cream. Crisp on the top and feather light in the middle, this is simply the best bread and butter pudding I have ever tasted anywhere. It might well be my chosen luxury, in the unlikely event that I am ever invited to appear on Desert Island Discs. My male guest had brought a doctor’s note and was excused pudding on the grounds of his wheat allergy, but the Blonde made some inroads into a massively politically incorrect sponge and raspberry concoction called “Jews’ pudding”. Because, as an exhausted Tom came out from the kitchen to explain, it was made with lots of fruit jews.
I do not think that I can sum it all up more succinctly than the well-known local TV personality who said on her way out that the food had been “orgasmic – almost as good as sex”. She added in a lower voice, “Actually, it was better than sex, but my partner will get a bit upset if I say that.”
It was about 11.30 when my guests and I left the pub, they to be ferried home by an obliging son, and I to make the 40 mile cross country drive along roads that were at least completely deserted. Except for the one car I encountered, at the precise point where the surviving abutments of a railway bridge on the long-closed branch line from Scots Gap to Rothbury narrowed the road to ensure that I had to brake sharply to allow it to pass me.
Monday 26 May 2008
It’s a Bank Holiday Monday and the sun is beating down on Northumberland. Even more remarkably, news reports and personal e-mails confirm that Biblical quantities of rain are pouring onto almost every other part of the country. This is a complete reversal of the normal laws of nature, like a chicken pecking a fox to death, or England winning the World Cup. Perhaps it is another sign of the impending Apocalypse, like the continued progress of the “false prophet” Obama in the American presidential race. That description comes from my deranged friend in New Zealand, who has emigrated there in the doubtless vain hope that the Four Horsemen might overlook it on their impending World Tour. According to him, the next thing to watch out for is the complete collapse of the US dollar (which unfortunately does sound horribly plausible) and their adoption of the euro. Then the trumpets will sound on 23 December 2012, meaning that we will have to endure all the trouble, expense (and crushing disappointment in the medals department) of the London Olympics, and won’t even get to open our Christmas presents. A real sod, that. But at least you can’t say you weren’t warned. And being plunged into a bottomless pit of eternal fire will no doubt be a bit of a boon in speeding up the defrosting of the turkey.
I set out in the sunshine on my electric bike, intending to pick up the newspapers from the village shop during its one hour window of Bank Holiday opening. I paused at the bottom of the hill to take a picture of the utterly filthy local telephone kiosk, to which some enterprising local campaigner has now sellotaped two sheets of A4 paper bearing the words “Save Our Phone Box”. It is on BT’s hit list of useless facilities which they want to remove, and in truth it has not seen much use since some Bloke had an affair a few years ago. His car used to be parked there for hours. I couldn’t find anyone who knew who he was, so we all just called him “the Bloke who is having an affair”. Particularly if we ran into him in the pub or shop in female company.
My local councillor claims to have attracted 100 signatures to her petition to save this vital lifeline, which is surprising given that BT assert that it has been used to make precisely one call in the last year. Albeit a “life-saving” one to summon help after some kid, who lives all of 400 yards away, fell off his bike. Admittedly if the child is anything like the size of his mother, it would have required a Chinook helicopter or a well-stabilized heavy lift crane to get him back on his feet.
There are apparently no records of those who have made use of the kiosk in its primary function as a public lavatory, though one suspects that demand is less intense in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hedgerows, woods and fields, than it is in the middle of London or Newcastle.
The ironic thing is that the statistics are about to be distorted hugely in favour of the campaigners, because there was some sort of Outward Bound trek for teenage hoodlums taking place past my house on Saturday, and when I passed the phone box there was a long queue of them outside it, no doubt hoping to order takeaway pizzas and taxis. Or maybe they were all just townies who identified it as the only place for miles around where they could have a wee.
Shortly after I left the one remaining public asset in the parish, I heard a clattering sound which proved to be caused by a vital component falling off my bike. I turned around to retrieve it, but it had completely disappeared in accordance with Sod’s Law Chapter V, sub-section A, clause 24. So I carried on until the point, precisely halfway on the round trip, when the motor packed up. As I contemplated the weary push up the long hill back to my house, I looked at the forlorn phone box and reflected that, if it were removed, there would be no way I could ring anyone and ask them to come and rescue me. Unless I used the mobile phone in my pocket, obviously. What I need is not a payphone, but a friend with a car who would not laugh and / or tell me to f*** off when I rang him asking for help.
Though just a friend of any description would obviously be a start.
Sunday 25 May 2008
I live now on a permanent knife-edge, worrying that the LTCB (Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, for the benefit of new readers, in the unlikely event that there are any) will find out what I am Really Like, with predictable consequences. On the other hand, she had read most if not all of this saga before meeting me for the first time, and for some reason seems to find my occasional resemblance to Victor Meldrew endearingly amusing. Yes, I know. I can’t understand it either.
I did the whole “I don’t believe it!” number at 8 o’clock this morning, when I turned on Radio 4 for the news summary, and found it was to be read by Kathy Clugston. Those at the BBC who want to challenge their dreary middle class listeners must be hugging themselves with delight at having recruited someone with a voice I find so irritating that I switch the set off as soon as I hear it utter its first syllable.
Life here is so bloody dull at weekends that it is almost impossible to describe. Ironing, gardening, reading. That covers it. No-one calls, either in person or on the electric telephone. There was a time when people used to stick their head over the garden wall and offer a cheery greeting, but they tended not to make that mistake twice. The sole chink of light in the blackness and emptiness of my existence was provided by the LTCB, bless her, who rang at precisely 7.10 this evening, the second that I walked through the door after taking the dog for his walk. The dog was a bit miffed, as it distracted me from my scheduled task of preparing his dinner. And it also had disastrous consequences for my diet, since during the long and otherwise delightful conversation I tipped over the edge from being very hungry to absolutely ravenous, and consequently ate a number of things that I should not have done while waiting for my planned supper to cook. I also opened a bottle of red wine, and proceeded to drink the lot. A veritable orgy of comfort eating and drinking it was, and the only sort of orgy ever likely to take place in these parts. Or, at any rate, the only sort not involving sheep.
Saturday 24 May 2008
My GNER Time loyalty card expires in a week, and National Express has decided not to have a replacement loyalty scheme as part of its wide-ranging “improvements” to the service. So I made maximum use of my privileges today by visiting the first class lounge at King’s Cross for what will doubtless be the last time, before boarding the 10.00 “Flying Scotsman” (you’ve got to laugh) on a free travel voucher. How on earth I managed to secure a reservation on this particular train I shall never know, as it was absolutely packed. A plump, curly-headed, middle-aged man with a nasty cough occupied the seat opposite and selflessly shared his germs with me almost throughout the journey, until he hastily gathered his belongings together and bustled to the end of the carriage to alight at Durham. Along with a surprisingly large number of other people, considering that the train did not actually stop at Durham. This cheered me up no end. As I alighted to change trains at Newcastle, I overheard the guard providing a summary of the journey so far to the person taking over from her: “Gross overcrowding, seats double booked, carriages overheating – just the usual, really”.
