Sunday, July 25, 2010

Not A Dry Eye In The House

At least I’d been warned.

In New York hardened critics had sobbed uncontrollably; 50-year-olds kept their 3D glasses on in the street for fear of revealing red-rimmed evidence; meanwhile, their bemused children were wondering what all the fuss was about. Such, apparently, is the power of Toy Story 3 to make grown men cry.

So, fearing that this film might present my masculinity with a bit of a challenge, I came armed with a healthy dose of sarcasm. It’s worked in the past. I watched Titanic at a celebrity preview. At the climax (he dies), the entire audience laughed and cheered with relief that such a clunky, preposterous movie was finally ending.

In the 1970s I went with fellow students to see Love Story. At its climax (she dies), a single middle-aged woman about ten rows in front of us started to bawl hysterically. Her cries of distress prompted fits of giggles, which soon turned to guffaws around the theatre.

So on Saturday night I reckoned that, with a little cynicism, I could probably cope with some schmaltz about a few plastic toys. No soppy film could turn me to a blubbering wreck. Well, apart from Finding Nemo, Dr Zhivago, The Sound of Music, It’s A Wonderful Life and pretty much any movie with someone being reunited or separated in the final scene. Just in case, I popped a clean white handkerchief into my pocket. I told Jo it was for her.

It’s the last in the Toy Story trilogy (I guess it didn’t start out as a trilogy, but Hollywood does likes to cash in on a good thing). Andy, the little boy whose toys come to life when he’s not looking, has grown up and is off to college. He’s clearing out his bedroom to make way for his younger sister, and must decide what to do with the toys. Will they be taken with him, stored in the attic, donated to a day care centre, or dumped in the bin?

I’m not going to give the game away, but I guarantee that no man with children (let alone 5, of whom most have left home and one is only just discovering the joy of toys) will leave dry-eyed. I wept into my bucket of popcorn and had to sit right through the credits to calm down.

So what makes it strike such a chord? Most children in the cinema appeared to enjoy it, but none seemed overly upset as Andy goes off into the sunset.

Critics have suggested that it stirs memories of lost toys and leaving home, nostalgia for happier times past. Not in my case: I was quite chirpy about leaving for university, and dumped my toys at the jumble sale when I was 12.

No, I reckon it’s about the transient nature of life and how parents must feel about the inevitable departure of their own children. At 18 months, Izzy has already passed a major milestone on her road to independence. She now says things like “cat”, “dog”, “down” and “Daddy” and has lengthy private conversations of great intensity (although in complete gobbledygook) with her dolls. Almost overnight, she has become a tiny person, living in her own fantasy world, not ours.

We’ve only recently noticed the passing of her baby phase, now lost to us forever. “She’ll be leaving us soon”, said a red-eyed Jo, as we recovered from the movie with a bottle of strong wine. “At least the bank manager will be relieved”, I said. Jo threw me a dark look.

The fact is, in our child’s eyes we’re the toys, and, much as we love playing with her, sometime soon we’re going to have to give her up to the real world outside. And, as Woody and his toy friends found out, that’s possibly the saddest feeling any parent can have.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Surprise

My brother-in-law sat meekly in the back of the car smothered with bright pink paper. With a gold bow stuck on top, Jo’s first surprise was complete.

Josh had flown halfway round the world to be with his sister for her birthday. Now exhausted with jetlag, he was sweating on the back seat of a hot car dressed as a parcel.

The problem was, Jo didn’t want her surprise.
“It’s not my birthday till Tuesday: I’ll open it then”, she said, absorbed with Izzy in The Night Garden. “But it’s too big to hide – please go outside and open it”. She had sighed earlier as I’d said I was going to town to “collect something”.

Like all men, I normally only shop for presents at the eleventh hour, but she hoped I’d at least made an effort for her 40th. The one thing she really wanted was a pair of size 35 Christian Louboutin shoes, quite unobtainable in Newcastle, so, despite a few hints and a magazine left open at an appropriate advert, she guessed I’d ended up making the usual panic buy at Fenwick’s. She hoped I’d kept the receipt.
“Just put it in the shed, I promise I won’t look”, she said. “It’s a bit bulky – give me a hand with the…dangly bits”. I’d nearly said “arms”.

