Sunday 31 January 2010


15st 3lb, 5.0 units. I don’t know what it was that depressed me yesterday. As funerals go, it was right up there with the best I have ever attended. Perhaps it was the calculation that, when I first met him, Len must have been almost exactly the age that I am now; and it seems like yesterday. That and the fact that I had not got to know him better when I had the chance. Plus regrets at having to miss the no doubt excellent “refreshments” at the Golf Club afterwards, as I had committed myself to driving back to Cheshire in time for supper. Although the dinner party originally planned for the evening had to be cancelled owing to The Baby’s rotten cold and Mrs H’s consequent exhaustion.

Whatever the reason, by the time I had covered the 235 miles to my home in the North West I was about as cheery as a North Sea fisherman teetering on the brink of financial ruin, who has just hauled in his nets to find that they contain some old fridges, an assortment of big turds and a Second World War mine that has just started ticking ominously. I have to hand it to Mrs H, though. At no point did she suggest that I might like to get into the car and drive back again.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Four and twenty gentlemen

15st 8lb, 4.5 units. I always used to say that I much preferred funerals to weddings and christenings, not least because I stood a sporting chance of eventually playing a leading role in one myself. (I am under no delusions that this is an entirely original thought, by the way, so there is no need to leave a comment to that effect unless you are helpfully going to provide chapter and verse on where it originated.)

The altogether surprising events of the last year have included my participation in both a marriage and a publick baptism, both conducted strictly in accordance with the Prayer Book of 1662, and I have left firm instructions that my funeral, when it comes, should also follow that form of service. I felt sure that Len, whose funeral I attended this afternoon, would have made a similar specification, since I had discovered in the course of our more recent conversations that he was a pretty dedicated reader of my newspaper columns and particularly enjoyed those in which I savaged ecclesiastical innovations. More importantly, he did so from the standpoint of a long-standing churchwarden and dedicated member of the congregation of Rothbury parish church, rather than a dilettante “atheist for Christ” like myself.

I knew that the funeral would attract a good turnout. Accordingly I arrived in Rothbury with the best part of half an hour to spare, allowing ample time to park in the car park across the river and pay a precautionary visit to the public lavatories as I walked back to the church, listening to the muffled bells ringing out across the village. I marched purposefully through the British Legion guard of honour and attempted to enter the church by the wrong door. Politely redirected, I found that virtually every seat was already occupied, but followed my instructions and took a place “at the front on the left” which left me only marginally worried that I might have usurped a seat intended for Great Aunt Mabel or some loyal family retainer.

On the stroke of 1.30 two priests entered, with a mitred bishop between them. One of the priests was distinctly female, and the white-haired and amply proportioned male one, while kicking off promisingly with “I am the resurrection and the life”, seemed then to diverge into some modern variant rather than the well-remembered words of 1662. I looked closely at the coffin for signs of protest.

Still, Len could have found no fault with the rest of the proceedings. We sang no fewer than five traditional hymns, all chosen by him (the priest in charge apologized for the resulting “bit of a singathon”) though only the last two (“Abide with me” and “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”) featured in my repertoire from my schooldays, enabling me to belt them out with unabashed gusto from the start. With the others I had to mumble at least the first verse until I had got the hang of the tune, which is always a shame. There were a couple of fine, traditional readings from the King James Bible, and a lady sang an aria from the Messiah. Then there was a pair of entertaining and illuminating addresses remembering the man, one delivered by a retired local GP who had known Len since their schooldays, and the other by an Air-Vice-Marshal.

At many points in the proceedings I felt myself moved to tears. At some appropriate points in the GP’s reminiscences I laughed. And at one point I had to restrain myself, with the greatest of difficulty, because the doctor referred to Len’s membership of an ancient and no doubt honourable society known as “The Four and Twenty Gentlemen of Rothbury” and I am incapable of hearing the words “Four and Twenty” without assuming that the next one in the sequence is going to be “Virgins”, and giggling like a 14-year-old. At least Mrs H suffers from the same problem, as the music group to which she takes The Baby begins its little get-togethers with a “welcome song” to a tune which she knows only as “Four and Twenty Virgins”, giving her serious problems in (a) keeping a straight face and (b) not launching into its cheerfully obscene chorus at the end of every verse.

It came as news to me that Len was probably the largest private landlord in Rothbury. I had known him only as my builder for the last 20 years – and a builder whose men always turned up when they said he would, and did the job properly. A bit over a year ago, when I had a persistent leak in my bathroom roof, Len did not let the fact that he had lost a leg to diabetes prevent him from turning out in person to offer his assistance. He got someone to drive him over in a van and delivered a dehumidifier to keep the damp at bay until the problem was finally resolved. His only regret was that he was unable to climb up onto my roof in person to get to the bottom of it.

I was thinking of this as his eulogists made the essential points about the man: he would do anything for anyone, and he would do so because he was a devout Christian. I am sorry that I did not appreciate that more keenly while he was still alive, and that I did not get to know him better when I had the chance. Regrets are useless, but let us hope that the lessons they teach us may yet do a little good.

Friday 29 January 2010

Good money after bad

15st 8lb, 2.25 units. I spent most of the day sitting at my desk in Northumberland, looking at the gatepost and my agent’s attached "Under Offer" sign waving gently in the breeze. On the one hand it does offer some entertainment and instruction as a weather vane, but on the other it has been over three months since I took the property off the market, so I suppose I ought to do something about getting it removed. A visitor the other day suggested that I should start charging the appropriate market rent for an advertising hoarding, since the fact that they had managed to obtain an offer for my house provided the most fantastic recommendation for my agents, suggesting that they could sell almost anything. This seemed a little unkind about my much-loved home of 22 years, I must say.

So far, since taking the house off the market, I have identified at least £10,000 worth of essential repairs to the place. I was blissfully unaware of the need for these when I cancelled the sale, but assumed that the prospective purchaser had spotted them, given that he is a qualified chartered surveyor and had pitched his offer well below my asking price. However, he has assured me that the need for them came as news to him, too. And how much will it add to the potential value of the place when I have repaired or replaced all the worn-out windows and collapsing shed roofs?

Yes, I am sure that is precisely right.

Absolutely nothing.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Stripping, Northumberland style

15st 8lb, 8.0 units. I should have been driving back to Cheshire first thing this morning, but then I received a phone call on Monday to say that an old friend had passed away over the weekend and his funeral would be taking place on Saturday afternoon, so I decided to hang around for that. I sat down at my desk early this morning, intent on making the best possible use of my additional time in Northumberland to clear up some of the mountains of accumulated newspapers, periodicals and correspondence that have grown up around the place over the last year. And I did a little of that, but all too soon allowed myself to become distracted into aimless searches for things I did not really need. Towards the close of the day, I walked to the post box with The Dog and observed one of those signs of a really harsh winter that I had first noticed when walking across the fields on Sunday: a pheasant carcase stripped so comprehensively bare that it comprised only the beak, backbone and feet, plus a few, scattered tail feathers. Later on I came across a sheep that had received similar treatment. Further out in the high hills, there could well be people …

A very ex-pheasant

A profoundly former sheep

Alas, poor Sean ...

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Not as sharp as I used to be

15st 8lb, 3.8 units. To Newcastle again, this time for lunch at Café 21 with a colleague from The Journal and one of the local masters of PR. It made me realize what I am really missing in my life at present, viz lunch. Or, to be more precise, a really delicious lunch with a certain amount of booze and some stimulating gossip with intelligent people. It used to be the centrepiece of my day when I worked in financial PR in London; I think it needs to become so again, if I am not to sink further into hopeless despondency about the futility of my existence. Obviously having lunch is an equally futile way to pass the time, but at least it is thoroughly enjoyable.

It was probably just as well that I had had the foresight to go and do my shopping before lunch. I had been charged by Mrs H to invest the £50 one of her uncles had given us for Christmas in some sharp kitchen knives for our establishment in Cheshire. The “Can I help you?” I got from the shop assistant at Bainbridge’s was charged with suspicion even when I was stone cold sober at 11.30. If I had been smelling of drink as well, I expect she would have called the police first and let them ask the questions later. Not that she proved to be much help, as my budget did not afford much choice, given that most of the branded knives I had heard of cost more than £50 each, and £200-plus for a set. I did the only thing I could do and bought a John Lewis own brand set, muttering to myself the mantra of the HR department in every firm I have ever worked for (“They may not be good, but they are cheap”).

I also treated myself to a Corby trouser press, and went to pick it up from the store’s Customer Collection Point after lunch. “Do you have a car nearby?” they enquired and I airily assured them that I did. After all, I have owned Corby trouser presses for years, and cheerily moved them around between flats and houses without the slightest difficulty. Yet by the time I had conveyed this one the few hundred yards to the Dex Garage multi-storey car park, I felt as though my arms were going to drop off. Another sad reminder that I am by no means as young as I used to be.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

No barrier to a hopeless drunk

15st 8lb, 7.8 units. I drove Mrs H and The Baby to Newcastle Central Station so that they might catch a train back to Chester. An admittedly first class single (for the section of the journey where first class is actually available) cost something north of £80, which is less than I am accustomed to paying for a first class return to London. But then the journey was scheduled to take around four and a half hours, so maybe nowadays they use a formula that calculates rail fares on a per minute rather than a per mile basis.

