Thursday, 30 August 2007

A local place for local people

Yesterday was our wedding anniversary so it was ordained that Italian food was to be consumed. Apparently it's a bye-law, or a tort, or something. Quite frankly I'm too scared to question it these days.

So the evening found us heading off to one of the few Italian restaurants in the western hemisphere we hadn't yet tried, Giovanni's in the village of Dickens Heath.

Dickens Heath is a little unusual. It's a new village, which in itself is quite rare given that most of the places round here feature in the Domesday Book. It's not unpleasant, although £350,000 for a two-bedroomed apartment is taking the piss, to be honest. But it seems to have fallen into the trap of property developments everywhere. I couldn't help thinking, as I drove down the main street, slaloming left and right like an automotive pinball, that it looked a little...small. I don't mean it looks compact and bijou - it's no small country hamlet. But it looks like they took a normal-sized village and put it through a photocopier on 85%. Rather a lot squeezed into every square inch. Mind you, if you can charge those prices, fair enough.

But I digress. The meal was very good, but the conversation plumbed our usual depths.

Me: So, nine years then. What anniversary is that?
Katie: It's not copper, is it? No, it can't be - I'm sure we've had one of those before.
Me: Tin? Is it tin?
Katie: Tin doesn't sound too posh. I thought the idea was that things went up in value the longer you were married. What would you get on your tin anniversary - some beans?
Me: I don't think there's too much logic in anniversary nomenclature - I mean it's not like the naming of hurricanes.
Katie: Fish?
Me: Beg pardon?
Katie: Fish anniversary. Maybe that's what the ninth is. Happy fish wedding anniversary.
Me: Have you been inhaling again?
Katie: You've got something on your upper lip.
Me: (removing a piece of aubergine the size of a small child from my face) Thanks. How long were you going to let me walk about with that there?
Katie: It had ceased to amuse me. It had to go.
Me: Don't let my food-related jinks divert us from the business of the day. Fish anniversary?
Katie: I'm bored now.

And they say couples with a few years under their belts don't talk to each other.

I later found out that the ninth anniversary is either pottery or willow. Not fish, apparently. I wiki'd this (is that the verb?) and found that there are different UK and USA lists (year 10 is tin and, in the States, aluminium but with only the first 'i'). But there's also a 'modern' list which has some bizarre entries.

The seventh anniversary gift on the modern list is 'desk sets'. How romantic. "Happy anniversary darling, I bought you a blotter." The tenth is diamond, which says something about modern married couples not being too confident about the whole 60 years thing.

But the modern fourth wedding anniversary is 'appliances'. I know that's supposed to be a white goods reference (nothing says "I love you" like a blender, I suppose) but I couldn't help thinking of items for the discreet gentleman, oft affixed by leather straps.

I suspect that's another type of appliance.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Brighton life

What better way to spend the last Bank Holiday before Christmas? Brighton is a fantastic place, perfect for a short break. There's a really laid-back quality about the city that makes it most un-English in a way.

My brother (no.2 ) lives there, too. So as it was him we were going to see, Grimsby would have been a daft idea.

Now, I know that Philip Larkin will accuse everyone's Mum and Dad of all sorts of things. They indeed may not intend to do what they end up doing. Clearly, when he wrote those words, he'd already spent a number of hours in a Honda Accord on the M25 with his parents. By about 3.30pm on Friday, I was sharing his pain.

The car was parked up for the weekend. After several Guinness's with brother no. 1, I was feeling vaguely human again and ready for the sophisticated drinks party at the flat of brother no. 2 and his partner.

It is of course a huge and lazy stereotype to claim that gay men are automatically going to be great with interior design; that they can effortlessly furnish any space with good taste and an eye for detail. Well, call me huge and lazy then. Everything was just right. But of course, we are still family, so conversations soon reflected our shared heritage.

"Please tell me that's not a real Barcelona chair."

"God no, it's homage. Do you think I'd let Dad near it with a glass of red wine in his hand if it was the real thing?"

"Good point."

Matters of taste and design will always come second to the worry generated by our parents carrying liquids that would stain.

Saturday morning dawned bright and warm. A noise like a million bi-polar wasps greeted us. This was to be our transport to the Main Event:

It's a tuctuc!
Don't laugh. This takes six people and a driver/pilot and comes complete with wifi and a 17" TV. It was a hoot, although left-hand bends introduced rather too much lean into the equation for me as I was sat on the open side, being berated by passing motorists.

