Sunday, 28 February 2010

An anniversary to remember

15st 4lb, zero units. Our first wedding anniversary – the Paper Anniversary, by all accounts, which was curiously appropriate since I must have got through at least a roll of the stuff in the course of the day. Though, to be fair, today was not as bad as yesterday, all of which I spent prostrate on the sofa, racked with stomach pains between my frequent dashes to the lavatory. Too much information? Sorry. There isn’t much else to say of the last few days. I drove to Wakefield on Friday morning to meet a client who is ordinarily based in the North East. Curiously, when I got there, he did not seem to know why the hell we were meeting in Wakefield either. Still, having got there I reckoned that I was approximately halfway to our Northumberland home and might as well carry on to it, with a view to writing the annual report that my client now required to a pretty tight deadline. Reasoning to myself that there were fewer distractions in Northumberland, a much reduced chance of having my sleep disturbed, and a fuller library of relevant documents to hand. Plus, crucially, a flat desk.

Now, you might think that flatness is pretty much a sine qua non in a desk, but the Victorians thought otherwise. They loved a writing slope. And years ago I fell in love with this beautiful, multi-drawered, sloping pine desk that had once held pride of place in a Northumberland stationmaster’s office. It was quite cheap, too, though it did not take me long to work out that this was because it was no f***ing use. My desktop computer screen could only be balanced where it was too far away for comfortable viewing, and always looked as though it was teetering on the brink of crashing to destruction, while any papers placed by my keyboard invariably slid to the floor. Unless one placed a heavy paperweight on top of them, in which case that slid to the floor as well. Even so, its looks meant that I could not bear to part with it – ah, how often I have made that mistake in other contexts! So I shunted it into a conservatory and bought a big, flat, ugly pine desk for my study instead.

Spool forward a couple of decades and I had these two big desks in my house in Northumberland and none in Cheshire, so I foolishly included the sloping one in the pantechnicon load of stuff I had moved to the new marital home last October. Years of exposure to the sunshine in my conservatory had not done the antique railway desk any favours, and I felt that it deserved a better home. This also did not seem entirely deranged as, since I had last tried to use it, I had moved on from desktop computers and now always use a laptop. Which, as I correctly calculated, sits quite comfortably on the sloping surface. I can sit there and tap away happily for hours, churning out stuff like this. But it is still bloody hopeless if trying to produce something like an annual report, where one wants notes, press releases and other reference documents spread all around. Not sliding instantaneously onto the floor in a heap. Something which happens all the more readily now that I have made the biggest mistake of all and actually polished the bloody thing. Placing a book on it now is like watching a little old lady inadvertently setting foot on a children’s slide. Except that the book does not scream “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh yer bugger!” as little old ladies nearly always do, at any rate in the North East.

I realized that I had chosen the wrong desk to relocate even before this, when the removal men said that there was no chance of getting it upstairs. The one I left in Northumberland comes apart, and would have been a breeze to shift. As it happened, they surprised themselves and somehow got it into my study but, in a curious reminder of the plot of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, it was not technically possible for them to have done so. We may therefore be bloody sure that it will not be possible for it to come out again. When we are ready to move out I’ll just have to remember to place some particularly precious items on it in the days beforehand and watch them smash themselves to pieces on the floor. That will make it so much easier to take a chainsaw to the thing.

Anyway, I went for the flat desk and solitude on my wedding anniversary. Which was probably a bit of a bastard trick, on the whole. But the Fates got their own back by sending me this hideous stomach bug so that I could spend the weekend unproductively and in pain, adding to nothing but the profits of the manufacturers of Andrex and the bloke who empties the septic tank.

Memo to self: must do better next year.

Oh, and I should add that Mrs H was most understanding about the whole thing, merely commenting that I had spent the first day of our honeymoon writing a slide presentation for the self-same client, so it was clearly par for the course.

Have I mentioned before that I am married to a saint?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Elf on the Naughty Step

No idea, 17.6 units. Can that be right? Well, yes it can, unfortunately: three pints of beer with a journalist friend over lunch in a London gastro-pub around the back of where The Guardian used to be (I have sadly reached an age where every important landmark is where something used to be, rather than where it is). Then 10.5 units absorbed in the course of my evening, which was centred on a discussion dinner with Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, a lady with whom I expected to agree, and was not disappointed. One of my Bloke clubs organizes this sort of thing, and does it well – very well, in fact, considering how damnably difficult it must be to serve a perfectly decent meal to around 150 people at the same time.

Tradition seems to demand that I and my guest or guests are always seated as far as possible from the guest of honour. I don’t know why this should be as, to the best of my knowledge, I have never knowingly caused any trouble at these events. Well, I suppose there was the time that the former head of the Food Standards Agency came to talk to a room full of health neurotics, and my guests and I all lit up huge cigars. But then it was just before the smoking ban, so it was our last chance and something we needed to do so that we could talk about it to our grandchildren. Added to which, it was surely at least partly the club’s fault for festooning the tables with matches and ashtrays.

Tonight, our companions in furthest and darkest reaches of The Naughty Corner were a very jolly lady member and her charming mother (or sister, as my gallant guest insisted on designating her) so that was all right. As for Ms Chakrabarti, quite apart from the fact that I have agreed with 90-odd per cent of her public pronouncements to date, I warmed to the fact that dinner was black tie, since this is left to the choice of the speaker and self-righteous left-wing types nearly always specify “lounge suits” (Gordon Brown’s boorish insistence on turning up to black tie City dinners in this garb was one of many excellent reasons for hating him right from the start of his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer).

My guest was less sure about whether The Chakrabarti was a Good Thing, though he remarked on her “elfin” appearance in what I took to be a mark of approbation. Then he disappeared to make a telephone call in the short interlude between dinner and speeches, and returned completely charmed. For who should have been standing next to him on The Naughty Step at the front of the club but Ms Chakrabarti herself, smoking a soothing fag. What greater commitment to liberty could anyone show these days? Even better, she was such a good sport that she had a chat with my guest’s wife to back up his unlikely story that he was having a black tie dinner in St James’s rather than hanging around in some sleazy lap dancing bar.

