Friday 31 May 2013

The undersea world of my wine cellar

16st 4lb, 6.5 units. I shall always look back fondly on the English summer of 2013. Both days of it, last weekend. We were able to eat no fewer than three family meals al fresco, at the lovely new hardwood garden table we bought last year.

We used it for lunch on the one and only day of summer 2012, then it blew over in a minor hurricane that smashed one of its legs. Amazingly, the handyman who took it away several months ago to try and fashion a replacement returned it just before the sun finally came out on Saturday. In celebration, I cracked open a bottle from the case of the cheeky little rosé I recently bought in uncharacteristically optimistic anticipation of some decent weather. Though I could have saved my money, because our cellar flooded during the torrential rains of a couple of weeks ago and in the course of sorting out the resulting mess I came across a case of the cheeky little rosé I had forgotten buying in spring 2012, and which had naturally survived the whole year completely untouched.

The low point of the weekend for me was somehow dropping my camera into the pool of water on the cellar floor while I was looking for the wine. Luckily the camera was in its case. Unluckily the case wasn’t waterproof. But then luckily again the camera wasn’t powered up at the time it got saturated. It was unfortunate, in the circumstances, that I did not bother to read the Googled advice on “What to do if your digital camera falls into water” until AFTER I had given it a cursory wipe and tried to turn it on. Dear me, no. I should have placed it in bowl of silica gel or dry white rice in a warm place and left it there for a week or so before attempting anything so rash. I have taken that advice now, but strongly suspect that it has been a waste of time and that my camera is comprehensively f***ed. On the plus side, it’s my birthday on Monday and Mrs H had, until this point, been completely stumped as to what she could buy the man who already has absolutely everything.

We went house hunting on both Saturday and Sunday before we settled down in the garden, and were lucky enough to find both the perfect house AND the perfect location. It was just unfortunate that we did not see them in the same place at the same time. Mrs H agreed with me that the 1990s detached house we saw on Saturday ticked almost every box, but it was located close to a main road from which there came a steady hum of traffic. Having lived in my time under the Heathrow flight path in Barnes and on the A4 in central London, I feel fairly confident that I could get used to anything. Indeed, I had a friend who lived sandwiched between the North Circular Road and a curious freight-only railway line on which long trains of wagons filled with rusty nails trundled back and forth all night, stopping only when the first low-flying aircraft took over to maintain the high background noise level in the morning, and he was blissfully happy. Except for the fact that he was nowhere near a shipping lane, which would have completed his set.

Mrs H did not share my confidence.

The house in the perfect location, a short stroll from The Boy’s new school, was a 1950s semi built as workers’ accommodation by the water board, whose adjacent pumping station is now run and remotely monitored by computers instead of human beings. It was a lovely, peaceful spot. But I strongly suspect that water board employees in the 1950s were not expected to have my taste for collecting books and other assorted junk for which a certain amount of space is required.

If only someone would sell us a perfectly proportioned three storey Georgian house in a manageable garden at 1980s prices, we would be laughing. But that, sadly, looks an even longer shot than enjoying an old-fashioned summer in England any time soon.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Teddy bears on the NHS

16st 8lb, 4.5 units. I owned a few toys when I was a boy, I will admit. To be honest, I have still got most of them. But I never had so many that I lost count of precisely how many Dinky cars, Matchbox toys and Britain’s soldiers I possessed, and I always knew exactly where all of them were.

Nevertheless, the fact that I was immensely lucky and privileged was constantly drummed into me by my elder brother, who grew up in the lean years of the Second World War, and many of whose toys I inherited. One I particularly recall was a toy tank comprising a lump of wood painted green, with a nail sticking out of one end of it to represent a gun. He in turn had been told how fortunate he was by my father, who I seem to recall owned precisely one wooden toy – and that was it. Though of course he did not have room for much more than that, living as he did in a rolled-up newspaper and subsisting mainly on gravel. (A reference to the oft-cited Monty Python sketch that actually wasn’t on Monty Python at all, but At Last The 1948 Show.)

Now, unsurprisingly, my two small sons have so many toys that I half expect an avalanche of them to cascade out onto the drive every time I open the front door. The Boy takes a selection of them off to his nursery (or, as we must now call it, pre-school) quite frequently, and I always have my fingers crossed that some of them won’t come back. Sadly they always do. But then he is quite careful with them, as evidenced by the following conversation overheard earlier this week.

