Saturday, 29 May 2010

Vera May Hirons: 30th November 1912 - 14th May 2010

Late last year, I blogged about my 97-year-old Auntie Vera ('Home is where the aunt is', posted 1st December 2009).

Towards the end, I wrote: "As I check for typos, I realise [it] reads like a fond obituary, one which, I hope, will prove substantially premature as I intend to be sitting in her back room in 2012, just as I did today, and raising a glass as she tucks into a small slice of suitable-for-diabetics birthday cake to mark her centenary."

Alas, my unintentional obit proved only mildly premature.  Vera has left us, and I returned to Birmingham this week for her funeral.

It was a lovely, simple, understated, mildly religious affair.  Very English.  Very non-London.  Only the lay preacher and I spoke.  I had laboured long and hard, attempting to capture, in a five-minute address, the essence of a long, eventful life and an independent, forward-looking, joyful personality.  Various mourners were kind enough to say, unasked, that I achieved it.

I thought I would feel only happiness on the day, as my memories of Vera are all good and she had said often during her final fortnight that she was ready go to.  And, certainly, happiness was the day's overriding emotion.  However, to my surprise, I found myself on the verge of tears numerous times.  I'm such a cry baby these days.  However did that happen?  Is it a simple consequence of age?  Do Life's knocks create a reservoir of sadness, liable to overflow whenever another unhappy event raises the saltwater level?  Or is it that Society, which once decreed that only girls cry, now tells men they may, indeed should, let it all out?  Who knows?

My first dodgy moment was in the funeral car on the way to the crematorium when one of Vera's step great grandsons, aged about eight and fascinated by every detail of his first funeral, piped up that he really loved Grandma Vera and would particularly miss the footballer pyjamas she bought him for Christmas every year.  I said he'd better make the current pair last, then, as he wouldn't be getting any more pyjamas.  The adults with us laughed at this modest joke but he took it entirely seriously and nodded in that fiercely earnest way only a youngster can.  It was that reaction, for some reason, which raised the level of the reservoir dangerously high.

Milling around outside the crematorium was a group of woman of many nationalities.  They were the carers whose work had allowed Auntie to remain in her own home until she died.  Going into a home was the greatest fear of her final years.  Even getting her into hospital for minor surgery took some doing because: "Once they get you in there, they never let you out again!"

I commented that attending elderly clients' funerals must be a fairly regular event.  "Oh, no," a grey-haired Indian lady in a sari corrected me, "we don't normally go.  We've only come because it's Vera's funeral and we all loved her so much."  The others murmured their agreement, one adding that she had never attended such an event before but wouldn't have missed Vera's for anything.  When a third explained that she would have to forgo the wake because she had had only three hours' sleep after working all night, I had to excuse myself and bite my lip very hard.   

As I negotiated the vile, 60s, pedestrian subway to the railway station for the 10-minute ride from Vera's not-very-pretty bit of Brum back to the city centre, I wondered whether, after visiting her there so many times, I would ever go to B20 again.  Now that I have a Midlands-based job, I can finally live in my fabulous flat in the Second City's iconic, cylindrical tower, The Rotunda (see same previous blog).  I move in in a fortnight and I'd imagined popping over to Perry Barr at least weekly to check on her but it seems the timing was off and it isn't to be.  I'll have to make do with a fund of lovely memories instead (oh dear, saltwater level rising dangerously....)

Finally, here's the verdict of another of Vera's impeccably behaved little step great grandsons upon his first funeral: "They're very sad things but they're good things too because you learn stuff about people."  

Photographs courtesy of Rommel Catalan

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The case of a badly bruised leg

We live in a uniform world these days.  Every high street boasts the same shops selling the same goods.  Pop into a McDonalds or Starbucks anywhere on the globe and you can confidently predict how big your Big Mac or skinny your skinny latte will be. 

And yet there's one mass-produced item we expect to be unique: our suitcase.  Have you customised your luggage to prevent you hauling someone else's undies and trashy novels off the carousel at Heathrow?  Of course you haven't.  You assume you'll know your case as soon as you see it, even though logic tells you any of your fellow passengers could easily own an identical one.