Ms Chakrabarti took as her starting point the fact that she had turned up for dinner rather on the early side, wandered in and found a succession of people making her feel thoroughly welcome – which is pretty much the basis on which she would like to organize society as a whole. She is not a great fan of the alternative “Don’t you know who I am?” approach. It is always good to be reminded that it is a “great good fortune to be born in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth” – and these days the point seems to come most comfortably from the children of immigrants. She also made a number of other excellent points, but I can sense an old clubman breathing down my neck and muttering “Chatham House rules, old boy” so I suppose I had better not repeat them all here.

I am always a bit frustrated by the way that these sorts of events seem to take an age over the browsing and sluicing and then, as soon as the interesting bit starts, some bloke with a metaphorical stopwatch starts chivvying everyone to hurry along as time is running out and there are last trains to be caught. It’s as though the first two and half hours of the Today programme consisted of John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie exchanging polite small talk over a cracking breakfast, and all the political interviews had to be crammed into the last 30 minutes, at least 10 of which would be taken up by repetitions of “I’m really going to have to hurry you, as we have very little time”. Which sounds pretty much the way things are now, come to think of it. Maybe they should give that breakfast idea a go and see how it works out.

It all chimes in with my fundamental belief that most people who go to black tie dinners don’t actually want to hear a speaker at all. Certainly on the rare occasions when I speak at such events myself, I am ever conscious of members of the audience yawning, staring at their watches and generally giving top class imitations of being bored out of their skulls, and I have noted similar reactions to more talented, experienced and amusing speakers, too.

So why go at all, then? Attendance is not compulsory.

Ms Chakrabarti was unsurprised that questions were not along the lines of “What’s your favourite colour?” and dealt in what I thought was a masterly fashion with the chestnut about the permissibility of torturing the bloke who had planted a nuclear bomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, to get him to reveal the secret code to stop the countdown (someone been watching too many BBC films, I fear). And you know you’re in a club with proper chaps when one of them claims that the country is overcrowded, and the chosen measure is that he can no longer find space to park his yacht in Lymington Harbour. Ah well, at least it must be easier to send the buggers back when they have come in their own boat. Well worth the trip to London and the price of admission for that alone, to be honest. And I got a newspaper column out of it, too.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Unpronounceable Concluded

15st 7lb, 2.0 units. After another cracking breakfast, we departed Unpronounceable Hall, wondering among other things:

(a) Why it called itself Unpronounceable Hall rather than the more appropriate Unpronounceable Cottage? Or, at a push, Unpronounceable House?

(b) Why an outfit charging an eye-watering £445 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast felt the need to try and scam another fiver per night when submitting the final bill?

(c) Who thought it was a good idea to decorate our room with rather naff embossed wallpaper and then cover it in the sort of bright red paint that would have been dismissed by Royal Mail as too garish for their pillar boxes?

(d) Why anyone would consider that the three small plastic bottles of hand wash, body wash and shampoo in our bathroom constituted an adequate supply of toiletries for a supposed “luxury country house hotel”?

(e) Why, if the hotel grounds extended to 14 acres, as claimed on their website, it was possible to make a complete circuit of them in little more than five minutes, without breaking sweat?

(f) Why they did not make it slightly clearer on the aforementioned website that the “highly trained therapists” who were “on hand” for spa “treatments” (Blodywn from the village, no doubt) had to be booked 24 – 48 hours in advance?

(g) Why the claim on their website that Unpronounceable Hall was a favourite resort of Queen Victoria, her very own secret hideaway where she personally supervised the planting of the trees, appeared unsupported by … well, anyone else at all, so far as I can see.  Although I am ordinarily too modest to mention it, I do have a first class honours degree in history (awarded in the days when firsts were not ten a penny) and I did specialize in 19th and 20th century British history, while always maintaining a snobbish interest in the monarchy. And to the best of my recollection, Queen Victoria loved Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, the south of France and Saxe-Coburg in Germany. But Wales? Nope, never heard so much as a whisper of that. I shan’t believe a word of it unless and until they can persuade an unimpeachable authority of the calibre of Stephen Fry to lend his support.

(h) Why they displayed by their reception desk a collection of black and white photos of “celebrity” visitors which, in most cases, not only meant nothing to me and Mrs H but also to the hotel staff. My favourite was of a bloke who Mrs H thought looked vaguely familiar. Eventually the receptionist ventured that “he was in Porridge”. But he wasn’t Ronnie Barker, Richard Beckinsale, Fulton Mackay or Brian Wilde, and he certainly didn’t look like the shot-putting Jock off the front of the Scott’s porage oats packets, so I was none the wiser. When pressed on his qualification for entry to this hall of fame, she replied “He lives around here”.

Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed our little break and the food was absolutely first class. We just left wondering about some of these little quirks, while I felt the pain of the bill almost physically.

I decided that we would drive north up the beautiful Welsh coast, mainly because I had failed to appreciate that almost every square inch of it is devoted to an extended caravan park. Still, at least this gave me a chance to revisit Barmouth and that long, rusty and remarkably rickety railway bridge, for which I have a very soft spot.

Mrs H in best terrorist mufti in the most vulnerable spot on the Cambrian Coast line
Mrs H without the Arctic wind in her face, looking marginally less menacing
Love that bridge

We then drove for some time in search of a public lavatory. I came to the conclusion that they must camouflage them and take the signs away outside the tourist season, like the Home Guard burying signposts in an attempt to confuse invading Germans. Because of the difficulty in driving with one’s legs crossed, I was finally persuaded to stop near what appeared to be a reasonably promising pub. Crossing the Cambrian Coast railway line on foot, we tiptoed into what appeared to be an almost totally empty establishment, until we spotted a bloke energetically getting outside his lunch in a corner of the otherwise deserted bar. He was evidently as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Perhaps it was the fullness of his mouth that prevented him from saying “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, look you” as Mrs H opened the door marked “Toilets” and found herself being stared at by approximately 30 open-mouthed geriatrics, all neatly arranged in a circle as though they were in the day room of a maximum security twilight home. As no doubt they usually were, except on Mondays when the lunch-eating bloke took them out in his bus for a little trip to the pub, so that the management could make a no doubt doomed attempt to hose the day room down to do something about the smell of wee. We made an excuse and left, as they always used to say in the News of the World. But we did have a wee first. In the lavatories, too, which is probably more than most of their customers that day could hope to manage. I would gladly have bought a couple of unwanted drinks as a quid pro quo if there had been anyone behind the bar to serve them. Later we stopped to have lunch in Harlech, in the one establishment in the town where the staff did not look likely to drug us and place us in a wicker man as potential sacrifices.

