Escape to the country? Why Not?

Escape to the country?
Photo by Gianluca Grisenti on Pexels.com

As a child, I hated watching ‘Last of the Summer’s Wine’, the BBC sitcom about old men with nothing much to do with their lives but fool around. Now, I’m living it.

Once upon a time, I pitied Compo, the clownish one of the trio. Wrapped in tweed and a cloth cap, his relentless joie de vivre was as tedious as a recurring hernia.

Now, I wish Compo was here with me on this pub balcony overlooking the Thames, with the other old toads who pass for friends, musing away this sunny afternoon.

The party is flagging

This party needs pumping and Compo might have provided the spark to get it going. We’ve been sitting around for half an hour and barely a word has passed between us, let alone anything jovial or stimulating. It’s like an induction meeting for Trappist monks. Everyone’s  left their gags in a locker outside.

‘Too old to rock and roll, too young to die,’ one of my mates whispers into the froth of his pint glass.

‘Chin up,’ I say.

He lifts his eyes, smiles and says nothing.

‘Anyone got any good jokes,’ I ask.

‘Yes. Coventry’s the new capital of culture,’ says someone.

It’s five years since Mischief Club launched

This august body of ancient mariners and Compo look-a-likes is what my children would call ‘a friendship group.’

We call ourselves ‘Mischief Club’.

The name is a self-conscious, ironic joke, of course. The most mischievous thing we’ve done in the five years since we incorporated was to return a corked bottle of wine to a snotty sommelier.

If we valued accuracy, we would rename ourselves ‘The Dull Men’s Club’. Or disband.  We’re so wet we could extinguish the flame of fun at the Hell Fire Club’s Christmas bash.

‘Got stuck next to two Covid-Idiots on the train here. They spent the entire journey without a mask sitting next to a sign saying: ‘Wear a mask.’ Moaned on and on and on out loud about their human rights being infringed,’ says one of the group.

‘U-Kippers?’

‘Millennials,’ he replies.

Dr Frankenstein comes to our rescue

A fizz of energy passes through the assembled members of Mischief Club as if Doctor Frankenstein had plugged us directly into the mains. Nothing is guaranteed to reanimate the lifeless conversation of a group of bored Boomers faster than the chance to whinge about Millennials or the young, generally. Mischief Club is no exception.

‘Wouldn’t know their Human Rights if they bit them in the arse,’ says someone.

‘Exactly,’ says another, with the triumphant air of a barrister concluding a case which he thinks is a slam dunk guilty verdict.

Excited by the positive reaction to his train story, our storyteller puffs on.

‘One was a dead-eyed, man child of about 18 with a scar on his cheek. The other a girl in a fake tan and furs. About the same age. Thick. Entitled. Ghastly.’

‘Just wanted to provoke you. Age Baiters.’

‘Did you report them to the ticket inspector?’

‘There wasn’t one,’ says our storyteller.

‘Typical,’ sighs everyone simultaneously.  It’s like the sound of a thousand shawls being wrapped around a thousand old shoulders.

‘My father didn’t fight in the War so the young could travel on trains in fake tans and furs,’ I say.

The conversation halts. A few heads shake.

‘Is that your idea of a joke?’ asks someone.

‘We’d just got up a head of steam,’ says another. ‘Now you’ve ruined it.’

‘Sorry,’ I say.

The river flows past

A man in a motorboat with a megaphone shouts at a rowing eight who have fluffed their stroke. I feel their pain.

At the beginning, we had high aspirations for Mischief Club. It wasn’t just an excuse to meet pals for a boozy lunch. Oh, no. It was going to be a place to foster fellowship among a band of friends as they trekked into the Third Age. We modelled ourselves on the USS Enterprise. Our aim was to  boldly go where old men had never gone before.  To seek out new civilisations, culture and cuisine (as long as it was inside the Circle Line and we could be home before Rush Hour).

In the early days, we travelled to faraway places like Shoreditch to marvel at Hipsters sipping macchiatos faultlessly through their perfectly trimmed beards and drank ourselves politely cock eyed with gin and tonics on the early morning Uber boat to Greenwich. We were like the Fellowship of the Rings only armed with Museum cards not swords.

