Thursday, 31 December 2009

Return to Scratterville

15st 4lb, 4.0 units. I ordered some train tickets from the Bearded Git’s marvellous online service on Sunday. Sadly having the ones required for 8/9 January posted to me simply wasn’t an option, apparently because there wasn’t enough time for the ever-reliable Virgin Trains to be sure of those half-witted, strike-prone incompetents at Royal Mail getting them to me. So we needed to go into Chester station to pick them up from one of the inappropriately named “FastTicket” machines. Collecting them immediately before boarding the train is not an option because (a) Mrs H and I are travelling on different days, and one has to be in possession of the credit card used to make the purchase when picking them up, and (b) even if we weren’t, experience suggests that there is every chance of turning up at the station shortly before departure to find little notices taped onto the FastTicket machines regretting that they are out of order, but advising that tickets purchased in advance can be collected from the travel centre, the queue for which resembles that outside a new branch of Primark or IKEA on a day when they are giving away free little black dresses or meatballs.

So we had to drive into Chester to pick them up.

I also ordered some tickets for early February at the same time. They turned up in the post yesterday morning. On the one hand, this is an illustration that the vendor’s delivery policy is mildly tiresome. On the other hand … there is no other hand.

We duly drove into Chester and parked my new car outside the attractive, unoccupied house in Scratterville where Mrs H lived when I met her, and which her estate agent is doing a strikingly unsuccessful job of selling. They seem to have stopped showing people around “for the festive season”, which at least spares us the regular “viewing feedback”.

“They really liked the house, but they thought the rooms were a bit small.”

“Er, couldn’t they have worked that out from the measurements in the particulars, rather than traipsing around there?”

“They really liked the house, but were disappointed that the second bathroom doesn’t have a window.”

“Er, couldn’t they have worked that out from the floor plan in the particulars, rather than …”

You get the picture.

I am convinced that most house viewings are arranged by nosy people who simply have nothing better to do. I have never in my life asked to see a property without first (a) studying the particulars, and (b) doing a preliminary external recce, because there is no point troubling the owner, occupier or agent if the place turns out to be immediately downwind of a sewage farm, to take the most extreme example. Or a chipper, in the case of Mrs H’s attractive bijou cottage, but best keep shtoom about that, eh?

The neighbourhood had deteriorated in terms of convenience, in that the Local shop on the corner, where I bought my daily paper, milk and bags of ice, had become one of the many casualties of the administration of the First Quench retail chain. On the plus side, this meant that the ginger-headed King of the Scratters and his little supporting gang of baseball-capped morons were no longer to be found standing in a little knot outside, sneering at passers-by and gobbing energetically onto the pavement. I wondered where they had regrouped, without actually wanting to find out the answer.

We pushed the buggy to the excellent local butcher and greengrocer to collect the ingredients for the very special New Year’s Eve supper Mrs H had promised to make me, following a recipe in The Times that had caught my eye. Then we had a late lunch in the sort of old-fashioned tea shop(pe) where the waitresses still wear black frocks and white pinafores, and the beverage comes in metal pots with matching hot water jugs and tea strainers. As I sat awaiting the delivery of my baked potato, watching The Baby gurgle happily at his bottle on his mother’s knee, I marvelled at the change that has occurred in my lifestyle over the past 12 months. This time last year I would not have been seen dead in such an establishment, particularly when there were several fine pubs serving real ale within a stone’s throw. I felt strangely calm about it, though I dare say I might have developed a bad attack of the shakes if someone at a neighbouring table had ripped open a packet of pork scratchings or taken an opener to a bottle of foreign Guinness.

It proved to be a classic slow food experience, but at least we were able to pass some of the time opening Christmas cards from the half dozen people who had ignored our “new home” notifications, and indeed the correct address that is printed at the end of all my e-mails.

We then puffed up the hill to a supposedly well-stocked off licence to procure the bottle of sweet Marsala that was the one remaining ingredient required for this evening’s feast. Naturally they did not have one, or indeed anything that looked like an acceptable substitute. So we wheeled the buggy back to Scratterville and piled into the car, aiming to go to the station and collect the tickets that were the original object of our journey. Until I remembered that I had not brought a print-out of the e-mail containing the reference numbers required for that purpose. Great.

At least I managed to pick up a bottle of Marsala at Sainsbury’s on the way home, immediately before the road rage incident in the car park as I attempted to make my way to the filling station against the flow of traffic heading for the exit. When we finally got home, Mrs H duly slaved over a hot stove for hours, preparing the fillet of pork stuffed with black pudding, baked in a greaseproof paper bag with a fresh fig and Marsala sauce. And it tasted … well, of nothing at all, really, except possibly greaseproof paper. I tried to think of ways of expressing this mild disappointment diplomatically, and failed. So in at least one respect, the year finished exactly as it had begun.

On the plus side, I was reminded that I very much liked sweet Marsala (which, ironically, seemed indistinguishable from the sweet sherry we had anyway) and that, if you drink enough of it, all disappointments (culinary and otherwise) are swiftly forgotten.

Time to turn the page to 2010, I think.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Idle dreams of X-ray specs

15st 3lb, zero units. I distinctly remember those ads in the comics of my boyhood for “X-ray glasses” which would enable the lucky if geeky purchaser to see through the clothes of the girl he was staring at, at least until her boyfriend came across and punched him into another dimension. I was always a bit sceptical about whether they would actually work; as my mother, bless her, was sceptical about the genuine X-ray machines they used to have in the shoe departments of all good stores, so that you could see exactly how well your prospective purchases fitted. She was not dubious about whether the machines worked or not; she just thought that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to be bombarding parts of her boy’s tender young body with needless “rays”. True, this came from the same school of thought that blamed the lousy summers of the time on the atom bomb and / or the launch of those Sputnik thingummyjigs, but so far as I’m concerned by mum was ahead of her time. As all the old wives of the 1950s may well yet prove to be, when some UN scientist stands up to make the latest solemn pronouncement about the true origins of global warming.

Incidentally, so far as I remember those ads, the “X-ray specs” only saw through the young lady’s floral cretonne flock to give the lucky purchaser a glimpse of her bra and knickers, which were puzzlingly resistant to the magic properties of the glasses. How wonderful of science to spend the intervening years working to overcome this obvious deficiency, so that the new generation of body scanners (coming soon to an airport near you) will provide a fine view of the pudenda of all those passing through. I think I might apply for a job. No, no. I’ve just remembered seeing a TV documentary about naturism, and the resulting realization that at least 95 per cent of the human race look vastly better fully clothed, ideally with a bag over their heads.

Talking of which, it really is the most splendid of jokes that, thanks to the nefarious activities of their co-religionists, all those devout ladies who go to so much trouble to conceal all their womanly attractions beneath layers of flowing black bombazine will soon find themselves passing through scanners that give some perverted operator a good look at what we once naively spoke of as our private parts. No, not perverted, obviously. A dedicated servant of the state determined to make flying safer for us all. Not some bloke who failed the CRB checks for Santa Claus, furtively strumming away in his control booth as he zooms in on yet another promising Brazilian.

What I haven’t quite worked out yet is whether the aforementioned scanners can see INTO the body as well as beneath the clothes. Because clearly they are going to be of limited utility if Abdul can jam a stick of gelignite up his arse and still board the plane undetected. Personally, I think the answer is for all air passengers to be stripped naked and given the rubber glove treatment before boarding. I won’t actually be flying again if it happens, but then I hardly ever flew anyway. And it will certainly reduce carbon emissions, increase house prices under current flight paths and spare some very attractive listed buildings in the vicinity of Heathrow and Stansted.

I think they should up the security procedure for getting into the House of Commons to that level, too. Yes, I can also think of a few MPs who would probably like it, but it seems a fair bet that the majority would throw in the towel. And you can’t be too careful where security is concerned, can you?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Sinister and coma-inducing

15st 4lb, 3.0 units. My stinking cold is making my voice sound deep and sinister, as opposed to its normal register, which can best be described as a chain-smoking, talentless and sinister light baritone. I decided to exploit this by telling Mrs H a chilling early morning story about how I had murdered my first wife, Mandy Bradshaw, along with our infant twin daughters Milly and Molly, and buried their corpses beneath the then newly constructed conservatory at my house in Northumberland. I thought it would make a refreshing change from my normal practice of terrorizing her with unlikely tales about the Secret Cat. I further assumed that the choice of the names “Milly Molly Mandy” might serve as a clue that I was not being altogether serious. However, she immediately started asking questions that made it clear that she was exploring the possibility that I was. She’s already borrowed my computer when she thought I wasn’t looking, and started scouring missing persons websites, using the key words “Mandy” and “Bradshaw”. Luckily the conservatory is knackered anyway, and it won’t be too much of a blow if I get home tomorrow and find it reduced to rubble (memo to Northumbria Police: she means the smaller and older one nearer to the lane, thanks). On the other hand, I don’t much fancy spending the afternoon down at the nick being subjected to the sort of relentless questioning that initially failed to crack Tony Gordon on Coronation Street. So it was a Joke in Bad Taste. All right? Yes, like most of my alleged jokes. Now can we please move on?

