Thursday, 31 July 2008

The busiest day of the year

No idea of my weight, and little idea of last night’s alcohol consumption, but I’ll take a wild stab at 11 units; 1,284 days left; Smithfield.

The problem with dining at a table of seven and not paying the bill is that one does not keep close track of the wine consumption. But I’m guessing that we had five or six bottles between us last night and that I was, as usual, drinking far faster than anyone else. And I had turned up on time, unlike the rest of the party, so I had got through a couple of aperitifs before they arrived, and I had an Armagnac at the end to maintain the pretence that I am sociable. So, despite having the presence of mind to drink two bottles of fizzy water before I lapsed into a coma, I woke up this morning with a mouth like the Sahara desert during a particularly vicious sandstorm. I was absolutely gasping for my morning pot of tea; guaranteeing, with clunking inevitably, that my club would fail to deliver it for the first time in the two years I have been staying there when in London. Then I cut myself shaving, just to make my body a little bit shorter of vital fluids.

I can’t even begin to remember how often I have apologized to clients for the scanty media interest in their results with the words, “I’m afraid it’s a terribly busy day.” With smaller companies in particular, one used to duck and weave and try bringing out their figures on a Monday or Friday, when the market is generally a bit quieter. But the inevitable operation of the Law of Sod meant that, even on an apparently almost clear day for company news, one often ended up being comprehensively upstaged by an unexpected, blockbusting takeover bid.

The media diaspora from Fleet Street and the ever-increasing pressure of work also mean that it is now virtually impossible to hold a press conference, except perhaps for the very largest of companies. How easy the 1980s and early 90s seem now, as I look back on a time when one could attract maybe a dozen journalists to sit down to lunch with the management of a medium-sized brewer or food manufacturer, by the simple expedient of laying on a half-decent piss-up.

Today, as it turned out, really was probably the busiest day of the year, with no fewer than 15 FTSE-100 companies reporting results, for a kick-off. My client did not have a prayer. But at least their analysts’ meeting was respectably attended, and I was able to sit at the back ticking off the list of all the things we had told the chief executive not to say in the course of it, as he systematically said them. At the end, I turned to the one man who has followed this company since it first floated almost 25 years ago, and who on my reckoning must been sitting through his 49th biannual presentation. Given that the chief executive was retiring today, and had been in place from the very start, I had thought it would be nice if this bloke said a few words of appreciation, and had e-mailed him to suggest as much.

Dead silence ensued.

When I spoke to him afterwards to enquire whether he had been unable to speak because he was overcome by emotion, he simply replied “Oh, I thought you were joking.”

The story of my life. Just because I am attempting to be funny in a brutally sarcastic way 99% of the time, it does not mean that I am never sincere or serious. LTCB please note.

I had lunch with an old friend, during which I conspicuously failed to sparkle, and she drew me an interesting chart demonstrating why it is so hard for single women of her age (let us say late 30s, which should earn me a brownie point) to find a suitable mate. Her base assumption was that 70% of both sexes in her age group were in steady relationships. Of the remaining men, she reasoned that 10% were gay and 5% too fat or ugly for consideration. Various other 5% bands were then ruled out for reasons I now forget, leaving just 5% of the total who were truly eligible. Among women, on the other hand, only 3% were all-out lesbians (and the one bit of her argument that I found impossible to fault is that while gay men are the most physically attractive of all males from a woman’s point of view, precisely the opposite applies when considering the sex appeal to men of all-out lesbians, by which I mean the real ones not the models gamely putting on an act in top shelf publications). Rule out the other 5% of female fuglies and you end up with 22% of the 30-something women chasing 5% of the men. Well, it’s a theory. And it might just explain why lucky 50-something blokes occasionally end up with gorgeous 30-something girlfriends, one of the few current facts of my life about which I feel no inclination at all to have a prolonged moan.

This evening we did go to The Ivy, to mark if not exactly celebrate my client’s retirement. We ended up drinking vintage Armagnac in a hotel in Smithfield as the clock struck midnight and power passed peacefully to the new generation. It was all a lot less fraught than King Lear, I can tell you.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The things you see when you haven't got your gun

14st 2lb; 6.5 units of alcohol; 1,285; Charterhouse.

I don’t go to London on business all that much these days, but today I did: getting up at 5.30 to start the important work of faffing around, driving to Morpeth to leave the dog with his carer (whom he shows irritating signs of preferring to me), catching the 08.00 train from there to Newcastle and then the 09.00 to London. At 12.45, a mere 7.25 hours after I had first scratched myself awake, I walked confidently into a City meeting room to hear my client utter the words, “Right, well the best thing now would be if you all buggered off for an hour and let us sort a few things out among ourselves.”

At least I was able to grab a sandwich before I was ejected. It is always important to seize these opportunities when they arise, as another client did when he was shown into a meeting room at a merchant bank and found a huge tray of sandwiches on the table. Reasoning that he would have little time to eat while he was talking about his company to the bank’s assembled fund managers, he started a major fuelling operation. He was just cramming the last sandwich into his mouth when a receptionist arrived and said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve shown you into the wrong room.”

The correct one was much smaller, and the refreshments comprised only a small plate of biscuits. He has been wondering ever since which more important captain of industry was deprived of his lunch.

Sitting alone eating my own sandwich today, I was joined by Temptation in the shape of an old friend, who suggested that we might nip out for a drunken lunch, as in the old days. I prudently resisted. Then I started wittering on about my lovely girlfriend, and tried to find a suitable photograph to show her on my computer. Instead I found a series of beautiful pictures of the countryside around my house in Northumberland. I was scrolling through these delightful sylvan scenes when there suddenly flashed up an image I cannot bring myself to describe, though the entry in this blog for 12 April provides a bit of a clue. I was sure I had deleted it long ago. Luckily she did not scream. But then she does work for an organization which for many years employed a spirited New Zealand girl whose quirks included having a picture of her boyfriend’s erect member stored as the screensaver on her mobile, so that it flashed up like something from a porn horror flick whenever he rang her.

We spent the afternoon endeavouring to rehearse a presentation. It’s bit like trying to train a Border terrier. You know for a fact that the trainee is never actually going to obey any of your instructions, but you reasonthat at least he does know what he ought to do, in the unlikely event that he chose to do so, and you feel better for having made the effort.

I have always hated meetings. One of the things that has always irked me about them is the way that many people feel obliged to suggest totally unnecessary changes to things in order to show that they are awake and paying attention. Admittedly you can achieve the same result without actually having a meeting, just by circulating a draft document by e-mail. Any non-executive director or adviser who responds “It’s fine” fears that they are not “adding value”. So they suggest changes. For many years I used to preserve every draft of the results statements and profit warnings from my clients. Almost invariably, on about Draft 21, the weary finance director who was co-ordinating things would ring up and say something like “I’ve just had a helpful suggestion from the deputy chairman” and I’d say “Well, there’s a first.” Then he’d read me some suggested wording for a paragraph we’d all been arguing about through 20-odd versions, and ask me what I thought. And, more often than not, I’d say that it bore an extraordinarily close resemblance to what I’d put in Draft 1 in the first place. Indeed, in many instances, the final version really was absolutely identical to my original. But at least everyone felt that they had put in some real effort to justify their fees.

This afternoon one of my former colleagues suggested binning the first slide of my beautifully crafted presentation, as the audience would know it all already since they would have read the same points in the release being made to the Stock Exchange two and a half hours earlier. Perhaps I laid on just a little too much sarcasm in pointing out that, on that basis, we might as well scrap the whole sodding thing since the days when quoted companies could impart additional information to select audiences in presentations have long since vanished.

I had suggested booking The Ivy for dinner this evening, but the notion was rejected on the grounds that we should go somewhere more frugal: a simple and unpretentious French restaurant in the City which I am pretty sure was actually more expensive. One of its supposed virtues was the all-inclusive fixed price menu. I very much enjoyed my lobster risotto (£3 supp.), medium rare cote du boeuf (£7 supp.) and selection of fine French cheeses (£5 supp.) I really did not choose them to make a point, and certainly not a cheap one.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

From sandwiches to a skillet

14st 0lb; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,286 days to go; Coquetdale.

Last night I watched a Channel 4 Dispatches programme about sandwiches, out of a vague sense of duty to a client which makes the things. Millions of the buggers, by hand, in over 1,000 shops. And I cannot recall when they last killed anyone, so they must be doing something right. The object of the programme was to prove that they and all the other sandwich makers in the country are ripping us poor consumers off, and wilfully poisoning us with excessive amounts of fat and salt. My client did not come out of it too badly; about on a par with Pret A Manger in the unhealthiness stakes, but at around a third of their price. I reflected that this would at least leave a bit of money in the bank to pay for a decent funeral.

The programme makers had deliberately skewed the results of their research by excluding from their analysis the “healthy eating” ranges produced by my client and most of the other participants. No reason was adduced for doing so. Coming soon: a shock study on how the pub industry is conspiring to destroy our livers, arbitrarily excluding from the survey all the soft and low alcohol drinks pubs sell.

The one thing in the programme which did provoke genuine disgust was the north London sandwich factory, supplying corner shops and garages, which had been secretly filmed by a planted worker and did appear to have the most appalling hygiene standards. One scene showed a pest control officer reading the riot act to the workers about how disgusting their practices were, claiming that any environmental health officer visiting the place would have it closed down immediately. As a PR man, I greatly enjoyed the firm’s masterly response: they had asked the pest control guy to come in and make this grossly exaggerated speech as a way of frightening their staff into bucking their ideas up. Great stuff.

