Monday, 30 June 2008

Back on the Street at last

Weightless, though not in the astronaut sense; 7.0 units of alcohol yesterday (a little light lunch in a St James’s brasserie after I had dropped the LTCB at Euston); 1,315; Weatherfield.

I made my way north on the 10.00 “Flying Scotsman” from King’s Cross, tucked into what I hoped was going to be a quiet single seat at the end of a carriage. From Peterborough, which we must have reached at about 10.45, I found myself sitting across the gangway from a plump blonde woman, her screaming infant and said infant’s deranged-looking grandmother, who was probably only a little older than I am. By carefully placing their state-of-the-art baby buggy in a place where it kept the door from the carriage into the vestibule open, they managed to create a racket in stereo: squalling baby on one channel, and rushing train, slamming lavatory door and chattering staff on the other. Then they proceeded to tuck into the most enormous buffet lunch I have ever seen, so vast that it could hardly be accommodated on the table between them, accompanied by what looked suspiciously like a magnum of pink champagne. By Darlington the grandmother, who was facing me, was giggling uncontrollably, and I very much doubt whether her daughter would have been considered fit to be in charge of a baby by any self-respecting social services department. Indeed, if they had been working class I expect someone would have been alerted to intercept the train and drag them off it in handcuffs. Being middle class and travelling first clearly still carries some privileges, even in the second year of Gordon Brown’s Age of Change.

Or maybe the police and social services swooped when they arrived in Edinburgh, where the self-indulgent business of enjoying yourself in this or indeed any other way has always been deeply frowned upon.

I returned home after an excellent lunch at my aunt’s and a walk with her and the dog. This evening I felt “chillaxed” (© LTCB 2008) enough to watch Coronation Street for the first time in weeks, and remained tuned in to an edition of Police, Camera, Action. Mainly because I could not resist its laughable attempts to maintain an air of cliff-hanger suspense about the question “which is Britain’s most dangerous road?” when the answer had been printed in every newspaper this morning as a result of the press release about the programme which ITV had presumably issued. Now that’s what I call good PR in action.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Bearded Git almost made her a Curmudgeon

Weight still a mystery (though I think it’s a safe bet that the pie did it); 11.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,316; Olympia.

Sleep was much enhanced by the LTCB charming the club’s receptionist into supplying us with an oscillating fan that actually worked, whereas I’d just have kept moaning about the non-functioning one that we were originally supplied with. This got our day off to a much better start, and it improved still further when the usual Oriental lady knocked on the door with a pot of tea at 8, bringing with her a copy of The Sunday Telegraph. This led with yet more bad news for Gordon Brown: the resignation of Wendy Alexander and of a Scottish MP on the grounds of “stress”, forcing a by-election. I wondered how much more of this sort of thing anyone could be expected to take, and said that if I were Gordon Brown I’d be sorely tempted to take the easy way out with a bottle of Scotch and a pearl-handled revolver. The LTCB looked shocked, and said (quite rightly) that this was an absolutely dreadful thing to propose for a man with young children, adding that there were many things in life more important than political success. I had no difficulty agreeing with this proposition, but wondered whether Gordon Brown would necessarily see it the same way, given that he has spent his entire adult life plotting and manoeuvring to secure the job at which he has now proved himself to be comprehensively useless. The LTCB noted that I had spent my whole adult life wanting to be a successful humorist, yet I still seemed to be alive despite my lack of tangible success on any front – novelist, columnist or blogger. So I changed the subject.

We made it to breakfast in the Coffee Room today, and found ourselves surrounded by older couples who could most kindly be described as grotesque. There was one bloke of about my age eating on his own, and he grinned at me as if to say “Well done, my son” for landing my attractive companion, with perhaps a supplementary undertone of “How much?” Luckily club etiquette and decorum precluded him from reinforcing his message by making a rude gesture with his forearm, which would have lowered the tone considerably.

After breakfast we made our way by tube to High Street Kensington, where we took a long and leisurely walk westwards, and I passed the time looking for long vanished landmarks from the time of my own residence in Earl’s Court, in the mid-1980s. We eventually arrived at a parade of three shops where speaking Persian was a distinct advantage in doing business; a skill which the LTCB possesses, but I don’t. For although she is a British citizen born in Manchester, my girlfriend’s roots lie somewhat further east, in a country which I am sure she would prefer me not to name; but it is in the Axis of Evil and remains on George W. Bush’s “to do” list. She bought a selection of pastries, fruit and pistachio nuts, all of which were utterly delicious, though I had been warned that I would not like the pastries as they were far too sweet for Western tastes. Perhaps; but not necessarily for Geordie ones.

Like the gentleman that I am pretending to be for her benefit, I escorted the LTCB to Euston and saw her safely onto the 14.05 to Liverpool, which was already full of people who had intended to travel on earlier, cancelled trains to Manchester and Glasgow. To ensure that there was room for them, Virgin Trains had helpfully cancelled all the seat reservations on the 14.05 and made it into a “first come, first served” free-for-all. Luckily, we were early enough for the LTCB to slip into one of the few remaining seats, though she admitted that, as she lugged her suitcase through the packed carriages, the words “Oh for f***’s sake!” were dangerously close to her lips. And what could be worse for a beautiful, amusing and still young woman than to find herself turning into me?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Like Vettriano crossed with Hockney

I had rather a leaden sensation in my stomach this morning, but have no idea what this might have done to my weight; 6.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,317; Westphalia.

Inevitably, I had the most appalling indigestion when I woke up, which I did annoyingly early. I shared all this information with the LTCB, along with the fact that she is very beautiful, at around 5.30 a.m. She took it surprisingly well, all things considered.

After a distinct absence of breakfast, we went to Euston to meet a couple of the LTCB’s friends who were visiting London for the day. Despite heavy hints, the Dutch male half of the partnership remained as resolute in standing on the left hand side of tube escalators as the LTCB is about saying “train station”. I tried to pretend that I was not with them.

We decided to go to the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition, which I expected to be a nightmare on the basis that the privileged private views I used to attend when I was a Friend of the RA were always packed to the gunwales. But on a summer Saturday when the place was open to hoi polloi there were no queues at all at the ticket desks, no intrusive security measures and absolutely no crowds inside, making it a highly civilized and enjoyable experience. The highlight for me came in the last room with a group of paintings by Ken Howard, including one of a couple of my friends in their flat in Brighton, where the LTCB and I had stayed four weeks ago. A man in a flamboyant shirt, with a matching loud voice, approached this painting just as we arrived, and announced to the room that it was “like Vettriano crossed with Hockney”. This at least gave me something provocative to text to my friend, along with the LTCB’s soothing comment that she had never met a living work of art before.

After this we finally made it to the Lebanese restaurant which had been my first thought for supper last night, and which proved well worth waiting for.

This evening the LTCB and I went to the show which had been the real object of our visit to London: the ENO’s production of Bernstein’s Candide. This was up against a real challenge in that the one production I had ever seen – by Scottish Opera 20 years ago – still stuck firmly in my mind as a definitive rendering of the piece. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, with Alex Jennings not quite effacing my memories of Nickolas Grace in the central role of Voltaire / Pangloss, but creating some positive new ones of his own, while the apparently 12-year-old Anna Christy was as striking as Cunegonde as she had been earlier in the season as Lucia di Lammermoor. The updating of the libretto was not as irksome as I had expected, though translating Westphalia into 1950s America (“West Failure”) made a bit of a nonsense of the subsequent journey to the New World. The only bit that jarred with me was having mask-wearing singers purporting to be Blair, Bush, Chirac, Berlusconi and Putin on rafts after the shipwreck towards the end.

Afterwards we walked across to a fine old fish restaurant which the LTCB (who has excellent taste in most things – apart from men, obviously) has designated as her favourite in London, and enjoyed our second superb meal of the day. I do hope she realizes that there won’t be many more where these came from, unless I can devise some way of generating a bit of income from my writing in the weeks ahead.

Friday, 27 June 2008

The gangster's triumphal progress

13st 10lb, 2.8 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,318; Cyprus (UK Sovereign Base Areas).

Ever since I wrote a newspaper column about the sad deterioration of the East Coast Main Line rail service under the auspices of National Express, my own experience has been absolutely faultless. Today was no exception, with the 7.19 from Morpeth departing bang on time and reaching King’s Cross a few minutes ahead of schedule. I then wasted almost ten hours pottering around in London as I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette on her train from the North West at 8.26 this evening. Which, despite the best efforts of Sir Richard Branson’s train operating company, also arrived on time.

She had e-mailed me in the meantime to announce that she had just enjoyed “a big curry” for lunch, which irked me a bit since it did not seem to be the action of a person who was hoping to spend any significant part of the evening engaged in osculation. But I took it commendably calmly, and brought the subject up no more than a dozen times between her arrival and bedtime (or some 110 times in the course of the whole weekend, in her recollection).

We travelled from Euston to my club in Pall Mall by taxi, rather against the wishes of the elderly driver, who was not at all sure that we would make it. He solemnly warned us that our journey was likely to be considerably delayed by the knock-on effects of the Nelson Mandela 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park, and when we arrived in record time, after speeding through a series of unusually quiet streets, he warned us to “watch ourselves” if we went out later, because of the huge crowds that would be unleashed when it all finished. I wondered whether he thought that the concert was being attended solely by “freedom fighters” armed with spears and AK-47s.

Despite the fact that the old boy was patently talking total bollocks, he had succeeded in turning me against my original idea of taking the LTCB to a Lebanese restaurant which lay in the Hyde Park direction. I therefore invoked Plan B and led her eastwards instead, to an apparently Greek restaurant that had long intrigued me. I say “apparently” Greek, because the fascia certainly conveys the impression that that is what it is, but the menu in fact turned out to be a mixture of British and Greek dishes, with the former predominating.

The first thing that struck me was the waitresses, clearly chosen by someone with a discerning eye for beauty. They were counterbalanced by an elderly “character” waiter, who was keen to crack on towards closing time, and made this clear by snatching the LTCB’s plate away while she was still eating her starter. The Greek dishes we chose were all right, though I’m not sure they would have won particularly high marks for authenticity, while the white wine from Santorini proved perfectly drinkable, at any rate by an old soak like myself.

