Sunday, January 4, 2015

After nearly eight years and a quarter of a million words, I bid my readers farewell

[Published in The Journal, Monday 5th January 2015] 

In 2007, when Brian Aitken, editor of The Journal, took me to lunch and invited me to write a weekly column, he was very persuasive. 

“What on earth would I write about?” I asked, flattered that anyone would ask me to contribute to such an important institution. 

“Your glamorous life,” he said. 

“It’s not remotely glamorous,” I said, thinking of our windswept farmhouse. I had moved back to the region a few months earlier with my then girlfriend, after 5 years in Los Angeles. Joanna and I wanted to get away from the world of entertainment to what we were convinced would be a rural idyll. It was a very hot summer when we visited on holiday – 2006, if you remember it. Jo thought this was the most beautiful place in the world. She was right - so we moved here. 

Having been brought up in Northumberland and schooled in Newcastle, I’d spent the previous four decades in London and America making television programmes. Finally I was home, with big skies, noisy sheep, and mud. Particularly mud. For it transpired that 2006 was a one-off. The cold reality of Northumbrian life was now ours; glamour was no longer on the agenda. 

“Just drop a few names,” said Keith Hann, my ex-RGS schoolfriend who had suggested the column to Brian. 

“Write about all the famous people you’ve slept with.” 

“I haven’t slept…” I protested, then, realising that Keith knew too much, murmured: “Well, they’re not that famous.” 

“Besides, you’ll only stick it for 9 months,” said Brian. “Then you’ll run out of material and start to repeat yourself. All columnists recycle their stories – look at Banksy.” 

Then he added without a hint of irony: “Not that anyone notices, of course.” 

And so it began. Nearly 400 editions and a quarter of a million words later, enough for several bad novels, it’s finally time to sheath the pen. Or, rather, quit the Word folder. For this is my last Monday column. 

As far as I know I haven’t actually repeated a story, and I hope I haven’t breached too many confidences. From Chris Evans to Amy Winehouse, David Dimbleby to Emma Thompson, I know I’ve namedropped for England, but you’ve been terribly polite by not complaining. I’ve written about Boris Johnson and Britain’s Got Talent, Russell Brand and Russell Harty, Simon Cowell and Syria. I’ve followed the recession and the weather, and I’ll always follow Newcastle United. 

But I’ve also taken the opportunity to share some heartfelt thoughts about the North East and how shabbily it is treated by our politicians, our media, and the rest of the population. This is my home, and I am grateful to have been given a platform to voice my support where I’ve felt it might be useful. 

Some characters have appeared more than others. Mum has made 29 appearances, Joanna, now my wife, has 78. But no-one has featured more than Izzy. Our daughter’s first entry was on Fathers’ Day 2008 (admittedly as Ozzy, for we weren’t sure if the newly-discovered embryo was a boy or a girl). Today is her 94th appearance. This chronicle of a little girl’s life through the eyes of an ageing father will one day inspire her to buy up every back issue of The Journal and destroy them. 

Today Izzy turns six and, as part of her birthday present, I have decided to gift her my Sunday mornings. Every Sunday of her life I’ve risen early, imbibed three double espressos, and faced a blank computer screen. Last week, on Boxing Day, we were playing 'Guess Who?' when Izzy started miming someone furiously typing. 

“Who’s that?” I asked. 

“It’s you, Daddy – always writing your article.” 

She’s right: 400 Sunday mornings is a lot of life to lose. So Izzy - this is the last time I tell you I’m busy; and Boots, Truffle and Mabel - Sunday mornings are now for dog-walking. Happy New Year! 

[I’ve hugely enjoyed the experience, and I’ll still be making occasional contributions to the newspaper. 

If you’re interested in reading my Monday columns from the very beginning, click here.  Or please visit this blog from time to time to discover the odd new chapter (or even sign up as a Follower to get alerts).   For now, though, thanks so much for following, and farewell.]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Now I know what it's like to be The Queen

In our household, December is always the busiest month. Not because of Christmas – we’re of the “let’s do all the shopping in November” school. To be more accurate, my wife is the one from that school, which also teaches: “Don’t dare buy me anything that I haven’t written down on this list, unlike the electric toothbrush you bought me last year”. I thought it was quite a nice electric toothbrush. 

Actually, I’m happy to take a back seat, leaving the whole Christmas nightmare to her. As a result, my diary this month is clear, apart from one enormous band of red: every spare night is taken up with what we call the Thumbdance Film Festival. 

Like all BAFTA members, I get sent a huge pile of movies on DVD and have to watch as many as I can before casting my votes at the end of the year. So throughout December, our next-door-neighbours bring lasagna and red wine, and we thumb through the pile of blockbusters. 

We usually play the 15-minute rule: if a film doesn’t grab us in the first quarter of an hour we assume it probably never will, so we hit the eject button. It’s the fastest way to get through the list. 