As well as no doubt contracting an unpleasant respiratory infection, I had managed to write two columns in the course of the journey: one for myself and one for a client. After doing some light shopping and walking the dog, I therefore felt entirely justified in spending a relaxing evening with a perfectly grilled local lamb steak and some salad (undressed because, in this context at any rate, I am not a tosser) and various slices of television recorded on DVD during my absence from home. I enjoyed Coronation Street and Have I Got News For You, saving to the end the week’s high point of one-handed viewing: the first two episodes of Billie Piper’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
Imagine my disappointment when, in place of the first, I got the end of some European football match or other; and, in place of the second, News at Ten. And I had activated that “PDC” facility, the whole point of which I thought was to ensure that you recorded the programme you wanted, rather than what the channel was actually showing at the time. I have not been so gutted since I missed one of the last episodes of Blackadder as a result of an extended news thanks to the resignation of Nigel Lawson. I tried to visualize that bird off News at Ten as a call girl instead, and Sir Trevor as one of her punters, but it failed to do anything for me. Just how surprising is that?
Friday 23 May 2008
The day started very well indeed, and for once for reasons that can be related in this blog: the Tory triumph in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. It put me in a good mood until the horrible moment in the afternoon when I had to see the LTCB onto a train, appropriately enough, to Crewe. In the meantime I took her to my optician’s (never let it be said that I don’t know how to spoil a girl), having concluded that it would save grief and expense in the long run if I consulted my taste and design guru before lashing out on a new pair of glasses. She immediately approved the frames I had chosen in the first place, which were just about the most expensive in the shop. After accepting a bargain offer to replace the lenses in my old frames with ones to my new prescription, I somehow ended up owing them a suspiciously round £800. We then walked across the road to the shop once known as Beatties, now Model Zone, where the LTCB bought one of those tiny pots of Humbrol black enamel that I have not owned since I stopped building Airfix kits some 40 years ago. This was so that I could touch up the frames of her own glasses when I had a moment to spare. With a tiny paintbrush to apply it, her total outlay came to £1.45. I could not help thinking that this made an instructive contrast.
Wandering aimlessly on, I made the interesting (to me) discovery that shops selling secondhand tat from house clearances now describe their wares as “vintage dresses”. I shall remember that one. We then made a close inspection of a shop specializing in toy theatres before somehow ending up on a balcony above a Covent Garden pasty shop, drinking Cornish real ale and watching one of the world’s less talented escapologists perform in the piazza below. The LTCB was exchanging texts with a friend she hoped might be able to meet us for lunch, and I was moved to wonder why everyone else in her mobile’s address book apart from me appeared to be known by a cheery nickname. She agreed that I had a point, adding that “Curmudgeon” would also have the benefit of moving me several places up the alphabet. I decided not to press it.
We grabbed a quick salad for an early lunch then I took her in a taxi to Euston for the 14.17 train, feeling very sad and vaguely wondering which particular railway rule seemed to require every train on this route to arrive or leave at 17 minutes past the hour, leaving the other 59 minutes distinctly under-employed. As I walked back down the platform, I felt the same sense of loss as a bloke who has just mislaid a winning lottery ticket. Which is odd, as similar parting scenes with previous girlfriends have nearly always been the occasion for unrestrained glee, probably on both sides, as soon as we were decently out of sight of each other. There is certainly something different about this relationship. So far.
This evening a barrister friend had kindly arranged to cheer me up by taking me to see Avenue Q, the Muppet musical for adults who are still children at heart. It also provided me with a long-awaited opportunity to meet her boyfriend, Lovely Tom, presumably so called because “L” comes so far ahead of “T” in her mobile’s address book. So why doesn’t she call him “Absolutely Lovely Tom”, I wondered to myself? Too long to fit, I expect. Not a problem I’ve ever …
Anyway, we had a pleasant pre-theatre supper, during which I congratulated my hosts on that very day agreeing to buy their first house together: the roof is shot, one of the outer walls is bulging, it’s got rising damp and it’s an area of north London so dangerous that it can only be accessed by taxi with an armoured escort, but apart from that it’s perfect. Clearly a bargain at £0.5 million.
I much enjoyed the subsequent show, though perhaps not quite as much as my fellow Geordie who delivered the loud critical judgement “f***ing brilliant!” from the front row of the circle as the curtain fell. Probably the theatre critic of The Journal, now I come to think about it. We then concluded the evening with a delicious pint of Adnams’ Broadside in a pub which was coincidentally holding the finals of an Amy Winehouse lookalike competition. Or so it seemed from the appearance of the quite spectacularly inebriated young woman who was slumped over her boyfriend at the bar. I don’t know what he was planning to do with her, but I felt that someone should have had a quiet word advising him to do it about two hours earlier if he wanted to avoid extensive soiling of his carpets and soft furnishings.
Thursday 22 May 2008
It’s ever so nice having the LTCB to stay with me; she communicates an enjoyment of life that makes people smile at us. Yes, I do know that they could just be laughing at me as usual, but I prefer to think otherwise.
This morning, after some inconclusive debate about What To Do, we wandered out into Green Park in the sunshine and found ourselves drawn towards Buckingham Palace. Where, if we had hung around for long enough, we could have watched the free spectacle of the Changing of the Guard. (And how long will it be, I wonder, before someone starts pushing a bearskin through the railings to collect donations in return for that? Maybe it is already happening.)
But, of course, Mr Impatient wanted to do something to fill the time so we headed for the Royal Mews on the grounds that the LTCB likes horses and I had never been there. But that proved not to open until 11, so we doubled back to the Queen’s Gallery, which was offering an exhibition of early drawings of flora and fauna called “Amazing Rare Things”. There wasn’t much demand for it at all, but they had still managed to create a completely unnecessary queue by having only one fat Australian woman manning the ticket desk and equipping her with a computer which required her to make umpteen mouse movements and clicks just to issue a simple ticket, which she then had to fiddle about to insert in a needless folder.
To occupy yet more time, she was also required to ask everyone if they were a UK taxpayer and, if they said yes, to request them to write their name and address on a Gift Aid form. I have come across this outrageous scam before at National Trust properties. Am I making a donation? No, I am paying for a service, to wit admission to their property. Is the Royal Family a registered charity? One can scarcely believe so. Does a vast bureaucracy exist to check all these half legible names and addresses against HM Revenue & Customs’ tax database, before they make the tax rebate claimed by the “charity”? One sincerely hopes not, though I suppose anything is possible in Gordon Brown’s bloated client state. Does this provide yet another opportunity for the State to extricate our personal details from us, and for “charities” to add us to their mailing lists for endless begging letters? Yes. And yes. I was fuming, but the LTCB was paying so I was only able to comment loudly that it was an outrageous waste of time. Which must have made a pleasant change for everyone from my previously much repeated comment: “Oh for f***’s sake.”
At least the bloke behind me in the queue clearly agreed with me. We had a brief chat which established that we were both monarchists, but that we might well not be by the time we got through this rigmarole. I cited this in my defence when the LTCB later suggested that I might have a tendency to be unreasonably impatient, but she just smiled sweetly and said, “That’s because he’s a curmudgeon, too.” Funny how that word keeps cropping up when people are asked to give a brief description of me.
