The Birds and the Wasps

This weekend found us visiting friends in the Leicestershire countryside. I’d been to Leicester only once before, as a schoolboy to play rugby, and found myself ruminating on just what I knew of the area. I knew it was another one of those odd English words which foreigners struggled to pronounce (for any of my overseas readers it’s Ly-cester-shyre). No not really. But it turns out I knew very little else, it being one of those little bits of England that attracts scant attention or publicity, a bit like Wiltshire, Stephen Fry or Scotland.

My cricketing hero David Gower used to play for Leicestershire, and who could forget Leicester City‘s Keith Weller ? (oh, you have). Rugby legend Martin Johnson was, of course, for a long-time at Leicester Tigers, then there’s red leicester cheese, the deaf midget tax-fiddling horse jockey Leicester Piglet, Leicester Square and the Leicester Shuffle (if you throw two playing cards onto the floor you get less ta shuffle). Clearly I was clutching at straws.

So it came to pass that on Saturday morning I was zipping around mile after mile of beautiful rolling hills and lanes, past box hedges, magnificent oaks and dinky thatched stone cottages. Past signposts which could have been lifted from the script of American Werewolf. Signs for Tugby and Queniborough sped by, for Houghton on the Hill and Skeffington, even Ratcliffe on the Wreake (which sounds to me like Harry Potter on a vodka binge). I looked for signs to North Londonshire but could see none.

It was beautiful. The trees cascaded with Autumnal colour, the pale November sun washed over the copse and ploughed fields and everywhere was teeming with wildlife. Not just sheep and cows, horses in fields and chickens in coops, but pheasants and eagles, buzzards soaring and hawks hunting. Even the roadkill was exotic – badgers and deer where, at home, I’d see foxes and hedgehogs clogging-up the roadside gutters. Ah! the countryside is great. I’ve always been a committed townie, always preferring the smell of exhaust fumes, the sound of a police sirens or a bus’s airbreaks to the smell of dung, the twittering of the birdies or the clip clop, clip clop of farmers throwing horse shoes at boisterous cockerels.

But wandering around this area I could see the appeal, and it became clear to me why at some point in many lives, city dwellers up-stumps and seek out and claim for themselves that little bit of an English field that shall be forever foreign. And smelly. Yes this was it, I thought. I let my mind wander, daydreaming of buying a labrador, wax jacket and wellies, and perchance an Austin Healey. Of doing nothing more strenuous than grow a beard or taking myself for a spin from village to village, working up a thirst before I parked myself on a bar stool down at the local pub, supping endless pints of Thruxton’s Old Dirigible through my grey whiskers, brushing off the pickled egg debris from my corduroys.

Our friends, Julia and Stuart, had moved up from town a couple years ago and I could see in their eyes that this was the sort of lifestyle they were shaping up to enjoy, if they weren’t doing so already. They’d thought ahead and brought their labrador, Oscar, up with them from the smoke of the South East. I liked Oscar. An old boy, he didn’t so much bark as cough. When you entered the room he approached you making the sort of flegmy noises that my old pipe-smoking landlord used to make as I walked into his pub (though Oscar wagged his tail slightly more and scratched himself slightly less than old Jack did). I wanted an Oscar when I moved up here.

No sooner had we arrived at their home than we were whisked off by Julia and Stuart to a nearby pub for the proverbial lunchtime pie and a pint. What perfect hosts. It was a charming, warm country affair with a fine selections of ales and spirits and a decent wine list. They even had lemons. Their daughter worked behind the bar and we were served immediately. It was wonderful ! We supped, we nibbled and we supped again. This was lovely. I could have stayed there all day. Happy days. As we’d come in I’d noticed there was a twee little white cottage next door which had a For Sale board outside. I started dreaming again. Hmmm…….

And then a bell rang and woke me up. “Time gentlemen please” bellowed the landlady.

