Monday 28 June 2010

White vans abandon the flag

15st 6lb, 2.1 units. I gained something of a reputation for rudeness during my time at Cambridge, chiefly on the strength of one incident. I had breezed into a friend’s rooms after the bar shut and found him sipping tea or coffee with a group of people I had never seen before. Quiet, decent, Christian types they were. They weren’t part of my friend’s usual social circle and I don’t think he ever saw them again after I had listened to them for approximately two minutes, risen to my feet and said “Jesus, this is the most boring bunch of c***s I have ever met” before staggering out and slamming the door behind me. He has reproached me about this bad behaviour at regular intervals ever since. Strange, then, to find this same friend approaching me yesterday morning clutching the business card of my dinner companion last night, whom he had independently assessed to be the dullest man in the world, inviting me to make my “most boring c***” speech to him any time it took my fancy. Apparently the most boring man in the world had identified him as a kindred spirit and thought it would be jolly nice if he came to stay with my friend at his house in the country. Ho ho. Can’t think how that happened.

Mrs H, The Boy and I enjoyed a late lunch in a Cambridgeshire country pub yesterday, then headed home shortly after 3pm, on roads left wonderfully quiet by the World Cup match between England and Germany. We did not even need to turn on the car radio to hear the result. The sudden absence of flag-flying white vans after 4.30pm told its own story.

Sunday 27 June 2010

A veritable feast

No idea, 20.0 units. It was quite a night for alcohol, what with the pre-dinner Riesling, the Bourgogne Chardonnay with the salade de crevettes grandes avec gazpacho, the Médoc with the supreme de canard aux lentilles du puy, the Sauternes with the tarte ganache au chocolat avec cacahuètes sucrées, the Dow 1977 port with the fromages and the Crozes Hermitage and more (but different) Riesling with dessert, not to mention the two large glasses of Macallan with which I rounded off the evening in the Senior Combination Room. All free at the point of delivery, too. I think someone might have made a speech about how we should all give the College lots of money in return for the matchless benefits of our education, but luckily all the booze has completely wiped it from my memory.
Some choristers came and sang to us during grace, and a silver salver of rose water was passed down the table towards the end of the meal, as of old, to the evident bafflement of most of those present, but the cigar humidor was sadly absent. Something for which I was thoroughly grateful this morning, I must admit, since for me the crucial difference between a slight sense of over-indulgence and feeling stonkingly awful is usually precisely one Havana cigar.

Some may be surprised by the absence of swan from the menu, since the College is one of those few British institutions permitted to kill the birds for the table, though anyone who has actually eaten swan would not be. I have done it once, at a May Ball several decades ago. I grasped at once that the fact that the College authorities were prepared to serve it up to mere undergraduates at a Ball, rather than reserving it for the dons’ most important feasts, might indicate that it was not up to much. I was not wrong.

By careful pre-arrangement, I was seated at dinner with one old friend to my left and two more opposite the pair of us, though sadly the noise levels in the Hall meant that I could make out precious little of what the two latter actually said. To my right was seated quite possibly the most boring man in the world, as is traditional on these occasions, though as luck would have it he had taken the same precaution as me and had brought along three other almost equally boring people with whom to converse during the evening. I do believe that they were all sporting thin moustaches, which is clearly a reliable badge of the terminally dull. I think the highlight of the occasion for him was concealing an empty water bottle, emblazoned with the College coat of arms, beneath the table with a view to smuggling it home as a souvenir. It said something for his lack of ambition, given that the table was liberally supplied with items from the College silver collection.

Although slightly troubled by my own deafness, most of my contemporaries looked in reasonable shape. Sadly the same could not be said of those from the 1955 intake, most of whom seemed to be equipped with sticks, hearing aids or other signs of physical infirmity; or to be suffering from the sort of mental frailty that allows a “black tie” dress code to be considered compatible with sticking on a black bow tie while wearing an ordinary grey business suit or a frogged green velvet smoking jacket and deep-sea diver’s flippers (actually, I made up the bit about the flippers). One could see those of the 1971/72 vintage nervously casting their eyes around and thinking “Oh Christ, next time we come back here we are going to be like that.” I certainly did.

We had encountered one of this group at tea at the Master’s Lodge in the afternoon, when a youngish woman helped a shaky old stroke victim to a seat at the shady table where Mrs H had plonked herself and The Boy, close by the oldest attendee of all (matriculated 1934, and celebrating his 95th birthday today). Attempting to make conversation, another oldish chap leaned across and asked “Has your daughter gone to get you some tea?”


“Your daughter. The lady you came with.”

“Oh, that’s not my daughter, that’s my WIFE! Second wife, of course!”

Marvellous. Seated on the other side of the friend to my left at dinner was a remarkably spry old boy of 82 who came from North East England but had picked up a soft American accent during 35 years’ residence in New Jersey. Sadly it turned out that his good health was not matched by that of his wife, who was in a care home in the States, some 250 miles from where he lived.

“Couldn’t you find anywhere nearer?” my friend enquired.

“Well I COULD”, came the reply.

It left me wondering whether, when the time came, Mrs H would consider it kindest to place me in a care home in my native North East, while she remained 230-odd miles away in Cheshire.

Saturday 26 June 2010

A cheering bunch of punts

15st 6lb, 9.0 units, making a total of 44.7 units for the last seven days. So at least I wasn’t lying when I told the nurse at my recent check-up that I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting through a disgraceful 32 units per week.

