A hotel bedroom in France.
The unpacking seamlessly concluded and from my armchair vantage point the view of the beach at St Jean de Luz, suitably agreeable.
A request is delivered. “Would you run me a bath please George?”
Mais certainment ma cherie, pas de problem!
I approached the bath and viewed two unmarked stainless steel spherical orbs sunk into the wall above the bath. I attempted to turn the top one in a logically clockwise direction. It yielded not. I applied the super human strength for which the male side of my family are rightly famed and the orb obliged with a 90 degree turn. There followed an ominous rumbling that developed into a scream and a vast shower head the size of a dustbin lid, burst into life and engulfed me in scalding hot water. I leapt back, stumbled and took a seat on the lavatory
“Is a shower ok for you?” I enquired.
“No, George, I would like a bath.”
Gingerly I approached the bath again. The steel orbs that clearly had something to do with the current torrent of water. I engaged the top orb both hands this time and turned it back to its original position. The torrent stopped. Flushed with success I turned the same orb anticlockwise 90 degrees. The torrent recommenced onto my head but this time, ice cold.
The top orb was obviously a tricky little blighter and I resolved to give it best for a while, returning it to the original position. The bottom orb glared at me, willing me to take it on. I obliged and turned it viciously clockwise, prudently withdrawing my head to the nearside of the bath at the same time. Rapid gurgling sounds, before glory of glories, the tap at the end of the bath sprung into life with a goodly flow of what seemed to me to be, an agreeable temperature in which her ladyship might care to soak.
“Baths running darling” I said drying my hair with the face flannel so generously allocated to me, to serve as my towel for our stay.
Running it was right enough but straight down a hole in the middle of the bath covered by an upturned stainless steel saucer. I pushed down on it, willing it to make a seal and hold the water. Frantically I looked around. What the hell works the plughole I pondered. It had to be that top orb. What hadn’t I done? I’d turned it to the right and the left, both with heart stopping soakings. I removed my glasses and studied it closely above the roar of the water. Nothing, not even a scratch to give you a clue. The only thing I hadn’t done was pull it. This must the master switch for the plughole? I grasped it again with both hands and pulled. It yielded. Hurrah! Now, is it left to shut the plughole or right? Left I calculated and still pulling hard executed a 90 degree left turn.
The ice cold water hit me on the back of the head and I must have screamed audibly for my beloved lurched into the bathroom and surveyed the scene. I was not looking my best, soaked and on all fours with head bowed, composure normally rock solid, in tatters.
“You stupid man, what are doing?”
“I am trying to run you a ruddy bath, I countered.”
“Oh for Gods sake get out of the way.” She stepped over my dripping body, her left foot crushing the fingers of my right hand into the limestone floor tiles. Firstly she engaged a small button on the back of the bath tap which locked the blasted steel mushroom in the drain, sealing the bath. Then careful not to knee me in the face, she stood on my left hand and flicked the top orb back into the vertical position and pushed, yes pushed the wretched thing. Hot water surged into the bath.
Staggering to my feet and summoning the last vestiges of pride, I draped my sodden jacket over my equally sodden shirt and with a parting comment of ‘bloody frog taps’, headed for the Bar. Am I just unlucky?
ARE YOU ALRIGHT?
I have not had a rant for a while so here we go.
Question. What is the best welcome in the world? Answer. A big smile!
So what happened to the smile and a ‘good morning,’ or at least a cheery ‘hello’? This used to be the standard greeting in any face to face retail situation. It would seem to me that this civilised greeting has now been universally replaced by ….
‘Are u orwry?’
Usually delivered at the pay desk of the garage or shop with an unemotional dead pan look coupled with a level of insincerity that jars the body and soul to such a degree that the only appropriate response is….
No you ink stained moron, I am not ‘orwhy’ ! Try hello! And smile!
Regrettably of course, they do not care one jot that I have spent £80 of hard earned cash filling my petrol tank in their garage? And furthermore that I have bought a newspaper and a packet of sweets that will certainly take five years off my already dwindling life expectancy.
Lets be clear, I am not expecting a ‘on behalf of the staff, may I say how grateful we all are that you have chosen Percy’s Petrol Station to fill up’. But surely I merit a smile?
What about the management? The till staff are probably on minimum wage but does that mean that not even basic politeness is necessary? Where is the customer service training? Surely employers could do more to lay down a few simple rules for their staff to follow? They are after all, fronting the business and there are very good reasons that they should insist their front of house staff make an effort when greeting customers? Courtesy certainly signals to me that here is a retailer keen to secure my regular business? And frankly when I do receive a big hello and a smile from anyone selling me something, I go out of my way to revisit and give them my hard earned coppers.
This has everything to do will our failing communication skills. What about our extraordinary ability to ignore each other whenever contact is inevitable? Many the time on a narrow street or corridor when a fellow human approaches, as the moment of passing draws ever closer I invariably see the head drop down avoiding eye contact with me or a mysterious object is sought in a deep pocket.
But determined never to let the possibility of a warm greeting escape me, at precisely two paces apart I always bellow a cheerful gooood morrrrrning! The object of my greeting invariably staggers as if hit by a burst of heavy machine fire before hastily mumbling an embarrassed,
‘Oh, are u orwry’?
