Ellis-in-Wonderland.com

Domestic misadventures in the Lake District ( & other wonders)

Retro column – Reflection On Life, Youth And Railways

THE lads in the MR2 at the traffic lights are trying to look cool and the one with his arm hanging out the window is beckoning his mate to join him in mocking the hopeless bundle of blankets that is the homeless bloke.

I throw enough change for the man on the street to buy some soup in a smoke-filled cafe where the coffee machines are clearing their throats. He growls a thank you, because to give quickly is to give twice.

In the squalor of the entrance to the market, a bedraggled old woman is pumping the accordion in a rotting cardy – managing a half-nod and raised eyebrow for those who give some change.

And in the underpass, some flea-bitten 10-year-olds who should be at school, are raking their throats to spit off the flyover onto the cars below, as another plays football with a broken bottle of Newcastle Brown.

On my way out of a department store, a pensioner holds the door open for a young girl with a pram and she walks through it without a ‘thank you’ but returns a look that tells him he’s a mug.

And further down the street, a man clutching a clipboard with longing in his voice manages to ask: ‘Would you like to help abused children?’ like it’s a multi-choice question.

In the cafe, the waitress slams the till shut and throws my change at me because it’s a busy place, and customers are just one of a long list of problems today.

At the newsagent, I have to wade through a gaggle of housewives crossing themselves at the temple of prayer that has become the National Lottery.

I pass a window and notice a ‘Z for Zero Tolerance’ because ‘No Man Has The Right’ after all.

In the market square, the Sgt Major from the Scots Guards is showing track-suited teenagers how to point a gun and how many rounds they can fire and what damage they inflict on impact.

Yet over his shoulder, the memorial to the war dead is remembered on Sunday but spewed down on Saturday nights.

The newspaper vendor bill reads: ‘Knocked Down – Then Set On Fire.’

At the station I ask if the train stops at my stop on the way home but it doesn’t because… ‘it just doesn’t.’

And the only one who has shown the most gratitude is the man with the least to give and the most to lose.

So I sit on the draughty platform – watching the freight trains hurtling past. Trying to work out if, like the world, they’re going forward or in reverse.

Published April 10, 2000.

NOTE: This dark and misanthropic column was the combination of an immensely depressing fortnight I experienced back in 2000.

I was covering a horrific double murder trial at Preston Crown Court 14 years ago for two whole weeks.

The trial was fascinating but hellishly gory. You can’t be exposed to that kind of breakdown in humanity for eight hours a day without it leaving a mark, I suppose.

At lunchtimes, I’d go into Preston City Centre – actively looking for signs that we’re not completely doomed. This is what I saw in that frame of mind.

By the end of the two weeks I was knotted and cynical about the direction of the world. What the hell are we doing as humans to each other?

I was working deep trenches of days – coming home and transcribing an entire day’s notes, writing three or four stories from the court case which usually took me up until midnight then collapsing into bed for seven hours then getting up and doing it all over again.

That’s journalism, I guess.

Ambleside, Sainsbury’s, Corporates and the LDNP…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ellis Butcher originally intended to use this week’s column as a follow-up to last week. This was where he wrote about the departure of the Mother Superior and him being left alone in the house for a weekend with five drinks.
However, in light of recent events, his original submission has required extensive legal advice.
Therefore, we have unanimously agreed to run a substitute column about Sainsbury’s getting permission for a new store in Ambleside…

SO, Ambleside is at war. And it’s impossible to choose a side. For or Against? Progress or preservation?

Two halves of a close-knit community polarised! Families divided by the infuriating contradictions of our unreliable planning system!

There are nuances of course, but I don’t have time for them here. I deal only in crude generalisations.

In one camp, guerilla grannies are sharpening their petitions. In the other, excited yummy mummies are scribbling new shopping lists.

Feverishly working out their likely carbon footprint decrease now they don’t have to charge the People Carrier through to Booths.

Yes, the slathering Big Wide World is coming for Ambleside and the drawbridge is open folks.

It will soon be swamped with opportunistic speculators with bad manners and questionable morals, eyeing up virgin floorspace for exploitation.

‘We dont want Ambleside to turn into London,’ say the people from London who moved to Ambleside to get away from people in London.

I like Ambleside as it is. But this statement is typical of the kind of inward-thinking deployed by those who don’t have to live, shop, work or trade there.

The reality is Greggs, Tesco Express and a slew of outdoor chains planted the corporate high street flag in Ambleside years ago, when we were more naive to these things.

Support your independents of course, just don’t pretend that the big boys aren’t already in town.

Even The Spar – whose oppressively tight aisles always makes the experience feel like ‘shopping in a drainpipe’ – are turning mildly vigilante.

“Welcome to Amblecity!” says a hand scrawled poster outside the shop after someone cheekily commandeered a Westmorland Gazette billboard.
“RIP Ambleside,” they scorn. (Conveniently overlooking that Spar’s head office is in Harrow, Middlesex.) #

Who are the architects of this outrage? Why the Lake District National Park Authority Development Control Committee, that’s who!

Those fearsome Lakes Planners! That youthful and much-loved crescent of museum keepers and fanged capitalists (I’m generalising).

They have ‘previous’.

For it was they who said yes to a £4million conference centre on the shores of Windermere. The very same who stopped The Filling Station Cafe in Keswick opening past 6pm for reasons that are still confusing.

And those who drove powerboaters from Windermere with their lawyers and legislation.

Tensions are running high.

Citizens have taken to sleeping with fully-cocked shotguns under their petitions.

The only hope for peace is a radicalisation of the planning process – give the village people a referendum on such matters.

And keep the corporates and the committees as far away as possible.

The Day I Blew Up The Garden And Why Five Drinks Is Never Enough…

SO the Mother Superior has gone with the kids and the suitcases.

The house is empty but for me, the dog and the goldfish cowering under their faux stone bridge.

Her parting words to me were: “You’re sure you won’t burn the house down, aren’t you?”

She was alluding to last week’s ‘garden bomb’.

I had been burning off what was left of our storm-damaged garden fence panels and in my restlessness, I decided to ‘help it along’ with a squirt of petrol.

Eye-witnesses report a ‘huge fireball’ and me ‘vaulting’ 7-feet in the air from the resultant backdraft.

For the rest of the afternoon, the house stank of singed hair and eyebrows as I wandered around expressionless and in shock.

So, as the Mother Superior prepared to leave, I noticed how all those subtle flecks of grey in her hair seemed to pulsate in acknowledgement at the man who had caused them.

The truth is I am under house arrest – barely able to move due to an agonising flare-up of my bad back.

To prepare for this weekend alone, I’ve bought Andrea Arnold’s raw adapation of Wuthering Heights and books about The Siege of Leningrad and the 1968 US Presidential elections.

I’ve also started a shopping list. At the top of it and underlined is – ‘beer’ – this is the first rule of Back Club.

But I also have the foresight to scribble a further note to myself, which I place on the fridge. It reads: “Don’t drink more than five.”

Five should be enough, although rarely is. Five is sociable. Five is 11.5 units – nearly double the recommended daily intake.

Any more than five and I have a tendency to go ‘off-road’.

Anyone who goes over five regularly, probably has A Problem. A significant part of that Problem is their insistence that five is nowhere near enough.

The older I become, the more I find myself relying on lists for ‘back-up memory’.

I don’t know how many gigabytes the human memory has, but mine has more holes than a backwoods bean can.

