Lost & Found


The end of another traumatic week, one way or another. Thankfully this week wasn’t all about me or the member of staff in a pub I’d abused in some way (though it’s early yet). No, this week was certainly all about The Incumbent Mrs B — the long-suffering female who’s been so lucky over the past few years to have the pleasure of living with me. If you stick your head out of the window you may be able to hear another chunk of Crimean cannon ball being filed down as they make her Victoria Cross. Nobody said it was gonna be easy, kid. And they were right. I’d like to take this opportunity here and now to apologise to The Incumbent for all the pain and sorry she has gone through on my behalf over the years, and state categorically that it won’t happen again. Not unless I get drunk tonight.

Proving that there should be an age-limit to prevent old people attempting selfies. That's Mt Vesuvius in the middle, no idea who the two people in the foreground are.

Proving that there should be an age-limit to prevent old people attempting selfies. That’s Mt Vesuvius in the background , no idea who the two people in the foreground are.

So, first some good news: the hunt for the Incumbent’s family continues. Those of you in the know will understand this house has recently become a poor man’s version of Who Do You Think You Are ?  (I’m appearing next year on BBC3’s highly successful “Why Do You Think You Are ?” where, if you can’t justify your existence, you are made to sit down and watch a whole episode of The Call Centre —a show worse than anything Jack Whitehall has come up with.**)

Our version doesn’t have a film crew, a producer or mood music; we haven’t had to fly Mrs B around the globe (I had to drive her to Feltham once); and there’s not even a visit to the British Museum or a Holocaust Memorial in sight, but I’m hoping the Beeb or even 5 might pick us up sooner or later. I won’t go into too many details here — as The Incumbent will want to tell you her story in her own words, and probably with more accuracy and clarity, but suffice to say that she’s  suddenly become the rather shocked relation of a slew of new full-sisters, half-sisters, short dogs and tall nephews and heaven knows how many other assorted family members.  Good news indeed after such a long search. However, having traced her lineage, if Nigel Farage (rhymes with garage) ever comes to power my Missus will be one of the first he’ll send back home to the continent. I do hope so anyway — as if Farage (as in marriage) and his mob get in I’m going to need somewhere to stay as I shall be packing my bags and will be on the boat right behind her. Like Kaiser Wilhelm II before me, I fancy my own place in the sun.

Mid-week she lost her favourite pen. It was a nice one, a present bought by a dear friend, and it was her favourite shopping list-writing tool. We have had the house turned upside down but cannot find it anywhere. It could have been lost anywhere between Canterbury in Kent and Feltham in Middx.:  Approx 88 miles, according to Google Maps. The pen is fitted with a tracking device, but you have to clip it to your top pocket before you can actually hear the signal it sends out. The battery on the tracker last up to 4 minutes. Some have said this is a design fault. I have poo-poohed such suggestions. Me and a chinese mate attached a microphone to a broomstick and went and sat in his rubber dinghy just off Erith Marshes, dangling the mic in the water. Oddly, nothing has turned up yet, but I’ll let you know.

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Anyway, the point of this tribute to my very own Leader of the Opposition is to wish her a very happy birthday. Sad to say, m’lady, you will never be as old as me, and don’t you enjoy telling me so ? One of us has a very significant, important and depressing birthday this year but unfortunately it’s not you. So enjoy it while you can, and as is traditional on these occasions: it’s your round. xx

 

Woman with Cake

Woman with Cake

** correct at time of going to press.

Taking My Business Elswhere


We’ve come full circle.

From being asked, albeit politely, to leave a Harvester ‘pub’ last weekend, to barring myself from my once very favourite pub last night.

Both were completely justified.

The first incident occurred when, after and because I was on the outside of two or three bottles of house shiraz. I then decided, for better or worse, that I needed another bottle (and one for yourself). But in my excitement, haste and eagerness to replenish my glass and that of my accomplices on this Leo Sayer of Leo Sayers, I may have forgotten myself as I chivvied along the barmaid, who may or may not have been one of the worst you’ve ever seen.

Leo Sayer — All Dayer

Leo Sayer — All Dayer

I don’t like Harvester, never have done. It is a chain of foody ‘pubs’ over here and throughout good ol’ Blighty which is the very embodiment of everything I hate about modern drinking. Acres of dining tables, and occasionally tended drinking areas, or “bars” as they like to call them. They are restaurants with a beer counter attached. They are the Nigel Farage (rhymes with garage) of Holsteries. The Paul McCartney of pubs, the Mike Bushell of Boozers in which to enjoy a Sunday afternoon quaff.

