Saturday, 24 December 2016

Party fever

‘Tis the season… when once a year drinkers get jolly. And then get smashed on vodka-spiked punch at the office do. And then fall over on my train home. When respectable professionals pee on the tube and puke on the platform.

Not that I’m entirely innocent in this regard. I may not be a once a year drinker, but I do remember an unfortunate incident on the train after a launch party the week before one Christmas. Posh do at the RSA’s swish gaff just off The Strand. I thought the RSA was the financial company that sponsored the gruelling 3 mile novice chase at the Festival. Who knew there was another RSA? One of the pre-eminent drivers of creative enrichment in the country, apparently. (That’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, since you ask.)

After too much complimentary bubbly and not enough fiddly canap├ęs, I felt a little queasy on the train home. The champers was clearly to blame. It’s not my regular tipple. I calmly picked up my rucksack, placed the laptop and various documents together in one compartment of the bag and carefully threw up in the other compartment. I zipped it up, wedged it back under the seat and closed my eyes until my stop. I did not once look at any of the other passengers sat opposite me.

Sometimes I’m on the receiving end. On one late night Christmas Special out of Euston, the train was predictably packed and about 6.5 on the lairy scale. I was stood between the seats. There was a drunk lad wedged in the doorway, legs curled up beneath him, burping uncontrollably. Classic signs of discomfort. Then, sure enough, although quite discreetly, he vomited on his trousers. The bloke stood nearest to him didn't spot it straight away. When he did he glanced round at me and others with a helpless expression and tried to edge away.

The train emptied out a bit at Watford Junction and I got a seat. I was horror struck to see sick-bloke stagger over and spill into the seat next to me. I passed a very tense few minutes with him losing his balance from his sitting position and grabbing my leg instead of the armrest. He was burping again and mumbling and twisting and looking at his watch in that way that meant he really, really wanted the journey to end. I know. I’ve been there too many times.

At Berko, with a giant effort, he hauled himself up and out. I lost him on the stairs, but then spotted him again on the edge of the car park tucked into the back door of the chippy. Bent double. Shoulders heaving. Not pretty.

Our Christmas parties have been reasonably vomit-free this year. Even the trip to the Tingle Creek meeting in early December, my first real seasonal bash, was a relatively civilised affair. Hipflasks were well to the fore, of course. Watching the races in the grip of winter whilst taking a few nips of radiating malt whisky is an indispensable part of the experience. I brought along the Lagavulin 16-year-old, received as 50th birthday gift. It is just about the best whisky I’ve tasted. Peaty but smoky too, with lingering warmth in the finish. Laphroig used to be my favourite, but this smooth, complex distillation has displaced it.  So 2016 hasn’t been all bad.

The flasks always get passed around the gang and there were some fine spirits to sample. Even Colin’s 40% proof apricot brandy found a satisfying niche. Though Bryn rather disparagingly suggested it could best be used to give his cappuccino a sweeter edge.

Mrs A’s work party needed a similar amount of stamina. It was hosted by Steve and Di in their splendid Jacobean former vicarage in a quiet corner of Suffolk, made all the more atmospheric by prevailing mist. 

It is within striking distance of Fakenham racecourse too. I really must try to get over there on our next stay.

The guests began assembling from about 1 o’clock. Following a superb Christmas lunch and then a ham and turkey supper at 8ish, the hard core were still going at 3am. On this occasion, I was not part of that core. Mrs A’s crowd are music biz players. I qualify to attend because through Mrs A I’ve known Steve for decades. I think a couple of gig and CD reviews I wrote have snuck me over the line as well.

However, I knew it was time for bed when the brandy and whisky bottles were sloshing around the table and the music took on a challenging ‘60’s hue. The conversation was surely from a yet-to-be-commissioned nursing home sit-com. The material wrote itself:

“Ah, this is one of the absolute classics. ‘Ghost riders in the sky’”.

“No mistaking the quality.”

“You should hear Johnny Cash’s version.”

“This is Johnny Cash!”

“No this is Frankie Laine. Listen to the bass player”.

“Didn’t The Doors do a version of this?”

“That was ‘Riders On The Storm’.”

“Oh yeah. I’m thinking of Tom Jones”.

Get’s up. Shuffles to CD player. Bends down and lodges right ear against speaker.

“That’s Johnny Cash is that. Unmistakeable”

One of the guests had been in the business for years and used to know well the hard-as-nails northern Working Men’s Club circuit. He told a story about the flat-hatted entertainment secretary of a social club in the north west who had introduced a new act in the early 1960’s by saying,

“I don’t think you’ll like this lot very much. Four darkies from America.”

