Tuesday 31 March 2009

Why I hate BT (again)

15st 0lb, 8.0 units (or thereabouts; I’m sure it would be an offence against Club rules to keep too close a tally). Not much to report today; I whiled away the morning writing yet another newspaper column (which you can read, incidentally, along with all the others, at www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com). Then I loaded a computer printer, a most reluctant dog and a modicum of other stuff into my car and headed for Northumberland, the county of big skies and wide open spaces, both of which are about to be filled with useless windmills as a supreme example of gesture politics in action. We had an uneventful journey via the shortest and least scenic route, and found the house much as we had left it, with one striking exception; the telephone no longer worked.

Now, this was not as much of a blow as it might have been as I actually have two phone lines, the second installed for that redundant but once invaluable bit of technology called the fax machine (ask your grandparents). I have kept this because I am a “belt and braces” kind of a guy, so I was still able to make outgoing calls. Nevertheless, my heart sank at the prospect of having to ring BT (or IT, as it should really be called, since the vast majority of its staff seem to be based in India rather than Britain). I fortified myself with a drink before making the call, braced for the inevitable 20 (minimum) questions driven by the call centre operative’s prompt cards – after the obligatory “automated” test which, curiously enough, always demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with the line at all. As tradition demands, I then spent a long time listening to a recorded message explaining that “We are very busy right now” and screaming back “Then why don’t you employ some more people to answer the f***ing phones, you total bastards!”

Eventually I got through and immediately wished I could return to the maddening recording. There is no way of short-circuiting the process. So the conversation goes:

“Do you have any extensions on the line on which there appears to be a problem?”

“Yes, but that’s not relevant because I’ve unplugged everything and tried the line with the phone on which I am now ringing you, and we know that works because I’m speaking to you on it, aren’t I?”

“Do you have any extensions on the line on which there appears to be a problem?”

“Yes, but as I just explained they are disconnected and I know that it’s the line at fault, not my equipment, because as I also just explained I’ve plugged in THIS phone, which works on the line I am talking to you on, but not on the one that is out of order.”

“Do you have any extensions on the line on which there appears to be a problem?”

“Yes, but they aren’t wired extensions, I just plug them in when I need them and they aren’t plugged in now.”

“Do you have any extensions on the line on which there appears to be a problem?”

“Yes, two. But they aren’t plugged in.”

“So you have two extensions on the line on which there appears to be a problem. Have you ever had any problems with these extensions before?”

And so on. And so on. Yes, I know it would have been quicker and easier just to answer the stupid questions and listen to the spiel about how much it might cost me if someone came out to mend the phone line and the problem turned out to be with my equipment (and it was a serious sum of money, in the hundreds of pounds). But what it left me thinking, as ever when I have to make a call like this, is just how much I hate BT.

The only good thing to be said for it was that it was not as maddeningly frustrating as the repeated conversations I had a few years ago about my heavily advertised BT Home Hub, which has never, ever worked and which concluded with an Indian gentleman telling me, in a commendably sorrowful tone, that sadly my broadband would never work as I lived too far from the telephone exchange. Despite the fact that it had worked perfectly for years until the Squire built a big new house down the road and installed a few extra telephone lines. And despite the fact that neither my house nor the telephone exchange had moved an inch during that period. And despite the fact that I found out from a man up a pole a few days later that there is a Bloke up the road, 800 yards further from the telephone exchange, whose Home Hub works perfectly. The lucky sod. No, nothing to do with any of that, and certainly nothing to do with the equipment they sold me being in any way defective.

I’ve just checked and find that this is the third time I’ve told this story on this blog. Damn you, BT; you have turned me into a bore. Or at the very least severely aggravated a previous inclination in that direction.

Monday 30 March 2009

A very important anniversary

14st 12lb, 2.0 units. As regular readers of this blog (today’s Top Tip: get a life) will know, it was exactly one year ago this afternoon that I clicked open the fatal e-mail that was to change my own life forever. Coming, as it did, almost on the eve of April Fools’ Day, I naturally assumed it to be a spoof. After all, I had been displaying an advert for a wife/girlfriend/carer on www.keithhann.com for five years and had only received one response, from a lady who sounded quite sweet-natured but who turned out to be living in sheltered accommodation with one of those alarms to summon the warden outside her door. Added to which, my new respondent claimed to have a name that could surely only have been generated by giving a Scrabble board a hefty kick, including a first (“Christian” seems inappropriate) name that was an obvious acronym of “alarm”. As if all that were not enough, she claimed to be writing on behalf of a tall, blonde, 35-year-old friend who mysteriously did not have access to an e-mail account of her own. Yeah, right.

Only the fact that she claimed in her opening line to work for a company that had once been a client of mine held me back from pressing the “delete” button, and so enabled the frail, holed and lumbering craft to become airborne. For I cheerily forwarded the e-mail to her chief executive, asking whether the person in question actually existed. The Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, as she became known to distinguish her from her friend, the Tall Cheshire Blonde, took some time to forgive me for this, when she found out about it. True, her boss of bosses thought she was some sort of payroll clerk rather than a reasonably senior management accountant, but at least his reply got things off the ground. And, when she came to look on the bright side, the LTCB accepted that I might not have destroyed her career as she had written to me from her home e-mail address and “I don’t suppose they can sack me for being funny in my own time”.

Shortly after I received it, I also forwarded her e-mail to my perceptive friend Tom, who said that it was definitely a wind-up as the only people with the sense of humour it displayed were other Blokes. This mystery was finally resolved when the LTCB asked me what had initially attracted me to her (rather than the friend with whom she was quite genuinely attempting to fix me up). I replied that it was the fact that her initial e-mail to me had been so very funny.

“But didn’t you notice?” she replied. “I just took all your own jokes from your website and repeated them back to you.”

Bugger. I often wake at nights and look fondly at the hugely pregnant form snoring beside me, and reflect that I only got into this situation because I made the fatal mistake of laughing at my own jokes. Let that be a lesson to you all.