I mention this note to my neighbour Matty, but he shakes his head. “Aye,” he smirks dismissively.
“But is it gonna register after two?”

Inside, Johnny Cash is cranked up on the iPod – not usually permitted when The MS is in earshot.

Later, Kev Next Door tells me he has a problem with the new fence panels that he’s procured.

Winter’s last sneeze in February turned our boundary fence into a long, slithering ‘wind snake’.

Under the brute force of a vandalising gale, parts of the fence were snapped and then flung across Kev’s garden.

He is worried that at 6-feet, the fence panels are too tall. He wants me to take a look but I’m heading out with my list.

“6-foot is fine,” I tell him. But as I drive away, I can’t help but wonder whether this is Kevin’s way of subconsciously trying to tell me something.

The man’s basically building the Berlin Wall.

And in this little scenario, I’m definitely East Germany.

My Top 5 Tips On How To Get More Traffic To Your Blog

1: Erm, come up with a title that gets every social media follower desperately clicking on the link.

2: Personalise it. Call it, I don’t know? My Top 5 Tips On How To Get Traffic To Your Blog?

3: Write down your top five tips

4: Share through social media, sit back and watch the hits rack up

5: Erm, that’s it!

* with thanks to Chris Hill for the inspiration
* April Fool!

I’ve Got A New Smart Phone, The S3 To Be Said Like A Car But Nana’s Not Impressed…

Image

SO, I’ve got a new phone – the S3. The fella in the shop makes it sound like a car, so I’m in.

S3 is shortform for the Samsung Galaxy Mini… whatever it says on the box (oh I’ve just chucked it out in my rash of new phone mania.)

The Blackberry has gone now, but I’d tired of its pathetic battery life.

For those of us slaving away in the dual worlds of work and social media, a simple phone is no longer sufficient.

They’re passe now anyway, those Blackberries – a keyboard on the end of your phone.

A bit old-fashioned sweetie. A bit old school, dahling.

You have to keep bang up to date with new technology.

Don’t get left for dead on the information superhighway. Yours will be a confusing world – wandering blindly through cyberspace, relying on slicker younger people to show you the exit.

So there’s no need for a Blackberry anymore. Or ‘Raspberry’, as Our Mam calls it.

“Have you got one of them… Raspberries son?,” she asks; her face a monument to curiosity.

“Go on son, let’s have a look,” she says. “Show Christine.” (Christine pulls up a chair.)

So I’ve had a week of new phone confusion.

My phone rings like an old fashioned doorbell whenever I get email, like I’m being stalked by some house-to-house Avon lady.

The Mother Superior sighs: “Where are the instructions?” “There wasn’t any,” I reply, bitterly.

“I got a little booklet the size of a Post It note showing how to connect it in and that’s it.”

It appears we have to use the phone to go online to get the instructions but I don’t know how to get online from this phone.

“These IT sadists are mocking us,” I say.

At Nana’s, I always feel like a Spaceman. “Sit down Nana,” I say, kicking my boots free of moon dust.

“The future’s arrived and it’s right here in my pocket…”

During a short induction explaining the features of the S3, I notice that Nana’s attention span evaporates quite quickly.

To make up for this, she dishes out some catch all ‘Nanaisms’ to make me feel better.

“Well I never,” she says. “The things they can do today….”

I continue talking. Stroking the S3. “It’s all touch screen now Nana – you swipe the screen. Like cleaning windows, Nana….NANA!!”

(Oh, she’s dozed off, bless her. Hmmm. Now would it be wrong to finish her biscuits? My god, she’s not asleep after all!”)

Nana comes round: “I was just resting my eyes love.”

They are the last best generation – those currently aged 60 to 100.

Survived the worst but the best of times and every following generation has been going downhill since the 1970s.

Listen to me. (I sound like Mrs McCluskey off Grange Hill.)

A sausage on a fork coming over– that was bad behaviour in schools in the 1970s.

How would bad behaviour in schools be pictorally represented in Grange Hill 2014?

Packing Bowie knives to RE or fitting spy cameras to the girl’s changing rooms, I guess.

There’s No Such Thing As A Free Holiday: The Road Trip To Cornwall

Let’s Get Out Of Cumbria And Don’t Spare The Horses…

SO we were just coming off Junction 36 onto the M6 when I asked the Buddhist Big Sister: “So when did you officially break up from work?”

“I haven’t!” she snorted, booting the accelerator so hard that the Sat Nav fell off the windscreen.

“I’m not due to finish till five!”

She may be a child of the light on the path to mindfulness, but right now she’s spanking it south on ‘works petrol’.

A manic time trial to get past Birmingham before rush hour.

It’s a fixation obsessing many drivers heading south. It turns 40mph lapsed Buddhists into Lewis Hamilton on the last F1 day of the season.

The forecast for the week was seven big suns and sharks scent blood like my sister sniffs out holiday bargains online.

The eldest daughter and I were given 24 hours notice that we could join her and her 12-year-old son on a free week’s holiday.

As brother and sister, we haven’t holidayed together since the 1970s. What could possibly go wrong?

Despite our love-hate relationship over the years, we’ve both matured as individuals.

We’ve learned the adult way: it’s best to slate each other behind our backs rather than face-to-face.

Under the supervision of the Mother Superior, my six-year-old’s suitcase managed to contain every scenario of clothing for every weather pattern in the solar system.

“She’s going to Cornwall,” I offer, unhelpfully. “Not Neptune.”

Five minutes before we were due to skiddadle out of town, I grabbed a bundle of my own clothes off the bed and threw them into my trusty green holdall.

“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light,” I said out loud, feeling very clever with myself for remembering the famous quote.

At that moment, the divorced Buddhist Big Sister screeched to a halt outside on the drive – scaring next door’s cat with Adele’s Set Fire To The Rain at full wap.

Later in the holiday, I would realise this track is a divorcee’s anthem; the song of choice for the perennially unlucky in love and self-pitying.

Whenever it came on, at whatever volume, she always moved deftly to ramp it up a notch.

I wanted to tell her that you can’t actually set fire to the rain because it’s wet, but kept my mouth shut.

When someone else’s paying, you watch what you’re saying.

I noticed in the boot, she had packed a case of Cider, two bottles of Rose, a king-size Gordon’s Gin, six bottles of Peroni and a cooler of food.

“You might want to bring your own drink,” she told me, laying down a marker that hers is off limits.

One of the first teachings of Buddhism is that we need to know who we are.

My sister does and so does her liver.

Four hours into the trip I received an annoyed text from home: from the Mother Superior.

‘Have you seen the ironing?’, she asks.

At the next stop, I checked my holdall and found I’d packed all the family washing including the kids’ Mickey Mouse flannels.

I have two pairs of shorts and one shirt. For the week.

But before we hit the South West Coast, we first have to make a stopover in Gloucester at a friend of the sister.

A Hot Gloucester Stopover In A Land Of Five Bed Barratt Homes …

So, we’re tanning it through back country rural Gloucestershire – trying to find our stopover to break the run down to Cornwall.

Whenever we pulled over for toilets, midges descended around our heads, so that it looked like we were all wearing giant, dancing afros.

It was a slow-burning Friday night and the 4×4 was horribly hot and stale.

The Buddhist Big Sister had made mincemeat of the M6, but by this time, I was in acute nicotine withdrawal and getting tetchy.

Her habit of drifting the car into the cat’s eyes while she corrected her hair and pouted, was also starting to grate.

