Monday, December 24, 2007

Once more into the breeks

Walked into the pub where "the guns" that is to say the men doing the shooting were meeting. There were about a dozen guns along with a gamekeeper and deputy gamekeeper, "beaters" (who flush out the game) and "pickers up" with dogs (who find the birds which have been brought down). Walking into a pub full of men when you are wearing tweed breeks that make you look like you ate a rhino is daunting - the daylight equivalent of that dream where you realise you are naked in the office. The shoot starts with coffee and bacon and sausage sandwiches and there was much shaking of hands and making of introductions before the alcohol came out at around 9.30 am. It is my belief that country folk have larger livers than townsfolk due to the inordinate amount of alcohol they consume while still remaining sober. Ideally the more dangerous the past time, the more alcohol is consumed.
Riding a horse? "Pass the hip flask."
Zipping along on the quad bike - without a helmet? "The bar is in that cardboard box on the back of the bike over there."
Firing a loaded weapon? "Would you like whipped cream on your Tia Maria coffee?"
There was at least an administrative reason for this first round of alcohol - the local Percy special of cherry brandy and whisky. Thinking about it, there often is a reason for a drink in the country; reasons which include "I'm here" and "Well, if you're offering."

The pewter cups extracted by the captain of the shooting syndicate from a tan leather "field bar" were all engraved with numbers on their bottoms. The idea is the chap knocks back the drink and turns the cup over to read its number which tells him where he is standing in the line of guns. Anyone impatient to know his number raises the cup high in front of him as if to make an extravagant toast and peers underneath it. (If it were not the first drink of the day, I imagine a lot of them might get rather wet.)

After the number draw and the safety lecture from the gamekeeper which included strict advice to "keep plenty of blue sky under the target", we all piled outside into the 4x4s and headed off into the cold and misty morning. I was extraordinarily glad of the extraordinary number of layers I had on although I wished I had a balaclava as the only part of me exposed was my face which felt as if the skin was being carved off my skull by a pick axe. There were to be four "drives". A drive is where the chaps with the guns stand in their line across a field. The beaters have flags (made of metal poles and plastic feed sacks) as well as dogs and very loud voices. They walk along making a terrible racket and chase the birds out from the coppices or game plots where they feed. The captain explained that the "sport" is to shoot the bird high in the sky - about 30 yards up. I would have thought there was more sport if the bird had its own gun but I did not like to make the point in case he shot me.

It is considered not the done thing to shoot your neighbour's birds, his dog or indeed the neighbour himself although these things happen. A guest of one of the regular members of the syndicate shot the gamekeeper's black Labrador in the belief it was a fox in the grass. (You are not supposed to shoot something you cannot see.) The gamekeeper said: "The dog had a hundred pellets in his face. They had to shave his head to get them all out - he looked like a dartboard." I said: "What was he called?" He said: Bracken." I thought: "Well it wasn't going to be Lucky."

The captain and I headed out into a barley field to our allotted spot towards the end of the line. He nodded towards the strip of grass growing wild at the edge of the field. Farmers no longer plough right to the hedges, they leave a border of uncultivated land which has encouraged the English grey partridge as well as wild pheasant. As we stood on our spot, I tried to time my conversation so it was not a distraction but every time I started to talk a bird would fly overhead and he would shoot at it and miss. I kept saying: "Sorry, I'll shut up" and he kept saying: "That's fine". I thought: "I really don' t want to irritate this man." After the drive, there was a pause for a chat and bramble whisky, made from sugar, whisky and brambles you gather from the hedges. (I am never making jam again.)

The next drive we were in a better position and I tried to let my host concentrate on his shooting. We were next to a thicket and on a slight incline but the shooting was complicated by telegraph wires that striped the sky. Four years ago, someone shot through them and more than 103 phones were off in the village for a week. It allegedly cost "The Man Who Shot The Phone" £20,000 to repair the lines. I looked across to the gun next to us - a local dentist. My own dentist is an hour's drive away. I watched him fire into the sky and a pheasant cartwheel down to land close to his feet. It fluttered up from the ground, collapsed back, attempted to fly again and fell back in a flurry of beating wings. He stepped across, leaned down and broke its neck. I thought: "I am so not having you for my dentist."