I asked Mrs H (who famously Cannot Be Trusted) to get me some Benylin for Chesty Coughs when she was out yesterday afternoon, so she naturally came back with something completely different. It’s called Covonia, which I thought was the name of a pleasure steamer famous in the glorious Scarborough holidays of my boyhood (a vomit-flecked voyage to Flamborough Head on the Covonia, which my father claimed had made it to Dunkirk in 1940, presumably as the result of a navigational error while on the way to Robin’s Hood Bay with a party of Brownies; a ride on the cliff tramway; high tea in the Rivelyn Hotel, concluding with lashings of ice cream; then a big red United bus to the Floral Hall in the North Bay to see Tommy Cooper, to this day the funniest man I have ever seen on stage; concluding with a walk back along Marine Parade by glorious, flickering gaslight. The happiest day of my life. Apart from my wedding, obviously, which may have been vomit-inducing in some ways but at least did not require me to clamber aboard a sodding boat.)

Ah, such wonderful memories! And exactly the sort of things that to come to mind after ingesting Covonia Cold & Flu, which is a lurid green in colour, imparts a warming glow as it slips down and then, in my case at least, induces a coma from which I emerge about an hour later, face down and drooling on the carpet. Just like green Chartreuse, then, but apparently a good deal cheaper. Made in Huddersfield, too, so involving none of those worries I always have about nasty foreign muck. Mind you, I would leave it out of your case if you’re planning a holiday in China, unless you fancy a bullet in the back of your head as a cut-price alternative to Dignitas. “Don’t worry, Dad, Gordon Brown is personally pleading for your life with the President … why have you just shat yourself?”

Monday, 28 December 2009

The camel diddler with the exploding suppository

15st 5lb, 4.5 units. It has not been a great Christmas from the point of view of weight control. Making allowance for the 4lb discount allowed by the scales I brought with me to Cheshire, compared with those I left behind in Northumberland, I have regained all but a few ounces of the weight I painfully lost during 2008. My successful diet was chiefly inspired by the embarrassing and revolting heights of obesity I had attained by the end of my Christmas lunch in 2007, and assisted by a conveniently motivational wager with another newspaper columnist that I could not lose 21lb by the following Easter. To look on the bright side for once, there do seem to be some lasting health benefits even when one regains the weight, or at any rate a time lapse before the disbenefits kick in. At any rate, when they were last checked, my blood pressure and cholesterol levels were still in the reasonably benign ranges to which they retreated when I was the best part of two stone lighter than I am now.

My Number One task for 2010 must be attempting to get back there. That and writing some stuff that people are actually willing to pay to read.

I expect that losing the weight will prove to be the easy part.

Avoirdupois apart, it has not been too bad a Christmas. My usual seasonal illness (a truly stinking cold) did not kick in until Boxing Day, and my lovely wife gave me the second best present I have ever received: a digital radio that not only sounds superb when listening to my usual BBC stations live, but also enables me to access their “Listen Again” slots on the Internet and even streams the music stored on my computer. Magic.

The best present I have ever received (how’s that for crawling, Baby?) did considerably better than me on the present front, though unfortunately he’s still at an age when he is far more interested in playing with the wrapping paper than with its contents. And what a lot of wrapping paper there was. It has taken us three days to clear the sitting room and fill the recycling bin with it, and we are left with a house that looks like a branch of Toys ‘R’ Us after an algorithm failure has led to a catastrophic breakdown in stock control.

My best present (but apparently for life, not just for Christmas)

I am struck not only by how many more toys The Baby has accumulated in six months than I did in my first 16 years or so, but also by how all of them seem to emit some sort of loud noise. When I was a child, so long as some ill-intentioned uncle did not give your brat a toy drum, you were in the clear. Now everything sounds off with maddeningly cheery and inevitably American “educational” voices, or the squawking of rain forest birds that will almost certainly be extinct by the time he leaves kindergarten, or the revving of engines and tooting of horns. I am seriously concerned that The Baby may grow up to be Jeremy Clarkson.

Young Clarkson shows off (hands off wheel)

The Dog is profoundly jealous of all this, and cannot understand why his willingness to allow The Baby to play with all his toys is not reciprocated.


Baby gym or dog gym? Views in our house differ

I am torn between sending a slightly acid note to The Baby’s one godparent who did not send him so much as a card, and thanking God for small mercies. We surely do not need to buy him anything else for his instruction or entertainment before he goes to school. Well, apart obviously from the huge train set that will be designed for my enjoyment rather than his.

I spent this morning struggling in the face of feeling thoroughly lousy to write a newspaper column on the theme of history versus clairvoyancy. I can vouch for the comparative easiness of history because my whole life has been driven by my phenomenal laziness, and I spent my school career eagerly dropping the classes I found difficult. Swimming, gym, rugby, maths, physics, classics and modern languages: one by one they fell happily by the wayside until I was left with just history. In those days I had a prodigious memory for facts and figures, and could write English after a fashion, so found it easy to excel in those traditional three hour exams, writing essays on such demanding subjects as “Gladstone was as nutty as a fruitcake: discuss.”

The ability to apply a sceptical eye to the available evidence and dash off a few hundred words of analysis has kept me in food, heat, light and (crucially) drink ever since, so I am unconvinced that it would have been to the benefit of society if I had been fast-tracked through a two year “vocational” degree in, say, public relations, rather than hanging around in bars at one of our ancient seats of learning, pretending to study history. Though it would, to be fair, have saved quite a bit of public money.

Anyway, what I started trying to explore was why the people who write obsessively about the evils of European integration and the implausibility of manmade climate change are one and the same. It’s easy enough to answer, in that both the Europe and Global Warming industries are dedicated to clamping down on individual freedom in the name of the greater good. But while one can base a solid case against Europe on history alone, to demolish the arguments for manmade climate change also requires an element of clairvoyancy. Unless one is simply prepared to rely on the long history of so-called scientists getting it wrong and changing their minds through all the previous “end of the world” scares of the last half century or so.

But then I got distracted by the Detroit underpants bomber (boxers or Y-fronts?) and what must surely be the next stage in the War Of (rather than On) Terror. I excised the word “pessary” from my draft on the grounds that it was likely to cause revulsion at the breakfast table, and decided to refer to “ingested” explosives instead. No sooner had I sent it off than I got an informative e-mail back from my editor pointing out that “you ought to know that a week or 10 days ago, a Saudi security minister narrowly escaped injury in a bomb blast set off by a man who had crossed from the Yemen to carry out the murder and had the explosives secreted in his rectum (he used the very same explosives, as it happens, that the Detroit loon had in the bottle strapped to his leg). Your future has arrived, then!”

Oh joy! Bring on the Brave New World of looking over our shoulders for sinister camel diddlers adopting that slightly unnatural shuffle associated with exploding Anusol. I’d have thought that the need to institute searches for those at security might take some of the simple joy of jetting off for the weekend with EasyJet or RyanAir, but maybe we will get used to it. Who knows, we might even find that we enjoy it.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A he-man at last, and another Big C

15st 2lb, 9.0 units. It is hard to believe that I once managed to write this blog as a daily discipline. Now a month slips into oblivion as easily as an oyster without my fingers ever straying onto the keyboard. I was keeping an increasingly sketchy diary as an aide memoire against the day that I felt the urge to go back and fill in the gaps in my record, but even that has been blank for almost a fortnight. What on earth have I been doing with my steadily diminishing ration of precious time?

It would be easy to blame the relentless pressures of childcare, but for the fact that my great aunt has changed The Baby’s nappy more often than I have, and she’s only done it the once. If you can arrange a similarly relaxing introduction to parenthood, I really cannot recommend it too highly. Every day brings some fresh delight, like observing the face he pulled yesterday lunchtime when Mrs H introduced him to broccoli for the first time. He’s been working his way through a growing range of puréed fruit and vegetables, in defiance of the Government’s categorical advice that he should experience nothing other than milk (and preferably breast milk) until at least the age of six months. His reactions suggest that he accords as much respect to the pronouncements of Government as I do. That’s my boy.

In the last few days he has also mastered rolling over and begun to crawl, though progress is mercifully constrained by the fact that he has not yet worked out that his arms have a part to play in this process. So he keeps them firmly by his side and his face pressed to the mat as he purposefully raises his buttocks and edges forward like a colourfully dressed and mildly disabled caterpillar.

I suppose a certain amount of my time has been employed in packing up things (mainly books) in Northumberland, then unpacking them again in Cheshire. The unaccustomed exertion has given me a painful condition in my left arm that my doctor describes as being “akin to tennis elbow” (whatever that is) while my right leg is also crippled by something no doubt “akin to housemaid’s knee” (not that I have bothered to ask). Top of the Health Worries Hit Parade, though, has been the purple-black lump that first took up residence on my left temple about a year ago, and has been expanding steadily ever since.

