I do love a pub.
And when I say that, I don’t mean a bar, or a cafe bar. Or a restaurant with a bar where you wait while your table is prepared. I mean a pub.
While we’re at it I also don’t mean a converted high street bank. A place which used to be a very good community bank, and is now a very shite community service pub. A place where you can buy “A chicken curry and a pint for £4.99 every Tuesday”. I don’t mean a place adorned with signs announcing “Girls get Purple drinks Half price every Monday, Wednesday and third Sunday”. I mean a pub.
A pub should generally follow several broad guidelines. A pub should be a place where one goes to meet old friends and make new ones. And drink with them. To that end, the music out of any speakers therein should be soft enough to hear yourself think and talk, loud enough to induce an argument over the singer or the song’s identity. What decent night down the boozer worth remembering didn’t have a row in it ? And an argument over music is as good a place to start as any.
Any live singer or band playing in the pub should adhere to the above decibel guidelines. If such proves impossible, the act should always remember they are playing in a public house and therefore popular, anthem-type songs, mostly over ten years old is a must. I don’t want to sit examining my pint to the strains of the garbage you composed in your garage last night. Save that for the students. Landlords should reserve just one night per week for live music. There are only so many times I want to hear/sing Sweet Caroline down the local: Once at about ten o’clock and one encore. That’s plenty. Unless I’m drunk.
Food is an important thing to consider when running a pub, and I always think a good landlord should follow this rule of thumb: There should be no food in a pub. Packets of nibbles behind the jump are permitted. But, customers, if you want to eat a meal, then make yourself a sandwich before you go out, or go to a restaurant, eat a meal, then go to the pub. Or go down the pub, have a goodly drink, then stagger into a curry house/chinese takeaway after the landlord of the pub has refused you further refreshment.
One of the more annoying sensations is trying to enjoy the happy, hoppy whiff of a well-poured pint only to have your nasal enjoyment interrupted by the odour of fish, chips, gravy and the like. This is a pub, not an eatery. If you get peckish help yourself to peanuts, pork scratchings, pickled eggs or crisps which are available, at a very competitive rate behind the bar. You’ve already rid us of the smell of a smouldering ashtray in the corner (oh, sorry mate, is that your girlfriend ?), don’t start rubbing Ralgex into the groin by putting sachets of ketchup on the table or waving a plateful of sausage ‘n’ mash at me, when I’m only interested in a pint of Light ‘n’ Bitter.
You would think that it would be a prerequisite of owning a pub that you serve beer (or gin, if you really must) in a glass receptacle, wouldn’t you ? No such luck any more, I’m afraid. How many times have you walked up to a bar, ordered a drink only to be greeted by the dreaded phrase “you drinking that inside or out, luv?” Who hasn’t lied at this juncture, only to be caught out by the potman when he sees you craftily swigging from your glass while standing in the garden cos your girlfriend thought “it’d be nice to drink outside”? You reluctantly hand your drinking vessel back to the glass collector who then transfers its contents into a plastic beaker. Oh, the shame of it. A 2009 United Nations report found that one of the most (some say only) catastrophic results of global warming will be a huge increase of people being forced by women to drink outside and thus being forced to slurp from plastic “glasses”.
There’s nothing like finding a lovely cold, dark pub when the sun’s blazing outside. Or a nice, cozy, warm pub when it’s freezing outside. In short, there’s nothing like finding a nice pub. We don’t go in there to get drunk, you understand? No, we go in there for the craic. Occasional drunkeness is an unfortunate by-product of enjoying the craic, but not a compulsory nor inevitable outcome. His eminence William (Bill) Greaves (see Now Then… elswhere in these pages) has informed us how to behave in such places and situations, and it is clear from his teachings that we should endeavour to conduct ourselves in a dignified way befitting a serious (and let us not forget expensive) pastime such as drinking. Right up to the time we are plastered, that is.
Is it therefore too much to ask that the landlord should present to us an establishment fit and befitting of this aforementioned due respect to our favourite pasttime? These meeting holes should be places of wonderment and worship. What they shouldn’t be is reminiscent of airport departure lounges with the addition of a John Smith’s pump. We neither want nor need plastic leprechauns on the walls, rows of vodka-shots lined up on the bar or 24/7 football on the enormous tv screens in each and every corner. Take a butchers at The Salisbury, St Martin’s Lane, London (or The Harp just around the corner in Chandos Place) and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t have to be in England to find wonderful watering holes. You may struggle to find a pint of mild, but there are always corners of a foreign field which are perfect spots to while away the hours. Try The Hoppe in Amsterdam which is as close to heaven as you could possibly be without throwing a seven. It has been a bar since 1670 and they’re still wondering how or if to redecorate it! There’s Robert’s Western World in Nashville where, if you can excuse the lack of a decent beer, you can sit and listen to fantastic music while manfully trying to avoid a bourbon overdose. You will fail. It’s sensational because of and in spite of that.
Nearer to home there’s The Fleece in Halifax, if you catch it on the right night. You could do worse than visit my own Shovel in Dartford. A wonderful example of a tiny, well-kept drinking den. Food? Next door, mate. There’s Henchy’s in Cork, but we don’t have enough time to discuss Irish pubs. Just pick one, you’ll like it.
And why do I go on so ? Haven’t we heard all this before ? Well that’s as maybe. But I have a particular reason for sharing my thoughts with you. After a slight hiccup in the brain department last week, it seems that I’m hurtling towards my first dry Christmas since 1979. No Shovel for me this year. No hangover on Boxing Day, trying to remember what I drunk and when. No, I’m down for lashings of tea and biscuits, with the temptation of a chocolate liqueur ever-present. It may not be as bad as it sounds. You really don’t want a hangover with a malfunctioning brain like mine. And that’s before having a stroke. The spector of repeat performance last week scared the willies out of me so for my own good I’m off the stuff for the foreseeable future.
