Incarcerated in Croatia 

For once, the flight was not too early in the morning. Even better, thanks to a tip from some friends, a pub offered parking and a return chauffeur service to the airport that was £25 cheaper than Stansted parking.

Security was not too congested, the flight took little over two hours, our pre-booked taxi was waiting on arrival and soon we were sitting on the balcony of our five-star hotel near Dubrovnek in glorious sunshine.

Later, a few drinks overlooking the harbour followed by a meal, followed by coffee and brandy back in the hotel and a good night’s sleep.

It was only when I went to the bathroom the following morning that the bottom fell out of my world; correction, the world fell out my bottom. It must have been the fish soup starter the previous evening, I convinced myself.

But no matter what the culprit. I spent the next four days in the hotel room taking Imodium and sachets of some stuff from the local pharmacy to restore a lack of salt that had left me with crippling leg cramps.

While everyone else was piling up their breakfast plate, I fancied nothing more than a yoghurt and some toast. Even the thought of beer made me nauseous and the one liquid to which I have an aversion, water, took on an unexpected appeal.

Mrs P, bless her, repeatedly declined my suggestion – insistence even – that she should at least take that inviting boat road across the harbour to Dubrovnik that we had visited some years earlier. Instead, we ventured out on the odd occasion to the harbour before nature came calling...again.

Only consolations were that I finished a book started a month before and lost half a stone of excess weight.

Next trip, booked before the Croatia disaster, really has me worried. It just happens to be in the land of Delhi Belly. And this time Mrs P won’t be on hand to comfort me. She’s thought better of it and is treating herself to a hotel in Cambridge while I’m away. 

Tall cows with long udders

It was over breakfast that Mrs P casually remarked: “We’re doing something to commemorate World War 1. Would you be interested in taking part?”

“Maybe,” I replied in between mouthfuls of sliced banana, grapes and mango fruit. “What exactly do you mean by something?’”

“Well, it’s mostly a medley of wartime songs – A Long Way to Tipperary and all that.”

“OK”, I said guardedly, “I’ll go to the first rehearsal and see what’s it’s like.”

“Great,” said Mrs P before disappearing into the living room to do a series of Asian squat exercises for her dodgy back.

Two evenings later, around 15 of us are in the parish church clutching songsheets supplied by Keith, our jovial-looking director, and packing up our troubles in our old kit bags, bidding farewell to Leicester Square and keeping the home fires burning.

“We’re a bit of a motley crew, aren’t we?” whispered Mrs P. The Walkern Players, as we’re now called, include several members of the church choir, the owner of the village teashop, accompanied by three of her young helpers, a chap by the name of Alan Bennett, who looks nothing like his owlish namesake, a big bluff man called Mark, a couple of Rons and two retired schoolteachers.

The second run-through of the medley all seemed pretty straightforward and jolly and I thought I can handle this, but then things began to get more complicated. Keith’s suggestion of us all waving on the line “farewell Leicester Square...” prompted a torrent of suggestions from members of the ensemble and half-way through the first rehearsal we were not only waving but flipping thumbs over shoulders for the song ‘Over There’ and miming cows being milked for the song ‘How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?’

Keith also suggested that for some of the numbers, we begin marching and counter-marching. It was like Dad’s Army doing their first drill and ended in a giggling shambles.

Fast forward to the third rehearsal and most of us have begun to get the hang of the marching routines. Which is just as well because by this time Keith discloses that the song medley has been extended to a full blown variety show with a series of sketches.

One of these, ‘The Road to Mandalay’, requires a series of props including a fish in a frying pan, a boat, cymbals and a palm tree.  On the first run-through, Keith announces that the palm tree that he’d planned to borrow from an amateur dramatic group “had disintegrated”. So at a subsequent rehearsal, it was replaced with a blow-up version from eBay. And for cymbals, someone banged together a couple of buckets, the sound of which so startled one of the Rons that he dropped the fish from the frying pan.

