Monday, August 29, 2011

The Visitor

The small crowd waiting at Arrivals turned and stared as the voice boomed out: “Is this Tom?”

She was just 5 feet, slim and muscular, her tiny frame buried beneath an enormous rucksack, yet the voice was deep and rasping, like rusty hinges on a heavy door. She must have been well over 50, with lines of care etched into her sundried face, yet she wore the short leather skirt, boots and tight lacy top of a teenager. This was Maria from Venezuela, and she had come to stay.

It was an innocent enough comment in a Californian gym that brought her into our lives. She was a personal trainer, and the woman being trained was Jo’s distant cousin. Maria was planning a trip to Scotland: did she have any suggestions?

“Gee, you must go visit Tom and Jo – they live in Scotland.” A pardonable error: even friends in London think Newcastle is near Aberdeen. Innocuous emails were exchanged: Could we look after her dear friend who was such fun and wanted to see some Scottish countryside? Of course we could, but we’re not actually in Scotland. Never mind, she’ll come for two nights. Oh dear.

On the short drive from the airport, we had scarcely put the red gravel driveways of Ponteland behind us before she told me she was divorcing her husband, had just been through the menopause, and was going to seduce a Scottish landowner whose advances she had rejected in her 20s, but who was almost certainly still in love with her.

Her command of English was as rusty as her voice, but she substituted what she lacked in vocabulary with a rich mix of Anglo-Saxon expletives. She had flown all the way from Florida with some terrible two-year-old in the next seat, except she didn’t use the word “terrible”. She had wanted to shoot the child, and would have done so if she had brought her husband’s pistol -- she demonstrated by pointing an imaginary gun at my head. I hoped Izzy would be on best behaviour.

Safely home, she greeted Jo like her best friend, patted Izzy gingerly on the head and slumped into a chair. I offered her a glass of wine. She shook her head to say no, but her voice said “just a little”. I opened a bottle of Chilean sauvignon blanc to make her feel at home (I know, but it’s close – well, as close as Newcastle is to Aberdeen), and mouthed at Jo “What shall we do with her?”

Then we heard the sobbing. We turned to see Maria, wine glass already drained, with red-rimmed eyes. “It was so good then,” she wailed, and then recounted, in details so graphic that I can’t begin to describe them here, her entire sex life from puberty to a fling with a minor Hollywood actor. Strangely, although I’d only poured a single glass, the bottle was half empty. An hour later I was restocking the fridge.

Jo and I went to bed early and left her mumbling incoherently at the dogs. Then, at around 2am, we heard loud thumps and bathwater running in her bedroom. “Oh my God, she’ll drown – do something”, said Jo. “I can’t go and see her in the bath”, I protested, so Jo padded upstairs and I heard a muffled scream.

“She was dancing stark naked with the bath overflowing”, said Jo. “I dragged her into bed and she passed out”. I think in my sleep I asked if she had a good body, because I remember a pillow hitting me on the head.

I’m ashamed to admit a host of important meetings appeared in my diary overnight, so Jo looked like thunder when she realised she’d be taking Maria to the Roman Wall herself.  Somehow we survived another night and I poured her onto the Edinburgh train with a bottle of good malt whisky as a gift for her landowner. I doubt it survived the journey. Good luck, Scotland.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Taking To The Skies


There’s no messing with Lord Stevens. Well over 6 feet tall, back straight as a redwood tree, the former head of the Metropolitan Police has a no-nonsense tone in his voice that has inspired respect and loyalty in equal measure throughout his distinguished life. He has charmed prime ministers and presidents, sat in judgment of the British Army and the RUC, and advised the government on international security. Now he was sitting in our dining room, staring across a plate of my homegrown beetroot, and frowning at me.

“Nonsense”, he barked, and I felt myself wilt. All I said was that I wished I’d taken flying lessons when I was younger, but was now too old and fat. The conversation had moved on from rioting (who better to invite for lunch after a week of lawless disorder?) to his other specialist subject and greatest passion, apart from his wife Cynthia.