Leaving to one side the slightly messy fact that birds are being shot and killed, the captain explained that the guns are keen to avoid unnecessary suffering. Soft-mouthed golden retrievers find the Chinese ring-necked pheasant, French red-legged partridge and woodcock which have been shot and if they are still alive, the picker up holds them by both wings, they stretch out their neck and are knocked on the back of the neck, just below the head, with a big stick. If I was a bird and someone shot me and I then plummeted to the ground from a great height, was found and carried along in a wet doggy mouth, I would definitely figure my number was up about the time I saw the guy lean over me with the big knobbly stick.

We broke again after the second drive this time for a Tia Maria coffee. I needed it. An overloaded picker up handed me a pheasant to take back to the cars. I tried to behave as if there was nothing unusual in walking along holding a dead pheasant by the neck. I was slightly less casual when the damn thing twitched. Eeeeeeuuuuuuow. I needed a drink to wash away my complicity. I was told that it was indeed dead but sometimes nerve impulses or tics made the birds twitch for some while after. I think I too would acquire a nervous tic if someone shot at me with a 12 bore.

During the third drive in scrub land by a wood my host let me hold his gun. I did not know how my husband would feel about me holding another man's gun but he was not there so I did it anyway. The captain stood close behind me to stop the recoil knocking me to the ground. My arms trembled slightly with the weight of the barrel. I contemplated saying. "You have a very big gun" but I thought my husband really would not like that. I fired his Beretta twice. I missed. To fire a gun, you stand with it tucked tightly into your shoulder. You slide off the safety catch, look along the barrel for the brass bead at the end of it, sweep the gun around, aiming ahead of the target and pull the trigger, still following the direction in which the bird is flying. It makes a boom noise. I did not hit a bird; I did get a Percy special as a consolation prize.

I spent the fourth drive with a picker up and her three golden retrievers. We were some way behind the guns in a field behind a wood. As we walked towards the wood following one of the dogs who had bounded in after a free fall pheasant, there was a pitter pattering sound. I thought: "Is that rain?" It was not rain. It was the sound of shot falling through leaves. I said to the picker up I was with: "Why is there shot falling through the woods when we are behind the guns?" She said: "They turn round to shoot at the birds sometimes." If there had not been so much mulch on the ground, I would have walked back on my knees. Fortunately I could revive myself with the damson gin.

Shooting of course costs money. A decent gun costs around £1,000. A very good gun can cost £7,000. The men I went out with included farmers, a solicitor, the dentist, a chef and a couple of financial advisers from the local market town as well as the captain who runs his own game farm selling 80,000 game birds to estates. They band together to buy six to seven days shooting of around 150 birds through the autumn and into the winter. Another bigger syndicate of bankers fly in from Monaco, Guernsey and London, one of them in a private jet. These men shoot for around 14 days.

The cock pheasant is a riot of colour, a blue and green head, red circle drawn around his eyes, white neck, bronze and copper brown body with a duck egg blue close to the wings. Partridge are a more discrete grey and buff while woodcock are a small bird with a long beak. The dead birds are brought back noosed and attached to a strap called a bird carrier, or in a bag if they are a bit mushy, or held by the neck between the fingers of your hand with the head tucked into your palm. Back at the cars, a hen and a cock pheasant are lashed together on green string then dangled from the cross hatched iron bars of a trailer. Their heads knock together in consolation.

The guns brought down 196 birds. The gamekeeper extracted four small pin feathers from the wings of a pair of woodcock - traditionally you get them when you shoot your first woodcock and stick them in your hat - hence the expression "feather in your cap". He gave them to me and I shall treasure them - it is some time since I have had a feather in my cap. I can see the attraction of shooting. It is sociable and outdoors, there is free booze and bang bang toys. Of course, I am not a bird. As a bird, I would be less keen. They do occasionally get their revenge. The gamekeeper was once knocked out by a cock pheasant falling from the sky. The gamekeeper who did not have a dog called Lucky that is.

Poop Poop

Am singularly lacking in festive cheer. Thought: "I know. I'll go shooting." I have never been shooting before unless you count a couple of times at school and at fairs at those irritating ducks that paddle by regardless of the popping corks around them.