Mrs P and I have been nominated to appear as a couple of sailors in the boat. At this stage I’m seized with enthusiasm and hot foot it to a builders’ merchants for a sheet of plywood to construct a canoe. This, along with a couple of sailors’ hats bought from Amazon, proves a big hit at rehearsal. But I couldn’t help noticing that Mrs P’s hat was perched at a flattering angle while mine was sitting on both ears, making me look proper gormless.

Less than two weeks to go and Keith’s easygoing joviality is wearing thin. The choreography is still ragged and there are lapses in the singing as it becomes apparent that few remember all the words. 

A reminder that most of us were 70-plus came when Keith suggested that we all kneel down for ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. “That’s all very well,” said one, “but it could take some time for us to get up again.”

As for the gestures during the singing, some of them are becoming exaggerated. As Keith noted during the milking reference of ‘How you gonna keep ‘em down on the Farm?’: “There seem to be some tall cows with very long udders.”

Come the big night and there’s a capacity attendance. Gulp. At £10 a ticket (including fish and chips), this had better past muster.

What’s the saying? “It’ll be all right on the night.” Apart from a few hiccups it all went awfully well, darling. So much so that Keith is proposing another production and I can’t wait to audition.

***

Why my rambling days are over

Oh dear. I think advancing years are catching up on me. For years I enjoyed the countryside. The lift-me-up-effect of exercise, solitude and freedom that came with just a pair of walking boots. 

But having once completed a 10-mile section of the Tissington Trail in Derbyshire, I vividly recall the best part – a couple of pints at the end of the day flexing an aching body, followed by fish and chips.

Perhaps that was the first warning sign.

During that time, I worked in a former grand house, with an office overlooking acres of garden and, beyond that, woods and farmland.

Dreamily, with a page still blank in the typewriter – yes. it was that long ago – I would look at the landscape through the passing seasons until dreaminess turned to lassitude and I was forced to the conclusion that nature can be very boring. Highlight of the day would be a fox until they became almost as commonplace as rabbits. Occasionally, there would be excited cries from colleagues when a green woodpecker was sighted on the lawn.

By contrast, many years before that, I had another office overlooking a main street in London that never ceased to energise me.  It was daily theatre, with regular appearances by some members of the cast: The old woman with a bicycle who always called at the bakery at 10am; the man exercising not one but three dogs; the Chinese man popping into the bookies at least three times a day; and always the ‘walk on’ parts by newcomers, perhaps never to be seen again.

From that cast, I made up stories about them, their relationships, their sadnesses and what they did to give them pleasure.

I still do that now I am retired, on the days that give me pleasure, sitting outside a cafe or a pub in London just ‘people watching’. 

The other day, I did venture into the countryside again. It was more of a slither than a walk because horses had churned up many of the public footpaths.

 If you could ignore the electricity pylons straddling the landscape, I suppose it came close to Elysian Fields. But according to Greek mythology that is where souls of the good rest after death.

While I’m still alive, I prefer the pulse of city streets.  

***

 No longer falling on deaf ears

I reckon my hearing is pretty good, but now I routinely push the subtitles button while watching TV. This has less to do with me complaining – along with lots of other viewers - about actors mumbling their lines during drama programmes than with Mrs P, who recently got herself fitted with hearing aids.

That’s right, not one but two. She’s fully wired for sound and, boy, do I know it.

Typical of the admonishments I get now are: “Do you have to rattle the cutlery quite so loudly?”

“There’s no need to slam the door every time you go out.”

“What time did you finally get to bed? I could hear you tapping away on the computer until well past midnight.”

I don’t mind the bashing of my own ears. In fact I welcome it because there is less chance having the type of weird conversations that took place in her mutton Jeff days.

“I can’t find the Sellotape – have you seen it?” I once asked her.

“No, I felt a twinge this morning, but it seems to have gone now,” she replied.