” I say” quoth you “shall we go to the Bill Turnbull, the Sally Nugent or the Charlie Stayt for a pint ?” “Nah” comes the reply “let’s go to the Mike Bushell. It’s not a real pub, but it’ll do, don’t cha think ?”.  (You may find this odd, but that’s how the “shall we go for a pint in the Harvester” conversation  sounds in my head. I bet it does in yours too)

And I’m just like you. To save a row, you go along. After all, this time it’s definitely not all about YOU, is it ? This is not your day and you go with the flow. That’s what makes you a civilised human being, isn’t it ? Someone who people like and admire, someone who considers other people’s opinions and feelings. Even if you hate the pub you’re walking into.

In truth, I’ve always hated that pub, even when it tried to be a proper pub. Back in black&white it used to go by the name of The Rising Sun, and it was always last on our young drinkers list of places to go for an evening’s entertainment. It was huge and uninteresting, more like an pub in Essex, not one in The Garden of England, (or even in the bit I live— The Allotment of England). Huge, overrated and uninteresting, in that David-Walliams-sort-of-way. Now, apparently it still goes the name of the Rising Sun, but known to all as “The Harvey”. Or sometimes “The Bushell” (though probably only by me.)

Harvester Logo_salad-grill

But none of this by any means excuses me for what I apparently said to this person serving — or otherwise— me that afternoon. Early into that next bottle I was asked by the manager of the pub if I had a minute, was taken to a quiet corner of the bar, and was kindly asked to leave the pub as I had been rude — “in the extreme”— to the young lady behind the bar. First hand accounts are scarce and differ slightly about what happened and who said what to who(m). What seems to be clear is that, to paraphrase Sesame Street, this conversation was brought to by the letters U, T, N & C and by the words  SLOW, USELESS and YOU.

I was asked to leave on the grounds that I was “rude and tipsy”.  It was, apparently, a fair cop, guv. That was a week ago, and it took some getting over. Angst and shame. Using inappropriate language; not being able to remember saying that rude word, or indeed anything, to the barmaid; being barred from a pub, however awful, and thus having to curtail my assault on the Dartford Shiraz surplus. I have, however, gradually been able to come to terms with my actions by way of convincing myself that a) she may well have (or probably) made it all up; b) she was indeed slow and useless (though not necessarily a utnc); c) I never liked the pub anyway. If, indeed, a pub it be.

I moved on.

Mid week, I found myself in The People’s Republic of Luton having beer & sandwiches with a couple of the locals.

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Strange lot. It appears they grow up with either too much hair, or none at all. However, they do know how to run a boozer, as the chaps in The Castle pub, castle street — next to the castle (how do they come up with these names ?) illustrates. Good beer, proper, quick and attentive bar staff, no food, original decor (well, underneath the old folk music flyers there was original decor.) It restored my faith in pubs and the people therein. It was clean, well stocked, reasonable priced and catered for the beer-and-wine-drinking community as a whole.  Hairies and baldies alike.

 

Marianne Faithfull, The Salisbury Pub, London by Gered Mankowitz

Marianne Faithfull, The Salisbury Pub, London. Photo by Gered Mankowitz

Cut to yesterday afternoon when I strolled manfully through London’s Covent Garden, leading The Incumbent and two friends to my very favourite watering hole the capital has to offer. Anyone who has ever met me for a drink in London over the past 30 years will have been asked by me if “we could go to The Sailisbury, St Martin’s Lane”. In the heart of London’s Theatre Land, this is what a pub should be. Great beer, friendly staff (apart from that time one of them charged me over four quid for a pint of Peroni, but then I wasn’t very friendly either), beautiful, original features like cut glass partitions, red velvet seats and a sticky paisley carpet. Even though they serve hot food to punters, it is just my favourite pub in town, almost the world.

Or rather it was.

Since 1892 The Salisbury (or whichever name the pub went by before) has been serving beer, wine and Mars Bars to theatre-goers, revellers, drunks and Marianne Faithfull in these plush, welcoming surroundings. Yesterday, thanks to the marketing men, interior designers, painters, atmosphere-removers and parquet floor-fitters they reduced one of their punters to tears.

Me.