Charlie (setting out a selection of his toy cars on the floor): “You can’t touch that one, Bobby. It’s very expensive.”

Carer (impressed by his vocabulary): “That’s a very big word, Charlie. Do you know what it means?”

Charlie: “Yes. It means you have to leave it in the shop.” He’s not wrong.

The other evening, I came across this teddy bear, which I had never seen before, and asked where it had sprung from.

Mrs H asked if I remembered the night when we had been due to spend an agreeable evening with friends at the Istanbul Grill in Chester, but Charlie had been mucking around on my swivel chair, fallen off and banged his head on a radiator. So she had cancelled the babysitter and spent the evening at A&E instead, while they tried to determine whether this had done him any lasting damage.

The teddy bear had apparently been presented to Charlie by the Countess of Chester Hospital as a token of their appreciation for his forbearance as they woke him up every hour to prod him and shine lights in his eyes to determine whether he was suffering from concussion. (He wasn’t.)

Charlie too had apparently forgotten about this windfall. But he stumbled upon it the other day and the following dialogue ensued.

Charlie: “Look, Mummy, here’s the red teddy I got from the hospital. Maybe next time I bang my head, I could get a blue one or a yellow one.”

Mrs H: “Yes, Charlie. Though maybe an even better idea would be not to bang your head again, so we don’t have to go back.”

Charlie: “Yes, Mummy. But I think I probably will.”

Sadly, I fear that he is most likely not wrong about that, either.

Friday 24 May 2013

The Lord Mayor cometh

16st 5lb, 1.5 units. What lunacy is this, you may have wondered yesterday, when I wrote of changes of political control on Newcastle City Council back in the days of the electric trolleybus. Surely the place must have been a solid Labour heartland forever?

Well, oddly enough, no. Before the nominally Conservative administration of Edward Heath introduced its hateful local government reforms of 1973, which extended the boundaries of the city, the council had been under Conservative control for a remarkable six years.

Surely only part of this can have been down to confusion caused by the fact that the Conservatives’ campaigning colour on Tyneside was red, while that of Labour was green. (A simple stop – go choice which always seemed to make much more sense to me than the blue and red adopted elsewhere.)

By ancient tradition, the first public duty of the newly elected Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne was to address the boys of the Royal Grammar School, which I attended. He used to pitch up at morning assembly in his robes, hat and chain, preceded by the city’s mace and sword bearers, and was always assured of a warm reception because his pay off line was to grant the school a day’s holiday.

The Lord Mayor of 1982 with his ceremonial attendants

We always knew which side of the political divide he came from as soon as he opened his mouth: the Tories were invariably posh, Labour broad Geordie. We privileged schoolboys used to suppress a smirk in the latter case, though there were a few unseemly giggles the time that a particularly short-sighted socialist kicked off with “Noo then, lads and lasses …”

A master shared with us afterwards the ultimate Labour Lord Mayor story, from before the Second World War. Having been greeted by the then Chairman of the Governors, the Mayor pronounced that: “The Chairman ‘n’ aa has a lot in common. He’s Orl Porssy and aa lives in Porssy Street.” Which is borderline hilarious if you know that (a) Earl Percy was (and still is) the eldest son and heir of the fabulously rich Duke of Northumberland, and (b) Percy Street was at that time a notorious slum.

The Combined Cadet Force used to provide a guard of honour on the street outside the school as the mayoral limousine drew up. After a formal inspection by His Right Worshipfulness, they would march off round to the back of the school to the stirring regimental march of the Durham Light Infantry.

Towards the end of my time at the place this went spectacularly wrong, when a group of mild hooligans (collectively known, I seem to recall, as “The Ledz”) procured a stout length of chain and a padlock, with which they secured the side gates of the school as the junior troops approached.

As a traditionalist, an arch respecter of authority and a thoroughgoing coward, I naturally dissociated myself from this disgraceful action and cannot claim to have observed the result. However, I do remember being assured by one eye-witness that the sight of the CCF band and the following rifle-bearing cadets gamely marching on the spot with no place to go, as their leaders’ faces turned red with fury, was tear-inducingly funny.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Balls to the trolleybus

16st 5lb, 7.0 units. Yesterday Mrs H made me take The Puppy to the vet’s to have his knackers lopped off. Naturally I was in no doubt who she really had in mind for this painful operation when she nominated The Puppy as my surrogate.