‘We used to go to a gallery before we started drinking,’ says one Mischief Club member. ‘Now we barely even drink.’

‘We used to have £300 in the club kitty. But he blew it all on a duff tip at Newmarket,’ says another pointing at the club’s self-appointed Treasurer and Chief Investment Officer.

Mischief Club is in danger of turning into a Salem Witch trial.

Silence descends as beer tilts slowly down flaccid necks.

One of us is escaping to the country

‘Have I told you I’m going to be on ‘Escape to the Country’,’ says one of the group.

‘The TV series?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘Where are you escaping to?’ I ask.

‘Scotland.’

‘I don’t advise that. Don’t like the English. Worse diet in Europe.’

‘Nonsense,’ says the putative escapee. ‘Friendly people. Beautiful countryside. Not like this.’

He points at the brown sludge passing for a river below the pub balcony and the overbuilt riverside next to us. Car horns bleat in the street.

Escape to the country?

Escape to the country. Four words which summarise the desire nestling in the collective unconscious of so many Londoners. So many, in their night sweats, longing to become Sarah Beeny or Jeremy Clarkson. So many, who have nothing left in their lives but to dream of striding around a newly acquired country estate shouting at their newly acquired estate manager: ‘Buy more owls for the barns’ and ‘Rewild everything before the weekend.’

Is Scotland a good place to retire to?

Escape to the Cotswolds or Cornwall. That makes sense. But escape to Scotland? That’s a different country (even if the Government wants to stop us saying so).

This member of Mischief Club has been a Londoner all his life. Will he understand a word they say to him? What happens if Scottish independence happens? Will he start wearing kilts? This is a lot of unknowns to take on so late in life. Compo would never be so radical.

‘Tired of London, tired of life,’ says someone.

‘Nonsense. I’ve got my eyes on a trout farm with 10 acres and still have money left over to pickle my liver.’

Ten acres and a lake full of trout? Plus money over for pickling your entrails? Hmm. The cogs inside the greying minds of Mischief Club’s membership turn this over silently.

A young waitress hovers at the edge of our table with menus. She’s hesitant to interrupt. Perhaps she’s shy? Or, perhaps, she’s never seen so many dinosaurs gathered together in one place, except the Natural History Museum, and is worried we might bite.

 

A version of this blog appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

 

Mother is crying by the window.

Ruskin Spear: street scene

Mother is sitting in a chair by the window. 

‘I’ve been crying,’ she says.

‘Why?’  

‘I thought you weren’t coming.’

‘I always come on Fridays.’

‘Is today Friday?’

I nod. 

‘Oh. Are you late?’

‘I’m on time.’ 

She raises her eyebrows. 

‘The doctor was here just now.’  

‘What did he say?’

Can she look after herself anymore?

‘He wanted to know if I could look after myself. I said if I’m allowed to, I’m very good at it. If someone pops in and wants, you know, a scrambled egg, I can prepare it without any fuss.’ 

She has no private cooking facilities in the home. The last time she cooked for herself at home she went to bed with the gas on and the smoke alarm raging.    

‘Of course, you could,’ I say.

‘He asked me: do you know how old you are? Oh, yes, I said, I’m not an idiot. I had an enormous birthday cake only the other day and they gave me a party. He was impressed by that. I think.’  

I give her a large print edition of her favourite short stories to replace the edition which has disappeared or been stolen. She turns the book over in her hands a few times. 

‘Does anyone ask after me?’ she asks.

‘Terry rang yesterday.’ 

Her brother Terry lives in Canada.

Care home sounds like you’ve been put on a shelf

‘When I was a child, the people in the street used to say: where’s Granny ‘SoAndSo’? And they’d say oh, they’ve put her in a home. They used to whisper it. It was shameful. I always thought it sounded like somebody had been put on a shelf and forgotten.’

I look at my shoes.

‘The doctor was asking about my, my…domesticity. Is that the right word? He wrote something down. I saw him writing. But I don’t know what.’ 

She pauses. I know she will start talking again soon because of the way her lips roll. They’re like croupiers shuffling their cards before dealing. 