I was able to share this story with some Chaps over lunch today at my Liverpool club, to which I repaired by train after dashing off my weekly newspaper column, walking the dog and putting on my smartest City suit. I was sure that absolutely everyone had worn suits when I last wandered into the place. But while ties are still de rigueur, and women admitted only as servants, standards seem to have relaxed to the point where one can get away with a pair of cords and a linen jacket. It would clearly be a breach of etiquette likely to lead to my dismissal from the club if I revealed anything that arose in our conversation over the luncheon table, so I shall merely observe that the food was good, and quite extraordinarily cheap; the wine good and quite extraordinarily plentiful; and the banter of the highest quality. I was also made to feel most welcome, at least until the Bloke to my right rose to take his leave, placed his hand on my shoulder and said kindly, “You really must come again when you have less time”.

I fell asleep on the train back to Chester, after hoovering down a tube of mint imperials. It really was just like old times.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Out of mothballs

15st 1lb, 8.0 units (at least). Another setback. But only to be expected, given the amount of food and drink I put away at the point-to-point yesterday. To cheer myself up this morning, I put on my comedy green three-piece tweed suit (complete with watch and chain, naturally) for the first time since I became acquainted with the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette (as Mrs H was then known) who refused to be seen in the company of such an appalling old fogey. I had tentatively suggested that it might be the ideal thing to wear for the point-to-point, but had been assured that it would be completely over the top. Which might even have been true; the outfit of choice for Chaps seemed to be an old sports jacket paired with garishly coloured cord trousers, another category of garment ruled inadmissible by Mrs H as “bad and wrong”.

I got away with it this morning only because Mrs H reluctantly accepted that I did not have time to change when I sprang it on her immediately before we left for morning service in the church where we were married. Imagine my delight when we were greeted on arrival by the vicar, who said (clearly without irony) how much he envied my suit, and began feeling the lapel in an admiring sort of way. He even asked to look at the maker’s label, and cheered me by saying that a famous political diarist he had just been reading had his suits made in the same place. The pleasure was, admittedly, slightly diluted when he remembered the name of the diarist, and it turned out to be Chris Mullin rather than Alan Clark.

I think church-going is good for me. Even before I had had my slurp of the communion port, I had turned the other cheek when we arrived outside and another worshipper did a Lewis Hamilton in order to dive into the one remaining parking space towards which we had been heading. Not a complete Lewis Hamilton, obviously; they did not spray the rest of the congregation from a Methuselah of champagne when they got inside. But I just smiled benignly at their anti-social behaviour and drove onto the village green instead, whereas before I became a passing acquaintance of God I expect that I would have gesticulated wildly, sworn a lot, and considered the possibility of hauling them from their vehicles and giving them a good kicking.

Whether our attendance is good for the other members of the congregation is perhaps more debatable. This was one of the church’s more traditional services, graced mainly by old-fashioned hymns like “Praise to the holiest in the height” which I learned in my schooldays and can sing with great gusto – or could, if the organist did not have an annoying habit of playing a completely different tune from the one favoured 40 years ago by Jack Wolstenholme at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne. Today there was also a more modern offering, composed in 1988, “Give me a heart that will love the unlovely.” I drew it to Mrs H’s attention as we were waiting for the service to start, and she immediately clasped my hand, looked into my eyes and said “You’re not unlovely, darling”. To which I naturally replied “I wasn’t actually thinking of ME.” As a result, we spent some time giggling helplessly like a pair of schoolchildren, thereby setting a thoroughly bad example to the impeccably behaved youngsters in the adjoining pews.

Returning from the service in a state of grace, and with my chronic indigestion finally abating after a morning of abstinence, we took a pleasant walk around Chester before lunch. It was a beautiful spring day; in fact, it would have been the perfect weather for a point-to-point. Strange noises issued from the direction of the Dee, where a small tent city had been erected on the Meadows and supersized canoes were taking to the water with blokes banging big drums positioned at the rear to set a rhythm for the rowers. Something which I thought only happened in unfunny cartoons about slave galleys.

Spring, sunshine, the Dee and thee (Mrs H):
what could be more agreeable?

We returned home and set about writing “thank you” cards for our many wedding presents. We are writing these by hand, despite the fact that my own handwriting is universally acknowledged to be almost totally illegible, on the grounds that it least it shows we care. Shortly afterwards Mrs H announced that she had lost the will to live, though she showed equally little enthusiasm for my suggested alternative of packing the presents up and returning them to their senders.

Saturday 28 March 2009

Oh no, it's much too big for me

14st 12lb, 2.0 units. I blame all the monosodium glutamate in Thursday’s supper for the fact that I felt like crap all day yesterday and achieved little beyond sending a few e-mails and reading newspapers from the huge pile of the things I have accumulated in recent months. It can’t be anything to do with the fact that I ingested about a week’s worth of calories in one sitting. Dear me, no.

I recognize that I am getting to be like one of those incorrigible drunks who always blames his increasingly frequent duvet days on a dodgy bottle of tonic water.

I also recognize that the newspaper thing is madness, but I just don’t seem to be able to help myself. It’s like this, doctor. There is a sane approach to the press, which is to flick through a paper if you have the time, look at the pictures and the obvious funnies, and maybe shed a tear or two over Diana / Jade / a cute kitten with a bandage on its leg / head, then sling the thing in the recycling bin. This is the policy favoured by Mrs H, for example.

Then there is my approach, which is to try and read at least one national and regional newspaper pretty thoroughly every day. And – here comes the killer – if I don’t have time for that, to put them aside until I do.