We had been seated in a quiet corner next to an equally quiet, older couple, who seemed to be some sort of academic and his wife. He turned out to be a medic, which seemed appropriate given that he was colossally overweight. They did not talk much, as they were tightly focused on shovelling vast quantities of food into their mouths, but towards the end of their meal a menacing old bloke turned up, plonked himself down in a spare chair at their table and engaged them in conversation. He had close-cropped grey hair around a large bald patch, a blue suit and what looked like a regimental tie, and he introduced himself as the owner of the restaurant, and the similarly dressed young man he had in tow as his son and heir. His accent was much more Sarf London than Cyclades, but I gathered that he had spent some time in Cyprus before acquiring the restaurant. A real family business, at least, in these days of chains.

The owner and his son then made a triumphal, proprietorial progress around the place, attaching themselves to each table in turn and dispensing drinks on the house. This seemed to more than offset any resentment at the intrusion into diners’ privacy. I would have accepted with alacrity myself, but for some reason they by-passed us, either because first time visitors did not qualify for this privilege or because I was yet again transmitting my curmudgeonly death ray, which does so much to deter social contact. The LTCB kindly paid the bill and I walked back to my club with the insouciant air of a man who has eaten two whole chilli peppers to trump his partner’s lunchtime curry. But when I tried to kiss her goodnight, I found that she had lapsed into the sort of deep unconsciousness normally associated with induced comas after the most severe of bodily traumas. Nothing to do with me, guv. Honest.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Narrowing horizons, fading light

13st 10lb again, surprisingly; perhaps 11.5 units of alcohol yesterday, on the conservative assumption that each of the gins I was served at The Castle contained a triple measure; 1,318; Obscurity.

I woke early today, with the consciousness that I had a terrible hangover. It persisted all morning, and I felt able to do little more constructive than reading accumulated back numbers of the local newspaper, including that guide to the “500 Most Influential People in the North East”. True, it does include such titans as all the obscure “chief executives” of every about-to-be-abolished district council, but it also includes every columnist in the region’s leading daily paper apart from me and Willy Poole. And, when I finally summoned up the energy to walk down to The Castle, pick up my car and collect today’s newspaper, I found that it included a poignant final column from the aforementioned Poole, whose services have clearly been dispensed with after 11 years because he is just not influential enough.

There must be a lesson there, if only I felt well enough to work it out.

I had lunch in a fine pub with another PR man who has read my columns (do it while you still can, I say) and concluded that I might be the ideal person to collaborate with him in a new business drive, thereby enabling me to fund the higher living costs associated with having a girlfriend and occasionally leaving home to meet her. He might have got a more positive reception if only I had felt a little better, though he was partly to blame for claiming that a pint of Bombardier is the ideal thing for a hangover. It isn’t. Seven or eight might be ideal for causing one, but one certainly doesn’t effect a cure. In fact, it makes things slightly worse.

At least we ate well, and we had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion on PR, the press and women. Mainly women, if truth be told, but he did helpfully advise me that I should be taking vigorous action against one national newspaper. As revealed here on 6 June, and repeated in one of my columns published yesterday, they had Photoshopped a picture of one of my few remaining clients to make it look as though as he was brandishing a huge wad of cash in the style of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney. If I let them get away with this, my professionally minded friend argued, what was there to stop them Photoshopping a picture to make it look as though he was wearing a grubby raincoat, clutching a bag of boiled sweets and beckoning at children in a playground?

True. But then on the other hand I can’t be arsed to do anything about it and the suggested child molester picture would (a) give me a laugh, and (b) allow my client to sue the paper for millions. Which is, of course, what there is to stop them doing it. I wish I’d thought to say that at the time, but I was too hungover.

Maybe I’m no longer cut out for PR or drinking.

Which sadly doesn’t leave an awful lot I can do, if truth be told. Apart from writing an obscure and unread blog.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Madness takes a serious hold

13st 10lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,319 days; The Hospital and The Castle.

The optimistic belief that I will live until 4 February 2012 has been built on sand rather than rock; and that sand has been steadily eroded by my growing confidence that I have throat cancer. My GP clearly believes that I am a troublesome hypochondriac. But then I am acquainted with the cases of two people whose fatal brain tumours were similarly dismissed, their symptoms having been brilliantly diagnosed as the results of stress and conjunctivitis respectively. So I asked my GP to refer me to a consultant privately, so that I could not be accused of placing additional burdens on the overstretched NHS, but merely of being a queue-jumping neurotic.

This afternoon I drove to the private hospital in Newcastle for my appointment. I had carefully completed two long forms before I set off, and had them in my hand as I walked towards the car. Yet when I arrived I could not find them anywhere. I seriously wondered whether I should not ask for a transfer from an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to one majoring on Alzheimers.

Foolishly, perhaps, I had expected the private hospital to be a cut above the NHS ones I visited when my parents were slowly shuffling off this mortal coil. Not so. The whole place was a building site, and I could find neither an entrance nor anything resembling a reception desk. When I called in at a “toilet”, it looked sorely in need of a good clean and contained nothing on which I could dry my hands apart from a packet of lavatory paper which had been torn open and strewn around the sink. When I did eventually locate a receptionist, she told me that I was in completely the wrong place, as Mr Q operated from the Something-or-Other building on the other side of the car park. I duly made my way across there, where I was unable to address the receptionist because she was fully occupied with being on the receiving end of a rant from a bald headed Mr Angry, who was extremely upset that she could not find his details on the computer system. Then he added a supplementary rant about the NHS Freeman Hospital, where “They spy on you, you know? They spy on you all the time.” I tried to remain sympathetic about this poor fellow, who was clearly attending for a consultation about his paranoia.

Eventually he moved on and I asked if I was in the right place to see Mr Q. Either my voice has almost gone under the ravages of cancer, or the receptionist was stone deaf. But I finally made myself understood and she and said, “Oh yes. In fact that WAS Mr Q!”


Some young lad proved to be in front of me in the queue, but he was only in there a couple of minutes and I was barely longer. Luckily Mr Q had calmed down a bit since his chat with the receptionist, and he even managed a grimace that could have been intended as a reassuring smile as I explained the background to my presence. As I did so, he glanced over the letter of referral from my GP, in which I thought I could make out the words “hypochondriac” and “hysteric”. He then took a cursory glance at my throat before peering up my nose to ascertain which nostril would afford the easier passage for his fibre optic probe. The left one won this beauty contest, so he sprayed it with local anaesthetic (which tasted like polystyrene cement used to smell, in the far distant days when I assembled Airfix kits) and inserted the tube. I did not think it had gone as far as my throat, but he asked me to say “Eeh” a couple of times (my Auntie would have rebelled at this point as she insists that people who say “Eeh” are frightfully common, and insists on the superior propriety of “Ooh”). Then he whipped it out again (the probe, that is) and pronounced that my larynx and pharynx were perfectly healthy. There was perhaps some evidence of gastric reflux, and my sense of an obstruction or constriction might be the result of a calcification of the larynx which is quite normal in people of my age. But there was definitely nothing sinister or serious wrong with me.


I wondered whether to go on seeking second opinions until someone agreed that I was terminally ill, but decided on balance to accept that my sentence of death had been lifted, and texted the LTCB from the car park to that effect. Then I drove to an electrical retailer at Kingston Park and treated myself to a machine that produces instant boiling water for hot drinks. My friends in Lewes had one, and it had greatly impressed me. Added to which, it should reduce my electricity bill and help to Save The Planet by preventing the inevitable wastage of boiling more than one actually needs in a kettle. The bloke on the till displayed a fantastic talent for reverse salesmanship by blurting out “They’re really good these, we’ve got one in the staff room. Not quite hot enough for tea, but they’re great for lots of other things.” Luckily for him I had spent four days making tea with an identical device, so I knew that he was talking bollocks. But at moments like these, it is remarkably easy to see why the retail division of UK plc might be struggling ever so slightly.

I drove home, unwrapped my new toy and made a delicious and really HOT mug of tea, then read the newspapers in the conservatory for an hour before driving to dinner at The Castle. I had been rather surprised to be invited, since I am not noted as an enthusiast for dinner or indeed for social events of any description. Added to which, my hosts had not spoken to me for a year, ever since I had one of my “Oh for f***’s sake!” outbursts when the female half of the partnership called on me one afternoon last summer, just as I was settling down for a nap in my conservatory.

However, I soon worked out that I must have been invited precisely because of my well-known anti-social tendencies, in the hope that I might deploy them on one of the other guests. This bespectacled, white haired lady with a booming voice and prominent chest proved to be a world class fantasist in the Walter Mitty mould, putting her indisputably into the top drawer of loonies even in a county renowned for its abundant supply of such characters. She claimed to be an actress, and to have achieved perhaps her greatest success in Carousel, singing “Climb every mountain” (of which she kindly gave us a sample). When I pointed out the logical inconsistency here, she revised her claim to having played the abbess in The Sound of Music AND the woman who sings “You’ll never walk alone” in Carousel. She also claimed to have won a role understudying Rula Lenska, which would be worth seeing since she must be at least a foot and a half shorter than the former Mrs Waterman, creating an interesting challenge for the costume department.

Conversation then turned to her absent husband, who my hosts had referred to as “an international man of mystery”. His “actress” wife claimed that he was involved in oil exploration, but when I playfully suggested that this might be a cover for something altogether more heroic, she confirmed that he had indeed fought oilfield fires alongside Red Adair, and had the T-shirt and the baseball cap to prove it. How I wish I had thought to ask whether he had ever been an astronaut. We then moved onto new heights of madness, in which she claimed that her husband was really a peer, but chose not to use the title, though he and his wife naturally still received very special treatment when they visited the Northumberland castle that had once been his ancestral home.

