What’s in a Name? Brief Ramblings from a Birthday Boy

The day will begin with a massed rendering of ‘Oh Joyous Natal Day to Rod’ (the Henry Wood arrangement for old sea salts) by the London Symphony Orchestra, the massed bands of Her Majesty’s Guards, the BBC Choral Society and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If the venue is not of sufficient capacity – ie Auntie Rose is reluctant to turn on the heater in the conservatory  –  then Elton John on the upright in the living room will suffice.

I have had so many dozens of birthdays that they have all merged into a dull November blur, generally cold and grey, although at least less foggy these days, and inevitably imbued with the melancholy of having to immediately precede Armistice Day with memories everywhere of family losses.

My mother came from a large family of ten, if you include the parrot, so I had a wealth of aunts and uncles and cousins. Unfortunately November 10 was not a date which welded itself into their subconscious so as I watched over my raised spoon of Sugar Puffs the measured tread of Syd the postman approaching the front gate I knew all too well that it would be followed by his measured tread straight past the gate and on to our neighbours’. Postal present hopes dashed, I would open my parcels from my parents, sister, godmother from two doors down, grandparents and favourite Auntie Evie: books and requested sporting items from shin-pads to batting gloves, and scuttle off to school.

Nobody at school or later at work ever knew it was my birthday so in the years after I left home it amounted to a couple of cards and otherwise passed unnoticed. This must be an older generation thing as my daughter and her many friends, some of whom date back to schooldays, still celebrate each other’s birthdays in great style with outings and presents and much joyous merriment. Mine seem to flash past at an ever more alarming pace. My wife, always adept at keeping a move ahead, characteristically arranged to be born on November 9, the day before – although a good many years after – mine so we are able to celebrate the 48 hours gastronomically, each pretending the feast is for the other.

So that’s my birthday pretty well taken care of, although at this late stage of life I would like to take issue with my parents on the names with which they saddled me on that original birthday when they received the indescribable joy of my arrival. I will confine myself to the first one.

I have never quite embraced the name Roderick. During my newspaper days I always thought  Admiral of the Fleet Sir Rhoderick McGregor had a fine look to it and in high court press boxes I was frequently noting the eloquence of Roderic Bowen QC.  The little Gaelic and Celtic variations made all the difference. But Roderick? Rod Stewart clearly felt the same. I too went for the short version.

One thing to be said for Roderick is that it is better than Rodney. There was a rather camp conversazione on a radio comedy show in my childhood which always began ‘Hello Rodney!’ ‘Hello Charles!’ (I suspect Kenneth Williams  and/or Hugh Paddick may have been involved) so when I journeyed through newspaper life I was frequently greeted in the newsroom by the normally terrifying news editor,  the legendary  Walter Grossey, with a ‘Hello Rodney!’  which bent him almost double in uncharacteristic mirth.

When I began to get books published I reverted to Roderick on the doubtful grounds that it might have a more literary ring to it. Library pulp fiction really needed no pretention however, and in later life, in non-fiction as in journalism, I became Rod again, as I remain to this day, except, curiously, on Twitter. Who knows how many friends or followers I might have had if I had kept to the shorter form.

Still, I am very proud indeed that my American nephew keeps the name alive, just as I was always happy to share the birthday with Richard Burton until his sad demise. I will raise a glass to him over lunch and wish it were a pint of Rhymney Welsh Bitter with which he must have been familiar before his tastes became more exotic. I look forward to meeting other November 10 birthday boys and girls in another place – no hurry, mind – if they celebrate together with regular parties up there. No religion, politics or football,  so keep it light, Martin Luther.

 

 

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Chickens still in the coop, but the others have flown

I seem to have missed September on the turn-over kitchen calendar which is rather curiously devoted to chickens, although I am very fond of them. My neighbours’ brood are the first sound I hear in the morning, chuckling and chattering over the latest scandal and gossip in a pleasingly low-key way.

They have no noisy, strutting cock among them which may or may not be unfortunate for them, but is certainly very pleasing to me. My alarm clock lies silently shrouded in my sock drawer, its useful days far behind it, like mine, and a crowing cockerel at daybreak would not be welcome. There are others on the distant horizon, but their triumphant reveille calls are faint enough to be pleasantly familiar rural background noises.

The Emma Bridgewater calendar has a beautiful illustration of a hen on every page which constantly  takes my eye from the crucial entries on the days below it. By missing the September page completely I also deprived myself of one of the finest illustrations. The Poland, a very old, crested breed looks a total ridiculous delight but is unkindly described in the caption: “Perhaps the silliest looking chicken. The foppish topknot on this dainty chicken can prevent it from seeing out at all, but it is a decoration for any garden. They are not the best of layers.”

Never mind the eggs – I prefer the golden yolked ones in the blue packs from Sainsbury’s anyway (this blog is always available for product placement at a most reasonable price). The Poland was clearly born for decorative delight which is more than many of us can claim.