I am no exception to this strange suspension of disbelief, and I am a wincing, limping, groaning, tragic thing because of it.

On Monday morning, I caught the train back from London to Leicester as usual to start another week on the wireless.  Unlike last week's fiasco (see previous blog), the journey proceded smoothly.  We pulled into Leicester, I collected my case from the rack and skipped jauntily into a perfect East Midlands spring morning.

For no particular reason, it then entered my head that I might have left my diary at home.  I decided to check before starting my walk to work and unzipped the compartment in my case which I reserve for this important book.

It wasn't there.  Oh well, I'd just have to manage without it until I went home on Friday night.  Unless I'd inadvertently put it in the main body of my case.  No, it wasn't there, either, although I was pleased and surprised to see that I'd brought a bottle of water with me.  Oh, and sunglasses, too.  They'd be handy now the weather had finally come good.  Very nice sunglasses, actually.  Nicer than mine.

Hang on a minute.....NICER THAN MINE???  This wasn't my case!

Without even pausing to zip it up, I pelted back down the platform and flung it and myself back onto the train.  "I'm terribly sorry," I panted to a surprised and slightly frightened carriage, "I've taken this case by mistake!"

The rightful owner stepped forward and was very nice about it.  I wrenched mine, which was indeed identical and had been right next to his, off the rack and headed for the door. 

Which then began to close.  If I didn't get off that train, I'd have to go to Derby and back, and probably miss the start of my radio show, which must never happen!   I threw my case out and myself after it, crashing on top of it in an ungainly and painful heap (watched, no doubt, by those slightly frightened passengers and convincing any waverers as to my mental state).

One of the refinements of modern rolling stock is that the doors close automatically even if the train isn't about to depart.  Sure enough, the 10.01 for stations to Sheffield was in no hurry to leave.  All I'd needed to do was push the button and the door would have reopened and I could have departed without doing my comedy impersonation of a stunt man.

Thirty-six hours later, I'm still limping and wincing, although the pain is decreasing so I don't think I've done myself any serious harm.

But the moral of the story is clear: customise your cases!  I thought about getting some stickers for mine, but where does anyone over the age of 10 buy stickers? 

And stickers say so much: people assume, not unreasonably, that you are passionate about whatever cause or organisation they advertise.  Do they do ones for people who are slightly left-of-centre, vaguely worried about global warming but not enough to do very much recycling, fairly proud to be British though aware we don't always get it right, and all for banning the bomb provided the other side ban it first?

No, I thought not.  It looks like more suitcase comedy capers could be in the offing.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Travel - at a price

I've had a frustratingly, infuriatingly, pointlessly expensive weekend.  And it could have been even worse.....

I work in Leicester all week and go home by train to London at weekends.  I buy my tickets online during the week.  A seat on the 14.57 Leicester-St Pancras service on a Friday afternoon costs £12, a surprisingly fair price for modern-day robber barons East Midlands Trains whose fares dwarf those of other operators and who, unfortunately, have the monopoly on journeys into and out of Leicester.

Last week, though, I didn't get round to buying my tickets until Friday morning.  Sure enough, the price had leapt to £48.  And none of the other trains leaving that afternoon was any cheaper.

Cost of my tardiness: £36.

The boyf and I are off to Belfast in September, volcanic ash permitting.  I'm to 'marry' a friend and his other half.  I am not licenced to perform civil partnerships, so Stephen and Ravi will do the legal bit quickly and quietly beforehand.  I will then invite them to declare their mutual love and commitment before weeping friends and family in beautiful Belfast Castle.  I am honoured and can't wait.

Ryanair seats are £30 return, substantially less, you'll notice, than a Leicester to London, bought-on-the-day single from East Midlands "just give us yer money and no-one gets hurt" Trains.  Brilliant deal.

But mind that mouse!  Don't, whatever you do, click one of the little aeroplane symbols thinking you're selecting the flight detailed alongside it.  I did - and ended up booking the 6am red-eye in both directions.  I knew that changing the journeys would incur a penalty.  I didn't, however, anticipate its increasing the cost from £60 for the two of us to A HUNDRED AND EIGHTY POUNDS!

Cost of my careless clicks: £120.  Total needless spend of the weekend so far: £156.

