life in the slow lane

It’s hard to comprehend I know but I like my Mercedes Benz estate. Not much to crow about in car terms, I’ll admit. It’s a C-Class diesel and far from being the fasted thing on the road, and despite the metallic blue paintwork and low profile alloy wheels, it is by no means the most elegant. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that it is by default the sort of car older men with eye on economy choose. But I’ll say it here, and I’ll say it loud, my four year old Merc is giving me driving pleasure, in spades.

It’s an automatic, of course: Since buying my first ‘auto’, an unloved gold Citroen CX in the early 90s, I have not been able to see the point of manual gear boxes (aka ‘shift sticks’). There’s less faffing around for one thing. Traffic jams – of which there are many on my frequent trips to the west country – are less irksome, and I can hold things like cups of coffee or select tracks on my iPod with relative impunity. The overall drive with an automatic gearbox best summed up as, relaxing. Which is the way I like my driving to be. Calm and measured, with as little stress as is humanely and mechanically possible. 

That may be the reason why I have never been bothered (that much) about performance cars, of any hue. I’ll admit that there are occasions when I do like to get ahead briskly, and with unvarnished excitement press the pedal to the metal. And on the infrequent occasions that I do my actions are such a jolt to the car’s internal combustion system that I leave behind the sort of dark cloud we have come to expect of a vehicle clearing its throat after thousands of leisurely cruising in the slow lane, while unburnt emissions clog the exhaust arteries. Being, for me, a relatively new car those full speed emissions from the C-Class are modest: Imagine a stowaway in the boot puffing on a Cohiba Esplandidos and blowing the smoke through the number plate rivets. This in contrast to my CE 280 coupe, with a 2.8 straight six engine beneath the bonnet the shape and dimensions of the sort of dining table used for banquets. It is likely that the designer of that early 1980s Mercedes, a pillar-less coupe with a sunroof for the sensation of being in a convertible with non of the drawbacks, had spent many happy hours floating effortlessly upon a waterbed. Those wallowing, fluid filled mattresses were to 1970s aspirationals what the ensuite bathroom is today. With the suspension characteristics of a waterbed my CE didn’t so much as corner as drift around, near side always several inches higher than the driver’s side. It sounds unnerving but on those fast sweeping A road bends along the north Cornish coast, where the daring driver is encouraged by clear sight lines for several hundreds of yards ahead, I learnt to relish the challenge of taking a wide line, in the middle of the road a good distance before the apex and just at the moment I could sense the centrifugal forces galvanise to send us all to hell and back in a field of root vegetables, of pulling hard on the steering wheel and flooring the accelerator thereby levelling the car and exiting the bend with the thrust and choking smoke of a steam train. 

In comparison to the silky, to the point of bland, power of a three litre BMW Coupe I very nearly bought from an old school friend some time later, and the howling authority of a Ferrari I drove around Hertfordshire for an article I was writing for a national newspaper on the subject of hiring a supercar for the day, that silver CE’s acceleration was nothing. But for someone prone only to infrequent bursts of aggression that pleasure – the speed, the smoke and above all, the noise – was akin to slipping on a suit that had been in the wardrobe for years only to discover a 50 pound note in the pocket. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does – boy!

I was too young to be a hippie, and even if I had wanted to grow my hair long and look forlorn the prefects who ran my private school in Hounslow, West London, with the sadistic cruelty of Gulag prison guards, might have had something to say about it. Nonetheless that early ‘green’, cool-to-be-kind philosophy underpinned how we thought in the early 70s. Colour advertisements for Citroen 2CV’s, with potted plants poking out of their roll back roofs seemed appealing. As did others for Mini Mokes, a sort of corrugated iron buggy that’s biggest claim to fame was to feature in the television series The Prisoner, conceived by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan. It seems hard to believe now, when cars, despite paying a lip service to the environment and dwindling fuel resources, are objects of lust, but the coolest cars then were the most practical. Luxury models were driven by the old guard, and sports cars either by hooray Henrys or backstreet racers, leaving the dreariest for the caring middle class, of which I was nominally a member. They were different times. Before shopping became the de facto national obsession it is today we simply didn’t lust over stuff the way we are encouraged to today.  The greatest trick capitalism ever played was making the telephone just about the most coveted object of desire on the planet. So much so that young people will kill each other for the newest model, and journalists freely describe the most tactile as ‘sexy’. Our phones were on a table in the hall, by the stairs. The only thing I could remember being sexy was Rachel Welch in a fur bikini in 2000 Years BC. 

Taking all of that on board you can understand why non of my friends looked twice when I pulled up in my first car, a 1969 primrose yellow Triumph Herald Estate. It had a rorty 1300cc engine beneath a bonnet that opened back from the windscreen, two doors, a tailgate and a backseat that folded forward. It was a car, nothing more. It’s only statement to the world was that it was in good condition and would provide safe and reliable service. 

That Triumph was bought at a car auction in Surrey, during a speedy transaction that I took no part in. One of my friends at school was a tall, rather serious boy called David, whose father, a somewhat lugubrious man called Roy, worked in the motor trade. He drove an Aston Martin and ran two petrol stations and used car dealerships in west London. By the time I had grown tired of falling off motorcycles and was ready to buy my first car he had inducted David, reluctantly I suspected, into the family business. With most of the contents of my Post Office Savings Account stuffed into my jeans David took me to the car auction in Camberley, armed only with the car dealer’s Bible, the Class’s Guide; a copious list of suggested car values based on age, mileage, condition and accessories. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t know a front wheel drive from the hide quarters of a cow, and I can remember feeling quite indifferent when David grew interested in the pretty little Triumph. A comparable car today would be five year old Vauxhall Astra, or Honda Accord, something so anonymous as to barely merit a mention. Which, in fact, it didn’t. As far as my friends and I were concerned I had a car, which meant we could all go out together and remain warm and dry. Nobody asked about its performance figures or how many miles per gallon I could expect from it. Nobody even remarked upon the colour.

