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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Getting To The Bottom Of It

I would be lying if I said I was looking forward to my ‘flexible sigmoidoscopy’; in layman’s terms, a camera inserted inside the bottom. Nonetheless, this is the procedure for those such as I who have endured a bout of diverticulitis. It’s a look around the insides with a tiny – I believe Olympus – camera and light on the tip of a flexible tube to see if there is any colonic damage that could at some point trigger another round of the screaming abdabs. 

My last sigmoidoscopy was 23 years ago and all I can remember of it is that it was very uncomfortable, and more than a little embarrassing. There is no cure for diverticulitis but our medical profession has a system in place and having a close look inside the bum some weeks after the condition has subsided is accepted protocol.

My recent appointment was set for April 14 and accompanying the letter of confirmation from the Royal Cornwall Hospital were two packs of Moviprep and a bewildering instruction pamphlet. It included photographs of what my colon should look like when I arrive at hospital and a warning that the procedure could be cancelled if some of the nasty stuff remained in place. Moviprep is a powdery concoction that needs to be diluted in water and taken, in two doses, a predetermined number of hours before the anal photo-call. In my case seven o’clock the evening prior and twelve hours hence the next morning.  Without dwelling upon the details I was unable to sleep after 2.30am and spent the remainder of the night in a state of high anxiety dashing to and from the smallest room in the house. The pre-med procedure also involves drinking copious amounts of water. 

Kim took the day off work to drive me to the hospital and after dropping me off headed to Truro with Asta to meet some friends expecting that I could be up to four hours in the Endoscopy Unit. 

In a waiting room, with a dozen or so men and women, I was asked by a receptionist to complete a short form inquiring among other things if I was on any medication and if I had consumed any alcohol that day. I wish. Another white and mauve form I was told to complete after the procedure. This was a feedback form that asks recipients to tick ‘how likely are you to recommend our ward or service to friends or family if they needed similar care of treatment.’ The boxes to be ticked ran the gamut from extremely likely to unlikely, to don’t know. A box at the bottom (sic) questioned why that response was given. On the reverse are twelve questions inquiring about, among other things, the staff’s compassion and if the patient was treated with dignity; more of dignity later. All that was missing were questions about staff dress code and favourite colours. If you, like me, are wondering what’s gone wrong with the world – I can’t help you?

was it good for you

From there I was led to a much smaller, male only, waiting room where the sheepish expressions therein said it all. My three compadres were in medical smocks and all glued to their smart phones. I daresay they were watching the procedure we were all about to endure on You Tube. Don’t laugh, there are several quite graphic films there, I’ve looked. 

My second interview was with a bubbly nurse in dark blue medical attire in a small office adjacent to the waiting room. Here I was asked to complete and sign a consent form that would let hospital staff off the hook should my sigmoidoscopy go wrong and I wound up back on St.Mawes Ward. All completed I was handed a pair of dark blue dignity shorts, that’s boxer shorts with the fly on the back, a backless smock and a pair of non slip yellow slipper/socks. I was instructed to get changed and join the queue next door. Of course me being me I’d brought my own slippers and a dressing gown and despite the looming event and the hushed terror on the faces of those around me, I at least looked presentable. I like to think I could have been going into a spa, or awaiting a pedicure. 

I don’t know precisely how long I was waiting in that airless 10×10’ room, thankfully with a door to a toilet in the corner, with our bare legs almost touching, but it was long enough for me to read the Guardian’s big read, two pages of news and begin the quick crossword. At a guess, I’d estimate 40 minutes. 

That’s when another nurse in a dark blue outfit asked me to join her for a chat in the room I gotten changed in. Of striking appearance, with lustrous black hair, she didn’t beat about the bush. Straight off she said we’re not going to do the procedure today. And the reason for sudden about face?  The sigmoidoscopy procedure has to be carried out six weeks after being discharged from hospital (see the previous blog) and according to the nurse sat with me April 18 was four days shy of the required 42. She said the administrators had taken the six weeks from the day I had been admitted to St Mawes Ward and not the day of my discharge. Didn’t anyone look? Should I buy the hospital a calendar?

Secretly delighted I briefly attempted to ask my nurse to have a word with the surgean who was to carry out the procedure. My tummy felt fine. The Moviprep had done its job. I was as empty as a pub without any beer.  Kim had taken a day of work, I’d been in a state of high stress for the best part of a week, and besides I was kitted out in dark blue dignity shorts. Let’s just do it I said, conflicted but desperate.  

That’s when it struck me, they couldn’t do it. Of course they couldn’t. After all the risk waver forms I’d filled out if the slightest thing went wrong during the procedure, four days shy of the required six weeks, my nurse and the clinician would be up to their stethoscopes in litigation, and I’d be back in St.Mawes Ward looking forward to a world cruise and a new suit all paid for by the Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust. 

Because I will forever been in the debt of the NHS and in particular Mr.Michael Graham Clarke, the consultant, who brought me back from the brink without resorting to the blade I decided against completing the mauve feedback questionnaire because I’d have been stuck on question seven: Do the staff appear confident and able to perform their tasks when caring for you?

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forget everything you ever learnt about a balanced diet

Shortly before she died, in a hospital similar to the one I recently  myself in, my mother asked for her Christmas present a Ralph Lauren watch. I’d bought her a watch a only a couple of years earlier yet despite this she declared most emphatically that she wanted another, and an Ivy League icon to boot.