“What?”

“The stomach ache – it’s gone.”

Her partial deafness – that’s to say deafness in her right ear –goes back many years and required anyone who wished to hold a conversation to position themselves on the side of her ‘good ear’.

 Sensible, but a tad embarrassing on occasions like dinner parties when the person on her right wondered why their sparkling wit was falling on, eh, her deaf ear.

Then her left ear began to go all “muzzy”, as she put it, and I realised things were serious when she began looking at the back pages of the Saturday papers advertising hearing aids among the walk-in baths and trousers with elastic stretch waistbands.

In truth, neither of us had that much confidence in hearing aids, despite their so-called technological advancement.  From talking to friends and acquaintances who had these devices, their effectiveness seemed a bit hit and miss. 

What concerned me most was the cost. Yes, I know that someone I married nearly 50 years ago deserves the best of everything, bless her, but I’d heard that these contraptions can cost up to £3,000...per ear. Cripes!

Thankfully, after a series of audio tests, she opted for some on the NHS where even the batteries are free.

At less than half the size of an Aspirin tablet, these batteries, along with the casing and wires, are almost undetectable. The only clue as to their presence is the occasional pinging and whistling as though someone from the Outer Hebrides is trying to make contact.

And occasionally, there are still those conversations of the ‘Sellotape’ variety.

Only the other day, I commented that my weekly copy of The Spectator magazine hadn’t arrived and wondered if the subscription had expired.

“Have you still got the old one?” she inquired.

Seeing my blank expression, she added:  “Have you still got it – the old prescription from Specsavers?”

Please, show me the way

No wonder that sales of satnavs continue to do well. Without one, what appears to be a straightforward enough journey can turn into an expletive-loaded succession of wrong turnings.

Roads are cluttered with signs, but the ones that should perform that most basic of functions, informing you which direction to take, are missing, obscured, or misleading at critical moments.

It’s all very well having clear directions on the approach to major roundabouts, but attention spans are short and it’s useful to have a reminder at the roundabout itself. I can think of at least four instance within a 20-mile of where I live in North Hertfordshire where they are missing , with only  support poles as evidence that they once existed.

My wife’s a dab hand at navigating by map, but even she was thwarted on a return journey from Suffolk when a succession of signs we had been following from Long Melford ended at a key junction.                                     

A stop at a nearby pub revealed that we should have turned right a few hundred yards up the road. Sure enough, it was there on the return approach, but neither of us could recall seeing it from the opposite direction.

Perhaps it was one of many that in summer months are partly or completely hidden by foliage. Could this be a perverse example of local authority spending cut-backs?

And how many times does one arrive at a T junction, especially on B roads, with no indication as to whether to turn left or right. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe...how the hell am I supposed to know?

As we all know to our frustration, satnavs are not that reliable either. Ignoring our map-reading advice as back seat passengers, a friend insisted on taking the next turning left because “computer said so” and we ended up in a cul de sac.

Saw point

Fancying a stint of d-i-y, I went to a builders’ merchants the other day to buy timber for two waist-high garden planters. All that stooping in the flower beds is doing my back in.

“You got a ticket for those?” inquired the bored looking youth at the pay counter as I struggled with five planks each four inches wide and around 15 feet long. Seeing my blank expression, he explained: “You’re supposed to get a ticket from the yard.”

Returning with the ticket, I asked the youth if anyone was available to cut the planks to fit into my hatchback (B&Q provide this service, if you’re prepared to wait for 15 minutes or so for the cutting machine operator).

“Nah,” came the response.

In the yard office was a man with a large mug of tea.

“Excuse me, is there a saw I can borrow to cut this wood?”

“Nah, sorry.”

Encouraged by this gesture of an apology, I was emboldened to comment: “But when I came before, there was a saw chained to the trestles for sawing wood and the trestles are still there.”

