Monday, 26 December 2011

And so this is Christmas

15st 13lb, 4.5 units (reels back in amazement at own self-restraint in Christmas Day alcohol consumption, though sadly not in calorie intake and resultant avoirdupois).

An almost total stranger e-mailed me the other day with a simple question: “Whither Bloke in the North?”

Yes, I checked. There was a question mark at the end, and a second “h” in “wither”.

It seemed a reasonable enquiry, given the comparative lack of activity on this blog in 2011. Though curiously it still seems to receive more visitors than my other blog,, which I faithfully update every week. And to which I devote far more care and attention than I ever did to this, because each entry is also a newspaper column published in that great daily paper of the North East, The Journal.

Perhaps I inadvertently created a memorable brand in Bloke in the North. Or maybe “bloke” is just one of those words, like “porn”, that people simply cannot resist typing into search engines.

Dear faithful reader, I apologize for the lack of attention to your needs.

The facts are that I started this blog a little over four years ago when I was a confirmed bachelor (though not in the usual sense of “screaming queen”) of 53, largely unemployed, and contemplating a solitary decline towards an early grave. Starting it was a way of whistling to keep my spirits up, while in the back of my mind was the completely insane idea that it might catch the eye of a publisher who would commission me to write something more profitable.

I know. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

I also used it for a time as a surprisingly effective way to discipline myself into losing weight. By the time I gave up I was two stone lighter, though still about 21 pounds above my theoretically ideal weight. I felt much better about myself, though kind friends later told me that I looked bloody awful. There is nothing like a bit of fat for filling out wrinkles. So at least I must look terrific now that I have put every ounce back on, as fat bastards always do.

But before I did that, something completely unpredictable happened. My low profile presence on the internet caught the eye of a young woman, who got in touch to introduce me to a less particular friend who was in the habit of going out with older men. My correspondent had an unusual name, which looked like two spectacularly bad hands in a game of Scrabble. Only the fact that she gave the name of her employer, and that her chief executive happened to be an old friend of mine, prevented me from immediately consigning her message to the trash.

I never did meet her friend, but the young woman and I are now married with a two-and-a-half-year-old son and another boy due to be born in February, though the groans from Mrs H on the sofa last night did make me wonder whether we were going to have to revise our plans and call him Noel rather than Jamie.

So never believe those wiseacres who assert that blogging is a sad waste of time. This one literally transformed my life.

In so doing, it made me immeasurably busier. Not just because of the presence in my life of the aforementioned wife and children (almost) but because of the additional work I have felt obliged to undertake. This being my admittedly not particularly successful way of trying to support them in the style to which they would like to become accustomed.

Not only do I have less free time in which to write, but my natural subject matter has changed, too. From what were supposed to be hilarious tales of my pretty consistent failure to get my leg over with attractive young women who subsequently turned out to be clinically insane, to heartwarming “kids say the funniest things!” anecdotes of the kind so effectively parodied in Viz, and which were once (and, for all I know, may still be) the staples of the letters pages in the Sunday Sun, Sunday Post and People’s Friend.

I would be happy enough to post these on a much more regular basis, but I worry that doing so under the heading of “Bloke in the North” would be so far removed from its original prospectus as to put me at risk of prosecution under the 1968 Trade Descriptions Act.

On the other hand, perhaps it is the reader’s responsibility to keep up? Is Martin Sorrell regularly upbraided, at the head office of WPP, because he cannot supply callers with wire shopping baskets?


As an indication of what I am up against, the narrative was interrupted at that point so that I could answer two-year-old Charlie’s first question of the morning: “Where my Advent calendar gone?” (The answer produced tears, as he had got used to a fix of chocolate before his morning milk.) Then my laptop was commandeered so that he could watch three episodes of Chuggington while Mummy prepared breakfast.

Christmas Eve morning, and The Boy knows he has an important date with a chocolate Santa

“Would you like some eggs, Charlie?”


So Mrs H cooked delicious scrambled eggs while I carved some wonderful smoked salmon from Swallow Fish in Seahouses, and toasted and buttered a couple of slices of bread.

“There you are, Charlie. Eggs with pink fish. Your favourite.”

“No, no, no! I don’t want it!” The bowl was flung across the table, though we did not get more tears until he applied his full weight to disentangling the cat’s Christmas present from some obstruction or other, and it snapped and catapulted him across the kitchen.

All in all, a pretty typical morning with a toddler. Or at any rate our toddler.

On Christmas Eve Mrs H took him out to see a local hunt meet, because there is nothing he likes more than horses, dogs, 4x4s and horseboxes. He snored through the whole thing. Then she took her eye off him for a minute or two after lunch and returned to find him holding a strip of tablets that she had carefully hidden on a high work surface in a remote corner of the kitchen. He proudly announced that he had taken one. But had he? Mrs H could not remember whether there had been six or seven tablets left in the strip when she took her last one. Now there were definitely only six. So it was possible, though unlikely as the tablets seemed rather too large for a two-year-old to swallow. And given that it is hellishly difficult to get him to eat anything at all apart from fish fingers and sausages, what were the chances that he would he chew his way through a very unpalatable pill?

“Did you take one of Mummy’s pills?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Are you sure?”


On the one hand, it is said that small children never lie because they have not yet learned how to do so. On the other hand we know that he is immensely suggestible and will agree to almost anything.

So Mrs H consulted the internet on what damage taking one of her pills for gestational diabetes might do to a two-year-old. Then she rang NHS Direct, who did clearly did precisely the same thing. They advised that it would probably be all right, but there were some exceptionally rare potential complications, so the best thing to do would be to take him to hospital and have him checked out. The last thing any parent wants to hear on Christmas Eve.

By the time they rang back with this advice we had arrived at church for the Christmas Eve crib service. Since no urgency was suggested, and a spot of prayer seemed appropriate, we went in and joined the packed congregation. Everyone else sang three of my favourite carols: Away in a manger, Once in Royal David’s City and Oh little town of Bethlehem. Charlie sang Jingle Bells and somehow his one small voice seemed to carry through the church more powerfully than the several hundred others competing with it.

Then we drove to hospital and joined the queue in A&E, after asking Charlie yet again whether he had taken one of Mummy’s pills as it was very important and we were all going to have to go to hospital if he had.

“Yes, I did,” he insisted.

We were pleasantly surprised that the reception staff at A&E did not greet us by our first names as we walked in, since we see them so often these days. First there was a consultation with a nurse, who did not think there was anything to worry about. Then I stupidly raised the very rare complications that NHS Direct had mentioned, which sent her off to look them up on the internet. She returned with a doctor, who looked about 13, and that was after he had been prematurely aged by exhaustion. And we had a remarkably similar conversation with him. Then he went off to consult a paediatric specialist and came back with his advice: “Admit for observation.”

“You see, Charlie, you’re going to miss Santa now because you took one of Mummy’s pills. You’re going to have to stay in hospital.”

“No, no! I want to go home!”

“But you took one of Mummy’s pills.”

“No, I didn’t! I didn’t!”

“Then why did you say you did?”

“I don’t know.”

Did you take one of Mummy's pills?

“Of course,” the young doctor said, “If you want to ignore medical advice and take him home, that’s up to you.”

