Friday 30 April 2010

The Don't Trust Townhouse

15st 6lb, zero units. Things took a decided turn for the worse in Newcastle last Friday, when I got into my car after an agreeable lunch at the Hotel du Vin and suffered what I took, at first, to be a sudden nosebleed. Only, on closer examination, the stuff coursing down my upper lip proved not to be blood. In addition to the symptoms of the world’s worst head cold, my chesty cough returned with such force that I was unable to sleep at night, and had to prop myself upright on a sofa in my attempts to obtain relief for long enough to snatch an unsatisfying nap. As before, Mrs H finally issued an ultimatum yesterday morning and despatched me to her doctor who, after a suitable show of reluctance, prescribed another round of the same antibiotics which had at least alleviated my symptoms for a while earlier in the month, even if they had signally failed to effect a cure.

I remarked that I was fortunate to be self-employed and to work for the most understanding of clients, as I had been too ill to sit behind a desk for so long that, if I were conventionally employed, I would undoubtedly have been sacked by now. “Not in the public sector, you wouldn’t,” the GP cheerily replied, underlining perhaps the key local difficulty with which the winner of next week’s General Election will have to begin grappling on Friday morning.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the memorable evening on which I met the Less Tall Cheshire Brunette, as Mrs H was then styled, for the first time. In consequence, the casually booked night in London now looming tomorrow has come to assume many of the aspects of an important anniversary treat.

The auguries for it have not been good since the Royal Opera House e-mailed more than a month ago to mention that two of the principal singers engaged for their new production of Aida had decided to pull out, which is rarely a good sign. Then the thing actually opened, and the reviews were terrible. I grasped through the fog of illness that David McVicar’s Big Idea was to set it somewhere other than ancient Egypt, and to introduce an emphasis on gruesome human sacrifice. Only the mention of a gratuitous abundance of bare-breasted maidens excited any hope.

Still, at least I had booked a night in our favourite London hotel – The Dean Street Townhouse, which we have been visiting regularly since it opened at the end of November. Superbly comfortable, amazingly quiet, brilliant food, excellent service and good value – what’s not to like? Well, nothing at all, as I’m sure all the rave reviews elsewhere on the internet will persuade you, but I do hope Google picks up this small, niggling caveat. They might just e-mail you, as they did me, two months after your confirmed booking and the day before you are due to arrive, advising you that “on this occasion I need to move your room to our sister property Shoreditch House. This is not something we like to do [well, why f***ing do it, then?] and I apologize sincerely.” No explanation as such, like a flood, fire, murder or other event beyond their control that might have made our room understandably unavailable. Just the sour suspicion that some more important punter required a night in Soho and that Victoria on reception had been commissioned to identify some luckless nobody who could safely be bounced out to the East End annexe. Which is sod all use to me, since the whole point of making the booking in the first place was to have somewhere to stay at a distance from the Royal Opera House that Mrs H might stand a chance of tottering in high heels, not in some f***ing trendy slum a 20 quid taxi ride away.

So I told them to f*** off, predictably enough, cancelling my other booking there while I was about it, and promising not only that I would never return but that I would do my utmost to ensure that no-one else I knew would ever patronize the place, either. So, as someone (Derek Terrington of UBS, I am assured, and not Terry Smith as I originally wrote after a lazy Google search) famously observed on Robert Maxwell’s return to the stock market: Can’t Recommend A Purchase. All right. At least I can now say that I have tried.

Then I rang Mrs H to say that our anniversary trip to London looked terminally jinxed, and we might as well call it off. But, unfortunately for me, subsequent correspondence with the secretary of the Old-Fashioned Club I described in my last entry had established that I was correct in my interpretation of its dress code (as, of course, I had always known) and his staff were wrong. The associated apology meant that I could not reasonably stick by my determination never to set foot in the place again, and I had no convincing answer when Mrs H suggested I ring them and see if they had a bedroom free instead.