“We don’t provide a saw no more.” Sipping his tea, he went on: “Some bloke cut himself using our saw and because of health and safety and all that, all our stores had to withdraw the saw facility.”

“But what if I brought my own saw?”

“Yeh, s’pose you could do that.”

“And if I hadn’t got a saw, could I buy a saw here for sawing?”

Sensing where this was going, the man put down his mug. “If you bring your own saw or buy a saw here, it’s your property and I s’pose you could use it on our premises, but (he added with a wink) better if I don’t see you sawing.”

As it happened, I had brought my own saw and with the planks all cut into 35 inch lengths and stowed in the car, I faced the final obstacle – the man on the security gate.

He looked at my ticket and into the boot and back at the ticket.

“I’m smuggling out the planks disguised as short bits of wood.”

He ignored my feeble joke and waved me through.

 

Mistletoe missives

Never mind the holly and the plum pudding; what I really like about Christmas are the inserts in Christmas cards. Mostly a page, but some are two pages or more now that computers have taken away the effort of scribbling. Often they are accompanied by images of inferior quality produced by cheap printers. Sometimes they even act as a substitute for proper cards.

Yes, I’m referring to Round Robins, the purpose of which is to recount what busy, fulfilling lives the senders have led over the past 12 months so that you’re choking with envy over your breakfast cornflakes.

Of course, they all fail miserably. That choking sound is laughter, never ceasing to be amazed at how the authors can be so far up their own arses with self-importance.

That unforgettable holiday pony trekking in the Himalayas. Emma’s new job as head of something or other at something or other bank. Adam’s string of A-grade exam results. Another two grandchildren - who are already walking and talking, naturally – for Mr and Mrs Bumptious.

My favourite Round Robins came via a friend who once met a couple on a cruise. He was something big in Rotary and every year there would be an account of their visits round the world meeting “dear Rotary friends”.  Strangely, there was never a mention of these friends visiting them and I suspect they were exploiting the Rotary network for cheap holidays.

Even they must have become aware that their Robins were singing the same song year after year – or perhaps those Rotary friends had finally told them to bugger off - because one Christmas the highlight was the installation of a new bay window in their bungalow – with a photograph of old and new.

Sadly, Round Robins seem to be on the decline, supplanted by ‘social media’ where everyday people can Twitter away to their heart’s content.

  ***

Who are you, Squire?

Girls/women have been variously categorised as ladettes, yummy mummies and Sloan Rangers.

But what about men? The term ‘guys’ has become transgender thanks to American influence and even if it were still confined to males, it doesn’t really convey anything about social status.

So I’ve been toying around trying to define the differences between chaps and blokes. It throws up inconsistencies – both chaps and blokes play golf, for example - but I reckon there are plenty of other lifestyle characteristics to separate the two.

First chaps. They drink real ale from dimpled pint glasses with handles, read newspapers like The Guardian, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, have names like Nigel and prefer rugby to football.

They are married to Fiona and have three children called George, Fergus and Abigail. 

Nigel’s in public relations, Fiona’s in publishing and the family live in a Victorian or Edwardian house with a fashionable postcode. Nigel drives a scruffy 10-year-old Volvo estate and Fiona an even older and scruffier Renault Clio. Nigel pretends not to be interested in cars, preferring instead to ‘invest’ money on elder son George, who has just been enrolled at the same minor public school as his father.

But when Fiona’s widowed mother dies, Nigel is hoping to buy the car of his dreams, a Jaguar E-Type, and there will still be enough money left over to buy a small house in Tuscany.

Meanwhile, the family holidays are spent in Norfolk, Suffolk, or Cornwall, when Nigel wears Viyella country check shirts with his old school tie, a blazer, and pink trousers, with yachting shoes.

Blokes usually go under the name of Terry and Kevin, read The Sun and run their own businesses like fitted kitchens. They drink lager out of ‘straight’ glasses, are married to Sharon/Lorraine and have two children, Sam and Mica, who both attend the local comprehensive.