Another quirk is that there is a direct train from Newcastle to Manchester every hour, but the national rail information websites seem to make every effort to conceal this fact from the travelling public. Certainly every search we undertook for travel between the North East and Chester specified a minimum of two changes, at York and Manchester. Some managed to find scope for three. One particularly mad option, when Mrs H planned to take a train up here, was to reach Alnmouth by changing at Preston and Edinburgh (though there was a footnote warning that this might involve paying “more than one fare”). But nowhere is there a “baby in buggy: minimize changes” button to press, which would lead you to the humorously named Transpennine Express direct from Newcastle to Manchester Airport.

I guess it must have something to do with the revenue sharing arrangements between the various train operating companies, which somehow make it desirable for as many passengers as possible to be funnelled onto East Coast (or whatever it is called this week) if they are using the line between Newcastle and York. They used to carry this to the absurd length, on the departure boards at York, of showing the ultimate destination of northbound Transpennine Express trains as Chester-le-Street, so that people waiting for a train to Newcastle would not have the temerity to board one.

Given the combination of absurdly high fares, slow trains and inconvenient connections, it is scarcely surprising that relatively few people in Britain travel cross-country by rail. And another barrier has been erected, quite literally, since I last visited Newcastle Central: metal and glass gates which mean that you cannot get onto the platforms without a ticket.

Now, to be fair, these are a lot less visually intrusive than the old, high metal railings and gates that used to stand at the entrances to the platforms. I read reports about the new barriers in The Journal which said that “it is believed that there were formerly gates in place at the station”, as though they were some ancient piece of history, well beyond living memory. But I remember them well from my university days. Great, tall, heavy, cast iron things they were, with the gates invariably manned by disobliging jobsworths who would always reply to the hurrying passenger’s “Which platform for London?” with “Why didn’t you look it up on the departures board?” The c**ts.

On the other hand, in those days you could always get past the jobsworths by investing 2d in the machine that issued pasteboard platform tickets. A tradition that must have disappeared at around the same time that they stopped asking “Would you like insurance?” at the ticket office every time they sold a rail ticket, or at any rate a long distance one (I am not sure they can have bothered on the issue of every second class single from Manors to West Jesmond). I did not start travelling around the country by train until the 1970s, but I can well recall being invited to pay an extra shilling (or 5p) for a postcard which you could send to your loved ones, specifying in horrific detail the payout they could look forward to receiving if your train journey ended in the loss of a limb, faculty or life.

Mrs H asked for a platform ticket for me at the “travel centre”, but they said I could not have one: they did not issue them any more. So how, she asked politely, is my husband going to help me onto the train with my buggy and luggage? “He’ll just have to ask the member of staff on the gates.” Fortunately, said member of staff was a soft touch. So much so that, about half an hour or so after departure, I had an e-mail from Mrs H reporting that “It’s all very Coronation Street on here”. Just as her train was about to depart, a clearly hopeless drunk had staggered up to the doors and they had not only opened them for him, but kept them open as he had attempted to strike up a conversation with the guard despite the handicap of suffering a clearly drink-related loss of the power of speech. Once under way, they had provoked him by declining to sell him more booze from the refreshment trolley, and he was making his discontent loudly known to all the other passengers. Plans were being made to have him removed by the railway police at York. Still, it’s handy they installed those expensive new gates at Newcastle to control access to the platforms and stop this sort of unfortunate incident happening in the first place.

Monday 25 January 2010

Dark cloud over Longframlington

15st 8lb, 9.0 units. Disaster must have struck at around 12.50p.m., coming out of a clear sky much as Little Boy surprised Hiroshima. True, this was a human tragedy on a much smaller scale, but it still left my brother distinctly miffed because he had walked confidently into the pub, bought and paid for a pint of Guinness, and then felt that he had no honourable course but to neck it when the management revealed that our custom for lunch would not be welcome. And it had all been going so well until they enquired about the size of his party and he replied “Two more adults and a baby”. The pub did not admit babies or children. Never had done at any point in its 40 years under the present management, so they felt confident that all their potential customers knew as much. Consequently there was no need to spell out the policy with, say, a sign at the door.

I beg to differ. Particularly in a county that aims to scrape a living by promoting itself as a tourist destination, I feel that it is important to make these things clear from the outset, thereby avoiding potentially embarrassing explanations at the bar.

My dear and sadly departed friend Ray from the Warenford Lodge, for many years the finest food pub in Northumberland, always used to display a notice on the door announcing that no children under 14 were permitted in the bar (though even he allowed them into the restaurant). That other great eccentric Kim de la Taste Tickell had a long list of prohibitions written in black ink on the glass doors of the Tickell Arms in Whittlesford back in the 1970s, of which the only one that has stuck in my mind for almost 40 years is, for some strange reason, “No collarless shirts”. I think some of the others were rather more graphic and unacceptably racist for the present day, although at least they were hardly likely to have been homophobic.

All of which is fine and dandy. I approve of freedom of choice, and for most of the last half century a “no kids” rule would have got my vote every time. Now I have simply refined it in my head into a “No other people’s kids” rule. Or, to be more accurate, a “No badly behaved kids running around and screaming” rule. Which encompasses most other people’s children most of the time, if I am honest.

It would be against the whole ethos of this blog to name the place that accelerated my brother’s lunchtime Guinness consumption so dramatically, and had him out on the street by the time we turned up at 1p.m. to head us off elsewhere. But it was the Granby Arms in Longframlington, which I can wholeheartedly recommend for decent, home-cooked food and really excellent value; particularly if you enjoy your meals all the more when consumed in a dining area that has all the atmosphere of a day room in a geriatric home. It’s a bit like a scene from the comic strip “Mrs Brady, Old Lady” in Viz. The last time I took my 85-year-old aunt there she seemed a bit too young to fit in. And when, on another occasion, I went to eat in the bar to get away from the raised voices and the clash of metallic mobility aids, I was brought almost to screaming point by an endless monologue about the intrinsic design faults of the Austin Princess, delivered by a shoo-in for the title of Most Boring Man in Northumberland, despite the amazing stiffness of the competition.

But if by some strange chance that is not quite your bag, a short stroll will bring you to the Village inn (until recently the New Inn), an establishment that offers equally good food, with the added bonus of real ales, a real fire and a friendly welcome to your children.

It’s your choice. Which is just as it should be.

Sunday 24 January 2010

A feast of meat and filth

15st 9lb, 6.4 units. I should perhaps have said that I did not really gain 4lbs yesterday, except by shifting my geographical location and using a set of scales that is less kindly disposed towards me. Though I do, of course, invariably take full credit for the completely fictitious weight loss that apparently occurs whenever I travel in the opposite direction.

The omens for the waistline today did not look good, as Mrs H staggered across the kitchen under the weight of the huge leg of lamb, and began rubbing it with assorted spices under the watchful eye of The Dog. Her natural inclination, once equipped with enough meet to feed 13, would have been to invite at least 11 people around to share it with us. I, in my buttoned-up English way, preferred to stick at the six we can seat comfortably around the 1930s dining table I inherited from my parents. But in Iran, apparently, Mrs H’s relatives would cheerfully invite around 16 people and simply spread them out around the house – some at the table, some on the sofa, some in the conservatory. “And they would all have a really good time,” Mrs H concluded. I felt like saying that this would be a first for a luncheon or dinner party at my house, however many people were invited, but somehow I managed to contain myself.

I don’t know where my morning went. Well, I do. It was mainly absorbed by listening to two weeks’ worth of The Archers Omnibus back to back, while assembling a flat-pack high chair for The Baby and doing a mountain of accumulated ironing. As a result, there seemed to be a mad rush to accomplish my share of the pre-lunch chores, such as fetching logs and wine (shades of Good King Wenceslas) lighting the fires and laying the table. I had just about finished when our first guests arrived, bringing with them two mad spaniels and their year-old daughter (human, not canine). They plonked her in the high chair before I could mention that I had managed to wreck two vital barrel nuts through over-enthusiastic application of my Allen key, and that as a result it probably would not pass an official Elfin Safety inspection. I was much heartened by their pride and joy’s failure to plummet to her death, and tipped Mrs H the wink that it was probably safe to use it for our own Baby so long as we put a load of cushions on the floor around it to break his fall.

Mrs H Does Not Do Gravy but fortunately one of our guests did, while I devoted myself to the uncharacteristically manly task of carving. I provided enough lamb in each serving to exceed the RDA of red meat per person by around 150 per cent, yet it was so delicious that 66.6 per cent of the plates were completely cleared, and one was left merely decorated with a few artfully cut scraps for the dogs. True, one guest did not eat any of it all, merely shifting it around a bit for form’s sake. I am confident that this is not the result of vegetarianism, and I suppose if I were a restaurateur I would have enquired what was wrong with the dish and then pushed the cook onto her sword. But, as it was, I just let it pass unremarked and three dogs were very grateful. After lunch the Men took them for a walk across the muddy fields while the women stayed by the fire and talked about us behind our backs. I do not think I have ever seen three animals get more filthy, but sadly I am talking about the dogs rather than the ladies.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Unlucky for some

15st 10lb, 6.8 units. Mrs H rang the butcher in Alnwick to order a leg of lamb, using some strange metric measurements that meant nothing to me but seemed to be understood at the other end. But did she want that weight boned or unboned? And, if the latter, did she realize that she was asking for more meat than a whole leg of lamb actually contained? Mrs H did not know the answer to either question, since she was merely placing a touching faith in the instructions provided by one of Nigel Slater’s recipe books. So she concluded the conversation by asking them just to save her a leg of lamb, boned, and she would trust to luck on how much it weighed.

