Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wedding

“We’ve settled on June 8th 2013,” said Ben. He paused and waited for my reaction. 

The finality of his words aroused excitement, satisfaction, relief, but also, deep down, a slight twinge of regret. This date marks the end of the first part, and the beginning of the next. The age of dependence has passed. My son is becoming a husband. 

“We’ve booked the Church near Mum’s house, with a marquee; my friend Stu is doing the music and Izzy will be flower girl”. It all sounded so grownup and organised. So very unlike Ben. 

His life started in a panic, and he’s managed to live in a state of frenzied confusion ever since. He was almost born in our old Volkswagen camper van because his mother and I were late leaving for the hospital – we hadn’t reckoned that London’s roads would be gridlocked because of the royal fireworks event for Charles and Diana’s wedding, so we drove on the pavement hoping a policeman might arrest us and give us an escort through the traffic. My wife’s waters broke on Hammersmith roundabout. 

We finally made the hospital and Ben’s head popped out just as the first firework exploded. Since then, Ben has managed to learn from his parents and be stylishly late for everything in life. 

 I nicknamed him Tig because that was his first decipherable sound as he crawled round our sitting room in Putney. I still call him that, just as everyone still uses the name that Ben called his baby sister – he couldn’t quite say Rebecca, so she has lived happily with Rocca ever since. Ben transforms everything he touches. 

He is loving, handsome, adorable, with more creativity and talent in his little finger than I have in my entire body. I cried when I saw him win the backstroke title in the primary schools’ swimming gala; I cried when he appeared in his first school play; and I cried again last year when I saw his first television credit, as the director of Casualty. 

Far too clever to bother with good exam results, he had a deliciously rebellious streak, which marked him out at boarding school. In his first term he broke the house record for flooding his dormitory bathroom – the water reached ten inches before streaming down the walls of the room below, narrowly missing a priceless Gainsborough. He caused a sensation by going out with a sixth-former when he was just 13 and later dated a Prussian princess. I frequently had to send compensation to disgruntled taxi-drivers for cleaning up their upholstery after his illegal nights in local pubs. The school was unamused: I spoke sternly, but quietly rejoiced at his independent spirit. 

My only really painful memory was seeing him wheeled out of the operating theatre in Barcelona where they’d patched him together with metal bars after his road accident – never, ever, let your children ride motor bikes, however much they plead. 

For years I’d been pushing him to propose to Natalie. They first dated and then lived together in a tiny flat in Barcelona; then they painfully split up, before easing themselves back into each other’s lives. Now they’re taking the plunge into the warm comforting waters of matrimony.

So on Saturday Jo and I drove to Edinburgh to meet the in-laws. Nat’s mother is German and her father is something big in the US military. They sounded formidable, but in reality are as delightful as their daughter. Beautiful, witty and clever (she is a media lawyer), Natalie has thankfully inherited her parents’ organisational skills. A perfect foil for the Gutteridge chaos.

“You’re early”, exclaimed Ben, when he arrived half an hour after us. 

“You’re late,” I said. 

“No I’m not, I told you the wrong time on purpose,” he said, then confided: “It was Natalie’s idea – she does it to me all the time”. 

“That’s why I was so early,” I said, pointing at Jo, “She told me the wrong time too.” 

The two girls winked at each other, then huddled in the corner to discuss wedding dresses.  Order, thy name is Woman.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I Don't Believe It!

I’m sure age is turning me into a curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew. Nothing to do with the events of this week, for which, apparently, I only have myself to blame.

It started with the puncture. It was two miles from the National Tyre Service depot in Newcastle, where I’d just been persuaded to buy three new tyres. You see, I’d stupidly let them sell me winter tyres last Autumn, and when I came back to have them swapped for my old summer ones, they said that summer tyres shouldn’t be stsored, because they rot, so I now needed to spend £600 on replacements.

“It’s because they haven’t been driven on”, they explained, as if to an imbecile.

“But it was winter!” I began to say, then meekly paid the bill.

On the way back to my office, the car suddenly swerved to the left and I narrowly avoided a pedestrian. One of the new front tyres was flat as a pancake. So I called my wife, several times, but the phone appeared to be off the hook. By the time the rescue vehicle arrived and I was back on the road it was nearly midnight.

Naturally Jo berated me for being so late – supper was ruined. She’d been worried sick, with visions of the car upturned in a ditch (which it nearly was); she couldn’t get hold of me because our phones and internet were down. All because I’d stupidly switched the line to BT.

