Tuesday, 30 September 2008

From misery to free love

No idea what I weigh; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,224 days to go; Zegg.

I am definitely in a downward spiral. I felt almost tearful this morning as I contemplated the dreadful prospect of returning to Northumberland. Even though my house there is, on more or less any objective measure, more comfortable than the LTCB’s in Chester. Well, apart from the objective measure concerned with the availability of central heating, obviously.

All right, so it may be no more comfortable than the LTCB’s, but it is a hell of a lot roomier and it hasn’t got a sort of Borstal right next door. Its critical failing is that it hasn’t got the LTCB in it, and I have grown very fond of her company. So much so that I would contemplate relocating to enjoy more of it, had we not met just before the housing market collapsed and the credit system froze up, making it impossible for either of us to stand a snowball in hell’s chance of selling or renting out our houses if we should feel minded to set up home together.

Life is a bitch, is it not?

I may not have got almost tearful just about going home, come to think of it. I may have sneaked a look at my bank balance and investment portfolio, too, the state of which would be enough to make anyone weep.

Fortunately the LTCB was on hand, before she went to work, and was able to point out with her usual brisk good sense that the only reason for going home was that I had scheduled it, and that there was no reason why I could not unschedule it again. So I did just that, and attempted to cheer myself up with a fine lunch in the Curmudgeon’s Arms. Sadly its positive effects were only temporary.

Most of the rest of the day passed in a useless blur, though I did stir myself to take radical action in the early evening and go out to buy a couple of 100 watt bulbs, one of which raised the light level in the LTCB’s sitting room from sepulchral to merely gloomy, and made it possible to read a newspaper without the sense that one was straining one’s eyes and that blindness would inevitably follow. I’m sure my mother warned me about that risk, as well as the other obvious cause of blindness in teenage boys.

The LTCB was out on her own this evening, at supper with some girlfriends, but returned in time to watch a Channel 4 programme which had caught her eye in the schedules. She had billed it to me as a load of filth calculated to appeal to elderly blokes everywhere, but had omitted to mention the dread words “presented by Dawn Porter”. The appeal of this woman to commissioning editors is completely beyond me. Predictably we ended up with a programme in which pretty much f*** all happened, and nothing of interest was revealed. During her time at some German free love commune she kept asking, rhetorically, why she let herself in for these things and did not get a proper job. Why, indeed, Dawn? Why, indeed? And, more to the point, just how does a nice enough, not particularly attractive, conventional, dim middle class girl manage to land series on two different, publicly funded television channels in such quick succession?

Monday, 29 September 2008

It's a crazy jungle out there

14st 8lb; 6.4 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,225; Great Rift Valley.

I slept badly. My neck hurts in the place where I landed on it when I fell down the stairs just over a week ago. And now my wallet hurts owing to the nationalization of Bradford & Bingley, in which I had failed to sell my shares despite more warning signs than you would expect to find on a cliff edge in an area of rapid coastal erosion where the local authority has a bit of a fetish about Elfin Safety. It was my own fault. Pure laziness as usual. Made worse in this case by my initial indolence in failing to ask for a share certificate, and leaving the shares in some account arrangement, meaning that I had no idea how to go about selling the bloody things even when I occasionally meant to do so. I would say that I shall never make that mistake again, but clearly the chances of any other society ever going down the demutualization route and handing out free shares to its members are precisely nil, so it all seems a bit academic. Ah well, it’s only a theroretical £1,300 down the gurgler, assuming I had sold at the absolute top. And I did get the shares for nothing and collected nearly £300 in dividends before it all went tits up, so I suppose I should not complain. It’s just that, for some strange reason, I had never looked upon a former northern building society as a high risk investment.

I wrote a couple of newspaper columns this morning then took the dog for a walk, being greeted as I stepped outside the LTCB’s front door by a party of feral youths from the dreadful local school, who were dragging their knuckles along the pavement. Most of their ape-like grunts were mercifully incomprehensible, but one of the animal noises was followed by a distinct call of “dickhead”, which was clearly aimed in my direction. A witty, traditional riposte about “takes one to know one” sprang to mind, but as there were six or seven of them to me plus a small terrier, I concluded that a dignified silence was probably the best way forward, as being less likely to result in a frenzied knife attack and a spate of “Why oh why?” articles in the local papers.

The impression that I had walked out into a jungle was powerfully reinforced when we got to the River Dee, which contained the unmistakable sight of a couple of basking hippopotami. On closer inspection, it turned out that they were not, in fact, unmistakable. They were largely submerged logs floating serenely along, one with a seagull perched nonchalantly on top of it. But my error can surely be excused by the fact that they were moving quite briskly upstream, which is hardly natural behaviour in an inanimate object. The river at this point, above the weir, is not supposed to be tidal, so it was hard to fathom out how it could be defying the normal laws of nature in this way, unless someone had pulled out a gigantic plug a little further upstream. But I think that only happens with canals.

Having written a column this morning on the assumption that the US bank bail-out would go through, it was disconcerting to turn on BBC News 24 this evening and find that the House of Representatives had rejected it, sending Wall Street into free-fall. The Congressmen are evidently pandering to the wishes of their constituents, who wish to see greedy bankers suffering. Quite right, too. Though it might be better if they recognized that we are all on this plummeting aircraft together, and a desire to make the pilot know that we are angry with him for his incompetence is not going to make it any better for the rest of us when it ploughs into the mountainside. Particularly as the pilot is the one person on the plane who has a parachute, and will no doubt make use of it before impact.

A little later Peter Mandelson popped up on Newsnight, leading me to embark on one of my traditional tirades about him. I stopped to find the LTCB staring at me in silence, clearly fearing for my sanity. But that was not the most extraordinary thing about it. No, the reason I shut up was that Mandelson was asked what he thought of the Congressional rejection of the bail-out bill, and he replied “I think they have taken leave of their senses.” This is indeed a historic day. Peter Mandelson has said something I agree with. Can the world possibly get any crazier than this as October approaches?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Welsh lavatory mystery

14st 9lb; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,226; Flintshire.

Another day, another squirrel hunt in the park. Today I was encouraged to note that the miniature railway actually boasts a genuine steam engine, in addition to the yellow Union Pacific diesel I saw chugging around yesterday. The latter was out again today, hauling a couple of kids around the circuit to humour their accompanying fathers, but an oversized kettle was sitting gently simmering and hissing outside the engine shed, with a miserable-looking fat man squeezed tightly behind the controls, eating a white bread doorstop sandwich to keep his strength up. How very like the real thing.

We had an enormous lunch at the LTCB’s parents’ house, where I committed a horrible gaffe by announcing with some feeling that her mother’s apple pie was the best I had ever tasted. Which would probably have gone down a bit better if she had not bought it from Tesco. On the other hand, I could hardly have announced ingratiatingly that her delicious Iranian chicken and celery stew was the best I had ever tasted, since everyone knew damn well that I had never tried it before in my life.

By the time we left I was practically comatose owing to an excess of food and drink, but somehow I managed to get through a visit on the way back to a Welsh branch of Tesco. Quite apart from the gibberish signage, I could tell I was in Wales because all the people in the store seemed to be drawn from a backward sub-set of the human species; they all moved unnaturally slowly and looked like they were struggling to comprehend reality. Which is exactly what one would expect to happen to a group that has saddled itself with a language with no vowels.

I needed a comfort break when we got to the store and duly followed the signs to the café, reasoning that the customer lavatories would be alongside it. And they were, but only a single cubicle for each sex with the male one bearing a large “out of order” sign. A couple of queueing women started gently explaining the notice to me, evidently under the impression that I was a Welshman and could not be expected to have learned to read, when a big Welsh bloke burst out of the door announcing proudly, “It’s not really out of order; it just won’t flush!”

Lovely. Funnily enough at that point I decided that I would rather go downstairs and see if I could find the other customer toilets that the sign claimed I would find near the tills. Amazingly these too were largely out of order, with white “scene of crime” tape cordoning off the urinals, but at least there was a functioning cubicle. People used to joke about the natives of the North East thinking that indoor baths were only of use as coal stores. I wonder what on earth the men of Wales use their lavatories for, that they manage to wreak such havoc?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Cutting down the rain forest

14st 9lb (on the disputed Chester scale); 12.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,227 days left; The Jungle.

One of the more unusual features of the LTCB’s modest Chester terraced house is the fact that it has a chunk of tropical rain forest for a back garden. Or at least that was what I thought it was, until she announced that our task for the day was going to be “tidying up the back yard”. I looked up hopefully, as the dog does when the LTCB makes her cats their breakfasts, vaguely hoping that this might be a euphemism for some sort of sexual activity. But, sadly, not. It proved to be exactly what it said on the tin. Standing on a dodgy pair of stepladders, wielding some blunt secateurs as I gamely tried to hack back a Triffid-like creeper which had migrated from next door, and coiled itself around just about everything in sight. One of its advance parties had even sneaked through the frame of the back door and attempted to strangle the LTCB’s gas boiler. I could swear that I looked down at one point and saw it winding itself around my cutting arm like a living, green tourniquet.

I then took an executive decision to cut up and dispose of a three quarters dead superannuated Christmas tree in a pot, even though the LTCB claimed to feel a continuing attachment to it on the grounds that it was “still alive”. On the one hand I could not help thinking that her attitude on this contrasted markedly with her robust willingness to dispose of a large number of things from my house, including some of the less appealing conservatory plants. On the other hand, it probably augurs reasonably well for the day when the home advises her to withdraw my feeding and up my dose of morphine.

Things deteriorated markedly after this, into a completely hellish couple of hours of thoroughly filthy tidying and cleaning. We worked our way down through several archaeological layers of dead autumn leaves and chip papers slung over the fence by the scratters from the local comprehensive. Then, shortly before five, we drove to the municipal tip and gleefully disposed of the lot. I can’t remember when I was last so glad to see the back of something. Not even Tony Blair could compete.

