Asta and Judgement Day

Asta turns the other cheek while Kim resist the urge to throw a punch

Asta turns the other cheek while Kim resists the urge to throw a punch

It’s generally inadvisable to loose temper with a man of the cloth. The ramifications could go on for, well, a very long time. Of course I knew of the local vicar, the one who oversees much of community life around these parts with his easy-going, witty and frankly disarming demeanor, was only trying to be supportive; aiming to ameliorate some of the inevitable tension. But by stopping directly behind Asta and I at the very moment the judge at the Trevone Fun Dog Show was assessing my girl’s eyes for the prestigious Prettiest Eyes section, I’ll admit  – I very nearly lost it.

The night had not begun well.  Kim and Asta got off to an abysmal start in the Best Pedigree section. There were so many entrants the judge sensibly elected to whittle them down to a final elite with Asta, and many other handsome specimens, ejected in the first round. Kim’s expression said it all. Kim doesn’t take failure lightly, making accusations of a fix on the basis that the judge, a professional dog groomer was inevitably going to choose those dogs he’d worked on. Inspecting Asta the judge had apparently said Airedale Terriers were often aggressive. I thought Kim was going to throw a punch.  According to her the man next to her in the ring had said that he and the others were wasting their time as Asta was evidently a shoe-in. An opinion echoed by the ruddy faced woman on the plants stall who said Asta not winning was clearly a miscarriage of justice.

The event was being held in the grounds of Well Parc, a family run hotel in one of the finest locations on the north coast. It faces due west with uninterrupted sunset views of the Atlantic with verdant cliffs spanning north and south to Padstow and Newquay. There are rumours that a certain celebrity chef wants to buy it and transform it into the jewel in what is already a pretty impressive catering crown. Which would be a shame as this part of Cornwall could do with a few more old fashioned, affordable, un-west London, un-groovified places for those who are happy enough with a pint and a packet of cheese and onion. Looking around at some of the tall, pelate thin, blonde holidaying mums with a lots of spelt bread inside them, their glossy cockapoos at the heels, anyone could see a change is coming.

We were there because our friend Jane, novelist, aesthete, and motivator behind our Thursday night film club, was the dog show’s chief organiser. She’d pretty much insisted that Asta should enter, all the monies (£2 a category) going to local church charities. Fearing the worst ( Kim still smarting from Tashi Delek crashing out of a dog show in Camden some years earlier) we nevertheless decided to give it a go. In preparation Kim had stood Asta atop the kitchen table for much of the morning preening and grooming. However, after that humiliating first round there was talk of abandoning the event altogether and going to the pub.

Of course it would have been churlish to to pull out so early on so we (ie Kim) decided that I should step into the ring with Asta for the Prettiest Eyes contest. Downing a large gin and water I began to remove my cravat fearing I might be overdressed for such a fleecy, shorts and Crocs event and thereby risk prejudicing the judge against Asta for a second time. Kim insisted the cravat remain.

Competition was again very stiff. There were a great many entrants, maybe twenty. After all who doesn’t think their dog’s eyes are the prettiest? Indeed dog’s eyes are often thought to be the most endearing pooch feature of all. Ok, tails are popular too, and can tell a good deal about a dog’s character and temperament. Asta does in fact possess a very fine tail. Rare among Airedale Terriers to be un-docked, long, curly and bushy with Pre-Raphaelite curls. The snag was that it doesn’t wag preternaturally, or of its own accord. She has a fine wagging tail when she chooses to wag it, but it doesn’t sashay back and forth 24/7 the way others attached to – I don’t mind saying it – less sophisticated dogs. Certain things set her’s off. One of them, said Kim, is me; my arrival at any situation. With this in mind the pair of us hatched a plan in which I would conceal myself behind the beer tent. Then upon Kim giving the Asta whistle (this is the tune of Pluto Shervington’s ‘Dat’ that some readers may know was a reggae hit in the 1970s) I would burst on to the scene and Asta  would react by wagging furiously. However, the sheer number of people and dogs meant we couldn’t guarantee Asta would see me in time. The plan was too risky.

It had to be the “Prettiest Eyes’, with the cravat.

The ring filled up with a range of breeds. An American Eskimo, Collies old and new, a Dachshund (bearing a rosette from an earlier round), a Spitz, Schnauzer, a Pomeranian, a young white Whippet, a lovely old brown Labrador next to us and a mixed assortment of also rans. Most were pulling their owners hither and thither. Dogs sniffing each others’ behinds and owners trying to stop them. To counter the ‘aggressive’ charge I knelt down beside Asta. She responded perfectly by sitting down next to me. I wanted her looking straight ahead so that the judge could see directly into those soulful brown pools of canine innocence. The young girl with the chubby chocolate brown Lab next to us knelt down too.

“Oh look,”  she said looking into Asta’s eyes. “They are lovely.”

