Friday, 30 May 2008

The Wages of Gin........................."May I play through, my husband is dying?"

If you are going to be ill it is important to pick the most convenient place. So I came over all queer in my local clinic, surrounded by the nurses who, three times a week, dress my Henry VIII ulcerous legs. They produced an oxygen cylinder and a doctor, took my house keys and rang a neighbour - because Celia, the Head Ferret was, of course, playing golf near Cambridge in the lovely Gog Magog hills.

The doctor was followed by a paramedic in green battle dress, festooned with stay-alive kit. A large man, who, in my confused state, I took to be the Jolly Green Giant. He was immediately joined by an ambulance crew, two delightful ladies still a little startled because the last patient they had gone to pick up had told them to F…. off.

These poor girls began the paperwork on my case as the ambulance left the surgery and had just completed it as we drew into Peterborough District Hospital half an hour later.

My neighbours meanwhile were slightly put out because, having gone to enormous trouble to find out where the Head Ferret was playing, they rang the club house to break the bad news and were told: “Could you ring back in ten minutes, she is just on the last hole?”

Peterborough District Hospital was a revelation. It shone with cleanliness and on every wall there was a hygienic hand spray with a notice to medical staff: “Do not pass this”. On the ward, constant hand washing. It was like kibitzing on a convention of Uriah Heeps but very comforting since I have lost two friends to MRSA.

I was disconcerted by a notice on the lift which said: “If you are not well, do not enter this ward.” I pointed out to the ambulance crew that this pretty well ruled me out but they said not to worry, it was for visitors, not patients. Incredibly, suffering from infectious diseases does not suggest to some visitors that their visit is unwise.

I had not been tucked up in bed long when the Head Ferret arrived, with the observation that it would have been much more convenient if I had gone to Addenbrookes which she could see from the 18th tee. It was reassuring to learn that she had dropped off at home to feed the dog.

Plainly this had exhausted her. Because when the first doctor arrived to assess me, Celia was relaxing on the bed and I was sitting in the visitor’s chair, where I should not have been, according to the notice, because I was not feeling well.

The process from admission to release took seven hours but this is in no way a criticism of the doctors and nurses. There were only two doctors to deal with sixteen patients, who were all emergencies, and in the wards a nurse to every sixteen beds. The two doctors on the assessment ward were also responsible for the other patients in the wards surrounding.

When I commiserated with the Registrar on being so short staffed, she put me right at once: “We are not short staffed,” she said, and she had a smile which lit the ward. “That is the establishment for the wards.”

So the next time you complain about the Health Service, remember the Registrar with the smile that lit the ward, the ambulance driver a patient told to F… off, the overworked nurses, cheerily washing their hands at every conceivable moment, rushed off their feet and still caring and kind.

We may have a lousy Health Service but, by God, we should be grateful for the people who staff it.

P.S. Friends will be relieved to hear I cannot die before next weekend: Celia, The Head Ferret, has a very full golf programme. But she has instructed me to be taken ill in the morning when, with luck, she will be at home. Being ill in the afternoon is the sort of thoughtless thing that husbands do


In Germany, a Volvo dealer has been ordered by the court to compensate a buyer around 20,000 euros because the man’s feet were too big to be able to use the new vehicle’s accelerator pedal properly. The money was to allow him to buy snug sports shoes and to compensate for him having to change in and out of them every time he drove the car.

In Sweden, they are proposing to install pedestrian walk control lights in the streets, which show both a man and a woman. This is to provide better gender equality. I’ve never really thought about it but I suppose women can walk across the intersections whenever they like as the red lights only show that men cannot walk – or am I being blonde?

In Sweden (again), they passed a law in 1999 that punishes the buyers of sexual favours with up to six months in jail, but they do not prosecute the prostitutes. When you think about it, it probably makes a lot of sense.

At the White House last week, President George Bush signed a proclamation declaring Malaria Awareness week. There was an awkward moment during the ceremony when Bush said: “This is a great day for all Malarians.”


A friend has called Bruges the most boring city in Europe. Such sauce! What bacon is to the butty, MPs to mortgages and new kitchens, Bruges is to the beer house. If you gave up sleep, you could probably do a comprehensive pub crawl of the city in just over a year.

The oldest pub, the 16th century Vlissinghe on Blekersstraat, has a lovely garden in which customers are ignored. Burghers who went on opening night are probably still waiting to be served. L’estaminet, Park 5, has delicious food and great jazz. The tiny, elegant De Garre, off Breidelstraat, serves beer specially brewed for it, with generous saucers of cheese.

