Friday, 29 April 2011

The Official Make Lard History Royal Wedding Not-Quite Live Blog

For the benefit of those of you not fortunate, or indeed British, enough to have been watching today's Royal Wedding shenanigans in realtime, I humbly present below for your delectation the key events as they happened. Or, at least as I remember them. I might have been distracted by scones at some point.

Sit back, pour yourself a cup of tea, get your flags out and enjoy.

Before 8.00am - the groom is awakened. It appears that Harry has managed to perform his Best Man duties and City of London fire service personnel are required to remove the manacles chaining William to a lamppost in Islington. Before long, National Heritage has placed a blue plaque on the site, marked: "Prince William Slept Here."

8.30am - Twitter is abuzz with anti-Monarchists telling everyone they are avoiding Twitter today because of mentions of the Royal Wedding. This rapidly becomes a trending topic and logical nightmare.

9.00am - the BBC are reading out messages of goodwill from around the world:

"Congratulations to the happy couple" - Harry and Vera, Sydney, Australia.
"What a lovely day for a wedding" - Bernard, Hong Kong
"I just lost my house in a tornado and couldn't give a stuff about your wedding" - Muriel, Tennessee

9.15am - the congregation begin to arrive at Westminster Abbey. We watch the horror unfolding among the gathered masses as they realise they have to sit for three and a half hours in a 1,000 year-old building with no toilet facilities. Armed guards are watching the font very carefully.

9.30am - Victoria Beckham almost smiles before correcting herself.

10.00am - an awkward moment when the King of Tonga arrives as everyone realises he looks almost exactly the same as Mohammed al-Fayed.

10.14am - Carol Middleton, mother of the bride, reacts spiritedly on being told that her daughter is to be made Duchess of Cambridge after her wedding. This has placed her own present of bedlinen in the shade, somewhat.

10.17am - every wedding has to have a creepy uncle. Step up, Prince Edward.

10.20am - the cameras pan around the streets of London, showing the smiling crowd, waving flags and banners. Golf sale now on, only 100 yards this way.

10.25am - a procession of limousines makes its way up the Mall towards the Abbey. "We do this so well in this country," says everyone.

10.26am - the lead Bentley hits a pothole with full force and continues on its three remaining wheels.

10.35am - Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh enter the Abbey. As the Queen is greeted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke makes some light-hearted comments to gathered dignitaries from foreign lands. Officials from the Diplomatic Corps are despatched to apologise.

10.45am - ever the joker, Princess Beatrice has decided to come in a hat paying tribute to a frightened stag seen through a barbed-wire fence. She and her sister Eugenie are next to be seen in Cinderella at the Alhambra Theatre, Oldham, in November.

10.50am - Miss Middleton makes her way from her overnight hotel with her father and brother. Mr Middleton senior has a thoughtful look on his face as he realises the implications of splitting the costs of all of this with the groom's family.

11.00am - the service begins and we spend the next hour or so carefully watching the gathered congregation for yawns or nosepicking.

11.15am - when the happy couple kneel for prayers, we find that Harry, ever the joker, has written the words "Help me" on the soles of his brother's cavalry boots.

11.30am - BecksWatch Update: Victoria still not smiling. Believed to be miming to 'Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer'.

11.50am - the newlyweds retreat to the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor to sign the register. We are left to ponder whether starting your married life next to the 1,000-year-old tomb of an Anglo-Saxon king is a healthy thing to do.

12.15pm - the procession leaves the Abbey en route to the reception at Buckingham Palace. There is an honour guard consisting of:

The Household Cavalry
The Blues and Royals
The Queen's Fusiliers
The Fusiliers' Queens
The Brigade of Harry's Past Girlfriends
The Royal Order of Pedants (motto: "It's a Union Flag, not a Union Jack. Unless you're on a ship.").

12.20pm - on BBC, Fearne Cotton interviews someone in the crowd who mentions Princess Diana before being rapidly replaced with a shot of a pigeon.

12.30pm - the Royal party arrives back at Buck House. Princess Beatrice now receiving FreeView TV on her hat.

1.30pm - an appearance at the balcony from the bridal party. Flypast from WW2 Lancaster bomber, Hurricane and Spitfire. The crowd cheers, grateful to see these 60-year-old machines taking a break from their recent duties enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya.

2.00pm onwards - the reception continues behind closed doors. Canapes, cava and entertainment from the Finchley Rhythm Kings.

I watch these things so you don't have to. Don't thank me all at once, folks.

Monday, 25 April 2011

St George and all that

On Saturday it was St George's Day. A day to consider and celebrate all things English. So we did.

We went to a farmers' market. Very English indeed. Lots of people gathered about to sell cheese, sausage and beer with silly names. You can't get much more English than that, can you?

