1 A New Kind of Hero
2 Arsene Wenger
3 First Cruise
4 Singpore to Dubai with my Mother in Law
5 Proud to Remain British
6 Caz Williams or 'Gere' to Neil Mackenzie fans
Literature Needs a New Kind of Hero: Take a Bow Neil Mackenzie
Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Philip Marlowe: not many would deny that these were great heroic characters of their time. Some of us grew up aspiring to be a little like them in some way or, at the very least, enjoyed immersing ourselves in the worlds imagined by their creators.
Recently, however, literary heroes have gone a little out of fashion, and the types that achieve world-wide renown in print or in the movies such as Reacher, Bourne and James T Kirk et al are, at least to me, not particularly attractive. To varying degrees, some are even in danger of becoming parodies of the genre. Unless your mental age is stuck in adolescence, these men are at best one-dimensional and at worst ridiculously unbelievable. Killing the bad guys after negotiating any number of impossible life and death situations isn’t the sort of reading or viewing that an educated person of the twenty-first century should find compelling or admirable. I’m not saying that they don’t generate lots of money but they’ll never enjoy the immortality or literary merit of their predecessors.
And that highlights the problem – that the action hero is now stuck in the realm of commercial fiction and not considered literary enough for the agents, critics and, ultimately, publishers that shape the tastes of the reading public. In their collective view, judging by the novels that reach publication, to qualify as a hero in serious fiction nowadays he or she must have character flaws and idiosyncrasies that render most of them unlikeable and some barely redeemable as human beings. Realism: exploring the human condition or whatever way you want to describe it, is a precondition for most serious crime or thriller fiction these days. As the story unfolds, its progress at every turn is often accompanied by a turgid running commentary of the inner thoughts of the writer or the annoying bastards most of these books are inhabited by.
So, the other day, I asked myself a question - what is a hero? When I thought about it I realised, like a lot of stuff, that it’s not as straightforward as I first thought. In fact, I rapidly concluded that literary heroes are a dying breed – that they’ve mostly been replaced by those best described as leading characters. It seems heroes have gone out of fashion in serious fiction.
Of course, if you listen to a lot of people talking about the books they read, they seem unaware of this development - another example of the sloppy thinking that characterises most of our views about everything these days. The issue has been clouded so that, for example, even a literary detective with a healthy disregard for authority is usually branded a hero when he’s just a person with a healthy disregard for incompetent management. Granted, being suspicious of authority is probably a prerequisite of being a hero but, if it were the only one, most of the country’s teenagers would also qualify for heroic status.
I’ll come clean – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that I would describe as heroic or ever witnessed a heroic act. There are rare examples in public life – Nelson Mandela springs to mind – but even fewer closer to home. The nearest I’ve come to personally observing heroism was witnessing the last days of a friend who was dying of cancer but that’s it - and even that could be considered small beer when compared, for example, to a soldier risking his own life to save that of a comrade on the battlefield.
I think the reason I’ve drawn a blank is to do with the currency of heroism – bravery – acting despite the likelihood of incurring physical harm or losing something cherished. You need to be brave to be considered a hero and at first glance there are very few opportunities at work or in any other part of everyday life these days - the backdrop of most literary fiction - to show courage. Don’t get me wrong – stuff like faithfully doing what it takes to pay the mortgage and being a good parent require grit and determination but they’re different things. No, being brave involves jeopardy, perhaps the risk of losing your reputation, your career or even your life. At the very least it means making a stand for what’s right when doing so is going to make your life uncomfortable.
My thesis in a nutshell is that there is still a place for heroes. Not revamped versions of impossible Bond types or their miserable, complex successors, but men like Neil Mackenzie: men you could almost be; whose lives you understand and who exist in a world you live in yourself.
When I thought about Neil, the two big questions that exercised my mind were how to construct a heroic character a reader could like and want to spend time with. There was also the question of the methodology I would use to give the reader access to him. I’m not going to lie, the latter quandary was easy to resolve: I wanted to try and emulate the style of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe stories. To adapt his first-person commentary to an early twenty-first century Englishman so that the reader gets first-hand the thoughts and motivations of the hero. Chandler’s stories are all about Marlowe and his impressions: the story-lines are, by and large, unsatisfying, but I felt there was enough potential excitement in Neil’s life for me to have the best of both worlds. Obviously, I’m not claiming that my writing possesses the singular virtuosity that permeates Chandler’s prose but, like Neil, I was ready to have a go.
