How did it get so late so soon? In a year packed with anniversaries and landmarks, it seems every other week fizzes across my bows a little moment to mark the relentless passing of time and the march of maturity amongst my nearest and dearest.
Daughter No 1, not so long past her 18th, likes to go clubbing in Laaarndon these days. Her current friendship group (I’m so yesterday with my stuffy term ‘mates’) found an ultra hip shabby-chic club in Dalston recently, in which to celebrate another of their number’s coming of age. Pinch myself. Wasn’t it only last year or so that her gaggle of Year 4 chums were smashing up a pizza-making party? When Dad’s dancing around the tables to Macarena (ah-yee) was amusing rather than embarrassing?
They hit the East End til the early hours, soaking up the club’s Bowie tribute night. I heard her coming home at the crack of 3.30am on the Sunday morning. Chatting next morning, she'd obviously had a great time. Her appreciation of 80s and 90s music is, at least, deeply reassuring.
On the downside, she'd lost her phone. Somewhere in the bowels of the club, she thought. More reassurance: after an e-mail exchange (that wasn't resolved until the Monday morning), the club found the device! I was in town that day and was charged with the task of retrieving it by 3pm, after which the club would be empty and locked up again.
Many formerly run down and neglected parts of Hackney and environs have been physically regenerated in the last decade, seeing growth in house prices, trendy cafes and boutique businesses. Think Hoxton, Shoreditch, City Road. Dalston is resolutely not one of them. Improved infrastructure is often the catalyst and whilst the Overground service at Dalston Kingsland is better co-ordinated with the rest of the network than it used to be, the real benefits have been felt a little further south with a shiny new station and grand redevelopment projects at Dalston Junction.
Kingsland High Street and the lower reaches of Stoke Newington Road remain lively but grubby, earthy but intimidating, real but rundown. I've worked in this area on and off over the last five years and thought I knew it reasonably well. Now that I was actively looking for a specific club on a grisly Monday afternoon, I was surprised how many there were. Even though most fronted right on to the busy road, they were practically invisible to the casual observer. Nondescript doors wearing their monickers furtively, and wedged discreetly between Poundlands, discount shoe stores or chicken shacks. Basement bars and clubs run on a shoe string.
I eventually found Daughter No 1’s club, intriguingly titled Vogue Fabrics, doing a great impression of a down-at-heel tailoring outlet, with framed photos of fashionista models in the window. Only the door, set a little way down the side alley, gave a clue that this was not a shop. It was a large, solid grey steel affair with no windows or identifying marks at all. Neither was there a bell, buzzer or knocker. I rapped on the door unconvincingly and then stood back to fix the camera above my head with a steely gaze.
|Vogue Fabrics: An unassuming little venue|
I was not optimistic. In only seconds though, the door swung open and I was invited in to the murky corridor by a friendly woman with shaved head and multiple piercings. I dodged the parked bike and scurried into the office. It was more like someone's front room, but strewn with speakers, broken mixing desks, random bits of furniture and piles of spangly drag-act dresses. The club owner sat a small table overloaded with computer screens, post-its and mugs of cold coffee.
She beamed broadly and handed me the phone. I had been ready to identify myself as the father of the owner by describing its battered front screen and glittery, multi-coloured elephant on the case. But it was not necessary. The three of us engaged in polite chatter, even though I was clearly out of my comfort zone with these business savvy, wise-beyond-their-years kids. I felt very old. I almost thought about telling them my stage diving story at the Marquee but thought better of such obvious credibility-grasping embarrassment.
I thanked them profusely and left. Daughter No1 was delighted to have her phone back. She stopped short of the 'like losing a limb' analogy though, saying she had missed it less than she thought.
Not long after, I had that strange Father-Daughter experience of bumping into my offspring in the pub. Out with the Berko Dads, I thought I had spotted a couple of her friends lurching out of the ladies. I committed the cardinal Embarrassing Dad sin (I was born to it. Honestly, if there was ever a job description with my name on it…) and ambled over to their corner. Lucy jumped up.
“Oh, Hello Lizzie’s Dad. Erm. It’s alright. You don’t need to worry!”
“Hi Lucy. Eh? I wasn’t. Should I be?”
“No it’s alright, really... Lizzie’s lost her purse. But it’s alright! She’s just gone to collect it from The Boat!
With that, another of her mates jumped up.
“Hi. Are you Lizzie’s dad? He proffered a hand. I’m Andrew. Great to meet you. Great.”
Andrew collapsed back on the sofa with an alcoholic grin decorating his chops. Daughter No 1 walked in just then. Clutching her purse like a trophy.
“Oh hello she said nervously.”
I made my excuses and rejoined the Dads. There was clearly no chance of me getting a pint out of that lot.