So you’ll have to have mine for me. Take it sensibly and behave yourself. Enjoy it and enjoy whichever boozer you chose to make your own. You never know, you may end up in The Rose and Crown, swinging on the barmaid’s…er…earrings. I doubt if you’ll find George there though :
Oh, and by the way: This is a pub. Want a coffee? Fuck off to Starbucks.
I found myself searching for some music to get myself up and ready for the day ahead, and at the same time commemorate the passing of the great John Barry. I could have chosen the theme from The Persuaders but it didn’t feel quite right. Neither did Dances with Wolves – not really the right mood for a damp morning in Dartford. Perhaps Midnight Cowboy would be more my style ? – there’s certainly a touch of the Ratso Rizzo’s about me this morning. Obviously I’m no Sheen Connolly, so the 007 Theme‘s right out.
So I plumped for the music to the first Harry Palmer movie, The Ipcress File. As a kid I always hoped if I really did have to be a British Secret Service agent, I’d become one like Harry P. and not Mr Bond. He seemed altogether cooler and more straightforward. He made his own breakfast and wore lounge suits not dinner jackets. (I’ve seen me in a dinner jacket – I look like a bloke with a head transplant.) And hopefully I could work with the great Nigel Green and not the truly dreadful Desmond Llewelyn.
Anyway, while I was doing all that I would be humming this theme to myself in preparation for a good day’s spying, a jolly good cup of tea with Nigel, and a quick knee-trembler with Sue Lloyd before she rushed off to star in Crossroads.
And all the while I’d have Mr Barry’s music to whisk me along and keep me out of mischief.
Do pay attention, Palmer !
Fancy a pint ? Yes ? Come on then, I’ll take you down to a little pub I know. It’s just down the road.
Two weeks into my self-imposed exile, we decided last night to take a stroll round the leafy lanes, avenues and alleyways and see what Dartford on a Friday night had to offer. Our route was not a particularly ambitious one. A short couple of miles which would take us by (or rather to) 5 boozers, all of which I’d visited before down the years, some more frequently than others, and being the five closest inns from the Potting Shed each of them stood a decent chance of becoming my new local.
First up: the former local. I’d spent most of my formative years getting ever-so-slightly elephants in a particular pub on the top of the hill, just outside town. Ernie’s had been scientifically chosen, it being the closest one to the school gates and you get still get served wearing your uniform. Many of my happiest memories are from those 15 short years from the age of 16 onwards getting smashed out of my face in one of the less-trendy nightspots in Dartford (and that’s going some). Birthdays, weddings (not mine), funerals (ditto), births, divorces and Ryder Cup triumphs were all celebrated within those walls overseen by the hilariously miserable Mancunian eponymous landlord who scared off as many customers as he attracted with his sledgehammer wit and pungent bodily functions.He’s long-gone now, gone off to live in Spain with his pockets bulging with my hard-earned cash, so I was intrigued to see how the old place was, fifteen years after I’d last set thirsty foot in it.
Within 12 yards of the door my worst fears were realised. Through the several plate-glass windows I saw a pub transformed from the traditional boozer it once was. Where once a horseshoe bar wound its way round the room, manned permanently by assorted punters, postmen and pissheads, there seemed to be a selection of coffee tables and banquettes. Low-slung chaise-longues occupied by even lower-slung shell-suits sat there in deathly silence. I counted eight people in there. And none of them were having fun. The bar had been rebuilt and stood in all its magnificent gloss-white glory along one side of the room. Two of the uglier members from the cast of Glee stood silently behind it, re-arranging the bottles of WKD. The strains of Tiny Talent could be heard emanating from the music system.
“Nope” I announced to The Incumbent who, if the speed by which she changed direction was anything to go by, had already made up her mind that it looked like a shit hole. Fortunately, there’s a pub right opposite Ernie’s so we headed across the road and, without stopping to check it out, ploughed through the door.
Imagine walking one of those shack-cum-bars in Mississippi or Alabama. Where the KKK‘s U19 Soccer team have just held their AGM. And all the bright ones have gone home for their tea. And it’s been free beer for six hours. And the town has just elected a black mayor. And he’s gay. Got that image in your brain ? Well that’s the kind of scene we encountered there in that pub.
Two or three of the knuckle-draggers who still had control of their movements looked up looked us up and down, suspecting that we were either coppers or neurosurgeons. Being neither, but not wanting to have to prove it, I decided on the only course of action open to us.
“Nope” I exclaimed again and we beat a hasty retreat out of the Berchtesgaden Arms back to the now strangely enticing Ernie’s. In the 14 seconds we’d been across the road, three of the customers I’d seen through the window had left, leaving three young asian blokes, slumped at half-mast on their leatherette armchairs, staring wistfully and listlessly at two imaginatively-clad girls sat near the toilets, knocking a decent-sized hole in a bottle of Rose. These were very odd fellows indeed. I ordered myself a pint and a gin for the missus, partly for old times’ sake and partly cos I never like not having a drink in two pubs in a row.
Our drinks didn’t touch the sides. We left. Depressed.
No matter, onwards and upwards. Next up, the previously mentioned Goat and Masturbator which, as the glass bottle flies round here, is the closest to the Potting Shed. It would have been some time during the mid 1980’s when I was last here and it wasn’t that brilliant then. Now it’s a Harvester. One of those eateries with all the atmosphere of a Hosni Mubarak cabinet meeting. A few groups of half-drunk, fully-fed 20-somethings were placed carefully between plates of rotten and rotting food. The smell of barbeque ribs and Red Bull was quite overpowering.
“Nope!” yelled The Incumbent over the din of an iTunes playlist. We left smartly, missing the chance to indulge in a baked potato with the topping of our choice, washed down with one of two Australian lagers on tap.
