Sunday, July 26, 2009

The F-Word again

When Jo mentioned the F-word, I felt a surge of pride. “I’ve got flu,” she said.

I confess I couldn’t stop myself. “How exciting – you’re the first person we know who’s got it”.

Swine flu is the latest must-have: I couldn’t believe our luck. This pandemic that’s been hyped throughout the media has actually reached our little community. Even here in deepest rural Northumberland we’ve managed to get the latest big thing.

Jo had been feeling pretty lousy all week, but she’d only gone to the GP to take Izzy for her six-month-old checkup. Izzy was fine (16 pounds and giggling), but the GP said that Jo had a temperature, achy limbs and a sore throat. Flu.

“But it’s not swine flu”, Jo went on. “How do they know?” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. “She just knows: she’s a doctor. It’s ordinary flu and you have to look after Izzy and be nice to me for a week”. “Did they give you Tamiflu?” I asked, hoping to salvage something from the setback. “No, I don’t need it. You’ve just got to bring me meals in bed, keep the kitchen clean and change all the nappies, even the pooey ones.” This real flu sounded much less interesting than the pig version.

In the interests of journalistic research, I checked out Jo’s symptoms with the new National Pandemic Flu Service. Its website, which received 9.3million hits per hour when it first went online, is efficient, easy to use and alarming.

Was Jo any of the following: “Unresponsive or unconscious, floppy, limp or difficult to wake?” If it had been about me, I’m quite sure Jo would have ticked the YES box. “Drooling excessively?” That’s me too, when I’m unresponsive, floppy, limp and difficult to wake: classic symptoms of too much red wine, not flu.

“Is she having a fit?”, the website went on. I looked at Jo, happily singing “The wheels on the bus” with Izzy guffawing on her knee and ticked the NO box. That’s a relief, the website said, you don’t need an emergency ambulance.

I answered all the other questions to the best of my ability. Sure enough, Jo has flu and, because there was no stopping the website once it got going, we now have an (unnecessary) prescription for Tamiflu. Presumably she is also a national swine flu statistic, one of the 100,000 who were supposed to have contracted it last week. But she doesn’t actually have swine flu, just boring old “you do the nappies for a week” flu. This didn’t make her feel any better though, poor thing with her aches and pains and stuffed up nose. So I felt for the hapless Labour candidate in the Norwich North by-election, who missed his own defeat because of swine flu and sent his wife to face the music. Mind you, it would have cleared up pretty quickly if he’d won.

Predictably the political parties are trying to mutate this pandemic to their own ends. Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Flu Secretary, claims the Government’s “dithering” has left the NHS unable to cope with the hysteria: “there won’t be enough intensive care beds to deal with demand when the virus spreads”. It’s precisely this kind of scaremongering that caused the “pandemi-onium” in the first place.

You can’t help but be confused by the conflicting messages. On the one hand, we're told that in a fortnight’s time 100,000 people will be catching it every day, and 60,000 may even die. On the other hand, it’s evident this strain is so mild most people will just stay at home and watch England winning the Ashes. Even though, like Jo, you’ll feel pretty awful, you’ll be happily cheering from your armchair. Unless Flintoff catches swine flu: now that really would be a national catastrophe.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Follow-up from the last Post

My regular followers (I use the term in its technical, geeky blogspeak sense, not to imply evangelistic fervour) will know that I write a regular column for The Journal, a daily newspaper published in the North East.

Yesterday I told the story (embellished further in the post below) of my encounter with three diet-busting restaurants in the space of one week. What was supposed to be a jocular meander through my culinary guilt turned into a rather mordant, even truculent attack on one of our great northern eating institutions, Seaham Hall's White Room restaurant. I concluded that, despite its Michelin star, it has, quite simply, gone off.