I would have made a firm resolution to do better, starting today, if only I had not made a long-standing arrangement to go to Cambridge for a reunion dinner at my old college. The invitations seem to be arriving with increasing frequency, since I am sure the last one (which I did not accept) came in 2005. Seeing that they had invited those arriving at the place in 1972, 1971, 1955 and 1950 or before, a cynic would no doubt observe that they were specifically targeting those whose children had grown up, left home and become such a source of irritation that their parents were starting to think of alternative good causes to take prominent places in their wills. Obviously they had reckoned without me, turning up for afternoon tea at the Master’s Lodge with a boisterous one-year-old in tow. There were no other infants in evidence, though I did run into a contemporary who had brought along his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, or was it the other way around? Also from his first marriage, or at any rate from his first successful attempt to have a family. Mrs H got on like a house on fire with his missus, though I was disconcerted to overhear her advising Mrs H to “have another one as soon as possible – go for it!” Albeit possibly less upset than I was to overhear Mrs H confessing, with a nod to me and The Boy, that “my big worry is ending up with both of them in nappies at the same time”.

The reason for bringing The Boy was that, on his previous visit to Cambridge in Mrs H’s womb, he had kicked enthusiastically as we walked through my old college, despite having remained completely unmoved by the charm of Queens’ and Clare and the splendours of Trinity and King’s. Mrs H concluded that he had ambitions to attend the place.

Back in 1972, of course, having had a father at a college before you was a positive recommendation. Now, as Oxbridge pursues the sacred goals of equality and diversity, it is a distinct handicap, though if he proves to be bright enough to go for it I suppose we can always play Mrs H’s ethnic minority card and hope that they mistake me for his grandfather. Over pre-dinner drinks I was heartened to meet a contemporary, now a distinguished professor of law, who reported that both his sons had attended the college despite the systems put in place to prevent that sort of thing. The trick, he confessed, is for them not to blurt out “My Dad went here!” at their interview. I think The Boy should be able to grasp that, with a bit of luck, though having a relatively uncommon surname might prove to be a bit of a handicap.

Conversation then moved on to the rigours of Oxbridge interviews, with another friend reporting that his daughter had endured three solid days of inquisitions in her unsuccessful attempt to get into Oxford. What a contrast, we agreed, with our own experiences in 1971 with the college’s director of studies in history, who saw each of us for a maximum of ten minutes – an experience chiefly memorable for the fact that he was wearing pyjamas at the time. The only question any of us could recall was “What do you think of Macaulay?” to which my friend in question had replied “Who’s Macaulay?” He attributed his subsequent admission to the college to this being misinterpreted as an informed dismissive opinion, rather than a confession that he had never heard of the most famous historian of the nineteenth century.

A familiar scene for me ...
... but a new one for The Boy, who had evidently never seen anything as amazing in his short life
Whatever the future may hold, it was worth bringing The Boy as he thought that punts were quite possibly the most fascinating thing he had ever seen, and his presence clearly cheered up my contemporaries as they sat at their tea tables on the lawn this afternoon, wearing smiles that said “Thank God we’ve put all that at least 20 years behind us”. Though it is just possible that it was Mrs H’s low cut frock that raised their spirits, now I come to think of it.

Thursday 24 June 2010

An evening with Lady Gay Spanker

15st 5lb, 5.0 units. To London, for a packed programme kicking off with a visit to my dental hygienist, and continuing with lunch at one of those St James’s clubs too grand even to have a website. I was mildly surprised to discover that luncheon was provided from a self-service buffet cum carvery, and frankly disappointed that the main hot dish of the day was roast pork. After Saturday, I can still hardly bear to look at the stuff, never mind eat it. So I had a fishcake, albeit accompanied by a little pork crackling just to try and recover my nerve. I reasoned that it was like getting back on a bike as soon as possible after a nasty tumble, otherwise it might never happen.

Surprisingly, I was sober enough after lunch to make my way to the V&A in South Kensington to buy the book Mrs H and I had identified as the perfect present for someone when we were last there, but which in a moment of uncharacteristic meanness I had refused to buy on the grounds that I would be able to pick it up much more cheaply from Amazon or a remaindered book specialist. Only to find that the bloody thing was out of print and completely unobtainable anywhere else. Unfortunately I was not sober enough to reflect that it probably did not make sense to waste £20 on taxis to pay a £40 birthday cheque into The Boy’s bank in Fleet Street, or to prevent myself from squandering several hundred pounds I have not got at my favourite shirtmaker in Jermyn Street and buying a ludicrously expensive new Panama hat.

This evening I went to see Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw (Lady Gay Spanker) and Richard Briers in London Assurance at the National Theatre. Pure comic bliss, and a chance to read all about the playwright Boucicault over a cold beer in the bar of my club afterwards, thereby setting myself up to make the totally mendacious claim that I had been a huge fan of his work all along.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Approved ball games

15st 5lb, 3.9 units. It was a perfect, English summer’s evening so what could be more appropriate than to go to a cricket match? Apart from the fact that I loathe and detest cricket, obviously, though admittedly not as much as I dislike every other ball game apart from rounders, croquet and sexual intercourse. The quintessential Englishness of the thing always makes me feel that I really ought to enjoy it. The fact that, at any time, more than 40% of the alleged players can be sitting in the pavilion drinking beer and/or smoking a fag also has much to recommend it. It certainly appealed to me much more than any of the other games options at school, for that very reason. I even enjoyed playing it in the days of infancy when we bowled underarm with a tennis ball. I went right off it when we graduated to those rock hard lumps of leather, calculated to do you a serious injury, and discovered that overarm bowling, like swimming, was one of those things I was never destined to master.

Anyway, Mrs H wanted to go because some of her colleagues had formed a team to play a village side at a ground no more than five minutes’ drive from our house. Given these facts, it is disheartening to report that we spent so long driving around in circles, attempting to follow the detailed instructions on how to get there. After about an hour and a half, we found ourselves passing our own house, which we normally reach from Mrs H’s office in less than half that time. We then adopted Plan B and put the cricket ground’s postcode into the car’s sat nav. Within half an hour we were driving slowly down a village street, agreeing that we might as well pack it in and go home for some supper, when suddenly we spotted an open gate with a cattle grid and, a couple of fields beyond it, a row of parked cars and a flash of white that might either have been a man playing cricket or a swan making an emergency landing. So we went for it. We turned out to constitute 60% of Mrs H’s firm’s supporters.