Then we went off to Morpeth to pick up my lovely aunt and took her to lunch at Mr Blackmore’s fine pub in Alnwick, finally making It to the butcher’s just as they were clearing away all the meat from the counter and stacking it in the fridge. They had our leg of lamb all right, though, carefully put to one side. And they had evidently scoured Northumberland to find the ovine equivalent of Bao Xishun, the 8’ 1” Mongolian who is officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest man in the world. The bloody thing cost almost £40 and would, we were assured, comfortably feed 13 people (always a fashionable number for a dinner party, I find). Lamb prices are very high at the moment, the butcher told us (a claim I subsequently corroborated via a Google search). In fact, he quoted a price per sheep that is apparently beyond the usual dreams of avarice for a Northumbrian hill farmer, and watched as I began working out on my fingers that someone else must still be making a bloody good margin if a leg was nearly £40 and each sheep had, on average, around four of them. Seeing the way my mind was going, the butcher muttered something about transport and abattoir costs, and said that the real driver of the price was a shortage of supply. Yes, that will be right, given that every field around my house seems to contain several dozen of the bloody things, bleating and crapping on their woolly coats.

When we got home I delivered a copy of The Journal to my octogenarian next door neighbours, who told me that I had missed the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, no doubt greatly to the detriment of this blog. Even in their long lives they had never seen so much snow fall so quickly, piling up to a uniform 26 inches in their backyard. (It fell in a flat calm, so there was no drifting). They regaled me with many tales of agricultural shed roofs and domestic gutters collapsing under the weight of it. I congratulated myself on returning after almost a month to find my own house completely unscathed. Then I walked back home and spotted the gutter lying on the ground beside my conservatory.

Friday 22 January 2010

Moto's beacon of hope

15st 6lb, 1.5 units. We drove to Northumberland, Mrs H, The Baby, The Dog and I. Which is to say that I drove to Northumberland while the other members of the party variously slept, farted, scratched themselves and / or made perceptive but ultimately unhelpful remarks about the dreadful state of the traffic. Even by Friday afternoon standards, it was a dire journey. There seemed to be an accident every few miles that brought us grinding to a halt so that the tangled metal could be swept up and the blood hosed away, or simply so that ghouls could have a good long gawp at the aftermath. The combined benefits of satellite navigation and Mrs H’s preference for Radio 2 meant that we were able to leave the crawling jam on the M62 and admire the long stretch of crash barrier demolished by an out-of-control lorry on the M606. Then we enjoyed a scenic tour of inner city Bradford and suburban Leeds, before ultimately reaching Harewood, which Mrs H graciously announced that she was willing to add to the list of places in England where she would be prepared to live. Then we cut across country to pick up the A1(M) at Wetherby, thereby avoiding the major accident at its junction with the M1. Mrs H and I were both hoping against hope that we would finally meet the road south rather than north of Wetherby Services, given that we had both been dying for a pee for about an hour and a half and The Baby was similarly overdue for a feed. The Dog was probably pretty keen to do something, too, but we did not think to consult him. Our delight when we finally saw the Services sign before us was perhaps not as great as that of a frostbitten Arctic explorer with a broken limb, seeing the ski-equipped rescue plane circling overhead. But it was not that far short.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Roads and Responsibility

15st 6lb, 4.5 units. Too much to eat and drink again last night. Which might have had something to do with the almost two hours it took me to complete what should have been a 40 minute journey home, thanks to the closure of the A55 near Chester owing to “an accident”. As a result of which I felt seriously in need of a drink by the time I walked through the front door.

I’d love to tell you more. And no doubt you’d love to read it. After all, we all adore a good accident, don’t we? Just think how often you have been delayed on the motorway by traffic that has slowed to a crawl for no other reason than that everyone in front of you felt the need to have a jolly good gawp at some incident in the opposite carriageway.

So I regret that I have no further intelligence to share with you. You might think that an accident serious enough to require the closure of half a major dual carriageway, causing gridlock during the evening rush hour, might have merited a mention somewhere so that those caught up in the resulting chaos could find out what the hell it had all been about. But clearly not. Even in these days of the information superhighway, extensive searches have turned up precisely nothing.

It was the same on both occasions when I observed crashes at close hand, through my rear view mirror. Once on the M62 and once on the Central Motorway in Newcastle, I came to a halt behind stationary cars and fast moving vehicles behind me didn’t. I vividly remember watching a BMW flying through the air and performing several somersaults, wondering whether it would stop before it landed on me. It did. Which was particularly lucky because, in that instance, in Newcastle, I was driving a brand new car which I had travelled less than a mile from the showroom after picking it up. “Bloody typical”, I thought as I sat there glumly waiting for the chain reaction of crashes to involve me, but amazingly escaped without a scratch after the large white van behind me sportingly steered away from my car when he was struck. Perhaps he could not bear to dent my pristine paintwork. Perhaps he was hoping for a reward. Who knows?

Anyway, it all seemed pretty spectacular at the time and I eagerly scanned the news to read reports, but neither crash was ever mentioned anywhere. Similarly, a few years ago I was brought to a grinding halt by a huge fire on the A1. I eventually found a short report of that one on the local BBC news website. A young mother and her two children had been crushed and then incinerated by a timber lorry that had failed to notice their car, stationary in roadworks. It had merited a passing mention on the local radio station, no more. If it had involved a train it would have been one of the lead items on the national news on TV, but death and injuries on the roads are apparently considered such an everyday event that they are not really worth reporting.

Apart from that I spent my day gamely trying to write something about what used to be called Corporate Social Responsibility, but now seems to have become just Corporate Responsibility, presumably to reflect the fact that big companies seem to feel obliged to pretend that they are trying to save the planet, as well as the humans infesting it. It’s all very worthy, but my goodness it’s dull. It reminded me why I tried to weasel my way out of writing so many annual reports a few years ago. There are not a lot of laughs to be had of it, that’s for sure. I wonder whether I should try adding an irresponsibly humorous Corporate Responsibility section to my own website?

Wednesday 20 January 2010

The hole with the mint

15st 5lb, 3.0 units. Which genius decided that it would be a good idea to centralize all customer contact in distant call centres? I’d really like to know his or her name (but it has to be a “him”, doesn’t it, to be honest?) Then I’d like to organize an appeal to commemorate this outstanding human being with a really large statue – something along the lines of those favoured by Saddam Hussein or that world class nutcase who used to run Turkmenistan. Then I’d like to arrange a flash mob to pelt it with rotten vegetables and manure, before pulling it down and smashing it into pieces small enough to fit through, say, a wedding ring. Yes, I think that should just about relieve my feelings. Now, I happen to agree that there is nothing more annoying than being the customer physically present at a shop counter or hotel reception desk, who finds that their conversation with the person allegedly serving them is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone. Just why, I always ask when I can finally regain the attention of the individual I was dealing with, do you assume that the person on the other end of the phone is more important than me? Theirs is simply a crass failure of manners, but I can just about understand why the genius might have thought it was a good idea to deprive employees of the opportunity for this sort of rudeness by routing calls elsewhere. Once I used to be able to ring my local station before leaving home, to ask Athol the stationmaster if he expected the London train to be on time. Now I can only get through to a call centre in India, where they struggle with “London” never mind the name of my starting point. True, there are information resources on the Internet that compensate for this to some degree, but until I got a BlackBerry I was in the dark once I had left home, and with my local station being unmanned in the evenings that left Bangalore (or was it Delhi?) as my only option. The lowest point was being huddled in the waiting room with half a dozen other people one winter’s night, waiting for the delayed 18.00 to London. After an hour or so one of them stood up and handed each of us a little leaflet, suggesting that this might be a good opportunity for us all to say a little prayer together, and let the love of the good Lord flood into our lives. I made an excuse and left. Then there was being able to ring your local bank and ask a question about your account. That was quite handy, too, wasn’t it? I sacked one bank after a pompous bloke in India told me that they had “decreed” that I must go through the rigmarole of registering for “telephone banking” if I wanted to be sent a reminder of my forgotten PIN. I maintain another account with one of those posh banks I cannot really afford, simply so that I can speak to a human being in London about my direct debits whenever the fancy takes me. In short, I hate call centres with a passion so strong that I will do almost anything to avoid them. And, to look on the bright side, they are clearly on the way out because most internet retailers now only seem to allow their customers to contact them by e-mail, just as most big shops seem to want us to scan and pack our purchases ourselves so that they don’t have to pay spotty adolescents to man their checkouts. But last week I found myself drawn by an unfortunate compulsion to telephone the Royal Mint, in an attempt to find out why they had sent me a set of coins I hadn’t ordered. It’s not what it was, the Royal Mint. Their coin designs are depressingly feeble, for the most part, and I keep receiving irritatingly sloppy letters from a bloke called Dave, who is aged about eight to judge by his signature, and who bathetically describes himself as “Director of Commemorative Coin”. Yes. In the singular. Their call centre is a classic, with an endlessly repeated message telling you how important your call is, but they are exceptionally busy right now. After a bit, another voice comes on to suggest that perhaps you might like to leave your name and number after the tone, because they are exceptionally busy right now but your call is very important to them and they’d like nothing more than to ring you back when the pressure eases off a bit. You don’t believe that for a minute of course, but it wouldn’t make any difference if you did because – and here’s the real beauty of it – there IS no sodding tone or opportunity to leave messages. You just get looped straight back to the endlessly repeating message you started with. I gave up several times, but kept being drawn back, against my better judgement. Eventually, I got through to a Welsh woman with a stinking cold. One might at least assume that she was in Wales rather than on the other side of the planet. In Pontyclun, even, home of the Royal Mint since they expanded its capacity to cope with decimalization in the 1960s (it was wittily nicknamed “The Hole with the Mint”). Though I suppose one should not put it past them to have farmed out the call centre operation to some remote corner of Welsh-speaking Patagonia. First Blodwyn (as it might have been) asked me a lot of questions to which she should already have known the answers, given that I had checked my account details online during the endless wait for the phone to be answered, and if they appeared on my computer screen then they must surely also have been on hers. “What’s your daytime phone number?” she asked. “You’ve got it,” I replied. “Yes, but could you just give it to me again?” I gave her my mobile number, since I wasn’t at home at the time, and later found that she had typed this in to replace my (correct) home number, which was where I wanted them to ring me if they ever absolutely had to. Obviously hoping against hope that that day will never, ever come. Then she asked “What’s your date of birth?” and I replied, as I always do “What’s that got to do with anything?” This was clearly not a permitted answer, as she just kept repeating the question, like a demented parrot. After the second or third repetition the line went dead and I thought she had put the phone down, but it turned out that she had just turned it off for a moment or two to swear, cough or seek advice from a colleague. “What’s your date of birth?” she asked for the fourth or fifth time, and I explained yet again that I failed to see the relevance of the question. “It’s just for our promotions,” she mumbled reluctantly. “Well, I don’t want to be promoted to, thanks,” I said. “Now could you possibly deal with my query?” She certainly got her own back for that. She could offer no explanation of why I had received the coins I had not ordered. She categorically assured me that there were no standing orders in place which would result in any further unordered coins turning up. She could not take my order for something I actually wanted to buy because I could not supply her with the “order code”, merely a precise and accurate description of the item I hoped to purchase. She could take payment for the item I had not ordered, which I decided to keep rather than sending back, though God knows what she actually charged to my credit card. And, on Monday, another set of coins that I hadn’t ordered turned up. I joined the queue for the call centre for half an hour or so to query this, then I dropped them an e-mail. I’m still waiting for a reply. And I’m definitely not holding my breath.