On Monday morning, I set off for another week on the wireless in Leicester.  The Victoria Line was up the spout.  Commuters were packed onto the platform like the proverbial tinned sardines.  An already heaving train finally limped into the station.  About one in 10 of those waiting managed to elbow their way on.  For me, with a large suitcase, the situation was hopeless.

I went back up the escalator and beeped out, thus paying £1.80 on my Oyster for a journey Transport for London had been unable to deliver.  I suppose I could have argued my case with an official but time was tight.

I hailed a cab.  The ride to St Pancras Station was agonisingly slow, roadworks at Waterloo proving particularly sticky.  I arrived just as my train pulled out, so the taxi fare was another £20 wasted.

Cost of London Underground's eternally fragile signalling system: £1.80 + £20 = £21.80.  Total needless spend of the weekend so far: £177.80.

Missing the start of your show is one of radio's great no-nos and I was now seriously doubting whether I could make mine.  But, joy upon joy, another fast train to Leicester, the 09.25, was leaving in minutes.  I was saved! 

However, East Midlands Trains doesn't let you use your ticket on the next train if you've missed yours -that wouldn't extort the maximum cash out of its long suffering passengers, you see - so I knew I'd be caught by the ticket inspector on the 09.25 and fined £62 (or, rather, required to buy another ticket at the standard price, as they prefer to think of it).  Yes, that really is what EMT does to you for daring to catch a train a few minutes before or after the one you're booked on.  You dyed-in-the-wool motorists can't believe what we public transport users put up with, can you?  At times, neither can we!

Anyway, I should have simply put my ticket through the slot at the barrier, boarded the train and subsequently paid my fine.  Instead, I foolishly asked the charmless jobsworth at the barrier whether my ticket was valid on  the 09.25.  "No," he replied, "you need to return to the ticket office to buy a new one for this service." 

But if I did that, I wouldn't have time to catch this servie!  Couldn't I just jump on board and pay the fine?  "No."  I really would get into terrible trouble if I didn't catch that train: couldn't he make an exception?  "No."  By now, he was physically barring my way.

Swearing - and not entirely under my breath - I descended the escalator en route to the ticket hall.  But then I had an idea.  I came back up the 'up' escalator, calmly walked back to the barrier avoiding eye contact with Mr Charmless Jobsworth, stuck my ticket in, went through, and caught the train with seconds to spare.  Hah!

And it got even better: when the inspector came round, I gave him my ticket and, sure enough, he immediately clocked that I was on the wrong train.  "I know!" I gushed, all faux innocence.  "The Victoria Line was hopeless this morning, so I missed the 09.15 by moments.  Thank goodness for the 09.25!"  Had The Revenue Team been working that train, he explained, they'd have made me buy a standard price ticket (the £62 "fine").  But they weren't, and he was going to let me off! 

East Midlands Trains, it seems, had made the fatal error of employing a reasonable bloke!  I'm sure they'll soon rumble him and replace him with a charmless automaton, but I was in the clear.

"In future," he said, "just explain the problems you've had getting to the station to the staff at the ticket barrier, and they'll stamp your ticket and let you through."  Somehow, I both kept a straight face and refrained from saying: "Have you actually met the barrier staff at St Pancras?" 

Cost to East Midlands Trains of inadvertently employing a decent human being: £62.

So, what morals do we draw from this sorry chain of events?  Well, there are so many, you can take your pick.  For example:

a) East Midlands Trains are &%$"£*@!!!!!!
b) silly computing errors can cost you dear
c) in London, you're always only a signalling failure away from disaster
d) I'll never be rich

However, I prefer e):

e) it's only money: I've still got my health and strength and people who love me, not to mention more Diana Ross CDs than you could shake a stick at.  What's £177.80 compared to all that?

Thank you for reading.  My spleen is now fully vented.

PS: can you lend us a tenner?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Pass the raw celery, please

People often remark that I don't look my age.  As I am allergic to physical exercise (my latest efforts to attend a gym regularly, as detailed in a previous blog, have inevitably fizzled out), I can only put this down to a mixture of good gene inheritance and a sensible diet. 

