Thursday 23 September 2010

The strange case of the vanishing ham

15st 6lb, 4.4 units. Mrs H and I both enjoyed lunch in the finest staff restaurant in Britain yesterday. I had the delicious homemade pork pie with mushy peas for £1.85, while Mrs H went mad and splashed out £2.25 on the roast duck. On Tuesday we both (though separately) enjoyed the best end of free range pork with caramelized apples, Mrs H fondly imagining that at least some of the aforementioned fruit had come from the large bag she and The Boy spent Sunday afternoon filling in our orchard, and which she had proudly presented to the head chef on Monday. I, however, had a conversation with him which went as follows:

“Did those apples come in useful?”

“Yes, I’ve got a lady who is always asking me if I’ve got any spare apples for her horse, and that’s the best thing for them.”

Oh well. For some reason this encounter reminded me of a Spike Milligan story about an Army medical involving a colleague with an exceptionally small penis. The M.O. stared at it aghast for some time, before asking “Can you piss through it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’d just use it for that, then.”

Anyway, the net result of lunch was that neither of us was particularly hungry this evening, so Mrs H decided that she would just have a ham sandwich. Not too much of a challenge, there, given that she knew we had bread in the appropriate bin, and butter and ham in the fridge. Only it turned out that we didn’t. The packet of ham that she bought at the weekend, and which was definitely there on Monday when I spurned it for my own lunch, had completely vanished. We looked everywhere, to no avail. She hadn’t eaten it, I hadn’t eaten it, The Boy isn’t tall enough to reach the fridge in question and neither is The Dog.

Where could it have gone?

Mrs H, who clearly watches too many of the wrong sort of TV dramas, remembered one where someone was secretly living in a stranger’s house and sneaking down to raid their fridge when they went out, and duly made me check the bedrooms above the garage that we never use, but I drew a predictable blank.

Just to make doubly sure, I consulted the extraordinarily detailed food diary that I have been keeping for several weeks now, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my irritatingly persistent obesity, but there were definitely no stray packets of ham listed there. Then I started wondering whether I had eaten the bloody thing myself and forgotten all about it. I am, after all, a greedy bastard, and I did gain an inexplicable 2lb yesterday. On top of which, I am suffering from galloping dementia. Could I have wolfed it down and then wiped it from my memory? Could I perhaps have sleepwalked downstairs and swallowed it in the middle of the night?

No, I don’t really believe I did, but this didn’t stop me waking up at 4.30 this morning and wasting an hour racking what is left of my brains on the subject. That and rifling through the bin when I got up in case there was a damning empty ham packet with teeth marks where I had torn it open in my shark-like feeding frenzy.

The only other possible explanations involve the various individuals to whom we have given keys to our house for such purposes as doing the hoovering or taking the dog for a walk. Frankly, none of them seems the type either to borrow food from the fridge or to leave doors open so that casual passers-by could do so – and, in any case, what sort of intruder would pinch one packet of ham and leave it at that?

Odd. It doesn’t matter a damn (or a dam, if you prefer the pleasing explanation that this saying is a reference to the near-valueless Indian coin) but I’d still like to know the answer. As I lay awake in the early hours, I remembered being a reasonably small boy and my Dad asking me if I had by any chance taken half a crown from the pile of change on his dressing table. He would not be cross with me if I had, he assured me. He just wanted to know, because looking for it was driving him round the bend.

I now know exactly how he felt. Clearly this obsession with searching for missing articles is a serious hereditary failing. The sad thing is that I didn’t believe the bit about him not being cross, so I vigorously denied it. Sorry about that, Dad. I dunnit. Though, to be honest, the chocolate stains around my mouth should probably have enabled you to work that out for yourself.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

On the buses

15st 8lb, 5.0 units. The other possible subject for a newspaper column this week was ear-ringed Geordie lothario Keith Macdonald, 25, who has so far fathered ten children by ten different mothers, naturally all on State benefits, at a total estimated cost to the taxpayer of £2 million. He would have to be called “Keith”, wouldn’t he? I only started writing this piece because the BBC mistakenly called him “Kevin” when making the secret of his success, “I pull them on the buses”, their “Quote of the Day” on Monday. The Daily Mirror reported that unemployed (naturally) “Macdonald lives with a pal in a council house in Washington, Tyne and Wear. He spends much of his time drinking strong lager, chain-smoking and playing computer games.

“He laughed: ‘I always have to have a can to get myself up and started in the morning.’”

Then he heads off to the bus stop and chats up women with clearly astonishing success, despite being, as the paper observes, “no Brad Pitt.”

All of which goes to show that neither Shameless on TV nor Viz on the newsagent’s top shelf are comic fiction, but true representations of life in the north of England today. God help us.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Pope here

15st 6lb, 4.5 units. My favourite image of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was of a gable end in Belfast on which some Protestant zealot had painted, in huge and regular letters, “No Pope Here”, and some wag had added underneath in another hand “Lucky Bloody Pope”. I thought of it as the current incumbent of the throne of Peter landed in Edinburgh last week – which, if Heathrow conveys the impression of a Third World country, as one of his cardinals foolishly if accurately observed last week, must be considered lucky if it manages to scrape into the Fifth World after a couple of recounts.

In the old days we could have looked forward to the Rev Ian Paisley leading a crowd of dour, whey-faced, gabardine-wearing Protestants in a good old-fashioned rant. But now he has been displaced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, damning Benedict XVI as “a leering old villain in a frock” and “the head of the world's second most evil religion”. So what would the most evil be, then, Professor? Or shall we just leave people to draw their own conclusions, since its adherents might just be the sort not to turn the other cheek but to cut your head off, with a blunt knife, on camera. Never pleasant, that sort of thing.

I wonder how it is possible to make some of the accusations levelled against the Pope without falling foul of some sort of incitement law?

What with spending so much of my time driving back and forth between Northumberland and Cheshire, I missed nearly all of the media coverage of the Pope’s little outing, but everything I heard a about it beforehand was almost entirely negative. I was therefore surprised, on turning on the BBC News at 10 o’clock on Sunday evening, to find a series of people describing it as “a triumph”. What on earth could have gone right? I decided to devote my weekly newspaper column to the subject.

I was brought up in an atmosphere of mild anti-Catholic prejudice, but there was no getting away from the fact that the prettiest girls in our street were all from the large families with the plaster saints on their mantelpieces. Not that I ever got anywhere with any of them: I was much too shy for that. But when I finally did manage to start forming relationships with women, for some reason many of them proved to be of the Catholic persuasion. I used to think that their tendency to burst into tears after sex was the result of Catholic guilt, and this might not be a good thing. But then I realized that the Protestants and atheists did it too, and it was just a reflection of the horror of experiencing intimate relations with me.

Some of them paid lip service (which could be a rather filthy joke, but isn’t) to their religion’s strictures against contraception, and the fact that none of them got even remotely pregnant lulled me into a false sense of security about my own infertility. The ultimate consequence of which can be seen smiling in several photographs further back in this blog.

As for services, of an ecclesiastical nature, I rather got to like them. Well, the grand ones at the Brompton Oratory or Westminster Cathedral, at any rate. Where the words were Latin, the music uplifting, the vestments gorgeous and the choreography superb. Unfortunately one of my companions worked out after a while that my enthusiasm for the Brompton Oratory also had a lot to do with the potential for happily surveying the arses of row upon row of lovely young ladies kneeling in prayer, and she started insisting that we went to another church in Kensington were the service was in Irish-accented English, the pervading smell was of overboiled cabbage rather than of incense, and the social range of the congregation spanned the full gamut from charlady to tramp. Oh, what a snob I am! But it has to be said that the modern Roman Catholic liturgy is even more uninspiring than the Anglican one, and that really is a world class triumph of cloth-eared incompetence.

