Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life's A Bitch

Disaster. Jo’s just rung me to say that Poppy is getting worse. Our new Jack Russell, saved from Battersea Dogs Home, may have the cutest ears in the world and a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-dogbowl expression, but the chemistry just isn’t working with poor Mabel.

This all-female experiment is failing.
The three dogs are happy to sleep together in the same bed at night, and pad after each other round the house. Every morning we take the three of them out and they madly dash round our 14 acre hayfield, searching out rabbits and fox poo (which Poppy is always the first to roll in – her white coat now smells of Timotei as she's already exhausted our supply of doggy shampoo).

However, after a couple of days of reasonably cheerful team bonding, we noticed that Mabel and Poppy were starting to argue about who was allowed to run the fastest, and Truffle, as self-appointed leader of the pack, would come snarling in to separate them.
Poppy is sweet and funny and quite loveable, and she’s wonderful with Izzy, but she clearly wants to be the dominant dog and Mabel was determined to fight her ground.

Yesterday morning, while I was in London, Jo rang in a panic to say that on the walk Poppy had seized one of Mabel’s ears and started shaking it, in much the way Jack Russells like to kill rats. Mabel was shaken but unhurt, and life resumed. But this morning Poppy went for Mabel again, teeth bared and growling. Mabel had enough, shrieked and ran home alone.
So now Jo and I are admitting defeat.

It’s a bitch too far: Poppy needs a new home.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Challenge Delhi

Challenge Anneka, that’s what Delhi needs right now. A lycra-clad superwoman rushing around the city in a buggy with just a mobile phone and a television network for help. She’d have the job done as soon as you could say “product placement”.

“Gosh – we need 1,500 plumbers, 1,000 electricians and 7,000 mattresses to replace the ones the wild dogs walked over, and our athletes are arriving by teatime” she’d gush to her trusty soundman, and in a trice an army of volunteers would appear. Seeking no greater recompense than a smile from their heroine and a plug for their employers’ companies, the workers would set to and, just before the opening ceremony, the last paintbrush would be put down, the lights switched on and everyone would cheer.

I have a terrible feeling it isn’t going to end that way. As I write this, the Indian army has been summoned and it looks as though some poor athletes are just going to have to grin and slum it.

When I wrote the first Radio Times blurb for Challenge Anneka (“Making the impossible possible through the power of television”), I already knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Our first challenge was a disaster, largely because I naively thought you could restore the White Horse of Weymouth in an afternoon. You could if you had the Indian army and a thousand tons of Portland stone waiting in a layby. We only managed to muster a few boy scouts and 7 volunteers from the local Rotary Club, and just about completed the horse’s head by the end of the show.

We took no chances with the rest of the series. Three highly efficient television producers called Julia, Janine and Beverley planned it all like a military campaign. Could we build a footbridge over a Cornish river in just a weekend? Of course not. It took three months to persuade British Steel to give us the materials, and a contractor to turn it into struts, and a transport firm to loan us a lorry to carry it. The whole thing was planned down to the last rivet and Anneka’s first call merely triggered a tightly controlled chain reaction. 20 years later our bridge still hasn’t fallen down, unlike the one in Delhi.

The person I feel most sorry for is Lalit Bhanot, hapless secretary general of the Commonwealth Games organising committee. Not only has he brought the wrath of a proud nation on his shoulders by his committee’s inability to organise a poppadom in a curry house, he compounded it by saying Western standards of hygiene are different to India’s.

I spent a whole year living in India and found it perfectly comfortable, even in 1980. That’s possibly because I slept in a campervan, which my girlfriend and I had driven over from England. Occasionally craving a shower, we would drive into a remote village and imperiously demand of a crowd of excited children, “Where’s the Inspection Bungalow?” We’d then be led to the only stone building in town, built for the travelling magistrate in the days of the Raj. An ancient retainer would emerge from behind its dusty doors and, assuming that the British had finally returned, make up the four-poster bed, cook us a meal and boil water for the rusty showers – all for around 50 pence.