John Stevens was literally born into flying. His father Cyril was
The S stands for Stevens
the founder of BKS, the airline that pioneered commercial flying out of Newcastle airport, and John took his first flight in a cockpit at the age of 4. He is President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, holds a commercial pilot licence and various stakes in planes that he flies to his numerous board meetings around the country.
Newcastle Airport when John Stevens was a lad: note the snow

“You’re never too old to fly,” he said. “You will come up with me this week: I promise you’ll be hooked.” The voice was insistent: not “can”, but “will”. “I have a fear of heights”, I protested in vain.

That much is true: Sam, my 13-year-old, knows not to try to get me onto Oblivion at Alton Towers, I’m nervous on a stepladder changing a lightbulb, and my neighbour takes pity on me when it’s time to trim the wisteria.

But I do have a boyhood fascination with airplanes, and Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington is very good company so, before head could engage with tongue, I heard myself say “I’ll be there”.

That’s why on Thursday I found myself in a cockpit with headphones and a steering yoke as John, sounding just like the pilot of a 747, was requesting permission to take off from Runway Seven Zero at Newcastle Airport. A black raincloud drifted towards us from the West. Although he flies regularly, he’d meticulously read out a list of pre-flight checks, inspected every inch of the single-engined plane (yikes, only one engine) and removed every last drop of condensation from the fuel tank.

We listened to air traffic control as a Thomson holiday jet in front of us lifted off for the sun. Then a moment of drama as the jet struck a bird and officials raced up the runway checking for debris. It was ten minutes before we could get airborne, but by then John had so calmed me down, we could have flown to the moon.

Immediately after takeoff he handed me the controls. “Let’s find your house”, he suggested, so I eased the yoke to the left and followed the Wansbeck. It was far more responsive and exciting than my car, like driving in 3D, and a few minutes later I spotted the garden below us. I was glad I’d mowed the lawn.

Izzy and Jo waved from a window as we circled overhead. “That’s Daddy in an airplane”, said Jo, and Izzy shouted “He’s going to Los Angeles”, that being the only point of a plane that she knew.

Later, John demonstrated something exhilarating called a touch and go, setting us down in a neighbouring meadow before zooming up again. We soared through the rain clouds to 7,000 feet, and then all Northumberland lay circling below us. There were no hills: all the ups and downs of life just seem to flatten out when you’re flying. I could have stayed up there forever.

Dreaming of blue skies
John was absolutely right: I’m hooked.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

After The Riots: Time For An Educational Rethink

Izzy is already proficient in Maths and English. Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration. To be precise, she can count to 16 (when climbing the stairs to bed) and, when asked her age, replies “I’m two…” before pausing and adding “and a half”.

Although that’s about the only evidence of her prodigy, Jo and I are, as you can imagine, typical proud parents, glowing happily when others say how bright she is.

Long may it last. In just four weeks, she will enter Britain’s educational system via the nursery class at our local state school. From then, we’ll be trusting teachers to help deliver her into adulthood both literate and numerate. If Carol Vorderman has her way, she will be learning numbers until she is 18. And, if I have my way, she will be writing her first novel at 12. And a half.

The events of the past week have turned the political spotlight onto how we bring up our children. 11-year-olds running amok on our streets, arms full of stolen trainers and iPhones; gangs of teenagers throwing missiles at unarmed policemen: where have we gone wrong?

It’s easy to blame parents and schools. I bet you a pair of Nike Air Prestos that most of the parents of the delinquents in the news wouldn’t understand the first concept of responsible parenting, because they themselves were denied it. What boiled over onto the streets of Hackney and Croydon is the product of mistakes by successive generations: not just politicians, educationalists but ourselves, for voting in governments that have done nothing to change the way our society rears its children.

