Saturday, 25 April 2009

From cat hunting to smelting gypsies

14st 10lb, sod it, 2.2 units. Yes, I did have a massive lunch yesterday but I also walked for the best part of three hours, putting together my efforts to exercise the dog and my longish hike to the vet and antique shops. Sometimes (well, quite often, if we are honest) I am reduced to clichés: it’s just not fair.

The highlight of my morning was watching Mrs H, 6½ months pregnant, lying flat out on the bedroom floor unsuccessfully attempting to extricate her cat from underneath the bed. I know what you’re thinking. But, you see, it’s not my cat. And therefore, apparently, my chances of catching her (the cat, that is, not Mrs H, whom I have clearly caught already) would be as close to nil as makes no difference. Mrs H succeeded eventually, at no greater cost than completely sacrificing her dignity and getting covered from head to toe in fluff, and we took our pets to the cattery / kennels before catching a train to Crewe, then another to London, in the company of my mother-in-law. At Euston we were met by my elderly aunt and took a taxi to check into my club for the night, then went out for a ruinously expensive lunch as a suitable prelude to a ruinously expensive night at the opera. However, I had at least purchased the four stalls seats for Il Trovatore some months ago, and the passage of time had dulled the pain considerably.

Our journey to the Royal Opera House this evening was greatly enlivened by two things. First, our taxi driver drove up Floral Street, ignoring a large sign at the end of it reading “ROAD CLOSED: ACCESS ONLY”, then became noisily aggrieved when he found himself at a dead end. This amused me a little, though nothing like as much as Mrs H’s insight when my aunt tactfully explained that I was not invited to my cousin’s wedding party next Saturday. “Never mind, darling,” said Mrs H, “it’s probably for family only. Oh, you ARE family, aren’t you?”

Il Trovatore is by no means my favourite Verdi opera, and I disliked the Royal Opera’s current production so much on a first viewing that I had never been back. I booked this time for complex reasons too tedious to explain here, which is saying something, but although they were originally intended for quite another purpose the tickets seemed like an ideal way to say “thank you” to the two ladies who had done more than anyone else to make our wedding such a popular success. The anvil chorus, in particular, still seemed to me to be a massive wasted opportunity, with 80% of the stage taken up by huge blast furnaces (huh?), and the gypsies huddled at the front implausibly pouring molten metal into moulds with not an anvil in sight. You would have thought the title of the chorus might have provided some small clue as to what was intended. However, there was no doubt that in Sondra Radvanovsky (an American, despite the name) they had found themselves a truly fabulous Leonora; while the silver fox Dmitri Hvorostovky was brilliant as Count di Luna. A large glass of red wine at the interval lifted the vaguely jaded feeling I had endured throughout the first half, and I thoroughly enjoyed the remainder of the performance. I suspect that the entire audience must have experienced something remarkably similar, as appreciation seemed to soar with Radvanovsky, Hvorostovky and even the overrated Roberto Alagna (as Manrico) receiving prolonged ovations at the final curtain. All in all, a good night out. Which, at Covent Garden’s prices, it bloody well ought to be.

Friday, 24 April 2009

From crash to crack, via Scratter Heaven

14st 9½lb, 4.5 units. We were rudely woken at 3 a.m. by a huge crash from downstairs, as the cat succeeded in breaking out of her new sleeping quarters in the utility room. It is remarkable how much determination such a small creature can display, and how much noise it can make while doing so. Presumably we should consider this a valuable lesson prior to the arrival of our baby.

There was a letter from some bloke in Felling in this morning’s Journal, complaining that Monday’s columnist Tom Gutteridge is always writing about television (which is a bit like reading a weekly column by the Pope and whingeing that he keeps banging on about religion) while I was taken to task for having yet another go at Gordon Brown. Apparently this is getting “very, very, very dull”. Yes, that sounds like me, though the bathetic collapse of the Brown Prime Ministership was so entirely predictable that even I managed to predict it in print, and it would take a far stronger character than mine to refrain from occasionally saying “I told you so”.

After walking the dog I went to my favourite pub for a late lunch. Although it was only 2.15 the Scratters’ Academy had already packed in for the day and the streets were awash with fat, ugly, badly dressed and stupid-looking children. It would be enough to drive anyone to drink. Walking briskly to the vet’s after my meal, in the hope of buying some canine toothpaste, I found myself passing Wilkinsons, a shop I have never visited before. Spotting some washing powder in the window reminded me that we were nearly out of the stuff and so I stepped inside. I found myself in Scratter Heaven: a sort of badly organized and appallingly merchandized bazaar like the old Woolworths, only far, far worse. How this can prosper when Woolies failed is beyond me, but the place was busy, and I wrongly assumed that this could only be because it was very, very cheap. I bought several household items on that mistaken assumption. Later on, when Mrs H was visiting Tesco, I asked her to do some price comparisons and, amazingly enough, the country’s largest and most successful retailer turned out to be cheaper. Who would have thought it?

Escaping from this hell-hole, and hurriedly stuffing their carrier bag into my own holdall so that I would not be seen with it, I paid an unsuccessful visit to the vet’s then called at a series of antique shops in an attempt to fulfil Mrs H’s commission to track down an inexpensive but serviceable sideboard to accommodate at least some of our wedding presents, and some dining chairs. While these shops contained many lovely things, including several beautifully restored long case clocks and some covetable mahogany tables, their prices were massively out of our league. What I need to find is the antiques equivalent of Wilkinsons, which these days is probably a charity shop.

The search for new dining chairs gained further impetus this evening after one of Mrs H’s friends called to see her and expressed an overwhelming urge to buy a portion of chips from the shop on the corner to accompany her drink. As I may well have remarked before, this is Britain’s most generous chip shop, with a “small” portion priced at just £1 comprising five generous scoops of chips, or about enough to feed a family of four with glandular problems who have not eaten properly for a week. The ladies sat outside scoffing these while I was watching Coronation Street, then moved into the dining room to inspect our wedding album. As soon as Mrs H’s guest attempted to sit on one of the chairs its legs snapped off with a terrific crack. We surveyed the heap of matchwood on the floor and politely blamed the chips.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Class, ruthlessness and a step too far

14st 10lb, zero units. I have taken the radical step of recruiting a cleaner. Since I was a fledgling booted off my parents’ perch 37 years ago, I have nearly always done my own housework, mainly because my rather obsessive-compulsive nature means that it is quicker than spending hours looking for the things that any cleaner would inevitably move in the course of tidying up. Or, God forbid, throw away. I employed a cleaner for a while when I moved into my current house in Northumberland, at the behest of the woman who initially shared the place with me. But the only things said cleaner really put her back into were going through the fridge and kitchen cupboards chucking things out, which drove me half mad; and doing the ironing, which is the only domestic chore I really rather enjoy. How else is one to fill the time while one’s mind is focused on the weekly Archers Omnibus?

True, in my day, Cambridge colleges employed bedmakers who came around each day to do just that, but I don’t remember an awful lot of actual cleaning going on. My chief memory is of a Scottish lady called Margaret who would come to my rooms each morning, put her feet up and smoke my cigarettes while having a cruel laugh at such evident shortcomings as my continuing virginity.

Anyway, it’s a long time since I employed a cleaner. I could not face getting involved in anything as potentially demeaning to the recipient as creating a direct cash nexus, so I found (all right, Mrs H found) an agency and we signed them up. I have clearly swallowed enough BNP propaganda to assume that all domestic work these days was performed by East European immigrants, but in fact this outfit seems to specialize in PLU (People Like Us, do try to keep up) mothers who want to earn a bit of cash on the side and don’t much fancy the sex industry. The lady who turned up this morning was a nice, well-spoken dog- and cat-lover (which was handy) and she was joined for a while mid-morning by another lady in a smart black trouser suit who was distinctly more upmarket than I am (not that that is saying much). I naturally took her for some sort of supervisor, and was surprised to find her on her hands and knees shortly afterwards, energetically scrubbing my lavatory. And slightly ashamed too, if the truth be told. I don’t think I am cut out to be an employer of domestic staff.

In the late morning I went to sit outside to write some thank you cards while my study was being hoovered, and was gratified when a couple of young male inmates from the Scratters Academy arrived in the alley on the other side of the garden fence and noisily lit up fags; not by the fact of it, obviously, but by the way a single Jeeves-like cough from me led to them vanishing silently, as though they had never been. If only this could be a permanent rather than a temporary effect.

