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Goodbye Eric

Living in this house has, for the first time in over 20 years, almost become a cat-free existence.  Not so long ago, we had three cats of contrasting demeanour, but three years ago we lost Oscar, a Persian/Tabby cross who we all loved unreservedly and who loved us back with equal enthusiasm.  Now, we have lost Eric – very much the yin to Oscar’s  yang – “a cat’s cat” as many have said, a character, a curmudgeon and a cat who, late in life, discovered a scathing meow of such howling intensity that it brooked no denial.

Now we only have Charlie, a nervy, needy, small, black, neutered tom of about 15 years, who has reacted to Eric’s demise by effectively choosing to live outside in the back garden through most of the recent hot spell.  He comes in only to eat, then bolts out through the catflap as though pursued by a pack of wolves.  Then again, he’s always been neurotic, so who can say with any certainty what this bizarre shift in behaviour presages?

Eric – we reckon – was about 20.  When we first encountered him, he was called Simon by the woman who had adopted him and about 100 others in a council house in Quinton, out to the west, where Birmingham imperceptibly turns into the Black Country.  Eric’s dignity was clearly affronted by being landed with such an inappropriate name but his haughty demeanour softened a little once the partner’s niece had re-christened him Eric, after United’s maverick French talisman, Eric Cantona.  Like Cantona, Eric was a little bit haughty but like Cantona he was the Boss.  Even on the way back from Quinton in the car, he sorted Oscar out with a judicious clip round the ear, thereby establishing a pecking order that was to persist until Charlie arrived to disrupt everyone’s equilibrium about 5 years later.  Eric’s story was that he had already had a false start with an Afro-Caribbean family in Handsworth; the lady of the house ‘returning ‘ Eric after a week with the news that her kids didn’t like him.

Their loss, our gain, although we took the view that Eric had faced early competition from either another cat or maybe a dog in that Handsworth household.  In his early years with us, if Oscar got too close to Eric’s food dish whilst he was eating, Eric would growl in his throat, warning Oscar to keep his distance.

IMG_0577Eric – keeping an eye on his territory, and on me.

Whilst Oscar concentrated on winning hearts and minds indoors with his ludicrously loveable behaviour, Eric was out ploughing the lonely furrow to preserve his territory.  He was always a scrapper, often returning with his ear shredded or scratch marks across his nose.  he spent far more time outside than Oscar and that only increased once – for better or for worse – we added Charlie to the merry feline throng about 5 years later.

In latter years, and particularly once Oscar was no longer around him to protect him from Charlie’s needy behaviour, Eric – as so many cats do – found a second home next door with our neighbours Steve & Kat.  In their house, he had no competition and would sleep the day away in peace before returning home for food and another nap.  By this point, Eric had acquired a piratical air, having lost many of his teeth and about half of one of his ears.  His fighting days were over, but thanks to Charlie (we think) he learned how to meow late in life and developed a screeching howl of great intensity that he used when he decided that we should feed him.

Eric’s demise was signalled by increasing unsteadiness of gait and (if possible) an increase in his need for sleep.  Towards the end, he spent more and more time next door where he was dealt with by Steve & Kat with enormous kindness and sympathy.  When the end finally came, we buried him at the point where he would cross from our garden into Steve & Kat’s garden – it seemed appropriate.

Bon voyage, Eric – we all enjoyed being members of your staff for so many years.  We are diminished by your loss and life will never be quite the same.

Nearly there…..

Seems like I have nearly achieved my aim of learning to say nothing…..

It’s been well over a month since I last posted here and in truth I find that has only bothered me intermittently.

I can’t quite make my mind up whether it is a slump in visitor numbers that has enhanced my indifference or simply that blogging no longer offers me any genuine satisfaction.

It’s not that there has been nothing going on – you will read of the death of another family member if you continue to the next entry – and there’s been other stuff happening as well..