It finally reached the stage where I felt the need for some informed reassurance, so I popped in to see my friendly local pharmacist in Cheshire. He did not yell “Oh Jesus Christ!” at the top of his voice when he caught sight of the excrescence, but I could tell that it was quite a close-run thing. But, being a professional, he managed to confine himself to a sharp intake of breath and an “I’ve never seen anything like that before” plus an “I don’t like the look of it” (with special reference to the unevenness of its edges) before concluding “You definitely want to get that checked out by a doctor. No rush, but you should just about catch the surgery if you run.”

As it was, I went to see my own GP in Northumberland a few days later. She did not yell “Oh Jesus Christ!” at the top of her voice when she caught sight of the growth, but I could tell that it was quite a close-run thing. But, being a professional, she managed to confine herself to a sharp intake of breath and an “I’ve never seen anything like that before” plus an “I don’t like the look of it” (with special reference to the unevenness of its edges) before concluding “You definitely want to get that checked out by a doctor who knows more about skin can … lesions than I do. No rush, but there is a drop-in clinic at the RVI the day after tomorrow.”

So we found our stay in the North East extended so that I could attend something at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary that was reassuringly billed as their “Melanoma Screening Clinic”. The state of the lavatories bore eloquent testimony to the nervousness of many of their patients, but I turned out to be one of the lucky 90 per cent. For, after a wait of just over an hour, a young doctor peered at my temple through a magnifier and pronounced, after his third inspection, that what I had was “definitely not a melanoma”. It is, apparently, something called a hemangioma; an unexplained agglomeration of blood vessels under the skin that cause no harm except to one’s beauty. He said that they were reasonably common, though my subsequent examination of the internet suggests that they are far more prevalent in new-born babies than in late-middle-aged adults. At any rate, I am consoled by possessing something with “he man” qualities for the very first time in my life and am thinking of buying a bigger hat and keeping it tipped jauntily to the left at all times. Indoors as well as out. It could yet prove to be the risk-free contraceptive solution we have all been looking for. But then so could the growth, to be honest.

As a pessimist, I am also kicking myself because I allowed elation at the apparent lifting of my death sentence to get in the way of such elementary precautions as asking the doctor for his full name, title and professional qualifications, and carefully writing them down in my notebook, so that my widow will know exactly who to sue if, by some mischance, his categorical reassurance should turn out to be incorrect.

Apart from that, our most interesting discovery of the last month has been that The Dog has never really wanted anything all his life apart from a plastic duck. We found this out the hard way when we bought a family of three of them to entertain The Baby in his bath. Now it is impossible to bathe the child without The Dog bursting into the room and howling plaintively for the object of his desire. We tried to make it up to him by taking him to Pets at Home and buying him a lovely, quacking, stuffed duck (along with a lovely, squeaking, stuffed sausage dog that he somehow managed to cram into his mouth before we could stop him) and he took some brief pleasure in shaking both of them to death. But the urge to possess a plastic bath duck of his very own is apparently completely unabated. I am already making plans to return to Bainbridge’s in Newcastle and buy him an identical set of his own, avoiding potentially unhygienic confusion by marking them boldly on their base with The Dog’s initial, using an indelible marker.

I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, that it wasn’t our brightest move to give The Baby a Christian name that begins with “C”; the same initial as The Dog’s.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Gordon's doing his best; imagine the worst

15st 4lb (I know, I know), 4.5 units. We should have been leaving Northumberland for good the day after tomorrow. The “Under Offer” sign is still outside the house, and will no doubt remain there until our fuel shortage grows so severe that I take an axe to it. Instead we have just had a nice man from a removal company around to give us a quote for “rebalancing” my possessions between our two homes. I could see him wondering why anyone would pay good money to shift a load of junk that the council’s bulky waste collection service could deal with so much more economically (albeit not as economically as in the days before we had an efficient, undemocratic “unitary” council, when I seem to recall that it used to be removed free of charge).

Still, I do at least have fewer possessions than there were weighing me down 48 hours ago. Because, over the weekend, Mrs H finally managed to hold my hand on the first, faltering steps towards the life laundry. Together we went through cupboard after sideboard after cabinet clearing out at least some of those things I have insisted on accumulating over the last 20-odd years in case they might come in handy one day, though they never do. A good insight into my mindset is provided by the plastic box I unearthed in the tall press in the conservatory, on the lid of which a previous co-habitee had written, with a suitable touch of irony, “Mysterious Odds and Ends”.

I have to concede that I do feel better for it, and am quite looking forward to doing even more, though I fear that it will be a while before I can bring myself to tip the programme of every play, opera and ballet I have seen since 1973 into the recycling bin. Nor could I resist keeping the small bag I found among my late mother’s possessions, containing my own first pairs of baby socks and shoes.

It is interesting to observe the inevitable process of change and decay in action. Once treasured objects that had been carefully put away in apparently dry, warm cupboards came out again mysteriously covered in mould, rust or rodent droppings, which at least made it psychologically easier to add them to the bulging bin liner. Paper, apparently the most fragile thing I habitually put aside, strangely seems to keep the best. I never cease to be amazed that flimsy handwritten letters keep so well, when the big, solid people who penned them have long since turned to dust.

Talking of handwritten letters, I found myself in the unusual position this morning of actually sympathizing with Gordon Brown, as the BBC reported some grief-stricken mother laying into him for misspelling the name of her son in a supposed letter of condolence for his death in Afghanistan. At least he is consistent; as useless in bringing comfort to the bereaved as he is at making decisions, practising diplomacy or fulfilling any of the other key roles that comprise the Prime Ministerial job description.

It was also amusing to hear his spinners’ defence centring on the man’s poor eyesight; something which they have done their utmost to dismiss in every other context. Indeed, when Jeremy Clarkson described their man to an Australian audience as “one-eyed Scottish idiot” he was deemed to have caused such massive offence that he was compelled to issue a grovelling apology for every word. Apart, tellingly, from “idiot”.

Still, I thought the mother was a touch ungrateful. God knows, it is never easy writing letters of condolence at the best of times, and it must be a hundred times harder when you are the person responsible for putting the deceased in harm’s way in the first place. As one who wrecked the prize-winning calligraphy of his schooldays through years scrawling frantic notes at meetings, I now find it almost impossible to write legibly. Indeed almost the only times I attempt it are when writing greetings cards and letters of sympathy – and, in the latter case, I type out what I want to say first so that I can achieve a complete focus on making my handwritten words at least partially decipherable.

What I can’t find out from my extensive researches on Google is when this habit of Prime Ministerial empathizing kicked off. I naturally assumed that the dour Scotchman must have inherited it from his touchy-feely predecessor, until I recalled that Mr Blair was opposed at Sedgefield in the 2005 General Election by an anti-war candidate whose long indictment included a complaint that The People’s Tony had not dropped him a line when his late military policeman son was shot 31 times in Iraq, though he had found time to dash off a letter of sympathy to Ozzy Osbourne when he fell off his quad bike.

Did Mrs Thatcher write to the victims of the Falklands War or Wilson, Heath and Callaghan to those killed in The Troubles? We can safely assume that Churchill, Lloyd George and Asquith did not trouble to write individually to soldiers’, sailors’ and airmen’s families, or they would have done nothing else for the rest of their lives.

How long will it be before some ill-intentioned observer points out that the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in this country is actually The Queen, and demands that she sends a handwritten letter to every bereaved family herself?

Yes, it’s a crazy thing to have started, but it was a nice idea and for once I feel that Gordon was doing was best. It’s just that, as usual, his best really isn’t very good.

As for letting the whole thing drop, it will be awfully hard now it’s kicked off. So why not extend it? “Yes, that’s right, Mr Blair. You’ve got the job. President of Europe, palace, motorcade, weekly trolley dash around Iceland for Cherie. The works. And you can start just as soon as you’ve written a personal letter of explanation and sympathy to all the bereaved parents and partners of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, no, not the Americans. You can leave that to Obama. But don’t forget all the Iraqis and Afghans, will you?”

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Lonely and only in Newcastle

15st 3lb, zero units. Would I still be entitled to call myself Bloke in the North if I no longer lived in Northumberland? It wasn’t the critical factor in deciding not to sell my house to the nice Baronet, but it is the sort of thing I mull over when I wake at 4, as I did today, and fail to get back to sleep. Cheshire is still in the North, is it not? Though admittedly we have settled in a part of Cheshire that is less only about three miles from the border with Shropshire, which is definitely in the Midlands. On the other hand, I regret to say that we are also only about two miles from Wales, thanks to the border lurching east from the natural boundary of the River Dee, and taking a bite out of England that can only have been designed for the convenience of manufacturers of jigsaw puzzles. A nasty thought, to be sure, but at least it is definitely NORTH Wales. I suppose as a last resort we could always move a couple of miles west so that I could legitimately call myself Bloke in the North (of Wales), with the (of Wales) being silent. The price for this, if we sent The Baby to a State school, would be having part of his education conducted in gibberish. But I dare say that Welsh would prove no more incomprehensible and useless to him than trigonometry and algebra did to me in my day.

