coronavirus – the view from Padstow

Sunday March 29, 2020.

Deaths in the UK now well over 1000 and the government, for what it’s worth, is bracing the public for many more. The figures range from 7000 to 20,000 in the coming month. Some experts are say this lockdown could extend until June. We tried registering for home grocery deliveries with Morrison’s, Sainsbury, and Tesco without luck. The first two are not accepting new home delivery customers and the Tesco website said there was no available delivery slot in the foreseeable future. Like it or no we’ll still have to shop in person.

Saturday March 28, 2020

There is a debate about how far we are permitted to go to get our exercise, and walk the dog? We’re still going to Lellizzick but we are now one of just maybe two cars there. It’s said we risk a road traffic incident and thereby could put unnecessary strain on the NHS. The worst that could happen on a slow four and a bit mile round trip is a prang. But what about all the cyclists that have appeared? Bikers who don’t get their bicycles out more that a couple of times a year are now freewheeling through town and country roads without a care in the world. If anyone risks casing the NHS unnecessary work it’s them. I suppose we’ll have to change our routine if only not to stick out like sore thumbs.  Friends in London all say the same thing – we’re better off where we are.

Friday March 27, 2020.

This coronavirus thing is almost bearable with the weather the way it is. Another bright spring day with a smattering of alto cumulus clouds. The word is it’s going get a lot colder. All the talk today is about whether people should be able to get into their cars to take the dog for a walk. We could walk to Tregirls from Dennis Road but it’s quite a way. Each day there have been less cars parked up at Lellizzick. On the way back I noticed the Farm Shop is still open. Both the prime minister and the health secretary have the virus. Spike says this thing is getting serious.

Thursday March 26, 2020.

The death toll today is 465. 70,000 have the virus in the US. By 6pm today 100 people had died of it in New York,Kim and I drove to Bodmin to shop for the week. Another beautiful, warm spring day with a faultless blue sky. The road was empty and so too the car park at Morrisons. We grabbed a trolley each, split our shopping list in two and joined the 20 or so strong queue, each two metres apart, waiting to be admitted into the store one at a time. I needed a pee at the same time as another customer. We approached the gents and looked warily at each other. I waited outside and he thanked me. We found most of the things we wanted but when it came to paying a member of staff said I would have take one of the four bottles of wine out of my trolley. Three bottles each a maximum. She said they were open the next morning at 7am and I couldn’t drink all four bottles by then anyway. Little does she know me. Petrol prices have plummeted. By nearly 40p said Kim. It made sense to fill up. Back at The Red House Kim washed every item we’d bought.  Tonight they announced 4000 dead in France and 8000 in Italy. In the US lockdown has ramped the unemployment total to over three million. At 8pm we joined just a handful of others outside and applaud all NHS staff. It was a poor turnout at my end of town. I only counted four others apart from ourselves. Sarah at the Gallery said it was very moving to hear the applause rippling down from the top of town where more homes are actually lived in. There was an idiot getting drunk in the garden this afternoon, dancing and playing loud music. No sign of him when the country was united in saying thank you to the nurses and doctors risking their lives.

Wednesday March 25, 2020.

The UK death toll is 411. It was around 30 last week. Kim is thinking about food supplies and we have dug up part of the back lawn to install a vegetable patch. The only problem we discover is that all the garden centres are closed so we can’t by either plants of seeds. To cheer me up Rob tells me to watch a Chet Baker at Ronnie Scotts show on You Tube. I do and it doesn’t cheer me up but its beautiful. I receive a text from my old boss in Gloucestershire. She says the whole family is isolated on the farm and that her old man is washing by hand every grocery item delivered. There is an item on the news about Waitrose limiting the number of shoppers into its supermarkets. I like the idea and think maybe we’ll go there tomorrow. A text from Spike reads: Prince Charles is isolating at Balmoral with Covid-19. Prince Andrew is isolating Windsor with Jennifer-14.

Tuesday March 24, 2020

A friend from London has come down insisting she will head straight back if she shows the slightest sign of the illness, not wishing to be a strain on an overstretched Cornwall NHS. We saw our first intercontinental jet overhead for the first time in days. Looking up on Tregirls Kim pointed out that there was not a single contrail where normally there are several criss-crossing the sky. The valley behind Tregirls leading to Lellizzick is drying out but still resembles the Everglades. The weather is sublime and today was the first day all year I haven’t worn a winter coat. There are more lights on in Rock. There are a few speedboats too and  a couple of light aircraft breaking the unnatural Covid-19 silence. All but one of the building projects on Dennis Road has come to a standstill. Where the road is normally bumper-to-bumper with parked cars there are less than a dozen now. Almost no pedestrians and a silence you can almost hear. Each day reminds me of Sunday afternoons in the Sixties when the shops were closed and most people stayed at home.