What is wrong with us?
I do not possess a large circle of friends under twenty and therefore find myself struggling to confirm whether any form of life skills are taught in our supposedly highly pressured schools? Of course as an employer, I would hope that all school leavers are given tuition in verbal communication to equip them for their first interview even if that first face to face meeting is destined to be at the jobcentre?
I am advised that there is something entitled Personal, Social health and Education or Pischhh as it is known to students. I googled it but cannot see any reference to teaching basic communication. A teenager in my employ advises me that this hour is not regarded by school leavers as being of much use. But if that is the case, it should be. It should involve work study groups concentrating on face to face communication and service skills, how to use a telephone properly and how to sell yourself to others with manners and appearance. If these skills were properly imbedded in the last year of school, a lot more students would surely be better prepared and job ready?
And they should watch out, because most young europeans who attend interviews in my industry may lack a complete knowledge of our language but the majority certainly know how to present themselves and how to use the English they have with such confidence, that they often become the first choice over the sometime sulky reticent, monosyllabic home grown talent.
Is it perhaps time that Pischhh became shove?
As a nation we are cooking and entertaining at home a lot less than we did 30 years ago. The days of ‘pop around for supper in the kitchen. Come as you are. Take us as you find us and by the way, do bring a bottle.’ are a lot rarer these days?
Well I can hear the cries, ‘Nobody has any time’.
I understand that and with the constant availability of take away food, it’s all too easy to pick up the phone, stick the napkin under the collar and wait, knife and fork in hand for the knock on the door.
There are a few of us who still enjoy cooking and entertaining, however in our case rarely at night. We prefer a good lunch and a catch up with friends culminating in a late afternoon farewell and the often not so quick tidy up. But then we have a few hours in the evening to recover.
Here at Cheapskate House the preparation for the event start at least three days before. The downstairs lavatory is designated out of bounds to me as well as one bathroom upstairs. Not really a problem but it does necessitate the occasional long unfamiliar nocturnal march. The house cleaning is undertaken in earnest by her ladyship. Parts of the accommodation that seldom see the light of day are rigorously spring cleaned, polished and buffed and of course shoes are no longer allowed inside for ‘any reason’.
Only when the house has undergone a meticulous hoovering is it then ready for the regular visit from our lovely ‘lady who does’ to complete the process. I have commented a few times on this illogical sequence of events but I am always regarded with that look that says ‘I clearly do not understand how to run the house’.
Bouncy dogs can be a problem with some guests, so we feed them on the day of party with at least double if not treble, their usual breakfast. Labradors never look a gift horse in the mouth and inhale this bounty in their normal exuberant fashion.
By lunchtime they are unable to stay awake and retreat to their beds and rest inverted on their backs, legs pawing the air in satisfied spasms when anyone approaches.
The final exercise is to lay the table. This is undertaken with military precision and when completed looks remarkably like an early depiction of the French and English encounter at Waterloo.
We have a large dining room table which I bought from a dealer decades ago. It stood proudly against a wall of Blenheim Palace kitchens serving as a pot table until a zealous environmental health officer knocked on the door and demanded that all wooden services be replaced with stainless steel and plastic cutting boards.
That probably cost the Duke about £100 000 which is annoying even for a Duke but even more galling when recent research has decided that wood is safer and easier to clean than plastic!!
But we benefitted and adopted a lovely twelve foot table with a 400 year old four inch thick piece of elm top.
For some reason I am always placed at the head of the table. From this vantage point I take in the serried ranks of cruets, relishes and mustards placed at two feet intervals. They fight for space with the two or three glasses of various sizes and shapes per person, considered by management to be the very basic requirement to prevent dehydration amongst our guests.
Infantrymen of bone handled cutlery that never see the kitchen table from one month to the next take up their positions with millimetre accuracy, shoulder to shoulder with side plates bearing an ancient anonymous crest which we tell anyone who asks, were made for a distant relative.
Finally the canvas is given a boost of colour with the addition of a floral display the size of a small dustbin along with two tall heavy wrought iron candle holders equally dividing the length of the table with scant regard for it being a lunch party and designed to be enjoyed in daylight.
This has brought back memories of the work involved and has quite unnerved me. I think we will order a curry next time?
Just settle for a spoon and fork and a case of beers?
USE OF CUTLERY
I know I am a sad old soul. Some would say I am sick? I am truly ashamed but I like watching people doing it in the restaurant? I know it is weird and I probably need help. It all started innocently enough. I just liked the different body movements. Other peoples enthusiasm for the task? Now I am hooked.
But the facts are, that you would be amazed at how many different ways some people use a knife and fork?
What are you? Was you brung up traditional anglo saxon proper and use the fist grip with index fingers guiding and steadying your irons?
Or did you start that way and then in your formative years, like the look of the pencil grip on the knife and adopt it, perhaps believing it added a certain continental flavour to your table manners?
I do hope you are not a drummer?
Heaven knows where this habit originated. In my youth I studied the drums for three days before my parents threatened to have me adopted. We were taught to open our palms to the sky and cradle the sticks between the two middle fingers and steady them with the thumb before tapping out our practise routine on the drum. I regret to say I have noticed an increase in the use of this disturbing practise amongst a number of our restaurant goers. The only saving grace is that it is faintly amusing to see the adherents of this insidious habit struggling to eat their food with any degree of efficiency?
