Wednesday 28 July 2010

Days of wine and woodpiles, mate

15st 8lb, 6.0 units. Back in the North East for a meeting with a client yesterday afternoon, I manfully continued my self-appointed tasks of clearing out 20-odd years of accumulated papers and drinking the contents of my wine shed, against the day when I finally have to face up to reality and sell my much-loved house with its matchless views of the Cheviots.

Many of the wines were curiosities when I bought them. I went through an anti-French phase so violent that I would only buy wine from countries where Her Majesty the Queen was head of state. Fine for Australia and New Zealand, of course, but was it really necessary to invest in a case from Canada? Then I weakened a bit and decided that it would be all right to buy wines from countries that had, at some point, been under British rule. Hence the presence in the shed of a couple of cases of wine from Washington and Oregon, those well-known wine-growing regions of the United States. I had forgotten about them for 15 years, and opened a bottle of Oregon’s Erath Vineyards 1995 Willamette Valley Chardonnay yesterday evening, reflecting that it presumably ought to have been drunk at least a decade ago and expecting it to be an interesting experience at best. Imagine my astonishment when it turned out to be utterly delicious. I wonder what it would have tasted like in, say, 1996? Perhaps, like me, it is a late developer.

I needed a drink to calm me down after calling at PC World at Kingston Park to buy a small piece of cable for my computer, specifically to replace the one that connects my MacBook to its back-up drive. I know I can’t really have lost the original, but I’ve looked everywhere for it in both Cheshire and Northumberland and there is no sign of it, so clearly the only way forward is to buy another one. Then, in accordance with the timeless rules of the Law of Sod, the original will immediately and miraculously re-appear. I thought it was worth maybe a fiver to achieve this. After all, how could it possibly cost more than that for a couple of feet of wire with a connector at each end, intrinsic worth surely not more than about 99p? Which was, as it turned out, £23 less than PC World thought they could get away with. It wasn’t that which annoyed me, though, so much as the fact that the young tw*t behind the till, with the apology for a beard, managed to address me as “mate” no less than three times during the simple process of putting the item through his till.

It’s a good job he didn’t say it a fourth time, or he’d now be in hospital and I’d either be in police custody or hunkering down in a storm drain in Rothbury, depending on how quickly the constabulary responded to the emergency call. On recent evidence that would be the storm drain, would it not?

I also finally managed to put into the wood shed the last of the lorry load of hardwood logs that were dumped in my back yard as long ago as April. I think the words “well seasoned” would now cover them admirably. Now I’ll be able to argue that it doesn’t make economic sense to sell the house until we’ve used them.

At least clutching at logs seems to hold out better hope of keeping one’s head above water than clutching at straws.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Pink ticket

15st 5lb, 6.0 units. Back in Cheshire for a quiet weekend. Really quiet, in fact, as Mrs H went off to Chester yesterday evening for a “hen night”, leaving me home alone without The Boy, since clearly I could not be trusted to look after him. In the circles in which I used to move in London, this would have been celebrated as the issue of a rare “pink ticket” for an evening of male socializing (probably invoving some combination of binge drinking, gambling, lap dancing and flirting with strangers, if not actually shagging them). But unfortunately I have no male friends in Cheshire with whom to share any of the above, always assuming that I had the energy, which I don’t. I tried to make myself sound a bit of a martyr to Mrs H as she headed off for her night out, but she correctly pointed out that I don’t have any male friends in Northumberland, either. Or indeed female friends, there or anywhere else.

She’s not wrong, but it’s sad to be reminded that the best I can manage on an evening of total freedom is reading the Saturday newspaper supplements over half a bottle Tasmanian pinot noir, and watching half an hour of John Bishop on the telly.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Rich git

15st 8lb, zero units. Yesterday I drove my aunt back home to Northumberland. It lashed it down all the way. An accident closed the M62, so we went via the supposedly more scenic route of the M6, A69 and B6318 Military Road, but for most of the way we could see little through the surrounding low cloud apart from the spray thrown up by lorries.

Before we left, I filed a newspaper column about my economy drive, thinking that I had made ample recognition of the fact that I know myself to be immensely privileged, but it provoked a vitriolic e-mail from Monday’s columnist pointing out that “your readers now know that you live in two houses, have nights at the opera, buy your food from M&S, have incredibly expensive private health insurance, take foreign holidays, have enough spare cash to make charitable and political donations and are trustee to various music organisations. You are, in other words, a rich git. I suspect the readers' letters pages will be full of comments about columnist toffs/just desserts etc.”