Mrs H asked exactly what their “observation” would consist of, and it proved to comprise waking him up in the middle of the night, checking that he wasn’t in a diabetic coma and measuring his blood sugar. All of which, she pointed out, as a (hopefully temporary) diabetic equipped with a blood testing kit, she was fully equipped to do at home, and bring him back to hospital if the results were unsatisfactory.

The doctor seemed satisfied with this compromise, so we left. As we drove out of the hospital, a little voice piped up from the back of the car: “I did take one of Mummy’s pills. I did.”

Back home, The Boy prepared a spread for Santa. I drew the line at eating Rudolph's carrot.

I don’t suppose we will ever know the truth, but he survived to see Christmas and to open his presents, which afforded him some pleasure. Though I relearned the lesson of last Christmas that one gift brings great joy to a small child, and more than one is really just a distraction. I assumed that he would be most pleased with the ride-on John Deere tractor that I had spent a hellish evening assembling from a kit of parts with the aid of instructions that came in a wide range of languages, apparently including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, yet strangely excluding English. However, this proved to be a disappointment on two grounds: (a) because he resolutely refused to pedal it, as seeming far too much like hard work, and (b) because I vetoed the use of the front loader attachment to bulldoze a large stretch of the lawn.

Would-be farmer with major capex in equipment

On the plus side, he was delighted with the modestly priced model Land Rover that I had bought him from the Rothbury toyshop that is such a great resource for those with small children obsessed with agricultural machinery.

After we came in from the garden, he became obsessed with (a) getting hold of my box of matches, (b) turning on the cooker and (c) placing his hand on the red hot hob. Perhaps it was these distractions that caused his mother to turn on the wrong hotplate and melt the plastic base of the smart new electric coffee grinder I had unpacked only that morning.

Then we had lunch, where the Boy carried his obsession with gravy to previously unseen heights, demanding that he be allowed to spoon more and more of it onto his already overflowing plate. He wouldn’t actually eat any of his Christmas dinner apart from a couple of chipolatas, once they had been carefully denuded of their bacon wrapping. Then he had a meltdown over the Great Gravy Shortage and fell off his chair. I ate my Auntie’s fantastic Christmas pudding and brandy butter, after which we all had a well-earned nap that was pretty much the highlight of the day.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Football crazy, football mad

15st 13lb, 2.0 units. I have shared some thoughts on Saturday’s Newcastle United versus Wigan Athletic match in my weekly newspaper column, which I have just posted on my other blog. But the usual constraints of space prevented me from fully conveying my feelings about the sheer strangeness of my weekend.

It all started quite well. My friend’s train arrived on time at Newcastle Central, leaving him with nothing to moan about apart from the repeated announcements that the train was “arriving into” a station, rather than the more straightforward “at”.

I retaliated with a whinge about my own pet dislike, “station stop”, which takes two words to say what could be conveyed by either one of them. If I had been feeling a bit stronger I would probably have gone nuclear with my well-established rant about the use of “train station” rather than “railway station”, though my claim that this is a ghastly Americanism was rather undermined by an actual American pointing out that they traditionally did not have train stations either, but depots. Pronounced “deepo”, naturally, and not to be confused with the places where the British store buses.

Later in the morning I enjoyed a glorious pint of Gladiator and an excellent packet or two of pork scratchings in the Crown Posada, perhaps the finest pub in Newcastle, while my friend pottered around the alleyways off the Quayside, reliving what must frankly have been some pretty dubious memories of his childhood. Then we enjoyed a splendid mixed grill lunch with some other fine chaps, and their offspring, at my Newcastle club.

It was the whole football match thing that seemed a bit strange – though perhaps, given my limited experience, it was my first time at the ground that was odd. It was certainly different, because that time, two and a half years ago, I was sitting in one of the grand corporate boxes rather than on the terraces. It was also a critical relegation match against a local rival, Middlesbrough. I just assumed that the enthusiastic, flag-waving, chanting atmosphere was customary, when on the evidence of this Saturday it clearly isn’t. There wasn’t a flag or even a waved scarf to be seen. No-one audibly joined in when Blaydon Races was blasted out on the loudspeakers. In fact, for want of a better word, the best way I could describe the mood of the crowd was subdued. Which seemed odd to me, when I had been reading that Newcastle were enjoying their best performance for years, unbeaten to date and standing in fourth place in the league.

People turned up at their seats at the last minute, or ten minutes into the game in the case of the couple next to us, who then left again five minutes before the half time whistle. The blokes to the right of us also well before half time, and did not return for the second half. Those who did stick it out seemed, for the most part, disengaged and rather depressed, though they did manage a ragged cheer when Newcastle finally scored, ten minutes before the end.

My friend had loudly observed on arrival at our seats “It’s much more civilized than I expected!” This prompted me to shush him. “Shush? It’s not the opera, you know!” he joshed, setting me off on the train of thought that resulted in my column. I pointed out, sotto voce, that it probably wasn’t a good idea to proclaim at the top of his voice that he had expected to be surrounded by a load of yobs.

Typical Toon fan and owner

In fact our neighbours were for the most part older than us, and rather quiet. I found their shared reminiscences of the old days quite endearing, but no doubt they would pall quite rapidly if I heard them repeated at every home game, as they no doubt are. I was also struck by the number of times that they referred to the amount that the players were being paid to do very little. Although many of those on the pitch were black I never heard a word of racist abuse uttered, though there seemed to be a widespread conviction that a statistically implausibly high proportion of the players were practising homosexualists.

All in all, the game felt flat to me, the spectators uninvolved. There was none of the audience response one might expect at the end of a decent operatic or theatrical performance. I know where I would rather spend my money.

In the evening I took my friend out to supper at my local pub. Having consumed much meat at lunchtime, we both ordered fish and chips. It turned up looking delicious, a beautifully presented plate of nicely battered haddock, chips and mushy peas. I must have eaten about a third of it before I voiced my reservations to my companion: “Is it just me, or did this taste of absolutely nothing at all?” He nodded in wholehearted agreement. The only thing on our plates that had the slightest hint of flavour was the tartare sauce, which tasted as though it had been run up as part of an experiment by the remedial stream in a school chemistry lab. I had thought it must just be me who could taste nothing, as I had had a bit of a cold all week, after a doubtless ill-judged flu vaccination last Monday. We debated whether to mention it to our charming and attentive waitress, but decided against on the grounds that we couldn’t decide how to phrase any complaint. There appeared to nothing wrong with the ingredients or with their cooking or presentation. It was just that somewhere along the line they had been magically deprived of all flavour.

Still, it was at least the perfect meal with which to round off our bland and curiously unsatisfying afternoon at the football. I think I shall suggest that the pub renames the dish “Haddock St James”.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Another World

15st 10lb, 8.0 units. Walking round like a zombie all day after The Boy started throwing up in the early hours, even though I responded in my usual, selfless, hands-on way by retreating to the spare bed well out of earshot in the annexe above our garage. The fact that he has slept for around 12 hours per night for months now has clearly lulled us into a false sense of security. This morning Mrs H was even moved to question the wisdom of putting herself through all this again by having another baby. Perhaps rather late in the day to begin thinking about that, I reflected.

The Boy was deemed unfit to go to nursery so I was commissioned to stay at home and play with him while Mrs H went to the dentist to have a tooth filled. It was all going quite well, with some gentle puzzle-solving and book-reading (I doing the reading, he listening – he’s not that much of a prodigy), until he decided to hurl himself head-first over my prone body on his nursery floor. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to do it again, this time while holding one of his books, which promptly clocked him in the eye and left a nasty red mark on his cheek and forehead. He didn’t cry much. In fact, I have to admit that he seems considerably more stoical at 26 months than I am at 57 years.