Talking of PR, the programme as a whole was a triumph for Boots, who came out top on all of the fashionable measures of low fat, low sodium etc. The only thing missing from the analysis was the small but significant fact that Boots’ sandwiches taste like … er, there is the law of libel to consider here, isn’t there? And while they are not known to be as paranoid and prone to resort to m’learned friends as Tesco or McDonald’s, they are a large and rich organization. So let us just say that, in my admittedly limited personal experience, Boots’ sandwiches don’t taste of anything much.

The importance of good hygiene was brought home to me over many years handling PR for major food manufacturers, and reinforced this morning as I trudged to the lavatory for the umpteenth time. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it probably wasn’t my best idea of all time to eat for supper last night the smoked mackerel which had been in the fridge for days and was speeding past its use-by late like the tube train in the Moorgate crash of 1975. Nor to leave the fridge door ajar for most of the hottest day of the year. Particularly given that a troupe of a dozen or so small flies, looking like scaled down bluebottles, have taken up permanent residence in my kitchen and are throwing themselves with gusto into their lifelong work of food contamination.

I pulled myself together in time to go and pay a brief visit to a website design firm which hangs out in a laid-back sort of way in an impressive farm building conversion on the other side of Rothbury. The man in charge originally told me that what I required was so simple that he was minded to do it free of charge as a favour. Yet somehow I now found myself in a meeting with his right hand man, hearing that what I really wanted was a new Content Management System which they could construct for a mere £1,200. It certainly looked very swish, but he veered off the rails like an express train striking a sleep-deprived driver’s Land Rover when he concluded with the words, “… and the beauty of it is, when it’s installed, adding new columns to the site will be as simple as updating your blog.”

I was halfway through my particularly beautiful drive home when the light bulb finally went off above my head and I thought, “Why don’t I just set up another blog, then?” An instant saving of approximately £1,150, which I could spend on whores if I were not going out with a particularly beautiful and sweet young lady. It will have to be drink, then. I was then brought back to earth by a surreal encounter on the single track road with a knackered white coal lorry which was travelling the other way and dragging an old-fashioned lawnmower on a rope behind it, with the mower swaying crazily all over the road and threatening to smash into anyone foolish enough to attempt to pass it.

My positive mood was further tested by a text message from the friend who really wants to see Hänsel und Gretel, reporting that all her opera-loving acquaintances are on holiday and she will have to come alone. Cue another wasted afternoon attempting to find a single person who would like to join us, which somehow seems to present an even bigger challenge than my original task of tracking down a couple. It is partly my own fault for not prioritizing this blog, of course. If only I were updating it daily in real time, rather than lazily adding to it a week or two in arrears, I could use this very space to issue an appeal to an opera lover to come and join us. Maybe it would be picked up by one of those perverts who keep being directed here in their quest for information about dogging in Northumberland. They could then e-mail me and express an interest in coming to Glyndebourne, if the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette and I would not mind putting on a bit of a show in the car park during the long interval. I can just picture myself running that one past her. In fact, I can almost feel the skillet crashing into my cranium as I write this. It is not a good or happy feeling. In fact, I think I’d rather eat another questionable portion of smoked mackerel and spend a day on the lavatory.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The waste caused by hating waste

13st 13lb (I told you I’d been industrious yesterday); 3.0 units of alcohol; 1,287 days left; hopelessly lost in the Enchanted Forest.

I have been thinking about what, if anything, might get me interested in the Olympic Games. I did toy with the idea that it might add a little je ne sais quoi if the authorities made everyone compete naked, as they did in ancient Greece, but most sportsmen’s (and, more importantly from my point of view, sportswomen’s) bodies these days appear so over-developed that I find them only of the most academic interest; when, for example, some of them choose to expose themselves in ill-judged advertising campaigns. Added to which, it would create some major political and cultural difficulties. We should not be doing anything that might add to the veritable Himalaya of problems already faced by the Iranian ladies’ beach volleyball team.

So then I thought that the answer might be to open the events to Border terriers. The opening ceremony would be a riot. Literally. And one of the best bits of live entertainment I have ever witnessed was the terrier racing at the College Valley Hunt’s annual show at Hethpool some years ago, when the dogs lost interest in the dead rabbit that had just been bounced down the course by a man furiously turning an old bicycle wheel, and staged an invasion of the tea tent instead. If they create a special event for canine dreaming I feel pretty sure that my boy would be a cert for gold, judging by the spirited performance he gave at 5.30 this morning. I’m a bit exhausted as a result, but I’m smiling as broadly as one can with gritted teeth.

It has not been the best of days, to be honest. Made worse by the knowledge that it is entirely my own fault for misjudging the popularity of Engelbert Humperdinck. The German composer, that is, not the 1960s crooner formerly known as Gerry Dorsey. Months ago I bought four tickets for Hänsel und Gretel at Glyndebourne on Sunday under the delusion that it would be a popular event, and I did indeed succeed in finding a couple who not only wanted to see it with me but promised to bring the most stupendous picnic with them. Which is always a bonus.

Then, suspiciously soon after The Guardian gave the production an incredibly savage review, they announced that they could not come after all. So I have been spending the last week making desultory efforts to find replacements for them, without success. Today, accordingly, I gave up and rang the box office to enquire about returning the surplus tickets, only to be informed that there was no point. They still had quite a few of their own tickets to sell and this task would, unsurprisingly, be their priority in the week ahead. So I have now wasted virtually a whole day e-mailing everyone I know who has ever expressed a vague interest in opera, asking whether they would like to come, and drawing their attention away from The Guardian by including links to the very positive reviews in The Daily Telegraph and The Times. They have either replied immediately to say that they will be out of the country on holiday on Sunday, or attending “Pride” (no longer “Gay Pride”, apparently, dear me, no) in Brighton. Or they have not replied at all as they are already on holiday and / or taking part in a Mosley-style S&M orgy.

Marvellous. Of course, simply chucking the spare tickets in the bin would save a fair chunk of my time and involve no greater financial loss than giving them away – it might indeed save me a bit of money, as I am reasonably likely to end up buying drinks and / or dinner for whoever comes with me. But somehow doing this would offend against my deeply ingrained instincts opposing Waste.

Then at 6, as I was grimly writing my diary, the phone rang and a friend enquired whether I would like to meet her sometime. I asked whether she was responding to the invitation to Hänsel und Gretel I sent her several hours ago, but she had not even checked her e-mails. No, it was pure serendipity, or telepathy, but she would love to come and feels sure that she will have no difficulty in finding a friend to complete the party. So perhaps the day has not been completely wasted after all.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

At last a brief glimpse of what we used to call summer

14st 1lb; 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,288; Home.

My dreams continue to deteriorate. This morning I found myself sharing not only a room but a bed with another 50-something bloke who had been my best friend when I was aged about eight. At least the relationship seemed to be on the Morecambe and Wise level rather than anything suggestive of long suppressed homosexual tendencies, though I dare say an analyst would have a field day. I woke up shortly after an Oriental maid had brought us a morning pot of tea, and I was chivalrously insisting that my friend drink his from the single cup provided while I went to find a tooth mug for mine.

On the positive side, summer finally arrived today. Having spent weeks moaning about it being cold, wet and foggy, I am now on the cusp of moaning that it is too hot. Sash windows that have not been opened for years were laboriously unlocked (when I finally tracked down the key) and flung up to try and produce a cooling breeze. I was even moved to go and rootle around in the attic and dig out the two electric fans I once used to waft the torpid air around a bit in my former London flat. These were then deployed in an unsuccessful attempt to make conditions in my study and sitting room more bearable.

Still, at least I have recovered from yesterday’s lethargy and, perhaps because there was nowhere comfortable enough just to sit down with a book, I had a remarkably productive day by my standards. In fact I spent hours industriously cleaning, ironing and gardening almost as though I were a normal crusty old bachelor in his 50s, albeit perhaps one with a slightly exaggerated concern for personal hygiene and the keeping up of appearances.

A beautiful, thick, low white mist was rising over the fields when I finally put my mop away in the conservatory shortly before 10. It is one of those sights, like the very occasional glimpses of the Northern Lights, which makes me feel immensely privileged to live here. Then I sat with a glass of Jura malt (never one of my favourites, but it suddenly seems to have grown on me) watching some recorded episodes of Coronation Street and wondering, not for the first time, exactly what was the point of ITV claiming to offer a PDC (Programme Delivery Control) facility when they consistently cut off the cliff-hanger at the end of the 7.30 episode on Monday and Friday. So I went to catch up with it on the much vaunted playback facility at, and found that that did not work either. Anyone who knows what Kirk accidentally recorded in that grotesque plastic egg (don’t ask) in place of Tyrone’s proposal to Molly is encouraged to leave a brief comment containing the relevant information.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Reservoir dog tired

14st 1lb; 3.4 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,289; not Fontburn.

Last night I spent a bit of time tinkering with this blog, finally sneaking in a picture of the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette outside Dunstanburgh Castle to brighten up the heading to these pages. Since she has her back to the camera, I thought I might get away with this modest invasion of her privacy. There have been no ructions so far. Next I suppose I should rewrite the header itself to reflect the fact that I am no longer on the wrong side of 15 stone or terminally single; but, with my weight creeping back to the wrong side of 14 stone and my three month probationary period as the LTCB’s boyfriend due to expire next Wednesday, it seems like tempting fate.

Today I was supposed to be going to a party, or perhaps a series of parties, at Fontburn, south of Rothbury, to celebrate the centenary of the reservoir there. I was promised the chance to meet a collection of old codgers whose happy reminiscences of the waterworks and the old Rothbury branch line would enable me to write the sort of column for the local paper that people would want to cut out and keep. Which would be a first, to be honest. But unfortunately I felt thoroughly lethargic all day and barely managed to stay awake long enough to read a newspaper, let alone think about writing for one. In consequence, I went nowhere at all. Oh dear. I have missed an opportunity that will not come around for another 100 years, and am left with nothing to write about apart from that dear old stand-by, Gordon Brown.