I hated the idea as much as I am sure The Puppy would have done if he had been consulted about it, and I spent the whole day at the office in a thoroughly bad mood - which is to say, an even worse mood than usual - with my legs crossed.

I will never forget the trusting, happy look on the little chap’s face as I left him in the hands of the vet after his pre-med injections.

Nor his dazed, puzzled and more than a touch resentful expression when I went to pick him up again in the evening.

I tried kidding him that it was all for his own long term good, like Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, but I could tell that he did not believe me.

The plain fact is that it is for our own convenience and protection, hoping to avoid a repetition of the horrific dog fights that broke out a decade ago when our current Dog was a puppy himself, and decided that the time had come to adjust the pecking order between himself and my senior Border terrier, now deceased.

Round One: a lull in the previous generation's battle to be Top Dog

Unfortunately for him age and guile always triumphed over youthful strength and vigour, and his unprovoked aggression invariably resulted in the young pretender limping around with a bandaged leg for a week or so. We finally had him neutered, on veterinary advice, in the hope that this might calm him down, but by then he was two years’ old and the die was well and truly cast.

My recollection is that he only finally gave up attacking the senior dog when the latter was struck down by dementia, and so was plainly not worth bothering with.

Still, while yesterday was undoubtedly a bad one for The Puppy, it was in other respects a good one for me, as I took delivery of my birthday present to myself: a prime piece of nostalgia, spotted on ebay and acquired in the face of stiff competition from absolutely no one at all, which was a surprise to me though I dare say it will not be to anyone else.

I used to stand under one of these every evening after my day’s indoctrination into the glories of the British Empire, and the might of the Royal Navy, at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in what was then the rather posh and peaceful inner suburb of Jesmond, in Newcastle upon Tyne. (You may think I exaggerate about Akhurst, but I distinctly remember the red-splodged map on the wall of the headmaster’s classroom, and the fact that he gave us a morning off lessons so that we might join him in watching the televised launch of Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, in 1960.)

It cost 2d on one of the numerous 33, 33a or 43 trolleybuses from the stop opposite Acorn Road to another at the bottom of Osborne Road. Here I got off and walked around the corner to spend another 3d catching a 38 or 39 to Swarland Avenue in Longbenton, where my mother would meet me. (In those days, before the invention of paedophilia, the only obstacle to even a five-year-old covering the whole three miles between school and his front door all on his own was considered to be the danger of crossing Benton Road without someone to hold his hand.)

If I walked through the quiet streets of Jesmond to Churchill Gardens, I could pick up the 38 or 39 there and the journey only cost a total of 2d, leaving me a shiny, octagonal, brass threepence to spend on sweets. When the weather was good I almost invariably did so, setting me on the slippery slope to obesity which has been my natural habitat ever since.

Most of my contemporaries tell me that they are completely baffled by my love of trolleybuses, but I liked everything about them. The hum of the motor, the boom of the trolleys as they passed over frogs and crossings, the ritual of the conductor hopping off to set the frog for the correct destination (“Pull lever for Benton” it said on the traction pole shortly before the Heaton Road junction; I shall now look out for that sign on ebay to extend my collection) or wrestling with a long bamboo pole to restore power when the trolleys came off the wires.

I was gutted when they turned the Benton routes over to motorbuses in 1964, and on Saturday, 1 October 1966 I sat behind a phalanx of swaying nerds in raincoats as a number 35c made its way from Shields Road to Delaval Road on the very last day of trolleybus operations.

We were going there anyway for tea at my Auntie Maisie’s on Benwell Lane, and I spent much time peering through her curtains at the small crowd taking photographs at the trolleybus terminus nearby, assuring four profoundly unimpressed adults that they were missing the chance to see history being made.

On mature reflection, their memories of the Second World War probably made the demise of the urban electric bus seem just a little bit of a sideshow.

Only one thing puzzles me slightly. In my elephantine memory, the wording at the bottom of the sign was either “Fare Stage” or “By Request”, not “On Request” as pictured. I wonder whether it was the subject of a fierce Big versus Little Endian debate on Newcastle City Council, and changed with political control of the authority?

