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.

Friday 24 July 2009

The Day from Hell

14st 11lb, 5.0 units. This truly was the Day from Hell. It started off rather slowly, since I did not get up until after 7, but more than made up for that as it wore on. First I attempted to resolve our internet connectivity problem by driving to PC World and buying some new micro-filters and a wireless router. The shop was far from busy, and a member of staff came across to see if I needed help (apparent OAP wearing grey anorak-like garment and blue flat cap; I must have practically had “HELP!!!” emblazoned across my back). He appeared to share my lack of confidence in BT India’s diagnosis, but pointed out that there were actually some micro-filters included in the router pack I had already picked up. So I could just try those first and bring the router back for a refund in the unlikely event that they solved my problem, and then buy some cheap new micro-filters separately. However, I noted they only had one such cheap pack of micro-filters on their shelves in the whole store, and I felt that I could safely predict how my day would go if I bought the router back with a view to buying them, so I muttered “belt and braces” to myself and took both. After a certain amount of buggering about back in Scratterville, where the new router initially refused to work at all, I finally got the thing working and both my and Mrs H’s computers connecting to it wirelessly, though after several increasingly frustrating attempts I concluded that it was completely impossible to set up the security that everyone else in the street seems to have managed to add to their system. I then made yet another nostalgic last drive into the office in my convertible, and rang the garage to confirm that it would be possible to pick up Mrs H’s new car this afternoon. Only the man who was supposed to be back from his course today was not there. So I asked to speak to someone else. After some time listening to music I was told that the man I needed to talk to was “with a customer” but would call me back. I then made a couple of reasonably urgent phone calls, one of which was actually work-related, and was starting to draft a press release when I received what appeared to be one of those nuisance silent calls. After I had repeated my name tersely for perhaps the third time, someone finally said “Oh, is that Mr Hann?” This always irritates the hell out of me, tempting me to ask why the f*** the caller thinks I have just stated that very fact. “It’s Alan from Cheshire Oaks Audi here. I wasn’t expecting you to answer the phone because it’s been constantly engaged. [So why ring?] I’ve just e-mailed you to say that your cheque won’t clear until at least Monday …” I interrupted him at this point to say that my cheque had come out of my bank account on Tuesday and should have cleared by Wednesday at the very latest, and that I was very far from happy. “Well it’s not our fault, Mr Hann. You were told that cheques take ten working days to clear …” Actually, no I f***ing wasn’t. And if I had been, I would have pointed out that it is total bollocks because they take three days to clear, as they did when I worked in a bank for six months in 1972, doubtless did for decades before that and certainly have done ever since. I was so furious that I said something about not being sure that I wanted the f***ing car any more but would speak to Mrs H and get back to him, then slammed the phone down. Deep breaths. Take deep breaths. I have not been so annoyed in a very long time. Which is why I am abandoning my normal circumspection about saying what I really think about individuals and traders in this blog. If you happen to live in the North West of England and are thinking of buying a car, do not do so from CHESHIRE OAKS AUDI. They make even the likes of BT and John Lewis look like paragons of excellent customer service. I duly spoke to Mrs H, who was rather keen to have a car that would accommodate a baby buggy and could not immediately see how cancelling the one we had on order was going to expedite this. Then I rang my bank to see whether I could stop my cheque, either with a view to cancelling the transaction altogether (if I had my way) or paying by debit card instead (if Mrs H had hers). But I was told that I could not, for the simple reason that it had cleared and gone into the garage’s account on Tuesday. A fact which the c***s at the garage seem incapable of grasping. My bank manager did say that he would be as angry as I was in the circumstances, which made me feel somewhat better, and suggested that I give the garage his name and number so that they could speak to him for any reassurance that they might require. I duly set this out in an e-mail but the twatThe at the receiving end evidently could not be bothered to put his ample arse into gear to do anything about it, as sod all happened. Just to put the tin hat on my day, I slowly grasped from a series of conversations in the late afternoon that I am probably not going to be able to rent the house that has become our dream home because I am going to fail the sodding credit checks. I should have seen this one coming. Even when I was earning a City salary and bonuses, I was turned down almost every time I applied for a credit card. Now I have no mortgage, no recent history of renting property, an income from self-employment that I have allowed to decline for several years, and an excellent accountant who regularly gets me letters of sympathy from HM Revenue and Customs in lieu of tax demands. It is absolutely true, as I stated on the application form, that I have recently increased my income and could comfortably afford to rent the house. But can I prove this, when all I have to offer are 18-month-old accounts? Can I bollocks. When I got back home the sodding internet connection was down again, too. I sincerely wished that I did not like The Dog so much. It would have been greatly consoling to have had something I could kick.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Wise after the event

14st 11lb, 4.4 units. I made a useful start to the day by walking The Dog across the park so that I could drop off our application form for what has now become our dream home at the letting agent’s office. Then everything went downhill from there.

I spoke to my bank manager, who assured me that the cheque I had written to pay for Mrs H’s new car had most definitely cleared and was in the Audi dealership’s bank account. He added something that was news to me, namely that I could have paid for the thing instantaneously with my debit card, which has no limit. I wondered why the garage had not drawn this option to my attention. It is always a bit depressing to be wise after the event.

Though nothing like as depressing, it must be conceded, as having to talk to the twats at one of BT’s useless call centres in India. Admittedly I delegated this horror to Mrs H, when I had exhausted all other possibilities to try to address the failure of our internet connection, which she noticed this afternoon. My contribution consisted of turning the router on and off a few times, pressing its “reset” button and restarting our computers, all to no avail. Hers consisted of talking to a succession of barely comprehensible dimwits (one of whom apparently sounded as though he had swine flu, on top of a very thick accent) who immediately ruled out the most likely cause of the trouble, namely a fault on our telephone line, and ran through a series of other implausible possibilities before landing on that line on their card which seems to be their equivalent of “Home”: “You are needing to replace your micro-filters”. Yeah, right. That is where they always ended up when I rang up to complain in Northumberland, too, though it never, ever turned out to resolve the problem. Which, funnily enough, was always a fault on the phone line that it took a man with a set of ladders and a screwdriver to fix.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Where has the money gone, then?

14st 11lb, zero units. This morning I drove into my borrowed office for the last time in my convertible, intending to part-exchange it for Mrs H’s new car this afternoon. No sooner had I arrived than I received a telephone call from the Audi dealer to say that the funds to pay for the new car had not arrived in their bank account (which is odd, since they disappeared from mine yesterday) and asking whether I could cancel my cheque and wire them payment instead. I responded, in a surprisingly relaxed sort of way, that it would surely be easier to wait another day for it to clear, since the process should only take three days at most. He agreed, adding that he was “on a course” tomorrow but would be in touch when he was returned to work on Friday. Then I rang the estate agent to say that we would very much like to rent the house we viewed with him last night. He promised to e-mail me the necessary application form. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Decisive, or what?

14st 10lb, 4.5 units. It is late July in England, so naturally the staff restaurant at the firm that has kindly lent me an office where I can take refuge from The Baby was offering roast turkey and all the trimmings (cranberry sauce, sausages wrapped in bacon, stuffing balls, roast potatoes etc etc) on the menu for lunch. True, there was a choice of two other hot dishes and umpteen salads, but equally naturally we all ate it because it is supposed to be the best meal of the year. And I enjoyed it, too, though it seemed a bit strange not to be wearing a party hat and pulling crackers at the same time. Surprisingly there was no plum pudding on offer, but the youngest and slimmest member of our party did make a manful effort to follow it up by consuming a portion of homemade rhubarb crumble.

I had recovered enough to be at least partially mobile by 4, when I had to leave to pick up Mrs H for the first of a couple of appointments she had made to view potential properties to rent. This is her positive response to the fact that we are both going stir crazy trapped in a two bedroomed terraced house in Scratterville, which was just about tolerable when there were just the two of us and one of us was out at work all day, but is definitively unbearable for three and the third’s massive quantities of life support equipment. I, of course, prefer the less positive approach of continually looking about for something solid enough to take my weight when I decide to hang myself.