Looking at the silver Oris I’d given her, strapped to my left wrist, next to the cannula into which an antibiotic intravenous drip was attached, I tried to imagine what I would request should my present situation turn south. Dismissing any pie-in-the-sky fantasies of Hoyo de Monterreys, Jack Daniels and Jaguar XK8s I decided I’d settle for not having to stumble out of my hospital bed in the early hours of the morning clinging to my intravenous pole begging for something to take the pain away. Believe me, it had been easier getting pain relief at home.

handiwork

My consultant, a solid looking man in his 40s, with an honest old fashioned face and a firm handshake, insisted my condition was “life threatening”, revealing to Kim that the choice of my bed in the middle of the ward was so that the nurses could keep an eye on me 24/7. Nevertheless, when other patients were wheeled in, usually in the dead of  night when the ward was illuminated in a shadowy off-world amber glow, they seemed in far worse condition than I. Their intense pain etched across their faces and their voices muffled by oxygen masks. I may have been restricted to a diet of custard and soup but at least I could get myself to the bathroom and field hysterical SMS text messages from Spike in London who seemed annoyed that my sickness appeared to be more troublesome than his? 

It had all happened quite suddenly. Kim had been away and I at home with  Asta. One minute I’m knocking back pints of Proper Job with brandy chasers and the next I’m face down on the bathroom floor comparing the pain in my belly to that of John Hurt’s in Alien. It felt taught and inflated and at any moment it would explode and the relief would be palpable. Kim returned the next day insisting I contact the local health centre where, after a few prods and pokes. I was instructed to head for hospital where a bed would be set aside for me. The diagnosis? Suspected appendicitis, swiftly dismissed by the consultant and recognised as advanced diverticulitis, with a perforated colon (a hole) and a blood crp inflammation count of 380. The following day the crp (aka c-reactive protein) rose to 435. A young doctor said it should be five but that they’d be happy to see it below 100 without operating. An operation would doubtless mean a colostomy bag and naturally, to quote Leonardo diCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, I concurred  with the consultant; let’s beat this thing and keep the scalpel in the drawer. 

In hospital pain is scored on a chart of one to ten. I took a stab at 15 my first night, not wanting to overplay my hand, and was assured by a young doctor with a ginger beard and a glint in his eye wearing blue surgical fatigues that the plastic single use enteral syringe in his hand contained, “the real deal”. Except, like the curry house waiters who insist their vindaloos will blow your socks off the grinning doc’s idea of the last word in pain relief had as much oomph as a chicken korma. By 1am I was on my knees begging for something stronger. When it arrived it had to be inserted into my bottom by a young nurse who must wonder why she entered the profession?

“We’ve hardly met,” I offered as a way of breaking the ice. She left, and the pain with her. 

A CTR scan on my second day revealed a good deal to the consultant with the firm handshake and seemed surprised when I asked to see the results for myself. Looking at his laptop he tried to explain which bits of the swirling intergalactic mass of grey, black, and white was which. It didn’t look good. He pointed out the perforation and the infection in clear adult terms, completely at odds with almost everyone else I came across who for the first four night days insisted upon addressing me as though talking to a small puppy. Was this another facet of getting old or merely bedside protocol? 

I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to hospital life: The nursing shifts and rapid turnover of medical staff; the blood pressure and temperature readings day and night; the lack of sleep;  the speed with which the consultants make their whistle stop morning and afternoon tours (usually less than 90 seconds per patient); the farting; the pitiful moaning of other patients; and the nauseous way in which men decrepit enough to be the nurses’ grandfathers were shameless in their relentless flirting and double entendres. It was the chief farter’s birthday the second morning and a group of nurses presented him with a card and a tuneful rendering of ‘happy birthday’. What about a little dance came a voice from another bed? “Yeah, a striptease,” intoned the farting Methuselah. 

By the middle of the week, drifting in and out of reality thanks to my ‘real deal’ morphine cocktail, it still remained unclear how often I should receive painkillers and what, if anything, I should have to eat? The doctors said one thing and the advice on the meal trolley chart read something else.

“Basically you’ve got to forget everything you know about a balanced diet,” said the meal trolley girl placing another bowl of custard in front of me. “Jelly, ice-cream, custard. Imagine you’re at a seven year old’s birthday party – permanently.” She laughed and I asked her if she had any paper hats?

The hospital was a 50 mile round trip from home and the daily commute, in addition to the worry and the organisation required to have Asta cared for, was taking its toll on Kim. Each day she’d arrive with a smile and concern and a bag with clean pyjamas underwear and mushy things to eat. A couple of times we rode the lift to the ground floor and drank Americanos at the coffee shop. Another time we stepped outside for some air. I wanted to get well for her sake as much as my own. 

Thursday morning a sister with an irrepressible smile helped me redesign my painkiller combination.  The fruit flavoured morphine shots were proving effective hallucinogens but slow to kick in when I needed relief most. It was making me see things: Big headed monsters in a sea of darkness every time I closed my eyes. Some of the nurses looked at me as if I was mad but one said she’d experienced similar horrors when she’d been on the morphine cocktail herself. A codeine paracetamol blend was deemed an effective alternative. It could cause constipation but would avoid the hallucinations and besides there were powders that could help with the other problem. The new system worked well until the middle of the next night when I left the ward and asked, and asked, and asked a third time for pain relief. When the nurse arrived at my bedside, sometime around one in the morning, with the paracetamol in one hand and the fruity morphine in the other, I explained that during the day the sister had prescribed codeine instead. The nurse was livid. She repeated “you asked for painkillers and this is a painkiller.” I explained again the change we’d come up with, and why. She wasn’t listening. “This is a painkiller. You asked for painkillers.” We were going round in circles, so often infact I recall saying “we’re going nowhere with this, just round in circles.” She walked off and as a parting shot called me a difficult man. I couldn’t disagree with that but nevertheless  grabbed my dressing gown and intravenous pole and loped after her finding her talking to some doctors in a small office off the main lobby. In the absence of any alternative relief, and with a strong desire to keep the peace, I agreed to have the morphine, to which she replied it was too late, “it’s been destroyed.” Sometimes you just feel like screaming.