In today's Journal my fellow columnist Keith Hann, who has been the victim of quite a few of my posts in the past, decided to base his column on mine. Here's an extract:

Few things are better calculated to lift the heart on a Monday morning than the emergence of a new North East winner. Though in truth what grabbed my attention in yesterday’s paper was not so much the Government’s carefully stage-managed leak about the expansion at Nissan as the unveiling on this page of our very own Michael Winner, Tom Gutteridge.

First there was his remarkably acerbic restaurant review, closely mirroring Mr Winner’s weekly contributions to the Sunday Times. Part of this at least earned a smug nod of agreement since, not so long ago, when I was lamenting the demise of GNER’s excellent restaurant cars, Tom sent me a spirited defence of the maintained quality and superior convenience of the National Express at-seat service. I was glad to read that he now agrees with me.

Always a generous host, Tom was once kind enough to treat Mrs Hann and me to one of those South Indian meals about which he wrote so enthusiastically yesterday, and it was indeed delicious. However, it seems only fair to add a warning that this cuisine can have less than desirable after-effects for some of us. I struggle to think of a way of describing these without causing offence, but if the “save the planet” cash-in merchants had erected one of their turbines in our vicinity, the Hann family could probably have powered a reasonably sized village for the next 24 hours.

But all this pales into insignificance compared with the statement that Tom is soon to get married wearing a cream suit a size too small for him. Not so much Four Weddings and a Funeral, then, as a comedy remake of Saturday Night Fever with Mel Smith in the title role, in the regrettable absence of Benny Hill. Time to think again, surely. Let me put on record that I am more than willing to lend Tom the black morning coat I bought in John Blades’ retirement sale for my own wedding. This would at least have the virtues of being appropriate wear for an Englishman and just about fitting him.

Now I had hoped that my review have been closer to the style of A.A. Gill than the proudly pompous Mr Winner. Michael once invited me for lunch at his favourite restaurant: some steak and oyster place in a smart street. I'm glad he paid, because it's certainly not my kind of food.

Behind the bluster I find Winner quite a jolly chap. However, I wonder why he mentions his money all the time, which he does, even with other wealthy people, at every opportunity. What innate insecurity makes a man presumably perfectly comfortable in his own wealth boast incessantly about the size of his mansion? Presumably his inability to take himself any more seriously than his readers is a virtue - it probably equates to a kind of perverse modesty. Maybe deep down lies a lonely, vulnerable man. But the success (or perserverance) of Winner's Sunday Times column is at least something to aspire to.

Not Benny Hill's dress sense, though. How can I politely tell Mr Hann that I would no more wear his morning coat to a wedding in 90 degree heat in California than I would go naked to the Savoy? Even if Mr Winner joined me. In my cream suit I suspect I shall be somewhat overdressed. Besides, I could always have worn my own morning coat, complete with tails and gold lining, which I purchased for my last wedding. I suppose I should have dusted it down and joined the other penguins at Keith's own wedding, which I described in detail in one of my earlier posts. But I was afraid the suit might have brought him bad luck -- my own marriage ended after just a couple of months, making it a very expensive bit of schmutter indeed. Besides, the new and last Mrs Gutteridge knows I carry far too much baggage with me already than to add to the load with a piece of old-fashioned, fusty clothing I know she would utterly detest. Rightly.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Tale of Failed Diets

Despite the fact that in five week’s time I’m due to get married in a sleek cream suit still a size too small for me, this week I broke my diet three times. I blame the rain: our summer of sun morphed into dismal October, so Jo and I decided to try out some local restaurants to warm ourselves up. First we went to Southern India: or at least to Newcastle’s quayside.

Now I know a bit about South Indian food. I cooked my first proper curry on a deserted beach in Goa, years before the place had been ruined by hotels and tourists. My girlfriend, shortly to become wife, and I parked up our VW camper van for a few weeks solitude and befriended a young man climbing a tree for coconuts. He introduced us to his family, and his mother taught me the secrets of the Goan fish curry: the dish that smiles at you with its coconut milk before its spices blow your head off.