Bumping into junior family members in boozers became a bit of a hazard after that. On you own manor, maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising. But when it happened in Hammersmith, it seemed like a staggering coincidence.
I was out with Steve for a few looseners before catching Richard Hawley at the Hammersmith Apollo. We were tucked up by the fire in the comfy chairs of The Dove. Pretty spot, overlooking the river. Popular with rowing types.
Anyway, well in to the second pint, my eldest niece walks through the door, with a chap on her arm doing a decent impression of a hipster (skinny tall bloke, hirsute fizzog, jeans half way down his arse).
I’m not sure who was the most surprised. There followed a few minutes of difficult conversation.
“Hello Fiona…erm, of all the places, eh?…”
I hadn’t been in that pub for 20 years. This was her first ever visit, it transpired.
“This is my Uncle Dave”, she said to her bewildered companion.”
“This is Steve”, I said to my bewildered niece. Steve on the other hand, was far from bewildered and was lapping up the incongruity.
“Can I get you a drink? I offered.
“Well actually, we’re on our first date!”
“Oh, OK. Well. I’ll let you go then!”
I was vaguely aware that the way Steve and I were cosseted up by the fire we gave a similar impression.
“We’re off to a gig! Richard Hawley. No you won’t have heard of him. Don’t know why I even said that. Haha….”
We returned to our pints and chuckled. Far from squirreling themselves away in the corner, however, Fiona and her date had managed to find a table right outside the Gents toilet. So there was further badinage every time nature called.
Steve came back and said he didn’t give hirsuit hipster chappy any chance at all.
“All he’s brought her is a pot of olives!”
It was true. They were sharing a pot of giant pitted halkidiki olives in a pub serving Egon Ronay acclaimed food. He surely couldn’t last long with my diva-aspirant niece who lives by business class travel and Jimmy Choo footwear...
How we laughed next time Niece No 1 and I met up. That subsequent meeting, at least, was a planned one this time. The family had collected at Viva Club, Blackpool for Auntie Sue’s big 50th bash.
Fiona said that the olives thing was just a private joke, honestly, and it was quite a sweet gesture, really. …Only she probably wouldn’t be seeing him again.
I proposed an arrangement whereby she could let me know dates and venues for her next few first dates so that I might fulfill my Uncle-y responsibilities. Duty of care and all that. I suggested that Steve might be available (on fixed day-rate) too. Fiona declined. Charming.
Sue’s birthday was a scream, even if it was further landmark evidence of the world moving on apace. Fifty? So how come she looks thirty? And acts fifteen?
Sue’s great friend Leye owns the Viva Club in Blackpool and had arranged for the birthday party gang to have ringside seats for an evening of Las Vegas-style goodtime showbiz. Pukka variety cabaret given a 21st century twist of sass and cheek. Leye hosted a revolving cast of singers and showgirls, whilst delivering his camp comedy and set piece songs that involved at least a dozen costume changes. No-one works harder in the business and the capacity crowd lapped it up.
I was interested in my girls’ reaction who, exposed to too much tosh like Hannah Montana and Justin Bieber when they were growing up, had been deprived of gems like Seaside Special and, er, The Des O’Connor Show. They had never seen anything quite like this. There was a few minutes of confusion and awkwardness until they got the point of the quality performances, but with the comedy and the air of self-deprecation woven through it as well. Daughter No 2 loved the dancers, the glamour and style, and then leaned over at one point to inform me that “That girl has an AMAZING voice”. This was Jenny Ball and when she later belted out a faultless blues standard, Daughter No 1 said ‘Oh, this is by Etta James. I love this!” When, in all her 18 long years, did she discover Etta James without telling me?
Leye and Sue kept rolling up the treats. At the interval, salvers piled high with sweet and savoury gorgeousness arrived. The tables groaned with duck and orange liver pate, black pudding and Cumberland sausage wrapped in bacon, chicken and crispy pancetta, salt and pepper calamari, king prawn skewers… you’d never guess Sue was a vegetarian.
Leye kicked off the second half of the show with touching and personal birthday wishes for Sue. There was chance to catch up with him properly after the show late into the night. Luckily there was also lots of chance for outrageous Dad-dancing (‘madness, madness, they call madness….); oh and thankfully just time to squeeze in a quick rendition of Fields of Athenry too with Chris on lead vocal.
Chris has seamlessly stepped into his Mother’s shoes, possibly without knowing it, where matters of blather are concerned. Chris had been in the front seat of the taxi down to the venue at the start of the night. I’ve never heard a taxi driver out-bantered before. But it happened then.
“Yeah, Blackpool’s alright isn’t it? I’ve been here on a few jobs. There’s a good pub just down there, they used to show the Chelsea games. Just down there. Oh it’s gone…. Harharhar. Blimey. ” The driver never had a chance.
