Tuesday 30 March 2010

No diet, no sleep - but still Jolley

15st 6lb, 3.0 units. I foolishly made a bet about six weeks ago that I could lose a stone by April Fools’ Day. With just 48 hours to go I have not lost an ounce, and the only way that I could fulfil my promise now would be to go and stick my neck on a railway line and wait for a train to trundle over it.

Luckily it turns out that the person with whom I made my bet has only lost 5lb, and we have agreed to give each other another month to hit our target. God knows I could do with losing the weight, and would feel far better if I did. On the other hand, when you are as depressed and physically sick as I have been for most of the last month, comfort eating has huge appeal. Particularly when it involves chocolate. I also note that I have derived virtually no benefit from hardly touching alcohol for the last few weeks, so I might as well go back to it. Good news for the nation’s wine merchants, if sadly too late to save Threshers.

The Dog, who was named after a Northumbrian village famous for kippers because of his predecessor’s much envied ability to sleep for 23 hours out of 24, has latterly begun suffering from insomnia. Which would be fine but for the fact that he has been in the habit of sleeping on my bed for the last eight years, and now makes rest impossible by spending the night pacing up and down, whingeing softly. A visit to the vet this morning unearthed no obvious clues, so he is to return next week for “tests”. Ker-ching!, as they no doubt said to themselves at the vet’s as soon as I had walked out of earshot.

Last week I read a splendidly entertaining story in the Daily Telegraph about the so-called Jolley Gang of gatecrashers. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I thought it was too good to be true. And it probably was, because when I went to consult the story on the paper’s website to remind myself of a few details before weaving them into a newspaper column of my own, I found that it had been systematically excised. Luckily I had kept a cutting of the original piece, or I would have concluded that it was a hallucination and that I am going even madder even faster than I had always assumed.

Still, there remain on the internet the Daily Mail’s account of the alleged gatecrasher Alan MacDonald choking to death on a canapé at the Dorchester Hotel, and the Evening Standard’s court report on the grotesque-looking Mr Jolley’s fraud conviction. Plus two pieces by Victoria Coren on her father’s memorial service and on recent events. All of which are worth reading for their high entertainment value, whether fact or fiction.

As for my piece, I concluded that I had seen quite enough instances of outrageously greedy behaviour during my years attending British company AGMs, particularly in the food and drink sectors, to make it worth writing anyway. In fact, now I come to think of it, I have a huge fund of hilarious stories about AGM mishaps over the years. I’d love to share some of them with you now, but I think they might just make another column …

Wednesday 24 March 2010

The case for the elderly mother

15st 7lb, zero units. Well done, Dave. Another baby, eh? Bang goes the carefully cultivated “green” vote. Hadn’t you spotted that the best way to cut carbon emissions is not to stick a pathetic little windmill on top of your house, but to reduce rather than increase the number of people doing the emitting? You’ve already had three shots at fatherhood and that really should be enough for anyone. In fact, I’m doing my personal best to construct a cast-iron case for sticking at Just The One.

On the other hand, I could have done without all the guff in yesterday’s press about the “risks” that Mrs Cameron is running as an “elderly mother” of, er, 38. My own elderly mother had me when she was not far short of her 45th birthday and, while I don’t think it did her a power of physical good, she always claimed that having a young child in middle age was a rejuvenating experience. Meanwhile my “elderly” wife managed to produce a healthy child last year when she was … well, it would be indelicate to reveal her age to the world on the internet, obviously, but it was the same number as the Newcastle trolleybus that used to run from Denton Road Terminus to Benton Road, Swarland Ave via Jesmond Road rather than Shields Road, and it was not too far short of 39.

Just think how the odds were stacked against our son. The last of my dodgy old sperm limping towards her Fallopian tubes, hunched over its zimmer frame and wheezing horribly, and by some total miracle making successful contact with one of her dodgy old eggs. You’d expect the product to make Terry Fuckwitt out of Viz look like Brad Pitt. But instead you end up with someone who looks like this:

Terry Fuckwitt he ain't
I freely admit that I’m a wee bit biased, but I can’t see too much wrong with him so far.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Badly drawn boy - and girl

15st 6lb, zero units. I have been wondering why I don’t much like David Cameron. It’s not that I’m even considering voting for anyone else at the endlessly forthcoming General Election. Support for the Conservative Party is as deeply ingrained in me as a passion for Newcastle United is in my most of my fellow Geordies. But I shall vote for the party under his leadership with decidedly less enthusiasm than I did when it was under the guidance of Michael Howard, William Hague, John Major or even, God help us, Edward Heath.