Sadly I felt obliged to leave out of my column the observation that anyone who was in the Hitler Youth can’t be all bad, and some musings on the "Pope on a rope" novelty shower accessory that was, I feel reasonably sure, one of the more popular mementoes of the last Papal visit to the UK, back in 1982. If am right, it seems to have been a major failure of imagination and marketing nous by the Fry / Dawkins / Tatchell coalition not to launch an updated “Pope on a rope” last week, complete with gallows.

Papal history, with special reference to Pius IX, was my specialist subject in my last year as an undergraduate, so I am aware that there is a long history of cardinals electing to the Papacy old men who are not expected to reign long, but who then enjoy a remarkable new lease of life once in office. It would suit me if Benedict XVI proved to be one such, despite his own predictions and those of the loons who, elsewhere on the internet, predict that he will soon be succeeded by the last Pope of all: Satan. Now that really will be a Papal visit to the UK to watch out for.

Monday 20 September 2010

Citizen Smith

15st 6lb, 7.0 units. Glancing through the Radio Times last night, I noticed that they were showing an episode of Citizen Smith at 11.40pm, and I thought fondly of the young Robert Lindsay as Wolfie, standing outside Tooting tube station shouting “Power to the people!” But it was rather too late for me, so I gave it a miss. It was only this evening that I looked at the entry more closely, and realized that I had in fact missed “Citizen Smith: Writer Michael Smith investigates national identity in his home town of Hartlepool, examining the locals' sense of self and their place in the country as a whole.” So that’s two home towns he’s had in a week then, with last Sunday night’s pile of crap being billed as an essay on his “native city” of Newcastle.

Unless, of course, they meant “native city” as the baggy-trousered explorers used to talk of “native villages” in the black-and-white TV travelogues of my childhood. But this is the BBC we are talking about, so I guess not.

Bugger. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to have another go at the snappily named Mr Smith. I wonder what there is to say about Hartlepool apart from the aforementioned monkey-hanging incident, the implausible saga of the disappearing canoeist, and the fact that it is the only place in Britain so little valued by our Government that they built a bloody great nuclear power station slap bang in the middle of the town, rather than on some desolate wasteland miles from anywhere. Though while it was being built, as I recall, they called it “Seaton Carew”, only changing its name to “Hartlepool” once it was up and running. A bit like the whole Windscale / Sellafield thing, only in reverse.

Talking of back to front, I noticed a post from the Royal Opera House on Facebook offering orchestra stalls seats for Niobe, Regina di Tebe on Thursday and Saturday for a mere £45. The other day they were £68 including a “free” glass of champagne. These signs of increasing desperation are a bit worrying for those of us who have already arranged to see the opera, particularly when we have been daft enough to pay £115 for the self-same stalls seats. I posted a comment to this effect, and a lady promptly gave me a lecture about how “if you buy a suit in M&S at full price and then they have a sale the week after, you don't get money back! You book early for holidays, theatres, ballet etc. and you get the advantage of getting the seat of your choice. Or, you leave it until the last minute, possibly get a bargain, but aren't guaranteed the holiday/seat of your choice. That's life!”

Well, yes, I can see that. Though I can’t help thinking that the need for drastic last minute discounting might be reduced if these organizations read their markets correctly and priced their products appropriately in the first place. Niobe, Regina di Tebe is an opera so monumentally obscure that even I had never heard of it. The Royal Opera House bills it as “a rare and exciting chance to experience a work by a forgotten master”, the Italian composer Steffani. Niobe had its first performances in Munich in 1688, and its first revival in Schwetzingen in 2008. Clearly either a monstrous injustice or a sound musical judgement. No doubt time will tell. But if it proves anything like as mind-numbingly tedious as the ROH’s production of Tamerlano, I fear it will spell an end to Mrs H’s willingness to join me on jolly little outings to early operas (which is, to be honest, the main thing I was looking for in a wife). So quite a lot hangs on this.

At least when you engage in a debate on the ROH Facebook page it’s all properly spelt and punctuated, with no “lol”s and those unfortunate keyboards owned by stuttererrrrrrrs that repeeeeeeat every other lettttttter several tttttttimes in a bloody irrrrritattttttttting sort of wwwwwwway.

The other thing that I have started wondering about is why railways do not abide by the Golden Rule of Discounting, as outlined above. Hold off buying your suit or your holiday, and you may get it a whole lot cheaper. Delay buying your rail ticket and you are more or less guaranteed to pay the full price (and did you know that a first class return from Penzance to Thurso now costs £934, not that I can think of any reason why someone in Penzance would want to go to Thurso, except for a bet). Come on, train operating companies, let’s charge the anal early bookers top whack and let the disorganised prats on cheap at the last minute. And maybe throw in a “free” glass of champagne, too. That would certainly work for me.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Tart, as in bitter

15st 10lb, 7.1 units. I spend day after day sitting at my desk in an office with not quite enough to do. Then I come home to sort out some things around the house and end up spending most of the day writing a speech for a client. At any rate that was how yesterday panned out. In the evening I went for supper with about 20 members of my extended family at the Morpeth restaurant I last visited for what I coyly described as a “not altogether successful lunch” on 2 July. In fact it was a bit of a disaster, with the epic slowness of the service driving my elder brother to the verge of apoplexy. And, since we were just about their only customers on that occasion, it was hard to fathom a plausible excuse. This evening offered the converse of fast food, too, but at least the place was heaving and the dishes, when they arrived, were absolutely delicious, so really there was nothing much to complain about. A couple of my cousins were taking part in the Great North Run today, so naturally they were the first to leave so that they could get to the pub and start their preparations in real style.

Back in Cheshire this afternoon, I watched Mrs H and The Boy as they picked apples in what an estate agent would no doubt describe as our “orchard”. This includes two plum trees, both bearing delicious fruit, though absolutely every plum seems to ripen at precisely the same moment in the middle of the night: the only saving grace is that they are clearly different varieties, one of which was ready to eat in July while the other is just approaching the pinnacle of juicy deliciousness right now. I picked a pair of them and they were still a bit firm and slightly sour. I did this with the other tree a couple of months ago, repeating the exercise on a daily basis until I felt sure that, on the next morning, they would be absolutely perfect. I duly approached the tree, basket in hand, and found that the entire crop had turned over-ripe and mushy literally overnight.

Child labour in Britain, 2010

We'll have him stitching footballs by the time he's three

Then there is the crab apple tree, which would be handy for making crab apple jelly if we knew (a) how to do it and (b) what to use it for. The pear tree that, this year, has produced hardly any pears at all. The mysterious tree that must clearly be supposed to yield fruit since it is stuck in the middle of an orchard, but appears to do nothing at all. Perhaps, come to think of it, it is the other trees’ boss. And finally there are the apple trees – three of the buggers, one evidently bearing Bramleys, one another variety of large, green cooking apple, and the third smaller, red apples that look like they ought to be for eating, but are distinctly tart. And not in a good way, like “apple tart” or “f*** me, look at that tart over there!” Just tart, as in bitter. Which is rather how I would feel, to be honest, if I’d planted these trees and this was all I had to show for it.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Welcome home

15st 9lb, zero units. I was driving off to Newcastle for a haircut yesterday afternoon when I glanced to my left and did an absolutely classic double take; the sort that demands that you slam on the brakes and reverse up the road to be sure that you really did see what you thought you had spotted. As luck would have it, my attempt to reverse naturally coincided with the arrival behind me of a speeding white van, on a road that probably does not see more than one speeding white van per month. The driver gave me the traditional salute as he swerved and roared past.

But my eyes did not deceive me. There, walking purposefully towards his front gate, was my 85-year-old next-door neighbour who, when I last received a bulletin, was in hospital and looked likely to remain there for some time. Admittedly he was leaning quite heavily on a pair of sticks, but he looked considerably better than when I had last seen him. I don’t think I have ever been more delighted to see anyone in my life – though I suppose I must have been, now I come to think about it, mainly in those instances where women actually turned up for blind dates and proved not to be quite as hideous as I had assumed they would be.