The Boy gets the hang of his national game
Mrs H’s lot were bowling, and many runs were being scored. I explained, from my minimal knowledge of the game, that this was not a good thing. The villagers all seemed frightfully posh, though I warmed to them after I was offered me a bottle of beer (a plastic bottle, presumably to prevent me from smashing it into someone’s face if the game did not go as planned). I was delighted to witness their star batsman summoned from the pavilion to the crease with a freshly lit fag in his hand, muttering “Wouldn’t you bloody know it?” So lighting up works for getting your turn at batting, too, just as, in the days before the smoking ban, it invariably brought your long-awaited food to the table seconds after you had taken your first drag.

 The Boy tries to get the hang of his national drink.
From Denmark

The Boy had two new experiences this evening: watching cricket, and being licked in the face by a passing Labrador. I cannot be absolutely sure, but I sense that he probably preferred the cricket.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Swing high, swing low

15st 6lb, 8.8. units. I forgot to say that the hog roast was a complete triumph: absolutely delicious roast pork sandwiches with all the trimmings, followed by a choice of surprisingly good puddings (pavlova or profiteroles – we did not investigate the menu beyond the letter ‘P’). The aforementioned main course trimmings included the best pork crackling I have enjoyed in ages, just like crackling ought and used to be. I kicked myself for failing to make subtle enquiries into their secret recipe for achieving this, but by late evening I had worked it out as I greedily slurped down my fourth or fifth pint of water and deduced that it came down to nothing cleverer than rubbing several pounds of salt into each leg of pork before beginning the roasting process.

There was rather a lot of pork left over, so I kept going back and helping myself to bits of crackling before it went soggy. Then we had another roast pork sandwich for supper, and ate some more of the stuff today. By evening, I had reached the point of not wanting to eat pork again for as long as I lived. If a vegetarian activist had rung up at that point, there is no telling what I might have pledged.

There were grandiose plans to go out for lunch and generally entertain our guest, but somehow we ended up lounging around in the garden. Well, I say lounging around, but by the time I had had my morning shower I could already hear the chink of spanner on scaffolding pole as our guest Iain wrestled with The Boy’s swing. He seemed to be making remarkably slow progress, but this turned out to be because he had spent the first hour or two disassembling the parts that had been put together back to front the previous afternoon. Having made a careful check that no blood had been shed, I joined him and together we slowly put the thing together. The instructions were in that multinational style involving drawings and no words, which made it largely impossible to determine what the hell we were intended to do. Iain’s preferred approach was to do the whole thing by instinct, matching holes with similarly sized bolts and worrying afterwards about whether the washers were supposed to go on the head, the nut, or nowhere at all. The thing on which I found it easiest to agree with him was that, while the drawing of an over-tightened bolt with a big “X” through it made perfect sense, the matching one of an under-tightened bolt was the path to madness. Because, if we went down that route, we were going to end up with a swing that shook and rattled like an ancient Pacer train making its way across the Barmouth bridge in a hurricane. True, we might live to regret it in ten years’ time when the apparatus fell victim to metal fatigue, but in the meantime The Boy should be able to swing to and fro without that vague sense of uneasiness traditionally associated with Aeroflot flights and fairground rides put together by obvious drunks or drug addicts.

We finally found ourselves in possession of a surprisingly large and industrial-looking metal structure supporting a small child’s swing seat. Then we turned the page in the instructions and found the bit that actually contained some words. These told us that we must next dig four holes in the lawn, 1ft square and 3ft deep, and fill them with concrete before inserting the pins attached to the four legs of the swing (though not, under any circumstances, the legs themselves). The swing was completely unsafe to use without this concrete base, which one could not help thinking they might have mentioned on the front page rather than right at the end (e.g. “To assemble this swing you will require a Philips and a regular screwdriver, two spanners, a large box of Elastoplast and a f***ing concrete mixer”).

Sod it, I thought, as I drove the pins on the rear two legs into the lawn with all the force that I could muster. I then repeated the process with the front legs, which worked rather less well since they bent. Still, it looked as though it would take the weight of a 23lb Boy to me. Iain did ask at around this point whether I thought I had put the swing in the optimum place, but there was clearly no shifting it (not now, not ever) so I just gave him one of my looks. Even though clearly no-one in their right mind would have erected it where it blocked the lovely view of the Shropshire hills from the conservatory.

Tomato sauce, not blood

Shortly afterwards a suitable guinea pig turned up with his mother and we put him in the swing for a test flight. He bloody loved it. Not a bad day’s work, then.

The Boy: bloody loving it
(a top birthday present)

Saturday 19 June 2010

Roast pork and bloodstained instructions

15st 6lb, 4.5 units. And so we came to the morning of The Boy’s Birthday Hog Roast – quite possibly the only Muslim-organized hog roast on the planet this Saturday, or indeed this year. I was out at an early hour hanging a banner and bunting, while Mrs H blew up balloons. Then I had to drive to Crewe station to pick up our only guest from outside the region. The weather was distinctly on the chilly side as I wobbled up my ladder first thing, but showed encouraging signs of brightening up. That left as the only cause for nail-biting a mild concern as to whether the people from whom we had ordered the hog roast would actually turn up. By 12.30 Mrs H was scouring the small print of their contract, which specified that they would arrive half an hour before service had been requested, which was at 1.30. Imagine her relief when a large car carefully reversed into the parking area in front of the garage at precisely one o’clock. And then imagine her concern when it proved to contain not a couple of cheery serving staff and a roast pig, but a pair of extraordinarily prompt guests.