Pretty, them hills: a pity they're in Wales, obviously

Harlech's defences: no match for braying English Ladies Who Lunch

It was full of PLU (People Like Us) Englishwoman braying at the tops of their voices. Actually, there were only four of them occupying a single table, but they were the only other customers and they did rather dominate the place. At least if the locals turned nasty, we reckoned that the Ladies Who Lunch deserved to be first in line. We drove back through Blaenau Ffestiniog. Very bleak, Blaenau Ffestiniog, as Noel Coward would surely have observed if he had ever ventured that way. But, who knows, perhaps he kept a secret love nest in the place. Just like Queen Victoria allegedly did by the Dovey estuary …

Monday, 22 February 2010

From Unpron-Ounceable to Afterborth

No idea, 6.0 units. Unpronounceable Hall proved to be surrounded by the RSPB’s Unpron-Ounceable Bird Reserve, so it seemed churlish not to take a look at it. A woman in a wooden hut, made cosy by a wood-burning stove, asked us if we had ever considered joining the RSPB and I somehow managed to avoid getting into a row by simply saying “no”, rather than explaining that the only birds I actually gave a toss about were the songbirds in my garden, while the RSPB in my neck of the woods seemed to be obsessively interested only in the bloody great things that occasionally swooped down and ate them. Mrs H handed over £3 for each of us and we shuffled off around this bird-watcher’s paradise, in which we saw … a robin, a blackbird, a couple of distant swans, a small flock of Canada geese and something that was either a small gull or a big duck. I was glad I had not made a special trip. Every now and then we entered a wooden hide, in which families were sitting in quasi-religious silence staring intently at … well, probably nothing at all, to be honest. Very like church in every respect, then.

The view from a bird hide: note total absence of birds

After this we drove in search of a beach, and accidentally found ourselves driving through a shithole called Borth, which must be the shittiest seaside shithole I have ever come across in the United Kingdom, even including Filey and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. And probably Sellafield, come to that. They should rename it Afterborth and give it a decent burial under the sand. Still, the beach further north was nice when we finally worked out how to get there, and the walk along it suitably bracing. It even gave us an appetite for dinner, though we were not so rash as to attempt the Tasting Menu two nights in a row.

Beach, Mrs H, Dovey estuary, Aberdovey (in order of distance from camera)

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Look you, isn't it?

No idea, 12.0 units. Maybe Shropshire has been cunningly placed by the Wales Tourist Board to make visitors feel good about crossing the border. Despite the minor annoyance of having the road signs in gibberish, it looked very pretty under its light dusting of snow. With Northumberland in mind, and in particular the fact that there is now only one petrol station in Alnwick and none in Rothbury, I stopped to fill the car up with petrol in Welshpool; we then passed a filling station every five miles or so all the way to our final destination. I failed to suppress my boyish excitement at driving alongside the track of the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway, but luckily Mrs H has already made the mistake of marrying me, and there is no getting out of it now even on the solid grounds that I might be a bit of a train nerd.

We finally crunched up the gravel of Unpronounceable Hall at teatime, to be greeted by a diminutive Frenchman who missed a potential joke by introducing himself as the deputy rather than the under manager. He showed us up to a room called Hogarth, allowing Mrs H to ask whether they were all named after roundabouts, and he laughed as though he hadn’t heard that one before. It contained the only four poster bed in the hotel, apparently, which would have been good news but for the fact that it made it a bit too dark to read the book I had brought with me, Anthony Trollope’s An Old Man’s Love (guess the reasons for that choice) and Mrs H spent both nights desperately clinging to the side to avoid rolling into the huge cavity that opened up in its middle and threatened to absorb her forever. On the other hand, when they brought us some tea they proved to bake their own biscuits and they were out of this world, raising high and well-founded hopes for dinner.

A modest snack this, comprising:

1. Some canapés with our aperitifs, including a battered anchovy with a sweet chilli dipping sauce, a beetroot mousse with smoked salmon, and half a quail’s egg with tartare sauce (which sounds really peculiar, but was delicious).

2. A pre-starter of tomato jelly, smoked salmon and crab bisque, accompanied by a glass of Bollinger.

3. A starter of squab pigeon with French saucisson and foie gras, served with spiced puy lentils and accompanied by a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc.

4. A second starter of ballotine of pork with langoustine, artichoke, baby carrot, quail’s egg and cider vinaigrette, accompanied by a glass of Beaujolais.

5. A third starter of cod with scallops on curried new potato with onion puree and shallot crisps, accompanied by a glass of Argentinian Torrontes.

6. A main course of an assiette of Welsh black beef, comprising fillet on aubergine puree with sugar snap peas, sweetbread on spinach, shin ravioli and a samosa with Asian spices, accompanied by a fine 1998 claret.

7. A selection of a mere 14 cheeses, with a glass of Dow’s port.

8. A “pre-dessert” of ginger ice cream with apricot puree and – shock, horror – no wine.

9. A proper pudding of pumpkin seed soufflé with a warm chocolate sauce, accompanied by a sweet Soave from the Veneto.

To be fair, the portions were small enough for us not to feel nauseous as we sipped our peppermint tea in the drawing room afterwards, though we would probably have exploded like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote if anyone had been so foolish as to offer us a final wafer-thin mint. We concluded that (a) we had dined extraordinarily well and (b) the Michelin star was thoroughly deserved, though wondering (c) how it could be commercially viable to employ a Michelin-starred chef to cook dinner for just four couples in the middle of nowhere.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Hedge funs

15st 6lb, 2.0 units. About six weeks ago, Mrs H and I agreed that (childcare arrangements permitting), this weekend would be an appropriate occasion on which to mark Valentine’s Day, Mrs H’s birthday and our first wedding anniversary, all of which fell in the weeks before or after. Originally Mrs H had grand ideas of whisking us off to one of the Balearic Islands to toast our anniversary in a Michelin-starred restaurant, but that fell down because of my extreme reluctance to face airport security and / or a budget airline, so the choice was left to me. Bearing in mind how the weather has been of late, I drew a notional 100-mile circle around our Cheshire home to determine the maximum bearable driving time, and started looking for luxury hotels at bargain prices. I rapidly discovered that those two concepts are not natural bedfellows. I was mainly looking at the Lake District, wondering how we could possibly have as much fun there as Joe and Gail McIntyre from Coronation Street, and shuddering at the expense, when for some reason I happened across the sister hotel of one such establishment out in the far west of Wales. And, by the happiest coincidence, that very day it had just been awarded a Michelin star, which rang a bell. In the circumstances, it did not seem all that expensive so I made a swift internet booking and congratulated myself on a job well done, telling Mrs H that I would be whisking her off to a secret location for a weekend of pampering.