After Mrs H returned, jaw numbed, we drove him to his grandparents’ and went to our respective desks, where we each pretended to do some work. We were glad to get away again shortly after 5. Unfortunately The Boy wasn’t glad to see us, and responded to the idea that he might like to go home by grabbing his mother’s spectacles and chucking them onto his grandparents’ stone-flagged patio, where one of the lenses shattered rather impressively. He agreed, during the subsequent discussion, that this was a very naughty thing to do. I don’t remember ever attempting anything quite so heinous in my own early childhood, but feel sure that some form of physical chastisement would have followed if I had. But then they also regularly gave me addictively orange-flavoured Junior Aspirin, so I suppose I just have to accept that it was Another World and they did things very differently there.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Having a baby at 98

No idea, 8.5 units. Reasons for wishing that I could afford to send my son to an English public school (number one in an occasional series): so that he could acquire that irritatingly undeserved self-confidence and air of entitlement that is endemic in their products. My time at Cambridge, and the earlier part of my career in the City, were blighted by a mistaken sense of my inferiority because I did not have this advantage. How a regime of cold baths, starvation, corporal punishment and systematic buggery (thinking of English public schools as they were in my day, rather than how they might be now, Mrs H, just in case you were thinking of lifting your veto on a boarding education) should breed such self-assurance I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it just failed to knock it out of people in whom it had been bred for generations.

 A promiscuous homosexual with a cane

Anyway, I was reminded of all this by eating breakfast in a reasonably posh hotel in Lewes for the last two days, and hearing the 60-something products of assorted public schools braying their weird and wonderful commands at breakfast. Nothing so simple as ordering things that were on the menu, like common Mrs H and I did. No, they needed very specific things, prepared in very specific ways. Rashers of bacon with all the fat cut off. Pots of boiling water with a tea bag brought separately in a dish. Lea & Perrins Worcester sauce (God forbid that they should be offered a generic substitute). My favourite was the 80-something mother of one of the group, encountered this morning, whose volume control had long since dropped off and who delivered her pernickety requests and eccentric opinions in a foghorn voice that could probably have been heard at Glyndebourne, even against competition from the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mind you, it was hard to disagree too strongly with her verdict that Glyndebourne’s Rinaldo was a “silly” production.

After breakfast we drove back to Chester in time for a little light shopping and a visit to a private clinic for a nuchal translucency scan, one of those jobs that gives you a vague idea of whether your offspring is at high risk of coming into the world with one of a small range of unpleasant genetic conditions. When The Boy was in the womb, such things were not available on the NHS in this part of the world and we had no choice but to pay for it (apart from the choice of not having it done at all). Now the test is available on the NHS – but they only provide one chance, so if your foetus is an awkward little sod like ours is (where could it have got that from?) and resolutely refuses to move into a position where the necessary measurements can be taken, you are back to the position as before. So I paid up, the offspring decided to co-operate, and we came away with some more blurry black-and-white images and the assurance that the risk of the abnormalities in question is as low as is statistically possible. Which, given that its parents have a combined age of 98, is terrifically cheering and reassuring.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Whatever happened to Farmer Palmer's llamas?

No idea (of my weight this morning, that is), 6.0 units. For many years one of the incidental pleasures of going to the opera at Glyndebourne has been driving through the pretty village of Glynde and admiring the fields full of alpacas between there and the opera house. I know that they were alpacas, because there was a hanging sign at Glyndebourne Farm proclaiming them to be just that. But in the interests of euphony, I preferred to believe that they were llamas, owned by the legendary Farmer Palmer (“Git orff my laaaaand”) created by Viz comic.

“Would you like to see Farmer Palmer’s llama farm?” I would say to guests as I drove them to the opera, and they always went down well – rather better, in fact, than some of the more avant garde productions at the opera house.

I am sure they were there when we last passed this way. And I have a strong idea that I also spotted a camel lurking in a field by the farmhouse. Maybe that was the Trojan horse that caused the whole thing to unravel. [Pub quiz question: how many other English verbs can you create by sticking “un” in front of the name of an opera composer?]

Because we drove that way this afternoon and there were no alpacas to be seen. The hanging sign was gone, too. I felt sad, even though I am equally sure that I resented the animals as an alien intrusion when they first appeared, muttering about what was wrong with traditional South Downs sheep. I just don’t like change, that’s the top and bottom of it. Unless it is being handed to me by a shopkeeper after a purchase.

On that basis this afternoon’s performance was a top choice: Britten’s Turn of the Screw, in a production that I first saw in 2007. I know this because it says so in my diary. Moreover, one of the guests who accepted my invitation to come along today also saw it with me then, and can vouch for the fact that I was there. Which is handy, because I only booked it this time because I had completely forgotten ever having seen it before. No recollection whatsoever. My diary says that I also went to La Cenerentola the previous evening in 2007, and I have photographs demonstrating that I was indeed in the grounds of Glyndebourne with friends that day, yet I have absolutely no recollection of that production, either.

Operatic amnesia: it is a new one on me.

And odd because the production and the performance were both absolutely terrific, and are now seared on my memory for the long term (if, at my age, there is any long term to be had).

We had an excellent picnic, too, kindly contributed by my guests, and despite the mugginess of the early afternoon and the apparent threat of thunder, it proved to be a magically perfect English summer’s evening.

Even down to a very pretty girl with long blonde hair dancing round the lawn in what I feel compelled to describe as a long white shift. She was doing it as we arrived, right next to where our friends had planted their picnic chairs and rug. Mrs H expressed some doubts about the wisdom of approaching the lunatic. I preferred to think of it as some sort of lawn theatre – perhaps, with any luck, an advertising initiative by Peter Stringfellow. Our companions felt that it was intended to put us in the mood for The Turn of the Screw by making us think of the orphan Flora. I could say what it put me in mind of, but I don’t think it would get past the traditional vetting of this blog by Mrs H.

I wonder whether we will ever come here again? It won’t be easy logistically in summer 2012, with a three-year-old and a new baby to look after. It may not be easy financially, either. I suppose I should just count myself fortunate to have spent so many truly memorable evenings here over the last 27 years, plus a few that I cannot remember at all. And congratulate myself for having the presence of mind to add my name to the waiting list for membership of the Glyndebourne Festival Society within minutes of walking into the place for the first time in 1984.

Friday, 1 July 2011

A new form of torture

15st 6lb, 4.0 units. I started a new quarter of my financial year in the traditional way by e-mailing a bunch of invoices, with suitably grovelling covering notes, then loaded the reluctant dog into the car and drove to Northumberland. Six and a half sodding hours it took from door to door, some of which was accounted for by going via Alnwick to do a spot of shopping. But most of it was down to the fact that the entire population of the UK appeared to be on the move, and many of them have failed to grasp the concept that they should be driving in the left hand lane of multi-lane roads unless they happen to be overtaking. Though the absolute highlight was the discovery of an entirely new form of torture at Wetherby services, where I noticed when it was just too late to abort my entry to the car park that there seemed to be a bit of a queue to get out of it.

Not to worry, I thought, I’m sure that will have cleared by the time I’ve attended to a call of nature and had a bite to eat.