How is it, then, that today I consumed enough chocolate, shortbread and crisps to keep an entire sink estate of couch potatoes happy from now till Tuesday week?  Answer: I have spent the day judging the annual Great Taste Awards. 

Manufacturers of just about any foodstuffs can submit their products.  A small percentage are awarded one, two or three gold stars with which they can then emblazon their packaging.  This is a big deal in the food world; it's claimed these coveted stars have turned more than one tiny, artisan producer into a big player.

Clearly, then, it's a weighty responsibility for the judges who include producers, delicatessan proprietors, chocolatiers, cheesemakers, food PRs, chefs and writers.  Big names like Antony Worrall Thompson are happy to take part, even though there is no fee.

The judging takes place at various venues across many days.  At each session, 40 to 50 informed foodies are split into teams of five or six, each ploughing through endless, anonymous samples of sausage, cheese, oatcakes, ice cream and elderflower cordial.  They arrive at a score and write a short report on every item suggesting possible improvements.  Does the balance of sweet and sour in a relish need adjusting?  Would a shortbread be better if it were cut a tad thicker?  A rum truffle tastes terrific but its appearance is offputtingly dull: could the makers give the chocolate shell a sheen? 

If they come across a sliver of bacon, pot of joghurt or square of chocolate with the wow factor, the judges refer it up to the supreme tasting table, the members of which have the final say on how many, if any, of those three coveted gold stars it will be awarded.

As a rookie judge last year, I was astonished to be asked to serve on the supreme table for one session.  I was a bit shy and overawed to start with but, within minutes, had returned to my usual, opinionated, passionate self, and was debating furiously with Charles Campion, food writing doyen of The London Evening Standard, the optimum ratio of crisp crust to squidgy middle in the perfect chocolate brownie.

My session this year took place within the Real Food Festival at the Earls Court arena, so the lunchbreak afforded an opportunity to tour the stalls, sample the wines and stroke bored longhorn cattle and cute little lambs (which will be even more delightful in the near future when accompanied by roast potatoes and mint sauce).

Because cooking facilities at Earls Court are limited, all the hot entries were saved for another day leaving us to deal with things like chocolate, shortbread, potato crisps and chutney.

Gorging on such forbidden fruits might sound like heaven but, believe me, after your seventh fudge sample in a row, actual fruit is what your poor, abused body is crying out for.

But I mustn't complain.  It's an honour to be asked, some (though certainly not all) of the samples are simply sensational, and it's fascinating to meet fellow foodies from every corner of the culinary universe.

I'm back home now.  Sure enough, the initial sugar rush from all those sweetmeats has worn off and I can barely keep my eyes open.  Why didn't I Hoover my flat whilst I was as high as a kite?

I'm about to rustle up a bit of dinner.  I'm thinking a large, crisp, undressed salad followed by a bowl of strawberries without sugar or cream.  Anything lurking in the cake tin or biscuit barrel is safe tonight. 

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The ride of my life

We all have to face our demons sometimes. One of mine has always been horses. Specifically, horseriding.

Why would you want to climb onto the back of a huge, highly-strung creature liable to freak out if a car backfires or a mischievous dog starts snapping around its far-too-thin legs?

Why would you want to risk being concussed or even spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair when The Good Lord gave us the intelligence to invent the pedal cycle and internal combustion engine, not to mention providing us with a perfectly serviceable pair of legs?

This has always been my view: I was never the little boy rushing to the gate to give Dobbin a sugar lump. I wanted to keep my fingers safe for piano practice, thanks all the same. Female friends who went all misty-eyed at the thought of owning a pony filled me with baffled disdain.

But, of course, all one’s chickens – and, indeed, horses – eventually come home to roost and, this past week, my weekly challenge on my lunchtime show on BBC Radio Leicester has been to learn to ride.

As you may know from my last blog, I’ve already successfully tackled bingo calling, floristry, street cleaning, maypole dancing, pork pie making, beatboxing and town crying. None of those dismayed me anything like as much as getting into the saddle.

It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that I headed to the charming village of Somerby in rural Leicestershire for my first lesson. When I got hopelessly lost and had to drive back to the centre of Leicester and start again, I was secretly pleased. I rang the equestrian centre to explain that I would be terribly late: would they still be able to fit me in? Of course, no problem, laughed the lady on the phone. Damn!