A friend set me up with a local shoot. I knew I needed some gear; I have a rough idea of what people who go shooting wear because I see them on a morning as I drive by on the school run - a lot of tweed, strange knickerbockers and cartridge belts. I tried to borrow what I needed but all I could muster was a waterproof coat the size of a tent and a pair of hunting socks. This particular combination might have made me quite popular on the shoot but I thought I might catch a chill. I went into a nearby country shop. The very charming man who owns it is a keen fan of shooting. He obviously approved of my decision to give it a go - I do not think he was influenced by the fact he was about to earn a walloping amount of money.

The "outfitter" held up a pair of the aforementioned knickerbockers or breeks as they are technically termed. They are supposed to finish just under the knee. This pair finished at my ankles. I think I must be shorter than the average "gun". He found me a smaller pair. When I say smaller - I mean leg length. Silk lined, tweed knickerbockers feel fabulous on, warm and roomy but they do nothing to minimise your backside. He handed me a checked shirt. I hated it immediately but it was in brushed cotton and I decided I could live with it if it kept me warm. I baulked at both the green and the orange lambswool jumpers on the grounds you had to draw a line somewhere but I decided I needed the fitted Barbour jacket because my only outdoor alternative is my fabuous floor length coat or a very scruffy tan suede jacket which is falling apart at the seams. The Barbour belts at the waist. I did not think this would be a brilliant idea bearing in mind the knickerbockers underneath but amazingly it worked very well. It was slightly World War Two ( - the Nazis not the good guys). I thought I was done until he handed me a tweed Gainsborough cap (same tweed as the knickerbockers). I looked a picture. I said to the outfitter: "I don't want to look like I'm cross-dressing you know." He laughed. He said: "Not at all." I am not sure if he realised what I meant by "cross-dressing". I think it is possible he thought I meant it made me look slightly mean rather than entirely fragrant. I bought the lot and the next morning climbed into my gear not forgetting the borrowed green hunting socks which are long and which you tie under the knee and over the cuff of the knickerbocker with a tasselled yellow gaiter. You then bend the sock back over the gaiter but allow the tassel to fall outside your wellington boots. I thought there was a chance I looked like a Principal Boy (absurd, cute, sexually ambiguous) and there was a chance I looked like Mr Toad (tweedy, green and fat). I came down to the kitchen. My six-year-old said: "Mummy - you look stupid." My four-year-old could not speak for laughing; the baby girl said "Where's Mummy?" and began to wail. My husband looked me up and down. He said: "Exactly how much did that lot cost?"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Home is where the heart is

When we got the car to a garage and the tree home, it turned out it was 12 feet high. It did not look that big in the forest. As my husband manhandled it into a stand and screwed it into place, he said: "I'm so glad you chose this tree and not me." Luckily we could squeeze it into the lounge in the arches where we have a vaulted ceiling. It is so large it reminds me a little of the one they have in Trafalgar Square. I keep expecting to walk in and find the Salvation Army gathered round it singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

It is just as well it is so big, it may take my mother and father's minds off how cold it is in there. Their own house is so warm you could grow orchids in it. They have roaring artificial fires and central heating which they like to use at the same time. They are careful to close doors after themselves and have double glazed windows which are sealed so tight that I believe in the event of a nuclear war, they would be entirely safe from radiation sickness and hold out just as long as their tinned products. I wanted them to be equally as warm here but the underfloor heating is a disaster. The plumber has been back, the electrician has been back, the builder has been back but it is still not right. There is nothing more we can do before Christmas. Meanwhile we have shipped in four heaters to take the worst of the chill off the air.

The "arches" consists of a cold and tree-filled lounge, an even colder bedroom and a showerroom off the bedroom. The idea is everything is at ground level for my mother and father and they can stay with us for longer periods but still have their own space when they need it. I am irritated that it is not perfect for them. They arrived yesterday and last night my husband lit a fire in there. They sat together on the new sofa; the lights glowing on the Biggest Christmas Tree in the World; my mother sipping her tea. I said: "I'm sorry the heating doesn't work properly." She said: "Actually, it's just right."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"How lovely are your branches"

