Saturday, 25 December 2010

Oh, bugger

15st 10lb, 6.0 units. My sense of being Unlucky Alf from The Fast Show was only increased by eagerly tearing open the wrapping on my largest present this morning and finding a £50 pictorial history of Gyndebourne that I had coveted on a visit there during the summer. Only I had not particularly wanted a copy with a broken spine and dirty fingerprints on virtually every torn page. Very particular about books, I am. I am often to be found in Hatchard’s or Waterstone’s working my way through the pile of (preferably signed) first editions to find one that is in absolutely pristine condition. I gave a brief account of my obsessive compulsive approach to Mrs H, who had surely grasped it already, and she explained that she had behaved with remarkable similarity in selecting my copy of the book from the display in the Glyndebourne shop. Then she had taken it to the till, where a charmingly posh lady had replaced it with another one from beneath the counter, lovingly wrapped in logo-embossed black tissue paper. Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, a knackered old display copy fit only for the recycling bin. It is a long time since even a dodgy fruiterer on a market stall has tried to catch me out like this.

I asked why Mrs H had not thought to check her purchase before handing it over, as I checked the signed copy of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire’s memoirs that I bought for her, and had posted to me by an achingly upmarket bookseller in Mayfair. “Well, if I had bought it anywhere else I would have done,” she said. “But I didn’t think I needed to bother with Glyndebourne because it’s so posh.”

There you are, then. A valuable lesson learned, and a valuable tip on market positioning for anyone planning to sell a load of battered old fruit to unsuspecting punters over a market stall. Give yourself an upmarket name and employ some plummy-voiced ladies to take the money.

Early Christmas morning: Santa has been
Still, at least I liked my main present of a voucher for a day’s “trolleybus driving experience” at the National Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft in the summer. A boyhood dream about to be fulfilled there, unless of course something goes unexpectedly wrong.

The Boy seemed to like his plastic toy farm, too. As he should have done, given that he dragged one off the shelf and started hauling it towards the till three times when he spotted it in the toy department of Fenwick’s in Newcastle when we took him there at the end of October. Foolishly, we did not buy it there and then so as “not to spoil the surprise” (as though an 18-month-old would remember) and I was despatched back to the store to pick it up earlier this month. We did not realize, as experienced parents no doubt would, that the stock of toy departments changes almost completely in the run-up to Christmas, as popular lines sell out. Not only did Fenwick’s not have it, but neither did John Lewis, WH Smith, Early Learning Centre or the beautifully appointed but comprehensively useless new Newcastle branch of Debenhams. Luckily an internet search tracked down one that we could pick up in Toys ‘R’ Us.

As a consolation prize, I bought him a train set. Not the Hornby Dublo or LGB I really wanted, sadly. I would like nothing better than a vintage Gauge One live steam tinplate train that could career around the sitting room, spilling burning methylated spirits onto the carpet, but it would be ruled out on so many Elfin Safety grounds that it is hardly worth beginning to recite them all. But at least it is an LNER train set with those nicely solid Brio wooden tracks. The box says that it is unsuitable for children under the age of three, but then the box of virtually every toy seems to say that and he has been playing with lots of them for months. I do hope that this confession does not lead to his removal by social services, as I am getting quite fond of him now that he has started talking.

The Boy unwraps his train set
Meanwhile, I gave Mrs Hann a computer. She has been complaining for over a year now that her old laptop is on its last legs, and asking if she could borrow my MacBook to surf the internet and send e-mails. So in a moment of wild generosity I bought her one of her own, sweetening the pill by ordering myself an iPad at the same time. She seemed pleased, though I think I detected a slightly wider grin when she unwrapped the coat that I had also bought her. I suppose a computer is a bit on the utilitarian side to induce festive ecstasy in a lady. Not quite in the league of a new ironing board, perhaps, but definitely in that box rather than the one occupied by guaranteed pleasure-givers like frocks and shoes.
Mrs H and new laptop
Mrs H and new coat
I hit the jackpot last Christmas when I bought her a pair of Dubarry boots. She liked them so much that she hardly ever wore them, holding them back for special occasions. Then a couple of weeks ago the zip on one of them disintegrated. She took it to a reputable cobbler, who pronounced the boot beyond repair, though he suggested that since they were clearly expensive and little used, it might be worth returning them to the manufacturer. My friendly local country store has now done that, with no word yet. Unfortunately I had already ordered this year’s Dubarry coat when this little quality issue came to light, so no doubt it will have fallen to bits by Easter. Surely a man of my experience and intense cynicism should have been able to spot the fatal, oxymoronic flaw in the very concept of an Irish luxury goods brand?

Monday, 29 November 2010

A lucky escape

15st 10lb, 6.0 units. We woke yesterday to yet more snow, and the now usual police advice not to travel unless one’s journey was absolutely necessary. The question is: how do you define “necessary”? It wasn’t really necessary to be in the North East at all; but, given that we were, and that the whole underlying point of our trip was to wish my aunt a happy 86th birthday over Sunday lunch in Morpeth, it seemed pretty desirable to get there if we possibly could. Added to which, Mrs H was supposed to be working in north Wales this morning and all the weather and travel forecasts suggested that (a) if we could get as far as Morpeth, we would have accomplished the hardest part of the journey, and (b) if we did not get away yesterday, we could could probably forget the idea of getting away at all for quite some time. So, after a wander around outside taking yet more pictures, chuckling at memories of the Met Office’s October forecast of a mild, wet winter (which they now deny ever having made) we edged our way to Morpeth on snow-packed local roads and then the reasonably clear A697, and had a very decent family lunch.

Fresh snow outside the back door: yesterday morning's view
The back gate: heading under
Icicles not benefiting the guttering
Picturesque, though: you've got to give it that
Poor prospects for deliveries
Beneath this is a completely plain post
Sheds, snow: what more can I tell you?
Trees in my small paddock
Next door's henhouse: egg yields plummeting
A fine view of the hills
Increasingly hard to tell where hills end and clouds begin
The Boy enjoys his Great Aunt's birthday lunch
Around 3 we set off for Cheshire, cunningly ignoring the sat nav’s advice to head down the A1(M) because of all the reports on the BBC’s travel website of delays due to ice and snow in County Durham. The A69 was fine, and so was the M6 all the way to Tebay services, where we stopped as usual so that The Boy could have a run around in the children’s play area (and a concerned-looking member of staff could be despatched, also as usual, to investigate why a white-haired, elderly paedophile in a comedy green tweed three-piece suit, complete with watch chain, was loitering there with a very good-looking 17-month-old boy – I am just grateful that we have managed to train him to say “Dadda” so convincingly).

