Tuesday 10 September 2013

A get well card to a Fleet Street legend

I am writing this in the quiet carriage on Monday’s 06.53 East Coast train from Alnmouth to King’s Cross.

That is in the completely dead and wasted time that justifies lashing out £50bn-plus on HS2 to get busy executives into London a little bit quicker.

It’s not a journey I often make these days, though for two decades it was my weekly routine. Though back then, as I recall, the train left at a psychologically advantageous few minutes past seven, and arrived in London nearly 15 minutes earlier than it does now. It is hard to interpret these changes as an improvement.

It also does not help that I lay awake nearly all night worrying about whether my car would make it to the station. This is entirely my own fault for allowing patriotism and hope to triumph over experience, inducing me to buy another British-made Land Rover product.

The distinctive clunk and jerk of an imminently failing gearbox on the approach to Branxton was the only thing that marred my visit to the “Flodden 500” commemorations there on Sunday afternoon. The floral displays in the lovely church were truly outstanding, and the battlefield itself has acquired some useful interpretation boards since I last paid it a visit many years ago.

Floral tribute to King James IV
"Surrey and his men"

The killing field of Flodden is an amazingly small space to have witnessed the end of so many thousands of lives – and for what? The union of the English and Scottish crowns a mere nine decades later confirms the truth of my late mother’s favourite mantra: “It will all be the same in 100 years’ time.”

Flodden Field, viewed from the English lines

Although Mr Salmond has timed his referendum to coincide with the Scottish victory at Bannockburn next year, I do hope that some will reflect on Flodden, and the pointlessness of division and conflict, when casting their votes.

I am becoming quite familiar with the road north to Milfield, where my aunt and I enjoyed an excellent lunch at the legendary Red Lion to set us up for Flodden.

The Red Lion's unusual bar tariff

This is because my distinguished colleague David Banks, having devoted his column last Friday to our scheduled columnists’ lunch that day in Newcastle, rang me early in the morning with the sad news that he felt too poorly to make the trip.

Later, having compressed half a day’s work into a mere two hours, I rang him back and offered him a lift. I came to regret this when I discovered that the A697 north of Powburn was largely under water, restricting the caravans travelling in my direction to a mere 20mph. (Though lorries and vans coming towards me, oddly enough, still felt that it was fine to try cornering at a terrifying 60mph-plus.)

Banksy devoted the whole similarly unnerving hour’s drive to Newcastle to an account of his recent medical history – and that was just the executive summary. I don’t think I have heard a “looking on the bright side” line to match his “at least having the leukaemia back has got rid of my diabetes” since I heard that fine old joke about the butler ringing his absent employer to report that the grand house and its priceless contents had all been burnt to a cinder, “though on the plus side, sir, all the heat has brought your spring bulbs on a treat.”

It was also no doubt good for my own health that the need to convey the Fleet Street legend back to his Tweedo Paradiso forced me to revise my original plan of getting howling drunk and then wandering aimlessly around the centre of the toon for several hours until I sobered up.

At one point my passenger remarked that it was very kind of me to make a 50-mile detour to give him a lift. I said truthfully that it was a pleasure, but wondered whether he might like to reflect that it was possible for someone to be a Tory and a fairly decent human being at the same time.

He looked at me as though I had asked him to accept that the moon is made of green cheese.

Nevertheless, despite our deep-rooted political differences, this column comes with just one message: get well, Banksy, preferably soon.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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