Sunday 31 August 2008
Of course, my welcome weight loss may be less to do with the practise of some much-needed self-restraint yesterday evening, and more with the reduced volume of blood circulating around my body as a result of it being sucked out of me in multiple locations. I woke early, itching like crazy, with bright red insect bites all over my arms and legs. Luckily I had a tube of soothing insect bite cream on my bedside table, so I applied it liberally to the affected areas and went back to sleep. When I woke again a couple of hours later the bites still itched like hell and my arm smelt powerfully of chicken. On closer inspection I realized that I had rubbed myself all over with the dog’s poultry flavoured toothpaste. No wonder he was giving me such a funny look as I applied it. I wonder whether this means that I have been trying to clean his teeth with an antihistamine cream. That might well account for some of his recent failures in the sense of humour department.
The good thing about a day which starts like this is that it cannot possibly get any worse. So I got up and put all my bedding on a very hot wash in the hope of (a) killing any bugs that might be lurking there, and (b) stopping it from smelling like a superannuated chicken and mushroom pie which was rather short on mushrooms. I also re-potted the banana plant which arrived in the post as a tiny seedling only a few months ago, in return for two foil caps from Blandy’s Madeira; a promotion so weird that I felt bound to break the habit of a lifetime and participate in it. Already the bloody thing is filling about a quarter of my conservatory and lending it the atmosphere of a tropical rain forest as water constantly drips from its huge leaves. I half expect to come down in the morning and find an orang-utan swinging from a branch, or Jimmy Krankie teetering perilously at the top in a production of Jack and the Beanstalk.
After a bit more cleaning, tidying and plant watering I managed to spend the entire afternoon struggling to write a newspaper column. This inspired two gloomy reflections. First, that if I had taken about 15 minutes longer I would actually have earned more per hour in some minimum wage job stacking shelves or picking vegetables, which would also have provided me with some beneficial exercise. And, second, that the end product must of course be crap because all my best received contributions are the ones which I dash off in the 45 minutes before the deadline, with minimal effort and inspiration.
How better to cheer myself up this evening than by consuming the plastic pouch of Tesco carrot and coriander soup which had been lurking at the bottom of my freezer since mid-February 1993? When I was still the right side of 40 and John Major was in Number 10. Oh yes. Those were the days, albeit only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
Saturday 30 August 2008
“Comfort eating” is surely the ultimate misnomer. It does nothing for my physical comfort when my belt once again starts to lose itself in the roll of adipose tissue around my middle. And it does even less for my sense of self-worth. Particularly given that only five months have passed since I won a valuable bet by losing 21lbs, thereby getting my weight down to 14 stone in the first place. I know full well that eating too much is bad and wrong. So how come I consumed a ready meal which was clearly labelled “serves two” for supper last night? And, even more pertinently, when the fruit I had for dessert failed to afford complete satisfaction, why on earth did I help myself to just the one ginger biscuit and end up eating the whole sodding packet (950 calories)?
I think it may well be because I am a greedy fat bastard. I suppose I always have been. “I see he likes his food”, people used to observe to my mother when I was a boy, as an alternative to “He’s a fat little f***er, isn’t he?” I commend the phrase to you as a way of conveying that thought to parents without getting all your teeth knocked out. It will be much more useful now than when I was a lad, as there are so many more young porkers around. I was definitely marked out as one of the two or three “fat” boys in my class at primary school. Yet when I look at the photographs from that time now, I am sure that if my 1959 self could be teleported into a reception class of five-year-olds in 2008 I would stand out as being at the slimmer end of the spectrum. I suspect that my complete ineptitude at all games had as much to do with perceptions as my actual girth.
However that may be, I am definitely on a slippery slope now, even if it is contrary to all the laws of Newtonian physics to be slipping upwards. I suspect I am over-eating because I feel sorry for myself, in the absence of the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette. Though in fact it is I am who am absent, in self-imposed exile in Northumberland. I was invited to accompany her to Chester races today, albeit with the unspoken warning that “I know you hate racing, so please do not come along and try to make everyone else hate it, too.” Though when I spoke to her in her car at lunchtime, when she was running hideously late as the result of some mysterious scheduling error, she did concede that she would have been on time if I had been there.
At least today I accomplished two profoundly tedious but necessary tasks which I have been putting off for far too long: completing a VAT return and digging out and collating all the data which my bank will need to complete my tax return for me. I devoted the whole afternoon to the latter job, and felt much better when it was over. Nor did I over-eat afterwards.
However, I have a strong sense that my feeling that a heavy burden has been lifted from me will only last until the bank sends me the bad news about how much I am going to owe to the taxman in 2009. I must ensure that there are no biscuits, cakes, pies or ice cream in the house when that bad news arrives. And that there is no petrol in the car to take me to the shops. Though I suppose having no money left to spend will deal with both the food and fuel issues rather nicely.
Friday 29 August 2008
I’m not actually in England’s smallest county, but I’m definitely in a Rut. It pains me to admit it, even to myself let alone on a little-read blog, but I fear that I am pining for the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette. Either that or I am a feeble and terminally lazy idiot who is incapable of exercising the most elementary self-discipline in matters of food and drink, or of getting on with some work when the opportunity arises.
Of course, both explanations might well be correct. I am a Bloke, after all.
Today would have been my mother’s 99th birthday if she had not blown her chances of getting a commemorative telemessage from The Queen by dying when she was 82. Which was pretty spooky, really, since when I was a very small boy a gipsy woman had knocked on our front door, trying to sell clothes pegs or lucky heather or a handful of gravel plucked from our own drive, and had told my mother that she was going to live to be 82. Given that both her own parents had dropped dead of heart attacks at the age of 61, my mother regarded this as a rather encouraging bit of news until she reached the age of 81, when it began to prey on her mind. I spent some time trying to persuade her that the prediction was that she would LIVE to be 82, not that she would DIE at 82, and that it did not exclude the possibility that she would live to be 83, 84 or even 99.
That was not how it worked out, though.
I have learned from this experience and never open my front door to gipsies. And just to be sure, and to avoid any suggestion of racial prejudice, I never open my front door to anyone else, either.
Thursday 28 August 2008
Another day of mind-numbing tedium at home in Northumberland, subsisting on things salvaged from the depths of my freezers, one of which reached the end of its design life some years ago. So next time it becomes comprehensively iced up, I think I shall forget about defrosting it in the conventional way and just drill down from the top using one of those ice core sampling tools scientists enjoy playing with in the Antarctic. It should assemble an intriguingly variegated meal.
It comes to something when the highlight of one’s day proves to be the pinging into one’s inbox of the University of Cambridge alumni e-bulletin. The Vice-Chancellor used to send periodic begging letters beginning “Dear Alumni”. Then some classically educated pedant with a bee in her bonnet evidently pointed out that this was sexist, so it became “Dear Alumni and Alumnae”. A fine effort, I thought, but clearly it still gave offence to some by putting the masculine first, as next time I looked it had become “Dear Alumnae and Alumni”. Oh for f***’s sake, as they say in Cambridge. Or at any rate did rather a lot when I was there. Particularly in my rooms.
I also received a stern e-mail from BT warning that my Broadband Talk account had been closed as I had failed to use it. I don’t suppose it would ever occur to them that this might have something to do with the fact that the Home Hub they have so extensively advertised with the aid of the egregious Kris Marshall, who cannot even spell his sodding name never mind act, does not bloody well work. I did try to point this out to their Faults Department, but found myself severely handicapped by the fact that this now consists of a lot of people in a big shed in India whose role is to deny that the fault you are complaining about exists. In order to do this, they receive extensive training in reading out predetermined explanations from a small selection of cards. In my particular case, after they had raised my blood pressure to life-threatening levels, they did finally admit that there might be a problem. But not with their equipment. Dear me, no. It was my fault for living too far from the telephone exchange. A fact, I pointed out with some acidity, that they could have alerted me to when they accepted my order for the equipment, or ideally instead of doing so.
A few weeks later I encountered one of their few remaining British employees working up the pole outside my house, and he told me that, as I had suspected, this explanation was utter bollocks as he knew for a fact that there was a Bloke living in the farm cottages half a mile up the road, and therefore half a mile further from the same exchange, who had a Home Hub which worked just fine. He suggested that I call his colleagues in India and point this out, and ask for a replacement bit of kit. Then our eyes met and we both knew that I was never, ever going to do this: (a) because I had already gone out and bought an alternative modem and router that actually worked perfectly, and (b) because life is far too short and much too precious for any of us to waste it talking to BT.
Though if they ever install an answering machine on their Chairman’s direct line on which one could record mindless abuse for unlimited periods, I might well be tempted to give it a go.
Wednesday 27 August 2008
Although I have a filing cabinet which contains, among other things, various mouldering certificates which prove beyond reasonable doubt that I am an educated Bloke, I do have a number of hideous cultural blind spots. For example, I can take art galleries in small doses, but find museums hideously boring. It probably tells you all you need to know if I say that my favourite is the National Railway Museum; but I’d want to mull it over for a while if you asked me to choose between a lovely day trip to the NRM in York and just sitting in my conservatory admiring the view, or even watching some high quality paintwork dry. I can just about bear wandering around a country house, but only if it remains in the ownership of its ancestral family and has not fallen under the ghastly dead hand of the National Trust.