The first place we looked at was a reasonably modern house (anything from late 1950s to early 1970s, I guess) standing on its own up a lane at the edge of a south Cheshire village, with fine views to the Welsh hills from its large conservatory, though curiously only a fine view of a row of dustbins from the living room. The décor was tired, to say the least, but it offered the two things we are both hankering for most strongly: masses of space, and peace and quiet. Plus, for Mrs H’s benefit, a village centre with a doctor’s surgery and several (probably crap) shops within walking distance.

We were shown around by a splendidly off-hand, upmarket estate agent, who then led us to another house he had suggested might be worth looking at – though when we got there, in the pissing rain, his opening gambit was that it “might not be for us” as the tenants were not moving out until 19 September. As we were there we looked around anyway, if only for comparative purposes, and quickly decided that we much preferred the first place.

We had been planning a leisurely tour of properties in the area, continuing into the weekend, but as we were leaving the agent cunningly dropped into the conversation the fact that he suddenly seemed to have quite a few clients looking for four bedroomed properties thereabouts, and was taking another couple on the same tour tomorrow. So we decided to speed things up by taking a look at the exterior of a nearby house we had arranged to see on Saturday, in case it looked like the home of our dreams. We were not helped by a road closure, but could not find it even with the aid of sat nav, which made it seem like a very poor choice indeed for the directionally challenged Mrs H. Added to which, the maze of winding single track lanes around it, with visibility reduced close to zero by tall hedges on both sides, struck me as a potential death trap. So by the time we got back to Scratterville we were agreed that the way forward was to rent the very first property we had seen. This uncharacteristic decisiveness seemed a very satisfactory conclusion to the day.

Sunday 19 July 2009

A first second thought?

15st 0lb, 5.5 units. Seven hours of uninterrupted sleep without earplugs; bliss. What more is there to say? Other than that I spent a peaceful day at home on my own, just like in the solitary, miserable and curmudgeonly old days, the morning listening to Radio 4 while defrosting the freezer, watering plants and the like; and the afternoon sleeping off lunch in the conservatory before going for a healthy walk. Leading me to begin wondering whether the solitary, curmudgeonly old days were really quite as miserable as they seemed to be at the time.

Saturday 18 July 2009

The stench of death and the frighteningly obese

14st 10lb, 3.0 units. The top item of news on the BBC’s eight o’clock bulletin this morning was the death of an American television presenter called Walter Cronkite. I had barely heard of him, and I consider myself better than averagely well informed after 40 years of reading a broadsheet newspaper from cover to cover every day, and also taking a keen interest in broadcast news. This suggested a distinct scraping of barrels to me.

Perhaps detecting a very slow news day in his care home in Brighton, First World War veteran Henry Allingham, also the world’s oldest man at 113, obligingly turned up his toes halfway through the bulletin, allowing the BBC to lead with something rather more interesting for the rest of the morning. Apparently this leaves only one surviving British veteran of the First World War. I just hope that it is not that guy who joined the Royal Navy about half an hour before the Armistice was signed, as this would make rather a mockery of the State funeral for the last survivor that was being mooted by Gordon Brown a year or two ago, in yet another desperate, flailing but pleasingly unavailing search for popularity.

Unable to face driving all the way from Northumberland to Chester at a steady 40mph so that Mrs H could keep up with me in my second car, I had arranged to go back by train and drive it across myself. This is necessary so that I can trade it in against the new, baby-friendly car I am buying for my wife. I accordingly took a taxi to Chester station and forked out an eye-watering £78.70 on a standard class single to Manchester and a first class single from there to Newcastle, though luckily the actual cash outlay was only £2.70. The rest was covered by the stash of travel vouchers I had accumulated in compensation from Virgin Trains for previous cock-ups.

The journey passed pleasantly enough, to be honest, as I had a large pile of reading to catch up on. Though I did experience a profound sense of déjà-vu on boarding the Transpennine Express in Manchester, since whenever I use one of these trains I seem destined to come under the scrutiny of a comically obese young American female who wanders around the first class compartment staring at all the seat numbers, as though in search of a reservation voucher that is not there, before finally working out that she is supposed to be in scratter class and mercifully clearing off. This left me as the only occupant of the first class section apart from a quiet, normal-looking, middle-aged bloke accompanied by a woman so vast that she looked as though she could have eaten the fat American for breakfast. She talked continuously in a loud, Northern, working class monotone that would have got anyone who tried to use it in a play or TV production swiftly despatched to a language coach on the grounds of its inherent implausibility. Surely no-one can really make a noise like this and pretend that it is speech?

She also stank, as I discovered when she wobbled past me to go to the lavatory.

Dear God, is there anything worse than morbidly obese humans who are too enormous to fit into a bath or shower? We had one next to us a few years ago when I took three friends to see On The Town at the Coliseum, and the combination of his unbearable stench and incessant fidgeting forced the member of the party who was sitting nearest to him to announce at the interval that he would pass on the second half of the show as he could stand no more. This seemed desperately unfair, so I asked the management if we could move elsewhere. We could not, as it was a Saturday night and a sell-out, but they did find us one seat so that the person worst affected could move to a different part of the theatre. And when we got back, the fat stinker (an American, as it happened) spotted the empty seat and moved to heave his implausibly vast buttocks into it, prompting a concerted shout of “No!!!” from us all. His chins started wobbling and he whinged “But I can’t sit on my own! I won’t be comfortable!” To which I replied, accurately but cruelly, “We don’t want you to be comfortable. We just want you to bugger off!”

So he sat in his original seat through most of the second half. In tears, I was told. And then he left before the end.

Did I feel guilty?

Not for one nanosecond.

Though I am becoming a bit worried that obsessively banging on about the obesity of others may be a rather transparent attempt to distract attention from the fact that I myself remain obstinately some two stone overweight.

I had to fork out another £4.10 for the final stage of my journey to Morpeth, so by the time I reached my destination I had spent £86.80 (including the initial taxi), had been travelling for 5.5 hours, and still had a 35 minute drive to get home. All this to cover a total distance of just 220 miles. The economics and timings stack up rather better for the train if one is travelling from either Alnmouth or Chester to London. But anyone who chooses to travel cross-country by train in Britain has to be a truly dedicated rail nerd, extremely rich, utterly desperate or a strange combination of the above.

Friday 17 July 2009

Health porkers

14st 10lb, 2.4 units. One of the reasons we had to return from Northumberland was to receive a visit from the “health visitor”. Well, she certainly visited, so that’s one box ticked. But, when it comes to health, I could not help noticing that she was – how can I put this politely? – amply proportioned. I suppose it could have been worse. She was not actually eating a Scotch egg or a box of Black Magic during her visit, nor did she knock the dottle out of her pipe on the doorpost before she entered, start swigging from a hip flask or look around for a glass-topped table from which to snort cocaine. But it still seems strange to me that so many of the fighters on the front line of the nation’s health service are distinctly on the porky side. One of the midwives Mrs H consulted before her delivery bore more than a passing resemblance to the late pub pianist Mrs Mills, and the female support staff at the hospital would be a shoo-in at any tug-of-war contest they felt minded to enter.

One of the finest examples of this double standard I ever encountered was at a country show, which was graced by a double decker bus emblazoned with slogans and filled with displays promoting health in Northumberland. It was staffed by young women wearing jolly T-shirts. All were markedly overweight. Even better than that, when I happened across them they were standing in a line by the side of the bus, enthusiastically smoking fags. Sadly, as I raised my camera to capture this arresting image for posterity, they noticed me and scuttled inside the vehicle. I think they might have ditched their cigarettes before they did so, though at this distance of time I cannot be entirely sure.

