Sunday, December 27, 2009

Seasons Greetings

One of the few disappointing aspects of life in Southern California, where I spent half the last decade, was the absence of seasons. The weather went from hot to stifling and back again; roses flowered in the garden most of the year and we wore shorts almost every day.

Admittedly, every August brought terrible bush fires; desert winds whipped up the flames, brought out the news helicopters and sent clouds of black choking smoke into our back yards. Then, just when we feared the fires would consume entire communities, the October rains would come: three weeks of continuous downpours sent homes cascading down hillsides in giant mudslides. Those were our three seasons: Heat, Fire and Mud. How I longed for good old English spring. Even a few days of our chilly, wet summer would have been welcome; snow would have been miraculous.

When I returned to London, though the leaves came and went, the warmth from the city’s pollution somehow disguised each season’s true identity. We knew it was summer because there were hosepipe bans; every October our basement would flood in the storms. Even when we moved back to Northumberland, we were surprised by how mild the seasons were; we had precious little snow for the first two years.

That’s why I find this long cold spell particularly gratifying. It’s the first time I can remember waking up to a white Christmas, in a proper winter: everything lying dormant and waiting for the warmth of a fresh start. What more appropriate way to start a new decade?

I greeted the last one with feigned celebration in an absurdly opulent overpriced hotel in Mauritius. Despite it being the dawn of an entire millennium, I sensed no particular global optimism or sense of renewal. It was the most anti-climactic page turn, from one image of certainty to the next.

What a difference a decade makes. From the moment the twin towers collapsed, the safe, overindulgent world we knew began to fall apart, ending with the disintegration of our financial system and the exposure of our politicians’ greed and corruption. The long summer of confidence became an autumn of insecurity and fear. Now, though, things appear to be in stasis. It’s time for reconstruction.

I find myself anticipating 2010 with confidence. Even though, thanks to a combination of the stock market and my own profligacy, I have rather less material security than in 1999, I am seriously looking forward to the “tens” (please, let’s not call them the teens).

As I write, one cause of my optimism has just crawled under my desk. If, ten years ago, when I was 47, I’d been told I’d become a father again, I’d have laughed at the absurdity of an unnecessary distraction to my comfortably materialistic world. Now I have a wonderful giggling daughter who celebrates her first birthday next week. I race to her bedside each morning to catch her first smile; I savour every milestone. On Christmas Day she stood for the first time.

This morning I took Izzy into the garden to show her the birds eating the seeds we put out yesterday. I pointed to the snow covered ground. “Look, Izzy, snowdrops”. The new shoots are already poking through the melting snow. By the time they flower she’ll be toddling. When the roses bloom she’ll be saying “Daddy”. Next winter we’ll build a snowman together.

But my sense of optimism springs from more than just my own transformed life. Our world has changed forever and we now have a chance to make it a great deal better. My hope is for a new order in which family values and local community are placed alongside mutual respect and social responsibility; a less selfish, more concerned decade. Well, that’s my seasonal wish, anyway; and with it, my very best regards to you all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Farewell Terry Wogan

When Sir Terry Wogan signed off his last breakfast show on Friday with the words “thank you for being my friend”, there must have been a run on Kleenex up and down the land.

Terry has been breakfast companion to millions since 1972. It’s an extraordinary achievement: no wonder our prime minister took time off from saving the planet in Copenhagen to pay him a eulogy, speaking of how much he and Sarah will miss him. Actually, I suspect the Browns are more likely to have the Today programme on over their porridge, but the tribute would have gone down well with Wogan’s potential 8 million voters. Such is Wogan power. But what was special about Terry was not his influence or vast audience but his unique sense of responsibility and humility towards his listeners.

“This is the day I have been dreading”, he said, as he told of his pride that his audience thought of him as “a friend, close enough to laugh with and occasionally, when the world seemed just a little too cruel, to shed a tear with”.

Radio is an intensely personal medium. Those who tune in at that time of the morning, with their radios in their kitchens or their bedrooms, are inviting a stranger into their lives. The morning show is vitally important because the person you share your first cup of tea or coffee with is the most important person in your life. Which is why the appointment of Chris Evans as Wogan’s replacement is such a risk for Radio Two.