Anyway, to get on to the kernel of this crisp, concise piece – never a word wilfully wasted – by missing September as it slid past so slyly, I nearly lost not only the silliest chicken but also a number of those crucial  hastily scribbled entries, ranging from Haircut to Collect Pills. I say ranging from – actually those were the only two entries, although there was a pencilled one which appeared to say  10-12: Flute  lesson. Now as the decades roll past, I am increasingly prone to the odd lapse of memory, but I certainly had no recollection of taking up the flute. I think I would have remembered that. The piano stands virtually unplayed in the living room as my fingers stiffen, and surely the flute would be even more intricately demanding on the digits.

“It says flu-jab session,” said my wife when I pointed it out to her, going on, rather impatiently, I thought, to point out that they nabbed me for my flu jab appointment at the pharmacy when I popped in to collect my pills after a trip to the village barber. What a triple triumph! I turned over two pages on the calendar but had still fulfilled all three of my monthly engagements, even though I must have been flying on auto-pilot at the time.

I was particularly pleased to see that I had remembered to collect the monthly prescription pills. These come in an amazing assortment of shapes, sizes and colours since I rattle around on 12 a day which is about 360 a month. Filling the dated dispensers provides me with more finger exercises than a thousand scales and multi-octave arpeggios at the piano. This saves neighbours and cat from discordant noise nuisance, apart from the far from muffled oaths when one of the little pink pills squirts out of my hand and on to the carpet, causing me to shed half a dozen of the big white ones, Allopurinol, which allow me to drink as I choose without snags. The cat licked one of these as I dropped it and looked rather distressed, but I assured her she would now be gout-free for a month.

The calendar month entries should perhaps start with a memo to write this blog, but you will appreciate that this is more a matter of waiting for my Muse to call me with inspiring thoughts. As it happens, the Muse let me down again, the hussy, and now that I glance back to the last blog entry I see it appears to have been written on August Bank Holiday so any hope of continuity is lost. But then my original aim, many months ago, of generously preparing younger generations for the vicissitudes of old age with words of wisdom and warning anecdotes has drifted a little on occasions.

One of my most constant problems here has been explaining how I fill the hours on the last downhill stretch. There has been one clear omission. I don’t know how I have dwelt on the mixed fortunes of the ageing dodderer for so long with hardly a mention of my family, apart from my wife’s occasional strictures.  In fact, the family’s activities and my own vicarious enjoyment or deep alarm trying to follow them does consume many of the senior citizen’s hours spent between naps.

Unlike next door’s chickens, my son has fled the Coopercoop for a nearby historic Sussex town where he has a flat in a setting as peaceful as this one – well, a good deal more peaceful as the mainline service from Charing Cross to Hastings does not hurtle past his back fence as it does ours. His departure, together with what seemed like several thousand books which fed his academic successes, left me room to bring back several hundred of my own books from the study to the main house and also gave my waning social life a boost as I visit him regularly to be introduced to fine films I have overlooked – latest example David Lynch’s beautiful The Straight Story – and test the comfort of his spare armchair (very good indeed).

My daughter took wing many years ago and a visit to her flat, close to Arsenal’s old Highbury Stadium home, which I visited with varying degrees of success as a Chelsea away fan over the decades, is a more nostalgic affair. She keeps family pride alive by bravely wearing her old Didier Drogba no 11 shirt on her visits to the local gym where it is not widely admired by the muscular Gooners grunting in the corner.

My charismatic maternal grandfather was originally a Fulham shop assistant who  somehow managed to take his wife, two sons and five daughters to the cheapest seats in the Gods not only at local variety palaces but occasionally to West End theatres, where he was apt to rise to his feet roaring “Bravo!” at final curtain calls. This theatrical gene lay dormant awhile,  although I do remember very lively Christmas massed family charades and also my sister enjoying herself enormously as the Scarlet Pimpernel in boots, cape, silver-topped cane and dashing hat in her school play before she became a writer.  

My daughter also inherited the gene, insisting on training as an actress. When opportunities did not knock swiftly enough to satisfy her passion to perform, she also became, to our alarm, a comedian.  Some years later, she has performed in Vienna, Budapest, Edinburgh, Dublin, Liverpool, Cardiff and Plymouth amongst other places. Texts suddenly glow eerily on my phone screen on the bedside table, like the other night’s at midnight, saying “Great gig. Just passing Port Talbot, while listening to the Richard Burton Under Milk Wood!  London by three.”

I trust the M4 will be free of traffic hazards and highwaymen as I drift off to sleep again, pondering not for the first time in recent years on whether I might not be to blame for all this, showing her South Park at the age of 10. Her eyes lit up up  with enchantment at the first sight and sound of  the appalling Eric Cartman and her future was fixed for ever.

I made a similar slip with my son when I negligently let him vary his then Doctor Who and James Bond dedicated viewing diet by allowing him to slip Pulp Fiction  into the DVD player which, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson, led to various supermarket shoppers and park strollers being unnerved by a small boy constantly quoting Ezekial in a piping treble voice which was somehow just as sinister as the deep warning menace of Samuel L: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.