Which reminds me of one of the many supportive e-mails I received after writing a newspaper column that was less than ecstatic about the NHS. This particular one related the story of the writer’s great aunt, who had suffered a fall, as the elderly do, and been admitted to a Tyneside hospital which had rapidly managed to give her both MRSA and c. difficile. Her nephew, seeking to relieve his stress with a soothing cigarette in the car park, was instructed to stop immediately as his behaviour was endangering not only his own health but that of all the hospital’s patients, staff and visitors. Really? I thought that was the NHS’s job. I wonder whether it remains the case that all nurses are furious smokers, as they were in my Cambridge days nearly 40 years ago, and all medical students and junior doctors hopeless drunks?

Anyway, back to that health visitor. I happened to be at home when she called (though she flattered herself that I had arranged it deliberately) so I was able to watch as she whipped out a set of scales and told us that The Baby weighed 8lb 9oz, which was 15oz more than when she last weighed him and therefore a Good Thing. I think this is right at his age, and not an opinion coloured by the fact that she is clearly predisposed to put on weight herself.

She also gave us the benefit of her advice on the great BCG controversy. The NHS in its wisdom thinks that The Baby is at heightened risk of contracting tuberculosis because Mrs H’s parents come from outside Western Europe and North America, viz Iran, even though they have lived here for almost 30 years. They have therefore summoned him for a vaccination despite my unequivocal assurance to the young paediatrician who first raised the subject that “There won’t be any bloody wogs coming into my house.” The health visitor said it was “up to us”. Which is something these days, I suppose. So we cancelled his appointment, feeling that we were striking a small blow for individual freedom against the overweening power of the fascist State.

Thursday 16 July 2009

The sulking Dog and the mad inventor

14st 11lb, 4.0 units. Things are looking up to this extent: The Dog has begun to show signs that he may be thinking about giving up sulking. He went into a major strop as soon as he got out of the car after the hated five hour journey from Northumberland on Tuesday, and grasped that we were yet again asking him to swap a spacious home in the heart of Northumberland sheep country, where he gets to sleep on his owners’ bed, for a tiny cottage in the heart of Chester scratter country, where his inability to cope with the slatted wooden stairs confines him strictly to the ground floor.

I knew that we were in for a difficult day yesterday when he took to his bed in the morning and pointedly refused to show his usual interest in my breakfast. Then, on our early walk, he succeeded in taking me down a peg or two by stopping beside the Scratters’ Academy to have the sort of bowel movement that inevitably gets all over your fingers when you stoop to pick it up. The good news is that I keep a packet of baby wipes in my dog walking bag to deal with just this sort of eventuality; the bad news is that I remembered when I started rummaging for it that I had transferred it to the other, larger bag we had taken to the beach with us at the weekend.

In the evening he adopted a new and perhaps even more fiendish strategy to get his own back. You will no doubt be familiar with those deluded old ladies who say of their pets “He understands every word I say”. Well, I am pretty damn sure that The Dog grasped my parting comment to Mrs H that I had precisely 40 minutes to complete our usual 40 minute walk and be back in time for Coronation Street, because he stopped to sniff long and hard at what seemed like every gatepost, telegraph pole, bush and blade of grass. Every now and then, as I tried to hurry him along, he gave me a long, slow, knowing look that seemed to say “This will learn you.”

I did make it back, just, but my nerves were shattered and I was reduced to spending the rest of the evening slumped in front of the television, drinking white wine and shouting at the idiots at the BBC for filling a prime time slot with yet another dirt cheap reality show, this one about the lifeboats and air-sea rescue services of the South West, when they could have invested my licence money in something that would have given employment to writers and actors and possibly, just possibly, made me laugh. Though in fairness they did accomplish that later with the first of their new series of Dragons’ Den, kicking off with a hilarious, stammering nutcase touting a series of apparently barmy inventions including a pedal-powered hang-glider and a wind turbine disguised as a chimney pot. With the totally unexpected punchline that he actually got the money he was looking for. There is surely hope for us all yet. I think I even detected the hint of a smile from The Dog.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Farewell, Facebook

14st 13lb, 4.4 units. I did two uncharacteristically grown-up things today. First I rang my bank manager and arranged a sizeable overdraft facility, for the first time in many years, so that I would have some means of paying for Mrs H’s new car. On the strength of this I drove around to our unfriendly local Audi dealer and dropped off the cheque that they insisted on having a full week in advance of handing over the vehicle. I thought fondly of how every garage I have ever dealt with in the North East has been content to accept a personal cheque immediately before I drove off in my new car, though admittedly they do have the advantage of knowing who I am and where I live.

Secondly, and more importantly, I found out how to remove myself from Facebook. I had worked out that this must be possible mainly from the fact that the number of “Friends” noted on my “Profile” kept going down, and this proved to be because they no longer existed in Facebookland rather than because they had quite reasonably decided that keeping in touch with me was both futile and depressing. The last straws were noticing that one of my so-called “Friends” had yet again deleted my witty (as I thought) contribution to one of their “threads” rather than bothering to reply to it, and receiving a long lecture from one of Mrs H’s friends about how I needed to put my wife and child first when considering my preferences on housing. A fair point, but I don’t particularly want to read it on a “social networking site”. And in truth the majority of my “Friends” were really friends of Mrs H, who is a much more appropriate age for this sort of thing, but quite rightly refuses to squander her own precious time by joining it.

Having eliminated one major time-wasting activity from my life at a stroke, I seriously considered getting rid of an even bigger one by deleting this blog, but Mrs H successfully pleaded with me not to do so. After all, it did bring us together and she is probably the only person in the world who regularly laughs aloud while reading it, so I concluded that the least I could do (always what I aim for) was to accede to her request.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The cold digit of fate

14st 13½ lb, 4.0 units. After a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep I set off for an 8.30 appointment with my doctor, aiming to check out a few of those characteristically old mannish symptoms I have been suffering of late. Anyone who has ever had his prostate gland examined will understand me when I say that this did not make for the best possible start to the day for either of us. But I made an interesting discovery. Apparently the PSA blood test that is the best indicator of prostate cancer cannot be performed after a rectal examination, or if the patient has had sexual intercourse during the previous 48 hours. A Clinton-like exploration of what exactly my doctor meant by “sexual intercourse” produced the blunt correction “I should have asked whether you have ejaculated”, clearly not meaning an outburst of “I say!” on reading about Gordon Brown’s latest outrage on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

A little later I had an appointment with the practice nurse for a routine blood pressure check and blood tests for cholesterol, glucose and the like. I shared my new-found knowledge with her and she said “Well I never knew that, and I’ve been taking blood for PSA tests for years.” Then she blushed slightly as it dawned on her that “Now I’m going to have ask people before I take them.” Someone else’s day ruined, and it wasn’t even 9.15 yet.

Late this afternoon we drove back to Cheshire. I had decided to avoid Newcastle by taking the scenic cross-country route through Thropton, Elsdon and Otterburn to the A68. Only, when we got there, we were greeted by a yellow sign reading “A68 south closed” and suggesting a diversion that began by heading north. This was so counter-intuitive that I just followed my instinct and headed straight on to Bellingham, which eventually brought us to Chollerford via Wark. Despite this diversion down unfamiliar roads we reached Chester on schedule, with my morale boosted by a decisive 18-5 victory in the Stobbo/Nobbo lorry spotting game with which we enlivened the journey. My hope is that this process of dumbing down on our side, and clueing up by The Baby, will lead to a perfect meeting of minds when he is about three. Though, of course, extrapolation of the curves suggests that he will regard us as a pair of utterly contemptible morons by the time he is six, at the very latest.

We had pre-ordered chicken kebabs from the local Iranian takeaway for supper, after which I caught a glimpse of one of our younger and more attractive neighbours standing naked in her bedroom window as I took The Dog for a final walk. Life, I reflected, really does not get much better than this.