She refused to let me take the wheel after a near miss with a dust-raising quarry juggernaut coming the other way.

Despite the 30C heat and the kids like flies in a bottle on the back seats, I discovered “the Awakened One” had been rationing the in-car air conditioning since Forton Services.

“This is like that horror movie – Saw!” I said. “Some evil fiend rationing our oxygen!”

She tutted: “It’s to conserve fuel economy.”

At the services, she pilfered complimentary sugar and milk supplies for future camping trips.

It’s this kind of sustained campaign of thriftiness which explains why I don’t have the cash to buy a Kia Sportage like hers.

I decide to stop moaning.

“Being overly judgemental isn’t a nice character trait,” she told me, turning into Mindfulness mode, then flicking two fingers at a driver who pipped at us as we again drifted into the oncoming lane.

Soon after, we arrived at her friend’s enormous five-bedroomed show home.

It’s got two garages, two American fridges and an unspoken ‘take-your-shoes off in the hall’ policy.

Touring the house, the host embarrassingly pointed out that the curtains alone cost £1,000.

She was a lovely, welcoming woman, albeit a bit OTT in the drapes department.

She had two kids to her first husband but was now on her (much wealthier) second.

He’s not at home tonight.

As the kids play and the Chateau Lafite goes down with the sun, it’s apparent that along with the big job, big house, big salary, he’s got big problems.

Got to the top but only found the bottom.

He’s been off work for months, even stopped playing his music.

Two glinting Epiphones stand untouched in the guest bedroom.

Ah, stress and depression, the twin curses of our office age.

He often sits silently in the huge conservatory – wondering where it all went right.

Big Sister absorbed all this information then launched into full-on counsellor mode in the garden – not drawing breath for two straight hours.

The night ends with me loudly dumping bottles into the recycling bin.

Apparently, the posh neighbours are hyper sensitive about noise.

The next day, on the final leg to Cornwall, I wonder what’s the point of having everything if it means nothing?

Better to be broke than broken?

But it doesn’t matter now because the lime green sea of the Cornish coast has come into view.

And Ben, our Antipodean voiceover on the Sat Nav, quips: “Windows up, grab those sunnies and don’t let the seagulls nick your chips!”

Arriving In Cornwall Where Things Are Not As They Seem…

So, we finally arrived at our site in Cornwall.

The lawns are obsessively-tended here and the hanging baskets get a lot of love.

We drove past a sign: CHILDREN UNDER 10 ARE ONLY ALLOWED TO VISIT – NOT STAY OVER

It didn’t register.

As the barrier slowly raised, the Buddhist Big Sister hissed at my six-year-old on the back seat to “duck down”

Then it all clicked – this was why she had offered us a “free holiday”.

Rather than forego a bargain, “Prudence” had booked us a week in a cottage on a gated retirement complex where kids are shot on sight.

I was about to remonstrate with the sister, but she had wisely fled for reception.

From a nearby guntower, an infra red sniper dot appeared on the forehead of my 12-year-old nephew and circled ever so gently, trying to fathom his age.

Arriving at our cottage, other rules became clear – no barbecues, no music, no playing on the grass.

It went on, but my attention was drawn to a loud wail in the other room.

“Nephew X-Box” had fainted after discovering there was no wifi.

Fortunately, our cottage was only a short distance from a much larger family holiday park and we were welcome to use the facilities there!

Later we went over to explore.

First impressions were that we had stumbled into an Olympic Village due to the majority of guests being attired in full sportswear but not outwardly given to exercise.

Exploring the main building, we opened the door on a darkened room and rows of tables of angry faces turned on us.

Two hundred albino vampires are indoors playing Bingo during Britain’s hottest summer for years.

The Buddhist Big Sister crinkled her nose – this is not her scene.

With an affected middle class flourish, she loudly announced: “I’m going back to the cottage…to make Gazpacho and do my meditation!”

Later, I took both kids back for the “Family Entertainment Nite”.

It was held in a dark cabaret lounge where a breathless young rep was loudly berating the drink-deadened audience into action.

“YOU’RE GONNA HAVE TO CLAP LOUDER THAN THAT LADIES N GENTS!”

Not when we’re ‘lolling on Facebook’ seemed to be the unspoken response, as dozens of heads played with their mobiles.

A production crew then arrived to shoot a video for the park’s website.

Feral kids – desperate for adult attention – surrounded them like Howler Monkeys attacking a car at a Safari Park.

Staff were forced to appeal over the mic for the dance-floor to be evacuated but only a few parents looked up from their phones.

It was only when they threatened to shut the bar that troops of male silverbacks emerged to retrieve their young – enticing them back to their tables with crisps and Laptops.

It seems there’s no place in the video for the park’s actual clientele – tubby boys with glasses and braided-hair girls with bad teeth.

Not when our model British family is waiting in the wings.

Chiselled “Mum and Dad” look too young and carefree to be actual parents.

“Grandad” was a smooth Blake Carrington who works for the same agency.

The star of the video – a little girl – had two real parents watching.

On the sidelines, they both adopted manic smiles and poses which she then repeated for the camera.

The whole set-up was quite possibly the ugliest, most manipulative charade I’ve ever witnessed.

The next day, I wrote a simple postcard to the Mother Superior.

All that was written on it was: “SOS”.

Chill your beans, stress residue medicine and holidaying with a lapsed Buddhist

So, we’re in a beer garden in Looe, Cornwall.

The kids and I have spent eight hours burning on the hot quayside – hauling crabs up the harbour wall using a long line and mackerel bait. It’s the best fun I’ve had in years.

My tape recorder has me describing Looe as ‘like Venice…with chips’.

But that’s unfair – it’s a drink-distorted exaggeration and a side-effect of ‘stress residue medicine’.

The Buddhist Big Sister had been insistent: “On holiday, you have to get rid of stress residue.”

“Stress residue is what’s leftover from work in your body that remains in your system when you start your holiday,” she explained, like a seasoned head nurse.

Apparently, if you don’t exorcise it, ‘stress residue can toxify with travel stress and you can’t switch off’ – ruining your break.

She’s got a Masters in mindfulness and that pretty much makes her a surgeon in Our Mam’s book.

The cure, I discovered, involved me being left to entertain both kids for the day while she hunted down outlets serving stress residue medicine (aka pubs) and fully testing the wares.

Quite often, after indulging in stress residue medicine, the big sister would head back to the cottage and ‘meditate’ for hours on her bed.

In a faraway trance, emitting a strange mystic mantra which sounded to me exactly like snoring.

But it doesn’t matter – me and the kids love Looe.

It’s a hustling, bustling harbour town where huge muscular seagulls with dead eyes strut the length of parked cars like fearless youths.

We become proper tourists.

I buy four Cornish Pasties and the sister buys a gallon glass jar of cockles.

Sipping a drink and scanning the hillside apartments, she says: “I could live here.”

“So could I,” I reply. “And property prices have got to be cheaper than the Lakes…”

Later, we have a nosey in an estate agents’ window.

As her eyes slowly rose to the top row of properties, mine slowly fall to the bottom.

I secretly vow to start pinching sugar from service stations in order to save money.

We head for the bus stop where we find other holidaymakers are fretting about the bus being late.

“Chill your beans,” the Big Sister tells them. “You’re on holiday!”

At the last minute, late tourists arrive and swamp our ill-defined queue.