They live in a four-bed detached home on an estate built 10 years ago with a large kitchen-cum-diner, refitted by Terry. On the drive is Terry’s Audi A4 and Sharon’s Honda CRV, neither of which is more than three years’ old.

Terry has a season ticket for Arsenal, a Sky sports package that he views on a state-of-the art plasma TV and the family take two holidays a year to places like Florida and Spain.

Unusually for a bloke, Terry and his friends often call each other ‘squire’.

Famous chaps

Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Leslie Phillips

Famous blokes

Jason Statham, Jeremy Clarkson (see what I mean about inconsistencies, this time the name?) and most footballers - apart from David Beckham.

***

Rat eats penguin and escapes

I couldn’t believe it. There, just yards away was a rat feeding on corn spilt from the bird feeder. Having gorged itself, ratty then sauntered over to the patio before disappearing into the bushes.

Outrageous! It’s said that rats are never more than a few feet from humans, but we tend not to dwell on that because it’s usually a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

When Mrs P shouted that she had seen him again (for the purposes of this story, it’s the same rat and a male) and neighbours reported sightings, too, it was straight down to the hardware store for some poisoned bait.

That was eaten overnight, along with the rest of the packet in three successive nights. Either we had a family of ratties or this particular one was immune to Warfarin because there was yet another sighting.

Right, I thought, more drastic action was needed, so I bought a trap. A hazardous exercise, this, trying to avoid severing my fingers while setting it. Ratty must have been chuckling through his whiskers when he managed to remove the bait without triggering the trap.

Back to the hardware store for some heavier artillery, a cage that cost me £20. It worked, but instead of a rat there was a hedgehog, who scuttled off when I released him on the lawn.

At this point, I changed the bait. Waitrose milk chocolate was too extravagant a choice, so I introduced chunks from a Penguin bar.

Half a bar later and still no result. So this time I had the idea of placing a morsel on a bed of honey, reasoning that efforts to prise it loose from its sticky base would be enough to trigger the trap. But I didn’t want the bait tray left covered in a residue, so I placed the lot on a post-it note.

“Are you going to leave a message, something along the lines of ‘Mr Ratty, please p-p-pick up this penguin?’” inquired Mrs P.

Grrrr! Matters weren’t helped when a neighbour said she had seen one in her garden and remarked: “It sat there grooming itself and looked rather sweet.”

My last attempt was placing the aforementioned trap inside the cage and resting one edge on the cage bait tray for added sensitivity. Loading both the trap and the tray with the remains of the Penguin, I reckoned that ratty – now lulled into a false sense of security – would set off the trap, thereby triggering the downward release of the cage gate.

Somehow, though, and I cannot believe it was something the size of a rat, managed not only to remove the bait in the trap, but also to squeeze past the trap and eat the bait on the cage tray. Double helpings!

Bed and bloated

“Remember that you are a guest, so please treat their home with the same respect as you would your own”, I remember reading once in a bed and breakfast brochure.

A bit patronising, but fair enough.  Hand on heart, I’ve never pinched a fluffy towel from someone else’s bathroom and I always wipe my shoes, muddy or not, on any doormat.

“Guests are requested not to arrive before 4pm” is another commonplace house rule.  Allied to that is the requirement to vacate the room by 10.30 the following morning.  Assuming that you’re able to stay for just one night rather than two nights’ minimum.

At this point, I get a teeny bit fractious. Don’t get me wrong. Mrs P and I have long enjoyed b&bs and the variety they offer. The owners are welcoming and helpful, except for the occasional few. Those are the ones who  greet you with a rictus smile and you imagine that this b&b business is a right pain after 10 years or so, but how else can they afford the mortgage on the old farmouse with its five acres of grazing.

And that brings me to my main gripe, price. £45 per person per night may be acceptable in a Georgian farmhouse near Cornish beaches with log fires in winter, but I don’t feel compelled to stay in Milton Keynes or Welwyn Garden City for the same tariff.  