To be honest, the trip I made to Poland – and specifically to Auschwitz – in April still weighs heavily on me.  I am in the process of reading more  books and watching more documentaries about the Holocaust,  but you can only bang on about this stuff for so long before people’s eyes glaze over.  I have found that even close friends aren’t really as perturbed by it as I have been – perhaps you just had to be there.  I have to say that my first visit to New York City in 1999 was the last trip to have such a profound impact on me.

My mood on that  Polish trip was not helped by domestic issues and I now have difficulty in contemplating the idea of another ‘family’ trip – memories of the way I was packed off to Berlin ‘with a flea in my ear’ still rankle and I have already declined the opportunity to join a subsequent ‘family’ expedition to the west of Ireland.

My  60th birthday year was supposed to feature a lot of travelling, but somehow, like this blog, it’s all gone a bit sour.

One of my more bizarre claims to fame is that one of my distant ancestors was Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’  Oates.  He was the member of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 Antarctic expedition who announced that he was “going outside and might be some time”, before walking out to certain death in the blizzard that raged around the camp.

This might be an apt way to end this entry.  I may be back but I may be some time.  The blizzard continues unabated outside.

Writer's block

The ever-thinning ranks…..

Time to interrupt the jollities of a very late spring and the first seriously hot day of the year with news from afar that my Uncle, my late Mother’s brother, 96, suffering from severe dementia and living in a care  home for a couple of years now has finally succumbed to a chest infection that has been bothering him for some time.

The most startling measure of his age is perhaps to reflect that he was born in the Attercliffe area of  Sheffield on a night in the autumn of 1916 when the city was being peppered with bombs from a German Zeppelin.   This was the first air raid on the city and is quite well documented here:

http://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffieldsfirstraid1916.htm

Zeppelin L22Zeppelin L22 bombed Sheffield on the night my Uncle was born

My Mum’s family moved to Northamptonshire in the late 1920’s because of a lack of work in the Sheffield area.  My grandfather had worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and got a job at a small foundry in Kettering as well as securing a council house nearby.  My mother, then 3, her sister (my late Aunt) and my recently-deceased Uncle moved into the house in 1929 and indeed he was to remain there for the next 82 years, surely one of the longest unbroken council house tenancies of all time.

The Kettering house was a kind of ‘Little Yorkshire’ where an ‘us against the world’ mentality was maintained indefinitely.  Of the 3 children only my Mum fled the coop and got married – and both she and my Dad were put through the wringer for doing so.  Her parents  would not and did not attend the wedding even though it took place just 10 minutes down the road and there was only a partial reconciliation when my Dad wrote to inform ‘Little Yorkshire’ that a grandchild was imminent, though as I was born in Northampton, I would never be eligible to play cricket for Yorkshire….

Yorkshire chauvinismThe worst of it…….

My childhood was dominated by dreary fortnightly Sunday trips to ‘Little Yorkshire’ where my presence possibly helped to dispel some of the tensions that still existed between my Mum and her family – I hope so anyway.  I recall the air of gloom that would have descended on the house if Sheffield Wednesday had lost the previous day or if the Yorkshire cricket team were not doing so well.

My Uncle – clearly a bright boy – had enjoyed a successful education but there was never any possibility of him going on to University.  He left school and began work in a local shoe factory where – apart from a short spell in the Army at the very end of the Second World War – he worked for the rest of his adult life.  This fitted in with my Grandfather’s ‘model’ –  he carried on working at the same foundry from 1929 until his retirement and my (also unmarried)  Aunt worked in the same clothing factory for her entire adult life.  Change was not embraced in this household; no wonder my Mum wanted to escape.

Henderson'sThe best of it…..delicious Henderson’s Yorkshire Relish from Sheffield  – a deluxe and superior version of Worcestershire Sauce.

My Uncle stayed put, however and having a reputation for a certain intellectual acumen – read a broadsheet newspaper (the ‘Telegraph’ of course), listened to classical music, made occasional trips to London to see operas – was treated like royalty by his Mother in particular.  My Grandfather, meanwhile. was not held in such high esteem; he had a weakness for the horses and his clandestine trips to the bookies would often enrage my Grandmother.  Even so, he had the occasional win and in the late 1940’s he came up trumps with what was for the times a major windfall of a few thousand pounds – enough to buy a reasonably-sized house.