We all start in life the same way using our hands and this method is still favoured in many parts of the world where fingers are used, albeit just the right hand digits to mould the rice, meat or vegetables into a bite sized morsel. I have on my travels tried this technique but being left handed found it very difficult to master and convinced myself very quickly that I would starve, unless I asked for a spoon! In these early efforts to eat like a local, I wore most of the food all over my face as a testament to my clumsiness and to everyones amusement.
Early forms of cutlery first made an appearance after man tired of using shells and was able to fashion a spoon from wood or bone. This happened in Egypt or China depending on your research. The dagger or knife was just something no well dressed early man or indeed woman would be seen without. The two pronged fork was very much a medieval afterthought in cutlery terms and sneered at for being very, ‘new money’.
However as an accomplished voyeur of the use of cutlery, my amazement knows no bounds when I am confronted with the sight of our friends from across the pond tucking in at the trough. I refer of course to our American cousins.
There has to be a surfeit of food in America because they are past masters at elongating the process of eating, to ridiculous lengths. I am sure you have seen their efforts for yourselves both in the flesh and on film?
The ritual starts simply enough with the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left, both implements invariably in the pencil position or to my horror that drummer grip, before addressing the food. In the case of meat, strenuous efforts are required using this weak neutral grip to dismember the protein into edible sized pieces. The moment a suitable sized piece has been separated, both knife and fork are ceremoniously placed back on the side of the plate. Then, as if acting out a sacred act of devotion, Americans cross hands and seize the fork in their right hand, yes right hand, before stabbing the morsel and raising it reverentially to their waiting lips. The fork is then carefully placed back onto the plate before being re-gripped by the left hand in order to make a further attack on the food.
Who on earth thought that one up??
Did someone say’ ‘look here, using a knife and fork like this is too darn simple, we Americans need a challenge, lets mix up the sequence and do it this way’?
Alright. I know. I know. I should just get out more?
Sometimes we host as many dogs as we do humans in the bar area of our Pubs. By and large dogs are pretty well behaved and even if they play up a tad, the owners are always quick to take them for a little stroll outside. It is a sort of unwritten rule adhered to by all doggy people, that to be able to take your woofer into a pub is a welcome privilege and the last thing an owner wants to do, is upset his fellow dog owners and the pubs drinkers.
Regrettably the same courtesy is not always extended to fellow diners when children accompany adults into a restaurant.
To go out to eat somewhere where the owners really care about the look and atmosphere of the place can be a significant expense these days and I feel strongly that the occasion should offer an escape from the home environment?
If I am taking an important client out for a bite to eat at lunchtime or taking my wife out for a quiet lunch or supper do I really relish the distraction of a small child crying its eyes out on the next table?
No. And is this view really so awful?
Surely we as customers should not have to anticipate the possibility of having our meal ruined?
My wife and I are proud grandparents but we have had our nerves shredded on more than one occasion with our children’s offspring because we adults have chosen the restaurant that we like, as opposed to one that is practical with babies and very young children.
In our Pubs we explain to customers with babies who arrive unannounced, that we have lovely tables in the front of the pub and in the large bar area for families with babies and regrettably we do not allow prams or indeed buggy’s into the restaurant. However it is fair to say that some customers give the impression that this proposed move is just too close to an act of ethnic cleansing to be tolerated! But once seated at very cosy tables in the bar, concerns subside and the process of eating and spilling food can begin in earnest.
However even then, on these family tables, it can still go wrong!
I recall being summoned to a family group’s table by my staff to referee an altercation involving a screaming child. I arrived to find four adults tucking enthusiastically into their main courses. On the floor beside their table was a totally ignored young boy of about 3-4 years old, on his back shaking his head from side to side screaming with fury and exasperation and kicking out at invisible torturers in every direction.
I asked the table if there was a reason for their ambivalence to the racket and I was summarily dismissed with the comment that the boy was simply ‘expressing himself’. As a father myself I felt obliged to ask whether he was unwell or not really in charge of his emotions?
“No! No” came the reply from the mother. “I am sure he will stop soon.”
The ‘swoop’ is a restaurant term first attributed I seem to remember, to the noted restaurateur Marco Pierre White. If it was not his idea I apologise. My staff are aware of my fondness for this dramatic last resort action and on this occasion stood by expectantly. I explained to the table over the din that the parents unwillingness to control their child was upsetting for all their fellow diners and it was time for their child to express himself elsewhere.
My staff descended on the table as one and half eaten meals, wine, cutlery, glasses and flowers were summarily removed from despairing grasps. The customers shocked faces and protests were mitigated to a certain degree by my assertion that there would be no charge for their visit. I left the restaurant to an enthusiastic but unwarranted round of applause from the other diners. I was of course just looking after my other valued customers interests. A few moments of embarrassed reflection at a totally empty table elapsed before the customers retrieved their child from the floor and shambled out to the car park with rather hollow threats……
‘never to set foot again in the Pub.’ Hooray!