Monday 13 July 2009

The inexorably falling stepladders of doom

15st 2lb, 7.0 units. Despite feeling absolutely awful after a night wracked by indigestion, I was at least still fired up with enough passion about my experiences of Saturday to dash off a newspaper column on the subject without the slightest of difficulty.

There then ensued a ludicrous interlude in which I had to enlist Mrs H’s help to move a heavy geriatric’s electric reclining chair out of the sitting room and into the back of my car. This state-of-the-art aid for the crippled had been purchased by my late uncle when he was in the final throes of Parkinson’s disease, and I had taken it off my aunt’s hands when she said that it depressed her having it around. Despite periodic ridicule from visitors for possessing such a thing, I found it the most comfortable reading chair I have ever possessed. My other chairs all lack the right degree of lumbar support and, whenever I adopt the alternative strategy of lying down on the sofa to read, I invariably fall asleep. Still, the fact that I have only had time to read one book since I met Mrs H (as she then wasn’t) in April last year meant that its undoubted value for this purpose did not seem to count for much when weighed against the fact that my aunt has an ankle injury and has been enjoined to keep her leg up at all times, in which the chair would be of the greatest help to her if she ever actually bothered to sit down. So I concluded last night that she should have it back.

Being a prudent sort of chap, I had naturally measured both the chair and the car before we started, to ensure that the former would fit into the latter. And my tape measure said it definitely would. So I was more than a little miffed when we finally heaved it up onto the tailgate and it wouldn’t go any further. Particularly considering that the sky was already black above the Cheviots and an almighty clap of thunder had just sounded over Ingram, or somewhere else reasonably nearby.

Did I panic? No, I switched on my brain and reflected that it was an electric chair, and so capable of adjustment with the aid of its own motor if only I could supply a suitable power source. So I raced out to the smithy for my extension cable, swiftly yanking it free from some obstacle or other which proved to be an aluminium stepladder propped against the end of an old wardrobe. As I did so, I heard the distinctive sound of an aluminium stepladder bouncing several times along the blue metallic wing of the hitherto pristine Vauxhall Astra convertible which I keep parked in the smithy, and which I had arranged to trade in against a new car for Mrs H. Luckily I did not have time to do a traditional dance of fury before the rain arrived, so just got on with adjusting the chair and closing the back of the car before the heavens opened.

After we had delivered the chair, we called upon some friends for tea. Serendipitously he is also an old git with a much younger partner and a baby, albeit some 5½ months older than ours.

Old gits comparing babies;
or babies comparing old gits?

The highlight for me was the discussion about resemblances, with mother saying that the baby definitely had her father’s forehead, and father adding that she also had his sense of humour. To which mother retorted swiftly “What? None?” Definitely the best line of the afternoon.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Serving myself right

14st 13lb, probably (I did not remember to weigh myself until after breakfast, and by then I was 15st 0lb); 5.0 units. After a leisurely morning Mrs H and I drove into Alnwick and went on a trolley dash around Sainsbury’s to assemble the ingredients for the family supper we had promised to supply this evening. Though it has to be admitted that the actual “dash” element was somewhat constrained by the fact that I could see neither over nor around The Baby in his car seat, balanced on a special rack on top of our trolley. For the first time ever I actually visited the deli counter (mainly because there wasn’t a long queue, for once) and we went rather mad buying various pots of various little delicacies like roasted aubergines and courgettes, along with olives, cooked ham, roast beef and some excellent chicken and pork pie. Then there were pizzas, quiches, a roast chicken, Scotch eggs, salads, dips … it was like the menu for one of Billy Bunter’s midnight feasts at Greyfriars. All in all we thoroughly overdid it, entirely at my instigation and over the protests of the ever-sensible Mrs H, and it seemed particularly unfair that it was she who ended up forking out a completely ludicrous amount on her debit card before we struggled to push our overloaded trolley out of the store.

There were rather more cars parked outside than I had expected when we arrived at my aunt’s house in Morpeth, where the aforementioned family supper was scheduled to take place, and I parked very close indeed to the Ford at the rear so as not to block her next door neighbour’s drive. As ever, my car lurched forward a little when parked on a slope, after I had released its foot brake, and it ended up no more than an inch from the Ford’s rear bumper. Just my luck that it should turn out to belong to my elder brother, who turned out to have been watching the manoeuvre intently.

Still, as I pointed out, it could have been a lot worse, though 1.5 inches worse would still have done it nicely.

After this unpromising start we had a very enjoyable evening introducing The Baby to his second uncle, great aunt and numerous first and second cousins, at various degrees of removal.

Pass the sleeping parcel: The Baby with his second cousin ...

... great aunt ...

... and uncle.

I would speculate that there can’t be many babies with uncles ranging in age from 26 to 71, but I can sense that there must be someone out there poised to tell me that that is NOTHING. I woke in the early hours in an absolute agony of indigestion, entirely attributable to gross over-indulgence at the buffet I had personally selected. This clearly served me right.

Saturday 11 July 2009

House sales: the case against

15st 0lb, 3.0 units. I am a bit depressed about my weight. Can I blame it on the cheese after lunch yesterday, or the cake at teatime? Or maybe there is just an element of non-dehydration after an uncharacteristically alcohol-free evening at home? My mood was probably not improved by The Baby’s refusal to go to sleep after the second of his feeds in the middle of the night, even after I had him on my knee for the best part of an hour reading him a clear statement of his rights and responsibilities.

Still, all this was as nothing to the effect on my morale of having two groups of people view my house in the course of the morning. The first couple pitched up on the dot of 11, as arranged. “One of your lot!” I called excitedly to Mrs H as a spanking new Land Rover Discovery growled up to the back gate with an Asian bloke at the wheel. His wife proved to be a very PLU rah-rah-rah jolly-hockey-sticks English type, and they were accompanied by a shy daughter of four or five who made it clear that she did not like dogs much, and a French woman of 20 or so who was “just visiting from Paris”, presumably because they thought that someone in deeply rural Northumberland would not understand the words “au pair”. A further two-year-old boy was either left in the car with the engine and air conditioning running, or was a pure figment of their imaginations.

I gave them my most positive tour of the place, beginning with the magnificent views and the land, then the old forge I use as a garage, and concluding with the house proper. It turned out that they were particularly interested in knocking through from the upstairs bedrooms to the adjoining attics, as they did not want to have small children sleeping far away from their own room. A reasonable enough aspiration, and the wife’s face fell as though she had just made a clumsy lacrosse pass when I said that it would probably not be technically possible. Apparently my estate agent had given her precisely the opposite advice. I congratulated myself on yet another triumph of salesmanship by the most experienced PR practitioner in this and several neighbouring parishes. I tried to cheer her up by reporting that another viewer was due at 12 and was bringing a tame builder with him to advise on this very point, and no doubt my agent would be able to share his verdict with her.

I had The Baby on my knee in the conservatory when the front door bell rang some time after noon, prompting me to wonder what sort of idiot seeks entry to a house in rural Northumberland by going to the front door rather than coming round the back like everyone else. I soon found out. Enter a tall, thin, dark, balding man with a well-trimmed stubble beard, who was clutching a copy of the marketing brochure for the house and was joined shortly afterwards by his threatened builder, who at least had the sense to drive up the lane to the side of the premises.

Having expressed some mild suspicion about the nature of my arrangement with my neighbour about his vegetable plot on my land (“A licence???”) my visitor really hit his stride when we got indoors and he began asking the builder if he could deliver what was wanted: the kitchen and downstairs bathroom knocked into one large room, the ceiling raised and additional windows inserted into the north wall. The answer was “no problem”, though the scale of the work would be vast given that the two rooms are separated by a serious (but apparently not structural) stone wall.