In London, we used to go to a flower market , buy bagels, drink coffee and pay a nice coster man for a 6 foot tree "guaranteed not to drop its needles eva." Last year, we drove out to a farm and looked round a barn where dozens of trees dangled from the rafters and all I could think of were hanged men swaying gently in the breeze. Quite took the edge of the festive jollity. This year, my husband went in the Saab with the four-year-old and I went in the Volvo with the six-year-old, baby girl and a neighbour; we drove alongside hoar frosted fields to a forest where we stumbled around avoiding wolves and looking for the perfect tree. I was slightly worried we might all freeze to death or get eaten while my husband decided which one he was willing to take home with him. (Chosing a tree is one of those things he takes an inordinate amount of time over. Rapt, he will burble endlessly about size and symmetry and the straightness of the trunk - I think it must be a male thing.) With a whole forest to chose between, I thought that if the weather and animals did not kill us first, we risked being there till Easter. Time for decisiveness.

"That one looks lovely," I said pointing to a tree. (It was a tree - how different can one be from the next?) My husband eyed it with some scepticism but it was straight and true and did not run away. We took turns to saw it down with a handy jagged toothed hacksaw and, in between, sang carols. I could not hear other families singing carols but I want my children to have memories of Christmas to last them a lifetime. Memories like "Do you remember how you always used to embarass us by singing carols when we chopped down the Christmas tree? By the way, why couldn't we just buy a tree like normal people?" We dragged it back to the car, paid £15 to a chilly looking man in a metal container who bagged it up for us in a large net before strapping it to the car with twine. It was dark by the time we had done.

My husband pulled off first and I followed closely behind. We went on back roads for a while to avoid drawing attention to the tree. We pulled out on to the A1. (This road is the main route along the East Coast of England between London and Scotland. Long sections in Northumberland are single carriageway. Juggernauts use it. Tractors and caravans use it. Everyone who lives up here and wants to go anywhere uses it. No one from the Department for Transport has ever used it or it would all be dual carriageway. To turn off it, you have to cross high speed traffic coming in the opposite direction. Depending on the junction, you put the brakes on thinking something like: "Dear God let the car behind notice I have stopped in the middle of the road and don't let the car behind him try to overtake right now."

We were about two thirds of the way home when my husband started signalling right, slowed down then came to a halt in a narrow shadow island in the middle of the road. I drew up behind him. He put his hazard lights on and sat there. Lorries and cars hurtled by. I thought: "He must be turning right because the tree is about to fall off and has put his hazards on to warn everyone." But he did not turn right. We waited to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. He did not move off. My friend cautiously opened her door and got out of our car. She went up to his. More lorries hurtled by. I thought: "I have two children in this car. If a lorry piles into the back of me, we will all die." She sidled back. She said: "He's broken down." She went back to my husband and together they extracted my four-year-old from the passenger side of the Saab and ran across the road with him. I thought: "OK, that is one of them safe." I pulled my car across and drove a little way down the farm track. My husband said: "The engine is dead. I will have to push the car across the carriageway." I thought: "The children are alright and now he's going to get himself killed and we're going to be right here to see it. The car has a Christmas tree on top; the story is going to be "Tragic Dad in Christmas Tree Pile-Up Horror." At that moment, a 4X4 drew up and a farmer got out to see if he could help. He drove back onto the A1 and swung his car round so its full beam headlights lit up our stranded Saab. He got out and crossed into the middle of the road; he pushed our car off the A1 while my husband steered. I thought: "Next year, I'm going fibre optic."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Some kinda dame

Apparently the Savoy sale is upon us. Staying there last week felt slightly strange. Perhaps it was the fact I should by rights, have been at the Travelodge or perhaps it was the sales tags that hung from the furniture in the room. We stayed in Room 662. It felt entirely authentic as if you had ratchetted back in time. I looked out of the window, half expecting London to be in black and white. I thought: "Any minute now a man in a fedora is going to come in with a gun in his hand and a crooked smile. He is going to make me hate him. Then he is going to make me love him. Finally, he is going to walk away into the shadows and never look back even though his heart is breaking." I threw myself on the bed (Lot 2117, a pollard oak and ebonised bedroom suite in the Art Deco style, comprising of a double bed with headboard, a bedside cabinet and a dressing table 196cm wide:£800- £1,200) to wait for him. I got up again and went across to Lot 2119 - a pollard oak circular occasional table in the Art Deco style, 60cm diameter and 65cm high (£100 - £150). I slid a cigarette from a silver case, pursed lips any man would be happy to call home, and sat down in Lot 2120 ( a grey upholstered tub chair: £100 - £150). I crossed my long slim legs, the silk making the kind of noise silk makes, thought "Daiquiri" and got up again. I sashayed across to Lot 2118 (a pollard oak and ebonised cabinet in the Art Deco style, 80cm wide x 60cm deep x 171cm high: £300 - £500). I opened the lacquered door and a fat man's body toppled out. I screamed. My husband came in from the bathroom, tousled and slightly damp. He was not wearing a fedora. He did not notice the bullet-ridden body on the floor or the writhing cigarette smoke between us. He said: "Happy darling? "