As we pulled on to the front, Chris was still entertaining him. “That tower’s alright isn’t it? Sorta special. Sorta unique-like. Well apart for the original of course! Harharhar!” He gave the taxi driver a thump on the arm. The driver looked round at us, his slack, redundant jaw flapping like the tower flags in the force 10 gale. Talked into submission by a knockout. Christine would be proud.
The finish to the night was suitably late, back at Nick and Paul’s. With a generosity bordering on lunacy they had offered to put up most of Sue’s entourage for the night. In a scene reminiscent of Glastonbury, there were bodies everywhere. I fell into a slumber against the backdrop of doors opening and closing as merrymakers (including my two daughters) tried to find where they had left their sleeping bags, toilet bags and handbags. Daughter No 1 woke up to find Auntie Sharon snoring away in their double bed when she swore blind it was a cousin Robyn when she went to sleep.
Next morning, in something resembling a steroid-induced mash up of Saturday Kitchen meets meaty Bake Off, Nick and his glamorous assistant Glenys provided a never-ending stream of fried breakfasts in a double sitting of guests hanging out in the conservatory, kitchen and dining room. We had barely washed down that lot with the first birthday drinks of the day when out came the beef pies, hot pots and cheese flans, all sourced from the farm shop round the corner. How good can it get? Marvellous stuff.
The pukka food theme ran on into another birthday treat a few weeks later. For Mrs A’s birthday we had a family outing to The Ting Restaurant in Shangri La on Floor 42 of The Shard. I know it sounds like a land you’d find parked at the top of the Faraway Tree. But it was a really grown up experience, honestly. Tablecloths and everything. Canapés, cocktails and epic views to accompany a spread of Asian fusion and British classics. An odd but satisfying mix…
Daughter No 2 went for a pee and on return, declared the loos to be the finest she had encountered ‘anywhere, ever’. The Gents were pretty impressive too. The traps had heated toilet seats and three types of phone charger. I wrestled with the guilty knowledge that 2/3rds of the World’s population cannot access clean water as I dried my hands on one of the individually folded, freshly laundered Egyptian cotton hand towels. I abated my self-flagellation by reminding myself that this extravagant restaurant gig was paid for entirely by Stan James who had accepted my lumpy bet about Gold Cup winner Don Cossack at 9/2 the previous month. In the complex order of global balance sheets, this surely represents some kind of moral justice.
|Pee with a view|
Then there was a wedding anniversary. Another cheek-pinching landmark. For twenty fine years Mrs A and I have been in happy legal union. A noteworthy achievement celebrated with yet more quality fare. This time at Porters in Berko where Tuesday is steak night. A large lump of medium-rare cow, bowl of chips, side salad each and bottle of plonk to share, all-in for thirty notes. You can’t get better value than that anywhere this side of the Supreme Hurdle ante-post market. No matter what the occasion, you can take the boy out of Yorkshire but you can never take… yada-yada-yada.
And finally, Christmas came late this year for Dad and Bruv. Our pressie to them was, in the spirit of the very best of gifts, also one to us. We all headed up to Towcester in a six-seater charabanc for a night at the dogs.
Towcester racecourse has flown in the face of popular trends with its spick new greyhound circuit at a time when tracks are regularly closing up and down the country. This Northamptonshire venue is not averse to swimming against the tide though. Its racing programme was given a new lease of life in the early part of the new Millennium by offering a ground-breaking year-round free admission policy to all bar the bank holiday fixtures. Those prime fixtures were subsequently sold off to part-fund the construction of the floodlit oval upon which we now gazed from the first floor Empress Suite restaurant. Yes, more decadent eating and drinking in the name of family bonding.
Given the venue’s idiosyncratic track record (ouch), it came as no real surprise that Towcester appeared to have made a success of greyhound racing too. There were more punters on the terracing outside than I expected and the restaurant was almost booked out. The boxes upstairs were also doing a healthy trade, judging by the lairy stag party above us dressed to a man in red foxhunters garb and dangling a rather cheery blow-up woman over their balcony. This whiff of laddish behaviour was the exception rather than the rule and the atmosphere was good natured and fun all night.
Except in my corner of the table, where I backed 12 straight losers from 11 races. Pretty impressive, eh? Dad and Bruv both picked out some victors, as did Mrs A, but the girls showed us how to do it. Seven winners between them. Mrs A looked over at their studious faces searching the racecard and said, “At least they know how to fill out a betting slip properly. No one can say we didn’t bring ‘em up right!”
OK. I think that is the end of this cathartic narrative of mid-life crisis inducing anniversaries and wake up calls. At least for now. However, my own half century looms ever closer, just in case I thought middle age dread had been and gone.