I rather enjoy reading history, in which I have a degree, but it was not just being too lazy to master any foreign languages (living or dead) that led me to focus on the modern British variety. Well, it was mainly that, to be honest. There are few limits to my idleness. But I am genuinely most interested in the bits of history which lie in that tantalizing period just beyond my own living memory. Ancient history I have always found the most colossal bore, with my own view only being a hair’s breadth from that of my 80-something next door neighbour who, on being told by one of my visitors that she was much looking forward to visiting Hadrian’s Wall, responded “The Romans! Aa nivvor knaad any of the buggers – and they’re aal deed!”
It follows that my eyes glaze over at the mere mention of archaeology. Yet, despite myself, I do get quite excited on days like today when I defrost my two freezers, and the layers of ancient ice are chipped away to reveal long forgotten treasures, which would probably have been utterly delicious if I had had the wit to eat them immediately rather than squirreling them away for future use.
Women, in my experience, are very literally minded about these things (as about so much else). If a thing has got a use-by date and you haven’t used it by midnight on the date in question, into the bin it goes. If it says “freeze on the day of purchase and use within one month”, then that will be the answer. Whereas I, as a Bloke, typically freeze things a day or two after they have passed their use-by date, as a last resort alternative to binning them, then leave them on ice for years. Today for supper I feasted on some uncovered gems: pasta that could be guaranteed 100% non-GM as they had not invented the technology when I froze it, accompanied by a ready-made sauce which bore the brand of a supermarket chain which has long since ceased to exist. Then strawberries from my very own strawberry bed, which was dug up in the course of some garden improvements in about 1991. None of these things tasted particularly wonderful, but they were all right and they did not kill me, as any female observing the making of my meal would have warned. And, for a Bloke who is famously extravagant, not to say profligate, and likes nothing more than blowing a couple of hundred quid he has no longer got on dinner in a top restaurant, it was most refreshing to eat so economically. I felt a warm glow of self-satisfaction, though I suppose the symptoms might also have been those of low level food poisoning.
With my meal I drank the remains of the bottle of Chateau Musar rosé, which all my guests on Sunday had urged me to tip down the sink. Left standing around for three days, open and unrefrigerated, it had blossomed into something subtle, intriguing and delicious. Which is so often the case with wine, I find. So here is perhaps the first bit of useful advice to appear in these pages: it you open a bottle that is not to your liking, put it aside and try it again after a day or two. Or by all means ask me round to try it for you.
Tuesday 26 August 2008
The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette got up at the crack of dawn to practise yoga with the aid of a DVD, and quite possibly a DVD player and television, while I devoted myself to a bizarre dream involving a solicitor I have not got called Mackay. When both of these important activities were over I ventured downstairs. Having forgotten to bring a wireless with me, I decided to watch the expected news summary on the hour on BBC1, only to find that they provide no such thing. Worse still, the whole of their breakfast programme appears to play in an hourly loop. So having watched a shameless plug for a new American film about feckless 40-something stepbrothers masquerading as “news”, one then has to sit through much of it again in a trailer of the highlights “coming up in the next hour”. And to think that some of my girlfriends have complained over the years that my usual morning audio wallpaper, the Today programme on Radio 4, can be a touch repetitious. What on earth am I paying a TV licence fee for?
I collected the LTCB’s cats from their cattery in the late morning (memo to self: investigate why dogs take their vacations in boarding kennels, not a doggery). An otherwise routine wallet-emptying experience was enlivened by the simultaneous arrival at check-in of an absolutely enormous black dog, perhaps of the Pyrenean Mountain variety, or maybe a Newfoundland, though most definitely what would be characterized in North Eastern dog fancying circles as “a big bugger”. I was much entertained by the well-proportioned female half of his accompanying entourage running through an apparently endless of the dog’s likes, dislikes and special needs, and awaited the almost inevitable line “Where will he sleep?” so that I could join in the chorus of “Anywhere he bloody well likes!”
To fortify myself for the journey back to Northumberland, I decided that it was high time I tried the Chinese takeaway cum fish and chip shop on the corner of the LTCB’s street. Being oldish, English and hidebound, I ordered fish and chips as you would expect, and was told that it would took a few minutes as the fish had to be freshly cooked to order. When it was ready, the girl behind the corner asked whether I would like a standard or large portion of chips, and I said that a normal one would do nicely. Whereupon she took the sort of shovel with which firemen used to stoke the boilers of main line express locomotives, and proceeded to assemble enough chips to serve between four and six exceptionally hungry people, or a rugby team with unusually delicate appetites. Very good they were, too, as was the nicely battered piece of cod balanced on the top. I ate perhaps a quarter of it, and wished that I owned a very large dog to help me out. Though perhaps, on reflection, a pig with a cast iron digestion would have been even more useful.
I made it home to Northumberland in time for a quick mug of tea before driving into Alnwick to rendezvous with my aunt at the Playhouse. There are only two rows of seats in the Playhouse which provide a comfortable amount of leg room for people over about 5’ tall. One is the very front row and I can never remember which is the other one, so Row A tends to get my vote. Which is fine unless one ends up as the sole pervert right in the front for displays of gratuitous nudity, as I did at the touring production of The Blue Room a few years ago. Or, as tonight, when there turn out to be unexpected calls for audience participation. I am quite good at avoiding these myself by just fixing the performer with a withering stare, but my aunt seemed to feel an inescapable urge to join in. It had been her idea that we should come to see a bloke called David Benson doing his one-man show about Kenneth Williams, with whom he had a tenuous personal connection as the winner of a children’s story writing competition for the BBC’s Jackanory: Williams had been assigned to read the winning entries on air. He did a very passable impersonation of the man and I felt minded to forgive him the occasional lapse into Frankie Howerd as I am not sure that Williams himself did not sometimes make the same mistake. However, he was considerably funnier when relating events from his own schooldays, even if having a mother who was certifiably insane and ended up being forcibly removed to a loony bin would not be everyone’s idea of a natural subject for comedy.
My distinguished looking aunt was hard to ignore in any event, sitting as she was plumb in the middle of the front row, and she had already attracted his attention by the alacrity with which she responded when he asked everyone else in the theatre who had a barmy mother (living or dead) to raise their hand. When he asked whether anyone else came from his home town of Birmingham, blow me if she didn’t stick her hand straight up again, initiating further enquiries about precisely where and why. She confessed to coming from Winson Green and explained that “My father was in the prison service”, leaving me wondering whether she was trying to avoid the mockery that might result from the revelation that he had been the prison chaplain; or seeking to convey the impression that he had actually been the governor.
Parts of the evening will stick in my mind for a considerable time. In particular, I shall always recall how unnerving it clearly was to have to say “f***” quite frequently under the basilisk gaze of a distinguished looking octogenarian with a barmy dead mother and a father who was something in the prison service.
Back at home I watched the BBC ten o’clock news and then chanced upon a comedy programme which featured a hopeless Welsh bloke of 40 trying to make a dating video with the aim of attracting a 23-year-old girl. How hilarious. Luckily my viewing was interrupted by a telephone call from someone in Chester who was precisely 23 when I was 40. Men of Britain take heart: it can be done. Though admittedly maybe not if you are Welsh and given to sporting a Peter Mandelson moustache.
Monday 25 August 2008
A typical August Bank Holiday in England. We spent the early part of the afternoon crawling along the single carriageway section of the A1 between Felton and Morpeth, in a huge line of cars doing about 20mph behind some farmer chugging along in his tractor and grain trailer. He might have been gathering in the harvest, or he might just have been being a total bastard because he can’t stand tourists. There is quite a lot of that feeling around in Northumberland, in my experience.
Then we had a late but deliberately cold lunch with my delightful aunt in Morpeth. The LTCB talked a little about the endearing eccentricities of her elderly parents, and my aunt tactfully refrained from pointing out that they are precisely the same age as her elder son and only marginally older than I am. However, she had a look in her eye which clearly indicated that that was precisely where the conversation would be heading next if I did not remain on my best behaviour.
We left around teatime and I drove the LTCB back to Cheshire by the scenic route through Alston. I had had some misgivings about this, envisaging that we might end up stuck in a long queue of slow Bank Holiday traffic rubber-necking at the scenery, but amazingly we did not see a single vehicle in front of after we turned off the A69 until we arrived in Melmerby, on the other side of the Pennines. On the other hand, the stupendous views from Hartside that I had hoped to show her were completely obscured by low cloud. What else should I have expected on a Bank Holiday Monday?
Sunday 24 August 2008
This morning started agreeably enough, with me writing in my conservatory while the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette slaved away over a hot stove in the kitchen. Then I was despatched in the car to identify a suitable six mile route she could cover as part of her preparations for the Great North Run. I soon found one which was about the right length and inspiringly scenic, though as I neared the end it occurred to me that it seemed to be almost entirely uphill, like the endless staircase in that optical illusion much favoured as a space filler in the comics of my childhood. So I came up with a brainwave: she could run it the other way around. The LTCB looked at me blankly and asked how the hell I expected her to run six miles backwards, but with the aid of a map and some diagrams I was soon able to put her mind at rest.