As to Neil’s character, my priority was to make him, in one sense at least, an ordinary man, and for his exploits to evolve out of that ordinariness. Clearly, completely average men don’t have adventures so, viewed from another angle, Neil must have an extraordinary personality. What I didn’t want him to be was like other examples of the genre who are either borderline dysfunctional or scarred by relationships, incidents or mental disorders from their pasts. Some writers try too hard to add these layers of interest to their central character but this is, in my view, contrived and clichéd. Do we really need another hero with a messy divorce or a tricky relationship with an offspring in his back-story? No, Neil is divorced but acknowledges that he screwed up: he has two girls but gets on well with them. He’s level-headed, tolerant, educated and, like all decent teachers, self-critical. He’s suspicious of authority, wealth and posh people and loathes the pretentious, the crass and the stupid.
Like Marlowe, Neil is dry, sharp, witty. Unlike Marlowe, however, Neil is optimistic and hasn’t given up on the world. He’s grown up - he knows life is fragile and often cruel but at the same time rewarding and not without meaning. He’s also aware that without the pain-killer of humour our existences would be almost meaningless and certainly dull. Reading a Neil Mackenzie story is, I hope, exciting and amusing. Sometime there are serious themes but you have to spot them for yourself while you’re being distracted by the one-liners or the sex or the punch-ups.
I’m not going to lie; my template was me so that I could ground Neil in a reality that I understood and of which I had experience. So, at first at least, he’s a maths teacher from Kent, he plays badminton, goes to the gym, is allergic to bullshit and understands that most people are a disappointment. I’m also a PhD and I made Neil one because at heart I wanted him to be an independent thinker, guided by academic rigour, rather than an intellectual sheep.
Like almost every other hero, Neil must be single. A married couch-potato is the type of man who reads about Neil rather than ever being him. There are a lot of women in The Big Trilogy with whom Neil interacts. It’s obvious he likes women and they generally like him (there is one advantage of being the writer). A hero must be like this – if he weren’t appealing to women, intelligent women, he wouldn’t be appealing to anyone. Neil’s attitude to women, however, is complex. Like Mulder in the X Files he occasionally wants to believe – not in extra-terrestrials but in romance. In the final analysis, however, he’s grown up enough to know that men and women are ill-suited to pedestals.
Sex is different; straightforward and exciting. If he likes a woman, married or not, and she likes him then he won’t think twice. Neil, I think, is aware of the moral ambiguity in his sexual behaviour but has come to a decision about consensual sex that he is comfortable with: there are bigger moral dilemmas in life than those involving sex.
When it comes down to it, like most heroes, Neil is a closet rebel: he just needs the circumstances of the books to bring it out of him. Although he’d probably deny it, he’s attracted by long odds which perhaps explains his occasional impetuosity. Not that everyone has a hero hiding inside them – but Neil has and his insubordinate bloody-mindedness in everyday life hints at its lurking presence.
Heroes aren’t perfect, and neither is Neil Mackenzie. But he’s real, believable and, most of all, normal. And brave – when your boss is after you at work or you’re being mugged in the street he’ll be the one who steps in to help.
Arséne Wenger: A Tribute
More out of habit than anything else, I always record The Graham Norton Show every week. Usually I don’t even bother to watch it but the appearance of Thierry Henry on the guest list a few years back persuaded me, for a change, to give it a go. Not with much hope of anything more than passing interest – Thierry in common with most great sportsmen is articulate on the pitch but rather less riveting off it. Graham Norton, however, is an interviewer of extraordinary wit and skill, and usually manages to imbue the most reluctant of Hollywood superstars or dull B-listers with a temporary appeal.
So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, in the space of ten minutes, he extracted more from the ex-Gunner than all of the Sky Sports front men and others had in the previous ten years. The most interesting question came after Henry’s well rehearsed lament about his continuing love for Arsenal. Quite reasonably Graham responded by asking the obvious question.
‘So why did you leave to play for Barcelona if you loved Arsenal so much?’
Gotcha! Thierry looked at Graham with one of his amused wry smiles but it didn’t quite disguise his surprise at the audacity of his host’s observation. Dozens of sporting journalists must have had the opportunity to pose him a similar question, while here was a charming gay man with probably only a passing interest in football, grabbing the bull by the horns. I’ve noticed that this is often the way – it takes someone from outside a situation to see the wood from the trees. Sporting television journalists can’t afford to upset the people they report on: they are reluctant to or incapable of rocking the boat in which they too are passengers. Graham simply didn’t have to worry if Thierry refused to ever talk to him again – the supply of celebrities wishing to appear on his show must be infinite.
Thierry, then, had to admit that he didn’t think Arsenal were going to be competitive enough to give him the chance at winning the trophies he craved and he decided to go. An understandable reason and one most Arsenal fans would not have a problem with. After all, Henry was responsible for dozens of golden memories for the club’s followers so it would be churlish to deny him the chance to end his career elsewhere.
As Thierry explained his reasons, however, I found myself comparing his behaviour with that of Arséne Wenger, Arsenal’s manager since 1996 and Henry’s mentor. Similar temptations have been present in Wenger’s life since before 2007 when Henry left Arsenal but there has never been the slightest suggestion that the senior Frenchman would desert the club. Granted, a footballer’s window of opportunity for success is considerably smaller than a manager’s but for Wenger the promise of unlimited funds at richer clubs must have been tempting. It appears, however, that he put building a lasting legacy for Arsenal before immediate sporting gratification.