I had been furnished with a huge gin and tonic on arrival. To my surprise, when I finished this another enormous tumbler of the stuff was supplied without any enquiry being made as to whether I actually wanted one. I felt that it would have been rude not to drink it. Fine wines also flowed freely with the excellent dinner. With the benefit of hindsight, I cannot help feeling that perhaps a determined effort was being made to loosen my tongue so that I would say something to skewer this evident charlatan. I must have proved a sad disappointment. I even managed to avoid eye contact with their other guest throughout the evening, so that we did not collapse in a giggling heap on the floor in response to yet another outrageous claim. But we made up for this later when the other guest kindly gave me a lift home, and we checked my copies of Who’s Who and Burke’s Peerage, just in case there might have been the tiniest grain of truth in those stories about the modest but heroic hereditary peer. Well, what do you think?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The end of the world is even more nigh

13st 10lb (which is far better than I expected or deserved); zero alcohol yesterday; 1,320 days left; Zacpeten.

It doesn’t greatly bother me, since I am counting down to my own date with destiny on 4 February 2012, but I read in this morning’s paper that my apocalyptically minded friend in New Zealand has got his dates wrong. The good news is that the world is not going to end on 23 December 2012 after all. The slightly less good news is that will all be over on 21 December of the same year, when the 5,126 year calendar of the South American Maya people comes to an end and clicks over to zero. Apparently thousands of Dutch people (why Dutch?) are buying life rafts or underground bunkers and laying in emergency rations for the coming end of the world, suggesting that they have not quite grasped the precise nature of Armageddon.

Now I know that a possible error of two days is a mere bagatelle in the life of a 5,000-odd year calendar, let alone the 4.5 billion year history of Earth (or 6,000 year “history”, for Creationists). However, I imagine that it will be pretty crucial if you are planning to spend your last 48 hours enjoying an orgy of sensual indulgences. Imagine just getting the last of the vast spread out of the fridge, the cornucopia artistically positioned on the edge of the giant bed, the fine wines all chilled or gently warmed to the optimum temperatures, the top of the Vaseline pot loosened … and then the bloody trumpets sound, two days ahead of your personal schedule. It will be no good asking the angels to call again in a couple of days when you’ve finished stuffing yourself and the partner(s) of your choice.

Best to ensure that you have your dates right, then. Or just have the orgy now, to be on the safe side. If you spend a bit of cash on it, you may help to stave off the recession that is otherwise certain to follow the much publicized “credit crunch”. I’m open to offers to say a few appropriate words to kick off your pre-Armageddon blow-out, by the way, and can be contacted on

As for me, I experienced an epiphany in Sainsbury’s car park in Alnwick this morning, and I suspect that not many people will ever be able to write that. I was taken by surprise by this rare and powerful frisson of something that I eventually identified as happiness. It seems to be based on my decision not to worry about what might be about to go wrong, with the LTCB or anything else, but just to relax and enjoy the present. Which might admittedly be even easier if one were somewhere more scenic than Sainsbury’s car park.

Thanks to this selfish shopping expedition, I was 40 minutes behind schedule when I reached the kennels to collect my dog. I jokingly asked the miserable looking bloke in charge whether he had told the dog when to expect me, and he replied with apparent seriousness that they never did; ever since some people turned up 24 hours late to collect their retriever, and it destroyed its bed in disgust on the last night, after having behaved impeccably for the previous fortnight. Do I believe this?

Owing to various changes of plan occasioned by my life-transforming meeting the LTCB, I was able to cancel my next booking at the kennels. The miserable looking bloke then asked if I still wanted the booking after that, from 24 July to 3 August. I said that this must be a mistake, as I was never going to be away between those dates, but he was adamant that I had made the reservation. So I cancelled that, too, to the accompaniment of a stern warning about it being during the school holidays, when the kennels turn away many more dogs than they can accommodate. On reflection, if you have a surname vaguely similar to mine and are confidently looking forward to placing your dog in kennels between 24 July – 3 August, I suggest you get on the phone without delay and confirm your booking.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Wrong choices at every turn

Still in a state of blissful ignorance about my weight; 13.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,321; Lithuania and Smithfield.

This was a quiet day after my feast of culture and high living in East Sussex, though it could so easily have been anything but. Luckily for me, though, the Lithuanian builders who had largely demolished my friends’ Lewes kitchen on Friday (deliberately, I should add, and at the owners’ request) were late turning up, so I was able to enjoy a peaceful breakfast in the sunshine on the terrace. Then I was driven to the station before they set about the remaining load bearing wall with sledgehammers. A shame in some ways, as I had been quite looking forward to seeing how my friends’ daughter’s bed looked in the middle of the kitchen, after it had come crashing through the floor; and also, of course, to learning the Lithuanian for “f***!”

Now I suppose I shall never know. I did hear the English for it, after some idiot pulled the wrong lever (or these days, perhaps, flicked the wrong switch) for the points at Hayward’s Heath, so that my train to Victoria was on the wrong track for linking up with the other train that was meant to join it there. As the driver moodily clumped back and forth through all eight coaches to reverse the train back through a tunnel and try again, I could not help hoping that the incompetent signaller was not contemplating a career move into air traffic control.

There were three other people in my first class compartment, making it much busier than usual, but at least we had enough critical mass and combined English froideur to deter the crowd of young foreigners who were packed shoulder to shoulder in the vestibule from Gatwick Airport from coming inside to join us.

I had arranged to continue my journey to Northumberland on an evening train from London, fondly imagining that someone might like to have lunch with me to make the intervening hours fly by. But, in fact, absolutely no-one did. So I scrounged a space to work from my old firm in Smithfield and sat pointlessly tapping out this blog.

I caught the 17.30 to Morpeth and toyed with the idea of dinner in the restaurant car, then rejected it on the grounds of both cost and my waistline. So on the first run through of the refreshment trolley before Peterborough, I purchased a sandwich instead: a triple pack of egg and cress; smoked ham, cheese and pickle; and roast chicken with stuffing. All of which tasted much the same, and not particularly nice. Rather more surprising was the information printed on the packaging, which included three red traffic lights for fat, salt and “salt fat”, whatever that is, and a total calorie count of an amazing 729. Plus another 263 for the accompanying packet of cheese and onion crisps, to which I had decided I could treat myself as I was “only” having a sandwich for dinner. Memo to self for the future: if in the slightest doubt, always go for the three course dinner with wine option, as it will be so much better for your diet.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

From thought showers to a penalty shoot-out

Definitely not weightless in practice, but sadly lacking in corroborative detail; 13.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,322; Mind the Steppes.

I woke early this morning and lay in bed reading yesterday’s newspaper, in which my eye was caught by a cracking piece about Tunbridge Wells council banning the use of the word “brainstorming” in case it offended epileptics or the mentally ill. The approved term for their staff to use is now apparently “thought showers”, which sounds disturbingly like a Teutonic perversion to me. Predictably, there was a quote from someone at the National Epilepsy Association saying that the council’s worries were total nonsense. And a similar one from a representative of SANE, who sadly missed the opportunity to begin his quote “No-one in their right mind could possibly …”

My taxi this afternoon turned up five minutes ahead of schedule, and my guests were standing on the step of their hotel, waiting to be picked up. In fact, if they’d been wearing bits they would have been champing at them. So no cause for complaint there. It was a better afternoon than forecast – sunny, but windy – and the only crises were a mild colour clash between the outfits of my two female guests, and the proven tendency of glasses of champagne to blow over if set down even for a second. I would illustrate the colour clash point with a telling photograph, but for the fact that I look an even bigger berk than usual in the ones taken with my own camera. And, despite repeated polite reminders, my guest Lady D has conspicuously failed to send me the photos taken on hers.

Incidentally, the privacy-obsessed Less Tall Cheshire Brunette did not finally break cover in yesterday’s picture. She is not with me this weekend, having f***ed off on holiday to Majorca with a bunch of girlfriends instead. (At least, that’s who she told me she was going with.) One of the last things she did before leaving work on Thursday was to send me a touching e-mail reading “very excited but trying to remain calm & professional - must remember others are still working & refrain from running out whooping & cheering at 4 o'clock!” Since then she has contented herself with texting photos of sun-kissed golden sands, and accounts of meals in Michelin-starred restaurants. I am beginning to feel that I may have devoted enough of my life to opera, and should now seek to broaden my horizons.

I am ashamed to say that I fell asleep for a bit during the first act of Eugene Onegin, but then if I’d been honest I’d have reported exactly the same thing on the last two days. The production did not engage me in the slightest, being not exactly monochrome but in the very softest of pastels, and minimalist in the extreme – with much swishing of huge net curtains, which took the place of the dull, old-fashioned sets demanded by the literally minded. The singers sounded fine, but were all curiously lacking in passion. I reluctantly gave rather more of my attention to an especially disgusting old man seated on the other side of my lady guest (as opposed to my Lady guest) who coughed for England, setting off sympathetic echoes around the house. Then he started sniffing, making a noise like an elephant extracting its foot from a particularly viscous swamp. How I wished for an Andrew Davis in the pit to stop the performance and boot him out.

Lady D, who knows a thing or two about design, made it clear at the first interval that the staging was in fact absolutely marvellous, as we went for a sprint around the lake (in lieu of the Traditional Romantic Walk, which we had failed to make earlier). And it did improve for me in the second act, when the presence of some characters in military uniform at Tatyana’s name-day ball finally introduced a bit of colour to the proceedings, and some spirited dancing brought the stage to life. Then they held the fatal duel off-stage, and I reverted to thinking that it was all a bit perverse. I was also convinced that I had not seen the production before, but subsequent examination of the programme established that it has been in the repertory since 1994 and I have certainly seen it at least once, then clearly expunged it from my memory on the grounds that I did not enjoy it.

We had a good dinner, in which at least we were all content with the things we had ordered, and Sir D told me a cracking story which he strictly enjoined me not to repeat, never mind publish in a blog. So that’s right out, then.

When we came out at the end of the performance there was no taxi for ages, but I refused to panic and we were eventually conveyed back to Lewes by the man who had brought us, after the promised “sturdy lass in a people carrier” failed to show up. A shame, as I would very much like to have seen how a “sturdy lass” by East Sussex standards measured up against the world class bloaters one sees waddling around the streets of Newcastle, strewing pie wrappers in their wake.

When I got back to my friends’ house, I found them watching the Euro 2008 match between Spain and Italy. I decided to support Spain on the grounds that at least they have a monarchy, and was pleased when they won on the inevitable penalty shoot-out. Odd that, as my support is normally enough to jinx any individual or team in any field of human endeavour whatsoever.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The least influential person in the North East

No idea of my weight, but at least the old dinner jacket does not feel any tighter; 7.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,323; Loxford.