So we set off in brilliant sunshine with me in front on my electrically assisted bicycle, instructed to set the pace at a steady 6mph and to shout out gleefully every time that my odometer said that we had covered a mile. I also offered to yell “Faster, you bitch!” from time to time in an encouraging sort of way, while accelerating out of reach of her fists, but this proposal was surprisingly rejected. She was pleased to have covered the required six miles in 58 minutes, and I did my best to gloss over the fact that either my car or my bike is recording mileage incorrectly, since the former made the total distance around the circuit to be 6.7 miles, while the bike claimed it was 7.1. I think my money would be on the car, to be honest, if I were the betting type.
The people we had originally invited to supper tonight rang in the course of the run to say that one of them was ill and that they might not be able to make it. Which was a bit irritating; but not as irritating as it would have been if they had not previously persuaded me to “go with the flow” and invite another couple who said that they could only come if they brought a further two house guests along with them. Making, as those of you with Grade A GCSE Maths will instantly have spotted, a total of eight compared with the six who can sit comfortably around my dining table.
Isn’t it nice when things work out for the best? And isn’t it a shame that it doesn’t happen more often? Though of course it only worked out for the best for the six of us sitting happily around the table eating a sensational meal with the added bonus of a splendid lack of rigour in the matter of portion control. It was rather bad luck on the sick bloke and the lady who kindly stayed at home to look after him.
To accompany the LTCB’s brilliant Iranian cooking I had dug out a wide range of Lebanese wine, representing the nearest geographical fit; the Persian wines of Shiraz which once won such acclaim having long since been eradicated and the vineyards turned over to the production of table grapes and raisins. The Chateau Musar white was pronounced drinkable and interesting, though I noticed that no-one rushed to claim a refill, while the rosé was universally condemned as utterly revolting, and I ended up emptying their glasses down the sink. Luckily I received a much more positive response to the 1985 red, which had been maturing nicely in a shed for some 18 years. We drank the very last two bottles from what had once been a huge stash of the stuff. As I savoured the final drops, I felt as though I were losing an old and dear friend, though luckily I have ample supplies of the 1993, 1995 and 1997 vintages which may become almost as delicious in their turn. I am by no means as well supplied with young friends to replace those currently nearing the edges of their perches.
The wine’s high alcoholic content was evident, too, in the sort of helpful remarks that our guests started lobbing into the conversation, like “So when are you two going to have a baby, then?” It’s such a waste when a really fine wine ends up going up your nose. When talk turned to the hilarious e-mail I had sent vividly describing my first meeting with the LTCB, accompanied by a threat to forward it to her, I found myself yawning uncontrollably and saying “Good Lord, is that the time?” It seemed prudent to lose this dear friend, albeit temporarily, before he started the LTCB thinking yet again, “What am I doing here?”
Particularly now I know just how well she can cook, on top of her many other virtues. Not to mention, particularly in this blog, some really rather appealing vices.
Saturday 23 August 2008
The dog was seriously cheesed off with us by the time we got home last night, performing the classic Border terrier trick of turning his back on us to demonstrate his displeasure. Sadly for him I was unable to work out whether he was fed up because (a) he resented being made to travel to Chester and back, or (b) he much preferred Chester to Northumberland and wanted to stay there, or (c) he thought we were having more fun in the front of the car and disliked being stuck on his own in the back. Fortunately I was able to win back his attention and affections with the lime green squeaky rugby ball on which I had spent a massive £2.99 at the shop attached to the cattery yesterday. If only all one’s difficulties in human relationships could be resolved so quickly and inexpensively.
We spent much of the morning shopping, and discovered that broad beans (fresh, tinned or frozen) were unobtainable in Alnwick either for love or money, not that we actually offered love. Then we drove back home and had a really delicious lunch of ham and stilton quiche from an Alnwick delicatessen, with artichokes, rocket and tomato, followed by always excellent Doddington cheese. We delivered the local paper to my next door neighbours and had a lively conversation with them, of which the LTCB later confessed that she had not understood a word. She just kept nodding and smiling, inwardly rigid with fear that they were relating some terrible personal tragedy, over and above the one represented by their ill-fitting new teeth.
Then we drove to Newton-by-the-Sea and took the dog for what was supposed to be a brisk walk along the beach, but which rapidly deteriorated into a tediously prolonged game of chucking the lime green squeaky rugby ball and trying to get it back off him. He had pretty much disabled the squeak within 100 yards. However, I was modestly impressed by his intelligence in taking the thing and dropping it into the sea to wash the sand off it.
Friday 22 August 2008
You know how you read about those idiots who end up driving down farm tracks, railway lines or canals because their sat navs told them to do so, and you think “How could anyone be so stupid?”
Well, this morning I typed “Burton, Cheshire” into my sat nav and drove for the best part of an hour thinking that it was a very strange way to get to the cattery which the LTCB had taken the trouble to point out to me after her riding lesson last night. Eventually I pulled over to take a look at a conventional map, and quickly worked out that I should actually have selected “Burton, South Wirral”, which is in completely the opposite direction. Luckily the two cats in the carrier on the front passenger seat could not speak, but their looks said quite enough.
Having safely deposited them with their temporary carers, I then got lost again trying to replicate the return route on which the LTCB had taken me last night. Once more I turned on my trusty sat nav, confident that at least the LTCB’s home address was accurately entered onto the system, and it led me onwards for a couple of miles … so that I could turn around in a bus turning circle rather than performing the three point turn I had been planning to make in the first place. Back in Chester, I stupidly allowed it to lead me to a bridge which I knew full well was closed for road works. All in all, a great demonstration that Common Sense will trump New Technology every time, if only one applies it.
Having filled the rest of the morning writing my newspaper column for next Tuesday, I felt that I deserved a decent lunch and walked to the pub I have come to think of as the Curmudgeons’ Arms. Here I encountered the legendary landlord for the first time, and was totally unsurprised to find that he bore an uncanny physical resemblance to a late friend who was renowned as the most miserable publican in Northumberland. Perhaps this great man’s finest moment was glowering at a couple who had had the temerity to enquire “Is this your bar menu?” as they picked one up from the, er, bar. To which their host replied, in a tone of withering contempt, “What does it look like? A f***ing bus timetable?” Funnily enough they found that they had lost their appetites.
Since my last visit the Chester curmudgeon had stuck up a new blackboard by the door, bearing the boldly chalked legend, “Don’t!! Bring your stag-hen or pub crawl here. We don’t need you. We don’t want you. We won’t serve you!!” Marvellous. That will be why I was his only customer under the age of 65, and the only man not wearing a suit and tie.
It was not the two pints of beer that did the damage, nor even the pork scratchings or the cottage pie with spiced red cabbage. No, I think I can safely say that it was the chocolate bars I ate afterwards because they were on a “three for the price of two” special offer at the shop I passed on my way home. How am I ever going to achieve my target weight of 12st 7lb without undergoing an amputation? Admittedly my overeating does increase the chances of contracting Type 2 diabetes and having to have a leg off, but I think even my sat nav would spot that that is not the right way forward.
This evening I drove the LTCB, the dog and me from Chester to Northumberland, on roads that proved surprisingly quiet given that it was a bank holiday weekend. The sat nav did not lead us astray once. But then I knew exactly where I was going.
Thursday 21 August 2008
This morning I made my customary delivery of the local daily paper to my next door neighbours, and had that unsettling experience of spotting that something was different, but not immediately being able to work out what it was. Gradually it dawned on me that they were both grinning (well, perhaps more accurately, grimacing) at me with gleaming white gnashers that were at least 80 years newer than the rest of them. It was the tube of Bonjella teething gel for babies on the arm of one of their chairs that gave it away. That and the blinding flash every time one of them opened their mouths.
Yes, an NHS dentist (and how many of those are there left?) had come to visit them in the comfort of their own home in the middle of nowhere, taken impressions and fitted them out with new false teeth. They were both suffering considerable discomfort and could not actually use their new teeth for eating, but they looked terrific. Another partial success for the NHS, then. Now wonder it is “the envy of the world”.
After a quick snack lunch in Rothbury’s riverside car park, enjoying the fine views of the River Coquet and the community recycling centre, I followed my sat nav’s instructions and drove to Chester. I struggled to stay awake in the early part of the journey, perhaps lulled towards sleep by the Bill Bryson talking book about small town America that I had selected for the trip. I realized as soon as it started that I had actually read the thing, but fortunately the opening line about the horror of coming from Des Moines, Iowa proved to be the only memorable one in it. It was a totally unremarkable drive apart from one moment of danger on the M60, when the traffic suddenly braked to little more than walking pace so that we could all have a jolly good gawp at a very minor accident in the opposite carriageway.
This evening I accompanied the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette to her weekly riding lesson on a farm in South Wirral which has diversified into indoor equestrianism by investing in a large shed with strip lights and a sandy floor. At first it looked like the LTCB was going to be the only pupil, but eventually six of them assembled; the others being a big fat woman on a vast brown nag called Tyson (I believe the owners also have a pit bull terrier named Shergar), a posh lady, a couple of silent younger females and a solitary bloke. A plump lady with short hair stood in the middle of the arena and shouted instructions and, to summarize, they all went around in circles for an hour, variously walking, cantering or trotting. The LTCB proved to be something of a teacher’s pet, answering the vast majority of the instructor’s questions. It was nothing like my experience of school, where the teachers always ignored the boys with their hands in the air begging “Me, sir! Me, me, ME!” and insisted on asking the ones sitting silently and looking fixedly at their desks. Or, in this case, manes.