Sadly, for the young people in the courts last week, it’s probably too late: we can beat sticks and apply sticking plasters to cover the mistakes of the past, but it’ll be a tough haul to transform the entire Big Brother/X-Factor/National Lottery generation, where fame and fortune come to the lucky and the loud (or to the dishonest), rather than to those who work hard and respect others.

But where to begin? I think we should start with Izzy’s age group and pressurize the government to add a new requirement to the National Curriculum for primary schools. In addition to numeracy, literacy and science, let’s ensure that our children are taught crucial life skills, like social responsibility, caring and sharing, strength of character, the importance of honesty and respect for other people’s culture and possessions. These are essential moral values that ultimately will underpin a new order in our society, values which can be passed down the generations. Of course, like most middle-class parents, these are things we already teach our kids, but not all children are so fortunate.

When I was 10, about a month before taking my 11+ exam, I was pretty confident. My parents had encouraged me, my primary school delivered, I was a high flyer. In my class there was an overweight boy with ginger hair and freckles called Paul. He was soft, kind and laughed a lot. He also cried when the bullies hit him. One day I found him in tears at the back of the classroom. When I asked what was wrong, he said that he knew that he was “thick” because everyone said so. He would fail his 11+, and he was scared of the big boys at the secondary modern school.

For a month I worked with him after school, trying to teach him things I had mastered at the age of 5. Despite my feeble efforts, he failed the exam, another piece of rejected flotsam on the outer edges of our educational process.

I always wondered what had happened to him. Many years later I found out he had served two years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the manslaughter of a six year old. “Mentally unstable”, they called him in the press. Another inevitable victim of the current system, I’d say.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Is Britain Treating Artists Like Criminals?

A few months ago two young Argentinian tango dancers, Ismael Ludman and Maria Mondino, had a bad experience at Glasgow Airport. Now what I don’t know about tango would fill several libraries, but I’m told these folk are big in the dance world.

Argentinian tango isn’t like the flouncy stuff you see on Dancing With the Stars. It’s exotic and erotic, sinuous and sexy. With their upper bodies welded together, the dancers intertwine, their legs making graceful arcs around them. It’s fascinating and beautiful, and Ludman and Mondino are two of the best exponents. They travel the globe giving workshops and they’re quite well-known in Scotland, apparently, which is why they were invited to tour a few village halls and other small venues.

Sadly, the UK Border Agency had other ideas. The couple were held at the airport, refused entry and sent home. Just two casualties of a new immigration system that is making a mockery of Britain’s claim to be a magnet for international culture.

I only know about this because I was in Kirk Yetholm on Saturday night, where a public meeting, chaired by my daughter, was held to highlight the problem. There were artists, writers, musicians, gallery-owners and film-makers, even a true-blue-blooded member of the House of Lords, and they were all concerned about a system that is threatening to turn Britain into a cultural ghetto.

In 2008, our government introduced a new points-based visa system for non-EEC immigrants. It’s similar to the one that works successfully in Australia, except that in Australia there’s a special category that allows short-term visits by artists, writers and performers. Australians think it’s important that their country’s cultural diet is enriched by the work of significant international artists. Yet, despite Britain’s claims to be at the heart of cultural exchange, when they brought in our new immigration law, the government simply forgot about the arts.

Big festivals, like the Edinburgh International Festival, are given special status, but smaller events, like a book-signing by an award-winning American writer at your local Waterstones, or an appearance by a international director at a film festival in Hawick, requires a “licensed sponsor”. No sponsor, no entry, and the cost of each licence and visa runs to hundreds of pounds.

Sometimes the artist would have to travel hundreds of miles to get a biometric test – a ludicrous expense if you’re just performing for one night at a village hall where a few people like to tango.

The situation is now absurd: an international writer or a photographer on a tourist visa faces deportation if they so much as open a notebook or take a single snap; an established artist can’t even come to visit his own exhibition of paintings.