In Delhi itself we stayed at the very grand Imperial Hotel, but only in the car park, where the manager allowed us to camp and use the showers. It was very comfortable and I recommend it to any athlete stuck for a roof over his head. Although if the building work isn’t finished in time, I doubt even Anneka would be able to rustle up a spare camper van to help out with Delhi’s accommodation crisis over the next few days.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Family Grows Again

As soon as I heard the question, I knew I was in trouble.

“Babe, please can I ask a huge favour?”

Normally my wife doesn’t ask, she tells. But now she was ringing me at the office for a huge favour? I clearly wasn’t going to like this.

“Well, there’s this Jack Russell…”

“No”, I cut her off. “No more dogs”.

“But our friend is moving to London on Friday so Poppy’s being sent to Battersea Dogs Home, and…”

I firmly put my foot down. “She? Poppy? Absolutely, definitively no way.” We already had two female dogs, one female cat and a one-year-old daughter. That was already more women than any house could handle.

“But she has great big ears like Muka”.

This was below the belt. Muka was the dog that died. I’d taken her to the vet and held her as they injected the blue poison. Her big bat ears were outstretched as she collapsed in my arms. I’d cried so much I had to stop the car on the way home. Jo knows my weakness for dogs with cute ears. I felt my foot, only just put so firmly on the floor, begin to raise itself. Perhaps we might discuss it tonight.

Then I heard a familiar pause. Men can always detect the sound of a guilty woman’s brain. There’s a distinct gap between thought and word while they’re putting together a sentence explaining how the shoes were half price in the sale and the last ones in the shop, or how it was only a little dent in the bumper, or how it had been quite impossible not to invite her mother to stay for six weeks. Then the pause was broken by an unfamiliar bark.

“Oh no, you’ve done it already – she’s there, isn’t she?”

“Kind of.”

I am the only man in a house of needy females. Apart from Jo, who’s actually rather lower maintenance than her Los Angeles background might suggest (thank God there are no decent designer clothes shops in Newcastle), there’s Truffle and Mabel, the most neurotic spaniels in Northumberland, Poncho, the cat who terrorises both, and Izzy.

“Daddeeeee” she screamed as I opened the front door, and watched her runnning the length of the kitchen into my arms, all wild hair and giggles.

“Daw”, she laughed excitedly, pointing at the new arrival. Yes, there was the daw, lying on a clean blanket in front of the Aga, tail wagging in greeting. I tried to ignore her, but Izzy wanted to tell me all about her.

Izzy’s language is incredibly advanced. She speaks in long flowing sentences of great intensity. If you look away, she pulls your face towards her and forces you to look into her bright blue eyes while she gabbles. I really should capture her language on film and send it to a codebreaker, for the only words I understood were “daw” and “Mama”. Yes, Mama had got a new daw, and Daddy wasn’t very happy about it.

If I was uncertain about Poppy, Truffle and Mabel were devastated. Poppy was clearly used to being top dog. Truffle soon put her straight, but poor, sweet Mabel, was very confused, slinking unhappily round the room.

Then Poppy saw the cat, and went wild. It was just the get-out we needed. Jo and the cat had been inseparable for thirteen years. “You’re right, Poppy must go”, she said. I made us a coffee, opened a packet of biscuits, and began to plan her eviction.

A few minutes later we heard a wimper and turned round. All three dogs were sitting together, staring at the plate of biscuits. Poppy, head on one side, with a large ear sticking out and the other flopped over, slowly raised her paw in supplication.

Jo and I sighed in unison. Welcome to your new home, Poppy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Who Is Michael Smith?

Having been silently fuming all week about a BBC4 documentary about Newcastle at the weekend called Michael Smith's Deep North, I was delighted to read Keith Hann's withering comments, published in The Journal on Tuesday and reiterated with even more venom in his blog, where he wrote:

Then I switched channels to BBC4 and also felt compelled to cram in some abuse for “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.”