Oh dear.

I had plenty of time to mull all this over as today I took my car in for a routine service. When I booked it, about three weeks ago, the receptionist explained that it was one of the major services, made more expensive by the fact that they needed to change the oil in the gearbox. I was therefore a little surprised to receive a telephone call late this morning, informing me that my car would be off the road until tomorrow because they had emptied the oil from the gearbox, then discovered that they did not have any of the right grade to replace it. I asked whether they could see how the efficiency of that operation might be improved by checking Point B before embarking on Operation A and they conceded that they could, so I suppose at least it has been a Learning Experience for someone.

Added to which, it gave me the half day I needed to write a reference for the former PA who is returning to work after a 13 year career break and who has secured her dream job as PA to the headmistress of her local secondary school. The list of questions was very, very long and it was a struggle even for one with my famously elephantine memory to remember what her salary was when she left us in 1997, and how many days of sick leave she had taken during the year. I also thought I was going to struggle to offer any intelligent comment on her suitability to work with children. Then I remembered how I and some of my colleagues used to behave, and I realized that a thousand or so 11 – 18 year olds would be an absolute doddle.

Monday 19 July 2010

Dogs, fireworks and a selfish ****

15st 7lb, 8.4 units. Mrs H returned from Chester station on Friday afternoon with three very fine antiques: my aunt and a pair of Staffordshire china dogs. Only my aunt actually came from the station, to be accurate; she had pottered across from the North East, taking the slow but apparently scenic train from Manchester to Chester, because Mrs H had invited her to stay for the weekend. The Staffordshire dogs had been collected en route, from the shop I pass on my way to my North West office. As potential replacements for the ones smashed (note the absence of a personal pronoun before ‘smashed’) last weekend they were insultingly inadequate, being smaller than the ones that had graced our friends’ guest bedroom and green where theirs had been gold. On the other hand, when they were placed on top of the antique china cabinet that my aunt kindly gave us when she downsized her living arrangements last year, they looked absolutely superb. In fact, we all agreed that it seemed as though they had been standing there forever, and we simply could not imagine the china cabinet without them. A great start, this, for my planned crackdown on unnecessary expenditure.

The ostensible reason for my aunt’s visit was a happy family picnic at the Cholmondley Castle Fireworks Concert on Saturday night. Clearly this is an event that has a powerful appeal to Mrs H, as this is the third year to which she has invited me to it. Indeed, I think that the 2008 concert was inked into my diary within days of our first meeting, and on that occasion she even splashed out on a pair of tickets. But then it pissed with rain all night, so we did not actually use them. Last year, learning from experience, it was inked into the diary but we left it that we would buy tickets on the gate. We had the issue of what to do with a month-old baby, it is true, but I think we concluded that he could come with us since at that stage he slept pretty much all of the time when he wasn’t feeding. No, the clincher was that it pissed with rain all night, so we didn’t feel inclined to go.

Given that track record, was it altogether unreasonable of me to assume that we would not be going in 2010, either? Clearly it is one of those events, like the Hoppings travelling fair on Newcastle Town Moor, that is the infallible signal for a series of mudbath-creating cloudbursts.

It all looked so promising, too, raining steadily through the morning, albeit reining [sic] back to light but persistent drizzle during the afternoon. I have to admit that it did brighten up in the early evening, but it was still a bit on the chilly side and I didn’t feel a total **** when I argued that it would be safer and cheaper, and just as jolly, to have a family picnic in the conservatory instead. My offer to drag the stereo through and play the 1812 Overture in the background was politely turned down, as was my suggestion that I could provide some indoor fireworks by reviving a party trick I have not attempted since my college days. Probably just as well.

At the bottom line, though, the sad fact is that Mrs H really wanted to go to this concert and I really didn’t, because if I go to hear classical music I want to listen to classical music, and not classical music accompanied by the popping of Cava corks, the chinking of glasses, china and cutlery, and a lot of idiots braying at each other to pass the mustard. It would be like having the performers at Glyndebourne come out from the opera house onto the lawn, and play and sing during the picnic. It just wouldn’t be right, in my view. But not in Mrs H’s, clearly, so there is no escaping the conclusion that I am, in fact, a selfish ****. Just in case anyone was harbouring any doubts on that issue.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Chopper? Not likely

15st 6lb, 6.0 units. I was invited to a meeting at a bank in London today. I haven’t been to one of those in years. The bloke doing the inviting suggested that we could all fly down together and I accepted. After all, I knew his company to be in possession of a private jet and, if you have absolutely got to fly (and I’d rather not, on the whole) that is much the least painful way to do it. Only later did it emerge that he meant that we could all fly down together on the company helicopter.

