Before your very eyes…

Mrs E and me are away for the weekend. Staying in a hotel, no less. No dogs, no work, no responsibilities. Bliss.

We have a fabulous Saturday, filled with all the things we like, spending time with a couple of the kids, a very wet run and some light retail therapy. About the only downer of the day was at 16:09 – four of us were having a meal and Mrs E started describing something very serious and emotional. I know it was 16:09 as that’s the point at which my phone beeped, I made the mistake of loudly celebrating Todd Cantwell’s goal against Everton (A), and quite rightly was told that I wasn’t really concentrating on the conversation in hand.

With that almost forgiven, we had a level of entertainment in the evening that  was more fun than space permits to tell, and fairly skipped back to the hotel just after what used to be called closing time.

The great thing about hotels in the UK used to be that they could keep serving to residents for as long as either party was interested in buying or selling. The licensing laws have gone a bit skewed on us now, so there isn’t quite such a distinction, but there’s still something splendid about walking into a hotel bar after hours and feeling that you can have the run of the optics.

So I was particularly impressed when Mrs E, not one known these days for late nights or drinking, suggested we have a quick pint before bed. I was even more impressed when I saw that the main event in the hotel’s ballroom was the annual Magic Circle Dinner Dance.

We agreed that there might be some people-watching to be done here – we both have a passing interest in quirky societies and the people that inhabit them, and magicians are about as quirky as you can get. And the idea of them perhaps the worse for a light ale or two, maybe settling old scores or generally getting a bit ‘office party’ in front of us, was too good an opportunity to miss. We grabbed our drinks and made our way to the quietest corner of the bar, and prepared to be entertained.

Well, we weren’t disappointed.

First up, a couple leaving the ballroom and sidling up to the bar to drink gin. He’s in a rather relaxed outfit which, contrary to most of the other guests doesn’t even involve a waistcoat. She is wearing a slinky green number, which they both seem quite keen on. He’s got a stubbly beard and carries himself with the air of someone who really ought to lose a couple of stone, but hasn’t yet noticed it. She has a face that has the eyebrows a little too high; and if they’ve been lifted, they’ve forgotten to leave the lower eyelids behind. We conclude that he must be one of the new generation of magic circle members, and that she may well be his new magician’s assistant. They certainly seem to be using the annual dinner dance getting to know each other’s patter.

They come and sit a few yards away from us, eyelids are fluttered on both sides, and they provide a slightly seedy romantic backdrop to the rest of the evening’s events.

There’s a sound of shouting over a PA in the ballroom, sounding like the post dinner entertainment winding up. Tough gig, that, to entertain a room full of magicians and their confidants, and it sounds a bit like bingo calling, which it may well be. This soon gives way to the sound of a band playing disco hits from the 70’s and we guess that the transition from dinner to dance is complete.

Cue the succession of people leaving the ballroom, either to avoid dancing or to stock up on drink. First a portly man in an immaculate dinner suit, with a woman on each arm. One, who looks of a similar vintage, also looks bored out of her mind – probably the wife. The other looking slightly bemused, and needing his arm to support her balance on 3 inch heels, is about twenty years younger, and we reckon she’s his assistant. This is very much the stuff of short stories.

Next up, a man and a woman looking a little off kilter – she topples over when she hits the red carpet, and manages to pull over the elaborate metal stands holding the velvet ropes. In other venues this might have resulted in a cheer or a concerned silence, but everyone in this hotel just continues as normal – other than the man, who makes a point of kicking the rope stand before trying gallantly to help her up.

Then the balloon models start to appear. It’s well past midnight now, and although the event is due to finish at 1am, people are beginning to leave with the spoils of the evening, and those spoils seem to consist entirely of balloon models. Another tough gig, I would expect – how do you show off your balloon modelling skills to someone who may well be a master balloon modeller? Anyway, out come the guests who need taxis – first woman is clutching a very fetching Daffy Duck – the colours are spot on – and if she owns a nightstand, then that will be sat there before she hops into bed later. Then a rather odd looking model which may well be a palm tree without the palms. Possibly the modeller had had a run on green balloons. Then my absolute favourite – a balloon gun, about two feet long and looking like the sort of ray-gun that Dan Dare might have used. On the end of the gun was a slightly glazed man in what had probably started the evening as a very smart tuxedo, but was now, like him, showing signs of tiredness. Mrs Glazed Man was looking very much the definition of long-suffering. They made their way outside of the hotel. Fortunately Mrs E’s position near the window allowed her to keep up a hushed commentary on their progress on the taxi situation.

‘He’s getting a bit upset now…he’s pointing at her with the ray-gun…he’s walked down to the road…he’s trying to hail a taxi with the ray-gun…he’s back now cos it’s raining…he’s still pointing…he’s coming back inside…’

Which he did, to go to the gents, using the ray-gun as a weird latex divining rod, completely oblivious to the world around him.

Also oblivious were the couple from earlier. By now, their bar stools had mysteriously moved much closer together , to a point where you might expect her knee to be causing a little discomfort to his crotch. He didn’t seem to be too concerned though, just kept chatting away as if having someone massage his genitals with their knee was just something that happened every Saturday night. And then they kissed. For quite a long time. I tried not to look but I did. She looked as if she had her eyes closed, but frankly she’d looked like that all night. But I hoped it was the start of something…magical.

Another entry into the bar from the ballroom, this time from a man, on his own, who was the living embodiment of Don Revie, circa 1974. With one exception – he was about two foot shorter, so maybe the living embodiment in 5/8th scale. Other than that, the hair, the sideburns, the firm jaw line, even the suit were dead ringers for everyone’s least favourite Leeds and England manager.

Witnessing some light porn and seeing a miniaturised Don Revie made me remember that I’d been drinking, so I decided that I needed to wash my face. The man with the ray-gun had emerged from the gents by then,. so I knew the way, and pretty soon I found myself at a urinal, standing next to a man who appeared to be wearing a mayoral chain of office over his dinner suit.