I could not think of a nicer way of passing St George’s Day than walking along the banks of the River Dee to Eccleston in the warm afternoon sunshine. As I admired the picturesque village my eye was caught by an old ruin behind the church, which proved to be a fragment of the previous building. This had been demolished in 1900, according to an almost illegible plaque by the gravelled plot where they had re-interred all the members of the Grosvenor family previously buried in its vault between 1599 and 1894. I wonder whether this rather ruthless approach to history (and, perhaps, to other things) is the key to the family’s success in holding onto and increasing their vast wealth? There were hints of it, too, in the modernistic tombstones favoured by some latter-day members of the family. One Duke of Westminster who died in the 1960s was commemorated by what looked like a long, black sword driven into the ground, with a vertical inscription down its blade. More than likely this was the same forward thinker who had the nearby family seat of Eaton Hall demolished and replaced by a more manageable modern house; a place allegedly so reminiscent of an airport terminal that the present Duke’s friend Johnny Hesketh presented him with a BA flag to fly over it, at least according to his most entertaining obituary in the Telegraph last year.


Drawn to ducal seats: not Alnwick, must be Eccleston

This evening Mrs H took me out to I thought was going to be a minor Cheshire stately home with the unlikely name of Cabbage Hall, but which proved to be just a pub. This was the venue for the pre-season Drinks Party of the Cheshire Polo Club. I am not sure I was a great social success, to put it mildly. Mrs H took me home after I was overheard in conversation with a building contractor friend of hers who claimed to have detected some similarities between my character and that of Josef Fritzl. I retaliated by saying that I could see little point in asking him to come around and excavate a cellar at this stage, given that the baby we are expecting is a boy, but that he should definitely watch this space. I think I might have gone one step too far.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Dreams and the nightmare of work

14st 10lb, 5.0 units. The most exciting feature of my life at present seems to be my dreams. Last night’s included the field outside my house in Northumberland being turned into a major construction site – by no means impossible these days, I suppose, given that Government and Opposition seem to be united in their crazed enthusiasm for turning our remaining unspoilt uplands into industrial sites filled with hopelessly inefficient and unreliable windmills. Though in this instance the work in question appeared to involve laying out a lovely new housing estate, which seems altogether less likely so far out in the middle of nowhere.

Then I was taking my dog for a walk in the country, and ran into a group of Americans who appeared to be lost. It had to be a dream because I cheerfully gave them some accurate and helpful directions, which is never likely to happen in real life. It was the same in the days when I was young enough to have nocturnal fantasies about sex; I always knew it was a dream when the woman involved seemed to be actually enjoying herself. The dog and I ended up walking through an apparently endless series of rooms in an old-fashioned pub or hotel, looking for a rear exit that would provide a useful short cut. And then finding, as one might have expected, that it did not actually exist. I took this for an allegory of some sort, though I could not decide whether it was warning me about constipation or the inadvisability of sexual perversion. No doubt time will tell.

This morning I somehow found myself drawn ineluctably into the Susan Boyle fan site on Facebook (which has over 1.5 million members) and wasted some time reading the almost endless stream of fatuous comments, interspersed with occasional vicious ones dwelling upon her physically peculiarities and gracelessly wishing her dead. There is clearly much to be said for not being a star, though the 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine on today’s Midweek sounded remarkably spry on it, and it presumably beats actually working for a living. Not that I can remember too much about that, though I fear it is something I am going to have to re-learn before I am too much older.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Did the earth move for poo?

14st 10lb, 4.0 units. Life just goes on getting better and better. Last night I helped Mrs H to make the final adjustments that were required to relocate the cat’s sleeping quarters from our double bed to a rather smaller but more appropriate cat bed in the utility room downstairs. This should enhance our chances of sleep in two ways: first, we will not have the cat walking over us in a nightly bid to secure her favoured sleeping position on top of Mrs H’s head; and, secondly, we will not be woken by an unbelievably foul smell in the early hours of the morning when the cat responds to her usual, ill-timed call of nature in the litter tray in our en-suite bathroom. The resulting miasma defies description; but you will probably get a reasonable idea of how bad it is when I say that the cat herself normally discovers an urgent need at this point to make her way downstairs and commune with the dog, whom she can’t stand.

It all worked according to plan until 5.30 a.m., when the cat evidently answered a call of nature in the litter tray in the utility room, and made frantically noisy attempts to escape from the consequences. If we had been in central Italy rather than Chester, I would have taken it for another earthquake. I half-heartedly endeavoured to suppress a wicked smile as I turned over and went back to sleep.

Mrs H and her original and protective nightcap

Meanwhile, urban life reached what seemed to be a new low point this lunchtime when I looked out of the window and saw three female teenagers from the Scratters’ Academy sitting in a circle on the ground, blocking the pavement opposite the house, with their feet in the gutter and a feast of chips spread out on papers before them. Such style, such elegance. It’s like living on the set of Slumdog Millionaire. They made a noisy exit after a bit, leaving the papers and a fair proportion of the chips behind them. I wonder what, if anything, they do teach them at that school?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Anti-social behaviour

14st 8lb, 5.0 units. So yesterday’s moderately vigorous exercise clearly worked, albeit at least 2lb of the difference is down to the fact that I have a kinder set of scales in Chester than in Northumberland.

I am sure it will make me feel better if I confess that this morning I did a dreadfully anti-social thing. We had an early appointment at the maternity unit and I strode into the hospital shop immediately after it had opened, and bought its one and only copy of the Daily Telegraph. I thus condemned the sole middle class patient in place to 24 hours of newsless misery. In fact, it could be worse than that; she might be a crossword addict. I only did it because I thought that we were going to be kept waiting for ages for our routine ante-natal appointment, but the good news was that we were shown almost straight in. The bad news was that after a couple of perfunctory checks by a nurse we were advised that there were “no consultants on the unit today” and left hanging around until a bloke turned up who might have been a doctor but could equally well have been a handyman or a passer-by who gets his kicks out of fondling pregnant women. He certainly did not seem any more well-informed than I am about Mrs H’s hereditary iron deficiency, to treat which he suggested that she might like to try taking an additional iron tablet every day if she felt like it, and stop it again if it caused any unwanted side-effects. This man is a grievous loss to the world of PR, where stating the bleeding obvious is a way of life, though he may have to do a bit more work on his English before sending in his CV. I only grasped what he was saying after Mrs H translated it for me.

After this I went out to support our local shops, as I always endeavour to do, spending over £14 each in both the butcher and the greengrocer. I could not help feeling that I got rather better value in the former (two lamb neck fillets, two pork steaks, a pound of ultra-lean mince, six slices of bacon and a quarter of cooked ham) than the latter (a few green things). The weather was so lovely that I was able to eat my lunch outdoors in Mrs H’s back yard, though the pleasure of doing so was mitigated by the Spring sunshine also bringing out the DIY enthusiast across the alleyway, who kept frenetically hammering long nails into timber. The words “Oh for f***’s sake” sprang to mind, and he must have heard them because shortly after I had uttered them he stopped the thing with the wood and turned instead to striking what sounded like a corrugated iron sheet with a lump hammer, presumably on the calculation that it would be even more annoying. In this he was 100% correct.

In the afternoon I drove to the cattery to collect the cat, vaguely wondering why its companion premises are not called a doggery, and called in at Tesco to pick up a recycling bin. I was charged £10 more for it at the till than I thought had been specified on the shelf price ticket, but these days I consider myself so senile that I don’t like to make a fuss about these things. Nevertheless it niggled enough for me to go back to check, and I found that I was correct. My subsequent conversation with the Customer Services person yielded not only the £10 I had been overcharged but an additional £10 compensation, making this my most profitable day’s work for some months. I wonder if there is a living to be made out of spotting retailers’ pricing errors?

Sunday, 19 April 2009

A cleaner for the corvids

14st 13lb, 7.5 units. I did not have the energy to stay awake yesterday evening, let alone to eat supper, which was at least helpful on the weight front. Today I took some much-needed, moderately vigorous exercise, cleaning out a paved area in the middle of my row of stone sheds that was once the half-walled repository for ashes and the contents of the two earth closets on either side of it. Lovely. Latterly this area has been opened up and has served me as an overflow wood store, specializing in those logs which are too large to fit into my wood-burning stove and which I am too lazy to chop up. In fairness to me, most of them fail to respond in the expected way when struck with an axe. Far from cleaving neatly into segments like they always do in the movies, these lumps of apparently fossilized timber remain as whole as though they were made of mild steel, merely sending a jarring recoil down my arms and making me fear that I may shatter into tiny pieces, like a character in one of those Hanna & Barbera cartoons of extreme animal violence.