Anyway, this is all academic because I am in Northumberland, as it happens. The day started gloomily with the arrival of my builder, to explain that the small areas of rotten wood we had identified in my windows were actually far more extensive than he had predicted, and that many of them are reaching the point of being beyond economic repair. Which either means removing them to a workshop for prolonged and uneconomic reconstruction, or having new “like for like” replacements made to the high standards demanded by the authorities who keep an eye on listed buildings.

It is, of course, entirely typical that a house which has demanded minimal expenditure on maintenance since I had it comprehensively renovated 21 years ago should become a money pit as soon as I turn down an offer to take it off my hands. Similarly, the estimate for repairing my shed roofs, slumping due to dry rot in their supporting timbers, ran into thousands rather than the few hundred pounds I expected.

After spending the morning at my desk I drove to Newcastle for a lunch with some of my fellow contributors to The Journal – an occasion intended to be so convivial that I had taken the precaution of booking myself into my club for the night, in the hope of being unfit to drive a car for at least 24 hours. The first disappointment arrived as I walked out of the car park on my arrival, in the form of an e-mail and voice message from our editor apologizing for the fact that he could no longer join us because of a hastily arranged and unavoidable meeting. The second occurred when, after a decent interval waiting at the table with the one guest who had actually turned up, we rang the missing columnist to find him still sitting at his desk 65 miles away, happily composing his next piece.

“Oh dear” he said. “I completely forgot. I really am a dickhead.”

It was hard to disagree. Though it could be argued that I was the dickhead for forgetting, despite my 26 years in PR, that professional journalists are chronically unreliable and can be more or less guaranteed to forget to turn up for lunch unless they are reminded an hour or so before the appointed time. Even this does not necessarily work, for example if one is forced to rely on a colleague's assurance that “It's in her diary and I'm sure she will be there.” I once fell for that and had a rather sticky lunch a deux with a fuming Chief Executive, who had travelled from the other end of the country to improve understanding of his business (from a low base) with the sector specialist on one of the key national dailies. She turned out, on the strength of a slight headache, to have decided to enjoy a “duvet day” instead.

Still, my non-professional journalist friend and I had a perfectly decent lunch in Newcastle’s nearest equivalent to The Ivy today, and I was able to catch up with another Journal colleague over evening drinks in the Crown Posada. What could be more agreeable? Well, technically speaking, the Crown Posada under slightly less pressure from other bores, particularly the hugely fat “life and soul of the party” type who held court for a while with a group of younger acolytes at the table next to ours. But at least they lacked our staying power. We finally prised ourselves away to eat in chain pizza restaurant further up the street, which looked in dire need of a visit from a team of professional cleaners.

I took a detour on my way back to the club to check that my eyes were not deceiving me when I thought I saw a group of hairy-arsed men on a stag night queuing to get into a club. From a distance, it looked as though they were wearing only see-through pink leotards over tiny black thongs. Unfortunately I proved to have perfect vision when I got close-up, too. Only in Newcastle? One can but hope.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Le rouge et le blanc

14st 13lb, 9.0 units. Writing about woodmen putting crosses on trees yesterday reminded me of the classic Northumbrian tale of the Mad Major. Like all townies transplanted to the countryside (very much including the present writer), the Mad Major wanted the landscape surrounding his house managed on the following simple principles: No Change. At All. Ever.

So he was naturally much put out when the local squire commissioned some forestry harvesting operations, and positively incandescent when the woodmen came and painted big crosses on the trees forming an attractive avenue on the approach to his house.

Not being properly versed in the ways of the countryside, he did not realize that the white crosses they had used were designed to protect the trees, being a sign that they were NOT to be cut down. So he sneaked out overnight and painted over them in red, which in his mental world stood for “stop” and “leave alone”. Not appreciating that, in the world of forestry it stands for precisely the opposite.

The only worrying thing about this story, as I come to recount it, is that I am no longer entirely sure that I have got the significance of le rouge et le blanc the right way round. I hope I can remember the correct answer before the agents of tree destruction next make their way to my neck of the ex-woods.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

A day of wine and water, but mostly wine

15st 1lb, 10.8 units (I only did it for The Baby). After a night in which sleep battled against chronic indigestion, and the indigestion won as it always does, we rose to the bright, crisp morning of The Baby’s christening. Thanks to our chronic indecision in John Lewis a week ago, he had a choice of two ultra-cute outfits: one a traditional silk affair and the other a sailor suit with matching hat. However, Mrs H decreed that he would not be wearing either of the above until the start of the actual christening service, because of the near certainty of some unfortunate mishap as soon as he was smartly attired.

We had arranged a private christening at 11.30, but told all our guests that we would be attending the usual 10 o’clock Holy Communion and that they would be most welcome to join us then. Strangely enough, no-one took the hint apart from Mrs H’s parents and uncles, who are not exactly dedicated members of the C of E, and my goddaughter from Liverpool. I was quite impressed by the latter until it turned out that she had only made it because she had forgotten to put her clock back.

The Baby duly confirmed the wisdom of his mother’s dress policy by creating a certain amount of mess while being fed before the service.

“Where’s his muslin?” asked Mrs H, slightly frantically.

“There’s a whole row of them sitting right behind you,” I replied unhelpfully, gesturing towards her family.

My, how we laughed.

As usual, we defied the instructions of the Archbishops and shared the communion chalice, which really was an act of faith given that the vicar, who had first dibs, was doing a strikingly convincing impression of having swine flu, though he blamed it on an adverse reaction to his vaccination against it yesterday.

Perhaps illness affected his judgement as when we got to the “Sign of Peace” bit in the service, which he normally skips over, we were all invited to participate. My aunt raised her eyebrows significantly.

When the service was over, the congregation made short work of the homemade chocolate brownies Mrs H had brought with her to accompany the sacred rite of coffee, and also demolished the remains of our wedding cake. As they started to drift off, our other guests began to drift in. With the notable exception of the godparent who had come furthest for the occasion, whose yellow Porsche finally drifted into the church car park about ten minutes after our scheduled kick-off. He claimed, plausibly, to have been caught out by the “A51 Closed Weekends: Follow Diversion Not Sat Nav” signage, though his partner revealed that he had also viewed the christening invitation as he would that to any other sort of party, and assumed that it would be deeply unfashionable to turn up at the time specified on the card.


The Baby limbering up for the Big Splash

We kicked off eventually with a Book of Common Prayer service that not even the vicar had ever used before, but which I found vastly more interesting than the modern alternative. It is not yet up there with the 1662 wedding and funeral services as one that I can just about recite from memory, but certain phrases echoed comfortingly down the ages, including “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” and “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

And who could resist witnessing a couple of multi-millionaires promising to “renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same”?

It was great.

The first time I went to a christening as a godparent, I remember writing rather preciously in my diary afterwards that seeing the vicar make the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead reminded me of nothing so much as a woodman marking a tree for felling. I had no such sense at The Baby’s christening; just joy that he was the focus of so much love and happiness; that he got through the ceremony without crying; and that the vicar’s mild dose of swine flu prevented him from noticing the whiff from the bundle in his arms, who with perfect timing had noisily filled his nappy a few seconds before he was handed over.


The Baby sees The Light


Godparents wondering "What have I done?"


The Baby and his newly extended family

Afterwards we all drove to a pub and had a Sunday roast, preceded by champagne and accompanied by rather a lot of Zinfandel, telling ourselves that it is what The Baby would have wanted. I regret to say that I gave a short address (No 1, London), which went pretty much like this:

Good afternoon

The bad news is that I have spent all week working on a speech.

The good news is that it wasn’t this one.

It was Mrs H who suggested that I should “say a few words”. As you might expect, given that Mrs H has been the driving force and organizational genius behind this whole event – and therefore the person to whom any comments or complaints should be directed.

Her leading role is actually a bit odd, when you think about it, considering our respective religious backgrounds.

Someone genuinely did ask, when we first mentioned this date, whether we were having a Muslim christening or a Christian one?

Worryingly, they weren’t trying to be funny.

Resisting the temptation – which is unusual for me – to ask what exactly they thought that the derivation of the word “christening” might be, I just said “It’s being done by Rick, the very nice man who married us.”

“Oh”, they said. “So neither, then.”

Followed by, on reflection, “I mean it will be the best of both worlds!”

Well, I am sorry that we did not manage to introduce any exciting elements of tension this morning, like Mrs H being asked whether she wanted to marry me three times, but it was certainly exactly what I wanted, and The Baby’s too young to have a view, so that’s clearly what matters.

Thank you, Rick, for being as ever so willing to accommodate any request, however eccentric.

And thank you all for being here to support The Baby on this important day, and particular thanks to all our wonderful godparents. We were surprised and delighted that you all agreed to take on these onerous responsibilities with such alacrity.

There were a number of other candidates we had in mind, and when Mrs H mentioned one of them to me I pointed out that the Church of England merely suggests three godparents as a minimum, and there was nothing to stop The Baby having more of them.

“Oh no,” she said disarmingly, “We need to keep some in reserve for the next one!”