Most radio presenters are just that, “presenters”: the listener tunes in and is presented to. There’s an obligation to treat the audience to a performance, ranging from the arrogant to the bland. In America they call presenters “hosts”; they expect the audience to come and enjoy their party. Wogan was neither. He alone understood the special relationship that can be forged between listener and broadcaster. He became, for a few magical hours each morning, a “friend”.

Chris Evans is a great host, but he’s nobody’s friend. His self-importance and contempt for his listeners was evident on Friday when he was asked about the Wogan succession. “He’s not a hard act to follow; he’s a hard act to beat and compete with,” crowed Evans, clearly seeing it as a competition for ratings and redemption. “This is the ultimate chance,” he claimed excitedly, “the drive in the Ferrari”. When Evans takes over in the New Year, the BBC has given him an extra half hour on air, presumably in order to increase the audience “reach”, and thereby cushion his ratings, the only way Evans measures his own rehabilitation.

Like any great event in history, Terry’s final fadeout was a memorable moment so I was determined to record what I was doing at the precise moment of his departure.

He was just saying the words “thank you for allowing me to share your lives with you”, as I was driving underneath the Tyne Bridge. Suddenly I spotted a large body splashing in the river. It was breaking the surface and appeared to be waving frantically towards the shore. Sensing a call for help, or at the very least a scoop for the local paper, I pulled over to call the emergency services.

Then I realised that it was in fact a large grey seal, triumphantly sporting an enormous salmon in its mouth. I felt the urge to share this sight with someone and realised that if I’d been one of Terry’s Old Geezers, I would have dialed up his studio and be put straight on air. Whereupon I would probably have been gently teased by the great man for having imbibed too much nectar the night before. Whereas the Evans team would have launched a competition called “Weirdest Sightings”. That’s the difference.

Wogan will indeed be dearly missed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Freezing Through A Global Warming

“What’s the difference between a Hungarian goose and a Russian one?” I asked the lady in the duvet department.

The fact that I was buying a duvet at all was an admission of defeat. After five years in Los Angeles, Jo and I have been experiencing extreme climate change since our move to the northeast. Having shipped all our summery clothes and bedding with us, being a stubbornly proud northerner striding out in all weathers without a jacket, I had refused to accept that we might need more than our 2 tog Beverly Hills model.

As a result Jo has shivered through the last two winters clad in thick socks, thermals and pyjamas. Quite how her tender Californian skin has survived was beyond me until, last week, I caught her secretly sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to press the “Always On” button on the central heating. That explains the oil bills: we could have bought a 300-metre high wind farm for half the cost. So it was off to John Lewis to pick up a 13.5 tog special.

Duck down, feather, microfibre, Polyester: when faced with too much consumer choice, I automatically assume that expensive is best. This put the goose way out in front, but what of its nationality? I couldn’t remember ever seeing a picture of either a Hungarian or a Russian goose. Were they the ones that made such a mess of the paths around Bolam Lake? No, they were Canadian: why were there no Canada geese duvets on sale?

“The colder the country, the warmer the duvet”, the shop assistant explained, in that slow, patient way that parents speak to children who ask awkward questions.

“But isn’t Russia much colder than Hungary?” I ventured. “Oh, no”, she insisted, “parts of Hungary are colder than Russia”. This was getting really complicated. I’ve been to Hungary and it wasn’t particularly cold. Grey, dull, terrible food, but not particularly cold. Whereas Russia: “Isn’t Siberia in Russia?” I asked. “Well, we do have a range of Winter Snow Goose duvets from the Altai region near Mongolia, but they’re £1,000 for a Super-King”.

“If only global warming could happen a bit more quickly,” I murmured, rather too loudly, and heard a loud tut-tut behind me. Definitely not a comment for a nice liberal shop like John Lewis in the week of the Copenhagen climate conference. I quickly grabbed the hottest Hungarian I could find and headed for the checkout.

