Tuesday, 25 October 2016


Earlier this evening, I mistakenly described making risotto as boring, which it isn’t. *  Z put me right by pointing out that, in the right circumstances, making risotto can be quite comforting.  So boring it isn’t.

It is a routine, though.  At least the early stages (the fun comes at the end, when you transform this soggy mess into something uniquely exquisite, or thereabouts): soften the onion, add the rice, then half an hour of ladle of stock, stir, ladle of stock, stir, ladle of stock – with exact timing and quantities, so you’re not even allowed to wander off and do something else.  But you are allowed to think, so naturally my thoughts turned to breakfast.

Now that’s a routine!  Everybody must have one.  (Or at least everybody who actually eats breakfast.**) How else would we get to coffee time?  I’m not suggesting it has to be the same every day, of course; but the breakfast routine is the default when any or all of imagination, energy and willpower fail.  I won’t bore (ha!) you with the details of mine, except to say that feeding the cat figures in there, somewhere between the tea and the toast phases, and that timing (which I find is a key attribute of a good routine) has to be flexible: which keeps the routine from becoming a habit.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to say.  Routines are good, because they can be pulled in to take care of unimportant but necessary business.  Habits are bad, because they can’t be pushed out to make way for anything.  The trick is not to let the former turn into the latter.  Thinking helps.



* I will never tire of repeating my definition of boredom, which is wanting to do something but not having anything you want to do, even though I know I delighted (not to say bored) you enough with it years ago.

**Marco Pierre White once claimed he always had a three-course breakfast: a coffee, a cigarette, and a cough.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Leeds (4)

I half-promised the other day to write about a certain breed of small vehicle (now thankfully extinct), and as I’ve resolved to blog more often, in the hope of doing my bit towards revitalising this dying art, here goes.

The car in question was an anagram of Brian Retail – although I’m sure they’re no longer made, I’m also sure there are still owners, whom I wouldn’t want to upset should they goggle their enthusiasm and light upon this post.  You know what I mean.

Anyway, this particular one was owned by one of my first digsmates in Brookfield Avenue, Leeds, whose name, as it happens, was Brian.  Brian (who was a dental student and as far as I know never went into the retail trade, but never mind) was quite challengingly mischievous, in a good if dangerous way.  Having ferried me around for a while in this contraption, one day he asked me if I’d like to have a drive.  I’d recently passed my test, and any such opportunity wasn’t to be passed by, so I naturally accepted.

The driving position, as I recall, meant that a tallish person like me had to scrunch himself up like a used tissue just to fit in there, never mind drive the thing.  Having been instructed in the peculiarities of the pedals and the column shift, we set off. 

Brian gave me directions – “left here, straight on a bit, right” – and I was getting quite into it, feeling my way into the car’s unusual responsiveness to instructions, until he said “OK, go left here.  Best you change down to first.”

I did say he was mischievous.  He’d taken me to the top of the steepest hill in, if not all Leeds, then certainly the Harehills district.  It was about one in eight, a good hundred yards down. There was a set of traffic lights at the bottom.  Giggling, Brian told me how to proceed.

“What you do now, you put both your feet on the footbrake, you pull the handbrake up as hard as you can with both hands, and you stand up.  Oh, and pray for green.”

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Follow the Van (Caravan diaries)

We’ve been from Norfolk to Pembrokeshire and back in the past week.  As a result, the caravan is now asleep until the spring.

I learnt two interesting things whilst we were there.  (Pembrokeshire, that is, not Norfolk.)  The first was one of those circular routes that start from somewhere completely irrelevant, accidentally take you through several relevant places and drop you off at another completely irrelevant spot just next door.

For some completely irrelevant reason, we started singing that song about my old man said follow the van, you know the one.  Turns out they were evicted, had to load everything onto this van, there wasn’t room for her so she had to walk, toting a completely irrelevant bird, got lost and pissed, etc etc.  The interesting bit was, of course, the van, which started its life as a queue of transport camels crossing the Sahara, turned into a single horse- (not camel-) drawn vehicle which later acquired an internal combustion engine, before performing a career swerve, regaining its full name and becoming a mobile home (a term now exclusively reserved for static ones, the mobile ones being termed tourers) commonly known as a caravan, or string of load-bearing camels but, to us insiders, knowingly referred to as ‘the van’.