I pointed out that he was only ever going to have the one christening, and she explained that she meant the next baby.

Which came as news to me. But then the first one came as news to me, so why should I be surprised?

Sorry, I should make it clear that I am referring to a hypothetical next baby there, not making an important announcement.

Anyway, this is The Baby’s day and The Baby is still quite short, so I guess I should be, too.

You will all be familiar, I am sure, with the story of the beautiful young woman who approached George Bernard Shaw and suggested that he should father a child with her, as the combination of her looks and his brain would be absolutely stunning.

“Yes,” he replied. “But what if it has my looks and YOUR brain.”

The Baby has been fortunate, you will have noted, in inheriting his mother’s looks. And, though I recognize that I may be biased, he is the most handsome baby I have ever seen.

In the interests of total honesty, I should perhaps add that this may also reflect the fact that I have never taken any great interest in babies before.

(Except in you, obviously, darling goddaughter.)

It is too early to say how he will turn out in terms of intelligence. At present he is still behind The Dog and The Cat in the Hann family league table, but it is early days.

What I can say with certainty is that he has inherited a huge number of my characteristics, including periodic grumpiness and an intense suspicion of anything or anyone new – unless, curiously enough, the someone new happens to be an attractive blonde lady.

We are doing our utmost to iron out these inherited quirks and make him a far better man than his father. Which won’t be difficult, I know.

For example, I started swimming lessons at the age of eight and kept them up for eight years, at the end of which I still could not swim a stroke – as remains the case today.

The Baby started swimming lessons at eight weeks and is already very happy underwater.

We are also trying to make him comfortable in social situations – something I have never mastered. With the exception of a five day stay in hospital to have my tonsils out when I was five or six, I can honestly say that I don’t think I ever spent a night apart from my parents until I was 17 and went for an interview at Cambridge.

The Baby has been staying with his lovely grandparents on a regular basis since he was six weeks’ old, and the only problem we ever encounter is persuading them to let us have him back.

Thank you.

As for the godparents, all I can say is that you won’t need to do much to improve on the contribution of my godparents to my life, which could neatly summarized in two words, one of which is “all”.

(Marion, feel free to have a word with them afterwards and tell them how it should be done.)

I’m probably rambling now, so let me just thank you all again for being here, adding the rider that I am now being sincere even though it is my cross always to sound sarcastic.

Now let’s have a little toast to put an end to this.

I’ve no idea what one is supposed to say on these occasions, so I’ll probably get this hopelessly wrong, but my instinct is that we should raise a glass to The Baby and wish him long life, good health and much happiness.

Which we did.

And I can report that it has worked admirably so far.


Hello, sailor

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The real Fawlty Towers

14st 11lb, 7.0 units.

Trying to be Nice and Organized (at least one of which does not come at all naturally to me), I suggested to my 84-year-old aunt that it might be a good idea if she came across from Northumberland on the train for The Boy’s christening tomorrow, rather than driving the 213.7 miles herself. This seemed to make particularly good sense as I had to drive back anyway on Tuesday and would be able to give her a lift.

The first obvious snag was that we couldn’t actually put her up, as we are the proud possessors of a five bedroom house containing only one bed. (Well, three, to be pedantic, but one is only suitable for a cat and the other for a dog, not that he has ever consented to sleep in it).

No problem, she said. I’ll book myself into that nice hotel where I stayed for your wedding in February. Leave that to me, I replied, I’ll sort it out. So I went online and started filling out a form, then decided I might as well make the reservation over the phone as (a) I wasn’t actually booking a room for myself, and (b) I needed to speak to them anyway to organize dinner for five on the first evening of her stay.

I had a perfectly civil conversation with a woman who sounded very young, though probably of above primary school age, and who seemed to have grasped exactly what I was after. I was pleasantly surprised to note that the price she quoted me for three nights’ B&B was some £20 cheaper than the one offered on the hotel’s website, which was one in the eye for Martha Lane Fox’s theory that it costs a fortune not to have the benefit of internet access.

I began to wonder whether things might have gone ever so slightly wrong when I received a phone call on Tuesday evening, asking for a Mr F*** (not the usual F-word denoted by asterisks), who did not exist. I told the caller that they had got the wrong number, then reflected that their own number looked vaguely familiar, and that F*** was, after all, my aunt’s surname, so I rang back. It was the hotel “just ringing to confirm your dinner reservation for five people this evening”.

No, I pointed out, I had made that booking for Saturday.

Thinking ahead for once, I thought it would be wise to check that they had actually made my aunt’s room booking correctly. Yes, Mrs Barbara F*** was definitely booked in for three nights from Saturday. Which admittedly would have been more reassuring if my aunt were actually called Barbara, or even something vaguely like it.

The next elephant trap had nothing to do with the hotel, but was laid by whichever successor body to Cheshire County Council is responsible for repairing the roads. I allowed a full hour for what my sat nav assured me would be a 40-minute drive to Crewe station, and got within about five miles of my destination before I encountered a bleak yellow sign baldly announcing “A51 closed weekends”. This directed me on what I expected to be a short detour but which actually just about doubled the length of my journey and made me a full half hour late. Stupidly, I believed the yellow signs positioned at regular intervals saying “Follow Diversion Not Sat Nav”. Bastards. Being alone in the car, I felt obliged to stop to make an apologetic phone call to my aunt, thereby making myself even later and achieving precisely nothing as she proved to have her mobile phone switched off.

Have you ever driven to Crewe station? Don’t. It’s like taking part in a treasure hunt through one of the world’s most depressing urban landscapes, and you won’t want the prize when you finally get there. It reminded me of East Germany before the Wall fell, which is a bit puzzling given that I have never actually been to East Germany. Or any other part of Germany for that matter. My father tried to go there in 1944 on a boat trip paid for by the Government, and people kept shooting at him. He advised me not to bother.

Anyway, I finally managed to collect my aunt and, on the way back, I ignored the bloody signs and Followed Sat Nav Not Diversion, and it took no time at all. As you would expect.

After Auntie had inspected our house, mainly to satisfy herself that we really did not have any spare beds (luckily she did not look in the garage – only joking) I drove her to her hotel. I was feeling reasonably confident as we approached the reception desk, given that I had both made and confirmed the booking, and Auntie was clutching a typewritten letter of confirmation (which admittedly, on closer examination, managed to misspell every single word in her address, but at least bore the right dates).

We had to hang around for quite a while so that a harassed-looking receptionist of a certain age, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Sybil Fawlty, could laboriously explain to a merry, wine-drinking couple what their options were for obtaining a taxi to their party venue that evening and for returning to the hotel in the early hours. It was like the “Yes No Interlude” on Take Your Pick with Michael Miles (a popular television show from my childhood) except that the obvious words that she was forbidden from using on this occasion were not “Yes” and “No” but “You’ve no chance” and “You’re f***ed.”

Finally she turned to us, read Auntie’s letter, consulted the computer and … no, I’m sorry, we have no booking for you. None at all.

Subsequent prolonged investigation established that a Mrs F*** was indeed booked into the hotel for three nights, but from tomorrow.

On the plus side, they did have a booking for her dinner tonight.

And, perhaps even more importantly, they did have some rooms available, so she would not have to come back to our house and curl up in the dog’s basket. But actually booking her into one appeared to be a bureaucratic challenge that made cancelling a parking ticket look like a piece of piss.

The receptionist attempted to make us feel sorry for her by telling us that she had only got back from holiday in Egypt that morning and it had been one bloody thing after another all day because you cannot get the staff.

We didn’t actually care, but at least one of us was much too polite to say so. Instead we clucked sympathetically, and I somehow restrained myself from swearing as I explained for the third or fourth time that we did not want to book an EXTRA night, but to bring the whole booking forward one day to the arrival and departure dates originally agreed and confirmed by them in writing.

We stood there pretty stoically, all things considered, waiting for a registration form to be printed and presented to us. Eventually the receptionist conceded that it was beyond her and just handed over a key. Thinking of my blog rather than my aunt, I was rather disappointed when her allocated room proved to be clean, warm and comfortable. While always wishing the very best for her, it would have made a much more amusing story if I had been able to report a huge heap of manure in the middle of the floor and a dead farmyard animal in the bath.

Much the same story prevailed in the restaurant. It all started most promisingly. The bar was staffed by an old bloke who made Basil Fawlty look positively jolly, and was constantly muttering under his breath as he worked the beer pumps and optics. The young maitre d’ was clearly run off his feet. He handed me a wine list and I ordered a bottle of red wine which proved to be unobtainable, because he had given me completely the wrong list (though he assured me that this was technically impossible, as they had only ever had the one list. I was so glad I had consulted Mrs H about my choice and therefore had a reliable witness, otherwise I might have thought that it was me who was going round the twist.) The remainder of the bar and waiting staff had an average age of 12.

And yet … here is the surprising thing … dinner was absolutely, faultlessly delicious. All three courses of it.