Ok, ok. I had already enjoyed a marvellous lunch up the road, and may have had a beer or eight before I walked into the place, but when I did I cried like a Dartford Barmaid who’s just been call a utnc. It may have been an over-reaction, and you may well look at the snap below and say “ooh that looks nice”, and you may or may not be correct. But truth is they still serve italian lager at over £4-a-pint, they still serve hot food which rids the place of its happy hoppy smell and replaces it with one of gravy & onions and it still attracts far to many backpacking half a shandy brigade. None of this mattered to me before, but now it does. Who gave who(m) the right to go against history and change what drinkers have been enjoying for 120 years ? WHO ?? If I wanted to drink in a Slug & Piano or an Airport Departure Lounge Bar/Wetherspoons* (delete where applicable) I WOULD HAVE GONE TO ONE. Instead I chose to introduce friends to my favourite hostelry. Now they think I like laminate flooring.

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The Incumbent, top right, puts on a brave face as The Author shoots photos through the tears, the sorrow and the pain.

So apart from crying in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of a packed pub in the middle of the West End of London, I thought I maintained my composure pretty well. I only posted my complaints on Facebook, Twitter & Beerintheevening.com and alerted the bar staff to my deep concerns— after having dried my eyes, of course — and without using the ‘U’ word once. I used words such as “Awful” “shameful” and “goodbye forever” and meant all of them. Apart from the last two as I still had a gallon of Guinness to cry into.

I now brace myself for those-in-the-know to reply to my various protests, pointing out that The Salisbury “has been altered 17 times over the last 30 years but you’ve just always been too drunk to notice”, which may or may not be accurate and true. However, I’m similar to many people: Although I don’t like Conservatives, I am very conservative. Like a lot of blokes I know, I’d go to the same pub every night of my life and drink the same pint for the rest of my days, as long as no-one changed anything. ANYTHING. I can moan about any and every aspect of the pub, from the price of a pint, to the speed of the barman/maid, the state of the loos to the state of the pickled eggs, pork scratchings and carpet. But I pay enough for a pint and drink enough of them to have an opinion, and it’s MY pub! Not yours — you fly-by-night manager who’ll be off in a couple of years to run that little B&B near Droitwich at the drop of a hat. I’ll be here, come rain-or-shine, moaning, laughing and crying at my regular spot in the corner until I decide I’ve had enough, or you decide to decorate. Or I’m politely asked to leave.

God, I bet they’ll miss me.

 

 

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate


Last Autumn Dartford Council spent weeks informing the residents that the workmen were due soon to re-surface our road (Swaisland Road, DA1 – if anyone down there’s taking notes). We were all very excited— If you live in Dartford there’s very little to get excited about.  So when a gang of diminutive, old suit-wearing Boys from the Black Stuff arrived we were indeed thankful for small murphys.

CoolHandLuke16

NOT the men from Dartford Council.

I wish now that I’d taken a photo to prove to my neighbours that the men actually came, because few believe me that anything happened at all. The road is roughly (and getting rougher by the minute) 400 yards long yet my tichy tarmac-toiling troops curtailed their asphalt-laying activities immediately outside my house — having completed a whopping great 47.32 yards. The remaining 352.68 yards of potholes, dog turds and more potholes were left to fend for themselves.

Cool Hand Luke it ain’t. It isn’t even Yosser Hughes.

So todays quiz is simply this:  In this snap taken by my own hand this very afternoon, see if you can spot where the new surface stops, and where the old one begins. A Greggs Iced Finger to the clever reader who spots the council’s deliberate mistake, Mike’s two fingers to Dartford Council.

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Those of you who haven’t paid their Council Tax please move to the right please.

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What’s the Bleeding Time ?*


“If you give us the name of your GP, Mr Bealing, we’ll write directly to him”
“I don’t have a GP.”  That was on Tuesday.

Wednesday: “What we’ll do is release you from hospital into the hands of your GP. Let us have his name and we’ll pass on your notes to him.”
“I don’t have a GP.”

Thursday: “What’s the name of your GP, Mr Bealing ?”
“I don’t have a GP.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a GP? General Practitioner ? Your local doctor ?”
“I’m a bloke: I don’t have a GP. I’ve never needed a GP”

Just three of several conversations had with doctors and nurses at both Darenth Valley and Kings College Hospitals last week. Most of them with female members of staff, all of them with an incredulous look on their face. “What do you meeeeaaaaan ??  You don’t have a GP ???” I might as well said I didn’t have a cellphone.


GPs, as any bloke will tell you, are a last resort. We don’t go to the GP unless something really ‘orrid ‘appens which prevents you from either a) going to work; b) going down the pub; c) playing sport or: d) all 3 of the above. For women, a GP is like a hairdresser – someone to go see once a fortnight for a chat. Blokes just aren’t made that way.