Boy, have we ejected some turkeys. I reckon North Korea’s hacking experts could turn round their country’s ailing economy by offering their services to longsuffering film audiences in order to block the worst movies from distribution. Much as I squirm to read of each new embarrassment at Sony, and I certainly detest and fear cyber-terrorism, I suspect North Korea may have saved us another fifteen minutes of disappointment. 

I’d hazard a guess that, if we ever get to see it, The Interview isn’t going to be up for Best Film. I do like the (presumably hoax) rumours that were floating around yesterday morning, which claimed the hackers have now given Sony permission to release it, provided they do a quick re-edit: 
  • Rule #1: no death scene of Kim Jong Un being too happy. 
  • Rule #2: do not test us again.” 
I have a suspicion that Rule #2 ought to have been: “make it a lot funnier,” but as the film probably won’t feature at Thumbdance, we’ll never know for sure. 

As well as the DVDs, we also get invited to special screenings. Izzy loves them. At the premiere of Paddington Bear, she wore her party frock and tiara, and we dodged the paparazzi (actually, tourists with their iPhones) outside the cinema. Izzy nearly fell off her chair when we saw Nicole Kidman. 

At the first showing of Penguins of Madagascar, a movie I confess I found less than whelming, she was bribed by the publicist with penguin balloons and as much penguin-shaped ice cream as she could eat. As a result she pronounced it the best film she’d ever seen. 

I hope she doesn’t get a taste for celebrity premieres. Yesterday afternoon I had a tiny, but bizarre glimpse of what it must be like to be the Queen. Walking up from Newcastle Central Station to St James’ Park for the Tyne-Wear derby, I noticed something strange about the police officers lining the route. 

Clutching their newly polished riot helmets, every single one turned to me and smiled as I walked past. It was bizarre, and quite wonderful. Of course, I instinctively nodded and smiled back, just like The Queen does. About a hundred times. 

After a while I thought: Her Majesty must get very bored with this. Finally, curiosity got the better of me. 

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as Paddington Bear, “Has someone high up told you to smile at every football fan?” 

The policeman blushed, then conceded: “Yes, we’ve been given special instructions to smile today.” 

Mind you, on the way back to the station, after Newcastle had been beaten by a late Sunderland goal, none of the officers raised a smile at anyone. I guess that was an order too, so they wouldn’t be taken for smirking Sunderland supporters. 

I’m pretty sure the police aren’t ever allowed to smile in North Korea, except perhaps when Kim Jong-un’s team wins at football. But then, I guess they’re also never allowed to lose.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The night they stopped the Tube

Clutching my overnight bag, I reached the Northern Line platform at Kings Cross to find a crowd of passengers milling around a man in uniform.  Despite the crush, everyone was strangely calm, staring in the same direction down the platform.

The man was shouting commands to a tube train that was nosing its way into the station. Instead of racing in and screeching to a halt at the last moment, forcing passengers to cling to the handrails for support, this train was inching forward, the driver with his head out of the window so he could hear instructions. I didn’t know tube trains could do that. 

“Stop!” the official shouted. “It’s over here.” 

Oh no, I thought, there’s a body on the line. I couldn’t bear to look. In London scarcely a week goes by without a suicide on the Underground - "person under a train" they call it. It would take ages for the police and ambulances and the fuss. 

I selfishly wondered how I would get home. It was after 10pm, and I didn’t have enough cash for a taxi. 

Then I reasoned: if it’s a body, surely they would have stopped the train in the tunnel. Maybe someone fell onto the tracks and they’re going to help them back up. So I gingerly walked to the edge of the platform and peered over. A large rat was scampering along the line. 

Surely they hadn’t stopped the train for a rat? There must be millions down there. I thought of what would happen if a rat got into a carriage. That would wake them up, the normally oblivious, unconcerned London commuters. I pictured chaos and screaming. They’d be jumping on the seats in panic. I smiled at the image, then shuddered in case it was my carriage the rat visited. Yes, best stop the train and catch it. 

“It’s off.” 

The shout from the driver broke the moment. 

“You sure?” shouted the man with the hat. His walkie-talkie crackled. 

“Yes, it’s off,” came the reply. 

They’d switched off the power. The entire Northern Line had been shut down for a rat. The official bent down and jumped onto the track. 

“Here it is,” he cried triumphantly, pulling up something white from beside the rail. 

There was a murmur from the crowd and a ripple of applause. The rumour quickly spread down the platform. It was a pair of earphones. 

To stop a tube train in the middle of the evening for a pair of earphones, that was so… British. Sure, we were going to be a few minutes late, but someone would save £65 at the Apple store.  I smiled as the official handed them to a little boy with a tearstained face. 

Just then there was an aggrieved shout from a furious woman in the crowd. She was puce with rage, speaking in a foreign accent. 

“They shut down the tube network for a pair of earphones? That’s disgusting!” 

She came up to me for support. 