Over an hour I sat there, completely stationary, wondering how the hell Moto had managed to design an almost completely new service area that could be brought to a complete standstill with such apparent ease, and resenting the loss of a chunk of my life that no-one is ever going to give me back.

At least the sun was shining when I finally reached home, and The Dog and I went out for a glorious walk in some of the loveliest scenery on the planet. Though it would have been more glorious if I had remembered to wear a hat. I had forgotten how large the fly population of Northumberland becomes by the beginning of July each year. Note to potential tourists: it’s a fly-infested hellhole. Don’t even think of coming here.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

A pain in the forecourt, and the legs

15st 6lb, 11.5 units. Yesterday evening we finally managed to collect Mrs H’s new car from the dealership where it has allegedly been languishing for a full six weeks while they and the DVLA between them made an almost incredible meal of transferring her personalized number plate. Or, rather, my personalized XPR number plate which she is kindly fostering for me until I can resume my retirement from the public relations business and it will once again become a prime example of my wit, rather than just a random series of letters and numbers.

Oliver the salesman at the garage said the paperwork would take 30-40 minutes to complete. This proved as accurate as most estimates in the motor trade. We finally escaped after an hour, and then only because I cut short the spiel about some of the many wonderful features of our new motor car on the grounds that The Boy’s nursery was about to close for the night and he would have to be taken into local authority care if we did not get there pronto and pick him up.

Getting there pronto was not assisted by turning the engine on for the first time and finding that the fuel gauge was on zero.

“We only put five litres of fuel in,” Oliver explained. “But you’ve got plenty to get to a garage.”

So long as you go the garage half a mile up the road in completely the wrong direction, that is.

Here’s an idea: if you’re going to charge £25,000-odd for a car, why not slap another £80 on the bill and fill the bloody tank up? No one’s going to notice the extra, and it would avoid your customers driving off your forecourt with the sense that they are dealing with a bunch of twats.

It was me who did the aforementioned driving, even though it was Mrs H’s new car, on the grounds that we were in a tearing hurry. But it was just as well, as she foolishly volunteered the information that she would never have thought to look at the fuel gauge before setting off, and would therefore have ground to a halt on the dual carriageway somewhere en route to the nursery. Which would, I’ll admit, have made a good anecdote for this blog.

Later in the evening we had a vicar and a churchwarden to supper. There was a certain amount of alcohol involved. I woke in the middle of the night with terrible pains in both my legs, convinced that this was a symptom of heart failure and that I was imminently doomed to life in a wheelchair if not to death in a coffin. The worst thing about the former option, I recalled from conversations with my double amputee mother, is that you continue to suffer pains in your limbs even after they have been cut off.

Maybe I should try going a little easier on the booze and see whether that helps at all. Or should I keep on drinking in the hope that it will blot out all visions of my future?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Full speed astern

15st 6lb, 4.4 units. I had an automated call this morning: “Hello, we have been trying to contact you about your accident.” It follows months of text messages telling me about the £3,500 I could claim for an accident I have never had. I thought these were simply spam until Jack Straw raised the whole scandal of referral fees earlier in the week. But I still don’t understand who has referred me to these sharks, given that I haven’t had a car accident since 1989. That was, I will admit, a bit of a corker: a head-on collision that put some poor sod in hospital and wrote off two cars. But it seems unlikely that I will be able to make a successful damages claim for it now, given that (a) I have allowed 22 years to elapse and (b) it was my fault.

Mrs H has had the odd accident on my insurance policy, it is true, but has suffered no personal injury as a result. Though obviously it has been a close-run thing. Luckily I have never had a suitable blunt instrument to hand when she has broken the news. My personal favourite was the time she had a minor prang in a courtesy car while her Audi was being serviced, and I found our joint credit card charged with the £500 excess on the garage’s insurance policy.

I asked how the accident had happened and she explained that she had been waiting to turn into a filling station, to replace the petrol she had used before returning the car. Her car is an automatic and the courtesy car was a manual, so she had stalled it and someone had run into the back of her.

An open and shut case, it seemed to me. You run into another car and, unless they were doing something really criminal stupid at the time, it is invariably your fault. So it was quite clearly down to the other driver to pay for all the damage. I nagged her for months about getting our £500 back.

Eventually she cracked. “You know when I told you that I was struggling to get the car back into gear?”


“Well, I couldn’t swear that I didn’t choose reverse.”

It was almost worth £500 to hear that. I did say “almost”.

It could have been worse, I suppose. At least Mrs H did not smile proudly about it afterwards.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ginger midget cloned shock

15st 6lb, 4.7 units. I was rather pleased with my newspaper column this morning, about the ludicrous Sharon Bowles, Lib Dem MEP and apparently the UK’s number one expert on global financial regulation. That will be why no-one has heard of her, presumably. She looks worryingly like a clone of Hazel Blears, perhaps created in an attempt to graft the midget onto sturdier stock.

One of these women in Sharon Bowles
And one of them isn't. Allegedly.

Of course it is easy to take the mickey out of supporters of the euro now, and always tempting to say “I told you so”. But the plain fact is that the system is operating exactly as its authors intended: extinguishing the ability of national governments to make any meaningful decisions for themselves, and sucking power to the centre. Either Greece will be booted out of the euro, to which it should never have been admitted in the first place on any rational assessment of its financial solidity, or rather lack of it; or Europe will move forwards onto the broad sunlit uplands of having one finance minister and one fiscal policy. But the Greeks will no doubt continue not paying their taxes, whoever submits the demands, and the poor suckers in Germany and the other more robust states of the north will end up picking their bills. In a democracy, the chances of successfully selling this concept to the electorates concerned would seem slim indeed. But when has the great and glorious goal of ever-closer European Union ever allowed mere democracy to get in its way?

Monday, 27 June 2011

The balm of cold facts

15st 7lb, 7.8 units. Well, at least the weight loss plan seems to be working, albeit from a depressingly high base. This morning’s result is particularly pleasing given that I necked three bottles of Bulmer’s perry (or, as they now call it on the grounds that their customers are too dumb to know what “perry” is, “pear cider”) during the course of yesterday. Very refreshing on a hot afternoon (and they may quote me on that).

Today I have been mainly in my study at home attempting to plough through a comical accumulation of paperwork, when not dealing with the fall-out from yet another press “exclusive” about the potential sale of one of my clients. It seems strange that no-one in the City these days appears able to grasp the concept of client confidentiality. Every twist and turn of every potential deal is instantly relayed to the media, presumably by bankers or brokers beating their chests with pride at having won the business, or getting their own back for rejection. I don’t know whom this helps. But I know exactly who it doesn’t help: the staff of the company that is deemed to be “in play”, who are constantly stirred up into a state of agitation about their own job security, and the poor suckers at head office who have to try and calm them down again by pouring the cool balm of facts onto the fevered brow of wild speculation.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

A bit pants

15st 8lb, 3.0 units. I was supposed to be hillwalking in Northumberland this weekend, while Mrs H helped a friend to celebrate her 40th birthday in London. But then she decided not to go.

Finding ourselves in Cheshire, this morning we went to morning service at the church where we were married, then on to Kelsall steam fair – which was, it has to be said, a bit pants. At any rate compared with the steam fairs I have previously visited in Dorset and Northumberland, where the fine old engines actually did something - like powering farm machinery or fairground attractions - rather than just sitting there gleaming and providing a place for the proud owners to sit and smoke a reflective fag.