The band was the Four Tops! Hard to picture them on that tough circuit. And probably not the first time Levi and the soon-to-be Motown legends had encountered blatant racism. Different times I suppose, but outrageous all the same.  

More gentle was a gathering of friends up the road where, in casual conversation, Mrs A and a new acquaintance discovered they had gone to the same school together over 45 years earlier and yet had never met. It emerged that they also had shared neighbours in common from Mrs A’s home village in Northants.

Whilst this uncanny connection was at first humorous, I soon began to doubt the sanity of Mrs A’s new friend. She showed us a series of photos of her dog taken to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (although her set of 12 was scheduled to end on Christmas Eve, which seemed to be a flagrant conflation with Advent to me, but maybe I’m just splitting non-secular hairs). In each pic, the dog’s outfits became more extravagant. Day 8 saw the hound concealed in a wraparound elephant costume, with only its skinny legs peeping out to identify it as a dog. I despair to imagine the garb Ronnie will be squeezed into on the 24th.

 Of course, the real party happens at Kempton on Boxing Day. Thistlecrack v Cue Card in the King George has to take top billing. The field is small, Tizzard’s headliners having frightened off the Irish raiders, but the clash is fascinating. The small field will suit Thistlecrack, but Cue Card’s relentless galloping will put the former’s jumping under the severest of examinations. Massive respect to connections for running them both. This is what the fans want to see. Take note Mullins.

The Christmas Hurdle is a similarly small and fascinating field. Market leader Yanworth is very classy, but looks more like a stayer and a resurgent The New One will make life tough. Hard to fancy My Tent Or Yours, even on the likely more suitable better going. Ch’Tibello is a big improver but has a lot to find on the face of it.

In the third of the meeting’s head-to-heads, the picks of the Feltham (as was) look to be Frodon and Anibale Fly. I’m going for the latter, but this will be a good race.

Leopardstown joins the get-together too. Keeping up the one-on-one clashes, Boxing Day sees Min take on Identity Thief. Although visibility was poor, Identity Thief seemed to put in the more convincing fencing debut last month. Min remains the talking horse and maybe there’s a touch of value in the 9/4 about the De Bromhead chaser.

Then over the next few days, some or all of the big guns will come lurching into view, carrying their token bottles of prosecco and banging the door down: Douvan, Sire De Grugy, Altior, Djakadem, Valseur Lido, VV Mag and maybe even Faugheen.

Party central.

Happy Christmas and thanks for following the blog this year.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tingle Revised

I was going to write a new blog about our annual expedition to the Tingle Creek meeting. Then I found that with a little bit of handy, writers-block relieving track-change manipulation, most of last year's effort will suffice. This is the first time I’ve plagiarised my own stuff (as oppose to anyone/everyone else’s) and I’m quite pleased with the initiative.

(black – last year’s words; struck through – last year’s deleted ramblings; red, this year’s amendments)

This meeting has become a fixture in our punting calendar. For years we came on the Friday; a lower-profile card which still has a couple of decent races. Sneaking a day off work was part of the attraction. One time when the fixture was frosted-off we instead went 10-pin bowling at the Trocadero and drank all day.

Since switching to the main event, attendance amongst our unruly gang has grown. Fourteen Sixteen thirsty souls answered Bryn’s group booking invitation this year: thirteen sixteen lads and one lass.

At one point in the week before the meeting, we allowed ourselves to think that an epic Tingle Creek Chase was about to unfold. Willie Mullins had committed to the race the brightest star in the current two-mile division and reigning Arkle hero, Douvan, as well as last year’s Arkle hero, Un De Sceaux. Henderson had also pointed two of his stable stars in the direction of Sandown Park. Scintillating Sprinter Sacre had been nursed back to something approaching his best and another sick note, previous Arkle winner Simonsig was also back to form.

Shame on us for allowing ourselves such high hopes. The increasingly nervous Hendo decided that Sprinter was not yet ready for another bout, citing possible heavy ground (it rode genuine good to soft on the day); and. The unfathomable Mullins revealed that Douvan Sceaux was “not as good a traveller as Un De Sceaux. a little flat in himself the last two days." Bless. On the eve of the race Simonsig was also pulled out with a new injury. Sad to say that neither Sprinter (retired), nor Simonsig (destroyed) lined up this year either, though Sprinter paraded for the crowd and Bacchy took a fantastic picture of the legend.

This all prompted hearty twelve- ten to-follow chat about those numpties who had dropped Vibrato Valtat picked Douvan, some as star horse - and others a couple of weeks previously to bring in the Sprinter who had shamefully made no transfers at all.