And we ended up here - Brighton's famous Royal Pavilion:

This is a completely mental building, built at the request of King George IV when he was the scandalous, drinking, gambling and womanising Prince of Wales before his coronation in 1820. Mad as a badger (a bit like his father George III), but brilliant.

I'm no photographer, but here are a couple of my efforts:

Who'd have thought it? Clear blue skies on an English Bank Holiday weekend!

The ceremony itself took place in the Red Drawing Room. If you thought the Pavilion looked otherworldly from the outside, then, well you get the idea.

I accept that some reading this might have differing views about the whole Civil Partnership concept. That's OK, I'm all for inclusiveness, I'm even willing to let you carry on reading this posting (but don't forget to get back to your Daily Express before it gets cold). But all I saw were two grown adults standing up in front of friends and family, expressing their love and making certain promises and commitments to each other. It was beautiful and moving. It worked for me. It certainly worked for the two people involved.

Plus I've now got an extra brother.

Then onto the reception. More stuff to get Major Farquhar (ret'd) choking on his wheetie-bangs - a cake with two grooms. Priceless.

My brother gave a speech where he spoke eloquently and passionately about how we should be thankful that we live in the here and now. We may complain about stupid things like speed limits and rubbish collections, but in this country today it's possible for people to receive official legal recognition of their love, regardless of their gender or sexuality. Even five years ago, what we'd just witnessed wouldn't have been possible. I'm not even the most "right on" of people - although I have a rabid mistrust of all politicians - however I'd never really given it any thought before. It just struck a perfect chord with me.

I don't think I've ever been more proud of my brother than I was at that moment. I will tell him this one day, but you have to understand our relationship has a fairly high proportion of piss-take (we are brothers first and foremost) so I guess I'll have to choose the moment.

Don't worry, he did manage to get some smut into the speech, too.

The evening - a flawless night sky, the full moon casting a perfect reflection on a millpond sea. And there we were in Legends, surrounded by lots of chaps throwing shapes to Kylie Minogue. Sorry, another stereotype. My mother loved it, though, and the clientele loved her too.

Back home yesterday - more hassle on the M25 meant that I had to achieve a significant fraction of light speed to make up time on the way home. But it failed to cast a pall over a great weekend - that's one more brother hitched, just brother no.1 to go (and that happens later this year).

I'm knackered, though.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Eight weeks in

Another mad dash weigh-in. This time I'm doing it a couple of days early, on Friday morning.

I'm about to get into a car with my wife and parents and hurtle down to Brighton for the weekend for my brother's Civil Partnership ceremony.

Yes, I accept that for some people there might be one unsettling concept in that last sentence. Don't worry yourselves - spending a weekend with my parents will indeed probably be a trial, but I'm sure we'll cope.

So what joys will the scales have for me this morning?

Bloody hell. I've stayed the same. Is this the dreaded plateau?

Marathon runners have the wall, a barrier after so many miles that ends many attempts as the body and mind gang up on them. The plateau is the version for weight-loss attempts. It's not unusual to find that after a month or so of steady losses it gets harder and harder to maintain constant progress - people go weeks or months without seeing any change at all. I actually had this happen to me when I tried this last year on WeightWatchers - for six whole weeks I saw exactly the same numbers every week.

Perhaps the metabolism slows down as the body starts to hang on to every calorie it can. I don't know. But the timing is lousy. If it wasn't for the charity target I wouldn't be too worried - one thing I've learned is that weight in itself is just a number as I've started to enjoy feeling healthier. From October it won't even matter - I'll keep going with the programme and see where I end up - but between now and then I have to get on this bloody machine every week and look at the numbers.

I'm not feeling too optimistic at the moment. Hopefully Brighton will take my mind off things. Shepherding two 70-something parents certainly will.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

You can't beat a bit of feedback

Picture the scene.

It is a few minutes to 9 am. I'm rushing into the office, having been delayed by insane (and previously unannounced) roadworks on the way to the motorway, then a tanker fire (I kid you not) on the motorway itself.

Just a side issue here, folks, and call me the Health and Safety Nazi if you will. But when there's a tanker on fire - on fire as in VISIBLE FLAMES AND BILLOWING BLACK SMOKE - on the hard shoulder of the motorway, and it's got one of those "Caution - flammable" warning signs on the back, is just closing off the one inside lane really going to do any good? I mean, I'm grateful for the chance to continue my journey, but I had a morbid curiosity as to what would happen to anyone still passing by when it made the switch from merely "on fire" to "exploding".