Why should this be?

I suppose part of it might be naked class prejudice, but for the fact that, as an old-fashioned Tory, I have always secretly hankered for the leadership of proper toffs like Harold Macmillan or the 14th Earl of Home.

I might be more influenced by the fact that, in his one proper job outside politics, handling PR for Carlton Communications, “Dave” acquired a reputation for being what one normally very politely spoken lady financial journalist described to me as “a lying c***.”

Then there is the fact that he does not actually appear to stand for any proper, old fashioned Tory policies (slash taxes, send a gunboat, close ‘em down, string ‘em up, send ‘em back), preferring to focus on modish waffle about being “green”, hugging hoodies and just loving women and ethnic minorities, bless them.

But deeper than all that, I fear, runs the simple fact that he looks a bit ODD. Which is why, if I were in charge of the Conservative Party’s advertising, the last thing I would have done is to devise a 48-sheet poster entirely filled with his oversized, airbrushed face.

It’s not that he’s exactly ugly – though he’s even more definitely not handsome. He just doesn’t look right, somehow. And nor does his increasingly high profile wife. I can’t put my finger on why, precisely, but they both look to me as though they were designed by aliens who hadn’t quite mastered the art of doing faces. Which is, by common consent, the hardest bit. Discussing this over lunch today, a colleague who once fancied himself as a bit of an amateur artist confessed that he was not at all bad at life drawing until he got onto the face, whereupon it all went tits up every time.

Could it be that we are on the verge of an alien takeover? Was David Icke right all along? David and Samantha Cameron are actually giant lizards in disguise. Yup, seems entirely plausible to me.

I’ll still vote for him, though, just as Newcastle United’s many loyal fans will continue to back their team even though it is owned by a man who cannot be compared to a giant lizard, even in this blog, without causing gratuitous and unacceptable offence to the entire giant lizard community.

Monday 22 March 2010

The sickness window

15st 8lb, zero units. Fantastic news: I have completely got over the stomach bug that confined me to bed on Friday. Less good news: I now have something that bears a marked resemblance to flu, featuring a general feeling of debility, aching joints and a hacking, bronchitic cough. Lovely. If there are any other germs out there looking for a comfortable berth this winter, I’m your man. Just drop me a quick line and I’ll do my very best to find a window for you.

Somehow – and I really don’t know how – I pulled myself together enough to drive from Northumberland to Chester just about in time for The Baby’s 2.56 (I kid you not) appointment at the hospital where he was born. Or, more particularly, the hospital where he spent a few days in the neo-natal unit immediately after he was born, so that he should have been invited back for a follow-up consultation with a paediatrician a few weeks later. Only they forgot, as they explained in the apologetic letter offering us this very precisely timed appointment. I’d love to tell you what it was all about, but 2.56 is the very height of visiting time and there were huge queues to get into every car park on the hospital site, so I ended up dropping mother and Baby off and reading the Daily Telegraph in a quiet road on the residential development next door. Perhaps I’ll find out more when he returns for his next appointment in September. Only that is scheduled for 2.07, so I rather doubt it.

Sunday 21 March 2010

The best bit

15st 7lb, 1.5 units. When writing yesterday’s despatch on a not altogether brilliant week, I clearly failed to recognize two things.

First, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. My mind turns naturally to a court case recently featured in The Journal, about a “holiday from hell” in some supposed luxury hotel in the Dominican Republic (a concept you might have thought that any savvy traveller would instantly mark down as oxymoronic) in which the only people who ate well were the mice, dogs and birds infesting the kitchen and restaurant, while those guests who were daft enough to brave the fly-infested buffet table ended up with doses of amoebic dysentery so severe that they ended up shitting in the swimming pool while waiting their turn for a ride in the ambulance.

Yes, it was certainly a whole lot better than that.

Secondly, I forgot to mention that one of the absolute high points of my whole life occurred yesterday morning when I staggered downstairs into the dining room, feeling like death imperfectly warmed up, and The Baby looked up from his breakfast, calmly nodded at me and observed “Dadda”.