David and I didn’t discuss cars, or when it might be appropriate for me to upgrade to  bigger and better models.  It was more symbiotic than that. From time to time he would suggest I give him whatever car I had, and in return he would provide me with another. I never looked at the Class’s Guide to see if the deal was a fair one. Why would I? The cars were always in good condition and in good working order. I recall a blue and white Austin Mini van with a small ventilation flap on the roof. It had previously belonged to a tyre specialist in Staines, in Middlesex. I only knew that because whoever did the respray failed to conceal the company name and contact details on the rear doors. There was a two tone – blue and white – Morris Oxford, and a white Vauxhall Victor with a bench seat in the front that could accommodate three people, and a column gear change to the side of the steering shaft. The most memorable  was a two door 1969 Ford Cortina Mk ll. That car was bling long before the term was coined and was the first of my cars to provoke a response from those who came upon it; always negative. It was hardly surprising. Despite being quite a large car there was only an aspirant 1300cc engine beneath the bonnet. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the modest engine, its previous owner had invested what I surmised to be a considerable sum of money in making it appear to be more than the sum of its parts. They had fitted alloy racing wheels, and a black vinyl roof so that it resembled a cross between a convertible and one of those US ‘sedans’ popular in the 50s and 60s. The bodywork was sprayed in a lambent pearlescent purple, finished off with a white coach stripe from stem to stern about half way up the sides and a black fake fur rear parcel shelf and matching ashtray cover. All these modifications completed with care and precision. The car was flawless in every way, including the manner in which it extracted shock and outrage from all who saw it. 

I enjoyed driving that Mkll. Not because it was fast, or handled especially well: The measured pace at which I proceed prompted a former colleague to remark that I drove like “someone’s grandmother.” No, I enjoyed that Ford because it was comfortable, it soaked up the bumps and potholes like a sponge, and the driver’s window was at such a height as to make driving with it open, and my elbow rested there, with the radio on, almost soporific. More than that I liked it because it almost removed entirely the sensation of moving, which for me was and remains the real test of any car. I do not need to be reminded that I am travelling along a road. The experience should be as quiet, smooth and undemanding as humanely possible. What I had not anticipated though was the Ford’s effect on others. I doubt I would have enflamed any more anger, nurtured greater vitriol, had I shaved my head and tattooed the Nazi insignia on the tip of my nose. With undisguised expressions of bewilderment friends and colleagues repeatedly asked me if the cars was really mine, and I lost count of the times I was stopped by the police. Not, I should add, for any infringement of the Highway Code, but just because it was such a red rag to easily enraged officers of the law whom I daresay still take exception to young men driving the sort of garish vehicle they could not afford themselves. For reasons I have never been able to reconcile, those officers invariably wanted to see inside the car’s boot, as if therein lay the root of its demon seed. Nothing was ever found, and I never received anything more punitive than warning.

All of which was nothing compared to the reaction of my mother. Until that point she and I had shared a kind of familial indifference to cars. I think she viewed them in a similar vein as myself: As practical means of getting around and not to be given too much thought. Her insouciance  changed the first time I took the Mk ll home. I recall her remarking, in an offhand fashion over a cup of tea, that someone had parked the ugliest car she’d ever seen in front of our house. Going on to suggest it may have something to do with the new neighbours whom she insisted had questionable taste. That she didn’t like it was an understatement. She made me promise never to park it in front of the house, and it remains the only car I have ever owned that she refused, point blank, to get inside. After nine weeks of consistent police harassment, the incredulity of colleagues, and my mother’s  unswerving displeasure, oh, and I forgot to mention the countless Herberts in souped up bangers with exhaust pipes wider than  toilet wastes forever taking me on at traffic lights, I traded the Ford in for another Triumph  Herald, a white convertible and possibly the most ridiculous, unreliable and jinxed car I ever owned.  

Convertibles are different now. For one thing, they keep the water out. On a warm sunny day there was nothing finer than that white Herald convertible. There were ignition problems (it didn’t always start), and the previous owner had fitted it with ‘remould’ radial tyres that quite literally disintegrated on the A30 heading west one summer. Remoulds – subsequently  banned for obvious reasons – were half the price of new radial tyres because they came with a speed restriction: Sixty miles an hour. Any faster and they’d fall apart and like me you had to spend hours by the side of the road awaiting a lecture from a recovery team. It was on such a  trip that I discovered how hopeless the car was at keeping the elements out and the occupants dry. I had become accustomed to driving with just one functioning windscreen wiper, and I had constructed an ingenious way of deflecting the rainwater that poured in from the windscreen/roof sill: A 12 inch album cover paper clipped to the visor directed the water on to the offside window, and thence inside the door where it turned to rust. 

My girlfriend and I were a few miles into Dartmoor when we became away of a sloshing sound. It was if there was someone in the backseat taking a bath. When I pulled over to a stop the splashing ceased. We progressed like this for many miles before I could stand it no more and clambered into the back for a closer inspection. The carpets were wet, and there was water dripping off the roof. But more was to come. Behind the seat on the Herald there is a metal compartment into which the roof fits. Mine was completely full of water, to within a couple of inches from the top. Goldfish survive for years in less water.