Eh…? what…? Wassappening ???? I looked at my watch. It was 3pm. OF COURSE. Bloody country hours. Strangers to these shores may be unaware that up until ten years-or-so ago, pubs in England would close every day at 3pm (2pm on Sundays) and not re-open until 6pm (7 o’clock on Sundays). Legend has it that this haitus in available alcohol purchasing time was introduced during WWI to encourage the factory workers back to the production lines. As 20-somethings we didn’t give a monkeys about the history, all we knew was that our formative years of beer-swilling were punctuated by daily and very annoying periods during each afternoon when landlords would throw us out of perfectly good drinking holes. Pah.

Thankfully, the lawmakers of this country came to their senses and the laws were changed to allow beer to be served pretty much all day. Reason had prevailed and one could happily go missing in action in a saloon bar for a goodly amount of time. But, of course, we lived in London, where every opportunity to screw a few more pence out of the spending public was seized upon. Everything was open at every hour, every day. Pubs, restaurants and shops seemed never to close (though, perversely, police stations and hospitals and nursery schools started to close or operate restricted hours- go figure). Folk out in the sticks, however, liked things as they’d always been and the half-day closing practices continued.

So now, here in the middle of the English countryside and for the first time in yonks, I was being asked to leave a pub before 11pm for reasons other than foul language. And I tell you something: It felt perfectly fine. A sudden bout of nostalgia overcame me. I was transported back to those long, beerless afternoons of the 1980s, when I and legions of other thirsty herberts traipsed the streets trying to come up with something, anything to do while the pub was shut.

A smile passed my lips, this was a good thing. It was civilised, I could handle this. I was too long in the tooth to still feel the need to spend every waking hour in a hostelry. This is how adults behaved: you had a couple of quiet pints at lunchtime then made your way home to your loved ones. Spiffing. Adulthood, that which I vowed never to have anything to do with – like the Liberal Democrats, Strictly Come Dancing or anal tucks – had barged its way into my life and I felt comfortable letting it in.

We strolled back to the car. “That was great” I offered as convincingly as I might. “Very civilised indeed. Haven’t done that for years”.
“Yeah, it’s like the old days back in London, isn’t it?” agreed Stuart. We all nodded and manoeuvred our sensible middle-aged frames back into the car. I almost felt smug with myself. Stuart started the car then added,
“And on Mondays the pubs don’t open at all !”


“Beg your pardon ?” I felt a cold chill run down my back. “Not open on Mondays. AT ALL???” I was a tad quieter on the drive back to the house.

The rest of the weekend was spent chomping a quaffing our way through Julia and Stuart’s wine cellar and food cupboards. Bloody fine it was too. Great company, smashing grub and a very fine selection of vin rouge kept us very happy indeed. We ventured out again on Sunday afternoon for a short tour of the area, stopping off at another pub for a pit stop. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was going to be open at all, given the shocking revelation of the day before. Thankfully I needn’t have fretted.

Just before we got our things together for our return trip home, a winter wasp (presumably another quirk of the countryside) flew up my trouser leg and stung me, thankfully only on the shin. Little bastard.

So we retraced our route back to the motorway en route to London, through the same lanes as the day before, now covered in jet blackness. Every so often we’d see a pair of unkown creature’s eyes illuminated in the headlights, or the flap of an owls wings as it swooped across the road in front of us.

It was all very different and all very lovely, but I decided that, as it turned out, I no longer wanted to live in the country. I’d gladly trade the smell of horses for the smell of a kebab house (often a strangely similar smell), I certainly could do without November wasps and I’ve never been all that keen on long country walks.

Back home now in Railway Cuttings, the rain is pouring down the window on a miserable, cold, November Monday afternoon. I’m looking out at bluetits on my nuts and squirrels burying theirs, not Owls hooting or badgers badgering. When I get bored of watching my more mundane urban wildlife I may just take myself off up to the village where there are five or six pubs with varying levels of charm. Some offer less-than-mediocre service, nearly all possess truly shocking toilets. In some the pipes won’t have been cleaned and there will be more barflies than customers (though I’ve yet to be bitten on the shin by a barfly). Being a Monday someone will have forgotten to order the lemons or re-stock the ice bucket.

But whatever the state of our local boozers down here in our little part of London they will be open. And that’s the way I like em.

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.