We took a diversion as Katie wanted to get her eyebrows done. So we went to an Indian beauty parlour in Moseley for a threading session. In the manner of all hopeless men - English or otherwise - I sat down and watched a Bollywood film for a few minutes while the eyebrow engineer (or whatever they're called) did her thing. Seems reasonably English to me.

The film was great. It was in Hindi with subtitles, but even without them I could get the gist due to the heroic over-acting going on. Just as we were leaving a small boy had hidden in a basement and was praying for help. But he was interrupted by a football appearing out of nowhere, followed by a princess character in flowing white robes. I would have liked to see how it ended, but Katie had been successfully threaded. We joked with the girl on the cash desk and headed off for the market. Yep, still comfortably English.

The market was a blaze of colours, shot through with the aroma of different cuisines. Caribbean, Asian, African, Chinese, Indian. We ate our ostrich burgers and reflected on the general English-ness of it all.

We drove home in our German car listening to American rock music on the radio. English? Undoubtedly.

What better way to mark the life of a Syrian soldier who served in the Roman army, died in Turkey, was buried in Palestine and remains a key figure for Christians, Jews and Muslims?

Because that's what Englishness is about, isn't it? It's not just about half-timbered houses and Shakespeare. It's not just Spitfires and Churchill. It's not only the preserve of shaven-headed gentlemen hanging flags on their cars. It's about different people, different cultures, different influences.

If my grandparents, coming over from Ireland 90 years ago, could see that, then I think it's something I can get down with too.

It's about the whole. And quite often, that's greater than the sum of the parts. How terribly English.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Blood, sweat and grout

It's funny, isn't it? The smallest thing, the most off-topic thought, something completely from left-field, can just creep up and surprise you. And before you know it, you're struggling to cope.

I was reminded of this last night as I was up to my elbows in the kitchen sink. Apparently you don't get to choose the time or place.

Yesterday was, in the main, a perfectly normal day. I spent the morning with my mother, shepherding her between the various tile-selling establishments of South Birmingham.  Ooh, get me and my life.  Hemingway had his bullfights, I have earnest discussions with people called Gavin about underfloor heating.

My mother is having a new kitchen installed at the end of the month and is just about as excited about the prospect as is healthy for a 75-year-old woman with one knee. It is not considered good form for someone in her condition to jump on the number 11 bus with 14 square metres of anthracite flooring and 500 wall tiles, so I was on duty.

But as the morning progressed it became clear that I was not just there for my driving abilities. She was asking for my opinion on matters. I was being called upon to help her decide on things like colour schemes and finishes. I was the one doing the mental calculations and asking the technical questions to the fore-mentioned Gavin. (Q: How technical can tiling get? A: Surprisingly, quite a bit.)

Once we'd chosen the floor and wall tiles (entertainingly, from two separate places) there was the small matter of my loading them into the car, driving back to mom's and ferrying them in, pack by pack. This latter task was not helped by the fact that it was me doing it. I am obviously more suited to this than my mother, but to be honest it's a depressingly close call.

Favoured Son of the Day Status gained (none of us can compare with Brother No. 1 for the permanent title - let's face it he has produced a grandchild), I made my way home, concerned that that lugging a couple of dozen packs of tiles seemed to have lengthened my arms to apelike proportions.  The rest of the day went pretty much as days do, until I was doing a little light washing up yesterday evening.

I was looking at the tiles on my own kitchen wall and I remembered something mom had said that morning. She'd looked a little bewildered as we walked past the ranks of tile displays, and had said: "I wish your dad was here."

Of course. Dad would have been in his element. In the old days, he'd probably have drawn plans. He'd have been excited about the whole endeavour. The calculations would have been second nature. He and mom would have worked together with the precision and certainty you get from decades.

As I looked at my own tiles I remembered dad putting them up for us eight years ago. Carefully cutting them to shape, spreading the adhesive and slotting them into place with a measured and confident ease. Then I remembered how mom had looked earlier that morning, a little lost and alone and indecisive.

And it hit me right in the guts, there and then.

It gets easier. But it never goes away completely.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Post-holiday blues - 10 things that make it worse

There are several issues with returning from a holiday. Most of them tend to revolve around the whole 'not being on holiday any more' concept, I tend to find.  But there are other irritations too. For starters, there's the "How was your holiday?" "It was lovely." "Where did you go?" "We went to x." "How was the weather?" conversation that you have with a gazillion people in the first week. I just got cards printed in the end.

But as everyone's doing lists, I thought I'd do one too. It's easy, for one thing. Look, I'm in a bad place. Just read the bloody list, will you?

1: Shaving.  I know, it shouldn't really be an issue.  In fact, I suspect a good 50% of those reading this don't have as much insight into this as I do.  Well, perhaps you do, but anyway. Let's not go there. While on holiday I don't shave. By Sunday night I was the unknown Fleet Fox. Or, at least, an extra from Das Boot. I had gone past the spiky stage and was luxuriant, if a little greyer than I would like. But on Monday morning it had to come off, ruining one of Gillette's finest in the process.