Where would I be without him?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Ending up in a caravan in Killingworth?

14st 0lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,290; North Tyneside.

My dream world continues to deteriorate. After a series of early mornings in which I have been sharing deeply unsatisfactory lodgings with old friends from my schooldays, this morning I found myself crammed into a tiny caravan with an old pal who is on the chunky side, and his grotesquely supersized wife. I woke in a sweat, just short of screaming.

Still, I was soon cheered by hearing the news on the wireless of Gordon Brown’s latest triumph in the Glasgow East by-election, then by catching up with yesterday’s newspapers. There was a splendid and evidently self-composed announcement by one Joseph Noden in the Daily Telegraph: “at the age of 79 … I have reluctantly died after a completely medicore [sic] but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable life.” One feels that he would have appreciated the mis-spelling. Perhaps, indeed, he made it himself. Meanwhile the Northumberland Gazette excelled itself with a challenging competition to win five copies of Wife in the North. Mistakenly headlined “Life in the North” and accompanied by a picture of “Author Judith O’Reilly” it set readers the daunting task of answering the question “Who is the author of Wife in the North?” Cue much sucking of pens, marital arguments and extensive internet research across north Northumberland. I look forward to the announcement next week that there were no lucky winners and apologizing for making the competition too intellectually demanding.

At lunchtime I went to see a PR man who is based in the Soho of Tyneside: Killingworth. At least he had the presence of mind to drive us to Osborne Road in Jesmond for lunch, in car which smelt pleasingly of fags. A happily nostalgic aroma, taking me back to the days of my childhood as effectively as Proust’s madeleine. Like a true PR man, he had promised me that we would be sitting in the sun drinking wine and watching attractive girls in very short skirts walk by. And like most PR pitches, this fell down on several counts: (a) our table was in the shade, though not sheltered enough to prevent anything that wasn’t held down with a heavy glass ashtray being whipped away by the wind; (b) we both drank beer; and (c) he had forgotten that the students who provide the totty factor are on vacation. There was also a bit of an issue with wasps, which had somehow been omitted from the prospectus.

I called out gleefully when I finally spotted an attractive and lightly clad female advancing up the road towards us; my pleasure turning to something like alarm when she drew closer, and I realized that she was only about 13. It was a genuine and easy mistake to make, M’Lud, but it is still of the sort that could lead to a Bloke gaining an unfortunate reputation.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Shark attack

14st 0lb; 4.4 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,291; The Sticks.

Talking of customer service, I have been trying for more than three months now to have another website of mine modestly expanded. It being beyond my ultra-modest technical capabilities, I commissioned a firm in Edinburgh to do it for me, despite my lifelong (and, let’s be honest, well-founded) prejudice against everything Scotch that is not bottled and made from malt. Finally despairing that they were ever going to extricate their digits from their sporrans, I asked a North East PR man if he could recommend someone more local to do the job. Yes, indeed, he knew this brilliant firm who were legendarily efficient and unbelievably responsive – he even forwarded me another e-mail demonstrating the remarkable speed with which they had turned around one of his clients’ assignments. So I dropped them a line at the beginning of last week. When I had heard nothing by Friday, I asked my contact whether they were perhaps labouring under the handicap of a particularly aggressive spam filter. He investigated and confirmed that they claimed not to have received my e-mail, but they acknowledged my re-sending of it and promised to get back to me with their ideas and costs early this week.

Having heard no more, I stirred myself today to ask the PR bloke whether he had any other bright ideas, and he came up with someone almost on my doorstep, who responded immediately and said that the job was so simple that they were minded to do it for nothing as a favour. I discouraged this idea, because it seems unsound in principle and I can’t for the life of me think of any reciprocal favour I’d ever be able to do for them. But at least it gave me the perfect opportunity to send a short masterpiece in controlled sarcasm to the firm which had demonstrated that they were not interested. I don’t suppose they ever bothered to open it, which is rather a shame. I am still trying to work out whether their discourtesy reflected the fact that the North East web design sector is still doing incredibly well, despite the challenging business climate, or simply illustrated that they are a premier bunch of complete tosspots.

If you are currently looking for someone in the North East to upgrade your website, may I suggest that you avoid firms named after piscine predators? Though I note that the Wikipedia entry on the eponymous beast says that “Although generally lethargic, they are capable of moving very quickly if the need arises.” Which seems uncannily accurate, at least in part.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Legendary customer service

14st 0lb, which is not a bad result given the amount of comfort eating I did when I got back home yesterday, and the 4.4 units of alcohol I consumed; 1,292; the county town of Northumberland.

I had to drive to Alnwick at lunchtime, for the car repair that I had rescheduled from Saturday, so thought I would take the opportunity to walk into the town centre and try eating at a recently opened hotel. Its food had received a predictably glowing review in the local paper, but this was immediately contradicted in almost every particular by an entertainingly vitriolic reader’s letter, engendering a lively debate. My hopes were actually reasonably high, as I knew the owner of old as a first class chef. We had talked about his move and I felt sure that he had told me he was going to keep the cosy old bar, and he proved to have been true to his word in that the name of it was still displayed above the door. Everything else, though, had been swept away, and replaced with the bleached wood I associate with a trendy London bistro of the 1990s. On reflection, it also reminded me of the new (in 1994) opera house at Glyndebourne, albeit with a rather lower musical content.

And I had plenty of time to reflect, as I stood at the bar watching one young lady battling with another customer’s credit card, while her colleague kept her back firmly turned to me as she focused on totting up a column of figures. Finally she turned around to reveal the glum face of a classic red-headed termagant, spoiling for a fight. In the circumstances it was something of a relief that she continued to ignore me for as long as she felt she could, before grudgingly enquiring if she could help. I asked whether I could get food there, and she confirmed, in a short and snappish sort of way, that I could. I then pushed my luck by further asking whether it was the same menu at the bar as in the empty Bistro I had just inspected at the rear of the premises. She confirmed that it was, with a look that carried the (just) unspoken subtext, “What a f***ing stupid question!” She then slapped a menu rather rudely down in front of me, obscuring the typed list of daily specials which I therefore only noticed after I had ordered. I requested a pint of beer and a packet of pork scratchings, and she threw down the latter and started pulling the former before getting distracted by attempting to help her colleague produce a VAT receipt requested by the other customer; a task which eventually proved far beyond their combined intelligence.

Returning some thirsty minutes later, she enquired rather sharply, “What can I get you?” To which I replied, “Well, you could get me my beer for a start.” She fixed me with a look that would have turned many men to stone, and would certainly have won her the part if the local amateur dramatic society had been holding auditions for the lead role in The Taming of the Shrew. She said coldly that it was “just settling” and firmly pointed to the menu in front of me. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, in the light of experience to date, but something drove me to ask a further question, namely whether I might eat on the terrace I had spotted outside. Her response was “So long as it’s all paid for at once” which was so off-putting that I really don’t know what stopped me telling to put her beer and food somewhere which did not share the terrace’s advantage of being bathed in sunshine. But, most uncharacteristically, I persevered and ordered a starter of a warm black pudding and bacon salad, and a main course of baked salmon with new potatoes.

Reader, they were utterly delicious; the best pub food I have eaten in ages, and the young women who brought it out to me at least wore happy smiles, even if they did insist on payment in advance before they would bring me another pint.

Located as it is bang on a busy street, it does not require much on an effort of imagination to visualize the sort of experiences that might have led a pub to want cash up front from diners sitting outside. But surely there must be a more customer-friendly way of dealing with the problem than the one they have adopted here, which effectively makes one feel like a criminal? From the point of view of the staff, it also pretty much guarantees that they won’t get a tip: how likely is anyone to add a service charge before they have had any service? I suppose they did my diet a favour in that I left without the pudding and coffee I would undoubtedly have bought if someone had bothered to come outside and ask whether I wanted them. But I heard dark mutterings about their treatment from a couple of tourists on the next table, so I know that for once my reaction is not just an illustration of my over-sensitivity.

It’s such a shame that we have some of the best locally produced ingredients anywhere, and many excellent cooks, combined with such a totally hopeless lack of aptitude for service. Just to demonstrate that it is not peculiar to the hospitality sector, I wandered further into town and visited the local branch of Britain’s leading chemists, where three female assistants were far more interested in talking to each other than in serving me. One finally dragged herself away, apologizing to her colleagues for the interruption, and I explained that I could not find what I was looking for on the shelves. She marched out, grabbed what I’d told her I wanted, and thrust it into my hand with a curt “1.49”. I said that I’d like more than one and she waved her hand in their general direction. When I brought two of them to the counter and said that I would also like a bottle of surgical spirit her exasperation knew almost no bounds.

“It’s out on the shelves.”


“Over there.” She waved a hand, like the late Queen Elizabeth in the back of a landau. “Third shelf. About half way along.”

God forbid that she should actually help the customer by getting it. I found it eventually. They did not deserve to sell it. But I felt little confidence that I would fare any better if I took my custom elsewhere. Indeed, on the evidence of my personal experience this afternoon, the only businesses in the town which are trying to pay the slightest heed to conventional principles of customer service (smile and pretend to take a polite interest) are Barclays Bank and Sainsbury’s, which isn’t really in the town at all.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The red mist fails to rise

I’m leaving the scales to the cat; I got through 7.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening, despite my self-denying ordinance on the pub; there are 1,293 days left; and, if it’s Tuesday, it must be the M62.