‘That’s a nice medal’ I said, foolishly thinking I was being clever. ‘Did you win it this evening?’

‘That’s more than just a medal, my lad’, he replied, thereby in just eight words, managing to get information, charm and condescension into a single short sentence. I suppose in many ways, that’s very much the art of the magician at work.

I followed him into the ballroom.

‘There’s not much to see now the dancing has started. But it was a grand night’

It was indeed.

Next morning, we stuffed ourselves with as much breakfast as would last the long trip home. As we were leaving, I saw a familiar face arriving at the restaurant. It was the casual magician from the night before, this time on his own, and wearing exactly the same clothes. With one exception – he was wearing shoes but no socks. They’d disappeared. As if by magic.

 

 

 

Another tick for the Wall

Last Wednesday I was walking around the local cemetery, like you do, when I bumped into my friend H, who was cycling about. We stopped minding our own business and had a quick chat about where our lives were currently at. He was trying to get a very young baby off to sleep by taking her for a bike ride. I was trying to shift an injury in my left calf from the previous night’s run, in preparation for walking Hadrian’s wall later in the week. 

‘How long is that going to take?’ asked H. 

‘Five days’, I replied

‘Wow’, he said. ‘That’s the stuff of bucket lists’. 

Which took me by surprise. Firstly, I’ve never really been one for a bucket list. You’ll be unlikely to get to the end of such a list, and it all seems a bit like a tick list of how you’ve managed your life. And secondly, I’d not thought of it as that much of a deal. Me & Mrs E were going to do some walking, and it was going to be from one side if the country to the other, but that was it. And I knew a couple of people who’d done the 84 miles in a couple of days, and one who’d knocked it out in under 24 hours, so 5 days was unlikely to test us. But the bucket list comment kept coming back to me over the next few days…

The next day we biked down to the railway station, hopped on a train to London, tubed across to Euston, got on a train to Carlisle, hung about there for a couple of hours before getting a bus out to Bowness-on-Solway, and made our way to the only accommodation I’d been able to book, which was a small shed in the garden of a rectory. 

We’d exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the inside of the shed within a couple of minutes, so repaired to the pub, which already contained two sets of walkers, one of which was just starting, and the other who’d just finished. It was fairly easy to tell which was which – the ones who’d finished were the ones with four pints, two g&t’s, and a bottle of red to their name. We fell into an easy conversation with them as they moved onto large whiskies, and I made a mental note that they’d set the benchmark for how to celebrate finishing. 

So, off early the next day, and ironically back to Carlisle, in rather more time that the bus driver had managed the trip the day before. The bits that we didn’t share with cows were shared with some lively traffic for the first part, along the Solway, which separates England from Scotland. Years ago, there was a bridge across the water, which Scots would walk across on a Sunday if they needed a drink, and occasionally fall off as they made their way back. We rattled along, fuelled by banana and jam sandwiches, and made our way into Carlisle, which, in the late sunshine, felt as if it was trying hard to come out of a depression. Friday night in Carlisle doesn’t seem to be a particularly lively time, we had a quiet pint in a pub and wandered down to the ‘number one curry restaurant in Carlisle’, for further refuelling. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she’d recommend anything on the menu, and she said she couldn’t, as she didn’t eat spicy food. Mrs E gently suggested that she might be in wrong profession, and was told that ‘it’s just a job, innit’ before walking off, thereby assuring us that the hospitality industry in Carlisle is in another safe pair of hands. 

Setting off the next morning, safe in the knowledge that we only had 18 miles to cover, we started to hit some proper rolling countryside, all grass trails and sleepy villages, occasionally interrupted by wild eyed farmers whizzing about on quad bikes. Every now and again we’d come across a small fridge by the side of the road, advertising snacks and drinks for walkers, and asking for payment in an honesty box. I looked more closely at one of these boxes to read the small print, which basically said that anyone close to the box was monitored by cctv, and that that non-payment would result in unholy retribution. That kind of defeats the point of an honesty box,  but maybe they’ve had a spate of tracker bar thefts in the area, who knows?

We’d started to see a bit of the wall by now, and oohed and aahed appropriately, trying to get some appreciation of how 15,000 soldiers built a 5 metre high wall and a massive ditch over 84 miles, in about 5 years. By any measure, it’s remarkable, and you don’t necessarily have to be right next to it to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the thing, but once you’ve been up and down a few of the hills, and seen the size of some of the stones, it certainly helps. 

The 18 mile estimate proved to be woefully short, once we’d taken a couple of wrong turnings and remembered that tonight’s hotel was a little way off from the path, and we finished on about 24 miles. We limped into the reception of the hotel to find ourselves, confusingly, in the middle of a Scottish country dance convention. With our fleeces, sensible shorts and sturdy boots, there was a danger that we would be fully integrated, but thankfully we managed to find somewhere else in the hotel to eat away from the reeling crowd. Unfortunately the place we managed to find was a dark look into our future, an institutional room with the lighting and food that will be a feature of the retirement home that our children send us to a few years from now. We ordered quickly and safely, having been told that the kitchen was closing at 8:20 sharp, possibly as there were some neeps that weren’t going to stew themselves next door, and our food arrived in about the same time as it takes to defrost and reheat a vegetable lasagne. The experience of actually eating the food confirmed our future carehome worries – it all sort of blended into itself ina bit of a lukewarm brown mess, and all around us in the big room with the bright lighting and the gentle 80s music were people  looking as if they were dragging their way through their final meal. 

We stopped to look in on the country dancing on the way up to our room, the party was in full swing, and there was a serious amount of jogging and reeling to be seen.  Mrs E was delighted to witness one guy, dripping with sweat, race up the stairs to his room, to return minutes later, and ask her if she’d ‘nae fancy a wee reel’ with him. She said no (or nae), and managed to mention that her feet had just covered 24 miles and weren’t in any fit state to be chasing around the floor. Off we went for another early night, and were serenaded fairly robustly for the next few hours by the kind of noise that was going to keep men in kilts constantly on their feet. I could only make out two accordion players (which, frankly, is two too many), but they seemed to be able to punch above their weight on the volume front. On our way to breakfast early next morning and the riddle was solved – we walked past the stage in the ballroom and saw a PA system that Megadeath would have dismissed as far too loud for their needs. 

