Tuesday 31 August 2010

Euston, we have a problem

15st 9lb, 10.2 units. To London on the 15.35 train, after lunch in the best staff restaurant in Britain, now made even better. Panaché of turbot, lobster and scallops with a ginger sauce, cooked fresh to order by a chef with a Michelin starred track record, and all for £2.25. Who could complain about that? I suppose it might have been a bit of an insult to heap on a side order of chips and wash it down with Pepsi Max rather than a decent Chablis, but the restaurant is sadly unlicensed and one does not wish to appear snobbish about the very good French fries. No, let’s be honest here: I’m just a bit of a glutton. I am reminded of a line which my aunt tells me was a favourite of her clergyman father’s when anyone asked whether he was hungry: “No, but thank God I am greedy.”

I used to think that there were few things worse than going into one of the Bearded Git’s disabled lavatories on the train, and having the enormous, semi-circular door slowly trundle open to expose one sitting there enthroned, trousers around ankles. It has never actually happened to me, but over the years I have inflicted this exquisite misery on a number of people, mainly harmless little old ladies. The worst thing is that there is no way to stop the horror from unfolding once it has started: the machinery creaks inexorably into the “open” position as the victim groans or screeches in apparent sympathy. Sadly Lady Troubridge’s Book of Etiquette was composed long before these contraptions were invented, and cannot offer its usual invaluable advice on how to behave in these difficult circumstances. Using my own initiative, I have developed a technique of running away and hiding, hunched up in my seat with my head buried in my newspaper and my legs crossed, trying to ignore the insistent pressure from my bladder.

Up to now I have always thought that this sort of thing was basically the fault of the embarrassingly exposed user, for failing to press the “lock” button when they entered the lavatory. But now I am not so sure. Because my journey this afternoon revealed the possibility of an even worse fate than having the door open prematurely, namely the door refusing to open at all. After a few people had wandered to the guard’s hideaway at the end of my first class carriage to grumble that the lavatory at the other end of the coach seemed to have been engaged for an inordinately long time, the lady was moved to investigate and clearly detected sounds of mild distress from within. Because for the rest of the trip to London she and a male colleague spent most of their time banging on the door and trying to force it open, while shouting encouragement along the lines of “We’ll soon have you out of there” to whoever was trapped within. I was reminded, albeit faintly and distantly, of those unfortunate Chilean miners.

Surprisingly, they did not choose to interrupt our journey to summon the fire brigade to an intermediate station to sort things out, but as we departed Milton Keynes the guard did ring ahead to have someone standing by on our London arrival platform with heavy cutting equipment, a jemmy, or whatever is required to bring such incidents to a happy conclusion. This gave her the excuse to utter the line that all the Bearded Git’s staff must long to employ at every possible opportunity: “Euston, we have a problem.”

Monday 30 August 2010

Miserable old git

15st 7lb, 5.2 units. August Bank Holiday Monday. When I was a lad we always had to spend bank holidays at home, because my dad pronounced that “the world and his wife” would be out on the roads (this circa 1960, when there were some 8.5 million licensed vehicles in the United Kingdom, compared with more than 34 million today, though admittedly we have constructed a few more miles of motorway in the intervening years).

At the time I thought he was a miserable old git and resolved that I would never be like that (as I resolved never to take a nap after lunch, as my parents did every day, leaving me to wander around the garden having meaningful conversations with my imaginary friend Mr Fothergill – it is a wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, that the neighbours did not apply to have me certified).

Then, in the natural course of events, I turned into a miserable old git myself and realized that the old boy had been right all along. Few things beat a nice afternoon nap, and driving anywhere on a bank holiday is for mugs. The furthest I used to go on August Bank Holiday was the Glendale Show at Wooler, some 13 miles from home. Then came the year I drove the three miles to the A697 and found that the queue to get into the car park started right there. So I gave up on that for the rest of my life, and sat at home with a good book instead.

But that was before I acquired a family, who obviously need entertaining. So this year Mrs H proposed a visit to Bunbury church fete, having taken the precaution of checking on all the other traffic-generating events in the area and calculating the optimum time for our visit, taking into account both likely vehicle flows and The Boy’s all-important feeding schedule. We got there around 3, without incident or delay, and were directed smoothly into Beeston Castle’s overflow car park.

The fact that we had to wait a while for a long stream of cars to leave did suggest that we might have missed the best of the day’s fun, and the dog agility display was indeed over. But there was still the second hand bookstall, where I bought four 50p paperbacks despite my firm resolution never to acquire another book until I have worked my way through the several thousand unread ones I already own. Then there was the chance to buy some jams and chutney, and to have a lovely slice of homemade cake with a mug of tea in the tea tent. Best of all from The Boy’s point of view were the bouncy castle, to which he rapidly developed a homing instinct, despite our warnings that he was far too young to participate in the fun; and the miniature steam engine, which he observed with absolute fascination. This was very encouraging news for a Dadda with ambitions to build him a serious train set.

The Boy's first encounter with a steam engine
The proud owner of the steam locomotive observed that it was always nice to see the young taking an interest, and gave thanks to the Rev Awdry and Thomas the Tank Engine for sparking their interest in something that they otherwise simply would not understand. I observed that The Boy probably had something of an advantage in that respect, having a father who was used to seeing every train hauled by a steam engine in his own youth. He looked at me as though I were slightly deranged, but it is true. Many were the happy hours I spent by the sidings at Little Benton watching East Coast expresses steam through as smaller locomotives fussed about shunting rakes of coal wagons. I rather wish now that I had not had that short-lived burst of maturity in my early teens, which led me to discard the many books full of locomotive numbers I had collected.