Scroll forward six weeks to yesterday and I finally clicked open the confirmation e-mail from the hotel (which I had moved out of my regular inbox in case Mrs H stumbled across it and ruined her surprise) and read it properly. It was at this point that I finally registered the critical words “per night” immediately after the price, which had seemed costly but bearable for a couple of days. But the thing was, in fact, going to cost double what I had imagined, and we could probably have had a sodding week in a 4* in Majorca for the same money. Bollocks. I was so pissed off that I confessed my stupidity to Mrs H when I got home, which thoroughly spoilt the surprise but at least got her adjusted to what was in store, viz a weekend in the middle of nowhere eating too much while I wore a face that looked like someone was taking £50 notes out of my wallet and burning them in front of me.

We drove through Shropshire, along a road neither of us knew, and very pretty it was, too. Only here we discovered that they like to flail the hedges using giant tractors in convoy, facing the traffic in their direction of travel. I stopped and watched two of these huge machines advancing relentlessly towards us, their drivers’ eyes fixed rigidly on the hedge rather than road ahead, with Mrs H murmuring “He’s not going to stop, you know” followed by “Sound the horn!” I did no such thing, partly because I had observed that there was a gap in the hedge which should bring him to a halt shortly before he started driving over our car like something out of one of those Giant Trucks programmes. And so it proved. What resulted was a stand off, with the tractor driver and us staring at each other and neither party moving. I could not go round him because we were on a hill with double white lines down the middle of the road, and every so often a car going the other way popped over the blind summit doing 50 or 60mph, and a head-on collision with one of those would really have taken the shine off my weekend. Eventually I had to despatch Mrs H from the car to walk round the tractors and signal whether it was safe to pass them. As I finally did so, I was able to treat the tractor drivers to the traditional two-fingered salute, which brought one of them instantly leaping from his cab. Whether this was so that he could helpfully replace Mrs H in the road and provide signals to the queue of traffic that had built up behind us, or in the hope of punching my teeth so far down my throat that I would have to deploy a toothbrush up my backside in future, I could not say for sure. Though I could certainly take an educated guess.

Very pretty county, Shropshire, though I don’t think it’s going to be high on my list of places to visit again. Particularly after the whole tractor experience was followed by a visit to a village store to pick up a sandwich for lunch, a process that took so long on account of the mental incapacity of the staff and their other customers that it might well have been quicker to sow the wheat ourselves, harvest and mill it …

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Mixed krill

15st 4lb, 2.0 units. Mrs H’s birthday. I thought I had prepared for this quite well, until it emerged in conversation last night that Mrs H was hoping to receive two presents from her small immediate family: one from her husband and one from The Baby. Perhaps it is because he hasn’t been well, or perhaps it’s just because he’s never been around on Mummy’s birthday before, but the thoughtless little sod hadn’t remembered to buy her anything, even though I know for a fact that he has over £700 in his own account in a top London bank. It’s just self, self, self with some people, isn’t it?

It was a stroke of luck, in the circumstances, that I had happened to spot a birthday card showing a baby’s hands mawkishly holding out a heart with “Mum” engraved on it when I was buying my own birthday card at Fenwick’s of Bond Street last week, and had bought it so that we could share a laugh at such execrable taste. Now I hastily regrouped and wrote a loving message in it on The Baby’s behalf.

I handed the two cards over with a bracelet from Tiffany that they had kept firmly hidden under the counter and only produced, with an inadequately suppressed shudder, when I threatened to give such a detailed description of it, from a fleeting glimpse I had enjoyed on the internet, that it risked putting off their other and more important customers. Still, Mrs H seemed to like it. Which was good. The hallmarks were a bit too small for me to decipher, but it looked distinctly silver and I take encouragement from the fact that her arm has not turned green so far.

I took Mrs H and The Baby ought for a slap-up lunch at the finest pub restaurant in the area, regardless of expense and only slightly resentful of the fact that The Baby’s bank has so far failed to supply him with a debit card. Mrs H ate lobster and steak, a combination which has always seemed a Step Too Far to me. I had a mixed grill, thinking that really I should have gone for a mixed krill as I look and feel increasingly like a bloody whale.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Screams in the night

15st 4lb, 4.0 units. The Baby spent the night screaming. Mrs H spent the night comforting him. I, shamefully, spent the night sleeping fitfully in our fly-infested and dead-mouse-scented annexe above the garage, except during the all-too-frequent interruptions to relieve myself of scarcely believable quantities of liquid. A sure sign of diabetes, I seem to recall.
I discovered when I finally surfaced in the morning that I had only narrowly escaped an early hours summons to drive mother and Baby to A&E on account of his soaring temperature, until a consultation with NHS Direct and the patient’s subsequent response to the recommended infant-friendly analgesics had put Mrs H’s mind at rest. Since I rarely say anything positive about anyone or anything on these pages, it seems only fair to observe that Mrs H has been consistently impressed with the responsiveness of NHS Direct, and the quality of its staff and of the advice they offer.

It seemed only reasonable to try to assuage my aforementioned feelings of total uselessness by staying at home for the day to assist Mrs H, particularly given that The Baby steadfastly refused to be put down for a second, and this severely restricted her freedom of manoeuvre. We took him to The Doctor, who peered into all The Baby’s reasonably accessible orifices and concluded that his mild fever was consistent with … a cold, or something of the sort. Which seemed a bit hard, given that he has only just got over a cold, or something of the sort, but apparently there is a lot of it about.

Or it could be swine flu, of course, of which there is also a lot about in the area, apparently, though luckily presenting itself in a mild form rather than in the “bring out your dead” mass graves scenario so widely touted in the media last year. Nevertheless, we were advised that we would do well to consider the merits of vaccination if we had not already done so, and not merely because the Government has got millions of doses of vaccine with a diminishing shelf life that it is desperate to pump into people’s arms rather than dump in landfill.