We then progressed to the reception rooms, where the potential purchaser waved his arms around and said “I just wish I could see this place EMPTY!” i.e. without all this dreadful old junk cluttering it up. Needless to say this did not make me feel any warmer towards him. Upstairs we explored the other key question raised during his wife’s tour of the house with my agent last week, namely whether it would be possible to knock through from my bedroom to the adjoining attic to create another bathroom to replace the one she was intent on destroying downstairs. Once again the answer was “no problem”, though it would mean removing the fireplace and a fair chunk of the chimney breast; again “no problem” since the new occupants would need only one flue from the single fireplace they wished to retain on the ground floor. Given that they clearly do not much care for real fires, it seemed increasingly strange that his reaction to the gas stove in my garden room was “Would it be possible to convert that to a genuine log burner?”

My visitor helpfully pointed out that, unless one knocked through from the bedrooms, the attics would remain useless for anything but storage. “Unless,” I pointed out, “you wanted to have something like a model railway.” He repeated my words back to me with a sneer. When I asked whether his builder pal was confident of getting Listed Building Consent for his proposed alterations, he said that would be “no problem”, naturally. He said the same about replacing a redundant front door with an additional window. When I pointed out that this had been the one aspect of my original proposals refused Listed Building Consent when I bought the house in 1988, he sneered “It depends who you ask”, and I cannot swear that he did not tap his nose as he said it.

We then moved on to the old smithy to the rear of the house, and the builder swiftly concluded that it would be “no problem” to convert it into a “holiday let”, though sadly such details as the old forge and bellows would have to go. (“You could not keep that as a feature. That’s the size of some people’s bathrooms.”)

As we were mercifully concluding our conversation, I asked my visitor why he was so intent on enlarging the kitchen by undertaking such major structural work, when it would surely be easier and cheaper to expand it into the adjacent conservatory, perhaps enlarging this in the process. This is something I have often contemplated myself, since the one thing I feel the house lacks is a kitchen large enough to sit in by an Aga or similar, while the conservatory has the finest views in the house (indeed, I would argue, one of the very finest views in all England) and is consequently the room where I spend more time than anywhere else. My visitor stared at me blankly and said “Oh, that. We thought we’d knock that down and just build a porch.” When I drew his attention to the absolutely stunning view he sneered that they would be sure to bear that in mind.

By the time these two had left it was a toss-up as to which of them had captured the coveted title of the visitor I have most disliked during my 21¾ years in residence in my current home. Which is saying something, against the stiff competition offered by ex-girlfriends and their unwanted guests, double glazing salesmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses and canvassers for the Labour Party. The potential purchaser’s parting shot was to sneer “Been on the market since January, hasn’t it?” presumably as the opening salvo in case he should decide to submit an insultingly low offer. But by that stage I was utterly determined that I would refuse it, even if he made one at the full asking price.

The day just went on getting better when I drove into Alnwick to collect the dinner suit I had left at the dry cleaner’s on Thursday, only to be greeted with some cock and bull story about it not being ready as I had dropped it off only that morning. A ticket timed at 8.30 a.m. today was brandished before me, as though this would prompt me to remember that I had in fact driven into Alnwick first thing, rather than having a lie-in. It did not work.

The high point of a lousy day: Wife, Baby, Dog, beach

Fortunately a leisurely walk along the estuary and beach at Alnmouth, and an ice cream from the van in the car park, did something to restore my good humour and remind me why it would not be a good idea to relocate permanently to the North West, particularly at the cost of placing a rather charming listed house in the hands of determined wreckers. It would be like putting a vintage Bentley that one has spent two decades nurturing and polishing into the Government’s scrappage scheme.

Friday 10 July 2009

Dazed and confused

14st 13lb, 9.0 units. My radio alarm came on very loudly so I cheerfully removed my wax earplugs and said “I guess that will be 7 o’clock, then!” as I prepared to leap out of bed, but it proved to be only 2.08 a.m. Extensive enquiries failed to get to the bottom of this catastrophe, but I suspect that it was caused by Mrs H patting the wireless in a half-asleep attempt to bring its wind up. Naturally the racket started the baby crying, and Mrs H had to get up to feed him. Equally naturally, I failed to get back to sleep properly during the remainder of the night, finally giving up the attempt at 6.15 and going to sit in my conservatory with a cup of tea to contemplate The Future.

I am torn between a desire to do the best I can financially for my wife and child, and a selfish reluctance to return to the sort of job I never particularly liked. Particularly as this would almost certainly involve relocating from my house in Northumberland, with its matchless views. How likely is it that I could ever find anything to compare with it in the North West? Here we could keep chickens, grow vegetables, and I could write books. I have to acknowledge that this is theoretically what I should have been doing for the last five years, and have done sod all about it, but it remains an alluring if almost certainly unremunerative possibility.

I went for a business meeting in Newcastle this morning and was pleased to get through it without, I believe, making a complete tit of myself, given that I was suffering from a pretty high level of sleep deprivation. This caught up with me when I got home, and I devoted the rest of the day to looking and feeling exhausted. A condition beautifully captured on camera by the friend who called at teatime to inspect The Baby, bearing generous gifts.

The Baby asleep, with parents clearly wishing they were, too

The friend seemed touchingly impressed that the proprietor of the local toyshop had known who I was, when she called there to buy a teddy bear, and reassured that this was because he was a regular reader of my newspaper column rather than because he had spotted me hanging around on the pavement outside, behaving suspiciously.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Varying encounters with the over-80s

14st 12lb, 6.0 units. It comes to something when you find yourself really enjoying sitting in a car showroom, drinking instant coffee while waiting for a new air intake to be fitted to your vehicle following a “safety recall”. But the resulting hour of peace and quiet reading the newspapers this morning struck me as positively blissful.

Today’s Northumberland Gazette induced a strong sense of déjà-vu, since for the second time in less than a month its front page was devoted to the death of a local 17-year-old in a horrific car crash. As always, the victim was the very best of his generation. Encouraging on one level, since the impossibility of writing anything comparably nice about me should guarantee that I die peacefully in my bed when I am about 110. On the other hand, while there could be no doubting the sincerity of his friends’ many tributes, I was distinctly discouraged by their illiteracy. Even making allowance for the fact that many of them were written in “textspeak”, I do think they should have grasped by their age that the first person singular is “I” not “a”. Memo to self: ensure that The Baby never has to rely on an Alnwick state school for his education. That distant rumble was probably not the ugly wind turbines on the nearby DEFRA building, as I had assumed, but my mother (a proud product of the now abolished Duchess’s Grammar School for Girls) revolving in her grave.

After doing some shopping, I was able to make only a flying visit home for lunch, for which Mrs H kindly made me a quick sandwich. Here I made the curious discovery, after knowing her for more than a year, that my wife only butters one of the two slices of bread involved in making a sandwich. How very odd.

This afternoon I drove to Gosforth for a haircut. I knew that my 84-year-old aunt had an appointment in the same salon before mine, as I had been volunteered to give her a lift home afterwards, she being temporarily unable to drive her own car. I arrived, most uncharacteristically, a few minutes early, and was surprised to find her sitting in the reception area, resting her injured ankle on a chair. I then put my foot in it quite spectacularly by asking whether she was on her way in or out; apparently I was supposed to be able to tell that she had just had her hair beautifully styled. Memo to self (albeit a bit late in the day): must learn tact.

When I finally returned home we took The Baby to introduce him to my octogenarian neighbours, who duly pronounced him a “smasher” and crossed his little palm with silver (even though they are most definitely not gypsies). This is just the sort of reaction calculated to gladden the heart of parents everywhere, and an altogether more successful experience than my encounter with my similarly aged aunt.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

More than a bit of a bastard

14st 10lb, 4.0 units. Somehow I managed to sleep through Mrs H finally coming to bed at 1, and the two further milk-bearing excursions she made to the nursery (formerly my study) during the night. However, I was woken at one point by her making crying noises in her sleep that sounded exactly like The Baby, and at another by her attempting to burp me. I would perhaps have minded less about that if she had tried a bit of suckling first. Clearly night and day are merging into one, and we are all becoming mere bit players in the central drama of our child’s requirements for nourishment and entertainment.