2: The hours. On Monday morning our alarm clock twisted the concept of time around and, on ringing, displayed a time to us that was just beyond comprehension. Christ on a bike - did we ever get up at that time before? Because I certainly don't remember it.  This is just inhumane.

3: The Inbox From Hell.  This won't mean anything to you if you work in a foundry.  But if, like me, you're a desk-piloting shirt-wearing wrangler of spreadsheets, then you'll know what I mean.  When your colleagues take a glance over a shoulder and say: "Whoa! We'll just leave you alone for an hour or two," while backing away with a concerned look, you know you've got TIFH.

4: Commuting.  Compare and contrast.  Last week we got held up by a tractor delivering bales of hay from the field at one end of the narrow winding lane to the field at the other end of the winding narrow lane. We chuckled to ourselves. "Why worry? Go with the flow," we said.  This week we have been questioning the parentage of Latvian truck drivers. I once called a nun a rude word while I was driving. I think I'd returned from holiday the day before.

5: Detox.  When you're on holiday you think nothing about having a quick pint at 3pm if the pub's open. Even on a weekday. Behaviour of this sort is frowned upon in Non-Holiday Land. As a result you are getting that strange, unwelcoming feeling that is prolonged sobriety. Perhaps my liver will put me back on its Christmas card list after all?

6: Finances. When the bank statement hits the doormat it will be a poignant souvenir of your time away. The places you visited, the things you did, the wonderful dishes you enjoyed. (In our case it's mainly the latter). then you look at the scary number at the bottom. I predict a lot of beans on toast in your future, sunshine.

7: Calendars. You look at the calendar and see nothing but drudgery and the daily grind stretching out before you like a desert, with the odd weekend oasis here and there. Linked to (6), you realise that this is as good as it gets forever.

8: Laundry. The Fresh Kills Landfill was a 2,200 acre landfill on Staten Island which processed refuse from the city of New York. At the height of its use, it was 25 metres higher than the Statue of Liberty and visible from space. Compared to our socks pile, it's a mere speck.

9: "This time last week". Never, never do this. You find yourself, in an idle moment, thinking, "This time last week, we were going for that great walk/at that marvellous restaurant/chatting with that colourful fisherman/running with the bulls/whatever." You will send yourself potty. People around you will be giving you that look and casting around for bladed weapons.

10: Other people who are going on holiday. Bastards.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Caution! Hot Welsh cuisine action follows...

Thursday morning has been and gone, but we have not really seen it. Last night we visited friends who live in the village and wine was taken.  But that wasn't enough, was it? Oh dearie me no.

We came back to the cottage and carried on. Our friends Chris and Karen had brought a very nice bottle of Prosecco and it seemed a shame to waste it. It was followed by other drinks. This will not, in the years to come, be listed in the annals of good ideas. Certainly this morning none of us were full of the joys.

One by one we arise, wraith-like from our beds. Katie takes one look at me and orders me to close my eyes to minimise the risk of blood-loss. This is bad. Chris has taken their dog for a walk, risking charges of being drunk in charge of a collie.

Eventually we all venture out into the cruel sunshine, wearing sunglasses and looking like the worst rock stars ever. And then it happens. We see a sign that says: "Cream teas." We look at each other and an unspoken agreement is formed. Tea. Wholesome food. This, we need. Not so rock 'n' roll after all.

I have the Cawl a Caws. It's a welsh soup/stew concoction. Call it a stoup, if you like. It has mutton and leeks and potato and carrots. You're given slabs of cheese to break up and drop in, so they melt into the mixture. As I eat I feel its restorative effects spreading. Oh my God, they should put this stuff on the NHS.

The others are slowly coming to life around me too. As gallons of hot tea are consumed, it's like watching the tide go out. "Anyone for something else?" asks Chris, expectantly. Katie and Karen launch into the whole "scone"/"scon" debate and I think about Welsh cakes.

And I wonder to myself. I've had a Welsh meal already. There are non-Welsh items on the menu I could have, after all.  If I order another Welsh thing to follow-on, will the people running the tea-house think I'm taking the mick? Could my menu choices be seen as patronising? It's the Statute of Rhuddlan all over again, and I don't want to be Edward I.

For those of you who don't know your 13th Century history, that last bit was hilarious.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

On not regretting

We're in a shed, about to eat some fish. While that sounds a little Bohemian and wayward to you all, I should point out that we're in a seafood restaurant called The Shed.

Well, actually, it calls itself a Fish and Chip Bistro. Only in Britain...