As the judge made his rounds, from our left to right, the silver haired vicar, speaking whimsical words of encouragement and support through across the Tannoy, moved around behind us. He stopped to say something about Asta the very second the adjudicator was attempting to look into her eyes. Asta span around to see what was going on behind her, eyeballing the vicar and pointing her arse at the judge. I tried, gently, to turn her the other way to no avail. The damage was done.

“You’re a hindrance,” I barked at the vicar, regretting it as soon as I’d said it. He smiled and moved on.  Asta turned back to face the judge who had also moved on. It was turning into a re-run of Camden; bearded youths with heavy metal t-shirts were winning bottles of Jack Daniels; dogs the size of pasties were winning bags of treats; and Asta was going home empty handed.

All that remained was for the judge, who I don’t think stopped smiling for the entire duration of the show, grabbed a handful of rosettes, in all colours, and gave one last look at all the ‘Prettiest Eyes’ entrants. Perhaps to reassure himself he’d made the right decision.

And the winner?

“You,” he said giving Asta a toothy grin and handing me the red rosette for first prize.

“Because she does have the prettiest eyes,” said the little girl to our left who didn’t seem to mind at all that the judge hadn’t given her lumbering chocolate Lab a second glance.

Kim was delighted. Jane, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who’d recently leant me both Rupert Everett biographies, said the judge had been looking into my eyes and not Asta’s. And the woman at the plant stall was so delighted with the result she threw her arms around Kim.

Asta stuck her head so far inside the treats bag it stayed on as a hat. And I think the vicar forgave my outburst because as we turned to leave he smiled and said Asta was lovely.

the eyes have it

the eyes have it

Posted in Dogs, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Raise a glass to Gilbert, and Ronaldo

Watching the France versus Portugal final of the European Football Championships it occurred to me that my limited knowledge of that nation extends to fortified wine, pasteis de nata, and just one single person. I’ve travelled to the far west of the Iberian peninsula, reporting on Lisbon and the Douro Valley for the UK press and television media and yet the only Portuguese person I’d ever sat down and talked with at length with – was right here in Cornwall.

His name is Gilbert, Gil to his friends, and not only does he hail from Portugal he actually knows Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain stretchered off the field of play in 25th minute of the final, in Paris. An Arsenal supporter himself, following the Gunners on a large flat screen television in an apartment overlooking the harbour, often with a single malt at his madeiraside. I can’t remember how we came to be discussing the Real Madrid star but whatever it was my opinion of the ‘Galactico’ increased exponentially after Gilbert set me straight.

Gilbert was born on Madeira, that tiny archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 620 miles south west of Portugal and 310 miles off the coast of Africa. A population little more than a quarter of a million living in the foothills of verdant, misty mountains. Gilbert’s frequent holidays there yielded avocados the size of rugby balls grown  in his family’s garden in the hills.

One evening over a glass of single malt Gilbert mentioned that he knew a young Ronaldo, when he was just another local kid kicking a ball about. His family was dirt poor and Gilbert’s mother would often provide the boy who would become a legend, his parents and siblings, cast-off clothes. Fast forward and Ronaldo is making enough money to buy all his family and friends, and friends of friends, homes. And as if that’s not enough Gilbert said the reason Ronaldo doesn’t have any tattoos is because he is regular blood donor a generosity of spirit forbidden to they who regularly submit to the needle. Some blood banks insist on a needle free period of three months prior to donating.

Watching Ronaldo attempt to play on, with his leg strapped up, and finally carried off on an orange stretcher, tears in his eyes, thereupon there was only one team in the final for me.

I can’t remember exactly when I met Gilbert, maybe ten or 12 years ago, but I recall where it was: The small car park on the quay where he an I kept our cars. Lota’s daughter Andrea had introduced us at a family function, but I got to know him subsequently back and forth along the quay.

I never knew his age, until last year when he and his extended Cornish family flew to Madeira for his 80th. He didn’t look it. Unlined, his skin the colour I like to be after a few days on the beach; lightly tanned, somewhere between a latte and the praline filling of the chocolates my mother used to buy. He dressed well, something of a rarity in these parts, where people comment on highly polished shoes. Soft and casual with just the hint of an affluent golfer.

His strongest feature a warm easy rolling demeanor. His head tilting from side to side as he spoke, with a soft, indistinguishable accent, and a ready smile peppering every conversation. There are people in every town you find yourself slowing down or turning the other way to avoid. Gilbert isn’t one of them. Gilbert is the man you looked forward to meeting. He put you right, reminding you how comfortable life can be.  He even laughed at my jokes.

He and Lota, arm-in-arm, strolling around the quay, were as much a feature of the harbour as the fishing boats. It’s not much of a walk from their front door to the other side of the harbour and the wrought iron bench from where they could see their apartment through the sailing masts and cop a few late afternoon rays.

If Gilbert’s style is casual smart Lota’s is 100% a la mode. Never having been seen in public anything less than completely immaculate. This woman with steely eye and a hearty laugh takes dressing well to another level. Maybe a twin set in a bold colour, or a summer coat. Her lightly curled buttery blonde hair sometimes in a hat, or more often than not wrapped in scarf.