The only time I will admit to anything like professional corruption came as result of my trading the Herald in for a cheaper, and older Morris Traveller, a car that was far more in tune with my desire for an unappealing vehicle. The Traveller was an estate version of Alec Issigonis’ 1952 Morris Minor. The automotive legend who went on to design the Mini, an icon of the swinging 60s,  had created the definitively British functional car.  Early Travellers shared the indestructible 1000cc Morris Minor engine with turn indicators that flew out of slits between the front and back windows like yellow hands. Taking its cue from American ‘ ‘station wagons’ of the 40s and 50s the rear estate section comprised seasoned English ash timber frames, with aluminium side and door panels. I think mine had been parked on the top of a cliff for long periods because while the driver side was solid as a rock I could push a finger through was remained of the ash on the near side. I wasn’t too concerned with the moss growing in the side window rails. My girlfriend said it had character and it effectively held the sliding glass windows in place.

My first and last attempt at automotive restoration came about by chance after a planning inquiry in Uxbridge I was reporting on for my local newspaper. Local residents (forever ‘up in arms’) were endeavouring to shut down a car breakers yard run by a man with a face so battered he might have been a bare knuckle fighter in a former life. For whatever reason I took a shine to the breaker and a strong dislike to the residents. After the inquiry, that ended with the plan for a more comprehensive assessment f the site, I approach the breaker   to inquire if he had any unwanted Morris Travellers on his site. He did, and the only payment he required from me if I were to remove the parts I required was a favourable report. It seemed a reasonable offer and thus I embarked upon a life of journalistic corruption.

The only thing that Mkll had in common with every car I have owned since, the notable exception being my current C-Class Estate, is it only had just the two doors.  I can’t be certain of when exactly I decided to only drive two door cars but I think it stems party from a conversation with a journalist I used to work with in Uxbridge called Michael Anders, and an article some years later by the sportswriter Richard Williams, then commenting on cars having made a name for himself writing about popular music. Michael was a bearded communist with a voice so low it almost touched the floor and a passion for Disque Blue cigarettes and utilitarian British cars. We never discussed it but I always suspected that his politics, intensely right-on and in tune with the post Paris 1968  revolutionary spirit, an obsession that both irritated and amused our news editor at the time, demanded he could only show enthusiasm for the sort of car most journalists wouldn’t be seen dead in.   Simply put, Michael loved the cars of the working man: Ford Anglias and Morris Minors. Mini vans (he was on his second when we met), and of course practically any MG, provided it was showing its age. Michael derived as much pleasure from keeping an inexpensive car on the road for the minimum outlay as he did from sitting behind the wheel; probably more. During one of our long sessions at a Youngs pub in Twickenham he convinced me that cars shouldn’t have more than two doors if they are to achieve automotive rectitude. Four doors, his theory went, unbalanced the lines that by rights should flow front the front like air in a wind tunnel.  It may have been the beer talking but it sank in.  

There is something about large, two door cars, those modified from what would otherwise be a often dull four door saloons,  above and beyond the fact that they discourage backseat passengers, and that is their name – coupes. What a delightful word for a car loaded with  continental style. A car for adults who appreciate comfort, a smooth ride on the long haul, and room in the back for the hound to stretch out. Not, I hasten to add pronounced, coupe as in a chicken ‘coup’, the way Americans pronounce the word. No, this coupe, is spoken the French way –  from the word meaning ‘to cut’ – with an accent over the ‘e’, signing the word off with a continental flourish. Coupe! 

I have owned three coupes, the first of which was a navy blue 1970 Volvo 121 Amazon, a car born into the era of Austin Allegros with the chrome and pizzazz of a Cadillac.

two doors better than four – the Volvo 121 Amazon

It was 13 years old when I bought it from a Volvo dealership in Twickenham for £550 but it looked like something from another age and drew comments wherever it went. In fact I would have now were it not for one major fault, the clutch. I have never driven a Route-master or a pantechnicon but I cannot imagine operating the clutch was any more arduous. Digging a spade into concrete is easier it all coming to a dramatic climax in Hampstead High Street when crossing ahead of a line of cars my left knee gave out under clutch pressure and I had to get myself home using my right leg for everything: changing gear, accelerating and braking. Next stop an automatic.

The second coupe was the aforementioned Mercedes Benz 280CE, discovered on the forecourt of used car dealership near Worthing. When Sade, whom I worked with for a time in the 1980s, had made enough money to replace her Wolseley she asked me for suggestions in my capacity as motoring correspondent for Elle and Arena. I suggested a 280CE directing her to a stunning pearlescent model I’d stumbled upon in Mayfair. She bought, apparently terrifying the salesmen on a pedal to the metal test drive around the West End. Of course I had to have one too. Passing the one I eventually bought my mother, still in recovery from the Mkll Ford Cortina, remarked from the back seat of the Volvo, “isn’t that one of the cars you like?”

My last coupe, before getting old and sensible was a two litre Peugeot 406 coupe. With less power than a spin dryer I challenge anyone to nominate a better looking car beneath the £30,000 price ceiling? Indeed mine cost much less. 

What all French cars have in style is only equalled by the speed of their depreciation. Cars wear out, like carpets and are superseded like computers. It’s just more startling with French cars. My dark blue coupe, with full black leather interior was a real beauty, 18 months old and still under warranty when I signed the deal and handed over just £10,500 for it. The manager of the Jaguar dealership in Waltham Upon Thames, a thick set man with wavy fair hair, where it had been part exchanged, seemed unhappy to part with such a head turner for so little money. Yet it was the price set by Classes’ Guide, although it didn’t square with him and for a fractious half an hour he and a supplicant junior salesman attempted to sell me a raft of products from exterior and interior to ‘body guard’, and breakdown cover. He became  quite shirty when I declined them all. It reminded me of a time in Istanbul when a weft of carpet salesmen locked the door and made it clear I wasn’t going to be allowed off the premises without buying a rug. Fortunately the car salesmen were less forceful and eventually ran out of spurious reasons for me protecting the coupe’s upholstery and paintwork. If there had been an anti depreciation programme I may have been tempted. I sold it eight years later, still looking a million dollars for £600 to the teenage son of a good friend who took six months to trash it. 