Then there is “t’Brugs Beertje” across the Kemelstraat from the Hobbit Bistro.
The “Little Bear” has furniture you would be stuck with at a boot sale, the walls are a delicate shade of nicotine, though rarely visible for brewery adverts, the seats are hard, the floors innocent of carpet. And I have got it backed as the top beer house of the Western world.

It serves 300 brands of beer, including a special ale brewed for Christmas. With 295 of them I have no quarrel, but there are five others you have to drink in the company of adults - and even then you would fail a test for walking upright.

The Fearsome Five are brewed by Trappist monks who live in perpetual silence. They will tell you it is a vow. Rubbish. Prolonged exposure to their beer has robbed them of the power of speech. Two sips and you arrive at that state where conversation is easy but pronunciation difficult. It is like being mugged with a velvet cosh. Your mind walks in ever diminishing circles, whimpering uneasily.

What can I tell you? The amiable landlord Jan de Bruyne and his wife Daisy run a Beer Academy in the back room, where they share their vast knowledge of beer and quantities of their stock with the customers. I think I went. I even have a certificate to prove it. But there is no name on it, nor is it signed. I do not know what “heeft deelgenomen aan een Seminarie Belgisch Bier” means and I cannot remember a thing I was taught.

If they had sprayed Iraq with Trappist beer Baghdad could have been taken by the Vienna Boys Choir. If you spilt any in the garden you would face green fly the size of horses and butterflies with bomb bays under their wings. In Beaumont and Fletcher’s wise words, here is ale would make a cat speak.

Alas, I missed the pub with 160 chamber pots but I hope to stay in Marian Degraeve’s Kazernevest guest house which offers “clean hot shower and musical toilet”.


“Where we are most vulnerable at this moment is on the ground. To me, this is the most dangerous aspect of flying."
MARK V. ROSENKER, chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. Quoted in the NY Herald Tribune.

And for two more good reads try


Sunday, 25 May 2008

LETTER FROM.....................................


Living in a village the name of which I could not pronounce played
havoc with my social life. Pub crawls were impossible. Imagine
ringing for a cab at closing time and trying to tell the driver where
to take you. I have had trouble in the past with Oswestry, and
Llanuwchllyn is out of the question. Dwygyfylchi is worse but at least it
YLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH, where we used to live during the happiest time in my life.

The name reminds me of the English writer at the Hay-on-Wye
Festival where the green room, where the artistes assemble, is an infants' school and the drawers are all labelled in Welsh. "Is that where they keep the vowels?" he asked, with persuasive innocence.

A great place to live but a constant humiliation.

I was reminded of this dilemma by the news just in of the death of my number one fan in Australia, Tony Shapley of Queensland, a splendid argumentative man with whom I enjoyed a long email friendship.

I used to do these broadcasts on Australian radio and always signed off
".....good night from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll............."

Shappers emails were warm and friendly but every week, without fail, after the broadcast went out, an expatriate Taff would ring me in a rage from Brisbane: "If yer caint pronounce the name why don't you move to f......... Rhyl?"

He was lucky to get through. Another Australian fan tried to write to me for nearly year but his letters all come back from the Australian post office marked "no such place". I know about this because he rang his sister in Derby to check with a friend in Mold if he had the address right and she rang me to find out.

It was not just the Australians who had trouble. The vicar of the
parish church in Upton Scudamore, in Wiltshire, sought a
contribution to the restoration of my ancestors' tomb. He sent the
letter to the Isle of Anglesey by air mail. It came by road from
Manchester airport across one of the two bridges which linked us to
the mainland.

The Post Office in Chester refused to put Isle of Anglesey on its database. Whenever I asked for a Welsh number a Query Page flashed up. "Do you mean Wales, Yeovil, or Wales, Sheffield?"

I used to drink for Wales so I was well known there. Bit surprising
when, at a Tandy shop in Wrexham, my application to buy a PC
on the drip was turned down. The manager was surprised too. He
rang his finance office in Leeds. They said: "It's the address.
There is no such place." The manager said: "There must be. He
has just come from there."

The trick is to make up a name. My credit card statement from the
Royal Bank of Scotland was always addressed to me at Virgin and
Child Cottage at Brymsitmoy, which, so far as I know, is the Welsh Brigadoon because it does not exist. But the bill arrived every month at my house in Brynsiencyn.