We set out from various points of the south east regional compass. Bacchy offered a spread on people left at the entrance without their allotted ticket at 2-3. “Are you a buyer or a seller?” he asked. Another potential wrinkle was the mayhem caused by crap trains across the entire south west London region, meaning Bryn, Nick, Ad and Pete missed the first; and Bacchy resorted working out his placepot on the phone. An impossible task. I imagine he ended up with the default fav in every race. A further potential trap was  the number of punters who copped a penalty fare at the track-side exit form Esher station. It is beyond zone 6 and the ruthless Southern Railway enforcers set up camp just off the ramp to pounce on hapless incorrectly-ticketed punters. Bryn was alive to this, though and had warned about their tactics in his final briefing to us all. Top admin. Give that man a finance job. Thankfully, the rail enforcers were having a day off. Maybe it was their Christmas party. Or maybe they didn’t fancy the wrath of thousands of punters made late by their useless services.

Bryn’s expert planning was rewarded with the arrival of the Gang Of FourSix(teen), bearing shiny, happy, optimistic faces within a few moments of the appointed hour at all sorts of random times both before and during racing. The first concern was the lack of real ale. “Where’s the Hogsback stall?” said virtually everyone. Even the lager drinkers.  Turned out they’d been booted out of the grandstand (just like last year) into the farthest reaches of the car park enclosure for refusing to pay inflated concession fees.  In the meantime, Nick found a the real ale bar underneath the Esher Stand in the family area just adjacent to kids’ pantomime stage had also gone. Instead, the Christmas market had grown exponentially, spreading its gaudy stalls of gingerbread animals, German tree decorations and smelly candles into every nook and cranny. They don’t make it easy for the beer drinkers. Top work that man.

Fuelled by ale and increasingly animated banter, the actual racing part of the day disappeared in a rising miasma of punts, horses and pees. I do remember one or two highlights:

-       Gary found five three winners from seven races. Outstanding. He backed Li’l Rockerfeller because it was similar to his Mother-in-Law’s cat’s name. Or some such. Danny, on the other hand, brought his Sandown record to 0/12 across two years.
-       Bacchy We all proclaimed me a the genius for of finding locating some bogs with no queues over by the parade ring Hogsback Bar. A sign of the relative priorities amongst men of a certain age.
-       Nev not landing any forecasts. At all. (Unless I missed them)
-       A big No surprise in the Henry VIII novice chase as Gary Moore’s Ar Mad Nicky Henderson’s Altior won at 14-1 a canter in a six four runner field. No-one backed him in our gang, despite Moore running up six winners across the two-day meeting the class of the beast. The odds of 2/7 rightly proved too prohibitive, even for Bryn.
-       Everyone ignored my winning nap on Simply A Legend in the handicap hurdle bad tempered bleating about backing a brace of fast-finishing seconds in the opening two handicaps and then me ignoring everyone else’s nap of Carole’s Destrier who took the last tried to get in on my act when Tim instigated an impromtu Smug Punting book signing. All that was missing was the trestle table and a stack of books...
-       Some saucy action away from SW London saw Colin tip a 33-1 runner up Bacchy get his 20/1 shot Highland Lodge at Aintree chinned by a canny ride by Tom Scudamore up his inside; and me back a spawny 6/1 winner at Chepstow (my solitary success all day). Bacchy expecting to land a cheeky treble at Navan only to find it had been abandoned, despite the bookies taking his bet.

The most controversial sublime moment was easily Special Tiara getting stopped in his tracks by Sire De Grugy in the finish to the Tingle Creek. The enquiry went on forever. There’s something wrong somewhere when the common consent at the track was that Special Tiara would have won the race but that the stewards would never reverse the decision. Colin noted the transformation of Darren during this moment, discarding his 'Happy Days' banter in favour of apoplectic rage when SDG kept the race. "Even if his jockey had've shot my fuckin' jockey, he still wouldn't have been fuckin’ disqualified! Fuckin’ fix!"  Un De Sceaux held on from a rejuvenated, heart-on-his-sleeve Sire De Grugy, with God’s Own fair screamimg up the rail and Ar Mad suddenly back in contention after looking well beaten. That’s the order in which they passed the post, but for the last couple of furlongs, the bellowing coming from our party betrayed the closeness and brilliance of the finish. Un De Sceaux made a howler at the last and for a moment Grugy had his noble head in front. UDS pulled out a little more to repel all comers. SDG held God’s Own for second by a neck. Proper racing. The best Grade 1 race I’ve seen all season.

Dark days at Sandown. By 3.45pm the lights were on and we groped our way to the station. By 4.15pm we had commandeered a corner of a cosy pub in Surbiton.