Now, through the minor miracle of the baby monitor, we know that The Baby has been spending a lot of time alone in his cot rehearsing for this moment by repeating “Dadadadadadadadadadadada” to himself, only at considerably greater length. But when he has been invited to repeat the performance in front of his proud parents, he has always just looked at us blankly and said “Guck”. This is, I am assured by someone who pretends to expertise in these matters, a very unusual noise for a baby to make. On the other hand, they do tend to copy the sounds they hear most often, so it could well be a near miss for … well, I don’t really need to spell it out, do I? Presumably it will soon develop into “Guck ogg”. Though, in fairness to me, Mrs H did reckon after my running commentary on motoring standards during our journey up to Northumberland that, if his first word was to be the one he had heard most often, it would probably be “Twat”.

Be that as it may, The Baby is now officially talking as well as crawling. Woo hoo. I am now devoting much time to asking the question “Who do you prefer? Dadda or Mamma? Come on, you can only say one of them. It really can’t be that hard.”

Saturday 20 March 2010

A holiday to remember

No idea, zero units. Well, it’s certainly been an enthralling week. We did have a nice little drive out to lunch at the Norfolk Dining Pub of the Year 2010 on Wednesday, so that The Baby could bond with his baby second cousin, then inspected renovation work at another pub on the coast on our way back. On Thursday we pottered harmlessly around Wells-next-the-Sea, taking photographs of some of the more intelligent looking residents, who were being fed white sliced bread by inbred locals, evidently under the misapprehension that they were ducks.

 Bring on the Kingsmill: Norfolk's answer to the mallard

Then yesterday, when we were scheduled to be driving to Northumberland, I had a day in bed. Or at any rate with substantial interludes in bed when I wasn’t vomiting or racing to the lavatory for other and possibly even less edifying reasons. I did not feel too great today, either, but at least we made it home. In accordance with the Strict Blame Culture operating in my household at all times, I’d love to be able to pin this illness on someone or something, and I did eat some Brancaster oysters at lunch on Thursday. But then I shared that half dozen with Mrs H, who was fine, and I had a full half dozen to myself on Wednesday without any ill effects. So I guess it can only be put down to the operation of some random bug. Which is, from my point of view as a Blamester ™, more than a bit of a bugger.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

The three bears and the two mice

No idea, 4.4 units. No sooner had I arrived in Norfolk for my holidays than I had to persuade Mrs H that it would be a good idea for her to accompany me to King’s Lynn so that I could catch a train to London. Clearly I could have accomplished this all on my own, but I dressed it up in concern that she should not be left without the use of a car all day. Unfortunately she is astute enough to have realized that my real motivation was (a) fear of finding the car park completely filled by early commuters – which is certainly what would have happened if I were starting my journey from, say, Alnmouth, to pluck the name of a mainline station more or less at random; and (b) the hope of getting so pissed over lunch that I would still be unfit to drive when I finally staggered back in the evening.

Lunch did not disappoint, mainly because my fellow guest was the sort of shameless individual who says “Could I have another glass of red wine, please?” when the bottle of fine Burgundy on the table is plainly exhausted, thereby prompting the purchase of another. There were other incidental delights, including the appearance of a couple of mice from the kitchen and being driven back to King’s Cross by a man with a Hitler moustache, but I think I shall save those for a column.

At least I had the presence of mind to ask if we might detour to the House of Lords gift shop on the way out, so I was able to return laden with boxes of chocolates to sweeten the ladies who had spent the day without me, and particularly the one who had had to make a second two hour round trip to King’s Lynn to pick me up. I also brought a teddy bear for The Baby. My fellow guest was before me in the gift shop queue and kicked off with “Can I have two of your teddy bears, please?” Since he is one of The Baby’s godfathers, I thanked him prematurely for his thoughtfulness and generosity, to which he responded, without skipping a beat, “Er, could you make that three bears, please?”

Monday 15 March 2010

Happy holidays

15st 6lb, 4.8 units. Today we drove from south Cheshire to north Norfolk for a little holiday. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we should probably have gone somewhere warm and sunny, if we absolutely had to go anywhere at all. What I can tell you with even greater confidence is that, if you absolutely insist on driving to north Norfolk, south Cheshire is NOT the place to start. Particularly with the aid of a sat nav that reckons the best possible route is to follow a notoriously slow A-road to Stoke-on-Trent in order to crawl along the M6 through Birmingham, then cut across country so that you can negotiate the centre of Peterborough in the rush hour.