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Postcard from London

Dear Wifey,
For work connected reasons, I have been down in London three times in as many weeks. I had originally planned to fly from Frankfurt to Edinburgh but decided instead to fly into London's City Airport and go to a Xmas party.

My husband met me at the airport. We were to do a very daring thing - have a night away from the children. This was the first night we have spent together and away from the children for three and a half years. (When we went away then, it was for a weekend in a Brighton hotel and we missed them so much we came back early. Even so, we had spent the entire time mooching round toy shops saying "Oooh, let's buy that. They'd love it.") On Wednesday night, my husband said: "We don't need a cab. We'll walk." I did not think that boded well. He took my laptop and I pulled my little case on wheels along the narrow pavements, past the parked cars captive behind metal railings with the Docklands Light Railway track louring above us. My husband pointed to a neon lit sign some way ahead - "City Airport Travelodge". I stopped to consider our journey's destination. I said: "So we are staying at the Travelodge?" He said: "Yes, you said you wanted somewhere convenient and it's only £70." I tugged my wheely case off the pavement and towards the brightly lit entrance. I said: "We've been together for 19 years and sometimes I don't think you know me at all." He said: "Well, this is what I do when I come to London." I said: "And whose fault is that?"

He checked us in; I walked across to the vending machine in the foyer, put in a pound coin and a diet coke slammed into the drawer. I thought: "I think I need more than a diet coke." We took the lift up to the room and pushed open the door as a plane taxied past the window. I heard a roaring noise. I think it was a plane. There is a chance it was the blood in my ears. I put down the case on the floor beside the wardrobe and my handbag on the table in front of the mirror and cracked open the diet coke. It did not make me feel better. I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea. It did not make me feel better. I pulled the pillow length ways so that I could lean against it and sank into the bed. My husband lay down next to me. The weight of his body tipping me into him. I thought: "Could the bed be made of sponge I wonder?" I thought: "It is not so much the wallow in the mattress or the sound of planes or the fact its location seems so desolate - it is more that he thinks that this is what I am worth, what I deserve." I said: "This - is our first night away together in three and a half years and you have brought me to City Airport's Travelodge. The thing I want to do most of all right now, is cry."

I started getting ready for the party and he slipped out. I thought: "Maybe I'm tired from travelling. Maybe it's alright. I'll just get drunk at the party and when I get back, it won't seem so bad." My husband came back into the bedroom, his phone in his hand. He said: "OK I've booked the Savoy. Shall we go now?"