Breakfast had been prepared by the care home cook from the night before, and he/she had managed to cook a variety of food and blend into a single taste. On a positive note, it’s probably quite a skill to be able to cook mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and beans separately to the extent that they all taste like mashed potato, and there’s probably a market for it, possibly at that stage in life just before it’s liquidised and fed through a straw. 

Well, we ate it all up, in the knowledge that we needed fuel before the long and challenging third day. We knew this was going to be tough, as we already had it down as 21 miles, and given the previous day, was likely to be more in reality (it ended up being 28, which Mrs E has mentioned several times since). We had fantastic sunshine and saw the most spectacular parts of both the wall and the surrounding countryside.

It was Sunday, so there were loads of people out walking bits of the wall, contrasting with the pair of us as they sprang along in trainers and shorts, carrying tiny rucksacks which contained proper sandwiches, flasks of coffee and car keys. We had more of a knowing slog about us, and it would be fair to say that the wonder of the wall was palling by the time we hit mile 20.

In the event we walked for 11 hours, and had to phone ahead so as not to lose our hotel room. 

‘Don’t worry’, said the kind lady who answered the phone, ‘I’ll hold your room and I’m here till 10 so I’ll probably see you’. 

Which was probably meant to make us feel better. 

But, into Chollerford we finally trudged, straight into the bar where we drank cider and bitter and ate about half of our body weight in fried food. It’s funny, said Mrs E, after wolfing down a plate of chips. ‘I feel rubbish at night but my injuries seem to heal after sleeping’. 

And so it proved as we scampered down for more fried food in the morning. The leg from Chollerford to Heddon-on-the-Wall was going to be less taxing than the day before, but there was one really long climb at the start which we fairly whizzed up, not minding the rain at all, and even showing a bit of renewed interest in the next mile castle or fort ruins. We’d passed into Northumberland by now, and once the weather cleared we could see the country falling away in front of us, still with the line of the wall visible through the trenches stretching off ahead. We had another diversion into Wylam, where we were staying the night, which didn’t please Mrs E particularly, as it added yet more miles onto what were already some fairly manky feet, but that did give us a chance to go past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. Like Hadrian’s wall, there’s nothing to stop you reaching out and touching this bit of history (although you’d probably annoy the current residents) – we take all of this astonishing stuff in this country for granted and it’s even more fantastic that we don’t feel the need to rope it off. 

To the pub then, for beer, ginger cider (‘Not sure about this’, said Mrs E, ‘it tastes like squash’, before necking a pint in record time and demanding another in the style of Father Jack), and Thai food, which was fantastic. All followed by a night’s sleep caroused by the local youth of Wylam who may well also have been knocking back the ginger squash. 

And finally on to the last leg, which at last matched the guide book in mileage, and took us across yet more gently descending fields, a little away from the wall and onto the Tyne into Newcastle. It’s hard to properly follow the wall at this stage, as it effectively got hijacked by the soldier/politician General Wade in the 1700s, to create the military road for his troops to march across to quell a Jacobite uprising. It’s now the slightly less romantically sounding B6318. Paving over the wall was an astonishing act of outright vandalism, and if General Wade was alive today, he’d probably fit right in to the current cabinet. 

Coming into Newcastle along the North of the Tyne was both exciting and depressing in equal measure. I know Newcastle reasonably well, I worked there on and off for a few years and have mixed feelings about whether it was ever my kind of town. When I was there, I punctuated the work with long runs in the evening, and similarly, some of these were fabulous, and some of them quite demoralising. Which is pretty much how the last bit of the walk goes. Walking around the bend of the Tyne to see the bridges at Quayside is fabulous, and the buildings just fit their surroundings; if that had been the end of the walk then it would have been great. But the wall went a little bit further onto Wallsend (of course), so we still had another 5ish miles to go. Along the path, the litter began to pile up, not just odd cans of coke and papers, but assorted underwear and, for some reason, a number of disposable gloves; normally Mrs E and me will make up back-stories about the the unusual things we see on a walk, but thankfully by now we were too tired to do so.

We walked straight past the sign that flagged the end of the wall, retraced our steps, and a kindly coast to coast cycle rider took our pictures. We popped around the corner into the visitors centre, where we were met with smiling faces and sympathy for Mrs E’s feet (and feat, come to think of it). She has been testing the security and decency settings of social media ever since :

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We asked to go into the museum, and a very astute woman behind the counter suggested that we might have seen enough Roman ruins for now, and that we might be better off just going upstairs for a coffee, which we did.

Upstairs, I chatted to the woman making the coffee, who told me that her boss had just completed the walk in three days carrying a 25 kg backpack. I’m sure she didn’t mean to piss on our chips, so to speak, but it felt a bit deflating. And it shouldn’t have; we’d walked over a hundred miles in five days, carrying all our own gear, met some fabulous people and some ridiculously steep terrain, and seen some of the most glorious countryside ever, and the stuff you’d never see from a car. And in Mrs E’s case, done all that in a pair of boots that even now were making her feet bleed, and were destined for a more appropriate place.

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Perhaps the walk should have been on a bucket list after all.

Wanna Be Your (Action) Man

A few years ago, I convinced Mrs E that the way to enjoy her mid-forties was to hop on a bike constructed by her husband in his spare time, and pedal round as much of the Scottish western isles as we could manage in a week. Never one to scorn a challenge, she duly agreed, and we set off for a number of days of knackering hills, scary descents, mechanical challenges (make that really scary descents), more than our share of rain, and a certain amount of fun. 