The other thing was to do with Julius Caesar, who apparently didn’t say (in Latin) ‘the die is cast’ but (in Greek) ‘the dice must be thrown’, or some such thing that means more or less the opposite.  What I learnt was that I’d been wrongly taught, about sixty-five years ago, that the ‘die’ in question was one of those metal stamps for making coins and ‘cast’ meant ‘forged’, as in cast iron.  Ah well.  I have little of either language, and less of the other.

In other news, there was only one rabbit.

Sunday, 18 September 2016


I have received a communication from the manufacturers of my car.  In a major upgrade, instead of having to drive with four wheels, I will now only need two.  This will make the car lighter and hence better.

By the same post, the makers of my cornflakes have informed me that, henceforth, an enhancement to their product will supply me with a solid block of corn, from which I can create my own personal customised flakes.  This improves my consumer choice.

And the government, my newspaper tells me, has decided that the election process will be simplified by allowing only one candidate on each ballot paper, thus removing the risk of ambiguity and error.  My newspaper has responded positively to this by agreeing to eliminate all adjectives and adverbs from their reportage, in the interests of clarity.

Finally, statistics prove that the majority of cats prefer avians to quadrupeds.  As cats outnumber humans globally, legs should therefore be discouraged.

I think it’s still good to be alive, but there’s always room for improvement.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

It was a Haunting picture

We were staying in a cottage, inaccurately named ‘Coastal View’, in Porthgain, and we’d arranged to meet up with our friends for a meal at Harbour Lights, the restaurant across the square.  They were staying  in their caravan three miles up the road at Mathry.  I don’t remember the meal, but afterwards I know we went back to our place, had a few drinks and decided to go next door to the Sloop Inn. 

I know that I was drinking whisky of some sort, and so was Paul.  A few artists lived in Porthgain, still do, and Paul got into an argument with one of them, called Bryn.  Bryn was drinking brandy, and we worked out next day that the glasses might’ve got confused.  He did pretty good representational landscapes of the local scene, which Paul decided to challenge on the grounds that he was hypocritically exploiting the tourist trade whilst simultaneously decrying it and thereby squandering his talent, or some such stuff.  Paul is good at challenging when he’s in the mood, and Bryn was in the mood too. 

The pub ran a gallery in the back room in those days, and they dragged each other out there, getting a bit rough.  I was sitting at the bar holding hands with Caro, because she’d reached her weepy phase and I’d reached my amorous one, so I don’t know exactly what happened out there.  Reconstructions suggest that blows had nearly, possibly actually, been exchanged.  They wouldn’t have been very harmful by this stage, but what is sure is that a picture got knocked off the wall, and the frame got slightly damaged.  We popped in the next day and viewed it: an impressionistic depiction of a coastal scene – Druidstone, I think – in a rather abstract style.  Good, but certainly nothing to have a drunken conceptualistic fight over.  We all, Bryn included, laughed and forgot about it.

A few months later, V and I were in Narberth, visiting the old aunts, Margaret and Ray.  They still lived at home in those days, in the house in Spring Gardens that their father had built in the early years of the century.  The carers came in twice a day, did what caring had to be done, and left.  Ours was a duty visit, and the aunts were still just interesting enough for conversation, but there are limits, so we made our temporary excuses and wandered down the Drang and through to the High Street.  There used to be a nice gallery down next to the second-best butchers’, before it failed and got turned into yet another tat shop.  There in the window was the Picture.  We told Paul and Caro about this, and next time they were in the area they went to have a look, but it had moved on. 

On subsequent visits to Pembrokeshire, though, we all seemed to come across it every so often in various unexpected locations.  I don’t remember the details now, but it kept cropping up.  It was clearly stalking us.