The LTCB had invited a French lady friend to supper, and my Border terrier fell madly in love with her as soon as she walked through the door. He was most put out when I suggested that we go for a walk so that they could have some time on their own to talk about girlie things, and insisted on leading me at an unnaturally high speed on the very shortest of his regular walks. He then spent the rest of the evening gazing adoringly at his object of desire, occasionally placing a paw on her thigh. An approach he has clearly picked up from his master.

The LTCB had made a real effort to make her refurbished back yard into a beautiful spot to enjoy an outdoor supper on a mildish early autumn evening. She had lit a small stove to counteract any chill in the air, and lit numerous candles for decoration as well as illumination. The only snag was that her guest proved to be an arachnophobe of truly epic proportions, who sat constantly on the edge of her chair, keeping track of the movements of the large local spider population. Eventually she spotted one that really did look like it had stepped out of a David Attenborough documentary, and we had no alternative but to go back indoors. Perhaps it was not so fanciful to view the back yard as a chunk of the rain forest after all.

So that was half a day invested for a return of approximately ten minutes drinking wine and eating olives outside, during which 33.3% of the participants had been terrified out of their wits. Even I have managed to do better than that with most of my punts on the stock market. I did mention, as we went back indoors for delicious home-made lasagne, that there is a spider residing in the LTCB’s gas meter cupboard which is about the size of a soup plate, has legs like a Romanian weight-lifter, and can easily be mistaken for a lobster when it makes one of its periodic forays into the sitting room. I was doing my imitation of David Attenborough saying “F*** me, will you take a look at the size of that!” when the LTCB caught my eye, and I had to spend the rest of the evening pretending that I was only joking.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Dinner with a legend

14st 9lb, according to the LTCB’s most unforgiving scales; 4.2 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,228; Grosvenor Park.

It is remarkable how the world can change completely overnight. Until yesterday evening, my Border terrier had spent more than 49 canine years absolutely convinced that the best thing in the world was chasing sheep. Now he has suddenly discovered that the perfect pastime is, in fact, pursuing grey squirrels. Or at least it would be if it were not for the infuriatingly persistent presence of some fat git at the other end of his lead. Squirrels are a much more manageable size than sheep; they have infinitely more fascinating, bushy, mobile tails; and he is clearly entranced by the way that they teasingly stop to sit up and think about their next move from time to time, even when a dog is bearing down on them at some speed. True, they do have a disconcerting tendency to run up trees – a feat that even the Scottish blackface sheep struggles to bring off – but this detail is certainly not enough to put him off. So we spent an hour or so in the park this morning while he strained on his lead, making a noise disconcertingly like a heavy breather on the phone to a nunnery, and I thanked my lucky stars that there was not a children’s play area where a concerned mother might ring the police and report me as the culprit.

This evening we were invited out to dinner by an old friend of mine who also happens to be the LTCB’s boss, and who inadvertently introduced us by posting one of my newspaper columns on his corporate website. We went to a packed and noisy restaurant that served fine food and had the finest lavatories in the known world – an essay in marbled magnificence. I would love to repeat all the malicious gossip we exchanged about former colleagues, friends, acquaintances and enemies, but oddly enough I am going to draw a veil over it all. Even though, in my days as a City PR man, I enjoyed a reputation as a person of such legendary indiscretion that telling me something in the strictest confidence was widely recognized as a faster and cheaper alternative to placing full page advertisements in a couple of mass circulation newspapers and booking a series of prominent 48 sheet poster sites.

The one thing I will reveal of our evening with this legendary entrepreneur is that, towards the end of our time in the restaurant, his wife pronounced that I had become “less odd”. Eerily echoing the other friend’s wife who felt on Monday that I had become “more civilized”. I do not think that this can just be the beneficial product of time and experience. Clearly being with the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette is pressing me into a mould of normality. As a keen student and advocate of eccentricity, I would not be easily convinced that this was a good thing, but for the fact that meeting her has clearly also made me happier. For evidence of this, see this blog over the last six months or so, passim.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Lunch with a Neanderthal

No idea; 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,229 days to go; pre-history.

I realized that today was going to be a write-off the second time I was woken from a deep sleep by the distinctive sound of a cat vomiting. One such occurrence may be written off as unfortunate; but the second is clearly the cue for sitting up in bed with a computer on your lap, Googling all the invariably fatal diseases that are heralded by nocturnal nausea among allegedly domesticated felines.

It would be fair to say that the dog and I take a fairly detached view of this sort of thing, but the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette loves her kitty-cats, and one has to do one’s best to empathize. Particularly when one has a 30-odd year track record of crashed and burnt relationships, in which the fatal moment was so often blurting out, “It’s only a cat / toy poodle / horse for f***’s sake!”

I got out of bed feeling completely exhausted after my disturbed night, and somehow managed to waste the whole morning reading a newspaper. My Alzheimer’s only needs to make a little progress before I’ll be able to save 90p and a short walk (or a longish drive, when in Northumberland) by reading the same paper every day. I must remember to dig one out that will unfailingly cheer me up. Ideally one combining coverage of a Royal jubilee with a couple of hilarious obituaries – say of an eccentric hereditary peer with a long list of sexual peccadilloes, and a notable left-wing MP who had perished in a freak accident on Hampstead Heath.

At lunchtime I tottered out to the pub, and did not even have the energy to walk a couple of hundred yards up the hill to the Curmudgeon’s Arms. Well, there was another consideration, to be honest. I was in that state when only chips will do, and the Curmudgeon takes as dim a view of chips as he does of hen parties and children (though one suspects that he would be slightly more likely to eat the latter). So I went into the first pub over the bridge and ordered a pint of bitter and a plate of fish and chips.

When I asked the young barmaid if they sold pork scratchings, she affected a look of disgust such as I have not witnessed since I last asked my PA if she fancied a shag. This was a bit discouraging. So was the fact that all the best and brightest tables in the place were already occupied, two of them being taken up by a pair of grotesquely fat, male mental defectives, one of whom had a chin which jutted out exactly like a Neanderthal’s. So I sat down in a gloomy spot in the cavernous interior, where shortly afterwards I looked up on hearing a dragging sound. This proved to be the knuckles of the Neanderthal scraping along the floor as he and his companion made his way to the table directly in front of mine to consume their lunch. Meanwhile a couple of bright-looking, well-spoken young men in their 20s sat down on my other side. They started talking earnestly about mountaineering and, assuming that they knew what they were talking about, I reflected that I could now hold my own at a cocktail party at Chris Bonington’s by dropping into the conversation the fact that, of course, one could save an hour and a half of footslogging on the ascent of Ben Nevis by driving to that alternative starting point that not everyone knows about. Though unfortunately it does take an extra hour and a half to drive there.

They then moved on to current affairs, and one observed how strange it was that one never heard much about that Jade Goody any more these days. Apart, presumably, from the daily reports of her battle against cancer. Then the slightly younger one confessed that he could not find time to read the papers, but tried to hear the news as “he liked to keep in touch with what was going on.” The older one asked him, in that case, if there had been a fire in the Channel Tunnel recently, as he thought that he had heard some mention of it. Yes, said the younger one, it had caused quite a bit of damage and they had had to put everyone on ferries for a few days. And had some holiday company gone bust? “Nah, I’ve definitely not heard that. It’s banks that are going bust these days!”

My, how they laughed! The Neanderthal clearly had a much better grasp of current affairs, and could probably yet earn a place around Gordon Brown’s cabinet table. It just goes to show, once again, that I really must stop myself relying too much on appearances.

The LTCB returned from work intent on taking her ailing cat to the vet’s, but unfortunately she (the cat, not the LTCB) could see that one coming and was holed up on the kitchen roof. The LTCB managed to entice her to the edge of the roof with some cat treats and I then made use of my height advantage to mount the rickety stepladder, reach up and grab her. The cat was far from happy. I felt that I had been a bit of a hero, but recognize that I probably spoilt things a bit by volubly pointing this out.

We then drove to the Comedy Vet, where a couple of perhaps once glamorous blonde receptionists kept up a hilarious double act, with the repartee centring on the hoarding of blue ballpoint pens. Then we were seen by a vet in whose presence I struggled to keep a straight face, since he looked like the product of a bizarre experimental breeding programme involving Roy Hudd, Ken Dodd and Freddie “Mr Parrot Face” Davies. He said that he cat was not dying after all, which was a bit of a bonus, and gave her three injections and a syringe full of laxative for £25. This seemed to compare most favourably with the pricing structure adopted my own vet in Northumberland, who has never been known to charge me less than about £40, even if I have just popped in to buy a worming tablet or a tube of canine toothpaste.

Afterwards we took the dog for a walk in a Chester park where, for the first time in his life, he set eyes upon a grey squirrel. At home we have the smaller, shyer red ones, and I doubt whether he has ever actually seen one of those, either. He was utterly enchanted, and desperate to be let off his lead so that he could chase them, with a view to playfully shaking them to death. If their relentless advance into Northumberland continues, perhaps one day soon I shall feel it only right and proper to grant his wish.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Feeling like Dawn French's fatter American cousin

14st 3lb, 14st 7lb or 14st 9lb, according to successive readings of the LTCB’s electronic scales, at which point I decided that I had better quit before they nudged me back above 15 stone; 4.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,230; Chester.

You’ve got to laugh. At least that was what I did as I stood in the LTCB’s kitchen at lunchtime, making myself a cheese and tomato sandwich and listening on the wireless to Ruth Kelly’s incredible explanation of her hugely welcome and long overdue resignation. “Spending more time with my family” indeed. Can all the spin doctoring resources of a leading western government not come up with something more original and convincing than that?