Before I set off for home I took the dog for his favourite walk along the Dee and into the Meadows. We got safely past the point where he had been savaged by a couple of large mongrels on Sunday, and I greatly admired his sangfroid; trotting along with his tail erect taking a cheerful interest in his surroundings, not skulking and quaking as I would do if someone led me past a spot where I had been mugged. As we entered the Meadows we had to pass a bloke who was throwing sticks for a large, black dog (probably some sort of Labrador cross). It came bounding up to us and memories of his previous encounter clearly came back to my dog, as one of them (and I genuinely could not work out which) began snarling. With violence clearly about to break out, I asked the bloke ever so politely whether he would mind calling his dog off, expecting instant assent. He was, after all, not some tracksuited chav but another old bloke in a sports jacket and flannels. Instead he proceeded to take offence in a rather major way. I explained, with continuing and equal politeness, that my dog had recently been attacked while walking nearby and was therefore a bit on the nervous side, only to be interrupted by him uttering in tortured posh tones, “My dog’s not going to attack anyone, he’s just playing. You miserable bugger!” I was then moved to asked what was wrong with Chester, since I did not recall visiting anywhere else where polite requests to people to keep their dogs in check just led to one being sworn at. To which he replied, “Don’t come to bloody Chester, then! Stay in your own ghastly part of the country!”

I wondered how he could tell I was from Northumberland, given that I have no discernible regional accent. Then I wished that I were black, so that I could have had him done for racism. Finally, as I walked away, I wished that the red mist had risen and that I had kicked him hard and repeatedly in the bollocks. If he had any. Which I doubt.

I am certainly not feeling very positive about Chester as a potential place to live after the past few days. I wonder whether these encounters could be part of an innovative viral marketing campaign by Northumberland Tourism, along with the spate of London knife attacks?

Monday, 21 July 2008

A petulant, juvenile old codger

I weighed 91.3kg fully clothed, after breakfast, which sounded a lot worse than anything Imperial to me. When asked why her scales had suddenly gone metric, the LTCB said that it made it easier to weigh the cat. It’s the sort of answer that puts one off from requesting a fuller explanation.

I got through 8.9 units of alcohol yesterday, and have 1,294 more days to get through; on this day I did not stir from Chester. In fact, I barely stirred from the LTCB’s house, where I frittered away several precious hours writing my weekly newspaper column and actually doing some work for a PR client; a rare event indeed. My hostess eventually returned from work positively glowing after a session on the treadmill at the gym, the positive effects of which had clearly not been undone even by a long wait in the checkout queue at Morrison’s. She cooked me a brilliant pork-based supper, which I used my extensive general knowledge to deduce was probably not authentically Iranian, and we then took the dog for a walk.

Like the dog, I am very much creature of habit, so was surprised to be wrenched from the tram tracks of the last few weeks and taken to inspect a series of new attractions including the ruins of an abbey which had allegedly been Chester’s first cathedral, the city’s Roman amphitheatre (which is frankly not worth a detour, particularly if you have seen the Colosseum) and a back street pub which had a long chalked list outside it of the sort of customers it could do without. This reminded me very much of the style of the late Kim de la Taste Tickell, who presided over a marvellously eccentric pub at Whittlesford in my Cambridge days. The Tickell Arms, though, was perennially busy, even when its host was not presiding over a candlelit, black tie dinner party in the middle of his crowded bar. At this pub, on the other hand, the landlord’s imprecations seemed to have had been so successful that a look through the window suggested that he had no customers at all. I expect that is just what he wanted.

One of the things he did allow was dogs in the bar, so the LTCB suggested we went in for a pint, but I did not fancy one on top of the half a bottle of white wine I had consumed with supper. Added to which, I had got myself into that frame of mind where nothing seems to please. The LTCB observed, with her usual astuteness, that I was trying very hard to pretend not to be interested in things in which she knows that I really am interested, and characterized my attitude as “petulant”. Another triumph of spot-on character analysis to rank alongside her earlier “juvenile old codger”. Given that I am so much older than she is, it seems strange that she is so much more mature, but suspect that is the biggest statement of the bleeding obvious that even I have managed to date.

Still, at least she had read this blog before she started going out with me, so she should have known roughly what to expect.

The tone was lightened a little when we got back, and I took one of my occasional looks at the sitemeter attached to this, which reveals how readers were referred. Searches for dogging, thigh-booted blondes and mini-skirted schoolgirls are a daily event, but today someone broke new ground by getting here through a search for “litre plastic bottle masturbator”. The mind boggles, (a) because I haven't the slightest clue what on earth I can ever have written that relates even tangentially to that, and (b) because I can’t even begin to imagine the thought processes that could have led to the initiation of that particular quest.

Still, having repeated the words above, I will at least be the top choice on Google if anyone tries looking for them again. It’s a small win, I know, but it is the best I managed today.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A place called Nowhere

No idea on the weight front; I guess 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,295 more days to fill; Mouldsworth (and what did those goons from the Milk Marketing Board think they were about, dreaming up the made-up name “Lymeswold” for their new, soft, blue cheese in the early 1980s, when the cow-filled county of Chester already offered the perfect solution?)

The LTCB and I took the dog for a walk by the river last night, between the showers, and ended up Nowhere. Outside a house called Nowhere, that is; the name proudly carved on stone plaques outside the gates. It made me wonder about their chances of ever successfully summoning the emergency services.

“And where are you calling from?”


“Oh, f*** off. I’ve warned you before.”

Which would be a bit of a bugger if one’s golden haired children had their adorable curly heads poked out of upper storey windows at the time, as they screamed to be rescued from the encroaching flames.

The LTCB expressed a desire to buy the house next door and re-name it “Somewhere”. I fear that her competitive instinct may be quite a bit stronger than mine.

Today she drove me to a country pub for lunch to meet a lot of her friends, giving me two powerful incentives to drink a lot of beer: (1) to overcome my shyness and catastrophic lack of social skills, and (2) so that I would be slightly less terrified by her driving on the way back. We were marginally late and a gentleman she called a “coffin dodger” came in for a certain amount of abuse for holding us up. Yet funnily enough, at that precise moment coffin dodging struck me as being an eminently sensible hobby.

She certainly has a lot of friends; the table had been booked for 17, though attendance was a bit down on this owing to an outbreak of a stomach bug. (Or, perhaps, to well-sourced reports of what I am Really Like.) I reflected that only obesity would prevent me from holding a comparable get-together for my friends in a telephone kiosk. I was originally seated with the girls, but they started talking about bras and I felt a bit out of it, so I was given a free transfer to sit with the boys instead. Unfortunately they then started discussing golf and football, which made me realize that I was actually more interested in, and indeed more knowledgeable about, ladies’ support garments. But by then it was too late and my application to rejoin the girls’ team was denied. One of the husbands, who I had been warned was a well-known pervert, told me at some length about the LTCB’s enthusiasm for bondage and other forms of kinky sex. He had a faraway look in his eyes as he developed his fantasy, and was clearly disappointed when I did not pick up and run with it with the words “Not only that, but last night …”

This evening we took the dog for another walk by the river Dee, and met a couple coming the other way with a pair of light-coloured mongrels containing rather a lot of Alsatian; one on its lead and one off. The unsecured one lunged at my peaceable little dog, snarling, and far from calling it off its owners then allowed the dog that was actually on a lead to join in, sink its teeth into my Border terrier and toss him into the air. They did then take some belated steps to drag it off, and I dare say I placed myself in the wrong by inserting the word “f***ing” into my suggestion that the owners might have done more to keep their dogs under control. Still, I was shocked by the response: “P*** off, you c***. You started it.” Which was the most complete untruth I have come across since I last read a Labour election manifesto.

Say what you like about the rude inhabitants of the North East (and I have said quite a lot in this blog), I have never encountered anyone with a dog on the other end of a lead in these parts who has even come close to such a pitch of unpleasantness. I suppose it’s an entirely illogical thing to say when there are individuals out there with pit bull terriers and the like bred for the express purpose of putting the fear of God into people, but I have always thought that owning a dog has a somewhat mellowing effect. Believe it or not, mine have certainly softened my edges. As Evelyn Waugh remarked when people asked how he could reconcile his Catholicism with being such a total bastard, think how much nastier I would be if it were not for that. Without my Border terrier, in fact, I’d be barely human. It was lucky for both of us, then, that he survived the attack.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The will to live: hanging by a thread

14st 1lb; zero alcohol yesterday (so two day average down to a mere 11.5 units); 1,296 weary days left to fill; Chester.

I started losing the will to live yesterday afternoon as I was driving into the car park of the Alnwick Homebase (never let it be said that I don’t lead a glamorous life) and a siren started bleeping frantically. What sort of idiot would let their car make a noise like that, I wondered. Then I realized that it was mine. Worse still, whenever I parked the car its alarm went off, even if I left it unlocked.

At least I was near the relevant dealership at the time, so I called in to seek their advice. This always makes me feel like the hapless Rowan Atkinson character in the Not The Nine O’Clock News hi-fi shop sketch, being mocked by Mel Smith. A bloke wandered out with me, opened the bonnet, shook his head and sucked through his teeth. He was clearly just about to ask who sold me this heap of crap, when he remembered that he had. Thinking swiftly, he effected a deft sideways shimmy and said, “It’s your power sounder, that is.”

“What’s that, then?”

“It’s an anti-theft device.”

We agreed that it was working a treat, as no-one was likely to steal a car that was bleeping and wailing like mine was at that moment. Unless that stone deaf old chap from the club yesterday lunchtime made a hobby of twocking, which seemed unlikely.

According to the bloke, and I have no idea whether he was telling the truth or not, the power sounder was separate from the main alarm, and had its own self-contained battery. When that ran down after four years or so the thing went off to alert you to the fact that it was time to spend £99 replacing it.