Musicians and poets from Africa, artists from Russia and China, and now Argentinian tango dancers, have fallen foul of the rules, and the world’s greatest living pianist, Grigory Sokolov, has simply deleted the UK from his touring itinerary. These are people of genius, whom we idolize for their extraordinary creative talent, and then we let the staff of the UK Border Agency treat them like illegal immigrants. They aren’t stealing employment from us, we invite them to our shores to enthrall us with their art.

According to the meeting in Yetholm, the government simply needs to create an “artists and entertainers visitor” route to solve the problem, and yet, despite a crescendo of complaints from every part of Britain’s cultural establishment, Theresa May’s Home Office remains oblivious and Jeremy Hunt’s Culture department is doing nothing to help.

The Argentinian tango dancers have got their revenge, however. There’s a magical YouTube video of them performing around their suitcases in the airport, a tribute to our pointless bureaucracy and the jobsworth mentality of the UKBA. Do take a look, before you write to your local MP.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Perfect Holiday Hotel

There’s nothing quite like an English country holiday, especially if, like us, you’re staying in a luxury establishment. The scent of the roses outside, crisp linen on firm, comfy beds, superb cooking, with vegetables plucked fresh from the chef’s garden: that’s my idea of a good time. An informal, relaxed home-from-home.

I’m writing from one of the most beautiful tourist areas in the UK. Although it’s well past 11am, Jo is deciding whether or not to order breakfast. There are beaches and hills close by, acres of wild heathland within strolling distance, the food is wonderful, there’s a playground for Izzy: in short, we’re having a ball.

We only made the decision last Friday to take a week off. Jo said that July was so gloomy, we should have a proper break, just the three of us. Somewhere remote, without internet or mobile phones, but fairly near the sea, with nice country air. And no more than a three-hour drive from home: Izzy and long car journeys don’t go together.

Jo first suggested a B&B. In America they’re like boutique hotels, with four-poster beds, luxury furnishings and bedlinen, and free wine and cheese at 5pm. Then I reminded her of our experience on Arran. The sheets were pink polyester, the tiny pine wardrobes could hardly contain our belongings, the bed was soft as a sponge and the landlady tut-tutted loudly outside our door if we were a minute late for breakfast. Porridge is punctual, she said. Never again.

Besides, we wanted to bring the dogs, so we opted for self-catering. Although we only needed one bedroom and a cot, as we were booking with just a day’s notice, we didn’t expect to be spoilt for choice. It says something about the recession that there were several options, mostly tiny converted farm cottages, or wooden chalets with balconies.

I used to own a holiday let. The furniture was 20 years old – when we bought a new sofa we’d send the old one to the rental property. The beds were solid and cheap, the linens, towels and saucepans a job lot from a discount store. According to the agent, it was top notch, well above the norm, clean as a whistle, and so it was booked almost every week of the year. The clients seemed perfectly happy with these facilities: they weren’t to know that the entire place was filled with rejects.

Jo and I reckoned we could put up with a pine kitchen and lino flooring, tiny shower room, saggy bed and threadbare sofas with throw-covers, because we were on holiday. After all, you only sleep, eat and play Scrabble in the place. Who cares about comfort? We’d enjoy the scenery and the seaside, Izzy would love it and all we had to do was try to keep the dogs from bringing sand onto the carpets. And it was only £700 for a whole week in a Scottish bothy with a sea view (from the attic window) and gas central heating (meter controlled).

Then we looked at the weather forecast: torrential rain on the West Coast. And we looked at our nice comfy house, and said, “Let’s pretend”.

That’s why, yesterday morning, Jo woke to a perfect cappuccino from room service. The chef prepared poached eggs and smoked salmon and then we headed off to an almost deserted, sun-drenched beach near a pub with the best fish-and-chips we’ve ever had. We met the nicest people on our trip, and have a different excursion planned for every day this week. In our exclusive hotel, the internet is switched off, and the restaurant offers a vast menu featuring only home-grown produce. The furnishings seem to mirror our own taste precisely, and, as we’re the only guests, the service is immaculate. Best of all, it’s entirely free.

Thank you, Northumberland: we’re having a great holiday at home.