The most amazing thing is that I know quite a few people with this bizarre fixation. Many of them also worked in the City. All of them are men. I fear that we will all end up sleeping under the bloody things on park benches, or waltzing around the streets with a huge bundle of them under our arms, like the mad, hirsute, elderly ex-don who used to do just that when I was at Cambridge in the 1970s. He was to be seen every day gambolling along King’s Parade and Trinity Street, striking up conversations with lampposts, and every now and then people would shake their heads sadly and say that he had once had a brilliant mind. His newspapers were in German, as I recall, which is probably going to be the next stage of my psychosis to watch out for.

Last time I was in Cambridge he had disappeared, but the incredibly ill bloke in the powered wheelchair, whom I now know to be Stephen Hawking, was still very much around. I am not sure that that is the way I would have bet, had the opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, I at least managed to lose a small amount of weight during the day yesterday, and woke in reasonably good spirits this morning considering that Mrs H had hatched a plan to take me to a point-to-point race meeting for the first time in my life. I have to confess that I had been horribly complicit in this scheme, owing to one of those bizarre coincidences which seem to have played such a large part in my life during the last year or so.

It happened like this. I was alerted to the fact that the point-to-point was taking place by a circular e-mail from a Liverpool club of which I have long been a member. (I took the precaution of joining a series of provincial gentlemen’s clubs so that I would always have somewhere congenial to drown my sorrows, in the unlikely event that a beautiful woman in the locality lured me into a relationship.) I always ignore this sort of thing, but later in the day I received a personal e-mail from the same chap, the membership secretary of said club, saying that he had been reading this blog, was starting one of his own and wondered whether we might meet at some point, given that I had never set foot in the place to the best of his knowledge. So I replied in a positive sort of way, and also mentioned the point-to-point in passing. No problem, he responded, I have paid for a car parking pass which I can no longer actually use, so I will arrange for it to be sent onto you with my compliments. Well, it would have been rude not to go, wouldn’t it? As well as a huge disappointment to Mrs H, who had become very excited when I mentioned it and sent me out yesterday with a long shopping list to assemble a picnic. I felt obliged to test one of the pork pies as soon as I got home, and established beyond reasonable doubt that it was good. I accordingly felt reasonably sanguine about the day ahead.

We set off with the car positively groaning under the weight of cold food, wine and beer. Naturally it was raining when we got there. And windy. But several hardy souls from my club had already set up tables in our special enclosure, and were giving splendid demonstrations of a stiff upper lip. One of them was even smoking a pipe, and you don’t see a lot of that these days.

I got Mrs H, who knows about these things, to take me on a tour of the event, which seemed to be very much like a Northumberland summer country show, but without the oversized leeks and carved ram’s horn walking sticks, and with the addition of a number of bookmakers. And perhaps slightly warmer rain. I called at one of the stalls and placed a fiver each way on a chum of Mrs H’s who was riding in the first race. It seemed rude not to, though I could not help noticing that Mrs H did not follow my example. Her friend retained my interest for quite some time, too, holding on to second place with grim determination for most of the race. He ended there, too, only by then it was second from last rather than second from the front. I crumpled my betting slip with the resignation that a clubman is expected to display on such occasions.

It was the last race I actually saw. I placed bets on the next two, but my win on the first of these was slightly soured by the discovery that what I had thought were odds of 2/1 were actually 1/2. Still, it convinced me that I could pick a winner, and Mrs H fancied (though not in THAT way) a lady jockey in the third race, so I stuck a tenner on her to win, at enticingly long odds. She led all the way, right up to the moment she finished second.

They are right, those who say that it is a mug’s game.

But I didn’t actually get to watch either of those races. Nor did anyone else, so far as I could see. I even struggled to hear the loudspeaker commentary over the voices of chaps and their ladies who had had a spot to drink, talking convivially of this and that. As usual when I go to a sporting event, it finally dawned on me that no-one was actually interested in the sport. It merely provided an excuse to get together and down a few jars. Why doing this in the middle of a freezing, muddy field should be considered preferable to simply arranging to meet in a cosy pub remains beyond me.

We spent quite a lot of time talking to Mrs H’s friends. The best thing about them, from my point of view, was that they were mostly beautiful young women. The best thing about them, from the alternative viewpoint of Craster the Border terrier, was that they had come with car boots full of food and were a bit of a soft touch for a dog that held its paw up appealingly. Though the absolute highlight of the day for him was when the clubman in the next car dropped half a steak pie on the grass, and did not bother to clear it up. You cannot really grasp the meaning of the phrase “He could not believe his luck” unless you saw Craster’s face at that moment of pure joy. I wish I had had my camera to hand so that I could share it with you.

I retained my reputation among Mrs H’s friends for being absolutely hilarious (what are they on?) by revealing that I had bet on her other chum in the first race. They all fell about. When we ran into the man himself a little later his first words were “I really thought I was going to win it.” It was probably just as well for his morale that I had helped them to get it out of their systems by then, and no-one actually collapsed in a quivering heap, clutching their sides.

We wandered around the place again in the p***Ing rain, admired the hounds, and felt sorry for the pair of youngsters manning the Cheshire Farms ice cream trailer, who probably did not make a single sale all day. When I started in the City, someone would have seized on this as a splendid opportunity to give their boss a bit of expensive advice about diversification. An umbrella factory was always considered the ideal diversification for an ice cream company, I seem to recall. Then it became all about “focus”, and providing expensive advice on how to sell the umbrella factory at a whacking loss. If the cycle comes round again, I think I shall draw upon the example of Northern Foods, which was a stellar performer and stock market darling when I first became acquainted with it, despite the fact that it embraced activities such as industrial decorating, supermarkets and a brewery as well as making pies, biscuits and cakes. It was never the same again after it fell for the “focus” concept.

Trained killers (within the meaning of the Hunting Act) meet the kiddies. No foxes were harmed during the making of this photograph.