Then we set off on the last stage of our journey and promptly ran into a serious blizzard in Lancashire. In what seemed like no time at all the motorway was reduced to a single lane, in which around 95% of the traffic was crawling along at a maximum of 20mph. What concerned me was the other 5%, chiefly comprising heavy good vehicles and BMWs, obviously, ploughing past in the snow-covered outer lanes at 60 or more, and waiting for one of them to lose control and slide into us. One or two drove perilously close to us, asserting their interpretation of where the lane markings ought to be, though I was pretty confident that my own take was correct given that I could regularly hear the distinctive rumble of the edge of the hard shoulder from my nearside wheels. Still, even the knowledge that I was in the right would have been of small consolation as we were waiting in a heap by the side of the road for the ambulance and the recovery truck.

The snow came to a merciful stop pretty much as suddenly as it had started, and I had not long taken us back up to what the railways would call “line speed” when all the interior lights came on and a rushing noise alerted us to the fact that one of the rear doors was open. I had never bothered to learn how to activate the child locks because The Boy was closely strapped into his state-of-the-art super-safe car seat and could not possibly reach the handles. Only now the junior Houdini has apparently discovered how to extricate himself from the straps and explore the possibilities. Luckily he was still in the car by the time I had made an emergency stop on the hard shoulder for the first and, I sincerely hope, the last time in my 39-year driving career.

After that we drove home with a keen sense of what might have been. It took us around six hours, compared with the three and a half forecast by the sat nav when we left Morpeth, but we got back to our Cheshire home feeling profoundly grateful that we had enjoyed a lucky escape in more senses than one.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

In the bleak late autumn

15st 10lb, 5.0 units. One of my favourite carols in childhood was “In the bleak midwinter”. Which continued, as you may recall, “frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow-ow-ow on snow.” I remember finally twigging that this must have been a pretty remarkable “weather event” (© The Met Office) for almost-first century Palestine. Now it strikes me as an uncannily accurate description of current conditions in my part of Northumberland. I find myself singing it to myself as I attempt to plod through the snow, then reminding myself that it isn’t actually midwinter, or anything like it. In fact, officially, it’s still autumn. Proof of this can be found in the brown leaves still falling from the trees onto today’s fresh snow. Thank heavens for global warming, eh?

Yesterday we had plans to go out for lunch, which we cancelled. Today we had no plans, but we cancelled those, too, just to be on the safe side. With the snow now up to The Boy’s waist there seemed no point in even attempting to engage his interest in playing in the stuff, so we contented ourselves with a very short walk to visit our next-door neighbours, and a completely futile hour-long, 10-mile round trip to the nearest village to collect newspapers that had completely failed to make it through to the shop.

Just a bit of snow in the back yard

The view from the garage: 15-18 inches of the white stuff
Those boots weren't made for walking
Told you so
It's pretty, though
And there are bizarre sights to ponder
Next door's cat wonders where it went wrong
The view to the north
Driving to the paper shop
Limited chances of a postal collection
No sign of the newspaper wholesaler

Friday, 26 November 2010

A good time for Atkins

15st 12lb, 10.0 units. Yesterday we ignored the weather forecasts and drove from Cheshire to Newcastle. All was going swimmingly until we stopped at the last services on the northbound M6, because while we were admiring the facilities my sat nav panicked and decided that the A69 was more or less blocked with snow and that it was going to take about 2.5 hours to get from there to Newcastle, which would make us about an hour late for lunch. Luckily one of the people we were due to meet is habitually the best part of an hour late anyway, so it could have been worse. I sent a short e-mail to my guests warning them of my situation and bravely set off, adopting my best Captain Oates persona. It was rather entertaining watching the sat nav sheepishly knocking great chunks off our estimated journey time as we progressed at a perfectly normal speed, reaching Café 21 bang on time.

Originally the plan had been for me to drive up alone while Mrs H took The Boy for his weekly swimming lesson, then catch a train to join me in Newcastle later in the afternoon. But this plan fell down because Transpennine Express proved to operate direct trains from Manchester to Newcastle every hour throughout the day, with the solitary exception of the hour in which Mrs H wanted to travel, when their service terminated at York for some unspecified reason.

So I ended up asking my guests whether they would mind having the company of a toddler at what was supposed to be what we might laughingly call a business lunch. Then ringing Café 21, where the youngest customer I had seen before yesterday was a Newcastle United first team player, to ask whether they welcomed children. They claimed that they did, though the answer to “Do you have a children’s menu?” proved to be “Oh yes, sir, we have a special lunch menu and our full à la carte”, which is not quite the same thing. Still, a high chair was waiting in readiness at our table and The Boy liked the sound of the fishcakes and chips from the à la carte, and they cut down the portion size and charged pro rata, which seemed fair enough to me. He enjoyed it, too, and behaved impeccably. Well, he slung so much food onto the floor that it required someone with a zoo-keeper’s brush and bucket combo in more or less permanent attendance, but at least he did not scream. In fact, he was rather better behaved than I was the last time I was here with a couple of fellow columnists from The Journal, and we drank four bottles of wine between the three of us as we set the world to rights.

It was dark by the time I had had a haircut, and we had a slowish drive home in the snow, but it was clearly going to be very pretty indeed when we got up this morning. In fact I found myself lying awake remembering how exciting snow was when I was a child, and anticipating how thrilled The Boy would be when I took him out to play in it. Completely wrong, of course. He was quite pleased with it for a couple of minutes when he was standing on the back doorstep watching Mrs H and me chucking snowballs at each other, but pretty fed up by the time he had walked around to see our next door neighbours and positively howling by the time we had built a very small snowman.