On reflection, I suppose it could be part of a cunning Papist plot designed not only to undermine the brooding Scotch Presbyterian in Downing Street but to pull the rug out from under the whole, ludicrous “women’s liberation” movement (for which read enslavement of women to paid employment). A public schoolboy unconvincingly disguised as Catholic mother of four young children claws his way up the political ladder, where he mysteriously retains his Cabinet place despite proving himself to be disastrously useless in a series of departments, then commits professional hara-kiri by announcing that, actually, nothing is more important than staying at home and bringing up the kids. Surely that faint, distant rumbling must be guttural German laughter from the direction of the Vatican?

I was chuckling about this to myself when I glanced up and had the disconcerting experience of finding a pair of pig-like eyes staring back at me from a distance of no more than six feet. It was one of the fat, ugly and no doubt stupid children from the local bog standard comprehensive sink, spending her lunch hour smoking in the alleyway behind the LTCB’s house and gawping mindlessly through a chink in the fence. I thought of a number of ways in which I could make the day less of a dead loss from the point of view of broadening what passed for her mind, but concluded that nearly all of them would end up with me spending the afternoon down at the local police station explaining myself. So I decided to rise above it, as dear Noel Coward always used to say, and simply ignore her enervating presence.

The LTCB returned from her after-work run announcing that she was so hungry that she could eat her own arm. We weighed this up as a serious possibility, in the light of the deteriorating financial climate, but concluded that it would probably be better to go out to a restaurant. So we walked into Chester, where I rejected her first suggestion on the grounds that it contained absolutely no customers, and must therefore be rubbish. I was not wildly impressed with the second one, either, but at least there was a Dawn French lookalike seated by the door, with a blonde companion who might have been a friend or an amuse-bouche. I muttered something to the LTCB about this being a good sign, on the strength of the folk wisdom which suggests that seeing immensely fat people eating in a restaurant may be taken as a recommendation, as they clearly know a bit about food. I carefully suppressed the rather more realistic voice of experience, which was reminding me that all the immensely fat people I have ever met have got into that state by being totally undiscriminating. Though it soon turned out that this was certainly not the case here, as I soon overheard the ersatz American Dawn French asking the waiter which particular brand of Thai whisky they used in a particular recipe, and frankly I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone get more pernickety than that.

We admired the mathematical genius in the kitchen who conjured up a series of delicious starters in generous portions that were completely indivisible by two. In fact, now I come to think of it, each and every thing was served in prime number quantities: three fishcakes, five duck spring rolls, seven pork toasts and so forth. Next time we come, I shall analyse the main courses more carefully to see whether this obsession continues right through the menu. I shall also try very hard not to eat so much. I felt rather like Dawn French myself as I heaved my bloated body home.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

It's only called a train station in America

No idea; 8.7 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,231; England. Definitely not Wales.

Last night I got through three and half pints of draught Bass in the boozer with my friends. Checking its ABV on the internet, to make my usual daily calculation of the number of alcohol units I had consumed, I happened upon a beer lovers’ website which was overrun with vitriolic comments about what a dreadful, tasteless, degraded product it has become. Perhaps. But to look on the bright side, chaps, they also seem to have taken out the secret ingredient that always used to make me fart like a drayhorse, filling the bedroom with the sort of miasma one otherwise associated only with old-fashioned, coal fuelled gasworks. I regard this as a significant improvement, and it probably also has important, positive implications for the rate of global warming.

I listened to Today, as I usually do, and was not quite quick enough in turning off the wireless as the aptly named Michael Buerk came on air with The Choice. This raised a smile as the sacked football manager he was interviewing said “Growing up where I did, in Liverpool, every kid would have given their right arm to play professional football.” Though it would admittedly have been considerably funnier if he had said “right leg”.

I then spent a satisfactory morning updating my diary. I dread to think how much time I might devote to that if I ever actually did anything. I wonder how many hours there were in Alistair Campbell’s days when he was spinning for Tony Blair and churning out his multi-million word journal at the same time.

I had a rather nasty turn just before lunch, when a revolting, feral kid on a bike shot past me and the dog as we were taking our daily constitutional, missing me by about an inch and nearly occasioning a seizure. Then I had another nasty turn when I went to buy a newspaper and a soft drink, and noted that my usual credit card was no longer in my wallet. After a slightly panic-stricken search, I concluded that it could only be because I had left it at the railway station last night, which made a sort of sense because the noise of building work had been so intense that anyone might have been forgiven for fleeing the booking hall without making all the usual precautionary checks. I repeat this excuse, which I offered to myself because it seemed more palatable than the alternative of confessing that I am evidently suffering from senile dementia. I confess, though, that I am still not entirely convinced by it.

I then started to investigate how I might get in touch with Chester station to check whether my card was still there. Of course I knew that this would be damn nigh impossible, just as it is no longer possible to ring one’s own branch of most high street banks. I was reminded of the story of the old lady who rang the usual number for her local bank and found herself talking to a call centre in Hyderabad. She snorted that this was no earthly use to her, and the Indian gentleman at the other end, no doubt bridling under the suspicion that he was dealing with a racist, asserted with all the dignity and authority at his command that there was absolutely nothing her branch could help her with that he could not tell her from there.

“All right then,” she said. “Have I left my gloves on the counter?”

Because of the same sort of cringing deference towards our over-indulged Celtic minorities that has subjected the entirely English River Till in Northumberland to regulation by the Scottish Executive, Chester Station turned out to be managed by Arriva Trains Wales. I found their number on the internet and a recorded voice immediately started burbling at me in Welsh. God help us. But then it switched to Welsh-accented English and I was soon cheerfully pressing 4 on my keypad to be connected to their Lost Property service. The recorded voice here told me that they could only deal with enquiries about property lost more than ten days ago, look you isn’t it. If your property was lost less than ten days ago … I sat with my pen poised, ready to write down the all-the important urgent action line number … then you should wait until the ten days were up and then call again, indeed to goodness.

Well, that might be acceptable advice if you had left something unimportant on a train, like a computer disk containing details of every child benefit claimant in the country, or a memory stick listing the security codes for the UK’s Trident nuclear missiles. But it struck me as being considerably less than sod all use to someone attempting to track down a lost credit card before it was used to buy a shed load of pornography and drugs. So I tried the “all other enquiries” option on my keypad and, in fairness to Arriva Trains Wales, a very nice bloke in Cardiff kindly picked up the internal phone to Chester station and confirmed that they did indeed have my card waiting for me in the booking office.

Of course I had to collect it in person so that they could check my ID, so we all got a terrible dose of déjà-vu as I performed one of those step-by-step re-enactments that the police so love staging in the wake of major crimes. I, the dog, the LTCB and the bloke in the booking office all played our parts to perfection. But I feel that I must give a special mention to the dog, who again enjoyed a pleasant walk across Chester and then perfectly re-created the truly appalling panic attack he had suffered at the prospect of getting into the LTCB’s car for the journey home. Fortunately, just like yesterday, she did not crash it. Not even a little bit.

Which was nice.

It put us all into a good mood until we got indoors and the LTCB opened her mail and found a letter from British Gas announcing a vast increase in their monthly charges. The resulting annual cost seemed absolutely astronomic for heating a relatively small terraced house, so I used my initiative and went onto one of those money-saving websites, which duly promised that she could save hundreds of pounds if she switched to the best value provider in her area: British Gas.

Not one of my greater triumphs, I must confess.

Monday, 22 September 2008

What fresh hell is this?

I remain blissfully ignorant of my weight; I consumed perhaps 9.0 units of alcohol yesterday (or, to put it another way, one bottle of wine); 1,232 days left; Handbridge.

Sitting scribbling in the LTCB’s house was pleasant enough during the school summer holidays, but the quality of my writing life has deteriorated considerably since the inmates of the local comprehensive returned to their remedial classes. Now herds of feral youths spend much of the day grazing noisily on the street outside, scattering cans and chip wrappers like confetti. Today things took a marked turn for the worse when a small gang of them discovered that the alleyway to the rear of her house provided an ideal refuge for shouting, smoking, eating chips and chucking things at each other. I observed them from behind her bedroom curtains as they amused themselves by tearing berries off the bushes in the lane and attempting to lob them through her open windows. They did not succeed in doing so, which was fortunate; though perhaps not as lucky as the fact that none of them spotted me and reported me to the police as a paedophile spy. Personally, I think that this lot would cure even Gary Glitter, and should be made available on the NHS as aversion therapy for anyone with unnatural urges towards children. Or indeed, for anyone who thinks that is a good idea to breed.

The lady who took the unobtainable dog pictures yesterday afternoon had warned us that the proprietor of the local delicatessen is an evil bitch whose shop must be avoided at all costs, even if it should be the only thing standing between us and a miserable death from starvation. I took this warning seriously, but had to weigh it against the chance to try one of the very tempting sausage rolls I had spotted when we were in there on Saturday. The sausage roll won. I felt better about it because I did not come into contact with the proprietress, who was far too busy jabbering on the phone to a supplier, and was served with painful slowness by a grey-haired, bespectacled bloke who looked like he really ought to be lecturing in a polytechnic rather than serving behind the counter of a shop. Perhaps he was until he got an ASBO for spying on schoolchildren.

I concluded that the sausage roll was probably worth compromising someone else’s principles for.

At 5 o’clock my thoughts were rudely interrupted by the LTCB ringing to suggest that I might like to meet her at the station (or “train station” as she insists on calling it, to avoid any risk of confusion, such as turning up at an electricity sub-station in the hope of catching the 17.34 to Crewe). This would enable us to sort out some railway tickets that I needed to exchange, having incompetently booked them for the wrong date, and found myself for some reason unable to amend online. So I duly trekked across Chester and met her in a fair simulacrum of hell, with ear-bursting building work making it more or less completely impossible to make ourselves heard at the ticket office counter. Luckily I was eventually able to communicate successfully through sign language; I was particularly proud of the way I rendered “dickhead” when explaining my mistake in booking for the wrong date in the first place. Then the LTCB drove us home, just as soon as I had sedated the dog to get him in her car. He has not had much experience of her driving, but it has evidently made a considerable impact. Which, funnily enough, was exactly what I was dreading throughout our mercifully short journey.