“It’s repulsive, holding us all up for a pair of earphones.” 

Something in the woman's manner really irritated me. They were doing something nice here, helping someone out. For this city, it was a tiny act of corporate human kindness. 

All day I’d been so relaxed, nothing at all could irritate me. Except this woman. “Oh do be quiet,” I said loudly. “How can you get neurotic over a pair of earphones? Just chill, woman.” 

She was so stunned, I thought she was going to hit me. But instead, she stormed off down the platform, spouting bile at the men with hats. 

“I want your names. I’m reporting you to Boris Johnson.” 

I thought of the number of times I’d been held up by herds of sheep in Northumberland. A journey delayed for a pair of earphones? This was nothing. 

And maybe it shows there’s humanity in London after all.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Count me out!

How the Daily Mail reported "Black Friday frenzy"

[First printed in The Journal, Monday 1st December 2014]

It’s taken a while but yesterday morning we had a breakthrough: Izzy is swimming backwards. 

Lying like a tiny turtle on her back, she first flapped one arm like a propeller, which caused her to go in little circles while gradually sinking beneath the surface; then, gingerly, she introduced the second, till both arms were beating the water like a sealion’s flippers. To be accurate, it looked more backflap than backstroke, but she eventually got the hang of it and was soon storming around the deep end bumping into all the other pupils. 

After 55 years of swimming, I’ve never worked out how to see where I’m going when doing backstroke, so I doubt Izzy ever will. But I guess this is progress of sorts. Her teacher was so pleased, he gave her a badge and promoted her to the school’s “Crab” class, while presenting me with a bill for next term’s lessons, where he promises me he’ll begin to teach her to go forwards. 

“But surely crabs go sideways, not backwards?” I protested, but Juan, who is Spanish, pretended to not understand. It’s a profitable business, this swimming school.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The price of fame

On Saturday evening, as I sat at the front of the London-bound plane, a chant went up from the crowd of passengers behind me. “Chriiisss Kamaaara! There’s only one Chris Kamara!!” 

I looked up, and saw the Sky Sports reporter, smiling sheepishly at the baying mob down the plane as he took his place at the end of my row. The barracking continued for most of the flight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How do you solve a problem like the licence fee?

This is a transcript of a speech I made today at the Salford International Media Festival, part of a discussion about the future of the BBC. It includes a suggestion that the licence fee should be reduced to £10 per annum.

On 15th October 1973, wearing a crisp white shirt newly ironed by my mother, I nervously pushed open the big brass doors into Broadcasting House and signed into reception to start my career as a BBC News Trainee. 

As we sat in our classroom on the second floor, our instructor greeted us with these words: 

“Congratulations!” he said. 

“You are the chosen ones. We expect all of you to rise through the ranks to become the next generation of BBC leaders. 

“Unless,” and here he glowered at us, “unless you commit one of two heinous crimes – bounce a cheque at BBC Cashiers, or forget to pay your licence fee”. 

There were six of us trainees in total, and later on in the first term our instructor made us take part in a competition – to find which of us was most likely to become Director General. The winner was Tony Hall.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lynda's letter

I’ve decided to write Izzy a letter. 

I suspect it will be too long and rambling. I am pretty sure it will make her cry, though that isn’t my intention. I also hope she won’t read it for many years. There are things I want to say to Izzy that I can’t tell a 5-year-old. Things I won’t be able to say to her face, because I won’t be here. 

Being an older parent – no, a very old parent – I know that even if I live to be as old as my mother, who’s nearly 94, I’m unlikely to see Izzy into marriage, children, and total independence. So I’m going to write her a letter, and tell her what I know about life. Before it’s too late.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Virgin Galactic: a child's dream

Izzy is obsessed with Virgin Galactic. She has bookmarked its website on my computer, and loves sitting on my lap as we watch the company’s showreel together. 

“When can we go on it, Daddy?” the 5-year-old pleads excitedly, as we watch SpaceShipTwo, a pretty little craft about the size of a small private jet with a rotating body, separate from WhiteKnightTwo, the launch vehicle that looks like two big planes stuck together. 

I admit it’s an awesome sight. But I would hate to have to tell her the blindingly obvious: this plane will never reach space. So far the only thing Virgin Galactic has managed to launch above the stratosphere is Branson’s monstrous ego.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Another wretched half-term

How wonderful – yet another hour of the wretched half term holiday to fill. 

After Time went backwards yesterday morning, Jo and I desperately tried to think of ways to keep our household asleep. Short of giving everyone a dose of Valium, we couldn’t come up with a solution, and as a result Izzy and the three dogs bounced into our room at 6.30am, ready for exercise and entertainment. 

We tried reasoning with them all: It’s not getting-up-time for another hour, we said, indicating the newly-turned-back alarm clock, but they wouldn’t be told. Izzy pointed at the dawn streaming through the window, while the dogs turned threatening little circles by the front door. Time waits for neither dog nor Rice Krispies. So much for the “lie in” the BBC weatherman promised us the night before.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The deadliest trek

If you like long country walks, this is the ultimate. 