Setting off on an exciting adventure
Can't we get a move on? I'm cold
The Boy helping to build his very first snowman
Really quite fed up now
Are you seriously trying to tell me that this is your idea of FUN?
We had to use a stick for the snowman’s nose as there were no carrots in the shop at Powburn where I went for supplies this morning, the road to our usual supermarket in Alnwick being firmly closed. In fact there were no fresh fruit or vegetables of any description. I stocked up with milk, cheese, bacon, gammon and sausages because they were what they had. If ever there was a good time to take up the Atkins diet, this was it.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Well done, Lord Snowdon

15st 8lb, 15.0 units (or thereabouts). I remember my 40th birthday as though it were yesterday. The highlight was a rather downbeat lunch with a colleague in a wine bar near my then London office. I fancied the manageress of the wine bar something rotten, and misinterpreted her professional friendliness as an indication that my feelings might be reciprocated. Matters were made worse by the colleague repeatedly nudging me during lunch and saying things like “You’re definitely in there, mate” as the manageress personally delivered my pudding with a birthday candle plonked on the top. Fortunately I was put right shortly afterwards when I plucked up the courage to invite her to the opera. She accepted, and I was eagerly waiting for her outside the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane when a hippopotamus in a frock waddled up, announced that I answered the description provided by her flatmate and that she would be accompanying me to the show instead.

“Er, where’s Emma?” I asked, as you would.

“Oh, she’s out with her boyfriend. You did know she had a boyfriend, didn’t you?”

Well I certainly did now.

I don’t think I had the presence of mind to hand over a ticket and piss off, but I have happily erased the rest of the evening from my usually elephantine memory.

At least I saved a bit of money by not hanging around the wine bar every lunchtime and early evening after that.

My diary reveals that subsequent birthdays were little better. I worked for clients who always announced their annual results on or around my birthday, so I was usually busy at the office rather than out celebrating. When my birthday fell at a weekend, I would try to enjoy myself by booking tickets for the likes of Glyndebourne, but more often than not I would not actually go because of the perennial shortage of attractive and amusing female company, or simply because I was too knackered to be bothered.

In fact, things have only really looked up in the last couple of years since Mrs H found me. We have spent my last two birthdays very enjoyably at the opera at Grange Park.

Clearly the important thing is to keep my new-found enjoyment of birthdays up, rather than to drag Mrs H down to my traditional level of misery. The problem is that she has a 40th coming up in mid-February, and has been dropping heavy hints for months that what she really wants is a “surprise party”.

Question: if the person whose birthday it is specifies in advance that they want a “surprise party”, can it really be classified as a surprise?

The essential problem is that I hate parties – surprise parties in particular. Added to which, despite working in PR for years, I have absolutely no organizational skills in the party department: I always relied on my PA to do that sort of thing for me, and now I do not have a PA. Though Mrs H has mentioned from time to time that she now realizes that I never really wanted a wife, merely an efficient PA who would be prepared to sleep with me occasionally.

Yes, that summarizes the situation very nicely.

None of this has stopped the flow of heavy hints: the guest list of approximately 80 names, the suggestion that it might be rather nice to have it in a marquee in our garden (how the hell am I supposed to arrange the erection of a marquee as “a surprise” – can she possibly imagine that it can be accomplished in an hour or so while she is out having her hair done?), the 1930s art deco theme, the lovely 1930s dress that she would like to find hanging on the wardrobe door so that she can say “You’ve done it, darling! You’ve made my dream come true!”

Well, I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were Mrs H. That’s all I’m saying.

On the other hand we did go to a rather spectacular 40th birthday party yesterday evening – for Iceland the frozen food chain, rather than an individual. Appropriately enough it had a 1970s rather than a 1930s theme in its dinner menu of prawn cocktail, beefburger and chips and black forest gateau – but the delicious food that appeared before us bore only the sketchiest resemblance to those. There were the most amazing fireworks I have ever seen between the drinks reception and dinner, and a couple of surprise guests, too. I tried to take Mrs H’s photo with one of them, but failed utterly miserably owing to advanced drunkenness and technical incompetence.

Water works
Water, laser and fireworks
A true spectacular

Oooh ... Aaah!
My first attempt to photograph Dame Edna and Mrs H (Mrs H on right; unbelievably, my second attempt was even worse)

“Well done, Lord Snowdon,” the Dame remarked as she moved on among her adoring public after my second attempt.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Phwoar, eh?

15st 7lb, 7.5 units. Teams of hacks have no doubt been scouring the Internet for years for pictures of Kate Middleton with her kit off, yet the best they have been able to come up with is that one of her in the see-through dress at the fashion show where she first caught the eye of Prince William. As potentially erotic images go, it must be said that it is in an altogether higher class than the one of Diana with the sun shining through her skirt at the Young England kindergarten in Pimlico. Still, top marks for circumspection, Ma’am, as I suppose we must learn to call her. I reckon Miss Middleton will go far – oh look, she already has. And her “doors to manual” parents are by no means as embarrassing as the Wall’s sausage salesman who became Princess Anne’s father-in-law on her first marriage into the lower orders.

True, some of the papers today claim to detect a resemblance between Middleton père and Gordon Brown, and there might indeed have been something of Kirkcaldy’s favourite living son in the way that he stumbled through his message to the world’s media, read haltingly from a sheet of paper. (Couldn’t a self-made millionaire, speaking about something that has been anticipated for bloody years, and always seemed likely to attract a modicum of interest, have prepared for this day (a) by memorising a few apt words and (b) investing in some media training?) But his performance was distinctly outshone by the way that the father of the groom-to-be, doorstepped in his pet Dorset development at Poundbury, managed to mutter that he was “thrilled” by the news, while looking anything but, before adding glumly and gracelessly that “they have had enough practice”.

Like Gordon Brown, Prince Charles has been kept waiting in the wings to fulfil his destiny for an uncomfortably long time. The essential difference between them, I suppose, is that some people in the Labour Party were daft enough to believe that Brown would be an improvement on Blair (more genuine in his convictions, planning to dispense with spin etc) while I know of absolutely no-one who thinks that Charles will be an improvement on his mother. The potential for surprises is therefore entirely on the upside.

