Tuesday 31 March 2009

The hell of clowns playing football

All my life I have suffered from two total blind spots: sport and practical jokes. The point, if any, of both activities completely eludes me.

Hell for me will be an eternal game of football played between two teams of clowns, in which much time is devoted to balancing booby-traps on the crossbars.

Nevertheless, after hearing (repeatedly) that marriage is all about compromise, on Saturday I attended my first ever point-to-point meeting. My wife likes that sort of thing and assured me that I would enjoy it, as it would allow me to engage in some of my favourite pursuits: talking to beautiful young women and eating and drinking to excess.

As usual, she was right. But out of a misguided sense of politeness, I also tried to pay a little attention to the event itself. I placed modest bets on some races, and attempted to watch them or at least pay attention to the loudspeaker commentary. As people blithely chattered over this, it gradually dawned on me that mine was very much a minority interest. I was as much out of step as when I go to Glyndebourne to see the opera.

This should have come as no surprise. Over the years I have declined invitations to more great sporting occasions than you could shake a stick at, explaining that it is a criminal waste to give a coveted ticket to someone like myself. The reaction of the organisers ranges from puzzlement to mild offence, usually accompanied by an assurance that none of their other guests has the slightest interest in the sport concerned, either. This is borne out by my experience on the rare occasions when I have relented and gone along, to find that many of those attending never leave the hospitality tent.

Yet why should a group of consenting adults who want to get together for a few drinks on a Saturday afternoon feel the need to do so in a farmer’s freezing, muddy field under the cover of watching some horses run round in a circle, rather than simply arranging to meet in a nice, warm pub? The Government has not actually made that illegal. Yet.

I am similarly baffled by the pleasure that many people will take in inflicting practical jokes tomorrow, All Fools’ Day. (Say what you like about the Government, at least they picked the perfect date for the launch of their new generation of unitary councils.) Here I am at one with Wikipedia, which sternly pronounces that “There is a thin line between practical jokes and hooliganism, bullying, vandalism and sadism.”

Many of my friends are puzzled by my attitude, since I am constantly getting into trouble for my tendency to joke about almost anything, however tragic or politically incorrect. Yet I completely fail to see the simple joy in tripping someone up, snatching their chair away or taping a superannuated kipper to the back of the radiator in their bridal suite. Why fill tomorrow’s newsprint and airwaves with lame spoofs when there is so much to laugh at in the real world, from the Home Secretary’s husband’s mucky films to the Prime Minister’s attempts to pose as the saviour of the planet?

As I write, it is precisely one year since I clicked open the fateful email that led me down the totally unexpected path to marriage and parenthood. Naturally I assumed that it was a cruel hoax, and came within a whisker of pressing the “delete” button rather than replying. Although my wife and I seem to share an eerily similar sense of humour, I still worry that our first April Fool’s Day together may be the occasion of some ghastly prank or crushing “Gotcha!” revelation. What could be worse? For me, only receiving gift-wrapped tickets to a Premier League match or a traditional circus.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Bring on the sabre-toothed tigers

It is amazing how swiftly things can move. One minute Obama is being hailed as the shining hope of all humanity. Then he makes a dubious crack about the Special Olympics and half the commentariat spot that he was a flawed Blair clone all along.

I hesitate to point out that I told you so.

Then there are Messrs Corden & Horne, the new Morecambe & Wise, basking in unadulterated critical acclaim until they released their new film about lesbian vampires. Overnight their double act is universally acknowledged to be rather less hilarious than Brown & Darling.

Compared with these and other cataclysmic changes of fortune in recent months, my own turnaround has been positively glacial: a figure of speech that may well need revisiting in the light of recent predictions about the swift disappearance of the ice caps. Like climate change, mine is by no means all bad news. I have finally found the perfect partner I long despaired of ever tracking down, while nasty skiing accidents will become a thing of the past when there is no more snow.

But there is a downside. For the planet, the death of perhaps seven billion people in circumstances that will make every previous war, famine, plague and natural disaster look like a vicarage tea party. And for me, a hideous reversal of the weight loss about which I was crowing a year ago as I coasted to an easy victory over Tom Gutteridge in the great columnar weight loss challenge.

Recalling how difficult it was to shed the 21lb I lost then, I am appalled that I have allowed 12lb of it to regroup around my waistline. With hindsight, I made two fatal mistakes. One was not to consign my old, “fat” clothes to the bin as soon as they became too loose for me, thinking that I would postpone the acquisition of a new wardrobe until I had lost the further 21lb that was my no doubt unrealistic target.

The other was to acquire the same enviable handicap as Tom: a beautiful woman who expects to share an evening meal with me. Bang went my days of enjoying the classic PR man or journalist’s large and boozy lunch, and compensating with just a piece of fruit and a nice glass of water in the evening. Incidentally, when I started working in the City 30 years ago, every banker I knew was happily sozzled by 2p.m. and spent the afternoon snoozing at his desk. Keep them sober, send them to the gym instead of the pub and they come up with sub-prime lending and the credit crunch. There must surely be a lesson there somewhere.