In response I did the only thing I could. I grabbed my overcoat, and slipped on my boots. Turning around I discovered someone had slipped a morphine syringe on a cardboard cup on my bedside table.  After swallowing the contents I walked past a group of nurses oblivious to the fact that one of their patients was leaving the ward at 1.30 in the morning. The coffee shop and WH Smiths were closed and the information desk deserted. The only people milling about appeared to be night shift employees taking turns to step outside for a quick fag in the bus shelter. The storms that had shaken the ward during the day had subsided and the empty car park was shrouded in a comforting stillness. In the chilly blackness, with the smell of tobacco drifting along from the shelter, away from the intransigence and the moans, I felt more comfortable than I’d been all week. The morphine was kicking in and I could have stayed there, leaning on a metal barrier, indefinitely. In fact, I nearly did. The hospital’s automatic doors are switched off at night and to get back inside I needed a swipe card. I waited until one of the smokers, hunched malodorous and evidently uneasy at the sight of a man in his pyjamas outside  in the early hours, let me in. I returned to the car park after my 6.30 am blood pressure test and antibiotic drip. By then the path to the entrance was busy with day shift employees. Dozens of young workers some of whom smiled kindly at the old man with an intravenous drip and a Dries Van Noten overcoat slung over his shoulders. I walked across to the other side of the car park and sat at one of the picnic tables. I wondered how many people picnic in the hospital car park. I was joined by a woman who had been at the hospital all night with a heart condition. She was waiting for a minicab to return her to the back of beyond. We talked about Brexit, and the NHS, and the anger of people, and both cursed the Conservative party.

The incineration of food and medical supplies is a feature of the NHS. On my fourth day, clearer headed, and with the news that my CRP numbers were falling, not dramatically but in the right direction, I agreed with the food trolley girl that I’d try some sloppy solids. Scrambled eggs? “Can’t do that. How about an omelette, with cheese?” she suggested. When it arrived I was reminded of a pair Clarkes shoes I’d wore in the 1970s stitched around the top on one side. I seem to recall they were known as omelette shoes. It had the texture of linoleum and didn’t appear to have been anywhere near an egg. I considered  not eating it at all and taking it home for use in the rockery. 

Ever the pompous arse I resolved to subtly suggest to the food trolley girl, who I was taking a shine to due to her quick repartee wit,  how to cook the perfect omelette (something I was taught by a French chef on a cross Channel ferry); two and a half minutes in hot pan, flip it over and give it another thirty or forty seconds.

an omelette

“I didn’t cook it,” she said looking at me as though I was mad. “It comes in a box. We just heat it up.”

The reason for this? Simple, there isn’t a hospital kitchen, or a cook. Nothing is prepared fresh. All the meals arriving pre-prepared in boxes from a supplier in Redruth. Disheartened I asked her to return my tub of ice cream to the freezer so that I could have it that evening or the next day.

“Can’t do that.” It would have to be destroyed like everything else that’s been ordered but isn’t consumed. I put this to one of the nurses later in the day who explained that if the doctors deem that their patients refrain from solids, despite having misguidedly ordered something from the meal trolley after breakfast, those meals, despite never having neither been near the ward nor a sick patient, must be destroyed. She didn’t say how much food was wasted in this manner, but it’s a lot. I wondered why the lunchtime meal orders couldn’t be placed after the doctors’ round? She shrugged and said that’s the way it is.

You overhear a lot of conversations in a ward where the patients are cheek by jowl, separated only by a thin curtain. 

Derek was sobbing when he was wheeled in the dead of night. He explained to the young doctor he’d parts of his bowel and lung removed due to cancer. His left hip and knee had been replaced. On the plus side his angina and blood pressure issues were improving, while Colin, also sobbing when he arrived, perked up after his bed bath insisting the nurse is “a lovely girl. Aren’t you a lovely girl.” A man, whose name I never learnt, filled the vacancy in the bed next to mine and was so ill he was hooked up to a machine that sounded like a dishwasher. He barely said a word before being taken to surgery. 

Eddie arrived sometime on Friday. Through a gap in the curtain I could see he was a big man with a shock of white hair, stooped forward in a chair with his eyes closed. A popular man too judging by the number of visitors he received, but alone when the reality of his condition was explained to him the next morning. The young doctor said they could operate but that there was little chance he would survive surgery. His condition was terminal and all the staff could do was ensure he was as pain free and comfortable as possible. After a pause he said, quite perkily, “I’ve had a good life. A wonderful life.” And after another pause. “I was working two days ago. I’ve always worked. I never missed a day at school. I didn’t learn much though.”

I liked Eddie, more so when he confessed to having eaten a pasty three days that he’d been uneasy with. Some hours later an end-of-life carer suggested three options to him: going home; a small hospital close to his home; or a hospice.“I don’t think I’ll be going to a hospice,” replied Eddie candidly. “I’m not a very good mixer.” I heard about Eddie’s funeral a fortnight after I was discharged.