Here was the mentality prevalent in that house; just round the corner from the council house they occupied was a lengthy row of newly-built semi-detached private houses with substantial gardens front and back.  With money in the bank from his winners, my Grandfather carted the whole family off to look at one of these houses that had come up for sale.  My Mum told me that she distinctly recalls having a good look around and being really excited after which the whole family assembled at the foot of the stairs with the vendors.  At this point my Grandfather uttered the immortal lines: “Thank you very much for showing us round.  It’s a lovely house but it’s not for the likes of us…….”  I have to remind myself that this is not a Monty Python sketch – it really did happen.

Four Yorkshiremen“Luxury!  Not for the likes of us…”

Anyway, once my Mother had left and got married, her family closed ranks again and though we were tolerated we were always treated with a certain amount of disdain – particularly by my Uncle. who was, I think, made a little uncomfortable by my Dad’s upward mobility as he built a thriving career as a teacher and – ultimately – a headmaster.  My Uncle stayed on in the house through the deaths of both his parents and his sister, my Aunt.  Only once she died and he was living alone did his attitude to the wider family change and once my Mother died, he and my Father had to deal purely with one another, something I think they both found pretty awkward at times.

Around ten years ago, it was clear that my Uncle’s mental capacity was diminishing and his ability to look after himself came into question.  As a single man living in a 4-bedroom council house, the local Council were keen to move him into a single-occupancy sheltered flat, but true to form, he would not move.  In the end, care packages were put in place to help him cope but this was always an inadequate option and only the interventions of a caring next-door neighbour made the situation viable at all.

In the end, change was triggered by one hospital admission too many.  His ‘capacity’ finally fell below what Social Services perceived as being the minimum necessary for him to adequately look after himself.  The neighbour found him naked on his bedroom floor where he had been for up to 24 hours, unable to get up. This time, when the hospital discharged him, it was into a care home where he spent the last 2 years of his life, oblivious to everyone he had once known.

My Dad always said that my Uncle would outlive him and that’s the way it’s turned out.  My own view is that my Dad had a mental hitlist of things he felt that he needed to do before he could move towards the end of his own life and getting my Uncle into a care home was  one of the major items on that list.  He did it for my Mum of course;  caring for her brother – spiteful and small-minded though he could be – was a task my Dad felt he had to take on.  I have to say that I felt under no such compulsion.  As far as I was concerned he was warm and fed and looked after, but he was also oblivious to his surroundings and to anyone he had once known and failed to recognise me for several years before he went into the care home.  I stayed away and when I go down to tie up the loose ends next week, it’s going to be administrative and nothing more as far as I’m concerned.

And so, the ranks of my family grow ever thinner.  There’s really only myself, the Princess, my Aunt in Scotland and my Uncle in Sydney of my immediate family who now remain.  Sic transit gloria mundi…..

Dancing on the graves of the dead…

“Hatred needs scorn. Scorn is hatred’s nectar!”                                                                    

– Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly -‘The Crimson Curtain’

I don’t really do genuine hatred; it’s just not in my nature.  I also find it hard to engage with the idea of hating something abstract like ‘Poverty’ or ‘Fascism’ and have always taken the view that people, not ideas, are evil.  Having said that, I can only think of two people in my life who I have genuinely hated.   In both cases my hatred stemmed from a sense of helplessness – these two individuals had slithered their way  into positions where they were able to exercise  a perniciously negative influence over my life and at the time, there appeared to be little or nothing  that I could do about it.