As for me, I can always be found in this blog, scratching around and grumbling like the chickens next door. October’s calendar girl is the Cuckoo Maran and very colourful she is too, although, like the dear dotty Poland, not apparently a great layer of eggs. Still, few of us are as productive as we were. I’ll meet you here in a month – or so.

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‘Too Old to Cut the Mustard Anymore’

I could get around I didn’t need no help
But since I’m old and a gettin’ gray
The people all look at me and say.

Too old, too old, he’s too old
To cut the mustard anymore
Buddy’s gettin’ too old, Buck’s done got too old
He’s too old to cut the mustard anymore.

William Carlisle  © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Recorded by Ray Ellington after many, many others

 

I smiled charmingly at my reflection in the shaving mirror this morning and was irritated to see that the affable expression was not returned. I wouldn’t say that it sneered back at me. It was not a contemptuous smile, but neither was it cheerful. I looked more closely. There were two clear – I would almost say deep – lines of discontent running down from beside my mouth to my chin.

There seemed little point in reproving the miserable looking old bugger. Those lines were hardly going to cheer up or clear up anyway.  I finished shaving and then in the manner of Father Ted unfortunately upsetting the Chinese community on Craggy Island, I placed my fingertips beside my eyes and pressed and pulled gently – well, pretty hard, actually. The eyes squinted, but the face cleared, the lines of discontent vanished and familiar features from the past looked back at me far more agreeably. I knew that face. I had lived with it for many years – before the lines appeared.

I smiled again and was now positively charmed by the delightful greeting in response. Now I would not want you to suppose that I am in a regular habit of peering at my face in the mirror, particularly with two fingers acting as face-lifting clamps.  Indeed, the last time I could remember studying it quite so critically was well over half a century ago in my teens.

The face that had distressed me then in those early days of shaving had been irritatingly bland, smooth and innocent, devoid of any real distinguishing features.  In those days I craved not exactly a duelling scar down one cheek, but perhaps a dent on the forehead from an argument with a lamp post after flying over the handlebars while doing up a shoelace. Something. Anything. But I always healed up so quickly.

I had friends with wild unruly hair that tore the teeth out of their combs as they tugged away before the No 81 from the girls convent school arrived at the bus stop. I had friends with incipient acne, tombstone teeth, lantern jaws, gormless grins, cleft chins like Cheddar Gorge, laughs like hyenas, ears like Dumbo. But now I remembered again that before the lines of discontent I had nothing. Perhaps I should be grateful for them.

I released the pressure on the cheekbones and the bland face gave way to the morose one again. The irate pounding on the bathroom door increased, as it generally did all those decades ago when I was 18, so I took a hasty shower and left.

But later this morning I dug out a couple of faded and crumpled class photographs five years apart. There in the first picture was the menagerie of 13-year-old misfits and eccentrics, gaping foolishly or shyly, heads too big for their spindly, skinny necks, and then there they were at 18, still discernibly the same faces, but smiling confidently, acne pretty well gone and leaving a weatherbeaten, mature look, jaws improved with faces filling out, teeth fixed and gleaming, ears pinned back or defiantly flapping.

The only face that was difficult to spot in both was my own: bland, expressionless, forgettable. I could probably have roamed the world after the Great Train Robbery and never been spotted from a Europol photofit.

In the days before the Internet it was easy to lose touch with childhood friends,  particularly as most of us had moved far away, but occasionally chance threw up the odd encounter. I was once standing on a railway platform in Shrewsbury, at 3am, as I did on regular trips to and from my family home in Mid-Wales.

The night was black, cold, deserted, silent and I peered into the tunnel just beyond the edge of the platform, hoping for a distant whistle heralding the arrival of the last night train to London. A figure trudged out of the tunnel in a narrow beam of light from his helmet like a coal miner’s, slowly swinging some other inspection light in one hand.

As he reached me on the end of the platform we nodded affably and then gasped as we realised we had spent many years in the same classroom at school.  “Boz!” I cried. He was far brighter than I, particularly on the maths and physics side – who wasn’t? – and seeing him in some nocturnal subterranean railway inspection role seemed strange.

But he was in fact making rapid progress up the British Rail management ladder. I would see his face in newspapers and on television by the time he was a Life Peer and active in transport politics.

Other friends’ faces and voices flitted in and out of life, generally in odd newspaper photogaphs or  Christmas card notes. The scrum half with hands and fingers like an orangutan was a distinguished dental surgeon with a stunning wife. There were lawyers, teachers, a doctor, two professional footballers turned publicans. Some were bald, but often deliberately so. The guy with the cleft chin was ageing but ridiculously handsome and on to his third wife. There was a professor whose early  long-necked geekiness had grown into white-haired wisdom in his appearances on the BBC News Channel. But well over half a century had not totally changed their physical appearances or their voices. Somehow their intrinsic selves still seemed to shine through.

The orangutan scrum half and I were once forced to go to a neighbouring girls school’s sixth form dance at gunpoint as everyone else had cravenly given in and agreed to go. We stood at the soft drinks bar, absorbing the unfamiliar nature of this relatively gracious and glamorous world.