Obtaining our tickets allowed us to progress to the next hurdle of an airport-style security scanner. Only I wasn’t allowed just to walk through it. Dear me, no. Far too simple. I had to join another sodding queue for a preliminary interview with a man on the bag checking counter, even though I did not actually have a bag. One too many “Oh, for f***’s sake” finally provoked the little old lady in front to turn round and ask whether I’d rather be blown up. And, when I said that I’d certainly prefer to run the risk of it than to go through all this palaver, she said, “If you don’t want to queue, you shouldn’t come to London. You’ll get this everywhere.” Not quite true yet, mercifully, but I was beginning to sympathize powerfully with the idea of never coming back.
After an interview during which we were told that our mobile phones must be turned off, not just put in silent mode, presumably so that we could not use them to set off our bombs, I was finally allowed to empty all the metal items out of my pockets and progress through the scanner. For the first time in my life, I felt that I knew exactly how Howard Carter must have felt when he broke through into Tutenkahmen’s tomb.
We made our way upstairs to an exhibition of Treasures from the Royal Collection which was actually rather good. It included two very fine Canalettos of London, and I was much cheered by the fact that the LTCB initially failed to recognize them as such, despite the prominence of St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey; some fabulous jewels including a brooch comprising two of the larger stones cut from the Cullinan diamond; and suits of monogrammed armour made for Charles I’s elder brother. Then we went around the flora and fauna, which did nothing for me at all until we came at the end to a room full of Leonardo drawings. The old lady from the ticket queue, who had perhaps started there, asked me whether it hadn’t been worth the wait; I did my best to water down the honest answer of “No, not really”, but I think she saw right through me: a Philistine ignoramus as well as an impatient curmudgeon.
Then we walked around to the Royal Mews for the same rigmarole with the security scanner, though at least the staff there were rather more down-to-earth, friendly and efficient. Something to do with spending most of the rest of their time shovelling manure rather than dusting artefacts, I expect. We did not have time for the suggested guided tour or even the proffered audio guide, but got a bit gooey (in the LTCB’s case) about the Windsor greys and had a good look at the State coaches, culminating in the Gold Coach. The LTCB expressed surprise that it wasn’t worth more than £8,000 stated on the accompanying signage, and I had to point out that that was what it had cost to construct in 1762, and that there had been a bit of this thing called inflation in the meantime.
It’s true, you know. Nobody does like a smart-arse.
After this we grabbed a taxi and went for lunch at a restaurant famed for its celebrity customers. Lots of people duly walked in whom we either vaguely recognized, or whose expressions made it clear that they certainly thought we ought to recognize them. One of the LTCB’s friends had been texting her during the morning, eager to take vicarious pleasure in this brush with the world of Hello magazine, and the LTCB perked up at the thought of the thrill it would give her when a real Class A celebrity strode in and joined the table right next to us. It would be a gross breach of etiquette to reveal his identity in this blog, so let it suffice to say that, as wine was taken, the LTCB and I had increasing difficulty in resisting the temptation to lean across and tell him that he was fired. Because we felt confident that he would never have heard that one before, just as Richard Wilson simply can’t get enough of people jabbing their fingers at him and shouting “I don’t believe it!”
After a delicious lunch and a restful afternoon, we again donned our glad rags (in my case, after a bit of a lecture on the subject of colour co-ordination) and made our way once more to the Coliseum for the opening night of David McVicar’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Only it isn’t really new at all, having been in the repertoire of Scottish Opera for almost a decade, and I ended the evening at a loss as to why it was considered superior to the excellent Jonathan Miller production it replaced. That at least had some variety in the sets, whereas this one used essentially the same one throughout. The common factor was John Tomlinson doing his splendidly comic Baron Ochs, though this time in more authentic period dress than the green three-piece tweed suit in which he initially appeared in the previous production (looking, if truth be told, a bit like me when I go out to lunch in Northumberland during the long winter
months). Sarah Connolly was more convincing at being male than at looking 17, but sounded splendid. So did Sarah Tynan as a simply luscious Sophie, all winsome blonde curls. I enjoyed it – certainly more than the critics did, it would seem.
At the end of the performance, we followed two comically crippled and blind old men trying to assist each other down to the lavatories, where even their performance was overshadowed by another geriatric standing at a urinal with a beatific expression on his face and his trousers around his ankles. We then found ourselves behind them again as they staggered into a nearby restaurant, provoking us to divert to a nearby establishment for a snack to conclude the day. Once again we walked back to my club with my jacket around the LTCB’s shoulders, and I felt simply immensely privileged to be in her company.
Now, would a genuine curmudgeon ever have written that?
Wednesday 21 May 2008
Ah, Twiglets: a taste of the past. My own club always used to have Hula Hoops on the bar, which went well with a Bloody Mary and induced an agreeable nostalgia for olde worlde savoury snacks. Until yesterday, that is, when they proved to have been modernized out of existence in favour of what the barman dismissively called “birdseed”, but which looked to me like Bombay mix. They had also upgraded the crisps to some luxury brand that probably calls itself “chips” instead. I do hope the committee thought through the hygiene implications of this unprecedented radicalism. After all, it is quite easy to remove a Hula Hoop or indeed a crisp from a bowl without touching any of the others in it. Bombay mix seems rather more of a challenge. How long will it be before the serene atmosphere of the Morning Room is disturbed by an anguished cry of “Ugh, this stuff tastes of sh*t!” To which the only answer is the one I think I have recorded elsewhere in this blog, “How the hell does he know that?”
After a relentlessly practical morning having my teeth polished and my eyes tested, which was much less painful than attempting it the other way around, I went out for lunch with one of my very few teetotal acquaintances. This had been carefully arranged so that I would not collapse in a drunken heap on the platform when I went to meet the LTCB off her train from the North West at 3.17. Mind you, I once tried this very ploy before heading to Covent Garden for a 6½ hour performance of Gotterdamerung. Despite David’s excellent example, my own willpower had not proved quite up to the standard required, and I came round after about an hour and a half of the first act, smacking my lips, feeling unaccountably thirsty and vaguely wondering who was making all that racket in the background. At the interval, the bloke in the next seat congratulated me on my faultless timing, as he had been about to nudge me in anticipation of something interesting happening on stage for the first time since the orchestra played the opening chords of the overture. Up to that point, he assured me, I had missed nothing and I had not snored, dribbled or otherwise marred his enjoyment of the occasion. Which is something, I suppose, to set against the colossal waste of my money involved in using Covent Garden as a doss-house.
This time I managed to maintain more of a grip, and was completely upright when the LTCB strode up the ramp from Branson’s BMS (Barely Mobile Sewer, as one disgruntled correspondent described the new generation of Pendolino trains, with their less-abled-friendly lavatories which have such a pervasive smell, even though they are so rarely in working order). I thought she looked really rather scrumptious, and luckily a small knot of drunken old men on the steps of my club was able to provide explicit confirmation of that when we stepped out of our taxi. Her red shoes, in particular, attracted considerable positive comment. For the remainder of her visit, I kept detecting sidelong glances clearly communicating the thought, “What is that attractive young woman doing in the company of that sad old git – can the frightful cad have drugged her in some way?” The LTCB threatened to play up this by loudly calling me “Uncle” at every opportunity, but in practice displayed commendable restraint.