I surprised myself this morning by being polite to one of Mrs H’s friends who turned up unexpectedly on the doorstep holding a carrier bag containing a gift for The Baby. Though not, perhaps, as much as I surprised the visitor and Mrs H. My good mood persisted until I found myself in an unusually long lunchtime queue in the local sandwich shop behind a builder type and a couple of young women of the borderline scratter class. Another builder type then came in, followed by a third who noisily assaulted the second one in a way I found shocking and offensive, but everyone else seemed to consider a rollicking good lark. Clearly I am out of tune with this locality, which made it handy that I was only buying the sandwiches to provide us with a quick intake of fuel before we set off for Northumberland. It seemed to take forever to load the car with a mountain of Baby-related crap, but we eventually made it onto the road a touch before mid-afternoon.

I was tired by the time we set off, the M62 proved to be closed for some undefined reason, and I was troubled by twinges of a stabbing pain in my knee that I recognized from the dim and distant past. My private GP in London had referred me, rather comically, to a specialist sports injury clinic in Harley Street, where they came up with the depressing diagnosis that my problem was cartilage trouble caused by my legs not being exactly straight, or of equal length, or something of the sort. I forget exactly which, though I do remember them telling me that I should be wearing specially made shoes, and giving me build-up things to wear inside my existing ones when I explained that handmade shoes from John Lobb were sadly a bit beyond me (£2,400 plus VAT for a pair of leather brogues now, according to their website). They also gave me deep heat treatment and prescribed a programme of exercise, which resulted in the pain finally going away. Naturally I was supposed to keep up the shoe inserts and exercises to prevent a recurrence, and equally naturally I did no such thing.

Thus I now found myself tired, frustrated and in increasing pain, with the ticking time-bomb of a Baby that was about to scream its head off lolling in a safety seat in the back of the car. What was a chap to do but reduce his lovely young wife to tears by banging on about his misery, and the possibilities of divorce? So by the time we had done about 20 miles on the M6 I was tired, frustrated and in increasing pain, with the added bonus of feeling like a total bastard.

Still, we reached home in time for Coronation Street despite an unscheduled additional stop for a Baby feed and nappy change in a singularly unprepossessing picnic area off the A69, and found a bottle of chilled pink champagne waiting in the fridge to celebrate The Baby’s safe arrival in God’s own country and the land of his forefathers. So, as so often in life, things could have been a great deal worse.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

My Giant Dick

14st 9lb, 6.0 units. The last few days have been characterized by bouts of really intense, agonizing indigestion, followed by periods of curative self-restraint that lead, inevitably, to celebratory binges resulting in a further bout of … well, you get the picture. I think it’s what might be described as a cycle of self-destruction.

Bring it on.

I received a number of e-mails about my NHS column this morning. Well, four to be precise, that being indisputably a number. Three of them wholeheartedly agreed with me, citing ample supporting detail about their own or their loved ones’ less than satisfactory experiences of the NHS, while the fourth took precisely the opposite view. Naturally this one came from a socialist multi-millionaire, who claimed that the principal NHS hospitals in the North East are “all efficiently run, very clean and friendly, and the consultants’ spaces in the car park are always full”. (Well, there was never anywhere to park the sodding car in Chester, either, but I don’t think that proved anything.)

Anticipating an accusation of hypocrisy, because I knew that he had paid to have his daughter delivered privately earlier in the year, he swiftly pointed out that this was “in an NHS hospital, which was genuinely excellent in every respect (apart from the food)”, apparently making it compatible with his principles. Hmmm. I discussed these comments later with someone else who agreed with me, having recently lost her mother. She wondered whether anyone who spoke so highly of the NHS had ever experienced watching someone they loved dying in its care. I wonder too.

As we were sitting on the sofa with The Baby this evening, Mrs H turned to me and asked “What do you think he will be when he grows up?” Before I could even open my mouth, she immediately added “Don’t say a porn star, a paedophile or a murderer. Say something nice, like normal people would.” This was a bit of blow, as it ruled out my top three choices at a single stroke. So I felt obliged to mutter something about his strikingly good looks making him a natural for the flicks, then had to pretend that his first starring role in a film called My Giant Dick would involve playing a young man whose best friend was a big, friendly giant called Richard.

Monday 6 July 2009

The desperation of the long distance columnist

14st 10lb, 7.4 units. After filing over 160 weekly columns for my local newspaper, and a further 50 monthly ones for its business pages, I have become desperate enough to consider taking requests. So when someone who plays a major role in making my continued existence financially possible said “Why don’t you write about the NHS?” it seemed churlish to refuse. Particularly considering that I had been burning people’s ears about my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the service ever since The Baby was born.

Having lived for most of my life in a Labour heartland in which it is generally accepted that the National Health Service is the finest creation in British history, staffed exclusively by “angels” and let down only by the failure of Government to pour yet more money down its bottomless pit, I naturally had to restrain myself from writing what I actually think. In particular, I took care to avoid any references to the comical obesity of such a high proportion of the support staff in what purports to be a “health” service, or to their careless and uncaring natures. I certainly did not suggest that they should all be sacked immediately, and redeployed to the sort of ancient, unhygienic burger vans where they would clearly feel more at home, while all the NHS hospitals in the country were bulldozed and their sites sown with salt.

Dear me, no, that would have been a catastrophic mistake, mainly because it could well have resulted in my house being burnt down, with me and the family inside it, whereas the relatively mild version I filed (see http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/07/daring-to-be-rude-about-nhs.html) should lead to no more than a few windows being "put through", as they say in the North East.

(Memo to Theresa May: if you truly believe that the Tories are "the nasty party", may I respectfully suggest that you have not spent nearly enough time in the company of Labour party members in Northumberland and, more particularly, Durham).

I mentioned in the piece that the only other institution which seems to be exempt from the prevailing culture of systematic disrespect is the Muslim religion. Let’s just hope, from the viewpoint of my personal Elfin Safety, that next week’s client request is not for a column about why Islam is Bad and Wrong.

I relaxed this evening by eating a delicious salad while watching David Platt go mad on Coronation Street and pelt his love rival Jason “Two Planks” Grimshaw with various plumbers’ requisites and bricks. If only real life could be as satisfyingly dramatic as this. But after having half watched one of those “real crimes” documentaries about an ‘orrible murder in Southampton, and applied slightly more focus to the ten o’clock news, I took The Dog for a walk near my temporary quarters in Chester and found all peaceful and quiet, apart from the church clock striking 11. The local garage, the Chinese takeaway and even the pub were all dark and closed. Only a pair of scratters on duty outside the filling station, with a pit bull terrier on a chain, added a promising note of menace, but our passing failed to provoke them from their torpor. Perhaps, like the guards outside Buckingham Palace, they have been trained to ignore disobliging looks or comments from passers-by.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Reckless greed and inexcusable rudeness, just as usual

14st 10lb, 6.0 units. Wax earplugs may be the way forward, as I claimed the other day, but they did not prevent me from being disturbed every three hours last night, as Mrs H heaved herself out of bed to attend to The Baby, and half an hour afterwards as she clambered back. My inability to sleep through this might have had something to do with the fact that I was suffering from the worst indigestion I have experienced in months, despite having eaten nothing more exotic than a ham sandwich for supper. Then, as God’s pièce de resistance in a thoroughly unrefreshing night, he plunged me into a series of vivid dreams about my long-dead mother, for which I could detect no reason at all, let alone a rhyme. I wished I had chosen a cheese sandwich the previous evening, which would at least have given me something to blame.

I did my celebrated impression of an anti-social twat when some friends of Mrs H’s called to deliver a present for The Baby, threatening to interrupt my vital ironing and weekly catch-up with The Archers. Then we went to lunch at Mrs H’s parents, and I ate too much in the way that a greedy bloke can be expected to do when presented with a fine spread, even if he has just recovered from truly appalling indigestion and can be almost certain of plunging himself into a further bout of it if he over-eats. Which, of course, I did. Good news for shareholders in the company that manufactures Rennies, perhaps, but certainly not for me.