Pub number four just had to be better. And, in truth it was. The Liniment and Poultice had never been a favourite of mine back when I had hair, but da word on da street recently was that it’s been taken over, was full of old gits and had gone all boring. Perfect. Well almost. A medium-sized establishment, the first thing you notice that it has both a pool table and a dartboard (both of which are sadly lacking in Blackheath boozers). There were twenty-or-so people drinking inside, most over 30 years old, some over 50, all of them huddled along the bar leaving wide open spaces of emptiness in the lounge. You could have played a game of football on the carpeted area and not bothered anyone, but try to get near the bar and you encountered a sea of elbows, builder’s bums and handbags.Nevertheless, all seemed quite friendly, and the guv’nor poured a decent pint of Stella, and a perfect gin.
Now I know on such announcements economies can boom or bust, so I have to tell you now that there is goodly supply of both limes and lemons in Dartford. Not only that but on the evidence of last night the bottle of tonic is placed on the bar un-decanted beside the glass of gin, and it is left to you, yourself, to administer the correct measure of mixer. You should have seen my little face light up.
And that would have been that. I would have happily settled on The Liniment to serve as my local for the duration of my stay here in NW Kent, however long that may be. But we still had one more pub to visit on our way home. Which, after a few more pints in The Poultice is exactly what we did.
If you didn’t know The Shovel was there you’d easily pass it in your rush to get to Dartford town centre. (In truth you still don’t know its there, or its real name but, like a Danish cartoonist, The Shovel’s exact and whereabouts need to be kept a closely guarded secret.) This is a teeny tiny little pub. Barely bigger than your average terraced house. When we entered there were 12 people in the bar, all middle-aged (or older) men, one barmaid behind the jump. It was busy. If a half-laden Ford Galaxy emptied it’s passengers into the pub it’d be standing room only. And some of these old blokes couldn’t stand for long.
From the door we took three steps and arrived at the bar. There were three hand-pumps, none of them marked. One Guinness pump, one Fosters and one serving Dark Mild. I’ll type that again: one serving Dark Mild.
“What’s in the hand pumps, love?” I asked the barmaid, going all Richard Keys on her.
“Courage Best” she smiled.
“What, in all of em?” I asked
“Yep, all of them”
I looked around to see who was having what elsewhere in the pub. Two blokes had pints of stout in their hands. Always worth checking.
“I’ll have a Guinness then, please.” says I, “Oh and a gin and tonic as well please” remembering my manners.
As I waited for my stout to settle I looked around the pub. Behind the bar, beneath the optics, were unrefrigerated shelves of bottled beer: Stouts, Brown Ales, Light Ales, Barley Wines and the like of which you just don’t see anymore. Mainly because no-one drinks them, but all the same… And unrefrigerated. Warm beer. You could ask for a Light & Bitter and not only would it arrive at room temperature but, by the look of the barmaid she’d know exactly how to pour it.
Up above, where the line of optics ended was a calendar. The photo was of a naked girl standing under a palm tree on a beach, sporting an enormous bush. She had big hair on her head too and a lovely big grin. She smiled out at us barflies as she and girls like her used to smile out at us from The Big D peanut cards back in the 70s and 80s, before pictures of naked women in pubs and garages were Andy Grayed into touch. This was the 2011 and she looked completely out-of-place. Pleasant, but out-of-place.
At least I thought it was 2011 but I kept spotting things which told me otherwise. To the right of my naked new friend was a small wooden cabinet containing three piles of assorted 10-packs of cigarettes, a couple of half-ounces of Golden Virginia and a dozen boxes of matches. No cigarette machine here, just a wooden box behind the bar. Come to think of it, there was no jukebox or fruit machine either. The punters entertained themselves by talking to each other (everyone truly knew everyone else and everyone was within ear-trumpet range of each other) or, for the more adventurous, a game of crib was in full-flow. It nearly kicked off when one bloke had 16 in his box and pegged-out, almost literally.
I took stock of the situation: A quiet friendly pub, with no herberts or wankers; no jukebox or one-armed bandit; a pleasant knowledgeable barmaid; light ale; photos of naked girls; a crib board and Dark Mild.
Admittedly the Guinness was fucking awful, but such was my euphoria at finding such a wonderful little time-capsule that I forgot to complain. Even after my fourth pint.
I was home.
So what do you reckon ? Fancy a stroll down there ? You’re a bitter man, right ? I hope you like Courage Best. And you don’t mind if I blindfold you, do you ? Can’t have everyone knowing where it is. There’s very little room at this Inn.
I’ve now gone a fortnight without cable tv and it’s driving me up the wall. The fine chaps at Virgin promise me faithfully that I’ll have all 738 channels installed at the beginning of next month but til then I have to put up with whatever passes for watchable tv via Freeview.
Having watched every episode of Top Gear, Nazi Hunters and Antiques Roadshow three times I’m running out of options. Just goes to show how quickly one becomes spoilt by access to 8 sports channels and the 74 documentary networks, plus the odd squint at endless re-runs of Only Fools and Horses (RIP Trigger, and all that, but is it ever not on?).
Many moons ago, when my trousers still fit me and I had no idea what I was gonna do with my life (easy tiger), it seemed there was always something on. Three channels were just fine and dandy, thankyouverymuch. We had no video recorders, MTV or even QVC to keep us going. We were happy with whatever the BBC or, in times of desperation, ITV chose to pump down the tube. For some of us when Channel 4 came along it was just pure extravagance. Who would have time to watch FOUR stations?
Us kids would lap up everything they threw at us, and because there were only 3 stations to choose from, chances were that everyone at school had watched the same thing as you. There was none of this “did you see Fluffy the Vampire Dolphin on CockFX USA last night” because there was no CockFX USA on last night. Or any night come to that.
Us kids had our hour or two in the early evening when we’d happily put up with whatevr dross the Beeb or the Children’s Film Foundation would throw at us. These were full of kids who didnt seem to be like us. The producers obviously thought they were like us, but somehow they were different. They probably came from West London where they were posh and had carpets, doors and suchlike. Down in SE London we had no such luxuries, but we enjoyed the shows anyway.