Apparently one of the hot fads of the moment is the Paleolithic or Caveman Diet. Cut out grains, beans, potatoes, dairy products and sugar, and focus on the meat and fruits our ancient forebears hunted and gathered. Ideally, in the Warrior variant, guzzle the lot in just one big evening meal a day, as Stone Age man did after killing his prey.

The proponents of the plan argue that primitive man enjoyed perfect health, overlooking the fact that he was considered a bit of a wonder if he made it past the age of 30.

Nevertheless, I think I shall give it a go. But to create the ideal conditions for success, we surely also require the splendid incentives for exercise enjoyed in the distant past. Which means introducing more and fiercer species of predator to the British Isles. Why stop at bringing back wolves? With the massive progress now being made in DNA recovery and cloning techniques, surely we could really put the North East on the map by setting sabre-toothed tigers and velociraptors loose in the Cheviots? It will be amazing how swiftly I can move with one of those behind me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Laughter must always beat slaughter

Today marks the annual high point of the Guinness marketing campaign, and the 18th birthday of my first Border terrier. Though celebrations of the latter will be somewhat muted, given that he is currently sitting on my study armchair inside a small urn from the pet crematorium.

He has been there for 18 months now, which is sad, though it has to be said that he is only marginally less mobile than he was during his last decade of life. Visitors concerned for my sanity gently advise me that I should scatter him in his favourite place. But then I point out that that was my sitting room sofa, which does not take us much further forward.

I had pledged to drag that ancient settee into the garden and cremate him on it when the time came, like a Viking leader set adrift on his blazing longboat. But I could not summon the energy: the story of my life.

Ironically, last week I received a rave review from a graphologist who had been paid good money by a client to analyse my handwriting, and who bizarrely concluded that I have “enough drive to fuel ten men”. Apparently I am impatient (tick), ruthless (really?), a first class improviser (you could have fooled me) and have the unusual ability in a male to multi-task. I cannot decide which is odder: the extent to which you can fool some people by making your writing slope to the right and putting big loops below the line, or the fact that she missed the monumental laziness which has prevented me from fulfilling my alleged potential up to now.

But there may yet be hope, now that I have become such a striking advertisement for the ability of even the oldest dog to learn new tricks. Everyone tells me how much more relaxed and understanding I have become of late. I could even see it myself as I cheerfully traipsed around London with my wife and in-laws on Sunday, dragging a collection of suitcases and parcels worthy of a family of refugees. It came to this because the club where I had planned to leave our luggage was rendered inaccessible by the capital’s St Patrick’s Day parade. Once this would have led to a columnar rant about pandering to minorities and the disgraceful neglect of St George’s Day. Not any more.

We eventually regrouped in a Persian restaurant, where we devoted much time to my favourite activity: laughing. Now that we are safely married it was deemed safe to introduce me to some of my wife’s childhood foibles, including her repeated attempts at arson and the fact that no babysitter would ever agree to look after her a second time. I must remember never, under any circumstances, to let her anywhere near a chemistry set. Fingers crossed that hers are not dominant genes, then.

If anyone had told me a year ago that I was destined to marry someone of Iranian descent I would have snorted in total disbelief. It may help that “we are not very serious Muslims”, as my now father-in-law cheerily put it to the vicar while tucking into my packet of pork scratchings in the pub after our wedding rehearsal. But what chiefly binds us together is an ability to laugh at life. While what separates the fruitcakes demonstrating against returning troops in Luton, or resuming the old campaign of murder in Northern Ireland, is surely their lack of any sense: of proportion, of their own absurdity, or just full stop.

Laughter must always beat slaughter and killjoys should always be defied, whether they are acting in the name of public health or religion. So let much stout be drunk this St Patrick’s Day and may it be happy and, above all, peaceful to all for whom it matters.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

The loveliest city in the world

It has been a week of abandoned principles. Jaws apparently dropped as I took to the dance floor on the evening of my wedding, in defiance of one of my strictest precepts, and since then I have also done flying and abroad.

In the last 25 years only three places have enticed me out of the British Isles: Venice, Paris and Rome. But it is Venice that keeps drawing me back. It seems to exert a peculiar fascination for the educated English, whose accents may not predominate among the day trippers thronging the piazza of St Mark’s even now, in what is surely the ultimate off season; but they certainly vie with Italian for pre-eminence everywhere else, including the most obscure churches, palaces and restaurants.

This could simply be because Venice is the loveliest city in the world. But it is also the perfect place to fulfil that deep-rooted middle class need to spend holidays doing something “improving”, wandering around with guidebook in hand, nodding knowledgeably. The only snag being that the art and architecture are so utterly overwhelming that one could spend a lifetime here and never hope to take it all in.