The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal has always been called the world’s greatest trek. Last week a massive snowstorm wiped out the route and hundreds of trekkers had to be rescued, many with frostbite so severe they’ve had limbs amputated. More than 39 people have died, and bodies are still being recovered from the 18,000 feet high Thorung La pass. It’s a terrible tragedy, and particularly for Nepal, an impoverished country that relies on tourism. 

I actually know this mountain pass. That’s because one of my few claims to any form of athletic achievement in life was when I became one of the first members of the public to walk the entire Annapurna Circuit without an official guide. It sounds very unlike me, I know, but then, I was young and in love.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pride of Britain Awards

I’m glad I popped a couple of tissues into my pocket before I left home. In fact, I’m surprised it wasn’t Kleenex, rather than Lidl, that sponsored last week’s Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Awards.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fads and Woman's Hour

On Saturday night we were invited for dinner with some friends. As we sat down, I noticed something different about our host’s appearance. Had he lost weight? Did he have new spectacles? 

Then I twigged. There was something strange about his hair.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Head over heels

'Look – Izzy is head over heels!'

I followed my friend’s gaze to where my daughter’s feet could be seen waving in the air. Shortly after, they were replaced by her beaming face.  I put my thumbs in the air and silently cheered . 

As a milestone on the hazardous highway of life it’s scarcely on a par with walking, talking, reading, or eating broccoli, but it’s been so painful for both of us, this swimming lesson thing, it’s huge to have her finally break through her fear barrier. Izzy, who for two years has refused to go out of her depth or even lie on her back, this morning did her first backwards somersault in the deep end. Result.

Monday, September 22, 2014

What it means to be British

So, fellow citizens south of the Border: after the Scottish referendum, are we feeling more English, or more British? 

Last Wednesday, my daughter Rocca rang me in a panic. 

‘Dad, I’m really confused,’ she said. ‘I lived and worked in Edinburgh for eight years. All my Scottish friends are voting yes, they’re marching on the streets tonight and keep Facebooking me for support. What should I be thinking?’ 

Put on the spot, I said, rather too quickly: in my opinion, a Yes vote would be good for England and disastrous for Scotland, whereas a No vote would probably be bad for both.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jeremy Hunt's turkey is plucked

This morning [September 16th] the media regulator Ofcom announced that it has rejected London Live’s proposals to slash its local programming. 

This follows a six-week consultation in which several broadcasters, including Channel 4, Channel 5 and UKTV, severely criticised London Live’s plans. My own comments about this, posted here - were subsequently published in Broadcast Magazine last month. 

All of London Love's proposals were rejected by the regulator, including its plan to slash primetime local content, from three hours to one hour a day. Ofcom said the changes "would result in an unacceptable reduction to the number and range of programmes about the area or locality for the licensed area".  Quite.

Earlier this month, Birmingham's local TV dream died with the demise of BLTV/City TVFor the full Birmingham horror story, see here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The British Hero

What ghastly news for a Sunday morning. 

Jo and I shivered in disgust when we heard of the sickening murder of David Haines. Similar emotions would have been felt in every home in the civilized world. 

This was a crime of barbarity, committed against a British citizen, most likely by another British citizen. An innocent man, a simple, caring humanitarian unconnected with government, religion or media, he’d devoted years of his life trying to help other lives destroyed by conflict.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A plane-load of children and a mother's apology for her autistic child

This week Ryanair announced a new “business class” option. A fortnight too late for us: the Gutteridge family has already returned from its holiday in the sun. 

Mind you, I don’t think very many businessmen travel regularly between Luton Airport and Murcia. An awful lot of children do, though. Planeloads of them. 

As we’d been warned about Ryanair’s infamous customer service, I’d bought all the extras: fast track security, ‘Priority Q’ boarding, seats with extra legroom near the front – I’d have prebought the wine and crisps if they’d been offered on the website. 

We’d actually purchased every single business class option, at rather less than the new upgrade price. That Michael O’Leary is a clever businessman.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza: the foggy view of propaganda through the media lens

On Saturday night the television news headlines carried two strangely incompatible stories. 

First, there was footage of a mighty force bombing terrorists who were threatening innocent civilians; then they showed video of people protesting against another mighty force, also bombing terrorists threatening innocent civilians. 

With tens of thousands of women and children dying under attack from ISIS in Northern Iraq, you’d think there’d be plenty of reason to hit the streets. I'd understand if there were petitioners outside every Arab embassy demanding action to curb the terrorists that are causing such turbulence and carnage. But the slogan-chanters marching through London with their Socialist Worker-supplied banners, the well-spoken students with brand new black and white Arafat scarves, the righteous politicians demanding sanctions and retribution, didn't mention the plight of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis; they were targeting the democratic state of Israel.