Man with fag, generating more smoke than his engine
Hoping the other photographer is stalking the engine, not The Boy
A definite spring in our step as we head for the exit

The outdoor catering was not of the hoped-for quality, either, drawing us back home for a spot of lunch.

After which Mrs H and The Boy went off to celebrate yet another second birthday, while I lay around attempting to distract myself from the symptoms of heart failure with a copy of the Sunday Times.

An attempt to take some healthy exercise with The Dog had to be aborted after he was persecuted by two dogs running loose in a nearby field. One was large and menacing, but essentially harmless. The other was a very cute Border terrier puppy, which got right up the nose of my own Border terrier to the point where his snarls suggested that we had better clear off before he did it some serious damage. It has to be admitted that, if it had been almost any other breed of dog, I would have kicked it into next week myself. The owners whistled and called ineffectually, but were unable to intervene more energetically: in the man’s case, because he had a small child balanced on his shoulders, and in the woman’s case because she was too comically obese.

Memo to fellow dog owners: if you are too fat and / or lazy to run after your pet when it is causing a nuisance to others, don’t let it off the lead. I never do.

I had stopped swearing audibly after 100 yards or so, and had even stopped muttering under my breath by the time I encountered a large man with a large dog, properly under control on a lead, plodding along the road in the opposite direction.

“Good afternoon!” I said, in a way much cheerier than I was actually feeling.

He just stared through me, chillingly, as though I were invisible, and uttered not a word.

This is not particularly unusual behaviour in south Cheshire, it has to be said. Even so, something about him did make me wonder whether he might have been the Grim Reaper in mufti, taking a stroll between appointments? Or possibly, since he was within 50 yards of my house, simply casing the joint?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Health warning number 26

15st 10lb, 2.4 units. There was an article in this morning’s Times headlined “The 25 health warnings that you should never ignore”. Strangely it left out number 26: never, ever read articles about your health in the papers or on the internet, as they will scare the bejasus out of you.

The thing that did it for me was number three: “Aching legs. Premature furring up of the arteries dramatically increases the risk of stroke and heart attack and typically causes chest pain on exertion (angina). However, in many people it is the muscles of the legs that start complaining first. If you develop an ache (normally in the calves) brought on by walking and relieved by rest, tell your doctor.”

I’ve had aching legs for months now. Mainly at night. Sometimes they ache so much that they wake me up. During the day they don’t ache. They just feel as though they are not there. I often look down in surprise and see these boat-shaped objects conveying me forwards without any conscious direction from me. Bloody heavy my feet feel, too, as though they were shod in lead-lined deep-sea diving boots rather than traditional black brogues.

Funnily enough, I don’t remember anyone mentioning the leg thing as yet another symptom of heart failure during my various consultations earlier in the year.

Mrs H was out all day, helping her sister to choose a wedding dress, so I sat (or, to be strictly accurate, lay) at home on my own and brooded. The only positive conclusion I reached was that it would be a bloody good idea to lose some weight in order to reduce strain on the old ticker, and to help conserve wood if the worst comes to the worst and Mrs H has to splash out on a coffin.

That in turn means that it will be a good idea to revive my blog in the hope that recording my weight each morning provides some sort of incentive to keep it moving in the desired direction.

Friday, 24 June 2011

I want more dinner right now

15st 11lb, 7.25 units. I have hated swimming pools since I was first introduced to one by Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School in 1962. Chlorine is one of the least appealing smells I know. Not least because of the certainty that it is only there to disguise the smell of other people’s wee.

The baths at the RGS were made all the less appealing by being presided over by an elderly gentleman who would no doubt be appalled by any suggestion that he had paedophile tendencies. But since he is safely dead, let us at least consider why else he insisted on swimming lessons being conducted in the nude. One of the less convincing explanations offered at the time was that the fluff from a thousand boys’ swimming trunks would rapidly clog the pool’s filters. Even at eight years old, I was cynical enough to wonder how they coped with the one-piece costumes worn by the girls from the two adjacent schools that also used the facility. It was a grievous blow when I discovered that the “all off” rule did not apply to them. Indeed it still stands out as one of those major turning points when one is brought up sharply against the realization that life just isn’t fair.

I have been wondering ever since why none of our parents thought to say “Hang on, this is all a bit odd” and query what was going on. I suppose blind respect for authority was greater in those days than it is now.

As a result of this unsatisfactory experience, which left me unable to swim a stroke, I did not enter a swimming baths even as a spectator for more than 40 years after 1969, when swimming lessons ceased to be a compulsory part of the curriculum. I did rather a lot of spectating in the years before that, because I eventually discovered that I could do a reasonably convincing forgery of my mother’s handwriting and signature, and came in each week with a hugely implausible excuse, which was accepted because having a large, immobile white obstacle in the pool was presumably more trouble than it was worth.

The best thing that ever happened to me (apart from meeting Mrs H, obviously) was developing a verucca, one of those ingrowing warts which were endemic in the place. I don’t think I have ever lavished more loving care on any plant, animal, girlfriend or child than I devoted to nourishing and preserving it, because participation in swimming lessons was prohibited so long as it lasted. I was gutted when the bloody thing finally dropped out as I was paddling in the sea at Druridge Bay one weekend. I searched for it with a view to gluing it back, then successfully concealed its demise for weeks afterwards.

I also did a bit of spectating during wet lunch hours in my early years at junior school. I particularly remember one older boy who had the biggest whanger I have ever seen outside the ‘special interests’ section of a porn shop. He must have thrashed himself black and blue with the thing when he was bouncing up and down on the sprung board. I also distinctly remember … no, I can’t bring myself to write it, but let us just say that it led me to believe that large sections of “The Good Ship Venus” were firmly based on fact. I hope for his sake, and that of the human race in general, that this mighty contraption shrank rather than expanding in the conventional way when aroused.

Is that really the sort of thing any parent would want their eight-year-old to see during the lunch hour? That, or an elderly gentleman casually slapping boys on their bare arses and crying “Let’s go!” – in the name of education?

Anyway, all these reminiscences came crowding back today when I went, for the second time, to observe The Boy at his weekly swimming lesson. This takes place in a pool that is, rather spookily, the only extant facility at an otherwise abandoned boarding school for needy Jewish children. The smell is not quite as awful as I remember it and there were compensations, principally sitting next to a couple of yummy mummies in swimsuits while waiting for the class to start. The yummiest mummy was pencil thin and delicate looking, but her child looked like a budding heavyweight champion. I don’t think we shall be inviting her and her partner around to dinner.

After a considerable amount of communal singing and splashing around, The Boy spotted me at the poolside and said “Ayo, Daddy. I in Puddleducks.” Accurate as usual. No wonder that the health visitor, paying her annual visit earlier this morning, pronounced him to be “very bright”. I had suggested smearing his face with chocolate and training him to scream “Please don’t hit me again, Daddy!” to see whether our friendly State monitor investigated for signs of abuse, but as usual Mrs H vetoed my fun.

Afterwards we went to a pub for lunch. The Boy claimed to be very hungry, and ordered sausages with chips, baked beans and – very importantly – gravy. All came as instructed, and he ate about a quarter of it, then lost interest. We tried to persuade him to have more, but to no avail. Finally he agreed that the waiter could take his plate away.

No sooner had we got him into the car for the journey home than he announced “I want more dinner.”