Towards the end of our holiday/challenge, Mrs E started to complain of unbearable shooting pains in both her wrists and her ankles, both of which were quite important to completing the trip in one piece. There is another blog to be written some time on what happened next, but the quick version is that shortly after we got back she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a really crappy auto-immune disorder that doesn’t really have much to do with what most people think about either rheumatism or arthritis. What it does seem to do is stop people doing anything particularly active. Fortunately, there are some pretty good drugs that allow patients to muddle through and some brilliant people in the NHS who seem to be able to pull the right levers to manage pain relief against side effects. And there’s Mrs E herself, who completely refuses to be defined by her illness, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse if you’re trying to treat or live with her. 

So as a result of all that, we didn’t do any more cycling holidays. 

But one evening in February this year, we started talking about getting away. Mrs E declared that she would need some proper sun, but not the sort of sun that you enjoy by the side of a pool. 

We started looking at walking holidays, on the premis that they wouldn’t be too challenging because (and I quote) ‘I manage to walk the dogs for a couple of hours a day’. 

We signed up for 4 days walking in the south of France, travelling to Nice, taking a train north for a couple of hours, then making our way down from La Brigue to Menton. We got a load of information about walking terrain, essential equipment and navigating, all of which we completely ignored, and waited impatiently for the end of June. 

If you’ve been in Europe this June, you may well have noticed that the temperature has been a little bit on the warm side. We landed in 35 degrees and the temperature kept rising, so that our first day of walking took place in around 37 degrees, most of which was in direct sunlight. We walked for about 5.5 hours, generally feeling that we were not only inside an oven, but one where the grill had been left on as well. Worse, temperature-wise, on the next two days (6.5 hours each) and a nightmare on the last day, where, after 7.5 hours, Mrs E said she was truly cooked and starting to hallucinate, and I had to remind her that we still had an hour left to go. 

All of which we put to one side when we look back on the trip, which was more fun than we had any right to expect. We saw parts of the French Alps that were jawdroppingly beautiful; huge green mountain passes, beautiful streams and gorges, and, as we got to the end, fabulous sea views. We lived inside these picture postcards almost on our own – in the four days we were walking we saw one runner and three walkers travelling in the opposite direction. Parts of the walk had so much sunny butterfly action that it was like being on the set of a Disney film. And, without getting unduly soppy about it, we had a good time just being with each other. There is no-one I would rather have long discussion with than Mrs E. And no-one I’d rather play silly games with (eg day 2 – name a herb or spice in popular culture – a clear winner in Ike & Tina Turmeric).

So it was wonderful. But, as I said, really really hot, and that did have a bit of an impact on our tanning plans. I spend quite a bit of the summer wishing I had a healthy tan about me. I normally manage a reasonable glow about the face, but my chosen leisure activities rather get in the way of anything that you might want to see on a beach. To illustrate this, I’ve taken the wise decision of using a stock photo rather than any actual pictures of myself, which would need to carry a public health warning. So this is what I’m going to go with as a base:

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Firstly, let us consider the cyclist tan. You’ll see this quite a bit around this time of year, and it’s defined by the very clear lines of the bib shorts and short-sleeved shirt. In very keen and accessorised cyclists, you’ll also see tanlines around the cycling goggles, which make for a bit of a startled panda look:

A less forgiving tan is worn by the keen summer runner. Summer is a time for short shorts and vests in the running world. It is not an excuse for anyone to take their shirt off and run – there are certain male runners (mainly triathletes) who ignore this rule and look ridiculous, especially if they choose to keep their chest straps on. Although they would claim that they’ve avoided the even more ridiculous summer running tan:

Unfortunately, some of us have both of these tans working, as it were, in tandem. Even more unfortunately, those of us who have spent some time hiking of late have discovered a third tan type, which you get when you wear walking boots, socks, long shorts and no shirt, but still carry your double strapped rucksack.

So, I’m the proud owner of three competing and ridiculous tans, none of which work particularly well as a badge of honour. Unfortunately, also I’ve decided to try to learn to swim over the next couple of months. If anyone has a wetsuit I can borrow, I’d be very interested.

 

 

Hirsute you, Sir

In fashion news this month, #4 has started to wear a woollen hat at all times, indoors, outside, and in all weathers. Under close parental questioning, he tells us that he is planning to ‘grow his hair out’. This concerns me, not least as the thought of long hair brings back associations of hippies and prog-rock, neither of which are to be trusted, in my humble, and vocal parental, opinion.

Given that #4 is the last remaining bubba in the house, he is being treated as single child, and we’ve had to adjust parenting accordingly. Sometimes we even try and reason with him. Irritatingly, he reasons back:

Mrs E ‘You’d look so much better if you had a haircut’

#4 ‘Mmm, that’s just your opinion, and mine’s different’

Mrs E ‘But what will happen when you need to apply for your driving licence?’

#4 ‘I’ll take my hat off’

Incidentally, not the first time we’ve run into legislative challenges with him and hats. We had to go over to France in the summer of 2002, and had arranged rather optimistically to take all the family, with #4 having arrived only a month before. This meant that I had to take him to get a passport sorted out when he was 3 days old. Knowing that he would struggle to remain upright in a photo booth (not to mention operating it), I laid him on the bed in a babygro and fetching beanie cap, took his picture, had it printed, got it witnessed, and hightailed it down to the post office to have all the papers approved.

‘Sorry Sir, we can’t use this one, your son is wearing a hat’

‘But he’s only 3 days old’

‘Sorry, but the only way we can allow it is if he’s wearing the hat for religious purposes…’

‘Ok, so let’s say he is then’

‘…and in that case he’ll have to wear the same hat every time he goes through passport control’

I seriously gave that consideration, but then thought about the slight disagreements we might have if we lost his hat on holiday and had to leave him in Dover. Not to mention whether the hat would really suit him in ten years time. Although reflecting on it now, we could have saved a fortune over the years in headgear.