Stuff Like The Double Deckers (which Fox/Youtube have kindly put the kibosh on me showing here) was populated by West London posh kids, dressed up to look like urchins and vagabonds, but looked like future Cabinet ministers and Prep School Headmistresses (and that was only Melvin Hayes.)
I mean look at them ! Never been further East than Notting Hill. Still, it was all we had and it was ours to watch while mum made the tea (sorry, dinner). At 6 o’clock the news would come on, which was boring but dad watched it anyway, then if there was nothing worth watching after that he turned the telly off !! What a weirdo.
No Such problems for us lot on a Saturday morning however. The telly was ours and ours alone. Saturdays meant The Multi Coloured Swap Shop – a rambling two-and-a-half hours of cartoons, comedy, music and swapping. There were several incarnations of this show, many hosted by charming, hairy, non-murderer Noel Edmonds, all based around the premis that kids would call in and offer their Raleigh Chipper of someone’s Hot Wheels, or their sister’s Tiny Tears for a pair of Gary Sprake Goalie’s Gloves. I never actually knew anyone who offered or bid for anything on the show. We were far more interested in the cartoons and series from around the world which Swap Shop introduced us to.
There were The Banana Splits, the 1960s black and white French serial version of Robinson Crusoe (it was worth watching for the theme tune alone) and many more. But you couldn’t beat The Flashing Blade. No-one had a clue what was going on, apart from somewhere in Maida Vale there were some appalling, overpaid voice-over actors dubbing this swashbuckler to within an inch of its life. But if you weren’t having a sword fight with your brother by the end of this then you were clinically dead from the neck up. The theme tune went on for longer than the show did. I guarantee no-one watching T’BBC’s new Musketeers will get more pleasure out of the joy I experienced watching the Flashing Blade.
So that was how we spent our time. Oh the innocence of it all. It was all good healthy stuff. The closest we came to being turned on was a flash of Sally Jame’s drawers if she slipped over on a Phantom Flan on TISWAS. Nowadays, if you wanted to watch half our of a young, sweater-clad Austrian babe playing with stallions there are plenty of websites you can go to. Back when I were a lad, this is all we got. And we just didn’t get it. And I gather nor did she.
My god I’m fat. I’ve got five suits hanging upstairs, none of which I can get anywhere near. Seeing my body in the bathroom mirror doesn’t make for pretty viewing. I now have my own post code. My own gravitational pull. I’m thinking of getting an all-over body tattoo of a tall, thin bloke.
It’s incredible how much weight you can put on when you spend most days five yards away from the fridge. Five months off work and the temptation of the kitchen cupboard is too great for one so weak. When you’re at work, scuttling to-and-from the tube, running around the office and jumping up and down from your desk to grab a cup of tea you presumably burn up enough calories to allow you the occasional visit to the West Cornwall Pasty Co and not pile on the blubber.
I’m one who delights in the pleasure of the odd medium chicken and vegetable, a cup of potato wedges, washed down with a couple of packs of M&S millionaires shortbread and for years I’ve managed to keep at my fighting weight of two stone heavier than I should be. I’ve never had to resort to taking the stairs instead of the lift, donning lycra and peddling into the office on a Boris Bike (just don’t, ok?) or wasting perfectly good pub time in the gym.
By the way, what is it about people (of either gender) who go to work in a suit and trainers ? If those shoes you’re carrying in that bag of yours hurt too much to walk half a mile along a pavement to your office then DON’T FUCKING BUY THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE. Suit and trainers ??? Trainers are to be worn with jeans or shorts, not your best pinstripe or sharkskin. You don’t look cool, you don’t look trendy, you look like a complete and utter berk. You’d look less ridiculous in a pair of flippers
Yesterday we drove down to Royal Tunbridge Wells, Georgian spa town, home of the angry Daily Telegraph reader and for one night only, venue of “An Evening with David Lloyd”, former England cricket player and coach, now Sky TV cricket commentator. He’s on tour with his ‘stand-up’ show of wit and wisdom of the great game, recounting hilarious anecdotes from his playing days, poking fun at himself and the great players of yesteryear (yes, you’re right, you’d have loved it). I’d syringed myself into one of the few remaining shirts I could actually still button up, got The Incumbent to help me into my jacket and I rolled myself out to the car, taking care not to let my thighs make too loud a swishing noise as they rubbed together. The Missus also helped me into the driver’s seat and plug in my seatbelt – I’m finding it harder and harder to bend around to either clunk or click.
Tunbridge Wells was a disappointment. A homogonised shopping centre here, a rather shabby yet still celebrated Pantiles there and a dirty great hill in between. We tried to get food in a few pubs (sidestepping the ubiquitous Wetherspoons, of course) none of which did food (after 3pm ????) and barely sold beer but did a very tempting line in teenage abusive drunks. Mmmmmmm….. vodka redbull on a monday evening. Luvverly. Having retreated to an outlet of an Italian chain of eateries, we devoured the meal placed in front of us and watched the poor sods fresh off the London or Hastings train, trudging their way up the steep slope to their homes, maybe taking in an exciting branch of H&M or Paperchase on the way.
But wherever they’d been and wherever they were going one thing was clear to me: There they were in their M&S wool suits, with their backpack across their shoulders and Nike Shox on their feet, scaling the last peak of the day to their loved ones; and there I was with a dripping wedge of Pizza Rustica hanging from my mouth in between toothpicks. They were getting natural exercise and keeping trim where I wasn’t and I wasn’t. But were they happy ? Who can tell ?
I hear stories of doctors in Red China who have suggested regular exercise can lead to a fuller, healthier and even longer life. But these are the same blokes who reckon rhino horn gives you the …er… horn, right ? So opinion is divided on the matter, I reckon. If there’s anyone who knows the damage regular exercise can do to the human body, you’re reading him.