JOHNNY CHICK AND THE CRAYFISH
Sounds like a rock band from the seventies doesn’t it? Johnny Chick was one of life’s great characters. He died last year and his passing was a shock to a great many people. Over the years he was the landlord of a number of Oxfordshire Pubs and it was impossible to visit any one of them one and not have a great time!! So much so that today, anyone speaking of him invariably has a story to tell.
So it is with me. Except I have many! Here is one fond memory.
Sometime in the late seventies or early eighties I had a weekly slot on Radio Oxford. I think it was called ‘the Roving Chef or Chefs corner.’ Mercifully I cannot recall the exact title. The brief was that I could either write a piece on food related matters or take one of the stations recording devices and head off into Oxford or the countryside and interview someone.
Johnny and I both loved foraging and discussing locations of new ‘free foods’ from the wild. River crayfish were one such attraction. Very few people even knew they existed and I decided that an outside broadcast to capture a pan full, might work? A follow up programme could then be done on cooking and serving these awkward to shell, but nevertheless delicious little treats. Johnny did not take a lot of persuading to head up an expedition and I duly borrowed one of Radio Oxford’s very heavy reel to reel recorders and a microphone.
At dusk one late summers evening in Johnny’s convertible MGB we pulled up at a secret spot on the banks of the Windrush river just north of Witney. Our traps were actually redundant bicycle wheels complete with spokes but minus the tyres, the surfaces covered with chicken wire. A few days earlier Johnny had purchased and punctured some tins of cat food and left them out in the sun to mature. These were attached to the chicken wire in the centre of each wheel.
With a microphone under his nose Johnny explained that when lowered onto the riverbed with a series of lines, the essence of the rotting cat food seeping out of the cans downstream would become an irresistible lure for the crayfish who would hopefully canter upstream to discover the source and pounce on it!!
So it proved but to a degree that even Johnny could not have anticipated. There must have been fifty on the first wheel we raised, all huddled around the source of that delicious aroma. We tipped them into the zinc bath, placed a damp cloth on top of them and proceeded down down stream to the next trap. A further bonanza emerged from the dark waters and went straight into the bath.
It was a ‘wrap’! The recording levels were good and the evenings events were secure on tape. Plus we had caught well over 100 of these four inch mini freshwater lobsters and flushed with success motored back towards Oxford to enjoy a well earned late night curry in Turl Street with our catch safely stowed in the bath on the back seat.
An hour later, suitably nourished we returned to the car to find the floor, the back seat and two front seats alive with crayfish!! They had escaped by climbing up the cloth!! The zinc bath was empty and our crustaceans were vainly trying to locate their lost watery home. Only one thing to do, with both doors wide open and the pair of us on our stomachs in the road, we desperately scrabbled under the seats to retrieve the painful little nippers. Liberal use of swear words seemed appropriate and this together with our thoroughly suspicious behaviour was sufficient to attract the attention a patrolling policeman on his beat. He must have felt he had made the arrest of his career, namely two n’er do wells in the very act of dismantling a sports car in the middle of Broad Street Oxford at the dead of night.
We started to explain but quickly realised he, like many people had no idea what a river crayfish was, or looked like! When confronted by one of the little blighters he leapt backwards in fear and horror. We were not arrested and on regaining his composure the officer helped us recapture the remaining few, giggling with delight and then anger as he got nipped. We wrapped up one in a paper napkin for him to take back to the station to show his colleagues and headed home triumphant.
Stocktaking is a very important part of a landlords life.
The stock or indeed the inexplicable absence of stock in many cases, is a phenomena that drives most landlords to drink, should they seek a reason. Stock shortages usually occur when you move from doing all the work yourself, to employing people to do it for you.
A typical scenario is as follows. The smiling stocktaker might tell me at the end of a quarter that, 3 gallons of bitter, 6 gallons of lager plus 4 gallons of premium lager, one bottle of champagne 14 bottles of Sauvingon, 8 bottles of Rioja, half a bottle of Southern Comfort and 2 litres of Vodka did not go through the till and is therefore, by definition, absent without leave.
Well thank you very much. I don’t remember that night?
“It is quite simple you see”…he always feels obliged to point out to you…
“It was delivered, because you signed for it, its not here now and it didn’t go through the till. So your staff drank it or they gave it away and that George is why you have a deficit of £1526.”
Of course, in the old days before computerised tills, stocktakes tended to be far less detailed and whilst you could get a pretty accurate stock result, a major stock shortage required further detailed investigation.
Many years ago, I was introduced to a Landlord of one of those vast East End London Pubs, whose name was Wally. In those days a number of Landlords like Wally were recruited from the forces. Many had seen action. They had stories to tell, they were respected and they were as a band of men, tough.
When I first got to know Wally, he was on the verge of retirement and for some reason he liked telling me stories about life behind the bar in the East End. He viewed his role then as a confidante, money lender, everybody’s friend and if necessary on rowdy nights, an enforcer! He explained to me that it was essential he knew everyone in the Pub, as it was the centre of the community and hardened criminals would often be mixing socially with unsuspecting customers. But all in all, life had been good to Wally. A new car every year and holidays to a little known island in the Mediterranean that Wally called Majorrrka!
His Pub had a massive bar with several tills and lots of bar staff. Wally was happy to be there at lunchtime but in the evenings he wanted to take it easy and often employed a Manager to run things for him.