Then again, The Baby’s temperature could be the precursor to something like chickenpox.

It was only after we left the surgery that I began to wonder what exactly we had gained over our previous understanding that The Baby was not very well but we did not really have a clue what was wrong with him.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Overweight and scrofulous

15st 6lb, 7.0 units. I am beset by a growing conviction of my utter uselessness; a viewpoint on which regular readers of these pages will surely have little difficulty in nodding their agreement. The unsurprising discovery that I had gained 2lb as a result of yesterday’s lunch did not get the week off to the best of all possible starts, given that I had stupidly agreed to a further bet with my fellow Journal columnist Tom Gutteridge when we met at our old school on Friday, in the hope of kick-starting the process of losing again the weight I successfully shed during the first three months of 2008. It would be in the worst possible taste to say so (though when did that ever stop me?) but dieting seems to be a bit like fighting the Taliban. You chuck everything into the battle, the enemy melts away, you declare a famous victory … then as soon as your attention fades they simply creep back, and you find yourself once again at square one.

I suppose I might as well write out a cheque for the agreed £500 forfeit to the school’s bursary fund, for failing to lose a stone by April Fools’ Day, and post it to them now.

In so far as I can ever be said to have reached a decision, I made a firm one over the weekend that I would rather be in a Proper Job, paying a proper salary, than in my existing position of taking consultancy fees for doing nothing in particular. Many seem to envy this, but it strikes me as an inherently insecure basis on which to attempt to support a wife and child. The only snag is this: what sort of Proper Job am I actually equipped to fill? After six years of masterly inactivity, I have forgotten pretty much everything I knew about public relations (which was not a lot to start with, if I am honest) while nearly all of my valuable media and City contacts have retired, died or been promoted to such stratospheric levels that they no longer need to be bothered with the likes of overweight and scrofulous PR men. I suppose I could stack shelves in a supermarket, but I would probably make a horlicks of that; which would obviously be fatal to my prospects unless I chanced to be working in the malted drinks section.

In this already gloomy frame of mind, an important client asked a small favour: could I book his wife a table at one of London’s most exclusive restaurants? Once, nothing could have been simpler. But given that I have not set foot in the place for the best part of two years it seemed rather a tall order and I was forced to resort to asking someone else to do it for me.

Then someone sent me a cheery e-mail attaching a press release they had drafted over a month ago, on precisely the same subject that I had wasted half of Thursday researching and drafting a release of my own. Worryingly, theirs was rather better than mine. What use am I to anyone, I wondered grimly as I drove home, listening to the inevitable report on the Six O’Clock News that Ali Dizaei has launched an appeal against his conviction and sentence. Exactly as predicted by Mrs H’s uncle, who was kind enough to say over lunch on Sunday that he had enjoyed and agreed with my previous comment on the case, but felt confident that it would cost us all another £8 million before the appeal process was concluded, and that Ali D would more likely than not emerge triumphant at the end of it.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A lot of foreigners around here

15st 4lb, 7.0 units. St Valentine’s Day: which traditionally vied with Christmas Day for the honour of being the absolute nadir of my year, as I yet again surveyed the bleak emptiness of my mailbox and jealously imagined the wonderfully cosy and romantic time being enjoyed by all my contemporaries. Completely failing to appreciate my joyous freedom from the nightmare of attempting to obtain a restaurant table on the busiest night of the year, and from eating surrounded by other couples desperately trying to keep up the pretence of being romantically interested in each other, when most of them would undoubtedly prefer to be doing something or someone else.

Surprisingly, I was spared organizing a candlelit night out with Mrs H because she preferred to have a lunch in Manchester with her family instead. We limbered up for this by going to “Family Communion” at the church where we were married, now transformed into a building site by a project to level the floor, the pews having stood on slightly elevated wooden platforms for the last two or three hundred years. At the end of proceedings I asked Rick the Vic if this prefigured a move to services “in the round”, with the congregation clustered around a central communion table on comfy DFS sofas. He denied this, though admittedly mainly because there was no spare cash in the budget to buy the sofas. The spur for it all, he claimed, was Elfin Safety, with the step down from the pews now deemed to constitute an unacceptable “trip hazard”. It sounded daft enough to be perfectly credible.

I was glad that our own marriage service was safely behind us; the churchwarden had to make an appeal for volunteers to help make the place presentable for a wedding in two weeks’ time, when our own anniversary falls. Still worse, the vicar confessed that the couple were only getting married in his church after their first choice of venue fell through because it was getting the builders in.

For lunch, which extended to teatime and beyond, we gathered in an Iranian restaurant in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which sounds a lot posher than it is. Luckily Mrs H had done her research and established that, although the place did not hold a liquor licence, customers were welcome to bring and consume their own wine. So we did. The food was remarkably good.

In my admittedly limited experience, no Persian meal can be considered a complete success unless everyone leaves the table barely able to move, and swearing that they will not eat again for another month. Against which criteria, this lunch was an absolute triumph. The only disappointment was the absence of my brother-in-law’s new girlfriend Gwawr (Welsh for Dawn, apparently). None of us had a clue how to pronounce her name but The Baby has been making a noise remarkably like Gwawr for several weeks now, and I had hopes of this skill finally coming in handy.

On the plus side, we all had the pleasure of my Iranian father-in-law observing the flow of humanity along the pavement outside, and concluding that “There are a lot of foreigners around here”. Truly, you could not make it up.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Back to school

15st 6lb, 6.0 units. I drove to Newcastle in surprisingly good time for lunch at my old school, to which I had been summoned by kind invitation of the Governors. I have no idea of their motivation, but I guess it was not simply because I have a seven month old son who will be requiring a decade’s worth of education from about 2016.

I had an uncharacteristically easy journey, so much so that I ended up killing time in the car park of Washington motorway services. This enabled me to swing into the “hard play area” of the school on the dot of 12.30, which in any other context I would have deemed to be unfashionably early. However, even 39 years after I left the place, there is still something about going back that induces a sense of uneasiness and foreboding. Will I be slung in detention if I am late? Are my flies done up and my tie straight? Should I be wearing a cap? I was once put in criminal detention (altogether more serious than the one for being late) for being seen in town after school not wearing my sodding cap, even though I only wasn’t wearing it because I had declined a lift home with my father, and had left it and my rucksack in his car at his suggestion.