My relationship with the recently-deceased Margaret Hilda Thatcher, the Grocer’s Daughter whose legacy is such a hideous stain on the recent history of this country was a distant one, but she succeeded where years of well-intentioned left-wing friends and left-wing politicians had failed.  Her success was in making me consider the nature and substance  of her rhetoric and, thereafter, in making me shift my political allegiances substantially leftwards.  Not that I ever became a  joined up apparatchik of Foot or Kinnock or Smith’s left, let alone a Blairite (soft) centrist.  But Thatcher, so we were told,  was a ‘conviction’ politician and it soon became my conviction that this dreadful harridan with her hectoring, booming, bullying foghorn of a voice was without empathy or compassion or very many positive human qualities.  She clearly had no understanding of any class except her own, so if you were Gay or Black or Northern or a Europhile, let alone a Leftist, you were going to get short shrift from her and the posse of Tory worms that hid behind her and applauded whilst she decimated large tracts of British life.

Margaret Thatcher drove a double-decker bus through the polite conventions  that govern British political life.  After what she did,  one of Tony Blair’s biggest errors was surely in not pushing us towards the written constitution that we need to keep the likes of Thatcher in check.  After the Falklands War, when she was basically in a position to do anything she wanted, she had essentially unlimited power.  Once the Miner’s Strike began, she basically perverted the laws of this country and used the police as storm-troopers to defeat Arthur Scargill and his supporters.

Battle of Orgreave

Orgreave 1984

These were long and miserable years.  At the beginning I was working in record retailing in Manchester, in the middle years,  I lived in Newcastle as the Falklands War & the Miner’s Strike unravelled and by the bitter pyrrhic end, I was here in Birmingham.  Throughout that period,  Thatcher’s malign matriarchalism was like a cloud of toxic fumes that never seemed to disperse.

And, yes, I certainly hated her.  She divided communities, destroyed the lives and health of tens of thousands of ordinary British people, twisted the law of the land to suit her own purposes, played footsie with fools like Reagan and war criminals like Pinochet and tried to impose her hausfrau values on the rest of us.

She was loathsome and thoroughly evil and whilst I didn’t commemorate her passing by getting thoroughly hammered.  I would certainly spit or dance on her grave if I ever happened to be in its vicinity and would feel no need to apologise for such behaviour.   She deserves nothing else, frankly.

Demolition

“It is surely evil to destroy whole communities so that profit can be made for the few. It is surely evil to support and harbour war criminals, it was surely evil to order the attack on the ‘Belgrano’, it was surely evil to give cops a free reign to batter and bruise ordinary people who were just trying to save their jobs and their communities. Her policies have led us directly into the current climate of fear, greed and a lack of community spirit.

 She destroyed hope for several generations and her ideology of wealth = good, poor = bad has left the environment in a terribly precarious state. She supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa; she allowed hunger strikers to starve to death in Ireland and went to war so she could win an election. Do we really need to ask whether she was evil or not?”

Craig Murphy, quoted on ‘The Guardian’s‘ website

Three vignettes:  firstly, I am in Newcastle on the night Thatcher announces the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands and the imminent departure of a military ‘task force’ to kick them out.  Local news later covers a story about the wholesale ransacking of a Spanish restaurant in nearby Sunderland.  That’s a Spanish restaurant……so much for bringing harmony instead of discord – and so much for the Mackems.

Secondly, I am travelling south by car from Newcastle to London during the 1984 Miners’ Strike.  Somewhere in Nottinghamshire on the A1, we are diverted off the road and aggressively grilled about where we were headed by heavily-armoured police at the top of the slip-road.   I have no doubt that had we challenged them, we would have been ‘pulled over’ and detained for several hours until someone could be found to demonstrate for our benefit that their behaviour was totally above-board and legal.  We kept quiet and the stormtroopers finally allowed us to continue southwards.

Thirdly, on the Firth of Clyde just outside Wemyss Bay, there was a power station at Inverkip, though most of it has now been demolished for new housing.  The station was built in 1970 and became  Scotland’s only oil-fired power station.  Inverkip was hardly used because of the hike in oil prices during the mid 1970’s and was effectively mothballed due to the prohibitive cost of running the place.  I wonder if any of you clever people out there can guess the only period during which Inverkip operated at full capacity?