All I have omitted from the list is an orange VW Beetle, and a citrus coloured Mini both of which I wrecked in collisions that were all my fault, a maroon Morris Oxford that I had to start each day with a crank handle (for younger readers this is an iron handle inserted into a slot in the front bumper that with effort turns the engine over in the hope it will

Fiat Panda 4×4 – my expression says all there is to say about comfort

eventually fire) and, a white 4×4 Fiat Panda, possibly the most uncomfortable car ever built despite only having two doors, and a beige Ford Fiesta company car during my short stay at Epic Records. Not a lot of babe magnets there. 

I wonder if my indifference to cutting edge technology, in any walk of life, be it cars, sound systems, or footwear,  is a failing?  Whilst spending the greater part of my working life advocating for others what best to buy in cars, music, restaurants, holidays, gadgets and clothes, I frankly cannot think of anything I would rather do less myself than shop.  So much so I wasn’t even involved in the purchase of blue C200, unquestionably the most expensive car I have ever owned. In Hamburg to see Fulham lose the Europe Cup to Atletico Madrid my former school buddy David texted me a photograph with a simple question. “Want it?” It looked ok so I said yes. After all, it’s only a car. More importantly,  Fulham lost.

written October 2013 updated and revised June 2020

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coronavirus – an April, May and June view from Padstow

June 12, 2020

With everyone and his dog claiming that ‘lockdown’ is somehow making us better more caring people with an enhanced sense of community is overlooking the bald fact that it’s also turning us into caricatures. Today Kim and Asta and I drove to Bodmin for a ‘click and collect’ at Morrisons. The reason we opted to go there rather than Truro’s Waitrose, which as anyone who has been there this past 12 weeks will know is the equivalent of a grocery spa it’s so orderly and relaxed, is because Kim has a passion for for Thompson Punjana tea and Morrisons’ own richly glutinous ‘The Best’ balsamic vinegar. Last night, before the online shopping deadline for our 10-11am collect slot we added pine nuts, there being a pasta basil pesto on the ‘lockdown’ menu. So there we are, both in wax cotton coats (the forecast was rain), in a Mercedes Benz with possibly the loveliest dog in the county, and smiling young woman who pushed the trolley with our goods to the car explained that some items were out of stock and another had to be replaced. No Clairette du Languedoc wine. What! And the halloumi was exchanged for another brand and one of the two bottles of balsamic vinegar had to be exchanged for a ameliorated version as she only had just the one bottle of the one we wanted. “But that’s why we’re shopping here,” I blurted out whilst recognising the sort of person I would under normal circumstances be laughing at. The young woman gave nothing away and apologised before adding that the only item they didn’t have and couldn’t substitute with an alternative was the pine nuts. “What yelled Kim.” I know I told her, the wrong balsamic vinegar, no Paul Mas wine and now no pine nuts. What is the world coming too? “And what are we turning into?” said Kim.

May 24, 2020

Another example of Padstow’s attitude towards social distancing. Kim and Asta are out for their early afternoon stroll along Sarah’s Lane. Two women approach. Asta is plodding along as usual meaning Kim can’t get far enough away as the women get nearer. One woman, reading the situation, steps aside while the other brushes past just inches away. Kim didn’t have a ruler with her for some reason but the woman was well within the two metre guidelines. Kim thanked the other woman but suggested the other could have made more room. The response. “Fuck off.” When Kim, without swearing or raising her voice, replied that that wasn’t very nice, while acknowledging her more responsible friend the woman blurted “I don’t know why people like that (Kim) want to come out if they’re afraid.” Yet more evidence that Covid 19 is bringing out the best in people.

May 20, 2020

I’m starting to think second home owners in Rock know something we on this side don’t.  As of the weekend there wasn’t a single boat on the moorings on the other side of the river. By lunchtime today there are over 30 with speedboats cruising up to Tregirls beach. This morning was spectacular. Warm and radiant sunshine despite a brisk southerly wind. I counted ten aircraft contrails overhead and numerous holidaymakers on the beach. The building sites that now pepper the town seem to be up to full speed and as Kim pointed out traffic on Sarah’s Lane seems almost back to normal.

May 15, 2020

The ‘R’ rate by which we will know if the coronavirus is spreading is getting higher in Cornwall. It’s not surprising though. In Waitrose in Truro the 30 customers inside (the maximum admitted at any one time) were all courteous and politely keeping their distance, while here in Padstow and in supermarkets in Wadebridge it is as if nothing of concern was going on; people pushing past and leaning across as though  desperate to catch and spread the dreaded infection. Even more alarming is the fact that while west country politicians and tourism managers insist the county is closed to all but those who live here they are happy to send their council employees out two and three inside a cramped vehicle cab to empty street dustbins. The streets here in Padstow have never been cleaner in all the 27 years Kim and I have been coming here and yet the council, so anti people who live beyond The Tamar, is happy to despatch street cleaning lorries with two to a cab sat closer to each other than if they were sharing a bed. This virus is heading our way and it won’t be wealthy second home owners and their guests spreading it, it will be local people; those who have to flout social distancing due to work and others who appear to see it as someone else’s pandemic.