The Big Sister suddenly turns aggressively territorial – sucking us all into that cringe-worthy ‘we were here first’ bus scrum.

Using her superior upper body strength, she’s among the first on the bus but unknowingly fatally clanks her carrier bags in the process.

To the delight of the kids, the whole back seat of the bus is ours.

But on the first steep hill going down, the sister’s cockle bottle escapes its split carrier bag, rolls agonisingly down the aisle and smashes with a loud crash in the foot well near the bus driver.

Every passenger turns round as the whole sweaty bus fills with the overpowering reek of cockles.

The sister flicks her shades down over her eyes. “I could murder a pint of stress medicine,” she hisses.

I cut her short: “I think you’ve had quite enough for one day, young lady.”

Surfing, Tequila Sunrises and Fistral Beach

So, our Cornish holiday is almost at its end.

We have climbed cliffs, walked causeways, toured castles, been on boats, built sandcastles and swum in warm English waters.

We have played Gin Rummy endlessly.

We are Swallows and Amazons, although no-one wants to be ‘Titty’.

On our last night, we were in deep slapping seawater off Newquay with the light fading fast.

Shivering next to me on bodyboards were the six-year-old daughter and the 12-year-old nephew.

Out at sea, weeks of searing temperatures are stirring up one giant electric weather cocktail.

Huge waves and torrential rain are heading right here – to Fistral Beach – all powered by a supermoon.

Hunkered down in a beach hut bar ‘keeping watch’ is the Buddhist Big Sister.

If it’s a toss up between us shouting ‘help’ and the ‘hunky barman’ saying ‘Hi’ – we’re all gonners.

But I’d rather drown at sea than spend another night in the cottage watching Nephew X Box “on the buttons”.

Console games have a place in today’s home but all things in moderation, chum.

Working in the media, I can see how childhood obesity has happened; how our kids have been scared off the streets at night

And if anyone wants to know why UK kids become overweight, you only need listen to their equivalent of the Birdie Song.

Its chorus goes: “McDonald’s, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut.”

The exponents of this subliminal poison should be hunted down, frogmarched through a Type 2 Diabetes Ward then openly flogged in a town square – preferably within sight of Greggs.

In the body board shop, a surfer dude with a deep mahogany tan had asked me if I wanted to upgrade for training sessions.

I shook my head: “No way, Brah. I don’t need lessons. I watched Point Break back-to-back in the 90s.”

So we’re surfing off Fistral Beach; waiting for ‘our wave.’

When the big roller finally hit, both kids flapped desperately for the shore like baby seals fleeing a killer whale.

I slapped on to my board with all the grace and finesse of a side of beef being thrown onto a butcher’s slab.

Slipping off, I went under, clawing sand. When I came up again, the half light was filled with shrieks of raw enjoyment.

The kids were whooping it up on the shore. It was the happiest I had ever seen them.

They were both alive somewhere behind the eyes.

In that spiritual place where no phones or telly or video games will ever reach.

It would have been fitting to end this series here with some over-arching moral code.

But the truth is, all I could think of, that stormy night on a cold beach, was a line from Point Break.

“It was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit.”

Heading back to the beach bar, we couldn’t find the Buddhist Big Sister.

Then there was a loud shout from the corner.

She was beckoning us over with a Tequila Sunrise in hand.

“Oi, Keanu!” she shouted. “Over here!”

The End

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Seriously In The Dog House With The Mother Superior

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SO, I’m seriously in the dog house with the Mother Superior. In fact, to say I’m in the dog house seriously underplays the ‘situ’.

The household atmosphere is, I imagine, not dissimilar to the streets of Ukraine.
One misfired bullet from an uncivil war exploding.

Communication has been reduced to hissing terse asides at each other out of earshot of the children.
Yes, I said I would be back home by 9pm, and yes, it was nearer 2am when I finally fell through the doors.

Yes, I ended up in Bootleggers. And from what I can remember from moshing down the front; the Mustard Cutters were very good).

And yes, I got a lift home with a 21-year-old woman. (And her husband-to-be I might emphasise).
They’re a lovely couple aren’t they.. Helping the elderly get home on a Friday night.

All future nights out are now on hold for the ‘foreseeable’. Welcome to Guantanamo Bay!

What can I say? Another few million brain cells foolishly sacrificed to alcohol. I’m an idiot, but in my defence, we are legion.

As the Latins tell us about relationships – non semper erit aestas. It will not always be summer.

I’m in typical cavalier mood. I couldn’t be more cavalier if I turned up at the court of King Charles I astride a rearing stallion with a huge feather in my hat and swinging a broadsword.

And I might as well explain now as I may not get another chance.

The Mother Superior was so-called on account of the ‘length of the habit’. That is, the length of time we have been together.

I only ever use that name in this column and I never call her it directly – I’m not Les Dawson.

The name was coined in awe of her maternal superiority; compared to my paternal inferiority.

Women are better than men – fact. Had the world been left to men, humanity would be extinct by now.
So would children. We would have burned a hole in the pan of human life.
As a couple, we have had our ups and downs over the years – the downs inevitably of my making.

Not everyone has the stomach for regularly riding the boat off the waterfall just to see if you ‘survive’ on the rocks below – but I’ve always regarded relationships as a rolling contract to be reviewed annually.

I was going to continue in similar vein, but the very nice man who puts this column on this page, rang me up pleading with me to desist.

He’s an old sage and he cautioned: “You’re writing your own obituary here, son. If my wife saw me write that, I’d be out on my ear. Can you not tone it down a bit?”

Another senior male colleague who sits opposite me also urged caution.
He quietly pulls me to one side and whispers diplomatically: “Are you really sure you want to write it like that!.”

So dear reader, I have been pulled back from the brink at the 11th hour. Thankfully, there are less impetous men than me at my side.

I might just owe my relationship to them…

A Bright Cold Day In February And The Clock Was Striking 13

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SO, it was a bright cold day in February and the clock was striking 13. In other words, we are learning to tell the time.
“Actually….” I tell the six-year-old, “If we’re doing it your way…it’s….50 past one. Or 110 minutes past 12.”
I shouldn’t have said this because she looks deeply confused.

Part of her brain is rejecting this lesson, or how it’s being taught.
So I start to wonder. What would happen if we didn’t teach her the time?  If we just…never did it.

Would she pick it up, eventually?
In the corner, the three-year-old is at the ‘why’ stage of development.
She asks why at every opportunity.
As in: “Why is rain,” she says. “Why you have feet, Daddy? Why is your breakfast milky?”

To be honest, the introduction of the big hand and the little hand has complicated matters.
“No…I haven’t got the big hand,” I tell the eldest.
“The clock has – not me. Not my hands.”
She looks at the clock.

“That’s not a hand though,” she says.  “It’s more like a stick.”
She’s right. Clock hands are more like sticks.
“It’s just that you have to think of it as a hand when we’re learning to tell the time” I explain.
“Why,” she asks. “Why not a leg?”
I consider this for a moment. “The big leg and the little leg….”
The three-year-old pipes up: “Why do you have a leg, Daddy?”

Even I’m beginning to doubt the general principles of time.
I don’t remember anyone teaching me the time.

But this was the 1970s, things were different then.
Knowing the time was an exclusive right of the big people.
I’m sure our Dad didn’t have a watch until his Forties. Owning a watch was a frivolous expense in the Seventies.
A luxury. A bit too much like jewellery. And men didn’t wear jewellery in the Seventies. Unless they were medallion men.
A plain wedding ring was Seventies Man’s concession to jewellery.
Televisions in the seventies didn’t have clocks either. Not like today, where everyone’s a walking Flava Flav.