This evening we went to a local pub to meet some old friends who live nearby. I had not seen them for the best part of 20 years, though we had kept up the annual ritual of exchanging Christmas cards. Luckily we both have websites containing our photographs, eliminating the risk that I would fail to recognize the handsome, curly-haired youth I knew at school, simply because he had aged 35 years, gone bald and compensated by growing a stubbly beard. Having arranged on the phone to meet at 8.30 I had had the presence of mind to call in at the pub at lunchtime and establish when they took their last orders for food. The woman had answered, predictably enough, “It’s 8.30 on a Monday” (and on every other day, too, so far as I could see) but had indicated that they would allow us some leeway if I booked a table. So I did. Mine was the only reservation in her book. But by the time we arrived my friend had gone through the same thought process and made a booking, too. As they had arrived shortly before us, it was naturally down to me to go to the bar and break it to them that we had double-booked and that 50 per cent of their entire evening’s trade was cancelling. I thought this might have occasioned some disappointment, but in fact they could not conceal their delight that there was less cooking to do and the chef would be able to knock off a little earlier than he had feared.

I puzzled about this attitude until we came to leave and the landlady, who had evidently overheard at least some of our conversation, asked which one of us was from the North East. In fact 75 per cent of us were, which was very gratifying for her as she was a Geordie herself. We spent a little time swapping notes about the Old Country, while I kicked myself for not asking “Are you a Geordie, by any chance?” a little earlier, when I encountered her distinctive Tyneside response to work and money. The desire not to do the former always far outweighs greed for the latter. I’m exactly the same, which is why I am tapping away at this pointless, unremunerative blog rather than knuckling down to something potentially profitable.

We had an excellent meal and exchanged some fine reminiscences, while the LTCB came into her own as a source of useful contacts for my friends’ daughter, who is hoping to make her career in the same line of work as the LTCB. Luckily they revealed that both their children had attended the local comprehensive school before I embarked on too long a diatribe about the anti-social behaviour of its current generation of terminally thick pupils. Indeed we parted most civilly, almost fondly, apart from my friend’s wife chucking in an unsettling throwaway remark about my apparently having become “more civilized” since we had last met. I racked my brains as to what I might have done to offend when I went round to their house for dinner in about 1990, but soon gave up. Let’s face it: the possibilities are almost endless.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The mystery of the missing Steiff teddy

No idea of weight; not much idea of alcohol intake but I’ll take wild guess at 14.0 units altogether yesterday; 1,233 days to go; Chester.

We finally got to bed around 2.30 a.m. and I was pleasantly surprised by how well I felt when I snapped awake after my usual six hours. No doubt my spirits were lifted by the sure and certain knowledge that I would not need to go to a ball again tonight. I was still aching from my fall down the stairs, but this pain was soon forgotten when I opened my computer and clicked on a YouTube link kindly sent me by my brother. While I know nothing about football, and care even less, the subtitled version of Downfall from Hitler’s bunker, allegedly describing the current travails of Newcastle United, quickly reduced me to utterly helpless laughter.

The LTCB had invited her parents and brother to lunch and produced a perfect feast, centred on a superbly tender fillet of beef from her excellent local butcher, which she had rolled in herbs and then roasted to perfection. As if that were not enough, she followed it up with home-made sticky toffee pudding. Really, life does not get much better than this, though I am conscious that it is completely screwing my efforts to write a blog about a miserable, elderly curmudgeon’s solitary slide into the grave.

A second sitting of lunch was laid on for a friend of the LTCB’s who had spent the morning competing in some sort of triathlon, and we then took the dog out for a longish walk around the Meadows. On the way we met another Border terrier called Rocky, whose owner warned us that he could be “grumpy”. We assured him that he almost certainly could not hold a candle to my dog in the grumpiness stakes. But we were struck by his choice of language, as a couple had uttered precisely the same warning about their Border terrier bitch, which we had encountered while out for a walk yesterday. There followed a conversation about breed characteristics and the way that owners take after their dogs, and vice-versa, which did not seem to be heading in a direction that was much to my advantage.

We returned to the LTCB’s house for tea and her friend took a long series of photographs of the dog, cooing that he looked exactly like a Steiff teddy bear. Which indeed he does. One of these would brighten this blog up no end, but she did not even offer to send them to me, saying that it would be “much easier” for her to post them on Facebook instead. Which indeed it might, but for the fact that I have no idea whether she has actually done so, or how to track them down if she has. Given that there are nine people on the site with my own fairly uncommon combination of names, the chances of finding some dog pictures when equipped only with the Christian name “Sally” seem slim in the extreme.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Four and twenty virgins

No idea; 5.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,234; Shropshire.

I’ll put my cards on the table right away and admit that this entry has absolutely sod all to do with virgins. It’s just that, when I was a schoolboy (which I keep being told I still am, in spirit) “Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness” was locked in deadly combat with “The good ship Venus” for the coveted title of my favourite rugby song. And the songs were the only things I ever even vaguely liked about rugby. So if you had told me at the beginning of this year that I would end up spending a Saturday evening at a rugby club ball, I would have laughed in your face.

But that was before I met the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette.

All my certainties seem to be crumbling. My world was turned upside down earlier this month, when the new celebrity- and trivia-dominated Daily Telegraph reported the surprise victory of a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest, thereby depriving me of one of my favourite phrases beginning “As likely as …”

Still, I consoled myself my remembering that there remained at least one absolutely secure fixed point, namely: what do swimming and dancing have in common? I can’t do either of them.

The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette was well aware of this when she proposed that we might spend this evening at a ball. Obviously I’d rather have spent it in front of the telly or reading a good book, but in these early days of a relationship I reckoned that it paid to be a bit accommodating. So the die was cast.

The day did not start entirely as planned as the LTCB failed to calculate that it might be a pretty good idea not to let out the cat she wanted to take to the vet’s for a check-up. Said cat did not fancy this one little bit, and so at 9.30 this morning the LTCB was to be seen up a ladder attempting to retrieve the cat from the kitchen roof. I thought to myself that the resulting scratches across her magnificent bosom were probably not going to be exactly what she wanted when she put on her ball gown this evening, though at least they would furnish a talking point.

Luckily things picked up after that. For a start, the vet gave the poorly cat a glowing report. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the English summer finally started and we were able to enjoy a lovely walk with the dog in what can only be described as warm sunshine. To cap it all, I was given permission to try out the LTCB’s local while she was preparing lunch – something I would obviously have done long ago, while she was slaving away at the office, but for the fact that it does not actually open at weekday lunchtimes. She did not seem to have a very high opinion of it herself, but then she admits that she is not really a very pubby person. One of the things we definitely don’t have in common, then.

The pub seemed a remarkably quiet and civilized place, equipped with a rack of newspapers for the customers to read, but no actual customers other than myself. I ordered a delicious pint of Hydes’ real ale and a packet of very fine pork scratchings, and took a seat at a table in the corner of the bar and got stuck into my paper. After a while another grey-haired bloke wandered in and gave me what I thought was rather an odd look, but he remained at the bar and did not speak to me. In fact I was quite well into my second pint when human contact arrived in the shape of an elderly lady with one of those cast iron, dyed blonde perms. She was holding in one hand a pint of (a) lager, (b) cider or (c) her own urine, and in the other a lead, the far end of which was attached to a small brown dog: one of those rotund terrier bitches which seem to be all teeth and nipples. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” she said as she invaded my personal space with same sort of subtlety that Hitler applied to Poland, “only this has always been her place.” Whereupon she produced a small blue towel and spread it on the upholstered bench right next to me, and the dog jumped up and growled at me through its bared teeth. I shifted along a bit and drank my remaining beer as fast as possible, which was doubtless the result intended.

Almost 40 years now I’ve been going into pubs, waiting to hear the legendary gypsy’s warning against sitting in some ancient regular’s place. And when it finally comes, the ancient regular turns out to be a dog.

The LTCB is not the most houseproud woman I have ever met, but she does like a smart staircase. Given that hers is little more than a slightly glorified wooden ladder – and I don’t really understand how it ever got past the building regulations people – polishing the treads would not be my number one priority, but she had applied significant quantities of elbow grease and polish to the task last weekend. With the inevitable result that, when I made the critical mistake of nipping up to the loo in my stockinged feet this afternoon, on the way down they flew out in front of me and I ended up in a heap on the floor, shocked, bruised and grazed. The LTCB, who was out at the time, returned and fought a losing battle to try and sound reasonably sympathetic, when she clearly believes that anyone falling over is quite the funniest thing in the world.

I, in turn, tried to suppress the thought that it was a pity I had not injured myself just a little bit more seriously so that I could have excused myself from the ball.

We rendezvoused with a number of the LTCB’s friends in the early evening, so that we could all travel to the ball together. One tall blonde turned up in an eye-catching short white dress. When someone complimented her on it she delivered a throwaway line about it being “just some old thing – what’s important is that it’s washable”. Asked to explain the significance of this remark, she said “Well we are going to a rugby club, after all.” This did nothing to fill me with enthusiasm or confidence, not that I had felt any to start with.

At 6.45 precisely a mini-bus rolled up outside the door. It was driven by a very fat man who was evidently in advanced training for a heart attack. The most striking feature of his vehicle was that it absolutely reeked of tobacco smoke, despite the notices all over it warning its passengers of dire legal consequences if they had the temerity to light up. He drove us to Shropshire. Allowing him to do so was a mistake.