Now, to say that I have an aversion to helicopter travel would be to put it mildly. Like so many of my attitudes, it started out as a blind prejudice, supported by anecdotes such as that of the lady friend who was elbowed off a helicopter flight from JFK by a pushy American woman, in the days when airlines offered free transfers from the airport to Manhattan for their business class customers, only to discover that this rudeness had saved her life as the chopper then plunged into the Hudson River with the loss of all aboard.

Then came the fateful day a few years ago when I broke a rail journey to London to call upon a client in Yorkshire, and he told me that I might as well hitch a lift with him as he was also heading for town after lunch. On the one hand I had already paid for a first class rail ticket for the journey. On the other, the company helicopter was sitting right outside, the Battersea heliport was a damn sight nearer than King’s Cross station to my then London flat, and it seemed awfully churlish to refuse. After all, we could usefully continue our conversation while we were travelling together.

Wrong. I was completely incapable of opening my mouth at any point in the flight in case something other than words came out.

It was foggy, and it was windy. Right on the limits, I later discovered, of being able to fly a helicopter at all. Consequently we flew at a disturbingly low altitude throughout. When we came across things like radio masts, we went around rather than over them. At one memorable point we passed low over a cemetery where a funeral was taking place, and could clearly see the clergyman and mourners clustered around the open grave, and the coffin with its silver plate at the bottom of the hole. I’ll admit that I couldn’t read what it said on the plate, but if I’d had a pair of half decent binoculars I am pretty sure I could have done.

Later we were sent on a long diversion from the usual route, that involved clattering at low altitude right across the middle of Heathrow airport. It did not strike me as the safest of places to be.

When we finally got out of the thing at Battersea, it was only the fact that I was in an advanced state of shock that prevented me from initiating a Pope-like snogging session with the tarmac. I appreciated for the first time that my blue shirt was completely drenched, and finally realized what people mean when they write of being “in a cold sweat”. My cheery host averred that the healthiest colour he had observed on my face during the flight was “parchment”, deteriorating from time to time into various shades of green. He also assured me that it was just about the worst flight he had ever experienced in a couple of decades of regular commuting by helicopter between Yorkshire and London.

His chauffeur dropped me off at my flat and I went for a nice lie-down, vowing “never again”. So today I made my own way to London on the train, and was pleased to note that I made it to the meeting on time, whereas those who came by helicopter were more than half an hour late. They also muttered something about it being a bit of a rough trip.

A good call, I think.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

The immutable Law of Sod

15st 5lb, 5.5 units. Making my usual journey from home to my North West office yesterday morning, I glanced as I always do at the window of the antique shop that I invariably have to crawl past really slowly as the traffic builds up on the approaches to Chester. It struck me right away that something about it had changed, but I could not work out immediately what it was. The window was still occupied by that very handsome pine chest of drawers that had been there for ages, and which I would love to own if I did not already have a house full of remarkably similar things. So what was it? Something sitting on the chest of drawers? Oh yes. It suddenly struck me that what had been staring at me for months was a pair of Staffordshire china dogs pretty much identical in size and colour to the ones that I had last seen in pieces on the floor of my friends’ guest bedroom on Sunday.

Surely not: it must have been a hallucination brought on by the stress. But perhaps, just perhaps, they did indeed have the perfect replacement for the ones over whose destruction I had presided, and had merely placed them in another part of the shop when they were rearranging their window display. Mrs H kindly rang them up to ask and – yes – in a truly classic example of the immutable workings of the Law of Sod, they had indeed had a pair of large Staffordshire dogs just like the ones I was seeking, sitting in their window for months. And, at the weekend, someone had finally come in and bought them. Excellent. Not to despair, though, they did have another pair …

Monday 12 July 2010

A tale of two dogs

15st 6lb, zero units. How quickly our little lives move from triumph to tragedy. After a truly exceptional night out, we retired to bed in our friends’ newly refurbished house in Northamptonshire, occupying the best guest room in which one of those fashionable, free-standing baths had been plonked in the middle of the room, as is the contemporary way. Naturally I could not resist teasing them over breakfast with stories of how Mrs H had wrecked the place by leaving the taps running and doing her celebrated impersonation of a sperm whale, ruining the carpet and bringing the ceiling crashing down on their grand piano in the room below. Much heartened by my own wit, though I don’t suppose for a minute that it had that effect on anyone else, I returned to the room to be greeted by … a scene of devastation. “My God!” I said to Mrs H, who naturally assumed that this was but another example of my peculiar sense of humour. But sadly it was not.

