Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Going primitive

I have just made an offer for a house. Or, to be accurate, a converted Primitive Methodist chapel, built with an eye to eternity in 1875.

I like to think that the Hann family will be fitting occupants since my two sons are indisputably primitive, if not knowingly Methodist. While my wife’s assertion that she is a Muslim (only ever made to callers hoping that she might become a witness for Jehovah) will surely have added piquancy when delivered from a quasi-ecclesiastical doorstep.

My late mother was raised a Presbyterian and regarded other nonconformist sects with due suspicion. She liked to quote the neighbour who came round each Christmas and announced self-righteously: “I’ll take no strong drink, thank you, I’m a Methodist. I’ll just have a glass of port.”

My parents duly had me christened by the Presbyterian Church of England, which was a godsend for a cynic as it allowed me to joke that they had entrusted the care of my immortal soul to an organisation that had disappeared (through a merger with the Congregationalists) by the time I was 18.

The old lady who currently occupies our prospective home tells me that she receives occasional visits from people who were married or baptised there. If our purchase goes through, I shall try to treat these callers with good grace.

I have never understood the mentality of those who live in converted railway stations, signal boxes and goods sheds, and then festoon them with notices designed to repel the train nerds they inevitably attract. (Though I write that as a bit of a train nerd myself.)

At least I imagine that chapel spotters are rather less obsessive than their railway equivalents.

It undoubtedly helps that the chapel is not registered as being of any particular architectural or historic interest, and that it does not possess a burial ground. Someone I vaguely know bought a converted parish church where the graveyard was still in occasional use. Although not in the least superstitious himself, he did admit that it was vaguely disconcerting to pull back the curtains of a morning and find a black-clad party clustered around an open grave just beyond his hardy perennials.

Mrs Hann and I first visited the chapel on our own the weekend before last, and decided to make an offer after a second tour accompanied by our children. Four-year-old Charlie’s tactlessly loud assertion that it was “rubbish” was just the confirmation we felt we needed. Added to which, it is just down the road from his very good state school.

We now have to overcome three major hurdles. First, a structural survey to determine whether the uneven roof line and numerous loose tiles obvious even to me require a bit of tidying up or a full scale reconstruction. (If the latter, I wonder how far I might get with one of those church roof appeals, with a thermometer-like sign tracking progress to date?)

Second, finding someone daft enough to lend me the money until my current house sells.

And finally, extricating the present incumbent, who has clearly devoted much of her life to collecting stuff in a way with which I can sympathise all too well. I naturally agreed on Saturday that we would like to keep the pews and refectory-style table which fit so well in the kitchen. Then she suggested that each of our boys would surely like one of her Victorian school desks.

At this point Mrs Hann took me to one side for “a quiet word” about my propensity to act as an open door when anyone has stuff to give away.

She is right, of course, as she usually is. Sometime this year I shall be forced to make some tough decisions about which of the many thousands of books I own, have never read and am never likely to read, I really must sell or give away.

If anyone would like to buy a house in Northumberland with stunningly lovely views and a ready-made library, majoring on classic and modern fiction, history, biography and railways, do please drop me a line.

Two unruly children and a fine pair of Border terriers may also be available by separate negotiation.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The rammed train station of destiny

You know you are getting old when you become conscious of feeling hopelessly out of your depth in the tide of fresh language that keeps rolling in, to the confusion of those of us still speaking like they did in the olden days.

I continue to raise eyebrows by saying “very well, thank you” in reply to polite enquiries about how I am, rather than the now obligatory “I’m good”.

Somehow I consistently manage to buy my meat, cheese and produce in pounds and ounces, though I find that it does help to know that a pound equals 454 grams, just in case the young shop worker does not.

The relatively youthful and altogether more modern Mrs Hann is baffled by my insistence on always quoting temperatures in Fahrenheit, even in the depths of winter when numbers beginning with a minus sound so much more exciting. However, even she was taken aback the other day when she ordered half a dozen items in a shop and the assistant looked at her blankly before venturing: “So, would you like three or four?”

One of the most jarring things to me at present is being told that a pub or train is “rammed”. I would naturally say “packed”, or just “very full”. To me, rams are for servicing ewes, battering down doors or moving water hydraulically.

A further illustration of how out of touch I am: ask Google for an image of a ram and you get this

Surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary assures me that this fashionable use of “rammed” is a British colloquialism rather than a trans-Atlantic import, as most such assaults on my sense of the right and proper seem to be. However, it appears to offer no clues as to how it originated.

Years ago there was a signpost in the middle of the roundabout at Hipsburn, near Alnmouth, pointing up the hill to “Rly station”. My girlfriend at the time asked how we pronounced this strange place name, observing that it looked more Welsh than Northumbrian. “Railway” I replied, slowly and coldly, making a mental note that I had been absolutely correct (logically, if not politically) when I recruited her as my PA on the strength of her looks rather than her brainpower.