Did I enjoy my time at school? Yes and no. I liked the junior school, apart from games, gym and the distinctly peculiar nude swimming lessons, enjoyment of which was always marred by a combination of tubby self-consciousness and the fact that I never learned to swim a stroke. I loathed the fourth form, when the then headmaster’s mad policy of making his top performing stream miss a year of their education resulted in classes combining two groups of pupils a year apart in age – and the gap between 13 and 14, in terms of physical and social development, can actually be rather more of a gulf.

The one advantage of this move was it spared me the one year of compulsory biology, where frogs and cow’s eyes had to be dissected, which would almost certainly have caused me to pass out. On the other hand, it did not exempt me from the year of compulsory boxing – though I cunningly managed to get out of this anyway by drafting a letter from my father claiming that he had strong ethical objections to my participation, and getting him to sign it. At least this was a genuine signature, unlike the long succession of increasingly implausible forged letters from my mother excusing me from swimming. The odd thing is that, a few years ago, I had an e-mail from a reader of my newspaper column claiming that he had vivid memories of facing me in the boxing ring at school. Clearly his memory had been affected by a blow to the head, though I can guarantee that it was not me who inflicted it upon him.

And then, eventually, I passed through into the broad, sunlit uplands of the sixth form, where I started enjoying myself again because all the physical activities ceased to be compulsory and I started sneaking off to the Collingwood Arms for a pint or two at lunchtime and after school. With a prudence that set the pattern for my subsequent life, I financed this by running down the Post Office Savings Bank account in which I had been putting birthday presents and other bits of spare cash since I was a toddler. I suppose perfection was reached in the “Third Year Sixth”, that extra term I which candidates for Oxbridge honed their skills for the entrance examination. But I had already been granted a place at the college of my choice on the strength of my A-level results, so truly did not give a stuff how the exam went.

Ah, the joy of swanning in for a class every other day, mainly as an excuse to spend some quality time with my mates in the boozer. Has life ever been so easy since? And could this be colouring my increasing conviction that I have identified the perfect place for The Baby to receive his education? Or could it, more creditably, be because the facilities of the place have been transformed out of all recognition since I left and its ethos rendered a great deal more civilized? Not least by the admission of girls, a move which I naturally opposed with great vigour at the time it was announced, as a simple matter of reactionary principle.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Is it because I is black?

15st 6lb, 4.7 units. Yesterday brought the shock revelation that I am married to a black woman. I can’t says as I’d noticed, as Police Constable Savage famously claimed in that classic Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch; the one where he was asked whether skin colour might possibly have had any bearing at all on his repeated arrests, on completely ludicrous charges, of a Mr Winston Kodogo of Mercer Road.

You probably haven’t noticed, either, if you have glanced at the photographs of Mrs H that have appeared intermittently in this journal since she overcame her initial shyness and stopped ticking the box for “no publicity”. She agreed to that to help me become a published writing sensation. Not one of her better decisions, then, but I suppose it pales into insignificance compared with agreeing to marry me.

Nevertheless, Mrs H clearly IS black. Because she is Iranian. Well, technically, she is nothing of the sort. She was born in Manchester, which makes her as British as I am. But both her parents come from Iran, and she holds an Iranian passport as well as a British one, because that was the only way she could get into Iran to visit her remaining relatives there. So there is a very definite connection. And the bent copper Ali Dizaei, whose sorry story was plastered all over yesterday’s papers, is also Iranian and apparently very black indeed. He is a past president of the Black Police Association, for f***’s sake, and you would think that they should know.

Yet oddly enough he does not look the least bit black. In fact, he doesn’t even look grey. No reasonable person could surely ever have looked at him, in his role as a leading representative of the black community, without thinking “Hang on, you’re not black at all, you manipulative bastard.”

It’s as much of a mystery as the widespread acceptance as a black man of Ali G. And in Ali D’s case, the pussyfooting terror of being branded “racist” has left him over-promoted, overpaid and cost us, I read, some £8 million during the years in which he was profitably suspended and the various allegations against him were being minutely investigated.

For the record, Black Police Association, Iranians are more Aryan than the British are; Iran means “land of the Aryans”. And, in my experience, they are right up there with old-fashioned upper-crust English people and the Chinese in their sense of superiority over other nations. I cannot think of any less plausible candidate than an Iranian for the role of a member of a persecuted ethnic minority.

Ali D is a truly appalling chancer who has probably done more damage to the image of Iran in this country than even President I’madinnerjacket with his mad schemes for nuclear missiles and his penchant for bumping off dissidents. I just hope he has as much fun in prison as bent policemen usually do. Though given his strange conviction about his race, at least he presumably won’t be harbouring the traditional white man’s fear about what might happen to him if he should be so unfortunate as to drop the soap in the showers.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

On such a night

15st 5lb, 4.0 units. I have spent a fair bit of time on the Internet recently researching “most painless way to commit suicide”. Which is a depressing waste of time, so far as I can see, as every site appears to have been got at by anti-suicide activists keen to point out that (a) even the apparently quick ways really hurt, and (b) nearly everyone changes their mind (citing the late braking of cars, claw marks on the neck where hanging victims have tried to free themselves etc etc), and (c) there are often gruesome side-effects, though the appearance of your corpse after you have topped yourself is not exactly going to be of direct concern to you, is it? And, of course, (d) it’s the most horribly selfish thing to do and surely we can work this out together?

Yeah, yeah, I know all that. And I’ve got a lovely wife and son. It’s just that the responsibility seems like a bit of a mountain sometimes, and I start hankering for an easy way out (always my default setting).

So I felt a certain amount of “You lucky sod” when Joe McIntyre finally gurgled beneath the waters of Lake Whereveritwas on last night’s Coronation Street. My belief that I could make a cracking job of writing the script for this was confirmed by the facts that (a) the plot line was simply borrowed from the real-life case of the Hartlepool canoeist, a bit of plagiarism of which even I would be capable; and (b) even more tellingly, I managed to deliver most of the lines before the actors did. Word perfect I was, too.