First thought: if this bloke is a novelist, how come an eager reader of the literary supplements like myself has never heard of him? Second thought: if he is Geordie, how come he sounds nothing like one? It could be argued that I don’t sound much like one myself, it is true, but this bloke did have some sort of accent, just distinctly not a Newcastle one. He first outed himself as coming from “a small town about 30 miles away” and later apparently confessed that it was Hartlepool. (I had lost interest by that point and was only half-watching the programme, as I indulged in a vigorous debate on Facebook about where this wanker came from and how on earth he had got the gig). I am profoundly sorry that space did not permit me to get the popular description “monkey hanger” into the paper.

(Note for overseas readers: Hartlepool is a port in County Durham famous for capturing and interrogating a monkey that had escaped from the wreck of a French ship during the Napoleonic wars, and hanging it as a spy. Even more bizarrely, the mascot of the local football team, who paraded around in a monkey suit under the name of H’Angus, stood for election as mayor AS A JOKE in 2002, under the slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren” and was not only elected then, but has been re-elected on two subsequent occasions. I know London also has a joke mayor in the shape of Boris Johnson, but surely this must be uniquely absurd in all the annals of representative democracy? And, yes, I do know about the English Democrats in Doncaster.)

Third and final (for now) thought about Michael Smith: if the BBC wanted to make a programme about Newcastle, why couldn’t they have got a genuine Geordie to do it? One with some original ideas, who would not stumble over his lines? I am open to offers. And, failing that, there are undoubtedly several thousand other people on Tyneside who could also have done what Sir John Major would almost certainly describe as a not inconsiderably better job.

Well written, Mr Hann. I gather Michael Smith is some sort of pundit, the sort of chap periodically wheeled out by arts programmes and BBC4 when they need someone with northern roots and a regional accent. I'm sending the BBC a map of our region, so they can see that Hartlepool has no more connection to Newcastle, culturally or geographically, than Southend has to Chelsea. Apparently Michael Smith went to Tynemouth on his holidays: I spent every day of my childhood there.

At least the BBC will have added a few thousand extra shots of the Tyne Bridge to its library (perhaps they could use them again in their coverage of the Great North Run on Sunday), but there wasn't a single image of the real Newcastle. Perhaps that was because the film was made by a London production company?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dressing For Dinner

On Friday I received an evening to a formal dinner with the stipulation: “Black Tie or Lounge Suit”.

What an appalling choice. Wear the former, and I could be the only penguin in the room; people might hail me and ask for bottles of mineral water. Yet if I opt for the latter I’ll be sure to be the only one who hasn’t been to Moss Bros. Women have it so much easier these days. They want to look different; men just need to look the same.

That’s why in the old days men wore uniform from school to the grave. Short trousers till 12, caps till the Sixth Form, black tie for dinner: life was regimented and stable. This deregulation is utterly stressful for males like me who are incapable of dressing themselves – or so my wife claims.

At least going out to a nice restaurant just meant putting on a jacket and tie. No longer, apparently. According to a report I read yesterday, none of Britain’s top 100 restaurants now require men to wear jackets and ties. Our region only has two restaurants in that heady echelon (as defined by the 2009 National Restaurant Awards): Secco and CafĂ© 21. Thankfully both seem perfectly happy to feed me despite my jeans and loafers.

Years ago I was taken for dinner to the Savoy Hotel and, sitting in the bar, was accosted by the head waiter who firmly but politely hissed in my ear, “Will Sir be dining with us tonight?”

As I was clutching his menu, I should have thought the answer was fairly obvious, but I bit my tongue and replied “I rather hope so”. “Does Sir have a tie?”

No, Sir certainly did not: he had a designer shirt and a bespoke suit, but no tie. Sir was not to worry: the cloakroom attendant could sort him out. So, like a naughty five year old, I was sent to the toilet.

Surrounded by bottles of aftershave, ivory-backed clothes brushes and clean white towels, the man produced a battered wooden box from under the counter. Inside was a collection of the scruffiest ties I had ever seen. There were gravy-stained mementos of old boys’ associations, rugby clubs, and the sort of pink and blue things that signify the uniform of solicitors, accountants and estate agents: all quite horrendous. I don’t know how the Savoy had accumulated these monstrosities over the years, but I could see why their owners no longer missed them.