A surprising number of Arsenal fans don’t seem to get it that without Wenger their club would probably not now be counted amongst Europe’s elite. It certainly wasn’t back in the mid nineties when only Manchester United and Liverpool could be regarded as the true heavyweights of the English game. Since then, except for the influence of three men – Wenger, Mansur and Abramovich - this position would no doubt have been exacerbated as it has in Spain, for example, with Real and Barcelona. While the almost limitless wealth of their owners has bankrolled the growth of Manchester City and Chelsea, Wenger’s genius as a coach has bought Arsenal the time it needed to establish the stadium and infrastructure that are the modern prerequisites to success.
And now, in 2016, it appears that Wenger knew all along what he was doing. Suddenly, with the Emirates stadium completed and within the context of financial fair play, Arsenal have the financial firepower and allure with which very few other clubs in England or Europe can compete. In short, the writing is on the wall for Liverpool and Chelsea in the medium term. Their stadia simply aren’t big or modern enough so all of them will need their own Wenger to sustain them while they adapt. They will find that men like him are hard to find.
The nine trophy-less years were difficult for Arsenal fans, myself included, but it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture in the aftermath of one painful defeat (after another). One has to be careful not take the beautiful football associated with Wenger’s teams for granted or to forget his role as the main catalyst for the modernisation of professional football in England. Wenger has undoubtedly made mistakes because, like the rest of us, he is only human and none of us can be right all of the time. His legacy to Arsenal will, nonetheless, be profound.
Maintaining Arsenal’s uninterrupted Champions League qualification has been vital for sustaining Arsenal’s profile in Europe and exemplifies Wenger’s skill as a coach and manager. It also nullifies the constant criticism by professional pundits, for whom a lack of trophies is a mark of failure, even if we ignore several near misses and the unparalleled consistency the achievement represents. In my view, the failure of the game’s commentators to credit Wenger for the transformation of Arsenal from English also-rans to one of the top clubs in Europe is a gross oversight. It also contrasts their tenuous grasp of modern football with the Arsenal manager’s forensic appreciation of what really matters.
In May Arsenal and Wenger won the FA Cup for the second consecutive season having already qualified for the Champions League group stage for an unprecedented 18th consecutive time. Finally Arsenal can compete financially with anyone so that players of the calibre of Alexis Sanchez are now willing to come to Arsenal and there seems little chance of other clubs being able to wrest players such as Henry away in the future. I may be proved wrong but it seems Arséne was right all along.
We left Hamstreet and a disgruntled Murphy (the cat) at about 10.15. Never taken so much luggage on holiday – two large suitcases, a small one, a soft sports bag and a shoulder bag with the passports and my laptop inside. We arrived outside Southampton with plenty of time to spare as I was paranoid about a motorway pile-up blocking our way to the boat, sorry ship. Paula, Mick’s god-daughter, kindly showed us to the docks and then took the car back to her driveway where it would lodge while we were away.
Check-in was impressive – friendly and efficient in new-looking twenty-first century facilities and then onto the Queen Victoria. Our room, sorry stateroom, was small but luxurious so no complaints as it must have been the cheapest on board. There was a half-bottle of champagne waiting for us and after a few minutes the cases arrived. Unpacking took longer than normal as I had brought almost all the clothes I owned and Theresa wasn’t far behind in that respect.
We did a quick tour of the ship and ended up in the gym to check out a raffle with potential for free treatments and to look at the facilities. No luck with the raffle so we departed to The Lido where we had a cup of coffee. This was when I began to suspect we might be onto a winner – the coffee was free, as was the cake we ate with it.
Dinner was further evidence in favour of the cruising lifestyle. The food, service in The Britannia Restaurant were from a bygone era of refined and elegant dining which even my slightly tight trousers could not distract from. Wine at $30 a bottle was pushing the line that separates expensive from taking the piss but the exceptional quality of the rest of the experience kept it on the right side of the boundary.
Sleep was relatively undisturbed although on one of my visits to the toilet I did notice a slightly disconcerting motion from the sea and hoped it wasn’t the precursor to a bout of sea-sickness. I needn’t have worried because when the alarm went off at seven the next morning I felt fine.
Breakfast at eight and we were among the first in The Britannia so were rewarded with a table for two next to a window. Fantastic – this really is the life – just like dinner but porridge and bacon and eggs instead of the Atlantic cod and some fancy chicken soup of the night before. Those Philippino waiters really know how to look after their guests.