For three happy years Sky had provided us with a perfectly good service and, just because an ad offered us an incredibly cheap deal, I’d switched and now we were cut off. So I rang BT at 1 in the morning, standing on a window ledge above the back door to get a faint signal on my mobile. Several chirpy songs and a fortune later (“0800 calls are charged at normal rates from mobiles” they said), I heard distant crackling, and what sounded like someone telling a joke in Hindi. I could hear people laughing. It was probably a joke about a man who switches his service to BT to save money and spent twice as much listening to jokes in Hindi.

I hollered down the mouthpiece: “Anybody there?”  I whistled and cursed. Izzy woke up with the noise and I nearly fell off the window ledge. I rang back and, eventually, a woman with an Indian accent answered. She’d check the line for me and would call me back in “exactly 5 or 6 minutes”.

“Is that 5 minutes or 6?” I asked, “because I have to climb back onto this window ledge, you see”.

“Yes, exactly 5 or 6”, she said.

An hour later at 2am, with my fingers numbed, I called again. A man checked my records and said, “We have investigated your line and you most certainly have a fault with your house wiring”.

“No, I don’t have a fault, you do”, I screamed. “Sir, it is most certainly your fault, our wiring is fine. We can send an engineer to fix it, but we will charge you £98.”

“OK,” I said, “I’ll pay you £98 if I’m at fault if you agree to pay me £98 if it’s your fault. Deal?”

“Yes, sir”, he said, clearly not understanding one word. “An engineer will arrive on Monday morning”.

“Monday?” I fell off the ledge in disgust. An entire weekend without phone or internet.

The following day I returned to the garage with my broken tyre and a manager called Darren said it wasn’t their fault, as it was a faulty valve. A valve they had just sold me, fitted, and not checked.

“It was new, so why would we check it?”

“Because it could have killed me?”

Darren didn’t apologise. Nor will BT, I’m sure, even when they discover that they’ve cut off all my neighbours’ phone lines as well. And I’m pretty sure they won’t cough up my £98.

Who could blame me for being a little cross?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vidal Sassoon Cost Me A Fortune

Vidal Sassoon cost me a fortune over the years.

Before him, people who cut men’s hair lived in barbershops marked by red and white spinning poles, to be visited rarely and salelyto stop the hair from growing over your eyes.

Our local barber in Tynemouth had frosted windows and chairs with leather straps where the men with the swept-backed Brylcreemed hair would sharpen their switchblades before shaving foam off old men’s chins. The buzz of electric shavers, interspersed with the clickety-click of comb against scissor, reverberated round the little wooden-paneled room, bedecked with adverts for Durex and Old Spice. Grown men talked of football and beer: I was ignored, other than to be asked questions about my favourite subject at school. I was certainly never asked how I wanted my hair cut: “Not too short” was my Mum’s terse instruction. Short hair was what you got when you had nits. My £1 cut was rounded off with an electric trim up the back and Brylcreem on top.

My hair has always been an embarrassment: it’s the most uncooperative mop. Mum has an appalling photo of me as a choirboy with protuding ears and hair stuck out at an extraordinary angle. She calls it angelic: it’s actually horrendous. My Dad always insisted I had a parting, but when you put a brush anywhere near my hair, it would spring skyward. No gel invented could tame it, no comb could ever breach its impenetrable thickness.

It was many years – too many – before the parting and I parted company. I’d spent my teenage years trying to straighten it, even growing it longer in the mistaken belief that its own body weight would make it sleek as the stars’ locks on Top Of The Pops. Or at least cover my projecting ears. How I envied boys at school who could imitate The Beatles. Mine was more Art Garfunkel.

 As a result, 60s style completely passed me by until eventually I gave up haircuts altogether. There’s a picture of me at university looking like a camp Robert Plant with purple sweater and brown corduroy trousers. My hair, left to its own devices, had become a nest, like something from an Edward Lear poem, in which an owl could happily raise its young.

So when I went to the BBC to begin the process of becoming a journalist, something had to be done. I did some research (well, I asked someone famous I met in a lift at Broadcasting House), and they said I had to go to Leonard. Leonard was the protégé of the great Sassoon, the man who’d created 60s hair revolution. It wasn’t just about the women, with their sharp angular shapes. Men, too, were being pampered in glossy hair emporiums. And none was more glamorous than Leonard’s “house” in Grosvenor Square.