Fast forward an hour, and I’ve started my recording machine, been fitted for a hard hat and am on my way to meet J.T. who is to be my (hopefully) trusty steed. Interesting name, I muse, as the recording machine whirs, why J.T.? Gail, the riding school owner, becomes hesitant and coy for the first time. “Oh, it’s, erm, an abbreviation for, you know, er, John Thomas,” she finally gets out. It takes me a second to catch on; J.T. is so named because he is unusually well-blessed, even for a horse. I sneak a peek but see nothing out of the ordinary. Mind you, he is a pensioner these days and I am not a lash-fluttering filly.

Soon, I’ve climbed a set of wooden steps (so that’s my first fear, that I wouldn’t even be able to mount the wretched thing, dealt with) and am in the saddle. Blimey, it’s high up there! I’m breathless and tense but fortunately, I have a job to do and that keeps my terror under control: I focus on the fact that I must return with some good radio.

Before long, a young lady who initially led J.T., has relinquished the reigns and I am starting him, stopping him, and turning him right and left all by myself. And it’s fine!

Just as I’m becoming relatively comfortable, owner Gail says it’s time to trot. The secret to trotting, it turns out, is rising and falling in unison with the horse. If the horse is going up whilst you are coming down, your nether regions connect with the saddle on a regular and painful basis. I have a hunch this repeated slapping of the undercarriage is less of an issue for women than men. I never quite got the rhythm, as my cry of ‘ow!’, ‘ow!’, ‘ow!’ confirmed, but I did trot.

As it was still going so well, Gail suggested we leave the safe predictability of the indoor arena for a hack down the lane. What, on a first lesson? What about barking dogs and backfiring cars and a hundred other horse-spooking possibilities? An experienced horseman could no doubt cope with most of them but what chance would I have?

Gail, of course, pooh-poohed my fears. The weather and countryside were beautiful. The few dogs we encountered were friendly and the odd vehicle was driven with consideration. To my utter astonishment, I walked, trotted, stopped, started and turned J.T. around the Leicestershire fields, if not like an old hand, certainly with little fear and even with a degree of relaxed confidence.

Gail pronounced that I had passed my weekly challenge and that she could certainly make a horseman out of me. 

I won’t be granting her that opportunity. I haven’t experienced a bridle-path-to-Damascus conversion. I was still pleased to dismount and retake control of my destiny. However, the experience was a reasonably pleasant one, and I definitely conquered my riding demons.

This week, I am to learn the art of tattooing. Unbelievably, a volunteer has been found who is prepared to allow me to permanently ink his body after just a couple of hours’ tuition. I feel the ante has been upped once again. I can’t help feeling that, as the needle whirs and my hand trembles and my victim looks up at me with a trusting smile, I shall wish I was back in the saddle.

And if you’d told me that a week ago…..

Monday, 3 May 2010

Taking the tasks

Question: what do bingo-calling, pork pie-making, street cleaning, floristry, town crying, maypole dancing and beatboxing have in common?

Answer: I can do all of ‘em! Maybe not to the very highest standards, but I definitely can!

One of the features of the BBC Radio Leicester show of which I’m currently long-term caretaker, is a weekly challenge.

As if mastering the technicals of 21st-century radio wasn’t enough for my aging brain (see previous blog), I have, from the start, been required to master a new skill every seven days, too.

Listeners follow my progress through the week as an expert tutors me and I practice. At least, I hope listeners do so: for all I know, they could be yelling at the radio: “Who cares whether you can construct a simple bouquet with three long-stemmed roses and a variety of ornamental grasses, Bill? Play another song, for heaven’s sake, before we retune to commercial rival Anonymous FM!” (strapline: “playing Leicestershire’s favourite six songs over and over again until you lose the will to live”).

On Friday, teacher turns examiner. He or she concocts what they consider to be a fair test of my abilities, and I take that test live on air.

I don’t like to boast (is it ever true when someone says that?) but thus far, I’ve passed seven out of seven.

As with most things, there’s more to floristry, bingo calling, even litter picking, than meets the eye.