At least a decade’s worth of autumn leaves had blown in and accumulated among the logs, and to cap it all a pair of particularly demented jackdaws had spent most of last spring energetically cramming twigs and other nest-building material into the eaves, in a space which might have been big enough to accommodate a tit or an anorexic sparrow, but was clearly never going to work for a pretty substantial and very dim corvid. In consequence most of their material had tumbled down to add to the spectacular mess on the ground. I felt much better when I had cleaned it all up and stuck it in bags for the tip, and taken some photographs of the house in the sunshine. With any luck these will prove rather less off-putting to potential purchasers than the perhaps somewhat forbidding external shots captured by my estate agent in January.

A perfect Spring day to be selling a house
Sheep may safely gaze: so long as the dog's lead holds

After lunch and a walk, enlivened for the dog by the presence in the surrounding fields of many sheep and lambs which were clearly up for a spot of chasing, if only we would let him off the lead to play, we drove to the Alnwick dump (sorry, Household Waste Recycling Centre) and then back to Chester. As we were driving out of the tip I turned on Radio 4 and caught one of the most astonishing statements I have ever heard even from Tony Blair, in a documentary about his “Faith Foundation”: “I'm really and always have been in a way more interested in religion than politics.”

Well, that explained a lot about his approach to politics, I thought, and it provided an instant solution to the nagging weekly question of what I was going to write about in my newspaper column tomorrow. The really worrying thing is that the man clearly does not understand the purpose of religion any more than he grasped politics, Parliament and the British constitution. He seems to think it’s all about making life on Earth a little more agreeable and helping us all to get on, so that the way forward is to get “young people of different faiths working together” on something vaguely socially useful, in this case the eradication of malaria in West Africa. Which is no doubt a perfectly fine thing to be doing, but has surely got sod all to do with religion. Which, if you happen to believe it, is all about accepting that this world is but a passing shadow, and how to get to Heaven.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Dementia, Reith and Nowhere

15st 2lb, 7.0 units. I did not eat all of last night’s two steak pies personally, but I might as well have done judging by my weight this morning. I don’t suppose the splendid homemade summer pudding, cheese and biscuits or chocolates exactly helped, either.

Still, I was much heartened at ten o’clock by reading a text message from a friend in Brighton, who was reading his newspaper on the seafront when he noted that the bench on which he was sitting bore an inscription in memory of one Neil McArthur “A champion of people with dementia. Never forgotten.”

Well, it made me laugh.

While still suffering grievously from the effects of excessive food consumption, Mrs H and I somehow pulled ourselves together sufficiently to make our way to lunch at the remote cottage of a friend who lives at the end of a mile or more of rough track in the middle of nowhere. I had seen photographs of the place, which whetted my appetite, but had never actually set foot there before. It did not disappoint. Despite being in the back of beyond, our hostess had managed to find some frightfully distinguished fellow guests who had made their way there on foot, and had not completely exhausted themselves in the process. With my usual lack of discernment and tact, I completely failed to appreciate how frightfully distinguished they were, and was about to embark on a joke of truly staggering political incorrectness when I was brought up short by a sentence beginning “When I delivered the Reith lectures …”

I immediately caught Mrs H’s eye and knew that I had to remain on high alert to prevent her from asking whether he was interested in flowers in general, or just specialized in wreaths. It must have been the resulting stress that led me to eat so much of the delicious buffet luncheon spread before us, in defiance of all my resolutions.

Not actually a signal box: Nowhere, Northumberland

When the danger had passed, our hostess led Mrs H and I, with our grateful dog, on a beautifully peaceful walk along the abandoned railway line that runs beside her house, and I then allowed Mrs H to drive me home. We agreed that it had been a most agreeable day, though it was a bit of a shame that neither of us could actually summon the energy to go to the evening drinks party in a historic country house I have always vaguely wanted to visit, and around which our entire weekend in Northumberland had been planned.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Mr Mellow's PR triumph

14st 13lb, 1.0 unit. Apparently I am mellowing. So I am advised, at any rate, by readers of my newspaper column, who regularly let me know how much they preferred it when I was lonely, bitter, twisted and misanthropic. All of which, apart from lonely, I believe that I still am. However, there may be something in it as Mrs H repeated the same sentiment with some force this morning, after I had made a second assault on my car armed with a hosepipe and a large bottle of strongly scented disinfectant. “If I had done that a few months ago,” she alleged, “you would have driven me straight to Alnmouth station and dumped me on the platform.” I had to concede that she might be right. But at least I always liked her enough to go for the comparatively civilized platform option, rather than thinking of dropping her off a bridge onto the tracks.

We had a busy day of it, even when we weren’t making efforts to remove half-digested grains of rice from vehicular crevices, or pausing to sniff the air thoughtfully. My estate agent came to see us to explain why my house was still for sale, and to suggest ways forward (luckily more advertising rather than a massive price cut); we took my car to Alnwick for a service; and then we continued into Newcastle for the signing of Mrs H’s Will (NOW dropping her off a railway bridge and onto the tracks becomes a serious option) and an extended visit to the baby department of the store I still think of as Bainbridge’s. Here we blew the gift vouchers many people had given us as wedding presents, presumably because they could not bring themselves to buy anything on our actual wedding list. We splurged them on a vast range of infant requisites, from cots and mattresses for our two homes to a “travel system” (buggy and car seat), mobile (I said that he was much too young for one of those, but Mrs H explained that it was a sort of musical, moving thing to help him sleep, rather than for talking to his mates and sending texts), monitor, muslin squares, breast pump (huh?) and so on and so forth. You name it, we bought it. The only surprising thing to me was that the Geordie shop assistant regularly advised us that we did not really need things that had caught Mrs H’s fancy, or recommended cheaper alternatives to the expensive ones towards which we naturally gravitated.

This evening we had a splendid supper at my aunt’s house (TWO steak pies – one with kidney, one without, now there is luxury for you) to introduce her to the mother of one of my fellow columnists. This lady has only recently moved back to the North East, to be nearer her to son and recently born granddaughter, and we thought she and my aunt might get on. Supper generated one memorable put-down, when my aunt was describing how she had been evacuated from Birmingham during the war and asked her guest whether she had experienced anything similar. “Oh no,” she replied, “I was MUCH too old to be evacuated. I was in London having the time of my life!”

One thing I shall miss as that generation passes into the history is the misty-eyed nostalgia of those who were young women at the time for a period of striking, er, liberation. Fewer young men seem to have found being shot at or blown up quite so much of a laugh.

The two ladies parted with promises to meet again soon, after they discovered that they both not only enjoyed playing Scrabble but adhered to an unusual variation of the standard rules commonly known as “cheating” with the aid of a dictionary. I therefore felt able to mark the introduction down as another PR triumph.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The great conditioner sting ... and the inevitable messy payback

14st 10lb, 3.0 units. This morning Mrs H asked me to run a handful of simple errands: taking her cat to the cattery and a load of junk to the tip (exercising particular care to ensure that I did not get those two commissions mixed up); buying some expensive conditioner for her from a ladies’ hairdresser; and interviewing the boss of a local cleaning company and signing us up for a weekly once-over, so long as it was not going to cost more than £30 per week, top whack. I managed to tick boxes one and two but failed dismally on task four, though I tried to wheedle my way around it by claiming that the fee I had agreed only exceeded Mrs H’s budget by £9.75, and omitting to mention that this excluded VAT. So slightly more than 50 per cent over my limit if we factor that in, true. But at least the house may look reasonably clean for an hour or two each week, which will be an undisputed step in the right direction.

On the other hand there was a bit of an offset on the conditioner front. I wandered into a totally deserted shop and stood around humming thoughtfully to myself for a bit, then coughing. After I had run through my full repertoire up to and including a terminal consumptive, I tried shouting “Hello!” at steadily increasing volume. Eventually a young woman who looked unlikely to be troubling the selectors for Mastermind wandered in from the rear of the premises and asked whether she could help. A question to which I always find it difficult to frame a civil answer. But somehow I managed to explain that I had been sent to buy a bottle of the very fine hair conditioner she had in the window. She looked baffled, so I went back to basics - this is a shop, do you see? You can tell because it has got bigger windows than one would expect in a house. No? Yes, I can see that your Auntie Renée might have bigger windows in her bungalow in Abersoch, to make the most of the panoramic coastal views, but let’s accept for the moment that this is in fact a shop, and the articles in the window are on display for the purpose of attracting passers-by? Then they – no, not all of them, but some of them – come in and attempt to buy the articles. It’s known as retailing.