There was no clock on the oven when I was growing up.
And we used to call it a stove. As in: “Don’t burn your hands on the stove.”
You don’t hear the word ‘stove’ anymore, it’s gone out of fashion.
Digital clocks make it worse, it appears.
Just as I think we’ve made progress, later she looks at the bedside clock.
“So it’s nineteen past seventeen,” she says.
I shake my head. “19.17 is just gone quarter past seven…but in the 24-hour clock.”
Her eyes roll: “The 24-hour clock? I only thought it went up to 12?”
“You don’t have to worry about that now,” I say. It’s bedtime.

First published in The Westmorland Gazette – 27/02/2014

Violent Gales, Ode To A Tree And The Kendal Chainsaw Massacre…

Felled: The tree fell victim to last week's gales, sniff.

Felled: The tree fell victim to last week’s gales, sniff.

SO, the tree has gone; gone with the wind.

Felled by an unseen hand on a black, swirling night of vandalism.

A victim of last week’s gales.

A proud 25-footer, ripped from the ground.

Seven long years it has stood there.

Well, longer than seven years because we’ve been in there seven years and it was there before us.

That’s the big thing to remember about trees – they were here before us.

Sandra over the road says it’s stood there 25 years, since 1989.
“But they’re very shallow rooted,” she explains, apologetically.

Her Phil kindly offers us his chainsaw but there’s no need.

Next Door’s Dad is already on the case. Giving up part of his Saturday morning for the Kendal Chainsaw Massacre.

As he finishes, I’m in a benevolent mood.

“What do you like to drink?” I ask. “It’s on us.”

“Whisky!” comes the reply.

“Okkkkkkay…” I say…(noticably less benevolent.)

(To be honest I was thinking more six pack or bottle of wine) but I tell the Mother Superior to make a note.

“We need to get the man a bottle of whisky,” I say.

“But don’t be getting a 10-year-old Jura – he’s not retiring.”

Crushed by the loss of our tree, I posted a picture on Facebook.

One ‘friend’ remarks: “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn!”

Another says: “It’ll do for our log burner….”

A feature of the psychopathic personality is enjoyment of other people’s loss.

The eldest daughter is in tears as she surveys the autopsied stumps. The tree was where we put our Christmas lights, after all.

I wanted to write something profound about the loss of our tree. The mighty tree, the mighty oak.

Well, leylandi. The erm, mighty leylandi.

Sandra over the road is adamant it’s not a leylandi, it’s a conifer. But a fella at work reckons it’s a leylandi.

As Harry Hill says: “There’s only one way to find out…”

I must write something profound about the tree, to record its loss. It’s gone, like a twig in the hand of a giant. (Too Grimm’s Fairy Tales)

There is a large exposed gap where the tree once stood – shocker.

The Mother Superior likes this because it lets light in.

We would use the tree as ‘cover’ from the street. Not in a combat, black-ops sense of the word.
More: “There’s double glazing salesman in the street – hide!”

Colin, if you’re reading this, the front tree has gone mate, I’m really sorry.
(Colin used to own the house before us and still lives round here and reads the Gazette.)

Many of the great poets and authors have written about trees – Byron, Keats, Dickens, Shakespeare – but I think these words from Robert Frost’s ‘Tree At My Window,’ say it best:

“…Tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.”

First published in The Westmorland Gazette – 20/02/2014

TripAdvisor, Cold Rooms, Warm Bars, And Tough Times For Tourism?

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PART TWO:

SO, we’re still on our one-night stay in the Lake District.  The King Size bed is comfy, the bath huge, the views amazing but the weather dreich.

Our room is Baltic – there are frozen Huskies in it encased in ice.  The Mother Superior fiddles with the radiator but no heat comes on.

So I’m on the blower to reception because DIY on a minibreak isn’t my department, thank you very much.

The lass on reception is also the lass who is checking people in, running the bar, taking food orders and stocking the fire.

One might consider her a ‘fly of the blue-bottomed’ variety.

Young and local, she is refreshingly sincere rather than trained to within an inch of her life.

“I’ll put the heating on…for another three hours,” she says.

“Erm, hang on,” I say; halting her from hanging up.

“What do you mean?”

“We have a system…” she stutters.

“The heating in the rooms can only be on for three hours at a time…”

At this point, my professional conscience screams: “Welcome to the world class visitor destination that is the Lake District 2014!”
Flabbergasted, I put down the phone and inform the Mother Superior.

“Basically,” I say, summarising our position, “we’ve got rural fuel poverty….”

She immediately mounts her high horse wanting to complain, but we talk it out – we’re reasonable people.

“This is midwinter in the Lakes,” I explain.

“Times are tough for businesses. Easter must seem years away. This is a walkers’ place, after all.”

Of course, this wouldn’t happen in a fancy ‘boutique’ hotel.

But isn’t there a danger of the real Lake District being sanitised if everywhere is the same?

What do we want? One giant identikit brown leather sofa and pastel walls emporium?

An industry run by characterless, humourless, thin-lipped automatons?

I think not, we like ‘character’. Yes we could complain…or we could stick a jumper on!

The bar downstairs is probably one of the best I know in the Lakes. Eight real ales and four draught lagers.

That’s the range by the way, not my order, hic.

Slate-flagged floors, medieval farming imple-ments on the walls and a raging fire.

The most delicious sweet aroma of damp coal percolating the whole of downstairs.

In front of the fire is a group of curly-haired student walkers.
“A pint of large fire please,” I sarcastically ask the barman. To pass the time, I pick-up the welcome brochure.

It reads: “The entire building is non-smoking… and that includes sitting by an open window hoping we don’t notice.”
There’s more: “Hair dryers are provided for your use (unless someone’s walked off with it)”.

In its warning about accidental damage, it reads: “We won’t forget in a hurry the pair of doctors who let two extremely muddy lurchers run wild in the bedroom and then ruined the bedding by dropping a bottle of red wine on it!”

I notice that three paragraphs of the brochure is used to undermine the validity of TripAdvisor.
When I go on the website, it becomes clear why.

But none of it matters. We had a good stay and the service left us with a warm feeling.

Just.

Granny Chic, A Stay In the Lakes And One Night In Heaven….

I think you've overdone it with a bubble bath, love...

I think you’ve overdone it with the bubble bath, love…

PART ONE:

SO, we’re on a one night stay in the Lakes.

One night in heaven! One night in heaven!

(That’s enough M People references! It sounds very dated. V.1990s!)

It’s chucking it down – it has been all morning, as the cliche goes.

On the weather map, there’s a massive arrow pointing right at the Lakes and right at my face.

The weather doesn’t matter because we don’t have children with us!

What matters round here is no kids! Whoo-hoo!

A hurricane could rip through here and we’d laugh!

We’re going away, even if it means driving into the teeth of Armageddon!

The Mother Superior is doing a little jig as she packs her case: “Got ma arms, got ma legs, got ma fleedom!”

What’s more, my Kindle is locked and fully loaded.

“Luxuriate doll; luxuriate,” I say, sinking back into the folds of a chair for a bite to eat.

“How easy is it to just go and have lunch when there’s just two of you!” squealed the Mother Superior, who is now turning hyper.

I expertly pull into where we’re staying – making the gravel crunch under the car wheels.