Lota didn’t take to me as easily as Gilbert whom you sense would hit it off with someone who’d just driven over his foot. Lota is more circumspect. I had to earn my stripes, show I cared for the town and in it for more than just turning a quick profit on a property. I had to go to work on her. But I’ve yet to meet a woman, especially one so rigorous in their appearance, who doesn’t respond to a compliment. Lota is no exception.

The pair met in Madeira many years ago. Widowed Lota had gone for a holiday, staying at the hotel where Gilbert worked. She returned several times until the day Gilbert decided to return to Cornwall with her.  They lived in an apartment on the side of the harbour where every autumn Gilbert boiled up jars of marmalade. It was so good I have been pro-ordering several for some years.

Lota is in care today. She’s been ill for some time. Worse, in fact, than anyone outside the immediate family had realised. For some months Gilbert cared for her, alone. It must have been hard because that warm, friendly face soon turned fraught with anxiety and exhaustion. I’d meet him in the street and he seemed withdrawn. I took a bottle of wine around to their apartment one time, family photographs on every shelf, the windows shut and the air hot and heavy. We didn’t drink it. Gilbert wasn’t up to it, but he promised to get the cork out just as soon as both their healths improved.

Of course his didn’t. He died in hospital a few weeks after being admitted with a minor infection. I was asked to say a few words at his funeral, causing me more apprehension than any newspaper deadline. It was enough that few at the service know who I was? But more than that – I didn’t really know enough about him to speak with any authority. Save his opinion of Arsene Wenger. He was just a lovely man, who brightened my days. That would have to be enough.

When Ronaldo limped up those steps in the Stade de France to raise the UEFA trophy for Portugal he couldn’t know he’d done it for Gilbert too. Just like Gilbert and his family had done it for Ronaldo all those years ago.

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Dancing to the tune of Clarks

clarks shoe

I’ve just bought a pair of Clarks shoes. There, I thought I’d spit it out fast rather than get to the bald, some might say shocking truth via some prevaricating yarn. In fact, I’ll be more specific. They are Raspin Brogues – navy suedes, that happen to be some of the most comfortable and inexpensive shoes I have ever bought.

Raspin, I subsequently discover, can mean either the sound a cat omits by way of asking to be fed (a series of short sharp meows), or a hard working person who is dedicated to their job; I’ll assume the nomenclaturist at Clarks had the latter definition in mind when aiming to get a handle on this robust pair of shoes. Sold as ‘mens formal shoes’ incorporating Clarks’ ‘XL Extralight’ technology, ie a lightweight, springy white rubber sole and heal, they were bought for summer casual wear. A semi smart alternative to the ubiquitous trainer and those strappy trekking sandals, all velcro and nylon, that make everyone’s feet appear three times the size they really are. The uppers are blue suede brogue and the linings are leather. I’ll admit I wasn’t taken with the slight distressing around the toe caps and heals but I figured suede being suede they’d soon look distressed after I’d spilled a few pints of lager on them. So what the hell.

They are supportive and comfortable enough for a hike in the woods. Light on the beach, and look the part in the bar. In fact, my Raspins, like so many other styles with the ‘XL Extralight’ soles are ideal travel shoes; they bend any which way and come in at just 730 grams, about 25% less than the equivalent pair of trainers.

Writing as one who has been shod these past 30 years by the likes of  Bass Weejun, Churches, Florsheim, Justin, Loewe, McAfee, Pollini, Sebago, and Walk-Over (you’ll appreciate a definite tilt towards US brands) it was something of a shock to find myself scanning the racks of heavily discounted footwear; it was sale time. Instead of the calm clubby, almost scholarly atmosphere of my usual shoe shops I found myself fighting for space with people who thought nothing of pushing anyone and anything out of their way to grab a bargain.

My renewed interest in Clarks (it’s some 30 years since my last pair, described by then girlfriend as ‘omelettes’ that were equally as effective at retaining foot odour as they were comfortable) was kindled one rainy afternoon. I’d ducked into a Clarks doorway with the aim of relighting a  Hoyo du Monterrey Epicure Number 2 (a task that mustn’t be rushed). I was in the market for a pair of suede chukka boots, a quest I undertake every three or four years, and was taken by a pair in the window. They had that pre-distressed look too, but with hefty Commando style soles, and a price tag of £85, they demanded to be taken seriously. And the more I looked the more my curiosity was engaged. In fairness not every style would have won the approval of St.Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers. Yet there were enough, understated and eminently wearable casual shoes, and almost all below £100, to make me give Clarks, a byword for high street, a second thought.

It was my godson, Alfie, who alerted me to the fact that Clarks shoes have a near fanatical following on the other side of the pond. In Jamaica Clarks, particularly the classic crepe soled desert boot, have the sort of iconic status other manufacturers dream of. In fact, they been the go-to footwear for fashionable Jamaicans since the rise of the rude boy in the 60s. Such is their regard they have been eulogized on disc by a raft of reggae stars from Dillinger to Dennis Alcapone.