When we had gone to breakfast there had been a fine pair of those Staffordshire china dogs sitting on the window sill. Behind them was a blind, and behind that was an open window, since it had been a very hot night. All had remained happily in balance while we were in bed. But now, crucially, I had left the bedroom door open when I went to breakfast, creating enough of a through draught for the blind to flap and the dogs to come crashing to the floor. I cannot bring myself to describe the resulting damage, but the words “beyond repair” spring readily to mind.

I was utterly mortified, because (a) I actually really like Staffordshire dogs, and have always vaguely coveted a pair for myself, and these were undoubtedly particularly fine examples of the genre; (b) I live my entire life by the precautionary principle of asking “What could possibly go wrong?” and felt, with hindsight, that I really ought to have been able to see that one coming; and (c) I had spent the last hour joking about having wrought havoc. I don’t think the man of the house really believed I was being serious, either, when I summoned him to view the disaster. He was very nice about it. Nevertheless, I set out to see how we could make amends, and shall not be holding my breath for a return invitation any time soon.

Sunday 11 July 2010

An outstanding night at the opera

No idea, 15.5 units. When I wasn’t keeping up with the rolling media coverage of the Moat saga, I spent most of last week e-mailing or telephoning people to see if they might like two free tickets for the opera, since a couple of my guests for a performance last night had been forced to pull out at relatively short notice.

Anyone observing the resultant struggle to place the spare tickets would think that I was approaching people asking them to look after a leaking container of nuclear waste, rather than inviting them to something potentially enjoyable. Though the worst of it was that several invitees impressed upon me that they would really LOVE to have gone if only I hadn’t given them such insultingly short notice, so I will now feel obliged to spend several hundred pounds I have not got buying additional tickets so that I can repeat the invitation next year. Only to find, no doubt, that “you would not believe it, but we are already booked up for the second weekend in July, even though it is only September.”

I would believe it. Truly I would. I went through a similar experience in 2009.

I finally gave up and made a despairing call to the box office, prefaced with the words “I know I’m wasting my time, but …”

“Oh no,” came the reply, “Don’t worry. We have a long waiting list for tickets. We’ll sell them for you right away.”

And they did. Which was nice.

As English summer nights out go, Madama Butterfly at Nevill Holt was about as perfect an evening as anyone could ever aspire to. It is at least as beautiful a spot as any of the better-known country house opera venues, with its hilltop location making the horse’s head statues that are apparently de rigueur this year look vastly more striking than they do plonked on the lawn at Glyndebourne (see my entry of 5 June for the photographic evidence).


The weather was perfect. Our friends in the area had arranged an utterly delicious, if perhaps intimidatingly massive, picnic, with a fine magnum of Pol Roger, while I had arranged a private pavilion in which to consume it and brought with me a selection of other passable wines. The theatre within the stable block is delightfully intimate and the performance itself was simply stunning – probably the best thing I have ever seen from the Grange Park Opera team, with the young South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee making such a convincing job of the title role that two thirds of the ladies in our party were in floods of tears and even the hardened old businessman to my left was seen to reach for his handkerchief in an attempt to remove some irritant from his eye. A truly outstanding and exceptionally memorable night out. Do catch it if you can when it comes to The Grange, and to Cadogan Hall in London, in September.

Saturday 10 July 2010

The surreal week of Rothbury, Moaty and Gazza

15st 4lb, 4.0 units. What a week for the Bloke not to be in the North, when Rothbury (the nearest shopping centre to my house, home to my doctor, bank and favourite hardware store) became the centre of global media attention as Raoul Moat led Northumbria Police a merry dance through the surrounding woods and fields, while he himself strolled cheerily up and down the main street in his nondescript orange T-shirt and Mohican hairdo, occasionally breaking into houses to obtain sustenance.