I don’t seem to have a lot of luck with taxis. Last night I was on the receiving end of a mild bollocking because the man who had turned up to collect me from Glyndebourne, absolutely bang on time, was kept hanging around twiddling his thumbs for a full five minutes. This was mainly because I hadn’t been warned to look out for an enormous people carrier, and was eagerly scanning the incoming vehicles for the same sort of modest saloon car that had brought me.

Today I was in trouble because my guests were not standing at the front door of the hotel when we called to pick them up. I wasted a bit of time trying to get a ditsy receptionist to ring the room to let them know we were waiting, but it proved to be beyond her, so I called them on my mobile instead. I relayed the reply back to the taxi driver: “He says that they will be a couple of minutes as they are right at the top of the hotel and have to get down from there”. Then we both looked at the hotel which, so far as we could see, comprised all of two storeys. Then we looked at each other and my taxi driver sighed and radioed a colleague to see if he could pick up the old bloke who was waiting for her outside Waitrose with his weekly shop. Clearly not relying entirely on the State pension, then.

We were both more than a little surprised when a beautifully turned-out young lady turned up first, reporting that “the king is still preening”. This conjured up a vision of him ripping off yet another bow tie that he had failed to tie perfectly, and hurling it onto a growing pile of rejects in the style of Beau Brummell. But shortly afterwards he arrived, looking immaculate, and we set off for pink champagne, canapés and the traditional Romantic Walk Round The Lake, with some of us protesting that the grass was a bit on the damp side for our high heels.

Toffs at play; though only one of these people is officially Influential

I am pretty sure that I came to see the classic Peter Hall production of Albert Herring in its opening year, 1985, and if my laziness did not trump even my anal hoarding tendency and my obsession with accuracy, I would go up into the attic and riffle through my old programmes to check. I have certainly seen it several times since, in a long series of revivals, and it is still very fine, even if the fresh-faced young lads I originally saw playing Albert and Sid have now graduated to the silly old fool character parts of the vicar and the mayor. I particularly cherish the ideal opportunity it provides for fat, old-style sopranos to take to the stage without having gastric band surgery or embarrassing themselves (and, more importantly, their audience) by cramming themselves into unsuitable costumes.

The weather was even more shocking than last night, so I had done well with my suggestion of dining in the restaurant. It was merely unfortunate that none of us seemed to have ended up with something we actually wanted to eat, so that much of the meal was spent looking wistfully across the table or playing “pass the plate”. At least one member of the party should benefit in the long term from the following learning experience: when ordering dinner some days in advance, it is always a good idea to remember what you have requested, so that you don’t then make the mistake of ordering precisely the same thing at lunchtime.

Towards the end of the meal, my male guest leaned back in his chair and asked whether I had been in the North East yesterday. I said that I had not, as I had been at Glyndebourne.

“In that case, you won’t have seen The Journal’s “500 Most Influential People in the North East.

“No. Are you in it?”

“Yes.” I swear that he lit a virtual cigar at this point, drew on it heavily, then waved it in the air to reinforce his next point. “I have it on very good authority, old boy, that you came Number 501.”

Ha bloody ha. Still, they won’t be laughing next year when I produce my rival guide to the “1,000 Least Influential People in the North East”, in which I fully intend to beat off [sic] a strong challenge from the tramps of the Heaton Park Al Fresco Self-Abuse Unit to secure the coveted number one feature slot.

I returned to my friends’ house in Lewes to find my 25-year-old godson sitting on the sofa watching the news on TV. He had shocked me this afternoon by revealing how little he earned as a graduate teacher of science in a secondary school; a job which apparently requires him to spend a fair chunk of his weekends sitting at a laptop computer, writing reports. There was an item on the news revealing that slobs in Dundee are being bribed with £50 a month to give up smoking, so I helpfully suggested that it might be worth his while to take up the habit and move up there in order to make a claim. He took it surprisingly well. At any rate, he did not hit me.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Monumental thighs and a prize-winning ass

The club where I stayed last night has one of those old fashioned weighing machines outside the library. The sort that take the form of a leather chair counterbalanced by chunky brass weights. However, I thought it would raise eyebrows if I plonked myself on it naked, as I normally do with the bathroom scales at home each morning, so we’ll have to leave the daily weight record blank. Probably just as well as I seem to have got through 14.0 units of alcohol yesterday. There are 1,324 days to go, and if it’s Friday it must be the South Downs.

I caught the 12.47 train from Victoria to Lewes, having bought a first class ticket in the hope of securing a table on which I could write, space for my suitcase and a bit of peace and quiet. The compartment at the very front of the train to which I made the effort of walking proved less than satisfactory on two levels. First, because it had no door segregating it from the common herd in cattle class. And, secondly and more significantly, because the other table in it was already occupied by a red-headed youth of 19 or so, with a bum fluff beard, who was noisily consuming a foul smelling McDonald’s meal while his filthy trainers rested provocatively on the seats opposite. How I itched to point out that this was a first class seating area, and looked forward to the ticket collector slinging him out. Imagine my surprise when an inspector finally passed by and the lad whipped out not the expected kitchen knife but a bona fide first class season ticket. Presumably either borrowed from his dad, or purchased with the proceeds of his business. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on appearances.

On the other hand, sometimes you can. I met someone at Glyndebourne this evening who I thought was a prize berk on first encounter, and still did so when we parted at the end of the evening. He had one of those voices which are so overpoweringly posh that you wish that someone could provide surtitling into English. It reminded me powerfully of the time I went to visit a client which theoretically had its headquarters in Leeds, but whose directors all based themselves at another office in Liverpool. On my first visit there I asked my favourite question: “”Why?” And received the less than helpful answer, “Isn’t it obvious? Wall skycers!” Some time elapsed before I worked out that the last short sentence meant “We are all Scousers.”

Having said that, all of said Scousers were men of the utmost charm, and I had so many good laughs with them over lunch at their fine old gentlemen’s club that I even joined it myself. As a country member, giving them the opportunity to crack that old “Of course we remember” joke on the very rare occasions when I go back.

Tonight’s specimen had no such redeeming features. He kicked off by making a tortured, rather high pitched noise which I finally interpreted as, “Oh, I say, we’re Geordies too!” Only his family had got lucky with coal mines and lead smelters and the like, donchaknow, and a brother and various cousins were now scattered around on landed estates throughout the county. Did I know them? No. But then you must know so-and-so of such-and-such? No. He clearly began to doubt that I came from Northumberland at all and asked me to repeat my surname, which I did, spelling it out for his benefit. I added that we were also a very old Northumbrian family but at the opposite end of the social spectrum, comprising generations of agricultural labourers. He guffawed as though this was the funniest joke he had ever heard, and said that he was sure that could not possibly be true. So in other words the whole concept of social mobility was clearly completely alien to him. I finally began to understand why Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the like had such a penchant for eliminating people of his sort.

Things deteriorated further when he volunteered the opinion that Newcastle had improved out of all recognition – “it was SUCH a dump 20 years ago” – a point on which I disagreed most profoundly. He then repeated that tired old lie about how warm and friendly everyone is in the North East. Completely and utterly untrue, in my experience, and impossible to believe of anyone making the tortured noise that passed for speech in his case. Frankly I’d have thought he’d be lucky to start a conversation in a Newcastle pub and make it out of the door alive. I said something reasonably polite along those lines but he just continued to assert that Geordies were the nicest people in the world, “not like the South East where everyone sneers at you”. Well, perhaps with good reason, chum.

On the plus side, everyone else I encountered in the course of the evening was very nice indeed. And my hosts had had the presence of mind to turn up incredibly early and bag a picnic table on the upper terrace of the opera house, which is a pretty handy place to be when you were planning to eat al fresco and the weather has other ideas. The food was utterly delicious, the wine was excellent and, as for the opera, well, it was remarkably similar to the performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea on which I reported on 1 June. With the difference that it was viewed from the entirely different perspective of the very front of the stalls. This proximity had the perhaps beneficial effect of making me less admiring of Poppea’s physique than I have been up to now. I became aware of a certain monumentality in the thigh department of which I had previously been blissfully unconscious. No doubt it derives from all the dancing with which she so often enlivens her performances, or from other strenuous activity of a physical nature. On the other hand, I found myself becoming less sniffy about her voice than I have been in the past, which can only be a good thing as the voice was surely always likely to age rather better than the thighs in any case. And it’s just as well I’m warming to it, since the fact that its owner is now the official other half of Glyndebourne’s presiding Christie doubtless means that I shall be offered many opportunities to hear more of it in the years ahead.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Friends and how to recognize them

13st 12lb (Yippee! Lost five pounds yesterday despite the bacon double cheeseburger I had for lunch at Scotch Corner services, though I suppose it might have more to do with reverting to my usual bathroom scales); zero alcohol; 1,325 days left; Covent Garden.

My journey on the 09.00 from Newcastle to London was marred only by a remarkably loud and determined bearded cougher who boarded the train at Darlington and took up position on the opposite side of the carriage. He was clearly in advanced training for the phlegm clearance gold medal at the forthcoming Olympics, though this struck me as a bit of a forlorn hope given the strength of the native opposition in China. I was disturbed not just by the volume, which far exceeded that of the music playing over my laptop’s headphones, but by the memory of sitting opposite a similar champion cougher a few years ago, and ending up spending several days in bed with a bad dose of whatever he had got. I scouted around the train for an alternative seat and was just weighing up whether I could face the pain of relocating my huge suitcase when he and his female companion unexpectedly gathered up their papers and got off at York. They were replaced by two young women, one a dark haired girl of such outstanding beauty that it was a real struggle not simply to stare at her open-mouthed all the way to King’s Cross. So life isn’t all bad, really.

This evening I took a friend who looks very well, but is in fact very ill, to see Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden. Would it be better to be very well and look very ill? Almost certainly, on any number of levels. We met a former colleague of mine who revealed at the interval that he had dipped his toe back in the water of the restaurant where he practically used to live, but concluded that it really has “gone a bit naff” and was now a celebrity-free zone, though he did admit that the service was excellent and that the staff’s memory of his quirky tastes had been most impressive.