Don’t you just hate in when you are trying to tell a funny story and some things turn out right?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Same old same old

14st 12lb, 1.7 units. Just like old times! I’m definitely feeling better. Indeed, there was a point, sitting at my desk this afternoon, when I was conscious of feeling positively well. Which worried me more than a little, given that in my experience an intense feeling of wellbeing is usually the result of the body’s defences staging a last, hopelessly unsuccessful rally before they succumb to something dreadful. You may recall that the legendarily convivial sometime TV chef Keith Floyd famously remarked that he had never felt better very shortly before he dropped dead the other week.

I read The Boy (previously known as The Baby) a story before bed last night. It’s about the most hands-on bit of parenting I’ve ever done. No-one believes my true story about the number of times I’ve changed a nappy, so I won’t even bother repeating it here. I did have him in the bath with me once but one of us disgraced ourselves by peeing in the water. Luckily Mrs H thought it was him. Even so, I thought it best not to repeat the experiment in case I got to like it, and started wanting to share my bath with young people on a more regular basis. I’m already in enough potential trouble, given the yawning age gap between me and my son. My best hope is that I will be nicknamed “Grandpa” when I come to wait for him at the school gates, and not “The Paedo”.

Anyway, I read him this story, because Mrs H told me to. She also told me, with some exasperation, that I did not need to read him the bit at the front about the author having asserted her intellectual property rights and the thing being printed in China (which made me wonder if there was anything at all we were capable of doing for ourselves any more). The Boy looked very grave as the story unfolded. I’m not sure whether that was because he took it more seriously than I did, or because he thought I was insulting his intelligence. It wasn’t much of a tale, to be honest. All about a puppy that was lost and – you’d never have guessed this – on the last page it turned up again.

Well, blow me down.

I’m now wondering whether writing children’s books might be the way forward. It can’t be that difficult, surely? I’m skint, I can write (after a fashion), and I’ve got a child to support. Maybe I should scrap Wife in the North as my role model and think more along the lines of J.K. Rowling. There’s a café in the high street where I could hang out with my notebook, stretching a single cup of coffee out all morning and looking sorry for myself.

Now all I need to work out is the Next Big Thing in children’s fiction. I had a colleague who wasted months writing this great book, all about a boy wizard, which he genuinely dreamt up before Ms Rowling had her first volume published, but unfortunately ended up touting it around publishers after her sales had started to take off. The word “plagiarism” was bandied about. It was really bad luck, with hindsight, that he had chosen to call his hero Barry Trotter.

On the other hand, I also have a friend who wasted months, at a publisher’s suggestion, converting a film script about a boy visiting an alien spaceship into a children’s novel, only to have it rejected because sci-fi was now dead and all kids wanted to read about was magic.

Maybe I'll just stick to what I know, then. A picture book about a rather sleazy, overweight, 50-something PR man from the North of England trying unsuccessfully to get his leg over with his PA. All I need to work out now is how to make it suitable for age group 5 – 8. Or 25 – 88, for that matter.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A bit wobbly in the saddle

Blogging, it seems to me, is a bit like riding a bike. Or sex. Do it regularly and it seems totally natural and easy. Have a break, say after a nasty accident (a tumble over the handlebars into the hedgerow, or a sharp kick in the bollocks administered by that young lady whose signals you misread) and taking it up again becomes rather a mountain to climb. Over the weeks since my last entry, said mountain has gradually increased in size from a large hill around the height of Cheviot, via Ben Nevis and Mont Blanc, to something now roughly on the scale of K2.

So it can’t get much worse, at any rate.

But I feel that I really must make an effort to break my silence and get back in the saddle now, or there is a good chance that I never will. I am still a bit wobbly, and I’m afraid we’re going to have to dispense with a few niceties like checking the tyre pressures or foreplay (so no change there, I can sense Mrs H mouthing) but here goes:

It’s lovely to be back.

I’ve not been well, but I ran into The Baronet in London’s Ludgate Hill yesterday, after a rather fine lunch in Fleet Street provided by my bank (I wonder who will ultimately end up paying for that?) and he assured me that I was looking much better than when he last saw me at the Alwinton Show a couple of weeks ago. The Baronet, I should perhaps explain, is the bloke from Essex who thought he was buying my lovely house in Northumberland, until Mrs H and I went up there last month to start clearing it out and I got so ill that I could not raise a finger, and felt obliged to call the whole thing off.

His statement that I looked a lot better at least suggested the possibility that I had looked reasonably ill when our paths last crossed. Which in turn might have meant that he accepted that there was a genuine reason for my change of heart, rather than merely a tendency to dither and generally dick people around, in the style made famous by our much-loved Prime Minister.

I found this strangely comforting. I never like to think that my behaviour might be confused with that of Gordon Brown.

The Baronet reiterated how keen he was to buy my house, and I promised to think about it. I explained that I was still waiting for a letter from my friendly local NHS hospital to tell me whether I was dying or not, based on the results of some tests I had done shortly before I left the North East. He said that he was not a doctor, but I could take his word for it that death was not imminent. For a second or two I wished for a piece of space debris to strike me down, just so that I could expire with the word “Ha!” on my lips.

Since The Baronet is an English gentleman of the finest sort, he almost certainly means it when he says that he still wants the transaction to proceed. Though I am conscious that, if I were the buyer rather than the seller in similar circumstances, I might well sweet talk the vendor into going to a lot of trouble clearing out his house just so I could have the pleasure of pulling out at the last moment, saying as I did so “Now you know what it feels like. Disappointing, isn’t it?”

Anyway, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? Oh yes, shrews in south Cheshire. We haven’t seen one since, so perhaps The Cat accounted for all of them. I can only hope that they weren’t an unusual variety that had been specially reintroduced to our garden by the South Cheshire and North Shropshire Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Consulting my diary to find out what the hell happened after that, I see that The Dog injured himself by jumping off our bed, then we went to a Wedding, which was nice. Shortly after which – and, in case our hosts at the Wedding should happen to read this, I should stress that I am sure that the sequence of events was completely coincidental – I began to feel distinctly unwell.


A classic wedding portrait, with no nonsense about a groom


Not the groom, either

First I went to see Mrs H’s doctor in Cheshire, who recommended that I take my chest pains to the nearest A&E Department without further delay and have them checked out. Instead I drove the 235 miles to Northumberland and went to see my own GP the next afternoon, where an ECG was run that apparently showed nothing untoward. A few days later the chest pains recurred, fortissimo, and this time I took my own doctor’s advice and went to A&E. Slowly and reluctantly, of course, but go I did.

An encouragingly pretty doctor ran another ECG on which she said she could detect tell-tale signs of a heart attack, but not signs big enough to interest the region’s specialist heart hospital when she faxed the trace through to them. Nevertheless, she recommended that I remain in hospital (a) because if I went home and dropped dead it would be marked down as her fault, and (b) because she wanted me to have some further tests which could be arranged much more quickly if I was actually on the premises.

So I spent a night in a bed in the Medical Admissions Unit. The bed furthest from the door, which is always encouraging, though not a place I could conscientiously recommend to anyone in need of a good night’s sleep, as former miners with breathing difficulties continued to be admitted and “processed” into the early hours. I was relieved when another ward took the huge, tattooed man who had been sitting brooding by the door, complaining at steadily increasing volume about the lack of his nightly diazepam and temazepam; without which, he warned, he was highly likely to have a “funny turn”, the probable consequences of which struck me as almost certainly less than hilarious. But I still enjoyed the company in the next bed of an elderly lunatic from the local asylum, who spent his time coughing and retching loudly in those short intervals in which he could be coaxed between the sheets, rather than shuffling around the ward gawping at his fellow patients.

They let me go home the next afternoon. No further tests were carried out, though they did summon me back by letter to have them done about ten days later. I mentioned this to the lady conducting the first test, who assured me that there was absolutely no waiting list for it, and the only reason it would not have been done while I was actually in the hospital was that no-one had bothered to pick up the phone and request it.

Still, mustn’t grumble. Clean building, nice people, edible food. AND I’m still alive at the time of writing.

See also http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/10/my-heart-was-always-in-north-east.html

After that there was the Alwinton Show, for which see http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/10/changing-times-in-alwinton-and-brussels.html. Luckily I took the succession of people who admired The Baby in his sling, and addressed me as “Granddad”, as a sort of compliment. The Dog was beside himself with delight at the terrier racing, in which we refused to allow him to participate on the grounds that he was still recovering from an injured shoulder (though the real reason was that neither Mrs H nor I could face the hassle of trying to recapture him at the end of the race).


A Border terrier not in the lead, as usual

We finally made it back to Cheshire the following Monday and I have spent the last 10 days or so steadily recuperating. I even managed to drive to London and Brighton at the weekend for an afternoon at the opera at Glyndebourne. So things are clearly on an improving trend.

Meanwhile The Baby continues to grow, and to smile and chuckle rather appealingly.

Who could ask for more?