His mother explained, very reasonably, that he could not have more dinner because the man had now taken his plate away and emptied its remaining contents into the bin.

His response was instantaneous: “I want more dinner RIGHT NOW.”

Where does he learn these useful phrases? No wonder that Mrs H, asked to describe her recent beach holiday in Majorca with our son, summarized it as “a bit like being on holiday with Hitler.”

But it occurs to me that I have failed to mention the most interesting thing about The Boy’s swimming lesson. At various points the toddlers were supposed to cling to their parent’s neck while Mummy swam around or under various obstacles. The yummy mummies managed what seemed, to my far from expert idea, a rather feeble breast stroke. But I could not help noticing that Mrs H’s feet never once left the bottom of the pool. I have a growing suspicion that her swimming skills are on a par with my own, so the sooner The Boy obtains a full life-saving qualification, the better.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Garage 2, Customer 0

15st 11lb, zero units. I noticed that someone from the garage had rung while I was out on Friday morning, but hadn’t dared to leave me a message. There wasn’t much point ringing back, because I knew exactly what they were going to say – had known, indeed, from the moment I pointed out the damage to my car on Thursday afternoon – but I felt that it had to be done, and so I made the call. Guess what? My car had been filmed on CCTV from the moment it entered their premises until the moment it left, and at no point had anything made contact with the driver’s door that could possibly have damaged it.

Well, that’s very interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that the door was in perfect condition when I brought it in, and now it is badly marked. Any theories?

‘The only thing we can think is that maybe it had been previously damaged by a stone or something like that. And then, when we pressure washed it after your service, that dislodged the paint.’

Hmmm. Only there was no sign of any damage before, and the mark looks very much as though it has been made with a sharp metal object rather than a stone. (It has not been made by an accidental collision with another car door, say, because there is no dent around it.)

‘Well, all we can say is that we have studied the CCTV footage and you’re very welcome to come in and look at it yourself …’

I suppose I should have called his bluff. If only I had the time. Instead I postulated the hypothetical scenario in which I brought their courtesy car back with an ugly chip out of its paintwork. Whose fault would that be, even if it had happened when I wasn’t in the car and knew nothing at all about it? And who would be paying to put it right?

Why me, of course.

Yet when the damage happens to my car in their hands, as luck would have it they can prove beyond a peradventure that it is my fault, too.

Garage 2, Customer 0.

I told them that they could forget about my order for a new car, though no doubt whichever dealer I order it from will prove equally disobliging. I suppose it’s in their nature, as the scorpion said to the dying frog.

After this I drove for five and a quarter ghastly hours back to Cheshire, arriving a few minutes before I had to leave again in the taxi booked to take me to dinner. I dislike dinner at the best of times – lunch is my meal of choice – and this one proved particularly difficult because (a) I was in the world’s worst mood, (b) I knew hardly any of the other guests, and (c) no one wanted to speak to me, probably reasonably enough in the light of (a) and (b) above. The hotel where the dinner was being held was stuffed with overdressed scratters who had somehow made it back from Ladies’ Day at Aintree, where the word ‘lady’ is clearly interpreted with considerable liberalism. I left by taxi, rather earlier than Mrs H would have liked, and might even have lit the special ‘row candle’ that the vicar gave us at our wedding, with instructions to light it at moments of domestic discord, but for the fact that someone proved to have moved it onto a window sill just in time for this week’s unseasonal heatwave, with rather deleterious results.

Not what it was: our row candle. We would have had a row about how this happened, if only we could have lit it.

After a day of solitary recuperation yesterday, while Mrs H disported herself at a 'hen weekend' in Herefordshire, I was looking forward to enjoying the sunshine with my little family today.  However,   a lorry crash in Nepal affecting one of my clients put the kibosh on that and I ended up spending most of the day at my computer or on the telephone. Though I did manage to get out in the garden for long enough to watch The Boy playing with The Dog, a duty which he takes very seriously indeed …

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The pharmacist who wants to be a doctor

15st 11lb, 5.0 units. A busy few days in Northumberland, having the house cleaned, getting my hair cut, buying some shoes, putting my car through one of its remarkably frequent services and lunching with an old friend. I was going to see my doctor, too, until he e-mailed a reply to the letter I wrote him last week about my stiff one from my cardiologist. He said that the cardiologist was right and I should re-start taking the pills originally prescribed in January and find out whether I could tolerate them. (He added that I should have that ‘gold standard’ angiogram, too, if only I wasn’t such a bloody coward, without actually using the words ‘bloody’ or ‘coward’).

So I cancelled my appointment to see him.

I then remembered that I only had a small handful of the aforementioned pills left, prescribed by a private GP in Chester, so I had to e-mail him back to ask for a prescription. There ensued a surreal e-mail correspondence with the surgery, who pointed out that I wasn’t allowed to pester the doctors with personal e-mails requesting prescriptions, but could register to order them through the NHS patient website. Yes, but only repeat prescriptions, I pointed out, and this was a completely new one. Well, it was showing up as a repeat prescription now. Yes, and I would order it that way in the future, but on this occasion …

Even so, it appeared, I was in breach of ‘protocol’ and should have kept my appointment and wasted ten minutes of my doctor’s valuable time asking him in person to write out the prescription for the drugs he had already e-mailed me with instructions to take.

Bureaucracy. Don’t you love it?

And there was more of it to come, when I wandered into the branch of Boots to which all the prescriptions from my doctor’s surgery are automatically despatched (does the Competition Commission know about this?)

The woman behind the counter handed them over with the usual look of amazement that assistants in chemist’s shops adopt when anyone says that, yes, they do pay for their prescriptions, but asked whether I had time for a word with the pharmacist before I left.

I didn’t, really, but I said ‘yes’ out of politeness (not what you’d expect, I know), anticipating that someone would come across to the counter, lower their voice and ask whether I was aware that taking these particular pills would increase my sexual appetite ten-fold (which would still be nothing worth blogging about, to be honest).

Instead, to my amazement, I was ushered into a newly created ‘consulting room’ at the back of the shop and asked to take a seat opposite a man with dark hair and reassuring glasses. (Reassuring because, so far as I can see, the only important qualification for being a pharmacist is the ability to read.) I really did not have time for this, being due to meet a friend for lunch in Newcastle, so I asked what this new-fangled nonsense was all about.

He explained that he wanted to have a word with me about my medication.

I pointed out that my doctor had just prescribed said medication (and could have added, if I had time, that he had done so on the advice of an Honorary Professor in Cardiovascular, Sports and Exercise Medicine, no less). Did he think that my doctor did not know what he was doing? (A question to which an affirmative response would not have been particularly surprising, I must admit.)

“No, no, nothing like that,” he explained “But rather than simply handing the drugs over, we now like to make sure that our customers know why they have been prescribed them and how to take them.”

How to take a pill. It’s an overused phrase, but my mind genuinely boggled as I attempted to get a grip on just how stupid this bloke evidently thought I was. “What’s it got to do with you, matey? You’re just a glorified shelf-stacker” were the words forming in my brain, but what I actually said as I turned on my heel were “I have a first class degree from Cambridge – I can read!”

I wished, with the benefit of hindsight, that I could have come up with something quite a bit wittier and considerably less self-glorifying than that.