Take the bingo. For a start, camping it up by announcing 22 as two little ducks, 59 as the Brighton line or, perish the thought, 88 as feelings-hurting, litigation-creating two fat ladies, is strictly verboten. Bingo has gone serious, slick and modern with cash prizes running into four figures. Neither the players, many of whom are no longer fat ladies of a certain age, incidentally, nor the management, want time-delaying whimsy anymore; they demand fast, efficient delivery, and nothing but.

Each numbers must be announced in a certain way. 50, for example, can only be delivered as ‘five-oh, fifty’. The same rule applies to all the others that end in 0. The reason? If you say ‘forty’ before you’ve said ‘four-oh’, it can be misheard as ‘fourteen’ and occasion a false shout of ‘House!’.

Single digit numbers, meanwhile, must always be announced as, for example, ‘eight, on its own, number eight’. No other permutation is acceptable, not even ‘number eight, on its own, eight’. Again, this is because this form is thought least likely to cause confusion.

Only machine gun delivery will do. There simply isn’t time to think: “Ooo, 64’s come up. Do I say ‘six and four, sixty four’ or is it ‘sixty four, six and four?”

The hundred-odd bowed heads at Mecca Bingo’s lunchtime session formed a daunting sight, but I pulled it off. Being a broadcaster to the souls of my feet and roots of my hair, the fact that tens of thousands of radio listeners were eavesdropping on my moment of pressure, which I guess would be many people’s primary concern, never occurred to me, let alone added to the pressure.

I’m proud to say I got a spontaneous round of applause from the players at Leicester’s Freemans Common (which sounds quite scenic but is, in fact, an industrial estate). I controlled my euphoria and managed not to thank my mother, agent, director and, more than anyone, the writers for such a fabulous script (52, 7, 13, 44, 8: poetry!) before handing the mic back to the regular caller.

In the course of these challenges, I’ve also managed a bit of cliché destruction. My colleagues (and I, if I’m honest) assumed that, as a gay man possessed of, shall we say, a certainly degree of flamboyance, I’d take to floristry like the proverbial duck to water, but struggle with becoming a binman.

It turned out to be quite the reverse: despite kind and patient tutorage and much practice, I never really produced a professional-looking bouquet. In fact, I still can’t work out how anyone with fewer than four hands manages it. Not only do you have to hold together countless stems of varying length, they also have to be at different angles. Grasses must be wrapped around to form bows or heart-shaped loops. Then it all has to be tightly secured with ribbon. Relax the grip of your aching hand for even an instant and you end up with blooms lolling at crazy angles in a “bouquet” no-one in their right mind would want to give or receive.

My teacher-turned-examiner gave me a pass for my Friday on-air effort which I think says more about her benevolence than my skill. Floristry was certainly the closest I’ve come to a fail.

Being part of a Council gang, cleaning Leicester city centre’s streets, however, was both relatively easy and great fun. I bonded with the other guys instantly and soon got to grips with the mechanical claw device that saves you bending to retrieve every crisp packet and Coke can. I derived satisfaction, too, from giving the manky, hard-to-get-at corners of various items of street furniture, a good brushing. I’m sure it would be miserable on a cold, wet day but, with the sun on my high-visibility jacketed back, it seemed a lovely way to get some light exercise and do something useful at the same time.

You’ve indulged me sufficiently for one session, so I’ll regale you with my pork pie making, town crying, maypole dancing and beatboxing in future blogs.

Coming up this week is horse riding. I confidently predict my first fail. I only hope I don’t end up concussed or permanently wheelchair-bound. It has long been my view that horses are highly strung, bloody minded, excessively emotional scaredy cats, just waiting for an excuse to toss that pesky rider off their back and canter free. If God meant us to sit up there, about a thousand miles above the ground, he would have given us unbreakable spines and denied us the intelligence to invent the pedal cycle and combustion engine. “You’ll never get me up on one of those things” has long been my equine mantra so quite why I have agreed to saddle up at one of Leicestershire’s riding schools, I have no idea.

Anyway, watch this space. I shall report back on my dealings with Dobbin. Anyone got any spare apples or sugar lumps?