After a couple of unsuccessful goes on the hoopla stall, we headed for home feeling suitably contented with our simple pleasures, swerving to avoid the occasional impatient motorcyclist but otherwise experiencing no road-related problems whatsoever.

Sorry, dad. I feel as though I have rather let you down.

Sunday 29 August 2010

My Dad

15st 6lb, 6.0 units. It would be lovely to think that I have lost five pounds in a day; but in fact I have merely weighed myself on another set of scales, in another house, which consistently make me 4lb lighter than the ones I use in Northumberland. Alongside these flattering scales of mine is an electronic model used by Mrs H, which consistently makes me 7lb heavier than my old-fashioned mechanical ones. I don’t often resort to it for a second opinion, to be honest.

When I got back to Cheshire yesterday afternoon, after four nights away and a tiring drive from the North East (I saw the immediate aftermath of one accident on the northbound M6, and the sat nav diverted me onto A-roads for some time to skirt around another) The Boy (14 months old) beamed at me and said “Dadda” as soon as I walked through the front door. Then he toddled off and crawled upstairs (something I had no idea he could accomplish unaided) with me following close behind in case of slippages, walked into his bedroom, pulled a slimmish volume out of his little bookcase and handed it to me. It was called My Dad. I had not the slightest clue he possessed it, and still cannot work out whether or not its selection was a lucky fluke. But it certainly gave me a warm glow (and not the disconcertingly damp sort that men of my age have to start worrying about). As did going out to an extended lunch with Mrs H’s extended family today, at which The Boy circulated, shaking hands with all and then extending his arm to point out “Dadda” with apparent pride.

He will learn, no doubt. But it’s nice while it lasts.

I wonder what my mother, who would have been 101 today, would have made of her only grandson?

Formula 1 driver training ...
... followed by a spot of football practice

Saturday 28 August 2010

A Start

15st 11lb, 5.4 units. Can it really be a month since I wrote anything here? Well, yes it can, all too easily, what with the distractions of making an entirely minimal contribution to the upbringing of a child who has now officially graduated from baby to toddler, shuttling between two houses, making trips to London, Lewes and Newcastle, and occasionally (very occasionally) doing the odd bit of work. Highlights unrecorded here but featured on my other blog include a damp trip to the Farne Islands with The Boy, and a visit to Corrie!, the official Coronation Street 50th anniversary tribute show at The Lowry in Manchester.

I did not feel that I could stretch it to a whole newspaper column, but I was excited during my last stay in Northumberland to notice the first ever investment in improved public services in the 22 years I have lived in my current home. When I moved into my house in October 1988 there was an excellent village shop, incorporating a good delicatessen and a post office, just three miles away. That village also boasted a pub, school and church, while the next village two miles further on boasted a grocer, a hardware store that also had petrol pumps outside, a separate post office, a bank (Lloyds, admittedly a sub-branch only open one morning per week), two pubs, one of which did a rather good steak and kidney pie at lunchtime, and two churches.

The primary school and the church in the first village are still functioning; in the second village the former hardware store now sells newspapers, greetings cards and some basic groceries as well as serving as the post office. It is open in the mornings only, while the one remaining pub opens three nights a week and has abandoned its attempts to serve food. One of the two churches mysteriously burnt down a few years ago, allegedly because it stood in the way of a profitable development opportunity. And that’s it. Everything else has gone.

In short, unless you’re keen on God or have children under eight to educate, you’re pretty much on your own. Small wonder that Mrs H prefers living in Cheshire, where a village boasting a fine selection of shops is only 20 minutes’ walk or five minutes’ drive away.

Why do village shops fail? I have always bought as much as I can from my local ones, and on the rare occasions when I have bothered to compare prices I have never found them wildly out of line with the supermarkets in Alnwick or Rothbury. The moment I despaired was when I was standing in the now defunct one in my nearest village, exchanging banter with the proprietor, and an elderly neighbour of mine walked in.

“Got any UHT milk?” he enquired, in the gruff Northumbrian style.

“No,” replied the proprietor, “But we’ve got lots of lovely fresh milk.”

“Oooh, I can’t afford that,” grumbled the old man, clearly much put out. “Now I’ll have to drive all the way to Rothbury for some UHT.”

To put that in context, Rothbury is the best part of a 20-mile round trip, in a car that probably burned as much engine oil as petrol. One could not help thinking that these costs had not been factored in to his decision-making process.

In short, it’s all been downhill for facilities and services in these parts, despite the fact that new houses have been thrown up here and there, old ones refurbished, and the total local population must surely have increased despite the landed gentry’s penchant for leaving some of their estate cottages empty and gently rotting, rather than renting them out to townies who might object to some of their bloodier traditional rural pursuits.

But not any more. The tide has turned. This morning, on my way back to Cheshire, I paused to take a photograph of this harbinger of the Brave New World of improved public services in the countryside. And here it is.

Try to imagine my excitement

Admittedly it’s been closed up with that yellow tape for at least two weeks now. Perhaps it will turn out to have been erected in the wrong place, or merely be there temporarily for a photo opportunity. But maybe, just maybe, they’re waiting for a minor member of the royal family, or one of the local nobility, to cut a ribbon and declare it officially open.

It’s not that much use to me, to be honest. There is a post box nearer to me, a 25 minute walk from my front door (this one will be more like 40). When I was running a serious business from home, and despatching ten or more letters every working day, I wrote to ask whether there was any chance of Royal Mail installing a post box in my own little hamlet. They replied, promising to think about it. Twenty years on they are presumably still thinking.

So why am I excited enough about this one to break my silence of a month? Because of what it represents, of course. In simple terms, it’s A Start.