Before we went out for the evening she changed into a mid-length pink frock in which she looked really rather stunning. I was glad that the old men had dispersed from the front steps by the time we headed out, as I think her appearance might have given them apoplexy. We walked – yes, walked, no nonsense about taxis or rickshaws – to the Coliseum and saw The Merry Widow, the first act of which appeared to be a sumptuously produced exercise in utter pointlessness. Long passages of unbelievably tedious dialogue clunkingly set up the incredibly simple plot, and were interspersed with a few completely unmemorable songs. Then after the interval (during which I would have walked out, to be honest, if I had been on my own) things looked up considerably, with the second half containing the two really Big Tunes that had been hummed and sung by my parents throughout my childhood. In addition to which, the gigantic Living Legend Roy Hudd got to perform a jolly comedy number, and several women not wearing much at all danced around energetically. In short, top class entertainment. What more could one ask of life, except perhaps a delicious supper at J Sheekey and a beautiful woman to walk back to one’s club with, even if she did need to borrow my blazer against the evening cold? Lucky for her, I thought, that she is going out with a Geordie who is used to this sort of thing. I was still wearing a shirt, after all. Bloody luxury, as they say in the Bigg Market.
Tuesday 20 May 2008
If I pride myself on anything, after all my years in PR, it is my mastery of efficient scheduling. So this morning I got up in good time to roll out of the drive at 7 sharp, en route for Morpeth station. Every detail had been carefully thought through. Apart, as it turned out, from the fact that the car had no sodding petrol in it and I had to drive the whole way with a “low fuel” light winking at me menacingly. True, I do have another car and could simply have transferred the dog, canine impedimenta and my own luggage across to that, but then I might well have ended up missing my take-off slot and paying National Express an exorbitant amount for a new ticket. So I just crossed my fingers and pressed on, without any disastrous results except on my own blood pressure.
Although I had a ticket from Newcastle, I needed one for the connecting service from Morpeth. So I joined the back of a long queue, composed entirely of women. Most unusually, they all actually wanted to travel immediately. Tradition demands that, at rural stations with only one ticket clerk, some berk will time his arrival to enquire about taking his extended family to Cornwall in three months’ time, using a railcard and hoping to avoid a change of train at Birmingham New Street, just before a crowd of people who are anxious to obtain tickets for the imminent train. This lot all wanted to go somewhere, but none of them had heard of that useful commodity known as cash, so had to faff around in their purses to find a credit card and then put their dear little heads on one side to try and remember their PINs, so that they could make major outlays of £3.90 or £4.35.
Luckily Northern Rail do not impose a penalty fare when this sort of carry-on compels one to buy a ticket on their trains. After this, things went smoothly enough, apart from the all-too-visible presence on the other side of the carriage on the 09.00 from Newcastle of a hugely obese woman, very much in the Claire Rayner mould. Her normally sized colleague suggested that they might go and have breakfast in the restaurant car, but The Bloater demurred, explaining that she had eaten before leaving home. She then proceeded to stuff a bacon sandwich and the largest biscuit I have ever seen down her throat, ensuring that evidence was cleared away before her companion returned. I expect back in the office they say, “It really is her glands, you know. Honestly, she hardly eats at all. Turned down breakfast on the train with me again.”
It strengthened my resolve to diet, if nothing else. At least until I entered my club, intent on having a glass of fizzy water and a green salad for lunch, and somehow ended up with a Bloody Mary, smoked cod’s roe, roast pork, Scotch woodcock and three quarters of a bottle of claret. But at least I did have the glass of fizzy water, too, so something went according to plan.
A nap, a read of the papers over tea in the library, a look through a friend’s very amusing film script, then a stroll around to the Groucho Club to meet him for a drink. How could a day be passed more agreeably? You certainly get a better class of totty in his club than you do in mine. And even the women who aren’t attractive, on any objective analysis, appear to be convinced that they are and behave accordingly. This seems to enable them to communicate a none-too-subtle and entirely convincing message about their sex appeal. I wonder how much one would have to drink before it would work for The Bloater from the train this morning?
Monday 19 May 2008
Not much to report from the Back of Beyond today. For the first time in ages it was chilly enough to make it seem worthwhile lighting a log fire in my study; which looks picturesque but coats all my books and papers with filth, while unerringly directing about 80 per cent of its heat straight up the chimney. Still, the jackdaws seem to enjoy having their feet warmed.
I managed to write a moderately witty and erudite newspaper column about by-elections, and a press release for a client about the appointment of some high-powered female. I was thinking that perhaps I had still Got It until a correspondent cruelly pointed out my continued inability to think things through. As he correctly asserted, my whole C*** Chips™ concept of Saturday is fatally flawed, because the joke is about something that looks terrible but feels terrific, while the Chips look terrible but taste terrific. An important distinction, he states, adding perhaps unnecessarily that the relevant parts of his missus look a damn sight better than they ever taste.
Back to the drawing board there, then.
Sunday 18 May 2008
How could I possibly construct an interesting blog entry out of a day which I spent ironing 15 shirts and spring cleaning two conservatories? No, it beats me. Someone rang several times to say that they fancied coming to see me, but I had to turn him down because I was so busily occupied making the house fit to receive visitors. A bit illogical somehow, since I don’t suppose that particular person will ever ring me again, and the odds are that no-one else will risk arousing the ire of the curmudgeon for months. A shame, because the conservatory with the view now offers of the finest prospects in the whole of England, following my painstaking removal of 12 months’ worth of accumulated grime from its windows.
Ah well, I suppose I shall just have to admire it all by myself. I am not sure that the dog is big on views. He is more interested in food, and bright red toys made in the shape of a Second World War surface mine.
In the course of my spring cleaning I discovered a kitchen cupboard, used only to store tinned dog food, which is subject to a massive infestation by tiny moths. Even though there is nothing in it on which moths could feed, or any obvious medium in which they could breed. I was equally puzzled by what had evidently been a large scale infestation of another cupboard by mice. This one contained nothing at all that mice could possibly eat, though they are of course famously partial to completely inappropriate things like power cables. Then I remembered that my one of my ex-fiancées had kindly given me a microwaveable support to ease (appropriately enough) a pain in the neck. I had thoughtlessly chucked it into the cupboard when I had finished with it, overlooking the fact that it was stuffed with … grain.
Oh dear. What a mess. Still, good for my local hardware retailer’s sales of traps and poison.
The LTCB has disappeared from this ramble not because I have screwed things up as I usually do, though I have to admit that that is probably only because she has spent the week in a country where communication by phone or text message has been impossible, and the exchange of e-mails difficult. She rang me early this morning from an airport in Paris, where she was not in the best of moods, having missed her connecting flight to Manchester and having nothing to read, no euros with which to buy anything, and a mobile phone with a flat battery. She was probably in an even worse mood when the payphone on which she was talking to me with the aid of her debit card cut her off, presumably because the exorbitantly expensive call had just completely drained her current account.