Yes, it sounded like the sort of story you would tell a chap who looked like he might be good for £99 to me, too. But I felt obliged to do something to stop the racket, so I agreed to bring it back at 8.30 the next morning to have it replaced while I waited. Then I went home, the car screeching and howling all the way to the amusement or annoyance of those we passed (I cannot be sure as I carefully avoided eye contact), where I tried to use it to start my other car, with the aid of the £25 top-of-the-range jump leads I had just bought in Alnwick. It still wouldn’t work. So I was now the proud owner of two f***ed motor vehicles, one of which could go nowhere at all, while the other could go anywhere but at the cost of making more racket and turning more heads than an All-Nude (Strictly Over 18) Juvenile Jazz Band.

A couple of hours later the tally of knackered motors was slashed by 50 per cent when an immensely fat man from the RAC turned up in a big orange van and jump started what I shall henceforth call Car A in about five seconds flat. Followed by some 15 minutes of excruciating paperwork, including an apparently unrefusable opportunity to complete an electronic customer satisfaction survey. Sadly there was no box to tick for “100% satisfied with the service, apart from having to fill this bloody form out.”

While I was waiting for him to arrive I had wandered round to warn my elderly next door neighbours that they might be treated to the muffled sound of the alarm on Car B going off in my garage all night, and / or a visit from an RAC man looking for my house in order to restart Car A. I then had to spend a bit of time explaining where all this A and B stuff had suddenly sprung from. They suggested that “the blue one” and “the grey one” would probably be simpler. Though of course it could be argued that the grey one was actually closer to silver …

I could feel the final threads of the will to live snapping like the last remaining strands of the lift cable in a disaster movie.

Spookily enough, it turned out that my next door neighbour’s car would not start this morning, either, and had just been towed off for repairs. I enquired whether there had been any unusually bright lights in the sky while I was away, compatible with an alien spacecraft hovering overhead and sucking up all the electricity in the locality. They looked very thoughtful.

After a late night, I got up at the absolute crack of dawn this morning and drove to the garage to get the car with the defective alarm fixed. Sorry, I could have saved you a bit of reading there by calling it Car B. The receptionist looked at me sadly and pointed out that it was now 8.33, not 8.30 as instructed, as a result of which they were now “busy with other jobs” and it “might be a while” before they got round to mine. Asked to elucidate, she came back with the good news that it would definitely be completed by the time they closed for the day at noon. Even allowing for the generous proportions of the Saturday newspapers, this seemed rather a long time to kill sitting in a garage, so I gave up and went away again. Then I drove across to Chester in Car A, for the purpose of seeing the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette and having a lovely picnic at one of those jolly open air concerts featuring popular classics and a big fireworks display at the end. Only it was cold and had been chucking it down for most of the day, which rather lessened the appeal of the whole concept, so we decided to settle for a quiet dinner and a DVD at home instead. Her home, not mine. “We can always go next year,” said the LTCB, recalling too late that I am supposed to be on a three month probationary period, expiring at the end of this month. It’s arguably jolly lucky for her that I am much too neurotic to become complacent.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Bloke breaks all records

I have no idea of my weight, but I think that my alcohol intake yesterday may have set a new record at 23.0 units, thereby exceeding in 24 hours the recommended maximum for a male over an entire week. I have a clear memory of the 7.0 units I consumed at lunchtime; the evening total depends on whether we got through three bottles of red wine between three of us on the cigar terrace after dinner, in addition to the glass of Prosecco and two bottles of red consumed in the restaurant. Unfortunately I seem unable to obtain verification from my companions, as they are suffering from either actual or diplomatic amnesia. I suppose the actual sort would be quite credible, in the circumstances.

A cigar terrace, I hear you say? Yes, by some miracle of influence with the Westminster planning department, the charismatic proprietor of Boisdale restaurant has been permitted to construct a perfectly comfortable, covered terrace for the continued inhalation of the Cuban cigars which are one of his establishment’s principal raisons d’être. The attitude of this branch of local government is certainly much more accommodating than that of their counterparts in Northumberland, where applications for modest smoking shelters are constantly being knocked back with the Puritan sneer, “Far too comfortable. The object of the law is to make them give up, you know.”

So after a fine Italian meal a couple of doors along with a former colleague and one of my lunch guests who popped along for “just a quick drink” and remained to dinner, as we always knew he would, we repaired to this welcoming refuge for a Monte Cristo and a further bucketful of wine. As we were sitting there leaning back in our chairs and smoking like young bucks out of Brideshead Revisited (in the classic John Mortimer TV adaptation, obviously, not the regrettable new film), three young (by my standards) women came to sit at the next table for the purpose of having a fag. I guess they were probably in their early 30s, though we flattered them by pretending that we thought they were in their late 20s. I shall call them the Glamorous Blonde, the Busty Thoroughbred and the Cuddly Hamster, mainly because I have no idea of their real names. What astonished me, after decades of half-hearted attempts to chat up women in bars which have almost invariably ended in the rapid receipt of firm instructions involving sex and travel, was the reaction when one of my companions addressed them. This bloke, who has always modelled himself on Evelyn Waugh’s “Boy” Mulcaster, came out with what I would have thought was quite possibly the worst chat-up line of all time: “Would you care to join us, ladies? Our partners are between 50 and 500 miles away.” And, blow me, they did. Though they did not blow me, as it happened. Or anyone else to the best of my knowledge. Nevertheless, we had a perfectly pleasant chat, which must have gone on for a couple of hours, I suppose. I just wish I could remember what any of it was about. What I can say with confidence is that the Cuddly Hamster who walked me back to my club was a male in his early 40s, and luckily he did not ask if he could come in with me.

It is remarkable how well I felt this morning, all things considered, tending to confirm the widespread belief that high quality cigars and decent wine do not give rise to unpleasant after-effects. Though it does seem much too good to be true.

I found myself with a bit of time to kill in Newcastle at lunchtime, as a result of missing my connecting train to Morpeth. The days when branch trains wait for their advertised mainline connection are, of course, long gone. Now their operators would be fined for unpunctuality if they did any such thing, so the local Pacer service chugs and rattles along in front of the inter-city service with which it was supposed to connect, thereby making the ironically named “Flying Scotsman” even later.

“I know,” I thought, “I’ll go and have lunch at my club.” So I went there on my own for the first time in my life, and sat at the club table with a couple of elderly gents, one of whom made a valiant attempt to engage me in their conversation, while his companion looked at me with what I took for some time as withering contempt, but which I finally re-interpreted as the total incomprehension which arises when one is almost completely stone deaf. Still, he did contribute a fine, blasphemous joke about the Pope and Bill Clinton, which I would reproduce but for my near certainty that it is already enjoying wide circulation. He lowered his voice for the punch line, which led me to miss it, but at least gave me a bit of mental exercise as I worked out what the hell it must have been. Though, of course, given the sewer-like state of my mind, it is quite possible that I have given an entirely filthy spin to a joke which, as uttered, was clean enough to be shared with nuns and the gentler sort of preparatory schoolchildren. Though the drain-like laugh uttered by the other old boy definitely suggested otherwise.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The literary life makes death look a pretty good option

14st 0lb; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,298 days to go; St James’s.

The day did not get off to the best of starts when I strode confidently out of the house at 6.25 a.m. and the bloody car would not unlock with the usual electronic gizmo. I resorted to old technology and managed to open the driver’s door with a key, but the engine would not turn at all. Whatever happened to starting handles? Ideal for both this sort of eventuality, and for walloping people who stop to ask if you’re having trouble.

Fortunately, I have another vehicle on stand-by for just such emergencies; but the disabled car was the one I had prepared earlier, as they always used to say on Blue Peter. Luckily I had slung the luggage onto the back seat last night, rather than into the boot, which remained firmly locked along with all the doors apart from the driver’s one. After a bit of high level swearing and re-arranging, the dog and I left only marginally late and I was in good time for the 07.19 from Morpeth to London.

The dinner which was the real purpose of my visit to London having been cancelled, the highlight of my day became the literary lunch I had arranged to attend because I was in town anyway. To be fair, I was interested in both the subject and the speaker, who was an exact contemporary of mine at Cambridge. He had been one of the most elegant and self-assured young men of my generation, always sweeping through college in distinctive and evidently expensive old-fashioned clothes which excited my envy as a would-be young fogey myself. However, it was made clear that I was unfortunately ineligible for membership of the club owing to a fatal lack of funds, style and self-esteem. He had gone on to mix in very high society and to lead the sort of life as a man of letters that I have always envied.

Luckily all this stopped dead the minute that he wandered in. Superficially, he appeared to have aged well: his hair had receded a bit, but he had not gone grey at all, and his big, brown, spaniel eyes still looked bright enough – but in a hunted sort of way. In place of the fine Victorian get-up of the 1970s was a nondescript blue suit, and a college tie lazily half knotted some way below his open collar. And instead of the expected arrogant drawl when he opened his mouth, there came a hesitant stammer. His performance as a public speaker made mine look positively assured; he sweated, stuttered, gurned and generally gave the impression of being thoroughly ill at ease. What he had to say was interesting enough, though, focusing on the subject of his latest forthcoming biography. He had enjoyed a “beautiful friendship” with the great man, though his reference to having been “platonically loved” by him clearly pre-empted most of the obvious questions afterwards. Lunch was followed by a book signing in which I did not participate, though my guests who did so described the author snatching banknotes and stuffing them into his top pocket with the air of a man who is well down on his uppers.

Perhaps I should abandon my ideas of authorship and go back to labouring at the coalface of public relations. I gave some advice before lunch to one of my guests, who has recently taken a new job in which his responsibilities will include attempting to market the concern to potential investors. I explained why he would find this almost impossible, even though I could see that the allegedly revolutionary and modish gizmo the firm has been set up to produce attracting quite a lot of media interest. Although it is at little more than the design concept stage, the company has apparently already signed an exclusive contract to sell hundreds of thousands of the things at £22.50 apiece. What could possibly go wrong?