Meanwhile I read a learned news piece on the Duchess of Cornwall’s description of the engagement as “wicked” which managed completely to overlook the fact that she had just presented the Wicked Young Writers’ Awards and that the word might, therefore, simply have been close to the top of her mind. Moral: never think too deeply before looking for the obvious explanation.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Wedding non-blues

15st 10lb, zero units. I took a copy of The Journal around to my next door neighbours before I set off on the return journey from Northumberland to Cheshire, and admired the brace of partridges gently defrosting in their kitchen with the innocuous words “They look nice.” Cue immediate insistence on giving me a similar pair from the nine or ten they said they had in the freezer, which was not my intention at all. I was reminded as I walked to the car with my booty that today was their 64th wedding anniversary, hence presumably the catering for a modest celebration. This set me thinking of anniversaries. My parents would have been married for 74 years on Sunday, and my father would have been 102 yesterday, if he had not spoilt his chances by pegging out with a heart attack in 1982. Presumably the wedding date was set next to his birthday to increase his chances of remembering it. I do not recall whether the ploy worked or not, but I shared an office for years with a man who consistently failed to send his sister a birthday card – an omission about which we were all quite sympathetic in an “it could happen to anyone” sort of way, until one year he foolishly revealed that she was his twin. He was not joking, either.

I turned on the car radio in an attempt to lighten my journey and caught the news of the royal engagement, which immediately raised my spirits as I contemplated the addition of another shelf-full of commemorative tat to my cabinet full of Windsor memorabilia (my personal favourite is the mug depicting King George V and Queen Mary with the sepia legend “Rulers of an Empire on which the Sun Never Sets). It took me straight back to the Best Years of My Life in the early 1980s, when the boost to national and personal morale from the wedding of Charles and Diana was swiftly followed by the naval taskforce steaming out of Portsmouth to retake the Falklands (how I wish I had kept and framed that Time cover of HMS Hermes with the headline “The Empire Strikes Back”), the triumphant return of those liners requisitioned as troopships and Mrs Thatcher’s famous khaki election victory of 1983, capped for reactionaries everywhere by her creation of the first hereditary peerages since 1964. Everything seemed possible then, from getting my leg over my secretary to aspiring to an earldom. I was even fooled for a while into believing that Britain’s relentless twentieth century decline could be reversed as the clock was apparently put back through the sale of everything from council houses to the monolithic nationalized industries.

Now all we need is a genuinely Conservative government and an Argentinian invasion of South Georgia. It’s a shame that Dave has just decided to scrap our one remaining functional aircraft carrier, of course, but no doubt the Dunkirk spirit will prevail and we will muddle through somehow, pretending that a humiliating defeat was, in a strange sort of way, an unlikely victory for the people who had right on her side.

I completed the 235-mile drive in excellent spirits, sucking Rowntree’s fruit gums and listening to back numbers of the Archers Omnibus on my iPod. Something I definitely could not have done in 1981, so I suppose I must tip my Lock’s tweed cap to this small example of progress. The Dog did not wee himself in the car, either. Which was nice.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Not auspicious

15st 10lb, 8.0 units. It was lucky that I took the opportunity for that long walk in the sunshine on Saturday, as the weather yesterday proved to be rubbish, contrary to the encouraging forecast. Accordingly The Dog and I managed nothing more than our usual circular walk from the house; the one that used to take me a straight hour when I first acquired a Border terrier in 1991, and could be completed in 55 minutes if there was something unmissable on the television when we got back. Now it takes 77 minutes every time, even if we don’t run into the nice old lady down the lonnen [Northumbrian: lane] who likes to engage us in a spot of conversation while she kindly feeds The Dog a couple of biscuits and gives me one of her Werther’s Originals. Though it is fair to admit that The Dog does always slow down on the approach to her cottage and find something to sniff for a suspiciously long time right outside it, in the hope that she will appear. So that must account for a good two minutes of the additional time, leaving only a quarter of an hour attributable to my galloping senility.

The weather was better today, but for once I had some work to do and could not manage a long walk. Looking to the back of the house, though, I did notice that Cheviot had acquired its first snow of the winter. Surely not an auspicious sign.

The Cheviot from My Place: with added snow

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Simply glorious

15st 10lb, 2.2 units. So this is what we came for: a glorious walk from Hartside in the Breamish Valley, down to Alnhammoor, up to Cobden then along the Salters’ Road towards Alnham, before turning right through White Gate to the remote steading of Ewartly Shank. From there down to cross the burn, up the steep slope of Little Dod and gently back down to Alnhammoor. It’s one of my favourite walks, and my principal reservation about choosing it was that I had done it quite recently. I vividly remembered pausing by a gate on the way back to Alnhammoor and listening to the fence singing eerily in the breeze. Surely that was not all that long ago?

Amazingly, I found that it was in October 2006.

I wish that I could think of some observation more original than “time flies”.

The irritating thing is that, while the passage of time relentlessly speeds up as we get older, my own progress increasingly resembles that of a clockwork toy that is rapidly winding down. I started seriously walking the hills of Northumberland when I moved back here on my first attempt at retirement in 1986, aged 32. A little optimistic even by French standards, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

Alnhammmoor and the Cheviots

I started buying books of walks and was amazed to find that the authors always wildly over-estimated how long it should take to complete them – a deliberate ploy, no doubt, to make their readers feel smugly fit. Given my slowness to get out of bed and make a start in the mornings, and the shortness of the Northumbrian days in winter, I felt it prudent to make a note of the actual times taken to complete each route so that I would not end up, on my next outing, scrabbling around in some remote part of the hills in the pitch dark. I therefore know that the first time I completed this particular walk from my current guide book in 1997, it took me 3hr 10min to cover the seven miles, which sounds about right – I normally expect to cover a leisurely 2.5 miles an hour in the hills, and no doubt I stopped for 20 minutes or so to have a drink and a sandwich en route.

The next time out, with the route more familiar, I cut that to 3hr 5min. By 2006, it was taking 3hr 40min, but I remember stopping for a fair while to listen to that magical singing fence.