Friday, December 14, 2007

Postcard from Frankfurt

Dear Wifey,
Went across to Frankfurt to see an old friend who is recovering from an operation. Like me, she moved away aways a couple of years ago because of her husband's job and since her operation has been locked tight into a very Germanic programme of recuperation and rehabilitation. She is very brave about it all - I would winge endlessly: "Meine leg hurtzen lotzen...Ich wolle grossen pillz bitte." While she was at rehab, I went to a Christmas market. Little wooden sheds with carved nativities and an orchard of ribboned baubles, hung about in different colours like so much exotic fruit. They tempted you to lean closer and bite through the glass to taste Christmas sweetness and emptiness. I resisted. I did not think I had the German to explain such behaviour to the police psychiatrist. I caught a cab from the market to the railway station. Is there anything better than a train station in another country? Arching rooves, a station clock at the head of each platform, electronic displays that tell you if only you were to turn up on platform 17 at 16.58pm you could go to Paris Est and then what? Life could begin again. I did not go to Paris Est, instead I got on a train to my friend's house. I was inordinately pleased with myself. I checked on board and a kind fellow traveller told me when to get off. He got off at the same place and walked up the platform ahead of me; I looked around deciding which direction to go and I noticed him hesitate then glance behind him. My friend had said to catch a cab when I got to the station. I remained inordinately pleased with my capacity for independent travelling even though I could not see any taxis at the station. Indeed from what I could see, it was not so much a station as a platform in the heartland of the German suburban night. Luckily, there was a phone box with an advert for a cab company plastered on the back wall. I rang, using my word scraps to say where I was. It was cold and nothing much moved. I stood by the phone box on the street corner. I hummed a few bars of Lilli Marlene. I rang the cab company again - I thought there was an outside chance I had ordered a cup of coffee with milk and no sugar rather than a cab. The taxi controller though seemed quite cross I still had not been picked up. I thought: "I wonder if I am where I think I am?" I began to doubt myself. I really do not want to start doubting myself - God knows where it would end. I walked past the recycling bank, back up to the station. My kind fellow traveller had put me off at the wrong station - instead of Kelkheim, I was in Kelkheim-Muenster. Nothing much happens in Kelkheim-Muenster. I thought: "If I was going to get off at the wrong station, it could at least have been Paris Est."

Friday, December 07, 2007

All is vanity

I got a glimpse of what life may be like for my husband and by golly, it is not all roses. I presumed, since he was married to me, life overall would be pretty good. But this traipsing up and down to London is not easy. Sometimes he stays with friends and sometimes he stays in hotels. I had to go down to London again this week on business and this time, since I was going down for a dinner which probably would not be over till around midnight, I thought I would stay in a hotel rather than fetch up on a friend's doorstep in the early hours or indeed wander the streets. I booked the hotel on-line in a bid to be more organised. It boasted of a gallery of pictures on its walls and an atmosphere which encouraged travellers to return again and again and was central. Sounded perfect. I congratulated myself on my foresight as I climbed on the train.

I was cutting it fine to make it to the dinner so I decided I would do my make-up en route and change into my frock at the hotel. I spread out my bottles, potions, powders and creams on the table in front of me. There were a lot of them. There were so many I put around two-thirds of the ones I did not immediately need back into the bag. There were still a lot of them. I started work. It took quite a long time. The guard passed me twice. The tea trolley lady also passed me twice. She was about 20 years younger than I am and looked at my collection with a fair degree of interest. I think she understood what I was doing. Virtually anyone else who saw me would have considered me entirely vain. It took forever or at least till Peterborough. I felt like explaining: "It is not a question of vanity. It is merely that I have been ravaged by time." Eventually I finished. I considered the power point under the table. I thought about plugging in my ceramic poker with which I planned to curl my hair. I decided against it, not so much on the grounds I would make even more of a show of myself, more because I thought I might set my bag on fire when I put it away again.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was slightly disappointed at the "gallery of pictures" which had the look of prints you pick up in boxed-up batches at auction at a knock down price because no one else wants them. I collected my key. Usually I travel light, but this time I had shoes, a laptop and half a tonne of girly clart with me which I then had to heave up four narrow flights of stairs to the second floor. I pushed open the door to something that was not so much a room as a stopping-off space in front of a window. Twin beds lay end to end along one wall with a sink like a full stop at the foot of one of them. The strip lighting above the sink did not work. I suddenly realised if I could see a sink, the room did not have a bathroom. I did not know there were any hotel rooms in the centre of London without bathrooms. I sighed deeply and threw my bag down on top of one of the beds.

I had decided to wear ridiculous shoes for the occasion. I am not sure why I decided this. It had something to do with the fact, give or take the odd hunt ball, I do not go out a lot these days. They were black satin stilettos with a droopy bow at the back and shiny silver heels. Looked good. Felt bad. I dressed, primped my hair and tottered down the four flights of stairs and into the London night. I stood on my too high heels by the road for a long time without a smell of a cab. At last I caught sight of a lit-up taxi sign and just at that moment, a couple dashed out of a door further up the road and threw themselves into it. If my heels had been slightly lower I would have run up the road and berated them for being so un-British. As it was, I glared into the blackness of the cab's interior as it passed me by. I am sure it made a big impression on them. I had little alternative. I agony-staggered along and round the corner to a busier road and there, I finally caught a taxi of my own, with a driver who was a jazz drummer in his real life.