By the fifth day my consultant, a different one from the one I had seen originally, taller and more athletic but with an equally firm handshake, suggested that with my CRP numbers dropping I could be out in a couple of days. “Just sit tight. This is the boring bit,” he said straight faced.

I was over the moon and having been moved to an airier blue ward next door I celebrated my imminent departure with toast and marmalade for breakfast and a £6.00 card for the bedside television multi media device. I’d wasted my money. The television didn’t work. One of the nurses said the company that runs the devices has switched several of them off because the hospital can’t afford the maintenance charges. I tried reading except the angle poise beside lamp was busted and wouldn’t shine down on the bed.  I still had my smart phone so I called Vodafone and bought some extra gigabytes so that I could cheer myself up listening to Fulham losing. By early evening the wind had picked up again and was howling through the frame of the panel window making the strips of sun blind flap about. My attempts to staunch the wind with my overcoat and a towel failed so as a last resort I took a roll of sticky tape from one of the duty nurses and spent the next half hour taping the edges of the window. 

The consultant had said I could go home on Monday (maybe) so I needed to work harder on my recovery. Learning about my Clarkes omelette Kim brought in scrambled eggs. After five days in hospital you cannot imagine how delicious cold scrambled eggs taste. Indeed, all that interfered with my first genuine meal of the week was the sight of patient’s gonads across the way. You see a lot of gonads in a mens’ ward. For my evening meaI was offered a tuna sandwich in one of those cardboard triangular wrappers you find in supermarkets. There were bananas in my bedside cupboard and a pot of tomato and basil soup Kim had left. I quit the codeine, drank the cold soup like it was beer and downed two packs of laxative powders. Nothing happened and when the nurse attempted to fit my fourth cannula she expressed concern that there could be ‘track line’ in my left arm, indicative of an infection. My heart sank. 

It was on my last night that I came to understand why my mother had been so set upon a replacement watch. The Oris is automatic relying upon body movement to maintain functionality: the more you move the more wound up it is. My mother, not being a very technical, had placed the Oris in a drawer unaware that the lack of any chronometrical  movement would bring the watch to a standstill. The penny dropped when I mistakenly thought it seven o’clock when in fact it was way past 11 and the lights were going out. I can’t explain the Ralph Lauren part.

After six days and 15 hours a third consultant took less than 30 seconds to say I could go. The nurse deemed there was no infection and my crp numbers were dropping. I was handed a goody bag with laxatives, antibiotic tablets and a suggestion to stick to children’s party food for the foreseeable future.

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An Inconvenient Truth – the end of the high street just a click away

Don’t you ever think convenience is, well, getting out of hand.

What began as convenient  – tv dinners for those too rushed to peel the potatoes stepped up a level to embrace teas-mades and bread-makers. Then supermarkets to save the chore of going from shop to shop. Ready made sandwiches, ATM’s so you can get your cash conveniently 24/7, drive-thru hamburger joints, iPods and nutribullets to save chewing.

Driven by an exponential lust for bargains at any price – monetary or human – the internet has upgraded labour saving conveniences into a digital fervour. Respecting neither physical or moral boundaries e-commerce has replaced the effort of searching, moving, immersing, walking, reading, thinking, talking, spelling, and writing in the certain knowledge that all of that may be achieved whilst sat infront of the telly, with an end result of stuff as cheap as chips. This is the new shopping Eden of effortless clicking. Cars that drive themselves are next, and there’s talk of virtual holidays too. Relax and tan with no more effort than is required to slip on a headset.

Now look around, high streets are falling apart. Shopping centres, community hubs, reinvented as avenues of dereliction. But why go to the shop when it’s so much more convenient for the shop to come to you. So much so that without sufficient footfall 50,000 shops in the UK are deemed surplus to requirements. 6000 shops have closed in the UK this year alone. I don’t know what it’s like where you are but in Bodmin, Newquay and Truro, once thriving regional commercial hubs, the high streets are papered with to-let signs. I counted eight empty retail premises along a stretch of high street the length of a cricket pitch. It’s such a mess City of London hedge fund managers are making bets against retail companies exposed to consumers, or the lack of them.  The vultures are circling. 

On the bright side it’s encouraging that forever inconvenient businesses are moving into some of the vacant premises: barbers, cobblers, nail studios, cafes. Things you can’t get online. But there’s only so many of those one high street can handle.

And what about all those vans ferrying stuff around? It might not be so bad if it was (excuse the pun) one way traffic. But the very nature of e or m-commerce (shopping with smart phones) is you can send it back if it doesn’t fit, or the colour’s wrong, or you wore it to the party and don’t want to wear the same outfit twice. National Returns Day is the day of the year when retail companies receive the most returns from online sales. With Britain way out in front of every other country on the planet when it comes to online shopping we are thriving upon the convenience of shopping for everything from t-shirts to televisions and fitted kitchens on our smart phones (m-commerce) whilst engaged in something else: I saw a lot of n-bus on-tube shopping m-commerce in London last weekend.  At the last count, January 3, 2018, UPS reported 1.4 million returns. Factor in a lot of self employed driving in knackered diesel powered delivery vans and is it any wonder our kid’s brains are not developing and 40,000 are dying each year of diseases linked to poor air quality. 