The awful thing is that the sound of her voice made me realize something about the strength of my feelings for her that I couldn’t possibly reveal in this blog, because she is one of its very few readers. And if I set it down here, the Rules of Dating would require her to dump me forthwith. A bit of a conundrum, that.
Saturday 17 May 2008
The sun was shining brightly when I took the dog for his walk yesterday evening, and one of my neighbours was happily (or, at any rate, resignedly) cutting the verges on his ride-on mower. Good idea, I thought; I shall do precisely the same thing first thing in the morning. Naturally it turns out to be chucking it down. How could I have been such an idiot as to expect anything else in May in England?
I was overcome by an unusual exhaustion (perhaps the consequence of that rogue melon in yesterday’s lunchtime salad) and wasted the morning lying on a sofa, like a nineteenth century consumptive, only considerably fatter, reading the Daily Telegraph and fighting the temptation to doze off, though with less than total success. Then I decided that I really ought to do something useful and spent the remainder of the day restoring my recently painted rooms to the hideously overcrowded condition in which they had started. I soon uncovered a fatal design flaw in one of the pine bookcases I had had expensively made for the dining room, in that its shelves are supposed to rest on little brass plugs which are incapable of supporting the weight of a shelf full of hardback books. Making it technically not fit for purpose, as John Reid would say, in its designated role of a bookcase, though it would no doubt be perfect for housing a collection of seaside holiday memorabilia or adorable cuddly toys. I solved the problem by driving to Rothbury and procuring a number of steel angle brackets which I then screwed into place to support the shelves. I noticed when I had finished that there were now a couple of dozen screw ends protruding through the outside of the bookcase, which will no doubt have compromised its resale value but will have no effect at all on its potential as firewood.
The facts that this blog has gone to hell in the proverbial handcart, and that I am completely incapable of learning from experience, are both underlined by my actions this evening: going out for another huge pub meal. The excuse for this one is that the nearest pub to my house (and, at a range of five miles, the only one within cycling if not convenient walking distance) has extended its food offer beyond crisps and pork scratchings for the first time in its long history. I had arranged to meet one of my many ex-fiancées and her husband to try it out, and 50 per cent of them duly turned up. It remained the rather depressing place it has always been, but the beer was good (Tyneside Blonde real ale, tasting rather fresher than most of the Tyneside blondes I have experienced, and having fewer expensive and painful after-effects). More importantly, the menu looked promising and did not disappoint in any respect.
A friend of mine who ran a pub for many years produced the best chicken liver paté of all time; this place’s might have tasted every bit as good if they had served it with some nice warm toast rather than somewhat uninspiring white bread. While my fillet steak was cooked to perfection and positively melted in the mouth. As for the accompanying chips – well, they looked rather off-putting, if truth be told, since the potatoes had been sliced with their skins still on. But they tasted like … well, they were just the most delicious and dangerously moreish chips imaginable. It was the most brilliant discovery since the potato itself.
I was reminded of the old joke about the bloke who spends all day at the office being asked if he feels all right, because people think he looks terrible. He assures them that he feels terrific. Eventually he feels obliged to consult a doctor, and explains that everyone says he looks terrible, but he feels terrific. What on earth could the problem be?
“Oh, that’s simple,” replies the doctor, “You’re a c***.”
Could this fabulous foodstuff not attain national if not global fame, arrestingly branded as C*** Chips?
No, I thought not.
My companion expressed himself well satisfied with his unusual starter combining black pudding and banana, though I fear that attaching the “locally produced” claim to the fruit rather than the pigs’ blood may have set the publican on his way to a bruising run-in with Trading Standards. In so far as I could make out what he was saying with his mouth full, I think my co-tester assured me that the game pie was very good, too.
Obviously I couldn’t possibly eat a pudding after that lot, so I ordered apple crumble, which was very good and might have graduated to excellent if it had been accompanied by the advertised custard rather than vanilla ice cream.
Before we left we studied the lunch menu, which included such delights as a large plate of C*** Chips topped with three (count ‘em) fried free range eggs. I hope they have got a defibrillator at the ready behind the bar.
I shall certainly be going back, since the prices are high by Northumberland standards (£17.95 for my fillet steak, for example) which should keep the riff-raff out nicely. This is, after all, a county which regards Sainsbury’s in the same light that most Londoners view Fortnum & Mason. Though I am not convinced about the economic sanity of taking on at least four additional staff to serve dinner to a total of 14 people in the course of the evening.
As we said our farewells outside, my companion gestured to the blank pub sign, which once bore an uninspired picture of Elizabeth I. He has persuaded the landlord that it should henceforth be graced by a portrait of either Queen Mary of Modena, second wife of James II; or Queen Maria Clementina, consort of the Old Pretender, James III, and mother of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This should certainly make the place stand out among the many Queen’s Heads scattered around the country, and place it right at the top of the list for organizers of coach tours by Jacobite sympathizers. I just hope that there are enough of them around to keep the venture afloat, and that they have suitably deep pockets.
Friday 16 May 2008
I felt infinitely better this morning, after 7.5 hours of refreshing sleep, and spent a productive hour moving furniture back into my dining room, while listening to the end of the Today programme and Annie Lennox on Desert Island Discs. Luckily I wasn’t doing anything that required a high degree of precision, like brain surgery or sexual intercourse, as I scored several direct hits on other pieces of furniture with the returning chairs. One of these sent the handle from my 1930s sideboard door flying in a way that would surely have given even the All-England croquet champion a brief surge of pride. This allowed me to waste a considerable amount of time finding and retrieving it, locating a tube of superglue, sticking the handle back, then doing the same thing again another three times after it had fallen off; then finding a bottle of superglue remover with a view to unsticking my fingers.
After a brief interlude at my desk pretending to write, then a rather longer one trying to remember where I had put the superglue remover so that I could detach my fingertips from the keys of my laptop, I left in ample time to run a few errands before meeting one of the North East’s top PR practitioners for lunch. Only I hadn’t left ample time at all, I realized as I sat in the car trying to work out how the hell I was going to get to the bank in Rothbury and still be in Newton-on-the-Moor by 12.45. With, of course, the cast iron certainty that the normally well-staffed and remarkably efficient branch would that morning be down to a single cashier with numeracy issues, and that the proprietor of the local penny arcade would have chosen that precise moment to drop by and deposit his last six months’ takings.
So I went to my lunch destination directly, and was most indignant on finding a scruffy little bus occupying most of the car parking spaces outside the pub. I hung around until someone left, then slotted the car into their vacated space with a sense of pride only partially mitigated by the subsequent discovery that there were two huge and completely empty car parks to the side and rear of the establishment.
I had been avoiding the Cook & Barker at Newton-on-the-Moor for the best part of 20 years, ever since I went there for lunch with my then fiancée and found the place full of rampaging children, like a kindergarten next door to a drugs factory that had just suffered a catastrophic explosion in its “uppers” production unit. Unusually, I wasn’t the cause of the trouble. After the fifth or sixth time that some noisome brat had run up to our table and bashed it hard enough to risk upsetting our drinks, my partner politely called across to its parents to enquire whether they’d mind awfully keeping their child under control. And immediately a deathly silence descended as everyone else in the place stopped what they were doing so that they could turn to stare in utter horror at the sociopathic child abusers. It was the only time in my life that I have ever felt like the centrepiece of a Bateman cartoon. I resolved never to return, but then Paul the PR genius suggested it as an alternative to trekking down to the centre of Newcastle, and I thought: why not?