We began the evening drinking glasses of what might have been champagne in the absolutely deafening hubbub of the rugby club bar. Luckily the noise prevented the LTCB from catching all my repetitions of a favourite phrase of my mother’s, “Eeh, the things you see when you haven’t got your gun!” As mother would also have said, there were some Real Sights. A large woman arrived with livid bruises all down her arm and I immediately took her for a domestic violence victim endeavouring to shame her husband, though the LTCB yelled that she might have got them playing rugby herself. Apparently they do a lot of that sort of thing in Shropshire. Indeed, I was told that the tall blonde in the short white dress had been a notable player in her day, which distracted me for some time as I mused upon communal showers.

Dinner was late. This might have had something to do with the fact that it was taking place in an absolutely freezing marquee erected next to the rugby club, and that many ladies clearly felt it would only be possible to face it after a numbing intake of alcohol. I sat between the LTCB and a blonde with an appealing pout and the sort of colourful coat that Joseph might well have favoured if he had been related to Pandit Nehru. Amazingly, I managed to evade the trap she laid for me by describing herself as “a waitress” when she was clearly considerably (or at any rate more expensively) better educated than I am. She told me two stories which I deemed worthy of recording in my notebook. The only one which made any sort of sense afterwards related to a previous event she had attended wearing one of those flowing Empire line dresses that always feature so strongly in Jane Austen adaptations on the telly. Someone tactlessly asked her whether it was a maternity frock and, on being told, coldly, that it was a period dress, replied, “Oh, well if you’re having a period then I suppose you can’t be pregnant.”

It was the most amusing thing I heard all evening.

The food was surprisingly good; the wine was unsurprisingly bad. “Dog rough”, the girl in the white dress called it.

There was an auction conducted by a fast-talking cattle auctioneer, in which I was comprehensively outbid for the two lots in which I was vaguely interested: the services of a chef for an evening, and a tour of a noted real ale brewery. Typically, the things in which I had no interest at all seemed absolute bargains. For example, an equine massage was knocked down for just £50, though as the LTCB pointed out its shoes would knock hell out of you. Maybe that was how the woman in the sleeveless dress got her bruises. One lot was being bought a drink every day until Christmas by a Brian Blessed lookalike who had apparently once been a noted rugby player; it did occur to me to trump it with an offer to pay NOT to have to drink with him, but luckily I remembered in the nick of time that I could secure that for nothing. I asked one of our party who the bloke was and he replied “some old relic”. Further asked to define “old” he said, “Ooh, I reckon about 55, don’t you?” Which made me feel terrific.

As is traditional on occasions like these, the auctioneer was assisted by a number of completely useless “spotters”, one of whom was a blonde woman in a Little Black Dress who had the largest bosom I have seen since I attended the Berwick-upon-Tweed Conservatives Ball last October. A crack team of scaffolders followed her around at all times, alert for the slightest sign of slippage or subsidence. She was accompanied by another blonde wearing an Even Littler Black Dress, which exerted a strange fascination as most of the men in the room followed her with their eyes, waiting to see whether some sudden move would tip her over the brink of indecent exposure.

A remarkably loud band had been playing throughout dinner, fronted by a nondescript female pub singer. By the time the dancing started, at around 11, the LTCB was luckily so completely frozen that she was positively keen to accompany me to the bar in the hope of warming up. She was even prepared to ring up all the local taxi companies to see whether any of them could take us back to Chester before our scheduled return trip at 1a.m., though predictably enough there was nothing doing. So we sat there happily enough (or miserably enough, in my case) people watching. My personal favourites were an evidently gay couple of players greeting each other at the bar; the scrums and showers must have held attractions far beyond the ordinary for them.

Then the LTCB decided that her feet had warmed up enough for her to have a little dance, so I told her to go back to the tent while I had a little snooze. Which I would have done, quite contentedly, if some vast old bore of a local farmer had not plonked himself down next to me and announced that they did not allow people to be on their own at events like this. Why not, for f***’s sake?

He asked me whether I had been a keen rugby player myself and I said not, so he went on “Ah, so you just love watching it, then?” What is the right thing to do in these circumstances? Assent and then be stumped by the inevitable follow-up question about one’s all-time favourite moments? Or do what I did and say that I had hated the violent, stupid game ever since I was forced to participate in it at school? Fortunately I think that years of shooting game of all sizes had impaired his hearing, as he did not react by plunging a huge fist into my face, as I had feared he might.

My desire to get away from him was so strong that I even went back into the marquee, where I found the LTCB and a few others from our party huddled near a heater. Later she had a go on the dance floor, and a hulking great rugby playing type promptly stepped backwards and landed on her foot. You could tell that she was not impressed. At one point there were trumpeters from the band prancing about on the tables next to lit candles, surely in defiance of about a dozen Elfin Safety regulations. Please God let the marquee burn down, I thought. We could all have had quite a jolly time warming our hands around the blaze. Unfortunately it did not happen.

The best thing about the evening was the fact that the chain-smoking heart attack candidate turned up with his mini-bus ten minutes before the booked time of 1 a.m., exactly as he had promised. The survivors of the Titanic cannot have greeted the arrival of the Carpathia with any greater enthusiasm than I felt as he rumbled into view. I thought the worst was over then, but we took the dog for a short walk when we finally got home and he did what dogs usually do. I took my poop scoop out of my rucksack, and endeavoured to deal with the result, but could not find it anywhere. After a bit I worked out that this was because it was all over the bottom of one of my shoes.

Surely there could not have been a more perfect ending to a perfect day?

Friday, 19 September 2008

You live and learn

14st 4lb; 4.2 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,235; Motorway Hell.

I had lunch today with my IT guru who has, amazingly, managed to retrieve all the e-mails I thought I had lost forever when my desktop computer departed this life in a controlled explosion last month. Even more remarkably, he has managed to do so himself, after a specialist data retrieval company indicated that they would expect an unfeasibly large amount of money to take on the job. Whether this is ultimately in my best interests is, of course, highly debatable. Owing to an extreme reluctance to throw anything away, I am already hopelessly overburdened with possessions – from furniture to clothing, books to pictures, letters to photographs, press cuttings and other widely assorted ephemera. In the circumstances, it might well have been better just to “let it go”.

Still, it is done now and it seemed that the least I could do was to buy him some lunch to facilitate the hand-back of my knackered hard drive and the DVD to which he has transferred my temporarily missing files. So I did this at a pub of his choice, albeit one selected from a shortlist I had submitted earlier, evidently without applying sufficient forethought. In my defence, I had not set foot in the place for more than 20 years, when through one of those rare juxtapositions of bad and good luck my Land Rover died one evening as I was driving it north on the A1, at precisely the point where I could coast to a halt outside the front door of this very boozer, go in to use their public telephone (this was before the days of mobile phones, except for the likes of top investment bankers) and consume two fine pints of real ale while waiting for the AA to turn up. They fixed the car in about 30 seconds, too.

Unfortunately the only “improvement” made to the pub during the intervening two decades proved to be removing the real ale pumps from the bar. But at least this made me less resentful as I ordered two bottles of non-alcoholic lager to reflect the fact that I have grown a bit more serious about not drinking and driving since 1986. My choice of beverage caused the two unsettlingly short-haired blokes lurking menacingly at the bar to regard me with malevolent suspicion, and I hoped against hope that they were not going to interpret my meeting as some sort of gay assignation. I was much relieved when my guest walked in and ordered a manly pint of John Smith’s. In fact I would have been tempted to kiss him, if it would not have conveyed just the impression I was striving to avoid.

They had not updated the menu since the 80s, or even bothered to give it a wipe, since like everything else in the place it seemed to be covered in a thin layer of grease. Plus a rather unsettling tattoo, in the case of the barmaid. My hopes rose when our food took a while to arrive, since that is usually a sign of it being cooked to order, but in this case I suspect they had just forgotten to bring it through as it was distinctly on the cold side. Still, my scampi and chips was perfectly edible and my guest said the same of his beef and ale pie. We drank indifferent coffee from spectacularly chipped white cups in an attempt to keep me awake through my drive to Chester, and I set off at 2 o’clock on what should have been a three and a half hour journey, according to my sat nav, but in fact occupied five very tedious hours. Traffic was very heavy throughout and the sat nav recommended a number of bizarre diversions to avoid hold-ups, one of which took me right through the centre of Leeds at the height of the rush hour. The important conclusion I drew from all this was that it was probably not a particularly bright idea to travel across the north of England on a Friday afternoon.

Just imagine being my age and still attaining fresh insights of that quality.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Cresswell whale and the St James bloater

14st 4lb; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,236; Druridge Bay.

I have definitely become a glutton for punishment, glued to every last second of the Today programme as the bad news continues to gush out, with all the force of a Morpeth storm drain on the Saturday before last. I even took the wireless outside with me as I finally managed to put away the last of the load of logs that was dumped in my back yard almost a fortnight ago. A small black toad, which had taken up residence in what it had evidently taken to be a permanent, damp wood pile, made it clear that it was mightily pissed off. With the sun shining weakly for the first time in ages, I also took the opportunity to mow the sodden grass, and trim some shrubs overhanging the front path, as these would have been getting on my wick for some time now if I were the postman. And, the way things are going, I may well soon be down at the sorting office enquiring about possible vacancies.

The only downside to all this activity was that it left me feeling too weary to drive to Chester, as planned. I spent all day feeling guilty as a result. Quite unnecessarily, I discovered shortly before I went to bed, as the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette had responded more or less instantaneously to my e-mail saying that I might not turn up with one saying, in summary, “Good.” Only it had not been delivered to the computer I was using at the time, owing to some technical quirk far beyond my limited comprehension.