I suppose a bigger bastard than I am would simply have lied and told her that they were fully booked, but I don’t have that in me. So London and the OFC it is for me in the morning. And, by all accounts, the worst production of Aida ever mounted in the entire history of grand opera.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Thrown out after all these years

No idea, 19.5 units. No, that is not a misprint. Yesterday Mrs H and I enjoyed a decent lunch in London with a glass of champagne each and a bottle of red Burgundy to celebrate my partial recovery from alleged pneumonia (which is the main reason for my silence of recent days); I sharpened myself up with a couple of cocktails before the opera/ballet in the evening; and I then consumed most of a bottle of Rioja with our light post-theatre supper. It soon mounts up, to the sort of number that comes perilously close to one’s recommended alcohol intake for an entire week. Thank God Patricia Hewitt is no longer charged with monitoring this sort of thing on behalf of the Government. I dread to think of the lecture that might have ensued.

My aforementioned recovery is only partial because, despite being zapped with double the usual dose of strong antibiotics, the Cough of Doom came creeping back more or less as soon as I finished my course of drugs on Friday morning. I really don’t feel at all well.

To make things worse I also got thrown out of a restaurant today, for the first time in my life. I was absolutely mortified, and everyone else in the room stared in a smug sort of way, though not as hard as they would have stared if I had followed my first instinct and created a scene such as might have featured in Coronation Street, involving extensive verbal abuse and perhaps a little bit of carefully choreographed physical violence.

You can no doubt imagine how it happened. Me drunk as a lord, offending nearby diners with my liberal use of the F- and C-words in what passes for witty repartee.

Only it wasn’t like that at all. It was at breakfast, and I was as sober as a judge who had drunk his week’s alcohol ration in the previous 24 hours, but whose liver was bearing up remarkably well under the strain.

In fact it wasn’t really me who was thrown out of the restaurant at all, but the saintly Mrs H. We had actually been shown to our table and were in the process of sitting down when the young chap with the menus glanced at Mrs H from the waist down and announced that he was terribly sorry, but the wearing of jeans in the dining room of my club was not permitted at any time. Mrs H said she was equally sorry, but she did not have anything else to wear (not strictly true, but she would have cut a pretty strange figure at breakfast in the striking pink cocktail dress that she had worn at the opera last night, which was indeed the only alternative). Could she perhaps have her breakfast and promise never to do it again? Sadly not, said the young man, because “someone might object”.

This was where I began to feel the Weatherfield red mist rising, though even at the time I recognized that our maitre d’ was the blameless agent of some blimpish higher authority which had – and here comes the annoying bit – changed its bloody mind about the club’s dress code without ever bothering to tell the members it had done so.

The young man said that it had always been the rule. And maybe it had. Certainly I assumed so when I first brought Mrs H (as she then wasn’t) to stay with me at my usual London base getting on for two years ago now. I sternly instructed her that she could not wear jeans in the clubhouse and she gently pointed out to me, when we went down to breakfast on the first morning, that several people in the room were wearing them. As indeed they were. So from that moment on, it has been her regular custom to wear jeans for breakfast. She even wore them for lunch at the weekends, and no-one batted an eyelid. Shockingly, because until I met Mrs H I had not owned a pair of jeans for at least 20 years, I occasionally even wore them myself.

Until quite recently the club had a perfectly coherent set of rules which simply specified that gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie at all times, and that ladies must dress with “commensurate formality”. There were the usual exceptions for service and national dress, so that Chief Mwaka of the Uggichooma tribe could eat his dinner dressed in a lion skin if he so elected, without an international incident breaking out.

I had no problem with this. As an old-fashioned sort of chap, I positively approved of it.

Then the committee did something always regrettable. They “liberalised” the rules and decided that “smart informal” dress would be acceptable before 11 a.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. at weekends. I studied the rules in a mood of some irritation this morning and found that they clearly specified “Jeans are not permitted” AFTER 11 or 6, which I do not think you have to be a particularly uppity barrack room lawyer to interpret as meaning that they ARE permitted before then. Added to which there is a helpful list of garments which are considered “inappropriate … at any time: shorts, t-shirts, training shoes, and similar casual wear.” No mention of jeans there, then.