The first thing that struck me was the remarkable change in the age balance of the customer base. True, there was one “special needs” brat of eight or so gurgling pointlessly nearby, but the most striking feature was the long refectory tables in the cavernous back room, where the contents of the elderly bus were doing their best to steer doubtless pre-chewed food into their ancient mouths. I only glanced at them briefly, but it looked like feeding time at a Galapagos tortoise sanctuary. Luckily, there was a table available by the window of the bar, and I occupied a strategic position there until Paul arrived. The menu was impressively original by Northumberland pub standards, not that that is saying much, and Paul’s fresh grilled sardines and liver, bacon and black pudding both looked delicious. My starter of crab and prawn risotto was very good, too, while the subsequent lasagne was undoubtedly home-made rather than from the ubiquitous 3663 frozen foodservice van. My only reservation is that I am enough of my mother’s son to doubt the appropriateness of sticking a huge slice of melon in something billed as a side salad. Most of an avocado pear, yes; I can wear that. But melon? I kept thinking of that indignant Yorkshire couple from The Catherine Tate Show. And their catchphrase: “The dirty bastards!”
It took us some time to get out of the place, as all the geriatrics from the bus filed up to the bar and paid for their meals individually. In the course of this, I overheard perhaps the least appealing chat-up line of all time, as one old bat primped her implausibly golden hair and addressed her male companion with these honeyed words: “I don’t like being a widow much; you have to pay all your own bills.” I suppose at least he knows where he stands; most of the women I have taken out over the years have had precisely the same objective, but haven’t cared to state it quite so explicitly.
Thursday 15 May 2008
I woke around 6 this morning and did my best to go back to sleep, but succeeded only in giving myself a weird dream in which I was greatly upset by losing my souvenir-packed suitcase at the end of a world tour on a giant trolleybus. Told you it was weird.
Not wishing to be a nuisance, I got on with quietly reading yesterday’s newspapers until I could detect definite signs of life in the house. They must all have been creeping around like church mice, but there was definitely a reaction when a bunch of eager tree surgeons rang the doorbell a bit before 8, so I decided that it would be an appropriate moment to leave. I felt bloody awful even before I was assaulted by an enthusiastic young cocker spaniel in the kitchen, but at least I was able to console myself for half an hour by reflecting that I was not Gordon Brown. Even John Humphrys must feel a bit sorry for him, judging by the comparatively mild grilling he received over his attempted re-launch. Personally, I think I’d have lain low for a bit until everyone had had some chance to forgive and forget before sticking my head back above the parapet.
Memo to the Audi driver who undertook me near the turn-off for Gosforth Park, then gesticulated at me angrily: it is perfectly good driving practice to remain in the outside lane when one is waiting for a group of slower moving vehicles ahead to complete an overtaking manoeuvre; and I leave a decent space between myself and the vehicle in front in the interests of safety, not to provide an opening for impatient and dangerous prats like you. That was a public service announcement.
This was the first day in living memory when I did not have the energy to shave or shower at any point. I feel that I am standing at the top of a slippery slope that ends on a park bench on Tyneside wearing three or four tattered jackets, urine-soaked trousers and shoes held together with chewing gum, drinking a yellowish liquid that might be cider (but does not actually taste of apples) from a two litre plastic bottle while indulging in frenetic but ultimately unsuccessful attempts at masturbation.
Wednesday 14 May 2008
I sat at my desk writing what I thought were moderately amusing things until about 2.30, so absorbed in my self-appointed task that I missed lunch. Never a good idea, missing lunch, but I reasoned that it might help the overall dietary effort given that I was going out for dinner in the evening. Even though I know that this is also never a good idea for a man of my age and delicate constitution. The result was that I was absolutely starving by the time I got to my aunt’s to drop the dog off for the night, and ate a generous tea. This had the effect of making me feel dangerously sleepy on the remaining 100 miles or so of my journey to Wetherby.
Tonight’s dinner with a bunch of former clients had been in my diary for months. And in their diaries, too. Then one of them cried off on the grounds that he’d rather be watching Hull City play football, which struck the rest of us as being right up there with watching paint dry. My host for the night had also clearly made extensive preparations, offering me a drink with great gusto as soon as I walked through his door. To which his former boss, who was already there, said, “You can have anything you like so long as it’s not white wine,” and nodded towards the nearly empty glass in front of him, which apparently contained the entire domestic supply. There was some mumbling about a huge party the previous weekend. He did have red wine, though when the former boss asked if he could switch to that, an extensive preparatory search was undertaken to unearth the smallest wine glasses I have ever seen since my parents stopped serving sherry by the thimbleful. I settled for a refreshing can of beer.
We hung around through a second can of beer, waiting for our designated driver to arrive and run us to the pub for dinner. Then he rang to point out that he had been hanging around there for ages, drinking Diet Coke, and where the hell where we? It is this sort of planning and organization that no doubt accounts for two of the three former managers present this evening currently enjoying premature retirements. Though at least they were able to have a good chuckle over dinner over the fact that their successors, who are the second set of hapless idiots to try and turn their former company around, are currently making an even bigger mess of it than they ever did.
Dinner was All Right, though it was served in a pub that had once been considerably better than All Right, so came as a mild disappointment. Despite my tea, I was still starving and made rather a pig of myself with the small loaves of warm bread that arrived in advance of our starters. Three of us predictably ordered tempura prawns followed by medium Galloway steaks; the real foodie went for a chilli beef starter that produced cries not so much of satisfaction as of “Christ, that’s hot!” Followed by flounder with risotto, a dish marred only by the fact that they had run out of flounder. And risotto.
Then, at the end, I made the critical mistake of ordering bread and butter pudding, expecting the sort of light and delicious confection that is my friend Tom’s great speciality. Instead I received another small loaf of bread, with narrow seams of sultanas and marmalade running through it, and a little jug of cold and insipid custard. That would have been bad enough; the really bad thing was actually proceeding to eat the bloody thing. I can’t think what possessed me to do it, though I strongly suspect that booze consumption may have had something to do with it.
Cabaret was provided throughout dinner by two elderly couples at a neighbouring table who spoke rather loudly, and whose menfolk’s lives had clearly been blighted since they were rejected by the casting director of The Vicar of Dibley for being implausibly eccentric. The rather too obvious comedy continued when I suggested to our young waitress that she might like us to clear off home, and she eagerly confirmed that nothing would give her greater pleasure, as it would allow her to cash up. Admittedly, the landlady overheard her and swiftly announced that we could stay as long as we liked. Still, in the circumstances, I felt that it was remarkably generous of us to spend so long trying to persuade the landlady that we really did want to leave a tip so large that she kept trying to return most of it to us.