Having gone on a bit about the “much classier” places where he now felt “more at home”, he repeated an earlier assertion that he was nevertheless going to join the private club being opened above his old haunt, albeit only for one year initially in case it turned out to be “just Essex upstairs.”

This goaded me into asking him whether he was absolutely sure that it was going to be as exclusive as he had been led to believe.

He looked at me in genuine surprise, then gave a rather convincing impression of a goldfish. Eventually he spluttered “They haven’t invited you to join, have they?”

“Yes,” I said. “In fact, I HAVE joined.”

“Then they must be REALLY desperate! The whole point about the place was that it was supposed to be for friends, by invitation only, not some sort of mailing list operation.”

Lovely. I am so glad that this man is my friend, and not my enemy. Though how would I tell? He did cheer up a bit when I told him that I had paid a joining fee, which was apparently waived for very special invitees such as himself.

The good thing is that I can write about him with total impunity, as at his firm’s cocktail party on 3 June I participated in a three-way conversation with him and the greatest fan of this blog (at the time). My fan said how much pleasure he got out of it reading it, and assumed that my ex-colleague did the same, to which he replied, “No, I NEVER read it.”

“Really. Why’s that?”

“Because I have got a LIFE.”

It has to be said that my greatest fan sent me a sad text 48 hours later reporting that the bank which employed him had converted him into a synergy. There may be an important lesson here for anyone else who is accessing this site several times a day during office hours. Following the confiscation of his BlackBerry, my ex-fan has reverted to more traditional means of communication and sent me a greetings card the other day in which he said that he had been cured of his addiction now that he had to read this rubbish in his own time. So at least his redundancy was not completely pointless, then.

As for the opera, the set for the first act was wonderful, as was the music in the second, which I enjoyed much more in any case as I did not have one of the world’s tallest men sitting bang in front of me, totally obstructing my view. And the fat lady finally sang. Deborah Voigt, famously barred from playing Ariadne in the original performances of this production on the grounds of her obesity, had since lost a staggering 135lb following surgery, or so the press reported. Even so, l still would not want to get between her and a branch of Greggs when a tray of hot, fresh pies has just come out of the oven. And I don’t think any male in the audience would have climbed over Gillian Keith, the skiinny little Canadian blonde who simply exuded sex appeal in the role of Zerbinetta, in order to get closer to the star of the show.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Gaining a foot to lose a pound

14st 3lb (I found the missing foot from the scales yesterday); an estimated 9.0 units of alcohol; 1,326; M62.

Another day, another bit of spot-on analysis from the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette: “You’re a strange mixture of old codger and juvenile, aren’t you?” she concluded early this morning. I can’t deny it, though in my defence I imagine that much the same could be said of almost any man over the age of about 30.

I delivered on my promise, for once, and tackled the mountain of washing up generated by last night’s dinner party before driving home from Chester in heavy rain that persisted virtually all the way to Scotch Corner. After there things improved considerably and I was able to take the dog for a walk in pleasant sunshine at Beacon Hill, near Longhorsley, before delivering him to the kennels for a few days. I had brought my aunt along with me so as to spread the guilt around a bit, and we were greeted by a woman who asked for the dog’s name, then said, “Oh yes, and it’s Mr and Mrs …?”

I suppose she might have meant that in the sense of son and mother, rather than husband and wife.

Though I doubt it.

Given that my aunt is precisely 30 years older than I am, this did not put me in the sunniest of moods for the rest of the day.

The bad weather caught up with me by the time I got home and devoted myself to unpacking after my trip to Chester, and packing for a completely different trip which starts tomorrow. Sometimes I think that it would be nice just to spend a few days at home, but then I wouldn’t get a lot of world class opera here. And I probably will at Glyndebourne. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A bit like Five Boys chocolate

I may have lost or gained a pound since yesterday but cannot say for sure because the LTCB’s bathroom scales have lost a whole foot, thereby rendering them inoperative. I had 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday; have 1,327 days of life left; and have been mainly (not to say exclusively) in Chester.

Another day of house husbandry followed much the same pattern as yesterday, only without the moderately industrious bit writing a newspaper column, and with turkey rather than ham for my lunchtime sandwich. I noted on this afternoon’s walk around the Meadows that many other dogs had been much less careful about training their owners than mine has.

Determined to create a better impression than I did yesterday, I made a point of going out in a timely fashion and buying the few things I had been asked to procure for a dinner party this evening, before someone else happened along and offered to do it for me. By the time that the LTCB burst in noisily with the rest of the shopping, I was absolutely starving and demonstrating an infuriating lack of enthusiasm for hanging around until 8.30 to eat supper. I also failed to show an appropriate level of interest in the proffered briefing on her guests, reasoning that I would be able to ask them anything I wanted to know myself when they turned up. I suppose, on reflection, that I would have been a bit miffed in my active PR days if a client had adopted a similarly cavalier attitude to my meticulously prepared briefing notes on a journalist before I introduced them over lunch.

So I grumpily manoeuvred a hoover around, as instructed, while the LTCB conjured up another delicious meal, majoring on baked trout. The procurement of the principal ingredient had proved an unexpected challenge as she had had to get it past a supermarket checkout operative with a pathological fear of fish. Yes, even dead fish safely enclosed in plastic. There is, as my late mother used to remark, nowt so queer as folks.

The LTCB’s guests, when they turned up, proved to be perfectly charming and the sort of sound people who bring a bottle of wine with them when they come to supper. In fact they were sound on many levels, agreeing with me on the inadmissibility of using the term “train station” in England, one of the few points on which I have been in profound disagreement with the LTCB since we met. One of the party was a recruitment consultant by profession, and she duly bombarded me with questions designed to expose any lies in my CV, but I think I got away with it. Another was a farmer with whom I proved to share a prejudice against imported fruit and vegetables, and a liking for alcoholic drink. Quelle surprise. By the time the party broke up I had had the most cracking evening, allowing the LTCB to make another one of her astute observations about my habit of grumpily anticipating that I am going to have a rotten time at events which I then thoroughly enjoy. She’s not wrong, you know. But then, on the evidence of the last couple of months, she very rarely is. Except on the crucial question of what to call those big sheds with platforms and railway tracks.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Being driven by Stevie Wonder

14st 4lb according to the LTCB’s bathroom scales, whose accuracy I definitely dispute; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,328; The Dee and The Wirral.

So this is what it would be like to be a house husband. The little woman zips off to work in her car at 8.30, after an exiguous cereal breakfast, and I am left alone to keep the peace between one dog (mine) and two cats (hers), do the washing up and write my newspaper column. Apart from raising a feeble cheer for the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, I mainly want to explore the question of David Davis: nutter or man of principle. My dilemma is that I have been tending to come down on the “nutter” side of the fence, and it seems a shame for a Tory to say so in print when there are so many columnists of other persuasions who will be able to express the sentiment more eloquently and with considerably greater self-satisfaction.

It took me until 12.30 to produce something that I found just about tolerable, though it remains to be seen whether anyone else will. After this I felt able to reward myself by making a sandwich with the ham the LTCB had placed in the fridge for that very purpose. Then I took the dog for an agreeable walk through the meadows by the River Dee. He devoted this time to training me how to pick up dog poo, a skill which I have never felt the need to master since I live in the middle of that gigantic animal lavatory known as the countryside.

The Dee's attempt to achieve parity with the Mississippi

Having been set one specific task to perform all day, I was naturally embarrassed when the LTCB’s sister returned home early and tackled the washing up seconds before I had meticulously scheduled my own arrival at the kitchen sink. At least I had the decency to confess my failure when the LTCB herself returned from work, or more specifically from the gym, and congratulated me on having done such a sterling job.

After a healthy salad for supper, offset in my case by a couple of decidedly unhealthy stiff vodkas, we set off in the LTCB’s car to visit one of her friends in The Wirral. I was glad of those drinks, as the journey proved more than a little stressful. It was that time of day when the sun is very low in the sky and for much of the time my driver clearly could not see where she was going. I remarked that it was a bit like being driven by Stevie Wonder, though with a somewhat inferior soundtrack to take one’s mind off the terror. I had to keep murmuring “left hand down a bit” in the style of Leslie Phillips in his classic 1960s radio role as the navigating officer of HMS Troutbridge in The Navy Lark. Another reference, I reflected, that would sadly mean nothing whatsoever to my young companion.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

The great Welsh fish shortage

14st 1lb again; 2.0 units of alcohol; 1,329; north Wales look you isn’t it?

The reason that I had been stocking up with fuel was to ensure that I had the option of driving either car to Chester this morning. I always like to keep my options open, unlike my mind or flies.

Both cars have a similar range, and I might have dithered for a while about which to take if I did not have the awful warning of Gordon Brown before me to illustrate the dangers of indecisiveness. So I purposefully selected the one that is heavier on fuel (a) because it is so comfortable (it has been likened to driving a DFS sofa) and (b) because it has one of those handy satellite navigation systems which flash a warning in the event of some idiot crashing their car and blocking the motorway. Not that this feature has ever proved a blind bit of use up to now, since it always seems to suggest complicated diversions around catastrophes which were cleared up hours if not days ago by crack teams of blokes wearing long brown coats and equipped with state-of-the-art brooms and buckets of sawdust.

I arrived in Chester bang on time at noon, to find the Less Tall Brunette from those parts taking a refreshing shower as part of her programme of recuperation from a ball, which had kept her up until 4.30 in the morning. A ball to which a spare ticket for me was mysteriously unavailable. At least, that was the story to which she had adhered until she accidentally blurted out that some other people were coming along at short notice. Then she admitted that she had not made much of an effort on the ticket front as she did not think that I would like it. A very astute analysis, as usual, since I think I can safely say that I do not like anything calculated to keep me out of my bed until 4.30 a.m. The last thing that did so was an agreed takeover bid, specifically waiting for the conclusion of one of those all-night meetings on which City lawyers all insist to show how unbelievably macho they are. On the whole, I’d rather be at a ball than twiddling my thumbs in the office waiting for the final approval of a press release, but it’s a surprisingly close-run thing.