“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “They could turn out to cost £25 each to produce for a kick-off.”

My friend’s face fell. “It’s funny you should say that …” he began.

Later on, having changed the subject to something altogether jollier, namely Nazism, I made the implausible assertion that I am not a racist.

“How can you possibly say that?” he snorted.

“I have an Iranian girlfriend” I asserted, with some confidence.

He really should have been wearing a monocle, so that it could have fallen out with simulated shock, allowing him to twiddle it thoughtfully as he said, with an Eric von Stroheim sneer, “My dear chap, don’t you realize that the Persians are as Aryan as we are?”

Evidently not. Though I do now.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Doing my bit for the wider community

14st 2lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,299 days to go (which seems a much greater reduction from 1,300 than one, somehow); Glanton.

I wish I hadn’t got into the habit of recording my weight in this blog. It started as a powerful incentive to get the poundage down, and it succeeded up to a point. Now it’s just a daily embarrassment, though I suppose the 2lb gain yesterday could be down simply to missing the dehydrating effect of drinking a life-threatening quantity of alcohol in the evening. Ironically, I took the absence of those “empty calories” into account when I decided that it was probably safe to graze a bit when I returned from a walk last night, along with the fact that I had just taken some exercise and had only eaten a very frugal and carefully calorie counted lunch.

I now feel very fat, and have to keep reminding myself that I was actually 22lb heavier at Christmas. Though this does not alter the fact that I would be 23lb lighter by now, if all had gone according to plan, and the bursary campaign for my old school would have benefited from enough additional sponsorship to pay for woodwork lessons for a couple of impoverished brats for the best part of a fortnight.

I also keep dreaming about living in truly awful lodgings. But at least it is not prison, so I suppose it could be worse as premonitions go.

Since yesterday’s diet proved so unsuccessful, I decided to revert to my proven IET™ (the no D for Dinner diet) and just have a cracking lunch. Accordingly I drove to my nearest pub, home of the world famous C*** Chips, to test their lunchtime menu. I told myself on the drive across that I was performing an important public service since, if people do not make use of the place, it will almost certainly close down (or at least revert to locking its doors until the evening, as it did until recently). It’s just as well I did, as there was no-one in the bar apart from the barmaid, and no-one in the dining area apart from a very elderly Scotch couple, the male half disconcertingly clad in shorts, who were finishing bowls of soup. I expect they had slurped and smacked their lips a lot while they did so. They looked the sort. Fortunately they left shortly after I arrived, evidently feeling that they had contributed quite enough to the Sassenach tourist economy.

The three of us proved to be the pub’s entire lunchtime trade. A blue car did roar up at one point and a Pugwash-mouthed, hard-boiled, middle-aged bottle blonde female was despatched from it to peruse the menu outside the door, but it clearly did not feature enough lard-based delicacies, as the car promptly roared away again. Foolishly, I thought, the driver waited for her to clamber back inside before he did so.

Purely in the interests of research, I solemnly worked my way through the daily papers, two pints of Gladiator, two packets of pork scratchings (only 218 calories apiece), a half pound burger with onion rings, c*** chips and a nod to healthy eating in the form of some salad garnish, ice cream and coffee. It filled a need. Frankly, I was surprised that I was capable of supporting my own weight on the short walk back to the car. As I did so, I noticed that the pub sign is now adorned with a gold line drawing of a dumpy old party wearing a crown. She looks suspiciously like Queen Victoria to me. So much for my friend’s distinctive plan to make the place a centre for Jacobite pilgrimages and subversion.

I did not accomplish much for the remainder of the day, which I spent feeling (a) very full and (b) that I had done my bit to preserve an important community resource. Mainly (a), it has to be said, but at least (a) was surely partially justified by (b). And, to look on the bright side, I did not feel the need of even the lightest snack while I was catching up with Coronation Street in the evening. Not even when I was tempted by all those bar snacks and Betty’s hotpot in the Rover’s Return.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Contemplating my final boat race

14st 0lb; 2.3 units of alcohol yesterday; precisely 1,300 days left; Limbo.

I slept well enough but woke early. In the ensuing period of doziness, before my entirely hypothetical alarm clock went off, I had a series of bizarre dreams in which I was on a ferry with one of my oldest school friends, and lost my temper with him because he failed to get his belongings together in time for us to disembark at the correct stop. Later the two of us were sharing some lodgings which I found thoroughly disgusting. No doubt this all foreshadows our imminent journey across the Styx and the sub-standard accommodation lined up for us in Hades.

Months ago I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to return to London on Thursday to have dinner with a former client and one of my ex-colleagues in the increasingly glamorous world of financial public relations. I said that I would do so only if I received a cast iron guarantee that the event would not be cancelled at short notice, as it was the last time I arranged to make the trip. Yesterday I received a mildly annoying e-mail asking me to make the final choice of restaurant, deciding between one I have always wanted to visit, but which was booked for a two hour slot at a not altogether user-friendly time; and another which I know very well. I was too tired even to think about it yesterday, but reluctantly plumped for the second option this morning. No sooner had I e-mailed my decision than I received a follow-up message to say that the ex-client had cancelled. The ****. I cannot abandon my trip to London as I have arranged a lunch on the back of the dinner engagement, but I could at least return to Northumberland the same day. Except that a look at the National Express website quickly confirmed that the cost of altering my train ticket to do this exceeded by some margin the saving I would make on overnight accommodation.

Still, some things are going surprisingly right. For a kick-off, when I got back home yesterday I found that I had received another reply to the spoof advertisement for a wife or girlfriend I placed on my other website four years ago. The first response came in April this year, when the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette e-mailed me about her attractive friend and it all went horribly wrong (from her point of view) and she ended up going out with me herself. Very spookily, the second e-mail is also from a woman writing on behalf of a friend, who has the same Christian name and whose surname starts with the same letter of the alphabet as the lady with whom the LTCB was trying to fix me up. At least this one attaches a picture. Her friend looks very nice. Why do things like this only start turning up when one is happily attached? Another fine example of Sod’s Law in action.

I have also been engaged in an entertaining (to me) e-mail correspondence with the Radio 4 newsreader and continuity announcer Kathy Clugston, who unsurprisingly took exception to some of the comments I have made about her in this blog. I must say that I was mortified when her initial witty remonstrance turned up, as it had never occurred to me that she might read my comments. It’s amazing the things that turn up if you try Googling yourself, which sounds a bit like a sexual practice now I come to think about it. I’d still rather have my news read by an Englishman with an RP accent, ideally dressed in a dinner jacket and called something like Alvar Lidell. But at least I now regard the lady herself in a warm and friendly sort of way, as I know that she has an extremely good sense of humour.

It demonstrates once again the value of a PR tactic which I have recommended to many clients over the years: don’t harbour resentments or seek retribution when people are rude about you in the media. Just ring them up and ask them out for a drink or a coffee so that you can explain your point of view. I don’t recall it ever making matters worse, and in a number of cases it has converted sworn enemies into unlikely and enduring friends.

Now, of course, I have the challenge of finding someone else I can be rude about instead, to release some of the venom from my system in the first instance; and then, with a bit of luck, to obtain an introduction to them when they write to me to complain. I fear that I must conclude this posting so that I can go and conduct a Google search for Page 3 girls and lingerie models who might be suitable to slag [sic] off.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Sleeplessness: it's no joke

No idea once again; 10.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,301 days left; Newcastle upon Tyne.

My night’s journey started off so well, as I drifted quickly off into a deep sleep at around 11 o’clock. Unfortunately this was brought to an abrupt stop when the bloke in the bedroom above mine came crashing in at 12.15 a.m. He then marched around for a scarcely believable length of time, perchance reliving the joy of square-bashing at the Guards depot in Pirbright back in the 1960s. I found it hard to believe that anyone could take so long and cover so many hundreds of yards just to perform the normal bedtime routines of hanging up clothes or brushing teeth. To my utter amazement, he then repeated his route march at 2.10, 3.40 and finally 4.50 a.m. Never in all my years have I encountered such a fatal combination of chronic prostate trouble, St Vitus dance and a total and utter lack of consideration for the welfare of others. I don’t know how he felt when he finally rolled out of bed this morning, but when I gave up trying to sleep after his last outburst, I can tell you that I was totally shattered.

I caught the 07.00 train to Newcastle, on which I found myself surrounded by earnest, young, blonde female accountants. There are worse fates. As they and the many other youthful, London-based advisers poured off the train at Newcastle Central, it was remarkably easy to visualize them as a plague of oversized, parasitic, blue-suited insects, about to suck what little life is left out of the North East corporate sector. Luckily they did not all want taxis; unluckily the curse of the ignorant taxi driver who is new to these parts has finally arrived on Tyneside. I made several attempts to explain very slowly to the straggly bearded berk in the driving seat where I wanted to go, then gave up and acted as navigator for the journey. Luckily this is an option for me in Newcastle; in Leeds a couple of years ago I nearly shat myself in the front passenger seat of a taxi whose driver had an A to Z propped open on the steering wheel in front of him throughout, and paid infinitely more attention to that than to the traffic speeding at us from all sides as we weaved erratically through the central motorway system. I am sure it was only the Koran, prominently displayed on the dashboard, that got us through.

I am not much use for anything at the best of times, and am worse than useless when I have only had a couple of hours’ sleep the previous night. Just my luck then to have one of my very few business meetings of the year in Newcastle this morning, and a speech to write for another client when I got home late this afternoon. I battled to do so in the face of extreme fatigue, and feared that the result was embarrassingly short of decent (or, for that matter, indecent) jokes. Then the fax machine of the hotel to which I had been instructed to send it would not work. I have to confess that I used some very bad words indeed at this point. When the great Ledger is opened and my life weighed in the balance in just 1,300 days time, I hope that I will be permitted to cite extreme fatigue as part of my plea in mitigation.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Like the (Persian) cat that got the (ice) cream

No idea; 10.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,302 days to go; Holland Park.