The night, spent in the very blue bedroom of an absent daughter, with “Sleepy Head” embroidered in blue on my blue pillow, passed in the usual violent conflict between the drunken desire to sleep and the impulse from chronic indigestion to lie awake and moan loudly. As conflicts go, it made the Iran – Iraq War look like the proverbial vicarage tea party.
Tuesday 13 May 2008
Most mornings these days I wake up after five or, at most, six hours’ sleep, and get up feeling that I could have done with a bit more rest. But occasionally, as last night, I sleep for a full and uninterrupted seven hours. With the result that I come round feeling muddle-headed and totally exhausted, a condition which tends to persist all day.
Just as well, then, that I had nothing more demanding on my schedule for today than getting to Morpeth station in time for the 10.50 to Newcastle. This allowed me ample time to wander down to one of those spanking new hotels on the Quayside for the Annual General Meeting of one of my few remaining clients. An event, as ever, of truly mind-boggling dullness, attended by the usual clutch of retired employees and long term private shareholders with too much time on their hands (which is odd, given that most of them have been attending this annual ritual for more than two decades and, therefore, in the normal course of events, time must be running ever so slightly short).
Only one shareholder asked a question, and that was the most unoriginal query since Sid the Sexist asked that girl in the bar whether she slept on her stomach (because, if not, he would). And no-one bothered to stand up and thank the board for paying such a generous dividend and generally doing a cracking job. I’d have done it myself, but it looks pretty desperate if your own PR adviser starts doing that sort of thing.
So I made my excuses as the shareholders filed towards what looked like a thoroughly unappetizing buffet, and went to the Crown Posada for a pint of Gladiator, a packet of pork scratchings and a look at The Daily Telegraph. Sheer bliss on every level. Then I walked along to Café 21 and had lunch with a friend whose partner is about as far removed from him in age as the LTCB is from me. I could not help noticing that he appeared to be wearing a boldly striped pyjama jacket above his well-worn jeans. He reckoned that this was exactly what the LTCB would have in mind for me if she took me shopping in London next week, as she has threatened to do. So why not give her a nice surprise by organizing my own makeover before then? He kindly volunteered his partner’s services as my personal shopper so that I too could look like an overgrown teenager. I thought not, on the whole.
This evening my aunt and I went to see Kathryn Tickell at the Playhouse in Alnwick. The world’s best known exponent of the Northumbrian pipes was appearing with her younger brother Peter, and they were joined in the second half by an engagingly pretty girl called Amy who did clog dances and played the accordion. Though not, sadly, at the same time, as that really would have been worthy of a blog entry. Auntie enjoyed the music but expressed regret at the scruffiness of the performers and, for that matter, most of the audience. If only more of them would turn out in a nice smart jacket and tie like mine. Oh dear. There seems likely to be a bit of a conflict between her views of how I should look and the LTCB’s. In the interests of a quiet life I can see myself ending up with two wardrobes and having to develop my skills as a quick change artiste.
Not a problem faced by the LTCB herself, as it turns out, since she has e-mailed to report that she has arrived safely, but her suitcase hasn’t. And she did all the right things, too (like not flying with BA or from Heathrow Terminal 5). It wouldn’t matter so much if she’d gone on one of those beach holidays where you lie around pretty much naked all day, but unfortunately she has gone for family reasons to a country where that sort of thing is very much frowned upon. I remember seeing an article once where a woman had had her body painted so convincingly that she was able to walk down a busy London street completely nude without anyone noticing a thing. But somehow it seems a bit of a high risk proposition where the LTCB is, so I just recommend staying indoors with a pillow case over her head until her stuff turns up. If the Stalin moustache is developing as threatened, I may well suggest that she adopts the same approach when she gets back, too.
Monday 12 May 2008
Most unusually, the dog woke me by thumping down from the bed onto the floor at 4.45 a.m. I was going to ignore him, then remembered the messy consequences when I last tried that approach when we were staying with friends the other weekend. So I dragged myself up and tried to work out what he wanted. He was staring fixedly at the spot where I always used to keep a bowl of water for the benefit of my other dog, now deceased, who often liked a refreshing drink in the middle of the night. The present incumbent had never shown the slightest interest in it, so I took it away. After weighing up all the possibilities, I led him downstairs and he had a very long drink from his bowl in the kitchen before going for a little wander around the garden. He then returned to bed and slept soundly until noon. While I lay wide awake looking at him enviously until 6.30, when I gave up and had some breakfast before going to my desk and attempting to write a column for tomorrow’s paper. This is my equivalent of “signing on” – a distinctly non-onerous task which appears disproportionately burdensome because I have so little else to do.
My morale always reaches its weekly high point when I have completed this assignment, and I went to have a nice hot shower to celebrate. Only there was yet again no water, just a lot of belching and farting from the taps. I suspect that the UN needs to redraw its definitive map of the Third World to show an enclave in this particular corner of Northumberland. So I ran a hot bath and went back to my desk until it had cooled down, not wishing to involve myself in a Princess Margaret scenario (bandages, wheelchair, funeral in St George’s Chapel – actually, I quite fancy that last bit). I filled the time by writing another column for Wednesday’s business pages, which struck me as being vastly more amusing than the one I had done for tomorrow – though trying to convey anything at all within the desired 375 words is much more like writing a haiku than a column. I suspect so, at any rate. I’ve never actually tried to write a haiku.
Nor has anyone ever commented on one of my business columns in living memory, so I am highly unlikely to find out whether anyone agrees with me about its rib-tickling nature.
I have just gained an hour a day without making any adjustments to my clocks, because the LTCB has taken herself abroad for a week and is no longer able to ring me in the evenings. She’ll probably get cross with me if I say where she’s gone, but I can safely say that it’s not among the world’s top tourist destinations. In fact, it probably gets a lot more attention from the Pentagon than it does from Thomas Cook. I hope she knows what she is doing, apart from threatening to grow a Stalin moustache.
Sunday 11 May 2008
The LTCB claims to have read this blog from beginning to end – and she still got in touch with me, demonstrating that there really are some people in this world who are completely unteachable, whatever the likes of Ed Balls might claim. As a result of her extensive research, she has a pretty good idea of what I like, though she has already ruled out a number of my favourite pursuits on the grounds of decency, hygiene and potential discomfort. This morning she offered me a sausage sandwich, which I accepted with alacrity, though unfortunately it turned out to comprise sliced pork sausage between two slices of toasted bread, rather than the sexual practice I had fondly imagined.
Next she suggested a walk, because she had read that the dog and I liked walks. She produced a remarkably pristine book of Lovely Walks in Cheshire, so I picked one more or less at random; 6.5 miles, classified as of medium difficulty. The book reckoned it would take us 3.5 hours, but in my experience these estimates are like the ages printed on the boxes of toys and jigsaw puzzles: designed to make you feel good about yourself rather than to provide any sort of practical guidance. I usually cover at least 2.5 miles per hour, even on strenuous walks up reasonably large hills in Northumberland, so I confidently expected to be back at the car within 2hrs 40mins. Easy peasy. Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Given that the LTCB’s idea of appropriate dress for this outing proved to be a floral cretonne frock and strappy sandals rather than the expected outdoor gear and walking boots.