Eventually I dragged her outside to look. She gasped when I opened the car door. I admit it did look a little alarming. Josh was holding himself perfectly still, arms strapped to his sides. You couldn’t see an inch of flesh and you’d never have guessed it was a body, were it not for the brightly coloured trainers sticking out the bottom. “Er, that’s just weird”, was the disappointed reaction. “Is it a Raoul Moat doll?”

She was serious. The murderer had been the only thing on our minds for the entire week. Now it crossed her mind that some shop in Newcastle might already be selling replicas. This was too eccentric, even for me. Or perhaps it was a real corpse?

Suddenly the cadaver coughed and Jo shrieked. “Open it before it suffocates”, I urged. She gingerly tore back the top, and there was her beloved brother, face now pink as the wrapping paper: “Surprise!”

Organising Jo’s 40th birthday was more complicated than any television programme.

The climax of the big day was to be a secret party at a friend’s house. For weeks emails had pinged across Northumberland as her girlfriends and I conspired. But with a week to go Jo had become increasingly gloomy. She muttered darkly about missing LA and her family; she wanted the beach and a plate of decent sushi.

Suddenly I twigged: when Jo had started dropping hints about her birthday, all her friends had made excuses because they didn’t want to blow the surprise – some said they were working, the rest were “out of town”. Her great friend Claire, in panic, said she was going to be “in Stockholm”.

Then gloom turned to suspicion: was something afoot? So we arranged decoys: a girly supper here, a lunch there, a beach picnic the following weekend (when Claire had returned from Stockholm).

The birthday dawned with breakfast in bed and a series of unexpected arrivals: a hairdresser, a masseuse, then a huge tray of fresh sashimi, made by the obliging chef at Yo Sushi.
But best of all was her shock that night as we arrived at the party to the massed screams of “Surprise!” from all her friends. There was an enormous cake featuring a 40-Star Spangled Banner above an image of the present I’d given her just an hour before: the very pair of Louboutins she’d seen in the magazine.

Thank goodness it’s ten years till we have to do it all again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shadow Of A Gunman

[Raoul Moat, the gunman who wounded his ex-girlfriend and murdered her lover, then shot an unarmed policeman, was on the run for 7 days - just a few miles from our house. He shot himself after being surrounded by police in the early hours of yesterday morning]

It wasn’t until Saturday evening that we finally unbolted our front door. It had taken us a whole day to accept that Moat really was gone and that the threat was over.

From our house you can clearly see the ridge of Simonside, crouching like a dark brooding panther over Rothbury. We’re directly south of the town, just a few miles by crow, maybe an hour or two by slinking foot along the disused railway cutting that runs a few hundred yards from where Moat was eventually found, through the middle of the now infamous Wagtail Farm, towards our own innocent hamlet. Jo and I had studied the map: it would take him maybe twenty minutes along the back roads by stolen car, perhaps an hour by horseback – but if we were him, we’d use that old railway line. The tension blowing in the hot wind across the fields played tricks with our imagination. It was hard not to be scared: the poor dogs scarcely had one long walk all week.

Husbands worked from home, unwilling to leave wives and children alone even during the day. Some friends in isolated farmhouses moved out to stay with relatives in Morpeth. Our village shop was full of gossip and sightings: the national newspapers, which had ignored us for two hundred years, screamed headlines about the beauty of our neighbourhood and the beast that was our unwelcome guest.

Rumours reached us that Moat might have moved south and crossed into our own valley. On Thursday morning Jo saw a figure walking across the field outside the house and ran panicking to tell me. It was only the farmer, off to cut hay. His family had farmed this quiet land for 85 years and they’d never felt any threat to disturb their peaceful existence, but now even he felt concerned.

One friend lives just down the road from Pauperhaugh, where, he told us, a house had been broken into and clothing and food were stolen. According to the owner, police had taken fifteen minutes to arrive, unarmed and unwilling to enter, even though they could see movement behind an upstairs window. It took another fifteen minutes for gun-wielding colleagues to show up, by which time Moat had slipped back into the night.