That winter, we were invited to Paul and Caro's house for a meal.  When we arrived we were instructed to close our eyes, turn around, open them and look at the wall of the stairwell.

“Well, we had to, didn’t we?” said Caro.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Reading and me, Part Three – Location, Location and, erm, Location

Ah well, two out of three…

The house was ideally placed for my commute, the branch line station being almost literally at the bottom of the garden (although I couldn’t actually get to it that way, having instead to walk a full two hundred yards down the road, something that initially frustrated me until I saw the benefits of not having hordes of commuters and other less savoury station denizens traipsing past the back gate at all hours).  There were good local shops, if we needed them, and a small friendly supermarket just up the road.  There were also a couple of interestingly quirky restaurants.  And the town centre was walkable.  So far, so good.

It was also within staggering distance of three or four inveterate party-givers, who formed part of what I soon learnt was jocularly termed the ‘Reading Mafia’.  This sobriquet wasn’t entirely appropriate; there was no firm evidence that any of them were involved in anything seriously dodgy, although contacts could no doubt be picked up in extreme need.  But the parties were good and frequent; and once the worst of our building work was done we fairly quickly became junior members of this party clique.  I was, of course, the new boy: believe it or not, especially if you know anything of my earlier history, I’d never been anywhere near this kind of scene before.  I dived in headfirst and lapped thirstily.

The only downside of the location, it transpired, was the noise factor.  We should of course have worked out that having a railway in the back garden entailed the odd train going along it – in this case, as it was the main line from practically everywhere to everywhere else, every few minutes during the day and irregularly during the night.  The first 4 a.m. goods train shook us, and the house, awake.  It is, however, surprising how quickly you get used to that.  There was also an unforeseen amount of road traffic; if you saw a map of Reading, and knew where my road is, you’d see that it’s a natural north-south rat-run between the Thames bridges and the M4.  Again, we just had to get used to that.  And secondary double glazing works wonders.


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Reading and me - Part Two

The house took some finding, because it had to meet several fairly strictly defined criteria.  It had to be nice, obviously.  It had, preferably, to be detached – we’d both had enough of dividing walls – which was a bit of a constraint in Reading, where the nicest properties tend to be terraced four- or five-storey Victorian town houses.  It had to be near enough to the town centre for shopping, and to commuting transport links.  And it had to be the right size and shape for the fabulous parties we intended to throw.

I think we viewed around twenty, over a three month period.  We actually made offers on a couple, which luckily fell through.  Luckily, because out of nowhere the dream house suddenly popped up.  I remember the viewing very clearly.  We briefly inspected the outside – pre-war red-brick detached, imposingly deep front garden, a sense of solidity.  When we got inside, we took one glance at the two spacious reception rooms, the elegant stairway and the galleried landing, looked at each other and just nodded.

The house was an executors’ sale, so there was no upward chain.  You can imagine, if you haven’t done it, the complexity of synchronising two sales with a single purchase, so this was an added bonus.  It was, however, also a wreck.  Not structurally – it had, we were told been built by a builder for his own occupancy, obviously a good sign.  It actually reminded me of the house I’d been brought up in in Bournemouth from the age of twelve, of which the same thing was supposedly true.

But it had been dreadfully refurbished in the 1950s, and then neglected over the years.  Just to give a couple of  instances: the lovely original brick fire surrounds had all been chipboarded over; and the bathroom was a plastic suite in yellow – yellow!   There was no heating worthy of the name.  And the plumbing and electrics were, let’s say, original.

We got rapidly in touch with a friend of Viv’s called Tony, and obtained permission for him to have a look.  Tony was an expert plumber and builder, and the sort of guy who relished a challenge, especially for a friend.  Having had a good inspection and an equally good think, he took us down a local Irish pub and gave us his views on what needed doing, together with a sensible price.  We discussed it in a lot of detail over the subsequent days, but we knew we’d committed in our hearts from the outset.  So we got onto the agents, offered the asking price, which was accepted, and moved in a month later, picking our way across the floor joists.