I drove the LTCB and her brother out into the badlands of North Wales to a more than half decent pub, where a double celebration lunch had been arranged to mark (a) Father’s Day, and (b) the LTCB’s sister’s 30th birthday. Since I am not permitted to name the LTCB in these pages, logic dictates that I am not going to be allowed to name her sister either. The acronym that springs to mind is ELTCB, with the “E” standing for “Even”. She also apparently has the gift of eternal youth, and is still being regularly challenged to produce ID demonstrating that she is over 18 when she goes to buy booze or fags. Many people would consider signing away their soul to be able to do this, though naturally the beneficiary of this flattering confusion just finds it a total pain in the arse.

The LTCB’s whole family proved to be as charming as she is, though I wished on the whole that her father would make more of an effort to look older than I am. Perhaps he could think about putting flour in his hair or something. Maybe developing a stoop?

The Welsh clearly have hearty appetites, as they brought us starters of such generosity that any normal English person would simply have gone for a nice lie-down afterwards, rather than hanging around to take on yet more calories in a main course. At least there was a suitably long interlude to enable us to rebuild our appetites before the plates groaning with Sunday roasts appeared. Except in front of the LTCB, who had chosen an appropriately boomerang-shaped Australian fish called a barramundi. Clearly they don’t do fish in Wales. Just sheep. Which none of us had the requisite sense of local loyalty to order except the LTCB’s father, who also got landed with the bill. Which seemed to me to undermine the whole concept of inviting him out for a Father’s Day treat.

When we left at 3.30, people were still arriving to claim their booked tables for a late lunch. Food served all day, now there’s a concept you don’t encounter in Northumberland. There’s no demand for it, I’m sure.

This evening I enjoyed a surreal encounter with a spectacularly barking local councillor, who was kitted out in a bush hat, eye-wateringly tight and brief grey shorts, and a matching shirt that was gaping open to reveal a mass of grey chest hair and a medallion. When he had gone I commented on his attire and was assured that this was his more modest get-up, as he normally wore shorts that were much more like hot pants (though not necessarily all year round, I assume). I then asked how the hell such an eccentric had ever got elected to anything, and received the classic reply that “He’s really very good on the doorstep, because he doesn’t stay long.” I thought about it and concluded that even I might be moved to vote for him provided he promised to go away and stay there until further notice. Though the worrying corollary is that, if this idea catches on, Gordon Brown’s chances of re-election may prove to be nothing like as bleak as the polls currently suggest.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The puzzlingly elusive fat Chinaman

14st 1lb for f***’s sake, which can only be down to that Chinese takeaway last night; so how come one so rarely sees an obese Chinese? 6.5 units of alcohol; 1,330 days left; Panic Stations.

I actually did some work this morning; it came as quite a shock to the system. A Sunday journalist rang me with a negative story about one of my clients, which I duly checked out for him. The normal form is to say “no comment” to everything, adding an “off the record” hint that the story is correct or mistaken. But in this instance I was able to go back with not only a categorical on the record denial of the bad news, but also a striking quote about how swimmingly well everything was going. Unfortunately he elected not to use any of this, as it did not fit in with the bad news story that he was determined to write. Still, at least I tried.

I drove my other car to Alnwick this afternoon to do a little strategic shopping, and joined an even longer queue than yesterday’s at the Co-op garage to fill it up with petrol. These panic buyers are quite incorrigible. Then I returned home and devoted myself to tedious tasks in the house and garden in anticipation of being away for a week from tomorrow. So at least the place will be nice and tidy if one of those low-flying RAF jets crashes into it. And that sort of thing is important to me, as it was to my mother when she enjoined me to wear clean underpants each day in case I got run over.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Not bad for Friday the thirteenth, really

13st 11lb; 6.5 units of alcohol; 1,331; Alnwick and China.

When I was in London yesterday afternoon, I popped into PC World to buy a £4.99 pair of headphones for my laptop, and found myself making the considerably more expensive impulse purchase of a new wireless router. It took about five minutes to set up this morning and it immediately worked perfectly, greatly enhancing my domestic amenities and flexibility of working. In fact, getting me back to where I was a year ago, before my previous wireless router mysteriously stopped functioning and I made the disastrous mistake of ordering a BT Home Hub which has never worked at all. I should have known better than to purchase any product endorsed on TV by a man who spells his first name “Kris”. According to BT’s ever-helpful customer services staff in India, it doesn’t work because I live too far from the telephone exchange, but then that would mean that it was never going to work in the first place, so why the hell did they sell it to me? The argument is also hard to square with the fact one of their own engineers told me a while ago that there is a bloke living in the farm cottages up the road, 500 yards further from the exchange, whose Home Hub works perfectly.

No, don’t get me started. It’s bad for my blood pressure.

Anyway, I reckoned that was an unexpectedly positive start to Friday the 13th. I had decided to tempt fate by taking my convertible into Alnwick for its annual service and MOT, but even that passed off without expensive incident. Meanwhile I filled the time sitting in my conservatory reading the newspapers and weighing up the important question of the day: David Davis, nutter or man of principle?

My aunt kindly turned up in the afternoon to run me back into Alnwick to pick up my car, but before that we took the dog for a walk in perfect, not-too-hot sunshine. After collecting the car I took the dog to the vet’s for his annual vaccination, which he enjoyed greatly (he is a VERY odd dog). Then I joined the longish queue at the Co-op garage to fill up my car with petrol. Naturally I tutted a bit about all the other people who were panic buying in an irresponsible sort of way because of the tanker drivers’ strike, while I was motivated entirely by prudence.

My locally based ex-fiancée and her husband turned up this evening bearing a Chinese takeaway, which we ate in my garden room before we slumped in front of the sitting room fire to watch a couple of recorded episodes of Have I Got News For You. My ex was very keen that I see last Friday’s, even though she had already watched it, as there was a line of Paul Merton’s which she felt would be ideal for me to use when I meet the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette’s parents on Sunday. It proved to be: “I’m on the sex offenders’ register. Could you pass the butter?”

It’s an even tougher call than deciding about David Davis, but on mature reflection I think I’ll pass on that one.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Where have all the photo booths gone?

Weight unknown, but alcohol consumption known all too well: 8.5 units yesterday lunchtime, and a further 9.0 units in the evening. You can do the maths yourself. I wonder whether this blog may yet attain immortality as a sort of Awful Warning? I suppose I will know that I have finally tipped over the edge when I am too pissed to keep a tally. Still, I have 1,332 days left, theoretically; and I spent the best part of my day opposite The Mousetrap, though sadly without a sign saying “Golf Sale” on one side and “The Policeman Did It” on the other.

Today’s highlights included trying to find a photo booth so that I could obtain the passport photo demanded by a club I am hoping to join, but all the booths I remembered at the tube stations near my former London office proved to have been removed. Another important advance in the War Against Terror, perhaps, or just a fundamental shift in the UK photographic market place? I haven’t a bloody clue. Fortunately I chanced upon a branch of Snappy Snaps, where a nice girl with a digital camera took the photograph for me. And I still looked a total prat, exactly as I would have done if I had been able to stick my coins in a slot and take the picture myself. Then I collected an inordinately expensive pair of new glasses from my optician’s, before meeting my cousin for lunch. He was mainly interested in asking me questions about the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette and in telling me that life is not a rehearsal. “One thing is for sure,” he said, “we won’t be sitting here in 50 years’ time.” How very true, I thought, though I have been in restaurants in the past where it has felt like 50 years by the time they brought the bill.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Mistaken assertions and upsetting immolations

13st 7lb, according to my aunt’s famously defective scales; 3.6 units of alcohol yesterday (so still over the Government’s measly limit on just two cans of John Smith’s); 1,333; Marylebone, Fontainebleau, Saint-Just, Valladolid and Madrid.

Today I went to sixteenth century Spain via 1970s London. The latter was represented by a restaurant just off Marylebone High Street, which had hitherto escaped my attention entirely, to which an old friend had kindly invited me for lunch. Arriving a little early, I paused at a completely deserted Greene King a few doors along the street for a refreshing pint of IPA and a small bowl of rather nasty cashew nuts, which I consumed in the sunshine outside. I texted my friend to advise him of my whereabouts and he duly joined me a few minutes later, thanking me for saving him some money by diverting him from his intended destination of The Conran Shop. We debated whether the shop was still owned by the eponymous Sir Terence. My friend, who is a famous retail guru, thought that it probably was; but then he went on to assert that the restaurant to which we were heading was owned by Peter Langan. This rather undermined my confidence in his grasp of the facts, since Langan famously set fire to himself in a fatal sort of way many years ago. My friend conceded that he did remember hearing something of the sort.

Just after one we made our way along the street to an old fashioned dining room, heavy on mahogany, silver and impeccably white napery, with the walls hung with much Art. It reminded me of the perhaps even more famous old fashioned establishment in St James’s where we had a pretty dreadful and ruinously expensive lunch to mark my birthday in 2006. I can’t remember when I was last in a restaurant containing so many men wearing dark suits and ties, and I wondered what trade or profession they were in. The one person I actually recognized was a major property magnate. The heavily suntanned and balding bloke who had been sitting opposite us approached this expert in a nauseatingly ‘umble sort of way at the end of his own meal, and asked if he might trouble him for some advice on investing in property. At least he got a civil response – and quite a long one, vastly exceeding the bleeding obvious “Don’t!” Perhaps the magnate had a few doomed developments he was eager to offload.

I made what I thought was a healthy choice of a wild mushroom salad, which was delicious, but only because the mushrooms were swimming in the lashings of butter in which they had been fried. Then there was something billed as veal escalope stuffed with chicken livers: not very nice, certainly not an escalope, and not readily recognizable as veal. But excellent apart from that. I rounded off with an Eton mess, which came in a sundae glass and was rather long on cream and short on meringue. After that, there was nothing for it but to lie down and hope that one might eventually wake up.

