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.