All a bit odd, I must say, particularly as when I returned to the dining room to pay my room bill I found the buffet table surrounded by people dressed as though for a kick-about by an amateur football side called something like Tramps United. Though not, God forbid, in denim.

However, once I had got over being angry we went for a considerably superior, if vastly more expensive, breakfast at an achingly fashionable hotel where I strongly suspect that I was the only customer not wearing jeans. Over her eggs benedict with smoked salmon, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Mrs H belatedly came up with the perfect solution, which would have been simply to remove her jeans and sit down to breakfast in her underwear. It had the beautiful simplicity of the story I heard in the 1980s about some hairy-arsed old housebuilder who had gone to attend an industry conference at the Gleneagles Hotel. Making his way to the spa, he left his bedroom with just a towel wrapped around his waist and immediately encountered an elderly military type and his lady wife in the corridor.

“Good God!” the man exclaimed, “Chaps walking around in towels! I can’t think what this hotel is coming to!”

“I’m terribly sorry,” replied the builder. “I had no idea it was against the rules.”

Whereupon he removed his towel, draped it over his shoulder and continued down the corridor otherwise bollock naked.

As I may well have remarked before, it’s a rum old world. Maybe I need to find myself a slightly less stuffy club, though it will be a wrench given that the current one is the place where I made my life-changing marriage proposal. All proposals (of London club membership, not marriage) will be most gratefully received.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Titz to Mr Parrot Face

15st 6lb, 4.2 units. Driving The Dog to the vet’s this morning, I nearly swerved off the road when the Radio 3 Breakfast “host” announced a piece by a hitherto unknown (to me) classical composer called Titz. Anton Ferdinand Titz, to be precise. He runs to a three-line entry in Wikipedia, the last of which is “He suffered from mental illness towards the end of his life.” I wonder what could have brought that on?

Ah, what a gift this small piece of knowledge could have been to me in the music lessons of my schooldays. But, as usual, I have discovered it approximately 40 years too late.

It wasn’t just the Titz, either. Even better than that, his composition was played by the Hofmeister Quartet, presumably named after the weak-as-piss lager desperately marketed in the 1980s with the aid of a swaggering bear wearing a pork pie hat. I hope they had the presence of mind to call their album “Follow The Bear Titz (Geddit?).”

Please God, I thought to myself, let the next revelation be a hitherto unknown (to me) female composer called Fany, ideally with the first name of Ophelia. But no such luck, so I had to revert to wondering why Radio 3 programmes are now presented by blokes who sound like East End Jewish pub bores, when once they were all fronted by chaps who made Brian Sewell sound rather on the common side.

I got to the vet’s bang on time, and signed the consent form for the battery of tests they had recommended to explore the reasons for The Dog’s recent insomnia. Then I made the schoolboy error of giving an honest answer to the receptionist’s question “Have you noticed any recent changes in his behaviour?”

“Oh yes,” I replied, “We’ve just been up to Northumberland for a few days and he was on our bed all night, sleeping like a log, just like old times.”

So I found myself detained for a consultation with the vet who told me the bleeding obvious conclusion, namely that The Dog clearly has a psychological problem rather than a physical one, and that the tests were therefore most unlikely to reveal anything useful. I somehow restrained myself from saying “Yes, but how about he has them anyway so that I can drop him off here and carry on to the office, rather than having to run the f*cker all the way home again.”

Instead we had a semi-serious discussion about what could be upsetting The Dog (I qualify “serious” only because the vet always strikes me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to 1960s Opportunity Knocks sensation Freddie “Mr Parrot Face” Davies, and I keep expecting him to whip out a black bowler hat, pull it down over his ears and announce that he is “Thick, thick, thick, thick, thick, thick, thick up to here.”) The vet reckoned that these problems were almost always down to stress, but the only new stress I could identify in The Dog’s life is that The Baby is now old enough to crawl, significantly increasing the danger of having his tail pulled. However, since he can still move about 20 times faster than The Baby, if he chooses to do so, this seemed hardly enough to throw him completely off balance.