I’ve experienced some bizarre interruptions to my sleep over the years (many of them catalogued in these pages) but I thought that this morning’s took the biscuit. My companion suddenly announced that Big Ben must be broken as she had distinctly heard it striking 5 o’clock, but not the subsequent quarters, and was lying awake waiting for them like a never dropped second shoe. At precisely that moment the distinctive Westminster chimes echoed loudly around the room, which at least provided a welcome excuse for warming up for the day with a bit of heavy sarcasm. Starting, as usual, exactly how I meant to go on.

Today had been officially designated as “Bloke Makeover Day”, when a visit to a mainstream chain store or two in Kensington High Street would transform my appearance for the better. This would mean that I stopped being mistaken in the street for Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine (“Eeeh! I thought you were supposed to be dead!”), and emerged as the sort of dapper man about town that a smart and fashion conscious young lady would not be ashamed to be seen with. Unfortunately the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette had made one fateful miscalculation; the shops in Kensington do not open at 11 a.m. on Sundays, as they do in Chester, but at noon. So we ended up strolling around Holland Park instead. A nostalgic experience for me since I used to do precisely this on Sunday afternoons 25 years ago, when I lived in a flat nearby. I tried not to think about what said flat would now be worth, if I hadn’t sold it in 1986 and moved to Northumberland to write a book. It seemed like a good idea at the time – though admittedly only to me, and not to anyone else I asked for advice.

Still, we were at least able to implement Part 2 of Plan A, namely introducing Bloke to authentic Iranian cuisine. Which is pretty good, I must say, though they do give you a very peculiar look when you ask to see the wine list. I can’t conscientiously recommend the stuff they served instead, which was a yogurt drink spelt, but not pronounced, dough. But I can tell you hand on heart that Persian pistachio ice cream is the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted in my life. Even if they do sneak insidious little bits of clear plastic into the portions served to infidels.

After lunch I took the LTCB to Euston in a taxi and escorted her onto a train back to Crewe. She was groaning about how full she was and I agreed that I would definitely not need to eat again for the rest of the day. Though curiously enough, after a brisk 45 minute walk back across town to St James’s, I somehow found room this evening for a traditional roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, just to complement the red wine I had missed so badly at lunchtime.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Staying alive till the end of the show

Mercifully weight-free, though not weightless, particularly after imbibing 11.0 units of alcohol in the course of yesterday; 1,303 drinking days left till Armageddon; South Kensington.

We were woken very early by some total arse crashing around in the room upstairs. We could only feel awe that a single human being could make so much noise without the aid of a Don Partridge one man band kit. After this indifferent start, things continued on their downhill trajectory when we wandered across St James’s Park to the tube station and found it closed for the weekend, along with all of the Circle and most of the District Line, with the helpful advice to “use an alternative route”. We did. It was black with a yellow light on the front. What those on slightly tighter budgets were supposed to do remains a total mystery to me.

We alighted in South Kensington at the V&A, which has long been one of the LTCB’s favourite places on the planet. This is not one of those areas in which we have been pleasantly surprised by our compatibility, since while she finds its variety endlessly fascinating I have always considered it a maddening hotchpotch, with far too much to take in, making it impossible to enjoy.

The LTCB particularly wanted to see an exhibition about the Supremes, featuring costumes lent by Mary Wilson. My ignorance of the subject is such that I had been wondering what had inspired Lady Wilson of Rievaulx to start collecting the things, but I quickly twigged that this was another person of the same name who had been one of the original members of the group. I do remember seeing them on Top of the Pops in their heyday but they were never among my favourites. In fact, I had to peer at the old 45s in the display cases to remind myself what exactly they were famous for. There was a great deal of useful background material about the migration of blacks from the South to the northern industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago, then about the civil rights movement. As I was looking at a series of film clips of Martin Luther King, I remarked to the LTCB that I was trying really hard to feel more involved in the whole thing. She nodded approvingly, until I told her that I was doing so by attempting to replicate the feelings of a footsore white person: specifically the one who must have been really peeved when the uppity Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Alabama bus. Her look suggested that this was a line of thought it would be prudent of me to drop immediately, if not sooner.

After this we drifted round some costume galleries then traipsed through the jewellery collection (eyes front, almost breaking into a sprint) to another exhibition about theatre design. After which, thank the Lord, it was time for another taxi ride, a refreshing pint of beer and a delicious lunch. I had wheedled and pleaded for a change of plan so that we could revisit the Lebanese restaurant I had enjoyed so much when we were last in London together. And, predictably enough, it was nothing like as enjoyable the second time around. It also gave me chronic indigestion which persisted for the best part of 24 hours.

This evening we returned to the Royal Opera House to see The Marriage of Figaro. We found a taxi easily and quickly, which was good, and the driver tried to take the sensible route via St James’s Square, which was better, but then found that the bastards had closed his planned exit as part of a water mains replacement programme which seems to have required every other street in the West End to be dug up simultaneously. Not that there is any sign of anyone working in the resulting holes. So we ended up in the bloody queue in the Mall again, which made me a bit tetchy. Various other trivial annoyances piled tetchiness upon tetchiness, making the LTCB progressively sadder. I think she may be beginning to realize what other people mean when they ask her if she has grasped what I am Really Like. This, in turn, will no doubt lead her to a belated appreciation of why I am still single after all these years. Something I had been very much hoping to avoid.

I had not seen this David McVicar interpretation of Figaro when it was first performed in 2006, perhaps because I see from my diary that I went to three other productions that year: by Opera North, Grange Park Opera at Nevill Holt, and ENO. It is my favourite opera, and almost certainly the greatest opera ever written, but one has to draw the line somewhere. It proved a very handsome piece, though the final act seemed to me to lose its way when the trees descended to create the gardens inside the castle, with furniture still scattered around. The cast were all of a high standard and I felt overall that it was as good a performance of Figaro as I have ever seen. The applause at the end was loud and sustained, with the biggest burst reserved for Sir Charles Mackerras, nearly 82, when he toddled on in his white tie and black blouson to a heartfelt “Ah, bless him!” from the LTCB, to which she added, in a caring sort of way, “He deserved that just for staying alive till the end of the show.” There have been many other operas over the years when I felt that I deserved a medal for doing so myself, but luckily this was most definitely not amongst them.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The Rake's Progress to a false economy

14st 0lb; 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,304; Covent Garden.

The 7.19 from Morpeth to London was again bang on schedule this morning. The only thing I have found wrong with these trains of late is the lavatories, and if anyone from National Express is reading this, I can tell you what your problem is: you need to spend a few quid fixing the flushing mechanisms. As things stand, the first person to press the lever sets off an unstoppable cascade of water which continues until the carriage’s tank is exhausted. The lavatory bowl then becomes a sort of horrific archaeological site, with layer upon layer of paper concealing things that I would rather not think about, let alone discuss. Until some bright spark complains to a member of staff that “That toilet is absolutely disgusting”, perhaps hoping that they will do something about it. Which they do: locking the door and sticking an “Out of Order” notice on the outside. By the end of most of my recent journeys, almost every loo has been similarly treated and the corridors have been full of people trying to hop uneasily from foot to foot while keeping their knees tightly clenched together.

The other entertainment en route was provided by a hugely fat racehorse owner who left his coffee cup unsecured when he sensibly waddled off to the loo before the above-mentioned disaster struck. A lurch of the train duly sent it smashing onto the floor shortly afterwards, but luckily its contents went onto the adjacent carpet rather than all over me. Which was nice. Later two jolly old bats climbed on board at Grantham and ordered a bottle of champagne from the at-seat service, so that we were treated to the magical noise of a cork popping at 9.40 a.m. Always a sound effect to raise the spirits.

I had been invited to lunch in an old French restaurant in the City. I first visited the place in 1987 and must have returned to it more than once every week throughout my subsequent career. Given that I have hardly set foot in it during my regular visits to town since 2004, I was faintly embarrassed when the maitre d’ greeted me as an old friend, apologized profusely for the fact that my host had been allocated “about the worst table in the place” and offered me a glass of champagne on the house. Though naturally I accepted. It was pleasing to see my old haunt so busy. By the time I abandoned my full time job around the corner in 2004, I was encountering increasing resistance to my suggestions of lunching here as its old fashioned French cuisine was pronounced “too heavy”. I found that the proprietors had risen brilliantly to this challenge by substantially reducing the size of their portions, while simultaneously raising their prices, presumably to appeal to a luxury orientated clientele as well as to their bank manager. My host drank diet Coke but at least he was wearing a suit and tie (as were nearly all the other customers – the “dress down” vogue that prevailed when I left the City must have run its course). He also seemed pleasingly busy in these difficult times, and to have achieved a vast improvement in the quality of his client list since the days when he co-operated with the likes of me and my merry band of old school Northern industrialists.

Virgin Trains were back on form this afternoon when I went to Euston to meet the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, and I found the place seething with crowds angered (but totally unsurprised) by the cancellation of their trains owing to “overhead line problems in the Harrow area”. These were delaying the incoming services, too, but I am pleased to report that my very good friend turned up eventually. A man with a foreign accent was extremely rude to me when we arrived at my club, literally trying to elbow me out of the way so that he could grab my taxi before I had even paid the driver. I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, that I had given him a sharp old English punch on the nose. I recovered my sang froid over a nice pot of Earl Grey in the drawing room (so very Alan Bennett), where there was a joyous moment when a frightful old bore woke from a drunken slumber, stood up and flung open the full length windows behind him, then looked very much as though he was poised to overbalance and plunge head-first into the street below. It would have made my day, but sadly he staged an unexpected and frankly implausible recovery. If he could have contrived to land on top of a rude foreigner getting out of taxi outside, it would have been pure poetry.