Inverkip InverkipInverkip

Inverkip Power Station – full blast during the 1984 Miners’ Strike

The second person I hate – though the first in chronological terms – was actually one of my teachers.  His name was Douglas Young and I feel that I can name him partly because he is long dead and partly because he deserves to have his name and misdeeds out in the open.  Young spent most of his adult life teaching Maths and Religious Instruction to the boys of Northampton Grammar School – largely in the Lower School.    He was also a  pervert and a groper of little boys and everyone at the school knew it.

When I went to the school in 1964, he was well-established as the paterfamilias of the Lower School.  On our first morning he ‘welcomed’ the entire ‘first year’ intake before sending us off to our individual form teachers.  My first misfortune was to be in his class.  His classroom was across the road from the main school buildings in the ‘School House’ – the Headmaster’s  ‘Pied-à-terre’ –  where he lived and where a couple of the surplus rooms had been co-opted to house Young’s first years and also a sixth-form class.  Nice and quiet if your tastes ran to a little adolescent buttock-fondling.

Young taught me Maths as well as Religious Instruction.  I recall him as a small, rotund, grey-haired man in squeaky, highly-polished black shoes and a dark double-breasted suit.  His vocal delivery was slightly wheezy in an asthmatic kind of way and he had a habit of hurling wooden board-rubbers at anyone he suspected of not giving him their full attention.  Once he had the class working, he would call individuals out to the front where we would have to stand at his side whilst he went through our work – and our trousers.  Boys in the First Year were expected to wear a school cap and grey flannel shorts.   The latter provided quietly questing hands with easy access to thighs and buttocks.  All we could do was to stand there and pray that he would soon be done with us and move on to the next victim.

Doug Young with new batch of victims

A wolf in the henhouse. Doug Young (on the left) with a new batch of victims at Northampton Grammar in 1954. 

Maths was never my strong suit and on one occasion I made a royal mess of some homework and was informed by Young that I would have to stay back after school and do the work over again.  He left me to get on with it and disappeared, returning to the now-deserted classroom about 20 minutes later.   The stupid thing is that I knew why I was there and also that my presence had nothing to do with any Maths homework.  He called me to the front, and without much preamble, bent me forward across the front row of desks and slippered me with an old tennis shoe.  He never even looked at the re-done homework.

 Walking home, I felt cheated, violated and angry.  This fucker had used his position of authority to pursue his own squalid desires at my expense and even at the age of 11, I knew that anything I said to my parents or anyone else would be treated with amused disbelief.  In any case, what could I say?   My Dad – himself a teacher – actually knew Young through professional circles.  Also, the fact was that in 1964,  any polite vocabulary of perversion was not uppermost in the minds of 11-year olds.  The words I knew for what Young intended would not have gone down too well with my elders and betters.  I said nothing and – generally – considered myself fortunate to get through the rest of the year without ‘falling foul’ of his wheezy attentions again – though there were many others in my class who were not so lucky.

Through the next 5 years I progressed through the school without having much to do with Young.  Then, in my first year in the Sixth Form, the school – for some reason – decided that us strapping 17 year-olds needed some more Religious Instruction and I was allocated to a class where we were subjected to his flesh-crawling attentions once a week.  Having said that, he knew better than to try it on with us now that we were all pushing 6 feet tall and wearing long trousers.  Even so, his oily personality was a factor you couldn’t ignore and we were all heartily glad to get our weekly dose of Creepy Religion out of the way.

NGS

Frontage, Northampton Grammar School

I lived quite near the school and during the Easter Holiday of that school year, I was walking into town with 2 mates along the main arterial road that leads from Northampton Town Centre out to the school.  My mate Andy was in the middle of a particularly racy story about a group of Swedish nuns in their vegetable garden and as he came to the punchline, Young drove past as we all exploded in laughter.