When I got around to reading the local paper in bed this evening, I found that they had printed a large picture on page 3 of a decomposing whale, washed up on Cresswell beach. I stared at it for some time before I read the caption, trying to pin down what was different about the picture of Mike Ashley which, of late, has normally occupied this space.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The black horse, the tortoise and the hare

14st 2lb; 7.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,237; Rothbury.

The Death of Capitalism: Day Three. And that gurgling noise you can hear is either (a) all my hopes for the future going down the plughole or (b) The Honourable Robert Peston being strangled by a BBC viewer or listener who could take no more. Or, quite possibly, both.

The news that HBOS is collapsing into the arms of Lloyds TSB is naturally encouraging to all those of us who like nothing better than seeing great symbols of Scottish pride crumbling into dust. I suppose it is too much to hope that all those head office staff at The Mound will be turned out of doors to sell The Big Issue, and every branch re-branded as Lloyds TSB. Though I do hope they extend the reach of their splendid call centre in Hyderabad. I can think of few things more potentially amusing than a load of people who speak English, after a fashion, as their second language, attempting to converse with the sort of hairy-kneed Highlanders whose attempts to express themselves always sound more like a determined effort to clear their throats.

At the very least, though, we can surely hope to have heard the last of Howard and the other musically challenged employees of the Halifax attempting to entice us through the doors of their now doomed branches with a song.

It just goes to show that putting an implausibly young grocery marketeer in charge of a clearing bank cum jumped-up building society was as lousy an idea as the hidebound old codgers suggested all along.

I think perhaps Lloyds TSB should trade in their black horse symbol and replace it with a tortoise. While HBOS could be symbolized by a hare, now sadly defunct and with advanced rigor mortis. Perhaps Lonesome George from the Galapagos could be persuaded to model for the new corporate logo.

Not that I have any personal interest in all this any more. I opened an account with Lloyds Bank some years ago, when my nearest branch had a friendly manager who collected scale model buses and had them on display in his office, presumably because his wife would not have them in the house. Then they merged with TSB and some utter Philistine vandalized their beautiful building in order to remove the raised lettering “Lloyds Bank Limited”, which had clearly been attached to the stonework since it was built. Shortly afterwards the manager disappeared, then they curtailed their opening hours because some east European had come in with a gun and frightened the staff (and apparently east Europeans only do that when it is getting dark). Next they cancelled my credit card, without bothering to tell me, because I hadn’t used it enough for their liking. Shortly after this I found that I could not remember the PIN for my debit card (one of those signs of incipient Alzheimer’s I would fret about nearly all the time, if I didn’t have incipient Alzheimer’s) so I rang to ask them to send it to me again, and a bloke in Hyderabad told me that first I needed to register for internet banking and began reading out the litany of questions required to achieve this.

“But I don’t want to register for internet banking,” I sighed. “I just want you to post me a reminder of my PIN so that I can get some of my money out of my bank account.”

“Ah, but the bank has decreed that it can only supply this information to customers who have registered for internet banking.”

I won’t repeat what I told him, but I expect it enlarged his English vocabulary.

I went round to my branch the next time I was passing, to give them a piece of my mind, but their next great idea to enhance customer service proved to be shutting it for four days out of seven. So I moved my account to Barclays down the road.

As a result of all which, if by some terrible mischance HBOS should end up dragging Lloyds TSB down with it, rather than proving to be the bargain of the century, I for one won’t mind in the slightest.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

In an uncontrolled downward spiral, trying to look up

14st 4lb, despite zero alcohol yesterday; 1,238; Glanton.

I woke early and decided to JFDI, as I know I should, yet failed to make it to my desk to write the incisive and hilarious business column I had planned. Somehow hilarity seemed inappropriate from the moment when I switched on the Today programme and heard the first reports of the plunge in Far Eastern markets, which had been closed for a Help Old People Across The Road holiday yesterday, or something of the sort. Having gained some notoriety by insisting on cracking on with drafting a profit warning on the afternoon of 11 September 2001, while all my then colleagues were glued to the TV coverage from the World Trade Center, I decided that today I would stay in touch with history in the making. Morbidly fascinating it was, too, and at least I had got three weeks’ worth of accumulated ironing done by the time Today finished, and the aptly-named Michael Buerk was granted half an hour of airtime to interviewing some bloke whose mother had devoted her life to concealing his Jewish ancestry from him, and who had paid her back by becoming a rabbi. I could just about hear him above the background noise of a barrel being scraped in the producer’s office at The Choice.

When I finally reached my desk, the first thing I did was to open a rather disheartening e-mail asking what I meant by a “non-stick frying man” in my column in today’s paper. I was even more disheartened when I checked and discovered that the mistake was mine rather than theirs. One of the few things on which I rated myself highly was my skill as a proof-reader. Now plainly I have lost even that. I replied rather icily that it should have been obvious to anyone of the meanest intelligence that I meant a non-stick frying pan. And later in the morning someone with a greater lateral thinking capacity than mine (not that that is saying much) helpfully pointed out that I could turn this error to my advantage by using it as the launch-pad for a new Geordie super-hero, Non-Stick Frying Man. With his faithful assistant Jumbo Battered Sausage Girl and their politically correct, ethnically diverse and more intelligent mentor, Curry Sauce. I thought about writing a first adventure in which they took on Mike Ashley, but did not fancy Jumbo Battered Sausage Girl’s chances of surviving the encounter, so instead wasted a couple of hours faffing around with my new MacBook. No, in fact, what I was doing was not faffing around but making a sensible investment for the future which will pay huge dividends over time. A bit like Network Rail’s apparently endless upgrade of the West Coast Main Line.

By lunchtime I was so depressed that I could think of nothing more likely to cheer me up then going to what passes for my local. So I winkled an old friend out of his caravan [sic] and walked across to the pub, where my hopes of a hot lunch were dashed by the fact that our friendly local electrical power company had turned off its supply for the day, while they dealt with some of the after-effects of the recent flooding. The barmaid plainly hoped that we would turn around and go somewhere else, but my friend and I were made of sterner stuff than that. And so we sat there in the gloom and the cold, with our overcoats on, drinking pints of hand-pumped beer and challenging our crowns and fillings with pork scratchings. It surely says much about the depths to which my morale had sunk before I entered the pub when I say that I was definitely more cheerful when I came out. Though maybe it was a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall: lovely when it stops.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse ...

14st 2lb; 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,239; Dullsville, Arizona.

There are days when it seems impossible to exaggerate the emptiness and futility of my existence, even for comic effect. It comes to something when an earnest consideration of what might qualify as the absolute highlight of the last 24 hours reaches the conclusion that it was receiving a “Be My Friend” request from Facebook. The pointlessness of which is underlined by the fact that I have counted the person concerned as my friend in the non-virtual world for more than seven years.

The economic news remains relentlessly depressing. I do not even have the advantage of being heavily in debt to an institution that might go tits-up and let me off the hook. I’ve paid off my mortgage. But while I was scraping together the funds to do that, halfwitted bankers were apparently falling over themselves to advance considerably more generous mortgages to the rednecked denizens of trailer parks in Shitville, Pennsylavania, despite the fact that they had no visible means of paying for them. Then they cleverly packaged all those mortgages together and started trading them as though they were blue chip securities, picking up whacking bonuses for the brilliance of their financial engineering each time they passed “Go”. As a result of all which, I find my life savings shrinking faster than a small spillage of Perrier in the Sahara. Even before this started, my pension fund was only a third of the size it needed to be to fund retirement in the sort of shabby but vaguely genteel poverty to which I aspire. Now it looks like it might just about buy me an acceptable impaired life annuity if I hang on until the age of 85. Which in itself looks a bit of a long shot in the light of my dodgy genetic inheritance.

As for my free-falling share portfolio – well, it would be a lot less annoying if I hadn’t rung up my broker in June with the firm intention of selling everything and squandering it all on opera tickets and dinners in top restaurants. Only to be persuaded that this would be the most dreadful mistake, as the market would have picked up nicely by the autumn. Oh yeah? He did not actually quote that old Throgmorton Street mantra “Sell in May and go away; don’t come back till St Leger day”, but I could tell that he was thinking it. Which is fine. In my experience it’s being too clever by half that gets you into real trouble on the stock market, not the opposite. But, while I know as little about racing as about any other sport, I am dimly conscious of the St Leger having been run on Saturday, and you would need to have the luck and judgement of Gordon Brown to have made a killing on that and then ploughed it into the stock market when it opened this morning.

I took the dog for a walk this afternoon, and turned over ideas for an incisive column about it all for the business section of the paper. I am torn between horror at the seriousness of the situation and the irresponsible but persistent voice in my head which keeps praying, “Please God, let Goldman Sachs go bust.”

After a day of quite spectacular non-achievement, I went to bed and belatedly realized that the noises from upstairs I had been hearing all evening, and dismissed as being down to the dog playing a vigorous game with himself, were in fact the result of structural groans and thumps coming from the point where my bedroom floor meets the front wall of the house. Perhaps a sign of settlement following all the rain of recent weeks, though I am at all not sure that 130-year-old houses should suddenly be starting to get comfortable on their foundations. Perhaps, like the capitalist system, the whole thing is about to disappear into a large hole, leaving only a cloud of dust behind.

And thanks to my Prudence – and I haven’t got the patience to type out the number of noughts that would be required to set out the multiple of mine over Gordon’s – I won’t even have the satisfaction of being able to ring up some mortgage company and tell them that it is their problem.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

From the Antipodes to Wall Street, via Wessex

14st 2lb; 3.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,240; virtually New Zealand.

I decided to JFDI when I woke at 6.30 this morning, having had the six hours sleep I know I require. So I put a match to the carefully laid fire in my study and got stuck into some dull but necessary paperwork. Around 8 a.m. the little Skype symbol on my computer started dancing up and down, and I decided not to ignore it for once. So I found myself sitting at my desk in my dressing gown, conversing via video link with a bloke sitting in his dressing gown at a desk in New Zealand. It wasn’t a pretty sight for either of us, and he soon came up with the plausible suggestion that we should switch to audio-only mode, as sending the pictures was slowing down our connection. Phew. In total he must have devoted a couple of hours to explaining how my Mac actually worked, and directing me to downloads that would make it work even better. Which was most kind and helpful of him. And, from my point of view, much the most useful thing I accomplished all day.