She seemed to be dimly grasping the basic idea, but there was a snag: she did not know what price the bottles in the window were supposed to be. They had all been individually priced, but then the proprietrix had removed the tickets because she thought that looked “neater”. Great. The absent owner’s stand-in made a desultory search to see whether the shop contained anything in the nature of a price list, but quickly established that it did not. I feared that we had reached an impasse, until a light bulb almost visibly sprang into life above her head and she yelled for an even dimmer (but younger, blonder and prettier) colleague who proved also to be lurking in the back premises, and asked her how much the bottles of conditioner were.

After some thought, this second member of the Chester University Challenge team said “I fink they’re a tenner.” Which came as a pleasant surprise to me, as I had had a £20 note pressed into my hand by Mrs H this morning, and been warned that I would more than likely have to find a few extra pounds from my own resources to complete the purchase. What should I have done? The options that occurred to me were:

(a) saying “Oh no, that can’t be right, because my wife expected to pay more than double that”, thereby taking us back to square one;

(b) saying “Oh, in that case I’ll have all six of them, please”; or

(c) handing over a tenner, grabbing the thing and legging it before they changed what passed for their minds.

I went for option (c), reasoning that it was a reasonable compromise between the other two extremes. And, after all, they had freely entered into a verbal contract and I had paid the price requested. But then my assumptions about what constitutes fraud were seriously challenged as we listened to the news on the car radio on our way to Northumberland this evening, and digested the case of the couple who had found a winning lottery ticket on the floor of a Swindon shop and cashed it in, only to receive a suspended prison sentence for their cheek. I remain baffled as to how the individual who carelessly lost the winning ticket managed to prove that it really belonged to them.

I made two serious mistakes on the long journey home. First, I failed to hurl myself across her plate to prevent Mrs H from eating the substantial serving of chilli con carne that she decided she fancied when we stopped at the excellent Tebay services for supper; and, secondly, I chose the up-and-down and winding route home along the Military Road and then cross-country through Cambo and Rothbury. We were less than two miles from my house when Mrs H suddenly roused herself from her post-prandial slumber and made a noise that she later claimed to have been an attempt to shout “Stop the car!” Immediately after which she was copiously sick over the passenger door: inside, outside and – most annoyingly of all – down the slot into which the window had been retracted. Somehow I think this is going to require more than an in-car air freshener to sort out.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Not as bad as I had expected

14st 10lb, 6.0 units. I seem to have acquired an office. It’s a very nice office: an under-used and quiet meeting room just down the corridor from the surprisingly modest and tidy desk of Mrs H’s Chief Executive. But on the other hand there is no getting away from the fact that it IS an office. One of those things that I gladly walked out of on 4 February 2004, after 24.5 years of regular attendance (with one gap to write an unpublished novel) and to which I sincerely hoped never to return. But these are surprising times. I never expected to have a wife, or a son on the way; or, perhaps most critically, to be spending most of my time in a house where my study, recently converted from a spare bedroom, is soon to be transformed yet again into a nursery. In theory there is room in this studsery for both my desk (and its loosely associated filing cabinet) and a cot (plus other infant-related impedimenta). But in practice, I suspect that my new office may soon come to seem less of dreary but necessary step backwards and more of a blissfully quiet bolt-hole, where the only screams are those of staff shouting with joy at their pay awards, and there are never any nappies to be changed – or at least not until I myself become incontinent, which may not be too far off.

Along with the office, I seem to have acquired a pass that lets me in and out of the building (the “out” bit being particularly handy) and a little plastic key that, when charged with ready money, enables me to buy a subsidized lunch in the staff restaurant. A top quality cooked meal for £2.25. You can’t complain, can you?

No, on the whole, it was by no means as bad as I anticipated when the idea was first put to me on Maundy Thursday, immediately ending me into a downward spiral of depression. In fact, on the evidence so far, I might even get to like it.

But then this is the standard, recurring pattern of life for all us of a deeply pessimistic and reactionary nature. We dread absolutely every change in our circumstances, however small, and spend hours torturing ourselves by thinking exhaustively through every permutation of “what could possibly go wrong?” If you take this approach, most things in life turn out to be a pleasant surprise. For example, as I explained to Mrs H on our arrival in Venice for our honeymoon, it is remarkable how chipper one feels on stepping safely off an aeroplane when one’s working assumption throughout the flight has been that it is destined to crash in flames with the loss off all those on board.

I am so glad that I am not an optimist. I am sure that I would never be able to cope with the constant disappointments.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Plod breaches the peace

14st 10lb, 4.5 units. We were woken in the early hours by shouting and flashing lights to the rear of the house, where all is normally dark and peaceful, so I got up to peer out of the bathroom window. And there I heard the unmistakeable sound of Plod lumbering along the alleyway behind the marital home, and through the gardens of the houses behind ours, on the trail of Bad People (a.k.a. Scratters). There were two police cars parked in the street to the front, so whatever the BP were deemed to have done must have been pretty serious, given that everyone I know who has been burgled has found it almost impossible to engage the interest of the constabulary. Similarly, my retailer friends tell me that it is a hopeless task trying to persuade them to turn out to arrest shoplifters, though they are quite willing to come along and threaten shop managers with arrest for assault if they have the temerity to try to restrain a shoplifter until “help” arrives. Perhaps the BP concerned had done something truly heinous like making homophobic or racist comments, on which I believe that Twenty First Century Plod is very hot indeed.

We could not really get back to sleep after that. It took me back twenty-five years, to when I lived in a top floor flat on the Cromwell Road in London’s then rather unfashionable Earl’s Court. Being a fairly light sleeper, I would frequently be woken at night by the cat-like tread of someone creeping over the flat, zinc roof above my bedroom. This was faintly irritating, and I did toy with the idea of hiding behind my water tank one night and leaping out to say “Boo!” in the hope that shock would cause the intruder to plummet four storeys to his doom. But it was nothing to the racket that ensued when someone called for Plod and they duly turned out to play “Catch me if you can” across the roofs one night. Their huge size 13 boots made my whole flat shake as though it had been struck by an earthquake of around 8 on the Richter scale.

Of course they did not catch him, assuming that it was indeed a him. The story they told me when I went up to enquire was that someone was regularly making their way from the hostel at one end of the terrace and stealing underwear from the washing lines on the roof of the block of flats at the other end. The thing that did not compute at the time was the fact that the hostel was, notoriously, frequented by male homosexuals, while the disappearing undergarments were what my mother would have called ladies’ smalls. Perhaps the place was, with the benefit of hindsight, an early outpost of what I believe is now known as the transgender community.

Whatever the facts of the case, one morning shortly afterwards we woke to find that the hostel had burned to the ground. No-one died, and the nightly visitations stopped. A better result than the Cheshire Constabulary are likely to have achieved today, I imagine.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Fine claret and competitive asparagus

14st 10lb, 5.7 units. Mrs H and I made a pact on Easter eggs; we would buy each other just one each, subject to a strict maximum budget. Which should be easy enough to adhere to, I kept reading in the newspapers, because the demise of Woolworths had flooded the market with homeless chocolate eggs. As a result, the supermarkets were all awash with the things and engaged in a furious price war to shift them. Strange, then, that when I strode confidently to the “Seasonal” aisle of Chester’s Tesco ScratterWorld on Wednesday, I found that they did not have a single Easter egg in the place. True, a glance at the sagging and wobbly waistlines of their customers did not leave much of a mystery about where they had gone, but even so I found it surprising. Still, at least it allowed me to get through the great feast day without any weight gain, and enabled me to enjoy the virtuous feeling of having denied myself a pleasure which had in fact been snatched from my grasp by a quirk of the retail supply chain.

Today we drove down the A49 to the stately home of one of my former clients on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, to collect what had been billed as a “perishable” wedding present. After much thought I had concluded that he must have bought us a commemorative tree, and I had spent some time in front of the bathroom mirror practising my “delighted” face and remembering that I must not mention that we lived in a tiny terraced house where the front garden had been paved as a parking space and the back yard covered in decking. True, I could plant it at my house in Northumberland, but I am already filled with regret at the thought of selling the place complete with the commemorative tree planted by my aunt (or, rather on behalf of my aunt by my burly neighbour and his even burlier son) to mark my 50th birthday. Fortunately all my preparations came to naught when our host’s first action after we drove into his stable yard was to walk briskly from the house and load into our boot a case of fine claret.