Tregirls Everglades

Monday March 23, 2020

There is a sign on the door of the Tesco stating that violent language directed at staff will not be tolerated. There is a taped ‘isolation’ grid on the floor in front of the customer services counter where I often exchange my Guardian voucher for a copy of the newspaper. I mention the notice on the door to the women behind the counter (when I move towards the counter she moves back and when she moves forward I am instructed to move back) who says there was an argument with a customer who threw something at a member of staff.

Sunday March 22, 2020

My friend in Cross Street sounded well on the phone today. She managed a laugh and we agreed to stay in touch. The tide was out when Kim, Asta and I arrived at Tregirls. Someone had written in the sand, in big letters, ‘Holidaymakers Go Home’. I counted 60 on the beach at Rock. The keeping our distance message is starting to get home with people we stopped to chat with a god two metres away. The numbers of people with coronavirus in Cornwall remains in single figures while the talk is of an epidemic in London. Our friends in Kentish Town are all well and getting used to living 24/7 cheek-by-jowl in a small house. My friend said he felt uneasy with the crowds on Hampstead Heath. A friend a short distance away from us emailed to say her ex-husband, living in care hundreds of miles away, has died of Covid-19. It’s getting closer.

Saturday March 21, 2020.

Spike thinks he has Covid-19, but then again he always thinks he has every illness under the sun. A dear friend in Padstow told me she and her London friend have agreed that he shouldn’t come down. The friend thinks people here will disapprove. I think they’re right. This evening, after dark, I took a drive around Padstow to see the effect of the government’s pub/restaurant/hotel closure edict. There was a solitary vehicle parked in the car park in front of The Seafood Restaurant, which was of course closed. The harbour was in darkness with a solitary pedestrian. I drove along Lanadwell Street, across Middle Street and down Duke Street; all in darkness. The pizza takeaway and Chip Ahoy were the only businesses open with two customers at each. No other vehicles moving.

Friday March 20, 2020

It’s official. Having previously only advised pubs and restaurants and other hospitality businesses to close at tonight’s government press conference our prime minister, waving his arms about as ever, insisted they must all close tonight to contain the virus. It’s hard to imagine a world without pubs. It’s the end of my Friday evening pint and cigar outside The Old Ship. We are being told to remain at home and avoid contact with people outside our immediate family. This almost certainly means the end of our regular Saturday night dressed up wine sessions in Cross Street. We agree to discuss the situation tomorrow.

springtime at Lellizzick

Thursday March 19, 2020.

Another line of panic buyers with trolleys this morning. I go to the supermarket to get my Guardian and people, especially the elderly, don’t think twice about invading someone’s space. I’m getting calls and texts from friends up country telling me that second home owners are not welcome in Cornwall. I call my dear friend in Southwold who echoes the words of people hereabouts angry, at the number of people ‘self isolating’ in the community that will be under pressure if they become ill and put extra strain on the tory underfunded NHS. Tonight a Cornwall councillor and tourism manager appealed to holidaymakers and second home owners alike to stay away. I’ve heard through the grapevine that May Day has been cancelled.

Wednesday March 18, 2020

There seems to be some sort of denial in the air, that coronavirus and Covid-19 are a figment of some conspiratorial imagination. There are no extra precautions at the Health Centre Centre and plenty of close, sometimes intimate contact. Despite this all the talk is about second home owners. At the supermarket the staff are talking about a queue of people outside when it opened up at 7am this morning, nearly all they said were outsiders. There is unconfirmed talk of a cluster of Covid-19 patients in Polzeath.

 

 

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Just A Piece Of Cake

I remember clearly where I was when I tasted my first palmier. I was following a designated tourist route around Marseille’s Old Port accompanied by a woman from the local office de tourism: she pointed over there for the embarkation point for the fortress island of Chateau d’If the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, and there the atelier of an artist nobody has ever heard of.

Forever with an eye for something tasty I was distracted by a small patisserie that my guide (I can’t remember her name only the scent of garlic on her breath) informed me was renowned in the region for its palmiers. Having lived for some time in Paris I thought knew a good deal about French patisserie while confessing the palmier had eluded me. Of course I knew it by sight: flat, golden, and curved perhaps like palm fronds, but bland compared to its exotic siblings, devoid of the eye catching appetising characteristics of any number of tartes, eclairs, or the undisputed emperor of French patisserie, the mille fueilles.

Nonetheless, I was smitten first bite. Stirred by its crunchy texture and sugariness and the manner in which the buttery puff pastry, baked to a crispness, flakes and melts in the mouth. A simple, understated sophisticated pastry that can be eaten without a fork and napkin, like a biscuit. It dunks well too.