“Have you noticed that roughly speaking girls can be graded A, B and C?” he said. “Oh, my life, and A Double Plus!” He jerked his head towards a vision of incredible blonde beauty in a very short skirt even for the time of that decade. We gaped together.

Fearfully I begged him to quieten down. Feminism was already alive and flourishing in girls’ sixth forms even then. Coming from an all-boys school we had little knowledge of such matters, but it was all too clear to us that most of the girls there were of far higher grades than we were, physically and probably mentally, too.

“Oh well, yes, we men go down to D,E F and beyond,” he said. “But you and I just might snaffle a C while the night is young on the Rialto. I wish thee well, Rodrigo!” and he vanished with a gleam in his eye, flexing his orangutan fingers to offer a dance to some lucky young lady.

Some hours later the evening was ending in the local Palais de Danse whence some of us had conducted our grudging partners to a proper bar with proper drinks. I eventually – well, fairly swiftly – lost my partner to a lanky and precocious upstart from the Lower Sixth whose father had foolishly bought him a secondhand Morris Minor which was outside, but at the bar I had been fortunate enough to engage in brief conversation the Palais attraction of the night, the great Ray Ellington, an idol of mine since he provided musical interludes and odd lines of dialogue in The Goon Show on the radio. He was resplendent in a Cambridge blue suit and relaxing with his musicians after their lively session.

I was glad to see the scrum half and his partner had arrived in time to see me in such august and cool company. “Wotcha havin doll?” he asked her in a curious, husky, Mid-Atlantic voice that immediately attracted Mr Ellington’s startled but amused attention.

I realised then that the partner was the dazzling blonde, Slough’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. “You said she was A Double Plus and we’re hardly C,” I hissed.

“Poysonality, it all comes down to Poysonality, son,” he said.  “A  Babycham and a light ale, please, my man.”

I can’t remember what else Ray Ellington said about The Goon Show, but decades later the orangutan’s personality pronouncement still comes through loud and clear. I fear that crucial omission may still be apparent in the shaving mirror. I am thinking of growing a beard, an Ernest Hemingway one.

ray ellington

Gloriously Long Summer Holidays

stream

Last time we met here I was marvelling at the speed with which days gallop past when one is – now I am running out of  geriatric euphemisms here – on the post-race lap of honour on which we acknowledge like Sir Mo our remarkable achievements over long and distinguished careers. Mo has the edge here.

Nothing illustrates that point more than the long summer holidays. The first week of August has gone in a flash and before I can blink it will be merging into September. When I was a little lad the glory of the month was that it stretched away for ever. Autumn was but a distant dream – and often a none too pleasant one if the new school year were to go no better than the last.

Somewhere in the middle would be the ecstatic family fortnight in a holiday cottage in the west of England or Wales, but the rest of the lovely long six-week halcyon eternity drifted past in a slow sunny haze of cycle rides and river banks, treks through woods and over hills with other small boys who appeared singly or together on the back doorstep with a brief  “RodcumminoutpleaseMrsCooper?” She was our class teacher for four years which led to some gruff formality.

We spent these seemingly endless days doing nothing, in the manner of Dennis Potter’s  magnificent Blue Remembered Hills although without the powerful ending. But Richmal Crompton’s William books probably summed up our expeditions and ambitions best. How we loved William books! Many years later I reviewed Mary Cadogan’s excellent Crompton biography The Woman Behind William crooning with delight, as was the art editor at the prospect of illustrating the spread with Thomas Henry’s delightful drawings of the Outlaws.

My son was pleased to add the biography to his collection of William literature which includes all 38 Williams books and other references. When he was very young I read William books to him and now, with our joint ages in three figures, he occasionally reads them to me, to our mutual pleasure.  In between, we have listened together to  CDs of  Martin Jarvis’s wonderful BBC recordings which work much better than film and television adaptations with child actors. I am hoping Richard will add a study of the books to his blog for narrative lovers Finger-Steepling and Sharks richardhcooper.blogspot.com

Anyway, those seemingly ever sunny days seemed to stretch for ever as we went catching eels on night lines by Boveney Lock on the Thames, skulking in the longer grass of White Waltham aerodrome outside Maidenhead, watching new Fairey Gannets and old Harvard trainers going through their paces as we went through ours with soggy cheese and tomato sandwiches,  and riding bikes at very foolish speeds down the slopes of Burnham Beeches, slaloming through the thick-trunked old trees. Only one of us ever broke anything and it wasn’t me so that was all right.

Today, if you keep away from the out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks and shopping malls and McDonalds,  you would hardly know it was school holiday time. The inviting little streams around Robertsbridge are free of jam jars and lines with bent pins, as are the ditches and lanes and fields where we once defeated the German infantry with contemptuous ease, just the four of us, when we were not putting the flower of  Australian batting to the edged-blade with tennis ball bumpers and no bother, on the old cricket and cow pasture, just the four of us…

August in Sussex and, a few miles inland, nothing stirs. They are all in their bedrooms and studies crouched over games on their PCs, laptops and tablets and if they have to go down to the village to get a loaf, the phone goes with them, together with the games and terse but endless conversations with seemingly hundreds of available friends from the next village or, indeed, San Francisco or Sydney.