Back to the conversation then, and we all agree that this interim process of growing the hair out may well be the worst bit, hence the hat. The problem with this stage is that it kind of goes through a wild bedhead/mullet/fluffball stage, managing to be several unpleasant styles all at once. I can’t quite put my finger on it, until #2 pops round one evening, and surveys the situation.

‘He looks a bit of a hillbilly’

Which is pretty spot on. I mention to Mrs E that I half expect him to be wearing dungarees and playing guitar next, and to my surprise a couple of days later, wander up the garden to find him doing both of those things.

The other slight discomfort I have around this whole growing thing goes back to the very idea that men should have anything approaching a ‘style’ in relation to their hair. I appreciate that there’s a danger that I slip into the middle aged outrage that I’ve been trying to avoid for most of my life (although I found myself enthusiastically singing along to George Thorogood’s ‘Get a haircut and a proper job’ the other day), but while men’s hair is concerned, I reserve the right to be a bit Kim Jong Il. Which means it’s all a bit awkward at Emu Towers at the moment.

Kim Jong Il famously only allowed 15 haircuts on his watch (well, 16 if you included his own, which no one else could have), and there wasn’t actually a great deal to choose between any of them:

Most of my hair cuts ever since I can remember, have been in either style 2 or 5 from the poster above.

I’ve stepped away from the North Korea barber book only a couple of times. Before austerity was all the rage round these parts, and early in our marriage, Mrs E decided to save the £3 that I frittered away every month on haircuts by buying some clippers which would ‘literally pay for themselves in a year’. The cutting normally took place on a Friday night, and she had to have a couple of drinks to steady her nerves. As a result, I had a good couple of years of the worst haircuts imaginable, while she tried, and failed, to master the art of fading from a number 1 to a number 4. Had I travelled to North Korea around 1985, I would almost certainly been convicted of crimes against the state.

The other time was in the early eighties, when I mistakenly assumed that the ideal cut for a wannabe blues singer was a flat top. A flat top is very much like a crew cut, but with the top bit, well, flat. Draw a line on top of #15 above if you want to get the general idea. In order to maintain the cut, it needs to be trimmed once a week, otherwise it will start getting a bit messy, so it’s important to find a barber who a) can cut an accurate flat top and is b) cheap.

Fortunately, round the corner from where I lived at the time was Ted (known, unsurprisingly, as ‘Ted the Head’), who ran a barbers shop from the front room of his house. There was one chair, next to which was normally a assortment of kids bikes, lawn mowers and hifi components that he would offer to sell you as part of the barbering transaction. Ted had a range of two cuts – short back and sides, and flat top, which he’d learnt by cutting the hair of US airman during the war. To cut a flat top, you need a client who could keep his head completely still, a flat top comb, which laid on top of the hair, a set of clippers, and two very steady hands. Ted was getting on a bit when I met him, and he couldn’t really manage even one steady hand, so the cuts were a bit hit and miss, but we got there in the end.

A well cut flat top is a thing of wonder though, and quite the style for a rock and roll weekend. I decided to move on partly for maintenance reasons, and partly as during a particularly cold and rainy walk to work on winter morning, I found that a small sheet of ice had formed on top of my head. The next haircut would have to be able to accommodate some sort of hat.

Which brings us neatly back to #4. I guess things will work out in the end. He’ll do his own thing, with or without a hat. And things could be worse; he could have been born 40 years earlier and be trying to fit in with the fashion then….

Taking a punth

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the trend for renaming perfectly good months to repurpose them. My extensive research for this blog tells me that this practice has a name all of its own – these new months are called ‘punths’ – which is actually vaguely clever – it’s a word describing a pun, which is actually a pun. Sadly, that’s about as impressed as I get.

It started off with Movember, where men were encouraged to grow ridiculous moustaches in order to show their support for male health issues, but which gradually morphed into a competitive exercise when the vainest of the vain would place pictures of Terry Thomas, Jimmy Edwards or Windsor Davies on their mirrors, and groom themselves accordingly for a month. I’m all for increased conscious of health issues, although I do struggle with how my next door neighbour trying to look like Nigel Mansell for four weeks is going to heighten my awareness. About the only great thing about Movember is the first week of December, where we all collectively laugh up our sleeves because the comedy moustaches that we’ve been pointing at for weeks weren’t, after all, being grown as a joke.

Movember is preceded by Stoptober, when lots of people who don’t really smoke very much stop smoking. It’s followed by December, when all bets are off on doing anything worthy, unless you want to take part in Decembeard, in which case you can throw away your razor entirely and thus magically increase awareness of bowel cancer by looking like Brian Blessed. Then comes both Dry January, when people who don’t really need a drink make a big fuss about not having one, and Veganuary, when you get your ear bent by some twit in the pub drinking orange juice telling you how much he really misses cheese. We’ve just enjoyed Februhairy, when, possibly inspired by Movember and Decembeard, women have thrown away their razors in order to raise awareness of gender-based violence. You can insert your own comment about cause and activity here as you see fit. 

So, with the world of the punth in mind, I would like to suggest an alternative alternative approach to the calendar. I appreciate that these things will take a little bit to organise, and that you’ll all have to set up your crowdfunding and charity donation sites, so I’ll start the year in April….

Which will be re-named Staypril. As I write, 1st April is only a couple of weeks away, and marks the point at which we should (depending on your point of view) break free of the schackles of the EU or dramatically shoot ourselves in the foot and overtake the USA as the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Staypril will allow everyone who is keen on the whole EU thing to pretend that none of this actually happened. Expect an influx of artisan German sausage makers and French cheesemongers in your local market place, EU flags flown proudly from the windows of Renaults and Citroens and BMWs, and an unseasonal enthusiasm for bistros serving mange-tout, bouillabaisse and crepes.