Yes, I acknowledge that b&bs are famed for their cholesterol-busting breakfasts. And it’s mostly to justify the pppn price that my wife and I forego our normal bowl of fruit and slice of toast at Chez Phillips and pig out on a full English. 

But, suitably stuffed, that five mile walk recommended by our hosts is not that appealing. 

Meanwhile, hotels are fighting back. Budget chains offer accommodation for two at prices from £35 a night and my email inbox bulges with deals from privately-owned hotels that include breakfast and an evening meal through discount websites. 

Check in times are earlier, departure times are later – and I don’t get the feeling that I’m subsidising a b&b owner’s idyllic rural lifestyle.

Bored by The Bard

Like a stick of rock, there’s a word that runs through my psyche and it’s not Blackpool. It’s Philistine.  Now I always thought this word – with its definition of a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them - had its origins in a warlike tribe from the Aegean in biblical times.

But I was wrong. It seems the word derives from the German Philister, used by university students in the 17th century to describe a person who was not university educated. If I were well read and attuned to all things intellectual I would probably have known that.

But a mind that can truly appreciate what is generally recognised as ‘classic’ literature, art and music eludes me like a spectre surrounded by mist.

I’m more inclined towards a Tom Clancy thriller than the works of Proust, the poetry of Pam Ayres than T.S. Eliot and Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler than Rembrandt’s Christ on the Cross. Any depiction of The Crucifixion leaves me cold. When it comes to art, I’m full of admiration for the technical skill, but few masterpieces make any emotional connection.

Though Shakespeare’s phrases have become embedded in our language - bated breath, crack of doom, devil incarnate, fancy free, brevity is the soul of wit, and so on - brevity is also a hallmark of most good writing. It’s in this department – how shall I put it without sounding heretical? – no, there is no other way of putting it: The Bard can be a bit of a bore.  Around those nuggets of glorious prose there is an awful lot of verbiage.

At school, one of our tasks was to go through The Merchant of Venice, almost line by line, to explain its ‘significance’.  Timidly, I suggested that perhaps there was none. He was a jobbing playwright, working to a deadline, and could it be that a lot of the material was mere padding to fulfil the required number of words? The teacher’s response was something to the effect that I was an ignorant smart-arse.

Scholars still debate that significance. So much for transparency onto parchment. Or is obscurity one of the merits of distinguished writing?

My last brush with Shakespeare was A Winter’s Tale. Plot credibility came under strain within minutes of the play opening when King Leontes wants his best friend poisoned for no better reason than he sees him in a friendly embrace with the Queen.

In the second act, tragedy turns into farce and Will employs yet another variation of one of his favourite tricks, mistaken identity. In this case, a character disguises himself simply by wearing a hat to dupe his father (or it may have been the other way round because by this time I was looking at my watch).

All I remember of Coriolanus, seen some months earlier, is a lot of strutting about the stage and shouting before the lead character is killed, strung up like a beast in an abattoir. 

Perhaps all this was highly entertaining to Elizabethan audiences, but I wonder how many would have turned up at London’s Globe Theatre had there been the option of a Multiplex cinema or curved screen television with a Sky package.

For music, I have no particular yearning to attend a Beethoven concert, but regret not being among the multitude at the Robbie Williams’ concerts at Knebworth Park in 2003.

As for opera, I’m reassured by another philistine, American newspaper columnist Robert Benchley, who said:  “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.”

At this point, it should be apparent that my highbrow tastes stretch no higher than the bridge of my nose. It’s not something I’m proud of; just that the wiring in my brain happens to be different from those of intellectuals.  While they were being weaned on Treasure Island and Black Beauty, I was devouring Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

Classical literature is enjoyable so long as I don’t actually have to read it. It’s more digestible through film and TV adaptations; like custard without the lumpy bits. 

***

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