After breakfast for some reason I felt completely shagged out so Theresa read her book in one of the fancy sitting areas which combine civilised surroundings with a view of The Atlantic going by while I explored the ship in my usual restless manner. At ten there was a talk on Madeira in The Royal Court theatre but we left after five minutes as the bloke giving it was obviously a tit out to sell the excursions. Maybe he got better but he really needs to sort out his opening lines. At eleven I went to a Spanish lesson for tourists given by a pleasant and vaguely sexy French woman and Theresa got lucky and spotted some playful dolphins during her own inspection of the ship.
Lunch was again by a window in The Britannia served impeccably by our waiters. I stuck to the healthy fish main course and Theresa did similarly with her second spaghetti with seafood. It really is going to be a challenge coming off the boat with any clothes that fit.
After lunch I started writing this and then we went to the gym where we both occupied a running machine for thirty five minutes or so. Then it was back to the Lido for coffee and tea and a few cakes. The weather was pretty bright so we ate outside in the sun by one of the pools and stayed there for an hour or so. Incredibly Theresa then felt like another trip to the gym where we amused ourselves on bikes that were interactive with a video screen. I’d had enough after one go but Theresa managed three races. Then it was back to The Lido another cuppa and, I regret to inform you, a further cake.
Dinner was formal so I donned the new thirty-four inch waist tuxedo which made for a more comfortable dining experience. Theresa looked ravishing in a one of her new long black frocks although it was touch and go beforehand whether the fat bitch was going to get into it. Dinner was great blah, blah and then we did a parade around the ship before retiring to our stateroom for a well earned sleep.
We kicked off our day at eight o clock with a yoga class up in the gym given by an infinitely annoying Serbian calling himself MJ – “like Michael Jordan” he informed us modestly, but I resisted the urge to ask “sorry, was that Michael Jackson?” The size of his ego was in inverse proportion to his knowledge of yoga so the class was essentially a forty-five minute stretching session and left me hobbling after an ill-advised Achilles stretch.
We made it into breakfast where I let myself down by eating my way through a full English breakfast the size of an average buffet. At this rate I’ll be so fat I might implode under the force of my own gravity and mutate into a singularity that just gives Theresa an irritating buzzing in her ears... After breakfast I popped down to the purser’s office and cancelled the $11 per person per day cover charge for the restaurant.
My newly acquired injury is yet another to add to the indignities suffered by my left leg. At the moment that particular limb is encumbered with a groin strain, an Achilles strain and a muscle problem that makes bending over and keeping it straight simultaneously almost as hard as licking my own arse. I suppose I should take solace that I fit in with the sorry collection of old blokes who hobble or are merely pushed in wheelchairs into the restaurant each night but I’m finding my foot-dragging impersonation of Quasimodo a bit wearing.
Finding a free sun lounger near a pool or on a sun deck was nigh on impossible this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much cellulite in one place so it wasn’t too great a sacrifice to forget the sun and take the second of my Spanish lessons. It was okay although the teacher spoilt it with too much verbosity. It seems to be a requirement for anyone who stands up and talks to tourists on behalf of a travel firm – even one as illustrious as Cunard - to be in love with the sound of their own voices and captivated by what they have to say. Some of them need to realise that being full of energy and enthusiasm can be great but if you’re a twat the other stuff won’t help.
After lunch, which was great, we found a couple of sun loungers away from the crowds on the sunny side of the ship down on deck three. This was a blissful couple of hours: the sun on the blue and white water, the breeze from the motion of the ship and the comfort of lying in a semi-prone position watching it all, your head full of nothing except the sensation of your own good fortune. I also had a very readable and funny book to turn to when I needed a break from the beauty of the Atlantic – Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” – and once or twice I was so convulsed with mirth I nearly rolled off my sun-lounger.
As early evening approached Theresa decided to continue with her preparation for the Hamstreet 10K in June. This involved running around Deck Three for over half an hour while I helpfully shouted out her times as she passed me every five minutes or so. There were a couple of other woman doing the same thing and I managed to strike up some friendly banter with them each time they passed. One of them caused me almost as much helpless laughter as Bill Bryson when she observed breathlessly that “your wife is quite an athlete”.
Dinner was another tuxedo job at eight-thirty. We were late because Theresa had to abandon her attempts to get into her two first choice ball gowns. I managed to zip her in to both but it was then that breathing became an issue. The meal was as enjoyable as on the previous two nights although the cretin of a wine sommelier caused a bit of excitement during the final course. This man could be the only weak link in the restaurant: a Croatian who knows as much about wine as I do about crochet. He left a wine stand about a foot behind where I was sitting so when I lost a grape from my cheese platter and pushed back my chair to look for it a bottle of wine and several pints of iced water were sent crashing towards an adjacent table. There was five minutes of confused waiter activity during which the sommelier was given a subtle bollocking by a head waiter type who reminded me of an oriental Bond villain. Even though he didn’t deserve it I put in a word for the sommelier but his boss didn’t look impressed. If someone else is doing the wine tonight I’ll assume the Croatian has been chucked overboard which, to be fair, he deserves.