Tuesday 19 January 2010


15st 6lb, 3.0 units. As a stimulus to losing weight, this daily blogging lark is clearly proving a failure to rank alongside Gordon Brown’s abolition of boom and bust. Still, I’m enjoying it and someone to whom I am unrelated by blood or marriage even left a comment the other day to say that they were enjoying it, too. Always an encouragement, that. And a noteworthy event on these pages, where comments are so rare (unlike on virtually every other blog I glance at). I cheer myself up with memories of reading out a paper about Jane Austen’s Emma to my A-level English set at school. Usually, at the end of these little talks, everyone took great delight in rubbishing the speaker, but on this occasion I was followed by the sort of silence that is normally associated with the tolling of a muffled bell, and perhaps a few bits of tumbleweed blowing across the stage. When Mr Unsworth our English teacher (a man chiefly famous for his use of the wonderfully unhelpful introduction “And this is my wife, Mrs Unsworth”) said that surely there must be some questions or comments, someone eventually piped up “But he’s said it all, sir.”

Yes, that will be it. I’ve still got it. Nothing to do with having no readers, then.

I circulated my weekly newspaper column to the usual suspects this morning, and one of them responded with yet another version of that hoary old Internet round robin “Australian Prime Minister tells Muslim immigrants to accept Australian values or leave the country.” Now they are really stretching credulity by attributing it to the right-on Kevin Rudd. First time around it purportedly came from that robust monarchist John Howard and was half believable, though of course he never actually said it and even his associates only said some milder things on vaguely the same lines.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing if someone (other than Nick Griffin) actually did?

I always thought that the acronym was FIFO, but apparently that’s been bagged by First In, First Out, so it’s got to be FIOFO for Fit In Or F*** Off. Always the motto of my firm when I was an employer (which I am not any more, sadly for those making a fat living out of working the tribunals system). But I am married to a (nominal) Muslim, whose parents were both born in Iran. The whole family celebrates Christmas with considerably more enthusiasm than I have ever mustered, and enjoys just about every traditional feature of English life from pork sausages to the pub. They would never dream of suggesting that local customs should be adapted for fear of “giving offence”. Indeed, it is noteworthy that every time yet another local authority announces that Christmas is being officially renamed “Holidays”, “Winterval” or whatever “to avoid giving offence”, the local media never have any difficulty finding representatives of the local Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/Jewish/Zoroastrian community to affirm that they actually love Christmas and that the pressure for change has nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Well-meaning middle class left-wingers find themselves in a bizarre alliance with a tiny minority of nutcases who wish to promote their own, extreme religious and social agenda, and others, perhaps even more sinister, who simply hate our society so much that they will gladly ally themselves with any cause calculated to subvert it. Having temporarily abandoned hope of the proletariat rising up and seizing control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, the best they can do is encourage disaffected mediaevalists to try and overturn our remaining traditions and values. Well, bollocks to them, I say.

It may not be the most intellectually dazzling observation I have made on these pages, but at least it come from the heart.

Monday 18 January 2010

Two out of five

15st 4lb, 8.5 units. I started the day hoping to fit some or all of the following into a newspaper column:

1. The Phoney War. One of my daily newspapers has been running a “70 years ago today” series, which is chiefly noteworthy for highlighting the way that pretty much sod all happened for several months after the declaration of war in September 1939, apart from occasional morale-boosting skirmishes like the Battle of the River Plate. It reminds me very much of the pre-election climate now, in which politicians of all parties are desperate to avoid alluding to the huge avalanche of bad news poised above our heads and ready to descend upon us the day after the poll results are announced.

2. Haiti versus 9/11. Compare and contrast the numbers killed and the vigour of the international response. After all, it would make about as much sense for the United States to bomb the crap out of Iran in revenge for the earthquake as it did for it to initiate regime change in Iraq as a follow-up to the fall of the Twin Towers. Is Barack Obama any less barmy than George W. Bush? Discuss. The fact that he invited G.W. to stand beside him at a press conference about Haiti does make one wonder.

3. Full body scanners. An utterly hateful invasion of privacy and completely pointless since the loons have already moved on to stuffing explosives up their backsides, and the next step of having them surgically implanted surely cannot be far off. So surely to goodness someone could come up with a better argument against them than the one advanced in all seriousness in one of the Sunday papers, namely that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is concerned that they might potentially blow the gaff on pre-operative transsexuals (and that particular blowing is not a sexual practice, by the way, however it may sound).

4. Cheques. How can some cartel come along and announce that they are going to be abolished in 2018, if people still want to use them? Why isn’t the Competition Commission investigating? The answer is surely for us all to write more of them. As it is for us to keep paying over the odds to our doorstep milkman, and using our local shop, post office, bank and branch line railway. Though obviously what we would all prefer to do is write columns urging other people to do that, then further ones moaning about it when it turns out that they can’t be arsed.

5. Ofsted. I didn’t realize until Mrs H handed me a sheaf of reports last night that the nurseries we are considering for our son are graded chiefly according to their zeal in promoting “diversity”. So The Baby will be brainwashed with an approved, left wing, anti-old-fashioned-English-blokes-like-his-Dad agenda before the poor little sod can even talk. One might think that the monitoring agencies might be better employed weeding out perverts, but there we are. One nursery was marked down for not having enough materials presenting a positive image of disabled people. As Britain’s hoarder par excellence, I have a box of old toys at home that I am sure includes a number of plastic soldiers with their limbs either snapped or chewed off. I wonder if that is the sort of thing they had in mind?

I finally managed to work in the Phoney War and Ofsted, so only two out of five. But, let’s be honest, it’s a better mark than I feel able to award myself most days, and certainly a higher one than I’d get if Ofsted ever inspected me to assess my fitness as a parent.

Sunday 17 January 2010

The smoothest thing in the world

15st 4lb (estimated), 7.5 units. My God, what a dull life I lead. My typical Sunday starts doing the ironing to the Archers Omnibus (but last week’s, on the BBC iPlayer, because I never seem to get up to date – in my world it still hasn’t snowed yet in Ambridge). Then I listen to Desert Island Discs in the shower. This week an American crime writer I have never heard of, with a bit of a Beethoven obsession; last week some window dresser from Harvey Nichols whose gift for self-publicity has apparently transformed her into some sort of retail guru. She recently widened her net from fashion, which I am prepared to admit that she may know something about (though from her description to Kirsty Wossname of what she was wearing I rather doubt it) and penned an attack on Greggs the bakers for “failing to lead the industry” by switching to organic, artisan breads. The sort of stuff, in short, that appeals to upmarket lesbian fashionistas living in the more expensive parts of London, but is hardly compatible with the mass market positioning of a business that has done wonderfully well for many years with its inexpensive but good quality handmade sandwiches and “iconic” sausage rolls. Yes, I have an interest to declare, but I can make the “quality” point after seeing their bakeries and shops from the inside as well as from the standpoint of a satisfied consumer of 40-odd years standing.