I went home mildly drunk and remarkably happy, considering that I have dismissed the idea of going to a point-to-point all my life on the grounds that I was sure to hate it. Perhaps the best thing was being driven, in my own car, by Mrs H, who has always refused to get behind its wheel up to now on the grounds that she only has experience of driving small vehicles. I pointed out that I saw it as my mission in life to introduce her to bigger things, and she gave me one of her looks. Still, she drove the thing almost all the way there and all the way back, and she did not crash it once. I wish I had had the presence of mind to put a bet on that. I would no doubt have secured pretty favourable odds, though as with Stephen Hawking and the man with the bundle of newspapers, I dare say that I would have ended up backing yet another loser.

Friday 27 March 2009

It just keeps getting better and better

15st 0lb, 4.8 units. Yes, I know; some diet, this. Unfortunately I had one of my more virtuous and productive days yesterday: little food consumed, the dog taken for a long and healthy walk and many words added to this blog (which is, I know, “productive” in much the same way as a day devoted to frenzied self-abuse over the more questionable sort of website). Be that as it may, by the time that Mrs H rang to say that she was on her way home after another hard day at the office, I felt that I deserved a treat and suggested that I might take her out for a meal. We agreed that we both fancied something Thai and walked purposefully in the direction of the appropriate restaurant, but unfortunately Mrs H’s special pregnancy dog nose picked up a whiff of Chinese cooking from the slightly glorified takeaway just around the corner, and she pleaded to be taken there instead on the grounds that she was carrying my child, and the less far she had to carry him the better.

So we walked across the forecourt of the garage and up the steep carpeted staircase to the little restaurant above the launderette. The ceiling was low, the décor of the “before” rather than “after” variety, the staff friendly, the tables remarkably close together – and all bar one of them full. So clearly the recession is not yet biting hereabouts, or they had all traded down from the tasting menu at the Simon Radley Restaurant at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel & Spa. Which might have been a more appropriate venue, really, for the obese foursome right next to us, who were celebrating no less an event than one couple’s 40th wedding anniversary. Or so they said, loudly, as they paid their bill to a chorus of satisfied belches, leaving behind enough food scattered across the tablecloth to feed a small Chinese village for the best part of the week. They were Geordies, too; a fact evident from their accents as well as their table manners.

It was not the most romantic of venues; the lights did dim suggestively from time to time, but only because someone had started up one of the big, industrial tumble driers downstairs. Still, I kept myself entertained drinking Tsing Tao beer and listening to Mrs H, who at one point almost made me perform the nose trick with my hot and sour soup by uttering one of those little maralapropisms [sic] for which, among many other things, I love her so much. Sadly I cannot now remember what this one was, but it was very much in the spirit of some other recent misunderstandings. Last weekend, for example, she was reading an article in one of the Sunday supplements containing some big words and relatively few pictures, when she suddenly stopped and asked me what an abacus was. Puzzled by this gap in her general knowledge, I began to describe the Oriental desktop calculator, only to be stopped short with, “No, not an abacus; an appercuss.” Bemused, I asked to be shown the context; the word was aperçus.

But please don’t get me wrong; Mrs H is a very wise woman, certainly far wiser than I am. To give but one pertinent example, she said as soon as we sat down in the restaurant that we would only need one main course to share between us, if we were also having prawn crackers, soup and crispy duck. And she was bang right, though unfortunately that did not prevent me from ordering what turned out to be a huge portion of deep fried chicken in lemon sauce and an additional portion of egg fried rice in addition to her somewhat healthier choice of shredded beef. To be honest, I was completely full by the time I had eaten my last pancake filled with duck, which was very tasty even if it did seem to have been prepared through some sort of dubious “two for one” deal with the local crematorium. Yet when the next course arrived, I felt bound to finish it, remembering my mother’s strictures about the starving children in Africa when I failed to clear my plate. I did so sweating, and with my eyes bulging unattractively; presenting much the same picture, in short, as the ruby wedding party of my compatriots who had been preparing to leave as we arrived.

We walked back home rather slowly. At least one of us was waddling, and it wasn’t necessarily the one with the pretty good excuse of being six months’ pregnant.

Thursday 26 March 2009

My official wedding album

14st 12lb, 8.0 units. Not the greatest start to the day from the point of view of my alleged diet. But I took the dog for an early walk so that I could wait in yet again for the delivery of Mrs H’s filing cabinet, and as I bent down with my poop scoop I saw something glinting in the grass. And, yes, it was a pound coin, which the dog had thoughtfully crapped next to rather than directly upon. I thought it betokened a lucky day, and so it proved for the nice men not only turned up with the filing cabinet but positively insisted on carting it upstairs, unpacking and assembling it (if screwing the handles onto the front of the drawers can be called “assembly”). It wasn’t a lucky day for them, though, as one of them nearly ruptured himself in the process, and the other left his electric screwdriver behind when he left.

As for the subject in my header: all right, I take it all back about the chicken strangler. The “official” photos were worth waiting for. Whether they were worth waiting almost a month for will doubtless provide fuel for vigorous debate for as long as my marriage lasts, and will continue to be picked (or should that be pecked?) over by future generations of Hanns until the crack of doom (which is not that far off, by all accounts). The only snag is that we now have 425 “official” images of the day to choose from (and about 500 in total) making it as difficult to select the best as it is for the admissions tutor of an Oxbridge college looking gloomily at a list of applicants with straight A grades in their A-levels. (It would never have happened in my day.)

Nevertheless, in response to popular demand – well, a couple of requests from friends who were probably just being polite – here are a few more pictures to supplement the “unofficial” snaps posted on St Patrick’s Day:

The sisters prepare to leave for church

The bridegroom explains to his best man and ushers what the bride sees in him

The two strapping lads to my left (or the right of the picture, depending on how you want to look at it) are my godsons; the one on the far left of the picture is the bride's younger brother. Clearly we were anticipating more trouble on my side of the church, given that we chose 100% more ushers for it, and ensured that they were constructed like the better class of nightclub bouncers. On a technical note, my height when I last checked was 6' 0", so the usher next to me can perhaps only be described as ****ing tall.