Not much to report really. All the meals had the same last days of the Raj feel about them – maybe it’s our working class roots but having a bunch of extremely pleasant Philippinos catering for your every whim in sumptuous surroundings is vaguely disquieting. I know it’s a win win situation for all concerned but it just doesn’t feel right. Having said that we were having a great time!
Anyway, back to the itinerary. The get fit regime continued in the gym before breakfast and mercifully my heel had recovered from the yoga. The weather was disappointing and we were driven from deck three by the wind. After lunch Theresa had a nap while I continued with Bill Bryson. Then it was another trip to the gym where my athletic wife ran for an hour. The gym is situated at the front of the ship so we had a great view of Madeira as we approached the island. Dinner was without incident – even the wine recommended by the sommelier was actually quite good so maybe I have misjudged him.
The best day so far! Breakfast was at seven thirty and then we caught the shuttle bus over to Funchal. We took in the cable car ride which would have pushed a vertigo sufferer over the edge into insanity and then came back down to the town where we bought some wine and a pair of sandals for Theresa to replace the pair that broke up on the mountain. I managed to hook into the local wi fi network and sent a few e mails. This was a singular accomplishment of which I was extremely proud even if an eight year old could have achieved a similar feat in less time.
Theresa and I are express tourists with little interest in sight-seeing or widening our horizons with new cultures so we were back on board for lunch. The afternoon was spent in our preferred holiday poses on sun beds idly reading and sharing snide comments about our fellow guests. Theresa then felt compelled to taunt me with her new found athletic confidence by knocking off another hour on the running machine while I looked on in resigned admiration.
Dinner was superb – in fact I can find no fault with anything in The Britannia Restaurant from the decor, the comfort, the fixtures, the service and, of course, the food. Even our sommelier has his own bumbling appeal although in all honesty I would have him cleaning out the toilets if it were down to me. In the Cunard brochure I noted before the trip that The Princess Grill was reserved for the travellers paying eye watering amounts for their cruise but I cannot imagine what extras these people can be enjoying. Short of the waiters carrying diners to their seats and offering them sexual favours between courses I cannot see how The Britannia could be outdone.
There were shuttle buses running into Santa Cruz but Theresa and I weren’t on any of them. No, the promise of visiting a new destination was trumped by the lure of a sun-bed under a blemish free blue sky. Actually I’m lying about the sky because there were clouds over the island and the captain mentioned in his public address that it might be wet in the afternoon. Enough said – we had tans to work on and that came before anything else.
During our indolent sojourn under the sun we discussed our fellow guests and Theresa wondered out loud what the point of some of them was. As I pondered her sudden lapse into age-fascism (there is a posher word but there’s no internet here) I realised there might be some truth in what the cheeky little brunette had to say. Since I’ve been on board I’ve never seen so many ancient and dribblingly tetchy carcasses hunched over walkers or in wheelchairs.They doze in armchairs or bark at the staff or each other seemingly unaware of their privileged and apparently undeserved good fortune. Clearly any money they have could be put to better use in the world and Theresa wondered out loud if maybe Harold Shipman wasn’t so bad after all. I made a mental note to keep a close eye on her if I ever make it to eighty.
Despite a clear blue sky we took the first shuttle bus into town to have a look around. Lanzerote seemed more low rise and picturesque than Tenerife and we had a pleasant half an hour strolling in the early morning sunshine. Using superlative Spanish I asked a local the way to the supermercado and Theresa kindly translated the reply. After replenishing our stocks of wine we returned post haste to the ship and two sun-beds.
And that was it until late afternoon when the wind drove us indoors and then the gym. There was a disquieting message from the captain as the ship left the harbour at about three thirty about the onset of very strong winds after midnight. I personally wish the bastard would keep news like that to himself as I would prefer the order to abandon ship to be a surprise rather than me having to sleep in my life jacket in anticipation.
We were invited up to The Commodore Bar at eight by a couple who sat down next to us to sunbathe this afternoon. Jane and Chris are respectively a teacher and a fraud investigator from Jersey. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of upping my bar tab any higher but Jane has very nice arms so I’m prepared to make the sacrifice.
Unfortunately we never did make it to The Commodore. Why in a moment - just now I’ve been distracted by a couple of Devonians discussing the relative merits of electric shavers. They’re probably rehearsing their entry for Most Boring Twats on the Cruise award even though competition is stiff this year. I’ve a sneaky feeling they have an outside chance, however, if my sudden urge to commit suicide is any indicator. Fuck me, now they are analysing retail pricing and how it’s changed over the years – haven’t they noticed everyone else in the room is foaming at the mouth?