The Baby successfully ignoring The Archers

Where was I?

Oh yes, my dull day. We decided to try a new pub strongly recommended by one of Mrs H’s baby-related acquaintances, who said that “you just keep going on straight up your lane and you come to it”. Well, you do. But only after you have gone several miles out of your way and performed a U-turn in someone’s driveway, as it turned out. Mrs H, her parents and I walked into one of those places where there are lots of people sitting around tables with drinks but no food, all looking hopefully in the direction of the kitchen. I could tell from Mrs H’s expression that I did not have a hope in hell of pursuing my Plan A in these circumstances, which is to turn around and go somewhere else. So I went with Plan B: order starters, because if the main course is going to take forever you might as well have something to eat to dull the pain. Jolly delicious they were, too, as were the main courses and completely unnecessary puddings we ate, purely in the interests of research, when they eventually turned up. Though an exception should perhaps be made for the pies Mrs H’s parents ordered for their main courses from the cut-price side of the menu, ignoring the warning implicit in the words “served with chips and pub gravy”.

We had arrived 15 minutes late at 1.45 and finally left shortly after 4, so why the hell I left them a generous tip for service I can’t really imagine. I suppose it was smiling and efficient when food did finally arrive, and we were kept entertained by a cabaret of young families out for a Slow Food Sunday lunch. I particularly enjoyed the blonde lady opposite whose blouse kept coming unbuttoned, making me feel that I might have wandered into a reunion for fans of the Benny Hill Show. Then there was the yummy mummy with the highly visible thong who kept us in stitches by ordering two bowls of spaghetti for her small daughters (a brave choice, to say the least) and reduced Mrs H to hysterics with her answer to the question:

“Mummy, what is the smoothest thing in the world?”

“Your daddy when he was 22.”

Mrs H then had to apologize for eavesdropping, which is the sort of thing I always find satisfying.

After lunch we somehow found The Baby kidnapped by his grandparents and spent a quiet evening on our own at home, Mrs H diligently researching the Ofsted ranking of nurseries while I read Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup. Satisfying, but I’d clearly be lying if I claimed it was a day worth writing about.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Time to move on?

15st 5lb, 1.5 units. A quiet day at home, the Everest of excitement being the arrival of Uncle Dave in a big white van containing two large and very heavy cylinders of propane gas, which he had to heave over a low wall and then do battle with a very determined holly bush to install. As tradition demands, he arrived at precisely the moment when Mrs H had put our lunch on the table, but at least this meal was accompanied by vegetables rather than salad, so could be popped into the oven to keep warm until the outdoor pleasantries were completed. Uncle Dave admitted that he had meant to turn up yesterday morning, but pointed out that our oil tank was configured with a fuel circulating system which meant that it would not suffer from an air lock if we ever ran out again. Not that it matters very much, since we never will. I shall make sure of that.

After lunch I lay on the sitting room floor for some time, very much in the attitude of a stroke victim, trying to coax some gas through the pipes so that I could light our sitting room fire. I eventually achieved a text book ignition, without burning my eyebrows or blowing my head off. Mrs H looked faintly disappointed.

The K2 of thrills today was pushing the buggy and walking the dog to the neighbourhood duck pond. As we walked past the farm next door Mrs H casually mentioned that we had received in the post some sort of notice about a planning application, addressed to “The Occupier”, so she had opened and read it then put it away somewhere safe. She could not remember any details. When she eventually retrieved the letter I went online and found that it related to a pretty major development of holiday accommodation and “live work units” in the redundant farm buildings overlooked by our house (these rather odd proposals no doubt stemming from the barmy regulations on new housing in the countryside, which prevent the old barns being converted into the des reses for which they would be perfect. This seems a bit of a shame for the owner given that we are within easy walking distance of the centre of a reasonably sized village.)

The redevelopment can only improve our view, though I am less sure about the large, new, modern grain store that also forms part of the plans, and the actual construction phase will no doubt be irritatingly noisy. On the other hand, what is being sought is renewal of a planning permission originally granted in 2005, since when sod all has been done, so with any luck the first brick won’t be laid until the property market has turned up and we have moved on. Indeed, having a posse of hairy arsed builders whistling at her every time she opens the curtains in her underwear (serves her right for installing curtains there in the first place) might be just the stimulus Mrs H needs to accept that we cannot remain in our present rented house forever.

Friday 15 January 2010

Not in the mood for dancing

15st 4lb, 4.5 units. Mrs H had arranged to take The Baby to some sort of dance class this morning, so it was down to me to wait at home for the promised arrival of Uncle Dave with the magic finger to restart our central heating boiler. I am not entirely sure whether The Baby is studying classical or modern dance, but he wasn’t wearing tights or a top hat and tails when he left the house, so I feel pretty safe in saying that it can’t be ballet or ballroom. What may be stated with total confidence is that he already knows more about dancing, at the age of just short of seven months, than his father does after an additional 55 years.

There was a brief period in the early 1980s when I had lost enough weight to feel reasonably confident about my body and I did venture out onto the floor for what I believe people at the time called a “bop”, hoping that it might lead on to what was then popularly known as a “bonk”. The first time I tried it a very pretty girl kissed me, albeit chastely. This was encouraging. The second time an almost equally pretty girl told me to piss off when I attempted to make lip contact, so I reverted to type and just said “Sorry, I don’t dance” whenever the possibility was subsequently raised with me. This has led to some excruciating misunderstandings over the years, the most recent occurring just before Christmas, when people refuse to take the statement at face value and interpret it as meaning “I’m just a teensy bit reluctant but of course I’ll do it if you insist”. Which is not what I mean at all.

I did make a solitary exception, over my own dead body, for the first dance at my wedding. The resulting, excruciating pictures are, I contend, conclusive proof of how right I have been to “just say no” before and since.

Why I don't dance: far too easy to confuse close attention to your feet with leering down your partner's cleavage (there are other reasons, too)

However, I do not want my son to be a social cripple like me (nor, as Mrs H kindly put it back in June 2008, a curmudgeonly, racist, paedophile snob; I should perhaps re-emphasize that I dispute the “paedophile”). So I welcome these classes as I delight in his progress at swimming, about which he also now knows vastly more than me (approximately ten years’ worth of weekly lessons at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and I still can’t swim a stroke). While I would like him to be an old-fashioned English gentleman, I don’t want him to be the sort of person who views the devastated white concrete buildings in Haiti on his TV and is tempted to crack tasteless jokes, whether involving Garibaldi biscuits or otherwise. God forbid.

Predictably enough, Uncle Dave did not turn up first thing, as billed, so at 11.30 I thought “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and pressed the red button on the boiler myself. It started immediately. I hung around for long enough to establish that the radiators were beginning to heat up, then cleared off to visit a client who does a very decent line in fish and chips for Friday lunch. The afternoon proved unexpectedly busy, what with one client deciding to admit that they might be thinking of returning to the stock market, and another engaged in a vigorous internal debate about whether it was a good idea to advertise their contempt for political correctness.

There was still snow on the ground when I drove up to our house shortly after 7; yet when I let the dog out for the last time at around 11 the lawn was completely green. And I never built that bloody snowman. Damn.

Thursday 14 January 2010

The blame culture, chapter 461

15st 6lb, 1.5 units. I was dressed smartly in my suit when our managing agent turned up at 8.30 to get to the bottom of our heating crisis. By doing so, I hoped to project an air of responsibility and authority, rather than exuding the defeated aura of an incompetent prat. “No need to dip the tank,” I said, “It’s completely empty.” I naturally heaped all the blame on Mrs H as soon as were out of earshot of the house. I added that I could hardly believe we were consuming kerosene at the rate of more than 200 litres a week. “More like a thousand a month, I’d say”, the agent responded briskly, making it sound even worse. If we were in the North East I would assume that some chancer had nipped up our drive and siphoned off a load of the stuff, but even though she is not the most observant of people, the fact that Mrs H and The Baby are in the house 24/7 means that attempting it here would demand a degree of cheek I do not automatically associate with rural Cheshire.

I, on the other hand, have always prided myself on being among the most observant people on the planet, so my mortification was nicely completed when the agent led me across the yard and pointed out the two socking great red propane gas bottles which would have fuelled our alternative heat source in the sitting room, if only the supply had not run out 20 minutes after we first switched it on back in September. It took me a further five minutes to figure out that the house was not on a mains gas supply, and that there must therefore be bottles or a tank somewhere, but I had scoured the obvious places to no avail. Following the gas pipes as they emerged through the exterior wall of the sitting room achieved nothing, as they merely plunged back into the house by the boiler room. I undertook a comprehensive survey of the external walls and other places with easy access, where I would expect gas bottles to be placed, and found precisely nothing. So, as is my usual practice, I gave up. Imagine my chagrin at being shown them lurking behind a wall close by the oil tank, albeit well concealed by a strategically planted holly bush.