We had an excellent lunch, all of which had been grown or shot within a mile of the house, with the possible exception of the plates and cutlery. The meal included a special treat: the very first asparagus of the season from their own beds. We were also offered some valuable advice on parenting, slightly undermined when the elder of the two grown-up daughters present brought up one of the more memorable moments from her childhood, when she and all three of her siblings fell into a swollen stream by their Welsh holiday cottage and were swept away. Clearly she will remember to her dying day being one of four young, vulnerable children clinging by their fingertips to a tree root in the icy, swirling waters, screaming for help, and being brightly asked by their father if they would mind hanging on for a bit while he went to fetch his camera to capture their plight on film.

Funnily enough, we were not offered a flick through the family album before we left; just a walk through the nearer part of the estate to admire a recently excavated pond. Even so, it was a delightful day out, and I was seriously impressed by the asparagus. So much so that I mentioned it in an e-mail to a friend in common from my City days, who retorted that he had been enjoying asparagus from his own beds for a full three weeks. It is somehow reassuring to know that this irrepressibly competitive spirit lives on, even as the UK plc founders under the weight of its unbearable debts. A bit like Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, in fact. Mrs H wanted to watch a documentary about that on Saturday night, entitled What Really Sank the Mary Rose. Even before the titles rolled, I told her that it was because the bloody thing was top heavy. Sixty minutes later, exhaustive scientific reconstructions and a lot of playing around with scale models in large tanks had demonstrated the staggering truth: the bloody thing was top heavy.

Not that Mrs H was any the wiser for all that, as she had lapsed into a coma long before the programme ended. Rather like, I suspect, the average reader of this blog entry.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The importance of being careful

14st 10lb, 4.0 units. So it does work: take more exercise, eat less food, and my weight decreases and my mood improves. What an amazing, life-changing discovery. I have lost count of the number of times I have made it.

This morning we ate the obligatory and eagerly awaited hot cross buns, then headed to church for the greatest festival of the Christian year. I think I can safely say that it was the first time either of us has ever been to church on Easter Day, since I know I have not, owing to an 80/20 combination of indolence and mild agnosticism, while Mrs H is theoretically a lapsed Muslim, or would be if such a thing were possible without attracting a death sentence. There was a good crowd of People Like Us, some hymns I knew (though sung to tunes I did not, in accordance with local tradition) and an uplifting sermon. It raised the spirits, as it always does.

After this, we wandered around to view a house in the village we had spotted on the internet and which appealed because it was available to rent immediately, and would provide us with the extra bedroom we really need to accommodate our expected son. It was all very seductive: newly extended and refurbished, with a fabulous garden offering great views of the church where we were married, and a footpath to the side providing a quick short cut to the village shop. The master bedroom overlooking the garden was a beautiful room, flooded with light. We more or less told the owners that we wanted to rent the place and would be calling the agents first thing on Tuesday morning.

Then we began to think of the snags. Such as the fact that, while comprehensively refurbishing the place, they had not found or left room for any major electrical appliances apart from a washing machine; the complete absence of any built-in facilities for hanging garments in the bedrooms, so that we would have to invest in wardrobes which we would then probably find impossible to manoeuvre up the narrow and winding stairs unless we went for the sort of cheap and cheerful self-assembly flatpacks I thought I had put behind me forever 25 years ago; and the total floor area being, on reflection, considerably smaller than that of the two bedroom house we currently occupy. Added to which, towards the end of last year I spent quite a lot of money equipping said house with a range of integrated appliances designed to make our lives easier, such as a dishwasher, fridge and freezer, plus a tumble dryer. (It may be costing the earth, but would you really want to have to cope with all a baby’s laundry without one?)

So that left only two reasons for moving: it is where we ultimately want to live, and all the individuals we met on the walk to the village shop were nice, well-spoken, middle class People Like Us who said things like “Hello, isn’t it a lovely day?” (a rhetorical question, obviously) rather than giving us menacing death glares and spitting on the ground. I could see why Mrs H would rather push her buggy to the shop here than to the ones where we now live. But then we came to the kissing gate helpfully installed at the end of the field behind the house, and she realized that there was no way she could ever push a buggy along this route unless she brought Geoff Capes with her to lift the baby and his carriage over the bloody thing. Which was, I fear, rather a last nail in the coffin of our renting plans.

Having inspected and supported the village Co-op, we walked back to the pub opposite the church and enjoyed a truly excellent lunch in the garden while talking ourselves out of spending £995 a month to live just around the corner. Or £1,500 a month, if you factor in all the extra money I would spend on Thwaite’s Original, pork scratchings and pub food. After all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with our current house apart from its near vertical staircase and the chance that one of us will plummet down it while holding the baby. We agreed that we would just have to be careful, while recognizing that it was a critical failure to be careful that got us where we are today.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The benefits of cowardice

14st 13lb, 7.5 units. This morning we had to rise at the crack of dawn to take Mrs H’s sparkling clean and polished car for its overdue service. It does look terrific: all shiny and British racing green. And there was method in her madness in having it valeted yesterday, since the reason for tarting it up was to make the dealer think that it would be a great idea to take it off her hands. It’s a lovely car, and great fun to drive (if you haven’t got completely out of the habit of driving one with a manual gearbox, as I have) but there is no denying that it doesn’t have room for a baby buggy or indeed any of the other impedimenta considered essential in the first decade of the twenty-first century for sustaining infant life.

Having got it back from the garage, we devoted the afternoon to a long walk in the glorious sunshine; out along the Duke’s Drive towards Eaton Hall and back beside the River Dee. It was completely delightful, apart from a close encounter with a bare-chested scratter riding his deliberately and unnecessarily noisy motorbike on the footpath shortly after we had set off. I wish I had the confidence, the courage and the necessary supporting physical strength to remonstrate; but the fact that I am still alive and able to type this entry probably demonstrates that it is just as well that I do not.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Emma Royds meets Hugh G Rection

14st 12lb, 6.0 units. Good Friday. A chance to laze around and think of the more important things in life. Or, if you are Mrs H, the ideal opportunity to take your car to be thoroughly valeted, prior to its scheduled service tomorrow. This struck me as being very much the same sort of behaviour one sees in those houseproud, middle class ladies who like to make sure that every room is neat and tidy before their cleaner arrives, but I have now been married long enough to keep that sort of thinking to myself.

Observing the local scratter population and their deeply unattractive propensity to spit everywhere reminded me of two things.

The first was the maroon, hand-painted warning that used to appear in block capitals on the top deck of Newcastle Corporation Transport’s fleet of yellow-painted trolleybuses and motor buses in my schooldays: “NO SPITTING”. It appeared on the lower deck, too, beneath the perhaps more conventional “NO SMOKING”. I remember asking my mother why people needed to be told not do something so obviously Bad and Wrong, and she replied that it was to do with the eradication of TB. Job done, the words had disappeared by the time I returned home during university vacations, just as “Tuberculin Tested” had vanished from the side of milk bottles. Perhaps it is time to bring it back.

The other was the existence of some important chap called Mr Spittle, whom one of my colleagues had to ring on a regular basis in the days when I was an investment analyst. This important chap was guarded by a fiercely protective PA, who had presumably heard all the jokes as often as those unfortunates listed in the phone book as Emma Royds or Hugh G Rection. I seem to recall that we once wound up our colleague so much that he spluttered, in answer to her curt enquiry about what he wanted with her boss, “He’s expectorating my call.”

But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Virgin territory

14st 12lb, 2.0 units. Last night was a first. Mrs H went off to a friend’s house for some sort of pregnancy-related yoga class, and I was left on my own. When I worked in London, I seem to remember my married colleagues getting all misty-eyed about this sort of thing: a brief glimpse of freedom which they called a “pink ticket”. I, with my usual complete lack of enterprise and dearth of friends in the Chester area, just sat at home on my own watching Coronation Street and the clock, not necessarily in that order, wondering when Mrs H might return and make me some supper.

I think I have become a dependent relative.

She did not take to the yoga instructor, as it turned out, as he kept asking her to do things like tightening her sphincter. Which is apparently all a bit much coming from a total stranger at your first meeting.

Today, thanks to Mrs H having reminded her boss’s PA of my existence, I went into her office for a high level meeting. Luckily it was at lunchtime, and they really do have the most fantastic staff restaurant (I was about to write “canteen”, but that would not even begin to do it justice). Even more luckily, I was able to sneak up behind Mrs H just as she was attempting to find room on her tray for some cutlery. She had selected a battered fish so enormous that it hung over the edges of her plate at both ends, yet she had somehow found room to cram on a shovel full of chunky chips and, she was quick to point out, a selection of healthy vegetables. “I never have this,” she kept repeating (clearly untrue), but I merely observed that I would be treating her future claims to have only eaten a small salad all day with a fair degree of scepticism, and reflected gleefully that I clearly had carte blanche to order precisely the same thing myself. Only with mushy peas rather than the healthy vegetables. It is important to observe the traditions, I always feel.