A happy baby: wouldn't you like him to advertise YOUR product?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The maiming of the shrew

Now, I could start this off by writing 15st 1lb, zero units, as tradition seems to demand; but that might be taken as implying that I am returning to the daily grind of blogging, and I am not sure that I have the time or the energy for that. On the other hand, I have felt the urge to share a few thoughts during these weeks of silence, and I am conscious of my responsibility to my small(ish) band of loyal readers. And perhaps particularly to the lady who said that life would not be worth living any more if I gave up. With her tongue in cheek, I hope. If not, I trust that you have not topped yourself in the three weeks or so I have spent mulling over my next move.

The thing I chiefly feel the urge to share with you right now is this week’s discovery that women don’t just stand on chairs and scream at the sight of a mouse in Tom and Jerry cartoons. They do it in real life. Or at any rate Mrs H does, although her chosen refuge was actually a sofa rather than a chair, and the small creature turned out not to be a mouse at all.

It all began on Tuesday morning, when I was quietly eating breakfast in the sitting room (rather than the breakfast room or the dining room, because it happens to be the room currently containing our meagre supply of things for sitting upon). The Cat wandered in and dropped something on the carpet by Mrs H’s feet, and I asked her in my myopic way what it was.

That was when the screaming started.

Whatever it was was small, brown and moved both rapidly and comically, like an endearing clockwork toy. “It’s gone under the pouffe!” screamed Mrs H. Then, when I moved said pouffe, “No, no! You’ve squished it!”

Thus I established that Mrs H was (a) terrified of the intruder, but (b) did not want me to cause it any actual bodily harm. It is always useful to get these ground rules sorted out before embarking on any course of remedial action.

So, after a bit of chasing around, I used my superior cunning to trap the putative mouse under a glass and gently convey it outside, where it melted away into the grass. I congratulated myself on my smooth handling of the crisis, and wondered how the hell a cat with only three remaining teeth had managed to capture it in the first place.

I spent the day at home because I have been suffering from what is probably a minor, viral throat infection, though I have told Mrs H that it is almost certainly cancer of the oesophagus so that she can have something worthwhile to worry about. So it was that I wandered into the kitchen at lunchtime and spotted what appeared to be the self-same mouse-like creature sitting in the middle of the conservatory, evidently as puzzled to be there as I was to see it back again. I summoned Mrs H (mainly to see if she would scream as loudly the second time around) and a French friend who was visiting her at the time, and two thirds of us calmly assessed the situation. There was no way that it could possibly have found its own way into the house, so the all but toothless cat must have gone out through its cat flap, tracked it down and brought it back. Our French friend is rather nimbler than I am, so after a couple of humiliating failures on my part I delegated the task of chasing it around the conservatory to her, while Mrs H stood on the window ledge and squealed (definitely a squeal rather than a scream this time, which I took as a sign of successful acclimatization). Again it was captured in a glass and I took the trouble to carry it to a more distant part of the garden before liberating it. When it had gone, we pooled our collective knowledge of Nature Study and concluded (a) that it was not a mouse at all, but a vole, and (b) that it was having a really shit day.

Like most shit days, it got worse. At tea-time I wandered into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and, glancing into the adjoining utility room, what should I see on the carpet but the self-same vole. It had a look on its face which could only mean “Oh for f***’s sake” and it no longer had the energy to run away. I picked it up in my hands and took it as far from the house as I could without actually climbing over a boundary fence, and gently let it go. Mrs H did not scream or squeal this time, but only because she had gone out for a meeting with her employer. When she returned, we agreed that it might have been a mistake to teach the cat how to use the cat flap (a piece of kit she encountered for the first time in her ten years when we moved here four weeks ago) and locked it to keep her in for the rest of the day. And when we got back from supper at the pub a bit later, I locked it again because Mrs H clearly had not done it properly.

What happened next was therefore technically impossible: Mrs H came up to me in my sickbed the next morning to tell me that the vole was back in the kitchen. Only this time it was an ex-vole. It had ceased to be. Given the absence of visible marks on the corpse, and the Cat’s lack of teeth, it had presumably simply lost the will to live. How the Cat had got out yet again to retrieve it remained a mystery, but we had both definitely locked the cat flap last night, and indeed checked that it was locked, yet this morning it was open. Although she normally yields to no-one in her fierce defensiveness about her cat, Mrs H was quick to assert that she (the Cat) was not intelligent enough to work out how to do that herself. Which seemed to leave only the possibility that we are sharing the house with a genius feline poltergeist, a possibility I had in fact raised a couple of weeks ago when we were trying to work out who might be responsible for a mysterious pool of possible urine on the utility room floor. I called the perpetrator The Secret Cat, which reminded Mrs H of something in The Amityville Horror and generally rendered her unwilling to be left alone in the house after dark, given that it is far enough away from the next dwelling for no-one to hear her screams.

Pause for unsettling, manic laughter.

Life went on quite normally after that until Groundhog Day arrived yesterday afternoon, when I went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, glanced into the utility room and spotted … a dead vole. This time I took the trouble to carry the little body to my computer and compare it with a reliably sourced picture of a vole (so not in Wikipedia, then). I quickly established that it was no such thing. It was a common shrew, though getting less common in the vicinity of our house by the hour, it would seem. The helpful BBC Nature website said that “Domestic cats often kill shrews but they are apparently distasteful to them and are rarely eaten” which certainly sounded right. When she got back, Mrs H sat the cat on her knee and solemnly read out to her the next sentence “British shrews are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and it is an offence to kill them without a special licence.”

It may be a coincidence, but she has not brought another one in since she was issued with that warning. Which is progress from the point of view of the local shrew community, though I miss the sound of Mrs H screaming. I reckon that first shrew caused her more distress than childbirth. Surely there has to be a book in this somewhere?

Oh yes, it’s called Wife in the North, isn’t it?

I’m sorry I dissembled in the title to this piece. No shrew was maimed in the events of the last few days, merely frightened or possibly sucked to death. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a cheap laugh. Some things never change.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

The casual reader of this blog, noting the two comments inspired by the last entry, would hardly believe me if I said that I had been inundated with pleas to keep the thing going. But, in fact, two posted comments is a pretty good result by my standards. Apart from once (up to now) upsetting someone whose opinion I cared about a great deal (and no, it wasn’t Mrs H, though I do care about her opinion a great deal, which is why she usually gets to vet these pages before they are published: just imagine how dim she might appear to be if she didn’t) the amount of feedback I have received since I became Bloke in the North has been absolutely minimal.

Perhaps the most disheartening thing has been comparing and contrasting this apparent indifference with the dozens and occasionally hundreds of comments inspired by my role model Wife in the North on the increasingly rare occasions when she feels moved to post an entry (bad case of RSI, apparently – ouch). Most of which take the trouble to tell her what a marvellously beautiful, insightful writer she is. I may not be totally insecure, but I am pretty bloody insecure, to be honest, and I could do with the odd bit of encouragement like that.

So it has taken an announcement that I am packing it in to inspire a couple of posted comments and many more spoken words and e-mails of encouragement to carry on, most admittedly from friends and colleagues but some from total strangers. One such lady sent me a positive paean, explaining how much she looked forward to reading each new entry, and all I could think to say in reply was “Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

Anyway, there have been some interesting developments since my last entry. Mrs H finally got her new car from the bastards at Audi, and almost immediately discovered that it possessed a special self-crashing facility that could be activated if you got out to open a gate without bothering to put it into “Park”. My, how I laughed.

She has also kept me entertained with a stream of amusing pronouncements, such as the one she made when I noted that she had not been to see her waxing specialist for a while. “No, I’m too scared,” she said. “Though I don’t suppose it can be more painful than childbirth.”

We have all moved into a hideously ugly but exceptionally comfortable new house in Cheshire, with fine rural views but only half a mile’s walk from a village containing a doctor’s surgery and several good shops.

The Baby has kept growing (11lb 15oz at the last count) which is much better than the only alternative.

I have started doing a sort of job, though no-one (including me) has any idea what I am supposed to be doing, thereby massively reducing the risk that I will screw it up.

I have agreed to sell my beloved house in Northumberland, because I concluded that it was Meant To Be when the nice bloke who had made me an offer (typically, immediately after I had signed the lease on the above-mentioned rented house in Cheshire, with a view to retaining the one in Northumberland as a holiday home) turned out to be the best friend of a good friend of mine. But you can read all about that at http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/08/lazy-and-coincidental-way-to-sell.html if you are interested, so there is no point repeating it all here.

Yes, I can see that there might be things yet to write about that would bring me pleasure, and now that I know that they might bring pleasure to others, too, I shall certainly keep mulling over the possibility of some sort of comeback. No promises, but I should have remembered that it is never a good idea to say “never”. Except, presumably, in the context of the last sentence.

Oh, and it was 14st 12lb this morning and 5.0 units yesterday, by the way. As if you care.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

No nay never

If you have looked up this page in the hope of reading the latest instalment of my blog, it seems only fair to tell you right away that this isn't it. In fact, I am posting this to let you know I don't think you are likely to be reading any more instalments, ever.