Saturday 4 July 2009

Recession, what recession?

14st 10lb, 2.2 units. Mrs H has been trapped in the house and its immediate environs since the birth of our son, because apparently you can’t get either a buggy or a baby car seat into a Mini Cooper convertible. True, at least this allows me to keep track of her without going to the expense of buying one of those electronic tags awarded to lucky ASBO winners, but even I could see that it was making her life unnecessarily constrained. More to the point, it meant that only I could get out to do the shopping. Clearly action was required, so this morning we set off for a couple of car dealerships to try to acquire something more suitable.

I have never felt the urge to own a German car, perhaps because of the way they treated my father during the war (viz shooting at him, admittedly not terribly accurately, as my birth in 1954 attests). But then absolutely every Jewish friend of mine drives a Mercedes, apart from the one who races around in a Porsche, so who am I to be bearing a grudge? Mrs H quite fancied an Audi A3, because she had owned one before the Mini and liked it, while What Car told me that I should be fancying a Golf or a BMW 3-series, though Mrs H ruled the last option out on the simple grounds that “all BMW drivers are twats”.

So we went to the VW showroom first, on the scientific grounds that it was nearer, and quickly established that there was no way we could ever fit a buggy into the tiny boot of the Eos convertible, which I rather fancied. We then looked Golfs, which I fancied as little as I had done when people started telling me that they were the car I must have back in the 1980s. Despite the alleged recession, the place was heaving with customers and a woman asked if we would like to be added to the “waiting list” to see a sales person. We agreed, intending to while away the time reading some glossy brochures, then discovered that these had all been removed from display, presumably because of local scratters stealing them for kindling. That left us with nothing to do apart from talk to each other and the baby, so we sneaked off and drove to the local Audi dealership, where at least a young man in snakeskin shoes was prepared to talk to us. With his help, we quickly established that the A3 cabriolet was pretty impracticable, albeit less so than the Eos, and that what we needed was a four-door hatchback.

I made the mistake of nipping to the gents for a couple of minutes and when I came back Mrs H was sitting at a computer with the salesman, drawing up the detailed specification of all the extras she would like on her brand new car. Luckily we were saved when the young man asked us when we needed the vehicle and we said “now”, since it turns out that the order book for A3s is full until October.

For the second time this morning, I found myself wondering whatever happened to that terrible recession I keep reading about.

We then started looking at second hand models on the internet, but the only one that ticked most of our boxes proved to have been sold about an hour ago, by a dealer who noted ruefully that it had been on the system for 65 days before that, without attracting any interest at all. Eventually our thoughts turned to a rather grubby example that had been brought in to the dealership as a trade-in earlier that day. It was only a year old, yet with nearly 19,000 miles on the clock. So probably not owned by an elderly retired spinster schoolteacher, then, as we would have preferred. Mrs H also did not fancy it because it was a 2.0 litre turbo and “I have never driven a car with an engine that big.” The salesman and I exchanged “Will you tell her or shall I?” looks, after which I pointed out that my car outside, which she drives happily enough, has a 3.5 litre engine. So once the dealer had made an acceptable trade-in offer for the Mini, I shook hands and agreed to buy the thing.

The only snag was that I am so used to owning cars and just about everything else outright that I had completely forgotten that Mrs H’s Mini is subject to a leasing agreement and comes with “negative equity”. So when I cheerily signed up to pay a sum I could just about afford, at an extreme stretch, I was completely overlooking the further £13,000-odd I will need to repay on her original car. This, when it finally dawned upon me, was rather crushingly depressing. I wondered how I had come to marry an accountant who failed to point this sort of thing out to her financially illiterate husband, then remembered that there was a newish car in it for her, which explained a lot.

Still, Mrs H decided that we needed to celebrate and took me out for a late lunch, hanging all expense and directing us to a nearby Burger King. I was served by spotty, 16-year-old product of the splendid State school system, who managed to address me as “mate” at least four times in the course of our routine transaction. Normally this would evoke a robust response, in which I would explain that I was neither his friend nor his sexual partner, with a few additional thoughts on the respect due to customers and my reasons for taking my business elsewhere. But on this occasion we were both starving, and I decided to let it go. Always a mistake, I feel, with the benefit of hindsight. Like agreeing to buy a car you can’t afford simply because you are bored and hungry.

Friday 3 July 2009

A big fan of wax earplugs

14st 10lb, 4.4 units. Wax earplugs are definitely the way forward. Their successful deployment overnight made for an altogether better start to the day than I enjoyed yesterday. But then that provides an exceptionally low base for comparison, since I began Thursday by walking into the utility room and squelching straight into a huge woopsie (© Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, 1973) right in the middle of the floor, some distance from the cat’s litter tray.

I gave what would be described in nature documentaries as a distress call, and described in vivid detail to Mrs H what her cat had done. (It is always her cat / son when anything goes wrong with either of them, though they are naturally ours if they do anything particularly cute. Not that the cat has ever managed that, come to think of it, or seems likely to do so. It’s the same sort of principle by which Andy Murray will be a great British hero in the unlikely event that he wins at Wimbledon this afternoon, but a useless Scotch berk when he loses.)

I asked, theatrically, whether there could possibly have been a worse start to the day, and Mrs H enquired whether I was wearing my slippers at the time, which I was. She then pointed out that it would have been considerably worse if I had been barefoot. With the utmost reluctance, I felt compelled to concede the point, which did nothing to improve my mood.

The worst thing that happened to me this morning, by contrast, was nearly falling over in a heap on the floor when I brought the dog back from his early morning walk, since our friendly local handyman had sent round one of his operatives while I was out to ease off the front door, which has been so stiff ever since it was installed late last year that it only opened when shoulder-charged from the far end of the front path. Mrs H was finding this incompatible with pushing a buggy. Fair enough, though it does make it imperative that we move before the onset of a winter, when there will now doubtless be a howling gale blowing through the door at every edge.

I took a routine press call for a client this morning, for the first time in years. Someone from a local paper wanted to know if there was any truth in the rumour that the client was in advanced talks about buying a former Woolworths store in Ormskirk. I bothered a busy man to check the facts before ringing back with the stock response about not commenting on rumours that I should have remembered to give at the outset, if only my PR skills weren't so rusty.

"OK," said the journalist. "How about the same rumour in Southport, then?"

Luckily I remembered in the nick of time that it is considered the height of bad manners for a PR man to call anyone in the media a twat, at least until he has put the phone down.

The improvement over yesterday in the quality of the morning was mirrored in the evening, mainly because it was considerably cooler. This could have been safely predicted because yesterday I called in at a DIY warehouse on the way home from the office, and bought a large fan in an attempt to make the house vaguely bearable. This took some time to assemble and then did not bloody work, as tradition demands, so I wasted most of the evening taking it to bits again and fiddling around with it. Eventually it sprang into life, with the exception of its remote control, which proved to be terminally knackered. The hot weather duly broke about 15 minutes later.

Thursday 2 July 2009

The sad demise of a national treasure

14st 9½lb, 7.0 units. So, farewell then, National Express East Coast and Mollie Sugden. I heard Lord Adonis intoning the death sentence on the much-unloved train operator on the Today programme yesterday morning, and reacted much as I had done to the long-awaited news of the demise of Sir Edward Heath; with a loud whoop of “Yes!” as I punched the air. Heath’s timing was rather better, though, as I recall, since that announcement came at a time of day when it seemed appropriate to crack open a magnum of Pol Roger and devote the rest of the afternoon and evening to unrestrained celebrations. Even I did not feel tempted to start drinking fizz before 8 a.m. Though I have always greatly admired the spirit of the Northern industrialist who, many years ago, boarded the early-morning Tees-Tyne Pullman at Darlington, and plonked himself down opposite me at my table for two. In those days, and I think it must have been under the aegis of dear old British Rail, the menu featured something called “The Champagne Breakfast”, which the captain of industry duly (and rather surprisingly) ordered. But when the steward approached with the champagne part of the deal, he was briskly waved away. “I don’t drink HALF bottles,” the slim man in the regrettably brown suit informed him decisively. And went on to consume a full bottle of champagne with his sausage, bacon, egg and black pudding, before getting off at King’s Cross looking like a man fortified for a hard day’s work. Or maybe just a very long and leisurely lunch. Respect, as Ali G liked to say.