That was some years ago and I can’t imagine how many palmiers I have eaten since. Palmiers in Paris, throughout the Tarn et Garonne, Avignon, Brussels, London, Hastings, Southwold, Bristol and of course Cornwall, although sadly they are hard to find this far west. Truro’s Marks and Spencer is my closest source. For some years many were supplied by mother, who recognising a kindred patisserie Francaise spirit regularly supplied me with boxes of Les Malices palm sized palmiers. Not as sweet as I liked but a good day-to-day palmier nonetheless and excellent with ice cream. I admit though that I do have a preference for the full size six inch palmier like that very first one in Marseilles whilst grateful to mum for keeping our biscuit barrel well stocked. 

Not a lot seems to be known about the origins of palmiers, or ‘elephant’s ears’ as they are sometimes referred to. Personally I think they look more like hearts that great flappy leathery appendages. They seems to have surfaced at the beginning of the last century and probably from Algeria which sort of explains why the French subsequently claimed them as their own. I only ever eat the classic sugary ones but for those with more cosmopolitan tastes palmiers come with cheese and ham, mincemeat and marzipan, Nutella, sundried tomatoes, olive tapenade and even smoked trout  and pecorina. And should you be stuck for something to do one coffee break there are plenty of short how to make palmier films on You Tube. 

Since moving to Cornwall my most dependable supply has been London, more often than not Camden Town where I often stopover. I recall finding a basket of them in a Waitrose that has since gone and telling the young assistant replenishing the bakery section that I had driven 312 miles to this bakery section. She seemed impressed the way young people are when talking to someone older than their grandparents before noticing how many I’d placed in the paper bag.

“You’ve only got two,” she remarked with a hint of concern.

Pausing, I replied that despite a passion for them I do have my waistline to consider. She appeared to hyperventilate.

More recently, again in Camden Town, I found myself in the grip of a hair netted baker who bore a striking resemblance to the late Marty Feldman.  I’d mentioned that he appeared to have just the one palmier and that was broken in two. He looked at me fiercely and spoke sharply. “She’s taken them all. She takes them every day.”

In which case what time does this woman usually arrive to clear out the shelves of palmiers? He shook his head and looked annoyed. I could be in before nine I told him. He shook his head again.

“In the morning different times. She fills the bags and then goes upstairs. I followed her. She’d gone. No pay, just go.”

She steals your palmiers? “Yes.”

That’s the point at which the hair netted baker resembling Marty Feldman doing a bank job stepped out from behind his counter and grabbed my arm.

“At head office they look at the figures and see people not buying them anymore. “ Because that woman isn’t paying for them so they don’t register on the system, is that it?

“Yes. I don’t know when we’ll get more? They think they’re not selling and she’s taking them.” I bought the broken in two one and he smiled and wished me luck “my friend.”

I think it was this experience that prompted Kim to take command of the situation. Nothing phases her. She’s built a wall. Chopped off the ends of a pair of new cashmere gloves to make them fingerless so that I may type in the cold. She cuts hair, makes jam and for my last birthday served her own prawn cocktail complete with homemade Marie Rose sauce. It’s like being married to a Blue Peter presenter. 

With these achievements in her curriculum vitae I wasn’t surprised to open the door to that unmistakable aroma of baked sugary puff pastry. Perhaps sensing my concern with the coronavirus outbreak she’d decided to put a roll of puff pastry in the freezer to good use. We’d bought it some time ago together with a basket of other items on their use by date. We call it sticker food, it comprising a high proportion of our diet. This was her first attempt and the palmiers were small; similar to the boxed ones mother used to give me. They shared an impressive uniformity of shape and colour except for one twisted and blackened that she had on her plate.

“Well,?” she asked as I took my first bite.

I commented warmly upon the colour and texture. Pretty good I replied.

She looked concerned as I bit again. Chewier than normal but all the better for it.

New Yorker

I rarely read food labels, they’re too depressing. Like the bloomer I bought some weeks ago at a supermarket that came with a shocking warning sticker, contains wheat. Whatever next?  Ok, my Classic America PizzaExpress pizza that’s what. Blue box. Regular logo and images of sliced pepperoni and mozzarella. some months before a New Yorker magazine cover (shown) depicted a pair of food stalls in a park: Nick’s Heartburn Hut featuring the ‘indigestible Death Burger’ and Ye Olde Kale Kart – ‘Gluten free Gluten, 100% Taste Free’. With my non-recyclable waste on the garden path came the answer. Gluten American pizza. Who’d have thought it?

Looking at the plate of golden palmiers between us Kim said glumly “I was worried they didn’t taste of much.” And she had a point. It wasn’t that her palmiers didn’t taste of much – to be frank, they didn’t taste of anything. I agreed they did seem a bit flavour light, instantly regretting having said anything.