When we finally got to our destination a large and unattractive van from Norfolk Country Soups was occupying the obvious parking space outside the cottage where we were staying, allowing me to obtain some fresh air and exercise during the multiple journeys required to unload all The Baby’s impedimenta. As I did so I studied the van and became increasingly sceptical about the eating quality of its contents. It was on about my seventh trip that I finally grasped that it was advertising Norfolk Country Soaps.

Our hostess seemed unusually anxious that our late arrival had prevented us from sitting down to supper in the hotel next door at the appointed time of 6.30. I could not help thinking that there was no great cause for concern, what with it being a Monday evening, off season, and the hotel having built a substantial extension to its dining room since I was last in town. But this proved to have been a very farsighted investment, as the place was packed. And not with the usual elderly locals, either. There were several tables filled with groups of burly blokes who looked like they might moonlight as nightclub bouncers in their spare time. These, I was told, were the workers from the huge wind farm that is being constructed offshore and will provide enough electricity to power an incredible [sic] 220,000 homes. For an hour or two, on the one day of the year when the wind is blowing at the right strength, from the right direction, all the turbines are actually in working order and a ship’s anchor has not sliced through the cable bringing the power to shore.

I am, you might say, a bit of a sceptic on the value of wind farms, whether onshore or off.

They are the 2010 equivalent of all those ugly conifer forests that were planted across the English and Scottish uplands last century, with the aid of generous tax breaks, to ensure that we would always be able to meet the country’s insatiable demand for pit props.

What is for sure is that there is an awful lot of money being made from this particular scam right now, and that we as taxpayers and energy consumers are ultimately picking up the bill. Not only for burly men to enjoy fine food in Norfolk hotels, but also for their accommodation. I met a man with a house to rent who had quoted double the going rate to a wind farm company as a try-on, and found it accepted without question. Lucky old him. Just send me the bill as usual, will you, Darling?

Sunday 14 March 2010

Mother's ruin

15st 5lb, 2.2 units. On Friday I drove to Newcastle for a haircut. Extravagant, I know, given that I was starting from south Cheshire. Indeed, if we factor in the cost of the petrol it would no doubt have been cheaper to have my hair styled in the comfort of my own home by a topless Page 3 model (she might not actually know what to do with a pair of scissors and a comb – but who cares?) I shall certainly bear that possibility in mind for next time. But at least the journey also enabled me to pick up my mail, water the plants and have an agreeable lunch with an old friend in Corbridge on my way back yesterday, as well as making a small contribution to Not Saving The Planet.

Today, being Mothering Sunday, we went to church, where Rick the Vic conducted part of his sermon as a multiple-choice quiz, and then had lunch with Mrs H’s mother (plus father and brother) in a country pub whose portion control systems had evidently blown a gasket. I could barely move by the time I had forced down a bowl of crumble and custard to follow my groaning plateful of roast beef. At least enough heavy hints had been dropped for The Baby to have remembered to ask me to buy and write a suitable card on his behalf, so we were all still on speaking terms at the end of the meal.

After a respectable amount of time lying around groaning, I recovered enough to attempt a column for Tuesday’s Newcastle Journal. As I was still feeling more than a little lacking in inspiration, it was lucky that I had picked up a copy of Friday’s paper and could devote myself to responding to an angry letter from some woman who had been “left … feeling extremely indignant and offended” by my column earlier this week. “Having worked with countless people suffering from clinical depression, I can assure him that it is most definitely not ‘self-indulgent’ and the view that those with depression are ‘allowing themselves the luxury of wallowing in misery’ couldn’t be further from the truth.” Well, that’s good to know.

“Hann’s column was extremely offensive and insensitive to anyone suffering from depression and just showed the ignorance displayed among many members of the general population, who prefer to found their beliefs on stereotypes and prejudices.”

Really? Well, blow me down. And there was me thinking that I actually knew a bit about what I was writing about for once, what with having suffered from clinical depression for the best part of 40 years and run through all the treatment options from A to Y including drugs, counselling, psychiatry and cognitive behavioural therapy. But not, luckily, Option Z, which would be becoming one of the “countless people” worked with by this particular lady.

You know what I find offensive, madam? Being called “Hann” as though I were a common criminal. Only I think I read somewhere that even the courts and prisons have recently been instructed to accord offenders the dignity of a title, lest they sue for an infringement of their human rights.

Where is my solicitor’s phone number?