It had yellow and white awnings. I booked an appointment. “Who with?” they asked. This threw me: I assumed it would be with Leonard. Sure, I could have Leonard, but it would cost as much as a family car. Or I could have Sarah. Sarah would do just fine. I have never felt so insignificant: it was a palace. They played music and brought you coffee and magazines. It was full of beautiful women, with frozen Sassoon cuts.

Thinking I’d come to the wrong department, I asked for the men’s section. The girl behind the counter laughed: this was unisex. She summoned a supermodel with impossibly long legs who sat me in a chair until Sarah arrived, studied my birds’ nest in a mirror, then asked what I wanted. I hadn’t the slightest clue. “Not too short, please,” I suggested. She snorted and then I spent the next 2 hours – and £25 plus tip – in makeover mode.

 I emerged short and, as Sarah called it, “choppy”. And I’ve been short and choppy ever since. Since then my hair has been cut by a succession of stylists, all of them expensive and all trained in the Sassoon tradition. The result: I still have terrible hair, and it’s cost me £10,000 more than it would have done in my local barber’s shop. But, short and choppy – that’s me.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unlawfully Killed

We all know clairvoyance is just a magic act, a branch of showbusiness – how could there be such a thing as psychic power? 

18 years ago I was at a dinner party in London when I noticed the lady opposite staring at me a little too intensely. When she caught my eye, she leaned forward and whispered, “You’re going to marry an American”.  Such impertinence, and totally inappropriate, because, having recently divorced my first wife, I was rather publicly in love with an English television presenter, who was sitting next to me at the dinner. 

“And you will have six children,” she went on. This was too much. No way would there be any more children: three was quite enough. I told this story at my wedding at Jo’s parents’ home in Laguna Beach. Baby Izzy was there with my four other children. Everyone laughed, especially at the prospect of my American wife bringing me yet another child. 

But what I didn’t reveal was the rest of what the clairvoyant said that night. It’s been parked at the back of my mind all these years, but was chillingly recalled last week by the coroner’s verdict on the bizarre death of MI6 employee Gareth Williams. 

After dinner, the clairvoyant took me aside. She had something very important to tell me. “Your friend didn’t die the way they say, you know. They said it was sexual and perverted, but one day the truth will emerge.” 

Stephen Milligan MP
I knew immediately she was talking about one of my closest friends.  A respected member of the community, we’d been on holidays together and spent long evenings arguing about politics in his little house in Chiswick. He’d been engaged to a delightful journalist called Julie. He’d been foreign editor at the Sunday Times, a senior BBC journalist, then finally an MP. One day his body was discovered in scandalous circumstances. He name was Stephen Milligan. 

All this I knew, but didn’t breathe a word to the clairvoyant. “There’s a dark, evil force,” she went on. “ and a faraway country. Oman. He went to Oman, or somewhere near there, Yemen maybe, and when he was there he found something out. So they killed him. One day it will all come out and your friend’s honour will be restored.” 

Then she mentioned a name – a famous name. Apparently there was a connection to spying. He had been involved in my friend’s death. It was all weird and nonsensical. 

The police hadn’t investigated Stephen’s death beyond confirming the ghastly details: he was found on his kitchen table, a black plastic bag over his head, a cord round his neck, naked but for a woman’s stockings and suspenders, a small piece of satsuma in his mouth. They called it auto-erotic asphyxiation. In one mad moment, the life and reputation of a brilliant, witty, utterly moral friend, journalist, politician and godfather of my eldest son, had been completely destroyed. 

Cross dressing, auto-erotic asphyxiation: sounds familiar? Stephen Milligan’s inquest may have ruled out foul play, not so Gareth Williams’ coroner this week. 

Williams couldn’t possibly have put himself into the red bag in the bath and there were no fingerprints. Why did MI6 wait a whole week to report him missing, by which time any small scratches on the body would have gone? The verdict: he was “probably killed unlawfully”. 

According to last week’s Independent on Sunday, there have been 17 mysterious deaths linked to the defence or intelligence services over the past 50 years, a third featuring bizarre sexual practices or asphyxia. Men like Stephen Drinkwater, the GCHQ clerk, found choked with a plastic bag over his head; journalist Jonathan Moyle, hanged inside a tiny wardrobe while working on a story about a dodgy arms deal; ex-MI6 agent and writer James Rusbridger, discoverd in a gas mask surrounded by bondage pictures; and Stephen Milligan MP.  

It all reads like a spy thriller, I know. And yet you don’t need to be psychic to know that one day the true story behind all these cases will emerge. But I am quite sure my friend will be vindicated. Because a clairvoyant told me.