The evening turned out to be rather depressing. For a start, it hardly raised the spirits to note that it was now pitch dark before 8 p.m. Then the BBC’s new adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles was hardly a laugh a minute, though I suppose no-one in their right mind who had ever read any Thomas Hardy would actually expect it to raise even a hint of a smile. It must be 35 years since I read the book, and certain scenes still stick in the mind, though very few of them seemed to feature in tonight’s opening episode, apart from the initial encounter between drunken Pa Durbeyfield and the local vicar. It all looked very pretty, but they must surely have made extensive use of computer animation to excise unpleasant and inauthentic features of the contemporary Dorset landscape, assuming of course that the bloody thing was actually filmed there at all. I have no recollection of reading about girls in improbably clean white frocks dancing around a mildly phallic standing stone on a clifftop, which seemed to be the principal leisure activity in the area. It looked more like The Wicker Man than Tess of the d’Urbervilles to me, and I kept expecting the camera to cut to Edward Woodward in a cage, screaming. That might have been an improvement, now I come to think of it.

Then there was the news, with The Honourable Robert Peston gleefully announcing the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Can there ever have been anyone in the history of broadcasting who has derived more obvious pleasure from the delivery of bad news? He clearly wanted to make our flesh creep, but for me he does that anyway just through his cringe-making and scarcely credible lack of skill before a camera. When I was a PR man, we used to send clients for something called media training before they were grilled on the box about why they were closing factories or killing consumers with their dodgy products. It usually did some good. But presumably the powers-that-be have tried that with their Business Editor, and it has not worked. Perhaps indeed he has had so much of it that he has developed a resistance to it, like one of those hospital superbugs that laughs off even the most powerful antibiotics. The only good thing to be said for him – apart from the fact that he is absolutely terrific at landing important scoops, which is no small asset in a journalist – is that he provides living proof that, in some areas at least, the BBC is prepared to look beyond such shallow things as physical beauty, a winning smile and clear diction when deciding who is qualified to deliver the news to us poor saps who are compelled to pay for its services.

Though, if given the choice of replacing Peston with slightly less-up-to-date business news read off a Reuters terminal by a lisping Page Three girl, I must confess that I would want to think long and hard before casting my vote. And it might well come down to whether or not she was wearing the top half of her bikini.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

A turkey on steroids

14st 2lb; 7.0 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,241; Alnwick.

I seem to have lost an encouraging amount of weight since I was last at home, though sadly weight is the one thing I do not feel I can attach to this morning’s reading from my bathroom scales. For reasons unknown, I was comprehensively dehydrated at the time I stepped onto them, after getting up at almost hourly intervals throughout the night to answer pressing and irritatingly repetitious calls of nature. I probably put on half a stone just drinking a pot of tea with my breakfast.

The highlight of my day was an afternoon telephone conversation with the LTCB about the disco she had attended in my absence last night, where the dress code was “school kids”. Unfortunately she claimed to have no photographs of herself in her outfit, not that I would have been allowed to upload them to this blog if she had done. But luckily I have a large collection of artistic DVDs featuring young ladies of about the LTCB’s age dressed as schoolgirls (usually quite briefly, it has to be said, both from the point of view of skirt length and the amount of time before they are required to remove their clothes in the interests of plot development). So I can always take a look at those to help me build up a comprehensive mental picture of what it must have been like.

The low point of my day was attending an evening theatrical performance with my aunt. It had been entirely her idea. Judging by the number of tickets the theatre had evidently sold, most people must have been able to spot the awful warning signs that had eluded us. Two grim looking women (sapphists, I reckoned) plodded onto the stage and picked up an accordion and a double bass, while a third sat down in front of a piano. This one looked so unnaturally happy that she must surely have been on some sort of drugs. Within minutes, I was wondering whether I could get away with leaning forward from our place in the front row and asking whether I could buy some off her.

Then a blonde woman shimmered on: the star of the show. The first things I noticed was that she had an absolutely huge mouth, and the second was that she was wearing a long black dress which she had clearly bought when she was a couple of sizes smaller than she is today. Either that, or she had been overcome by my traditional, optimistic belief in clothes shops that I can buy something far too tight and “slim into it”. Christ alone knows how she came to imagine that it would be a good career move to mount a show imitating Edith Piaf, for which one would have thought the obvious minimum requirements would be (a) looking and /or (b) sounding vaguely like, er, Edith Piaf. This was not so much The Little Sparrow as The Turkey On Steroids.

I suppose she might have just about got away with her life at a go-as-you-please talent contest at a working men’s club in the former Northumberland coalfield, so long as it was on a Saturday night after Newcastle had won at home, and she had put a couple of hundred quid behind the bar to buy ale all round.

Between what my aunt told me were songs, the star told us a few things about Edith Piaf. All of which I already knew, not that I was particularly interested. The quality of this patter is perhaps best conveyed by repeating her following sadly unforgettable claim that she had studied French at the Sorbonne, but she and her English colleagues called it the Sorebum because of the hardness of the seats in the lecture theatre. She simpered as she delivered this cracking punch line. Jesus. I was rapidly losing the will to live. So I shamefully abandoned my aunt at the interval and fled for home, spending the drive worrying that her claims to be really enjoying herself might be the first signs of galloping senility.

The quality of my evening’s entertainment improved immeasurably as soon as I sat down on the sofa with a fish finger sandwich and turned on the TV. I had to watch a couple of recorded comedies to restore my composure, but switched to The Last Night of the Proms in time to see Bryn Terfel, clad in some ludicrous heraldic suit, belting out the final verses of “Rule Britannia”. I was puzzled at first that the proceedings appeared to being conducted by Salman Rushdie. Upon consulting the Radio Times, the BBC seemed to be claiming that the balding, bearded bloke in the shapeless white linen jacket was actually one Sir Roger Norrington, but this was clearly just another cunning disguise in Salman’s continuing (and, he no doubt hopes, never-ending) quest to evade the fatwa. The cameras kept cutting across from the Albert Hall to other gatherings in parks in places like Cardiff and Belfast, but not during the final trio of patriotic rabble-rousers. Perhaps all the provincials cleared off home during Salman’s distinctly lack-lustre speech. Or maybe they got the collective hump when the community sing-song reached that line in “Jerusalem” about “England’s green and pleasant land”. Whatever the reason, it was just the certifiable crowd in the Albert Hall and me singing along to the National Anthem. And I would not bet the obvious way on which of us did it more loudly.

Friday, 12 September 2008

You can take the boy out of the North East ...

No idea; 12.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,242; National Express East Coast.

You know you’ve had a good night when you wake up with a start, as I did at 2.45 this morning, with absolutely no idea where you are. I ran through a series of routine checks, like a pilot preparing to push back for take-off, and quickly established that I was in a bed, on my own; and that the bed wasn’t suspiciously damp or smelly. Then, by progressively eliminating all the other possibilities, I worked out that I was in my London club. After which I went back to sleep feeling more than a little relieved.

For lunch, I returned to the restaurant where I had finally bought my friend his 50th birthday dinner last night, and took comfort from the fact that no-one pointed or laughed at me as I walked through the door. My lawyer guest turned up about 15 minutes late, clutching the empty document case which seems to be the favoured prop of my friends when lunching pointlessly with me, since it helps to convey the impression to their colleagues that they might be going out to a serious business meeting. He followed my example in ordering a remedial Bloody Mary, but swore that he was not going to drink any wine at all, as he had two meetings and an important document to get out that afternoon, so I ordered a mere half bottle of white wine to accompany my own meal. Imagine my delight when the waiter asked him if he’d like some and he nodded his eager assent.

Unfortunately he did not get on anything like as well with the young lady taking his order for food. I had raved a bit about the absolutely superb roast grouse I had enjoyed for dinner last night, so he decided to have that, too.

“Certainly, sir, an excellent choice. Would you like it pink?”

“No, I’d like it well done.”

“The chef wouldn’t actually recommend that, sir. Being game, it may be inclined to be tough if he cooks it too long.”

“Even so, I’d like it well done.”

“I’m afraid that there would be delay of at least 25 minutes …”

“Oh, all right then. I’ll have something else. Can I have a burger?”

“Of course, sir. And how would you like it?”

“Well done.”

Which just goes to show the truth of that old adage: you can take the boy out of the North East, but you can’t take the North East out of the boy. Even if you send him away to an expensive boarding school and Oxbridge, in a belated and clearly ineffectual attempt to lend him an air of sophistication.

He muttered for a bit about not coming out to a restaurant to be made to feel common because he liked his food cooked properly, while I studiously refrained from revealing that my sympathies were entirely with the chef. Though I suppose I have blown that now. They finally brought him something that looked like a round lump of rubber, perhaps carved off a tractor tyre with a jagged knife, then cremated. Judging by his expression and the number of fragments of it that he delicately removed from his mouth and carefully laid on the side of his plate, I fear that it must have tasted pretty much like that, too. I toyed with the idea of counting them all up with that rhyme which begins “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor …” But I realized that I could not remember the words beyond “thief”, so my knowledge would have been hopelessly inadequate.

To look on the bright side, at least I had another superlative meal. And even he enjoyed his starter.

I caught the 17.00 train to Newcastle, where I was shocked to find that it was raining yet again. Indeed, conditions on the A697 heading north were only marginally better than they had been a week ago, during the epic downpour which produced the great Morpeth flood. Is it ever going to stop?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Not just about a wall

14st 5lb (an utter disgrace, frankly); 4.8 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,243; Bloomsbury.