She’d followed the instruction in the Larousse Gatronomique to the letter. Rolling out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface, sprinkling a generous portion of caster sugar and rolling it to a thickness of 5mm. Both long sides turned in and pinched in the centre. She didn’t return the pasty to the fridge to chill down to facilitate easier slicing into sections, but that is a bit of a moot point. Cut into 1 cm cross sections, pinched into a palm leaf shape, and well spaced upon a baking tray, dusting once more with caster sugar.  

So what went wrong? We bit into another one. No taste. Not buttery. No hint of vanilla. What pastry did she use? Perhaps a savoury puff pastry by mistake? Another visit to the pedal bin revealed all. We looked at each other both thinking of the sticker food American Classic we’d bought and that New Yorker cover.

“Not again.”

And the moral of this tale is to always pay attention to food labels. If not we risk wheat in our bread and an absence of that ingredient that makes food food.

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Kim and Sally at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Everyone is very excited because later this month one of Kim and Sally’s ‘yukata’ and ‘obi’ designs outfits, produced when they were the Bentley & Spens textile design partnership, is to be featured in Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk an eye catching oriental fashion show at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The exhibition- running from Saturday February 29 to June 21 – is a celebration of the iconic Japanese kimono tracing the antecedents of this defining garment back to the 16th century whilst reflecting upon its influence and inspiration for a raft of 20th and 21st century fashion designers.

Kim (Bentley as she was) and her design partner Sally Spens (latterly Murdoch) met studying textiles at London’s Goldsmiths College.  Working together as Bentley & Spens their often intricate and colourful hand painted and batik designs drew favour from clothing and interiors outlets from London, to New York, and Paris eventually coming to the attention of Japan’s foremost Kimono production company, Kawashima. The vitality and romanticism of Bentley & Spens’ work it intended to use in a range of less formal lightweight summer kimonos known as yukatas – de rigeur for chic women at the nation’s popular and season defining cherry blossom festivals. An ‘obi’ is the waist belt or band.

Kim and Sally at Tokyo yukata launch

The first Bentley & Spens yukata collection in 2002 comprised a dozen designs  with the theme Cool Flowers, Fruits Party, Exotic Japan, Sweetheart and Sea Story. An instant hit with Japanese retailers it prompted a second collection the following year entitled Tropical Daydream’ featuring hand painted birds, shells, elephants and fauna. 

Kim and Sally were flown out to Tokyo for the launch (see adjoining photographs), taking the Bullet Train to Kyoto to meet the production staff at the factory. During the subsequent six years they supplied around 80 original yukata designs.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk,

February 29 to June 21,2010, Gallery 39 and The North Court, Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. https://www.vam.ac.uk

Tickets £16-£18. 

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too much information

There’s a scene in The Kominsky Method, that wry Netflix study of septuagenarians, when recently widowed bitter sweet Alan Arkin turns to the man behind the wheel, his thespian best friend Michael Douglas, and with an expression of despair says:

“You’re talking to someone and you need a word to finish your thoughts. A simple word. Nothing out of the ordinary and it’s missing. Just gone…”

“Oh yeah,” says Douglas grimly recognising the scene, “…I think I fear it worse than cancer. It’s like that guy. Oh shit, what’s his name?”

“Whose name?” replies Arkin.

“You know, the guy with the thing.”

“What thing?”

Sound familiar? It’s the conversation stopper I and millions of others have pulled up on countless times; a ‘senior moment’ they chime. An inopportune loss of memory immediately attributed to old age; that’s anyone over 50. Like forgetting the name of the lame deputy in everyone’s favourite John Wayne western, Rio Bravo?

you know…it’s what’s his face, thingummy whatshisname…

Previously such questions – who, what, when, where or how? – would remain unresolved due to the fact that by the time we’re alone, intent upon looking up whatever it was we couldn’t remember, we’ve forgotten what it was we’d needed to remember to look up. Complicated isn’t it?

Nowadays people of a certain age (don’t you hate that phrase) turn to their smart phones for  gratification. Unless you’re drinking with my octogenarian friend (soon to be, what’s the word? Oh yes, nonagenarian) That There Sonia Morgan, with a brain sharper than a switchblade in which case all digital prompters are forbidden. “Put it away,” she’ll shriek. She doesn’t do French wine either: “Delicious, but it gives me a hangover.”