Last week I felt obliged to delete an entry from this blog, for the first time ever, after receiving an extremely abusive complaint. Both Mrs H and I had read the entry concerned before I posted it, and we re-read it again when the complaint arrived, and could not see anything particularly objectionable about it. Clearly we both have profoundly defective judgement, but then you could probably have deduced that from the fact that we ended up married to each other.

The net result has been to convince me that writing the thing is more trouble than it is worth. I have only kept it up for as long as I have done because it did so much to convince my wife to meet me in the first place, and because she continued to enjoy it. Now we will share our inappropriate sense of humour somewhere a little more private.

I have toyed with the idea of deleting the whole blog, but have decided to leave it in place for now. Mainly in the sure and certain knowledge that it will long remain a lasting source of disappointment to the many people who have arrived on its pages by Googling information about Northumberland dogging sites.

Thank you and goodbye.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Through the 10lb barrier

14st 12lb, 8.2 units (me), 10lb 3oz, zero units of alcohol but lots of milk (The Baby). I stayed at home this morning while Mrs H went off to the hospital for a glucose test as a follow-up to her gestational diabetes. They turned out to have invited her to the wrong part of the hospital for the wrong sort of test, but apart from that it all went with the exemplary smoothness I have come to expect from the NHS. When she got back we pushed The Baby in his buggy around to the doctor’s for a “drop-in baby clinic” where a surprisingly normally sized health visitor checked his weight and dispensed sage advice. Then we used him as a shopping trolley as we wheeled him around the local butcher, greengrocer and delicatessen to assemble the ingredients for lunch.

I spent the afternoon writing a couple of press releases while Mrs H and her sister delivered two trade-in convertibles to the Audi garage, and finally returned in possession of Mrs H’s new car. I have to concede that it looked very smart, and had even been correctly fitted with the sort of plain number plates I requested, omitting that little EU flag which is always inclined to induce apoplexy. I once told an Alnwick car dealer that I’d rather drive around in a car with swastikas on the number plates, and was surprised when he rang me a day or two later to say that they were sadly unobtainable.

Later in the afternoon we were joined by a visitor who is also an Audi driver, and who confirmed my perception that their local customer service is truly dreadful. I did not dare to ask whether she had made the mistake of buying a car from them more than once. Though it is no doubt too much to hope that I am finally learning some tact.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Will we ever escape?

14st 12lb, 4.0 units. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that life in our little house in Scratterville is driving us both round the bend. I have taken to going into the office kindly provided for me by a client, not because they have anything much for me to do (or anything at all, really, as I discovered when I asked around at lunchtime), but simply to enjoy some space and peace. I used both of those today to complete a newspaper column in which the ever-understanding Mrs H allowed me to cast some aspersions on her driving which were definitely exaggerated for comic effect, and to relieve my feelings about certain car-related issues in this blog.

While feeling better for that, the depressing fact remains that enemy forces are massing to block our most obvious escape route from Scratterville. Because, as I expected, when I tracked the progress of the credit checks on my application to rent a larger house, everything is shaping up nicely for its rejection. I did not earn very much in the year to March 2008, the last for which I can produce accounts of sorts; I had no need to do so as, at that stage, I had not even heard of the woman who has since become Mrs H, let alone dreamt of fathering a child. The focus on these historic numbers is, of course, deeply flawed because I could have earned a million pounds in that period, blown it all on whores and Class A drugs, and made not a penny since. However, that’s the way it is.

I should have seen it coming, given that I am rejected out of hand every time I apply for a new credit card, and only the other day one of the few I have got was withdrawn because, the provider informed me, they felt obliged to do so “as a responsible lender” because I hadn't loaded it with profitable debt. I cut up my American Express card at some point in the 1980s (probably because the word “American” irked me) and they wrote to me at least once a month for almost 20 years urging me to come back. They finally launched a “money back” card that seemed quite appealing, so I applied for it. And was immediately rejected. Whereupon I wrote an indignant letter setting out my net worth and lack of debt, and – most tellingly, I thought – the fact that they had recently issued the self-same card to two of my colleagues whose salaries and bonuses I set; I could therefore state with some confidence that they earned vastly less than I did. They replied thanking me for my letter but saying that sadly “I did not meet their criteria”.

Still, at least they have never sent me another card application since then, so it could be worse.

A friend e-mailed pointing out where I had gone wrong. Apparently I need to keep a regular if not obsessive check my Experian credit rating and work on raising it by applying for every credit card I can (even though I don’t want them) and running them all right up to their credit limits. Then, in the crazy world of contemporary finance, I will apparently become an AAA credit risk.

No wonder we are mired in a global banking crisis, then.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

More anti-social behaviour

14st 13lb, 11.7 units. In the absence of The Baby I slept without earplugs for the first time in weeks, and slept well. Indeed, I was only finally dragged out of bed at 9.35 by a loud banging on the front door which proved to be caused by a perennially angry neighbour delivering a parcel for us that had been misaddressed, and which an old lady had been “right up and down the street” trying to deliver yesterday. This was, apparently, our fault.

The signal from our new wireless router, which had caused problems all day yesterday, was strong and clear when we got back from the restaurant last night and remained so all day today, strongly suggesting that the original problem was, as I always suspected, a fault on the BT line: the existence of which they vehemently denied, but have now quietly fixed. I was tempted to plug the original router back in to test this theory, but Mrs H urged me not to do so as it would be the path to insanity. As usual, I felt sure she was right.

We took the dog for a walk by the river and a little bald, bespectacled man who reminded me of Norris Cole in Coronation Street allowed his Labrador-based black mongrel to bound up to us and seriously unsettle The Dog, even though I shouted such universally recognized canine commands as “No!” and “F*ck off!” among other things. When the owner offered no apology at all as he passed us, I relieved my feelings by shouting “Wanker!” at the top of my voice, which Mrs H assured me at least made him turn around. And, one hopes, reflect upon his behaviour.

Or perhaps, of course, on mine.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Exhaustion takes a grip

14st 10lb, 5.9 units. It seems like a lifetime since I worked in financial PR in London. But I have not forgotten that I used to feel permanently on edge, and that my weekends were usually a write-off because I was too exhausted to do anything. People would helpfully suggest that this might have something to do with my peripatetic lifestyle, and that perhaps the last thing I needed after a week in the office (plus assorted restaurants and opera houses) was a 320-mile train and car journey home on a Friday night. But then from time to time I used to spend the weekend in my small flat in Pimlico, and I was often too shattered to do more than move myself from my bed to the sitting room sofa. I remember eating rather poorly because I could not face staggering further than the ill-favoured convenience store in the adjacent arcade, rather than making a major expedition of all of half a mile to Tesco or Sainsbury’s. With hindsight, this probably did nothing to help on the obesity front. There was a much readier supply of crisps than of salads.

I mention all this because yesterday, for the first time since 2004, I became so stressed that this morning I recaptured that same weekend feeling of utter exhaustion and incapability. Mrs H was not in a significantly better state, and a short debate about whether either of us had the energy to walk to the butcher’s for some bacon led swiftly to the brainwave that we could buy a couple of ready-made bacon sandwiches from the shop on the corner of the street. And very welcome they were, too, once we had had the supplementary discussion about which of us actually felt strong enough to leave the house at all. Mrs H blinked first.

It is a good indication of how tired I was that I did not even bother to go and investigate the loud commotion outside after lunch. Mrs H, who returned from a visit to her parents’ shortly afterwards, informed me that it was caused by a major punch-up between a man and his wife outside the Scratters’ Arms, which she described as being fully up to Coronation Street standards. I was sorry to have missed it, though disappointed to hear that the other denizens of the pub were apparently trying to pull the combatants apart, rather than taking bets and egging them on. This is not the sort of behaviour I expect from Grade 1 scratters.

The good news was that my mother-in-law had spotted that her elder daughter was suffering from a bad case of exhaustion, and volunteered to look after The Baby overnight. So we had our first evening alone together since he was born on 18 June. It seemed appropriate to take advantage of the opportunity to go out for a meal. Being in the midst of the worst recession for a century, we naturally found Mrs H’s first two choices of restaurant absolutely heaving with customers, and unable to offer us even the hope of a table for at least three quarters of an hour. But luckily we somehow summoned up the energy to keep walking until we found a French bistro-like establishment lurking up a side street, and were able to enjoy two perfectly serviceable steak frites and a bottle of very good Australian red. The pudding of a shared chocolate fondue was perhaps rather over the top, but the bill was still very reasonable and the service motherly and comforting. In fact, my one and only reservation about the place was the fact that all its other customers were obviously completely pissed. This meant that the management felt obliged to keep the windows fully open in an attempt to dissipate what might otherwise have become a rather overpowering smell of stale lager. As a result, it was a rather chilly evening in its latter stages. But, on the other hand, we had all the fun of making bets on where the forks full of food being elevated on neighbouring tables were likely to end up, since few of the fork operators were in any condition to find their own mouths or, indeed, any other parts of their bodies that one might have tried naming to them. I have seen better co-ordination from The Baby at five weeks, giving me a warm glow of paternal pride in his abilities and prospects.