Or maybe I'm just being fussy.

So, anyway, having made it through the chaos, I'm striding purposefully to my desk when my phone beeps. I have a text. What could this possibly be?


I think it's fair to surmise that my wife has now read this blog.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Seven weeks in

One of the main rules about writing, so I'm told, is that you should always know your audience. I think when people say this they mean that you must have an awareness of the people who are ultimately going to read your words. How do they think? What techniques should you be using to get your point across? What are they going to feel or do as a result?

Nowhere is there any advice about what you should do when your wife is one of the audience members, and you really want to write about the godawful state she got in last night.

Bugger it. I'm always in trouble, it's just the depth that varies.

Regular readers of this blog will know that my saintly wife Katie does, on the very odd occasion, enjoy a drink. Or two. It would be a massive overstatement to say that she's a lush. Especially as she will read this tomorrow.

Last night we went to see Mike and Emma after their return from honeymoon in Malaysia. A great night was had by all; Malaysia looks wonderful from the photos, the happy couple had a good time, and Katie "drank well rather than wisely", as my dad would say.

Some people get violent when they drink, and insist on telling you you're their best mate. Often in a headlock. Not Katie.

Some people get maudlin when they're drunk. They're the people to be found on the stairs, weeping bitterly whilst singing the words to "Send in the clowns" over a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Not Katie.

No, Katie is what's known as a repetitive drunk. Her memory span goes west and she forgets that the tale she's carefully recounting to the room is in fact the same one she told us not five minutes hence. No bother, she'll stop when you point this out to her. And five minutes later, that story about the CD she bought last month will, like an old friend, be making its reappearance. It's very entertaining, especially for a woman who, when sobre, has a mind like a steel trap and doesn't forget a single thing.

She also had some spatial-awareness issues, too. Let me explain. We live in an enclosed street; there are houses on three sides where we are, so taxis generally drop us off and then turn round to get back out. Last night, however, the driver turned around first. No biggie, except when Katie extracted herself from the back of the minicab, the view she got wasn't what she expected. "Where's our house?" she exclaimed out loud. Rather too loud, it must be said for the time of morning. However, there was a genuine level of panic in her voice that only lessened when I employed the tactic of turning her around 180 degrees to see the house in which we've lived since 1996.

Never a dull moment. I wouldn't have it any other way, either, dear.

Anyway, what's all this high living doing to the numbers?

Another two pounds off from last week. So far I've lost 16 pounds with another 12 to go before the end of September. And I'm begining to notice a difference, too. Belts are going in a notch, trousers are getting that bit more loose. I have a horrible feeling that clothes shopping might be in order at some point. That's a grim experience for me at the best of times.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Roll of honour

One of the great things about having a blog is that it makes you look at a lot of other people's writing. One of the bad things is that it makes you realise how much better other people are at it than you. But there's always going to be rain on your wedding day, I suppose.

There are witty erudite folks all over the world, spending hours crafting great entries about life and art, or just talking about what's happening with them. At least I hope they're taking hours on each post and not just being spontaneously great. That would be a little too much to bear. I have to sweat at being average, quite frankly.

There's a 'Next Blog' button up there ^^^^^^ that you can press and it takes you to a random blog somewhere in the world. Be warned, though. By random, I mean random. There will be blogs written by over-excited nu-metal fans, Japanese schoolgirls (a lot of Japanese schoolgirls actually), evangelicals, Goths, multi-level marketeers and odd languages that look like Welsh with tonsillitis. And some pornography. Quite a lot of pornography.

So, I think it's a lot easier if I recommend a few. Go, have a look. You'll laugh, you may cry, milk may come out of your nose for all I know.

Brum Blog is about the wonderful city of Birmingham, second city of this land (get back in your place, Manchester).

The unpronounceable qwghlm is updated rarely but always worth a look when it is.

Random Acts of Reality
is a well-known blog about a London Paramedic. Dramatic. Although he's on holiday in the US as I write this, so probably dealing with rather less vomit than normal.

On that note, I'm delighted to recommend some blogs from 'over there'. For some reason, I have some Americanites* reading here. Hello. Sorry about Simon Cowell. He's not really one of ours. Anyway. Go and see what's happening in Palinode's Palace, go see Schmutzie, and knock yourself out over Rebecca and Mathew at Yes, that Rebecca, the one who can riff about the personality defects of mountain ranges and why progressive rock is fattening.