In 2010 MC Vybz Kartel and Friends featuring dancehall ragamuffin, Popcaan, charted with the tune Clarks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_Mr7j4nNNs  (“everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks”) and a couple of years later this Jamaican obsession was documented in Al Fingers’ book – Clarks In Jamaica.

The brand’s popularity is such that they once became the subject of a crime wave. So much so that any rude boy in the dancehall found, during a raid by the JA police, to be wearing a pair of Clarks was assumed to have stolen stolen them.

While the Clarks designers endeavor to keep up with shoe fashion at the backbone of the West Country company is honest to goodness affordable quality. It’s been a touchstone since the firm was founded, in 1825 in the Somerset village of Street, by the brothers James and Cyrus Clark. It’s why generations of parents take their children to Clarks. They didn’t have the magical ‘fluoroscope’ foot X-Ray device that some shoe shops enticed shoppers with half a century ago, but they did develope the ‘footguage’ a device for measuring the length and width of young feet correctly.

Trying on my Raspin Brogues the young salesman turned and asked me if I required the standard or wider fitting? I can’t remember the last time I was given the option, unless it was at another Clarks store in another life.

http://www.clarks.com

jonathan futrell / http://www.goodgear2go.com

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Sally Brampton

elle

You don’t know how much someone means to you until – out of the blue – they’re not there anymore.

I thought this while fighting back the tears when I learnt today of the death of Sally Brampton whom I had neither seen nor spoken to for quite some time but whose death at a young age put my mind into a spin of sadness and incomprehension.

When I think of the people who have played a part in my life, and how it’s panned out, Sally Brampton is up there with the best of them. A woman I barely knew beyond elegant parties and receptions, and infrequent conversations at The Groucho Club, and yet her impact upon my career was arguably the most significant of anyone I have worked with. With her encouragement, her enthusiasm, and my monthly by-line in Elle, I grew as a freelancer and tasted the delicious fruits of the glossy, glamourous, oh so seductive and well dressed domain of what came to be called, style journalism.

I think it was my dear friend Robert Elms who put me up to it, and I can still remember pitching Sally my cobbled together concept of a monthly motoring page for women. It was the 80s, when ideas and new angles and excitement ruled. If you had the chutzpah and the shoulder pads to match, anything was possible.

It was in Sally’s office in the Haymarket. She leaning against a desk, as irresistible as ever in something stretchy, tight and black, accentuating all of her glorious curves; unlike any editor I’d ever met. Her hair cropped short in that signature gamine way with the slightly startled expression of someone enjoying the spectacle of a hitherto unknown freelance writer spluttering and gabbling like a bad salesman.

After five or six minutes I ran out of steam whereupon Sally smiled and said simply, “ok, do it.” No ifs or buts, caveats or preconditions. She didn’t prevaricate. If she liked you she trusted you, and the last thing anyone at the receiving end of that trust would ever do – was let her down.

Incredible. My first national column. A breakthrough. But more than that Sally Brampton had become a road sign in a career trajectory steering me towards pastures I’d never imagined. Sally Brampton and three little words was all it took; Arena, GQ, The Observer and Daily Telegraph were next. Following an assignment to Nassau, commissioned by Sally’s travel editor Susan Ward-Davies, my nascent travel writing career with The Sunday Times, and thence the Express, soon fell into place.

All down to Sally Brampton’s decisiveness. Her talent as an editor and leader.  Her appetite for newness, something a bit off the wall, and running with it.

It’s hard, nee impossible, for those of us not haunted by the specter of depression to understand what goes through the minds of those who carry the torment.  On the surface Sally had the life millions aspire to. She was a great and gifted editor; A breath of fresh air in the muggy world of fashion magazines. A novelist and columnist too, and a mother. With her perennial beauty, dress sense and youthfulness, you felt good being around her.

Until this morning I was beginning to think I was growing inured to the loss of friends and colleagues, and those icons whose lives have run parallel to those of my generation, who are vanishing at an unerring rate long before they are due to depart.

I was wrong. Sally Brampton made an impact more than many and her departure will leave another a scar that’ll never heal.

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Gone Awall

bricklayer 1

I have built a wall. Alright, not a very big wall, about six foot long, two feet high and 18 inch deep, but a wall nonetheless; requiring sand and cement, shuttering, a spirit level, a trowel and back breaking application. Cynics will wonder what all the fuss is about? Afterall, several hundred thousand walls are probably built every day. But for one who has lived much of his life at the coal face of frippery journalism (pontificating upon the quality of distant beaches and the size of men’s lapels) building anything more solid than an argument is a milestone achievement.