You have probably figured out what comes next.  Later that day, my Dad told me he wanted a word.  He informed me that Young had been on the phone to him and had said that I had “hurled foul-mouthed abuse” at him as he drove past and that unless a letter of apology was forthcoming in short order, he would have no option but to refer this sorry affair to the Headmaster once school resumed.  You can perhaps imagine my sentiments but I felt much, much worse once I realised that my parents were going to back Young and not their only beloved son.  In the end, I wrote the letter but my relationship with (in particular) my Dad took the best part of 10 years to recover and I never really forgave him for believing a depraved paedophile instead of me.

So, in some respects, I hate Young far more than I hate Thatcher, if only because his corruption and his evil was small and furtive and based on his misuse of his position of authority.  Hers was a malignancy on a far larger scale , but in relative terms,  I only perceived it at a distance.  Which was the lesser of the two evils, I wonder?

One thing is for sure, the world is a better place without both of them…..

Loach Thatcher

Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

Overweight-Man-006

The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

TescoOoops!

I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

ManvFood22

Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

Nearly a minor news item…..

Just arrived back from a big wedding weekend in the wilds of South Shropshire – and on this occasion, I do mean the wilds.

The big wedding weekend was in honour of my mate Ade’s eldest daughter who wanted the whole Big  Wedding Thing  and is lucky enough to have parents who are capable of denying her very little.

So, we got the whole micromanaged-to-the- last-doily event staged at a country estate not far from Church Stretton in Shropshire’s beautiful hill country.  Bride, mother of the bride and a veritable posse of bridesmaids and family members worked all week through steadily worsening weather to ensure that everything looked fabulous for the anticipated 150 or so guests.

Of course, anyone living in England’s green & pleasant land over the last few months knows exactly why it is so green & pleasant – something to do with the relentless downpours and an unco-operative jetstream (apparently).

Shropshire; roads become streams as the rain continues

Friday afternoon and we skirted the west of the city to avoid the worst of the traffic.  The Bromsgrove- Stourbridge road,  normally a dual carriageway through rolling farmland , had become a green tunnel – almost a temperate jungle with trees and hawthorn hedges luxuriating and running wild  in the ongoing soggy conditions and everything still with the vivid emerald of springtime growth, given a lack of hot sun to bake the foliage to the usual tired, dull, dark green of late July and August.

Beyond Stourbridge, the traffic fell away and as we crossed the Severn at Bridgnorth, we could see that it was running , brown and brisk, at levels more usually associated with a spring thaw.

We made a pit-stop at Much Wenlock, shoe-horning our way into a packed ‘George & Dragon’ for a couple of pints of 6X (in my case) and some (sadly)  indifferent food.  We emerged about an hour later into a monumental downpour which showed no signs of abating as we headed across Wenlock Edge to our destination.  The Wrekin emerged through Wagnerian gloom looking less like a genteel hill and more like a proper mountain as it continued to bucket down.

At Wall, we turned off the main road and into one of those Shropshire lanes that are like a trench with high hedges to either side.  In the fading light, it soon became apparent that we were in effect driving along a stream bed.  The whole landscape around us, soggy with week after week of rain, was simply unable to absorb any more and the run-off had turned our country lane into a country torrent.

In the troughs between the ridges, we ploughed through accumulations of standing water like a new ship sliding off the blocks and into the Tyne at Wallsend, sending plumes of water out to either side .  In others, the engine  growled and we slowed  perceptibly with the water trying to keep us captive even as we sought to escape its clutches.

“…and God bless all who sail in her….”

Finally, within a mile or so of our eventual destination, we reached an impasse.  A small stream had burst its banks and had turned the road into a swirling brown maelstrøm some fifty yards wide.  The Princess donned wellies and waded in about 5 yards or so, but with the water already up to just below her kneecaps, this was clearly a case where discretion had become the better part of valour.  Turning back, whilst an unappetising option,  seemed safer than risking the swirling, rising flood ahead of us.  After all, as the Princess remarked, these are the kind of things that you see on the local news as minor items – “Family of three swept away in flash flood…”

Backing up the slope to an open gateway, we managed to turn and head back from whence we came, then took an alternative road in, which was better because it was wider and less like a trench.  Even so, we eventually reached a similar obstacle – a widening brown pool of unknown depth.  On the advice of a local, we parked up in an adjacent lay-by and some friends with a 4×4 eventually came and retrieved us.