Monday, August 4, 2014

London (almost) Dead - the end of Jeremy Hunt's local TV dream

I hate to say “I told you so,” but I told you so. I’m only surprised that I’m telling you so soon after my last comments here (and here) about what I called Jeremy Hunt’s “crazy initiative for local television”.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The unfairness of the North/South cultural divide

Izzy’s bedroom is a mound of waste paper. There are pieces of photographs, bodies with their faces removed, dismembered newspaper adverts, scraps of coloured card, bits of magazines, and half a dozen empty rolls of sellotape. It looks like an earthquake has hit an art studio. 

I blame Matisse. Last week Jo and I decided we should all visit the exhibition at Tate Modern. That’s the best thing about London: you wake up one morning, fancy a bit of culture, and off you go. No planning, no advance purchase tickets, no East Coast Trains – you just hop on the 46 bus.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A really good idea

It seemed like a good idea at the time. 

Boots was about six inches long when we bought him, with the sweetest face and long, soft hair. I don’t think we ever checked the size of a fully grown English shepherd. Or if we did, we must have read centimetres for inches. For soon Boots was the size of a Shetland pony, an enormous hairy beast. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We'll dig up the road!!!

Aside from Daddy Pig, who, according to my wife, is modeled on me (I can’t imagine why: he eats too much, is convinced he’s an expert at everything, and is always losing his glasses), my daughter’s favourite character in the Peppa Pig cartoon series is Mr Bull. 

He’s a builder with a huge voice and a giant digger and, whenever anyone encounters a problem, like a burst water main or a problem with the traffic lights, he magically shows up and bellows: “We’ll dig up the roooaaad!!!”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Don't put your daughter on the stage

Jo and I were very disappointed. At Izzy’s graduation ceremony they were reading out the citations, and we both thought they were referring to someone else. 

Hang on a minute: graduation? Izzy? 

Yes, apparently Reception children now don’t just go off for the summer holidays, they graduate. It must be an American thing, like when they replaced sixth form dances with “proms” in order to prop up the British ballgown industry. 

24 five-year-olds, each sporting a homemade cardboard mortarboard with a tassel, sat proudly facing their parents. One by one they came forward to receive a scroll, shaking hands with the teacher as she described the child’s achievements. 

I could tell that in some cases they were scratching the bottom of the epithet barrel. “Lively” for the disruptive ones; “calming” for those who never said a word, “popular” for the annoying brats who wound everyone else up. 

Jo and I knew Izzy’s report would be about her reading skills. She is so advanced, the school had to go out and buy extra books for her. We sat ready to glow. But instead the teacher described an entirely different child. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

To all parents: a warning!

The Evidence

Here’s a warning for every parent, ignore it at your peril. 

I’ve been ignoring messages like this for years. Jo and I think we’re reasonably responsible when it comes to child rearing: we don’t allow Izzy out of our sight on walks; she wears wellies in muddy puddles, eats lettuce and broccoli, says please and thank you, is sorry when she breaks things, and never watches television after 9pm. 

So when we see a warning ‘for every parent’, we assume it means every other parent. Wrong. 

This is a warning for people who ignore warnings: Beware of your Apps!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

RIP Kevin Turvey

I hope you’ll forgive me if I add a final paragraph to the plethora of tributes paid to the comedy genius Rik Mayall, who died last Monday. I feel justified in claiming this last word, because I was involved in his first – I gave Rik his first big break. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

UKIP too close for comfort

You know how there are supposed to be just six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet? Well I’ve just discovered that there are only three between me and Nigel Farage.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Questions from a five-year-old

So where does earth come from? That was yesterday’s big question. 

Izzy and I were on our daily walk with the dogs on Hampstead Heath. It’s a great place for celebrity spotting – in the last few days we’ve waved at Ricky Gervais and Doctor Who, and Boots chased Kate Moss’s dog into a nettle bush, though Izzy didn’t recognize any of them. 

Look, there’s Nanny McPhee! I enthused. But the real Emma Thompson looks nothing like her warty on-screen persona and, besides, Izzy was too busy examining the ground to notice her.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy hair and a new gob


Apparently this George Northwood bloke is pretty hot stuff.

While Jo was texting me progress reports from the salon – “eek, I’m about to meet George”; “they have a dog called Freddy”; “he’s reeeeeealllly nice!” – I was reading an article about George Northwood in The Telegraph.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hair today, gone tomorrow


Oh dear, I have a terrible feeling about this. 

I do hope she knows what she’s doing. There’ll be tears by sundown. Jo, my wife, is having a haircut. 

Not just any old haircut, but a complete schism, an independence movement from her current look. Like the Scots, there’ll be no going back after this.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jeremy Clarkson and the 'N'-word

Joanna was confused. 

“So why did Jeremy Clarkson use the ‘N’-word in ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’?” she asked innocently. 

Being American, my wife was brought up in a world where the only creatures ever caught by the toe were tigers. 