I found myself at the bar one lunchtime chatting and joking with him about Pub life. In a moment of seriousness and a little out of character he interrupted our chat to confide in me that he had a few problems. His Bar stocks in the Pub he told me, were consistently down by around £500 a week. He told me he was going to have to bring someone in to sit at the Bar, watch the staff and try and spot the one that was stealing. On my next visit about a month later he told me what had transpired.
Apparently a private investigator had been hired and spent his first Saturday in the Pub and then reported back to Wally.
“I don’t know what to say Sir” the investigator had said to Wally.
“I sat at one end of the Bar. I drank lemonade all night and never saw a thing out of place. I watched all 5 tills very closely and I never saw any of the staff doing anything suspicious .”
“Fine” said Wally. “Thank you very much for your time, Here is your money. I will not be needing you again.”
The private eye took his money, confused as to why he was being dismissed and somewhat mystified, took his leave.
The next morning, the Manager was found outside the back of the Pub with two broken arms and a shattered till by his side. There were no witnesses.
Wally you see, only had 4 tills! The naughty manager brought his own till in from time to time to syphon off the takings!
SWABBING THE DECKS
As we all know big boats cost a fortune and for some reason boat owners refer to these prized possessions, as female entities. I have checked this out. They really do!
“There she is!”, our host proudly exclaimed, as we sauntered down the jetty in Mahon harbour.
“Lovely lines hasn’t she?” I thought it prudent to agree.
Safely aboard, I marvelled at yards of shimmering varnished mahogany, beautiful upholstered seating, big comfy chairs and an array of high tech gadgetry devoted I was told later, to telling us where we were and where we were going.
Comfortably out of my depth nautically and drowning financially I said to our host Tim that I could not see the engine? Hadn’t we better get one strapped on and could I help?
I thought it a serious question but it was taken by my host as an excuse for levity. “You are standing on them”, he said laughing and pressing a button the majority of the stern floor rose up. I fully expected a Wurlitzer to rise from the depth with a Catalan Nigel Ogden hammering away at the ivories but no, our host pointed into the newly created void.
“Twin 220 Penta diesels George. Pretty impressive eh? Would you like to go down below and have a closer look”, he suggested.
“That is very kind Tim”. I said nervously “but I am not very mechanical”.
With engines started, we chugged sedately out of the harbour where we hung a left and headed up the coast. From my vantage point alongside the Bar, I was able to assist Tim with timely nautical observations whilst teasing the ring pull off numerous iced beers. And thus it was. We cruised up the coast, anchored in a picture book bay, swam, ate an excellent lunch and snoozed under the shade of what I think is called a Bimini sail on the top deck. Heaven.
When the time came to make our way home our host pressed another button, the anchor miraculously appeared from the depths and we headed back to harbour.
Safely tied up I reluctantly finished my wine, packed my book away, untied my swimmers that had been acting as a windsock on the stern flag pole and went in search of my wife. I found her stretched out on the upper deck, face smothered in white ointment, her eyes covered with slices of cucumber. She looked like a burnt offering to the Inca gods. A gentle nudge was enough to gain her attention and I informed her it was time to take our leave and that I would now deliver a few lines of fulsome thanks to our host, intermingled with lavish praise about his boat and how ‘She’ had handled exceptionally well.
Confidently and reluctantly we approached our host to bid him adieu.
There then followed a very strange incident. I had long assumed that Tim having lunched around the City for some 40 years, was you know, comfortable? Not so it would appear, for as we attempted to walk the plank onto the safety of the quayside, we were handed firstly, a hosepipe and then a shammy leather each. I stared at my wife and her eyes had a sad vacant look of incomprehension. A bit like the monthly stewards inquiry on the credit card statement.
Our host then had the temerity to instruct us to direct the hose onto the superstructure and polish, yes polish the shiny bits!! I suppose I was too shocked to react. Should have told the swine there and then, that if he could not afford the staff to clean it, why buy the boat?
What is the world coming to? What would you say if you cadged lift up to town with a chum and he threw you a bucket of water in St James Square and asked you to give the car a sponge shuffle?
Drenched in sweat we finally took our leave. The wife was not at all happy. A terrifying spectacle and I kept well out of handbag range.
I knew that it would also be some time before Tim and I spoke again. Not his fault he had run out of money, I suppose?
Expensive things, boats?
A DAY IN THE COUNTRY
We love living in the countryside.
Recently some friends who live in Montana USA came to stay. They really do live in the countryside and depending on the time of year have hungry grizzly bears regularly knocking on their back door looking for a human lunch!
We have yet to visit Larry and Barbara but have listened to tales of fishing for steel head trout from the bottom of their garden, hunting trips for all manner of game and thousands of acres to ride out. That would be a bonus and a thrill if I could ride, but I cannot. Never mind, it all sounds like a very frontiersman existence and I felt I had to find something for them to remember during their short stay with us, in good old England?
After a welcoming bite at the pub I considered tramping around Blenheim but decided that we would save that for another day and as it was a glorious summer sunday, chose instead to call in on a game of cricket being played in our village.
Neither of our guests had ever seen a game of cricket and the moment I mentioned watching a game, both became quite animated at the prospect and on arrival at the ground, we sat down by the pavilion alongside assorted groupies there to support the athletes on show. The game was in full swing and I felt some explanation was required as our guests were a little surprised at the range of girths on display.