The bride practises standing around outside a church with a much older man

The bridal party: sweet

The church. Can you spot the bunny rabbit in this picture?

No, neither can I.

What do you mean, “he's not here?”

Singing lustily

In fact, the high point of the day from a lust point of view.

A final blessing

“It doesn't matter if you do go down on your knees and beg, there is no way her father is going to have her back now.”

Not signing the register

We should have been, but Rick the Vic thought it would be more fun to listen to some Handel and Monteverdi - and who could disagree with him?

The only signature on the register that mattered

The congregation applauds wildly as the Page Dog lurches off

Their reaction presumably reflected their relief that it was finally over. Though there were mixed feelings on the groom’s side of the church, where many people could be seen glumly tearing up betting slips and looking for the John Lewis wedding list on their BlackBerrys so that they could finally buy a belated wedding present.

Are you sure there isn't a bunny rabbit under this pew?

Hurrah! The confetti will distract attention from the mysterious bulge in the groom's trouser pocket

Does Rick the Vic need to count his candlesticks?

Some cars outside a castle

The photographer had clearly got bored with photographing the bride and groom by now. And who can blame him?

A string quartet in action

Though readers with the ability to count up to four will no doubt have been able to work that out for themselves. They were under strict instructions to launch into the theme tune from Fawlty Towers whenever a member of the hotel’s management team passed by.

The bride's family

The groom's family: spot the difference

Though which side would you put your money on if it came to a fight, bearing in mind that wor's is Geordies, like?

The wedding breakfast in full swing

Why there is a bloke standing in the window wearing a lady’s hat is one of life’s little mysteries.

Cutting the cake

“Come on love, we can do it. Just pretend it’s a scratter’s neck!”

Thumbs up as the end of the Pure Hell of the First Dance comes into sight

A peaceful goodnight

Ooh look, over there – a bunny rabbit! Or have I just been drinking?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

The blonde with the body to die for

14st 12lb; 4.4 units. Yes, well that’s what two bottles of Thwaite’s Lancaster Bomber and an evening on the sofa scoffing the excellent Lancashire cheese from Mr Edge the butcher and half a box of mini-Toblerones can do for you. At least having access to this confessional means that I probably won’t do it again today. And unlike some potential routes to absolution, this one won’t ask me if I’d like to see some racy pictures of altar boys while I’m waiting in the queue.

In fact, if I do say so myself, I regrouped rather well after yesterday’s visit from the Black Dog. Mercifully equipped with a perfect excuse not to go on my “getting to know you” mission because someone was supposed to be delivering an item of furniture, I took the dog for an early walk before Mrs H left the house, then applied myself to my laptop, producing a draft speech in the morning and updated copy for a website in the afternoon. Then, the filing cabinet supplier having rung – predictably enough – to say that they meant to say “the day after tomorrow” when they said “tomorrow” yesterday, I took the dog for another walk and applied myself to a huge pile of unironed shirts and handkerchiefs. Mrs H had invited a couple of her friends to supper, but assured me that there was no way that they would turn up on time, so I had it all perfectly scheduled: I would hang up my last shirt just as the Archers Omnibus on my i-player reached its exciting climax, ideally with the latest on Matt Crawford’s run-in with the Serious Fraud Office. Then I would put away the ironing board and change into my velvet smoking jacket and cap in time to mix a stiff gin and tonic and recline in a suitably intellectual pose on the sofa before our guests turned up.

Unfortunately Mrs H had clearly confused herself with her friends when she confidently asserted that they would be late. Instead they came knocking on the door at the stroke of 7, to find me still wearing my scruffy jeans and gamely trying to pressing a pair of brown cord trousers (a colour chosen in case of age-related mishaps). It was not quite the image I wanted to present, though I did my best to pervert it to my advantage by claiming to be a “New Man” who did all the housework.

There was much excited girlie banter, I believe, but it registered with me only as I note the birdsong of the dawn chorus, burbling away in the background. Then, just as Mrs H was about to serve dinner, something completely unexpected happened. There was another knock on the front door and in walked the bloke who had been commissioned to take the “official” photographs of our wedding. I was hugely disappointed on two counts. First, because he was not wearing a full-length coat made entirely out of chicken feathers, like an Aborigine witch doctor or Papageno in a traditional production of The Magic Flute. And, secondly and more importantly, because his photographs actually turned out to be rather good. Bang go all my jokes about the folly of asking a chicken strangler to take the pictures; there probably being no film in the camera and a big, fat thumb over the lens etc etc. There wasn’t the slightest hint of feathers or chicken shit on the album, either.

In fact, the only thing I could possibly find to complain about was that he timed his arrival to coincide precisely with the moment that Mrs H had intended supper to be served. As a result, the pasta bolognaise was stone cold and the accompanying garlic bread burnt to the thickness and texture of a poppadom. Still, to look on the bright side, the salad was completely unaffected.

After supper the ladies had a wonderful time cooing over how beautiful the bride looked in our new album, while I drank myself into another coma after making some not-very-well-received remarks about how beautiful the chief bridesmaid looked. I perked up when our blonde guest with the body to die for suddenly yelled “F*** me!” But sadly she was quick to explain that it was a meaningless interjection, indicative of surprise, and not a specific invitation. I got a mild telling-off when we took the dog for his final walk. I expect the stuff with rolling pins and frying pans will follow when we have been married a little longer.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The work-shy confession of a true Brit

14st 10lb; 3.0 units. It was all going so well: 24 hours of high productivity on the blog writing front, and unaccustomed moderation in the consumption of food and alcohol. I even managed to make some slight inroads into the huge overhanging mountain of “thank you” cards and letters we owe for our wedding presents. (If you are still huffily waiting for one of those, rest assured that you are very much on our consciences, and that one will be along … er, shortly would probably be a bit of a politician’s promise, I fear.)