All was relatively calm at our elegant country retreat, though elsewhere among the inner Bridal entourage, there was the inevitable gnashing of teeth and rending of doilies as they contemplated a total wash-out.  The rain continued to hammer down like stair-rods and water levels continued to rise.  So high had they risen, in fact, that water was now starting to rise up through the carpet in the enormous marquee where we were all due to eat, drink and be merry the following day.  There seemed a real prospect that, with 150 people gathered within, the whole edifice could slip its moorings and slide off down the slope into the adjacent river like a giant white skateboard or something from a Terry Gilliam cartoon.

The nightmare scenario…..

The forecast was not good for the day of the wedding, but better for the ensuing Sunday.  We were still abed at 6 the following morning when the bride arose to find that whilst the rain had finally stopped, the water levels had continued to rise through the night and that the local stream had finally given in and burst its banks, turning most of the nearby roads into giant brown snakes.  This sight produced further outbursts of pre-nuptial angst, but whilst it looked bad, the reality was that with the rain now having stopped, water began to drain away with amazing rapidity.

Up at the marquee things were also improving.  The fact that the rain had stopped meant that water  was no longer coming up through the carpets and it seemed that all the elaborate decorations and table ornamentations might now have their moment in the sun.  That too, now became a real possibility as this unfamiliar yellow ball appeared in the morning sky.  Things were looking up.

The rest of the story is easily told.  The only major amendment to the schedule in the end was that the actual ceremony – originally designated to take place under a giant gazebo – was moved indoors. 

The happy couple; all in all, things worked out just fine in the end

The walk across a field to the marquee was muddy but conditions inside were absolutely fine, enabling everyone to admire and appreciate all the work that had been done to decorate both the marquee itself and the tables within. 

The devil’s in the detail….or maybe in the doilies….

Food was served and consumed, drink was taken – in a few cases, to excess – speeches were made.  The bride looked glorious and the groom ruggedly handsome.  Being of a certain age and having quaffed considerable quantities of wine at lunchtime, we retired to our pied-à-terre for a couple of hours nap, returning mid-evening to find some hapless ceilidh band struggling to orchestrate the semi- inebriated throng into a coherent folk-dancing unit.  Not a pretty sight.  Later on, there was a deal of squabbling and ruffling of egos among some of the younger boys about cables and speakers as they sought to inflict a ‘DJ set’ on us all.  In the end, the sound was no better/clearer/louder than you’d get from a domestic hi-fi and a small knot of  shuffling dancers coalesced at the far end of the marquee like pensioners trying to get as close as they can to a gas fire in order to keep warm.  The thuds, bleeps and squawks of monotonous drum’n’bass dribbled limply across the sodden Shropshire fields, but I doubt if anyone was kept awake for long.

Sunday, as advertised, dawned bright and sunny and after a quick detour into Church Stretton during which I managed to pick up a cheap copy of Damon Runyan’s ‘On Broadway’ from a junk emporium, we returned to the final event of the weekend – a picnic in the suntrap  back garden of one of the estate houses.

Everyone somehow managed to look cheery and bleary at the same time and there was a welcome absence of ceremony about the whole event.  In due course, we offered our thanks to the hosts and our congratulations and best wishes to the happy couple, who are escaping the English rain for a week in Ibiza prior to moving into a new flat in Manchester. Eventually, we left and set off along the strangely dry lanes leading back to the Much Wenlock road.   From Wenlock Edge, the Shropshire countryside looked  as blameless and as glorious as ever in the afternoon sun. You would never have guessed at the biblical downpours sweeping across it less than 48 hours earlier.

Ironically, the newly-weds may well reflect on the fact that the conspiracy of weather and local conditions which threatened to destroy their happy day ultimately ensured that it was the kind of occasion which no-one in attendance is ever likely to forget.  All we need now is a bridging loan to cope with the dry cleaning bills…….