Almost weekly a shopping/high street guru (!) steps into the debate to pronounce what shops and high streets should do to survive is improve ‘the shopping experience’, and hammer cash strapped councils to do away with parking charges. As if it’s the shopkeepers and council’s fault and not online retailers like Amazon corporation was, at the last count, responsible for the closure of thousands of bookshops in the US. I don’t know how many have gone over here but it’s a lot. I haven’t used his company for over 10 years and refused to include it as a retailer in my Sunday Times column. Sometimes I look online to see how much cheaper my latest book or CD would have cost if I’d opted for the convenient option? It’s usually a few quid. But like I say to the call centre staff who encourage me to shop and pay my bills online (because they’re told to), if we all did that they’d be out of a job. 

Of course Amazon sells much more than books and is moving into groceries with plans for drones to drop eggs on us from the skies. Owner Jeff Bezos knows we like online click convenience that way he can complete his mission of destroying the world I grew up in and rather like, and make himself the richest bald-head in the world.

It wouldn’t quite so bad if people like him paid their fare share of taxes, and business rates equal to those on the high streets. Last year, just as tory austerity was starting to seriously bite in hospitals and classrooms, Amazon made a profit in the UK of £99m and paid tax of £1.3m. But that’s ok because shopping with Amazon is convenient. Schools, and hospitals, and the police and the social services and care homes and youth services and, you get the picture, are so, so – dependent society.

Prior to this world of internet uber convenience criminals wore balaclavas and carried bolt cutters. Nowadays they can sit infront of a computer screen on the other side of the world and steel our money safe in the knowledge that when it comes to it, nine times out of ten, the banks will blame us for being too casual with the book loads of passwords we all have. According to UK banking’s own figures over £1bn was stolen online in 2016 and by June of this year (2018) £500m had been taken. It’s a win win for banks that have closed just under 3000 branches in the past three years. No wages, no rent. Just a lot of unhappy customers and shareholders laughing all the way to their tax haven.

To recoup the millions banks, through their greed and stupidity, lost in the financial crash of 2008 they are encouraging customers to bank online. Not by making online banking any better or safer but by closing banks so we have little choice. 30,000 people came to my town last weekend for a Christmas festival yet as of January there will not be a single bank or ATM. How long before no cash shops and pubs? What then for people who can’t open a bank account because they – haven’t got a mobile phone number (that’s right, that’s one of the big reasons) or they’re unemployed, or their residency is in question thanks to someone’s bright idea of leaving the European Union.

Only this month Marriott hotels revealed personal data, including the names and addresses passport and credit card numbers of around 500 million customers were stolen. British Airways, the NHS, the Pentagon, even my Groucho Club has been hacked. In the old inconvenient days that would have meant a lot of pick pocketing. Now it’s just a USB drive away. 

Frankly I’m not that big on shopping per se. But it’s preferable to sitting on a sofa staring at a smart phone and waiting for a Deliveroo dinner. I like high streets. Chatting with staff and other customers, and giving a few coins to buskers and rough sleepers. It’s mostly the life I grew up with. OK, that’s just a bit of journalistic license as actually there weren’t that many rough sleepers in Whitton in the 1960s. But we had shops. Lots of them. And banks. And funnily enough lots of barbers. 

Even my daily newspaper, The Guardian, is in on the convenience shopping binge. Despite articles about the death of the high street its consumer articles promote online only shopping websites like they couldn’t give two hoots about high streets. A high proportion its touted e-commerce sites, where items of clothing cost less that the cost of shipping. What was all that about ending disposable clothing to slow down global warming? I  honestly don’t get it.

I find it very inconvenient to drive six miles to the nearest bank and four miles to buy a box of screws and twenty five miles to buy a CD. I cannot be the only digital Luddite in the western world who craves inconvenience? Flicking through CD racks, or asking the salesperson if I can try on another size and colour? Writing cheques to pay my bills, and sending letters and cards and buying stamps and walking to the postbox. Engaging with the outside world and doing all I can to avoid it all crumbling down.

Don’t mistake my griping for some dewy eyed vision of a John Major 1950s England where everyone played cricket and AA patrolmen saluted you at the side of the road. My inconvenient world is the one where people have jobs and earn money and live in comfortable houses and the neo-liberalists, the sharks in suits with their cosmetic surgery and shiny teeth, and populist blandishments and political aspirations, pay their taxes and keep their heads down. Or better still clear off. 

The internet is unquestionably convenient for them’s who want to see their grandchildren on the other side of the world, or post photographs of their meals to the bemusement of others, or for finding their way home and seeing what the weather’s up to? All marvellous. Let’s not allow such limited convenience create a jobless world of inconvenience for all. 

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I remember monkey bottles, kangaroo tails, and Frank Ifield

 

Frank then…

I am fortunate to have worked through a period in journalism when the gifts, the perks – the freebies to apply the correct journalistic parlance – were worth having. My diary is housed within a handsome Papyrus leather book jacket that has aged like a pair of vintage Levis, and my grey Rob The Traveller Millican canvas shoulder bag is seldom out of reach.

monkey business

Thinking back it cannot have been so munificent during my father’s time on Fleet Street in the early 1960s. The concept of PR and companies buying their way into favour hadn’t gotten a hold. In fact the only things I can remember not being paid for, but which were pride of place in the front room of our Whitton home, were a bottle of red wine with a forearm sized golden glass monkey clinging to its outside, and a clear glass jar of kangaroo tail soup: thumb sized cross-sections of furry bits of meat revealed when it was shaken.

Both the wine and the soup were presented to my father by a spirited Australian country singer named Frank Ifield who in 1959 had moved to London from his native Sydney. It was a canny move resulting in four UK number one singles and a career that stumbles on to this day. 