Reversing into a parking space on our return, I couldn’t twist my gut around enough to see what was behind me, so I relied on my mirrors. I promptly crunched hard into an invisible lamp post. This was getting ridiculous. My stomach was not only affecting my wardrobe and my breathing patterns, but now it was impeding my driving which, in turn, meant I was knocking lumps out of The Incumbent’s motor who would therefore soon surely start knocking lumps out of me.
So that’s it. New regime time. As soon as I get out of bed I’m going to catch a cab up to the health food shop in the village and see what they have to tempt my taste buds. I’m hoping for sugar-free M&Ms, diet pies and low fat lager, but will settle for Guinness Light. I might even put my trainers on. If they still fit.
So now that the dust has settled, now that orders in Tennants Super and Economy Toilet roll are set to go through the roof, what does it all mean ? The answer is simple: I’m shagged if I know. Gorgeous Georgie Gideon Oswald, (sorry Osborne) Our Dave and their pet Yellow Toad have decided to transform the country into a scene from to Jabberwocky, full or peasants surfs and huge piles of shit, with a 5 groat consumption charge to enter the citadel (though the Sheriff of Bonkingham decided against extending it to the west of the castle) or maybe “Oliver Twist” where former benefit claimants hold out their bowl for some more gruel to Mr Bumble (brilliantly played by Eric Pickles) who promptly tells them to “fook off”.
Personally, I’m a tad miffed that it now seems I’m to be unemployed until I’m 66, rather than 65. Oh well, you know me: mustn’t grumble. If I were French I’d be running up and down with a flare and a megaphone, knocking kepis of coppers bonces. Being British I’ll probably put the kettle on, make a nice cup of tea and see what that nice Nick Robinson has to say. It’s fair to say this former President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, ex-national chairman of the Young Conservatives, alleged Bullingdon Club member and now BBC Political Editor has done a just frankly spiffing job selling the cuts to a watching nation. And he’s hardly burst into laughter once. Well done him. When his BBC career is over he can always get himself a job on Fox News.
But however nasty Nick spins it, there’s something rotten in Denmark Hill and throughout the kingdom. The natives are revolting. Even Boris Johnson has likened the (sorry his) government’s crackdown on housing benefits for the poorest of families to ethnic cleansing. Gideon and Dave were furious. The foie gras hit the aircon but Bonkers Bonking Boris stuck to his guns. You know you’re in trouble when the Bullingdon boys start falling out. Funny, but I thought we were all in this together ? Shooting sticks and hacking jackets at twelve paces, m’lud ?
Over in Lala Land, the guvnors at The World’s Worst Airline reckon their poor passengers are getting a rotten deal. All those security checks at the airport are putting people off. Fancy asking us to take off our shoes for inspection before boarding. Whoever heard of a shoebomber ?? They’ll be asking to check our pants and printer cartridges next ! BA boss Willie Walsh also had the onion out of his handbag over the increase to Passenger Duty. “It’s unfair to our customers” was the cry. Well maybe. You could always swallow the increase, Willie.
I’d have a little more sympathy with airlines in general, and BA in particular, if their prices weren’t so high anyway, their service so shite and their guvnor such a miserable, soulless, swindling arsehole. BA have a long proud history of unfair business practice, dirty-tricks campaigns (ah! who can forget dear old Lord King?) and fisting both customers and employees whenever and however possible.
Do you get the feeling that if Willie and Louis Walsh swapped places none of us would be any the wiser? One more complete cnut on the X Factor wouldn’t notice, and think of the fun the new BA boss would have with the cabin crew during the next round of union negotiations. We’d have to throw a bucket of water over them.
Am I sounding more miserable than usual ? Well maybe. Times are tough at the moment. My regular reader in Cheltenham will realise the pictures are coming down in Railway Cuttings as the long process of making the place habitable for others begins. Calculations and ruminations over how and how much to rent out HQ will continue all week. Walls will be painted, the garden given a tidy and that suspicious-looking patch on the wall will have to be covered up. Furnished or unfurnished is just one of many questions I need to ask myself. It’d be great just to walk out and leave everything where it is. It’s gonna be a pain shipping out all the junk one collects over a few years. If I could be arsed I’d put my dvd collection on eBay. If I could be arsed. The booze collection will come with me, what’s left of it, as will the many, many unread books on the shelves.
Once the place looks vaguely decent I’ll need to decide whether to use an estate agent or go it alone. As appalling as my business acumen is, as disorganised as I am and no matter how little I know about renting out a house I can’t bring myself to deal with estate agents. I’ve not had that much luck with them in the past. I once offered to insert a FOR SALE placard into one bloke who I caught trying to drive the sign into my lawn after I’d agreed to let him sell it for me. On another occasion fisticuffs nearly broke out over a penthouse flat in Deptford. We had differed over the description of the flat he was trying to sell me. It was somewhere between “Immaculate”, as described in his literature, and a “Shit Pit” as described by me. So I’m gonna have a go on my own and see how I get on. Lots of pals who’ve been down this route are offering help and advice, so what could possibly go wrong?
So excuse the absence of my usual joie de vivre at the moment, I’ve just got a few things on my mind. Everyone has their off-days/weeks/months and this happens to be one of mine.
Mind you, compared to Ian Holloway I’m positively brimming with hilarity. You’ll know Mr Holloway is a firm favourite around here, responsible for some of the more memorable and hilarious footy quotes of recent times. But last week during the Wayne Rooney saga, things had obviously started to get on top of the normally jovial Mr Holloway.
I hope my house doesn’t toddle-off and do what it likes. I own it !! HOW WRONG IS THAT ?????