Jo is a modern woman, born in 1970. At school in Los Angeles, they always used tigers in this playground rhyme. My own children used tigers too, and my eldest is 32. They would no more consider using the ‘N’-word in a sentence than they would use the “C”-word in front of their parents. 

The ‘N’-word was part of an earlier generation. Mine, and Clarkson’s.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Parental paranoia fuelled by Korean tragedy

Yesterday morning, before the rain came, Izzy was hunting in the garden for chocolate eggs. As I watched her giggling with excitement and screaming at every new discovery, I felt strangely uneasy. 

I’ve had this sense of anxiety since Wednesday, when the world ended for 300 people on a boat in South Korea. The story of the capsized ferry has combined a terrible sadness for the fate of children I’ve never met with a fear of how I could ever completely protect my own. As I watched the videos of obedient students, many the age of my youngest son, huddled in corners waiting for the instruction to disembark that never came, I shuddered and thought: what if one of these were my child? 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What's in a name?

Not my great great great great grandfather

I don’t know where the name Gutteridge came from. Wherever it was, I wish it had stayed there. 

Gutters, Guts – it was so easy to burden me with schoolboy nicknames. I feared the sniggers of classmates when the teacher called out my name for the first time. Even now, when asked to spell it for the benefit of Indian call centres, I say the first five letters slowly, g-u-t-t-e… then a quick “ridge, as in the top of a hill”. I mean, why use the awful “gutter” word if I don’t have to? 

I used to cling to the hope of gentrification offered by those ridiculous “know your name” companies. 

“The name Gutteridge has a long Anglo-Saxon heritage,” they’d say. “From the region of Goodrich in the county of Hereford. Gód means good and Rica means powerful.” 

So I was descended from a king. Then the company would try to sell me the family crest. 

All nonsense, of course. There’s no more nobility in the Gutteridge name than the word Smith, Baker or Hann. You are what you make of yourself, I always thought. 

So the recently published research into surnames and social mobility by Scottish-born economist Gregory Clark (out of an American university, predictably), raised several eyebrows. According to Clark, there’s no more social mobility in the world now than there was when the Gutteridges were good and powerful ones. 

A person’s surname carries information about their social status, which generations can do precious little to change, and the narrowing of the gap between the posh and the poor (I paraphrase here rather shamelessly) has scarcely narrowed in centuries. Despite what we’d like to believe about the effects of the industrial revolution and the efforts of politicians to create a more even society, the principal influence in our social status is our great- and great-great grandparents’ names. 

In other words, try as I might, I can never take the gutter out of the Gutteridge. Well that’s what Professor Clark reckons, anyway. Clark comes from the Latin clericus, meaning scholar. So his life was pretty preordained too. 

The popularity of the television programme Who Do You Think You Are, the obsession with and other genealogical resources, indicates a general fascination with our origins. 

This is nothing new. My father used to tell anyone who would listen that his four-times-great grandfather was an admiral of the fleet who rejoiced in the name Sir Cloudesley Shovell. This is the man who, in 1707, became famous for failing to navigate the British fleet round the rocks off the Isles of Scilly, thereby occasioning one of the worst naval disasters in our country’s history. 

His ship was called HMS Association, and according to Dad, it probably contained the family fortune. Dad was so convinced of this association with the Association, that he named his first-born (my half-brother) Cloudesley, who named his dog Cloudesley, and eventually his own son, my nephew. Try listening to that name with a straight face in school assembly. Fortunately the boy went to Eton, which is full of silly names. 

Once I met a man who had dived down to the Association wreck and retrieved some sovereigns. He was called Rex (seriously). I presented my half-brother with one for Christmas and he got all misty-eyed. 

“All that's left of the family jewels,” I heard him mutter sadly. 

Unfortunately, a few years later I got rather hooked by the genealogy bug myself and signed up to the GenesReunited website. You start your own family tree and immediately the computer matches it with others from around the world. I quickly struck the jackpot. 

A distant relative had been compiling his own tree for 30 years and had thousands of entries going back generations. But no Cloudesley Shovell. I emailed him to ask why. 

“Oh, that old chestnut,” he wrote back. “Your very-great uncle William first thought there was a connection when he went to Somerset House to investigate his own tree. He must have misread the entry, for his ancestor was actually a cabin boy on the Association, not the admiral.” End of association. 

Mind you, I’m rather relieved. Imagine the nicknames you’d get with the name Shovell.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why Boots will never be a Facebook star

Last week the world of Facebook was enthralled by an extraordinary video. I’ve been sent it more than a dozen times by assorted “friends” and over half a million people viewed it in the first couple of days after it was posted.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Decision Time

Clearly the most important choice I’ll have to make in 2015 is whether to go red or blue. 

I could alwys choose yellow, of course, but nowadays I think people in yellow look untrustworthy. Aside from Izzy, who only ever likes purple, my children would always cast a vote for green, but I’ve never been a green type of person. No – red or blue it must be. 