Hello too, to Dean the Francophile and a tip o' the hat to Catherine, who was brave enough to start a weight-loss blog, and even braver than me so far in that she's kept it pretty much on-topic.

There are loads more, and I will put together a blogroll at some point. That's the list of other blogs you sometimes find over there on the blogs of people who know what they're doing-------->

But go have a look. And if you like what you see on someone's blog, post a comment there. That applies here, too, by the way.


Rebecca gently reminded me after I posted this that Palinode and Schmutzie are, in fact Canadian, not American. I am an idiot. But it means they both get an extra link each.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Sign of the times

It's the sort of thing that makes me smile.

The other day I went for a walk at lunchtime. It wasn't that that made me smile; walking is not a natural action for me and after a few minutes I was hankering for a car to take me back to the office.

No, I experienced a small amount of low-grade merriment when I rounded a corner and was confronted by the near legendary Binley Mega-Chippy.

I've driven past it loads of time, but never seen it up close. There's something about the honesty of the shop's name that makes me smile. No pretension - you know exactly what you're going to get. A frickin' great big chip shop. Cod in batter, chips by the bucketload, no messing.

I didn't succumb, by the way, tempting thought it was.

But "chippy" is one of those great words - like "offy" or "outdoor" for an off-licence - normally everyone uses it apart from the proprietors themselves. So when you see it writ large it re-affirms your faith in human nature. Sometimes it's nice when people don't try to be too clever with these things. Plus I've seen too many "fish restaurants" that are really chippies, too many "Village Wines" that just sell 24-can slabs of Stella together with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice for the laydeez.

When I was growing up, I'm sure I remember an off-licence in Hall Green near Yardley Wood station, called "Bernie's Booze" or "Boozers' Paradise" or something like that. I'm not 100% on that recollection - but I'm pretty certain the locals didn't go for it in a big way, Hall Green being a little gentle as suburbs go.

But my favourite has to be the newsagents and tobacconists up by the Fox & Goose pub in Ward End. It was called "Fags 'n' Mags".

I hope it's still there. I'd salute that one as I went past.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Six weeks in

Saturday morning. The sun was out, floating serenely in an azure sky. The weekend stretched ahead, beckoning with a promise of adventure. It was like a blank canvas, waiting, longing for an artist to caress it with his oils.

And I was walking through Tyseley, trying to find a van hire depot.

Actually, it all went very well; I did indeed manage to employ the truckers' elbow as promised. And more importantly, brother no. 1 is now fully ensconced in his new home with a variety of furniture, some of it almost unmarked from the journey. There was a scary moment with a wardrobe that had been clearly grown organically in his old bedroom; there was no way it had made the stairs up, (or the doorway in, for that matter) in its present size. At one point we were seriously considering a chainsaw.

Last night my in-laws treated us to a barbeque that was in line with our new dietary needs - no bread, low fat, loads of salad. The obscene amount of wine we got through was probably not part of the plan, but I treat the grapes involved as one of my five portions of fruit per day.

And then this morning the scales said* this to me:

That's another pound off since last week. But more significantly, it marks the first stone lost since I started. So I'm officially half-way there.

Hmmm. Now I can't get "Livin' on a Prayer" out of my mind. Great.

*(Obviously the scales didn't actually speak to me. Since I reduced my dosage last year I'm finding that household implements are far less chatty.)

Thursday, 9 August 2007

It's a van's world

On Saturday I'm helping brother no. 1 move house. Nothing unusual there. People move house all the time. Especially if they're in the Witness Protection Programme.

My brother isn't in the Witness Protection Programme, of course. At least I think he's not - if he has I've really gone and blown his cover.

Anyway, given that he can't rely on the Programme, he's asked me to help. Which is fine - there's nothing I like better than wrangling a wardrobe down some stairs. But it also gives me the opportunity to be a bloke for a day, as I'm responsible for hiring and driving the van.

Don't get me wrong. I am an unreconstituted male. But I'm also in touch with the side of me that knows the difference between coriander and oregano. As a desk-jockey for most of my waking hours, the most strenuous thing I've done in the last week involved some nested IF functions in Excel. As a result, I always feel a little..inadequate when it comes to certain manly things. And there's something very blokey about piloting a Ford Transit around.