By the time I arrived at the restaurant, I was half an hour late. I slid into the bar where a group of people were drinking together. I told the maitre d' the party I was with and he gesticulated to the people by the bar. He took my coat which is black boucled wool with a velvet collar and a lush silk lining. It has a vaguely early nineteenth century look to it and is entirely inappropriate to country living. Since I am very short and it is very long, it risks dragging on the floor but since my heels were so very high and I was in town this particular night, I wore it. As I turned my back to him and he shucked it from my shoulders and gathered it into his arms, he said: "Ah....beautiful". He meant the coat though for a brief moment I thought he meant me. Then he went over to get me a drink from the bar. I stood to one side watching the group. I could not see the one person I was certain would be there. I thought it possible she too was late. I looked at them. Quite a few were slightly over weight. One slightly blowsy woman stared at me as if she did not even have to speak to me to know she did not like me. I collected my drink, smiling sweetly at the maitre d' on the off-chance it had indeed been me and not the coat and walked over to the one black guy in the group standing by himself in the middle of the room. I held out my hand and introduced myself. He introduced himself. I nodded as if I might have heard of him. I said: "And who is it you're with again?" "The Metropolitan Police," he said and gesticulated to his colleagues. "Right," I said. "I won't be a minute" and sidled away.

I eventually found the right dining room and dinner was very nice although a part of me thought: "I wonder if I would have been happier with the police?". There were about 17 or so people at the table including the person I knew and another young woman who, years ago, had come into the newsroom I was working in for a couple of weeks work experience. She is very talented, already successful and will doubtless be even more so. I said hello and reminded her she had worked with me when she was a university student. She said something to the effect that the fact I remembered was "amazing" when it was so long ago. I waited for her to say: "I remember you, too - you were great." She did not say it.

When I worked in that newsroom, I was regularly assigned the young work experience folk on the grounds that I would not eat them up and spit them out. I listened to who they were and what they wanted and tried to be very nice to them. I wanted them to be useful, to shine; tried to get their name in print and make it a positive experience for them. Naively and entirely selfishly, I also wanted them to remember me as someone who had been kind, briefly significant even, as I advised them with immense wit and wisdom on how to make their particular dream come true. Sometimes they would come in and be useless. Occasionally, they would be great. This girl came in and was great. Over pear and almond tart with a scoop of chocolate ice-cream, I tried again, a little more desperately, for that elusive validation of my past. I wanted to say: "So do you remember me?" I did not. Instead I said: "So do you remember anything about it all?" She said gosh yes. She mentioned one colleague then struggled for the name of another in arts. Maybe she did remember me - I could not tell. I finished off my ice-cream and licked the spoon. I thought: "I hope this isn't what motherhood turns out to be - you think you're making a difference that'll last them a lifetime and actually, after a while, they can't remember who you are."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The North-South divide

We have to decide whether we stay living here or move back to London at the turn of the year. That is the timetable we set ourselves. Whether we end up staying or go back (I was going to say "home" there - oops), I am feeling increasingly frustrated by the bad news stories coming out of the North-East.

Twenty to 25 years ago, it was all pit closures and heavy industry closing with a constant stream of job losses in shipbuilding and engineering. No one rolled over and no one gave up - unions fought for jobs, "management" pulled together buy-outs and there was a fierce struggle for American and Japanese investment in car building and the high tech sector. There is still a skills issue in the labour market courtesy of the heritage of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. But more people are in employment in the region than ever before. The implication behind the stories on Northern Rock, the child benefit debacle and this latest political fandango over David Abrahams is that something is "not quite right" about the North-East. Perhaps they are not as sharp as they are down South; the financiers oblivious to risk, the underpaid poor bloody infantryman following orders - oblivious to the need for security and rigor? As for the eccentric property developer, the conspiracy theories whisper that it might be the Israelis or it might just be that the Labour party of the 1970s is alive and well and living on Tyneside. Cor blimey. I do not think I knew what "community" was till I moved to the North-East. I have found the people to be sharp, funny, immensely decent and infinitely generous. I thought it might be the right time to say so. Perhaps I will open up an account with Northern Rock, pay in my next child benefit cheque and use the interest to send a donation to the Labour Party - in my own name naturally. I wonder if that would help my Northern credentials?