She looked at me with scarcely (in fact, not at all) concealed exasperation as I did my old man thing in the car park, pootling about changing into more sensible shoes, then packing a small knapsack with things that might come in useful during a walk. Then I put on my Panama hat, which bore a striking resemblance to the one that got such a huge laugh at dinner last night, when it was presented to the birthday boy as a badge of his senility. The pièce de résistance was the long shepherd’s crook I always take with me on walks. I’ve never knowingly seen anyone boggling before, but that’s definitely what the LTCB did as she tried to draw the line at being seen out with a bloke carrying one of those.
I was glad I held firm, as within 200 yards a long stick was coming in very handy for fending off a herd of cattle. About 100 yards later, I received a request for some of the tissues in my knapsack to try and deal with the liquid cow pat that had coated one of her feet while she was focusing on the map in the book. By the time we got to the towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal, both she and the dog were grateful for the drinks I had brought with me. And so on. Perhaps the most satisfying moment was during the descent of a steepish hill towards the end of the walk, when the LTCB asked if she might possibly borrow my handy walking stick.
Thanks to a wide range of obstacles including unmapped swamps and an inordinate number of stiles, the walk took the full 3.5 hours billed. By the end of it, the LTCB looked like a member of the cast of Tenko who had just been led on a forced march through the Malayan jungle by the Japanese. I’d love to show you a picture, but sadly it’s been vetoed in order to protect her privacy (though the fact that I seem to be able to get away with mentioning her at all does perhaps suggest a slightly ambivalent approach to privacy, ever so slightly redolent of Cherie Blair’s). Suffice it to say that I showed a snap to a friend and he expressed surprise that an old fogey like me had been attracted to a woman with tattoos. I had to point out that her markings were strictly temporary ones effected with mud and blood rather than ink.
When I got back home to Northumberland that evening, the LTCB reported that her strappy sandals were in the bin, while her painfully skinless toes resembled globe artichokes swathed in bandages. I asked her what she was planning for her next trick: climbing Everest in a ball gown? Instead of the expected two word reply, naturally including the word “off”, she asked “long or short”? Apparently it affects the sort of shoes she will need to wear to make the ascent. I will let you know the address for the return of your sponsorship forms in due course.
Saturday 10 May 2008
I decided to set myself up for the day by grilling and eating a thick gammon steak that had admittedly been sitting in the fridge for some time, but was only marginally past its use-by date. I don’t know whether this was the proximate cause, but something certainly induced an outbreak of flatulence on the scale one might expect if one were rash enough to down six pints of Bass to create a bit of an appetite before one’s attempt on the Guinness Book of Records world title for baked bean consumption. It’s not really what you want when you’re driving 220 miles in a confined space to see the person who might (but for this sort of thing) become your girlfriend. How I wished I had brought the convertible instead, though the resulting miasma might well have caused a multiple pile-up that would have kept the emergency services of several counties fully occupied for the rest of the weekend. You know things are bad when you spot the Border terrier on the passenger seat giving you disgusted looks.
Still, although a pretty major setback, this was at least the only one on my long drive across the country in pursuit of Lurve. The LTCB proved to live in a very open plan conversion of a small, terraced, mill worker’s cottage. Now I come to think about it, I can’t actually imagine what, if anything, was supporting the upper storey. But it’s an old building so perhaps it just stays up there through force of habit, like the van faulting of Lincoln cathedral (and, yes, I do realize that the theoretical inability of that to remain in situ may be another one of those urban myths, like the “fact” that a bumble bee cannot possibly fly).
At any rate the money for the conversion evidently ran out halfway through, as instead of a staircase the builder had left a wooden ladder propped up in the middle of the living area. Anyone attempting to negotiate it in (a) high heeled shoes, or (b) after a skinful, would be almost certain to have the sort of horrible accident that would make one of those “no win no fee” solicitors salivate. The LTCB promised to show me her bruises later, if the evening went well.
The good news was that the LTCB proved to have an attractive younger sister, which will add a welcome air of verisimilitude to the proceedings if the LTCB and I ever get to know each other well enough to play “Rodeo Sex” (in which the gentleman becomes friendly with the lady in the doggie position then calls out her sister’s name, and awards himself points depending on how long he can stay on board).
While the bad news – though I was warned about this – is that she has two formerly feral cats which do not care for Border terriers one little bit. Still, given that they live mainly upstairs and my dog cannot negotiate a wobbly ladder, this does not look like a deal-breaking obstacle.
We took the dog for a walk along the banks of the river, reminding me of the time a respected journalist was taken to visit a client of mine just up the road and kicked his piece off with “By the banks of the silvery Dee in bonny Scotland …” Even allowing for the fact that he had got there by private jet rather than scheduled public transport, it seemed a touch bizarre that he had mistaken Chester and Flintshire for Royal Deeside. He claimed that he had thought the Welsh road signs were Gaelic. I think he might well have had a bit of a drink problem.
The first thing I noticed about Chester was the abundance of Top Totty. Every bloke out for a walk had a high class blonde on his arm, and some of them even had roots of vaguely the same colour, which is not the sort of thing you get on Tyneside. I pointed this out to my small brunette companion, who said she was not going blonde for anyone. So that’s one route to my desired goal closed to me, then.
Later we drove to a restaurant somewhere in The Wirral for the 40th birthday party of one of the LTCB’s friends. I was a little disconcerted when the driver took her hands off the wheel to produce a Cheshire society magazine from the floor at the back of the car. She then proceeded to read it over my shoulder, pointing out a number of exciting and relevant features. When I enquired who was actually in control of the car during this interlude, she waved both her hands in the air like one of George Mitchell’s Minstrels and yelled, “Look! It’s fine!”
When we got to the restaurant, the first thing anyone asked me was who had been driving. Next they nodded sympathetically and said, “You’ll be wanting a stiff drink, then.” While someone else nearby chipped in with “And earplugs!” Truly the LTCB’s reputation goes before her.
The host of the party appeared to be the oldest person there, apart from me, and there was much hilarity about his incredible age. Someone had presented him with one of those framed charts containing scarcely believable information about the year of his birth, and people were chuckling about bizarre facts like the fact that beer only cost 2s 9d a pint in 1968 (whatever 2s 9d meant). I started chipping in with corrections from memory, including the fact that beer was considerably cheaper than that on Tyneside at the time. Then I caught the LTCB giving me a slightly odd look so, in a rare moment of good sense and diplomacy, I shut up.
It was a very good dinner, marred only by the fact that I am such an ancient valetudinarian that I can’t really eat dinner at all without lying awake all night with chronic indigestion. Luckily I had the foresight to counterbalance this by consuming vast quantities of alcohol, so that I fell into a coma the second my head hit the pillow. I was then roused from it at 4 a.m., when I found my face being gently nuzzled by something warm and moist that smelt of fish. Sadly it proved to be a cat called Megan. The LTCB apparently decided to name her cats after the Brontë sisters, but I’ve already told you that English literature was not her strongest subject at school. (She thinks Jane Austin was related to the famous car maker.)
I now can’t wait to form a closer acquaintance with Maria, as this is apparently a very special and desirable pussy from Brazil. Where the nuts come from. And where, with any luck …