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Hamlet without the prince

No idea, 12.0 units. If there is one thing I like, it is a Handel opera. I have at least one recording of nearly all 40-odd of them. I usually go to see the better stage productions several times – or at any rate I did, before I became poor and acquired a baby (the two being coincidental, but unrelated). One of the few major Handel works I had never seen, until last night, was Tamerlano. But he wrote it in 1724, the same year as the delightfully tune-packed Guilio Cesare and Rodelinda, so how could it fail to inspire? Covent Garden were mounting a new production, which is always a risk, but it had been seen before in Florence and Madrid without angry mobs burning down the theatres, which provided a fair degree of reassurance. Best of all, it featured Placido Domingo in his first Handel role. Well that, of course, was a clincher. I not only booked to see it as soon as I could; I booked a package including two other operas I did not particularly want to see, just to ensure that I got a couple of good seats for this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Placido cancelled for a start. Then I realized, listening to my CDs as I drove from Northumberland to Cheshire last week, that Handel had actually packed pretty much all his memorable tunes of 1724 into the other operas above-mentioned. Still, at least we had not read any of the reviews when we pitched up at the Royal Opera House for last night’s 6.30 kick-off, and our spirits were raised by the young woman wandering hopelessly around in the row behind us, staring at her ticket. Finally she asked “Excuse me, is this the balcony?” and a grande dame took much pleasure in saying “No, this is the orchestra stalls” before sweeping her arm in the general direction of the impossibly distant eyrie where the younger woman was actually supposed to be perched. I have a friend who reckons, after a lifetime of similar experiences, that opera audiences in particular are terminally stupid (“Row H comes behind row G and seat 22 is between 21 and 23 – how f***ing hard can it be?”) and I cherished this as a particularly fine example of the genre. But later I read just how much Covent Garden had charged for those lousy balcony seats, on the strength of Domingo’s alleged participation, and began to feel some sympathy for the directionally challenged ticket-holder.

At any rate, the orchestra played, the curtain went up … and pretty much nothing happened. For four and a half hours. The brilliant insight of director Graham Vick was to take an opera that is slow and lacking in action (and over-long, even for a dedicated Handel fan like myself) and actually accentuate those characteristics by bleeding it of all colour and life. Set and costumes followed a palette that ran through the full gamut from white to very light grey. The principals stood still and sang, while the supporting actors moved unbelievably slowly, like Chinese centenarians performing their morning tai chi. By the time a vast blue elephant was winched ever so gradually onto the stage, bearing the princess of Trebizond, I and the rest of the audience were ready to weep with the sheer relief of seeing something new.

To be fair, Kurt Streit, standing in for Placido, was not at all bad, and the lady taking the part of Andronico could also sing. You might think that that could be taken as read in an internationally renowned opera house, but it ain’t necessarily so. In particular, Christianne Stotijn, in the ever so slightly key role of Tamerlano, showed few signs of being able to do so, and even fewer signs of being able to act. I presume she was obeying the orders of the director in portraying this determined male tyrant as flirtatious and playful, with a keen eye for fashion and much larger breasts than are usual on a bloke. For the finale she donned a wig and coat that made her a dead ringer for Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent in the third series of Blackadder, which at least made me smile.

Positives: well, the interval drinks were good, and we enjoyed a steadily improving view of the stage as vast swathes of the audience sneaked off home at each of the two intervals. And we had a very jolly supper at our hotel afterwards, and a very jolly lunch with friends at my club before we set off. It must have been those which left me, at the end of the day, in much better spirits than I had been in 24 hours earlier. That and the knowledge that hell would freeze over before I would sit through this particular Handel production ever again. After due consideration, Mrs H concluded that time might even have moved slightly more quickly during her recent Speed Awareness Course, which hitherto held an apparently unchallengeable world record for mind-numbing boredom.

Monday 8 March 2010

You can't fire me

15st 7lb, 6.0 units. I have been giving a lot of thought to the following sign, spotted outside St Giles-in-the-Fields in Holborn during a recent visit to London but not, I guess, actually pasted up by the church authorities.

Makes a change from 'Give Satan an inch and he'll be a ruler'
or for that matter
'If you are tired of sin, come inside.  If not, ring ...'

I keep reading press reports of how young people have topped themselves after studying internet guides to suicide, so over the weekend I conducted extensive research to find a foolproof, painless way of doing away with myself. This, I reasoned, would stop me feeling miserable and worrying about how the hell I am going to support my wife and son. They, in turn, would benefit from a modest windfall from my pension fund, the freedom to sell my house in Northumberland without all the sentimental hang-ups that have prevented me from doing so, and the ability to make a fresh start with someone altogether more positive and dynamic.