But it's all very nice. Through the window we can see Porthgain harbour, seagulls wheeling in the sea mist as the tide gently recedes under a sapphire-blue sky. It's all very beach-hut-chic inside, red check tablecloths over small wooden tables. There are a few lunchtime diners dotted around, some going for the range of fish and chips (from cod to monkfish), others, like us, opting for one of the specials.

We walked in to be greeted by Edith Piaf. Not the real one. That would have been a little odd. But the chanteuse Parisenne was playing as we were led to our tables. At first it was a little sophisticated, although my O-level French reminded me that her lyrics were never a bundle of laughs. Then it becomes apparent that the proprietors like their Edith. It seems that we were in for the whole sodding album.

As Edith launches into the one song of hers everyone actually knows, our mains arrive. I've had the ling, which is apparently related to cod. Not a close relative, to be exact, probably  the ling and the cod get together at weddings and christenings, things like that. But it's very nice, all the same.

Edith is still not regretting anything as we finish.

We regard the table next to us, newly-filled by two couples and a very young child called Fern. That's got to be classed as child abuse, right there, hasn't it? The adults are clearly no strangers to Waitrose. These are clearly people for whom the bread of life is ciabatta. Elderflower Presse is ordered. And as they clink glasses, one of them says loudly: "Chin-chin!"

Katie looks at me. I look at her. "Ironic," she says. "There's not a chin amongst them." I'm not entirely proud of the fact that I had been having exactly the same thoughts.

Edith is still warbling on as we ask for the bill. Bless her little Parisienne sparrow's heart, but she doesn't half go on. I'm reminded of something my dad used to say. "A little of her goes a long way." It's affecting my digestion something chronic.

We put on our walking boots and try to use them for their intended purpose. This is not a good idea after a big lunch. I see a Big White Thing on the coastline a few hundred yards away. As is the case of Big White Things the world over, we tourists walk over and take pictures of ourselves standing by it.

Maddeningly predictable.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Go fatty, it's your birthday

It's my 41st birthday and I find myself being laid low by the demon drink.

To be honest, this is not entirely unusual as far as my birthdays go. But on this occasion I haven't actually drunk the substance in question. And yet I have been broken down by alcohol.

All in all I've had a very good birthday. The weather hasn't been entirely helpful, with a wind that could be caused lazy, in the sense that it tries to go through you rather than around. But people have been very generous. I have presents galore. I have a t-shirt with the famous Andy Warhol print of Marmite jars. He did do that one, didn't he? I have new trainers which I have christened 'Jamie Oliver shoes' because they have big thick tongues. No-one has bought me socks. It's gone well.

This evening we ate at the Harbour Inn. My mixed grill resembled an entire farmyard put on a plate. Somewhere a vegetarian is crying. It's all causing me to move a little more slowly.

But none of this explains why I'm laid low, a broken man. I'm afraid I have to blame the booze this time. In particular, a bottle of 14-year-old Lagavulin currently lying, unopened, at my feet. The peaty liquid that was put into a barrel in the late 90's by skilled craftsmen in a distillery in the far northern island of Islay. That was lovingly bottled after 14 years of gently maturation. That was bought for me as a birthday present. That slipped gently out of its display box from a height of four feet to land squarely on the big toe of my right foot just now.

I have been enthusiastically mining a brand new seam of swearing. I have even dropped the C-bomb. It must be serious. Katie hasn't laughed, and she normally takes pleasure in my discomfort, as is her role as dutiful wife.

I get to my feet, my toe throbbing like in a cartoon, and hobble across the room. When they talk about the 12-Step Programme, I'm not entirely sure this is what they have in mind.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


As I lift the glass to my lips, I mutter the word "Tick" under my breath. Katie shoots me a quizzical look.

We are sitting outside the Cambrian Inn in Solva, Pembrokeshire on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We have only just arrived after a four-and-a-bit-hour drive. But the journey to get to this position has been somewhat longer.

Over the last few months we've been busy. Extraordinarily busy. Busy to a degree that would be classed as obscene. Well, OK then, maybe not by the standards of your average 19th-century mill employee. I'll give you that.

"Tick?" asks Katie once more. An eyebrow is at risk of being raised.

Since Christmas it's been project after project after project. It's good to be busy - far much so than the alternative. But there hasn't been much of a gap between each item. In January I put together a plan of all the things I had to do over the first few months of the year. I won't bore you with the details. Mainly because you would find them, well, boring. But I called it my Big Scary List.

Next to each item was a box to be ticked when it was complete.

As the weeks went by I would come to each item and tick it off when completed. Then the next one would kick in. Head down, full tilt, tick, tick, tick.

Sitting in the Welsh sunshine I reflect on the trip. I know my way here almost off by heart - we've been coming here for 16 years, after all. But never have the bilingual roadsigns - ARAF meaning SLOW - been more relevant. It's an instruction I fully intend to follow for the next week.

"Yes," I say as I put the pint glass down in front of me. "Tick."


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