Bloody good it was, too. One of the best plates of fish and chips I have ever eaten, far outclassing not only all the pubs I can think of, but many expensive restaurants.

As we were leaving, Mrs H’s boss and I spotted an employee walking towards his table bearing a plate of this sublime fish and chips, liberally coated in beef gravy. The only words that will suffice are Bad and Wrong.

On my way back home I called at the self-same branch of Tesco I had visited last night, to pick up an item I had forgotten then, in my haste to make my escape from Scratter World. Most strangely, it had turned into a scratter-free zone and was full of People Like Us – well-dressed, unthreatening, middle class. Perhaps there is a social class rota posted outside the store which I had uncharacteristically overlooked, just as our neighbours neglected their instructions about the bin collections. It seemed all the odder because the smell of drains which has always been one of the less attractive features of this store was particularly pronounced today, and I thought that was the sort of thing that would have attracted scratters in the same way that a discarded jam butty draws in wasps.

This evening Mrs H took me for a little drive into the countryside north of Chester, to introduce me to an area where I had identified a number of potential houses to rent when I was scanning the internet on Sunday. We went for a rather long and, so far as I could see, largely pointless walk in the rain, then repaired to a moderately nasty pub. I became depressed again, a fact which Mrs H attributed to the fact that I had been drinking beer, as I was when similarly afflicted on Sunday evening. So I sense the roadblocks being prepared to close off another one of life’s narrow little avenues of pleasure, even though I feel compelled to concede that she might just have a point.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The binman cometh

15st 0lb, 3.6 units. Grip clearly lost again, judging by the verdict of the bathroom scales this morning. I’m tempted to blame Mrs H’s parents, who invited us around for a hugely delicious supper yesterday evening, but clearly it is my own fault for being unable to say “no thank you” when someone offers me a second helping of something really good. And whatever you may say about authentic Iranian food, slimming it most certainly ain't.

It comes to something when the best thing that happens to a Bloke in the course of the day is going for a walk and returning to find that his bins have been emptied. Not that we have bins as such. You can’t even get a John Lewis van into our street, never mind a bin lorry. So the authorities send a sort of lightly armoured expeditionary vehicle along to take away the rubbish in plastic sacks, just like in the olden days. The reason for my sense of triumph is that I was clearly one of the very few people in the street to bother reading the council’s leaflet about Easter collections, which stated that they MIGHT come a day earlier than usual. Which they duly did, while I was out taking the dog for his lunchtime stroll. It must have been the quickest rubbish collection of all time, given that only about three people in the whole street took advantage of it. The rest of the dozy sods dragged their bags of refuse out onto the pavements tonight, causing me further mirth until I reflected that they were going to remain in place for at least week, being worked over by the street’s large resident population of stray cats and the occasional urban fox. Thereby eliminating our one chance of keeping the place looking reasonably tidy, in the week when the Scratters’ Academy and the College for the Terminally Thick at the other end of the street are on holiday, and there is no-one to distribute the usual generous daily supply of chip wrappers, bottles, soft drink cans, sweet wrappers and so forth.

Talking of scratters, I made the mistake of going out to Tesco this afternoon and it was like a bloody zoo full of the bastards: a veritable Scratter World. Huge great things covered in tattoos waddling down the aisles in shorts; enormously fat ones with matching offspring, grazing as they filled their trolleys with trans fats; confused elderly ones muttering to themselves as they checked the prices of the Basics. Actually they looked elderly but were presumably younger than I am, given that their appalling diet, chain smoking, excessive drinking and lack of exercise and intellectual stimulus must surely leave the average scratter with a life expectancy of no more than 40. One of the larger, younger and more menacing ones rammed his trolley into me, accidentally I dare say. He even apologized, but added the word “mate”, which always gets my back up. I refrained from giving him my usual educational speech on the various meanings of the word “mate”, none of which applied in this instance. Mrs H was unsympathetic when I moaned about it later, pointing out that she had warned me about her own scratter overdose in the same store the previous evening (and she is far less sensitive to this sort of exposure than I am). She speculated that Tesco must have become the top Day Out for Scratters affected by the credit crunch, displacing such traditional favourites as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Flamingoland and Alton Towers.

What we clearly need is to bring back hunting. A lot of Ruperts on horseback sounding horns and yelling the traditional cry of “Scrat-ho!” as they give chase and trample them into the terrazzo flooring between the pot noodles and the lard. I don’t think I’d be prepared to learn to ride at my age, but I’d certainly be up for following them on my quad bike, and indeed for lending them my Border terrier to flush out the quarry if it attempted to go to ground among the confectionery or feminine hygiene requisites.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Cultivating a heart of stone

14st 12lb, 3.7 units. I think I might be getting a grip. And about bloody time, too, some would no doubt say. At least I have reminded myself that it is possible to eat a pub lunch and still lose weight, so long as one does not make the mistake of eating anything substantial in the evening. Or indeed anything at all, full stop. And I managed to spend a fair old whack of time at my desk during the day, catching up with a substantial backlog of correspondence.

It’s strange that I managed to be so depressed yesterday, given that I took delivery of the biggest cache of presents I have ever received in my life. Ten sodding great cardboard boxes full of the things, delivered by a couple of rather disgruntled blokes from John Lewis, whose bleeping van provided an unwanted musical accompaniment as I tried to write my newspaper column during the morning and they simultaneously attempted to drive down our street in Chester. Then finally conceded that it could not be done owing to all the appallingly parked cars, and slowly reversed out again. It’s strange that these gifts do so little for me, since I used to like nothing better than coming down on Christmas morning and opening my stocking. Perhaps it’s because I already know precisely what is in the boxes, namely the contents of our wedding list. But then there was never much of a mystery about the fact that the round things in the toe of the stocking were going to turn out to be tangerines; gifts of a strictly traditional character which were freely obtainable at any time from the aluminium fruit bowl, commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII, which always sat on the small table in my parents’ sitting room window.

So many people have shown us so much generosity, buying us things we actually wanted (or that Mrs H actually wanted, at any rate) and all I can think is “Oh, bugger it, I’m going to have to open all that lot and check that they didn’t smash anything when they were in a bit of a huff about having to wheel it from two streets away.”

Sometimes I am not a very admirable person.

That last sentence also works perfectly well without the opening word.

The only thing calculated to depress me further today was the usual in these parts: the prevalence of scratters (also known as chavs and "the underclass"). Mrs H and I took the dog for a walk late last night and encountered a little group of them swaggering along the pavement, hoods pulled over their heads, streams of spittle going absolutely everywhere, faces contorted with a mixture of what I used to call absolutely bestial stupidity, until I realized that it was gratuitously insulting to cattle, and attempted menace. “Jus you dare look a me an I’ll knife you inna guts” was what they were attempting to convey, I think.

I ran into the same group, identically attired and disposed, when I took the dog out for another walk at lunchtime today, and was reassured that they had also acquired the stereotypical accessory of a pit bull terrier lookalike pulling menacingly on chain. I somehow managed to restrain myself from saying “Oh, what a sweet little doggie! Is he called Tyson by any chance?” But as I was doing that, I noticed that the 16-year-old would-be Hard Man in charge of the group had somehow acquired what looked like a really painful black eye.

Sometimes round here you really do have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

Monday, 6 April 2009

My honeymoon album

15st 1lb, 7.0 units. Reasons to be cheerless, part 364: the start of a no doubt hideously expensive new tax year, rampaging obesity, and the fact that I discovered on the internet last night that each and every house Mrs H and I rather fancied when we took a preliminary look around the Cheshire market before Christmas has since sold. Whereas in Northumberland ...

At least my resulting state of misery should have helped me to recapture my traditional tone of voice in my weekly newspaper column, which focused on the EU Data Retention Directive (which takes effect today, apparently) as a further symptom of the tightening tentacles of the surveillance state. How can we have stumbled into this mad parallel universe where innocent trainspotters are being bundled out of stations for daring to use a camera, at the same time as Google are cheerfully and legally constructing a door-by-door illustrated burglars’ handbook of the whole country? (Memo to British Transport Police: if he smells a bit odd, wears glasses held together with Sellotape, has a huge Tupperware box full of sandwiches and a copy of the Railway Magazine sticking out of his anorak pocket, he almost certainly isn’t a terrorist).