Colin pulled out after one a couple of pints and a half-hearted offering up of round of full blooded his belly for a raspberry blows. Gary exhorted him to stay, “Go on, just one. A half. A short. A coke. A bag of crisps?" Nick was next. The hipflask had been drained and he ran up the white flag by texting Den to come and pick him up. ‘s mate Jamie, new to the races, was swiftly initiated into this bewildering ceremony.

After a few more beers, there was an overwhelming need to find a curry house. Things fractured a bit at this point. I remember getting a train to Wimbledon and standing outside a shut down restaurant as if our very presence would spark it back into life. We were then turned away from another because it was full. The group splintered again and I then went home to slake my curry obsession with a take-away from emporium just down the road.

A whole new world of recycled blogging has just opened up. Given our predictable behaviour, I may well write next year’s Tingle Creek meeting right now.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Saturday formula

There is a certain formula that guarantees a successful winter Saturday’s racing.

The perfect day has to start with a bit of a lie in. Nothing ostentatious. I’ll stagger downstairs, rubbing gummy eyes in time to pay only partial attention to The Morning Line. An ailing, safe preview vehicle these days, I’ll mostly be distracted by making some fantasy football transfers (like dropping Leroy Fer today just before he bags a brace against Palace) or following an England sub-continental collapse, ball-by-ball, on Cricinfo (having finally ditched the Sky Sports package on the basis of outrageous price hikes).

I’ll walk the dog - unless it’s raining - because I know there’s little chance of me doing so in daylight hours once the racing has started.

On return, I’ll feel like I’ve earned a toasted bagel with marmite, or maybe an English muffin topped with runny fried eggs.  Dammit. Maybe both.

By the time the second coffee is washing down the late breakfast, I’ll be deep into my form tools of choice: At The Races and the Racing Post online. Maybe if I’m feeling indecisive. I’ll be looking for good betting races, not just the big TV races. I’ll goggle at the spread of action across three or four decent meetings and I know I’ll struggle to wrap a staking strategy around it all. What might start with discipline and focus will inevitably descend into lob and scatter as the day rolls on. But that’s OK, because it’s a winter Saturday. Indulge. That’s the point.

I might even stroll out to the bookies to catch some of the non-telly action. There’s always punt-per-view with all the online bookies, of course. But sometimes I’ll prefer to pass 15 minutes or so with the hard core Corals massive down the High Street. Since I was there for Dave’s £60-grand Lucky 15 plot, there’s always someone with whom to exchange opinions.

Then I’ll wander back for a couple of hours in the company of Lucky, Fitzy, Richie, Graham  and Jim.  By the time the last race completes in fading light, I’ll be left to the mercy of Final Score and some assorted rugby internationals. 

These are the characteristics of a perfect winter Saturday. It can’t happen like this in summer. There are too many competing social, sporting and meteorological drivers. And the racing isn’t so cosy, personal or embracing either. 

Truth is, it doesn’t really happen very much in winter. A bit like George Orwell’s essay on the perfect pub, it is often just out of reach. There’s always something else going on. So when the stars align, I like to take full value.

Of course there’s a crucial element missing from this winning formula. Winners. Everything else is just prep. Set up. Context.

I’ve been working on a winning formula, as it happens. It remains a work in progress though. I needed something to inspire me across the vast, mediocre reaches of the flat season. I’d even taken to looking at tipster websites. Some were worth a read because at least there was some substance to the selections. Others were simply scams of one sort or another. That way lays ruin. Following other people’s tips is not where my passion for racing comes from.

I dabbled with a loose system to identify winning handicappers that were returning to underfoot conditions on which they had significantly better form. I played about with other criteria, which in my embryonic system I deemed were secondary but relevant – distance and track wins. Keep it simple.

The system paid its way over the fag end of the flat season. But it hasn’t had a proper test. It’s lacking what you’d call a statistically significant sample:  20 bets, 4 wins, 1 place. Net profit +£67 to £68 stakes, ROI 98%.

I used it to help find the winner of the Portland and the Cesarewich. The returns look great at first sight, but are skewed by a Lucky 15 combi on 4 qualifiers on the same day. The profit level would have been a good bit lower without the acca element, though I haven’t worked out how much lower.

But it’s encouraging. There’s something to work on. Isolating one or two factors can never provide a perfect system. But as one of a number of tools, used selectively, it should have a value. There’s very little to compare in racing to backing a big priced winner of a massive handicap. If this approach can put up me on to a few of those every so often, I’ll be happy. 

I’ve been licking my lips at the prospect of applying my new box of tricks to the jumps season. Guess what. It’s not working. At least not very well. Not yet. I need to refine the criteria around number of races completed and win ratios. I’m not finding enough horses who qualify. It makes sense that underfoot conditions are less of a significant factor than on the flat when there are additional variables to consider: fences and hurdles present an obstacle my embryonic system can’t yet grapple.