Umpteen reports suggested that the police had missed several excellent opportunities to capture him – for example when they failed to keep under surveillance the house of the friend where he had called to leave a letter, thereby allowing him to return unobserved to leave another one; or when they chose to ignore the prediction of his Rothbury-based former girlfriend that he would be turning up there; or took a couple of hours to respond to the report that his distinctive car had been spotted; or refused to enter one of the houses he had broken into. But then you only had to watch one of the police’s regular press conferences to realize that Northumbria’s force was not necessarily led by the sharpest knives in the proverbial box. I thought originally that the Acting [sic] Chief Constable was a Brighton drag queen, and was glad to be corrected by the friend who pointed out that she was in fact Alice, the mad verger from The Vicar of Dibley.

A colleague swore that he had watched rolling TV coverage of one of the many police roadblocks which featured a fat man in a yellow high visibility jacket cheerily smoking a fag and chatting to a mate while he waved through a Transit van. At which point the friend drew his attention to the presence of the Sky TV camera, galvanizing Plod into action to stop the next car, a VW Polo, and conduct a thorough search, even making the female driver remove its spare wheel in case Moat was hiding beneath it.

All in all, a first rate farce which finally entered the realms of the surreal when Gazza turned up last night with his bread, chicken, can of lager, fishing rod and dressing gown to sit down and talk to his old pal Moaty and resolve the situation peacefully. The police might as well have let him try. He couldn’t have made a bigger arse of the job than they did, could he?

Sunday 4 July 2010

The Blame Game

15st 8lb, 5.0 units. Early yesterday morning a lunatic recently released from Durham Gaol shot his former girlfriend, and murdered her new partner, on the outskirts of Newcastle. Some 24 hours later he followed this up by shooting a policeman who was sitting in his patrol car at the roundabout marking the junction between the A1 and A69. The Blame Game has already started, with the authorities at Durham letting it be known that they had warned Northumbria Police that the man they were releasing might intend serious harm to his former partner. Surely I cannot be the only person in the country thinking of the obvious follow-up question, “Why the hell did you let him out, then?”

I spent yesterday cheerily winding up Mrs H by telling her that the man concerned, the exotically named Raoul Moat, originally came from a hamlet about 800 yards from our Northumberland house, and that he would undoubtedly be heading back there to lie low. She did not see the funny side. Not one little bit.  As we queued in the slow-moving traffic to pass under the still cordoned-off roundabout on our way back to Cheshire this afternoon, it did not take a genius to see that she was even happier than usual to be putting the North East well behind her.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Party, party, party, party

15st 8lb, 6.7 units. One birthday is not enough for The Queen and The Boy demands nothing but the best, too, so we held a small celebration for his family and friends in the North East, a fortnight after his party in Cheshire. I thought this made it his second party; but his mother, who is more in touch with these things than I am, assured me that it was actually his fourth, counting the ones held at his nursery and his lunch with a similarly aged friend on his actual birthday.

Two of his second cousins (once removed), aged five and three, pitched up to help him celebrate, along with their parents, his great aunt and the wife of one of my first cousins, whom it seemed simplest to designate an honorary aunt, and a couple of old friends of mine from up the road.

Who's that boy in my garden?

Another cake - I don't believe it!

The Boy serenely observes his many admirers

There were sandwiches, crisps, scones with jam and clotted cream, chocolate biscuits, jelly and ice cream … and ample supplies of Cava for the adults, since I had run unaccountably short of real champagne. My view of the event was perhaps slightly coloured by being struck on the side of the head by a dog toy as I was walking to the garden gate to greet a visitor. It drew blood. I could not quite believe that Elfin Safety permitted the sale of anything so hard and sharp, even for canine use, or that a three-year-old could hurl it with sufficient force to wreak such damage. Still, apart from that, a good time appeared to be had by all. We must do it again next year.

Friday 2 July 2010

A small triumph

15st 9lb, 2.0 units. We took The Boy for his first haircut this afternoon, after a not altogether successful lunch in Morpeth with my brother and aunt. The haircut, by contrast, was a triumph, with The Boy putting up no resistance and Tom the hairdresser ensuring that a representative sample of his lopped curls were gathered up in a plastic bag for his mother to cherish forever, or more likely to spend the rest of her life wondering, from time to time, where the hell she had put them.

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