Alnmouth railway station as it used to be

Now I find myself waging an increasingly lonely battle against the universal advance of the American “train station”, even in my own household. I can see the remorseless logic of the analogy with “bus station”, but it just does not sound right to me (added to which it would completely ruin the scansion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”).

Perhaps my ancestors felt equally aggrieved when “railroad” fell out of use in Britain in the mid-19th century and migrated to America (though our train drivers refer, to this day, not to the track ahead but to “the road”).

When I was a boy the smart green buses shuttling between Croft Street and North Shields were operated by the splendidly named Tyneside Tramways & Tramroads Company, and I am ashamed to confess that it has taken me 50 years to wonder why they used both words.

I have now bothered myself to discover that tramway is the correct name for a track let into a street, and tramroad for one running elsewhere, such as the line that used to run from Wallsend to Gosforth Park. Never say that this column never teaches you anything.

I dare say some changes are for the better. In a nostalgic moment, of which I have many, I recently lashed out a fiver on eBay to buy a 1950s biscuit tin so that my son could learn his alphabet from the same source that I used. Though only up to “F”, since “G is for golliwog” is hardly going to be a sound footing for his education in 2014.

It will pain me when he insists on celebrating Halloween rather than Guy Fawkes night, or becomes excited about his high school prom, as the distinctively English customs and expressions with which I grew up are smoothed away by the relentless progress of globalisation.

Still, at least some form of English looks like being the dominant global language for his lifetime, so things could be worse.

On which note, I must dash to the train station. No doubt it will be rammed as usual.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Coals to Newcastle

What phrase can replace “carrying coals to Newcastle” as the shorthand for total pointlessness, now that the Tyne is indeed a river importing coal?

How it was: shipping coal out
How it is: shipping coal in

I pondered the question at some length as I sat by my fireside over Christmas, particularly when excavations in my depleted coalhouse finally broke through more recent strata of Polish and Colombian dust. Unearthing, in all their glory, some substantial lumps of genuine Northumberland coal.

They had an effect on me pretty similar to that madeleine on Proust, transporting me back to the glorious blazes of Shilbottle cobbles that had me shrinking back from my parents’ hearth half a century ago.

There was a peculiarly dismal phase when we went “all electric”, until I faithfully promised that I would clean and lay the fire before school each morning. It was, I think, pretty much the only childhood promise I actually kept.

I suppose I should have kept back just one piece of this black gold: coated it in lacquer, perhaps, polished it up and put it on display. But instead I just revelled in the simple joy of a good old-fashioned fire.

Now I am hoping to harness the power of the press to see whether anyone can point me to a source of decent quality house coal, ideally from a British mine?

After all, it is to the imported stuff I have been buying for the last few years as a fine Islay malt whisky is to industrial drain cleaner, and I would be content to pay an appropriate premium price.

I have tried majoring on fashionably “renewable” logs but I am increasingly convinced that more warmth is created by lugging in several baskets of the things each day than my stove ever throws out.

Enough logs to warm my house barely perceptibly for about six months

Perhaps there is an opportunity here for a new generation of community micro-mines. After all, every pub and restaurant these days seems keen to emphasise the local sourcing of its food, practically telling you the name of the beast you are about to eat and the grid reference of the field where it grazed. So how about adding locally sourced coal fires to the list of attractions?

While for Guardian readers, the rival pub across the valley could offer state-of-the-art loft insulation, electric convector heaters powered by its very own wind turbine and free jumpers and mittens for all customers on those days when the wind disobligingly fails to blow.

Some will argue, no doubt, that we should not be burning coal at all if we are to “save the planet”. British coal fired power stations are closing left, right and centre at the behest of the EU.

Yet Germany, which was also in the EU last time I checked, is currently building no fewer than ten new ones, which seems odd to say the least.

Does anyone truly believe that converting coal-fired power stations to burn wood pellets that have to be shipped halfway round the planet will really make a useful contribution to mitigating the effects of climate change?

Any more than pricing our own heavy industries out of business so that the same processes can be carried out in China using coal-fired energy over there.

“Exporting aluminium smelting to the Yangtze” might be a reasonable summary of utter futility, though it can hardly be said to trip off the tongue.

So how about “teaching humility to politicians” or “giving climate change fanatics a sense of proportion and humour”? Or must we fall back on that sad old stand-by: “buying a new trophy cabinet for St James’ Park”?

I had intended to close by wishing all (both?) my readers a very Happy New Year and apologising for my absence for the last few weeks owing to a combination of depression, indolence and Christmas Day falling on a Wednesday. At least one of which will not recur in 2014.

But then I remembered that I should not mention my depression because, despite suffering from it for 40 years, every column on the subject provokes at least one irate reader’s letter complaining that I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

Maybe “a depressive writing about depression” is the new “coals to Newcastle” I have been looking for.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.