Staypril will be followed by Brian May. I’ve resisted the temptation to celebrate Theresa May, as May is my favourite sunny month, and every time I look at a picture of our PM at the moment I’m chilled to the bone. Instead, Brian May will be celebrated by loose perms for all, and re-runs of The Sky at Night for astronomy enthusiasts. If you have a partner, make sure they have a matching perm and don’t mind answering to the name Anita for a few weeks. If you want to really celebrate, make a high profile biopic of your life, describing your career as a series of events in which you were almost too lovely to be true.      

Flaming June will encourage awareness of the word flaming as a substitute swearword. There’s a bit more opportunity here than you might think, if you consider the word ‘flaming’ to be an entry point to the lost art of cursing. We seem to have sadly settled on very few swear words in our vocabulary, and you very rarely hear the more imaginative words that we used to use, largely to avoid going straight to four letters. So, during June, we can have flaming, pillock, flipping, knob, blimey, bellend, bint etc. And for every nostalgic swearword used, a pound in the jar for the plain English campaign.

After all that blasphemy, it’s time for Julielo, in which the entire populations, both criminal and non-criminal can spend the whole month staying indoors, keeping a low profile. Staying below the radar in the way will allow the police force to all take the month off as holiday, returning refreshed in August to start hitting their arrest targets.

And what a series of arrests they’ll be making, as the nation celebrates the sizzling summer with the month of Orgyust, when normally straight-laced couples throw their car keys onto the coffee table, and nurture the pampas grass in their front gardens (apparently). I’m quite excited about Orgyust, because, in the past, I’ve only ever found out about orgies after they happen. Apparently there was a thriving swingers scene conducted from the touchline of one of my boy’s sports teams a few years ago, and I didn’t even notice. So it will be nice to have this on the calendar.

Sepptember will announce not only the start of the new football season, but by honouring Sepp Blatter, an opportunity to cram all the season’s financial irregularities and blatant cheating into a single month. This will allow the rest of the season to concentrate on actually playing football, but Sepptember will be a feast of stories of cash handed over at motorway service stations, Far East syndicates linked with huge bets on the number of corners in the second half of non-league competitions, drug cover-ups and exposes on the business activities of pretty much every premiership chairman. Expect to spent most of this month tuned into TalkSport for the incisive wit of Alan Brazil and Ian Abrahams. 

 

Doctober is very much a month to honour the poor sods who choose to train for years to be good at making people better, just so they can be worked to breaking point, trying to fix the unworthy, the ungrateful and the unhygienic. For just a month, patients will be prohibited for taking their internet printouts of their ailments to their GP appointments, and to limit themselves to no more than 3 ailments at a time. All patients should bathe or shower before asking a Doctor to examine them. Patients will be encouraged to keep a small supply of paracetamol in the house in case this is the prescribed cure for their illness. Also a selection of plasters for the little cuts that otherwise seem to find their way to A&E. If you have an urge to celebrate Doctober with me, you can borrow my soapbox.

Lowvember. When David Bowie passed away in 2016, Mrs E wore black for a full year, and the (very) many albums that made up Bowie’s body of work were on strict rotation in the kitchen. There was the odd exception, eg she’d be out on a dog walk and return to me listening to some early Elmore James, and without even asking ‘what’s this nonsense?’, she’d pop on the first Tin Machine album before she’d even fed the dogs. Partly to stir things up a bit, Lowvember will aim to celebrate the Dame in a more measured way, by playing a different album each day of the month. I have to be a bit careful here, and make sure I’m not in the same room as Mrs E when she’s reading this, but I don’t quite go along with the idea the DB was a creative genius for every single minute of his life (Mrs E, incidentally, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each of these minutes, so I know I’m on shaky ground). In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Bowie was pretty good until 1970, utterly brilliant until 1977, then, with a couple of exceptions, fairly average afterwards. And the 1977 demise happened towards the end of the first side of the Low album (which, in Lowvember will be played around the 11th of the month). It’s just my opinion, and as I said to Mrs E only last night, opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they all stink.

Kiki Deecember follows, and we can enjoy the runup to Christmas dancing along not just to ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ but also to every other Elton John duet. Sing along with EJ and Josh Stone on ‘Calling It Christmas’. Wipe a tear as George Michael croons his way through ‘Don’t Let The Sun’.  Ask yourself what planet you’re on, as Ru Paul reprises Kiki Dee’s role on ‘Don’t Go Breaking’.

And it’s into the new year, with even more retro-enthusiasm. I’ve been around for long enough now to see some interesting fashions that lose their appeal with age. I don’t mean the age of the fashion, more the age of the wearer. When I was a kid, some of the funniest people I saw were Teds in their 50s, still wearing drape jackets but with really thin quiffs. A few years ago I ended up at a skate-punk gig next to a guy who was spilling out of his anarchy t-shirt and trying desperately to coax his male pattern baldness into a mohican. All very sad. So expect more of the same in The Jamuary, where mods of all shapes and sizes will pour themselves into their tonic suits, sta-press trousers and mohair sweaters, and bounce along to Woking’s finest.

And from Woking to the World Wide Webuary. WWW, as it will confusingly be known, will be an opportunity to enjoy life as it used to be without the world wide web, and thereby appreciating it all the more afterwards. So, assuming we can get the necessary permits in place, we’ll be switching off the internet for a month, and thereby also allowing some upgrades to take place. Let’s face it, the internet hasn’t been powered down for ages now and it must be getting ever so tired. For four short weeks we’ll celebrate by going shopping in shops, talking to people without feeling the need to copy in the world or shouting, and by reading books. We’ll not stop people taking pictures of interesting cats or every single meal they’ve ever consumed, but they just won’t be able to share them for a month.