Boots the chemist is very much the same. Ever popped into Boots or Superdrug  and bumped into a bloke ? No, of course you haven’t. And if you have he’s either waiting at the door for his missus, or has been sent down for a packet of tampons or one of those individual, gender-specific packets of tissues for his wife while she’s at the hairdressers or the GP. Blokes don’t go to the chemist on their own accord. We buy our toothpaste at the supermarket and our headache tablets from the garage. Our deodorant at Millets

I’ve had GPs in the past but only when I needed them. Last one I had was in Blackheath when I needed to get my back and knee fixed (my poorly knee stopped me playing cricket and my bad back prevented me standing at the bar). So I registered with the GP with the sole intention of being referred to someone else.

When I moved to Dartford, finding a new GP wasn’t on top of my list. It was down there with finding a local french polisher and a nearby locksmith. But having been stuck down at the tender age of 46 by some ‘heart attack of the brain’, it’s clear I needed to find my own local doc. And if I didn’t realise that, there were hundreds of doctors and nurses on hand at the hospital to remind me I did.


But let’s get things into perspective: I can have no complaints whatsoever about the NHS. They were quite brilliant to me. During the week I spent with them the service and treatment was first class. Now at home (though still technically under their care) they have followed it up with regular visits, calls, prescriptions and injections. Pop over to The States and ask for free regular home health visits and see how far you get before being labelled a communist. And they don’t even mean it as a compliment.

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a row now and then while I was up there. The main one was with the consultant who wondered why I was so aggressive and angsty: it only being 3am and I’d had my stroke 2 days ago. Silly me, I should have known better than to worry. However, her apart, the medical staff were wonderful, wonderful, people and fit to marry my sister any day. If I had one.However the less said about yer average auxiliary staff:- the jobsworths on the front desk, the sub-contractors slopping out the …er…slop, the better.

The Doctor and the Medics sent me home probably 3 days sooner than I would have done so, given that I could neither walk, write or constantly open my…erm…parts, but it now seems to have been not just some cynical ploy just to get their bed back (as some of your rotters have suggested) but a measure which would see my health improve daily. And that has proven to be the case. Progress is good, the balance/walking seems to be coming along wonderfully, largely due to the “Standing Up Straight” lessons I’m receiving as part of the home visits. I tried to crack a couple of Kenneth More jokes buy my physio is far to young to understand.

The successful function of my lower regions seems to improve when I take a weighty tome into trap one with me to take my mind off it. Only the typing is still troublesome. I seem to have emerged from my medical traumas with dyslexic fingers. Every paragraph gives me problems, sometimes misspelling every other word, sometimes typing in completely the wrong washing machine. Only an avid re-reading of that which I’ve last typed prevents me publishing complete lawnmowers.

So onward and upwards. Time for another course of the 53 pills I need to take three times-a-day, just before The Incumbent injects me with some blood-thinner or other.  Or at least that’s what she says it is. The minute she reaches for the ‘saline solution’ I shall limp down the road as fast as my wobbly legs will take me.

*  “Ten past ten sir”

The Slaughtered Lamb


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.

A Beggar’s Banquet


Back to Dartford on Wednesday, to watch my old school play the MCC in the annual cricket match. I rarely return to my alma mater so this was a rare treat for me, if not for them.

I’d met my old sports master (O.T. “Buster” Price, for those interested) at Lords the previous day who told me he was playing down at the old school and wondered if I fancied coming down to watch. I checked my diary and, as luck would have it, I was free.

I enjoyed my time as a student at school, mainly because the headmaster was a sports nut and allowed me and my mates to stroll aimlessly through our academic timetable, just as long as we were fit and able enough to represent the school in our chosen sports.

The Blurry, Black and White Summer of 1980

So ignoring the weather forecast of wind and showery rain, I donned shorts and t-shirt and made my way down to the school field where I’d ran around as a young, fit lad (ok, ok it was 30 years ago), on the cricket and rugby fields for house and school teams. A marquee had been erected, chairs had been set out and small boys in school uniform were sat in rows to witness the action before them, as a master patrolled behind them to make sure they at least looked like they were interested. It was all very English: flannelled fools throwing and hitting balls around, resplendent in their whites, a force five breeze bringing in the storm clouds from the west, and three people trying in vain to get the bar-b-q to light.