Keep tweaking. That’s the mantra. If there’s a reasonable ROI to report, after a bit more fussing, I’ll start posting records on here. If not, this discussion will never be mentioned again and the search for the ideal Saturday formula will continue. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Home Front

Mrs A has been away visiting her sister in Tenerife again. It’s an oft repeated and enthusiastically enjoyed trip. She came back refreshed, relaxed and retanned having enjoyed some quality time with Auntie Sue and plenty of pleasant 28-degree November sunshine.

Each time she goes I write a post on here explaining that Mrs A calls the break a long weekend and I describe it as a short week. This time, even my barber agrees with me.

“Thursday morning to Tuesday night? That’s a week, mate. A week.” 

We have some great chats, me and Bardo. None of that bravura birds-and-football chat that Trump would call Locker Room Banter. Not at all. Bardo was soon showing me pictures on his phone of his a rabbit hutch that he had crafted with his own hands. Less of a hutch, more of a villa: three sheltered storeys and a large, enclosed run.

Bardo is quite a flashy name for a barber. He’s from Italian stock. His brother owns and also works in the shop. He’s called John, which is much more befitting. Odd that Bardo has such an exotic monicker. Maybe I’ve just misheard it and he’s really called Barry…

Whilst Mrs A was readying for departure on Thursday morning, I had bumped into J at Berko station. Our train’s arrival time began to slip ominously. It became apparent that overhead line damage just down the track would put at risk my meeting in Waterloo. J and I were eventually shunted to Platform 2 and squeezed on the first available train after a spate if cancelled ones. It was four carriages. Why does London Midland insist on four car units in the middle of the day? They are busy enough even before any incidents.

My furious texts to work colleagues declaring my lateness went unanswered. Then a response from the bloke who had called the meeting arrived. He was ill and still in bed. It was by then past the scheduled start time. Would he have mentioned his incapacitation without my prompting texts?

I left J to the rest of the journey and turned round at Watford. Another text pinged in. Mrs A this time.

“I thought I was flying from Luton but it’s Gatwick. And the trains are up the spout. Aaagghh.”

The following scrambled taxi and rail journeys got her to Gatwick with a little time to spare. Later, she texted again from Tenerife South.

“Arrived. Phew. Waiting to be picked up by Bootsie.”

“Did you tell him the right airport?” I quickly and wittily retorted.  No answer.

J is my allotment buddy. For 6 ½ years we’ve shared a plot off All Saints Road. We’ve finally given up on it this Autumn. The site has always been hard work with heavy clay soils and deep rooted thistles. The wildlife on this exposed spot has been a persistent challenge too. This season, even J, who is far more dedicated than me, said that enough was enough. This was after the fallow deer rampaged over the plots most of the Summer, eating everything edible and trampling the rest. We’ve had a succession of other incidents. Badgers ate my sweet corn, rabbits scoffed my cabbages, slugs polished off my lettuces and birds picked clean the currant bushes. There have been rumours of Gallapagoan racer snake attacks and Christmas Island-like red crab marches. I hear the final episode in Planet Earth II may be a special on our allotment.

By Friday night, pot noodles were earmarked as the dinner choice for Daughter No 2 and me. And pretty swiftly I was down to two clean mugs and one moderately clean pair of  ‘Where’s Wally’ boxers before anything got washed.

There was just me and daughter No 2 here all weekend. Not that I saw her much in between the job at Tesco’s and the boyfriend. She says I don’t write enough about her in these blogs. I’m flattered and moderately surprised that she reads them. The job at Tesco’s seems to be going well. There are a lot of hours to juggle with college, but she enjoys the wage packet. The company are not bad payers, despite other criticisms of them. She doesn’t even mind friends and family coming in to see her at work. Not even when Fay and Adrian waved at her maniacally through the window, dressed up in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses before our party. Everyone else in the store did a double-take, however.

Daughter No 2’s boyfriend is a good lad: plays lead guitar and wears classic metal t-shirts. We’ve met his Mum and Dad a few times. On the first meeting, we asked Tom what he wanted to drink.

“I’m Polish. I drink anything.”

We liked him immediately. On the second meeting he got me smashed up on ‘Polish tequila’ that by tradition had to be drunk in multiples of three shots. I think it was a vodka liqueur derivative. ‘If this is six’, I thought, ‘things will be messy’. It was 12.