Yes, Mrs H has told me that she would prefer me to stick around, and I am keenly aware that suicide is a horribly selfish act. But then I am nothing if not a horribly selfish person.

However, it all proved academic as every website I looked at seemed to have been got at by anti-suicide activists to ask “Are you really sure? It’s going to hurt, you know. A lot. And you’re probably going to change your mind halfway through and die in agony scrabbling unsuccessfully to loosen the rope / clamber out of the river / whatever. Oh, and have you thought how horribly disfigured your corpse will be if you do it this way, and how upsetting that will be for the poor sod who has to come and identify you?” etc etc etc.

Enough to put anyone off, in short.

The bottom line is that I am bloody annoyed with myself because I have suffered from clinical depression, on and off, since 1973, and know by now that there are a huge range of practical things I can do to mitigate its effects. Like getting up early in the morning, rather than lying in bed feeling sorry for myself; cutting down on my calorie intake, instead of stuffing myself with chocolate and other comfort foods; finding simple, practical things to do now, rather than brooding about all those major projects that never got finished or even started; focusing on the near term, instead of all the things that could possibly go wrong in the more distant future; and taking exercise in the fresh air, rather than lying on the sofa with a laptop, conducting a grand tour of suicide websites. I need hardly add that I have been ticking Box B rather than A for everything on that list for days now.

Still, it could be worse. I could still be single, in which case I would undoubtedly have cancelled the trip to London scheduled for today, so that I could maintain my single-minded focus on being utterly miserable. As it was, Mrs H insisted that I climbed the Everest of packing a small suitcase and got us onto the 09.35 to Euston, where I even cheered up enough to write my weekly column for the Newcastle Journal. Though it was, I regret to say, about depression.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Like Mafeking

15st 6lb, zero units. Ah, the relief of having a good rant! In my fury, perhaps the point that I failed to get across in yesterday’s piece is that I have actually lived in a very remote part of rural England for almost 25 years. The foothills of the Cheviots contain a good many elderly people, and diehard rustics who have rarely if ever travelled further than Newcastle upon Tyne (certainly not to Gateshead). The important difference – and I freely confess that I had failed to appreciate it before – is that they are all as sharp as very pointy tacks compared with my new neighbours on the Cheshire/Shropshire/Welsh border. I can honestly say that I have never experienced similar frustrations while parking or shopping in Alnwick, Rothbury or Wooler. Perhaps I have been extraordinarily lucky. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the genes of the go-getting Anglian invaders of the North East are still winning through, compared with those of the knuckle-dragging morons they eased out of the area, who dimly trotted west until they fetched up where I am now.

It all adds up to a pretty powerful argument for relocating permanently to the North East as soon as possible, I think.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Care in the community

15st 4lb, 5.0 units. The south Cheshire village where we live most of the time now is like one huge, fence-free Care in the Community project. The main street is a perennial obstacle course of crazily mis-parked cars; the pantechnicon bringing a selection of my belongings from Northumberland in October negotiated the first 234 miles of the journey without the slightest difficulty, but was delayed for more than an hour trying to find a way through this madhouse. Mrs H absolutely loves it; she says that she has finally found her spiritual home, the one place on the planet where her own driving and parking appear above average. On the way home, many’s the time that I have paused behind another vehicle signalling left at the junction with the high street, wondering exactly what he or she is waiting for, only to find the driver calmly exiting the car and pottering off in the direction of the Londis, quite oblivious to the fact that they have stopped about three feet from the kerb and on a “Give Way” line, thereby obstructing a busy junction.

Once you decide to release your grip on the side and go with the flow, abandoning your car in the middle of the road in line with the spirit of the place, things only get worse. Whichever shop you enter will contain at least two of the following: (a) a pensioner on a zimmer frame, though only if they have been unable to lay their hands on a more cumbersome and ineffective walking aid, (b) a hugely overweight mental defective, (c) a group of schoolchildren eating chips, (d) a ruddy-faced rustic with straw in his or her hair, clutching a large plastic bottle of implausibly cheap alcohol and exuding a strong smell of something that might, at best, be silage; (e) a hippy type wearing a Tibetan style hat and / or an organic self-knitted shirt or skirt, also looking as though they would benefit from a good scrub with carbolic.

Sometimes, of course, one individual will manage to straddle several of these categories.