May 14, 2020

The day is bright but the wind still sharp. The buzzard still circles above Tregirls and Kim and I spotted a pointy beaked Nuthatch on the ancient bridge by Prideaux.

May 13, 2020

It’s clear and bright and even a bit warm in sheltered sunshine but the wind is icy. Strong too and doubtless why the season’s first dinghy sailors and windsurfers have appeared.

I’m starting to think local people have given up on social distancing. I guess they figure that being 161st in the UK league table (dropping from 154th) the chances of them catching Covid 19 are a million to one. Kim and I are still doing our bit to keep local people (and ourselves) alive, despite the odd looks we get.

May 12, 2020

Walking towards Tregirls an old man with white hair and what looked like a pair of boxer shorts looked at Asta and us and said “I haven’t seen you before.” Thats funny, I remarked, I haven’t seen you before either. “Well,” he replied inhaling sharply the way unpleasant ill informed pompous idiots tend to do, “I live here.” So do I, I said, to which he said “that’s alright then,” – whatever in the world that was supposed to mean. Far from making us better, more compassionate, thoughtful, supportive and neighbourly this pandemic is reverting us to our genetic nature; tribal, and finger pointing.

May 11, 2020

The government’s relaxation of lockdown – ‘stay alert’ – has had an immediate effect. We have had three applications to stay with us in 24 hours. If any local person is reading this keep your hair on. We have no intention of accepting bookings until the country gets the all clear, although I suspect I’ll be dead and buried before that happens.  There are more day trippers (I suppose they could be the reviled second home owners) evident by the increase in expensive cars prowling the town, many with personalised number plates, reminding me of the black cab driver in London who, when asked why he doesn’t have a ‘white’ black cab he looked in the rear view mirror and remarked “it’d be like driving around with my bollocks out.” Point taken.

May 9, 2020

I’m starting to feel sorry for day trippers and holidaymakers going out of their way to be friendly. Walking down to Tregirls this morning, a walk Kim and I have done, I don’t know, maybe 3000 times in 27 years, we were met by people coming the other way. We stepped aside as we always do and indicated that the elderly lady approaching us could slow down as there was no hurry. As she passed us she said the normally goes the other way. When the couple some yards behind her arrived at the same passing spot and I commented that it’s easier going downhill  the woman smiled and remarked that she too has walked the other way like us,  everyday for years. Needless to say neither Kim nor I have ever seen any of them before.

May 8, 2020

Been a week for birds. First a pair of Arctic Terns fishing off Tregirls, followed by a pair of Cormorants. Then a Falcon and Buzzard and this morning one, or possibly two, Cuckoos, under the bridge past Prideaux Place close to where the photograph below was taken. Happily the longer this ‘lockdown’ continues and the more time people have on their hands, the fewer  Kim and I see on our morning walk. It’s back to the hardcore dog walkers, amounting to never more than six people.

Increasingly sloppy social distancing at the supermarket, despite prompts by long suffering staff to follow customers to follow the rules,  finished me off today. But just as I pledged to cycle or drive to Wadebridge for my newspaper Kim related Sarah’s admiration for how Emma has organised things at the Spa. Hygienic screens keep staff and customers apart with a maximum of just two customers at any given time.

May 7, 2020

There is a bank holiday on Friday that is being linked in with VE (Victory in Europe) Day. It doesn’t matters that dozens, if not hundreds, of old campaigners and their family are dying in care homes the free and healthy are decorating their homes with Union Flags, made of plastic and doubtless produced in China. There are several decked thus in Dennis Road and I’ve spotted one in Sarah’s Lane.

The turn out for the NHS was the best yet with quite a throng at the far end of the road and  for the first time a small gathering outside the cottages to our rear. What has been a good excuse for Asta to howl at the moon – tonight a ‘Super Moon’ sadly partly obscured by clouds, was brought to an abrupt end when someone nearby in their enthusiasm for the NHS and their desire to stage a most spectacular show of support shot a flare above the town that had our pup running for cover.

May 6, 2020

The town seems to have settled into a sloppy sort of self isolation. Old people keeping crashing into me at the supermarket but nobody is talking about second home owners anymore and the artistic among us have stopped scrawling NHS in giant letters on the beach along with ‘go home’. It feels like the fad of hatred is wearing off.

May 4, 2020

Another call his morning about small mindedness and social intolerance. The car of a young woman who moved into an apartment nearby maybe two months ago woke up  to find paint poured  over her car and the gates to her carpark padlocked. The perpetrator clearly some ignorant hothead objecting to out-of-towners. Of course, the young woman is a nurse working on the Covid frontline at Treliske, in Truro during the pandemic.

It’s not all dismal. Lisa Tutton, married to Tim son of Dee and my old sadly departed great friend John, emerged from the Memorial Hall opposite the quay carpark for a chat. She was wearing surgical gloves and a plastic apron because she is co-ordinating the distribution of hot meals and essential foodstuffs for dozens of local people confined to their homes for a variety of reasons: age; social distancing; illness. She says that the food is being cooked by a number of top chefs ‘furloughed’ during the pandemic. Thanks to her dedication and cool head the operation is ticking over with military precision.

May 3, 2020

I’m no fan of Gordon Ramsey but he’s certainly wound up a lot of people around here. It seems he and his family are ‘self isolating’ somewhere close to the two homes he is having built overlooking Porthilly. Funny how nobody bats an eyelid when Cornwall Council reveals that due to Brexit it will £70 million a year worse off (that being the sum it receives annually from the EU) but get into a stew because a chef with  predilection for swearing on camera is across the water behind closed doors. Another day another friend’s birthday. Kim and I left her present on her front lawn and bade her well.