Two or three of the participants claimed to have exams coming up. This came as news to me, but apparently you can take exams in riding horses, like those mysteriously graded tests that my keener contemporaries used to take on the piano and violin. Part of the preparation for this examination proved to be practising riding without stirrups, which is presumably the equestrian equivalent of landing on just one engine on a flight simulator. The posh lady protested that it was all very painful, shouting “I’m too old for this!” No-one seemed inclined to argue with her, which was doubtless a bit of a blow.
Overall, it was a moderately entertaining spectator sport, so long as I concentrated on how fetching the LTCB looked in her jodhpurs, and did not start trying to work out exactly what was bouncing up and down when the earth-shaking fat lady and her supersized mount lumbered by.
But, on the whole, I think I still prefer beach volleyball and synchronized swimming.
Wednesday 20 August 2008
The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette is coming to stay for the weekend, and in a mad moment I volunteered to drive across to Cheshire tomorrow to collect her. We have also got some people coming to dinner on Sunday, which is a rare enough event for me to start preparing for it half a week in advance. I began yesterday evening by opening a bottle of the Chateau Musar 1995 and checking whether it was drinkable. I got through most of the bottle by the time I was absolutely sure, and by then I no longer cared either way. Before that I had made an effort to tidy up the garden by mowing the grass, something I had left for far too long owing to the fact that it has pissed with rain every day for as long as I can remember. It was still too wet to cut, really, and too long to tackle with a motor mower. But when one has octogenarian neighbours, it seems unfair to summon the help of a bloke with a scythe, who might so easily be mistaken for the Grim Reaper. So I persevered, with the machine groaning in protest, repeatedly getting clogged with wet grass and finally emitting a loud bang, accompanied by a sheet of flame. I applied my usual technological patch of turning it off and starting it up again. It always works with computers. Now I can report that it works with lawnmowers, too.
Although I had some hopes of the weekend turning out to be absolutely filthy, I sensed that the LTCB would not appreciate it if it did so when she ran her fingers across my kitchen work surfaces or sitting room furniture. So I passed an entire day of mind-numbing tedium doing the accumulated washing, scrubbing the kitchen, cleaning windows, ferrying in baskets of logs for the fires, watering the house plants, dusting and vacuum cleaning. Even I was bored, and I usually take so much pleasure in simple, menial domestic tasks that several of my Cambridge contemporaries suggested that I would do better to abandon my ambitions to become a don, and stay on a as a college bedmaker.
I had put on 2lb yesterday thanks to the bastards who run one of Northumberland’s splendid farm shops putting their sausages in 12oz packs for sale in the local garage, and making them so delicious that it is impossible to resist eating the whole lot at a single sitting. Impossible for me, at any rate. I tried to make amends today by expending lots of calories on my spring cleaning, and by not eating very much. In the evening I attempted to revert to my successful Iet™ (the No D for Dinner Diet), but finally weakened and opened a tin of corned beef. Luckily the second slice I cut contained something that looked suspiciously like a maggot, which killed my appetite completely. Perhaps there is a marketing opportunity here for a new range of maggot-enhanced delicacies to help the morbidly obese down the long and winding path back to something like normality.
Tuesday 19 August 2008
I am not feeling at my best today, mainly because I made the mistake of taking my new Mac Book computer out of its box early yesterday evening, and was up until 2 a.m. trying to figure it out. My first impression was that it was a thing of great beauty, on which some clever people had expended a great deal of thought. It was emblazoned “Designed by Apple in California”, clearly intending to conjure up a vision of clean-limbed young people with their hair streaming behind them as they ran laughing along a beach; rather than a load of spotty geeks applying themselves to computer programming in a huge open-plan office. Or maybe it was just supposed to put the emphasis on the design part rather than the manufacturing, which is presumably carried out in the same factory in China where everything else is made these days.
For the first time in years I wished I was back with the ex-fiancée who used to sneer at absolutely everything I bought on the grounds that it was “badly designed”. I’d have been able to point at my Mac, wearing an insufferably smug impression, and say “Aha!” A word I do not get to use nearly enough.
On the other hand it is taking me an age to get to grips with because so many aspects of the operating system are different from the Microsoft ones I have grown used to over the last decade. I feel as though I have woken up in that Ray Bradbury novel where the time traveller accidentally treads on a butterfly and finds his whole world changed when he returns to it. But at least I now empathize with how my grandfather must have felt when he was presented with his first motor car in place of a horse, and uttered the words with which successive generations of my family have greeted each step up man’s ladder of technological achievement: “It will never catch on.”
Monday 18 August 2008
Bloody typical. I went out to lunch kitted out in my new blue jeans, a new blue cotton pullover over an open-necked white shirt, and my new smart and slimming dark blue coat (because I worked with public school types in the City for long enough to know that only potatoes wear jackets). And what should I find facing me across the table but a man of about my own age adhering to all the outdated principles I have just abandoned. It gave me a pang or two, I can tell you. Not only was he wearing a well-cut blue suit, but a tightly knotted tie that was certainly meant to look regimental if it were not so in reality. This military impression was strongly reinforced by his “Support Our Troops” lapel badge. I felt very scruffy indeed. He then made me feel even worse by saying that he had only ever worn jeans once in his life, and that was for one scene when he was acting as a body double in a film shoot. Or maybe he was the star and they had already shot the scene with the body double wearing jeans instead of a smart suit because of some oversight in the wardrobe department, so he had to go along with it. I forget. I think it may be Alzheimer’s.
Anyway, I thought it was a bit of a triumph that I recognized this bloke when he walked into the restaurant, as I can’t have seen him for at least 15 years. At the time he was handling PR for a well-known local football club, and wanted some advice on their planned flotation. I had started droning on about the sort of incentives that private investors would require to perk their interest, and he looked at me in amazement. “I don’t think you realize the scale of their loyalty,” he said. “We could just put a skip outside the ground and they would come and chuck cash into it.” I suggested that they tried that, then, though I’m pretty sure they didn’t. It wasn’t the most productive meeting of my career.
This one went rather better, I think, as we discussed a number of potential ideas for how I could fill the time when I finally admit that no-one is ever going to pay a penny to read my allegedly humorous ramblings, and I have to face up to reality and return to the coalface of public relations. And he surely must know what he is talking about because he has clearly made a great deal of money out of it, as I divined from throwaway lines like one about the amount of effort he is having to make, this very wet summer, to pump water out of “the woods above my house”. It was the sort of line I would expect a duke to come up with, if his ancestors had not had the sense to stick their castle on the top of a hill rather than in a valley prone to flooding.
On the other hand, when I started work as a stockbroker in 1978, I made the same mistake by thinking that the partners of my firm had all made their fortunes there, and that it presented an ideal opportunity for me to follow the same profitable path. I swiftly realized that in fact they had all been immensely rich before they started, and would indeed be a good deal richer if they just stayed at home tending their hobby farms, rather than commuting into the City every day to lose shed loads of money on dodgy punts on the stock market.
He might also have got rich by being careful, like so many wealthy people of my acquaintance. I admired the subtlety with which he drew my attention to the remarkably good value represented by the £11 prix fixe menu, including a free glass of wine. And it was all right, in fairness, though I did have to call at a garage on the way home and buy a bar of chocolate to give me the energy to complete my journey. At least I didn’t fall for the “two for £2.50” offer promoted by the young moron behind the filling station till, albeit mainly because he mumbled so indistinctly that I failed to grasp what he was talking about until I was turning into my driveway 35 miles later. Damn. Yet another lost opportunity.
Sunday 17 August 2008
My partner needed to be back in Chester by lunchtime today, to attend a family birthday celebration, and Network Rail had helpfully decided that the middle of the peak holiday travel period represented an ideal opportunity to close Euston station while they changed a light bulb in a signal, or something of the sort. Luckily there was an alternative route back, but unluckily it required her to catch a train from Marylebone and then make a change in Birmingham by walking between Moor Street and New Street stations. I won’t repeat that she has no sense of direction, in case it becomes tiresome, but she is the sort of person who can be relied upon to get from King’s Cross to St Pancras via Leeds, rather than by walking across the road. So I felt some misgivings as I escorted her to the Great Central Railway’s impressive and under-used London terminus, arriving half an hour too early. Luckily we were able to fill the time having a cup of coffee, watching the station florists assembling a most impressive display and wondering why they evidently thought it was worth opening for business before 8 on a Sunday morning and WH Smith did not. Which is more likely to be in demand on a Sunday morning train journey: a lavish bouquet or a newspaper? I only pose the question.
I myself had a speedy and comfortable journey to Newcastle from King’s Cross, surrounded by quiet middle class types heading for the Edinburgh Festival, at a time when it was too early for any screaming kids to be up and about. I was much relieved when I received a text confirming that the LTCB had made it to New Street and had even managed to board the correct train when she got there.