The one thing you can say with confidence, given the cast of characters you are likely to encounter, is that every shop on the high street should have the words “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” emblazoned over its front door. The last time I went into the electrical shop to buy a few lightbulbs, I was rudely interrupted by a mental defective asking the bloke behind the counter if he remembered her coming in before Christmas and enquiring about [insert some technical gibberish of your choice] and him saying that he couldn’t get it any more? No, he didn’t. Well, he had and the OTHER electrical shop up Church Street had been able to get it, no trouble at all. What did he think of that? Well, he was surprised but very pleased for her. Yes, but it was not only that. Did he remember …

In total, I think that essentially the same point was repeated at some length three times, the gist being “your shop is shit, and the one over the road is great”. Why not just f*** off to the other place and stop wasting everyone’s time, then, you bloody mental? Or come back after hours and post a turd through their letter box, or whatever turns you on?


Then there’s the post office. Average length of queue at counter: a not discouraging three people. Average time spent queuing? Universes have formed and died more quickly. Often the people standing at the counter are in pairs, and at least you can pass ten minutes or so trying to work out which is the mental defective and which the carer (I’ve never reached a satisfactory solution yet). First they have to withdraw their pension / benefit money, paid out of my personal taxes, hampered of course by the fact that they can no more remember a PIN than the name of the current Prime Minister. Then they have to start paying all their sodding bills, one by one, as far as possible not using the £20 notes they have just been handed in benefits, but the old halfpennies, buttons and half-sucked mint imperials they have just emptied onto the counter from their capacious handbags. Finally, after the sort of interlude that makes a three hour A-level exam seem like the blink of an eye, they appear to have completed their transactions. Then they say “Now, can I just pay my mother’s bills?” and you find yourself banging your head against the nearest wall, moaning loudly. Mrs H swears that she once stood behind one who, after dealing with all her mother’s transactions, then said “Now, can I just pay my Auntie Dolly’s …”

No you f***ing can’t. Go and lie in the road until someone runs you over, for f***’s sake, which shouldn’t be too long given the general level of motoring skills around here.

I went into the Post Office this morning, very much against my better judgement, to return something I hadn’t ordered to the Royal Mint. To be fair to them, when I complained about this they sent me a pre-paid special delivery envelope for this purpose. All I had to was hand it over the counter and obtain some sort of receipt to prove that I had done so. I queued up behind five (count ‘em) people including one geriatric and two hippy crusties, though luckily it proved that three of them were actually waiting not for the counter service but for the cash machine, which was being monopolized for a scarcely credible length of time by a middle-aged woman who had evidently mistaken it for some sort of one-armed bandit and couldn’t understand her persistent failure to get three strawberries in a row.

Then, when I finally made it the counter, the process of weighing, scanning, looking up the rule book, huffing and grunting took so long that I seriously wondered whether it wouldn’t be quicker just to get back into the car and deliver the sodding thing to Pontyclun in person. Finally, just as I was wondering what that wispy thing floating towards the ceiling might be, and realizing that it was my will to live, a printed receipt was gracelessly and silently shoved towards me under the glass and I prepared to make my escape. Only to find my only exit route comprehensively blocked by a nonagenarian with a shopping trolley, skewed crazily across the aisle by the tills, with the only way round it taken up by a fat, patronising old cow, who was peering into the trolley (sole contents: one bag of flour) and enquiring “Ooh, are you baking then?”

The hope that the even older lady might say “No, I’m going to scatter it on the pavement and write “C*NTS” in it with the end of my walking stick” did cross my mind for a second, but she merely smiled vaguely, uncomprehendingly, as her interlocutor prepared to ask her question again more loudly and I weighed up whether to double the volume of my “Excuse me”, scream like a banshee, barge past and knock them both over, or ask “For f***’s sake, is this a shop or a care home?” at top volume. I avoided the last by a hair’s breadth.

I had just about stopped hyperventilating by the time I drove into the Deeside Industrial Park 45 minutes later. As I did so, I passed a van which bore the legend “draintv.co.uk: your No 2 is our No 1 business” and felt that perhaps, after all, my life was not as bad as it might be.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Purblind, clearly

15st 4lb, zero units. There used to be a shop in Alnwick called Blind Design. Disappointingly, I think it sold blinds. I always preferred to imagine that a call to them would bring to your door a man with a white stick, who would recommend redecorating your house in hideously inappropriate psychedelic colours while his guide dog peed enthusiastically over the side of your sofa.