Arguably his biggest hit was I Remember You, a rousing country/pop classic, that held the number one spot for seven weeks in the summer of 1962. With a thick quiff of light brown hair, high cheekbones, and an easy smile,  Frank’s blend of singing and yodelling – that’s right, Alpine style yodelling – proved irresistible. I Remember You was followed in October of that year with the double A side chart topper, Hank Williams’  Lovesick Blues with She Taught Me How To Yodel on the flip.

My father, himself a wicked boogie woogie piano player, was the chief sub editor of The Daily Mirror and a close friend of the paper’s pop writer, Pat Doncaster, (incidentally the man who gave me my first long playing record, The Beatles’ Hard Days Night). My father interviewed Frank for the paper who showed his appreciation with the wine and the soup, and a signed photograph of himself that I seem to recall was taken on the street close to the new Daily Mirror building at Holborn Circus. 

Fast forward over 50 years to a Friday evening a month ago and a friend’s house here in Padstow’s old town, close to where I now live. On the top shelf  in an alcove in a kitchen, where five or six of us are pre-loading and watching clips of 1970s soul bands on a smart phone belonging to a retired Fleet Street sub editor, my eyes land upon the exact double of the monkey bottle. I recognised it because bottles of red wine with forearm sized gold monkeys wrapped around them are not the sort of things you see every day. 

It belonged to my father, explained my host nonchalantly, a winsome teacher with a predilection for wearing black. Did she have any idea where he’d obtained it? In a flash: “It was given to him by Frank Ifield.” 

It’s at times like these that you find yourself looking into your glass and wondering if it was something you drank? Are there two Frank Ifields? What were the chances of their being two and both gifting bottles with monkeys on them? It was the singer, she insisted. The Australian one. “The one who yodelled,” chimed a voice to my left. In which case, how come? How did her father know the yodelling Aussie?  “He lived opposite. The house directly across the road.” Of course he did.

Some weeks later I still can’t quite get my around the fact that Frank Ifield, an Australian pop sensation, who gave my father a monkey bottle and some kangaroo tail soup in the 1960s, owned a house just a few hundred yards from where I live today and gave the father of the person I drink with most Friday evenings the exact same bottle he gave my father. 

Frank Ifield, who I soon discovered trawling the internet, remains lean and

…and now.

in rude health. He’s still working and his affection for the UK is undiminished. He played a 14 night UK tour earlier this year. I located his management company and fired off an email that Frank himself replied to a week or so later.

“I bought a holiday house in Church Street Padstow village in Cornwall circa 1978…” wrote Frank without elucidating on how he came to land on a town about as far away from swinging London as you can get. This being a singer who was right in the thick of the pop scene. His website (http://www.frankifield.com) is packed with black and white photographs of him with Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison, and Cliff Richard and The Shadows.

“I do remember your dad Denys…he kindly did an article on me being an Australian pop singer missing his home in Sydney and the taste of kangaroo tail soup. This of course was merely a gimmick to draw attention to the article as I had never even heard of the soup let alone tasted it. Nevertheless I was grateful for the wide spread publicity it gave me as I was constantly reminded of it over many years to come.

“Now, I just happened to come across a jar of the said kangaroo soup which, I believe was for sale in Harrods. So this means it would have been after 1962,” – after his first number one –  “…otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford Harrods Knightsbridge prices

“All that makes sense and fits with my memory.”

A case of the tail wagging the kangaroo. A stroke of canny PR in which my father played his part.

“On with the mystery,” wrote Frank. Things not  being so clear cut with the monkey bottle. He does recall sticking kangaroo badges on bottles of red wine for gifts but perhaps my initial description of a koala on the bottle instead of a monkey threw him a boomerang? 

“The bottle…I can only guess would have been one I favoured personally and would have quaffed on many occasions. Therefore I would have a stash that would have taken as gifts to any of my friends that I visited.” 

Nobody is sure how long Frank had his house in Padstow.  Whenever I mention him to people most shrug and remember seeing him going back and forth.  “We didn’t think much of it,” said one matter-of-factly.

I don’t know when Frank shipped out of Padstow. All I know is he contracted pneumonia in mid-80s and relocated to Sydney in 1988 where  the weather is more clement than Padstow and where the stars fall…like rain out of the blue-ooh-ooh-ooh-hoo-hoo-hoo

Cheers Frank. 

Posted in gone west, London, media, Seashores, travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Price Of Fame

It’s flattering to receive an exclusive invitation, especially one from a Michelin rated chef. It reaffirms one’s faith in elitism, that select order of hedonists that has has a lot of bad press recently for being too clever and influential by far.

Clearly the sender, a noted restaurant chain, sees in me a one who appreciates both the imagination and technical application required to produce memorable food. 

Seldom have I scrolled so rapidly down an email to reach the where and when? After a pause in a lifetime of elitist excess I am ready, no eager to relight the flame of over indulgence. I think I even subliminally ran through my wardrobe with an eye to dark apparel having learnt long ago the pitfalls of sporting white trousers and  pale ties to an event where the vino rosso flows as abundantly as the a-mouse bouches. 

At the point at which I was about to reassess my opinion of marketing emails (the the tip of my index finger is calloused from hitting the delete button so frequently) I arrived at the sentence I was least expecting! A price. so much for an invitation. And not just any price for what promised to be a truly ‘memorable experience’. £450 per person. With that kind of ticket I think it fair to say that the bill for two would be more memorable than the food.