I was back at Berko station on Saturday night. This time to watch the fireworks. Speaking to GC on the phone earlier in the day, in between my impatient shouts to the dog of “Wait!”, “Heel!”, “Come!” and “Oh, piss of then!”, he had suggested beers, fireworks and a chilli that night. Parts 1 and 3 of the plan went very well. There was a good few of us in the pub and it was only another round of beers making us late for the fireworks that prevented a successful part 2.  Instead, I make a quick trip up to platform 4 to access a nearby (free) vantage point. A couple next to me were doing the same thing. Or so I thought. When a London-bound train arrived, they got on and held the doors open for me.

“It’s OK, I’m only here for the show.”

Their looks betrayed nothing but contempt for a cheapskate.

Anyway, after a few more beers, we went back to Bex and GC’s place for a stonking (free) chilli.

Most of Saturday had been taken up with racing.  Uncharacteristically, I’ve been a slow starter this jumps season. The fixtures that afternoon featured some decent action from Aintree and Wincanton, plus the flat finale from Doncaster. Later that evening, after my night out, I watched the climax of Breeders Cup meeting from Santa Anita. An epic day with some thrilling races.

After a range of imponderable win, each-way and combination bets over a seven hour period, I finished £7.50 in profit. Daughter No 2 would scoff at that £1.07 hourly rate. Quite rightly. That was slave labour even when I was 16.

Racing has had a strange feel about it the last few days. Freddie Tylicki’s horrendous fall and paralysis, coupled with the death of Vautour who was one of the most talented horses and electrifying jumpers of recent years, has brought the gut-wrenching fragility of the sport to the surface.

But we go again. We will heal. Today is the start of the Open Meeting at Cheltenham, one of the crown jewels of the season. Sport is escapism and there’s plenty to be fleeing from right now. I wonder if Trump could outrun a racer snake?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The gift that keeps on giving

The last time I took a circuit around the increasingly well-furnished Green Park, I was clutching the remnants of a large doner, the after-party following a few beers in the Barley Mow, and weaving towards the tube station. The kebab was purchased from Flames Grill next to Victoria Coach station. Sadly, it is now merely rubble holding together the foundations of yet another corporate office makeover in the ever-redeveloping Victoria Street glasshouse canyon.

Still, the tree behind which I relieved myself was still there in the park. I was happy to point it out to Mrs A as we ambled towards a very different culinary experience. A table was awaiting us at Michelin-starred Galvin At The Athenaeum. This was a birthday treat from Mrs A. And some. Fine dining harvesting the best of British ingredients and served with classic style and a smidge of swagger. Was that starch-aproned waiter flirting with my wife?

Caramelised apple tart sticking to the inside of ones ribs slows the progress a little. We took an age to perambulate through Piccadilly before settling on the Blues Bar in Kingly Street for a drink. A late afternoon set of acoustic blues was just kicking out and we congratulated ourselves on a great find. As it turned out, we left just before my mate Bacchy stumbled into the self same establishment mid-shopping spree. London is such a small place for the hip crowd… Anyway, just as well he didn’t see me knocking back gin-and-tonics in there with all those lovely real ales on view. The heavy dessert had left its mark.

Hitting 50 has been a pleasurable experience so far. That day was the first of a steady flow of excellent celebrations. Dad and Bruv came down to take us for a birthday meal over the road at our rather fine pie emporium, erstwhile of Covent Garden. We’d taken a turn around Marsworth Reservoir earlier and fancied that we’d earned some of their deep-filled crusty goodness. Especially after the dog spun into a buzzed-up roll around the embankment and was a hair’s-breadth from pitching over the side into a sheer 10-foot drop. I don’t remember having this much heart-stop with the kids when they were 2½!

My local Corals was the scene of some wild celebrating soon after. Though this was nothing to do with my anniversary. I had snuck in to have a quiet bet between deadlines (the rarefied joys of working at home) and found an unexpectedly animated scene. A regular punter, Dave, with whom I’ve had common exchanges about lucky winners and unlucky losers, was having a good day. Storm Rock, the 3rd leg of his each way Lucky 15, had just crossed the line in front at Salisbury. He was hugging the cashier, having by then locked in a four-figure profit. The last leg was the 4.10 at Nottingham. The same race I’d come to watch, and I quickly realised we were also on the same horse, Tomahawk Kid. I shrugged and offered him a muttered apology about surely having brought him the kiss of death.

It was unnecessary. The Kid bounded clear from the two-furlong pole and his rivals did not sight him again. Dave was leaping around wild eyed and breathless, mobile hanging off his ear. All his birthdays and Christmasses together. I and every other punter in the bookies (that’s the chain-smoking chef from the Szechuan take-away, the silver haired retired plumber and the toothless free paper deliverer) were slapping him on the back. Liam, the shop manager was furiously calculating the winnings. After adding in the bonus, he declared,

 “North of sixty grand at least, my lovely pal!”