We’re staying at a hotel which has a large ‘hotel’ sign on its front.

And it just so happens that our room is right beneath the “el” in hotel.

(I notice little bitty details like that – that’s what makes me a good cop).

“Look!” I tell the Mother Superior as she wrestles her case from the car.

“Our room is right beneath the el in hotel. Like it means…El-lis’ room!”

She’s not even humouring me now with acknowledge-ments.

Our room key is a huge Victorian number. Cold to the touch.

Like a key from a Stephen King book.

Our room is ok. A bit like us; a bit tired. A little bit Granny Chic, but clean.

And look at those fells out of that window!

“It’s like Wuthering Heights out theer, Kathy!” I call out, in broadest, stoical Yorksheer; scrutnising the wind-whipped, bracken-sodden hillside.

The Mother Superior has jumped on the bed squealing: “It’s a King!”

Then she starts disappearing; through the widening gap.

It’s like the bed’s hungry; so it’s eating her.

I don’t know whether to tell her that King actually means two singles pushed together.

Should I tell her that now? Does she not realise?

It’s the sort of fact you tell someone only to enjoy the sweet, sweet disappointment in their eyes.

The bath is huge. This is important to her, and women in general, I find.

A big bath! I don’t tend to move around in the bath so normal size is all right with me.

I don’t go looking for space in baths. I’m not planning on doing any widths.

Big baths are a waste of water, if the truth be told, aren’t they? I mean, what is the fuss?

Really, what’s that all about?

“Unless you’re sharing one…” he realised, lecherously.

Darling, I’ve left something for you in the toilet…

SO we’ve ‘been away’ for a weekend in the Lakes.  It was a treat (on me) for my birthday.
As a mate said: “You’re getting older and wider….”
This ‘night away’ was actually more in recognition of the Mother Superior’s all round cape-billowing brilliance.
I could buy perfume instead, but I’ve not got the nose for it.
My nose was broken in the boxing ring (which is the story I prefer to tell people) because I boxed for a time.
Erm, around the time of Rocky 3.
I think it was actually broken by a school friend who splatted me across the face with a long piece of skirting board.
At the time, he was repelling a raid on his gang’s bonfire. I was one of the opposing raiders – so fair play to him, good shot.
So, I don’t have a solid track record in buying perfume.
Usually, she sniffs her forearm, then crinkles up her nose.
“Hmmm, I’m not sure,” she says at first, contempt bleeding from her eyes.
She’ll give it another go; conscious of hurting feelings.
Whereas if it was me, I would just say out loud: “I don’t like that at all. It stinks.”
How are men supposed to buy perfume? The shops haven’t really sorted that one for us, have they.
A friend of mine once told me how he pretended not to have got his wife anything on Valentine’s Day.
Sniggering to himself as she became more and more riled, he excused himself by going to the loo.
There, he deployed three very expensive bottles of perfume.
A bottle on the bath, a bottle in the cupboard and a bottle on the dresser – spraying some of it as he went along.
The plan being that when she walked into the bathroom she would be met by the most overwhelming fragrance.
He spolit it though, with his delivery.
Because as she went for her shower, he grinned widely and told her: “Darling, I’ve left something for you in the toilet. Let me know if you like the smell.”
This is what happens when men do romance.
“Just come with me next time and choose the one you want,” I huff romantically.
“I can’t take your nose shopping with me. How am I supposed to mimic your olfactory system?”
“It won’t be a surprise then,” the Mother Superior smiles, Elfin-like.
Of course, there will be sophisticated men reading this. Better men than me.
You always buy the right perfume. Your the perfume master.
You say to each other: “He always gets me the right perfume. He knows what I like. We’re kind of really in tune with one another…sometimes we even finish each others…..sentences!”
Good for you. But I’ve digressed and now it’s the end of the column.
So there’ll be more on my trip to the Lakes next week.

What Has Our Dog Got To Have Nightmares About?

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SO the dog’s been having ‘nightmares’.

Look… said the Mother Superior the other night as we were about to watch television.

He’s having a nightmare. The dog is sprawled out on the floor with a back leg twitching and his lip curling.
“He’s chasing rabbits,” I say. This is a very Cumbrian thing to say.

It’s even more Cumbrian to say: “chessin rabbits.”
So I do. “He’s all right,” I say. “He’s just chessin rabbits.”

I’m trying to close down her anxiety before it impacts on the programme. 

I don’t want her to be twitching all night about the dog when we’ve only just got both kids up the wooden hill.
She settles back down and we start the programme.

At that moment, the dog lets out a scary nasal ‘whine howl’ which causes us both to jump up.
I spill scalding hot coffee all over myself.

‘Aww…’ says the Mother Superior in sympathy with him, not me.

“I told you he was having a nightmare,” she says, pausing the TV programme and going for a fuss.  I wonder for a moment whether I’ve got away with the spill.

I’ve got jeans on but the scalding water has yet to register in the crotch area.

There’s always a few seconds where you think you’ve escaped.  Then the denim totally absorbs it and the pain sets in.
Worst pain there is – up there with standing on an upturned plug in bare feet.

Never stand on Lego in bare feet either; the results are pretty much the same.

I dab gingerly at my scalded ‘Map of Africa’ with kitchen roll.

After I’ve dried up, I say to the Mother Superior: “I’ve gotta hear this! What has he got to have nightmares about? He gets fed, he gets watered, he gets walked – he’s spoiled rotten.”

I mean, he sleeps all day when I’m out at work – and on my chair just to rub my nose in it. 

Even when we go away, he gets a little ‘Doggie holiday’ at the kennels.

He can jump on pretty much any female he takes a shine too. Without recourse.

What can he possibly be having nightmares about?

We’re not even allowed to say the word ‘walk’ any more within his earshot.

He’s always sniffing round for scraps but if you so much as try to touch his bowl, then he’ll attempt to gobble it all down at once.
Like he’s living back in the dark ages where every extra gobful means survival.

“Erm excuse me,” I interrupt him. “This is 2014. You will get fed again.”
Every time the Postman comes he thinks the letters are for him.

“I’m head of the Wolf Pack,” I tell him. “You don’t get post. Or bills, I notice. Your job is to wag your tail and bark my friend.”
He looks at me with ‘those’ eyes.

It’s a dog’s life all right.

New column: Happy New Year Lasted 10 Seconds Past Midnight

Noisy New Year?

Noisy New Year?

SO this week we’ve got the decs down. We love putting the decs up but boy do we love taking them down, oh yes.

With a manic zeal I say: “Hey! Let’s rearrange the furniture back to how it was pre-December!”

The Mother Superior’s eyes blaze with possibility.

Make no mistake, January is just full on rock and roll when you’re parents to young children.

I’m obsessively methodical about the Christmas decs, which is not usually a feature of my nature.

To the extent that the Mother Superior (who rarely does anything not written down on a list) remarks upon it.)

 “Stop being anal about the Christmas decs,” she says.

I look up up from labelling the lights (we have five sets).

“I’m not being anal,” I reply, guilt-ridden.

On the plug socket of each set of lights, I have attached thin strips of paper which then identify that this set is for the front window, this set is for the stairs, this set is for the tree, this set is for the outdoor tree and this set is for the bedroom.

“You’ll be thanking me next Christmas when we know where everything goes,” I sigh; like Grandad.

Ah, a New Year. A full New Year – there is much to look forward to people.