The principal reason for heading South was to visit an army base. We couldn’t resist the polite invitation from the commander of the Marathas, India’s most famous light infantry regiment. Jilly’s father had served as a junior officer in India during the war and he’d written to his old regiment saying that as we were touring the country, could we please pop in for a cup of tea. The result was a two thousand mile detour.

Imagine the scene: battered old camper van arrives at the smart security gates; inside, two hippy Brits, one with a scraggy beard and torn jeans: neither had touched a bath for two months. The sentry snaps to attention; a bugle sounds. The base commander, resplendent in full dress uniform, marches up and ushers us into an open topped jeep. Jilly and I look at each other in amazement.

A military band leads out the entire regiment and, for a glorious moment, I find out what it’s like to be the Queen as we take the salute. It’s only when the commandant addresses the troops that the penny drops. “We are so honoured to have the daughter of Colonel Barber with us today”. “Colonel? I thought he was only a Captain”, I hiss beneath my breath. “He was”. Captain Cecil Carrington Barber was a delightful man, but colonel-in-chief he most certainly wasn't. Nevertheless the chap in charge droned on about the brave colonel's extraordinary leadership qualities.

I thought about halting the proceedings and to explain the mistaken identity. But I thought it would have been rather mean to let them down, particularly as they'd made such an effort. Particularly after they led us to a maginificent banquet in the officer’s mess. “Our chef is from Kerala”, they proudly tell us. Kerala: God’s own country, the lushest, most educated state in India. It also has the best food – fish cooked in tamarind, coconut and the freshest vegetables.

And, amazingly, we have our own Kerala in Newcastle. The Tyne doesn't have a great deal of culinary expertise to recommend it. Great ingredients, mediocre cooks. But if you're ever in town and you want to know what good curry really tastes like, go to Rasa and order their kingfish and tamarind curry with a side portion of black-eyed beans simmered in yoghurt. Rasa trains its chefs in its own cookery academy back in India and, so long as you order fish and vegetables, you won't be disappointed. It’s simply the best in town. Rasa, run by a delightful chap from Kerala called Das (who I believe had a hand in Jamie Oliver's wedding feast) has several branches in London. And, for some bizarre reason, Newcastle. Thank God.

By contrast, my two other diet-breaking diversions were less successful. I’d been warned about National Express and I can now confirm the catering on the East Coast line has been truly wrecked. Tough little steak sandwiches are no substitute for fresh meals in the restaurant car. I feel sorry for the catering staff, who used to be so proud of their culinary offerings at 125 miles per hour. The smoked fish used to come from Robsons of Craster, the beef and lamb was Northumbrian, and everything was cooked fresh and served with panache and good silver. Now there's no reason to go by train. It's usually twice the price of the plane, and you can't even enjoy a leisurely meal. The sooner National Express is stripped of its franchise the better. From now on it's Terminal 5 and Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food for me.

But Seaham Hall’s restaurant still has a Michelin star, so I was looking forward justifying the damage to my waistline by an evening of exquisite flavours and skilled cooking. I last went two years ago with a former Michelin inspector and we both reckoned it was on its way to its second star.

How have the mighty fallen. I don’t expect to pay £80 a head for a square of overcooked salmon the size of a thumbnail in a menu of bland, uninspired predictability. From the rubbish-strewn entrance to the over-familiar service, Seaham seems to have lost its way. What a letdown.

We went on Saturday for Joey's birthday. I was positively willing it to be great (not just because of the price: it was a rare baby-free evening and I really wanted Jo to enjoy it). We went for the tasting menu and course after course relentlessly arrived. Now I go to Michelin rated restaurants to be blown away by imagination and skill. I've flown to Rome to enjoy Heinz Beck's architectural creations; next month Joey and I are driving 8 hours to visit America's finest, The French Laundry in Napa. I'd go anywhere for a good meal. But not to Seaham. I don't think there was a thing on the menu I couldn't have rustled up at home without a recipe book. All beautifully presented, of course. But all somehow...dull.