Having filed my column and walked the dog, the only thing to do to alleviate my misery was clearly to plod across the Old Dee Bridge and have a slap-up lunch in my favourite pub, which has raised its game still further since my last visit by embracing the sale of pork scratchings. But even these did not bring a smile to my face, and the fish and chips seemed to be distinctly below the usual standard as they turned to dust and ashes in my mouth. So clearly it is time to look back to much happier times. Particularly as this will also permit me to satisfy the curiosity of those correspondents who have asked why I have posted no honeymoon pictures to complement those of my wedding.

The good news for you, sleazeballs, is that Mrs H spent much of our week in Venice staring at the ceiling. The less good is that they were the richly decorated ones of the city’s magnificent Baroque churches, rather than the one in our bedroom. Here is a summary of what we did on our holiday:

Monday: foggy. I managed to leave my wedding ring behind in our Heathrow hotel, and spent much of the day writing a slide presentation for a client. I could sense Mrs H thinking “some honeymoon, this”.

Tuesday: foggy and damp. Still knackered after the wedding and the shock of actually having to do some work yesterday. After a preliminary orientation tour we plodded to a hard-to-find but highly recommended tratorria on Giudecca that proved to be closed on Tuesdays, and consoled ourselves with a bargain lunch in our five star hotel that proved to be anything but.

An orientation tour by vaporetto: weather more Despero than Depero

Wednesday: wet, but at least we finally made it to St Mark's, where it was dry inside. And the trattoria on the Giudecca was open on Wednesdays and every bit as good as billed. Afterwards we hopped off the vaporetto at S Giorgio Maggiore where a compatriot who was clearly an even bigger idiot than I am called “Come on, be British!” as Mrs H and I debated whether it was really worth taking a photograph of her in the torrential rain.

It was this or the fake bronze horses: one fat Englishman at St Mark's

Mrs H “being British” outside S Giorgio Maggiore

S Vidal set up for a spot of Vivaldi in the evening

Thursday: still decidedly damp. We got so fed up with sight-seeing in the rain that we went back to our hotel in the afternoon and ordered two cups of hot chocolate and two small slices of cake in the lobby. Certainly, sir; that will be 80 euros, please. The price of everything in Venice, it appears, apart from the public lavatories. Which are €1.50, or 30 bob in real money. It's lucky we had my mother cremated, or she'd be turning in her grave. In the evening we went out to what I thought was a highly recommended, Michelin starred restaurant called Da Fiore, to which we had been directed by the same genius who came up with Altanella on the Giudecca for lunch yesterday. It was one of the most expensive meals I have ever eaten, but so enjoyable as to be worth it. The irony was that we subsequently discovered that my friend had been trying to recommend a dirt cheap trattoria called 4Feri in a completely different part of town.

Mrs H looking cheeky on a vaporetto


Mrs H looking demure on her way out for an expensive (but worth it) dinner

Friday: sunny. So we took the boat to Torcello (always lovely, and moving with it) and Burano (always pretty, and good for a decent lunch). Then, attempting to walk back from Fondamente Nove to our hotel in a thoroughly cheapskate sort of way, I found myself seduced into fulfilling Mrs H's wish to take a ride on a gondola (a ghastly tourist cliché I have taken care to avoid on all my previous visits). It cost €80, naturally, pretty much regardless of destination. In the evening, for another €80, we went to see a few popular operatic arias performed in a palazzo by a rather attractive young soprano with a large chest, partially covered by a frock with no visible means of support. This positive impression was offset by having her paired with a tenor who simply could not sing a note. I think they must have found him on Italy's Got Talent, probably fronting a novelty act involving seals or dogs. As soon as he opened his mouth two fat lesbian ladies sitting near us burst into uncontrollable laughter. One attempted to contain her mirth so as not to unsettle the lad and make things even worse (as it that were possible), but her companion simply hooted hysterically every time he opened his mouth. This cabaret alone fully justified the price of admission.

Burano: quite pretty, really


Our gondolier thinking moodily of his 80 euros


The palazzo with the tenor with a difference

Saturday: gloriously sunny. So we went out early (albeit not early enough) and took the lift to the top of the campanile of St Mark’s, so that we could get some standard tourist shots of Venice into the can. At lunchtime I allowed Mrs H to indulge her long-standing wish to take me for lunch in an unassuming bar rather than an expensive restaurant; it was truly horrible. The popular opera at a Scuola Grande in the evening was another horrid tourist trap, but at least the participants could all sing.

All right, I give in: a standard tourist view from the top of St Mark's campanile


And another one

Cheer up, mate, it's not fallen down since 1902

City, lagoon, Alps: what could be more agreeable?

A rather better attempt at a Baroque musical performance

Sunday: sunny. By now the model of an indulgent husband, I acceded to Mrs H's wish to see the glassworks of Murano, even though everything ever produced on Murano is perfectly hideous, and most of the stuff is now imported from China anyway. After watching some bloke make an €80 glass fish for the benefit of the tourists, we spent a regrettably long time in ghastly shops, being hustled by spivs. Then I asserted myself and dragged us back to Venice to do something I wanted to do, viz having lunch in Harry's Bar. This did not cost €80. One may legitimately question whether it is worth it. But I always feel that it has to be done.


Venice's answer to an Anthony Gormley


Making something absolutely hideous on Murano

Monday: dull, softening the blow of having to go home. I was reunited with my wedding ring at the Heathrow Sofitel (not just the quietest airport hotel I have ever stayed in, but the quietest hotel anywhere). Which was nice. More so than having my car delivered by the valet parking company, as it turned out that the people who had taken it off our hands last week were not the organization I had pre-paid for the service, and this lot naturally expected to be paid again. Perfect. Still, we felt much more relaxed after a week in a place of great beauty, where everything progresses at walking pace. And we had learned quite a lot about each other. Yet we were still married, and neither of us excused ourselves to ring a lawyer as soon as we were back on British soil. I regarded this A Result.

On our way home

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Fast brown horse, big black dog

No idea (probably just as well); 10.0 units. A sunny day in London with nothing in particular to do. So we went for a walk around St James’s Park, as we often do when we are in the vicinity and the sun is shining, and carried on to the old War Office so that Mrs H could fulfil her primal urge to stroke a horse’s nose. As you would expect, I made a joke about feeding the pony which do not go down particularly well once I had explained it.

Britain in Bloom: St James's Park in Spring

Not feeding the pony: Mrs H on a previous visit to Horse Guards
(note the colour co-ordination)

Then we wandered on into Covent Garden and enjoyed the sunshine on the drinking terrace above a pastie shop, watching a Geordie escapologist entertaining a large crowd on the piazza below. I reflected that I was a sort of Geordie escapologist, too, though this one performed a much more concise and infinitely more watchable routine than wasting six years at Cambridge and going to work in the City. However, it has to be said that the speed with which he wriggled out of his padlocks and chains was nothing compared to the magical way the crowd evaporated as soon as he descended from his stepladder to take a bow and tried to start passing a hat around. The tight southern bastards.

Mrs H said that she really fancied an Italian for lunch, but there were no suitable men around so I decided to take her to an eating establishment instead. I strode confidently in the direction of that reliable old favourite, Luigi’s in Tavistock Street, only to find it closed and converted into a fantastic A3 restaurant opportunity. So we went Turkish instead: a delight but for our waitress’s all too apparent need of a bath. Boom boom, as Basil Brush might well have said.

Continuing the day's Turkish theme: a captured gun of 1524 (apparently)

I forgot to mention two really good things that happened yesterday. The first was Mrs H taking me to an expensive shop in Jermyn Street and buying me a lovely, spotted silk handkerchief, though admittedly this was only a replacement for the one she had lost from my top pocket somewhere on Chester station when I foolishly allowed her to take temporary charge of my coat. Even better, while we were standing in whatever the Floral Hall is now called having a drink before the ballet, I checked the BBC News website on my phone and found that Mon Mome had won the Grand National. Which was handy, as it was the very horse Mrs H had drawn for me in her office sweepstake. I envisaged something rather grand, like the old Stock Exchange sweepstake which used to be worth tens of thousands of pounds. One of my erstwhile colleagues famously gave himself a heart attack while cheering on his horse, which was leading the field at the time. It turned out that I had only won £40, but it felt like it might be the start of a roll.