Anyway, back to last evening when after her shower Theresa announced she felt seasick and assumed a foetal position on the bed. The boat, sorry ship, was rocking a bit and the captain’s words of impending doom were still fresh in our minds so maybe that was adding to the whole psychological mix because I didn’t feel too clever myself. In the end Theresa missed dinner and I rearranged our date with Jane’s arms and her husband.
I went to dinner where I was saved from a pretty miserable evening by John and Jill, a lovely couple from Torquay who Theresa and I have got friendly with during the cruise. They are on the adjacent table for two and share similar senses of humour and outlook to us. They insisted on sharing their wine with me which was very sweet of them and which also had the added bonus of confusing the sommelier who looked at me as if I had a hip flask secreted on my person. To be fair a lock and a key-ring with two keys on it would wrinkle his brow but it was mildly entertaining none the less.
Theresa felt well enough to face breakfast so we went in and ate well despite our window table giving us a great view of a boiling Atlantic. The ship, however, seems to dwarf even such an angry sea, scything through the waves with a reassuring contempt. Consequently I’m beginning to feel reassured that this voyage isn’t going to be a real-life rerun of The Titanic. The ship was still rolling a bit all morning and we sat in The Chart Room – Theresa on her iphone listening to distracting pod casts and me on the lap top. The captain came on air as usual at noon and let us know some of the waves around us were 6.8 metres high which seems to demonstrate the brilliance of the Queen Victoria’s design.
The morning flew by in this genteel manner and at twelve thirty we repaired to The Britannia Grill for a light lunch. Then it was up to the other end of the ship to the theatre to watch The King’s Speech which I found completely enthralling. For the rest of the afternoon we repeated our morning’s activities followed by a light gym session if you can call twenty minutes walking and a few sit-ups a gym session.
At eight we found Chris and Jane up in The Commodore Bar and enjoyed their very pleasant company for half an hour before dinner. I behaved myself and hardly glanced at her arms at all.
At dinner I discovered the Croatian is called Darko – how utterly bloody perfect is that? God knows what he did back in his home country before the call of the sea took him away – Theresa thinks he looks like a Serbian war criminal but I’m not convinced. My money would be on a failed heavyweight boxer because he has a big upper body and yet is amusingly light on his feet. He also likes to twiddle his fingers in front of his chest Homer Simpson style when in conversation as if he is preparing to explain his latest gaff to some exasperated superior.
We arrived in
Vigo during breakfast. The weather was grey and uninspiring and the town looked
pretty much the same. After eating, Theresa went back to bed for a nap while I
did some more blogging in The Chart Room.
At about ten we strolled into Vigo and spent an interesting hour browsing in the few shops that were open. Then it was more time in The Chart Room followed by lunch. My body is beginning to quietly rebel against the relentless tide of good food that is sent its way three times a day. Lunch was fine, it always is, but there’s only so much pampering a man can take. There are ninety one day cruises available and I assume by the end of the voyage most of the guests are either restrained in straight jackets in the dining room so the cuisine can be force fed to them or have thrown themselves overboard to escape the mental strain of forced over-indulgence.
I edited my masterpiece The Big keep all afternoon in The Chart Room while Theresa amused herself in the theatre watching Made in Dagenham, a film which appealed to her trade unionist sympathies. She then knocked off another hour on the running machine which is very encouraging – she should be down to a size 16 any week now. We met Jane and Chris for a drink again before dinner which was fun. Chris is your typical steely eyed investigator with plenty of good stories and there is more to Jane than appealing arms – she has a great sense of humour and lots of energy and enthusiasm.
It was frogs’ legs and lobster for dinner, both firsts for me but both eminently forgettable. Darko’s surname is, wait for it, Donut. Yes, how I laughed, but just managed to avoid a punch in the face when he remembered I was a guest and it’s a long swim back to Dubrovnik. Actually, I know I have deprecated Darko in my earlier posts but the man is growing on me and not in the sense of a rash. He is a genuinely helpful and pleasant individual and I will miss him.
Well, our final day at sea and time to evaluate the whole cruising experience. I could keep this short and say it was perfect but I guess I ought to make an effort and try to be more entertaining than that.
First off I have to say that Cunard must be one of the most efficient outfits on the planet. If Cameron is planning an invasion of Libya or someplace then forget the SAS; Cunard will organise it better and with certainly with more style. Everything about the ship and the crew and staff runs like a well-oiled and luxurious machine and on that front I have no complaints at all. Okay, one morning at breakfast the fried bread I ordered with my full English came too late but I think any fair minded person would let that one pass. Maybe the alcohol could be cheaper too – it’s only if you’re teetotal the cruise really is all inclusive – but nothing else comes to mind as below par.