I am not complaining about this. Far from it, for our melodious laughter and witty Wildean exclamations were not always well received by our elders as we travelled our exuberant rounds and nor was the occasional shattering of greenhouse, cucumber frame or indeed back window glass which could lead to angry recriminations and the confiscation of the leather cricket ball for a day or two. Back to bald tennis ones.

No, peace reigns today on a fine August afternoon. Occasionally a new family moves in somewhere and for a brief while the children clatter happily about on skateboards and bikes, but they soon set aside childish things and are hunched over their screens day and night, like the rest of us, which can be useful because while fathers once magnanimously mended children’s bike punctures or roller skates or toys, now the boot is on other feet. By the time my daughter was four feet high, the loud unmistakeable wail of sulky rage and frustration at some unforeseen disaster striking would be echoing through the house and with a long, but patient sigh of duty to be  done she would pad into my room and with a quick whirr of programming little fingers set my computer to rights again with a little comforting pat on my head. And, reader, I was using computers at work all day long, even then.

This policy of patient parent-training continues to this day and “Naomi! I can’t open this/make it work” goes up from garage to kitchen. At least she is a foot or so taller now which makes it less shaming. No, it doesn’t.

If a left foot moves smartly across as another flashing cover drive sends the ball racing away to the boundary, the moves are mine, the ball imaginary and the group of approaching children move nervously to the other side of the road to avoid the village loon who also appears to be talking to himself in the soft Hampshire brogue of the great cricket commentator John Arlott who enjoyed pigeons, red buses and fine wines long before old Blofeld.

If they could hear the old loon’s words as he passes, they would mean nothing to them. Cricket has not appeared on non-satellite television since about 2005. It is a mystery to them. I did take Sky Sports for a year and enjoyed an Ashes triumph (and another Chelsea Premiership win) but the thought of putting more money into the Murdoch Monster’s pocket ruined the enjoyment so it was back to Aggers and co on TMS.

It is a lazy day in the second week of August. Roses and hollyhocks abound in the garden outside the open French windows. A small, exquisite frog is doing energetic leaping circuits of the pond, watched idly by Zola the cat from the nearby lawn, but with no evil intent as she knows her limitations and, besides, it is not a day for action. She stretches out and waves a lazy paw at a passing butterfly and I must go and stretch out beside her while we scratch each other’s tummies. We are both on our summer holidays.

Busy Doing Nothing

Life is not exactly crammed with surprises, but I can promise you one. I had always assumed that in the later years life would pass intolerably slowly. Well, not a bit of it! I am now in a position to report that time goes positively belting by.

Now those of you who have followed this blog over the last year or so will know that this phenomenon owes nothing to a wealth of diligent activities with which I fill my later life. I have no allotment and at home my wife is the gardener. Pleasurable little tasks of carpentry or home improvements do not come into my province. By an extraordinary stroke of good luck she is a dab hand at those, too, and particularly adept at mending all the things I break.

There are a thousand courses available at schools and halls within a mile or two of the village, offering pottery and painting, advanced computer skills, or Spanish, German, yoga, or Zumba for those with still lively minds or relatively supple fingers and bodies. I am not one of them. Why? I don’t have the time. I told you: the days hurtle by.

When I first adjusted my routine – writers never retire, or so they think – I would listen to the frantic pace of the Today programme on Radio 4 with its high speed, impatient interrupting – “I must ask you to answer in twenty seconds, please” – and time checks for those bolting down a hasty breakfast before embarking on the daily round were particularly pleasing: 6.45, 7.45, 8.45 – who cared? Not the silver-haired gentleman of leisure, punching up his pillows with pleasure, or turning over with a contented sigh. 

The fact is that if you rise sensibly at 9am, emerging from the bathroom by half-past, taking a leisurely breakfast and lacing up the shoes – no Velcro trainers in this house – then by the time you are ready to totter gamely out into the sunshine the morning is already well advanced. I no longer have to collect The Times from the village Post Office for the elderly lady in the corner house because at 95 she is now in a care home in nearby Battle, so my sole duty is to the bakery and then back home round the long way.

This takes another hour and enables me to keep a friendly eye on the remarkable neighbouring Darvell Bruderhof community, who farm, teach, make furniture in fine workshops and generally toil away at a thousand tasks for literally no money, but in mutual and self-support. To pass a column of these beatific souls down the lane that runs through their fields of ruminative grazing sheep and assorted crops can mean receiving several score greetings in American and German accents, which I return, beaming back at hugely smiling children and oldsters and admiring their beautiful prams and wheelchairs, also made in their furniture workshops.