In fact, if global warming is going to happen, sometimes I do wish it could get a move on. Now it looks as though we might have to wait a bit longer, if the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia are anything to go by. Could it be that the scientists who supply the world with its official climate figures have been cooking the books?

Whatever the truth, I’m glad that the Climategate scandal has at least generated a little scientific debate on the subject of human-induced global warming. I can’t stand one-sided arguments. Sometimes I infuriate people at dinner parties by taking a viewpoint utterly opposed to common sense, just to see how far I can push it. People who utter such tosh as “science has proved that global warming is man-made” have always got up my nose. Now it’s nice to have a little spanner to throw into the argument.

But of course this doesn’t actually change a thing. You don’t need scientific proof to know that our society wastes too much of everything. And it shouldn’t need a conference in Copenhagen to persuade our world leaders to tackle overconsumption – of fossils fuels and everything else. Meanwhile, if the world is actually cooling not warming, it’s time to switch off the Aga and start breeding winter snow geese.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How To Kill A Mouse

Fearless jungle survivor Gino D’Acampo, winner of I’m A Celebrity, is to face animal cruelty charges after killing and cooking a rat on the ITV show. The chef decapitated the creature with his kitchen knife before running up a tasty little ratatouille for his junglemates. Now the Australian RSPCA is to take action: it turns out the rat was tame, and, like the other crawly things in the programme, put into the scenery for effect.

Mind you, if it had been wild, he wouldn’t have got near it. Rodents are elusive little critters. We had our share of them last week. After one night of heavy frost, every fieldmouse in the neighbourhood made straight for our Aga-warmed farmhouse. You can see little scratchmarks near the door where they queued to register at mouse reception.

At the hardware store I shunned the humane traps. A friend’s father had bought one and released six mice back into the wild on successive nights. Until he realised that each had a torn ear: it was the same mouse who couldn’t believe his luck that he could get a free meal and a courtesy limousine back home. I needed a killer device.

The man in the store recommended The Big Cheese. Lightweight and powerful, it certainly did its stuff. Three nights running we sat bolt upright, woken by the loud “snap” in the bathroom. In the morning Jo would order me in to retrieve the body. Three nights, three ex-mice. But on the fourth, things didn’t go so smoothly. At 3am the familiar “snap” forced us into consciousness. Then we heard “clunkety-clunkety-clunk”. “It’s alive”, screamed Jo, turning on the light. “Do something”.

This is every towny’s nightmare. I can cope with corpses, but a live mouse in a trap: where could I find a celebrity chef to deal with it at this time of night?

I pulled on my slippers and trudged sleepily to the bathroom. “Shut the door behind you” she warned. There was no going back. This was real country living – man versus mouse.

I saw him straightaway, cowering beneath the stool, The Big Cheese attached firmly to his front foot. That’ll teach you to put your foot in it, I said wryly, trying to make light of the situation. As I approached, he backed away, the trap clunkety-clunking behind him. Apart from this unfortunate encumbrance, the little chap seemed rather chipper. I pondered ways of dispatching him: frying pan (too bloody), meat cleaver (too wriggly), flushing him down the loo (too cruel).

I knelt down, and pulled the trap towards me. Immediately the mouse tugged it back. You’re a plucky little chap, I said, staring into his big brown eyes. After tugging to and fro a few times, I began to feel respect for his resilience. So I decided to release him.

I popped him in a plastic bag with the trap still attached. By now he was not only wild, he was furious. Outside it was pouring with rain as I crossed the drive to the edge of our wood and emptied the bag on the ground. But before I could bend down to set him free, he shot off into a pile of dead leaves.

What followed was like a scene from a cartoon as the mouse tore through the leaves, trap clunking behind him, with me in my pyjamas chasing after him into the darkness. Eventually it was too dark to see, so I ran indoors for a torch. When I returned, there was no sign of mouse or trap.

Words can’t express my guilt at that moment, or the absurdity of the situation: standing in slippers and pyjamas in the pouring rain in the middle of a dark wood at 4am, mourning a mouse I’d been trying to kill. I’d be so useless in the celebrity jungle.