Since buying The Red House I have embarked upon many jobs that would have seemed beyond me in another life. In fact, it is remarkable just how many new skills can be learned in the course of home improvements. Admittedly much of my work has been with either a sledgehammer or axe while the delicate tasks of restructuring and finishing have often been performed by skilled professionals. Yet even in this area Kim has mined previously hidden talents. We bought a rotary tile cutter some months ago and adequately tiled the kitchen splash-back along three walls. It wasn’t easy if you took into account the condition of the walls after the “disco tiles” (black glass, postage stamp sized, with multicolored streaks) had been removed leaving gaping holes and cracks. I use the adverb ‘adequately’ because only our professional builders spotted the mistakes in the tiling our diplomatic friends generously overlooked.

Alright, at this point I should come clean and admit that some 25 years ago I wrote a monthly DIY column for The Daily Telegraph. At the time an able journalist and all round good drinking fellow by the name of Tim Rostron had left Elle, where I’d met him, for the role of deputy features editor at The Telegraph, at Canary Wharf. Tim was allocating a new generation of writers in a range of subjects and I fancied myself ruminating upon food. Alas the food column had been assigned and the only one still vacant was DIY. I was probably the worst do it yourself writer Fleet Street has ever known. I knew nothing of the subject, yet as any freelance journalist will attest, you never, under any circumstances, turn away a column. It’s regular money. It’s the mortgage and several nights at The Groucho Club.

The fact that I didn’t know a cross-head screw from a tenant saw or a piece of 4×2 was neither here nor there. I gave it my all. I bought a stack of DIY books and set about writing columns on the sorts of jobs thirty-something upwardly mobile gentrifying homeowners might attempt. The scourge of the column were my readers whom I soon discovered knew far more about DIY than I ever would. I received so many damning letters those first few months that I resolved to research longer and harder. So much so that I submitted nothing until I had actually performed each task in question myself: It meant several walls of my north London home drilled, sawn, removed and put back, painted, re-painted, varnished and papered. Of course, it all became too much (the worry) that under duress I did the unthinkable – I quit. Just shy of two years I pulled out, although not before I had been invited to speak in Cyprus at a conference arranged by the British Hardwood Association. I turned that down too.

From that you will glean that there is a smattering of DIY in the Futrell tool box. More ability at general household maintenance and decorating than say my pal Bob, a writer and radio presenter. At this juncture I must confess to the shameful habit of whenever I am doing something manual about the house muttering  ‘Bob couldn’t do this’. In fact, I am not alone in marveling at Bob’s hopelessness with anything as complicated as a screwdriver. His friend and cycling partner Ben Ingram (you may have seen his striking images for cycling clothing company Rapha) thought there could be mileage in an about the house fly-on-the-wall DIY  reality television series entitled, ‘Let’s Watch Bob’.

Back to the wall. Kim insisted it needed building to retain the lawn, that requires raising so that a path can be dropped into the turf, so that visitors don’t slide and come a cropper walking to our front door steps, and…

Kim is the original hands-on do anything sort of person. I can’t tell you how many times her cool head and resourcefulness have retrieved us from sticky situations. Her finest hour was at low tide, a mile from the seafront, well beyond the pier at Morecambe. We were in a Mitsubishi 4×4 that the public relations manager made me promise I would take care of it as he was buying it for himself as soon as it came off the press fleet shortly after our trip to the north west. At Morecambe the tide retreats so far it can’t be seen, only heard ominously in the distant west. But it returns in a rush, swooshing across the shallow mudflats at considerable speed. It’s where those Chinese cockle workers died in the 2004. The speed of the tide is probably why dog walking is forbidden there. Behind the wheel I’d fool hardly sunk the front of Mitsubishi up to its windscreen, in mud and sand. The quagmire was so high we couldn’t open the doors and could only evacuate the vehicle either through the windows or the tailgate.  Any reasonable person would panic, which I duly did. Kim on the other hand was pulling sand away from the rear wheels with her bare hands and packing the space with pebbles and bits of driftwood hoping to gain some traction to effect our escape. It didn’t work and we ended paying a man with the sort of 4×4 contraption seen in Mad Max films to literally drag us free. But the illustrates Kim’s cool head, and unwavering practicality.

In fact, Kim does have some history with walls. Upon returning from a holiday in Barcelona some years ago where she’d been smitten by the ceramics in Park Guell she recycled broken bits of china – tea cups and saucers, teapot spouts and bits of glazed tiles – to effect a Gaudiesque garden border. With a wall required and the garden full of discarded slate and brick, from I don’t know  where, and plenty of sand and cement in the garage, left by builders who’d worked on The Red House, she insisted we give it a go ourselves.

Mixing cement is a satisfying job. Not up there with curing a terminal illness or even reviewing the latest cocktail bar. Yet combining sand and cement – three to one – with water to create something that is even in colour and texture, and suitable to work with proved rewarding. Without an angle grinder or something to cut the mixed shapes of slate the task was more akin to a three dimensional quiz than actual masonry. I prepared the cement while Kim positioned. Once positioned I gently tapped each slate with the trowel handle, in a way I’d seen bricklayers go about their task. Excess cement was removed with a brush and water.