Late this afternoon I roused myself from my indigestion-ravaged slumber to walk to the Royal Opera House for a keenly anticipated performance of Don Carlos, Verdi’s longest and grandest opera. It got off to a very promising start in a Narnia-like, white forest of Fontainebleau, though it was not immediately obvious to me why this new production was considered necessary to replace the very memorable one I saw in the mid-1990s, with Karita Mattila as Elizabeth de Valois. The star tenor Rolando Villazon certainly had a very fine voice, but he looked like a buffoon, with a shock of curly black hair and a highly mobile clown’s face. One of my companions pointed out at the interval that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, and after that I struggled to take him seriously, focusing all my energies on trying at least to picture him as Blackadder rather than Mr Bean.

Also among our party was a man billed as a big shot classical musical producer, who asserted that Villazon had trained professionally as a clown before he took up singing. This made perfect sense, but he then destroyed my confidence by going on to assert how odd it was that we referred to Don Carlos’s father as King Philip II when was also Holy Roman Emperor in succession to his father, Charles V. I said that I was pretty sure that this was not the case, and that the Habsburg Austrian and Spanish possessions went their separate ways after Charles retired to his monastery.

“No, that was much later, the War of the Spanish Succession”, the big shot producer asserted. I said that I thought not, and may have mentioned that I did have a degree in history, at which point he came out with the clinching assertion that he had visited the tomb of Philip II at the Escorial and he was definitely the Emperor, so there. Total bollocks, of course. I wonder whether I would have got further in this world if I had been a bit firmer with people who insist on talking bollocks? The trouble is that I can’t really bring myself to care that much one way or the other, so anyone who presses the wrong case with sufficient passion will always get the better of me.

The auto-da-fé in the short second act sounded splendid, though a rather unconvincing burning of the heretics behind a curtain did nothing for me, though it upset my lady guest. The entry of the Grand Inquisitor at the start of the third act gripped me as it always does, and the appearance of the spectral Charles V at the end sent shivers down my spine. Interestingly, at the final curtain virtually everyone got a bigger ovation than the “star”, whose voice did seem to have faded in the course of the performance. Or maybe, like me, everyone was holding a little something back for the expected entry of Baldrick to present his traditional cunning plan.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

White (haired) comedy for the deaf and infirm

13st 12lb; zero alcohol yesterday, for a change, though lots of Café Noir biscuits to keep up my calorific intake; 1,334; Scarborough in the 1960s (at least in spirit).

Yesterday I tried to ride my electric bike to the village shop to collect the newspapers, but found that its battery had gone completely flat within a mile of leaving home. So I naturally sought advice from the company which had sold me the bike in the first place and which comprehensively rebuilt it last year following an Elfin Safety related recall by its Chinese manufacturer. I’m going to take a wild guess that a difference of opinion about how to split the costs of all that might have had something to do with the blunt statement now on the retailer’s website saying that they have severed all connections with said manufacturer, and directing enquiries elsewhere. I tried to ring the number suggested, but got an answering machine which kept cutting me off, so just left a lot of messages consisting mainly of “Oh for f…”

Then I had the bright idea of e-mailing instead, and surprisingly got a more or less instant reply saying that it sounded as though I needed a new battery, and that they would ring me tomorrow (i.e. today) to discuss it further. Only they didn’t, so I sent a mildly sarcastic follow-up e-mail pointing that out. Which provoked them to ring me just as I was in the car this afternoon driving to Morpeth, though luckily in a place where I could stop to take the call. The bad news was that they were out of stock of the £295 NiMh battery that I was using, and had no plans to obtain more. The good news (though I am not sure for whom) was that they were expecting a delivery next week of exciting new lithium polymer batteries, which were a bit more expensive (£395) and also required me to buy a new charger (£95). Plus £15 for next day delivery. So I ended up spending over £500 to replace a sodding battery, which is more than half what the whole bike cost in the first place. It’s not like putting a couple of new Duracells in the TV remote control, is it?

I’d told my aunt in loving detail about the cracking supper that the LTCB cooked for me on Saturday evening and I guess that the details must have lodged in her subconscious, because she served a more or less identical meal to me this evening. Comparisons would be invidious. Then I took her to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle to see Relatively Speaking: a very early Ayckbourn from 1967 which seemed to me to move more slowly than his recent work. It was also notably short on physical comedy: just a series of conversations at cross purposes. The first act dragged a bit as it clunkingly set up the plot, the only high point for me being when the ingénue came in from the bathroom and almost dropped the towel enfolding her. I could not work out whether this was a mishap or a mildly titillating, scripted nightly ritual. And I certainly did not care enough to buy a ticket for a subsequent performance to find out. Things picked up from the second act when that lovely Peter Bowles appeared – the big draw who had almost filled the theatre with Old Age Pensioners, even on a Tuesday night. At least there was no danger of missing any of the intermittent funny lines as they all had to be repeated loudly for the benefit of the deaf men in front of us by their wives, who were either slightly less ravaged by age or equipped with somewhat more effective hearing aids. The biggest laugh of the evening was raised by Peter Bowles’s “It’s not your day, is it?” when the young man explained that he did not want to marry the Bowles character’s wife (the initial misunderstanding) but the daughter he had not got (as the girl was actually his mistress). You had to be there, I expect. I wish you had been. I would gladly have sold you my seat at a very reasonable price.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Black comedy

13st 12lb; 8.5 units of alcohol again yesterday, though that is luckily just short of treble the recommended daily maximum; 1,335; Ealing Studios.

I spent the morning writing a newspaper column comparing the operas I have seen in the last week with the performance of Her Majesty’s Government in recent months. Obviously the plot of Gordon Brown: Prime Minister requires a far greater suspension of disbelief than anything I have yet seen on stage, but the similarities with that other dour Scottish plotter in Macbeth are all too obvious, and I had the great gift of seeing a Rodolfo in La Boheme who looked exactly like the Kirkcaldy Ditherer; and, in another uncannily accurate parallel, was also completely hopeless in attempting to perform his part.

I delivered the usual daily newspaper to the octogenarian couple next door, the female half of which said “What a nice lassie that was you brought round yesterday.” Since, to the best of my recollection, the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette had been in their sitting room for no more than one minute, during which she had said little beyond “Hello” to them and “Who's a lovely kitty, then?” to their cat, I deduced that she was probably relying on a favourable report from my aunt. Which was encouraging. She advised me sternly to “Make a go of it”, not adding the traditional “for once” or “for a change” at the end. I promised that I would try.

Taking the dog for his daily walk late this afternoon, I was accosted on the road by a couple of very dodgy looking geezers in a slow-moving, old, grey estate car: a young bloke in the driving seat wearing a combat jacket and beautifully matching baseball cap, and a much older, toothless fat man in the passenger seat who leaned out to ask if I knew which farm the land across the road belonged to. He explained that they “were looking for a bit of land to go after rabbits and that”. But they looked much more like a couple of stock characters from the popular new genre of British black comedies about serial killers, scouting for a suitable place to dump the bodies. I felt fortunate when they drove on without adding me to their tally.

There could not have been a more perfect way to spend an hour this evening than watching the Dispatches programme on Channel 4 about how it all went wrong for Gordon Brown. Apparently Brown was so infuriated by the news of the benefits disc loss that he kicked a desk over. Good. I do hope he hurt his foot in the process.

I sat for some time afterwards wondering whether there had ever been a more irritating political phenomenon in my lifetime than the irrepressibly cheerful midget Hazel Blears, with her visceral dislike of the grammar schools which got her where she is today (admittedly creating perhaps the soundest argument yet for their abolition), and her regularly repeated mantra that Britain is “a secular democracy” rather than, as it appears to the rest of us, an avowedly Christian country with an anointed sovereign reigning, as every coin proclaims, Dei Gratia, and (at the last count) two officially established churches.

I wonder what possessed my aunt to give me a packet of my favourite Café Noir biscuits when she came to see me yesterday. She does not seem like the sort of person who would give a bottle of Scotch to an alcoholic, or a can of petrol and some matches to an arsonist. Yet as I brushed the crumbs off my chest before going to bed tonight, I could not help reflecting that the consequences of giving moreish biscuits to a greedy man on a diet were almost equally disastrous.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Lemon and rosemary chicken, and train jam

13st 10lb; 8.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,336; Cape Desolation.

One of the many things about which the LTCB has consistently mocked me is my anal approach to scheduling, so it was a real delight to find her setting the alarm clock for 8.30 this morning, after working backwards through all the things she needed to do before my aunt arrived for lunch at 12.30. Though in fact our guest was half an hour later than that, having been trapped in the street where she lives by a policeman guarding some sort of parade. “There’s a load of teddy bears going past now - on motorbikes” she reported at one point, in a particularly glum answering machine message which could only invite the question: why? Clearly not a grant of freedom march for some soldiers back from Afghanistan, then.

Still, it was a beautifully warm day so we were able to take the rare opportunity to sit outside in the sunshine sipping an aperitif while we waited for Auntie to turn up. When she did so, the LTCB’s roast lemon and rosemary chicken proved completely delicious, while the accompanying roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips were a triumph. The following baked nectarines with Doddington ice cream were equally enjoyable, and I detected that my aunt was impressed. Indeed, I began to suspect that they were getting on rather too well as whenever I stepped out of the room my return seemed to interrupt a most entertaining exchange about some impossibly grumpy old bloke with whom they are apparently both acquainted. I never did find out who he was.

The LTCB intercepted a barmy intruder in my kitchen while making coffee: some mad old bat who claimed, when challenged, to be looking for my next door neighbour. At least she was not armed and did not have the presence of mind to grab one of my own kitchen knives before I escorted her firmly off the premises. Perhaps the days of leaving doors unlocked are over even in this remote part of England.

I took the LTCB to Alnmouth for the 16.47 to York, and returned home feeling lonelier than I have done for some considerable time. But obviously happier than the person who was delayed by such a train jam in York station that she missed her second connection in Manchester, thereby turned a tiring and tedious 4.5 hour journey into a 5.5 hour one.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

A curmudegonly, racist, paedophile snob

13st 12lb; 4.5 units of alcohol last night; 1,337; Northumberland Heritage Coast.