“Sixty big! Sixty big!” shouted Dave down the phone.

I sheepishly presented my own winning slip courtesy of Tomahawk Kid, collected £30 and sloped off.

The winnings were partly invested in a bowtie. I had decided to have a bit of do to formally mark the arrival of my half century. ‘Black tie’ we said on the invitation. ’Let’s pretend we are classy, if only for one night’. So now Mrs A said I couldn’t wear an elasticated bowtie. It had to be the real thing. But I failed to leave the requisite hour before our event to affix the wretched thing properly.  We arrived at the venue and I had to enlist the help of four people and three different You Tube clips that even then only resulted in a scraggy, limp, lopsided effort.

Bad bowtie day
“Bow tie? Dinner jacket? Tennis Club? Jazz band?” accused my oldest mate from Yorkshire, shaking his head.

“I still vote labour!” I pleaded and pointed across the sea of penguin suits to another mate at the bar. “Me and him. We are the blokes who vote labour in this town. Every time!”

The jazz trio were genuine class. It would have been easy to find a decent rock and metal covers band. I really fancied something different though. Nell & the Hot Mess Muggers were certainly that. Stylish hot club, chanson Francais and gypsy swing. It was as if Django Rheinhardt was in the building. I thought the band caught the mood perfectly and there were even spontaneous outbreaks of actual dancing. Briefly.

Sadly, we reverted to type back at the house. By the time the stragglers had come back (bolstered by a few more off the last train from London), the night was filled with lusty, ill-advised Meatloaf singalongs into the early hours. Oh well. The spell could never last. Beyond The Sea and Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? will have to wait for next time. The whole evening was an absolute joy.

Birthday events have continued to roll on. I am a lucky boy. Last week, Mrs A and I went to The Book of Mormon, gifted by a good mate.  A brilliant, irreverent, edgy, funny, slick, camp, unexpected cult musical mash up. Soon we are being treated by some more great pals to dinner in probably the finest country hostelry in these parts. Then there is a beer tasting event in south London to cash in, courtesy of the inlaws. And further ahead, we have a wonderful evening at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club to enjoy; and then a guided walk through Mount Teide's secluded passes next time we visit Auntie Sue. Being 50 is a blast so far. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Finally, by the time May hovers in to view, I will be going to see Iron Maiden with a mate who, together with others, bought me a ticket for one of the band’s Book of Lost Souls dates. I first witnessed these legends in 1987 on the Somewhere On Tour roadtrip. It was a close call though. The Hammy Odeon voucher had to be retrieved from the log flume at Alton Towers after the violent final descent (am I overdoing the drama?) jerked my wallet out of my jacket into the splash pool.  

Thirty years later, I’ll be back. Old rockers never die, they just wear posh suits occasionally and pretend to like jazz.

Friday, 30 September 2016

She's leaving home

Our collection of cavernous IKEA bags, long-time unregarded occupants of the shoe cupboard, finally came into their own last week. Temporarily packed with bewildering items from Daughter No 1’s old and new existence, they played a key role in the home-uni transit arrangements.

We relayed the bags and holdhalls to the car, crow-barring them into the boot and seat wells. Jackie over the road said that they had to deploy their trailer, more often used for scout camps, when they took their daughter and kit to uni. 

Last to arrive down from the bedroom was a family-size rucksack last used on her Reading Festival adventure. “That one is mostly shoes”, remarked the Imelda Markos clone, with a casual wave of the hand, ignoring her newly made crater in the dining room floor.

I left for college with nothing but a toothbrush and a packet of condoms. I never used either! (Boom Boom!) Ok not true, but I certainly didn't have a clothes airer wedged over the back seat head-rests. “Can't you just hang stuff out the windows?” I pleaded.

Once again, I'm out of touch with the modern ways. We lost count of cars on the M3 with duvets, pillows and M&S bags crushed up against the rear windows of assorted 4x4s. Moving day. In all senses.

My mate told me about a piece in the Torygraph the other day in which a Dad was taking his daughter to uni. At one point she looked at her father and said 'You did alright you know'. He inflated with chest-swelling emotion and declared the moment to be worth more to him than any of her qualifications.

Anyway, there was none of that on our journey. As if to eek out a reaction, I casually asked what she would miss about Berko. "Maybe the cheap double gin and tonics in the Crown" she said.

I am reminded of a very different car journey almost exactly 19 years ago: 

So very calmly and orderly, we call a cab. I didn’t think it would be like this. Mrs A was not long back from the hospital after a scan on our baby who is due today. She had turned breech and within an hour or so the waters went.