So how the hell did today’s walk end up taking an incredible 4hr 20min? Because I am slowing down, that’s why. And before anyone suggests the obvious – yes, I am overweight, but not quite as monstrously overweight as I was a few years ago. I only stopped for 12 minutes at White Gate to have a couple of unnaturally small ham sandwiches and a can of pop. True, I also stopped for a bit to scratch my head and take a picture when I discovered that the old stone farm steading at Ewartly Shank had been bulldozed and replaced by a large patch of mud behind the unlovely bungalow. And I puffed to a halt a few times on the ascent of Little Dod, but no doubt I did that in 2006, too.
Ewartly Shank: I'd have pulled down the bungalow, on the whole

Little Dod: it's steeper than it looks

There are usually few changes in this landscape, but in addition to the clearance at the Shank I noticed that Northumberland County Council had been busy removing blue bridleway signs and replacing them with red ones reading “restricted byway”. So far as I can see, the only difference between these two categories of rights of way is that restricted byways are also open to “any vehicles other than mechanically propelled vehicles” – which is a pretty rare sort of vehicle, when you come to think about it. So well worth the investment of my council tax receipts in changing the bloody signage.

Someone had also been very busy since my last visit erecting new fences across the grouse moors above Alnhammoor, with the result that I completely failed to spot the direct footpath (or, as it might be, restricted byway) that was supposed to take me back there, and ended up walking on along the track towards Linhope until I came to the tarmac road from Bleakhope, which I duly followed back to my starting point. Unfortunately I cannot believe that this had any material impact on my overall time to complete the walk.

At least this morning’s strong wind had dropped by the time I got back to the car, so I did not repeat the experience of having the driver’s door blown from my hand and smashed into the adjacent wire fence.

I drove home feeling better exercised than in years, energized and enthusiastic. And also amused by following from Hartside a small Toyota that was being driven decidedly erratically – frequently veering onto the wrong side of the little valley road then, at the always tricky junction with the A697, pulling out into the middle of the main road before stopping to have a bit of a think about what to do next. A course of action that could best be described as potentially suicidal.

I followed the car into the nearby services at Hedgeley and watched in some mystification as its driver promptly ploughed it into an obvious metal bollard with a pretty loud crash. After a bit two oldish men got out and looked around somewhat sheepishly, affecting a “Crash? What crash?” nonchalance. They reinforced their air of insouciance by pointedly not going to take a look at the no doubt bloody great dent in the radiator and bonnet. Something about the performance reminded me of the Border terrier, a dog with a pronounced sense of its own dignity which can never admit to making a mistake – and so, if it takes a tumble, invariably fixes you with a cold stare that clearly communicates “I MEANT to do that.”

So out of touch am I with the Northumbrian Zeigeist that I was on the verge of going across to the driver and asking if he was all right. It was only on my drive home that I finally twigged that he was, of course, completely pissed. Duh.

I had stopped at the garage to buy myself a little something as a reward for completing the walk. I came out with a Selkirk bannock and some of those cakes made by welding together Rice Crispies with toffee, then coating them in chocolate. Then I drove home, lit a roaring fire, made a pot of tea, put my feet up, consumed several slices of generously buttered bannock, ate most of the cakes and fell asleep. Would anyone care to calculate the net health benefit of my day?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Unexpected urination, wild wind

15st 8lb, 2.5 units. Well, what a surprise. After the usual five minute struggle with the top of the child-proof bottle, I gave The Dog his allegedly delicious flavoured tablet when we got back home from the vet’s last night, and he spat it out on the floor and gave me his “Why exactly are you trying to murder me?” look. So I moulded a piece of Cheddar cheese around it and gave it back to him. And he chewed it thoughtfully, ran the tablet around his mouth and spat it back out on the linoleum before treating me to the same look as before. We did that a couple more times and then he swallowed the pill, letting me know that he was only doing it to humour me and because he rightly suspected that I would lose my temper and kick him into next week if he kept it up for too long. But that he wanted me to know that he could have maintained the routine indefinitely if he had so wished.

Then we repeated the self-same rigmarole with the small white tablet that wasn’t deliciously flavoured, but did not need to be because it was so easy to conceal. Yeah, right.

All this was entirely predictable and unavoidable. Well, apart from the difficulty with the child-proof bottle tops, which I could have got around by handing them to The Boy, aged 17 months, who has spent the last week cheerfully opening bottles of Calpol and Amoxycillin and handing them to me or his mother, with an Oliver-like request for “More!” But, as luck would have it, he was busy having his daily bath at the time.

This morning we repeated precisely the same rituals, then I took The Dog for a little walk before loading him into the car so that we could go for a lovely weekend hillwalking in Northumberland. He did not want to go, but then he never wants to get into the car so I attached no particular significance to that. Indeed, he is the only dog I have ever met that, given a straight choice between getting into a car and staying at home alone, will plump for home alone every time. My previous Border terrier, by contrast, would leap into any car when the opportunity presented itself, even if it had just arrived home and was simply in the process of being unloaded and garaged. And he had had the unsettling experience of being in a near-fatal head-on collision, so might have had some justification for feeling mildly nervous.

We had completed less than two hours of our 4.5 hour journey when I was distracted from the wireless by an unusual noise that sounded a bit like running water. I looked around, and finally glanced at The Dog in the rear seat with the aid of my mirror. It WAS running water. The Dog was wearing the same look of bafflement and distress that I last witnessed in the day room of a twilight home, and the towel on which he had been sitting appeared to be quite comprehensively soaked.

What to do? I was bowling merrily along the M62 on cruise control at, ooh, let’s say 70mph in case the police are monitoring this blog. Having an incontinent dog on board hardly seemed the class of emergency that would justify screeching to a halt on the hard shoulder, even if I did not immediately have a vision of a filthy Romanian HGV ploughing into my car while the lorry driver was focusing on his computer game rather than the road. So I drove on to Wetherby services where I let The Dog out for the pee he no longer needed and exchanged his wet towel for a dry rug.

To be fair, the vet had mentioned that the small white pill was a diuretic. Memo to the vet: it is surprisingly effective.

When I finally reached home I rang Mrs H to share with her my and The Dog’s distressing experience. She laughed uproariously, and I found myself wondering for the first time what sort of monster I had married. Which at least finally gave me an insight into how she must have been interrogating herself several times a day, every day, since 28 February last year.