This hyper-positive outlook usually lasts about a week into the New Year.

This year it lasted 10 seconds because I was woken up at midnight by the dog barking at fireworks going off.

I’d gone to bed at half ten – there’s only so much of Jools Holland I can handle before wanting to kill.

Who decided midnight was a good time to let off fireworks? Let them off on Bonfire Night and that’s it.

The second thing that annoyed the start of 2014 was a text at around 1am – just as I was falling back to sleep.

It was from the Buddhist Big Sister. She who is on the path to spiritual enlightenment (with an alcoholic drink always near to hand).

She who advocates that we should “enjoy only the moment” and that “material possessions do not matter”.

This is she who recently blew £65,000 on a massive kitchen extension for the ashram but keeps a straight face while she preaches. (My Xmas present this year was a coaster.)

Her text read: “The Boarding on Flight 2014 has been announced. Your luggage should only contain the best souvenirs from 2013. The bad and sad moments should be left in the garbage. The duration of the flight will be 12 months. The next stop-overs will be health, love, joy, harmony, wellbeing and peace. The captain offers you the following menu which will be served during the flight. A cocktail of friendship, a supreme of health, a gratin of prosperity, a bowl of excellent news, a salad of success, a cake of happiness. All accompanied by a burst of laughter! Wishing you and the family an enjoyable trip on board Flight 2014!”

This is the kind of cockamamie U.S of A horse dung that does the rounds on Facebook all the time.

I texted her back: “What if it crashes?”

Giddy on champagne, she texted back: “It will if you think that!!! Think positively!!!”

I wasn’t going to reply but my natural sarcastic nature got the better of me.

“I’m positively thinking that I’m not supposed to be in work in seven hours, but I’m positively sure I am…”

She didn’t text back. How negative can you get?

First published in The Westmorland Gazette – 9/1/2014

Glasgow Part 2: Gucci Bags and Beggars

SO we’re in Glasgow. It’s Saturday night but we’re in TGI Friday’s having finished our meal.

We’re in high spirits – magnaminously overlooking the fact that our young student waitress has botched our entire order.

“That could be one of our daughters one day,” the Mother Superior observes as she leaves a generous tip.

I consider our next move.

“So then Mary Hen, let’s just go to one more pub then back to the hotel,” I suggest.

“Yes,” she agrees; starting to yawn. “But just one drink and then that’s it.”

Three hours later, the clock is striking 1am. I’m blessing people as I walk off stage.

Shamefully, I have succumbed to the karaoke and the Mother Superior has ‘raved’ to 2 Unlimited.

This is uncharacteristic for both of us but it’s been a memorable Saturday night in Glasgow.

As the pub house lights go up, cold sobriety is kicking in.

“What are we doing here?” asks the Mother Superior, grabbing her coat.

“This isn’t us. We’re supposed to be responsible parents.”

“You’re right,” I say. “But we don’t have to be up tomorrow with the kids so let’s go to another club!”

Wisely, the Mother Superior steers me back in the direction of our hotel.

As we head along the cold city streets, it dawns on me that we’re now officially middle-aged.

This is what can happen when Mum and Dad escape the shackles of parental responsibility for one sweet night of freedom.

This is what happens when you haven’t been out with each other together as a couple for 18 months.

A year and half of weekends are crammed into one epic night of indulgence.

We stroll along the Style Mile – a twinkling mile of fashionable shops.

Gucci sell handbags here for over £1,000 as broken beggars sit outside pleading for pennies.

This is how the world is divided now – the Can and Can’t Shops.

I’m no Bob Geldof but is this how things were supposed to be in 2013?

Approaching us furtively is a young man with red blotchy skin in an old tracksuit holding a paper cup.

“Can ye help us mate?” he asks. “I’ve split up wi ma missus and need 85p to get back to Motherwell.”

It’s probably a well-spun story but I hand over some change and he walks off with a genuine ‘Cheerio’.

Whether he caught the mythical last bus to Motherwell or chased the dragon up a back alley, it’s none of my business.

You have to help the ones worse off than you, don’t you?

Isn’t that in the small print of being human? Especially at Christmas.

Because the moment we stop giving, then we might as well just hand humanity over to the dogs.

So, all the best to you and yours for a Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

READ Glasgow Part One:

New Pics: Random series from 2013

High End Toiletries Of The Hilton Will Do As An Ironic Xmas Present…

Glasgow from our hotel room

Glasgow from our hotel room


SO we’re in Glasgow. (Pre helicopter accident, I might add.)

This is the original city of culture – long before people in London started giving it out to places like Hull to make the North feel better about itself.

The taxi driver calls me ’pal’. Only in Glasgow can you be called ‘pal’ and it sounds friendly.

I start call him pal back but the Mother Superior nudges me in the ribs.

“It sounds like you’re being aggressively sarcastic,” she whispers.

When in Liverpool, I have a standard male-bonding technique with taxi drivers, asking: “Are you red or blue?”

I don’t take this chance in Glasgow.

It’s a little too close to asking: “So are ye Catholic or Protestant, pal?”

We don’t want friction on ‘the mini-break’.

The Mother Superior calls it a ‘mini-break’, whereas I’ve just told friends: ‘We’re going away’.

Keep it Cumbria, nebulous and masculine.

Since we got on the train at Oxenholme (what a delight this is without kids) our mam hasn’t stopped texting to see if we’ve arrived.

We have now! At The Hilton no less (thanks Mother Superior In Law).

Is The Hilton going to be ‘welcome posh’ or ‘uncomfortable posh’ – who cares?

I effortlessly blend in to every environment.

I notice they call the toilets ‘washrooms’ and the sandwiches ‘sliders’ – I will not ask for either.

To get in the hotel, we have to negotiate a huge revolving door.

I’m totally ‘Indiana Jones’ at this kind of stuff and consumately hop into my gap.

But The Mother Superior waits until the last moment then half jumps – getting a foot trapped for a second and causing the whole system to grind to a noisy, protesting halt.

This traps me momentarily behind the juddering glass so I end up batting the windows like Marcel Marceau.

The Concierge steps in to release me.

As I recover my composure, the Mother Superior apologises.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Only about 70 people in the lobby saw that happen.”

But when we get to check-in there’s another problem.

The receptionist smiles sweetly and says: “I’m not sure your room is ready. Let me go away and check.”

As she disappears, the Mother Superior starts rifling through paperwork.

With a celebratory ‘ha!’ she whispers: “It says here we’re allowed to check in from 12!”

“Somebody get me Watchdog,” I say across the lobby.

“Hell hath no fury like a Mini-Break scorned!”

But there’s no need because the receptionist reappears. Our ‘suite’ is ready after all!

It’s on the 16th floor and as I slip the card key in to the room, it satisfactorily clicks first time. I’m such a natural with card keys and doors…

The room is ‘executive’ huge with a vast panorama of the city – the TV bigger than our kitchen.

But best of all, the bathroom contains a range of high end toiletries.

These will do as an ironic Christmas present for the Buddhist Big Sister, methinks.

This is good, very, very good.

CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

The Mystery Of The Abandoned Car…

This is a job for the professionals...

This is a job for the professionals…

SO, a car has been “abandoned” on our street.

The Mother Superior says it’s been there for days with its window down.

A bit of damage on the driver’s wing.

“Maybe it’s been stolen and dumped,” she speculates.

“No, it’s worse than that,” I tell her.

“It’s been inconsiderately parked…”

It appears other neighbours aren’t best pleased.