I called at Morpeth to collect my dog at the precise moment when my aunt began carving her Sunday joint. This came as a genuine surprise to me, as she had told me that she was hosting her traditional Sunday meal for her extended family in the evening. The change of schedule meant that I found myself unexpectedly invited to sit down to a traditional lunch of roast lamb with all the trimmings, followed by a choice of two home-made fruit pies. What could be more agreeable? There was even a bone for the dog afterwards. Will I expose myself as a pathetic old sentimentalist if I say that it only required the company of the LTCB to make it perfect?
Saturday 16 August 2008
The day started as it clearly meant to go on, when a defective shower head led to me completely flooding the bathroom while attempting my morning ablutions. Then, because I had refused to allow the hotel receptionist to authorize a sum for “extras” on my credit card when checking in, I was compelled to stump up in advance before we were allowed into breakfast. This was a total rip-off for those like the LTCB who only wanted a high-carb Continental snack in preparation for their morning run, but something of a bargain for those prepared to pay the measly £2.50 supplement for access to the full English self-service counter. Particularly if they adopted the same determined approach as the American gentleman in the line in front of me, who appeared to be a member of the Village People (not the Red Indian), and who carefully constructed on his plate a towering pile of food which looked uncannily like the mountain modelled out of trash in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
We (the LTCB and I, not the man from the Village People, who almost certainly went back for seconds) then went out to the shops in Kensington High Street. Here I did something I had not done for more than 20 years, and long ago swore I would never do again on the grounds of both age and obesity. I bought a pair of blue jeans. Albeit only after I had bought a pair of black jeans to get my mind adjusted to the concept. I also acquired various other things which the LTCB thought would improve my image, including a new belt, polo shirt, cotton sweater, T-shirt and two jackets. Under cover of this spree, the LTCB treated herself to a new Little Black Dress. The shop manager spotted me hanging around outside the ladies’ changing rooms and naturally identified me as an elderly pervert who needed to be moved swiftly along; but luckily the LTCB emerged to request assistance in doing up a zip as I was explaining that I was just waiting for my girlfriend, lending a bit of credence to my implausible story. She needed my help to unzip the dress, too, but bought it in spite of this evident technical failing. I reflected that this at least seemed to augur well for the future of our relationship, as she will never be able to wear the thing if she dumps me.
Unless she finds another man who is capable of pulling a zip. Damn. I had not thought it through, yet again.
I had gone to some trouble to find the LTCB a suitable six mile running route on the roads around the hotel, using a website set up by masochists who enjoy doing that sort of thing. But she seemed very nervous about actually setting off on it, because of her notoriously poor sense of direction. I decided that I could not muster any convincing argument against that, so she went off to simulate a six mile run on the treadmill in the hotel’s health club instead. I meanwhile went for a nostalgic walk around the Kensington streets I remembered from my days living in Cromwell Road in the 1980s, looking for a surviving old-fashioned pub. I eventually found one with a beer garden, where I had a nice pint of Black Sheep and a glass full of Bombay mix (packets are so passé, darling, haven’t you heard?)
I returned to the hotel just as our room was being cleaned, shortly after which an inspector with a clipboard called to check that everything was in order. I drew his attention to the defective shower head and he promised to send someone up to sort it out. With impressive promptness, a man with a spanner turned up to fix it approximately ten seconds after the LTCB had returned from her gym session and removed all her clothes with a view to having a shower. It is the nearest I have ever been to participating in a classic porn film scenario, albeit probably only as a spectator. But the plot did not develop as convention demands; the LTCB swiftly and decently wrapped herself in a large towel and the man used his spanner to fix the shower then buggered off, enabling the LTCB to make full use of the en suite facilities without occasioning a further Biblical inundation.
We had a very late lunch – or a very early supper – in a Lebanese restaurant on Kensington Church Street, then headed to the Royal Albert Hall for this evening’s Prom. By some massive cultural oversight, I had only ever set foot in the Albert Hall once before, and that was for the briefest of visits many years ago, to apologize to my disgruntled hosts for the fact that I felt too ill to sit through that night’s Prom. So this was my first real exposure to the place and I must say that it will be absolutely lovely when it is finished, and they have equipped it with some decent bars and an adequate number of lavatories. Oh, and completely reconfigured it so that the acoustics are a bit less disappointing.
The Prom was a performance of Belshazzar, one of Handel’s flops. It would be fair to say that one did not come out of it humming any of the tunes, but it was perfectly good listening and the story of the evil Babylonian king and his defeat by the Persian hero Cyrus could hardly have been more appropriate for the LTCB. The chorus sounded absolutely magnificent and it is always a treat to see Sir Charles Mackerras, still waving his arms around to good effect at almost 82. It was also was interesting to discover that Scary Spice is now playing double bass in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Zig a zig ah, as they say.
After the show we walked with our kind hosts to a pub which felt like it was several miles away, but which they claimed was the nearest to the Albert Hall. Given that the only customers who were not holding Proms programmes were members of the orchestra or chorus, I guess they were probably telling the truth. It emerged in the course of our conversation that our hosts are getting married. To each other, which is handy given that they have just bought a house together. The announcement was dropped into the conversation so casually that I missed it and had to ask for the tape to be rewound so that I could hear it again. They both looked touchingly happy and, for the first time in years, I was able to greet an announcement of this sort with genuine, heartfelt pleasure, untainted by the smallest pang of jealousy. I have the LTCB to thank for that, as for much else. Not least the fact that wearing some clothes which actually fit me, for the first time in months, helps to convey the impression that I am continuing to lose a great deal of weight, when in fact I have done no such thing since the day I met her.
Friday 15 August 2008
I had a secret rendezvous outside Barclays Bank in Morpeth this morning. Not so secret now, I suppose. I just happened to be in the town placing my dog in the tender care of my aunt, who was taking him with her on an exciting (by dog standards) trip to Northallerton; while the IT specialist I have been attempting to get in touch with for the last few days happened to be heading to the bank to pay in his takings. He is either a phenomenally successful IT specialist, or he is running a penny arcade on the side. What surprised me was that, having arranged to meet me outside the bank at opening time, he felt the need when he turned up to get out his mobile phone and ring to check which of the other people in the queue was me. This was slightly troubling given that the other candidates were a scruffy old tramp with the arse hanging out of his trousers, who was smoking a dog end he had just retrieved from a litter bin; a white-haired fat bloke clutching a huge cloth bag bulging with small change from his own amusement complex; and a granny pushing a pram containing what appeared to be a baby, though I cannot exclude the possibility that it was a very young or exceptionally well disguised security man protecting her own fruit machine takings.
He didn’t look geeky enough to be an IT man, really, but I nevertheless handed over the hard drive from my computer, so that he could see what he could make of it. For some inescapable but unfathomable reason I felt obliged to effect the handover in a furtive and Gary Glitterish sort of way. Then I drove back home and set up on my desk the new Bose speakers to which I had treated myself in Newcastle yesterday, feeling that I had had enough of the old ones which required me to walk around to the other side of my desk every ten minutes or so and fiddle with the wires in the back of one of the speakers, always assuming that I wanted to continue listening to both channels simultaneously. Looking for something suitable to play as a test piece on my laptop, I happened upon a very fine CD set of Baroque music by Antonio Caldara, which someone recently kindly gave me. The only snag was that the box contained only the second of the two expected CDs. Through what Sherlock Holmes would have termed a three pipe process of logical deduction, I concluded that the missing disc could only be in the CD drive of my deceased desktop computer. Luckily indolence had prevented me from taking this to the municipal dump, sorry recycling centre, so I was able to access it in my garage. As it turned out, I could only retrieve the disc by forcing open the CD drive with a screwdriver, smashing the drawer off with my foot, then turning the computer upside down and shaking it. But this seemed like a wholly appropriate act of revenge for all the frustration that the machine had caused me over the years.
After I had listened to a few bars of Caldara, it was time to drive to Newcastle to catch a train to London for the weekend. I duly boarded the 14.05, which started from Newcastle on time and had completed all of about 800 yards of its journey to King’s Cross when it broke down. I was able to remain calm throughout this crisis by taking a close look at the alternative approach being played out in the seats across the aisle, where a rich and stupid man in a cream suit, accompanied by his young son, was soon approaching apoplexy. I concluded that he was stupid not simply because he was wearing a cream suit, but because he had been due to board the 14.00 fast train to London. This was running a few minutes late, so he had leapt aboard the 14.05 slow train instead. He had done so because he was in a frantic hurry, yet had thereby guaranteed a later arrival in London even if the slow train had not broken down. And he must have been rich because only those maniacs who actually splash out on full price first class tickets are allowed such flexibility in their choice of trains.
We eventually limped back into the station, and were invited to board the 14.56 train to London instead. This proved to have only two first class carriages, instead of the usual three, and the air conditioning was not working in one of them. I was lucky enough to secure a seat in the one that was not at the daytime temperature of the surface of Mercury. My journey was enlivened by occasional sightings of the increasingly bedraggled man in the cream suit, puffing his way through to the buffet car for further supplies of iced drinks.
Once in London I made my way to Kensington by tube, and checked into an allegedly four star hotel which proved to be distinguished from a Travelodge chiefly by the extreme loudness of the checked carpet, curtains and bedspread in my room. The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette joined me later in the evening and we went out for the least Indian meal I have ever eaten in an Indian restaurant. We began with cocktails, then worked our way through an inventive and delicious six course tasting menu. Luckily only one of us was rendered incapable by selecting the option of a complementary glass of wine with each course. I am sure by now that I don’t need to spell out for you which one of us that was.