First of all, there's the hiring to be done. By the time I'd called the third company, I'd got it down to a tee: "Have you got any hi-top long wheelbase transits in for the weekend?"

There are words in that sentence. Like "have" and "weekend." The bits in between could be Esperanto for all I know. But I'd even got the laid-back low pitched rumble into my voice. God only knows where that had come from. If I'd called the person on the other end "mate" that might have helped with the pretence, I suppose.

Anyway I'm looking forward to Saturday morning. Perhaps I need to get a copy of The Sun and 20 B&H to display proudly on the dashboard. I aim to have my right arm dangling out of the driver's window within ten minutes, if I can manage it.

All this has got me thinking. What other things do us office-monkeys have to do to regain our manliness?
  1. Having anything delivered by the ton. There's something particularly gratifying about ordering one and a half tons of flint gravel. Admitting it's for your faux Japanese ornamental border isn't quite so manly, but you have to start somewhere.
  2. Going to the bookies at the racetrack. In fact, just going to the racetrack. Just don't admit you're putting money on a particular horse just because it has a pretty name.
  3. Owning a power tool. Stop sniggering at the back, there.
  4. Carrying around large quantities of cash to pay for something. For one moment, you're Don Corleone. It's for some really nice bathroom fittings, but who's going to know?
Any more I need to try?

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Shaddapa ya Facebook

Talking to my neighbour Matt at the weekend he told me that he'd joined Facebook. I thought this was a little odd, as he doesn't strike me as being a 14-year old schoolgirl from Idaho.

Well, most of the time he doesn't, anyway.

But it turns out my prejudices were, well, pre-judged. By all accounts, real blokes, with responsible jobs and mortgages, go on Facebook too. "It's like Friends Reunited," Matt said. "But much better." I was still a little uncertain, to be honest. It's not for 37-year olds, surely?

The only time you get people my age joining up for things like Facebook, MySpace or Bebo are when they're journalists writing about the "Web 2.0 social networking phenomenon, and how even 'us oldies' can get something out of it." They join up, tell their readers they've joined up, et Viola, they have 240 contacts by the end of the day.

Most of whom are their readers, who'll do anything to have a named hack in their friends list.

With a degree of cynicism I joined up the other night. Loads of depressingly perky twenty-somethings abounded. Positively acres of people with wilfully meaningful facial hair. And pretty much no-one I actually know.

I forgot to mention that Matt is also in his twenties, too. So of course he'll get something out of it. He's not even remotely nearing old-fartness yet. So, apart from some family members, the only person I've found on there so far is Matt.

I've not added him to my friends list, yet. It seems a little odd to join a Social Networking site so I can make contact with someone who lives next door. We share a party wall. Surely I can just knock on that instead?

How very Web 2.0.

(ps - if any of you would like to add me to your friends list.....)

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Five weeks in

This is pretty much the first "normal" weekend we've had since we got back from France at the end of June.

What with stag and hen nights, weekends in London, cake preparation (and the associated fall-out) and the wedding itself last week, it's been nice to just sit on my backside and do sweet Felicity Arkwright for a while.

In a way it's funny; at the start of this I said I'd be keen to do regular exercise to help with the weight loss. It's fair to say I've done nothing formal in the exercise line at all. I'm spectacularly knackered, though - I suspect that I need to work on my stamina a little. If normal existence is tiring me out then I definitely have some issues.

So what impact is this lifestyle having on the numbers, I hear you ask?

Another two pounds off from last week, makes a loss of 13 in total. I'm truly amazed (and delighted) by this. But why the surprise?

I'll let you all into a little secret. I weighed myself after I came back from the wedding last week. I know. It's wrong. I should only do it once a week. But I wanted to see what damage a weekend of debauchery would do.

It turns out I'd put on five pounds in 48 hours. I was a worried man and was about to break out the Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave albums. They're the perfect choice for the busy depressive.

But it seems that being sensible since then has allowed me to get back on track. I'm getting close to my first milestone and feeling much better.

Thanks for asking.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Pet Hate No. 1

People who wear Bluetooth headsets.

Not when they're driving. I can understand that.

But why do they need them when they're just walking down the street, or pushing a trolley around Tesco? I mean, what is so complicated about the simple act of walking that they feel they need their hands free?

Who do they think they are - Lieutenant Uhura?

I think we need to be told.


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