And so, into our last month. For those of us of as certain age, enjoying the music of the Smiths has been a bit of a roller coaster exercise of late. Chronologically, the story goes 

  • The Smiths burst onto the scene playing music that was unparalleled
  • Step above the copyists and write some more fantastic songs
  • Morrissey becomes spokesman for generation
  • Generation largely responds by going vegetarian and hanging on his every word
  • Band splits up a bit
  • Band splits up a bit more
  • Morrissey continues ‘spokesman for generation’ role
  • Generation still tolerates Morrissey despite some awkward moments
  • Morrissey produces several wonderful solo albums
  • Generation confidence is restored
  • Morrissey produces ‘Autobiography’, to ‘polarised’ reviews      
  • Generation is confused
  • Morrissey starts spouting on about race, rights, politics, immigration and anything else that he seems to find entertaining
  • Generation says enough is enough, please please please can you stop sounding off at us

So, my suggestion is that we all enjoy listening to the music of the Smiths for a month in the full knowledge that we’d feel guilty if we tried to align ourselves with Morrissey. Instead, we’ll just say that we’re enjoying Johnny Marrch. 

 

Tune in next month for more Puntastic fun x

The Curse of the Numskulls

I like my dentist. He’s a friendly man who seems to take very little delight in exerting the sort of pain that only dentists can deliver. He’s kind of the opposite to the Steve Martin character in Little Shop of Horrors. And if you’re not familiar with this, or just need a reminder, here you go….

If you watch the clip, take note at c1:30. We’ll be coming back to that later.

Despite his friendly persona, my dentist does have alarmingly strong forearms, which hove into view just after one of his glamorous assistants puts on the strange safety sun-goggles that are all the rage in dentists these days. On me, not him or her, you understand. In the good old days, I don’t think we had these glasses, and ostensibly they’re to stop odd bits of drilling debris flying into your eyes, and also to protect you from the full size  5000 watt follow-spot that is pointed towards you. I think in years gone by I must have kept my eyes closed. Or maybe previous dentists just used a bit of natural light and the odd Ever Ready torch. Who knows. Anyway, I always find the sight of these forearms slightly concerning, particularly if they’re holding a needle, a drill, or one of those spikes that dentists use to punish you for not flossing. They’re the sort of arms that, if they were attached to a fist in a busy pub and travelling in your general direction, you’d not fancy your chances of slowing them down by, say, offering a replacement pint.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I pitched up for an appointment and after a certain amount of probing about from said forearms, was told that I needed some root canal work. I’d had this sort of work done in the past, and had spent a lot of time worrying about it. ‘Don’t worry’, said people who were in the know, or not really interested, like Mrs E. ‘You’ll be fine, ‘cos you’ll have loads of anaesthetic’. And come the day, I did have loads of anaesthetic, but possibly in the wrong part of my mouth, because I can remember a jaw-jangling pain part way through the procedure which neither me nor my dentist were expecting.

So I can be forgiven, I hope, for feeling a bit nervous when I pitched up for the next appointment.

‘How are you?’, said the owner of the big forearms.

‘A bit nervous’, I said, staying true to the narrative of this blog.

‘It’ll be fine’, he reassured me, ‘we’ll get you nice and numb before we go right into the tooth’. Words which managed to jar with his calming intentions.

He introduced me not only to his assistant, but the assistant’s assistant, who’d come to see the procedure for herself. Maybe they were selling tickets, I don’t know. I was surprised to see that by the time I sat back in the chair, all four of us were wearing safety goggles. A large needle came into view, attached to a long syringe, held by that trusty right arm. Conservatively speaking, I think there was about two pints of anaesthetic in the tube; it took at least a couple of minutes to get rid of it into my mouth, so he’d obviously taken the nice and numb bit to heart.  After poking about a bit with a bit more metal, and being assured that I couldn’t feel a thing, he fired up the drill, and started work. The first couple of minutes sailed by. Radio 2 was playing some saccharine country and we were all (at least mentally) whistling along. And then it happened.

Before I describe what ‘it’ was, I need to to cast your mind back to days when you read the Topper, the Beezer and the Beano. In the unlikely event that you didn’t read them (what on earth were you doing in your youth?), then you should know that you missed one of the great cartoons ever – the Numskulls. The Numskulls story revolved around a boy, and the five Numskulls inside his head that controlled him.  As you can see from the picture, Brainy took care of the brain, and was chief Numskull. Blinky controlled the eyes, Radar was in charge of hearing, Snitch controlled the nose, and Cruncher was in charge of the mouth department.

I’ve been surrounded by medical professionals all of my life, but despite their patient efforts to explain to me how the human body actually works, I still think this is almost exactly what goes on inside my head.

Where me and the medical profession do join up, however, is on the points of communication between the different departments. I think it’s something to do with nerve synapses, and they happen very very quickly. And for the purpose of this blog, it’s necessary to expand something that happened into a very short space of time into the rapid inter-departmental messages that went on after my couple of minutes of pain free dentistry.

Brainy: How are things in the mouth, Cruncher?’

Cruncher: ‘A bit awkward, but nothing too bad to report’

Brainy: ‘Roger that’

Cruncher: ‘Oh, hang on, that’s….ow ow ow’

Brainy: ‘Sorry, lost you there for a moment, are you in some kind of trouble?’

Cruncher: ‘This Is The Worst Pain I Have Ever Experienced. I Am Capitalising My Comments Accordingly. It Feels Like Several Thousand Volts Are Going Through Lower Left Seven. Repeat, Lower Left Seven.’

Brainy: “Do You Have a preferred response?’

Cruncher: ‘Well, what options have I got on the blasphemy front?’

Brainy: ‘It all depends. On a scale of 1-10, how serious is your pain?’

Cruncher: ‘It’s off the bloody scale’

Brainy: ‘Hmmm, let’s have a look. If it was 9, I’d suggest the F word, which you used when you put your back out, and when Norwich missed a penalty against Preston last week. If it was 10, then you could go to the C word. You last used that in November 2005, during the Orleans marathon.’

Cruncher: ‘I’m sorry, Brainy, it’s worse than that. Do you have anything for 11?’

Brainy: ‘I’ll have to look it up. We’ve not really been here before, we’ve spent the last 56 years trying to create an aura of pleasant calm and common decency. Ah, here we are. It starts with the word Mother. Ready to go?’