Wor banner; wor Baby

It would make a better story if the hog roast providers had not driven up five minutes later, but sadly this blog always puts Truth First, and they did. I showed the cheery serving staff the area we had set aside for them, within 10ft of a working power point as requested. But they said that they did not actually need this as they had left their roaster at home, merely bringing with them a couple of legs of hot roast pork. I must confess to some mild disappointment, though nothing to that I experienced on my initial realization that our guest numbers were insufficient for them to build a giant pyre in the middle of the lawn and use it to roast a whole pig on a spit.

I spent much of the next hour pouring out glasses of champagne for newly arrived guests. Then I started seriously drinking the champagne, and completely failing in my hostly duty to keep going around and ensuring that everyone’s glass remained well topped up. I became so distracted that I completely missed what those who saw it assured me was the absolute highlight of the day, the Birthday Boy being sick over his grandfather in such comprehensive style that both required a complete change of clothes (in which The Boy had a distinct advantage, in actually having a complete change of clothes in the house). In fact, I got so pissed that I turned down an invitation to make a speech when Mrs H brought out The Boy’s birthday cake, and when did I ever do that?

The Boy accurately counts the number of candles on his cake;
he's a genius, I tell you

However, it could have been worse. Even I was not so drunk as to attempt to erect the swing that we had bought as The Boy’s principal birthday present, preferring to go for a nice lie-down after most of our guests had left. Into this breach leapt The Boy’s grandfather and our guest from the North East, who spent some time puzzling over the instructions and eventually brought them back indoors drenched with blood, just as my friend with previous experience of erecting swings had predicted.

Friday 18 June 2010

A very busy Boy

15st 7lb, 4.0 units. The last two songs I downloaded from iTunes were the leitmotivs of The Baby (hereinafter always to be called The Boy, since at 3.53 this afternoon he had miraculously survived a whole year without either of his parents killing him, or allowing him to give full rein to his recently discovered strong urge to top himself). They were Bing Crosby singing “Busy Doing Nothing”, from the soundtrack of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court and Paul Robeson crooning “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day”. Because the key word that describes The Boy from the minute he wakes up to the minute we lay him down in his cot at night is just that: busy.

Busy crawling towards danger at warp speed. Busy trying to walk by holding onto items of furniture that are not solid enough to support him, or passing cats and dogs that are even less so. Busy shoving inedible things that present a serious choking hazard into his gob. Busy pulling his books off his bookshelves, or heaving his cuddly toys out of his cot, or his more durable playthings out of their basket, and arranging them into a satisfying mess. Busy talking total gibberish, interspersed with occasional apparently understandable words like “ball” (though that might not have been a reference to a toy but his selection in the Labour leadership contest, if only because he can’t yet get his tongue around “Miliband”).

I am told that all this is normal behaviour for a one-year-old, but it still comes as a bit of a shock to a 56-year-old who was quite tidy by nature, used to solitude and, it would be idle to deny, rather set in his ways. I am even prepared to admit that I may well have behaved the same way myself, though nearly all the witnesses who could corroborate that are long dead, though I certainly did not have the same range of personal possessions to fling around.

Anyway, The Boy and I are clearly on precisely the same wavelength since I have been very busy doing nothing, too, hence the shortage of things to write about on this blog since the beginning of the week.

We opened The Boy’s presents first thing, then I went off to my office and continued to be busy doing nothing, while Mummy entertained him for the day.

 My First Laptop: will it keep his sticky fingers off the real thing?

My First Train: whetting his appetite for Hornby Dublo

 My Best Present: a camera case for playing Peepo

I promised to erect his main present of a garden swing in the evening, but naturally I never meant it. Particularly after I received an e-mail from a friend with experience of erecting garden swings, warning that it would involve bloodshed. Luckily by this evening his mother was too tired to nag me about it – as she is every evening after a day with her pride and joy.

Magic. Time to crack open a decent bottle of wine and toast the little man with it as he lay sleeping quietly in his cot.

Monday 14 June 2010

Move over, Atkins

15st 10lb, 1.0 unit. I tried to do without any booze at all yesterday, as I was going for my annual check-up at the doctor’s in Rothbury this morning, but there was this small glass worth of fine red wine left in the bottle at lunchtime and it would have been a crime to pour it down the sink. And, before you ask, Mrs H did not want it. We wisely did not offer The Boy a choice.

I realize that tipping surplus food into the bin rather than eating it up is one of the keys to successful dieting, but it comes hard to those of us brought up in the immediate aftermath of rationing, when failure to clear your plate brought nothing but shame and a stern lecture about the starving children in Africa (though how making the children of Longbenton, Northumberland obese helped them in any way was always beyond me). The only person of my sort of age who did not have a similar childhood experience was the ex-girlfriend who was enjoined always to “leave something for Captain Manners” at meal times. Perhaps Captain Manners was a shell-shocked ex-comrade of her father, who collected a modest stipend for scraping the remains off the plates into the pig swill bucket in the kitchen.

At least my dieting efforts of two years ago seem to have had a curiously lasting effect on my blood pressure, which remains entirely normal. And at least I am not quite as fat as I was two days ago, though the way the surgery scales thwacked around to somewhere around 17 stone as soon as I stepped on them made me suspect that even my comparatively ungenerous bathroom scales in Northumberland are not entirely accurate. The nurse who took the measurements and extracted the blood seemed chiefly concerned about my alcohol intake. Was I still really drinking 32 units a week? Well, it seemed incredible, so I said I wasn’t, though when I got home and checked a couple of sample weeks from my diary I found that it was because I was typically getting through more than 40. And it isn’t just the potential damage to my liver I need to worry about. Did I know that there were 550 calories in a bottle of red wine? No, I didn’t. No wonder I’m so overweight. But I could bring out a new diet book recommending the consumption of a bottle a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and surely at 1,650 calories a day one would still lose weight? And it’s made of grapes, too, so that must be the “five a day” box ticked into the bargain. And you’d be pissed all the time. What could be more agreeable? Move over, Atkins, you fat, dead bastard. The Hann Diet is a’coming through.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Is that it?