‘Of course, I can look after myself, I said. Of course, of course. All my life I’ve looked after myself and others. I used to look after three kids, when I was only nine. Jonny. Pat. Terry. Got them to school, made sure they had breakfast. Oh god, poor Jonny.’

I’ve never heard of a sibling called Jonny. Pat is a dead sister.  

‘He asked where I was brought up.’

‘The doctor?’

‘Now you’ve got me, I said. I don’t know! What was that famous film all about vegetables? He laughed like a drain. He said I know the one you mean.’

‘Passport to Pimlico?’

She shrugs and shakes her head.

‘We were very poor. You had to think carefully if you wanted to spend money. Which reminds me. I need a new toothbrush.’

Teleported like Dr Who

She has teleported from her childhood in the thirties to the present quicker than the Tardis could carry Dr Who to the end of the galaxy. Should I laugh or cry? 

‘I brought you a new one last week. Is it lost?’

‘Cost? About £1?’

I laugh. 

‘Is my hearing a little funny?’

‘A little,’ I say.

She smiles. 

‘Putting your socks on at my age is a terrible bore. That’s why I wear these most of the time.’

She points her walking stick at her slippers. 

‘Your legs are looking better,’ I say.

‘They swell up and down like a trombone. Where do you live now?’

I tell her. 

‘You lived there, too.’

She shakes her head.

‘Do you remember?’ 

She remembers the view from her old room

She turns away from me.

‘With a view of the garden?’ 

‘Yes.’

‘What are you doing with it now?’

Her bedroom has been reconverted to an office. But I don’t want to say so. It would be an admission we have moved on, that part of her has been erased. Would it help to be honest? 

‘Nothing,’ I say.   

‘Is Terry coming over?’ 

‘No, he just sent his love.’

‘Of course. Are the children, OK?’ 

‘They’re well.’

She asks if my son has decided which university to go to.

‘Exeter, probably. He may end up studying Italian in Venice?’ 

‘Vanish? Oh, no. I hope he doesn’t vanish.’

‘Venice, not vanish. Though he might vanish in Venice. Like in that Donald Sutherland movie.’

Sometimes talking to her is like blind man’s bluff

She shakes her head. She doesn’t approve of my joke. She’s still anxious with the thought her grandson might vanish. I wish she would wear her hearing-aids, these conversations can be like playing Blind-Man’s-Buff.

‘I’m sorry. It was a joke. He won’t vanish.’ 

She looks down at her lap.

‘Yesterday, they moved the entire building. Spun it right around. But today, I’m still in Room 51. Wasn’t that clever? To move it all and then to move it back. How do you think they do that?’. 

I shrug my shoulders. The door opens with a gust of good humour.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ says one of the carers. ‘How are you, my darling?’

She lays her face on the carer’s arm

Mother grabs the carer’s arm with both her hands and nestles her face against her arm. 

‘Wonderful. This is my son. He’s put on weight.’

‘Hello,’ I say. 

‘Hello, darling’ says the carer. 

Mother points at the carer and mouths the words ‘wonderful’. 

‘Tea and biscuits,’ says the carer and retreats.   

Mother sips the tea. 

‘Not bad. Lukewarm, though. If I go to the canteen, the girls who know me well, the ones I really get on with, well, then I get a really special cup of tea.’

I wonder if the tea is lukewarm deliberately, so the residents don’t scald themselves. 

She takes another sip.

‘I never thought it would come to this. I thought I would be stronger.’

She points to her head. ‘Here.’

I put my hand on hers. We look out of the window at time passing away, silently waiting for the moment when I will decide to leave, which both of us know is inevitable.

A version of this blog appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.  

I want to be Lord Frost’s Brexit Svengali

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I’m going to apply for the job as the head of the new Brexit Unit. That’s right, I want to be Lord Frost’s Brexit Svengali. I have no idea what Brexit is about but then neither does Boris Johnson, and Lord Frost, who we all thought was meant to be the expert, seems to have run out of ideas. Which is where I come in.

Although I know nothing about trade, economics, politics, negotiations, public policy or pretty much anything else except how to make a damn fine aubergine parmigiana, I do have a vivid imagination and when it comes to finding the benefits of Brexit, a vivid imagination is the most important skill of all.