And so it was, that the Radio 2 infused calm of the dentist’s room, and that of the waiting room next door, and the delicate ears of the dentist, the dentists assistant, and the dentist’s assistant’s assistant was disturbed. I’m not especially proud of the expletive that came out, but came out it did, together with an instruction from Brainy to my right arm knock Mr Muscle and his drill out of my mouth and some way towards reception.

A still calm came over the room. I was embarrassed, and possibly not the most embarrassed one there.

‘That didn’t go as planned’, said the dentist, recovering his composure, together with his balance. ‘I think we need to take a different approach’

The different approach was to send me to another dentist on the other side of town, who specialised in difficult root fillings. Also, putting a good three miles between us might mean that he’d not hear me next time the drill went in. All was fairly well in the end, and years of working as a business consultant meant that I could fairly easily read my own patient notes at the new dentist, upside down on a screen across the room.

‘Mr Revell is a lovely man’, the notes said, ‘but rather apprehensive of dentistry’.

As Cruncher might say: ‘No Shit, Sherlock’…

 

Town in a Box

Greetings from Majorca, where Mrs E and I have spent a relaxing time not worrying about marathon running.

The initial plan was to come over and run the marathon, which took place a couple of days ago in blazing hot sunshine, and with a ‘what could possibly go wrong’ approach, we booked travel and hotel about six months ago, just as I started yet another athletic comeback. 

Naturally enough, I got injured with about 8 weeks to go, and so concluded that it would be a bit daft to try and run the race at all, and after seeing the poor souls who hadn’t got injured plodding the roads around Palma on Sunday, I was secretly happy to have pulled out.

Waking up on Monday morning without any of those normal post-marathon, not-able-to-walk-down the-stairs-and-feeling-horribly-sick feelings, I decided to go for a run, looked out of the hotel window, and saw, about two miles away, the biggest boat I’d ever seen. Actually, calling it a boat feels a bit reductive. It  was more like a small town had suddenly plonked itself on the side of the island. Naturally I ran towards it, to see if my eyes had been playing up again. It was a windy morning, and the breeze was coming off the sea, and as I got about a quarter of a mile away, the wind just stopped, which was a bit odd, until I realised that the MS Symphony of the Seas (for it was she) was acting as a bloody enormous windbreak.

Anyhow, the MS Symphony Of The Seas is, according to my sources (that’ll be the internet then) the largest and most ambitious cruise ship ever built. I’ve already mentioned that it casts quite a shadow, but here’s some other stuff of note:

  • it’s 362m long
  • it has 18 decks
  • it can carry 9,000 people
  • it has a crew of 2,200
  • It has 40 restaurants and bars
  • it has 23 pools
  • it has two west-end sized theatres
  • it has a full size basketball court
  • it has two 43 foot climbing walls
  • it has a ‘central park’ with 20,000 tropical plants
  • it has an ice skating rink

and it cost $1.35 billion to build. 

Let’s just dwell on a couple of those for a moment. A 43 ft climbing wall? Sorry, my mistake, two 43 ft climbing walls? Is one more challenging than the other, or do they worry about double bookings?  I’ve not done that much climbing in my life, but when I have, the one constant that you could be fairly sure of was the rock face. That, an appreciation of gravity and a rough rule that you need to keep three limbs on the rock as much possible, is pretty much all you need to know in order to go climbing. Then along comes the MS Symphony of the Seas, and chucks in another variable, ie a rock face that moves every time you hit a big wave. 

Then there’s the ice rink.  I’ll fess up at this point and say that I never understood ice skating as a recreation. I find it quite hard to balance on ice at the best of times, without being strapped into ankle breaking pixie boots with knives attached to the soles, and being asked to stand upright. It’s not as if getting good at it will achieve much either, you either go down the route of sequinned jumpsuits or into the world of mental Canadian sport, where every player seems to be hell bent on beating up members of the opposition at any given opportunity. Anyway, my previous point still stands. All of that would be bad enough if the ice stayed in one place, but crashing around on the ocean wave? Well, that seems like you’re asking for trouble. 

Later that afternoon, and me and Mrs E are walking down to the town, and headed for the cathedral – probably the most jaw-droppingly beautiful bit of architecture you’ll see on these islands, made yet more so by being surrounded on three sides by some pretty brutal hotel towers. On the other side of the road were parked up a fleet of coaches, all marked as pick up points for the MS Symphony of the Seas passengers, so we were able witness first hand a good cross section of those 9,000 people who’d come aboard to sample the wonders of Majorca for a few precious hours. And we did, because we’re nosy like that.

I guess the first thing that I’d comment on would be that the ratio of restaurants and bars to climbing walls seemed a bit generous. Perhaps because the passengers were contrasted against a population who seemed to be cycling, jogging or recovering (remember this was the day after the marathon) along the beachside, they just seemed so, well, unfit. Not just in a corpulent ‘elasticated-waists-have-never-gone-out-of-fashion’ sense, but in genuinely seeming to have a problem with the concept of moving their own bodies without motorised assistance.  There’s a danger of getting a bit fat-cist here, and I don’t really mean to, because the main observation I’d make was much more important – everyone looked so incredibly miserable. Without exception, everyone, puffing away towards those air conditioned bus steps, was grimacing like their cat had just been put down. Which seems perverse, given that they’d been whisked from their floating palace to see the most amazing building on the Balearic Islands, before sauntering down past lush gardens and fountains and up to bright blue water and glittering beaches. What’s more, this, was supposed to be their jolly holidays. 

It costs about £7,500 for a 12 night cruise for 2 from Barcelona to Miami on the MS Symphony of the Seas. This is the equivalent of 3 months salary for the average UK family (which would include anything that said family would put away for their own holidays). Just thought I’d wrap a bit of context there, before I sign off with an inevitable ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ line. It can, however, buy you a go on a 43ft climbing wall. And if you ever find yourself aboard the MS Symphony of the Seas, I reckon that’s free most days.