15st 12lb, 4.5 units. Yesterday passed in a hungover blur, the highlight of which was dining on the staggeringly expensive (but possibly even worth it) fillet steak we had bought in Alnwick that afternoon. This left me in excellent shape to head back into Alnwick for another pub lunch today, to meet the friends who had proposed an afternoon at the Alnwick Garden as a suitable treat for all the family.

Now, to say that I was not looking forward to this visit would be something of an understatement. I had been to the fabled Garden once before, a year or two after it opened, at the behest of a visiting ex-girlfriend, expecting great things given everything that I had read about it in the cheer-leading local media, the huge sums invested in the project and the fact that Alnwick had been brought to a standstill for the best part of a year while a new water main to supply it was laid smack down the middle of the main road into the town from the A1.

To say that it took my breath away would be an overstatement, since I distinctly remember that I was still capable of uttering “Is that it?” as I surveyed this remarkably small (all things considered) walled garden, dominated by a large cascade encased in painfully raw ersatz stone (very short of real stone, obviously, Northumberland; I expect it all got used up building the castles, houses, walls and so forth). The cascade did clever stuff shooting jets of water into the air from time to time, but I could not begin to understand how even a duchess could have spent so many millions constructing it, and ended up with something considerably less impressive than the rival ducal cascade at Chatsworth. Our hosts today, who may have known what they were talking about, said that the cost of the project had been vastly inflated by the inevitable Elfin Safety experts insisting on the installation of expensive filtration equipment to prevent the risk of the cascade harbouring and spreading Legionnaires’ Disease.

Has there been a single recorded instance of anyone catching Legionnaires’ Disease from a garden water feature? No? Then that just goes to show how effective all the Elfin Safety precautions have been, doesn’t it? Like that classic exchange with the lunatic on the train to Alnmouth who was pointing a gun out of the window.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
“Hunting elephants.”
“But there aren’t any elephants in Northumberland.”
“I know. Effective, aren’t I?”

Today we kicked off with a visit to the Treehouse and its surrounding rope walkways, which had not been there when I last visited and are huge fun to push a buggy across in the company of a nervous wife. I wonder if they still bring one of those tame Victorian “cake walk” rides to the Hoppings on the Town Moor? If so, I must be sure to take Mrs H for a little treat.

The Alnwick Treehouse: cracking

Then we ventured into the Garden itself, after the usual embarrassment when I declined to supply my name and address in order to make a Gift Aid donation, a scam which irritates the hell out of me at every National Trust property I ever visit, and which even HM The Queen tries on at her Gallery at Buckingham Palace, even though I am patently not making a charitable donation but making a straightforward payment for admission to an attraction. Sainsbury’s might as well try to pretend that I am making a Gift Aid donation when I go to pick up my groceries, which they could then present to me free of charge.

Mummy explains the physics of a water sculpture:
The Boy clearly shares Daddy's aptitude for the subject

The cascade still looks new and bare, but foliage has now grown pleasingly over the surrounding trellises, and various other attractions have been developed including a reasonably mature ornamental garden and the gimmicky poison garden, which should be an absolute “must see” for unsupervised school parties and those serving community sentences.

Alnwick youngsters start training early for Miss Wet T-shirt 2020
So, in short, it has got better, as gardens are wont to do up to that critical point where the bloody plants take over and you need to either hire a gardener or resign yourself to spending half your summer attacking the bastards with a range of sharp implements in a doomed attempt to make them learn their place.

An ornamental thing.  With a fox on the top

Even more importantly, I realized this afternoon that I have started viewing things through the eyes of an inquisitive and easily pleased one-year-old, rather than those of a 56-year-old cynic, and there is no doubt that The Boy had a wonderful time. He loved the water sculptures, the blossoms, the doves … just about everything, really. It was also terrific value for money for him at the child admission price of just 1p. I did not study the small print, but I am pretty sure that anyone who has just experienced that sensation of a light bulb going off above their heads will find that the 1p is conditional on paying for an accompanying adult, too, so that it is not an option to bundle half a dozen boisterous primary school children through the gates, hand over 10p and shout “Keep the change!” as you head off for a relaxing afternoon in the pub.
 Charlie liked the doves.  At it like knives, they were

Mummy makes Charlie smile for the camera.
Luckily there were no talent scouts for Special Needs
homes in the area at the time

Even Charlie might consider the website’s claim that this is “the most exciting contemporary garden on earth” to be pushing it a bit, but I do note that they have not spelt “earth” with a capital “E”, so perhaps they are not making quite such a sweeping claim as one might imagine. Perhaps there are lots of even more exciting contemporary gardens constructed on clay, water, concrete, ice and those rafts of redundant plastic bottles that I keep reading about as they gather in the oceans. But none, I suspect, within 25 minutes’ drive of our house in Northumberland, so I dare say we will be back.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Am I dead, like in the film?

15st 6lb, 2.0 units. A logistically complex day, to say the least of it. We had to leave our home in Cheshire no later than 10 o’clock in the morning to ensure that we reached our home in Northumberland in time for Mrs H to drive me to Alnmouth station so that I could catch a train back to Newcastle in order to meet some chaps I had not seen for 39 years for a beer. If you can instantly spot a more logical way of making our travel arrangements, please do not trouble to share it with me. Trust me, this was the only way it was ever going to work, given the demands of The Boy’s feeding schedule, Mrs H’s directional dyslexia and a number of other factors frankly too tedious to mention.