I explained that although it was preferable the players should be in peak physical condition, as these protagonists were amateurs their endeavours in this annual inter village confrontation was a semi serious affair.
They got the message and entered into the spirit of the occasion.
Larry quickly absorbed the information that one side batted and the other side fielded. He became quite enthused by the tactics of the game with the changes in bowlers from fast to slow and the positioning of the fielders. So much so that his heavily accented cheers of encouragement such as ‘way to go baby!’ when a batsman struck a four or six, started to draw strange looks from the modest crowd of seated onlookers, certainly from those who had managed to stay awake during the cut and thrust.
Such was Larry’s commitment to the game that I have no doubt if asked, he would have padded up and gone in to bat for America. So it was a considerable disappointment to him when at a seemingly critical stage of the match, the Umpires abruptly removed the bails and both sides walked off the field. The time on the pavilion clock was precisely 4.15pm.
“What happened” he said.
“Nothing Larry, its tea time” I commented as I prised myself out of the folding chair.
“What do you mean? Tea time?” he spluttered.
I seized the moment!
“Larry it is called tradition. Throughout what is left of our Empire, civilised people stop for tea at this time. Tea is taken and whilst standards have slipped a little over the decades I have no doubt that if you were to enter that pavilion right now, you would find tables groaning from the weight of plates of cucumber sandwiches, huge pots of tea, sponge cakes and a genial backslapping atmosphere at odds with most sporting contests in your country.
“You’re kidding me “ he said
“Be my guest” I said gesturing to the steps of the pavilion. He wandered up the steps and I prayed the tea ladies would not let me down.
He returned shaking his head.
“You Brits really take the biscuit George.”
“Yes Larry perhaps we do in this respect. But as Americans you have much to be admired for, your ‘can do mentality’ and your refusal to accept the principle of entitlement in any form. We on the other hand have really only our tradition left. Centuries of knowing about form and bad form. ‘Manners maketh man’ beaten into us from a young age. But our most treasured asset is of course, the gift for pomposity, the envy of the world and which some of us have carefully nurtured into an art form!”
“Come on” I said
“Where are we going?” Barbara asked
“Home of course Barbs” Larry growled. “Its tea time”!
MY FAIR LADY
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Professor Higgins asked Pickering this question in My Fair Lady.
A birthday lunch with the children in London beckoned recently and to my surprise certain selected items of clothing were presented folded on the bed for me to wear including an unfamiliar wooly garment. I enquired about the presence of this particular wooly garment.
‘You know what it is George. The children bought it for you for Christmas.’
I clearly recall asking for an Aston Martin for Christmas but my offspring failed to respond to my request and chose instead to collectively purchase this wooly garment. That, if I am not mistaken, is one present short of the wooden overcoat.
‘Look.’ I said. ‘It is just not me. I don’t like zips on cardigans’
‘George, it is very fashionable and it makes you look younger’ my wife lied. ‘You could wear it just once for the children. It is not much to ask, is it?’
I smiled at her. She is such a dear old soul. Always the matriarch. The thinker of good thoughts. Furthermore it was her birthday, so I resolved not to burst her balloon and to let her down gently.
‘You just don’t get it do you? 40 plus years of marriage and I find myself living with a total stranger! Zips are vulgar. If it sported a fine row of elegant buttons I would have no hesitation in wearing it proudly. But it doesn’t. It has two rows of metal tracks right up the middle of my not insubstantial gut.’
I pressed home my point.
‘How many cherished personal items do I own with a zip’ I challenged her. ‘Go on. Name me one!’
‘Your washbag?’ was her measured response.
‘Ok! ‘ I said. ‘One it is then. But I don’t wear it do I? I don’t say to you. Look old girl, I am going to a rugby club dinner. I really think I should wear my washbag on my head. Be an angel and run the iron over it, will you? I really want to look sharp!’
I think I may have been flying on autopilot at this stage because she looked at me and muttered something before turning on her heel and taking her leave. I could not catch what she said, as I was jumping up and down like a Masai warrior but it sounded like floss or flosser. Anyway, as she returned to her boudoir, I reminded her by way of a parting shot and in my moment of debating triumph, that standards have to be maintained. We are not savages! Her door closed rather too firmly for my liking but I headed for the bathroom mirror and a quick flossing before departure.
Firmly discarding the wooly garment, I chose instead an old favourite, a powder blue v neck pullover. As I carefully removed it from a drawer, I noticed it carried a few large stains, heroically acquired no doubt due to a misdirection of assets.
It would only be a problem should I choose to wear it. And that was not going to happen.
Such is the intense love I have for this personal item and showing the cunning of a top couturier, I chose instead to casually drape it over my shoulders in a provocative, yet manly Roman way? One final check in the mirror, a brief adieu to the dogs and I presented myself at the car.
Mercifully, the journey was conducted in total silence. Mrs Dailey chose to berate me on departure for what she described as my outburst over the offending wooly garment. Leaving me no option but to resort to defiant silence. I was issued with a further warning over my future conduct at the up coming lunch. This I took to be simply a reaction to my brilliantly argued stance on zipped cardigans and was therefore happy to drive silently eastwards, towards Shepherds Bush and the breaking dawn. As the Professor Higgins put it so eloquently….