Long pregnant pauses at the end of sentences spiralling into a vortex of the forgotten. “It’s an age thing,” was the response I received from a friend older than I and who ought to have known better. Going on to repeat the mantra that anyone of a ‘certain agehas to face up to the fact that their brain just isn’t as sharp as it was. So, we’re greyer, less fit, out of work, prone to going to the lavatory in the middle of the night and as if that’s not bad enough, we can’t finish our sentences.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and the problem with growing old, if indeed it is a problem, is not diminished brain function – it’s too much information. That’s it – we’re overloaded with too much information. We know so much our brains are log jammed with useless data. A lifetime of knowledge, big and small and often entirely irrelevant, there in our heads, whirring around searching for meaning. Two perhaps three plus generations of education, newspapers, radio and television, literature, banter, cinema and music, and love and marriage and work. Finding that elusive word amid all of that is akin to picking a specific ping pong ball out of the FA Cup prize draw; there are too many. 

Don’t take my word for it. How about a second opinion? Non other than Sherlock Holmes who insists our brains are finite and shouldn’t be cluttered with the unnecessary.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” he muses in ‘A Study In Scarlet. 

“A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it…” Told you –  Too much information.

Every computer slows down eventually – no matter how big or expensive. They clog up and plod, thinking longer and harder before each function. We’ve all sat staring at that round turning thing on the screen, a sign that the machine of the future is having a stone age moment. That’s how computers work. They process. It’s why we clean up our untidy desktops, reboot our hard drives, update the software and more often than not either trash unwanted files or transfer them to an external drive. Then they work like their old selves, digitally leaner and fitter, and above all faster. Call it spontaneity. It has nothing to do with its age. You can overstretch a computer straight out the box if you throw enough information at it.

What we need to find is a method of ditching too much information – all that extraneous life stuff that at crucial moments (usually surrounded by friends awaiting a punchline)  impairs our memory and leaves us flat. 

Life was easier (excuse the Millennial cliche)  back in the day. For one thing there was less to think about. We worked, we ate, we drank beer and tried to stay warm. End of story. Now we work harder, eat and drink much more, and additionally waste hours shopping on the internet, comparing review and price sites and giving points out of ten for the person who sold us whatever it was we don’t really need anyway. It’s a synapse jungle out there and it’s getting more impenetrable by the gigabyte. And that’s before all the lies.

Imagine how much quicker our minds would be, how much sharper our repartee if we didn’t know how to use a percolator or a car crank handle or what Half Crowns and Black Forest Gateaux are? In 2019 I don’t need to know how to convert pounds shillings and pence into new pence? It’s the equivalent of 20GB of pet and wedding photographs and selfies that we’ll never look at again. Dump ‘em. Get smart and never again have to spend minutes trying to come up with…Walter Brennan; he’s the lame deputy in Rio Bravo. 

As Sherlock says: “…depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” If I could I’d high…something or other with the sleuth.

Meanwhile in the vintage Mercedes Alan Arkin is still trying to figure out what this thing is that the guy has who Michael Douglas is talking about?

“What thing?”

“The thing they use to harvest crops.”

“A tractor?”

“No!”

“Mexican people.”

“No – the Grim Reaper.” 

End of story. 

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The Quiet Life – or a hell of a holiday by Robin Banks

 

I ought have known something was wrong when the guest I was expecting insisted on the telephone that I am a “nasty person”. The woman, her mother and partner, had flown down for a short break and wanted to check-in three hours before the standard time of 3pm. After-all, cleaners have their work to do. 

It was her third call in less than half an hour and despite my offer to provide  a safe haven for their luggage while they went away and had some lunch, having access to the apartment a couple of hours later, after three, when the cleaners had gone it was evidently not enough for her.

“I’ve paid a lot of money for this,” she fumed. I agreed, she probably had, adding that I hadn’t, as yet, received a penny. Online letting agencies like the one she had booked through take the money upfront and only pay the property owner some days after guests have checked-in. With agencies’ fees on top you rarely get to know how much clients actually pay.  Like Airb&b this particular agency operates a similar policy and I suspect it was my pointing this out that triggered the nasty man outburst.

free beach pxhere

The phone rang again some minutes later and the partner explained they were having a difficult day and perhaps it would be better for all concerned if all the conversations henceforth went through him. Ok by me. We agreed that they could drop their luggage off ahead of check-in time and return after they’d eaten.

Running a holiday let apartment on the ground floor of my house by the sea had seemed like a good idea at the time. The internet had put freelance journalism on the skids and a small holiday letting business felt like a good way of shoring up the family income. We wouldn’t get rich but it would mean we could remain in the house (in a separate self-contained first floor flat) and enjoy the fresh air and faraway views. 

Rather than pack ‘em in and charge more we transformed one of the three bedrooms into a dining room the finishing touch to an apartment bigger and better appointed than any home I’d owned in London in a former life. I should add that losing a bedroom – and the potential for more income – was prompted by stories from local lettings agencies about large groups of holidaymakers (perhaps two families) trashing places. I wanted to minimise the risk with somewhere that would appeal to small families, or ideally couples.