Needless to say, we did not leave by 10 o’clock, or anything like it. This did not put me in the best of moods. But somehow we managed to claw back a bit of time en route and finally drew into the packed and busy car park of Alnmouth station shortly before the 17.09 train to Newcastle was due. I was surprised to find the station manned and the waiting room full; in my days of commuting to London, the booking clerk knocked off at lunchtime and there was rarely anyone to be inconvenienced by his absence during the afternoon. Though it was a bit of a bugger when one turned up for the 1800ish service to King’s Cross, after a hard day at one’s Northumberland desk and looking forward to a decent dinner in the restaurant car (R.I.P.) only to find that the train did not turn up. In those days there was no reasonable way of obtaining an explanation, either. True, there was a dedicated phone marked “Enquiries” but it always smelt as though someone had recently pissed in the mouthpiece, and no-one ever answered it at the other end. The only hope was to climb to the middle of the footbridge over the tracks in the hope of getting enough of a mobile phone signal to get through to National Rail Enquiries, who would eventually connect me to a monoglot (though sadly not in English) person in India who did not have a f***ing clue what I was talking about. Yes, you might just about expect to have to spell out “Alnmouth” for the benefit of someone not massively familiar with the entire British rail network, but “King’s Cross”? Small wonder that most of these conversations ended with me saying “Oh for f***’s sake” and pressing the red button on my phone. Wishing that it was the red button on a Trident nuclear submarine, firing a missile in the general direction of Railtrack headquarters or Bangalore.

The worst single evening was the time the 18.00 was over an hour late, it was pissing down outside and there was an exceptionally large turnout of four of us sitting forlornly in the waiting room. Seizing his moment, one of our number handed out some little pamphlets full of prayers and suggested that it might be a good time for us all to put our trust in Jesus and say a few words together. It reminded me of an old black and white film I saw on the TV as an impressionable teenager, starring a host of British character actors huddled in a train compartment, in which the punch line of their nightmare journey was the production of a newspaper front page showing that the train had crashed and they were all dead. Actually, come to think of it, it might have been a colour film. Everything on our TV was on black and white when I was an impressionable teenager, except once when Raymond Baxter performed some sort of optical illusion on Tomorrow’s World.

I rose to my feet and made a show of pinching myself “just to check whether this is real or a f***ing nightmare” then strode out into the rain and drove home. The bleached bones of the other would-be travellers were found on the upper slopes of Hedgehope several months later, with marks that forensic specialists swore could only have been made by wolves. Spooky. Or it would be if I hadn’t just made it up, though the rest of the story is completely true.

Tonight I took my usual precaution of asking “Is the train on time?” before purchasing a ticket. On receiving confirmation that it was indeed bang on schedule, I asked for a day return to Newcastle, only to receive the disconcerting reply “What sort of day return?”

How many types of walk-on ticket have they invented on the bloody railways now, for God’s sake?

“Well, a standard class one that allows me to catch this train that’s coming any minute, and come back later today?”

“On ANY train?”

“Well, any train that’s stopping at Alnmouth, yes.”

“So you want an OPEN day return?”

Sweet Jesus. How hard does it have to be?

After I had forked out my £10.50 I could not help wondering whether it would have been any cheaper if I had specified a particular train back, or opted to make the journey via Berwick-upon-Tweed, or change onto a replacement bus at Pegswood, or maybe volunteer to have myself hung out of the guard’s van door and be picked up by one of those nets they used to hang up for mailbags in the days of Night Mail. And luckily I had plenty of time to reflect on this because the bastard “bang on time” train was, in fact, a full ten minutes’ late. PR note to Northern Rail, Alnmouth: don’t tell lies to the customers just because you can’t be arsed to get out of your chair and check the screen which would have told you this when asked.

Still, no harm done. I made it to the Bacchus in High Bridge only a few minutes behind schedule, recognized my old school comrades Gordon and Geoff despite the fact that I had not seen them since 1971 (though, to be fair, Gordon had sent me a recent photograph of himself and they were strategically positioned just inside the door, on the lookout for a fat, grey-haired bloke bearing a faint resemblance to the guy pictured at the head of the page 11 column in The Journal every Tuesday). I got stuck into the first of several pints of the Jarrow Brewery’s Rivet Catcher and we enjoyed a reasonably comprehensive catch-up of the last 39 years. Gordon, who has the misfortune to share his surname with the recently departed Prime Minister, entertained us with some splendid anecdotes featuring people so stupid that they managed to send e-mails intended for Downing Street to a solicitor’s office in Chester-le-Street. If I had the energy, I would open an e-mail account under the name of Barack Obama in Washington, County Durham (as it will always be for me, and not the hated “Tyne and Wear” foisted upon us by Heath and Walker in 1973 – how could they do such a thing when “Washington CD” worked so brilliantly?) and see what turned up.

Gordon observed that I seemed taller (though I doubt that) and much less reserved than when we last met. The latter is certainly true. On the other hand, it is not necessarily a good thing. The starting point for this meeting was the arrival, more than a year ago, of an e-mail from Geoff saying that he had read about my impending marriage and forthcoming baby in my column, and thought he would let me know that he too had waited until he was 50 to get married and now had two small children. It now emerged that his wife was Russian. “But not from,” I immediately joshed, only for him to reply “Well, she was, actually.” Apparently internet dating with Geordie girls does not do the business if you have set your heart against multiple tattoos and body piercings.

Oh well. It could have been worse. And promptly became so as soon as Gordon and Geoff went home and another former denizen of my old school unexpectedly turned up. I made an excuse and left, successfully blagging a lift home from Alnmouth via the slowest fast food takeaway in the known world. I waited for my fish and chips to come wrapped in a newspaper front page telling me that I was dead, and not in heaven.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

A lesson for Tony Hayward

15st 6lb, 6.0 units (I felt I deserved a drink or two in the evening, after my hard slog yesterday).

More work. I had to get to the office early for an Important Meeting. I barely had time to make myself a mug of tea before my VIP guest arrived. He promptly walked into my office, took a seat, swung open his laptop and knocked my full mug of tea all over the papers I had laid out for our meeting. Luckily there were others on hand to staunch the flood before it reached my Apple MacBook. Tissues and A3 print-outs of brochures appear to be the answer. BP in the Gulf of Mexico please note.