Kim proved a worthy brick/slate layer, balancing the texture, colour and shapes of the natural Cornish slate with the sort of intuitive adroitness she uses for her art. Whenever the random shapes proved impossible to dovetail irregular slate chippings were inserted. In a final and commendable act of recycling Kim commandeered three two inch slabs of Cornish slate that had been garden steps in another life and employed them as capstones. I recall muttering ‘Bob couldn’t do this’ as I tapped the final one into position with the trowel handle.

In fact, we are in exalted company when it comes to wall building. Winston Churchill chased away the ‘black dog’ of his depression laying bricks and building walls on his estate at Chartwell. And having completed my first wall, celebrated with a Montecristo Especial,  I feel a certain empathy a man who preferred masonry and Cuban cigars to therapy.

wall 2

Posted in gone west, health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Long Live the Long Lunch

20160201_122507I don’t have to tell you what a mess the world is in, but recent news – from that reliable arbiter of doom, The Guardian – renders momentous world events trivial by comparison. I refer of course to an article on the demise of that treasured institution, the long lunch. Despite its breezy style and touches of humour (as if the passing of such a thing could ever be laughable) the article has haunted me.

It is not putting too finer point on it to say that myself, and a number of colleagues in similar lines of work (the softer wing of journalism), didn’t get where we are today without very, no VERY,  long lunches. I hasten to add lunches not taken every day, and not heavily inebriated every day; all of us had to earn a living. The rule is that lunches ( time to eat, read, shop think, chat, switch off for an hour, every working day) are good. One or two a week with a couple of drinks are better, and an over extended lunch that morphs into the afternoon and evening, and perhaps drifts into the early hours of the next day, are not only much better, they are, by all agreed, essential to well being, creativity, productivity,  and career advancement.

My own life in lunches began during my tenure as a cub reporter at my very first newspaper, The Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette, operating then from a first floor office above a shop in Uxbridge. Even on press days, Wednesdays for publication the following day, the staff were encouraged, no ordered to take lunches away from their desks; aka ‘go to the pub’. Choices for eating out then were limited; it tended to be greasy spoons, full blown restaurants, or – pubs. So pubs it was. Most lunches lasted about two to three pints. Nobody every complained. The paper always came out. And nobody was every reprimanded for inaccuracy, as fas as I can remember. Part of the value of those ‘wet lunches’ was the sheer volume of work discussed during them. It’s amazing how much talking and thinking and arguing gets done after a couple of pints.

My baptism into the true value of long, expense account lunches came during a brief tenure at Epic Records, in London’s Soho Square. In the years before email, mobile phone and voicemail public relations meant many hours on the telephone talking with journalists whom PRs hoped would write glowing articles about the musicians and singers in their portfolio. The chat was the hook, a method I learnt from the late great Rob Partridge at Island Records when I  a music writer. A PR mentor, and thoroughly good chap, he was never known to replace the receiver without at least one article secured.  Landing those glossy front covers or upfront articles on artists nobody had ever heard of, timed to coincide with the record release or tour, required frequent lunchtime visits to L’Escargot, nearby in Greek Street. I recall my boss at Epic, Jonathan Morrish, raising an eyebrow or two at the sheer scales of my expenses, although he couldn’t deny the volume of column inches those succulent mouthfuls of sole meuniere and bottles of Muscadet et Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie produced. It never ceased to amaze me how effective  two, sometimes three bottles of wine, were in generating column inches, especially with the heavy hitters on the Fleet Street tabloid pop columns.

I hit the apex of long lunching in the mid 90s at fabled events that could on and on and on – for hours. Heads of publishing companies attended, so too music managements gurus, style/fashion journalists including my good friend Robert Elms, as well as another friends, travel editor and now novelist, Rob Ryan, and others too distant and inebriated to recall. So heroic were these lunches, usually  at The Groucho Club or Notting Hill’s 192, that Ryan (whose novels on Holmes’ Dr.Watson are essential reading) came up with a name for them; The Oates Club, dedicated to the memory of Captain Lawrence Oates the Arctic explorer, who upon acknowledging that the injury to his foot was hindering Scott’s polar expedition, famously said, “I am just going outside, and may be some time.” Never a truer word was said.

Of course we weren’t alone. Restaurants, gastro pubs, and a new generation of ‘brasseries’ opened to cater for working folk who required a decent meal and  somewhere to unwind and refuel in the middle of the day. Parts of London that were deserts after dark were transformed into riots of enthusiastic ribaldry during the working day; and all the better for it.

The concept that employees shouldn’t take lunch breaks away from their desks drifted across the Atlantic, (from the US where else?) in the early part of the new century. It applied to employees in all sectors except  (why is nobody surprised?) to bankers who continue to buck the trend, with our money, to this day. Social media is full of chatrooms from those times witnessing arguments to the pro’s and con’s of a good lunch. It was around the same time that employees opted for staying at work longer than their normal working hours. The perception that those on lunch or going home at  clocking off time were somehow not pulling their weight; not team players. The worst aspect of working shifts on Fleet Street was using keyboards littered with bits of food left there by journalists too fearful to take lunch breaks.  Amid the deafening silence that is the modern newspaper room all one could hear was the rustling of sandwich wrappers. The scent of eau de cologne usurped by the smell of soup . I had many arguments during this time with colleagues far too busy – on social media or internet shopping who can tell hunched over a keyboard – to lunch.