So all in all it was far from a bad weekend, and it is hard to explain why the Black Dog of depression should have emerged from his kennel and given me such a terrible savaging this evening. Perhaps it had something to do with my sheer terror at impending fatherhood, and the miserable uncertainty of where we are going to bring the little lad up. Grade II listed house with fine views of the Cheviots: you clearly need to be much more than a run-of-the-mill Geordie escapologist to get out of that.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Just a ground floor with a lid on it

14st 12lb, 4.0 units. Exhausted after my house cleaning efforts yesterday morning, I spent the afternoon driving to Chester via the longer but more scenic A69/M6 route; mainly so that I could call at the excellent Westmorland services at Tebay (the finest motorway service area in Britain, if not on the whole surface of the planet) and buy a couple of steaks for supper from their wonderful farm shop. I arrived bang on schedule after my 222-mile drive, and was slightly miffed that Mrs H managed to be an hour late accomplishing the seven mile journey from her place of employment. Still, it provided a valuable opportunity to watch Coronation Street in peace. I had been suffering severe withdrawal symptoms ever since I hurried the dog around his walk on Wednesday evening in time to settle down in my armchair with a drink at precisely 7.30, and turned on the TV to find that the bastards were showing some football match instead. The worst sort of April Fool joke imaginable (and for my views on those, see http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009_03_01_archive.html).

Having subjected the dog to his worst nightmare of a long cross-country car journey, today we selfishly dumped in him the kennels and caught a train (well, two trains, to be strictly accurate) to London. From Crewe to Euston there were a couple of trainspotters sitting on the other side of the aisle (in first class, too, my dears) but at least they kept their strangely intonated voices to low murmurs, and did not smell too much. After arriving at my club, I treated Mrs H to a lunch I could not afford in a clubby, old-fashioned restaurant in St James’s, where I consumed a series of my favourite things (oysters, steak tartare and cheese), none of which will have troubled the kitchens in the slightest. Mrs H maintained her recent policy of consuming as much red meat as possible, to address an alleged iron deficiency.

After sleeping that lot off, we went to see the ballet which was the object of our trip: Swan Lake at Covent Garden, which Mrs H has always yearned to see, and which I had originally booked for 28 February (a date on which we turned out to be otherwise engaged). The place was seriously packed, demonstrating yet again that the key to success in opera and ballet is just to keep putting on traditional productions of the classics. The lead role was danced by a Spanish lady called Zenaida Yanowsky who, Mrs H knowledgeably informed me at the interval, was “really too tall to be a ballet dancer”. Which is, funnily enough, exactly what I seem to remember other women telling me every time I took them to see Sylvie Guillem. Presumably these prima ballerinas are like bumble bees, which persist in blissfully flying around in total ignorance of the urban myth that they are technically unable to get off the ground. The ladies don’t know that they are too tall, so they just crack on. Like those lithe, sexy young sopranos who are so thick on the ground in opera these days, and have luckily never heeded the whispers from the stalls that they are “really not fat enough to be an opera singer”.

Both Ms Yanowsky and her male counterpart, Roberto Bolle, seemed pretty good to me, but then I know f*** all about ballet. However, the fact that they both got a round of applause from the cognoscenti when they made their first appearance on stage, and took umpteen curtain calls at the end (they really do milk these things far more than their operatic equivalents) led me to believe that I had informed opinion on my side. I enjoyed the evening far more than I expected to do (which is admittedly not saying much) and received no more than a slightly exasperated sigh from Mrs H when she caught me sniggering like a schoolboy at the point where La Yanowsky was being led around in a circle with one leg held vertically in the air, providing a particularly fine view of her underwear.

As we were sitting towards the aisle end of a row, we naturally took our places promptly at the start of each act, as tradition demands, so that those sitting further in could return at the last possible minute and trample all over us. Still, I enjoy these little interludes listening in to the conversations of other audience members. I particularly relished the mini-skirted, blonde ladies of a certain age sitting behind us, who were bitching about a friend’s new home. One of them came up with the memorable line “It’s just a ground floor with a lid on it” which greatly took my fancy.

After the show we walked slowly to a club of mine a few streets away, where I enjoyed a delicious hot dog and Mrs H clocked a Celebrity she liked. The perfect ending to a happy day.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Buy my house, for pity's sake

14st 12lb, 6.2 units. So far so good on the weight front. Last year I lost an impressive two stone in just over three months, most of which was down to a bet with my fellow columnist Tom Gutteridge, who kicked the whole thing off by writing at the start of the year that he intended to lose 21lb by Easter (and sadly, for him, overlooked the fact that Easter 2008 was scheduled to arrive about a month earlier than he had anticipated). He didn’t do it; I did. Yesterday he announced that he was back up to 212lb (he clearly spent too long living in LA) and needed to lose 12lb by the time of his marriage at the end of August. I vowed to do at least as well, and we shook hands on some sort of bet, without (so far as I can recall) specifying the sum of money involved or the intended beneficiary. So that’s two incentives to lose weight, remembering the giant bag of pork scratchings that Mrs H has pledged to buy me if I get down to 13st 7lb by the time that Charlie is born in July. Maybe Bowers the butchers will be able to harvest them by shooting down the flying pig that will doubtless herald my achievement.

Still, on last year’s form, 12lb in five months seems eminently achievable. And I got off to a good start as a result of my main course choice at yesterday’s lunch of crispy pork belly. It was utterly delicious, but Tom laughingly drew my attention to the high fat content and, on closer examination, 95% of it did indeed comprise a slab of pure, white, quivering pork fat, with a wafer-thin layer of grey meat at its base and another wafer-thin layer of crackling on top. The more I thought about it, the queasier I felt. I could not face supper. By bedtime I was feeling positively ill, and decided to have a medicinal glass of whisky and ginger wine to help me to sleep. Only there proved to be no ginger wine in the usual cupboard. It is most unlike me (Mr Anal Stockpiler of the Year, 1972 – 81, after which I was disqualified to give the other entrants a chance) not to have a reserve supply of anything, and I duly began searching in all the likely places. And there indeed they were: two bottles of ginger wine perched on a high shelf at the very back of the cloak cupboard. I should have got some stepladders to reach them, but it was late and I was tired, so I just reached out my fingertips towards one, thereby upsetting a stash of plastic bottles of water I did not know I had (why would someone who has spring water coming out of his taps ever have bought those?) With horrible inevitably, one of these set off on a slow motion, tumbling descent, bounced off the bottled beer on the shelf beneath and sent 500ml of McEwan’s Champion Ale smashing onto the tiled floor below. I should have embarked on a thorough clean-up right away. But, as previously mentioned, it was late and I was tired, so I just mopped up the worst of the spillage and toddled off to bed, clutching my nightcap.

I woke this morning to an overpowering smell of stale beer, such as you might find in a Cambridge pub after the last day of the Mays, when much ale has been drunk and not a little thrown. However, an extensive programme of works involving hot water, Flash and floral disinfectant meant that by the time I left after lunch the place merely smelt like a 300-year-old brewery that had been tarted up a bit in anticipation of a visit by minor royalty. Not very appealing to viewers of the property, but then luckily there has only been one of those since I put the place on the market in February – and he pitched up before it was even advertised. Since then there has been Mr Benn, who made an appointment to look around but never bothered to turn up (well, the agent did warn me that he was “very rude”). And, er, that’s it. It would not bother me too much but for the fact that I have a son due to arrive at the beginning of July and I would rather like to have a stable home (not in the Biblical nativity sense) to bring him up in. Ideally, that would be somewhere in Cheshire, where Mrs H has a ready-made support network of family and friends of her own age, most of whom seem to be also pregnant and / or in the process of bringing up young children. However, I can see my Plan B of bringing the lad up in the middle of nowhere in Northumberland inching to the fore.

What I would like above all is a bit of certainty, so I thought I would take the opportunity to urge you to buy my house. It really is quite nice, if I say so myself, and in an absolutely stunning location, with views of the Simonside Hills from the south-facing windows and a truly wonderful prospect of the Cheviots to the rear. If you are a believer in the James Lovelock school of climate change doom-mongering, it is on a hilltop that will keep you well clear of rising sea levels, exposed to enough of a breeze to turn a modest wind turbine, and comes with enough land for you to keep chickens and a couple of goats for milk, and to grow your own vegetables.

I realize that advertising the place on my blog may seem a bit of a long shot, but then it has already got me a beautiful, funny, young wife, so clearly more or less anything is possible. Feel free to take a look at the estate agent’s particulars on http://www.smithsgore.co.uk/property-for-sale-alnwick-43200 or the even fuller spiel from the Newcastle Journal homemaker at http://icnortheast.icnetwork.co.uk/homemaker/dreamhome/tm_headline=Moving-story-of-Journal-columnist-Keith-Hann%26method=full%26objectid=22923297%26siteid=50081-name_page.html

Then make me an offer.

Please.