Such diversions can delay the slow walk back home when key decisions as to what lunch preparations are necessary fill what remains of the morning. Since my wife does practically everything else from reading the meters to dealing with white van couriers, I am in charge of the cooking. This again may alarm those regular readers of these columns, but I prepare her and others’ meals with care and solicitude, concentrating my ingenuity – well, experimental genius really – and greed on my own repasts which owe a great deal to adding my own concoctions to augment the lamentably small portions of Sainsbury’s or M&S’s otherwise excellent prepared meals. I occasionally nip across the Kent border, heart pounding with excitement, to the nearby village of Hawkhurst where there is a Waitrose!

I like to think of the teams of nutritional experts and top chefs who, the promotional magazines of these companies assure us, skilfully devise gastronomic delights for our benefit at a few quid a throw, finally arriving at the perfect, consummate concoction of international cuisine to massive approbation from the board room.

Little do they know what liberties are being taken with their perfect blend of exotic yet subtle spices and herbs on the Kent and Sussex border by an exciting, Devil-may-care renegade armed with anything he can raid from cupboard, fridge or freezer, from peanut butter to Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire Puddings, from curry sauce to salad cream.  The basic culinary philosophy I adopt in the preparation of both lunch and dinner – oh yes, dear reader, I do it all again at 7pm, glass in hand – is to fill every square centimetre of my Alan Partridge-sized-plate.

With other meals to plan and prepare, since the rest of the family when here decline to sample my more venturesome solo cuisine, I clearly spend a large slice of the day carefully considering my gourmandizing. The eventual consumption of each meal can also take a full hour, to be followed by a mandatory nap, so I always prepare my own meal last. This works well as my wife or daughter if home, are generally eager to be off and away on busy activities.

To be totally honest, I prefer them not to see what I have achieved in covering that 12-inch plate anyway. No point in overwhelming then with my culinary skills. Besides, when they once returned unexpectedly early and found me engaged in my middle course, very imaginatively prepared that day with inspirational late additions of ageing cheeses, two faggots, three chunky fish-fingers and some strangely thick tartare sauce from the back of the fridge, their cries of anguish and distress could have led neighbours to suppose I had been discovered in some activity of hideous depravity.

When it comes to more demanding or formal meals like Christmas, or when visitors or relatives insist on calling despite an equally ingenious list of excuses, from my gouty big toe to claiming that I am off to Paris that particular night – Hastings would probably have been a more credible choice – my wife resumes control of the kitchen. She is an even better cook than I.

I have a good friend on Twitter who, when not collecting fine wines in Italy makes wonderful looking cheeses, his own bread, keeps bees, cures his own hams and bacon joints, raises his own sumptuous produce on the idyllically set property he and his equally talented wife recently acquired in Mid-Wales. There are few culinary and horticultural activities they cannot master and his illustrated blog of their activities is the genuine article, but you see, the catch is that all these activities leave him little time for blogging. I, on the other hand, am constantly at your disposal – or at least I was, but I find I have far less time for it these days.

In fact, this illustrates my point exactly: past 1,500 words and another hour or so gone on the blog means I am already running behind my crowded daily schedule and I have only covered the morning walk and kitchen fatigues here.

No time or space to describe the arduous tasks and joyous pursuits that cram the rest of my non-stop, clock-racing day – the re-arranging of books on the living room shelves, lending loyal support to the local soft fruit industries (cherries and strawberries gone, but Victoria plums approach!), cricket to be watched, the rearranging of books on the study shelves, Zola the cat to be fed (I have tried to broaden her eating tastes, too, but my efforts were scornfully rejected), making sure that the trains passing the bottom of the garden are running on time, returning library books to branches in both counties, clearing room in the garage for the latest deliveries from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s as supply levels must be kept high while Kim Jong-un keeps playing with his new intercontinental ballistic missile toys. I’ve seen chubby children at play with malevolent gleams in their eyes and they are not to be trusted.

Descriptions of all these time-consuming activities will have to wait for another piece. Dinner time beckons.

Footnote: No cakes, sugars, puddings, desserts or sweets have been used in the preparation of this blog. I glow with virtue.

Toenote: There has also been no time to enlarge on the fascinating subject of my gouty – or is it? – big toe. Be patient.

 

In the Face of Adversity

So I was casting around for a theme or topic for my next blog – by which of course I mean I was sifting through the rich mixture of memories, experiences and exciting radical views that run through my fecund mind (alarmed at word fecund but it says richly fertile, so  that’s exactly right) when I had an idea.

Make a note of it, son. Write it down in your little book. It will be gone in a flash. Hurry.

During my many blogged treatises on the pleasures and occasional disadvantages of life during relatively advanced years, the sole selfless purpose of which is to help you young boys and girls under 60 to avoid making the same mistakes that I have, I have occasionally touched on issues of health with examples of the odd illness or injury bravely borne. It is by suffering that human beings become angels, wrote Victor Hugo whose blogs always had the edge on mine so who am I to argue with that?