I’m talking about the colour of my new Lamborghini Huracán, of course. It’s a snip at only £186,760 on the road. I’ve calculated that it will enable me to get Izzy to school roughly 4 seconds faster than at present (this being the extra time it currently takes my Volvo to reach the 20 mile per hour speed limit on the school run).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Flight MH370 - turning a crisis into a Hollywood thriller

Izzy was convinced the missing plane was lost in fog and would go home as soon as it cleared. Just like Mummy when she’s driving, except that she always phones Daddy to come and rescue her, even when he says it’s only mist and she should just follow the white lines. Mummy won’t drive in fog. 

“What if it’s not foggy up in the sky, Izzy?” Jo asked her, quickly changing the subject. 

My daughter looked uncertain, thought hard and then said with far more conviction than the Malaysian prime minister: “Pirates stole it.”

Sunday, March 9, 2014

3 - not quite the magic number

The proposed demise of BBC3 has been greeted by howls of rage from its well-remunerated stars (like Jack Whitehall and Russell Kane) and almost complete indifference by the licence payers. 

By yesterday only 150,000 had signed an online petition against the axing, which is about the number that watch the live transmission of the average show, against the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the network so far. 

Since the network first launched, younger viewers have stubbornly ignored the broadcaster’s efforts to reach them. Which is no fault of BBC3, of course, because everyone knows that the majority of young people find television utterly irrelevant to their lives. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

What do you do at the office, Daddy?

When the teacher at Izzy’s new school invited me to give a talk to the children about my work, Izzy was very excited. 

“I love it when Daddy comes to talk about his work,” she said. 

“Really?” I replied with surprise, trying to remember when I’d been to her previous school to talk about television. I didn’t think I’d even discussed my profession with Izzy. Maybe she had overheard Mummy and Daddy talking about our pitches to the network executives in America. But why would that make her so excited? 

“Daddy, when you come to talk at the school about your work, please can we make cookies as well.” 

That was a bit random. 

“Izzy, what do you think Daddy actually does at work?” 

“You make bread, of course”.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jumping up and down in muddy puddles

Izzy’s hero Peppa Pig loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles. 

Quite how the UK’s broadcasters ever allowed this cartoon celebrity to trigger such an increase in the nation’s laundry bills is beyond me. I thought there were regulators who banned programmes that incite anti-social behaviour. 

“Let’s go jumping up and down in muddy puddles,” says Peppa to the rotund Daddy Pig, whom Izzy, rather unkindly, says looks exactly like me. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Robots -- every home should have one

Sir James Dyson wants to develop household robots that can take on all our household chores. No more cleaning, putting out the dustbins, or replacing lightbulbs – what bliss. 

I hope his robots last longer than his vacuum cleaners.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Playing Deal or No Deal - Flatpack Edition

Izzy was really worried about her new bedroom, so Jo tried to reassure her. 

“You’ll have all your dolls there, and Ariel the fish.” 

“But is it going to be purple?” 

A long pause. Then Jo said: “Yes, it will have purple curtains.”  I rolled my eyes in disbelief. What will the neighbours in Hampstead think?

“And there’ll be bunk beds too?” 

Behind Izzy’s back I was vigorously shaking my head at Jo. No, no bunk beds, please. But Jo’s mouth was already open. 

“Yes, definitely bunk beds.” 

That clinched it. Our daughter screamed and did her little happy dance. Izzy has been desperate to sleep in a top bunk. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Moving on

'We’ll never do it in time,' said Jo. 

‘Nonsense – it’ll be easy,’ I said. ‘We have four whole weeks, we’ll just do one room at a time.’ 

As if I knew what I was talking about. 

That was two weeks ago. We have two weeks left. 

If moving home is a nightmare, relocating from a rambling 17th century farmhouse back to our London place is a scene from a horror film. Our house is already a maze of black plastic sacks. There’s no sign of order or plan, but we’re on our third packet of plastic sacks. There are 30 sacks in each packet – that’s 90 sacks so far. I’m very friendly with the man at the tip. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Should we move Christmas?

Last Tuesday I celebrated Christmas with my family. 

A fortnight late, I know, though not according to my Serbian builder. Zoric (his real name is Velibor, but everyone calls him by his surname) observed his Christmas on Tuesday as well. In Serbia they use the Julian calendar, so his celebrations are always two weeks late, a bit like his building work. 

While Zoric was supposed to be chopping down an oak branch and spreading straw on the floor of his house (a Serbian tradition I doubt he transposes to his flat in Tottenham) I was a few miles away in the Groucho Club, surrounded by children, presents and bemused celebrities.

Monday, January 6, 2014

My first day in jail

My new year started in prison; I was incarcerated in Cramlington. 