I won’t say that I have been getting withdrawal symptoms, but since he has been away I have taken a couple of looks at Google Street View, in which he is immortalized standing in his dungarees and wellington boots in his winter-bleak front garden, staring suspiciously at the camera van as it goes by.

When I returned from my haircut (excellent – and good value, too. Tom O’Malley at Michael Dominic, 8 Lansdowne Terrace, North Road, Gosforth. He keeps angling for a plug in my newspaper column, and this is as near as I am likely to get) I called on my neighbours and enquired if he was glad to be home (he was) and whether his wife was glad to have him back (this took some thinking about, but she finally admitted that he was “company”).

“And what was wrong with you?”

“Buggered if aa knaa.”

“Well, what were they treating you for?”

“Buggered if aa knaa.”

“Do they think they’ve cured you?”

“Buggered if aa knaa. They wanted me to gan back next week but aa’ve rung up and cancelled it. At my time of life, do ye think aa want to be buggered about with? Aa’d rather dee.”

Well, I suppose the sentiments are quite understandable even if the language isn’t always to those born outside the North East. I once shared my house with a lady who is a keen equestrienne, and we would have long conversations with our neighbour in which I understood the dialect and she grasped his horse-related terminology, so when we pooled our knowledge afterwards we could usually work out what the hell we had just been talking about. Mrs H just nods cheerfully, and I am under standing instructions to kick her if she looks like doing so in response to a statement like “one of my goats has just died.” I am pleased, if surprised, to report that there have been no disastrous embarrassments so far.

Friday 17 September 2010

Not dying - yet

15st 10lb, 4.5 units. Despite my complete exhaustion, I somehow managed to drive the 230 miles from Flintshire to Newton-by-the-Sea without falling asleep at the wheel yesterday afternoon, and was rewarded with a delicious dinner.

The main reason for coming to Northumberland at this point was a business lunch today (now naturally cancelled), but at least I was able to seize the opportunity of an early morning appointment with my doctor to check out the skin cancer on my back. It took him all of about 30 seconds to pronounce that it wasn’t cancer at all, but a harmless growth called … what? I heard what he said, I repeated it to myself several times as I wandered around the Co-op and drove home, then rang Mrs H back in Cheshire to tell her the good news.

“So what is it?” she asked, not unreasonably.

“I’ve forgotten.”

After racking my brains for a minute, the best I could come up with was “I think carrots were involved somewhere.”

Luckily, even before I put the phone down, a Google search had identified my non-problem as seborrheic keratosis. Though while I recognized “keratosis” as the word my doctor had uttered, “seborrheic” rang absolutely no bells at all. On the other hand, it cannot be the other form of keratosis listed in the medical dictionaries as they all warn that this is pre-cancerous, and he definitely said that mine is completely harmless. Indeed, he added that it would have been known, in pre-PC days, as a senile wart. Which cheered me up no end.

“Did you ask him about your dementia?” Mrs H enquired, faced with this further solid evidence of my failing mental powers.


“Why not?”

“I forgot.”

Perhaps this is the Catch 22 of ageing. If you are sufficiently switched on to tell the doctor that you are worried about developing dementia, then you aren’t.

Thursday 16 September 2010


15st 7lb, 9.0 units. I am absolutely knackered. Really I am. I woke up at 3.30 this morning and could not get back to sleep at any price. The annoying thing was that The Boy was not crying, The Dog was not panting or having one of those dreams in which he runs like hell and barks to himself, and Mrs H was not going to work and therefore had not set her alarm for some unearthly hour in the morning. So all was set fair for a restorative long kip, apart from the fact that I was wide awake. I wonder whether drinking 85% of that bottle of Tasmanian pinot noir over and after supper last night might have been a contributory factor? I have always valued alcohol for its ability to put me to sleep, but taken to excess I do seem to recall a tendency for it to ping me awake again rather earlier than I would have liked. But I am talking an hour or so before the alarm goes off, not 3.30 in the morning, which is quite clearly The Middle of the Bloody Night.

Unfortunately the only way I can think of to test my theory is to drink another bottle of pinot noir and see if the same thing happens. I’ll probably do that anyway before too long, to be honest. At least, with a bit of luck, this post will serve as an aide memoire to compare the results.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

On the way out

15st 7lb, zero units. I am definitely developing dementia (and annoying alliteration). I have started keeping a food diary in an attempt to work out in more detail why I am failing to lose weight, even though I already know the answer in principle, namely eating too much and not moving enough. I sat for quite some time yesterday morning staring into space while I tried to remember the names of the stuff Mrs H told me to add to my homemade soup at lunchtime on Monday, and the mushed-up vegetables on which she placed our baked cod that evening.

I got there in the end, at least. The first was vermicelli, though I still think that sounds more like a musical instrument, possibly played by trained white mice, or an unpleasant fungal skin condition. And the second was ratatouille – also evocative of rodents. A worrying theme. I cheered myself with the thought that so far I only seemed to be having trouble remembering foreign names. But then Mrs H and her family all have foreign names, which could make this quite an embarrassing problem.

Still, while I dread dementia, I don’t suppose I’ll be too conscious of it by the time that it’s really taken a grip. And there is always the cheering thought that I may well succumb to some more efficient fatal illness before then. I noticed a couple of new skin lesions on my left shoulder in the bathroom mirror yesterday morning, prompting yet another hasty Google search for “malignant melanoma”. I don’t think that’s what they are, but they failed enough of the ABCDE (Asymettry, Border, Colour, Diameter, Evolving) self-diagnosis tests to make it worth booking an appointment with my doctor, the poor sod. On the one hand: no wonder the NHS is overstretched. On the other: I once had a colleague whose apparently unremarkable moles on his back caught the eye of a physician during a routine medical, and he was dead of skin cancer within a year. Still, I had to admire his style. “Tell me honestly, doc, is this curtains? Because if it is, there are a few things I’d like to do.” I can’t remember the precise details of his greatest ambition, but I do recall that a number of black prostitutes were involved in its realization.

If I ever find myself in the same boat, my last wish won’t be anything like as colourful as his.

Maybe I should mention the potential dementia to my doctor when I see him. But that would be against the practice rules, written up on a series of notices in the waiting room that make the place look like the worst sort of 1950s seaside boarding house. These specify that patients should present only one ailment per ten minute appointment slot, in order to keep the place running to schedule. I suppose I could toss a coin in the waiting room: heads malignant melanoma, tails … what was the other thing I wanted to see him about?

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Open to offers

15st 7lb, 4.5 units. As long ago as 1973 my friend Fat Ted drove me to the North York Moors in his dad’s Morris Traveller (“Christ, it’s eating up the petrol!” Fat Ted used to proclaim with monotonous regularity. Indeed, it was his most memorable pronouncement apart from the more sinister one he always used to come up with in the late afternoon: “Twilight: the most dangerous time of the day!”) The object of the trip was to take a look at the then fledgling North Yorkshire Moors Railway, on which we took a trip between Grosmont and Goathland (readers who are not train nerds look away now) in a green diesel multiple unit. I joined the preservation society on that visit and have been a member ever since, though my visits have scarcely been frequent. Still, I identified Goathland as a particularly lovely and peaceful spot, with sheep grazing along the unnaturally wide verges of the long main street, and returned from time to time for a spot of rest and relaxation at the Mallyan Spout Hotel.

During one of these visits, in the early 1990s, my then girlfriend struck up a conversation in the bar with a rather bumptious little boy of 11 or so, who proudly announced “My daddy is the producer of Heartbeat.”