Monday 7 June 2010

PR man does some work shock

15st 9lb, zero units. I did some work today. What a shock it was. Sent out a press release and took calls about it. All day. As I was doing so, it occurred to me to wonder why, after 27 years handling regular results announcements for retailers, I still never, ever remember to prepare for the inevitable questions from regional media asking how many shops and employees the company has in their particular area, how many have been added during the year and how many more are coming along in the pipeline. I would put this down to total incompetence on my part and assume that every other PR consultancy in the country has this sort of information at their fingertips on such occasions; but for the fact that every experience I have ever had of working with other PR companies tends to bring a blinding revelation that they are even more useless than I am. Added to which, I am repeatedly told by journalists that I am one of the better PRs they have to deal with because I do actually bother to return their calls and usually know the answers to SOME of their questions.

Will this all change when the new generation of PR graduates (of which I wrote in my newspaper column last week) assume control of the industry? I very much doubt it. Though if I ever set up a business that employs staff other than Border terriers, I shall be sure to look out for an attractive female graduate from the University of Derby who has got a first in PR with sports massage and exercise therapies. Equipped with a short skirt and a bottle of baby oil, I am sure she could give most of the clients I have ever had exactly the sort of satisfaction they have always craved.

Sunday 6 June 2010

How to screw up your baby's life

No idea, 7.5 units. Yesterday’s alcohol intake was mercifully constrained by the fact that the £55 bottle of New Zealand pinot noir I had ordered to accompany our dinner at Glyndebourne proved more or less completely undrinkable. Not corked or anything else that one could reasonably complain about; just “dog rough”, as a friend of ours would say. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I moved on from drinking Bull’s Blood in Cambridge in the mid-1970s. Which reminds me of the delicious story of a friend of a friend (always an introduction that makes one suspect an urban myth, I’ll admit) who was visiting a south London street market and asked a mate what he was drinking from the white polystyrene cup in his hand.

“Bull’s Blood,” came the reply.

“Oh, I haven’t had that in years. Can I have a sip?” he asked.

Only to be utterly repelled when he found that it really WAS bull’s blood, since he had failed to take adequate account of the fact that his mate was a Masai from Kenya.

Yeah. It’s an urban myth, isn’t it?

Anyway, I found the experience all the more annoying given that I have two cases of completely delicious £9.50 a bottle Tasmanian pinot noir sitting in my cellar back at home, to which we returned after calling in for a late breakfast on the sunny terrace of some old friends who live in Lewes, and collecting The Boy from his doting grandparents, to whom the Norland nanny had taken him when she could stand no more. To be fair, this was always the arrangement, since she wanted to attend a Norland Nannies’ Reunion Garden Party yesterday. I wonder if Mary Poppins was there?

I tried to detect whether she had managed to instil some improved discipline in The Boy during the two days he was in her care, but could not readily tell the difference. I had been impressed by her robust turn of phrase when he ignored her firm instructions not to stick his hand in the flip-top kitchen bin for the umpteenth time. Naturally he cried as she whisked him away. Her response: “I don’t care if you’re cross. Better cross than dead!”

Unlike us, she apparently also likes to use the two-way communication switch on the baby monitor to issue instructions to her charges. Since he is not used to it, The Boy will presumably have taken “Go to sleep!” booming across his nursery for the voice of God. I dare say it will have screwed him up for life. Lucky, then, that we have read the reviews and extracts from that newish book by Oliver James, demonstrating that what a child needs until the age of three is the attention of its mother 24/7. We can therefore relax in the certain knowledge that he is already completely screwed anyway.

Saturday 5 June 2010

If it's Saturday, it must be Glyndebourne

No idea, 9.7 units (I went without the post-performance malt whiskies last night). Today we completed our feast of country house operas with a visit to Glyndebourne for Billy Budd, which proved every bit as fantastic as the reviews had suggested it would be. Set, cast and orchestra all worked in perfect harmony [sic] to convey the atmosphere on board one of HM Ships during the French wars of the 1790s, and I floated (appropriately enough) out of the theatre feeling that I had witnessed such a definitively brilliant performance that I would never be able to risk going to see the piece again for fear of disappointment. I dare say that this will come as something of a relief to Mrs H, since I suspect that she did not share my wild enthusiasm for the show, merely remarking that the story was “very sad”. I refrained from pointing out that our future opera-going would be seriously constrained if we were to restrict ourselves to rollickingly cheery pieces that worked their way to happy-ever-after endings. I just bought her some earrings she fancied in the Glyndebourne shop instead. Perhaps I am finally learning something about relationships and how to do them.

Sadly the old 'back a bit more, love' trick proved completely ineffective
 Very large horse's head and Mrs H (Mrs H on right)

Afterwards we returned to our friends’ magnificent flat on the seafront at Brighton. They had gone out for the evening, having declined to join us at Glyndebourne because they are perhaps the only opera-loving gay men in Britain with a deep-rooted aversion to Benjamin Britten. Something to do with over-exposure to one of his less tuneful works during schooldays, apparently. Still at least we had seen them briefly at lunchtime, in the back street boozer they have recently acquired and expensively refurbished as an investment. Sadly they have installed a couple to manage it, so I was deprived of the pleasure of seeing my friend put on a performance behind the bar that could surely have rivalled that of the late Kim de la Taste Tickell. I must make a note to keep in contact in case he ever volunteers to provide holiday relief cover. Like Billy Budd, it would be well worth making a special trip to see, though it might conceivably manage a slightly happier ending.