May 1, 2020

May Day and no May Pole, and no Osses. Tall cumulous clouds teeter in the stillness and the sun bright and warm. Summer certainly ‘is a comin”. There are few people in the streets  either in full whites or subtly flying their red or blue colours.  The beach was a bit busier than usual and by late morning there are sporadic bursts of drum and accordion.

April 30, 2020

A woman who lives somewhere in Cornwall and has a guest house or b&b was the first member of the public to be able to put a question to the PM at his 5pm meeting with the media.  She was anxious that relaxing the lockdown would mean holidaymakers coming into the county and infecting people. Why didn’t the PM or his health experts point out that Cornwall, and other parts of the West Country were packed with holidaymakers up to and beyond the February half term, from towns all over the country, and yet despite this huge influx Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is 154th in the league table of nationwide coronavirus infections.

I tried once more to have a photograph of mine shown during the weather segment of Spotlight Southwest. I received an email from someone at the BBC saying he liked my photograph of the Cant Hill through a lilac branch. It wasn’t used.

April 28, 2020

My new neighbours are more clued into Padstow than I. One of them called to me to tell me a wet fish van was selling directly to residents, parked about halfway along Dennis Road. It’s the man who bought Mr.Pucky out some years ago when he used to sell from his van in Duke Street near Hillside. I bought some mackerel that Kim prepared as tempura using a recipe she learnt from Rick Stein maybe 20 years ago.

April 25, 2020

There is an uncorroborated story that two takeaway outlets in town have been threatened by people who believe that by being open they are encouraging Covid-19 infested holidaymakers.

April 21, 2020

We watched a pair of Common Terns diving into the sea off Tregirls this morning, oblivious to a pair of jet black Cormorants skimming the surface nearby at high speed. There were even less people today out and about until we encountered a local b&b host on Trigg Troll. Asta went happily up to his dog ignoring Kim’s pleas to follow us. The dog’s owner, swarthy and big, told her she “should keep the bloody dog on a lead.” I told him not to swear at my wife. “And you can shut your mouth,” he replied to which I repeated the same to him. I’ve seen him around Padstow. He looked at me before turning and walking off. The fact he didn’t instruct me to ‘go home’ suggests he knows who I am. I’ll add him to the list.

fish at Trevisker

With catches not going abroad or to restaurants fishermen are giving the people who live hereabouts a chance to buy fish straight off the boats. I got a call to say someone was selling crabs and lobster on the quay at Padstow last week and this afternoon some of the Trevisker staff were doing a good job with hake and mackerel and shellfish. I bought a hake as long as my arm that was filleted and should provide four generous servings. Price: £10.00.

April 19, 2020

It’s cold and grey and the sand is soft on Tregirls and hard going.  We thought that as this lockdown progressed more and more people would venture to the beach for exercise or to walk their dogs. In fact, the opposite has happened. In the course of the month fewer people venture as far as the beach. We never see more than half a dozen regular faces. Perhaps lockdown is just an excuse to stay in bed longer. By the time I set off for Truro the sun had come out. I took my favourite route through Ladock, across the A30 at Fraddon.  I was making for Waitrose to buy a dear friend some chocolates for her birthday and quite prepared to be confronted by a policeman on route. I shouldn’t have worried. I don’t think I counted two dozen cars there and back.

April 17, 2020

If there is any good news in all of this Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is the 154th most infected region in the United Kingdom, with a total of 349 cases out of total population of 565,968. Despite this people are still complaining bitterly when someone they don’t recognise passes through town. Today’s wildlife count included a rabbit in Moyle Road, a Merlin Falcon high over St.George’s Well, and a pair of Red Legged Partridges on my neighbour’s front lawn.

returning to Padstow

April 16, 2020.

It’s become quite a thing on Thursday evenings at 8pm for many of the locals at the other end of Dennis Road to assemble in their front gardens for the men and women on the front line of this damn virus. They shout across the street at each other and clap and sing support over glasses of intoxicating liquor. The same local people still noticeably absent from the small yet meaningful act of support and appreciation.

April 14, 2020

Another warm, sunny day. You can hear the ‘lockdown’ silence. The morning walk has become something of a wood gathering expedition on Tregirls Beach. Asta likes to help carrying good size branches all the way to Chapel Style before dropping them at the bottom of the steps to Trigg Troll.

April 13, 2020

There are some holidaymakers around despite the best efforts of the government and Cornwall Council and the police to put them off. We see them on our walk in the morning visibly sheepish and evidently feeling unwelcome. We’re still getting scowls from local people who don’t recognise us. A group crowded around a farm vehicle to chat with the driver and giggled when I excused myself clearly looking for a clear passage past them for Kim, Asta and myself. Why are people so difficult? I had to do a small amount of shopping this morning (fruit) and had to duck and dodge and weave my way around the store. It’s as if people were prepared to keep to social distancing rules for the a week or two but because they are still alive they’re past caring. It was a chilling experience more so as the majority of those flouting social distancing were sixty. Maybe they’re behind Cummings’ ‘herd immunity’ solution?