Then in the afternoon I went to see a client who has been paying me to do sod all for the last six months, whose opening remark was “You’ve put on weight!” (he’s from Yorkshire) and who then went on to outline some things he wanted me to do. I mean, actual WORK. I positively reeled from the shock, I can tell you. The problem wasn’t that he wanted me to write some stuff – I can do that easily enough, in fact I would positively enjoy it – but that he thought I should take a desk in his offices and “bring myself up to speed” by getting to know some people before I did it. Taking me right out of my comfort zone since I have (a) never liked the idea of getting to know people, though I am prepared to make the occasional exception for young, pretty women and members of genuine royal families, owing to my being a pervert and a crashing snob; (b) always had a strong aversion to corporate life; and (c) based my whole career on writing stuff based on the absolute minimum of research or prior knowledge. It takes massively longer to write a press release or newspaper column on a subject you actually know something about.

In fact I was so depressed by it all that I spent the evening lying on the sofa eating too much and drinking myself into a coma, while muttering about taking the easy way out. Mrs Hann would no doubt have looked up some flight times to Zurich for me if she had been present, but she was out for “a night with the girls”. So I moved on to brooding about why someone who generally seems to share my sense of humour should have sent me an e-mail this morning saying “Confess, not being a Viz fan, that I've never heard of "Up The Arse Corner". What a huge hole in his life. I sort of feel that I should rework the previous sentence to include the word “puckered”, but I can’t be, well, arsed. It was all in response to the following unofficial wedding photo, which struck me as a borderline candidate for that unpopular feature in the not-as-funny-as-it-used-to-be (if-it-ever-was) North Shields-based “adult” comic.


I then tried to brighten myself up by looking at something outrageously disgusting on the Interweb, but a Google search for “wrong un action” led me to spend half an hour reading a learned discourse about the United Nations’ misguided policies in Gaza instead. It was clearly destined to be that sort of day.

Monday 23 March 2009

Another new beginning

14st 12lb; 4.5 units of alcohol yesterday. No, I know you don’t care and that this sub-Bridget Jones introduction adds nothing to your enjoyment (if that is the word I want) of this blog, but it serves a moderately useful purpose. I only managed to lose a respectable amount of weight last year because I could not face the daily humiliation of reporting my failure to do so on the Internet (making it a bit like joining Weightwatchers, but without the unpleasantness of actually having to be in the same room as a lot of other smelly fat bastards). While the alcohol count sometimes deters me from knocking back a second bottle in the evening after I have enjoyed one with my lunch, and on the whole that seems to me to be in my best interests, too. Having stupidly put on a massive and completely indefensible 16lb since the day I met the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette (or Mrs H as she is now known, somewhat more succinctly) I need all the help I can get to do the same again. Being as I don’t want to find myself back on the hypertension pills, statins, low dose aspirins and anti-depressants, and / or dropping dead of a heart attack just when Baby Charlie is about to do or say something interesting. If, of course, he ever does.

Mrs H put me on a strict regime of No Chocolate and No Pork Scratchings for Lent. Naturally I have not stuck to it, but I am getting recurrent visions of the bumper packets of scratchings piled on the counter of Bowers the Famous Pork Butcher in Clayton Street, which Mrs H and I passed during our last visit to Newcastle, as we made our way from the Persian restaurant by the Central Station to the Grainger Market. I had my nose pressed up against the glass and was making mewing “I want” noises, such as I used to utter when viewing the Hornby Dublo trains in the windows of Boydell’s toy shop in Percy Street in about 1962. And Mrs H gently led me away with a promise that she would come back herself and buy me a packet if I got my weight down to 13st 7lb by the time our son arrived in July.

Yes, I think she’s fairly safe, too. But it can’t do any harm to put it down in print, can it?

So from today I’m starting a new regime: healthy food, less alcohol (though frankly I could drink a lot less alcohol and still be what is technically classed as “a piss artist”) and a return to daily blogging. It won’t be what it was; I’m not hoping or expecting to die on 4 February 2012 now, for one thing, though I accept that it will be a pretty good joke at my expense if I do. No, it will be more about adjusting to married life and fatherhood after 18 years longing to escape from the family into which I was born, and another 36 mainly spent on my own. I’m not saying that it will be interesting, or inspiring. But there might, just might, be the occasional half decent joke.

See my wedding photos on 17 March for definitive proof that there is a first time for everything.

Then keep your fingers crossed and watch this space.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Cluck, cluck, cluck, squawk, thud

Two huge disappointments today. The first occurred when Mrs H and I pitched up at church for the fourth-Sunday-in-the-month “traditional” morning service, and she drew my attention to a small, hairy figure scuttling towards the door clutching a red, electric guitar. At least it got me to say “Oh God” in a genuinely heartfelt way before we got stuck in(to) 75 minutes of twanging instruments, crooning guitarists, “Shine, Jesus, shine” and lisping but at least largely mercifully inaudible readings and playlets from the “Young Christians”.

Bloody Mothering Sunday. I should have known that they would fiddle round with the usual schedule for that. At least there were lots of mothers present (including my allegedly Muslim but Catholic-educated mother-in-law) who seemed to enjoy themselves. So that’s all right, then. Towards the end the grey-haired priestess in charge invited anyone with a mother present to come to the front and collect a small bag of heart-shaped chocolates. I held Mrs H down until all the kiddies had made the journey, but felt obliged to let her go when a man of at least 85 tottered down the aisle to join the queue. I looked about for his mother, with the intention of putting in a call to the Guinness Book of Records, but failed to spot her. The legendary Rick the Vic sat the performance out, taking to the pulpit only to read some banns and issue the characteristically helpful reminder that the clocks would be going back next Sunday. Would that he were right. Ideally by at least 50 years.