Then I drove to Newcastle, fuming, thinking how much easier life must have got for pharmacists since I was a child, when they had to decipher prescriptions scrawled in pen and ink and make up evil-tasting concoctions in glass bottles (returnable) with real corks. Now they just have to be able to read a computer print-out and count. [My further reflections on where it might all end can be found in my subsequent newspaper column].

After an excellent lunch in Newcastle I drove back up to Alnwick in my ‘courtesy car’ and hung around the garage for a good while so that I could talk to a salesman about the possibility of ordering a new car for Mrs H. Then I went outside and admired my nicely cleaned, not-so-old car, focusing particularly on the large chip in the paintwork of the driver’s door, which had definitely not been there when I brought it in this morning. So naturally I went back to remonstrate, and someone duly came out, sucked through his teeth, and promised to study their CCTV footage to work out how it happened.

I wonder how that will turn out …

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The greatest show on Earth

15st 8lb, zero units. We celebrated April Fool’s Day at the Zoo. Chester Zoo, to be precise. We thought long and hard before selecting a nice, quiet day during the school term for our visit. Encouragingly, there seemed to be plenty of space in the car park when we pitched up, but there was still a queue at the gate. The sort of queue that is deliberately manufactured by saying to every would-be entrant, ‘Would you like to increase the value of your donation to us by gift aiding it, at no extra cost to yourself?’ so that everyone can hang around kicking their heels while the bloke in front gives his postcode, then explains that he hasn’t got a house number, because he lives in a pub. A pub that does not exist on the Zoo’s database, probably because the brewery renamed it last month after 300 years as the Rose and Crown and it is now called The Oscillating Parrot and Scrotum or something of the sort. On and on it goes. It makes me see red every time, because it is such a blatant scam (I am not making a donation, I am paying for entry to an attraction), it wastes so much of everyone’s time, the sums involved are trivial – oh, and purely by coincidence, the attraction ends up with your name and address on list so that they can pester you until the crack of doom, and quite possibly for years thereafter.

Mrs H now anticipates my answer to the polite query about Gift Aid (‘No, I f***ing wouldn’t!’) and interposes herself to hand over the money. But she still feels obliged to say ‘no’, with me breathing threateningly down her neck. The girl in the ticket booth pulled as sour a face as I would expect her colleague on the switchboard to be wearing on April Fools’ Day, after half a morning wearily explaining to people responding to post-it note messages to ring Mr C. Lyon as a matter of urgency that they have been had.

Through a triumph of planning, we also discovered that 1 April is designated as the start of high season, when the Zoo jacks all its entry prices up.

Once inside, we are immediately overawed by the sheer scale of the place, and how much there is to see. Namely Scallies. Thousands of them. Chavs, scratters, call them what you will. Many displaying their traditional plumage of a grey tracksuit, and attempting to express themselves in that strange foreign language known as Scouse. Some had babies and very young children with them, but there were many young couples simply wandering around hand in hand. Perhaps a visit to Chester Zoo is part of some mysterious Scally mating ritual. At any rate, we quickly realized that this was one zoo where the fences around the enclosures were intended to protect the animals from the visitors, and not the other way around.

We started with the elephants. Well, what is so wrong with the obvious? The elephants shared their house with a depressed-looking bird and a plant that looked like a huge cock.

The Great Indian Hornbill, wishing it was in India
Amorphophallus - no, really. Fnarr, fnarr

Clearly God had been reading Viz on the day he dreamed it up. Apparently it doesn’t flower very often, but when it does it smells of rotten meat. You’ve got to admit He has a sense of humour, hasn’t He?

The elephants weren’t actually in their house, but a man with a mechanical digger was there, scooping up pachyderm poo. The Boy can’t say ‘elephant’, but he does a cracking imitation of one by raising his arm above his head in imitation of a trunk and trumpeting. One of the three highlights of his day was ‘man digger [arm raised, trumpet] poo’.

The elephants weren’t in their house because they were outside in the sunshine playing with a stick. It was immediately obvious that someone had sawn all their tusks off, though whether this has been done by Scallies, or as a preventative measure in anticipation of their interest, remains a mystery.

Elephants - with stick, minus tusks

We moved on to the rhinoceros enclosure, where someone had sawn off the rhino’s horn. I sensed a pattern.

He definitely hasn't got the horn

Then we walked over a bridge by the cheetah enclosure, where three cheetahs were sitting in a row wondering how the hell they could get over or through the fence, and how fast the Scallies would run if they did. And no doubt whether the poo would show through their grey tracksuits right away when they shat themselves.

If only ... the cheetahs daydream

The Boy, careering wildly over the bridge ahead of us, fell flat on his face and bit his tongue. There was quite a lot of blood. The cheetahs sniffed the breeze with interest.

Luckily he brightened up very quickly when the lion clambered down from his platform and did a spot of roaring. We decided, with the benefit of hindsight, that the lion and his mate were the only big cats in the place that seemed reasonably contented with their lot. All the others were clearly either sitting looking for a way out, or pacing endlessly around their enclosures in search of an escape route they had somehow overlooked. But lying around, having a wee and roaring from time to time, in return for all meals found, seemed to suit the lion down to the ground. I reckon The Dog would adjust to zoo life pretty well, too. ‘Lion come down’ was the second highlight of The Boy’s day.

Lion, before he come down

After this it was time for lunch, which smelt and looked like something one of the animals might have done. El Bulli for Scallies, obviously.

Then there was a tiger, pacing; spoonbills, looking a bit ridiculous; a big green lizardy thing lying around under a sun lamp; a juvenile Komodo dragon, playing silly buggers; lots of flamingos; and a pair of Asian short-clawed otters, being seriously cute.

Next we saw some penguins, which The Boy decided were rubbish because they did not sing ‘Dum, dum, dum de dum’ to the tune of ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream’ like the battery-powered one he plays with in his bath.

I was naturally very much looking forward to the monkeys. Sadly I realized that they were no longer allowed to indulge in tea parties with their keepers, but at least I felt sure that they could be relied upon to stage an entertaining frenzy of masturbation, or to hurl their own excrement at passers-by, a sport at which the only orang utan I have knowingly seen before, at Phoenix Park zoo in Dublin, was a world champion. It was most important to move on before he got his eye in. I shall never forget the obvious pleasure with which he weighed a turd in his hand, surveying his audience, assessing the right trajectory and listening to them scream.

Sadly at Chester the chimps are on an island and the orang utans behind glass, so that avenue of pleasure was firmly closed to me.

We were wearying by now, but felt that we had to see the jaguars (pacing) and the giraffes (beautifully camouflaged against the Cheshire stone house where they live).

Then The Boy finally got up close and personal with the animals that constituted his third and greatest highlight of the day: the sodding ducks.  The very tame wild ones that have chosen to make their home in the Zoo, and presumably get some sort of perverted pleasure out of taunting the other avians which are confined to cages. I know I would. The self-same mallards that frequent our garden pretty much every day, and which he could see out of the window without paying £14 per head to the North of England Zoological Society for the privilege.

The highlight of his day
But look how happy it made him. Bless.

Everything after that was an anticlimax, though it looked like we might be in for just the opposite of that when some things that looked a bit like donkeys (but weren’t) started shagging. Onagers, they were, apparently. That was what it said on the sign by their enclosure, at any rate. It’s lucky that they cannot read or no doubt they would become hugely self-conscious about the rest of the animal kingdom laughing up its collective metaphorical sleeve because they are an anagram of ‘oranges’.