One man in a million may shout a bit.
Now and then there’s one with slight defects;
One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.
But by and large, we are a marvellous sex!
I used to be able to bowl a Chinaman. I probably still could, given time and considerable physiotherapy.
In simple terms, a Chinaman is a ball in the game of cricket that is delivered by the bowler with the fingers and wrist indicating to the batsman the way the ball is going to turn on hitting the pitch. In fact when delivered correctly, it spins in the opposite direction and creates devilish confusion. Another word for the Chinaman is the Googly. The Chinaman is a Googly delivered by a right arm bowler. A Chinaman delivered by a left arm bowler is indeed and remains, a Chinaman. I hope that is clear?
It is not in itself a particularly important fact. Nevertheless It ranks proudly in my list of personal achievements, along with how to get a broken cork out of a bottle of good wine. You see that despite advancing years I pride myself in the openness of my mind, to further learning.
I was a little unnerved the other day, when mid porridge, my wife enquired in a gentle lilting tone, what I had planned for the following day?
I instantly smelt a trap.
Breathing deeply to overcome my racing heartbeat, I racked my brains for a suitable excuse. Anything.
But my early morning brain was still locked in second gear and I mumbled something like, ‘nothing too major’
‘Good’ she said. Then we are going to listen to Andrew Marr recording Start the Week for Radio 4 in Oxford.
Whew! Anythings better than gardening?
We chipped up at one of those Colleges tucked away in the back streets of Oxford, At first glance, I felt I had come upon an obscure prayer meeting. These hunched penitents all sported grey shoes in plastic or leather. Anoraks appeared compulsory. We exchanged smiles with those who agreed to meet our gaze. Mostly they stood heads bowed, mumbling strange verse.
So I took the time to study the runners and riders.
Andrew it appeared, was to host a discussion along with three noted writers, about the life and times of one Vasily Grossman and the republication of his book ‘Life and Fate’.
The short version of Vasily’s time on this planet, involved him being a very successful Soviet War Correspondent during the 2nd World War. He survived the horrors of Stalingrad but then lost the plot when after the war, he embarked on writing a rather ‘too near the bone’ yarn that simply rubbished the post war Motherland. Understandably, publishers were not exactly queuing up to throw their weight behind dear old Vasily. Add to that, writing his tome had cleared out all his supplies of ‘folding’ and he was broke. To top it all, when things could not get possibly get any worse, he died.
Fast forward 50 plus years and these anoraked groupies were gently gliding past us to greet others in the queue. It was not too long before I realised that the position we had taken up near the front of the queue had been compromised. We were now, at the back of the queue.
I remained calm. But was then bundled aside by a new queue basher who greeted the lady in front of me with a ‘Hermione darling, how lovely to see you.’ How he noticed her, escapes me. She was very small, encased in grey and camouflaged perfectly against the flagstones.
‘I knew you would be here. How is Gerald? Yes, well I do hope he gets better soon. The Prostate is such a bore! But like you, I just had to be here today. Vasily’s day in the sun is long overdue.
‘Yes Crispin’ said Hermione ‘Vasily’s Life and Fate in english is indeed rewarding but I still prefer to read him in french.’
My wife and I were instantly bonded, welded in the grip of inadequacy. We realised in that moment, that we were the only two people in that grey line, who had never read so much as a sentence of Life and Fate in English, let alone in French.
As the queue shuffled forward, I resolved that this was one of those occasions when we men, have to be men. Putting a strong comforting arm around my wife’s ample waist, I smiled reassuringly at her and whispered, ‘Don’t worry, I bet none of this lot knows how to bowl a Chinaman!’
TERMS AND CONDITIONS
‘Hello Mr Jones, how good to see you again. Would you like to order?
‘Two set lunches? Perfect. Some fizzy water and a bottle of the Red Infuriator? Of course.
Would you just like to review your order on my pad and tick the box in the right hand corner to signify you have read and agree to our terms and conditions?’
‘No, nothing too drastic. Just the lawyers normal meat and gravy issues, no responsibility if you contract salmonella, beri beri, swamp fever or react to any allergies known or unknown as a result of eating our lovely food. But you will be pleased that now, just by ticking the little box allows you to use one of our really sharp steak knives without the need for those tiresome and long winded waivers used by our competitors. Thank you by the way, for confirming your booking with us today by email. By now your inbox will contain a number of carefully selected offers from companies whose products we feel you really need.’
My apologies if that appears to be a clumsy pastiche? Hopefully it will never come to pass in my Industry but not reading the T&C’s can be costly and this is no time to be an innocent.
I purchased a new Japanese SUV some three years ago and took out an extended warranty and service plan. At the end of the initial two year deal I was invited to extend the warranty and thought why not? Imagine my surprise this morning when slipping smoothly into top gear half a mile from my house, merely a week after a major service, all manner of flashing lights appeared on the dashboard display and the car began performing like an east german Trabant in need of a complete engine change.
I limped to the main dealership and the car was duly plugged into various diagnostic machines. Eventually a grim face gentleman emerged from the service department to deliver the news that the XYZ filter or similar acronym, was knackered.