The other disappointment was more predictable. You will note a distinct absence from this posting of the promised official wedding pictures. I did not take the call, but the man I have to come think of as the Poultrygeist rang last night, sounding I imagine like a naughty schoolboy, to report that he was having trouble sticking them in the promised album. I’d have issued some pithy advice about getting his finger out and buying a Pritt Stick, but Mrs H was naturally much more understanding. Clearly in reality a large consignment of chickens had turned up unexpectedly from somewhere, and it is a recognized fact that the buggers won’t strangle themselves.

We tried ringing him on our way home from church, to see if we could just pick up the pictures on a disc. Apparently this would have been no problem if he had been sitting in his studio with his Pritt Stick as he should have been, but he was out helping someone with their car. I cracked the old joke about their big hen probably having gone, but I don’t think Mrs H got it. So I made some more random remarks about unreliable suppliers, and she ignored me. As she usually does.

After that we had my in-laws around for a traditional Iranian Mothering Sunday lunch of marinated pork kebabs. As Mrs H’s father memorably observed to an astonished Rick the Vic after our wedding rehearsal, while tucking into my packet of scratchings in the pub across the road from the church, “We are not very serious Muslims”.

Saturday 21 March 2009

A tale of two dinners

I hate dinner, me. Naturally I always aspired to eat it as a boy growing up in a lower-middle-class household in the east end of Newcastle, where the evening meal was called “tea” and dished up as soon as the family returned from school or the office (at least, thank God, never the mine, factory or shop). It really was afternoon tea, too (cake and biscuits, and maybe a sandwich if you were lucky) until I persuaded my mother that I deserved something cooked (a) because I had got used to it while being cared for by an aunt and uncle with slightly higher social aspirations, and /or heartier appetites, during one of her stays in hospital to try to get over the dreadful trauma of giving birth to me: and (b) because I was denied a hot lunch by the sheer bloody awful inedibility of the catering at my school.

When I was in the sixth form a small group of us held little dinner parties for each other in our parents’ homes, prepared by our long-suffering mothers. At university I positively relished formal meals in hall, proudly wearing my academic gown. And I continued to look forward to dinner parties after I graduated, until I finally grasped that they were a lot of trouble to give, pretty excruciating to attend, nearly always resulted in my lying awake for most of the following night with agonizing indigestion, and were a major contributor to the enemy side in my ongoing battle with my weight. Far better on every count to have a large and convivial lunch, snooze in one’s employer’s time during the afternoon and revive to do some useful reading, writing or viewing of Coronation Street in the evening. The only downside being that “No thank you, I don’t eat dinner” is not a reply to an invitation calculated to win friends or influence people, should one have the slightest desire to do either.

But it did enable me to achieve a convincing victory in the Great Weight Loss Challenge with my fellow Newcastle Journal columnist, which was drawing to a close at about this time last year. Tom had foolishly vowed to lose 21lbs by Easter (not realizing that Easter 2008 was about as early as the ecclesiastical calendar permits, giving him a month less than he had budgeted to achieve his goal). I bet him that I could do it, too, and amazingly I did, dropping from 15st 10lb on Boxing Day 2007 to 14st 0lb on Easter Day 2008. I did it with the aid of my patented Iet™ (the No D for Dinner Diet). Poor Tom never stood a chance, expressing bafflement as he watched me downing wine and eating pudding when we met for lunch during the challenge. The key difference being that he then went home to a lovely partner who expected to enjoy his company over supper, while I sat on the sofa with my Border terrier and just had an apple and a glass of water.

Unfortunately it’s all gone to hell in a handcart since I too acquired a lovely partner, who faithfully trots off to the office every weekday and expects to be able to spend some quality time with her husband in the evening. She is a great cook and immensely sociable, too, so it is hard to see any escape from a return to the dinner party circuit. Tonight we went to a very decent pub in the posh bit of Warrington (no, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it, either) to celebrate the birthday of one of her friends, and it was fine, really. Apart from the fact that I was at least a decade older than any of the other attendees, and that the table split into “boys” and “girls” ends, and I had to try and attach myself to the latter. I may not know much about breastfeeding, child-rearing, flower-arranging, make-up and the other stock topics of female conversation, but I can sure as hell have a more intelligent stab at those than at the manly staples of football, rugger and – as it turned out – chartered accountancy.

Still, it was a vast improvement on every level from last night’s dinner, which left me feeling bloody awful for the whole of today. It was entirely my own fault for not sticking to my firm resolution never again to attend an old school reunion. But I was tempted when they invited me to be the guest speaker at their London bash, since if there is one thing I enjoy it is making people laugh (and hard though it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I have been known to achieve that in after-dinner speeches. Helped obviously by my audience having attained a level of drunkenness that would lead them to collapse in helpless hysteria at a reading of one of Gordon Brown’s more earnest speeches, or indeed of the Norwich telephone directory). However, I stupidly felt compelled to point out that it was not that many years since I had delighted them with my apercus, and that perhaps they might like to try someone else. I suggested a friend who is well known to be a member of the British National Party, feeling that this would do it nicely. As no doubt it would have done if he had mentioned it, rather than sticking to a series of unexceptionable reminiscences about the world class loons who had attempted to educate us. He referred to the catering, too, but I had warned him not to be rude about it as mention of the name of the late school cook always produces a rumble of appreciation rather than the launch of the expected campaign to locate her grave, dig her up and hurl disgusting food at her remains in a belated attempt to get our own back. I had nightmares for years about her fat- and gristle-based concoction that was variously described as Irish stew and Lancashire hotpot.

Still, having dropped him in it, I felt that I had no alternative but to turn out to offer moral support, as shamelessly heckling him in search of a cheap laugh is now called in this blog.

The food at the dinner was nothing to write home about, but it compared favourably with what we had known at school and the organizer demonstrated a fine sense of humour by choosing pork fillet wrapped in filo pastry for the main course, at an event where about a third of the attendees appeared to be Jewish. The dinner had apparently been on its last legs in 2008, when attendance had slumped to only 30. Instead of quietly withdrawing its life support, this year they had somehow managed to rebuild it to more than 50, but booked a room ideally suited for a dinner for 30, so that we were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder like, well, little schoolboys. It brought it all back. Despite my best efforts I was seated in nerds’ corner, too, as I always am on such occasions. My God, it was dreadful. No wonder I drank far too much.