Even so, I was very pleased with, and proud of, my sign. I was also proud of myself for not bidding for the obvious companion piece, a Newcastle Corporation Transport bus stop sign of similar vintage, which came up on ebay at the same time from another seller, with a considerably higher starting price, but attracted no bidders at all. (They used to put “Newcastle Corporation Transport” on the bus stops because there were many other bus operators plying the same streets – Gateshead & District Omnibus Company, United Automobile Services and the splendidly titled Tyneside Tramways & Tramroads Company, to name but a few. But they did not bother on the trolleybus stops, I assume because no one but the Corporation had access to the wires.)

I propped my smart yellow sign up on the fireplace and showed it to The Puppy, in an effort to cheer him up, but it did not work at all. His brown eyes flashed but one word back at me. And that word was “Bollocks”.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Thinking Pepys

16st 4lb, 3.0 units. Yesterday morning I received a heartfelt appeal on Twitter: “Still miss starting days with bloke in the north, so to speak. Wife, 2 children, 2 houses, various jobs no excuse. Think Pepys!”

Since this came from someone completely unrelated to me by either blood or marriage – indeed, from a lady I have never even met – I thought it behoved me to sit up and take notice.

I must confess that it came as something of a shock to realize that I have not written a single word in this blog since December last year. In my defence, I have not been completely idle on the writing front.

For a start, there is my OTHER blog of columns from the excellent Newcastle - which is faithfully updated nearly every week. I remain baffled as to why that blog has far fewer followers than this one which, as we have already noted, I rarely get around to writing at all.

Then there has been my output of assorted annual reports and press releases for clients, begging e-mails to my bank and so on. Plus I actually wrote a book last summer, which they told me would be out in time for Christmas, though I will admit that I made the schoolboy error of not asking them to specify WHICH Christmas. It will be published in August, if Amazon can be believed (and it’s not an issue of tax liabilities, so I suppose it might be trustworthy information).

So why the silence here?

As my correspondent notes, I do indeed have a wife and two children, though as a famously and shamefully neglectful husband and parent of the old school, whose attitudes were formed in Newcastle upon Tyne circa 1959, I cannot claim that they have deprived me of all that much potentially creative time.

Two houses, yes. One owned and much loved in the far North, the other rented, on the grounds of proximity to my main source of income, in what I consider to be the North West (though the BBC, to my horror, insists that my “local” programmes are those of the Midlands).

I have spent a fair amount of time in the last few months tidying up the former with a view to putting it on the market and applying the proceeds to acquiring a family home in the part of the world where we actually spend the greater part of our time at present. Well, nearly all the time in the case of the rest of my family, since the vast majority of my sojourns in the North East are of a solitary nature.

Where that house ought to be became clearer last month when we learned that The Boy had secured a place in the Church of England primary school that had been his parents’ first choice when filling in the council’s application form (even though it came under the aegis of a different local authority), and had the added advantage of being the only school, of the four we dragged him around, that he said that he might be prepared to consider attending.

Needless to say it is located in one of the more expensive and attractive parts of rural Cheshire. Where I would estimate, on the evidence to date, that house values per square foot are approximately 100 per cent higher than in north Northumberland.

So we could either saddle ourselves with a large mortgage that I stand no chance of ever paying off (which, in the sad absence of the likes of Northern Rock, we might well struggle to find anyone willing to advance to us in the first place). Or massively downsize and chuck away most of the stuff that I have spent the last half century and more carefully accumulating.

There is, of course, no difficulty at all in identifying the Right Thing To Do under these circumstances. But, as so often in life, head and heart find themselves in conflict. Particularly when almost every thing I do to make my Northumberland home more appealing to potential purchasers also make it more attractive to me.

Top of the list here has been engaging a regular cleaning service, after 24 years of staunch resistance to the idea. Along with the now well established innovation of a gardener, this removes the prime disincentive to having two homes: that horrible sinking feeling on arrival when one grasps that the place is a total mess and that most of one’s stay is going to have to be devoted to sorting it out.

So it may yet be Bloke in the Proper North for a bit longer, then. Watch this space, as Pepys would never have said.

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