April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

I didn’t sleep much last night. Despite the alcohol I think I am succumbing to the melancholia that is gripping so many. Another day much the same as the last. The same routine and the only joy eating. To take my mind of ‘it’ this is another bright hot day with the blackthorn  looking like a dusting of snow. I’ve never been much of one for Easter. The chocolate is fine but you can keep the rest of it. Which is pretty much what everyone has done, the Archbishop of Canterbury giving his Easter sermon to a camera from his empty kitchen. I took some chocolates around to our elegant friend in the old town knocking on her door and then nipping back to the car. She looked splendid and I know she enjoys chocs. She asked me if I thought the world would be different if and when all of this ends? I replied that if doctors and nurses and the people behind the tills in supermarkets are more appreciated and valued by society then that will be a step in the right direction. On the way home I noticed another friend’s window open and stopped to have a shouting conversation with her across her front lawn. The day ends with the news that there have been 10,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK. How many would still be alive if our government hadn’t wasted time flirting with the prime minister’s advisor’s ‘herd immunity’ concept in which only the strong survive and few oldies die and the economy remains largely untouched? The funerals are a testament to a lost month. Oh and the tories reduced the pandemic budget set up by the last Labour administration by a third. I still have friends who claim the whole pandemic is overblown and that we lose between 10 and 20,000 to flu each year. Maybe so but the Covid-19 death toll is still climbing and how many doctyors and nurses and bus drivers and care workers die of flu each year?

April 10, 2020

Good Friday.

April 9, 2020

Almost a thousand have died of Covid-19 in the UK over the past 24 hours. Our prime minister remains in intensive care and the talk is of Britain expected to have the highest death toll of the virus in Europe: the high number of fatalities due to our woeful tory government wasting a month discussing ‘herd immunity’, only backing off when it realised that such a course of inaction would result in huge numbers of fatalities. Another beautiful, sunny, hot, still day we decided, being short of veg, to drive to the farm shed near St.Eval. I felt uncomfortable all the way in the light of our ‘go home’ message and noticed a number of people giving the car  second and third glances. On route we stopped at Mother Ivy’s Bay for Asta and us to stretch our legs. There were four or five surfers on Constantine and some joggers. For the first time this week the supermarket in Padstow was quite busy, perhaps a sign that some are ignoring the advice to remain at home. Maybe I should go and scrawl ‘go home’ on their cars and ignore the fact that some of the cars may belong to doctors and nurses.

April 8, 2020

It had to happen. We had our first ‘Go Home’ instruction daubed into the dirt on to the front passenger  window. We can’t be certain when it was done but probably while the car was parked up close to the trough near Prideaux Place where we leave it during our morning walk. I’ve noticed people taking a second glance at us either near the supermarket or on the morning walk and wondered when one of them would put two and two together and mount a blinkered high horse?

April 5, 2020

Bumped into some friends walking Asta this morning who said they have had word from a nurse at Treliske that the hospital is fast approaching meltdown. The clear implication is that the authorities, rightly or wrongly, are not giving us the full story.   It was my birthday today- the worst and best I’ve ever had. So many old friends and friends of friends and relatives of friends made contact. We’re all in the same boat, fearful of the unknown and where this virus thing is headed? My old friend Tim, who I went with to journalism college in Portsmouth in the seventies, summed up the ‘reaching out’ that is going on succinctly: “you can’t make new old friends.”

Notable among a raft of birthday presents from whiskey to Branston Pickle, a silk pocket

Finchley backpack

handkerchief and After Eight Mints was a backpack, from my sister, made of recycled plastic bottles sourced on Britain’s beaches.  The Finchley from a range made by a young London company called Roka was made from recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise have gone into landfill;  12 to 15 plastic bottles in each bag. It has shoulder and hand carrying straps with a chunky zip close and cleverly designed compartments inside.  It’s the perfect bag to take to the grocery store on the bike, or as a picnic bag when we’re finally let out of lockdown. Mine’s blue but the Finchley, like the other rucksacks, body bags and wallets in the range, is available in more colours than you can shake a stick it.

April 3, 2020

We left some garden vegetables with an elderly friend of ours in town today. We stayed in the car and she only opened her front door when we yelled and beeped the horn. She looked well but I think this isolation and absence of human contact is becoming a strain on her.  She seemed lost and bemused, her eyes devoid of their usual seductive sparkle. And this is only the beginning. They are talking now of this current lockdown lasting until the end of May.

We drove to Morrison’s in Bodmin, seven days since our last big shop. The same queuing system was in place and most of the customers were happy to keep their distance. But what’s happened to the staff? With the exception of those on the door and behind the tills the staff were worryingly casual; joking, laughing and frequently stepping well within the two metre social isolation zone. It’s as if they bored with the rules and have gone beyond caring.

April 1, 2020

It’s still cold with a sharp north easterly wind. Despite conditions that are tough on birds migrating north many thousands of miles Kim spotted a pair of swallows skitting and zig-zagging above Trig Troll this morning. They’re early and thankfully oblivious to the blight that has brought two thirds of the world to a standstill. Easter is only ten days away and the talk around town now is of unwanted holidaymakers. Those we come across on our walk clearly sense the animosity and acknowledge us with their heads turned down.

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coronavirus – a March view from Padstow

Monday March 30, 2020

A sign of the loneliness this death is bringing came to Dennis Road this morning. A loved, admired and respected member of the community Rosemary Brinham was take from her home, Wingfield House, in Dennis Lane, to the chapel of rest early this morning. Social distancing guidelines meant non of the many who had wanted to pay their respects could attend the service at the crematorium. Our friend from Treverbyn Road and another stood on the corner to see Rose off.

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 his 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.

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?”


“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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Never Not Never Go Back – a taste of Viareggio

… an art deco Miamiesque illuminated barrier…

My life is one of stringent rules: Never wear aftershave; always polish my shoes; stand up for elderly people and women with young children on the London underground; never vote tory; spread the jam on top of the cream upon a scone; never buy from Amazon; and never stay at the same holiday hotel twice. Of course there are others but it is the last one that I have just broken, resulting in an extraordinary and most gratifying turn of events. 