My life in restaurants has been one of almost continual, disappointment. Partly, I am the first to admit, of my own doing. I recall my first ever meal out in Paris, when flares and penny collars were de rigeur. My friend and I, with a dozen words of French between us, ordered from the menu quipping that saucisson et pommes de terres lyonais (the only main course we could afford) was probably fancy bangers ’n mash. Enough said. 

Restaurants have always resonated with me, ever since our family’s almost weekly visits to the Heath Road Restaurant in Twickenham every Saturday when I never, not once, failed to order prawn cocktails and a mushroom omelette and chips. I’d learnt at an early age that food should be nourishing and sufficient and tasty and not, unlike say a film or a football match or a drink, the main event. Meals, including those in restaurants, was what we did in-between other stuff. It was the same for a good many people. Food was ok as long as it didn’t interfere with life.

The 1980s changed all that. It was if a generation raised on cheap continental holidays, retsina and styler sections  wanted to know why the food back home was so, dull. Only it wasn’t. There’s nothing dull about a Scotch egg or sardines on toast. It just wasn’t tapas or one of those French seafood platters you’re given a pair of pliers to unleash. Like the obsession with shoulder pads meals had to be spectacular and restaurants destinations.

Nouvelle cuisine was the twin sibling of the yuppie:  Upwardly immobile dishes of piles and squiggles (before the 1980s fish was served next to the potato rather than on top of it) feeding a new generation of upwardly mobile media executives with expense accounts and a voracious appetite for networking. It was a match made in culinary heaven. For the first time in living memory the meal became the deal. With the exception of pizza I don’t think I ate a flat meal for going on two decades, and despite bills that made my accountant wince, little of it was very good. 

Lunches (mine at least) cost a fortune and stretched beyond afternoon tea until after dinner time, and beyond.  My friend Rob Ryan named our lunch bunch The Oates Club, in honour of Captain Oates who famously said as he left the tent, “I’m just going outside and may be some time.” 

There were some seriously dire must-go-to-restaurants: Among them one owned by an artist cum taxidermist in Notting Hill; a vast Italian near Marble Arch; a much touted estuary locovare, a number of chic but tasteless bistros, a raft of mediocre Spanish and I haven’t even started on the British revivalists that aimed to use up as much offal as possible. What they all had in common were eye wateringly huge prices. It was if it had to be good because it cost so much. and we all took it for granted.  A bunch of London foodies and I dined at a  fashionable Asian restaurant in New York  a while back. There were ten or so of us at the table and I was handed the bill. As a rule we’d call Phil, from anywhere in the world, he being the only person we knew whose applied maths could cope with 80s shoulder pad sized l’additions. But he was otherwise engaged so the bill came to me. I mistook of one the perpendicular lines in the dollar sign for a numeral and came up with $12,000. After a collective intake of breath some of those present were about to pay it. 

Which leads me to the bill that put me off restaurants for almost ever. It was near tghe field of Eton and was receiving a good deal of media coverage. Four of us booked a table because it was – and may remain – a destination. Adventurous food that makes rocket science seem, doable. I remember I had a sort of tea jelly as my first course. I was asured it had taken something like a fortnight to distill umpteen pots of Early Grey into an intense jelly the size of my thumb nail. It was delicious and the meal would have been memorable for that alone had it not been eclipsed by the finale, served on a platter. My jaw went south as I opened the folded bill to reveal the price. I’d been poleaxed. To get over the shock I asked for a brandy only to be handed a cocktail list on which the cognacs started at over £20.

Which brings me very conveniently to my exclusive invitation. My opportunity to spend £450 a head on whatever the chef thinks I’ll like. To spend  what I’d spend on a jacket, or two pairs of shoes,  or 75 bottles of my day-to-day chardonnay at Lidl, or seven tickets to the recently promoted Fulham. With change from them all for a bite on the way home. 

As Ryan remarked sagely there will be many on the other side of the river who will jump at the chance to drop a grand on the off-chance of a good meal, but I won’t be among them.

Before I put my MacBook Pro to sleep I should add that my affection for fine dining and the meal as the main event recently received an overdue shot in the arm. Paul Ainsworth, the chef behind Padstow’s No 6 galvanises flavours the way maestros assemble symphonies. Nothing I have ever eaten comes close to his food, with the exception of Kim’s. He’s got a Michelin star too, but more to the point I get change from a Matthew Boulton and James Watt. 

Bon appetite – elite. 

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A Significant Time

As a rule I’m not one for significant dates. Anniversaries I like because I like being married, and there are thems who are gone whom I miss. As for significant dates along the landfill of life –  you can keep ‘em. 

My fifth was arguably my most life changing; going to school and having to learn how to take a punch. The age of consent might have been exciting had it not taken me 16 months to take advantage of carnal legality.  My friends and I were pleased to be able to vote but becoming twenty-one three years later was overrated (key to the door anyone?). Memorable for the fact that three of my closest friends were banned for driving as result of a birthday dinner of bacchanalian excess at a restaurant in London’s St.Martin’s Lane where diners were placed in stocks and had food and abuse hurled at them. 

I watched nonplussed as others revelled in fortieths and fiftieths but enjoyed my sixtieth only for receiving  a 60+ Oyster Card, that I imagine will be the only thing I shall ever be grateful to our oafish Foreign Secretary for, who was then London’s profligate mayor.