Then again, it could be because of the lessons the place as a whole can teach us. In its day Venice was the heart of an empire, and the greatest naval power on earth. The weather can be dismal, the people rude, and it is not renowned for its cuisine. It all sounds very familiar, does it not?

Like any other self-respecting world class tourist attraction, Venice has its greatest buildings swathed in scaffolding, but the predominant impression as one strolls along the quieter back canals, or through its narrow alleyways and courtyards, is of elegant decay. This is an ancient dowager, who was a renowned beauty in her youth, but is now battling against hopeless odds to present an acceptable face to the world. If the global warming enthusiasts are correct, rising sea levels will soon do for her as surely as they will for low-lying island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati.

Apart from the moveable treasures, what will be left to us is countless billions of photographs, for everywhere one hears the click of lenses and blinks at the flash of bulbs. Whole generations have grown up seemingly unable to experience anything unless they interpose a camera between themselves and whatever they have supposedly come to see. I have even gone to pay my respects at funeral processions where I found myself almost the only person not trying frantically to photograph the coffin as it passed by.

On Saturday evening my wife (ah, the joy of writing that!) and I attended a concert of popular operatic arias and were surrounded by men eagerly videoing the performance rather than watching it. For what conceivable purpose?

It is very hard indeed to establish what happens to all the digital images that are so carefully squirreled away. Two weekends ago we were the unaccustomed centre of attention at our wedding, yet despite numerous requests we have yet to be sent one decent picture of ourselves, though at least we have not received any indecent ones, either.

The lesson I take home from this dying city is that life is short and for living, not for capturing on film. Venice was created by refugees, who took shelter on the marshy islands of the lagoon as the barbarian hordes descended on the crumbling Roman empire. Perhaps, in 1,500 years time, our descendants will be able to visit something equally beautiful created by the survivors of climate change in what is now the Siberian or Canadian Arctic. I would not bet on it, but just this once I feel minded to end on a hopeful note; and an urgent reminder to experience Venice while you still can.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

What goes around, comes around

On Saturday I did a wonderful thing, and a rather dreadful one. For reasons that will become apparent, I shall focus on the latter: I asked one of my oldest friends from Royal Grammar School days to be my best man.

Now a vet in the comfortable south, Iain had to make the arduous drive from Sussex to Cheshire on Friday evening, starting at the height of the rush hour and arriving just in time for the hotel to tell him he was too late for dinner. He had to kit himself out in expensively hired morning dress, then take on a series of onerous responsibilities, from not losing the rings to ensuring that our wedding presents were safely conveyed to the bridal suite, up several flights of winding stairs in the fairytale castle we had chosen for our wedding reception.

Attempts to delegate much of this more mundane work to the younger ushers sadly had to be vetoed because, if entrusted with the key to our room, they would clearly have felt an irresistible urge to indulge in rib-tickling practical jokes like making an apple pie bed or taping a superannuated kipper to the back of a radiator.

Then, to cap it all, I stood up at the wedding breakfast and made a 20-minute (but it seemed longer) speech that shamefully usurped the best man’s privilege of being the comic turn.

Precisely 27 years ago next weekend, I acted as Iain’s best man in Ponteland parish church. His wife-to-be was expecting a baby at the beginning of July, precisely as my new wife is now. But they had done their best to keep this quiet, and might have succeeded, with the aid of a strategically carried bouquet, if their best man had not devoted more or less his entire speech to sly jokes on the subject.

Having waited nearly three decades to get his revenge, Iain must have felt truly gutted when I demolished all the props of his most fertile comic seam by announcing my fiancée’s pregnancy in the letter of invitation to our wedding.

But then, as he pointed out in his speech, he had been asked to be best man four times in his life – once by his brother and three times by me – and it had seemed safe to accept the assignment yet again because, on past form, I would never go through with it. Which might indeed have been a reasonable bet if my fiancée Maral had not blocked all my attempts at backsliding with her invaluable mantra “I refuse to be dumped when I’ve done nothing wrong.”

The poor chap could hardly eat a mouthful at the wedding breakfast, so awful was the ordeal I was about to put him through. I felt about an inch tall, though I was so conscious of my good fortune in doing the wonderful thing of marrying Maral, and so cheered up by the most laughter-filled wedding ceremony that I have ever attended, that the shame failed to wipe off my face the big silly grin that had been plastered there all day. Indeed, I am still wearing it now, some 48 hours later.

I am writing this in a hotel at Heathrow, before catching a flight to Venice. You might well think that it was devotion beyond the call of duty to volunteer to write a column on the first day of my honeymoon, but I reasoned that I could easily dash off a few joyous words about my own wedding. Then, disastrously, Tom Gutteridge yesterday stole my thunder and shot my fox. I knew that it was a mistake to invite him.

My first reaction was to wonder how could anyone deprive someone of their own material so cruelly. Then I remembered my poor best man, and realised – as usual – that it was exactly what I deserved.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.