Next Door, Next Door On This Side, Them Over The Road, Next Door But One and This One On This Side.

The close is full of harumphing.

A day later, the offending car is still there – oozing criminality.

“I’m calling the police,” I decisively announce.

Then I realise I’d have to call it on 101 – the non-emergency line.

“Hello, I wish to report something that isn’t important,” I imagine myself saying to an uninterested call handler.

It sounds pathetic. I’ve called 101 before; sometimes it’s engaged.

This might involve being put on hold. Or having to ring them back – long after the initial excitement has worn off.

I put down the phone quietly. “I might send an email,” I offer.

My conscience sniggers: “Welcome to the Big Society Mr Cameron! Or is it Blair’s Britain?”

At mention of the police, the six-year-old’s eyes are like saucers.

“Is the robber going to go to jail?” she asks, convicting “him” of “robbery” without trial.

“No…” I reply half-heartedly.

“Is he going to rot?” she continues, colouring in a butterfly.

“And get no food nor hot water.”

Her image of jail is rooted in nursery rhymes.

“Jails aren’t like that anymore,” explains the Mother Superior.

My instinctive reaction is to concur.

“No – they’re like holiday camps now. Except you come out with a degree in FIFA 14.”

I decide not to say this out loud because it will only confuse her even more.

The Mother Superior is sucked into an explanation of the shortcomings of the justice system.

“Some of them get off scot-free,” she tells the six-year-old.

I intervene at this point: “All right Richard Littlejohn! Calm down. Can we get back to the main plot?”

Undercover of darkness, we visit the ‘crime scene’.

I have a torch which kind of makes me senior investigating officer.

“We first saw it on Sunday morning,” I say across the bonnet, a bit like Bodie (RIP).

“Which means whoever dumped it, did so sometime on Saturday night, right?”

The Mother Superior nods. “Maybe it was a drunk driver?” she says.

“They dumped it then fled the scene?”

I think for a minute: “Well, whatever it was, we better crack this case or the DA’s gonna bust both our…you know.”

Two days later the truth is revealed. Driving into the close, a woman is driving the car away.

A neighbour (Her Down The Bottom End On This Side) explains she was visiting when she broke down.

“We never even noticed!” squeals the Mother Superior.

I notice that no one apologises for the car being in the way all that time…

The Beatles v 1 Direction. Or Who Do You Think I Am? Rockerfeller?

Wrote songs, played instruments shocker...

Wrote songs, played instruments shocker…

SO, we’re officially into the ‘no’ season.

The season of saying no.

As in: “No, you’re not having an iPod for Christmas. You’re six years old.”

These are the opening shots in a long and unwinnable war.

Similar to Afghanistan and Iraq, it’ll drag on for 10 years; each side becoming more entrenched.

When I can’t win arguments with the six-year-old daughter, I reset to 1970s working class Dad.

“I don’t care who’s got one at school…you’re six years old. You’re not having one.”

“Who do you think I am? Rockerfeller?”

There’s a certain joy in repeating to your own children what was once said to you.

“You’ll get a doll and a drum and a kick up the bum for Christmas if you’re not careful!”

The six-year-old is enjoying the banter so I carry on.

<"So what would you put on this iPod then?” I scathingly ask.

She thinks for a minute then shouts: "1D!"

The Mother Superior steps in to explain to me what 1D means.

Like I’m the out-of-touch High Court Judge or Father Jack.

"Come on Daddy,” she says. "Get down with the kids.”

I cut her off: "I know 1D! It’s that Harry and that Niall and that other one with the hair."

"Simon Cowell puppets!" I say, slamming the chair for effect.

Everyone in the house is looking at me – even the goldfish.

With my attentive audience, I say: "When I was growing up…”

And with these words everyone leaves the room. But the pets can’t because they’re trapped.

“We listened to real music, didn’t we?” I tell the goldfish.

“Music with soul. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones. Joan Baez! Blondie!"

“Kate Bush and Babooshka! Mad as a hatter was Kate Bush, but what a woman… what an artist!”

The fish decide to swim into their mock castle and wait till I’ve gone away, but at least I’ve always got the dog’s ear.

Man’s best friend (if your definition of friendship is defined by picking up the other’s poo, which I suppose is quite a good analogy in a way).

I carry on: “Of course, there was parental and establishment outrage towards The Beatles and Stones, wasn’t there son?”

Holding the dog’s head and looking into his eyes, I tell him: “But they wrote their own songs, didn’t they boy!

"And played their own instruments! They don’t do that today do they son?” I shake his head.

“All you need to be a star today is high cheekbones and strutting round with your kegs halfway down your backside, don’t you?”

I make a note to myself.
* Make all underpants grey again – no one will want to walk around with them on show then.

I will introduce this when the country sees sense and I walk through the doors of Number 10.

“Blinking iPods! Who gives iPods to six year olds? iParents, that’s who. iParenting.

Palm them off with a screen.

The dog jumps down and goes to lie on his bed looking depressed.

“But is that the real Father Christmas?”

The real thing?

The real thing?

So there we were in Kendal last Sunday for the Christmas Lights switch on.

Rows of exhausted parents pushing buggies up Stricklandgate in a drizzle (well done Kendal Rotary by the way).

Every year for six years we’ve taken the eldest to see Father Christmas switch on the lights. But she’s getting older and wiser.

The mistake was getting to Abbot Hall too early (Mother Superior’s fault) and spending a bit too much time in close proximity to Father Christmas himself (my fault).

For 10 minutes, the six-year-old stared at him with a look of intense curiosity.

Chewing a nail, she returned to us and asked: “But is that the real Father Christmas?”

“Of course it is!” I replied categorically at exactly the same time as the Mother Superior said: “No, it’s just one of his helpers.”

The six-year-old looked at us both with confusion written across her face.

There are no winners with questions like that. No-one really benefits.

This is the unglamorous side to parenting. Everyone ends up a little worse off than they were.

To fill the awkward silence, I shouted: “Look!” and stabbed a finger towards a distant big dog.
“One of his reindeers is loose!”

I set off in pretend pursuit. Oh ye subtle art of distraction, how often you have saved me.
With both kids pre-occupied hunting down a non-existent ‘reindeer,’ I conspiratorially turned to the Mother Superior.

By complete coincidence, she was conspiratorially turning towards me.

We are about to start the process known as Silent Arguing or Blame Parenting.
This involves us whispering to each other what the other one should have actually said. T

his happens a lot in our Coalition.

People without children probably assume that agreeing on things jointly as parents is easy.
That you are kindred spirits.

That you agreed on everything before children and you will agree on everything once you have children.

You also may have enjoyed lazy summer picnics together in hayfields and been content just listening to each other breathe.

All of this will end when you have children – usually within seconds of the umbilical cord being cut.

“Silly Daddy should have cut the cord with a single snip shouldn’t he? Not sawing at it like he’s carving turkey!”

But let don’t me put you off having children.

The more people who become parents, the more personally satisfying it is for those of us who already have children and want other people to suffer.

Anyway, we head to Glasgow soon for a kids-free weekend! The Mother Superior already has a list.

I’ve not checked but from memory this should entail:
* Worrying about the kids
* Texting/phoning home about the kids
* Buying presents for the kids
* Talking about the kids
* Talking about how great the kids are (after wine)

Then we can return home and genuinely tell them: “We’ve missed you so much.”

Because we genuinely do!

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