“What?” we replied in unison. To his evident disbelief, we had never heard of it. The first series had already aired, starring Nick Berry and Niamh Cusack, and been a huge ratings success. When the next one hit the screens we made a point of watching it, more for the familiar locations than anything else. I remember that I had got almost to the end of the first episode before I twigged (after prompting from my girlfriend) that it was supposed to be a period piece set in the 1960s. Living in rural Northumberland in the 1990s, using big Bakelite telephones and driving around in a Triumph Herald convertible seemed entirely normal to me.

Slowly, I became drawn in, particularly to the adventures of the lovable reprobate Claude Jeremiah Greengrass and his dog Alfred. I can distinctly remember sitting down alone in front of the sitting room fire one Sunday evening, with a decent dinner on a tray and a bottle of red wine by my side, watching the opening credits of Heartbeat and thinking “life does not get much better than this.”

How sad is that?

Luckily I got bored with it after a few years, as many of the original cast departed. But then I got drawn into its hospital spin-off The Royal, (a) because it was set on the South Cliff in Scarborough, perhaps my favourite place on the whole planet, (b) because the producers had the brilliant idea of casting Bill Maynard (the lovable reprobate Claude Jeremiah Greengrass) as an awkward patient, after he had been written out of Heartbeat on the grounds of the actor’s very real ill health, and (c) because it featured the venerable Ian Carmichael, one of my favourite actors since he played Bertie Wooster in my early childhood, as the hospital secretary Mr Middleditch.

So it was that I made a point of sitting down on Sunday evening to watch the last-ever episode of Heartbeat, as it was casually billed in the Radio Times, as I had sat down to watch the final episode of the BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine a couple of weeks ago. ITV seemed to have made precisely zero effort to market it; indeed their announcer introduced it almost apologetically, as a regrettable interlude between better things. I had hoped for a grand denouement. Instead viewers were left hanging, with one of the few surviving original characters implausibly clinging to life in what passed for intensive care despite being skewered kebab-like through the chest by a giant pitchfork. Given that the character concerned was Oscar Blaketon, played by a man once better known as a puppet’s assistant called “Mr Derek”, I surely cannot have been alone in hearing the ghostly voice of Basil Brush call “Boom boom!” as tragedy struck.

All in all, a pretty shabby conclusion to what had once been one of ITV’s most valuable properties. Perhaps they would have done better to nurture it and keep it special, instead of going raving mad and making 24 hour-long episodes per annual series and launching not one but two spin-offs. Then pointedly losing interest and shuffling occasional short batches of episodes into the schedules when Simon Cowell was off spending some of his money and they did not have a suitable reality show to plug.

I decided to write about it for my newspaper column today. Then I switched channels to BBC4 and also felt compelled to cram in some abuse for “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.” First thought: if this bloke is a novelist, how come an eager reader of the literary supplements like myself has never heard of him? Second thought: if he is Geordie, how come he sounds nothing like one? It could be argued that I don’t sound much like one myself, it is true, but this bloke did have some sort of accent, just distinctly not a Newcastle one. He first outed himself as coming from “a small town about 30 miles away” and later apparently confessed that it was Hartlepool. (I had lost interest by that point and was only half-watching the programme, as I indulged in a vigorous debate on Facebook about where this wanker came from and how on earth he had got the gig). I am profoundly sorry that space did not permit me to get the popular description “monkey hanger” into the paper.

(Note for overseas readers: Hartlepool is a port in County Durham famous for capturing and interrogating a monkey that had escaped from the wreck of a French ship during the Napoleonic wars, and hanging it as a spy. Even more bizarrely, the mascot of the local football team, who paraded around in a monkey suit under the name of H’Angus, stood for election as mayor AS A JOKE in 2002, under the slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren” and was not only elected then, but has been re-elected on two subsequent occasions. I know London also has a joke mayor in the shape of Boris Johnson, but surely this must be uniquely absurd in all the annals of representative democracy? And, yes, I do know about the English Democrats in Doncaster.)

Third and final (for now) thought about Michael Smith: if the BBC wanted to make a programme about Newcastle, why couldn’t they have got a genuine Geordie to do it? One with some original ideas, who would not stumble over his lines? I am open to offers. And, failing that, there are undoubtedly several thousand other people on Tyneside who could also have done what Sir John Major would almost certainly describe as a not inconsiderably better job.

Friday 10 September 2010

Memo to self

15st 6lb, 5.5 units. I drove to my house in Northumberland this morning to keep an appointment to have my electricity meter changed. I did not want my electricity meter changed. It was absolutely fine with me, even though the bills deriving from it were so eye-watering that npower refused to send me one for more than six months on the grounds that my usage could not possibly be right. Mind you, their bright idea was that maybe the meter was being read the wrong way round, and that the bigger number for overnight, Economy 7 (yes, it still exists) usage was actually the figure for what I was getting through in the day. This would have pushed my bill up from something north of a thousand pounds to a figure more closely resembling the national debt of a medium-sized African republic.

However, what I knew, and they didn’t, was that I have married a woman who does not entirely share my robust attitude to a bit of cold. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I grew up in a 1930s semi-detached house with no insulation, double glazing or central heating, and in which the only heated rooms were the kitchen and sitting room, each initially with open coal fires. This was perfectly normal in England in the late 1950s and 60s. Indeed, we were a middle class household with such luxuries as a TV, telephone and car (though not a refrigerator; which, in the circumstances, certainly was not needed for more than half the year). On chilly winter nights I would go to bed with a hot water bottle, wearing a pair of thick woolly socks, pyjamas, a pullover and, in extremis, even a dressing gown, and with my overcoat piled on top of the layers of blankets on my bed. It was common in the morning to find frost patterns crazing the inside of the leaded windows, and sometimes even for the glass of water I kept on my bedside table to have a thick layer of ice on the top.

I’ll admit that I have softened up a lot since I discovered central heating, but I still love open fires and designed my house so that it would always require those, with electric storage heaters just providing enough background warmth to take the chill off. But unfortunately Mrs H is not greatly enamoured of turning up to a freezing cold house, and I also thought it might prove a bit of a turn-off to potential buyers when I had the place on the market for most of last year. Hence hanging the expense and turning the storage heaters up in a thoroughly profligate sort of way to create something like a welcoming atmosphere. I suppose I could have stuck a loaf on top of one and thrown in the alluring smell of baking bread, too, though it might also have turned the place into a sort of Salvation Army Men’s Palace for mice, which would not have created the favourable impression for which I was striving.

I was first alerted to the whole meter-changing wheeze when I got home one evening and found a rather indignant card on my mat, complaining that some outfit called Meter Plus had come to carry out this work and found me not at home, tisk. I rang the number on the card and pointed out that they were likely to get this result in most British houses if they just pitched up without any warning, what with people going to work during the day and so forth. Added to which, my meter was almost brand new and surely did not need changing – it seemed like only the other day that it was installed. I remembered it well because they had insisted on replacing a perfectly clear, easy-to-read mechanical digital meter with one that had a poxily faint LCD display that was almost impossible to read. The lady at the call centre consulted her records and reported back, almost instantaneously, that I had been putting up with this irritation since it was installed in September 2000 and that it only had a ten-year life and needed replacing.

I wonder when electricity meters became short-life commodities? The thing with the whirling dials in my parents’ cloak cupboard certainly lasted from the day I attained consciousness of such things in the late 1950s until my widowed mother moved out of the house in the mid-1980s.