The agent promised to use his influence to get the local oil supplier to improve on their offer to make a delivery next week. Then I staggered off to my client’s office, pretending that I had important work to do, but mainly so that I could keep reasonably warm. At least I was able to assure Mrs H, after a much less alarming journey than those I have endured over the last few days, that it should be safe to venture down the lane from our house. This was a relief to both of us, as she was definitely beginning to display most of the symptoms of going completely stir crazy. Rarely can a 25-mile round trip to a branch of Sainsbury’s have afforded so much simple joy to anyone.

This evening Mrs H prepared a prompt supper as the latest prong of her multi-faceted attempt to get me to lose weight, this one being designed to remove the temptation to fill up on snacks as soon as I walk through the door. Said desire for food being excited by the stiff drink I feel the need to pour as soon as I enter the house, in an attempt to expunge the memory of my latest close brush with death on the ice in the lane. Typically, no sooner had she “plated it up” (as they say in the catering trade, I believe) than a young man turned up in a tanker with our 1,000 litres of kerosene. Promised “a better rate” if I simply allowed him to fill our tank to the brim, my hoarding instincts took over and I ended up signing for more than double that. I was all prepared to press the button on the boiler and restore warmth to the house when he strongly advised me to do no such thing as the system would “need bleeding” and I was highly likely to wreck the fuel pump if I tried to start it up unaided. No, far better to wait until tomorrow morning when he would ensure that his uncle dropped by to get things running and drop off our cylinders of gas. So we huddled around our inadequate heater, ate our now rather lukewarm ready meal and looked determinedly on the bright side for the remainder of the evening. It wasn’t too hard, to be fair. At least we aren’t in Haiti.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

A very foolish virgin

15st 6lb, 7.0 units. As a child during the severe winter of 1963, I can remember watching TV news reports of soldiers battling through gigantic snowdrifts to deliver essential supplies to families in isolated farmhouses and cottages; and wondering, even then, what sort of f***ing idiot went to live at the end of a dirt track halfway up a mountain in Wales or Scotland, and did not think it might be a reasonable idea to lay in a few supplies to tide them over in the event of inclement weather.

That epiphany 47 years ago (it might well even have been on the actual Feast of the Epiphany, too, for added resonance) has informed my personal philosophy ever since. “Just in time” deliveries be buggered. Generations of visiting females, up to and including the present Mrs H, have opened the cupboards in my house and staggered back in amazement at my huge stocks of tinned food, light bulbs, batteries, lavatory paper and just about everything else needed to sustain life in the event of a once-in-a-millennium blizzard or all-out nuclear exchange.

I do not run out of Stuff. Until the arrival of The Baby, it was the fact of my life in which I took the greatest pride. So imagine the feelings with which I picked up the distressed telephone message from Mrs H when I was in the office this afternoon, reporting that our central heating system had broken down and that a languid young man at our managing agent’s office had declined to send out an emergency repair crew on the grounds that “it sounds like you’ve just run out of fuel”.

Could it be so? Please God, no. I don’t do things like that. I had ordered 1,000 litres of “heating oil” as they grandly call it, shortly after we moved into the house in mid-August, and had topped it with another load of the same at the end of November, even though the weather had been mild for most of the time and we had been away for a month while I pretended to be having a heart attack in Northumberland. Added to which, the Bloke who had made the first delivery had assured Mrs H that it should last three or four months, which had been her standard response whenever I had suggested that maybe we should think about buying some more. So I let it go.

For some reason the modern, plastic oil tank is not equipped with any form of gauge, either indoors or out, and the only way to test the level of its contents is to unscrew the cap and peer inside, or dip it with a convenient stick. For the last week the fact that I would have had to plod through deep snow and then scrape more of it off the top of the tank to do so had been putting me off examining it. I tried to persuade Mrs H to do so now, so that we might get to the bottom of the problem, but she pleaded The Baby and the fact that it was actually snowing as reasons for not venturing outdoors.

Incidentally, this will no doubt come as a surprise to no one but myself, but I was rather astonished to discover that “heating oil” actually turns out to be kerosene or, as it was known in my youth, paraffin. A little tanker used to wend its way around the suburban streets of my childhood, topping up the jerry cans with which people fed the metal paraffin heaters favoured by families who were (a) poor and (b) had no sense of smell. Hence it developed what I suppose might be called an image problem, though I still find myself singing the words from the Esso Blue TV ad from time to time; the one that goes to the tune of “Smoke gets in your eyes”.

Anyway, given that we had no alternative forms of heating whatsoever, I drove into the nearest town and started to trawl around the DIY and electrical stores for some nice, cheap, simple convector heaters. But, having drawn a blank twice, I settled for some nasty, cheap, complicated, ceramic fan heaters and drove home with them, nearly killing myself on the final approach to the house as I lost control of the car on the sheet ice in the lane and sat back wondering in a detached sort of way whether it was going to smash into the large tree to my left or mount the bank to my right and overturn. Luckily it ran out of momentum before it did either, enabling me to plod out to the oil tank in the snow and confirm that it was indeed empty. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. After all these years I have finally become a foolish virgin. And a rather chilly one, as it goes.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

A blizzard of girls

15st 7lb, 4.5 units. I did some work today. No, really, I did. Sat at a desk all day writing stuff. Even went in to an office to do it, despite the fact that there was a blizzard of sorts taking place, reducing the centre of our nearest village to total chaos. As opposed to the near chaos that is its normal condition, thanks to the fact that there are comparatively few yellow lines along the high street, and no-one takes any notice of them anyway. Or the ‘Give Way’ lines or the pavements, come to that. Mrs H loves living here because it is the only place on the planet where she can claim to be in the upper quartile of responsible and capable drivers.

By the time I had crawled to the main road in a long convoy whose leader felt that a bit of slush on the carriageway demanded that she proceed at a maximum speed of 15mph, I was pretty much inclined to give up and go home, but I persevered. Things greatly improved when I reached the A road, where I was soon able to reach the dizzy heights of 40mph. Then, about 15 miles or half way into my journey, I remembered that the security pass I would need to get into the office at the other end was still attached to the belt of another pair of trousers in my wardrobe, so I was able to turn around, go home and then do the whole damn thing again. Marvellous. Like Groundhog Day, only substantially less amusing.

Because I was originally supposed to be in Northumberland tonight, Mrs H had arranged a “girls’ supper”, to which she now felt she had no alternative but to invite me. She suggested that I might like to get all the sexist remarks and luridly graphic sexual suggestions out of my system before they arrived. I did my best. But I’m guessing that it probably was not good enough. I was allowed to open the wine and sit at the head of the table, where I tried to look avuncular. And probably did, so long as the uncle in question is an overweight, elderly pervert who is rudely frank (or frankly rude) about his wife’s catering.

Monday 11 January 2010

My sorry sat nav

15st 6lb, 3.4 units. I was supposed to be driving to Newcastle for a meeting today, but Mrs H’s conviction that she would never see me again and my client’s understanding agreement that we could do it over the phone instead “on grounds of cost and safety” combined to release me from the hook. Nevertheless, that still left me with a commitment to drive as far as Doncaster to see someone else. I duly got up rather earlier than usual and set off in good time, only slightly unnerved by the way nothing happened when I applied the brakes at the end of our drive and the sat nav instructed me to turn right at the end of the lane, despite the prominent “Road Closed” sign and several lorry-loads of workmen looking for a suitable space to erect their Portakabin and make a nice mug of tea. Whatever happened to braziers, come to think of it?

I ignored the sat nav, but it remained determined to send me in the opposite direction from the one that seemed logical. Then I finally twigged: it was trying to avoid the M62, which could be more or less guaranteed to be a nightmare on a cold, snowy and foggy Monday morning, and had come up with a cunning plan to send me on a southerly loop down the M6 and across country, before heading north to Doncaster up the A1(M). Fantastic. Well, apart from the fact that I had little fuel in the car and had been banking on calling at one of the several petrol stations I expected to pass in the early part of my usual northbound route. I finally limped into a garage somewhere on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, just before I joined the southbound M6. Then, after I had filled up, the sat nav revealed that it had changed its mind and now wanted me to head back north 20-odd miles up the M6 to join the M62 after all. Oopsy.

At least it apologized, averring that ‘No better route could be found’. Which became something of a leitmotif for the day, as it repeatedly informed me that the road ahead was going to be clogged with vehicles reduced to little more than walking pace as a result of fog or simple congestion. Would I like to take an alternative route? Yes, please. No, sorry, on reflection, the alternative turns out to be closed / blocked / no faster moving: ‘No better route could be found’. Eventually it guided me onto the A62 and I progressed along slush-covered roads through a series of nameless Yorkshire towns.

It is remarkable how few clues there are to where you are these days, a problem made worse by the consolidation of local councils and the closure of so many things like high street banks that used to helpfully stick the name of the branch outside. Even the sat nav did not seem to know what the hell the places I was driving through were called. When Mrs H and I were returning from lunch yesterday I proudly informed her that we were in a village with an absolute tongue-twister of a name, because it said so on the post office. “That’s the Welsh for ‘post office’, you fool,” she calmly replied.