I drove home from Chester to Northumberland yesterday afternoon, then caught a train from Newcastle to London this morning. Do not bother composing a sarcastic comment about my lack of spatial awareness, my clearly unjustified gibes about the LTCB’s inability to find her way around an oval running track without the aid of GPS, or the size of my carbon footprint. I actually once won a prize from the Royal Geographical Society for having the highest marks in the country in my geography A-level, and if I say so myself I am pretty good with maps. So long as I am travelling north, and can hold the thing the right way up. How else do you think I ended up in Northumberland?

No, trust me, it made sense. I had to place the dog with a carer and get my hair cut. Having done so, I caught a train to King’s Cross and spent the journey adding to this very blog. I also checked my e-mails, having tinkered with the settings of these pages yesterday, in the course of which I had added an easily accessible contact e-mail address. The first fruit of this proved to be a message all the way from Australia reading “become a muslim shoot yrslf and youll be surrounded by lovely virgins all willing you to show them how to do it”.

Perhaps facilitating that wasn’t my best ever decision.

This afternoon, after tea at my club, I went to the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum with an old friend from Dorset who is interested in that sort of thing. I thought it was time I saw him, given that I had promised to buy him dinner to celebrate his 50th birthday and never done so, and he is now over 55. Admittedly, the absence of dinner was not strictly my fault. The restaurant was booked, the credit card braced for action, then George Bush decided to turn up in London on the very day I had selected, and my pal chickened out on the risible grounds that there was almost certain to be a major terrorist incident, and he wasn’t prepared to have his head blown off just for the sake of a free dinner.

Given this track record, it seemed to me that my friend had picked a singularly inauspicious date for this long delayed re-match, but when I put the point to him he just looked at me blankly. Some people have such short memories.

I enjoyed the exhibition more than I had expected, which is admittedly not saying much given my general attitude to museums. I also learned a few things that were new to me, including the fact that Hadrian was from Spain and the adopted son of an emperor, rather than a hereditary ruler; that he had a male Greek lover called Antonius and was distraught when he died, and that a religious cult of the deceased spread through the Mediterranean empire on a scale which, at the time, rivalled Christianity; that there was no Latin word for “homosexual” and that it did not matter to the Romans who or what a man had sex with, so long as he was the dominant partner (seemingly creating a bit of a problem for 50 per cent of the participants in any male single sex relationship, unless I have totally misunderstood what they get up to); and that Hadrian himself died childless and was succeeded by another adoptee.

The section on Hadrian’s Wall made it seem a wonderfully pointless trip, since every single artefact was labelled as coming from the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle upon Tyne. But then I remembered that I had not actually been there since I was at school, and could not go again if I wanted to, as it has been closed down. Its collections will allegedly become part of the new Great North Museum, opening in 2009. But that sounds very much like the sort of thing that is best believed when one has actually seen it.

My friend was much taken with Hadrian’s skills as a poet, and went to the trouble of transcribing the English translation of the following epitaph for a child:

Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer,
Body’s guest and companion
To what places will you set out for now?
To darkling, cold and gloomy ones
And you won’t make your usual jokes

I can’t help thinking that he might have rushed the composition of the last line just a little bit. Perhaps there were some particularly tasty Christians on at the Colosseum that evening.

After this cultural feast we walked to my exciting new club, where they made a virtue of their non-functioning lift by inviting us to walk up a glamorous, under-lit (in the sense of having lights underneath it, not dark and gloomy) glass staircase. It made me feel like a genuine celebrity, though admittedly the genuine celebrity in question was Danny La Rue. We admired the stylish and comfortable rooms then took a seat (no, hang the expense, two seats) in the piano bar and ordered cocktails. The menu made much of the authenticity of these concoctions, stressing the extensive research that had been undertaken to track down their original recipes. This seemed to overlook the possibility that subsequent developments might actually have been improvements. It was as if Ford started marketing an original and authentic car with solid rubber tyres, no heater, radio or windscreen wipers, and a handbrake on the outside. After sucking on his straw thoughtfully for a bit, my friend looked around meaningfully, leaned forward and whispered confidentially, “I say, old chap, are you absolutely sure that you haven’t accidentally joined a gay club?”

Oh, who cares? Particularly after a second surprisingly sour cocktail. Another first for Bloke in the North. If it was good enough for Hadrian …

Which reminds me. I really must see about getting that crumbling stone wall around the paddock re-pointed when I am next at home.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The end of the world is not as nigh as I had hoped

I’d really rather not know what my weight is; 6.6 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,244; Oop North.

At last it’s here! Big Bang Day on the BBC. Which frankly proved to be a colossal disappointment. Though perhaps less so for me than for my elderly neighbours, who had misheard the trailers as Big Band Day, and laid in extra supplies of nice biscuits to munch as they happily relived their memories of Glenn Miller, Ted Heath and Joe Loss. I did not even bother getting dressed or having a shower before settling down to listen to the historic moment as Andrew Marr reported live from the French-Swiss border on the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider. Why fanny about with trivia when the planet might be about to disintegrate beneath me?

The bloke doing the countdown under Switzerland screwed it up a bit, but then he did sound Welsh, so what else would you expect? When he finally reached zero, giggling with delight as though he had just got a sheep’s back legs down his wellies for an hour or two of passion, part of me hoped to be fleetingly conscious of the largest explosion imaginable. And perhaps just a glimpse of an old bloke with a flowing grey beard up in the sky, mouthing “Oh no, not again!”

But as you know, since you are reading this, precisely sod all happened. I later established that what they were doing this morning was literally just powering the thing up; the equivalent, albeit on a somewhat larger scale, of connecting the power supply of my new MacBook to a socket. It will take weeks or even months before they actually start doing any proper experiments. And my naïve worry that they might thereby cause a recurrence of the Big Bang is apparently misplaced; the basis of the legal actions to stop the project in its tracks has apparently been concern that it might create a black hole, which could swallow the Earth of a period of a few years. Which would at least guarantee no surprises about the lead story on the BBC news every night, at any rate until it reached White City. I wonder if they were thinking this far ahead when they decided to relocate so many of their functions to Salford?

The synthesized voice of Stephen Hawking was all over the airwaves before the switch-on, dispensing reassurance that “the world will not come to an end”. The only problem was that I could not help thinking that he had much less to lose than almost all the rest of us if he turned out to be wrong. I used to see him on most days in Cambridge in the early 1970s, as I plodded wearily from my college to the history faculty in the very late morning, and even then he was in the most dreadful state. “Poor soul,” I thought. “He’s not long for this world.” I had no idea who he was until many years later, when he achieved global fame as the author of A Brief History of Time. The hardback has been sitting on my shelves ever since, with a bookmark where I got stuck on page 3. Even Salman Rushdie has not been able to break this record. With him, I usually get at least halfway through the first chapter.

It is particularly annoying to reflect that Professor Hawking not only has a brain the size of a larger than average planet, and has added greatly to the sum of human knowledge; but, with his two wives and three children, he has also had a much more interesting and fulfilling personal life than mine. It is clearly important for an educated and able-bodied bloke to set aside the sense that “It’s just not fair” and raise his glass to someone who had demonstrated such a colossal will to live in the face of such utterly crippling disabilities, and managed to overcome them. What a loss to science it would have been if he had been a Newcastle United supporter, and turned his face to the wall every time Wor Lads suffered a minor setback on their predestined road to sporting glory.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Wherivvor ye gan ye're sure te find a Geordie

14st 8lb, according to the LTCB’s very depressing scales, which I do not believe for a minute; 9.7 units of alcohol yesterday; 1,245; Chester.

It was raining again this morning, just for a change, and people kept hammering on the LTCB’s front door as soon as I had walked far enough away from it to ensure that I stood no chance of making it back there before they moved on. It seems quite an achievement to cover so much ground in a house as small as the LTCB’s, but her hazardous stairs are not to be attempted in any sort of a rush. Particularly when the best you can expect if you do make it to the door is the sort of geeky youth I found on the step this afternoon, wearing an eager expression and clutching a clipboard. He got off to a bad start by congratulating me on my parking in the very restricted space of the LTCB’s front garden, and I said meaningfully that I had considerable experience of easing large things into tight spots, as well as of telling cheeky bastards to mind their own business. He then announced that he represented the British Red Cross and added that he was sure I knew what they did. I agreed that I had always been a huge fan of both their splendid work for cats and their excellent double discount sales, but apparently that is the Blue Cross. Quite a different organization, it seems. Well I never.

He then explained what the Red Cross was all about. I stopped him after a bit and suggested that he just hand over the aid and f*** off, at which point it turned out that he actually expected me to give money to them. You could have knocked me down with a feather. But then I have no experience of this sort of thing, since charity collectors are completely unknown in my part of Northumberland. I heard that some woman had once come around on the scrounge for the RSPCA, but one of my neighbours ate her. Arguing that this had at least postponed the cruelty of killing one of his pigs by about a day and a half. Sadly there was not much meat on her.

Apart from getting rid of the Red Cross man, the highlight of my day was taking the dog for a walk and finding a freshly minted graffito on one of the paving stones by the River Dee, reading “Ashley is a fat c*nt”. I suppose there is a small chance that it relates to some local person of that name, but it seems altogether more likely that it bears witness to the burgeoning popularity of the owner of Newcastle United. It just goes to show the truth of that old song about never being far from a Geordie. Or a rat, one of which is always supposed to be within ten feet of us at all times. “Haway the lads”, I murmured to myself, and right on cue a rat scuttled across the footpath in front of me, and disappeared down the river bank. Presumably another Toon supporter taking the easy way out by hurling itself into the fast-flowing waters. If I cared a toss about football, I would probably add what a real shame it is that Mr Ashley has not yet seen fit to follow the rat’s example.