So we fixed a date and time and I duly organized my life to ensure that I could be at home for the half day required. And a man turned up, promptly and efficiently, though I later found only after disturbing each of my neighbours in turn to ask for directions, and walked confidently to the meter cupboard. Where he reported, oh dear, that he had been sent out with a single phase meter and mine was a multi-phase meter, whatever that means, so he wouldn’t be able to do the work after all. He also hummed and harred a lot about how terribly difficult it would be to do the job within the tight constraints of my very inconvenient meter cupboard, unless I could possibly remove all the shelving it contains. I pointed out that this was built in, and had been there when the last meter change was effected, so clearly it could be worked around. I also threw in my standard speech about how my builder friend who renovated the house back in 1988 had begged and pleaded with the then Northern Electric to install my meter in a cupboard outside, where it could be accessed when I was working away from home, and that it was they who had absolutely insisted on placing it in the top corner of a cupboard where it could only be read, let alone worked upon, by someone with the bodily flexibility of a contortionist whose repertoire included a pretty convincing imitation of Quasimodo.

I said that it would be inconvenient, but possible, for me to spend another day at home in two weeks’ time to enable the work to be carried out, and the bloke went off to ring his masters. He reported back that he had secured me the great boon of a fairly narrow time slot between 4 and 6p.m., and said that he hoped to see me then.

As I made my 240 mile journey across northern England to keep this appointment, it occurred to me that I had not received the “courtesy call” from Meter Plus to confirm it, as I had had last time. My hopes were accordingly low. But at 4.05p.m. sharp a white van drew up in my drive and a man got out. Not the original bloke, who had been as thin as a lath, but a colleague who could have made a few quid on the side doing imitations of the legendary silent screen star (and alleged rapist and murderer) Fatty Arbuckle. I concluded that Bloke A must have arranged for Bloke B to be rostered for the job as a cruel joke.

Much to my surprise, he had brought the right meter and managed to install it without smashing the entire contents of my store cupboard or having to be cut free by the emergency services. What is more, he was courteous and quiet. In fact, nothing whatsoever to moan about for comic effect. And at least, I thought, he will have replaced the completely unreadable meter with one which I might stand a sporting chance of being able to decipher.

When he had gone, I went to the meter cupboard to inspect his handiwork, and found that he had either given up and left the original meter in situ, or installed a completely identical replacement. It was as if he had never been.

Memo to self: be sure to sell this house or die before September 2020, when this futile rigmarole will presumably have to be endured all over again.

Monday 6 September 2010

The Broxton doggers

15st 6lb, 6.5 units. Despite the fact that we have no money, and despite having given Mrs H the massive treat of lunch out in Shropshire yesterday, I somehow found myself offering to take her out for lunch today. As another massive treat, obviously.

Come to think of it, this may be why we have no money.

My only excuse was a nagging desire to try out the newly refurbished Egerton Arms by the Broxton roundabout. The pub is a former Marston’s house that had been closed for a while and looked to have been given a pretty comprehensive makeover by a small, local chain which incorporates a couple of other food-orientated pubs that we rather like. I drive past the place twice a day most days, and I was curious.

The Broxton roundabout’s other claim to fame is that the adjacent public car park is, I am repeatedly though not necessarily reliably informed, Cheshire’s number one dogging site. I was curious, officer. If the pub proved to be any good, maybe I could propose a future evening of food, wine and entertainment, the last comprising standing around with a lot of other cagoule-wearing perverts, watching some fearful old slapper being serviced on the bench front seat of her husband’s 1956 MG Magnette. Actually, the only thing in that mental picture that I find vaguely arousing is the MG Magnette, so maybe not.

The Egerton Arms was far from busy, but it is early days. The staff all appeared to be about 12, but I am sure that they were in fact a completely legal 18, as I am always assured by those websites I occasionally find myself glancing at purely by accident as I navigate my way around the blogs I like to follow. They did not know the difference between a gin and tonic and a large gin and tonic (hint for future reference: it’s a gin) and the pork loin steak with Roquefort and apple was nothing like as delicious as it sounded on the menu, mainly because it tasted of nothing apart from Roquefort. Which I like, I hasten to add, but I might as well have had it as the centrepiece of a ploughman’s. The Eton mess was damn good, though, and after a disappointingly meagre G&T, a small glass of Chilean sauvignon with my seared scallops starter and three small glasses of Argentinian pinot noir with the rest, I found that I did not care about anything much. In fact, I was so relaxed that I was even prepared to allow Mrs H to drive me home for the second day running.

The Boy beckons: always a worrying sign

Sunday 5 September 2010

A Shropshire Lad

15st 6lb, 6.6 units. Yesterday we paid a family visit to Shropshire. Not the world’s greatest adventure, you might think, given that most of the time we live within three miles of the Shropshire border. But we actually drove a whole 48 miles to the pretty hilltop town of Bishops Castle, which looks like it ought to contain an apostrophe but appears not to in most usages. Though I now see from their website that the town council calls it Bishop’s Castle and I guess they should know, so we’ll run with that for now.

We went to meet some old friends of mine who have a country home in Shropshire and seemed keen that we should meet halfway between their house and ours. But this would have meant ending up in an area that neither of us knew at all, with all the concomitant risks of choosing a boozer that sounds all right on the internet but turns out to be completely sh*t, as so many of them unfortunately do. Whereas Mrs H had fond if perhaps slightly painful memories of a walking weekend in the Bishop’s Castle area, while I have been aware of the place since the early 1970s, when I joined the Campaign for Real Ale and purchased my first copy of The Good Beer Guide. In those days The Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle was one of a tiny handful of pubs left in the UK that brewed their own beer on the premises.

My friends conceded that Bishop’s Castle was near to where they lived, but seemed strangely reluctant to reveal where that actually was. Perhaps the greatest achievement of our trip was wheedling out the fact that their actual location is Clun – famously picked out by A.E. Housman, along with Clunton, Clunbury and Clungunford, as one of the quietest places under the sun. Perhaps they want to keep it that way.

Having agreed on the geographical location, much debate ensued about the specific pub where we should meet. The Three Tuns was the place Mrs H remembered and I had heard of. Ah, but it had de-listed our friends’ favourite cider a few years ago, and the lavatories used to be grim. The Castle Hotel, on the other hand, had nicer gardens and a car park. So we went there, and very pleasant it was, too. The gardens were indeed lovely, they sold dog biscuits in the bar (though not pork scratchings, sadly), the ale was good and there was nothing to complain about in either the food or the service. By the time we left the gardens were full of members of something like the Bishop’s Castle Sketching Club attempting landscapes of the place, which lent it a quality pretty much like stepping onto the set of Little Britain.

We repaired to The Three Tuns after lunch and I drank a pint of their very own 1642 ale. Since I had waited almost 40 years to taste one of these legendary home-brewed ales, it is slightly saddening to report that I preferred the stuff at The Castle. The other customers were friendlier there, too. The Boy, who had behaved impeccably in the Castle garden, now started staggering around the bar like a miniature inebriate, approaching complete strangers while repeating his favourite word, “Dadda”. I intercepted him before he laid his sticky hands on another grey-haired party, with the words “That’s not your Dadda”, and heard the beginnings of a grumble, “Well, I’ve been accused of many things in my time, but …”

To be fair, I’d probably have said something on broadly similar lines before I had a son.

I was glad to leave, on the whole. We then struck up a conversation with a bloke at the door of the brewery, who gave us a potted recent history of the place. Which, like so many pubs and breweries, has apparently passed through troubled times. The brewery came close to being turned into holiday flats under its previous owners; the new ones have invested a small fortune in tarting it up but it is no longer directly connected with the pub next door, which is run by Scottish & Newcastle. All too complicated for me after three pints. We wandered down the long, steep main street, pausing to take a look around one of the country’s smaller and duller railway museums, with me reflecting that it was going to be a bloody hard slog pushing The Boy all the way back up again in his buggy. And it was.

Given that I had drunk the aforementioned three pints of beer, it seemed sensible for Mrs H to drive home. It is not often that I think that. But at least I had visited a place that had been on my “to do” list for 40 years. Apparently there were only three other pub breweries listed in the first edition of The Good Beer Guide and they are all still going strong, so perhaps in due course I will tick those off, too. At the present rate of progress I will be finished some time in 2118.