The president leaned over at one point and asked why I thought no-one under 40 attended these occasions. I did not know where to start.

I still don’t.

Never again.

No, really.

Never again.

This time I mean it.

Friday 20 March 2009

Journey to Scratterville

This morning we had an appointment with a midwife in Scratterville. At least that was the name I gave the area as we drove into it, with the doors of the car tightly locked, under firm instructions from Mrs H to avoid making eye contact with any of the track-suited low-lifes loping along by the side of the road.

Incidentally, when I was last at an elegant Northumberland dinner party and started banging on about “scratters”, everyone looked baffled and asked what on earth I was referring to. I began to wonder whether it was a word I had invented, which frankly would have been enough of a lifetime achievement to permit me to die happy, but sadly not. I cannot do better than refer you to the online Urban Dictionary, which contains the following definition: “Miserable ignorant tracksuit wearing trash exemplifying the shit-encrusted population of the British Isles. Abusive dole-scum. The reason today's elderly would rather starve away in their own homes than take a 50-yard trip down to the shops. See also scally and scut-dog.” While as an example of correct usage, I do not think I can better their “Look at those scratters, they should be shot at birth.”

There are a surprising number of scratters in the “International Heritage City” of Chester, though some local residents claim that they are all refugees from the global capital of scratterdom on Merseyside, forced out by their sense of inferiority because they feared that they could never attain the matchless depths of awfulness expected of them there. Still, seeing them spitting vigorously as they shuffle along the pavements, the mind boggles at what levels the competition in the erstwhile European Capital of Culture must attain.

The midwife operates from a Children’s Centre attached to a primary school. It’s the sort of place where you have to ring a bell to gain admission, feel an overpowering urge to look over your shoulder until the door opens, then wish to God you could slam it shut behind you. I am asked to fill in an apparently innocuous form and handed an explanatory note, which I only get around to reading later in the day. This explains that it is all intended to prevent a repetition of the Victoria Climbié tragedy (although, bizarrely, they have printed the acute accent over the ‘I’ rather than the ‘e’) and assures me that my “information will be kept safe, secure and accurate. Access will be strictly limited to those who need it to do their job.” Or, they forget to add, any fraudster or nosy parker on the planet, after the authorities have duplicated and lost it, as they invariably do.

Knackers. Through simple lack of attention to detail I have inadvertently added myself to the ContactPoint child protection database, one of the many manifestations of the data- and control-obsessed State that I was determined to resist. Perhaps they locate their facilities in Scratterville deliberately so that People Like Us will take their eye off the ball as a result of being scared out of our wits. The midwife, it must be said, is perfectly nice if perhaps rather more amply cushioned than one might expect of an employee of the “health” service, and inclined to address my wife as “sweetheart” and “honeybunch” rather more often than one might consider strictly necessary.

I only once visited a Communist country: the People’s Republic of China on a day trip from Macao in 1983. I was much struck by the frequency of the road blocks in this border region, as severe-looking members of the People’s Liberation Army scanned the papers of any peasants who looked like they might be about to make a break for the dubious delights of Portuguese colonial rule. Now a Briton can write without irony, as Mr Adrian D Evans did from Shanxi Province to the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, “I now live in China where I can travel freely, entering and leaving the country without having to lodge my plans with the authorities. China is liberalising while Britain is becoming more draconian. How can I honestly stand up in front of my Chinese students and extol the virtues of a liberal democracy when my own country is sliding towards a police state?”

I wonder whether they have scratters in China? That might be a bit of a clincher so far as I am concerned, when considering where Mrs H, Baby Charlie and I might settle in the long term. In the admittedly unlikely event that we were granted an exit visa rather than being dispatched for an extremely long session in a re-education camp. Of which today’s horrible journey into Scratterville was surely but the mildest of foretastes.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

My unofficial wedding album

It's been two and a half weeks since our wedding, and we still haven't seen a single "official" photograph. But then my lovely and prudent bride decided to economize by appointing a keen amateur photographer rather than a professional. I mean he IS a professional. It's just that his profession has something to do with poultry rather than cameras. Though apparently he isn't actually a full-time chicken strangler, as I have been telling everyone who raised the subject of the mysteriously missing pictures with me. So there is no reason at all why the official album should be covered with blood, feathers and chicken manure when we pick it up after church on Sunday, as I have been cheerfully speculating. We are remarkably regular church-goers for a lapsed atheist and a woman described by a member of our wedding congregation as "a loose Muslim", I must say.

Anyway, to satisfy the curiosity of those who have been asking for them, and because I can't for the life of me work out how to upload the sodding things to Facebook, here are some "unofficial" wedding photographs, kindly sent to us by our friends and now shamelessly posted here in breach of the copyrights they forgot to remind us about.

The groom fortifies himself with port before the ceremony, while the mad preacher tries to warm up the congregation

The beautiful bride arrives (she's the one on the left)

Some opera is sung while the registers are signed

The happy couple are led past a beaming Rick the Vic by their enterprising page dog, as the triumphal march from Aida rings out

A brief interlude to exercise the page dog and wear my top hat, so that bringing it did not seem a total waste of time

Where can they have got to?

The bride with her chief bridesmaid and sister (who are the same person)

The still surprisingly happy couple depart; clearly the groom must have been on best behaviour for once

The unhappy page dog makes his views about the car quite clear

The delicious irony of this picture was that the chauffeur was almost as reluctant to allow Craster into his car as the Page Dog was to get into it.

Waving like royalty

Some snaps on the lawn

Making that speech

What bloody fool said you could cut a cake with a sword?

Quelle horreur: the dreaded spectacle of the First Dance

Imagine what it might have been like if the bride had been drinking