Numerous restaurants in London and far beyond that have scotched lunchtime opening altogether, while the growth of fast food outlets, and designer sandwich shops is exponential. A further sign of the rush-to-nowhere-times is the arrival of a prix fixed at M in the City’s Threadneedle Street, where there is a £28 two course and coffee lunch – ‘designed for your quick business lunch’ –  that patrons are assured can be polished off in – yes, 28 minutes.

At this juncture it is worth remembering that in the 80s the economy, according to World Bank data, the UK economy was soaring along at up to 6% and even in the 90s, after the terrible Tory recession of 91/92, the economy was still a match for it is today at 4% by midway in the decade. Ten years after the credit crunch brought the world’s economies to its knees it doesn’t look like sandwiches at the desk are the answer.

The idea that more is achieved by working, or at least seeming to work longer, is a nonsense. Our brains have an ‘ultradian rhythm’ that lasts for between 90 and 120 minutes at a time, after which they need a break. They need a change of scene. A cup of coffee. And at the middle of the day they need lunch. All the indicators show that concentration soars after a break whereas stuck in the same chair, staring at the same screen, adding more and more crumbs to an already biodisgusting keyboard kills off the will to live.

In other words – life without lunch isn’t worth living. And if anyone’s interested  – I am available from about 12.30pm most days

 

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The drinker I didn’t know

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It’s quiet living by the sea. Alright, it can seem a bit like London Fields during the height of the summer season when the Camel Trail teams with cyclists and every doorstep and bench is occupied by someone eating a pasty. But for much of the time it’s tranquil, almost – empty. Though ironically that is when living by the sea is it’s most sociable. That’s when it is impossible to walk more than a few paces without meeting a friend, or more likely a casual acquaintance with whom to share a minute or two musing upon the weather (the most popular topic of conversation here in the south west). Or discussing the arrival of an unfamiliar boat in the harbour, or the next event on the town’s social horizon. Small communities are just that. Intimate, entwined, with common ground and interests, and levels of history  as multitudinous and revealing as the concentric rings embedded within the trunk of an ancient tree. I’ve met people with huge financial stakes in the town. Others who have sacrificed everything for little reward. The children of those who died going about their work, spoken of with sadness and respect decades after their untimely demises. And others who at first meeting distain those who have done them some injustice, only to witness a 180 degree about turn when their chips are down and discovering that they are in some convoluted way distantly related. In a small town there is a charming and gregarious openness within and without, a labyrinthine of secrets.

Kim and I moved into our new house, after a decade and a half in the other, almost exactly a year ago. I haven’t paced it out but I doubt the distance between the two properties, a slate hung cottage in the old town and close to the harbour and the Edwardian detached house at the end of a road of Victorian and 1930s homes on what would have been farmland a century ago, is more than 500 yards. Despite the closeness in distance the two homes are in many respects worlds apart, and the ribbing from former neighbours reminded me of that dished out to this day by north Londoners when speaking to those living south of the river. Prior to the extension of the London Overground rail link to places once unknown even to those living south of the Thames I had shared the belief that the other side of the river was a forgotten place best left alone. However,quite how such geographical prejudice could be applied to this town was beyond me. That is until we had actually moved in. It was then then that I discovered that even within a small town that could be slipped into a modest London park there are inconceivable differences; other sounds, unimagined characteristics, difference issues, and new people, those who have apparently never ventured those few hundred yards into that other world:

There’s the girl with the ponytail in black and yellow latex upon a racing bike who passes the house at some considerable speed every morning, despite the gradient of the hill. There are horses and riders, and farmers with tractors, and the man who lives down the lane who drives a vintage Landrover, and a local businesswoman who enjoys Pinot Grigio soirees on her terrace. The mayor lives nearby, as does the man whose pasties have won accolades the length and breadth of the country, and the man with hands like tea trays who drives a pick-up and clears building sites and who speaks like a contestant on University Challenge. All of them, and the young man who tossed his empty beer cans into our garden.

I don’t know exactly how many empty beer cans I collected those first few weeks, but it was in the dozens. And when the man with the tea tray hands and a stooped colleague had combined chain saws and brute force on our overgrown garden there were more. Not the cheap, flavourless, low alcohol stuff. The empties we gathered in black plastic bin liners were premium brands; Special Brew, Red Stripe, Carlsberg Export, Grolsch and some Polish brews with AVBs figures closer to hat sizes than alcohol content. Our litterbug was clearly a drinker who didn’t like wasting time. This was the detritus of a drinker with one mission in life; to get obliterated as swiftly as possible. Oh and another mission, to store their empties in the unloved, overgrown, slightly dilapidated, down at heel house at the end of the street.