On the way back we stopped for petrol and I found that the garage sold a confection I have been thinking about nostalgically for some days now, but which no-one appeared to sell: Caramac. It wasn’t exactly as I remembered it, but it also wasn’t as much of a disappointment as most things remembered from childhood when one tries them again half a century on.

Saturday 4 September 2010

An earthly paradise

15st 7lb, zero units. There is no question about it: I am happier now than I have ever been before. I am not happy as such, obviously; this is a relative statement. But even though my financial situation is more precarious than it has been since the last occasion I put myself out of work back in 1986, I feel a sense of calm that I do not remember experiencing at any time in the past. Can this be down to marriage; to belatedly fulfilling my biological purpose by reproducing; or to the fact that I am rapidly losing my grip on life?

Whatever, as the young say. It seems more prudent to lie back and enjoy it than to explore these important philosophical questions too deeply.

Before now, I suppose the happiest I have been was at Streets Financial between 1983 and 1986, though I did not have the wit to realize that at the time. Instead I drank too much and worked too hard. I don’t recall ever having a proper holiday during those years; instead I took occasional little breaks under the cover of being “depressed”. Obviously you should never, ever trust a depressive’s analysis of their own condition, but I have more than half a suspicion that I simply latched onto “depression” as an excuse for a lie-down that was rather harder for the medical profession to rubbish than a claim to have lassa fever or even good old influenza.

Streets Financial. Such memories. Was there really a girl working in the kitchen who had such prominent, firm breasts that the phrase “dead heat in the Zeppelin race” must have been coined for her? Yes indeed. And did one of my colleagues really have a bottles of spirits tucked away in the filing cabinet in his office (“G” for gin, “W” for whisky) even though there was a meeting room full of the stuff right next door? Yes again. And did a light lunch with our esteemed chairman in the basement Italian restaurant along Fleet Street, where the maitre d’ sported the world’s worst wig, really involve drinking two bottles of Corvo between us? I’m afraid so. A heavy lunch would embrace three. Then he would start on the brandy when he got back.

Did we really employ one messenger who could not walk down a pavement unless he was running a finger along a wall at all times, and another who was completely illiterate? Amazingly, yes. The latter got away with it for a surprisingly long time by holding up the next envelope and saying “Where’s that, then?” to the receptionist each time he made a delivery.

Did I really once have a tantrum with one of my fellow directors and insist on recruiting a blonde air hostess to be our secretary, rather than the much better qualified and experienced young lady he preferred, simply because the trolley dolly had given the correct answer to the question “Have you got a boyfriend?” I am ashamed to admit that it is true. But then it really was another world back in the mid-1980s. When I returned to work in 1987 I was gutted to find that it had all changed, at least so far as I was concerned. By the time a secretary next invited herself back to my flat and suggested we indulge in some activity of a sexual nature, some 15 years later, I was so surprised and completely paranoid about it all coming out at a future industrial tribunal that I immediately called a taxi and sent her home. Our professional relationship never really recovered from that rebuff.

Funny thing, sex. I suppose I’ve just never really got the hang of it. As I may have mentioned here before, though not for a good long while, I bought my first London flat from a merchant banker who was so obsessed with it that he took an evening job working as a barman in a nearby hotel favoured by young foreign tourists. At the end of the evening he asked any presentable single women left in the bar if they would like to sleep with him. He reckoned that 90% said no politely, 5% combined their refusal with some form of physical assault, and 5% said “yes”. He was very happy with this success rate, even though it was accompanied by fairly frequent visits to a clinic for socially acquired diseases.

I suppose my own success rate over the years must actually have been rather better than 5%, now I come to think of it, which is faintly cheering. Part of me wishes that I had asked the question more often. On the other hand, I still shudder when I think of the mid-1980s weekend in which, in the course of two days, I managed to share my bed with a neighbour, an ex-girlfriend and my then current girlfriend, who exited and entered my flat in such quick succession that the whole experience bore a much closer resemblance to a Brian Rix farce than to any porn film I have ever seen (and I have seen a few, over the years, if I am honest). I remember thinking “I have dreamed of doing something like this all my life, and it’s actually a f***ing nightmare.” I returned to the office on Monday morning physically exhausted, with my nerves shattered and a localized throbbing sensation that I was in no hurry to experience again.

If I had my time again, obviously I’d try to entice all three of them into bed simultaneously. I am sure they would have had a lovely time talking about shoes and frocks, while I was despatched to the sofa to read the Railway Modeller.

The important thing is that I have been strongly committed to monogamy ever since. Mrs H please note. Now I really must attempt to heave myself out of this three day orgy of 1980s reminiscences and focus on what is left of my future.

Friday 3 September 2010

The sorcerer's apprentice

15st 7lb, 5.0 units. Back in my childhood, the Walt Disney version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Mickey Mouse was a regular highlight of the early evening hour of black-and-white children’s TV. It comes to mind now because opening the floodgates of reminiscence yesterday was a bit like Mickey casting a spell over his broom. It all got out of control, and I forgot to say anything about Alastair’s memorial service, which was a model of its kind: four top class hymns, three of which I could sing with real gusto (For those in peril on the sea, Abide with me and Lord of all hopefulness); six very fine readings and some comforting prayers. It came as no surprise to be informed, in his son’s excellent tribute, that Alastair had chosen them all himself during his final illness, and had only just been stopped from booking the marquee for the reception afterwards. You can perhaps see now why I credit him with teaching me much about the importance of organization and attention to detail. Despite the time I spent with him in the 1980s, I was blissfully unaware that he had served as ADC to the Governor-General of New Zealand before making his career in public relations. It explains a lot.

His son described him, quite rightly I think, as “the godfather of financial public relations”. He was certainly one of the most important figures in the industry in London during its formative years. Strange then, that no obituaries of him have appeared in the newspapers, and that anyone chancing to put his name in a search engine will most likely end up looking at this blog, where a few random reminiscences from someone who did not know him for that long, or all that well, are woven into the usual, inconsequential, self-obsessed stream of consciousness.

Odd, too, that in that packed church there were only three people I recognized, over and above the man who had driven me there. Two of them were directors of Citigate, of which Alastair was the founding chairman, and they were only there because they had been informed about the service by my driver, whom I had contacted when I spotted the announcement in The Daily Telegraph. I wonder whether I am the only man in Britain under 80 who reads the deaths column on a daily basis.

Where were all the other former colleagues, clients and journalists one might have expected to see? I felt the same at the last memorial service I attended, for a former colleague in stockbroking, where the only members of the congregation I recognized were again those I had told about the service. Perhaps people only turn out in greater numbers for those who “die in harness”, keeling over at their desks or otherwise, ahem, on the job. If so, that’s my memorial service f***ed, then. They will be able to hold it in a telephone box.

Still, I was glad to have gone. I enjoyed it, if it is decent to enjoy a thanksgiving service, and I felt that I had at least partially repaid a debt. Less enjoyable was the queue to get out of the car park. We appraised it, then repaired to the delightfully sunny riverside terrace of the hotel next door and attempted to order some lunch. It had, without question, the slowest and least competent service I have ever encountered. I watched as an admittedly very pretty and sweet girl prepared, in what appeared to be slow motion, two enormous spritzers for the black-clad punter in front of me. Why did he wait until she had finished and rung them up on the till before pointing out that she had made them with lemonade rather than soda water?