Friday 4 June 2010

Come friendly bombs

No idea, 13.5 units (well, it was my birthday). Rather a Second World War theme prevails at The Grange this year, since last night’s Tosca had been updated from the Napoleonic wars to the fascist era, perhaps to make life a bit easier for the costume department, and we returned tonight for Strauss’s Capriccio to find it set in 1942, the year it had its premiere in Munich. No doubt it did a great job of raising the spirits of that first audience still further, even allowing for their elation over the successful capture of Stalingrad. But I am enough of a Philistine to confess that I occasionally yearned for the wail of an air raid siren and the drone of bombers’ engines to precipitate an evacuation of the theatre and allow me to go for a nice lie-down in an Anderson shelter. When something is billed by the composer as a “conversation piece”, why stage it in a language most of the audience cannot understand? We were too far forward to read the surtitles in comfort, and I confess that I occasionally nodded off under the influence of the hot weather and the pre-performance champagne (the two friends we were staying with had elected to accompany us tonight rather than to Tosca, a misjudgement pretty much on a par with Stalingrad if truth be told, so it had seemed worth investing in a bottle). In my defence, at least eight minutes of lovely but soporific music pass by at the start of the piece before anyone even attempts to sing, and not too much actually happens at any point in the course of the opera.

Still, at least I was not as monumentally bored as the contingent of Winchester College boys occupying most of the front row, where the surtitles would most definitely have been completely invisible. They were all in their early to mid-teens, I would guess, and impeccably turned out in the dinner jacket and black tie I would not acquire for myself until I was over 30 (and I was past 40 by the time I learned to tie the bloody tie myself, despite the repeated, allegedly witty enquiries from public-school-educated City chaps as to whether my clip-on version also revolved, lit up or squirted water).

If a party from my old school had been subjected to an evening like this, a medium-sized riot would have broken out, probably requiring the use of water cannon to break it up. But these boys went no further than putting their heads in their hands and sobbing silently to themselves. Manners makyth man, indeed, making the place worth every penny of its fees. Which is handy since I learn that one of my godsons has just won a place there.

Perhaps one or two of the young men will give opera another try, given another 20 or 30 years to get over this one.

On the whole, the highlight of the evening for me was when Lord Ashburton doddered on to the stage at the beginning with his bitch (Labrador, that is, most definitely not a reference to the lady in his life or the estimable organizer of Grange Park Opera), proudly introducing himself as the owner of the property and strangely not mentioning that he was only prevented from razing the place with dynamite in the early 1970s by the intervention of the Government – one of the very few good things to come out of the ghastly Edward Heath’s brief spell in Downing Street. He went on to explain why the surrounding Capability Brown landscape was covered in polythene (fully biodegradable, apparently, and doing a marvellous job of protecting his crop of maize destined for animal feed) and concluded with some self-deprecating remarks about his caddish white dinner jacket. In some ways rather dull, given that we had heard him deliver precisely the same speech the previous evening. But at least tonight’s was enlivened by a member of the audience, egged on by opera supremo Wasfi Kani, shouting that the polythene was ghastly. This allowed His Lordship to come back with the fine ad lib, “Of course it’s ghastly. Why the hell do you think we are talking about it?”

Now I come to think about, it would only be fair to add that the low point of the evening was not the opera at all, but watching with interest as a fast car screeched around a traffic island on the wrong side of the road as we approached a junction on our drive to The Grange. Then having another car, presumably in pursuit of the first, perform precisely the same manoeuvre just as we reached said junction on the right side of the road. Luckily my friend in the driving seat has far keener reactions than mine, and a potentially fatal head-on collision was narrowly averted. More interesting was the reaction of the other driver, who sat grinning as though he had done something frightfully clever before he drove off. We were too shocked even to give him the verbal abuse he so richly deserved. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the best explanation must surely be that he was out of his mind on drink, drugs or both, and we clearly failed in our duty as citizens by allowing him to escape, failing to take a note of his registration number and making no attempt to contact the police.

Still, at least I did not soil my trousers during the incident. While our interval dinner was excellent, and unaccompanied by judicial ramblings. So, on the whole, like a great many things in this life, it could all have been a great deal worse.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Happy birthday to me

15st 6lb, 4.0 units. We marked my 56th birthday by leaving our son and heir at home in the care of a Norland nanny (albeit a Norland nanny who is also an old friend of Mrs H’s) and driving to Hampshire for a night at the opera: the opening performance of Tosca at Grange Park. Stirring stuff it was, too: the best production I have seen since Covent Garden retired their classic by Zeffirelli, featuring the most convincingly evil Scarpia ever, which made it harder than usual to advance my traditional argument that he is actually a perfectly decent man trying to maintain law and order under difficult conditions. While Claire Rutter had, to my relatively untutored ears, just about the perfect voice for Tosca, if not necessarily the perfect physique to convince completely as a femme fatale. Still, at least she did not bounce back into view after she hurled herself off the ramparts of the Castel St Angelo.

We had been warned by e-mail that there had been “huge demand for The Opera Restaurant and … it is going to be very cosy. We will be relying on the Dunkirk spirit.” The management evidently not having grasped the idea that it might be an idea to restrict bookings to the maximum number of people that can be comfortably accommodated, even though it is the principle on which every successful restaurant on the planet seems to be run. I then received a phone call asking whether I would mind sharing a table for four with another couple to help them out. I suppose if I had actually been on the beach at Dunkirk, with the Luftwaffe strafing me and artillery shells raining down, I might have been prepared to compromise. As it was, I merely pointed out that it was my birthday and I had been hoping for a romantic dinner a deux with my beloved wife. So we ended up, rather embarrassingly, with what appeared to be the only table for two in the entire place, shoehorned into a window recess and in close proximity to a party of four middle-aged legal types. This enabled us to derive full benefit from all the obiter dicta of one of those judges who thinks, wrongly, that he has a gift for comedy and is the absolute life and soul of the party. How I should love to have been able to see him don a black cap and sentence someone to be hanged. Though not as much, I suspect, as he would.

Then we drove back to the friends who had so kindly volunteered to put us up for the night, and I washed down the birthday cake they had kindly made for me with a generous amount of fine malt whisky.

The nearest to food porn this blog is ever likely to get 

And so another year of my life gurgles down the lavatory, as I always strive to say instead of “toilet”.