I don’t think they did “The Champagne Breakfast” in the GNER years, let alone those of National Express. The epitaph on the latter will surely be “They did not clean the toilets”, since I have heard more complaints about that than anything else since they took over, including the greatly increased difficulty of finding cut-price tickets on the website, and the abolition of the traditional restaurant cars. Even before GNER lost the franchise as a result of bidding far too much to retain it, I was conscious that I was experiencing perhaps the very last hurrah of traditional, gracious train travel. Alighting from one of those elegant blue trains at Alnmouth on a summer Friday evening after having eaten a proper three course meal in a silver service restaurant car with a tablecloth, decent china plates, monogrammed cutlery and real glasses – all while hurtling through Lincolnshire at 125mph – is a memory that will stay with me forever. I am only sorry that my son will have to rely on my descriptions of it, rather than being able to experience it for himself.

It seemed incredible even at the time it was happening that GNER should have been replaced by an organization which had had the opportunity to study the reasons for the outgoing operator’s downfall, yet was stupid enough to bid even more than they had done for the privilege of sticking their horrid grey logo on the side of the nastily repainted trains. At least they will be missed by precisely no-one. I think it says everything that for most of the last year I have been able to choose whether to travel to London by National Express from my home in the North East, or by Virgin from my home in Chester. And have invariably chosen the latter, even though my views on the man I (and his own City advisers) know as The Bearded Git are scarcely printable even in the fairly relaxed context of a blog.

As for Mollie Sugden, what can I say except that she gave me far more pleasure than Michael Jackson ever did? And to raise the interesting question of how on earth she managed to escape the attention of the talent scouts for Last of the Summer Wine, who seem to have roped in every other geriatric “comic” actor and actress in the country. Perhaps she turned it down because she could not face pretending that she did not know Truly in the days when he was Captain Peacock.

I cracked a joke about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy (particularly when it rained, and her pussy could be relied upon to be dripping) at every single all-party meeting I attended at one of our leading merchant banks during an exceptionally long and hard-fought takeover battle during the late 1990s, just so that I could admire the seemly blush which this always brought to the cheeks of a young and pretty member of the legal team. Eventually one of the directors of the bank took me to one side and told me at some length about his company’s code of conduct on sexual harassment, which made this sort of behaviour completely unacceptable. At which I pointed out that it might indeed be completely unacceptable among the bank’s employees, but I would be interested to know exactly how the code came to apply to mere visitors like myself. I heard no more on the subject. R.I.P.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Last orders for the Scratters' Arms?

14st 12lb, zero units. I drove back to Chester feeling infinitely better for my time in Northumberland, which had been distinguished by unbroken sleep, abstinence and weight loss (which last two might, now I come to think of it, be in some way related). It turned out to be just as well that I was on a high, as I soon had to face some of the challenges presented by a city in the grip of a heatwave and a household troubled by a baby refusing to sleep with a stubbornness that he can only have inherited from his father.

There is a pub about two minutes’ walk from our house in Chester. Not at all a bad pub in theory, for a man of my tastes; it serves a very decent pint of real ale and keeps excellent pork scratchings, which I always consider the perfect accompaniment to beer. The only snag is that it is not exactly welcoming to those who are not already members of its little social circle. Eyebrows are raised if you sit down on one of the well-worn, padded benches, then someone comes across to have a “quiet word” that you are sitting in Emily’s place, and she always comes in around now. So you budge along, only to be told that that is where Emily’s dog always lies, a fact you should probably have worked out from the quantity of canine hair now adhering to your trousers. So you sigh and pointedly move several feet further away, only to be told that Emily’s dog always lies there, too. Apparently it is a very long dog.

So you then get up and sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor, defying someone to find a reason why that will not do; and they inevitably come and have a “quiet word” that that is precisely the spot where Old Ted has been parking his wheelchair every night for the last ten years. At which point you finally take the hint and f*** off.

It’s a shame, really. I love pubs, me. And it’s so convenient too. At our house in Northumberland, by contrast, the nearest pub is five miles away, rarely open when you might want it to be, and always full of all the people in the area you would rather not see when it is. It does a very decent pint, though, pork scratchings (albeit inferior to those in Chester) and perfectly good food. The only snag with eating and drinking there being that five mile journey home afterwards. I have always been too nervous to embrace the traditionally robust approach of the Northumberland country dweller to the drinking and driving laws. Perfectly illustrated for me by a now sadly deceased friend of my father called Basil Trail, who latterly lived in a small house in the fishing village of Craster, poetically named “Beggars’ Roost”, and was a regular at the Jolly Fisherman Inn. The distance between the two cannot have been more than 200 yards, yet Basil’s yellow 1970s Rolls Royce was a daily fixture in the pub car park. I once asked him why he did not enjoy the pleasant walk around the harbour instead, and he replied “Because I’ll be too pissed to walk back.”

Incidentally, the Rolls Royce bore the splendid number plate BT 1, which must have been worth many times the value of the car; and this mismatch must surely have increased still further in Basil’s final years, when the plate was transferred to a modest, grey (or perhaps silver) Rover Sterling.

While we are on the subject, for many years Basil used to take one of his ex-wives out to lunch on a Saturday, to the country pub nearest the cottage I called home in the mid-1980s, and which I regularly revisited for its exceptional food long after I had moved away. One day he arrived in a distinctly gloomy mood, because his doctor had told him to cut back on his alcohol intake, and suggested that he should be consuming no more than seven whiskies. After he had downed seven doubles with his lunch, Ray the landlord queried whether the doctor might conceivably have been referring to single measures, a notion which was quickly dismissed as being completely ludicrous. Ray then asked Basil how he intended to get through the evening, given that he had just demolished his entire ration. Basil blanched. “You don’t think he meant seven whiskies per day, do you? I assumed he meant per session.”

This was also the pub where a regular famously told a police officer in Alnwick, who queried whether he might have been every so slightly under the influence: “Divvent talk to me about drinking and driving, sonny. I’ve been drinking and driving since ye were in nappies!”

I would have given much to have heard that read out solemnly in court from a notebook when his case came up.

But I am thoroughly digressing from my story about the Chester pub, which we will call the Scratters’ Arms [not its real name]. Since the introduction of the brilliant smoking ban, most of its clientele (with the possible exception of Old Ted, Emily and her dog) have taken to congregating on the pavement outside, rather than in the lounge or bar. Particularly during periods of clement weather. It has never been a major issue for us, since we sleep at the back of the house. But now we have The Baby in a nursery at the front, with the window open because of the current heatwave. The Baby is having difficulty sleeping anyway because of the temperature; our marvellous new BT baby monitor went out of the window on the first night he was home because it kept giving us an all too audible warning that his room was too hot. Now, whenever Mrs H finally settles him down to sleep at night, one of the pub’s clientele produces a gale of laughter by telling the one about the gipsy and the donkey, or by letting off a particularly praiseworthy fart, and the noise wakes him up again. This goes on until well after midnight each evening.

As a result, Mrs H finally reached boiling point tonight and has resolved to compose a venomous letter to the council suggesting that the Scratters’ Arms must surely be in breach of the terms of its licence, and should be closed down forthwith. Strange to think that, if only they had been just a little more welcoming, I might have felt duty bound to say a word on two in their defence.