Autumn. Conkers. Squirrels. Cold snaps. Crisp mornings, chilly nights. Leaves falling off, evening closing in, windscreens frosting up. Harvest festivals, the bringing in of the sheaves. It’s a time of change. It’s the end of the season: time to pack away the pads and the bats, put the snorkel back in the loft, the Speedos (still unworn) in the bottom drawer. It’s the start of the season: out with the gumshield, buy a new tube of the liniment, dust off the woolly hat, eek out the hipflask. The ground takes a stud, the grass no longer grazes your knees, you can see your breath as you gasp for it by the corner flag.
Things to look forward to: The Ryder Cup; The Ashes Series; the first M&S Christmas advert; the smell of a hot radiator; Trick or Treat. Things to dread: Charlton in a relegation six-pointer; the new season of The Apprentice; Strictly Come Dancing; The Labour Party conference and Guy Fawkes Night (if that’s not repeating myself).
By way of a change, and in a vain attempt to redeem themselves in my eyes, The BBC weather bureau accurately predicted the end of the summer. They said the last day would be Wednesday and, sure enough Wednesday it was. It was gorgeous. As it happened three of us took to the golf course and we couldn’t have picked a more splendid day to waggle our mashie niblicks around in the open air.
My pal, Big H, is a member of the local golf club, Blackheath, and kindly invited Shaun and I to play a round with him. Blackheath is the world’s oldest golf club, which was fitting as I played it like the world’s oldest golfer. To be fair, my first half-dozen holes were decent enough for one who hadn’t picked up a club for over seven years. However, the effort of whacking a little ball around a few miles of parkland soon took it’s toll on these old bones and by the 10th I was sweating audibly, my feet were quite literally bleeding and I was screaming for my mum long before I limped up the 18th.
I have spent many a year explaining (mainly to women and Americans) how tiring and taxing on the body a game of cricket can be, but imagine the look of incredulation on The Incumbent’s face when she saw me the following day, looking as if I’d been run over my a truck. It’s an age thing, you see, and no matter that 80 year old men happily play four games of golf-a-week without so much as a stiff back, or that there are 50 year old cricketers leading their club’s averages, my body has decided to call time early on my chosen sporting careers. I’m not in the Autumn of my cricketing or golfing life, more like the New Year’s Eve party of it- somewhere between the “can I put your coat up in the bedroom” and the “Auld Lang Syne” of it.
The previous weekend I’d had to cry off the last cricket match of the season, citing knee and ankle failure. It was a depressing decision to have to make, knowing it’d be the best part of seven months before my next one. But I was in so much pain it seemed the sensible thing to do. When later the chance to play golf came along I couldn’t resist digging out my 30 year-old golf shoes (the style of which attracted much derision and mirth from my playing partners) and borrowing a set of clubs.
As nice as they are, it was more than my pals could manage to conceal their amazement at my lack-of-fitness. I dunno why: I’ve never been fit. But the rapidity of my decent into a pool of moaning sweat had them fearing for my wellbeing. Dare I play again ? Will I be asked ? If I do play, will the paramedics be on stand-by? Or do I give it up as a bad job, wait until the 2011 cricket season begins and believe that somehow my body will repair itself in time for me to take an active part ?
There have been discussions (albeit a wee bit one-sided) on trying to get fit. Swimming has been muted. Someone actually mentioned joining the gym. Someone else even suggested dance classes. I glazed over like Homer Simpson at a school play. My mate Johnny Mac (he who has just run from John O Groats to Lands End) even said to me over a pint the other night that “everyone want’s to stay fit, don’t they?” He could tell from my expression he may as well as offered me a half-pint.
So I am seriously considering giving it all up. I’ve had a decent run, after all, and maybe it’s time to stand aside and yet youth flourish ? On most summer Saturdays, by the time I strap on the knee-supports, apply the Ralgex and pop half a dozen pain-killers the game’s already started. If I can’t meander around a short-ish, flat-ish golf course without squealing like a stuck pig maybe it’s time to look for other ways to participate in sport ?
I know how to cut up a half-time orange, fill up the tea-urn or run the bath for the lads while they’re out on the field of play. If pushed, I could be the linesman or touch-judge, as long as the players don’t run too fast. At a push I’d drive the team bus. I could umpire, though don’t ask me to caddy (those golf bags are heavy). There are many, much older than me who will scoff and scorn me for being such a lardy wimp, people who keep themselves in reasonable shape and whose weekends still entail pulling on the boots or the plus-fours, polishing off their bowls or even donning singlet and trotting off for a brisk 10-mile run.
But it just sounds too much like hard work to me. Pass me that shooting stick and hand me the program. I’ll queue up for the Bovril, I’ll happily prepare the picnic basket. Let me join the 100 Club and if you’re short I’ll even mark out the pitch, put out the flags or help out behind the bar. I love the game, I adore the competition, I am never happier than when I walk onto the first tee, or take a shiny red cricket ball on my hand or (back in the days of yore) jog out onto the field and stare down my opposite number. I’d always rather lose 22-21 than win 40-nil. But now it hurts. A lot.
It hurts more than it ever did. It starts hurting sooner and it hurts for longer. Sometimes it even hurts before the match starts. So as I sit here, three days since I peeled off those painful, painful golf shoes and I’m still feeling the pain, it’s now surely time to say “time’s up” My cricket captain never reads this rubbish so I’ll have to write and tell him. I’ve announced my retirement to him before and he ignores me, but this time I mean it. Honest. Having not donned golfing troos for the best part of a decade, my pals won’t exactly mourn my passing.
I can always meet them in the bar after. I’ll be snuggled up in front of Strictly, awaiting Sports Personality of the Year. Anyone fancy a game of crib?
I’ve come to a decision. I don’t think I’ll become a muslim.
It’s not that I have anything against Islam, certainly no more (or less) than I have against any religion. Everyone has to believe in something, whether it’s God, Allah, Charlton winning the league or a lottery win. Personally I don’t think going to church is the way forward, but I maybe wrong. If you took away religion, money, Owen Wilson, guns, George Osborne and Carlsberg Special Brew I reckon we could pretty much eradicate violence in society once and for all, but that’s just one man’s opinion.