I was greeted by a few Old Boys and several of those staff who helped me tip-toe my way though maths exams, history tests and physics classes, and then doubled-up as cricket umpires and rugby coaches. Happy days indeed. They were all kitted out this day in suits and school ties, and I stood out like a fat bloke in shorts, but no-one seemed to mind, though I did think they were a little over-dressed for the occasion. They looked like members of an ageing bowls club, I looked like the greenkeeper.

Hands were shaken and niceties exchanged as we wound our way down memory lane, all the time shuffling out of the way of others bustling around preparing lunch, tea and the bar. It really was a hive of activity and excitement. A little over-the-top for a school match, I thought, but each to their own. Plates and plates of salad arrived, there was cake, there was tea and biscuits, there were scones, there was beer and cheese and wine and crisps: a feast fit for, if not a king, certainly the Mayor of Dartford complete with his chain of office (“what the hell is he doing here ?” I thought) there was also a bar-b-q which still wouldn’t light.

The morning’s play ended and the players and invited guests (ah! that’s why they’re wearing suits) went into the clubhouse for lunch. The rain started coming down so I did the only reasonable thing: I went down to the pub for an hour.

Two horrible pints and a rotten cheese sandwich later, I returned to the field of play. The rain had stopped, the players were back on the field, and if anything the activity in and around the marquee had intensified. You could cut the atmosphere with a white plastic spoon. More reluctant spectators had been drafted in to ‘watch the match’. About 30 more uniformed 13 year olds had been inserted into a previously empty row of chairs, but none of them were paying attention to the game. Most were peering, meerkat-like, in the general direction of the gates to the field. All of them were texting on their mobile phones.

The rain started again in earnest and within seconds I and a hundred other spectators, players, schoolboys and barbie lighters squeezed ourselves into the marquee. To be sociable I bought myself a bottle of beer and chatted with my old pals and masters about absent friends and enemies.

It was a little snug under the tarpaulin, until suddenly it happened. The assembled masses parted down the middle to reveal the guest of honour standing at the entrance to the tent. A smiling, slight, almost skinny man in his mid-sixties stood there, dwarfed by both his partner and the accompanying headmaster from the school. Unbeknownst to me (but clearly well-known to everyone else) Sir Michael Philip Jagger, cricket enthusiast, rock star millionaire and the other famous Old Boy of the school had agreed to come in, under the radar, to visit, watch the match, talk to the boys and open an extension to his eponymously named music centre at the school.

No wonder everyone was running around like a blue-arsed fly, dressed like a pox doctor’s clark. Flashbulbs went off, old ladies swooned, Mr Mayor jangled his way through the throng to shake Mick’s hand and mobile phones were held aloft by boys and staff alike to grab a snap of their allegedly most famous son. Jagger was magnificently polite to all, smiling and spending several minutes talking to each of his greeting fans, then he and his girlfriend moved to where I was standing near the bar. I crabbed out of his way, lest he congratulated me on the cricket pitch I’d obviously prepared earlier.

“Any chaaance of a cuppa teeeea ? ” He enquired of the ladies serving. Mick still retains his Dartford drawl, fortunately I’ve lost mine. Two cups and two wedges of madeira cake in hand, Mick and his elegant, enormous missus took their seats by the boundary’s edge to watch the match, which the players had been forced, at gunpoint, to resume. I got myself another pint. Every couple of minutes someone would pluck up the courage to ask Mick if he’d mind posing for a photo with them. Women of a certain age resisted the urge to throw undergarments his way. I restrained myself. I don’t easily get star-struck, and after all he’s hardly David Gower or Francis Rossi, is he ?

A few sips of tea and a couple of nibbles of madeira later and it was all over. Mick and L’Wren (for that is her name, apparently) stood up, smiled at everyone and were escorted off again by the headmaster. Around the marquee, stomachs were let-out, the bar-b-q finally came to life and the wind played its merry game with the paper plates and napkins across the cricket square.

I’m told Jagger later that evening had an altercation with the paparrazi as he left the school. In a quirk of fate, they left me well alone. Maybe they didn’t recognise me in my shorts.

The Allotment of England


I was born in Erith and went to school in Dartford. If you didn’t, this may not be your cup of tea. However, if either of these places are dear to your heart, then have a listen to this half hour of Mark Steel (Swanley boy, above) on BBC Radio 4 tonight. Very funny. (Unless that offends anyone at all then I retract it, of course)

Mark_Steels_in_Town_Series_2_Dartford

I suppose this will drop off into the biosphere very soon, so many apologies if Auntie Beeb removes it . It’s an acquired taste for locals. The rest of you can jog on.

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