Ageing has never been an issue with me. I like the way young people rush to offer me seats on the tube although I have been known to be angered  when bar staff address me as ‘young man’ and often appear to snigger inwardly when I resist the invitation to ‘go contactless’.  My scepticism of high tech payment endorsed by the Bank of England’s chief cashier Victoria Cleland who is on record for believing contactless is unsafe. My explanation that anything that makes life easier for banks and credit card companies cannot be good for you and I goes down as well as a flat mobile phone battery with millennials.

I began this lament with the condition ‘as a rule’ because from where I’m looking, in my sixty-fifth year –  I can’t recall a time quite so bad. As a society we’ve had all the tolerance we can eat. Loaded all the off shore bank accounts and hidden away as much tax as our accountants can manage. We’ve pumped up the price of property to unimaginable heights and scoured the world for people who will do our unpalatable work for less.

There are some ‘significant’ perks; reduced Fulham tickets; specially priced OAP Sunday lunches, and perhaps even a bus to take me to and from the supermarket. And..?

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, politically uneven decades yet culturally and socially forward moving. The Vietnam war, Northern Ireland and the assassination of Dr.Martin Luther King aside the world felt like it was improving. Borders and frontiers nationally, sexually and racially were giving way to what felt like, if not enlightenment, then at least a greater understanding. The world appeared to be getting better. After two world wars the lives of ordinary folk, albeit in the western hemisphere, were on an upward trajectory. There were jobs, homes and security.

Much of that appears to be gone. The homes, the jobs, the wealth, the future, democracy, polar bears, and even the planet are all at their most precarious since the Cuban missile crisis. And all because of the short termism of my own Baby Boomer generation. 

Someone asked me the other day what would lift me out of my funk of unhappiness (a pit of foreboding occupied by increasing numbers of people if the epidemic of depression is any indication)? How to swap the chasm of despair with a warm blue dawn of hope? The person asking probably expected I’d suggest an Italian holiday, another Jack Daniels, a box of Havanas, or a new pair of burgundy brogues, any one of which have been known to perk me up when things have looked bad in the past. Without so much as a beat my reply was I’d like someone to switch off the internet. Turn off the infernal contraption that has assisted global capitalism’s transformation into an insatiable stalking monster, us into products, and our lives and likes bought and sold like any other commodity. We’re the ones being farmed.

I can’t be precise but I’m not that far off the mark to state that it’s been ten years since I bought anything on Amazon. I have no particular beef with owner Jeff Bezos, not even his unctuous grin, I simply do not want to assist any company that by all reckonings is responsible for the closure of over 40,000 bookshops worldwide: over 600 in the UK in the past decade. Undercutting high street stores of almost every hue and now boasts that it is striving to replace warehouse employees with robots and deliver its goods using drones.

But lets not get hung up on Bezos and his company, they are not my only objections to the internet. Sidestepping paedophilia, sexting, fake news, the undermining of democracy, and the ease with which fascists of all colours, ethnicities and religions can promote their ideology and violence, what really upsets me are those otherwise sensible people photographing their meals and sharing the images with the rest of humanity, as if we care. Identity theft and internet banking anyone? Last year it’s estimated 15.4 million consumers were scammed online with banks increasingly telling us it’s our fault. 

I blame those nerdy Millennials in open plan hot-seat offices in California for peddling the idea that just because they wear baseball caps back-to-front and sneakers they’re somehow making the world a better, cooler place because it’s connected. They’re not. They’re just devising ever more insidious ways of screwing you and I and handing our money over to the ‘man’. They allow us to swap photographs of our lunches with our pals and we let them sell our personal details to multinational brands and crime syndicates. 

Has the internet cured cancer, or homelessness, or made the world a safer, more secure and tolerant place? The hell it has. In fact, just the opposite. It’s given us an epidemic of online porn and child abuse,  a sociopath who supports white supremacists in the White House, and a generation of people who place their telephones on the table at dinner time. And, by decimating the newspaper industry to pulp, it’s undermined truth and freedom of speech. 

Britain has the lowest GDP of any major European nation and has a generation of graduates leaving university with upwards of £30,000 of debt and no career to go to or home to afford. And this before Artificial Intelligence the latest wheeze from California that is expected to waste 40% of all jobs by 2030. 

Call me old fashioned but I grew up thinking items deemed detrimental to human health – heroin, driving whilst intoxicated, child abuse, and nuclear and chemical arms should be controlled due to the detriment they cause. IE – illegal in the interests of a better, safer world. Doesn’t AI fit into that category? Why let those self aggrandising Californian’s be permitted to provide international capitalism with yet another tool to make the lives of children and our children’s children worse. 

But the real kicker, the absolute ding dong, is that I am to blame. As a home owner, soon to have a triple locked state pension, it’s me, and those like me, who have plundered the wealth of the nation and pulled up the drawbridge. The world of austerity we find ourselves as designed by Thatcher and rebooted by the half-wit trio of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg (a knighthood?) is down to people like me owning too much, receiving too much and being ill too often. I even drive a diesel car, fuel have a wood burning stove, and passionately want to remain European.

Significant date? You better believe it. It’s all my fault. Everything. If it wasn’t for the tories selling council houses and public utilities, international capitalism, the banks, UKIP, Amazon, the the septuagenarian sexual predator in Washington, and the damned internet  ( following the NHS hacking, Visa, and the TSB, England’s Word Cup squad has been advises to tape over laptop cameras and warned about using WiFi in Russia) – it’d be chaos. 

There you have it. Another significant other. Looking around at the achievement of my generation I wonder if I won’t be the only one with his head in the sands of time, or a virtual reality headset.

*written four months ago but not published for reasons unclear

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