I had the car serviced in Alnwick this afternoon, and popped into town for a spot of lunch while it was going on. It was so windy that my scarf blew off somewhere between Blackmore’s regrettably bankrupt boutique hotel and Taylor’s newsagency, where I went to buy some reading matter to ease me through my meal. Anyone finding a green, black and white Barbour branded scarf (which looked much nicer that it sounds) in Alnwick that day is encouraged to make contact with the author, who will then start to think about a suitable reward.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Stone me

15st 10lb, zero units. The Dog has had a cough for at least a year now. It does not happen all that often, and does not seem to bother him unduly when it does. But I have to admit that it sounds dreadful – the sort of deep, rasping cough that my Uncle Bill used to demonstrate in the early morning as he enjoyed his first Senior Service of the day. And I happen to know for a fact that The Dog has never smoked, despite that tempting offer from the laboratory that was hoping to diversify out of beagles because their ears kept flopping messily into the ashtrays.

Mrs H, being a soft-hearted type, kept saying “We ought to get that checked out” and I replied “Umm” as I usually do in response to any suggestion that might involve me spending money. Then some interfering bastard gave her a manifestly ill-informed tip-off and she began saying “We ought to get that checked out – because it could be his heart, you know.” After which I started hearing the same thing from other people in other places. But always from women of a certain age, as it happened, so I was able to say “Forgive me for asking, but are you by any chance married?”

And they would reply, “Yes. Why do you ask?”

And I would nod sagely and say “Oh, no reason at all.” Then observe to Mrs H later, “Look, I told you it was an Old Wives’ Tale.”

But in a moment of weakness last week I agreed to take him to the vet’s to get this nonsense cleared up Once and For All, and this morning on the way to the office I dropped him off for a chest X-ray. Which is rather a bigger to-do for a dog than a human being because they have the sense to think “F*** off, I’m not letting you bombard me with almost certainly carcinogenic invisible radiation” and attempt to leg it. Hence they have to be given a general anaesthetic just to get them to the starting gate.

I knew it probably wasn’t going to be good news when I had a call to say that the vet would like to see me when I went to pick him up. But even then I had no inkling of the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold. It was lucky – or rather, showed admirable foresight on my part – that I had arranged for Mrs H to meet me there and hold my hand in case I broke down.

First the vet gave us the good news. There was nothing wrong with The Dog’s larynx. Yippee. Then he showed us what he said was an X-ray of The Dog’s chest taken from the side, though frankly it could just as easily have been a Luftwaffe black and white aerial shot of French defences along the Maginot line, or some archaeologist’s doodle of a Bronze Age encampment. Lungs all right, tick. Heart as it should be, tick. But then look at this picture of the chest taken from above. Heart about 50 per cent bigger than it should be, apparently. The Dog has got an Enlarged Heart.

I should have asked “So what?” Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Instead I mumbled something about his life expectancy and got a well-rehearsed spiel about the marvellous advances in drugs and how he could expect to live a perfectly normal life if only we dosed him up with them. One of the drugs even came in a lovely flavoured tablet that he would absolutely adore, while the other was tiny and easily concealed in something like a lump of cheese.

Stupidly, I agreed to give them a go for a week and see how we got along.

Then I went to the counter in reception and asked for my bill, and the girl said “Is he insured?” and I replied “No,” thinking but not saying “Because if he was insured I’d have paid a huge sodding premium for nine years now, and then as soon as I submitted a claim form I’d receive a spiel about how the policy sadly didn’t cover that particular problem, as has happened with every previous insurance policy I have ever been daft enough to take out for anything, because all insurers are devious, thieving bastards.”

And she said, “Then that will be £369.73, please.” Bold as brass, in front of a waiting room full of people. Frankly I was surprised that none of them made an immediate run for the door and started trying to stamp their pet to death in the car park.

“Stone me!” I cried, when I was finally capable of speech, and the extent of my shock can probably be gauged from the fact that I didn’t think to use one of the other, richer epithets that I usually draw upon from my very extensive vocabulary.

A ripple of merriment ran around the waiting room. I thought of putting a stop to it by pointing out that for that sort of money I could have had The Dog put down, bought another puppy, had it microchipped and vaccinated, and still had enough change for a bloody good night out. But instead I decided to forfeit their sympathy by demanding an itemized bill so that I could see how much of it related to the drugs just prescribed – because if they accounted for the £369 rather than the 73p he wasn’t going to be taking them in the long term, that was for sure.

I couldn’t understand most of the resulting print-out, but the bulk of the cost seemed to be the X-ray and some blood tests and something else described as a “Profile”. So maybe they added him to Facebook or LinkedIn while they had him under the anaesthetic.

Naturally I paid up. With the sort of extreme reluctance I normally reserve for signing cheques to HM Revenue & Customs.

Note to self: in future, always ask for an estimate before embarking on any course of action likely to lead to significant expenditure. Especially when in veterinary surgeries or massage parlours.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A low and a high

15st 8lb, 15.0 units. Or maybe more. How can you tell when flunkies keep refilling your glass?

Yesterday’s low point was the shock news that The Boy has foot and mouth disease. I had already put down a disinfectant foot bath for visitors to the house, and was on the internet trying to track down a captive bolt gun and some old railway sleepers for the pyre when Mrs H burst into my office with the inevitable print-out from, on which she had made big red ticks against each of the symptoms it described.

The good news was that he has actually got hand, foot and mouth disease, a usually mild viral infection, so he won’t need to be put down after all. Mind you, the same could probably be said of those pet goats cruelly snatched from tearful families during the last animal outbreak. Just as well, I think, that the human version falls under the purview of the Department of Health (or whatever it is called this week) rather than DEFRA.

The Boy wasn’t particularly jolly company at the weekend, what with his teething waking him up screaming in the early hours, and the doctor did say when we consulted her on Monday that he also appeared to be suffering from an infection, probably of a viral nature (the great GP get-out: we don’t know what it is, but no matter because there is nothing we can do to treat it anyway). But it took that fine old stand-by of wifeys’ gossip in the office to pin down exactly what it was. The nursery where he no doubt contracted it rather sheepishly admitted that there seemed to be a lot of it about.

Just like the Start-Rite shoes kids: the invalid takes some fresh air at the weekend
Not necessarily completely under control
The bad news from my point of view is that the bloody thing is apparently highly contagious, and I am the mug to whom The Boy repeatedly handed his drool-filled orange referee’s whistle over breakfast on Monday, inviting me to show him how it should be blown. With hindsight, I suppose I should have wondered why he was sniggering as he did so.