Still, I cheered up a bit afterwards when we watched a DVD that a friend had kindly sent us in the post, a period piece called On Such A Night telling the unlikely story of how some young American taking a look at the South Downs found himself irresistibly drawn to Glyndebourne. What was more unlikely? That John Christie himself would find this ticketless young chap a place in the auditorium? That he would cheerfully walk the eight miles to his hotel in Alfriston after the show? Or that the haughty Lady Falconbridge would befriend this total stranger to the extent of sharing her picnic with him and, at the end, handing over her ticket to Don Giovanni so that he could make a return visit with her pretty niece, giving him a wink and warning him that she would not like it up the wrong way (actually, I just made that bit up).

Four specifics troubled me. First, I struggled to identify the year in which the film was set. I plumped for 1954 because the carriages on the train from Victoria still had big number 1s and 3s on their doors (which is, after all, surely better than big number 2s) and I am sad enough to know that third class on British Railways was renamed second class in 1956. But of course I did not want to admit that that was my key piece of evidence, so I had to waffle a fair bit. And then, as it happened, 1956 turned out to be the year in which the film was released.

Secondly, the ample picnic hamper brought by Lady Falconbridge and her niece allegedly contained a feast comprising “ham sandwiches and a flask of tea”. Word of this must never, ever get out as the fiancée who responded to my request to prepare a picnic for Glyndebourne by buying a pork pie and a packet of crisps has never heard the end of it, and I would hate her to be able to claim that she was actually aiming for period authenticity.

Thirdly, Mrs H now wants to go to Glyndebourne dressed as they did in 1956, viz in a Big Ball Gown. We have already overcome the obvious first hurdle, in that I do actually have some Glyndebourne tickets for the coming summer. And the second, in that Mrs H has a large wardrobe bursting at the seams with Big Ball Gowns. So now we just have to brace ourselves for looking horribly conspicuous because the male dress code at Glyndebourne has not changed at all in 54 years, but most of the ladies these days seem to have flung on something from M&S that would look equally at home in a reasonably smart office.

Lastly, I still can't work out why the film was made. Glyndebourne has surely never needed that sort of publicity to fill its houses, and would they really want to attract more dumb Americans hoping to blag a free ticket and a spot of legover with some aristocratic piece of crumpet?

A puzzle, then. But some marvellous period images and dialogue to be enjoyed along the way.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Proper poorly

15st 5lb, 4.5 units. My goodness I feel poorly. Sore throat, blocked nose, aching limbs. It just keeps getting worse. So this is the illness from which Mrs H started really suffering when we were in London last week, and which she picked up from The Baby. But then I thought that she had given it to The Baby after I gave it to her, having picked it up in Northumberland immediately before Christmas. Surely if it is coming back to have a second crack at me I should have built up some immunity by now? But Mrs H has a theory that it is, in fact, another respiratory infection, picked up by The Baby when she foolishly set him down next to an infant with a runny nose, on her recent tour of potentially suitable nurseries in the Chester area.

Given the Strict Blame Culture operating in our household, it is of course of supreme importance to establish exactly where any germs originated. I can sense that this may become a bit of a challenge when nurseries and schools do become involved in our lives. I wonder whether it will be enough to overcome my fierce and rigid objections to DNA testing?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The noise of teething and the taste of death

15st 7lb, 4.5 units. The Baby has been screaming virtually all night. Teething, apparently. He has a couple of razor-sharp little toothy-pegs poking out of his bottom gum, which rather take the pleasure out of him using my fingers as a makeshift teething ring, but I guess the pain must be coming from somewhere else. His pain, not mine, that is. It’s definitely not a lot of fun, for him or for anyone else in the house. I’m writing this at 10 in the morning, having been up for more than three hours, and The Dog is still in our bed, under the duvet, with a paw pressed over his ears. And the mice have started throwing themselves onto the traps, as Les Dawson used to claim that they did in anticipation of his mother-in-law’s visits.

Well, not exactly. I haven’t actually found any traps. But there is the most appalling smell in the spare bedroom above the garage, and an investigation of the cupboards under the eaves this morning showed all the usual signs of mouse activity, viz lots of chewed-up pipe lagging and some bait laid either by our landlords or the previous tenants. Unfortunately they have chosen that poison-soaked grain which the mice are expected to ingest over a period of days, and which still leaves them with the time and energy to wander off and die somewhere completely inaccessible, where the smell of their decomposition can be expected to linger for weeks.

Long experience of this sort of thing in Northumberland has taught me that the only answers are traps and a fast-acting poison called Alphakil. By traps, I mean the old-fashioned snapping sort that ideally come down hard on the victim’s neck. There is no point pussy-footing (maybe not the most appropriate words, come to think of it) around with “humane” traps unless you are going to drive several miles to release their contents after capture. If you are just going to let the mouse out in your garden, it will be back in your house before you are.

That’s assuming that the “trap” holds the mouse for long enough for you carry it outside in the first place. A soft-hearted colleague told me a couple of weeks ago how he had invested in one to deal with a recurrent mouse nuisance, baited it with chocolate and gone to bed. Where he had been woken, after an hour or so, by a munching noise and turned on the light to observe a mouse sitting on his bedroom carpet staring at him, with the chocolate clamped in its little fist. He said that the only surprise was that it wasn’t using its other forepaw to give him the two fingers.

I don’t know what Rentokil put in their Alphakil, but you tear open a sachet and put the bright green granules into a bait tray, and the mice seem to die within about a foot of it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned. Thank God Saddam Hussein never got his hands on it, or where would we be?

One peculiarity struck me very forcibly this morning, as I was swallowing another couple of my Lemsip Max Strength Day & Night Cold & Flu Relief capsules: they taste exactly like the spare bedroom above the garage smells. Dead mouse flavouring, anyone?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Queen's English

15st 5lb, zero units. The 58th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne. Which reminds me that I have been a bit worried about Her Majesty ever since I read the Court Circular for 2 February, which revealed that she had spent the day at Royal Air Force Marham, Norfolk, where she “witnessed a flypast of aircraft and met service and civilian personnel to mark the one hundredth aircraft from the Combined Maintenance and Upgrade Unit.” Huh?
She then “drove to the Alpha Dispersal and viewed simulated sortie exercises and a demonstration of a Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing Cabin.” Eh?

