Thursday 31 December 2009

Return to Scratterville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to turn the page to 2010, I think.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Idle dreams of X-ray specs

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Sinister and coma-inducing

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

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

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

Monday 28 December 2009

The camel diddler with the exploding suppository

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Clarkson shows off (hands off wheel)

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

Baby gym or dog gym? Views in our house differ

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 7 December 2009

A he-man at last, and another Big C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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