Today’s high point was 21,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, where lightly equipped climber Joe Simpson had his famous near-death experience after breaking his leg in a fall and later being left for dead when his partner cut their rope after Joe had plunged into a huge crevasse. His talk about the ordeal was completely spellbinding, and the responses to subsequent questions revealing. Had it brought him closer to God? No, he still thought religion was complete bollocks. Though sadly he failed to provide a definitive answer to the most important issue for the ladies present, “If I get lost up a mountain for five days, will I DEFINITELY lose two stone?”

He also reminded us that humans cannot remember pain, which is the only reason we do not all have one-child families. I noticed that Mrs H gave me a disturbingly meaningful look at this point. Though I dispute his thesis because I distinctly remember being kicked in the bollocks once at school, and the fact that it hurt like hell. I have taken great care ever since to ensure that it does not happen again. A chauvinist would no doubt deduce from this that being hoofed in the nads is considerably more painful than childbirth, an experience that most women seem positively eager to repeat.

Still, I learned one important lesson from the evening. I enjoy hill-walking, though I’ve clearly missed the point of it as the highlight for me is always the view from the summit and Joe Simpson assured us that getting to the top is actually an anticlimax. But I’ve never felt the urge to move onwards and upwards from the likes of the Cheviots and go mountaineering. Now it’s most definitely on the long list of things I’m not going to attempt between now and the grave, along with eating tripe, going waterskiing, making a pass at Anne Widdecombe, shouting racist abuse in the streets of South London and visiting Iran.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Halfway up Tooth Mountain

15st 8lb, 5.0 units. Another Tuesday, another newspaper column. I don’t know how I keep it up. Though I suppose it might well have something to do with the editor of The Journal telling me, when I started my regular Tuesday stint back in February 2006, that no-one could possibly write a weekly column for more than about nine months without repeating themselves or going mad. Though perhaps the latter need not trouble someone who was mad before they started.

It’s always a powerful motivator, proving a fellow human being wrong. Years ago I had a neighbour who received a diagnosis of cancer and a desperately depressing prediction of his life expectancy from his oncologist. A helpful friend bet him £500 that he would be dead by Christmas. This proved enough to keep him going not only through the festive season but for the best part of another two decades.

I did not intend to write about TV and radio this week. I had a lovely column sketched out in my head about Twitter, which I spent part of the weekend finally getting to grips with, having signed up for it many months ago and then never actually using it. Though in the meantime I noted that I had somehow gained a number of mysterious “followers” – most of whom, on closer inspection, appeared to be would-be vendors of pornography. So impossible to fault them on their homework, then.

Having “blocked” those and signed up to “follow” a list of more or less obvious journalists and celebrities, I sat back and tried to think what the hell to write for my first “tweet”. Inspiration finally struck on Monday morning when I found myself stuck behind two successive Renault Meganes being driven in that peculiarly irritating manner where the driver slows down to about 20mph on even the mildest bend, then speeds up to somewhere above the limit on the rare straight bits where one might stand a chance of getting past them.

Shortly afterwards I noticed a red sign on the stretch of the A41 I was navigating at the time which proclaimed “4 Deaths in 3 Years”. It did not seem all that bad to me – and for a nursing home it would be a positive triumph. Might there be a market for this very sign – or one like it – outside a Bide-A-Wee Maximum Security Rest Home somewhere in the country? There seemed no harm in making the enquiry.

But clearly it would be insanity to provide 1,400-word resumés of each of my “tweets” here. If interested, see

Anyway, no sooner had I decided that I would devote my column to Twitter than The Journal’s Monday columnist proved to have used his to write about Facebook. And, given the average age of the readership, it struck me that that was probably quite enough about social media for one week. I was particularly irked that his starting point was the new Facebook page of HM The Queen, when the British monarchy is and always has been my very own Mastermind specialist subject.

How to retaliate? Given that Monday's columnist is a reasonably well-known TV producer, how better than by writing about TV and radio? And I was genuinely distressed by the end of Downton Abbey and the demise of Jack Duckworth. I wonder, incidentally, whether amidst all those acres of newsprint devoted to lauding Downton Abbey’s fine evocation of Edwardian England, anyone has paused to reflect that Edward VII had actually been in his grave for the best part of two years when the Titanic went down and the series started?

One other small point about the BBC that I did not have room to include in my column is the curious fact that they continue to talk about Burma, rather than Myanmar. This must surely be the ultimate sanction to indicate their disapproval of the regime, given how they fall over themselves to adopt every other modish local attempt to replace well-established English place names. You can be sure that the only people you will ever hear talking about “Bombay” or “Peking” on the BBC are educated Indians or Chinese who realize that it is polite and correct, when speaking English, to use the English names. Just as, no doubt, if they were speaking Italian, they would use “Roma” or “Firenze”.


One bit of good news, though. In a late correction to yesterday’s post, Mrs H informs me that The Boy already has 10 teeth, not eight as I assumed. So halfway there already, then.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Little man, you've had a busy day

15st 9lb, 5.1 units. Not just a busy day, actually: it’s been a busy month for The Boy and his parents, hence the lack of updates here. Well, that and the author’s deeply ingrained idleness, obviously, though by now I’d have thought that might have gone without saying. For those few of you who would be regular followers if only I were a more regular writer, may I point out once more that weekly updates have continued to be provided throughout on my other blog, where the fear of being held responsible for a nasty white space on page 11 of the Newcastle Journal keeps my nose closer to the grindstone than here.

Several people have commented favourably on what one described, apparently knowledgeably, as my “avatar” – to me, just that little image of myself and The Boy that appears alongside my profile. So here is a more up-to-date shot from the same sofa of the child with his mother, which provides a welcome reminder that he does sleep occasionally.

Why can't they spend more time like this?
Because the most memorable feature of the last month or so from my little family’s point of view has been the amount of time he has spent awake, particularly in the middle of the night, focusing on the molar that has been trying to make its way painfully through his gum.

Naturally it all started on the day that we embarked on a little tour around the South of England, to introduce him to some of our friends. And so on 21 October I found myself sharing a remarkably small bedroom in a rather ill-favoured country hotel in Buckinghamshire (which had looked a hell of a lot nicer on its website than it did in reality) with a hysterically screaming child. This was all the more of a shock to my system because he has occupied his own bedroom from birth, and has slept soundly in it for the best part of 12 hours from around 7.30 p.m. for months now.