If I did become a muslim I’m bound to forget to pray 5 times a day, unless I organised myself to get out the prayer mat every third time I took a book to the loo, but I fear people would get bored of stepping over me, down on my knees as I bowed my head to Allah, the only God, in the toilets down at my local pub. Anyway, I think Mecca is in the direction of those machines on the wall, which would look very odd indeed if I was caught praying to them.
One upside would be I wouldn’t have to shave, letting the old salt ‘n’ pepper whiskers go all Cat Stevens on me, and I also quite fancy myself in a dishdasha – one of those full-length garments which middle eastern guys wear. I’d be able to strut around like Peter O’Toole and the loose fitting robe would cover up my ever-growing midriff – these trousers are cutting me in half.
But the reason I know I could never convert to Islam is that I get hungry. And thirsty. All the time. This of course wouldn’t be a problem for most of the year, but during Ramadan I’d struggle. Through a normal working day (more of that later) I’ll happily graze constantly on whatever comes to mouth, stuffing my little fat chops with sweeties, crisps, sandwiches, biscuits etc, punctuated by cups of tea, coffee, premium lager – that sort of thing.
But if I took up the Islamic faith I’d have to deal with fasting. Every ninth month of their calender I’d have to abstain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn until sunset. Now obviously there are some things you don’t mind giving up for a good cause but eating and drinking aren’t two of them. If I was to sit at home all day (as has been my wont recently) not being able to eat or drink, never mind not have sexual relations (does that include with oneself ? hope not) I’d not only feel faint, but I’d go a funny shape. A day at work, with all the distractions of coffee bars, canteens, Pret A Mangers and suchlike, would be unbearable if a nil-by-mouth regime was to be followed.
You don’t burn (or at least I don’t burn) many calories while sitting at a desk or using a computer, but it’d take a monumental effort to survive all day without so much as a Dunkin Donut to keep my strength up. Imagine what it would be like working on a building site or a fireman or some other profession which required physical labour, some exertion from which a sweat was raised.
Take the Pakistan cricket team, for example. They’re playing England at the moment in a Test Series which involves them batting, running, throwing and catching (sometimes) for up to seven hours a day for five straight days presumably without so much as a sip of Lucozade Sport to keep their strength up. In these modern times of professional sport there is always a get-out, of course. The Pakistan team manager Yawar Saeed said. “”A player’s decision to fast is between himself and God. We don’t get involved in this matter. We don’t mix sport and religion. It is up to the individual concerned.” Given how devout the faithful can be, there would doubtless be a lot of soul-searching in the dressing room before the opening bowler allows himself to tuck into a Big Mac and Coke to keep up his blood sugar levels.
But at least their management seem to be taking the sensible position. You can’t have a player keeling over at short square leg at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, just because he hasn’t had anything since that bowl of Cheerios at 5.30 this morning. I know I’d be having dizzy spells by 11am if I observed the fast. And that’s another thing I wouldn’t be if I did: Fast. Old ladies would be able to bowl faster than me if I couldn’t eat constantly throughout the day.
In Soccerland a couple of weeks ago Ali Karimi, an Iranian footballer known as the “Maradona of Asia”, was fired by his club for failing to fast. On it’s website Tehran-based Steel Azin FC claims Karimi, once the Asian Player of the Year, “insulted officials of the [Iranian] football federation and the Tehran team’s supervisor who confronted him on the issue”. Well I’ve never been named Asian Player of the Year, or even Ageing Player of the Year (though as a schoolboy goalie I used to be known as “The Gary Sprake of Barnehurst”), but I suspect poor old Karimi would have to take lesson’s from my delivery of an insult should anyone in my dressing room attempt to deprive me of my isotonic pork pie at half time.
I managed to pick up 4 days work this week at The It Is Are You On Sunday and jolly good it was too, especially as there were numerous tvs dotted around the office on which to enjoy the cricket during the very rare occasion I found myself with nothing to do. As I trawled my way through both the very decent workload and the myriad of eating establishments dotted along High Street Kensington I watched my current sporting heroes make Keema out of the Pakistan bowling attack I allowed myself to dream of making a lot of runs and taking a karahi full of wickets this weekend. Little did I know that at that very moment the opposition were crying off, having lost several players to the start of the soccer season and to Bank Holiday domestic duties.
The crossover end of the season is always a bugger, as rugby and soccer-playing cricketers feel the need to pack away their bats and boxes, strap on the shinpads or insert the gumshields. It’s a bugger but at least it’ll give my achilles ankle and my achilles knee further time to recover from the last match, and next time I’m called upon to perform I shall be injury free, a spring in my step and a Ginsters cornish pasty in my pocket. Insha’Allah.
Unlike the previous year’s week in Italy, our arrival in Mallorca passed relatively incident-free. Ok, we were stuck in the carpark for 10 minutes while I tried to locate the handbrake in the hire car (to much sniggering in the back), but once I realised it didn’t have a handbrake we made easy work of the 45 minute drive to the villa.
Within half an hour of our arrival the kids hit the water and I explored the environs. The place looked just fine: plenty of space, good size rooms, a nice big kitchen, and if the pool wasn’t exactly of Olympic proportions, it was big enough for me to join the kids for a wallow, without too much water displacement. It was a semi-secluded spot, with just one other villa over an unkept hedge which, on first examination, seemed to be unoccupied. Perfect- we could make as much noise as we liked, and there were no neighbours to complain about the noise as I beat the children.