Trying to appear nonchalant, I selected the least grim affair, a stripy gold and grey object, too broad to be modern, but passable with my blue shirt. “A popular choice,” said the old man, as he pocketed my pound coin tip. “Do you get many people without ties, then?” I asked. “A few – mostly actors”, he said dismissively. “We had an artist in here last week. Hockney, his name was. He chose that same tie you’re wearing”. I swaggered into dinner.

Until last year I belonged to one of London’s oldest clubs, The Athenaeum. I finally resigned when the membership voted, for the umpteenth time, against modernising its dress code. The club only admitted women a couple of years ago, and then only after fierce debate within its crusty membership. I only used it once a year when I needed to impress my bank manager. It was also the only day I ever wore a tie. Now I take the manager to Grouchos and intimidate him with tie-less celebrities.

The fact is, places that make you dress up normally manage to combine boring food with dull clientele. The best restaurant in the world, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, has no dress code: the owner says to wear whatever makes you comfortable.

But that’s the problem: why do I still only feel comfortable wearing the same as everyone else?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Biggest Arse in British Politics - R.I.P.

Cyril Smith’s enormous backside completely filled the television screen. The Liberal MP was bending down to put a diminutive stuffed chicken into the oven behind him and the cameraman had zoomed in just a little too close for comfort.

“There should be a law against that,” said comedian Willie Rushton, who was attempting to put together a toad-in-the-hole. The audience in the majestic ballroom of London’s Savoy Hotel was helpless with laughter. That one shot – in effect a blank screen – was held for about ten seconds and became a defining moment in my television career. At the age of thirty I was moving from news and current affairs into the dizzy world of entertainment.

Those were the days when the people who ran the television channels trusted their producers. I remember the call from Brian Wenham, the Controller of BBC2: “Tom, we need to do some literature. You did English at university, didn’t you? I don’t really care what you produce, just make a bit of a splash”.

So I put together ten separate programmes about books, all of which were broadcast in a single week. One was about crime writing, which we set on board the Orient Express. We hired the train for the day and drove it to Bognor Regis and back, filming a murder on the way. That show was presented, I recall, by James Burke and Shaw (“Keep ‘em peeled”) Taylor from Police 5. It was terrible: a true crime against quality television.

Ned Sherrin presented something aptly entitled I, Me, Myself, which was supposed to be about autobiographies, but ended up as a lot of anecdotes about Sherrin’s friends in musical theatre. There was a live Booker Prize ceremony, hosted by Russell Harty, and also a number of fairly decent documentaries. But the highlight of the week, and by far the most popular, was Cookshow, presented by Esther Rantzen.

It was the world’s first celebrity cooking show. Willie and Cyril, together with Gerald Harper, Jane Asher and the singer Suzi Quatro, had to prepare recipes from five cookery writers, including Delia Smith and Prue Leith. Of the five, Cyril Smith and Jane Asher were the only really capable cooks. Jane was already baking cakes for her young family, and Cyril used to cook for his mother, with whom he lived in Rochdale. At 29 stones or more, and 6 foot 2 inches tall, he was the size of a small terraced house. He towered over the tiny Quatro, whom I deliberately put beside him in the cook-off.

Smith loved publicity, and throughout the 80’s you could always rely on him to show up as a token figure of fun. He would have been the perfect Celebrity Big Brother house guest. British politics hasn’t been nearly as colourful since he retired, and his death earlier this week was a loss.

His famous statement that Parliament was the longest-running farce in the West End now seems way ahead of its time. I can’t imagine what he thought of the current Lib-Tory coalition – he was utterly against the Lib-Lab pact in 1977, and railed against the SDP-Liberal alliance when it was first formed. He was one of those men who always said what he thought (well, to be honest, he often said things before he’d thought about them). He never changed his politics, though he changed his political party several times during his career, and once tried to form a new one.

Beneath his jolly fat man exterior was a politician of steel and, although I detested some of his views, particularly on abortion and capital punishment, I had to admire his resolve. And his roast chicken.