This job is my chance to help my country

‘This is my chance to help my country. I’m going to get the Brexit bison across the road. I’ve got a really strong feeling in my bones about this,’ I tell the family. 

‘Early onset arthritis?’ asks my son.

‘No. Destiny. Destiny is knocking and I plan to open the door wide.’

‘Get dressed first!’ says my daughter. ‘We don’t want another open kimono incident like with the Deliveroo guy last week.’

‘Aren’t you a bit light on relevant experience?’ asks my wife.

She wants to sound supportive. But she can’t disguise her incredulity. Or is that despair I hear? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. After all, she still puts on her cricket pads, picks up her bat and heads out to the middle every day to grind out an income in the timeless Test Match called ‘Life’ while I’m jackassing around running up personal bests on the family pinball machine.

‘Technically, you’re right. But they wouldn’t be advertising this job if they hadn’t already rejected the obvious: civil servants, central office courtiers and aspiring sinecurists etc. They’re desperate and looking for game changers, weirdos and misfits.’

‘You’re in with a chance in that case,’ says my son.

‘I admire you for trying something new at your age,’ says my daughter. ‘Frankly, we thought you had given up the ghost years ago.’

I’m still trying…

‘British Bull dog spirit. It’s what keeps me going,’ I say.

I’m pleased I’m still capable of inspiring respect in the children.

‘If you get the job could I be your translator on your overseas trips,’ says my bi-lingual daughter.

‘Yes. The Government likes to help its friends and family get work. I’d certainly put in a bon mot for you.’

She groans.

‘Is there a VIP Lane for the wives of Government officials which would get me access to the John Lewis sale before everyone else?’ asks my wife.

‘Would that make you a Government WAG?’ asks my son.

‘Probably,’ says my wife, pleased at the idea.

‘Getting this job has got to be better than blowing our inheritance down the pub every lunchtime.’

I look at my daughter.

‘I can’t help it if I have a wide circle of friends who need to be cultivated on a regular basis.’

Boomer Club. New members welcome. Only the living dead need apply,’ says my son. 

Parents are like bison, hunted to extinction by the young

Sometimes I think that children are like cattle ranchers and parents are like bison. Before the cowboys came along with their guns and lassoes and insatiable appetite for T-Bone steaks and BBQs, the life of a bison was peaceful and pleasant. Loafing, hanging with the herd, chewing a bit of cud and generally chilling (except for the occasional stampede, the bison version of Park Run) was the way things were. But then the children turned up and suddenly the poor old bison was rounded up, branded, chivvied and generally penned in by the demands of others. This feels like one of those bison moments.

‘Would you like to read my covering letter?’ I suggest to change the direction of the conversation back to me.   

‘Not really,’ says my wife. ‘I’ve got to get off to work.’

‘Me, too,’ says my daughter.

I look at my son, but he just shakes his head.

‘You haven’t mentioned any of your stupid business ideas in it, have you?’ asks my wife.

I hesitate.

We could export the smell of sausage rolls, of course

She’s referring to the fact that I recently wrote to the chief executive of Greggs, the high street food retailer, to suggest he launch a range of perfumes called ‘Eau De Greggs’. The idea was to launch perfumes which smell like their best-selling food products. For example, Eau de Roll (smells like sausage); Eau de Cornwell (smells like a pasty) and Bacon Village (which smells like a bacon butty and is pronounced like the French wine Macon Villages). 

If Greggs went into perfumes, it could put the whiff of sausage meat into every bathroom and onto the cheeks of every commuter before they’ve even left home. Which millions would start the day thinking of Greggs before they were even downwind of the nearest outlet. Imagine the impact on sales! Imagine the impact on brand loyalty!

‘Don’t tell me you’ve put the Gregg’s idea into your covering letter as an example of your ability to think out of the box?’ asks my wife.

‘I thought it might be the sort of trade boosting idea they’d want.’

‘It didn’t help with Greggs, though, did it?’

They never answered.

‘No,’ I admit.

‘Government is a serious business. You can’t expect them to hire a clown.’

‘Are you sure?’ I ask.