“It’s always the well offs,” said an agent who wanted to take on our apartment.  “The more expensive the car the more mess they leave behind. We had to cancel a booking this week so that two carpets could be cleaned. Food everywhere.”

Two years later I am happy to report that most, that’s ‘most’ in inverted commas, are pleasant, respectful holidaymakers who clearly appreciate the effort that has gone into making their stay as enjoyable as possible. Yet it only takes a handful of those at the wrong end of the pain-in-the-neck spectrum to make you want to sell up and become a hermit

Ours is self catering accommodation, a fact I have to remind guests of when they request additional toilet rolls, dish washer tablets, washing powder, tea bags, and towels. I don’t know about you but the most items I’ve ever washed on holiday has been a been few pairs of socks and the odd pair of underpants. That’s not the modern way. Two couples stayed some months ago and on the first afternoon managed two full washing machine loads and additional loads every day for the subsequent four day duration of their stay. They came in a very nice car as did the guest who called me downstairs to show me what looked to be pooh on a wet hand towel. I refrained from pointing out that it had to be either his or his wife’s as all the linen is inspected with a fine tooth comb (!) before being installed via my wife and thence the cleaners. 

What two years of holiday letting has taught me is that very few clients read the house rules on any of our three websites: one is our own, and the other two are online platforms. In fairness there are not that many rules to read, just basic things like check-in and departure times. Oh, and a rule about not moving furniture around without consent. And not coming through our section of the garden as there is a risk our dog will go walkies, and, very important, not leaving a dog unattended in the flat at any time. I don’t know why I bother: We’ve had all the garden furniture brought in for a party, the hall walls resembling that street of smashed cars in The Wolf Of Wall Street and the living room carpet took a good chewing too when a dog was left, you guessed it, unattended. 

We could do what a lot of landlords hereabouts do and go through a local booking agency. They organise the lot; cleaning and changeovers, but at a price, in some cases almost 50% of takings. This clearly has a big appeal for absent owners with the second homes practically running themselves. We, on the other hand, are here, and we’re not trying to squeeze every last financial drop out of the place. It’s a space I’d happily live in and we hope because it is as it is courteous guests will return, and many do. 

The effect of all this on me? I’ve become a bit of a curtain twitcher and online troller. During the booking process you can get a sense for who is going to be difficult, although I’ll have to put my hand up and admit I didn’t see Captain Ahab coming. In fairness the woman who booked didn’t give me her beau’s surfing non de plume. There were to be just the two of them, upgraded to four at the eleventh hour. 

I became alarmed when on the first night there was nobody downstairs by midnight, and when they did show up I counted six.The front door slammed closed around 1am and three fellas, Ahab among them, appeared on the terrace to enjoy a spliff. Ok, be cool. Yes, I was cool. But not so cool when two of them peeled away to retrieve skateboards from inside a van and proceeded to skate and pass the spliff in the middle of my street at by now going on 1.30am.

You can imagine my language when I opened a first floor window and demanded Ahab explain what the ‘effin’ ‘eck was going on? It worked and they each melted away into the night. 

The next morning enjoying a coffee by the same east facing window I spotted a young man I didn’t recognise hunting around and about the plants in the front garden. Hello, seemed like a reasonably chill introduction, and you are? He explained that he was one of the downstairs guests who’d arrived late the evening before. And why was he searching the garden? But of course, Ahab had left the front door key there. What? I swore again.

Did you know you can go on You Tube and find what’s been viewed for days prior? Well you can and that lot had been watching cosmetic commercials and an interview with a tanned reality tv star at his Malibu home overlooking the ocean who when asked his favourite music turned to his mobile phone and demanded Google “play my barbecue mix”. I needed a drink. 

Perhaps the most surprising facet of the holiday letting business is how few, notably the younger ones, recycle. And yes, I do get the whole Extinction Rebellion thing, my friends getting it in the neck for driving diesel cars despite their kids having their online purchases delivered in emission belching vans. We now know that millions of tonnes of our waste end up in the far east and inside fish but I’d have thought the generation that wants to save the world from people like me would make an effort instead of bulk buying plastic and shoving it all in the trash. It doesn’t take a curtain shifter or Sherlock Holmes to spot five litre water bottles in the semi see through waste bags. Bottles, boxes and tin cans go the same way. 

In contrast Q-Tips are fine with recycling: the Miami description of white haired septuagenarians in cars with open sun roofs. Oldies know the planet is screwed but at least they make the effort to slow down the inevitable. The situation has gotten so bad with millennial guests that I’ve taken to referring to the recycling bags and boxes in the welcome letter in bold type. 