Anyway, I made it to my meeting, only 45 minutes late. When I left, the sat nav came up with this cunning wheeze to avoid the M62 and I duly followed it south, anxious to see how it worked out this time. About 800 yards later it had the cheek to announce that the road ahead was blocked, albeit after 25 miles, and instructed me to do a U-turn (though only when I had reached the next intersection on the motorway) and go west on the M62. The weather and traffic were not too bad this time, but I still felt very much in need of a drink when I got home, and the drink led on to the desire for a snack. So that was my diet f***ed for another day, then.

Sunday 10 January 2010

A night out minus clothes and Snow

15st 6lb, 14.5 units. I spent most of the night suffering agonies of indigestion, made worse by the knowledge that they were thoroughly deserved. I was also racked by nightmares about mythical PR disasters involving clients I have not worked for or thought about in years. Please God let this not be some sort of premonition.

I earned the stomach pains by taking Mrs H out for a large and delicious dinner at a reasonably local pub – something I knew to be a mistake even before we embarked on the trip. But the poor soul wanted and deserved a night out, and I felt that something must be done to make up for the theatrical event in London tonight to which she had been so much looking forward, before I wimped out of travelling to it on account of a little bit of snow. Or, to be fair to me, on account of my long experience of how the British transport system is liable to crumple into a state of complete collapse shortly after the first snowflake hits the ground.

The title of the show we missed as a result of the weather? A ballet called The Snow Queen. Now there’s irony for you.

Dinner was excellent, but I think I ate rather too many courses of it and I know for an undisputed fact that I consumed far too much alcohol to help it along (see the day’s estimated unit intake, above. Note to Cheshire Constabulary: it was not me who drove home afterwards). We entertained ourselves by observing our fellow diners, being particularly fascinated by the young lady who had come out to celebrate her birthday in her underwear, or at any rate a grey body stocking topped only by a micro-skirt. Perfectly normal behaviour on a hen night in my home town of Newcastle, of course, but perhaps a slightly eccentric choice for supper with one’s parents and granny in a Cheshire country pub. I finally concluded that she must be a very tall child rather than the young woman I had initially assumed, but then I spotted the member of the party who was evidently her younger sister enthusiastically necking an Irish coffee. Perhaps, even outside its northern footballer, WAG and Kerry Katona belt, Cheshire simply reaches depths of oddness I had never expected.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Snow: what's not to like?

15st 4lb, 4.5 units. I have been trying to remember when snow ceased to be a source of childish delight and became a bloody nuisance. As a veteran of the Great Winter of 1963, I am of course able to assure Mrs H (born 1971) that This Is Nothing. Just as those who had been around in 1947 kept telling me at the time that 1963 was really nothing to write home about. Still, I can distinctly remember the Tyne freezing over and the fact that the snow finally disappeared from our street, after what seemed like months, only when the council came along and removed it with diggers and dumper trucks, forming it into a range of miniature mountains on the big patch of rough grass in the middle of the Fairways council estate, where it did not finally melt until the late Spring.

The most magical snowfall I can recall was one that came down heavily one Christmas Eve. I was quite a small boy and had gone to bed early after a grey day, excited about the presents that would be waiting for me under the tree in the morning, and was woken by a drunk weaving his way home at closing time singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. I have never forgotten the delight of seeing the street suddenly covered in deep snow. Other features of childhood that I remember less fondly include the frost making crazy patterns on the inside of the windows in my unheated bedroom; the glass of water I always kept on my bedside table occasionally freezing over; and having to wear thick woolly socks in bed, and a jersey over my pyjamas, and spread my overcoat over the bedclothes. It truly was Another World; my son will never believe it.

I definitely used to get excited about snow: but why, exactly? I had few friends, and never enjoyed snowball fights. Too bloody painful. I inherited a crap sledge that would not have performed respectably even if it had been pushed out on sheet ice with its runners coated in goose fat. I could never master the art of sliding on my feet; like roller skating it remained a closed book to me, and I always just ended up on my backside. Never a position I enjoyed, as I have always had an excessively high sense of my own dignity. One of my few points of difference with Mrs H is that they only have to show a clip of someone falling over on the telly, and she is reduced to helpless laughter, whereas I feel sorry for them.

My father used to concede that he liked snow up to a point because, under a respectable amount of it, our garden looked as good as any other in the street. But I have no recollection of him ever participating in any snow-related high jinks. My poor old mother was dragged out to help me build snowmen; she was surely a forerunner if not the model for the put-upon Mrs Timpson in Viz comic’s “Spoilt Bastard” strip.

So I once liked snow in principle, but cannot quite remember why. The first time I was conscious of it as a serious nuisance was on the day of the Use of English examination that used to be taken by Oxbridge candidates. It had snowed heavily enough for my father to offer me a lift into school, but the main roads proved to be gridlocked (quite an achievement, considering how few cars there were on them in 1971). As we slid all over the place on the back streets of West Jesmond, with time running out, I remember my father assuring me that I was worrying unnecessarily as clearly no-one would be able to make it into school and the exam would be cancelled. I arrived five or ten minutes late and sat the thing with soaking wet feet. Every other candidate had arrived on time, and most of them had travelled from much further afield. Odd. At least I passed.

Then there was the winter of 1979, or perhaps 1980, when I was traversing the streets of Wood Green in smooth-soled black leather City shoes and kept falling flat on my back on the icy pavements, with the metal hip flask full of whisky that was my latest affectation raising livid bruises as I repeatedly landed on it. That was definitely the end of any love I might once have felt for winter weather.

Now I am trying to recapture my original, childish excitement. Having had elderly parents myself, I want to avoid the mistakes of my own childhood and try to relate to my young son on his own level. Fortunately he is too small to appreciate that I have comprehensively failed to go out and build him the snowman I promised when the blizzard arrived on Tuesday. I have been too bloody lazy. Like father, like son in that respect, I fear. It would be nice, though, if I could stop myself from passing the genes on to yet another generation of idler. Or, failing that, if I could at least encourage him to enjoy idleness without feeling the guilt that always seems to spoil it for me.

Friday 8 January 2010

Just like the forest of Compiègne

15st 3lb, 1.5 units. At 9.30 this morning I was to be seen doing a little jig of glee rather like the one Hitler famously performed outside that railway carriage in the forest at Compiègne, after receiving the French surrender in 1940. My reasons for gaiety were perhaps rather less compelling than his, though certainly more socially acceptable: I had just discovered that my train to London had been cancelled.

Now, you may be thinking that I am, by nature, more the sort of Bloke who would receive this news by having a tantrum on the platform, bursting into tears, verbally assaulting any members of railway staff in the vicinity and then sitting down to compose a vicious attack on the Bearded Git or other train operator concerned in my blog. And you would be right.

But on this occasion, as it happened, I did not receive the news on a freezing station, after spending an hour or more battling my way there through snow, ice and idiotic fellow motorists, but in the peace and comfort of my study. Because I had already concluded last night that the chances of my booked train getting me to London in time for my eagerly awaited large lunch in St James’s with a couple of old-fashioned City chaps were as close to nil as made no difference. And I had progressed from this conclusion to convincing Mrs H that it would be only prudent to cancel the whole of our planned weekend in London on account of the severe weather and dire forecasts.

This was, of course, merely an excuse to cover my own extreme indolence and dislike of journeys that may not go as smoothly as the proverbial clockwork. I may also have been influenced just a touch by the fact that the potential for enjoying lunch in the traditional way had been somewhat reduced by the scheduling of a conference call in the early afternoon. Once upon a time I had the chutzpah to join these dreaded exchanges while completely pissed, but I fear those days are long gone, mainly because I have got out of the habit.

So why the jig of glee? Oh, because I had bought one of those cut price (but still bloody expensive) advance purchase tickets on which no refunds are obtainable – unless the one and only train on which they are valid fails to run. So when the “Live Departures” screen on my laptop advised that it had been cancelled, I felt that the only appropriate reaction was to punch the air and shout “Result!” At least once I had made absolutely sure that there was no-one within earshot to observe me behaving in such a frightfully common fashion.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Racing for idiots

15st 3lb, zero units. And another thing. In the endless loop of the Radio 4 news playing through most of my nightmare journey home on Tuesday evening, I grew increasingly annoyed by the repeated reports of Racing for Change and their attempt to introduce decimal odds to the nation’s racecourses. Proof, if proof were needed, that there is nothing quirky or charming under the sun that can be left alone without some busybody coming along to try and bugger it up.

My first reaction was that Racing for Change must be some sort of loony pressure group, but apparently it is official in nature and its board comprises all the great and good of the industry. I’m none the wiser as to whether this is true or not because I’ve just spent 15 minutes on Google searching for its website and found two with the right name, but one was dedicated to increasing “diversity” in US motor sports and the other seemed to be something to do with quadriplegic triathletes. I think it is fair to conclude that the UK Racing for Change people are not masters of either the internet or PR.

To be completely honest, for nearly all my life I’ve been bored rigid by racing, as by all other activities featured in the sports section of the newspapers. One of my principal reasons for continuing to buy the Daily Telegraph, despite its relentless dumbing down under its current proprietors, is the convenient way it puts all its sports coverage into a separate section that makes a satisfying thud as I drop it straight into the recycling bin.