Theresa and I were also lucky to have a table for two in the restaurant, something that apparently cannot be guaranteed but which would have considerably detracted from our experience of the cruise if we were stuck on a table with Mr and Mrs Boring as Fuck and their friends Mr and Mrs Been on a Thousand Cruises. We were also blessed with two of the most professional and pleasant waiters, Reggie and Marc from the Philippines, I have ever met. They were perfect in every way and even Theresa’s rather obvious simpering added to the entertainment. At breakfast and lunch we encountered other excellent waiters but none were quite as exceptional as R and M. I only hope my tip was enough.
So, dear reader, I would recommend a Cunard cruise without reservation. If you like to socialise and join in with the myriad of activities and entertainments that’s great or if you’re like Theresa and I who are miserable sods and just like to ignore everyone but eat well it’s also a fantastic way to holiday. And finally, I suppose I ought to mention that Theresa is really a slender size eight so all the jokes I’ve made about her weight really are just jokes...bon voyage!
Singapore to Dubai with the Mother in Law
We flew from Heathrow at 8pm. Theresa, her mum, Lily, and me. Theresa had been to Australia back in 2000 but it was my first ever long haul flight. Lily had never been further than Cyprus but it was a moot point as she could have been on one of the Apollo moon-shots and not been able to distinguish it from a Ryanair flight to Dublin. Theresa a was full of nightmare stories of being stuck for hours cramped on a plane with only her sciatica for company so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the journey. I’m a bad traveller anyway; my natural aversion to people is exacerbated when I find myself kept in close proximity to others so I prefer to limit my air travel to within Europe.
Leading up to departure, however, one or two pieces of good news about the flight helped to brighten my mood. Firstly, one of my tutees had told me it would only last for thirteen hours and not the fifteen I was previously expecting. Maybe the Cunard rep I had booked the holiday through on the phone was an idiot and planted the idea in my head or else I had dreamed it vividly enough for it to become fact rather than fantasy. My tutee, who is fanatical about all things aeronautical, also told me it was doubtful we would be flying on a 747. I’d never been on a Jumbo jet so I was slightly disappointed.
‘No,’ Alex had asserted. ‘You’ll most likely be on a 737 or even a triple 7.’ Then he chuckled to himself. ‘Actually you might be really lucky and get to go on the A380 but that’s highly unlikely.’
So, in the departure lounge I was pleased to see it was an Airbus 380 that was waiting for us out on the tarmac. Alex would have probably ejaculated spontaneously into his boxers at the sight of the giant aircraft but I settled for a wry smile to myself. Then it was announced that because of strong tail winds the flight time would down to twelve hours which brought about a sudden stiffening in my own loins.
I also had a secret weapon to help me through the night on the plane – two sleeping tablets scrounged off my elderly neighbour Carol. These, I hoped, would guarantee me oblivion from the confined world around me for a large chunk of the journey. I’d never taken a sleeping pill before in my life so another first if not exactly another item ticked off my bucket list.
Overall the flight was best described as bearable in the circumstances and if you’re travelling in economy. BA provided a tasty meal and as much wine as I felt was sensible to drink in the circumstances. I watched The Equalizer on my personal television and thoroughly enjoyed Denzel Washington killing well-deserving Russians left right and centre before popping my drugs just before midnight. They afforded me an uncomfortable and restless four and a half hours sleep although Theresa claimed in the morning that I went out like I had been shot. This was an obvious lie but jealously can do strange things to a woman so I didn’t bother to argue with her.
On the other hand, Lily was up most of the night watching the entire Downton Abbey series five before moving onto The Theory of Everything and who knows what else. As she has the uncanny knack of falling soundly asleep at the slightest opportunity this was bit of a surprise and she kept us on our toes by giving the best impersonation of a corpse I’ve ever seen just before breakfast was served. The steward glanced at Theresa in an understandable petition for her to confirm that her mother was still with us at which Lily obligingly started as if she’d heard someone was offering the passengers more free wine.
We landed at Singapore around three in the afternoon. Lily summed up the impact of our arrival with a timely comment of ‘Jesus, the heat - it’s like stepping into an oven,’ in her classic Dublin brogue. I was too busy sweating and carrying her suitcase to manage a much of a reply except to give Theresa a hard stare. Her other observation, made as the plane touched down, along the lines of ‘at last, who would have thought it would take all that time to get to Gatwick,’ is probably best not mentioned although I do so to give you some idea of what I will be up against for the next two weeks.
We had breakfast in the Britannia. Just the two of us – Lily is having room service so we can have one meal a day on our own. We’ve double-crossed her actually by giving the impression we will also be staying in our room to eat. Sharing a table with someone who talks only in clichés is hard enough for Theresa and when you add Lily into the mix it becomes unbearable.
Today is a day in port – Kelang in Malaysia – which means the ship will be deserted all day so that we can have the run of the pool area and everywhere else for that matter. In the end we decided to go ashore in the afternoon on the shuttle bus so that we can at least say we didn’t come all the way to the Far East and not bother to sample the local culture. As it happens, we are taken to a shopping mall which could have been anywhere in the world. We spend half an hour looking around and then promptly return to the ship.