Our Star Car minicab arrives quickly.  The driver, who is wearing a dubious leathery pork pie hat, helps us into the car.  He’s very chatty.  We tell him we want to go to the Delivery Suite at St George’s.  He looks at us for a couple of seconds and then asks us if it’s for real as we seem very calm.  I think he’s expecting screams of agony and panic. 

“‘No”, we say very matter of factly, “This isn’t a practice!”

Little does he know that Mrs A’s waters are gushing all over his back seat!  He’ll know it’s for real when the next passenger gets in.

Things then get a bit surreal. 

“I’m hoping for some good news myself in the next few weeks”.

“Oh yeah, what’s that?” I say brightly. I bet he’s going to be a Grandad. 

“Yeah, I’m hoping to have my vasectomy reversed!”

Where did that come from!  There’s a pause while I swallow back the laughter.  If Mrs A tries any harder to stop giggling she’ll give birth right there.  What do you say?  He must be in his late fifties. 

“Oh really?” I tamely offer. 

He’s off now. 

“Yeah, I had it done twenty-odd years ago after I’d had a few (unspecified) kids.  The doctors reckon I’ve got a 60-70% chance of a successful reversal, but I reckon it’s better than that.”  (How the hell does he know?) 

So I get into the feel of things as well. Mrs A and I chip in with the odd question here and there as he proceeds to describe in reasonably graphic detail what the operation might involve.  Ever made small talk about vasectomies?  It’s quite a challenge.  I have to pinch myself to remind me where we are going.

The journey passes in a flash. We get out of the car and everybody wishes everybody else good luck.  It’s lovely. 

We are checked into the Delivery Suite very efficiently.  We’ve got a nice room with a colour telly and Casualty is on.  Someone has just given birth in Josh’s ambulance – it took about 10 minutes.  We’ll have one of those please, where do we order?

Another 12 hours and an emergency cesarean pass before our own bundle of joy arrives.

This journey ends in Southampton at the halls of residence. We are greeted by a very efficient Arrivals Team (it says so on their t-shirts) who locate her room in the cluster flat, provide a guided tour/dos and don’ts briefing and then work out that the door pass key doesn’t work. They also assist with lugging the hundredweights of gear up to the first floor bedroom. Things have changed.

The flat was pretty good actually. Better than many we saw last Summer, touring round university campuses prior to engaging with the grinding UCAS process.

Some of the IKEA bags are coming back with us, so we spend a good hour or so unpacking. This helpfully illuminates the nature of the priceless cargo we have hauled down the road.

“Swimming goggles? You haven’t worn these for five years!”


“I thought I might take up swimming again.”

“Feather boa?”

Swiftly taken from my grasp and draped around the window.

“Reminds me of my 18th

“Spotty bandana? Fake pirate’s hook?”

More giggles.

“Fancy dress parties, Dad!”

Later, we go for some grub on Oxford Street, not far from the campus. The road is pedestrianised and lined with representatives of pretty much every bar-restaurant chain I could name.

“You’ll be alright here”.

We settled on Prezzo and their spicy meatball pasta. I did anyway. Daughter No 1 has decided to begin her university education as a vegetarian. She has a bowlful of green leaves and brown seeds to sustain her. It looked lovely.

“Yes, but it’s really quiet.”

It was.

“Berko is busier!”

She has been desperate to escape what she regards as the fatally flawed small-town syndrome of our Tory- , Brexit-voting middle-class settlement for years. (Put like that, I think I’m on my way out too!) The dread of confronting something similar after moving away passed a shadow across her face. Only briefly. This was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, I reassured her, before most of the students had even returned from Summer holiday.

We met some of her new flat mates. They seemed fine. I knew that meeting them and deciding that the group harboured no obvious axe murderers would help me leave her behind with (a little) less anxiety.

We had to push her out the door when a few arrived in the flat together.

“Go make friends. Do your thing!”

She took a deep breath and strode towards them. Within a few moments, she’d arranged to go to clubbing that night. Bit hasty I thought. Won’t she want to stay in and cry for hours once we’ve departed?

The moment came to go. There was a gurgle as I hugged her. Less an emotional reaction, more a cry of pain as I crushed a number of her more important vertebrae. Mrs A was more gentle. I suspected that Daughter No 1 had actually spent longer saying goodbye to the dog that morning.  

There was no Toy Story 3 lump in the throat moment of passing on her bears and dolls to the next generation. They remain wedged in the top shelf of her wardrobe. (I think I saw another feather boa up there as well. What's going on?) 

Aside from that, the newly stark and echoey bedroom at the top of the house now seems breath-takingly empty.

She’s gone!

(And hasn't stopped clubbing since. Bloody students.)