Well, on Monday last week I stubbed my big toe. Oh, yes, you may scoff and sneer and ridicule. It was a big stub of a big toe on a big stone step and I was barefoot. This summer I have mostly been dispensing with footwear, including socks, around the house. I ran through my complete range of oaths and obscenities  gathered assiduously in newsrooms, magazine offices and packed press pubs over the decades and as I recovered was grateful that Zola is a small cat, not a perceptive parrot like my Great Uncle Davey brought my Grandmother home from the Navy.

Within the hour the toe was blue, then black and when my delighted wife, a former ward sister at a London hospital so not easily impressed, had painted it a few times with arnica the deep purples and magentas, enlarged by the swollen toe which was now rudely pushing the next one out of the way to its scarlet annoyance, were spectacular. She surveyed it with artistic pride and observed on a number of occasions in the next 24 hours that the bruising was coming out beautifully. I said I was glad it was giving her pleasure.

After several days of stoical suffering I eased a shoe painfully over the throbbing toe and went to do some emergency shopping. It is fair to admit that my wife had already done some of this, but her idea of emergency shopping and mine are not absolutely identical, although she had included a  bottle of Jack Daniels which glistened and glowed in the evening sunshine on my bedside table.  My heroic excursion took a heavy toll on my battered toe and when I removed the shoe I cried out in horror at the swollen, pulsating monster that lay on the end of my right foot.

‘That bang you gave it has brought your gout back,’ said my wife, without a great deal of compassion I thought, considering the years she spent running wards full of suffering patients. And she took the bottle of Jack Daniels away with her. And a  few other bottles beside.

I surveyed the toe thoughtfully. It did bear some resemblance to the gouty left big toe I had suffered briefly many years ago. The rapidly spreading, swollen area was just like the one I then Googled on my tablet. Talking of tablets, I have been on Allopurinol ever since the first attack and the condition has never recurred. I explained carefully to my friends that it had nothing to do with my very light consumption – compared with my earlier working days, that is – of alcohol, but was due to purine which left excessive uric acid crystals  in the joints. ‘Peas, ’I observed patiently, ‘are apparently very high in purine, as is bacon or lobster. My doctor assured me that many sufferers are, in fact, teetotal.’

Much mirth followed. They all went off to the pub, advising me to steer clear of bacon, lobster and peas. My staff never respected me. I thought I had better keep clear of alcohol, just to be safe, and followed a reasonable diet list. This, and the daily Allopurinol, kept the gout totally at bay for the next decade or so and enabled me to drink again, with my usual sensible moderation. (You what?)

And so my gout became history  – until last week. I spent the weekend surveying the toe suspiciously as it stuck out of the end of the bed and was capable only of hopping to the bathroom occasionally. Was it broken? It looked and felt like it.  Or was it gout? Was it both? It was partly the pain and partly the mental agony of wondering whether in the hour of my heroically borne suffering I was going on the wagon UNNECESSARILY!

The doctor surveyed it for a minute or two and after some very painful light prodding and pinching asked me whether it felt like pain from the trauma of the impact or returned gout. Both, I said. He said an X-ray was sensible – they sent the results back swiftly, he assured me –  dispatched me to the radiology department of the local hospital where they asked me the same question. Both, I said. They took some charming portraits of it, full-face and in both profiles. ‘Is it broken?’ I asked.

 ‘We’ll let your doctor know,’they said. ‘In twelve to fourteen days!’

Well. I mean, well. So is it badly broken? Is it bruised? Is it gout? The nation waits with bated breath and no bulletins can be issued to calm it down. Two weeks! Imagine Chelsea Football Club telling the press to come back In a fortnight to see if a star player  had tragically broken his toe! Meanwhile I have to stay off all drinky doodles – I do beg your pardon, alcohol.  Deprivation  deadens the mind – for two more sun-soaked  sodding weeks, just in case it is gout. Such an experience could break weaker men, but I shall struggle on manfully without complaint.

I just looked up the old anti-gout diet sheet. It is far, far worse than I had feared. The banned list includes cod. And ‘chipped potatoes’. That’s fish and chips! The basis  of daily life. It probably includes cheese scones, too, but I am going to set it aside for now and prepare salad (No bleeding tomatoes, it says!). No chicken?  I will just sit here and plan my menu for this evening. After all, it is now past six so drinks time is upon me and I can  pass the next two hours planning  my food with a refreshing glass  or three of water.

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

A stunning autumn rainbow over the Yorkshire Dales in Grassington

I noticed the other day when the one and only Billy Connolly reached the landmark of his 75th birthday that he was rightly celebrated by much trending on Twitter. The trend increased in intensity and continued through the day, the vast majority expressing not so much jolly birthday greetings as gasps of huge relief that The Big Yin, who has had health challenges to deal with in recent years, had not been taken from us. There is always similar panic as the great Sir David Attenborough trends while advancing through his nineties. Now if these two giants were to go on past greater milestones one day, no-one would be more delighted than I – although I regret I would probably have to attend their celebrations in a decorative urn or small casket.