My own eyesight has been imperfect since I was at Cambridge 35 years ago. I first realized that I had a problem when a group of us went to see Barry Lyndon at the ABC. Discussing the film in the adjoining Wm Younger’s pub afterwards, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed Kubrick’s soft focus photography, whereupon someone gently pointed out that it was actually pin sharp. Shortly afterwards I was kitted out with a pair of those NHS glasses that traditionally came encased in pink plastic, but which looked quite fashionable if you stripped that off to reveal the goldish metal underneath. I have been wearing spectacles for distance vision ever since, except when I flirted with contact lenses for a while in the 1980s, after some well-meaning woman advised me that it would increase my chances of getting my leg over. Though not with her, obviously.

I can tell you now that it doesn’t work. Though I suppose if it had worked, it would have enabled me to enjoy a fuller and sharper view of the resulting sexual shenanigans than the blur that normally results after I have put my glasses down on the bedside table. (Wearing one’s glasses during sexual intercourse is surely a social faux pas to rank alongside leaving on one’s socks.) On the other hand, would this have been a good thing? In most cases, over the years, taking off my glasses has been one of the high points of the evening. Sometimes, only my always exaggerated fear of physical violence used to stop me from saying “Excuse me, I don’t suppose you happen to have a blindfold handy?”

This strikes me, incidentally, as a clinching argument against laser eye surgery. Quite apart from those centring on the chances of the bloke doing the procedure losing focus for a second while he specifies how many sugars he wants in his tea, and blinding you forever.

Anyway, the fact is that I don’t wear glasses around the house, except for watching television, but I always put them on when I go out. Only yesterday – on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, after two days trapped indoors by a combination of snow, sleet and the need to be never more than a ten second sprint from a functioning lavatory – I went out for a restorative walk and had gone almost two miles from the house when I reached up to adjust my glasses, after taking a picture, and found that I was not wearing them. My God, I whispered to myself, it’s a miracle! I am cured! I rushed home in high spirits, only partly to check whether my glasses really were there rather than lying crushed somewhere underfoot. Then I looked at the pictures I had taken, and realized that there were some features of the compositions that perhaps betrayed a lack of 20-20 vision.

Perhaps more picturesque without the overhead cables?
Would Snowdon or Bailey have made such a feature of the grass in the foreground?

Monday 1 March 2010

An innocent abroad?

15st 4lb, zero units. There is a wonderful letter in today’s Newcastle Journal from a gentleman in Edinburgh, complaining that he had been misled into trekking all the way to South Shields to see a play which he expected to feature children (why, they “even used a photo of two boys (aged about 12) to publicise the show”) only to find that the characters were all played by adults. Imagine his disappointment.

It’s wonderful because I surely can’t be the only person wondering whether this guy is the UK’s most brazen paedophile, or simply the country’s last genuine innocent, inhabiting a bubble in which he fails to appreciate the inference that every sniggering cynic will place upon his complaint.

I must confess that I had never heard of The Machine Gunners, but I gather that it is a musical based on a moderately well known children’s book about teenagers growing up on Tyneside in the Blitz. The publicity photo on the internet is clearly a genuine, period, black-and-white shot of 1940s Geordie scamps, who look as though they are cheerily looting the contents of a bombed house (but perhaps it was indeed their Mam’s) so it would be a trifle optimistic to expect to see them live on stage, not least because they must now be at least 80 years old.

Still, I do admire the man for complaining, despite the risk of ridicule and / or having his windows put through by News of the World readers (you remember, the ones who stoned a paediatrician out of his house). Something about it reminded me of a pocket-sized, shrink-wrapped publication sold through sex shops in Soho in the 1970s, called Women and Animals. The cover photograph typically featured a scantily clad young slapper exchanging meaningful glances with a stallion. While inside, when the eager pervert got home and ripped his purchase open, were page after page of … photos of a fully clothed Princess Royal show-jumping, society ladies walking their Pekinese, and so forth. How could anyone complain? Women and Animals. It delivered exactly what it said on the label.

Before anyone posts a comment to enquire, I know that story because it was told to me by a colleague who had taken the pornographer in question out to lunch, with a view to arranging a stock market flotation of his seedy empire. Something which, strangely enough, never materialised. While I freely confess that I have sometimes taken a passing interest in what I prefer to describe as art pamphlets, bestiality has never been my cup of tea. Phew! I can hear The Dog breathing more easily even as I type.