The area around the pool and the barbeque had recently been swept clean and, at first glance, looked to be spick and span. However, as I wandered around I did notice a pile dust in the corner where the cleaners had neglected to dispose of it. Not to worry, I thought to myself as I reached for the dustpan and brush. Then, as I made my move to sweep up the pile, it moved. Or rather the top of the pile moved. It wasn’t dust, it was ants. Or rather it was a pile of dead ants, with a surface covering of live ones. There must have been thousands of them.
Hmmm…. I’m not squeamish about ants, but I didn’t want a colony of them, dead or alive, sharing my holiday home. With several flicks of the wrist several generations of hundreds of ant families and their ancestors were in their temporary Addis home in transit to their new home over the hedge. We spent the rest of the evening by the pool, supping the local brew, nibbling oddly and amusingly name potato-based snacks. Oliver, our 16 year old budding Gerald Durrell, searched the grounds for lizards and snakes. Thankfully he returned empty handed.
Waking early next morning, The Incumbent and I prepared ourselves for a quiet cup of tea and a peaceful breakfast by the pool while the youngsters slept off the effects of a chlorine overdose. The sun was shining, the cockerels in the surrounding farms cock-a-doodle-did each other, and two long lines of ants were marching up and down the wall near barbie. Oh sod it. I looked more closely and the floor of the verandah was teeming with the little buggers.
These critters did not enjoy a long life, it seemed to me, as half of their number were already evidently dead. Perhaps they were a particular type of ‘one-day’ ants, I wondered to myself. It made no never mind, as no sooner did one snuff it on my patio, then he was replaced by a dozen others or more. Again I burst into action with my trusty dustpan and brush, but clearly I was going to need something more to combat the attacking forces. In any event, the neighbour’s garden was beginning to resemble an ant cemetery.
Once the kids had finally woken and had breakfast we attempted to press-gang them into the car for the short trip to the beach. Oliver had found a grasshopper and was studying it intently, ignoring our pleas to get in the car. The other three were moping about at the speed only teenagers and Jamaican beach coconut sellers have mastered. Why is it so hard to move kids anywhere? All they want to do is to lay down or sit on their arses wherever they are at that particular moment. You can promise them a beautiful beach, blazing hot sun, ice cream, watersports, even free money and they still want to stay in bed til way after the sun is over the yardarm. You also know that once you arrive they won’t want to leave, taking a good hour and a half to get packed and ready for the journey home. Anyway.
On arrival we set up camp under two sunshades and the four teenagers, showing a rare display of enthusiasm, scurried off to the water. Ah! peace again, we thought. I’d hardly had time to remove my socks and sandals before Tom (the eldest of the four kids) returned from whence he swame. He’d been stung by something which had left a watch-sized welt around his wrist, much to the amusement of Ollie the part-time botanist and full-time elder-brother-annoyer. While his mother was tending to Tom’s wounds, I walked down to the shore to check on the others. I made for a magnificent sight: the sun gleaming off my baldpatch, the sweat trickling down my pale hairy skin, creating a torrent between my moobs, my swimming shorts at half-mast out of respect to the ants who’d died that morning so that we might enjoy breakfast.
Like Daniel Craig‘s grandfather I waded thigh deep into the sea, egged on by the kids, two of whom were hiding their embarrassment rather well as they watched in horror as their father’s naked upper body wobbled towards them. I stood there for a second, letting the warm, invitingly blue Mediterranean waters lap gently up against my nadgers. 29 ½ inches below the surface, something was afoot.
No sooner had I plunged my shoulders beneath the waves when “Oh you little bast..OW!!” I cried (with all the dignity I could muster). I’d been stung too. Something had taken a shine to my instep and sunk it’s teeth/claws/tentacles into my foot. It wasn’t much more painful than a nettle sting, but it was a sting nevertheless. I retreated to the sandy shore, dragging my mutilated foot behind me, like a puppet on a string. The girls followed hastily, not wanting to join the victim list. Oliver went off diving to look for sea monsters.
As Tom and I compared wounds, a middle-aged, pink and plumpish woman laying on the lounger beside us sat up.
“Excause me, boot have yau been stoong”. Her accent told me she was from the midlands. That and the Aston Villa tattoo on her forearm.
“Er.. yes.. I think so” I replied.
“Jelleefeesh” she declared.”There were oondreds of jelleefeesh around ere yestardie, I got stoong on me leg, loook!” She showed us a long lesion running up the length on her inner thigh, stopping just below her gusset. It was a disturbing sight, for all manner of reasons. “I got some cream for it off the loifguard over therrr. Ee’s very noice.”
We turned to look at the lifeguard station, a sort of tennis umpire’s chair with a roof on. Flying above it was a red cross flag and a yellow one which we later discovered meant “swim with caution”. The loifguard, sorry lifeguard himself was at that moment hoisting a third which had a rather crude drawing of a jellyfish on it. After saying some rather crude words of my own, myself and The Incumbent went off in search of some jellyfish sting ointment. By the time we’d returned twenty minutes later, all four of the children were back on the beach, looking bored, cold, hungry or tired, or a combination of all four. We left.
By the time we got back to the villa, Ollie’s grasshopper was but a furry black ball on the patio.. The ants had got hold of it and were feasting their tiny choppers into the poor little sod. There were noises from over the hedge. A family had moved in and were mucking around in their pool. This caused much fascination and some rather obvious spying and snooping. “Chinese” said the girls. “Scottish” declared the boys. I couldn’t be arsed to adjudicate, they were simply referred to thereafter as the McWongs.
I ordered one and all to shower before anyone made a move for the pool. As I poured myself and The Incumbent a sharpener the girls rushed into the kitchen complaining that a column of ants had invaded their dressing table and were all over everything. I put down my beer and picked up the car keys. As I left the house to go find a supermarket to buy some ant repellent, I passed Oliver in the garden, playing with his latest find ; a large blue-black bug which was crawling up his arm. If I’d had the time I might have discovered it was a cockroach, but thankfully I didn’t have time and as far as I’m concerned it was nothing more than a stag beetle. Or something.