Then, after a spot of lunch in the Officers’ Mess (the one bit I did understand) Her Majesty “visited the Primary Care Rehabilitation Facility and subsequently opened the Multi Use Games Area at the Community Support Hub.”

What the f*** is all that about? As her consort of 62 years might well have put it, if she hadn’t had the presence of mind to leave him behind at Sandringham when she set out.

Not so long ago the Court Circular used to be full of delightfully old-fashioned flummery. No-one simply met the Queen; they “had the honour” of doing so. She “graced” events with her presence. Diplomatic guests would be described as “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary”. And so forth. The last redoubt of this sort of thing were the announcements issued from Clarence House until that sad day at Easter 2002, on behalf of the late Empress of India and Queen of Ireland. It is bad enough missing the old ways, without having them replaced with the sort of language that the Plain English Society was founded to search and destroy.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The biometric nursery

15st 5lb, 9.0 units. I staggered into my office for the first time in days, then had to leave early to meet Mrs H, so that we might jointly review a couple of nurseries where she is thinking of parking The Baby when she returns to work. On the one hand this does not seem a bad idea in principle. Like the swimming lessons and music classes he has been attending, in an attempt to ensure that The Baby does not turn out like his father, learning to mix happily with other children would no doubt be a priceless asset and prevent me from passing the social cripple gene on to another generation.

Maybe it was the time of day when we called, viz tea-time, but what both nurseries mainly seemed to do with infants of The Baby’s age was sit them in rows of high chairs so that they could devote themselves to dismantling ham sandwiches and staring morosely at passing strangers. The rooms where they were sitting didn’t look particularly clean, either, but then our kitchen doesn’t look particularly clean any more, and it’s only got the one baby in it. The people in charge all had oodles of NVQs and stuff, and sounded good-natured if ever so slightly simple. Which is, I suppose, exactly what you need to be if you are going to spend your entire working day communing with beings less intelligent than a Border terrier.

Mrs H and I wandered around, nodding knowledgeably, and decided that we both preferred the one with the bouncy soft tarmac in the outdoor play area, and the vegetable plot and the rabbit that is inevitably going to die as soon as The Baby gets attached to it. Mrs H was impressed with the high level of security, too.

“You do realize,” I said, as we drove away, “That there is no way that I am ever going to agree to be fingerprinted so that I can use their biometric access pad?”

She grunted that she had foreseen some such objection, but surely I could see that it was a marvellous way of keeping passing paedophiles out of the place, and surely I would want to help by being equipped to pick The Baby up when necessary?

I repeated my line about fingerprinting being for criminals, and it being up to all of us to resist the insidious spread of these intrusions on our liberty, which would end up with us all being microchipped and scanned every time we wanted to buy a bottle of wine from the supermarket.

She clearly hopes I’m going to relent and be reasonable about it.

Which way would you care to bet?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Habit of Art

No idea, 5.0 units. Last night we settled into what our hotel disarmingly described as a “Tiny” room, then headed off to the National Theatre to see The Habit of Art, the new play by Alan Bennett to which I had been looking forward so much that I refrained from punching the lights out of the station attendant yesterday. It did not disappoint. Well, only perhaps in the ending, which seemed to run down like an old clock, as though comic inspiration had simply been exhausted. But who can resist the apparently effortless stagecraft of Richard Griffiths, combined with the excitement of wondering whether a man of his gargantuan size is actually likely to make it through to the end of the show? We laughed a good deal, mainly at pleasingly childish jokes. And afterwards we walked across the Jubilee Bridge and made a first visit to the new(ish) Oyster Bar at J Sheekey, our favourite London restaurant, where we discovered that it is possible to eat without booking, in portions that are altogether more suitable for a late night snack, and at prices that are eminently affordable. I can’t see why this is good news for J Sheekey, where I traditionally tucked into a delicious three course meal after a night of corporate entertainment at the Coliseum or Covent Garden, but it was certainly very good news for us.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Oh for f***'s sake

15st 3lb, 9.0 units. I have never cared for uncertainty, and today started with a corker: were we going to London or not? It all hinged on whether Mrs H could secure an appointment with a doctor, and then obtain suitably reassuring advice on whether The Baby was well enough to be left with his grandparents. Luckily she obtained a suitably timed slot with our friendly local GP, who pronounced that The Baby seemed to be “on the mend”, and added the perceptive observation that his grandparents in any case probably had rather more experience of dealing with sick children than we did. So that was good.

The low point of the whole excursion luckily arrived before we had even boarded our train, so it was on a steadily improving trend from there. Arriving at Chester station, I advanced purposefully through the automatic ticket barriers while Mrs H (foolishly, it has to be said) showed her ticket to one of the charmless operatives at the manned gate. He naturally pronounced that it would be more than his job was worth to let her through without also seeing her seat reservation, which was buried deep in one of my overcoat pockets, so I gestured to her to follow me through the automatic gate instead. Only to find this prize prat pursuing both of us, bleating on about needing to see our seat reservations.

“For f***’s sake,” I said, “What is the point of installing automatic gates if I still have to faff about finding bits of paper to show to you?”

“There’s no need to swear, sir,” he replied (I begged to differ most profoundly). “We’re only trying to do our job.”

Yeah, right. The classic line of the authority-obsessed little man through the ages. I was sorely tempted to seize him by the throat and bring his head into repeated contact with the nearest hard surface, but reflected that this would only lead to the termination of our journey while I was being photographed and DNA tested down at the police station, so I dug out the bloody tickets he wanted and huffed off. It was lucky, all things considered, that Mrs H did not point out until our train was actually under way that this was the self-same jobsworth who had intercepted her when she was very heavily pregnant and running for an imminently departing train to London.

“Which … platform … for … London,” she puffed, only to be greeted with the whole rigmarole about how he couldn’t help her with that until he had examined her ticket and seat reservation, both of which were buried at the bottom of her handbag. Though not for long, as they were soon strewn across the concourse along with all said bag’s other contents. As she struggled to gather them up, he smugly observed “This is why we advise people always to allow plenty of time when they’re coming for a train.” I think Mrs H would have killed him if she’d had the energy. As it was, no doubt to the jobsworth’s huge chagrin, a kindly female Virgin employee saw her puffing hopelessly towards the departing London train and reopened its doors to that she might limp on board. Human kindness and trying to help a customer; that’s not an attitude that’s going to get her anyway on today’s railway, is it?