Thursday 14 August 2008
The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette has ruined my dog. She has done this simply by living in a house without a garden. There is a tiny back yard, but it has sadly failed to meet the dog’s admittedly demanding minimum standards of spaciousness and ambience when selecting a place in which to relieve himself. So I have had to take him for several walks a day when I have been staying in Chester. Now that we have returned to Northumberland, he thinks that the same rules should apply here, too, as he made abundantly clear when I suggested that he might like to go out into the rain and raise his leg on something before I left for lunch today. At first he completely refused to get out of his bed in the conservatory, fixing me with what the LTCB calls his Paddington Bear stare. After much cajolery he did consent to take a few painfully slow steps outside, but was adamant that he was not going to oblige me any further, and continued to glare at me until I found his lead and took him out for a walk up the road. This unbudgeted delay left me with 45 minutes to complete a journey to a pub at the other end of the county, which my sat nav reckoned would take a full 32 minutes longer. I can usually shave a few minutes off such estimates, but today every elderly Rover 25 driver in the country had apparently decided that it was the ideal opportunity to go for a little footle down the A697, while the onset of truly torrential rain by the time I reached the Military Road meant that I was far too scared to try and pass the huge lorry bumbling along in front of me. I finally staggered into the pub so far behind schedule that my guest had been moved to leave a sarcastic message on my mobile enquiring whether I was waiting for him in the wrong boozer.
I had an excellent lunch with my retired pal, who told me of his future plans for exotic holidays, including a bizarre scheme to tour the well known scenic delights of Saudi Arabia in one of his classic cars, with a group of fellow Bentley owners. I asked how his wife was going to enjoy sitting in the back wearing a hijab throughout, which he seemed to think was one of my little jokes. I shall watch the news with interest to learn of the fate of all the old roués who apparently like to make these planet-destroying expeditions in the company of their “nieces”. As if his carbon footprint were not already large enough, my friend then treated me to a detailed account of his valiant, single-handed efforts on the parish council to organize some Christmas lights and associated festivities for his village. I duly made some predictably Scrooge-like remarks about the damage he was inflicting on the environment through this completely unnecessary waste of electricity.
By the time we left the monsoon had arrived in earnest, and I made very slow progress indeed along Hadrian’s Wall in the direction of Newcastle, frequently decelerating to crawl through spectacularly flooded stretches of road. Lorries coming in the opposite direction threw up walls of water to their side, like fast steam locomotives dipping into a water trough.
Finally parked in Eldon Square, I made my way to the computer department of the department store I still think of as Bainbridge’s, armed with printed instructions from my rather geeky friend in New Zealand about the Mac Book I simply must buy to replace my defunct desktop computer. Unfortunately the ghost of my mother was hovering over my shoulder as I inspected the model concerned, whispering that its white keyboard would show up the dirt something rotten. So I ended up forking out an extra £120 for one in black, which the shop assistant assured me was identical in every respect to the one I had been instructed to buy, apart from the fact that it had a larger memory and would not look quite so revolting when I decided to type a short e-mail after tending the garden or, more plausibly, reading a newspaper. Mind you, this same blonde assistant did take about 15 minutes to work out the correct price of the Microsoft for Mac software which her employers were offering at a 50% discount, so perhaps it was a bit rash of me to place any faith at all in her technical knowledge.
I drove home with my purchases, to find that the torrential downpours drowning the Tyne Valley had passed my bit of Northumberland by. The dog did his Paddington Bear routine until I took him for another walk, by which time I was too weary to take my new toy out of its box. I passed the evening instead trying to remember which bastard had borrowed my audio books of Timothy West reading Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, then failed to return them; and wondering why anyone in their right mind would conclude that Saudi Arabia was the ideal place to take a touring holiday. Then I remembered the gas guzzling nature of the cars concerned, and the country’s most famous export apart from Osama bin Laden.
As the LTCB remarks at least once a day when we are together: for an allegedly intelligent Bloke, I can sometimes be frighteningly slow on the uptake.
Wednesday 13 August 2008
Why do cats eat in the night? If we park that fascinating zoological query for a while, and just accept that cats do eat in the night, why would you place their food dishes adjacent to your bed, so that the sound of them slurping like a lot of superannuated Orientals at a soup-eating contest would be guaranteed to wake you up? Well, maybe not you personally so much as your elderly boyfriend, who is only a light sleeper at the best of times and has been suffering from chronic indigestion as a result of eating two large meals the previous day, the second one of which was preceded and followed by stressful experiences on the road.
When she had finished moaning about the long walk back to the car from the restaurant last night, the LTCB announced that she was going to take us home by a short cut she knew. Then she drove off in a direction which even a blind man who had just been made to revolve on the spot for half an hour as part of a cruel and unusual disorientating torture could have told her was completely the wrong way.
Eventually she pretended that she had done it deliberately because she wanted to show me a really interesting country pub. No wonder she likes my Border terrier so much. They have the same breed characteristic of never admitting to a mistake. In the days when we had proper winters, one of the highlights for me was always watching a Border terrier falling flat on its face on a patch of ice, in the sure and certain knowledge that it would rise to its feet and put on a dignified face with an expression which clearly conveyed “I meant to do that.”
Then she performed a U-turn, mercifully in a reasonably safe location after she had correctly interpreted my high-pitched scream as an attempt to veto her first bright idea of performing a three-point turn in the middle of a blind bend on a busy stretch of road.
Anyway, back to my questions. I have an unfair advantage here because I already know the answer to the second one, namely that the cats cannot be fed in their usual place downstairs because of the presence of the dog I have brought with me. Knowing that I would be one step ahead in this quiz afforded me some consolation when I was woken for perhaps the third time tonight at 5 a.m., as one of our feline chums tucked into a little something to keep its strength up for the important work of half-killing birds and spreading hairs around the furniture.
Still, at least it provided me with an excuse to take a long look at the sleeping LTCB, and remind myself why it is well worth putting up with really quite a lot of such incidental inconveniences. I drove home in the afternoon and returned to my old Bloke in the North existence, huddled by a log fire reading The Daily Telegraph. No wonder I am so much less miserable since I diversified into the Cheshire market.
Tuesday 12 August 2008
The electricity came back on in the early hours, when the employees of the local power company had finished their game of cards, settled up, enjoyed a nice cup of tea and then got round to replacing the metal coat hanger that serves to bridge the fuses in the nearest sub-station. The immediate result was that I was jerked roughly awake because we had not performed our usual nightly ritual of turning things off as we went to bed, and the room was consequently flooded with light. It has been a dream of mine since I was about 13 to be jerked roughly awake, but this was not exactly what I had in mind. Still, it could have been worse, I reflected as I staggered around turning things off and then fumbling my way to the bathroom. For example, we could have been woken by the fire brigade felling the front door with an axe, if the guttering candle we had left burning on top of the lavatory cistern had been only an inch or two closer to the net curtains flapping in the breeze nearby.
The highlight of my morning was receiving two requests from people who want to be my friends on Facebook. Ahhh. Though it would be better, on the whole, if they wanted to be friends with me in real life. The mystifying thing is that one of them is already just about the busiest person I know, notorious for his inability to respond to conventional e-mails. How, then, is he going to find time to send and receive messages through a more clunkingly inconvenient intermediary, not to mention coping with the relentless pressure to take likeness quizzes, send good karma and virtual gifts, and all the rest of the time-wasting nonsense?
Before you ask, I only joined the bloody thing because someone told me that it would be the best way to check out a date, in the days when I had such things.
She wasn’t on there. At least not under the false name she had given me.
It really was the most miserable of mornings, with the rain that has become the default setting of summer 2008 absolutely lashing down. So I decided to devote it to something worthless but dry, namely writing my blog. Surprisingly the rain gods packed it in around 10, evidently suffering from exhaustion, and I took the dog for a walk by the River Dee. I had long harboured the suspicion that the road called Meadows Lane might lead to the Meadows, and so it proved, opening up an exciting new circular route. The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, who has lived in the area for a decade, expressed total astonishment when I revealed this intelligence to her in the evening.
But before that there was lunch to consider. I had resolved to have only the lightest of snacks, as I had arranged to take the LTCB out to dinner, in a grovelling attempt to make up for my untimely departure on Saturday. I thought a swift lunchtime pint in the LTCB’s local might provide the answer, but the place proved to be shut. I am sure I have seen it open in the middle of the day before, but perhaps it only bothers to do so during term time, to meet the needs of the 14-year-olds from the nearby secondary school.
So I walked on towards the throbbing heart of Chester. The next pub I encountered was open and looked appealingly small, quiet and old-fashioned, but it had a sign outside proclaiming that it was “a friendly pub for friendly people”, which clearly ruled me out. So I wandered on to another pub which looked very appealing indeed, but advertised itself as a “a nice pub for nice people”. Obviously no go again. I evidently had no alternative but to continue to the place I have come to think of as The Curmudgeon’s Arms, where a perfect pint of Landlord and a packet of pork scratchings set me up nicely for a light snack: just a couple of feet of Cumberland sausage coiled around the edge of the plate, holding back a lake of thick onion gravy which was lapping the foot of a mountain of mashed potatoes, carrots and swede. I think the chef might well have been a geography teacher before turning to catering. In fact, he might well have been kicked out of the LTCB’s local school for dealing in drugs, because I am sure that he must have sneaked some soporific or other into my meal. At any rate, I spent the afternoon asleep on the sofa.