After the upheavals of my recent, and possibly over reported and seriously unedited, illness Kim insisted we have a holiday (I think she needed one more than me).  As I am incapable of making snap decisions where significant sums of money are involved, and because modern travel is a pitfall of scams and complications, we decided to contact Citalia the Italian vacation specialists who took us to Rome and thence to Tuscany three years ago. That holiday was a two centre one commencing with four nights b&b in Rome followed by three half board at The Grand Hotel, Viareggio in the heart of the Italian Riviera. It couldn’t have been simpler or more stress free.

What we liked about The Grand Hotel, an imposing fin de siecle structure just yards from the infinite sandy beach and a shopaholic’s Eden of fashion boutiques stretching north and south for as far as the eye can see, is it’s faded elegance and apparent determination to be nothing more than an unpretentious, effortlessly run if rather large seaside hotel with a dash of resplendence. There is nothing groovy in its echoey corridors with 20 foot ceilings and tiled floors and staircases wider than most living rooms. I particularly like the evening dining room across from the cavernous reception facing the garden and pool. With pillars and a domed ceiling it had been a ballroom in an earlier life. Smiling waiters in waistcoats glide silently between the tables overseen by a sharp eyed maitre’d. And the food whilst unlikely to win any prizes is that classic global Italian I can’t have enough of.

For the first three nights, as on our previous visit, Kim and I avoided the comfortable and slightly clubby cocktail bar that leads to a small terrace protected from the street by a tall hedge. Neither of us were keen to make holiday acquaintances much preferring our company to that of those who think dressing up for dinner is wearing sneakers and a short sleeved checked shirt, tucked into cargo pants.  But by Tuesday I fancied a cigar on the terrace and decided to bite the bullet: I can be agreeable if I try. 

The only cocktail I drink – as a rule – is a vodka martini, straight up with a twist. If you’ve seen the films you’ll know where that comes from. It’s a simple enough concoction that when executed well delivers the perfect early evening punch. Few get it right: One at Rick Stein’s Ruby’s in Padstow was made with smoked vodka with the aroma of a bacon sandwich; another at The Groucho Club ameliorated by ice; most are simply tepid, in both taste and temperature. Few come even close to those  once crafted by the now legendary barman Gilberto Preti at Dukes Hotel, tucked away in London’s S.James. With non of the silly showmanship some cocktail barmen feel obliged to display the school masterly and ever so slightly obsequious Gilberto created martinis that are spoken of today, a decade after he left. 

Our barman at The Grand Hotel, Mario, tanned and erect, nodded and having agreed that basic Stolichnaya vodka would do he set about his task that he accomplished with some aplomb. The martini was good, maybe not quite cold enough, but it had just the right hint of vermouth with a citrous bite. Before we left for dinner I held my nerve and asked Mario if for tomorrow’s martini he could put the glass in the freezer beforehand. He explained that the glass had indeed been frozen but that the bar freezer isn’t that chilly. For tomorrow he’d put the glasses in a much colder freezer in another part of the hotel, along with the vodka if I’d like. Very much I concurred. 

Viareggio is 28 kilometres from Pisa airport, served by EasyJet from the UK. In typical Citalia fashion a chauffeur awaited Kim and I in the arrivals lounge and both carrying and wheeling our luggage led us to a black S Class Mercedes. Holidays should always start this way. 

The room I had booked was on the third floor with 16 foot high ceilings and a small west facing balcony from which we could see the boutiques and cafes that create at night an art deco Miamiesque illuminated barrier between the wide promenade and the hundreds of beach clubs with their multitude of  deckchairs and beach parasols beyond. The seafront and hinterland is flat for miles with a smooth and well used cycle path connecting Viareggio’s super yatch and fishing harbour with other resorts in the lambent distance.

Kim and I rented sit up and beg bicycles from the hotel on our last day to explore the coast.

We ate fried seafood and drank chardonnay from a fish-fry boat in the harbour where the fishmen sell there catches on the pavement and in the afternoon we pedalled north to the grand mansions of Forte Dei Marmi.  There is a station in town and on the Monday we took a day away from the rain and headed for Florence – and even more rain. For the rest of the week we rested and read at the beach club opposite the hotel where our admission was part of the package.   

The night after that first martini Mario nodded as Kim and I took our seats inside the bar, it being a bit breezy on the the terrace. He nodded again, as though acknowledging some forbidden protocol, when the waitress handed him our order, and duly departed, I presumed to the other, colder deep freeze.

straight up with a twist

That first martini had been good but nothing could have prepared me for the second coming. It was simply sensational. Mario had excelled himself. The frosted  glass yielded a martini with a gossamer thin slick of vermouth on its surface. It set my pulse racing and was without doubt the best martini I’ve had since Gilberto’s. Tell him said Kim sensing my jubilation. I shall I said, and I did, upon which Mario, bowing faintly, confessed he’d be taught how to mix the perfect vodka martini straight up with a twist of lemon by none other than the maestro himself, the venerable Gilberto Preti, the leading man in many cocktail articles in the UK national press and the star of a short film on boutique hotels I’d hosted during my short term as a BBC Travel Show presenter. I almost fell backwards in disbelief. Of all the vodka joints in all the towns in all the world he mixes in the one I never thought I return to. 

Mario explained he’d lived in London for a short time some 20 years ago improving his cocktail skills – and some – and polishing his English. 

The fact that an hour or so later our young dinner waiter Marco persuaded the chef to go off piste and serve me with a second creme caramel that week (he made it three on our last night) makes me wonder if my no return rule should be ripped up forthwith.

The Grand Hotel in Viareggio isn’t called grand for nothing. 

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