My wardens were very friendly. They wore grey suits and tried to make light of my misery – there were 21 of us miscreants in a single cell – but nevertheless told me, in the strictest terms, that I was not allowed to leave, use my mobile phone, or, most important, nod off. Which, over four hours with acute jetlag, was very tough justice.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The visitor

At 8pm last Saturday night, the phone rang in my hotel room. The receptionist sounded suspicious and protective. 

“There’s a, er, gentleman here who wants to talk to you.” 

I was expecting him. 

“It's OK, we have an appointment – please tell him I’ll be right down.” 

She sounded only a little relieved. When I saw him sitting silently on a sofa in the corner of the reception area, I understood her reticence.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Postcard from America

My next-door neighbour tells me you had a terrible storm earlier last week that nearly washed you all into the North Sea. I’m sorry about that. 

Our farmhouse, which has so far survived 343 winters, simply shrugged and asked for another log to be put onto its roaring fires. Or so our housesitter told me, when I phoned her to see if it had blown away. 

“Yes, it was a bit windy this morning, but it was worse in Newcastle”. 

Worse, I understand, was a completely flooded Quayside. 

Well, if makes you feel any better, it’s been raining here as well. A real deluge battered homes, washed out drive-through hamburger joints, drenched the health food stores. 

It is strange to see Southern California in the rain. People don’t really have umbrellas or rain coats. They don’t even have gutters on the side of their houses – there’s no demand. They just drive their cars closer to the supermarkets and run for it in their white jeans and teeshirts.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What Daddy does at the football

Izzy burst into tears when I turned off Pixie Hollow to watch the game. 

The fairies were flying busily around the wood, minding each others’ business as fairies do, and then suddenly, without warning, mean Daddy turned them into magpies in black and white stripes, running and kicking a ball with some people dressed in red. 

When she’d calmed down, which was a whole chocolate biscuit later, I sat her on my lap and together we watched the game. It was her first football match.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The magic of Doctor Who

[The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special was on BBC1 last night.]

I was eleven when I first saw Susan Foreman and her grandfather. 

Susan was a pupil at Coal Hill School in Shoreditch, and her teachers were worried about her because she had a strange take on the world. Almost alien, you might say. 

Coal Hill School was on television on Saturday night, watched by millions around the world. It’s the most famous fictional school in Britain, for Susan’s grandfather was William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who, and they had stopped off in Shoreditch while he was trying to fix a technical bug in their Tardis, which caused it to keep its shape as a London police box when travelling through time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A very senior moment

I had my first senior moment this morning. It was very embarrassing. 

I was in Waitrose, where I love using the self-scanner handset they give you so you don’t have to queue at the checkout – you just scan all the items as you shop, then swipe your credit card and walk away with bulging bags and a sense of superiority. 

Except that today, when I inserted my credit card in the slot, the bill came to just £6.75. Considering my laden basket included a whole shoulder of lamb, I realised I must have absent-mindedly bagged half a grocery list without scanning.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The next hot thing

Sunny Sunday mornings are always special. 

A leisurely soft boiled egg with soldiers lying lazily beside a frothing cappuccino, my computer open at a blank page, ready for the weekly update on my world. It’s my favourite moment of the week. Except that instead of a view of my frosted garden, I’m looking at the Empire State building glowing in the sunlight of a New York midtown skyline. 

Outside my hotel here in Brooklyn, the streets are still silent, no sign of life apart from a few tracksuits in the park jogging guilt into my brain as I order another round of buttery toast. 

I only arrived last night, and this afternoon I’ll be back in the care of British Airways, 14 hours of my weekend lost on a plane. It’s a long way to come for one meeting, but that’s the strange world of television. You work away at a project for months, and then suddenly somebody says they’ll meet you, but only next Saturday, and off you fly. Literally.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Doggie Doos and Don'ts

I think the fairy period of Izzy’s life may have peaked. 

Not that she’s discarded them yet. In fact, as I write this, she’s sitting on the floor building a new fairy house. It’s a shoebox decorated with glitter and nail varnish (which I’m not sure Mummy knows about, but I’m not going to be a spoilsport) and will soon be filled with pixie dust and other tiny objects in order to attract a real live fairy to come and live in it. 

While construction work is proceeding, we’re keeping Boots out of the room in disgrace. Last night he leapt over the dog gate and ate Tinkerbell. Izzy’s hoping the fairy that inhabits her new box will be Vidia, because she says it’s her favourite. 

I looked Vidia up in Wikipedia. She has pouty lips and arched eyebrows. She is also selfish, with a secret box of fairy dust under her bed which she hides from the other fairies, which explains why Izzy has suddenly acquired one too, in which she keeps a collection of birthday cards, broken dolls and old yoghurt pots. 

Vidia is self-centred, calls everyone “darling” and believes that not all fairies are created equal. Izzy says she likes her because she flies the fastest and has purple bits in her hair.  She is the Joan Collins of fairies, and I’m not sure I want Vidia living in my house, even if she’s hidden under Izzy’s bed – she reminds me of my ex-wife.