When the Nasty Man crew finally arrived (after more calls during which I was accused of withholding the address) the diplomatic other half swiftly placed their luggage in the hall. Minutes later the three of them moved off towards the town centre for some lunch. Everything seemed fine when the phone rang for the umpteenth time and the diplomatic significant other asked if he could pop in and retrieve some sandals for she whom I wasn’t to speak with? She was wearing new shoes and they were killing her. Fine, and two minutes later he was downstairs in the hall rummaging through a suitcase. 

It was then I saw through the gap in the doorway her approaching at speed. Simultaneously my other half, who had never seen or spoken with any of this party, approached from upstairs. I thought it wise to retire for fear of inflaming an already delicate situation. Too late. The women stepped through the door and going nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball with my wife shouted,  “and you can fuck off, I’m customer services.”

My wife, showing considerable restraint, told her not to use that sort of language, adding to the diplomatic other half “what are you doing with someone like her?” As our disruptive client was shoved outside she retaliated with “are you going to let her talk to me like that?”

The online agency they’d booked through wasn’t at all helpful when I explained the situation on the telephone until I said I didn’t care about the money, they could have a full refund of the monies I hadn’t as yet received as technically they hadn’t at that point officially checked-in: it was still long before 3pm. I wasn’t going to allow that woman into my home under any circumstances. 

Would I recommend holiday letting as an income source somewhere agreeable in later life? Frankly, I don’t know. Writing as one who is in a bad mood even when I’m feeling fine having dealt with people who clearly think as themselves as intellectual and balanced and ineffably right, I’d have to say no. For the simple reason that you can’t relax, and when you do it comes back to bite you. 

I’ll give it five years unless before then I take to drink and go down for manslaughter. 

 

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where am I? A very meaty issue?

I don’t know how many times I have driven east towards London over the course of 25 years on the A303, passing Stonehenge making for the M3? Let’s settle for 150 times, it can’t be far off. So imagine how I felt a few weeks ago when after about about two hours I pulled up at a set of traffic lights and didn’t have a clue where I was?  Nothing looked familiar; not the traffic lights (there aren’t any on the A303 east of Exeter); not the houses; not a busy dual carriageway; not a pub. Even as I write I have no idea where I was that autumn morning. Lost, that’ll have to do.

I remember pulling into the Exeter Services earlier in the drive to take a leak and I recall queuing up at a Greggs bakery on my way back to the car. Greggs is significant because I’d been reading about their vegan sausage roll that by all accounts is the snack equivalent of Instagram to anyone under 25 years. They are reported to be so good the company can’t bake enough and is planning to expand its range of vegan bakery to satiate the growing Extinction Rebellion generation. I’m all for veganism provided it’s delicious so I bought one and called Kim to brag about the fact: I’d been trying to track one down for weeks. I remember thinking it quite tasty. It looked, smelled and tasted like those cheap sausage rolls we used to get in the 60s and 70s, before people really cared about food and things like farm fresh and organic. The faux meat was pink and the puff pastry a bit greasy to the touch. I ate half, having not long since had breakfast, and returned the remains to the paper bag intending to finish it off for lunch. 

That’s when the lights went out so to speak.

I am writing about this because some months earlier, while Kim was working in the gallery, our house guest Eleanor and I drove to Falmouth, just for fun and to buy a gardening implement from a shop I am so ashamed to confess to visiting that I shan’t mention its name. I remember it was a grey day. I drove in the old blue Mercedes and parked on Greenbank where I often park, nar the town centre overlooking The Fal. It was lunchtime and we decided to grab a light bite at a right-on, bakery cafe place. Not vegetarian but with lots of cheesy, salady options for them’s that don’t do animal. We each ordered something cheesy on toast with salad, sharing a slice of cake for pud. It was during the pud that I came over all funny. Standing up I told Eleanor I didn’t feel quite right and that I’d be stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. 

Not quite right! Standing in a shop doorway on the other side of the narrow street I couldn’t remember where I was? Why I was there, how I got there, who drove, or where we’d parked, and if indeed we had driven? In short I had no idea how I came to be there, which believe you me is a bit worrying to say the least. After I don’t know how long I returned to an anxious looking Eleanor and said I felt a little better, and paying the bill we left. 

After purchasing a piece of gardening paraphernalia from the unmentionable store at the other end of town and still feeling like a drunk on a tightrope (Eleanor rightly concerned about my ability to drive us home) I suggested we stop off at a pub. A pair of double espressos (mine so heavily sugared it tasted like Golden Syrup) and a large brandy for me. I downed them both in single gulps and felt instantly as though someone had thrown an enormous electrical switch attached to the back of my head.

“I’m back,” I recall saying whilst looking around and wondering where the hell I was? One minute out with the fairies and the next down to earth pledging never to eat cheese on toast again as long as I live. 