The LTCB returned from work and changed into what I thought was a Little Black Dress for her night out, though I was later informed that it was, in fact, a Little Black Skirt and Top. At any rate, she looked lovely, and I am not just saying that in a blatant attempt to be ingratiating. As she does not share my enthusiasm for getting trashed, it seemed only sensible to accept her kind offer to drive us to the riverside restaurant which had been her choice for the evening, though after half an hour or so on the road I did begin to wish that I had taken my own car and used the sat nav. Given that it would only have been about a 15 minute walk from her house if one were prepared to swim across the River Dee at the end of it. When we arrived, I made myself dangerously unpopular by suggesting that it might be better, on the whole, not to park on the double yellow lines outside; adding that, amazingly, double yellow lines did not cease to have legal force if one parked half on the pavement so that the car straddled the lines rather than having two wheels actually resting on them. My second astounding revelation of the day.
When we eventually made it into the restaurant, a cheerful bloke behind the bar announced with a grin that we were so late that he had given our table away. Luckily he added that he was only joking before I could make some pointedly acid comments about the place appearing to be more or less empty, or indeed execute my Plan B of grabbing his head and slamming it repeatedly into the bar before leaving. As things turned out, we had an excellent table next to huge plate glass windows which occupied a whole wall and offered splendid, sweeping views over the River Dee and Meadows; the changing river scene and the darkening sky were beautiful; the food was superb; the waitresses were nice; and the company was enchanting. What more could any Bloke ask of life?
Monday 11 August 2008
Is there any more lowering moment than hopping out of bed to answer a call of nature, looking forward to returning for a further refreshing kip, and discovering that it is 5.59 a.m. and the alarm clock is set for 6? That was how my day started.
After writing my newspaper column and taking the dog for a walk, I downloaded some photographs from my camera onto the computer, a chore which I had not performed for some time. I was much struck by the contrast between the LTCB’s radiantly happy expression at Glyndebourne last weekend, and the extremely stern face she was wearing when I snapped her by the river yesterday. Strangely enough, it was only this which really brought home to me what a total berk I have been over the last week or so.
She looked much happier when she returned from work this evening. But then she had been to work, and leaving it is calculated to cheer most people up, in my experience. She went for a run then cooked me a delicious supper before taking me out for a drink in a nearby pub with a couple of her friends. The embarrassing part of this for me was that one of said friends had been present shortly after I departed on Saturday and had been invited to answer the tricky question of “Why am I such a cock magnet?” I being that cock, and not in any good sense. Still, we got through the evening somehow. I had left the dog at home, even though I was told that the pub admitted them, as I did not think he would relish an evening in the company of a large and boisterous brown Labrador bitch. Nor did the bloke at the next table, who made it clear that he had a pathological fear of dogs and deeply resented her presence. If I had not been on my best behaviour I would have asked why the hell he had chosen to sit there, then, given that the dog was there first. But as it was I just smiled benignly and tried not to put my foot in it.
Just as the LTCB and I returned to her house from the pub every light in the neighbourhood went out. They stayed out for some time. Could the Russians have bombed the National Grid, or has the homemade meltdown of UK power supply started rather earlier than expected? We took the dog for a walk in the moonlight, listening to an impromptu symphony for burglar alarms that was actually rather more tuneful than most of the newly commissioned works I have heard lately, and used a couple of candles to light our way to bed. That was how my day ended.
Sunday 10 August 2008
Usually one does not realize that one has lost something beautiful and precious until after it has gone. That sounds curiously familiar, does it not?
Ironically, after shortening the life of the planet by several nanoseconds by hammering a gas-guzzling car all the way back from Cheshire to Northumberland, I could not sleep when I got back home, either. At first I struggled to ignore the sound of truly torrential rain battering down on my bedroom skylight. Then I kept waking up, troubled by a deep sense of loss. In the blackness of the early hours I heard a crow cawing loudly, maybe half a dozen times. I looked at my clock radio and noted that it was precisely 2.59 a.m. I suppose it was predictable enough that an internet search this morning should have revealed that, in traditional Chinese folklore, hearing a crow between 3 and 7 a.m. means that one is to receive gifts. The meaning of receiving the message a minute too early was not revealed, but I sensed that it portended nothing good.
I sat down in my conservatory, feeling tired and miserable, and wrote a comprehensive, point by point analysis of why it had been much the best idea for both the LTCB and myself for us to split up. Then I rang her up and begged forgiveness which, rather to my surprise, seemed to be on offer that day. So I loaded up the car under the by now completely disbelieving eye of the dog and drove us back to Cheshire again, more than half conscious that I might only have been allowed back so that the LTCB could administer the slap I so richly deserved yesterday. We spent the afternoon on a long walk by the River Dee, having the sort of conversation that is best avoided in any relationship and which, it was made very clear to me, we would never be having again.
I think I have learned my lesson. I hope so, at any rate. What I can say with confidence is that I have been on such good behaviour that I did not even nudge her to complain when the LTCB fell asleep and began making a wheezing noise which sounded oddly like the Tardis dematerializing. I just lay awake, grateful that she was still breathing in my company, faintly expecting the BBC Radiophonics Workshop to kick in with their musical contribution and feeling more grateful than I can ever recall feeling before for having been given an undeserved Second Chance.
Saturday 9 August 2008
I was in a thoroughly bad mood all day today, probably as a result of the lack of sleep that tends to result from monstrous over-eating; no wonder Henry VIII was such a total bastard. The LTCB did her utmost to humour me, even taking me to a pub run by a celebrated curmudgeon for a highly traditional lunch. The walls of the bar were covered in antique enamel advertising signs for cigarettes and pipe tobacco, and I idly wondered how long it would be before some jobsworth with a clipboard was despatched by the local council to point out that the advertising of tobacco products is now illegal. I thought we were in for a truly nostalgic moment when a bloke sitting on a bar stool carefully rolled his own cigarette, placed it in his mouth and began patting his pockets in search of a box of matches, but sadly he then walked outside to light it.
Yet even two pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, a packet of pork scratchings and a plate of liver and bacon failed to lift my mood, and I spiralled ever further downwards as we traipsed around the shops. By the time the LTCB had spent some time in a specialist triathlon shop (I had no idea that such things existed), trying out new running shoes on a treadmill, I was whingeing for home like a four-year-old. When two attempts to catch up on some much needed sleep at the LTCB’s house were defeated by various noises off, I made probably the worst decision of my life to date (and there has been some stiff competition, I can tell you) and decided to pack up all my stuff and drive the four hours back to Northumberland to get some kip there. The dog and the LTCB watched me loading the car with a shared look of disbelief, the dog’s being considerably exaggerated when I picked him up and lobbed him onto his bed on the back seat.
As I wrote in my diary the following morning: “Oh God, what a complete [expletive deleted] I can be at times.” Oh yes, I keep a diary. If you think this blog is dull, you should try taking a look at that.
Friday 8 August 2008
Usually one does not realize that one has lost something beautiful and precious until after it has gone. But this afternoon, as I was driving from my home to the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette’s by the scenic route, on one of the few days in “summer” 2008 when visibility has not been reduced close to zero by sheeting rain, I was acutely conscious that I might well be admiring the beautiful, rolling hills of Northumberland for one of the last times before they are covered in gigantic wind turbines. These are to be built on a scale which I suspect that most people still fail to grasp. Developers in my area seem to regard 450ft as the desirable norm. This is taller than a 40 storey skyscraper, or indeed any building yet constructed in the UK outside London. I felt almost tearful as I marvelled at the sheer loveliness of the views on the road across from Elsdon to Otterburn, then down the A68. When I reached the top of Hartside Pass beyond Alston, the suddenly opening vista of the Lake District and Solway Firth was truly stupendous. It might have been literally breathtaking if I had not been on my guard against passing out at the wheel on one of the following hairpin bends. I remembered once thinking that at least the National Parks would be safe from the latest generation of ruthless, money-grubbing iconoclasts, cashing in on the fashionable religion of “saving the planet”, and wrote something along those lines in a newspaper. It took no time at all for a reader to come up with a quote from John Prescott about how some lovely wind turbines were just what the Lake District needed, and would cheer the place up no end.
True, the wind turbines might only be a temporary “quick fix” until science comes up with a more ingenious and reliable way of meeting our energy “needs”. They could all be gone again within 30 years. But this provides curiously little consolation to those of us with a maximum life expectancy of, er, 30 years.
The journey was considerably shortened by two things. First, the time passed more quickly because I was listening to an ancient cassette set of Jeremy Irons reading the whole of Brideshead Revisited – or, at any rate, about half of it by the time I arrived. Secondly, I avoided several delays by following diversions around traffic jams helpfully suggested by my sat nav. One of these took me across the Cumbrian county boundary by a back road, on which the next local authority had erected a sign of truly staggering banality with the slogan, “Lancashire: a place where everyone matters”. I greatly admired the work of the local wit who had amended it to read “a place where everyone natters”. I resolved to lobby for the new unitary authority in Northumberland to grace its expensive new signage with the words “the county where everyone counts”. It’s hard to see how anyone could alter that in a way which might cause offence.