It wasn’t long, no more than a couple of weeks, when I discovered the perpetrator, a tall, rangy young man with a purposeful stride, taking regular slugs from a beer can in his right hand. I’m not good on ages. It’s an aspect of getting old that everyone with ungreyed hair appears youthful and could be any age from late teens to early forties. But noticing the gel in his perpendicular short black hair I took a punt on 25. His equine face was unnaturally florid and his eyes, even from a distance, impassive. I ran outside and positioned myself at such a place that he could see me and would be aware of me watching him as and when he decided to eject another empty. As he got nearer his eyes appeared even emptier, as though there were nothing behind the strident, strutting beer swilling visage. He didn’t acknowledge my presence for a second, looking straight ahead all the while, vacuous, supercilious perhaps. He turned the corner, crossed the street and about ten houses down appeared to throw something over a garden wall. No furtive glances to see if anyone was watching. Moving stridently forward with just the deftest flick of the wrist. A skillful maneuver perfected from many months, maybe years of practice. I confess to having been a bit diminished. In the short time I’d been in our new home I’d assumed that the empty cans were intended for us. Some indictment of home ownership. But I was wrong, and faintly hurt. My languid and strutting neighbour clearly wasn’t in the least partial where his cans finished up. Any garden would do. It was just that mine, overgrown and unloved, had been the most convenient.

I saw him several times over the coming weeks. Asta, our Airedale, had clocked him too, running parallel to him along the garden fence had shown her disapproval of public drinking by barking at him with what Kim and I agreed was uncharacteristic ferocity. She’d see him in the distance heading our way and then run up and down the wall as he strode past, growling, and barking and true to form, wagging her corkscrew tail fervently in friendship.

Over the ensuing weeks, when neighbours and acquaintances from our former corner of town (and some of those hereabouts who had been monitoring our arrival) asked us how we were getting on we remarked that everything was going according to plan. The house was everything we had hoped it would be. Yes, there was a lot to do, and that included clearing the endless supply of discarded beer cans. These neighbours were all, without exception, familiar the perpetrator, and they all, again without exception, lowered their heads and said just that he had problems.  No argument there then. This was a young man who’d be taking hits of premium lager when most of us enjoying our tea and toast. I’d say he had problems.

Problems or not you couldn’t fault the young man’s time keeping, or his thirst. It got the point where I could expect to see him three or four times a day. Always around the same times; about 8.30 in the morning; early lunch, between twelve and one, and then again late afternoon, around 4.30. Neither could you fault his posture. See him walk most purposefully and erect down the hill to town I was reminded of one of a scene in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King when Michael Caine tells Sean Connery they should ‘polish our buttons, stuff ramrods up our jacksies and look bold’. There was something equally predetermined, and inexorable about my hard drinking neighbour.

Purely by virtue of driving past the moment he put the key into the lock of a grey front door I discovered that our man lived in a small block of flats just along the way. Watching him, can in hand, I wondered if he opened a can before he left, while dressing perhaps, or if he kept that pleasure for when he was on the street? And then polishing off nearly all of contents in the minute or so it took to reach our garden fence? It is a small, unremarkable block within which every life is concealed behind net curtains. Affordable homes for local people priced out of the property market hereabouts by the likes of me.

I doubt it was the sight of me, in overalls working on the house, that persuaded him to toss fewer cans in the garden. More likely it was Asta’s admonishments, those she reserved for postmen, horses, dogs so decrepit they can barely turn to face her, and him. Then, on two occasions I thought I heard, in hushed tones, a voice say “hello Asta” as she stuck her head through the fence at the second he brushed past. By then she had stopped kicking up a ruckus each time he appeared and was more content to run along the fence and wag her tail.

Simultaneously the numbers of cans dwindled and I began to realize just what a dapper lush he was. A little red around the gills but he neither wore jeans nor sneakers favouring loose fitting trousers with a billowy dash of New Romanticism, worn with an untucked shirt and long jacket. As the weather improved he wore a long double breasted blazer in off white to such insouciant effect that he could have easily claimed to being one of the best dressed men in town.

I can’t recall when it dawned upon me that I hadn’t seen him for a while. But when I did I also realised that I was looking out for him. He and the cans had become part of my neighborhood furniture. A not entirely joyous element of my new world, but an element nonetheless, and I missed him.

It was a couple of weeks later I learnt he’d died. The bearer of the news didn’t know the cause of his death, only that the funeral had taken place the week before, and had been crowded. The boss of the company he’d worked gave a eulogy in which he’d made a point of how hard the deceased had worked. Not an engaging job by all accounts. Monotonous, and dreary. But he’d been one of the hardest workers there, and would be missed. He was 34 years old. He been living up north somewhere but had returned to the west country to be with his father suffering a terminal illness. I think I’d have drunk much more if it had been me.

I raised a glass to the passing of the neighbour nobody seemed to know much about when he was alive, but for all the empties – who hit it off, in a quiet sort of way, with Asta.

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