‘Oh! I said how annoying. Well I do have some meetings today but I can be picked up. Perhaps you would like to crack on and replace the filter? ‘
‘I am afraid it is not covered by your warranty Mr Dailey. These filters are £1200 not including VAT and fitting and furthermore we do not have one in stock.’
The copy editors at the Oxford Times are a heartless bunch so there is insufficient space here to fully describe my reaction to this news. Lets just leave it that the Service Manager and the General Manager were summoned and sure enough, had I read the T&C’s I would have noticed that the aforementioned filter was not covered under the warranty along with several other bits of machinery with strange sounding names.
By now my heated discussion had galvanised the attention of a number of clients in the Service lounge all awaiting the return of their vehicles and you could sense these hirelings were keen to see the back of me.
There was a lot of shuffling of feet and what do you want us to do Mr Dailey? Go and boil your heads was the first thing to come to mind but instead I informed the smug company disciples in a loud voice that I would not be continuing with their worthless warranty and they would be hearing from my solicitor. On the way out I pondered that I do not actually have a solicitor but dismissed this concern as a mere detail. The fresh air gave me hope and I knew I would not miss their appalling coffee. But not reading the T&C’s was going to prove expensive as well as having to cope with the strong smell of being legged over and to cap it all, I was now driving a Trabant.
There are few noticeable benefits to achieving senior status but possibly a lifetime of experience is one? I know a lot of people who do a lot of things, most of them legal. So a tearful grovelling call just now to my local garage man who operates out of a shed in the middle of a field and who before I purchased my smart new SUV faithfully serviced and kept a series of wrecks on the road for me, came up trumps.
‘Bring it round George and lets have look at it. I can order a filter overnight and could fit it tomorrow for £900 all in, if that’s OK?’
His terms are that I pay him when he has done the job and his conditions are that in future, he services the car.
I love it!
Whilst we labour valiantly to shrug off the cloak of winter, there is still a chance to enjoy one of our more unusual seasonal speciality vegetables and one with a rather interesting history. Forced rhubarb.
You may want to take issue with me on this but yes, rhubarb is indeed a veggie and apparently, from the same family as sorrel. The first recorded mention of this ancient plant occurred around 2500 BC when it was admired for its medicinal properties in helping to treat stomach and bowel conditions.
In short, it was a most effective purgative.
The season for plain old field and garden rhubarb is April to September and with sugar from the Indies, its part in the 18th and 19th century English diet was secure but when fate offered a chance to extend its seasonal availability, it was game on!
Folklore being what it is you will not be surprised to learn that there are several versions of how the process of ‘forcing’ was discovered. The version I like is that in 1817 someone in the Chelsea Physic garden uncovered some crowns of rhubarb that had been buried under loose soil for several weeks. On removing the soil, to everyone’s surprise, beautiful long pink stems of rhubarb were revealed topped with the trademark yellow leaves. The taste was infinitely superior to the field grown variety and it did not take long for the commercial opportunities to be realised.
The loose Chelsea soil in the Physic garden must have been high in nitrates for that is essential to producing good rhubarb. In the early 19th century this mineral was secured by the liberal application of horse manure and the charmingly named ‘night soil’. This euphemism was of course human fecal material, diligently collected in wagons from privies and outhouses by ‘nightmen’ the forerunners of the lavender wagon operatives of my youth.
But as the plant originated in Siberia not only does rhubarb require nitrates, it also likes its weather on the chilly side.
London growers did produce forced rhubarb for a few decades but the Capital was not consistently cold enough and in 1877 large scale production of this new delicacy moved north to an area encompassed by Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, which quickly became known as the Rhubarb Triangle. At the foot of the Pennines it was a wet and noted frost pocket but unlike other areas, it could also guarantee a new and endless supply of nitrate.
In the 19th Century right up to the second World War, Rag and Bone Men were a regular sight trolling the streets of our cities and villages collecting unwanted household goods and metal often riding atop a horse drawn cart. Rags found their way north to the vast Yorkshire woollen mills in and around the triangle, where they were mechanically shredded and reusable wool retrieved. The waste product from this process high in natural nitrates, was called Shoddy.
Ah! So thats where the word shoddy came from! Well I never knew that.
Rhubarb roots destined for forcing are left in the fields unharvested and covered with shoddy for two to three years. The nitrates in the shoddy being soluble in water, leach down slowly over time and feed the root systems. Then shortly after they have been subjected to two or three late autumn frosts, the crowns and roots are dug up and replanted in dark warm purpose built sheds. To get an idea of how tricky this operation is, some roots can weigh 50 kilos and require two men to lift them!
The shock of the frosts followed by their new warm home convinces the rhubarb to explode with new shoots and these stems known as Petioles grow rapidly, desperately seeking daylight.
Apparently if you stand quietly in these sheds you can actually hear the stems creaking and popping as they grow!
At the height of production around the late 1930’s, trains called Rhubarb Specials left the triangle every night destined for the London markets carrying 200 tons of this colourful plant. And that was all they carried, no passengers, just the rhubarb.
Now this beautiful forced pink delicacy is making a big comeback and top chefs are marrying this seasonal treat with everything from game to fish as well as my favourite pudding, rhubarb crumble.
I can’t force you but as the season ends March 31st maybe give it a try?