Alternatively, he could just be fed up to the back teeth with the bed we brought from Mrs H’s house in Chester, which appears to have been designed for The Giant’s House in a production of Jack and the Beanstalk and stands about four feet off the floor, making it impossible for a Border terrier to jump on or off it without risk of serious injury. The vet made the excellent point that it must surely constitute a serious Elfin Safety hazard for The Baby, too, since it can only be a matter of time before he falls off it. Clearly the answer is for me to take a saw to each of its legs. The thought cheered me up immensely. In the meantime, I forked out for a Dog Appeasing Pheromone collar to cheer The Dog up and drove the f*cker back home again, managing to smile to myself from time to time even though there wasn’t so much as a whiff of Fany on the wireless.

Monday 5 April 2010

Laughing at death

15st 5lb, 5.0 units. Listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 in my bath yesterday morning, I was utterly shocked by an outbreak of mild hysteria during the newspaper review section of the programme, when conversation turned to the murder of Eugene Terreblanche. First Iranian so-called comedian Omid Djalili announced that he could not keep a straight face, then some Guardian columnist I had never heard of rejoiced in the fact that the man had still been alive when the police reached his remote farmhouse, so at least he must have died slowly. Can we imagine any of these people speaking up in favour of the death penalty under any circumstances, let alone a slow and painful version of it? No. Can we even begin to picture the sort of furore that would break out if a group of newspaper reviewers had a good laugh on air about the death of a black man, however nasty a piece of work he might be generally considered to be? (The names Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe spring to mind, for no particular reason.) But of course that is never going to happen on the BBC, where people are banned from the air for using the word “golliwog” in private conversations, but the brutal murder of the right sort of person is apparently a perfectly fit subject for comedy. Well, he was a white racist, wasn’t he? So he had what was coming to him. In a world so topsy-turvy that David Blunkett got into hot water for asking jokingly whether it was too early to crack open a bottle of champagne when he was informed of the suicide of Harold Shipman, I suppose nothing should surprise me. But it still does.

Looking on the bright side, at least it filled part of a newspaper column.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Ghostly whispers

Forgot to check, 4.5 units. I had just turned off my bedside light last night, and was mentally preparing myself for sleep by listening to the reassuring sound of breathing on the baby monitor, when I was shocked wide awake by a sibilant voice evidently addressing itself to my son. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, which is a phenomenon I read about far more often than I experience it. I shook Mrs H awake to tell her about it, which took a while and a lot of “Whassup?s”, by which time the thing had stopped. Still, I was completely sure that I had heard someone or something in The Baby’s bedroom. An admittedly unlikely event, but made more credible by the fact that Mrs H had recently complained about finding The Baby’s bedroom light ablaze when she went into him in the morning, when she was sure she had not turned it on during the night, and I certainly had not done so as I had not been in the room at all. In addition, we had both heard footsteps in his room when we were all downstairs. In fact, I have been hearing footsteps in that room, which is above my sitting room, ever since I moved into the house 22 years ago, but explaining them away as the result of expanding hot water pipes, a prowling dog, mice or simple hallucinations.

With any luck it will be one or more of his great-great-grandfathers, who lived nearby, returning to rub their ghostly eyes in disbelief at this most unlikely continuation of their line. At any rate The Baby seems remarkably unfazed by it all, and was chattering happily away long before we went to get him up this morning. We used to assume that he was talking to the large collection of cuddly toys in his cot. Now we are not quite so sure.

Saturday 3 April 2010

A big bugger

15st 7lb, zero units. As soon as we arrived back in Northumberland on Wednesday I went to see our next door neighbours and reminded them about the lovingly home-reared chicken that they had kindly offered to give us at Christmas. It duly emerged from their freezer and sat defrosting on our dining room table for a couple of days, until we deemed it prudent to transfer it to the fridge. I would not have liked to have had a run-in with it when it was alive. A “big bugger” of 12lb, it had a surprisingly small breast balanced by a vast arse on top of clearly powerful legs. Perhaps it practised Thai kick boxing in its spare time. But it seemed just the thing to feed our guests at the lunch party we had arranged for today. Until Mrs H went down with acute laryngitis yesterday evening, and we had to cancel the bloody thing. We had no real alternative but to cook the giant chicken for ourselves, and I cracked open a fine bottle of Beaune to accompany it. Dust and ashes, I regret to report. Afterwards I took The Dog for a walk around the circuit that has been my favourite since I first moved here in 1988. I used to be able to do it comfortably in an hour – 55 minutes, if I was keen to get back to catch something on the telly. On the last two days it has taken me a full hour and a half. Today I managed it in about 70 minutes, so perhaps things are looking up.