I have a stock phrase that I always use to Mrs H on these occasions: “This is all your fault.” I had already used it extensively as I carted a scarcely credible mountain of luggage from the car, through no less than three key-operated security doors and along the unbelievably narrow corridors of the hotel. (My old friend Fat Ted would have been wedged tight for weeks until his waistline contracted.) To be fair, Mrs H had only booked the place as a last resort when the converted railway station B&B up the road, where she had stayed before and which she rightly thought would appeal to the train nerd in me, proved to be no longer available because the owners had decided to retire at the end of September. There followed a series of increasingly desperate phone calls to appealing farmhouse B&Bs in the same area, some recommended by the friends of Mrs H’s with whom we were having supper that evening, all of whom Mrs H got on with like a house on fire until she asked “Is there room for a travel cot?” and they coldly announced that they could not accept children under 8, or 10, or 12, or 42.

Quite frankly, at around 4 o’clock that morning I could really see their point. And so, I imagine, could anyone else within earshot of our room. It was the noisiest stay in a hotel I have ever endured, apart perhaps from the time I was kept awake pretty much all night in a hotel in Ulster many years ago by the loudest love-making I have ever heard. Everyone at breakfast the next morning looked like zombies. Jealous zombies at that. We tried to work out who had been responsible for the racket but there wasn’t a bloke in the dining room with an ear-to-ear grin and a cage down his trousers to stop his worn-out parts chafing. I enquired at reception when we checked out and they duly apologized and said that the couple concerned had made an early departure. “Use the back entrance, did they?” I enquired, meaning that I expected they were trying to keep a low profile, but I think I was comprehensively misunderstood.

Things did not get much better for us when we decamped to Lewes to stay with some kind but unfortunate friends of mine, with whom we spent three nights (though I’m sure it seemed much longer). Though at least we made an enjoyable visit to something billed as a “petting farm”. I had high hopes of this, only ever having previously encountered the word “petting” in notices announcing that it was strictly forbidden in municipal swimming pools, and strangely it did not disappoint.

The Boy braced for a spot of petting
Trying to feed the goats

Admiring the alpacas (or whatever they are)

Mrs H takes a break from the cute animals

An old man tries out an air pillow
The Boy's morning goes with a swing ...

... and a drive ...
... and a go in the sandpit ...
... before meeting a push-me-pull-you guinea pig ...
... and a disappointingly small cock

Then we took The Boy to Brighton to collect his long-awaited christening present from his godfather, and he distinguished himself by smashing (a) a cheap and cheerful IKEA vase on a coffee table or (b) a priceless Ming vase that had been in the family for generations, depending on whether you are (a) a casual reader or (b) the person who processed the subsequent insurance claim.

Hold it: crash, bang, wallop, what a picture (as they said in the Alma tunnel)
Quote of the day from godfather, after a fine lunch at the Regency fish restaurant, “I would not change my life for yours.” Which was a bit of a blow, to be honest, as I was just on the point of asking him to swap with me for a couple of years. On the strict understanding that I wouldn’t have to take part in any of that funny business for which Brighton is apparently noted.

The next day my Lewes chum took me for a bracing walk across the Downs past a newly built windmill, to a pub called The Juggs Arms. In Juggs Lane. Naturally I pissed myself laughing at the obvious connotations. My friend advised me that he had only ever encountered one other person who found this vaguely amusing: his daughter when she was aged about 15. Apparently she has now grown out of it. Young at heart, that’s me.

Why can't all wind turbines look like this?

The Boy clearly believed himself to be in the doghouse after the vase episode because he kept clambering into the cage of our friends’ Border collie and shutting himself in.

The Boy in the doghouse
Facing some competition
After this we motored up to Surrey to stay with another friend who kindly entertained us with a bonfire and an excellent supper (the two of which were in no way related) and was glad to receive confirmation that she had no regrets about her own lack of children. “You can understand why people batter babies, can’t you?” she remarked over breakfast as Charlie spread his around her fine mahogany dining table and practised his best piercing squeal.

Anyone at home?  Another victim quakes before the onslaught
Playing with matches at his age?  Surely not

After an hour or so’s delay while we reloaded the car with enough luggage for one of the Viceroy of India’s grander tiger hunts, we sauntered off towards north London – well, I say “sauntered” but in fact my sat nav went mad and concluded that the quickest route from Lewes to Islington lay via Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street, so it was about as long and painful as our night in that Buckinghamshire hotel, albeit slightly less noisy. When we finally arrived we had lunch with some friends who have an eight-month-old and therefore still largely immobile daughter. They looked on in increasingly horrified anticipation as The Boy rampaged around their house, sustaining a cut lip and a nosebleed in the course of two quite spectacular falls.

Then it was off to Twickenham, wisely ignoring the sat nav’s injunctions to retrace our morning route, for supper with another luckless old friend.

Wednesday saw us having coffee in Islington, lunch in Smithfield and supper near Doncaster, with a gigantic and complicated set of time-consuming roadworks neatly planted shortly before each eating opportunity to guarantee that The Boy reached it in a desperately bad mood. Special thanks to the staff and customers of Carluccio’s for their understanding.

If it's not messy they're not making it right

From South Yorkshire we drove up to Northumberland so that I could attend a business launch party in Newcastle and remind The Boy of his real roots, whatever it may say on his birth certificate. I also went for a haircut and took the opportunity to have The Boy’s curls lopped off.

Regrettably missing the traditional pudding basin
That's more like it

Finally we returned to Cheshire where The Boy has continued teething for more than a week now, screaming loudly in the early hours and with his shirt permanently drenched in drool. The happiest days of his life? I think not. Still at least Mrs H informed me last night that he now has eight teeth, and only 12 more to go. This came as news to me because I thought that humans had 28 teeth, or 32 if they are blessed with wisdom teeth (I only have 29, though an X-ray at my dentist’s last month showed that a 30th is on its way, at age 56). Mrs H assured me that there are only 20 milk teeth, so that’s a result: a saving of £8 on the money I had set aside on behalf of the tooth fairy, which I can now safely spend on drink. The way things are going, I feel that I am going to need it.