This evening the LTCB took me out to a supper party. We were horribly late because we lost track of time sitting on her sofa when we should have been setting off, then got comprehensively lost because she knew for a fact that you had to pass the local pub on your left when approaching her friends’ house, and we kept finding it on our right. This mystery was finally solved with the aid of a phone call which established that the pub we had just passed was not, in fact, her friends’ local. She claimed in her defence that she normally made this particular journey in the dark; which for her, unlike every other human being I have ever met, apparently makes navigation easier.
To look on the bright side, being horribly late was actually a pretty good result when one considers what could have happened quite early on in the journey, when I queried whether Friday Night is Music Night on Radio 2 was really the most appropriate listening for a trendy young woman in a Mini, and wondered audibly what was playing in the Proms on Radio 3 instead. I looked up and all but screamed when I realized that she was entirely focused on re-tuning the radio and was paying no attention to the road, which explained why we were just about to veer off it onto a grass verge. We made it back onto the carriageway with a well-executed violent swerve, and I realized that Graeme Danby singing some popular classics on Radio 2 was just what I had wanted to listen to all along.
At least her friends expected us to be late, on the strength of long experience. They also realized that I would be in need of a stiff drink when I arrived, and had several bottles waiting opened in readiness. In addition, they had barbecued enough fine food for a smallish regiment, which I tucked into with the gusto of a man for whom this meal might very well prove to be his last.
Thursday 7 August 2008
Anyone who passed my house this morning would have heard the distinctive sound of heavy, rusty iron bolts being slammed into place to secure the stable, a couple of days after the horse wisely sugared off to somewhere much more interesting and attractive. Or, to put it another way, I spent a couple of hours creating a comprehensive back-up of all my computer files on the new, external hard drive I bought after lunch in Newcastle yesterday. This included all my surviving Outlook Express e-mail messages. It has been chilling to discover, over the last few days, how much useful information I had left sitting around in e-mails that I had failed to save anywhere outside my original and now vanished inbox. Any reader who is similarly careless would do well to consult the simple instructions at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/270670, and to follow them without delay. That was a public service announcement.
Another thing I can strongly recommend from direct personal experience is a pork pie from the Rothbury Home Bakery, which is not a sponsor of Bloke in the North. Not yet, at any rate, though I am open to offers. I bought one when I went to pick up my defunct desktop from the computer shop. Still warm from the oven (the pie, that is, not the Hewlett Packard), and simply served with rocket, a sliced tomato and some pickled onions, it made the most delicious lunch I have enjoyed for some time.
This afternoon I drove to Gosforth for a haircut, which may seem like a pretty ridiculous and environmentally unfriendly thing to do when Alnwick is little more than a quarter of the distance away, and contains a wholly implausible number of gents’ hairdressers, almost outnumbering the charity shops. But, in my defence, the bloke in Gosforth does do a cracking job and I previously had my hair cut in St James’s in London, a round trip of some 650 miles. So I am doing my bit for the future of the planet, much as if I had traded down from a holiday in the Caribbean to one in the Balearic Islands.
I headed back north up the A1 with the familiar feeling that all that was needed to make the day perfect was a pint of English ale and a packet of pork scratchings. Perhaps, on reflection, I am becoming a bit fixated on pig-based products. I considered a number of possible pubs where I might fulfil this dream, then concluded that I might as well just have the beer at home and pick up some pork scratchings from Sainsbury’s in Alnwick on the way. A fine theory, falling down because this particular branch proved not to sell the bloody things. I should have risen above my prejudice and gone to Morrison’s. As it was, I decided to buy some pistachio nuts as a substitute, until I reeled with exaggerated horror, like an extra in a Hammer film, on reading the calorie count on the bag. I ended up with prawn crackers. It was not the same.
Moral: do not shilly-shally like I did. Support your local boozer. You’ll be sorry when it’s gone. You know it makes sense.
Wednesday 6 August 2008
This morning I went to the local computer shop with my defunct desktop box, less in the hope of having it repaired than of being able to extricate the information I had failed to back up; which mercifully, to the best of my recollection, consisted only of Outlook Express e-mail messages, most no doubt of staggering banality. I wandered into the middle of an apparently interminable conversation involving Windows Defender and Google Earth, which was so mind-bogglingly dull that, for the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that someone would start talking about football instead. Eventually I managed to explain what I was after. I then made the mistake of mentioning that I intended to give in to years of peer pressure and buy a Mac as my replacement computer. The lightly bearded proprietor of the shop laughed heartily, and his heavily bearded customer joined in, molto fortissimo. When I asked what was so funny about that, the proprietor explained in a pitying sort of way that if I had a problem with my Mac and tried to discuss it in the pub, 99 out of 100 people would turn away. Whereas discussing the uselessness of Microsoft would fill many a happy evening.
I did not like to point out that I had never yet felt that computer problems might be an appropriate or entertaining topic for conversation in the boozer. Nor was I ever likely to do so. So I kept shtoom and bought a USB hub (a) because I had needed one for ages, and (b) because it showed my willingness to support small, local businesses. The worrying feature of the transaction was that, when I tried to pay for it, I found I could not remember the PIN of the credit card I use every day. Clearly this must go down on the record as the day when I first realized that I had Alzheimer’s.
I drove to Newcastle and bought lunch for two fellow columnists from the local paper, and our editor. The 25-stone Friday columnist luckily claimed to be on a diet, as he was scheduled to attend a service of blessing for his son’s recent marriage to an African, at which the dress code was Ghanaian. He did have a suitable costume, but unfortunately it was “skin tight – I look like a pork and leek sausage”. It did not take much of an effort of imagination to picture that. The Monday columnist was full of today’s press launch of his new dating show, and kept having to excuse himself to take phone calls from vital industry publications. The editor, meanwhile, had been making an impressive series of media appearances to defend Northern Rock, arguing – incontrovertibly, I would have thought – that no-one had died. I felt very much outclassed. And, after I had nipped out to the gents and listened to a phone message reporting that no data could be retrieved from the knackered hard drive of my computer, I felt somewhat depressed into the bargain.
Tuesday 5 August 2008
I am moved to begin this entry by recording that I enjoyed seven hours of completely uninterrupted sleep last night. I can’t remember when that last happened. And the bed wasn’t unusually damp when I woke up, either.
One of the Third World features of living in the middle of nowhere in Northumberland is the periodic failure of the water supply, usually because someone has ploughed up a pipe. It went off in the middle of the evening yesterday, but was restored in time for a late bath this morning. There was a substantial residue of red soil in the bottom of the tub when I climbed out of it, and I felt pretty sure that it had come through the tap rather than off me, so the benefit of the exercise was probably more psychological than practical; I was almost certainly dirtier than before I got into the bath, but I felt refreshed.
Then, continuing the theme of failure, my desktop computer went bang when I turned it on this morning. It proved to have blown a fuse, so I changed that and it went bang again, in a final and decisive sort of way. Luckily I have a substitute laptop on which to go on churning out drivel.
Today I had been invited to lunch by the greatest fan of my newspaper column, an 85-year-old lady who sent a spirited letter of protest to the editor when my column disappeared for a time two years ago (though in point of fact it was my fault, not his, and she should really have been writing to me). We ate roast pheasant in her large, comfortable flat with its sweeping views across Newcastle Town Moor, and she even produced the leaflet from her game dealer in Scotland to demonstrate that we were not consuming road kill, as if I would ever have suspected such a thing. My fan revealed that she was planning to “make things easier” for her offspring by selling off some of her valuables, and only the presence of her daughter and my aunt prevented me from offering her a Scottish pound note in exchange for her table silver.
My aunt had told me on the way down that she had taken a firm and irreversible decision to stop driving next year, when she reaches her 85th birthday. She argued, convincingly, that buses were free and she was only a short walk from the railway station, and that she could pay for a lot of taxis with the money she would save in petrol, insurance and road tax. I asked whether anyone had tried to persuade her to change her mind, and she said not. Funny, that. Still, her driving seems perfectly acceptable when one has just drunk a can of beer and half a bottle of red wine, and feels no wish to drive oneself.
The LTCB rang me at the unfashionably late hour of 11, having had her evening plans thrown into some disarray by a minor mishap. As she was entering her house after work this evening, the door handle had come off in her hand. Being a lateral thinker, she worked out that she could easily close the door when she went out again, by gripping it by the letter box. So she did that, leaving the door handle lying indoors on her sofa. It was only when she returned from her evening riding lesson that she worked out that she was unable to open the door without a handle to turn the latch mechanism. Luckily the landlord of her local pub lent her a pair of pliers, which was jolly sporting of him given that she has never been a customer. I must go and have a few pints there when I am next in Chester, just to show my appreciation; at any rate, that is the convenient excuse that I shall be using for my night on the ale.
The LTCB who, as her soubriquet partially suggests, is a dusky Persian beauty, foolishly volunteered the information that a previous boyfriend had said that, if he had not known better, he would have sworn that she had blonde roots. I shall not forget that line in a hurry.