The only comfort one can take when we lose people who have conveyed so much pleasure and illuminated our lives, is that their marvellous work can continue on DVD, online and on the printed page so that we never lose them entirely. Father Ted remains one of my great joys in life 21 years after Dermot Morgan was taken from us so early, but the point is…

Oh no! Those four words again. Every time I type them, I know I have forgotten what the point was. Luckily this time I have grabbed them again before they hit the floor in pieces, unlike the chunky tumbler of Jack Daniels that slipped through my greedy but feeble grasp not 24 hours ago. The point is: however brilliantly technology can keep our heroes’ work alive for us, we are horribly aware that the world is not such a good place once they are no longer here in person.

Not many of us can claim that. Every time a long gap appears between my blogs here, it may cross the minds of the dwindling group of my friends that I have departed to enjoy The Great Afternoon Nap in the Sky. I passed this thought on to one who has just interrupted this paragraph by noisily bursting in on Skype.

“Well, hardly!” he said, “since you litter our Twitter (he talks like that) timelines by boring on every twenty minutes about Chelsea winning the title or Donald Trump’s latest lunacies, which are never anything to do with you anyway, we are all too aware of your continued existence. Only if Chelsea had beaten my fine Arsenal boys in the Cup Final last week and you had then been silent on Twitter, would I have brushed my darker suit down and looked for a sombre tie.”

But, in fact ever since that woeful game, he has shown a touching desire to reach out to me and ask tenderly after my health, using every form of contact at his disposal, finally catching me on Skype in mid-blog. I was very fortunate indeed that, like many thousands of Gooners, he had been expecting defeat and the eventual departure of Arsene Wenger, their lugubrious manager who has not managed a league title for so many years. I had only to ask how he felt about Wenger’s new contract to see his brow darkening on the screen here. His triumph had been  tarnished.

“I saw Wenger’s name trending today, I feared misfortune might have overtaken the dear old fellow,” I said. “But then I saw it was just the good news that you were keeping him on. We share your delight.”

The Skype seemed to fail at that point.

People tweeted at the end of last year that it had been an appalling one for losing familiar faces (let alone acquiring unwelcome leaders), but 2017 is continuing in the same vein. That’s life – or, rather, death. So I accept that my blog pauses cause no alarm at all anywhere. Mortality is one of the aspects of advancing years which I have not dwelt on here in the last year. There are more pressing considerations every day for those of us on the final furlong. We discuss them in the village bakery, on Skype, on the 10.11 from Robertsbridge to Charing Cross – first service of the day when you can use your Senior Railcard – and with the man who delivers the supermarket stuff. Well, we don’t discuss all of them since most of these conversations are not actually of great potential debating significance. They last about 45 seconds and generally concern the weather. To be perfectly honest, that is pretty well the sum total of what we talk about. Well, what is of more pressing consideration than that?

After all, it even governs what clothes I will be wearing – the thin woolly or the thick one –  whether I can fit an energetic walk into my crowded schedule, whether I should feel guilty at letting my wife mow the lawns. Even the cat, generally confused and depressed by endless changes in the weather – showers must indeed be irritating when cold wet grass rubs up against your undercarriage – laughed at that reference to my crowded schedule. She sits beside me, morosely looking out of the window, but I know very well she reads this. I caught her sniggering just then.

That April in May weather gave us all a point of discussion, however brief. “Pain in the arse, mate. Never know where you flipping are,” said the parcel courier one morning, only he didn’t say flipping and was, I thought, a little loose with his epithets. For all he knows I could be a retired man of the cloth, although as I have observed here before, the clerical collar would not have suited me. Meanwhile, I had to decide daily whether the weather, sorry about that, meant I can substitute a bonus nap for the energetic walk I had planned.

If unhelpful members of the household cried out to tell me the rain had stopped and luckily I could rise and go for the walk after all, I could enjoy the daily rainbow arcing the hills round the Rother Valley here, but the sheep and lambs steam creepily in the sudden sunshine after showers, as indeed do I, and the once springy turf is soggy. Still, the man coming up the lane towards me that morning was able to get in his “More like April than May!” before I had to say it, which was a relief. I only had to bark a short laugh of rural knowing agreement.

These weather comments are always kept hotly topical, you understand. Why, now showery weather has given way this first June week to long hot sunny days at last, those of us in the the prescriptions queue in the village chemist’s effortlessly changed our tune and we were all remarking that we hadn’t had a drop of rain for five days and couldn’t the garden do with it?

I feel a tad deceitful in taking part in these exchanges since my wife does all the gardening and the local sage in the check cap and green wellies is clearly a horny handed son of the soil and, until he collects his new prescription, sounds remarkably like the old Fast Show’s hoarse countryman Bob Fleming. This guilt was finally expunged last weekend when, walking bravely back up the hill, I glanced over his fence at the house on the corner and the lazy blighter was reading the paper on the patio while his perspiring and delicate looking wife was battling with the weeds in their rose garden! She wore boots. He wore slippers. Honestly…

Oh Lord, it is another glorious evening out there now. Warm and sunny. Is the 7pm drink to be replaced by a unique pre-dinner walk? The sodding sky is lyrically clear and blue. Off for my shoes then. This will startle the sheep. More matters of importance next week – ish.

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