“Isn’t that a spritzer, then?” she asked, in a way that, coming from her was ever so appealing, but might well have led to a punch in the face if the question had been posed by a spotty youth or in a less refined locale. Her customer threw the question open to the crowd, and I joined in the debate. We all agreed that soda water was the thing. Shortly afterwards I lost the will to live and exchanged places with my friend on the terrace, who eventually returned bearing a pint of Guinness. Food proved beyond us, though we did finally secure a sandwich in a rather depressing pub in Watlington on our way back to London. Come to think of it, I am not sure that Watlington actually lies on any logical route back to London. It was that sort of day.

Thursday 2 September 2010

A lovely man

15st 7lb, 4.4 units. I was in London on Tuesday night to ensure that a train-related mishap did not prevent me from attending yesterday’s memorial service in Streatley-on-Thames for Alastair Campbell-Harris, the man who gave me my first job in public relations. As it was, I nearly missed at least the start of the service by accepting the offer of a lift from a kind former colleague, who evidently did not share my belief that one should add at least an hour to any estimate of journey times provided by online motoring guides or satellite navigation systems. He also gave inadequate weight to my warnings that St Mary’s was a small church (I knew that because it said so on its website) and that there might be a bit of an issue with parking (true, though at least someone had had the foresight to ask the hotel next to the church to throw open the gate to the field behind it, creating an ample overflow car park).

To be fair, it was all going reasonably well until we ran into the temporary road works and clearly more or less permanent congestion that I shall now always think of as representing Pangbourne.

We eventually puffed into the church at 12.02, shortly after the bells had stopped pealing and just as the vicar was beginning his recitation of The Naval Prayer. It would be an understatement to say that the place was packed; it was a bit like one of those lifts beloved of comedy sketch writers, where people tumble out in a heap whenever the doors open. Somehow we squeezed into the one remaining space, just inside the door.

What can I say about Alastair? I found him through a newspaper advert – was it in the Financial Times or The Daily Telegraph? – back in the late spring of 1983, when I was out of work and so skint that I was walking up to Kensington public library to read the papers, rather than buying them for myself. I was even sleeping on the rather uncomfortable sofa bed (well, more a fold-out sheet of thinnish foam, to be honest) in my own flat, as I had rented out my bedroom to a friend of my flatmate, on the assumption that I was moving to a new job and a new life in Scotland. Growing bored after five years as an investment analyst with one firm in the City of London, I had stupidly concluded that the way forward was a physical change of scene, and accepted a job doing precisely the same thing for an admittedly rather more prestigious firm in Edinburgh. Which offered, as I recall, a slightly smaller salary, without the company car to which I had grown accustomed. I must have been mad to accept. I must also be just about the only person in the entire history of the City to have announced that they were leaving for another firm and be told to work out my notice rather than being sent home instantaneously for a generous slab of “gardening leave”. I got away eventually, and spent a three week tour of the Far East gloomily reflecting that what was wrong with my last job was not the pay, conditions or people I worked with, but the fact that I was bored rigid with being an investment analyst. A problem that moving to Scotland was sure to do nothing to cure.

I started gently enough, with a week in the firm’s London office that was really not too bad, then I took the train up to Edinburgh, breaking my journey to visit some old friends in my home town of Newcastle. I was temporarily lodged in a sort of student house somewhere round the back of Haymarket station, otherwise full of eager trainee staff. It took me a while to get there because the address was Beauchamp Place and I adopted the English pronunciation “Beecham”. Eventually I had to spell it out for the taxi driver and he put me right on the way they did things up there.

I had arranged for all my personal mail to be forwarded to my new office, pending the acquisition of a permanent home, and was horrified when, on day one, several bills and other private letters were delivered to my desk, all removed from their envelopes. But I was even more disheartened by the fact that so many of my colleagues were – I’m sorry, but there is no polite way around this – Scotch. And even more so by the fact that they were the sort of Scotchmen who arrived at work on time, removed photographs of their wife and family from their desk drawers and arranged them before them, then took rows of pens out of their coat pockets and made a simply neat arrangement of those. And then sat there, diligently working away, until it was time to reverse the process at five o’clock. Despite the generally well-deserved reputation of Scots for extreme drunkenness, no-one seemed interested in sharing the three hour boozy lunches which had become my standard way of getting through the day in the City.

I lasted until about 10.30 on the morning of my second day, when I said that I had to nip out for a packet of fags, sneaked back to the student house to collect my stuff and caught the next train to London from Waverley. It was 24 hours before anyone even noticed that I had gone, and it took even longer for them to remember that I did not actually smoke.

So there I was, for the first time in my life, unemployed and in no position to fret about the niceties of a career. I needed a job, any job, so long as it paid some money. It was my absolute number two priority after getting into the knickers of the pretty blonde lady to whom I had rented out my bed. But at least, on the job front, I was eventually successful.

I first went to see a recruitment consultant and explained that my life had taken a wrong turn in 1978, when I had accepted one of my three job offers as a graduate trainee in stockbroking, when what I really should have done was take the offer from the advertising agency. (Sharps Advertising, it was, who specialized in advertising cigarettes. And they offered me 20% more than the best-paying broker, too. Given that I had no moral scruples about peddling cancer sticks, the only possible explanation for my behaviour can be insanity, once again.) The consultant sent me off for an interview with the research director of some high-powered agency in Covent Garden, who swiftly and correctly concluded that I was a lazy wanker. The consultant shook his head and suggested that I might try something a little bit less demanding: financial advertising, or perhaps public relations. He named a West End agency that did a bit of both and I had an inconclusive interview there. But then I saw the ad in the paper, wrote a reply in my neatest handwriting, and met Alastair Campbell-Harris.

Back in 1983 Alastair was a year older than I am now, but he seemed vastly greater in stature. Clearly old school, with his slicked back hair and his well-worn but beautifully cut blue pinstripe suit, he exuded posh charm. I liked him from the moment I met him. I also loved his place of work, the panelled, seventeenth century house in Red Lion Court off Fleet Street where Streets Financial was based. Our first interview went well, and so did the second, I felt. Until, at the close, Alastair introduced his chairman Ian van Ammel. That went all right, too, until IVA (as he was known) posed the killer question in true Columbo style just as I was leaving, “By the way, why did you leave Wood Mackenzie in Edinburgh?” I blushed, I blustered, because this key fact, clearly marking me out as a nutter, was the one thing I had been careful to exclude from my CV. I thought I’d blown it. So near and yet so far. I found out afterwards, when I received Alastair’s letter offering me a job, that they had known about it all along. That’s the sort of thing financial PR agencies do where analysts and journalists are concerned – or at any rate the decent agencies, if there are any of those left.

The job offer was not great – they matched my salary at the last London broker I had worked at, but without the company car or the 100% bonus I had grown used to receiving. On the other hand, the working environment was vastly improved and the conditions were little short of idyllic. As well as occupying one of the loveliest buildings in London, Streets boasted a series of meeting rooms well stocked with booze (at least two bottles of every spirit, for a kick-off, as the clients included both Grand Met and the Distillers Company, and it was essential to have the correct brand to hand if entertainment was being conducted on their behalf). Everyone started drinking with a snifter before lunch, and continued pretty much all day. Nearly everyone smoked, too. Alastair certainly did, more or less continuously, and with evident enjoyment.

And then there were the girls. I’m sorry to be so sexist, but there is no other word for it. These were girls. Much prettier girls than I was used to working with. And – here was the real revelation – once I had been there for a bit and perhaps acquired some professional polish and as much self-confidence as I have ever mustered, I made a truly amazing discovery. If, after a few polite preliminaries, I asked them nicely if they might like to sleep with me, some of them said “yes”. I was like a man who has spent weeks (though in my case it was years) trekking across the Sahara Desert and then suddenly fetches up at an oasis which not only contains water but the world’s best-stocked cocktail bar.

In short, Streets Financial was an earthly paradise. Never mind the salary: any heterosexual male who liked a drink should have been prepared to pay good money to work there. Not for the first or the last time in my life, I had truly fallen on my feet. When they exhaust the seam of Manhattan advertising in the 1960s, Red Lion Court in the 1980s can provide all the material for an excellent sequel to Mad Men.