Fast forward to somewhere in the west country after half a vegan sausage roll attempting to reach Alton, off the M3 near Basingstoke, in a town I didn’t recognise, not knowing how I got there, and not knowing which way to turn. My situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the reason I was going to Alton was to trade my old Merc in for a slightly newer model and because I thought I knew the route like the back of my hand I’d stripped the car of all personal items – including maps. 

I drove around in circles for what seemed like an eternity going beneath the M5 twice, possibly three times, and over what I believed to be the A303 even more. Tapping Basingstoke into my mobile phone’s GPS app didn’t seem to help much. Indeed it wasn’t until I pulled into a service station, somewhere near a military base (I kept seeing barbed wire, soldiers and jet fighters) and bought two Cadbury’s flake bars (well known for their efficacious qualities) and downing them post haste did I return to something resembling normality. Only it wasn’t normal at all. I arrived in Hampshire at the wrong time and it turned out the wrong place. Maybe I’ll try a Crunchie bar next time.

What does any of this mean? I have absolutely no idea. In fact, I have no idea why I even wrote this or where the concept came from?

 

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The last Port Eliot Festival?

 

getting ahead at Port Eliot

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed what may easily be the very last Port Eliot Festival.There was a look and feel and smell amid and among the rolling grounds, woodland and elegant Port Eliot House and gardens that reminded me of the last festival I attended, on the Isle of Wight in 1970. I daresay some of this mutuality could be down to the fact that a good number of those in St.Germans the other day, just inside Cornwall, and a short walk from the splendid Tamar Valley, were themselves on the Isle of Wight when Jimi Hendrix delivered his final UK performance. Don’t get me wrong, the majority there were much, much younger than I, but at the same time it was one of the few events I have been to in recent years when I wasn’t mistaken for either a mini cab driver or doorman. Indeed my only age issue was an barman at the rioja bar wondering if my eyesight was up to reading the menu on the wall behind him. Aside from that it felt as ageless as could have hoped for.

I am put of offer multitudinous outdoor popular culture events for a number of reasons, not the least of which are toilet and food queues niggles that were for the most part ironed out at Port Eliot where the plentiful loos range in quality from (if you’ll excuse the pun) bog standard to expensive luxury. As for the food I have never before been confronted by such a global mouth watering variety beneath a sun soaked cumulous sky. There was Turkish and Thai, Chinese and Cornish, meaty and fishy, vegan and Italian, shell fish and sushi, and for me the best French toast, dripping with maple syrup, outside Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

I was there to accompany my friend Robert Elms who had made the trip west to conduct a sort of literary Q&A on the subject of his recent book London Made Us with a music writer Will Hodgkinson.

Robert enjoying himself

He was a little apprehensive before, unsure of who his audience would be, especially as the book is tightly London focused. Over two brews I attempted to reassure him that there are also people of reasonable intelligence in the west country who not only read avidly but had even heard of London. Some of them may even have been there, or like myself come from there. 

Upon reflection I think I enjoyed Port Eliot because there weren’t aimless and headless hordes there to worship rock and pop star celebrities of varying ability, there instead to listen to writers discussing their books, like Robert, and the process that led them there. Some of them recognisable celebrity writers – a news reader, a couple of comedians, and a singer  – but in the main the stars of the festival were writers and journalists of every calibre, even including one I trained with on a newspaper in Uxbridge in the 1970s. 

The sheer range and breadth of creative skills and crafts to be learnt  there was inspiring – if one were organised enough to prebook – including pottery, printing, design, carpentry and even ukulele lessons. Within the 12th century Port Eliot House, crenelated and mullioned and remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries, home of the now deceased Lord St Germans who began the festival in 2003 – was a small Sandra Rhodes exhibition and lectures, discussions and workshops on fashion. 

Romany caravans, campers, mud bathers, mad hatters, brewers and bejewelled bohemians on stilts combined to provide a 19th century carnival atmosphere where a good many made the effort to (in immortal the words of Dave Crosby) let their freak flags fly. After the quagmire of 2017 the warm sun-bathed weather helped, making for a joyful, colourful, eccentric experience with I’ll wager few, if any, Brexiteers in attendance. The organisers like to describe it as ‘magical’, which on that perfect July day, with hair and peignoirs, bippity bobbity hats, streamers and unbounded consciousnesses fluttering in the breeze was hard to deny.

Robert’s thing went well. Far from being the fish out of water he feared the crowded Bowling Green Tent where his do took place contained a good many familiar with his BBC Radio London programme. He had them in fits and was henceforth glad handed warmly by admirers all afternoon.

It was touted as the last ever festival to be held there owing to a dispute among the former lord’s heirs. I hope they settle their differences and stage another – for all our sakes.

Port Eliot, St.Germans, Cornwall July 25-28, 2019

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