Friday 2 April 2010

The Mad Good Friday

15st 8lb, 3.3 units. I went mad today. Not for the first time, I must admit, though it would be nice to think it might be for the last. Mrs H and I had been invited out to “brunch”, which is an alien concept to me, and perhaps it was just the uncharacteristically low level of my blood sugar by 11.20 a.m. that caused the Red Mist rise up as we walked through our hosts’ door and made it imperative for me to leave without so much as a “Hello how lovely to see you I must be off”. I left Mrs H and The Baby behind and made my way home as fast as I could, given that every road in mid-Northumberland seemed to be infested with racing cyclists.

As a result of going mad, I deprived myself of the chance to witness The Baby’s first introduction to a swing, in the kiddies’ play area at Wallington Hall. He looked adorable in the resulting pictures.

My madness meant I missed all this -
which served me right
but made me even madder
But, then again, Mrs H was spared my speech about how much I detest the National Trust, which I always feel compelled to deliver when, instead of just accepting the outrageous price of admission to their properties, they deliver their inevitable speech about the benefits of becoming a member and / or “Gift Aiding” my entry fee. So perhaps it was all for the best, really.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Not Easter eggs

15st 9lb, 4.5 units. The Journal’s April Fool spoof this morning is a splendid half page story about well known local auctioneer Jim Railton being fined £1,000 plus £70 costs and a £15 “victim surcharge” (and just who is the victim in this case, pray, apart from Mr Railton himself?) for advertising wild birds’ eggs for sale. Only it isn’t a spoof at all.

Poor Mr Railton has fallen foul of the RSPB, who deem it necessary to protect the nests of their favoured raptors from contemporary egg collectors (who are, I think we can all agree, an anti-social nuisance) by prosecuting people trying to sell eggs collected a hundred years ago, when this sort of behaviour was considered perfectly acceptable.

I feel a personal interest in this case for two reasons. First, most of the furniture in my Northumberland house came from the pine shop run by Mr Railton’s then wife in Alnwick in the late 1980s. In those days, presumably before he developed his auctioneering skills, he ran a business called “Railt-o-strip” which, so far as I could gather, consisted of a large acid bath in which he dipped knackered old pieces of painted furniture culled from the farm outbuildings of Northumberland. Like a washing powder challenge on an industrial scale, these emerged from their dip as beautiful, character-filled pieces of pine furniture, albeit occasionally patched up with pieces of oak, walnut and mahogany where their owners had lost sight of the original raw material.

Secondly, a few years ago I purchased a very run-down Georgian mansion in Glanton that had once gloried in the title of the World Bird Research Station. A friend alerted me to the fact that it was on the market and I saw the obvious potential of about a million quid’s worth of property on offer for less than a fifth of that price. With my usual business acumen, I naturally went on to sell it to the aforementioned friend for little more than I had paid for it, but that is another story. The relevant part is that almost the only things I personally salvaged from the wreckage were a 1930s book about the joys of naturism, two cases of Victorian stuffed birds and a cabinet full of birds’ eggs of similar vintage, all beautifully labelled in copperplate. I admired it as a curiosity, but I must admit that I also hoped it might be worth a few quid. Not so, it appears, thanks to the RSPB. Apparently they can’t touch me for owning it, but the only thing I am allowed to do with it is give it away to a museum (who would be too frightened to accept it, from what I read) or smash the contents up. Brilliant. A real triumph for conservation. I am SO glad I resisted any temptation, however slight, to make a donation to the RSPB when we were wandering around their Unpron-Ounceable Bird Reserve in west Wales towards the end of February. I cannot help wondering whether their inspectors would benefit from the eye-opening potential of a quick dip in Railt-o-strip.