As if that were not good enough, Streets was absolutely at the top of the tree, professionally speaking: the undisputed number one among financial PR agencies in London. In the three years I was there, I think I only took part in one new business pitch that did not succeed. In the 24 years I have tried to make a living out of PR since then, that success / failure ratio has been neatly reversed.

But what of Alastair, since this was supposed to be a piece about him and has turned into the biographical equivalent of one of those modern restaurant reviews that talks about everything apart from the sodding food. Well, he took me on to work with him and I sat in a small office with him and another wise, oldish PR man and their pretty young secretary, after whom I predictably lusted. I followed him doggedly around and absorbed a certain amount of his wit and wisdom but did not really make the connection that would allow me to pick up and run with it as an adviser in my own right. After six months, Alastair was pretty fed up and on the brink of sacking me, when another director stepped in and suggested that perhaps I should work with him instead. His name was Michael Sandler. My first major assignment was to prepare a new business pitch for a food retailer that was planning a stock market flotation. It was a hopeless task, as we had only been invited to pitch for form’s sake, by a merchant bank that always gave these jobs to its own pet PR firm. But as luck would have it, the retailer concerned was a Geordie baker called Greggs. Not only had I been brought up on their stottie cakes in Newcastle, I had also been taught to read at my primary school by the lady who later became Mrs Gregg. Armed with this superior local knowledge I scored an unlikely triumph and never looked back. My sex life started shortly afterwards.

Happy memories of Alastair include the way he relished good food. It is funny how random things imprint themselves on the memory, but I can still recall in some detail a lunch in an old-fashioned restaurant in Greenwich with a couple of new clients of about Alastair’s age, where we all wolfed down splendid roast grouse; the first time I had ever eaten it. Many more times we ate cottage pie and peas with a pint or two of bitter at the Printer’s Pie on the other side of Fleet Street.

I remember flying into Edinburgh and passing over the Rosyth dockyard, stimulating a flow of reminiscences about Alastair’s time with the Grey Funnel Line, as he liked to call the Royal Navy. I suppose he really introduced me to the necessity of regular air travel, which I have never liked. At one point he despatched me to Minneapolis for a few days, to tour the offices and repair facility of a computer leasing company we were floating. I had no idea why I was there, and neither did any of the people I was visiting.

“So you’re going to go back and write the prospectus, right?”

“No, your merchant bank is going to do that.”

Thinking back, he was clearly either trying to broaden my incredibly narrow horizons, in an altruistic spirit, or simply awarding himself a few precious days without my company.

Back in the UK, I vividly recall a two day tour of factories led by an HR director who was, without doubt, one of the two most unpleasant people I have ever met (and, oddly enough, the other one was an HR director, too). He had yapped on for nearly 48 hours about all the people he had sacked. How, asked Alastair, did he get on with the unions now? Oh, splendidly, came the reply; they knew it had to be done and they respect me for it. At this point Mr Twatt, as we shall call him, hailed a nearby shop steward and exchanged a cheery greeting, to underline his point. It was naturally Alastair who had the presence of mind to turn around shortly afterwards and clock the V-sign and look of utterly venomous hatred being directed at our departing backs.

There was no PR crisis that Alastair had not experienced, and on which he could not advise. He was unflappable, and that permanent twitch in his fingers was neither the result of nervousness nor, as many clients assumed, of being ever so slightly pissed, but merely the result of some sort of unusual nervous condition.

What lessons did I learn from him? Not the practical stuff, like how to write an arresting press release. I got that mainly from his much-loved and long-dead colleague Quentin Guirdham, a former FT journalist. (You might assume that a journalist, after consuming dozens of press releases a day throughout their career, would be able to draft one standing on his or her head. Let me tell you, after recruiting on that assumption, that it just ain’t so.)

No, I think what I learned from Alastair was the importance of impeccable organization and attention to detail, and of enjoying the good things in life. I would dearly love to have been able to copy his unflappable charm, too, but that proved utterly beyond me.

He was, as his son said in the course of an excellent address yesterday, quoting from a letter of condolence, a lovely man. I wish I had known where to write: I would have said the same.

Having said that, I had not actually spoken to Alastair for more than 20 years. The last time I ran across him, at a drinks party at The Observer, he refused to talk to me because I had, unsportingly in his view, returned to work in the City shortly after the final implosion of Streets Financial, and poached back some of the clients he had expected to take with him to Citigate, the new firm he had just founded. This might have seemed like Machiavellian cunning on my part; in fact it was pure coincidence. I had been living happily in a tiny, damp cottage in Northumberland for more than a year, pretending to be a writer, drawing a modest income from the proceeds of the sale of my London flat, which I had invested on the stock market. Then came Black Monday 1987, and the value of my small portfolio plummeted. At the same time, a proposal was approved to dig a bloody great opencast coal mine right in front of my rented cottage, so clearly I needed to move. It seemed sensible to go back to work, even though I had left it in 1986 with absolutely no intention of ever returning.

So there is another lesson: don’t bear grudges and always try to make things up. Alastair gave me a start in something from which I have made a pretty good living ever since, and it would have been good to be able to say “thank you”.

That is why, belatedly, I do so now.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

The Luckiest Man in the World

No idea, 12.0 units. Every Tuesday I circulate my weekly newspaper column to more than 100 cheapskates who claim to enjoy reading it, but are too mean to pay 50p for a copy of the paper (or, if they live outside its circulation area, £60 for an annual subscription to its excellent online edition). Last Tuesday I took the opportunity to ask if anyone happened to be at a loose end in Newcastle the following evening, and might fancy a pint; this week I asked much the same question about last night in London. In both cases I was rewarded with a positive response, and so shortly before 7 o’clock I found myself wandering into the 1707 Wine Bar at Fortnum & Mason to meet The Luckiest Man in the World (TLMW), who had already bagged a table and acquired a bottle of St Veran and half a dozen oysters. The staff fluttered about him as though he were their oldest and dearest friend, which he may well be. But then in the course of the evening he also turned out to be the oldest and dearest friend of the maitre d’ at the Dean Street Townhouse and the proprietor of the new restaurant that has opened upstairs at The French House (or the York Minster, as I still think of it) across the road.

I was lost in admiration. Even when I was a very moderately successful London financial PR man, entertaining just about every lunchtime and many evenings, there were never more than a couple of restaurants in the capital where anyone actually knew who the hell I was when I walked through the door. And I have been to enough other places with TLMW over the years to know that he had not just chosen these three to perform a favourite party trick. Added to which, he demonstrated further in-depth knowledge when he eased a couple out of their seats at the bar of the Dean Street Townhouse by giving them comprehensive advice on the other restaurant to which they were heading for dinner:

“The best thing they do are the vegetable-based dishes.”

“That’s handy since we’re both vegetarians.”

How could he possibly have guessed that? The jammy bastard. I wonder if he has extra-sensory powers?

“Go low on the wine list – they’ve got some really fantastic stuff at the cheap end that is excellent value, but the top end is overpriced.”

“Thank you so much. Do have our seats here – you’ve earned them.”

“Have you ever actually been to that restaurant?” I asked after they had departed.

“No, never in my life.” (But I knew he was lying).

Unfortunately we only had a minute or two to enjoy our place at the bar, because Polpetto texted to say that his table was ready. I reflected that, if it had been me, we’d have been kept waiting until I had drunk myself into oblivion.

All in all a most entertaining evening, though I was slightly aggrieved by his cynical interpretation of my heartwarming “My Dad” story: “Mrs H must have been training him like a dog all the time you were away.”

Aggrieved, of course, by the niggling feeling that he might just be right. Let’s face it, as befits, TLMW, he usually is.