Having stated only two days ago that my club in Newcastle serves the finest cooked breakfast in all England, I can clearly only claim the silver medal for the one I conjured up for the LTCB and myself this morning: Alnwick sausages and bacon, grilled field mushrooms and tomatoes, with scrambled eggs from the contented hens next door, toast and orange juice. But it was pretty damn good, even if I do say so myself, and the view from the conservatory where we ate it is infinitely better than the one that you would get from my club, even if there weren’t a fat, elderly couple and a set of net curtains in the way.

After that my first task was to buy the newspapers as a cover for taking the LTCB to be inspected by the village postmaster, in the hope that he would then prime the local gossip pump with a positive report. I then drove her on an introductory tour of my part of Northumberland, driving past Lilburn Tower to Chillingham Castle (open to the public every day except Saturday, it turned out) and on to Bamburgh. I’d been intending to drive a bit further before we stopped for a walk, but the LTCB pronounced that the dog needed to get out of the car (or maybe she just needed to get him out of the car to have a break from a terror-stricken Border terrier clinging to her chest). So we parked and let him off the lead and he promptly ran off and made friends with two other dogs and a couple of youths, from whom the LTCB ultimately had to run to retrieve him.

I maintained my usual flow of high quality banter as we strolled along, and after a few choice observations about the other people on the beach, including a suggestion that we divert to take a closer look at a beauty in a bikini who turned out to be about eight (but, in my defence, I am still waiting to take delivery of my new glasses) the LTCB stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me to enquire “What on earth am I doing, going out with a grumpy, old, curmudgeonly, racist, paedophile snob?” To which the only reply that sprang to mind was “I’m not actually a paedophile.” I fear that this might well have been taken as a plea of “guilty as charged” to all the rest.

I wish I could show you the pictures of this happy time, but their publication has been vetoed by a higher authority which must remain nameless. But lives in Cheshire.

A permitted picture of passionate (but unknown) people in a passionate place

Then we drove to one of the two logical starting points for the inevitable scenic walk to Dunstanburgh Castle, entering the village pub just as the barmaid was gleefully gathering up all the menus at the end of their period of lunchtime food service. She smiled with rather obvious satisfaction when the LTCB asked her if they were still doing any food at all and she was able to respond with a shake of her head. Coming from a part of the country where all-day food is the norm in pubs, the LTCB confidently expected that we would be able to find a delicious light meal at our next port of call, where I took the precaution of sending her in beforehand to establish whether they were still serving food and if they permitted dogs in the bar. She came out again delivering an unexpected thumbs up, so we went in and just managed to order two crab sandwiches and a bowl of chips from the enormously fat woman behind the bar, who had a supplementary arse at the front to complement the more conventionally placed one to her rear. Seconds later, she triumphantly whipped away her sign reading “cold sandwiches and chips ONLY” to reveal another one reading “Kitchen Closed”. The Derby was being run silently on an enormous widescreen TV as we flicked through The Journal and I drank a pint of Black Sheep. Our sandwiches arrived commendably quickly, but the bread seemed a bit stale to me and appeared to contain some sort of bland crab paste, rather than the delicious fresh crabmeat for which this establishment had once been famous, while the chips were the most disgustingly greasy I have ever been served anywhere. Not that that stopped us eating them. Dear me, no.

After a while a party of southern tourists arrived, bought drinks and took seats in the window to admire the view. This area of the pub was off limits to dogs, so it had not been an option for us. After a while, one of them returned to the bar and said that he would like to order some food. “You can’t,” said Four Buttocks. “The kitchen’s closed.”

“Until when?” asked the innocent tourist, contemplating the minor inconvenience of having to savour another aperitif until they began serving supper.

The barmaid, as I shall call her with a touch of poetic licence, paused for full effect, before announcing “Until tomorrow!” She seemed peculiarly pleased with herself, but somehow managed not to punch the air and shout “Yes!” in her moment of triumph.

This sort of thing precisely encapsulates the traditional Northumbrian attitude to tourists: we loathe the bastards, and just wish they would go away and leave us alone. Though we will of course shamelessly cite the vital economic importance of the tourist trade as a powerful reason against the erection of wind or nuclear power stations on our hills or beaches.

Another visual cliché: but a walk that just has to be done

Shortly after this we left and did the classic walk to Dunstanburgh Castle in the early evening sunshine. There was a prat leaning on and blocking the gate at the start of the walk as we approached, but he moved out of the way as we arrived. Some people coming the other way with a dog warned us that the cows were very curious, and the prat’s orange haired female companion embarked on a bizarre monologue about how they would eat the dog first, then us. I enquired, with as much acidity as I could muster, whether we had wandered into an audition for The League of Gentlemen. She confirmed that we had, which was slightly surreal. A day trip from the local lunatic asylum seemed an altogether more plausible explanation.

The bullocks, for such they were, did indeed follow us closely for some way, but we then entered sheep territory and the dog kept the LTCB entertained with his Mighty Hunter routine, crouching down low to stalk them until he was ready to make a killer lunge which was always doomed to failure by the fact that he was on his lead. One or two ewes and lambs demonstrated an interest in fighting back, at which point he suddenly remembered that he had a very important and urgent engagement elsewhere. We walked all the way to the Castle gates, where I had the unnerving experience of pausing for a pee in a clump of nettles, and suddenly finding myself being glared at in a menacing sort of way by a man who had materialized from absolutely nowhere and was carrying a gun-shaped case. Luckily it turned out that he just wanted me to clear off so he could get on with climbing illegally into the castle, no doubt for some nefarious purpose.

We took the scenic route home across the moors from North Charlton to Hepburn. Even though it was misty, the view of the Cheviots when we stopped by Ros Castle was still stunning, and I like to think that the LTCB was suitably impressed.

The LTCB cooked the most delicious supper of salmon fillets in a delicious watercress and crème fraiche sauce with baby new potatoes and asparagus, followed by raspberries and strawberries with cream and ice cream. Then we sat cosily by the fire in my sitting room and watched a DVD she had brought with her: a British comedy about a serial killer called Keeping Mum. I wonder what message its selection was intended to convey to me?

Friday, 6 June 2008

The lady finally comes

13st 12lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,338; Alnmouth for Alnwick.

Today, as on most days, I started the morning by reading my e-mails and their attachments, which as usual included a link to press cuttings on my few remaining PR clients. I approached these with more than usual interest, since I had spent a little while on the phone yesterday afternoon to a journalist who had obtained a copy of one unquoted client’s latest accounts from Companies House. He had generously read his whole story across to me, and created no difficulty at all about making the one small alteration I requested. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, the headline majoring on the multi-million pound dividend that the chairman had paid himself was not the point I would have chosen to highlight, but it was factually correct and I reasoned that it could have been a lot worse. So I gave a sigh of relief always a mistake, that – before I scrolled down to find a Photoshopped picture of said chairman grinning manically and apparently brandishing a huge wad of banknotes very much in the style of Harry Enfield’s sometime character, Loadsamoney. Oh dear. I decided, on balance, that I would not ring him up to see how pleased he was with it on a scale of 0 to 10.

Today I should have been going to the Theatre Royal again to see Opera North’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Ironically, and typically, the one work in their whole Shakespeare season that I had not seen umpteen times before. But then my very good friend The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette identified this weekend as the optimum time for her to pay her first ever visit to Northumberland, and I decided that our relationship was not yet strong enough to suggest that she might like to hang around the Central Station for the best part of an hour while I watched the end of the show. Accordingly I gave my tickets away and arranged to pick her up from Alnmouth at half past ten.

I devoted the afternoon to buying various ingredients specified on the shopping list she had e-mailed to me, boldly substituting Norfolk asparagus for the green beans she had specified, which had been flown all the way from Zambia. My one – and it is a sadly recurrent – disappointment was the pitiful supply of genuinely local produce, given that I live completely surrounded by working farms. My efforts to source a local chicken for Sunday lunch from the butcher in Alnwick yielded only an allegedly free range, corn-fed bird from Yorkshire, which they warned me was going to be much more expensive than the bog standard, factory farmed alternative. I do miss my local farm shop, which closed in February due to lack of interest (mainly, it should be added, on the part of the proprietress). At least the multi-tasking butcher was also able to sell me the four ripe nectarines specified for Sunday’s pudding, ripe fruit being a completely alien concept to Alnwick’s supermarkets. Everything they sell is rock hard and usually never ripens, however long one leaves it in a fruit bowl in the window to catch any rays of the weak northern sun. Days elapse and the stuff retains the texture of granite until one night one goes to bed, and gets up the next morning to find it transformed into a rotten mush. Presumably it must pass through an incredibly narrow slit window of perfect ripeness as it makes its overnight journey from State A to State B, but I have never yet been fortunate enough to catch it in the act.

I cleaned the house a bit and lit a fire in the hope of creating a neat and cosy ambience which my guest might appreciate, then sat back and waited for the text bulletins on her progress. The last indicated that she was running half an hour late on leaving Durham, so I wandered casually through to my study at 10.30 to check her arrival time on the internet, and found that her train was actually scheduled to reach Alnmouth at 10.48. It is normally a 25 minute drive, which made for a bit of a rush. But I did it in time to walk across the bridge with a traumatized dog, who never enjoys my driving even when I go slowly, just before her train pulled in. Or, more accurately, to walk about a third of the way up the bridge steps before the dog worked out that he could see through them, which always induces total panic. He duly froze, like someone trapped on a cliff face, unable to go either up or down. I gave him a serious talking to, but eventually had to pick him up and carry him to the top, where he graciously agreed that it might be safe to walk down the other side. The only other person on the platform was a young man who had giggled at my conversation with the dog, so I made a jocular remark as I passed about not knowing how I was going to get him back. He suggested that I try throwing him across the line. Probably not a dog lover, then.

The LTCB’s happy face framed in the door at the end of coach F was enough to raise the spirits of even the most miserable curmudgeon, and I drove her back home in the best of moods, pausing to give her a glimpse of floodlit Alnwick Castle en route. I don’t think the subsequent comparison exactly favoured my house, but at least I had the presence of mind to stop my guided tour of the premises before we got to the attic housing my train set, or the other one containing 35 years of accumulated theatre programmes and press cuttings, not to mention my unusually comprehensive pornography collection. Come to think of it, not to mention my unusually comprehensive pornography collection was actually her instruction, not a helpful drafting suggestion.