Jo couldn’t understand why the police were unarmed. I explained that our police officers don’t carry guns. “How do they arrest the criminals, then?” It was a simple enough question, but I couldn’t really supply an answer. “They just politely ask them to accompany them to the police station, I guess.”

Jo laughed: America is a different world. It certainly is: though, in all the five years I lived there, I never felt touched by crime – it was only something we watched on the news.

That was what made the events of this last week so shocking. Jo and I had chosen this beautiful area largely because of its unspoilt tranquility, its remoteness, because it’s like living in a gentler, bygone era. We go to Rothbury for the market, for the rhododendrons at Cragside in June, for the butcher that sells, eccentrically, crocodile steaks along with the lamb from local farms. Like Raoul Moat, I would come here as a child, loving its isolation. As a teenager I would walk the hills above the Coquet alone, living my own world. It was a place where you could escape.

The night that Moat died, five people were injured in a shooting in Brixton. It scarcely made the inside pages, for this kind of violence is commonplace in most big cities. But for this part of rural Northumberland, the happenings of the last week will, I suspect, have brought the cold reality of the outside world just a little too close.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Losing It

About to jet off to that long-awaited sunshine holiday? Scared of dusting off the bikini and the Speedos in case you frighten the natives? Fear not: I have found the solution. Two weeks ago I was a near-obese 15 stone 5 pounds; yesterday I’d dropped to 14 stone 8 pounds.

See, it’s not only the England football team and Andy Murray who’ve lost a lot in the last fortnight – in my case, the loss is a triumph: 11 pounds and a whole two inches off the waistline. And you know how I feel? Absolutely dreadful.

In a previous post I wrote how I happened upon a French doctor called Pierre Dukan being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. Please don’t ask me why I was surreptitiously listening to a radio programme from which half the population is excluded, but the item has transformed me. I’ve already tightened my belt to the last hole, the black baggy shirts are packed away and I can look down and see parts of me that have been hidden for years, if you get my drift. Sadly I also know it’s only the first chapter of what is fast becoming a horror story.

The idea behind the Frenchman’s diet is that you eat only protein for five days. That sounds easy enough: as much lean meat, fish, egg whites as you can bear, together with the odd fat-free yoghurt. Then you can add vegetables every other day until, like a deflated hot air balloon, you gently land on your chosen new weight. Apparently this whole process takes a couple of months, and then there’s another period called “stabilisation”, which takes even longer.

Sadly this new diet fails to warn of some important drawbacks. In order to do it properly, you have to give up all social life, get divorced, and become the grouchiest, most unpleasantly gloomy individual on the planet, grumpier than even Gordon Brown at his worst. Oh, and your body and breath begin to smell like a decomposing bison.

I’ve been keeping a regular diary of my progress on a website called It’s not exactly light reading. Yesterday, sitting in our favourite pub, The Ox Inn, carefully pushing to the side Mark’s delicious roast and mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing and five different vegetables and slowly chewing three lonely slices of roast beef, I asked myself if it’s worth it. As my 12 year old slurped through the best sticky toffee pudding in the county, I was reassured that it’s all going to be over on August 21st – just 144 joyless meals to go.

That’s the day a very talented local photographer called Pam Hordon takes our family portrait. It was my father’s day present from Izzy, who has no idea what chaos it has caused. I’m determined that this picture will, in thirty years’ time when I’m pushing up the daisies, remind her of a svelte, confident, sprightly father. Sure, it may also capture a grey-skinned old man with baggy eyes and a headache, who’s permanently falling asleep (four other side-effects of this ghastly diet) but at least he’ll be slim. Vanity, thy name is Gutteridge.

I’ve noticed a number of things since I started. First, how much junk food is on offer everywhere you go; second, how difficult it is to find anything on a restaurant menu that isn’t swimming in sauce; third, how many pot bellies there are on the streets of Newcastle; and finally, how seductive bacon smells first thing in the morning.

Last night my friend Keith came up with a brilliant solution, an idea of such blindingly obvious genius it could have saved me all this agony. Take the photograph now, and then airbrush out the fat. It works for supermodels, apparently. Maybe you could do it with your holiday snaps as well.