However, last year two kind and generous individuals invited Mrs H and me to separate race meetings: at Newmarket in May and the St Leger meeting at Doncaster in September. And, for the first time, I started to get what people saw in it. And do you know what I really liked? The peculiar, old fashioned things like the fact that the odds are in complex fractions, the courses are measured in furlongs and the race prizes (and prices of the bloodstock at auction) expressed in guineas. Yes, Mrs H and I missed the opportunity to bet on Frankie Dettori in his first race because he was described on the race card as L Dettori, and we assumed that he must be the great man’s less talented younger brother. Another thing that Racing for Change wants to do away with to increase the sport’s appeal to “the young”. But isn’t there something to be said for mystique, and arcane club rules that it takes a bit of effort to learn? Surely that’s what has kept Freemasonry in business for so long?

Ah, they say, but “the young” don’t understand fractions. Well, here’s an idea: why not educate the little buggers. It’s not that hard, for God’s sake. And surely they can still grasp the concept of dividing a pie into quarters rather than 0.25s? The last bloody thing that went decimal in this country was those signs telling you how steep hills are, and when I’m heading over a near precipice I could really do without having to pause to work out that 33% is actually bloody steep. Whereas 1 in 3 said it all in an instant.

Oh, well. Let them ruin their sport if they must. But it’s an odds-on certainty that blokes like me won’t be heading back to the course in a hurry if they do.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Extreme weather event

15st 3lb, 5.0 units. Things are bad. Seriously bad. My club in Liverpool e-mailed this morning to report that it would not be open today, owing to “the weather conditions and the difficulties of transport for our staff” which was a roundabout way of saying “the snow”. I’m not sure even Hitler succeeded in depriving the gentlemen of Merseyside of their lunch.

For me, the main consequence has been that my no-alcohol, carefully calorie-controlled diet went out of the window yesterday evening. By the time I made it through the front door I felt like one of those dusty, stubbly cowboys who bursts through the swing doors of a saloon, grabs a bottle of Old Red Eye from the bar, removes the cork with his teeth and glugs most of it straight down, to try and efface the memory of battling with a hundred fierce Apache warriors (an appallingly unfair stereotype of these noble and peace-loving people, I am sure), evading a gang of hoodlums in black hats (always a bad sign) and dealing with a steer with the staggers (yes, I know that it is a disease of sheep, but the alliteration appealed to me).

My own trauma was the result of a simple mistake: I left my comfortable desk at home and went to visit a client, lulled into a false sense of security by the BBC weather forecast which distinctly said that the snow was moving into the south of England during the day. And, since I could see with my own eyes that there was precisely no evidence of the heavy fall we were supposed to have experienced overnight, there seemed no reason to amend my travel plans.

I arrived in time to catch the client’s New Year pep talk about how the competition had copied all their bright ideas and were now snapping at their heels, so that everyone needed to work harder than ever to keep the business moving forward in 2010.

Then, all of about half an hour later, someone poked their head around the door and suggested that we might all like to bugger off home early because the weather looked a bit dicey.

He was not wrong. The car park outside, which had been clear when I arrived, was now suddenly under about a foot of snow. I watched a woman with a broom conscientiously removing it from her people carrier, clearing the bonnet and roof as well as more obvious features like the windscreen and headlights. But by the time I had closed my laptop, said my farewells and started to head for the door, some bright spark had drawn my attention to the long queue of vehicles trying to get out of the car park, and suggested that I might as well leave it for an hour or so until the rush was over.

After a carefully timed 60 minutes I returned to the window and, blow me down, the same woman with the broom was still sweeping the same people carrier. One could only conclude that the snow was falling faster than she could remove it. I was reminded of the Disney short of Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was inexplicably popular in my childhood.

The queue to leave the car park had grown no shorter, but I concluded that the time had come when I might as well join it. So I did, with my usual impeccable timing, at precisely the moment when it ceased to be a very slow moving queue and became a completely stationary one. An hour later I had advanced a few hundred yards to a roundabout completely blocked by a queue of stationary lorries hoping to travel further west.

Then, joy of joys, a deus ex machina arrived in the shape of a member of the local constabulary, who evidently told the truckers not to be so bloody stupid, and created a gap through which those of us who wished to head east were permitted to escape. Hurrah!

All went well until I followed the advice of my sat nav to avoid the by-pass and travel through the neighbouring city centre, which proved to be in a state of total paralysis. A whole generation has now grown up with virtually no experience of how to drive in snow, and they simply cannot cope. Cars were being abandoned at the side of the road and, in one classic instance, slap bang in the middle of it. To add to the joy of life, when I finally escaped from the queue by following an ambulance with flashing blue lights, which entailed a lengthy detour to the local hospital, a gang of scratters bombarbed my new car with what felt suspiciously like half bricks disguised as snowballs.

Three hours into my journey and I finally reached the main road home, where I was able to make stately progress in a convoy sometimes reaching the dizzying heights of 30mph. The ladies of Cranford would have found it a perfectly comfortable experience.

Naturally I maintained a safe distance from the car in front, so was a bit miffed when I found myself being followed so closely that I could not even see the vehicle’s headlights in my rear view mirror. I touched my brake pedal lightly a couple of times, to warn him to back off, and found myself being overtaken with an angry roar by a blue grey Transit van which also took the opportunity to pass a few vehicles in front of me before rejoining the 30mph convoy, point presumably made. I was torn between an urgent desire to see him crash, and the fear that in doing so he might block the road and make it impossible to get home at all.

The perennially ungritted lane to our house was as exciting as ever. Later in the evening I saw a bloke on the TV news explaining that ABS braking made it possible to retain control of your car even under these conditions. For a self-appointed expert, he was talking first class bollocks, but at least there wasn’t anyone daft enough to be coming the other way as I slid inelegantly all over the road.

In statistics: total distance travelled 25 miles; normal journey time 40 minutes; last night’s journey time 3 hours 40 minutes. I’ve covered the 220-odd miles from Chester to Northumberland in less.

After that I needed a drink, and hang the consequences. If failing to take the Christmas decorations down on the evening of 5 January guarantees a year of bad luck, then we’re well and truly buggered. I’m not going anywhere else by car in a hurry. But, on the other hand, I have gained a first class opportunity to go out and build my son his first-ever snowman.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Out of sync with the Street

15st 3lb, zero units. I love Coronation Street, me. My spirits soar on the days when I know I can look forward to watching it in the evening, and are correspondingly depressed on the days when it is not aired. If Mrs H would let me get away with it, I would be happy to cite it as a valid excuse for not attending any other sort of evening engagement on Mondays, Thursdays or Fridays.

We were talking in the pub over lunch on Sunday about how much I wished that my own life contained Street levels of drama, and how disappointed I was that our wedding day last year did not feature a single punch-up, food poisoning outbreak, bizarre case of mistaken identity, the reappearance of any long lost relatives (ideally played by someone who bore no resemblance to the person they had looked like when last seen) or indeed require the attendance of even one of the emergency services. The nearest we got to it was a couple of scratter gatecrashers trying to hoover up our evening buffet and dancing like bin liners full of helium balloons, but one of our more determined guests finally persuaded the management to make them sling their hooks.

Yet when one of our lunching companions asked whether I would really like to live in a mean terraced street with people who might be described, if one were feeling generous, as working class, then I immediately had to confess that I could think of nothing worse. When Mrs H and I first lived together, it was in a small terraced house in what had once been a rather smart bit of Chester, but was suffering from scratter incursions. And, as regular readers of this blog will have noted, I could not wait to make my escape to the countryside. Just as my father could not wait to set his feet on the rungs of the semi-detached suburban housing ladder as he made his escape from the cobbled street of terraced Tyneside flats where he was brought up and my grandmother lived until shortly before her death in 1973 (see my previous entry on this subject).

Yes, but I would not mind living on a street full of reasonably attractive actresses pretending to be working class, I thought to myself but felt it prudent not to say in Mrs H’s presence.

Anyway, I am currently having trouble with my suspension of disbelief. It’s the little things that irk. It’s not the fact that the weather is completely different from everywhere else in the country, as it so often is in The Archers because they have based their scripts on the Met Office long range forecast rather than the reality (so Mike and Vickie Tucker are basking in that barbecue summer while the rest of us are in waders). There has not been a hint of snow or ice on the Street. So what? Everyone knows they have to film it in advance.

But when Rosie Webster got a postal delivery on the Boxing Day bank holiday it suddenly seemed all wrong. Or when her mother last night insisted on taking the decorations off the tree because it was bad luck to leave them up after Twelfth Night, and when you have just had a diagnosis of cancer you obviously want all the luck you can get. And there’s me shouting at the telly “It’s not Twelfth Night yet, you silly bitch, it’s either the 5th or 6th of January depending on which ecclesiastical authority you believe, and in any case the original superstition was that you must not leave your decorations up after Candlemas, which is not until February, for Christ’s sake.”

And then I noticed Mrs H giving me a strange look and wondered whether I might not be getting a bit too involved in the whole thing. Perhaps it would be best to refocus on The Archers, with special emphasis on how they are going to kill off Phil. Quiet heart attack in his bed or gory accident with a combine harvester? If this were the Street, some bloke would turn up claiming to be his long-lost son who had been horribly abused as a child, and blow his dad’s head off with a sawn-off shotgun before being killed in a police siege of The Bull that would also take out maybe half a dozen of the duller members of the cast, plus a special celebrity guest. Wow, what a thought. I wonder whether either of our great national broadcasters has got a vacancy for a scriptwriter?