The whole name LlanfairPG is a con. I do not know a Welshman who
couldn't give Machiavelli six blacks and still beat him off the table. Most Welsh history pre-1800 is invented. Outsiders are not told that Owain Glyndwr was a general in the English army, married to an Englishwoman, or that his legitimate children married into the English aristocracy. Only his nine bastards had Welsh spouses.

Edward I invaded North Wales with an army of 15,000, of which 11,000 were Welsh. Even the ‘Welsh Not’ (the label said to have been tied round children’s necks if they dared to speak Welsh at school) is not. Though the English Not is widespread.

Our village was for centuries called Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, a lovely name which means the "Mary church by the white hazel pool". When Stevenson brought the railway to Anglesey there were no plans to build a station there. That meant the lucrative tourist trade would pass by and they weren't having that. A local cobbler simply added a description to the name and wrote it on slips of paper which he put in plain brown envelopes and sold as a cure for lock-jaw. It became overnight, and irrevocably, the
village with the longest name in the world:
The addition means "near the fierce whirlpool with the church of
St Tysilio by the red cave".

As a result, the village became so famous our local draper's shop was the size of a bus depot and we had coach-loads of visitors from all over the
world. So much so that the shop has a signpost which shows the
distance from Llanfairpwll to the North Pole and cities the world
over, including New York and Tokyo, all the homes of customers.

I just wonder how Japanese coach drivers cope when they get lost.
I suspect a lot of our oriental business ends up as day trips to

*************** ************************ **************

The cliché runs: “Journalists meet lots of interesting people but they are usually other journalists.”

It is my experience that clichés are truths in familiar clothing, but to this one there should be a caveat. It does not follow that other journalists are necessarily among the nicest people one meets. It’s a competitive trade and dog is usually on the table d’hote.

Vincent Mulchrone was the exception. I cannot remember a time when we were not friends - and that included the time when he was very famous as a columnist. Which, to say the least, was unusual.

He was on the Manchester City News when I met him. He got the job, like I did, because he could spell recommend and accommodate. That was the only test would be reporters were given by the proprietor, an illiterate called Harold Geldeard. The proprietor could not spell the words himself. Before every interview his secretary wrote them on a piece of paper.
Mulchrone moved to the Mirror and we all had a party. We had another party when he was sacked by the Mirror on a trumped up charge - because he liked having parties.
There was yet another party when he joined the Daily Mail but he was soon translated to London where he became the finest columnist that paper has discovered. It is a matter of chagrin that though it discovered three of my friends, Keith Waterhouse, John Edwards and Vincent, it never bothered to discover me.

I am sure the other two will agree that Vincent gave the lie to another cliché which is that “You may like the writing, but the chances are you will be disappointed by the writer“, a truth which is borne out by most of the literary biographies that poison our shelves.

Vincent was beloved by everyone who met him. He wrote what he was: witty, urbane, sensitive, funny and all the good things you could think of. He died tragically early of leukaemia because God is selfish and wants to keep all the good people to himself.

Happily you can meet him again. Another mutual friend, Revel Barker, has just republished a dazzling collection of his columns, “The Best of Vincent Mulchrone”, which is a lifetime of wit and observation of the folly and splendour of his fellow human beings by the Daily Mail’s finest reporter.

You can order a copy online from It will cost you £9.99, plus postage, and all royalties are going to research into the fight against leukaemia, the disease which robbed the world of a man it could ill afford to lose at the woefully early age of 54.

The last paragraph in this funny, loving book is: “When I go, give me a Basin St funeral band, Belgian black horses with plumes, a stop at the tap room of The Hermit, and lots of ham. It won’t bother me, mate. But it might just take the miserable look off your face.”

And if it doesn’t, his book certainly will.


“Melvin Buckhart, aged 94, was a fairground sideshow performer known as the Human Blockhead because of his ability to drive a five-inch nail or an ice pick into his head without flinching.
The Human Blockhead worked under a number of alternative titles, depending on which of his extraordinary repertoire of physical contortions he happened to be performing at the time.

As the Anatomical Wonder he could inflate one lung at a time and dislocate his shoulders; as the Man Without a Stomach, he could suck his stomach back into his spine; as the Two Faced Man, he could frown with half his face and smile with the other half. Among many accomplishments he swallowed swords, threw knives and ate fire.

He was universally admired by his fellow performers, one of whom observed: “Anyone who has ever hammered a five-inch nail into his nose owes a large debt of gratitude to Melvin Buckhart.”

Daily Telegraph, Novdmber 2001