Not oranges

Then it was a quick gawp at a couple of very scruffy Bactrian camels and a seemly progress towards the exit.

Mrs H wanted to see the spectacled bears en route, but the plan fell down because they weren’t en route. We made more of an effort to find the meerkats, in the hope that they would all be talking in Russian accents and trying to sell insurance, but our hearts were not really in it and we gave up.

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘We can always come again.’

Oh dear. I do hope not.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A stiff one in the morning

15st 6lb, 6.0 units. I had a stiff letter from my cardiologist in the post this morning. Well, I say, ‘my’ cardiologist, but in fact I’ve only met the man twice, and I didn’t much enjoy either encounter, so it seems a bit like talking about ‘my stalker’ or ‘my burglar’.

For clarity, I should perhaps add that the stiffness was in the content rather than the quality of the writing paper, though it was a reasonably heavy yellowish cream stock. It bore a perhaps slightly grandiose letterhead (printed, not engraved) proclaiming the writer to be an ‘Honorary Professor in Cardiovascular, Sports and Exercise Medicine’, which seemed to cover just about everything in life that I can’t stand, apart from socialism.

Actually, it was really a letter to my GP, copied to me either (a) to put the fear of God into me, or (b) on the grounds that the best way to get my GP to read it was to bring it to my attention so that I would then pester him on the subject. If so, it was 100% successful on both counts.

The Professor was writing to say that he was concerned about my ‘probable angina pectoris’ and the fact that I am not taking ‘either a betablocker or a rate limiting calcium channel blocker’ as he feels that I ‘may well have silent ischaemia’. He prescribed me something of the sort after my last consultation with him, but I fell ill shortly afterwards and my commonsense GP told me to stop taking the pills, whereupon I got better. Either or both the feeling ill and the getting better could, of course, be complete coincidences. But I don’t like taking pills so any excuse will do.

Just like this, it was: only with more rolls of fat and fewer smiles

The Prof was also banging on about the fact that I ‘should undergo cardiac catheterisation’ on the grounds that it is the only way of ‘ruling out significant coronary disease’. His own website proclaims that the death rate from angiograms is only 1 in 1,000, which I can see are pretty good odds, but the procedure sounds uncomfortable, I loathe hospitals and fundamentally I’d rather not know what is going on inside me. A nice, quick, clean, fatal heart attack would do me nicely. Selfish, I know, now that I have a wife and child, but I have never pretended to be anything other than thoroughly selfish.

Mrs H keep saying ‘Yes, but what if you have a nasty, slow, excruciatingly painful heart attack that just leaves you in pain and disabled?’ Fair point. But why is it that I am the one who is always painted as the pessimist in our relationship?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Serve the child first, for the love of God

15st 6lb, 8.0 units. The Boy discovered religion on Sunday. Not when we took him to morning service at the church where he was christened, though he did behave surprisingly well throughout. He did not even pass comment on the fact that Rick the Vic was robed entirely in sackcloth, as I’m afraid his father did. But in the pub afterwards it seemed as though he experienced some sort of epiphany because he suddenly announced “Love God, love God!” to all in the vicinity.

Rick the Vic minus sackcloth, plus poppy: in christening mode, October 2009

It wasn’t easy to tell whether this was an assertion of his own faith, or an instruction to the rest of us as we consulted our watches and drummed our fingers on the tables, waiting for our Sunday roasts to arrive. Then Mrs H pointed out that it was actually an abbreviated version of my own popular phrase or saying, “Charlie, for the love of God leave that thing alone!” Which is, to be honest, one of the milder things I tend to say in such circumstances as when, say, attempts to distract a hungry 21-month-old with a 3D crossword puzzle have resulted in him flinging the little wooden balls over the floor, where they seem highly likely to result in a Chaplinesque disaster involving a charming young waitress going arse over tits and hot gravy ruining a sweet old lady’s perm.

I would be the worst person in the world to run a pub. Well, unless you have a fancy to experience a less witty version of the sort of grumpy landlord persona brought to complete perfection by my dear and late friend Ray Matthewman of the Warenford Lodge in Northumberland (and before that of the Plough and Fleece at Horningsea, near Cambridge). Or perhaps a distinctly less gay and somewhat less outrageous variant on the late Kim de la Taste Tickell from Whittlesford, almost certainly also with poorer catering.

But one thing I have learned about running a pub and am happy to share with the licensed trade in general. When someone orders a meal from the kiddies’ menu, bring that out first. And not last, as every pub in England seems determined to do. Every time we go out with The Boy, his face lights up at the approach of a member of staff and he proclaims “Charlie dinner!” as a steaming plate approaches the table, only to find it plonked in front of someone else. The other day in Tarporley this happened a full six times before he finally got lucky.

Incidentally, every meal is “Charlie dinner” so far as The Boy is concerned, including breakfast, so I don’t feel that I need to worry yet about his place in society, and the fact that People Like Us eat luncheon in the middle of the day.

Last Sunday Mrs H and I had ordered starters, in an attempt to test the capabilities of a pub we had not visited before. And also, to be honest, because we were a bit greedy. It turned out to be a pretty good move because they were actually a damn sight nicer than the subsequent Sunday roast.

Yet even though I had taken care to specify that the plate of sausage and mash from the kiddies’ menu should arrive with our starters rather than our main courses, it still took its time, allowing the entire pub to be entertained for a while by cries of “Charlie dinner!” and increasingly frantic hand gestures as he tried to catch the attention of a passing waitress.

And when it finally did arrive – well, here is the second lesson that I can share with the great British pub trade this Tuesday Spring morning: it is not actually necessary to heat up items from the children’s menu in an attempt to replicate conditions in the melting core of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. In fact, it is positively counter-productive, because all it does is replace the cries of “Charlie dinner!” with ones of “Charlie dinner too hot!” The caring adult at the table then has to let her own remarkably tepid food grow stone cold as she chops the aforementioned sausages into tiny pieces, and frantically blows on them to cool them down.

This has the slightly unfortunate side effect that, after a year or so, it becomes such a habit that one may take one’s partner to a smart London restaurant like The Ivy and look on in pained horror as she sits blowing on each forkful of food before she consumes it.

At least the sausages passed muster when they were finally cool enough to be eaten, and the accompanying gravy was apparently positively delicious. But it seemed that the mashed potatoes weren’t quite right. At any rate The Boy shook his head when he was asked if they were nice, so I made the fatal mistake of trying to find out what was wrong with them. “No, Daddy, no!” he shrieked as I advanced with my fork. “Naughty Daddy! Not Daddy dinner! Charlie dinner!” These are words we have heard many times before, albeit normally substituting “Goggie” for “Daddy” as they tend to be directed at The Dog. Which used to be called “Goggie” because for some reason he could not pronounce the “D” in “Dog”, though he could manage it just fine in “Daddy”.

Just who is in charge here?
And who will sort out the inevitable tangle? (Mummy, who sorts out everything else.)

Then came the glorious moment in Northumberland a couple of weeks ago, on 14 March to be precise, when he went for a walk and suddenly found that he could call The Dog “Craster” rather than “Goggie”. Each day now brings another little landmark of this sort, and I would not miss them for the world. It doesn’t make Craster any more inclined to obey him, but at least he is mercifully gentle and tolerant, and happy enough to play along with the illusion that The Boy is taking him for a walk, as we did after lunch, rather than the other way around.