It wasn't just the unmemorable food. As we drove in, there were plastic bags strewn over the drive (a fox had probably been in the bins the previous night and noone had bothered to pick them up); the place looks somehow tatty compared to when I last saw it: even the garden is lazily pruned rather than artistically pampered. Worst, the head waiter came up and interrogated every new arrival. "How has your day been?". The man couldn't be satisfied with "Fine, thanks": he had to ask us what we'd been doing. I felt like a six year old being forced to be polite to an annoying aunt. And if I he'd uttered one more "That will be no problem at all" in response to a request for something on the menu I think I'd have hit him with glass vase thing which substituted the need for fresh flowers (presumably because the gardener hadn't bothered to grow any). Seaham Hall changed hands since we last went. To the wrong hands, no doubt.

Ah well, vent over. Back to the diet.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Nice People Don't Have A Prayer

Reality television hit a new low this week. I’m not referring to Big Brother where its dismal ratings seem to be coinciding with the predicted victory of a housemate aptly named Halfwit. No, to view the ultimate in questionable taste you need to travel to Istanbul where they’ve just announced the latest Turkish take on celebrity gameshows. Forget Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing on Ice, the new must-have format has the catchy title Penitents Compete. It features a priest, a rabbi, an imam and a Buddhist monk competing against each other to convert ten atheists.

Hitherto Turkey has not been known for its innovative television concepts, but this latest idea has taken the art form to a new level. The prize for any convert is an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem or Tibet, depending on which religion they’ve chosen. Plus, as the broadcaster proudly points out, at stake is the greatest prize ever offered on a gameshow: belief in God.

In order to avoid cheating (and who wouldn’t be tempted to fake atheism to win a free holiday in a Tibetan monastery), all the contestants are vetted by a “commission of theologians”. Perhaps the producers of Big Brother could steal the idea to lift their flagging fortunes: though I doubt the level of debate could match the current erudite banter between those intellectual heavyweights Lesbian Lisa and glamourpuss Sophie “Dogface” Reade.

Sadly the producers of the Turkish show have missed the underlying point of reality shows: they mustn’t reflect reality at all, or they won’t work. We had no idea what we’d bitten off when a few years ago my development team dreamed up a show called Paradise Hotel and I sold it to a big American network. The idea was that eleven young people go into the most glamorous “hotel” in the world and get bored. That was about it. It was the number one hit on American television all summer long.

There was a twist, of course: all the “guests” hated each other. Now if you go on holiday, chances are you go with some friends you quite like and hope you’re sharing a resort with like-minded people. However the reality show works the other way round. Producers cast people whom they suspect will either detest or want to have sex with each other from the outset. That’s the entire premise of Big Brother, Wife Swap and all the others. The worse thing any would-be contestant can say at the audition is “I get on with people”. The right attitude is “I’m great – anyone who gets in my way will get trampled on”.

It’s all a conspiracy, of course. There is an unholy alliance between the participants and producers of reality shows, from game shows to castaways on desert islands. We need conflict, passion and drama to make ratings: they want to be famous. The rubbish singers on the X-Factor auditions know they’re rubbish, but they want to get on telly, even to have Cowell mock them. So, stick by the rules, play the part you’ve been chosen for and you’ll do well. And the more controversial you are, the more column inches you’ll get in The Sun.

Herein lies the fundamental flaw in the Turkish format. The show will only work if someone gets converted – that must be what the producers are praying for. But if the participants really are atheists, as the broadcaster insists, then the last thing they will want is God, and the lure of a pilgrimage to Mecca is scarcely an incentive. So the only good contestant for the producers will be exactly the sort of person the “commission of theologians” will be trying to weed out. It’ll be interesting to see the ratings.

Mind you, if it’s a hit, next year we’ll all be glued to “Britain’s Got God”. Starring Reverend Simon Cowell of course.