We had a slightly fraught journey to the Royal Opera House in a taxi which we originally felt incredibly lucky to secure, given that it was raining at the time. But we then sat for an inordinate amount of time in a queue to enter Trafalgar Square. I don’t do patience very well at the best of times, and particularly when I can see a drinking opportunity slipping away from me. Shortly afterwards we were treated to a completely unnecessary detour caused by our driver’s failure to spot a “Road Closed” sign which would have been obvious to a mole wearing a blindfold. He then stopped some way from the Opera House, gestured through an alleyway and pointed out that we could walk from there. Well, we could have walked all the bloody way if we had wanted to get soaked, and it would probably have been quicker, too. Still, he did at least finally deliver us to our destination in time for a pre-performance drink, which was the main thing.

I think the LTCB was quite impressed with her first visit to the Royal Opera House. My own expectations of The Rake’s Progress had been successfully lowered by a lousy review in the Daily Telegraph, but I was much taken with the beautiful back projected imagery of Texas, where the Trulove family apparently lived (though Tom Rakewell still made his way from there to London, England, as the libretto demanded, stopping at a Wild West saloon en route). A later scene featuring a miniature house on the prairie was arresting, too. But directorial invention seemed to flag in the second half, particularly towards the end. Surprisingly, I diplomatically refrained from drawing any parallels between Baba the Turk and my companion. Unsurprisingly, I concluded that on the whole I preferred the Hockney designs for Glyndebourne, where my recollection was also that the music progressed at an altogether brisker pace.

We had a meal afterwards at a pasta place nearby, where the food was on the poor side of indifferent and I ordered a bottle of red from the upper end of the wine list which proved to be the roughest thing to have passed my lips since I traded up from Bull’s Blood in the mid-1970s. True, the bill was half what it would have been at The Ivy. But as it was about 99% less enjoyable, I think it must definitely go down in this record as a thoroughly false economy.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

In bed as things get blown up

14st 1lb; 4.8 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,305; Helmand.

I was woken around 7.30 by the distinctive crump of live bombs or shells landing on the Otterburn military ranges. Even though these are some 10 - 15 miles away, the explosions are still powerful enough to shake the house slightly. What with that and the frequent low level RAF training flights overhead (just) it’s sometimes a bit like living in a war zone. These days you’d think they might get enough opportunities to practise in Afghanistan.

It can’t be a lot of fun out there in khaki in the pissing rain, even if there are live munitions to play with. I don’t know how much water has come down in the last 24 hours, but I do know that I ended up prudently reversing back up the slope when I tried to take a shortcut through the ford on my way to the village shop to buy the papers, including the weekly Northumberland Gazette. Even this proves to have gone Wife in the North crazy, with a feature which includes a paean of praise from some berk at Northumberland Tourism about how she is going to introduce loads of southerners to the delights of the county. By hating its peculiarly Godforsaken qualities. Of course! I should have know that was where I was going so wrong. Using the same logic, I understand that Liverpool Tourism are about to sign up Boris Johnson are their chief spokesman on the delights of Merseyside.

Having a very early start in prospect tomorrow, I went to bed uncharacteristically early. At 10.30p.m., the windows were still rattling faintly as the shells continued to rain down on the moors of upper Coquetdale. I reflected on the irony that here, as on Salisbury Plain, the military have done a brilliant job of preserving the natural flora and fauna by periodically drenching them with high explosives. This proves to have done far less damage than our peaceable civilian farmers have achieved in comparable areas, even though they have had nothing more threatening than ploughs, pesticides and Government grants at their disposal.

Then I thought that perhaps the Tourism people were barking up the wrong tree trying to market the place to Wifey’s twittering female fans in Islington and Barnes. Surely they should be targeting plane spotters, spies and people who are used to this sort of thing. How about direct marketing campaigns in Helmand and the Gaza Strip? “Come to Northumberland: it’s a real home from home.”

But chiefly I thought that I would really like to get some sleep. And, after a while, I did. I think the soldiers probably knocked off for a nice cup of tea around 11, once the officers knew that the chaps had definitely missed last orders in the pub.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Losing the last of England

14st 1lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,306; Milfield.

Like most people, I derive my mental image of a chimney sweep from the film version of Mary Poppins, with Dick van Dyke doing the world’s worst cockney accent as he hammed his way through “Chim chiminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo.” Ah, to be able to go to one’s grave knowing that one had left a grateful world a set of lyrics like that. The marvellous bloke who turns up once a year to sweep my chimneys looks nothing like Dick van Dyke, but then mercifully he doesn’t attempt to sing either. Today was the day and I really pushed the boat out and got him to sweep three chimneys (one more than usual) which he did with his customary efficiency. Yet I am still sufficiently in thrall to that bloody song from my childhood to think that I should really have shaken his hand for luck. As usual, I remembered to ask him shortly after he had driven off to his next appointment.

I had lunch today with another member of the diminishing band of North East newspaper columnists, this one being the former editor of one of the biggest selling national titles. I must say that his local in Milfield did a really cracking lunch. Though my jealousy was mitigated to some extent by the fact that his “local” is now about a five mile drive from his house, the same distance as the nearest boozer is from mine. The pub that was only a short walk from his front door is currently boarded up as a consequence of such pub-friendly policies as the drink driving crackdown and the smoking ban, along with the availability of cut-price alcohol in every supermarket. A great shame since, as Hilaire Belloc observed, “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves. For you will have lost the last of England.” The only thing that has ever made me wish that I lived anywhere in Northumberland other than my current house is the prospect of living within convenient walking distance of a really good boozer. But the turnover of landlords is so high, and the incidence of closures so frequent, that it would be a crazy criterion for anyone to put high on their list when choosing a place to live. Added to which, if I did live anywhere near a decent pub, I’d feel I had to strive so hard to keep it open that my weight would soon climb back up to 17 stone and I’d be able to add cirrhosis of the liver to my long list of health worries.

My host greatly cheered me at any early stage of our lunch by mentioning that there was a letter in today’s paper citing me as the writer’s favourite columnist. Now, there’s a first. On getting home and actually reading the thing, I was pleased to note that he wasn’t a blood relative, friend or employee. On the other hand, after his promising opening he went on to complain that I had described Tony Blair as an Englishman when he is in fact Scotch. And to take the paper to task for posing the quiz question “In which film did Holly Hunter play a mute?” Because there is apparently some PC term much preferred by people who cannot speak.

On the other hand, why worry? They are hardly likely to give us that much earache about it, are they?

At least exploring the question of the chameleon Blair’s real nationality gives me an easy idea to spin out into a few hundred pounds for a column next Tuesday. Which is important since in my case at least 90% of the effort goes into coming up with the initial idea, and less than 10% into the actual writing.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The rocket powered enema

14st 0lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,307; The Deep End.

I had always thought that there were no more depressing words to be heard on Radio 4 than “the BBC news is read by Kathy Clugston”. This means that one has to listen to the daily litany of economic woe, led today by Persimmon’s mass redundancies, conveyed in the sort of voice that really ought to be reading stories about fubsy wubsy bunny rabbits to a tea party for special needs three year olds in Belfast. However, there is now the added torture of endlessly repeated trails for their Book of the Week, “based on her hugely successful blog”. It’s strange how appealing even the dumbed down Radio 3 has suddenly become, with the voices of serious musicologists now replaced by nice girls called Sarah with neutral accents, playing readers’ requests for jolly tunes by brass bands. Most seem to be conducted by Elgar Howarth, whose career path was presumably set in stone when he was christened. I wonder what would have happened if his parents had called him Stalin?

Yesterday afternoon I conned someone into giving me a lift into Alnwick to pick up my old convertible, which had been in the garage for a week having various dents ironed out. I asked her if she’d mind awfully hanging around for a bit, just until I was sure that my car was actually ready and in an acceptable condition. She volunteered to come and give me a second opinion on this point, and immediately demoralized me by pointing out that it was absolutely fine, so long as I didn’t mind the new wing they had put onto it being a different colour from the rest of the car. She was not wrong, either: it depends on which angle one views it from, but the wing is definitely a markedly different shade of blue from the bonnet. But then so is the other wing, too. I asked the man in charge about it, but he just looked sad. In fact, even before I asked him about it, he was the saddest looking bloke I have seen since Clement Freud used to advertise dog food. In the circumstances, it seemed kindest just to pay the outrageously large bill and reflect that the car was, on the whole, less of a mess than it had been before I came up with the bright idea of having it mended.

As a reciprocal favour (least I could do and all that) I drove home via the chemist in Rothbury to pick up a prescription which my benefactor had originally been scheduled to collect. This proved to consist of two huge and very thin carrier bags, each containing box upon box labelled “ENEMA” in big green letters. Carrying them the admittedly short distance to the car was my most embarrassing experience since I asked to borrow a cool box from a vet friend to accommodate a picnic for Glyndebourne, and ended up striding across the lawns bearing a polystyrene box labelled stridently in red on all sides: “SEMEN: WITH CARE”.

Today I delivered the goods to the person for whom they were intended, trying to look sympathetic and interested, and not to smirk. I have tried to blot the detail from my mind, but I was treated to an explanation that each large box contained something like a gas powered rocket, and that the idea was to light the blue touch paper but then not to retire in the conventional way. Far from it. Instead you brace yourself and point the thing up your backside. At least I think that was the story. One thing is undoubtedly true: one half of the human race will never understand the pleasures of the other.