Lily appears to be enjoying herself and likes to sit in air conditioned Garden Lounge where she can read the Daily Telegraph I gave her a few days ago over and over again. She periodically falls sleep and gives one of her convincing dead body impersonations. These must be rather alarming and an unwelcome glimpse of what’s just around the corner for the elderly guests who happen to pass by.
We all go up to The Commodore Bar before dinner where Lily and I drink white wine and sample canapes while Theresa goes for multiple vodka martinis. Later, at dinner, I joke with the waitress while she is spooning custard onto my treacle tart.
‘I’ve always had a weakness for custard and fast women,’ I say.
‘Mostly for custard,’ Theresa adds helpfully.
After dinner we go on deck to try to hammer home the concept of a ship to the ever-suspicious Lily. She is unconvinced by anything Theresa tells her which, to be fair, I’ve found to be a good basis for my relationship with her, but Lily takes it to extremes.
‘Look, that’s the sea mum,’ Theresa says, pointing out the bleeding obvious.
Lily neatly sidesteps the observation by glancing up and asking ‘What’s that then?’
‘That’s the moon mum,’ Theresa says evenly and we go back inside.
Theresa and I fartlek around deck 3 at seven in the morning. Not a euphemism – fartlek is a Nordic term meaning ‘speed-play’ where you run and walk intermittently. It was devised for elite athletes to improve their endurance but in our case it is an admittance that we can only run for twenty seconds at a time before hyperventilating. After breakfast we are among the first by the pool. Queen Elizabeth is at sea today en route for India and space in the sun will be at a premium - so this is another circumstance where my naturally competitive nature serves us well.
Watching my fellow guests coming and going it strikes me that a cruise is like an 18 to 30 club holiday experience after fast-forwarding fifty years. The obvious difference, apart from the fact that the staff don’t want to sleep with the guests, is the deterioration in everyone’s physical condition. Quite frankly, ninety percent of the guests on the ship should not be allowed to wear swimming costumes in public.
It’s really hot this close to the equator even when the sun goes in so thank God the ship is air conditioned. How anyone got anything done years ago is a mystery to me. While Theresa sunbathes Lily sits inside. She has finally given up on the Daily Telegraph and instead taken to studying the menu. Apparently it is more interesting than the magazines I stole for her from the library. She’s annoying but at least she keeps her clothes on.
Two days have gone by – it’s Tuesday evening and here I am after dinner with my laptop trying to repel Theresa’s advances. That’s a lie of course; she’s happily amusing herself on ‘whatsapp’ which is some new-fangled messaging app young trendy people use after they have graduated from Facebook and texting.
It’s still hot here[CG1] out on deck – if we weren’t on a ship, where all you can hear is the sea and old people snoring, the sound track of the holiday might be the incessant background noise of crickets. It could be a scene from one of those films set in the jungle or somewhere even less civilised like Australia. You know the sort – a bar with a revolving fan and men in safari shorts and dirty white vests. I would be unshaven and glistening with sweat and Theresa’s safari shirt would have one too many buttons undone as she gets pissed waiting for a real man to turn up. Lily, I imagine, would be in the corner head back, mouth open giving a sublime impersonation of being dead. Hang on a minute...
The ship is taking extra precautions against piracy as we are now in the world’s favourite waters for that sort of thing, something I didn’t spot in Cunard’s publicity material for the cruise. Most of the passengers are too drugged up or overweight to care very much about anything except when their next snack is scheduled so there is little panic. The captain is calm and authoritative and runs a tight ship. He, or rather she, is a women, something I knew instinctively after it took so long to park the ship at the last port.
Anyway, tomorrow is the last of four days at sea. The weather has been sublime and Theresa has enjoyed sunbathing, reading and avoiding her mother until lunchtime. Not much else to report in that vein except Lily had her annual haircut today. It will have lessened her effectiveness at keeping the birds away when she is in the garden back in Hamstreet but she is on holiday after all.
Without wishing to cause offence, Mumbai is mostly a shithole. The people seem to be lovely but everywhere is either falling down, filthy or crowded. Or all three. First impressions aren’t helped by the £130 price tag for a visa to step foot on Indian soil – something I was prepared to forego by staying on the ship but which wasn’t allowed. So, in an attempt to get my money’s worth, I thought ‘sod it, I might as well go ashore’, and booked an excursion.
Our excursion, entitled ‘Leisurely Mumbai’, was basically a coach drive around the city for a couple of hours punctuated by a ‘traditional’ dance demonstration in one of the varied slums, an aspect of city life in which Mumbai is a world leader. Clearly anything described as ‘traditional dance’ is about as appealing to me as sex with Sam Allardyce but it was the cheapest trip on offer and the only one we felt Lily had a realistic chance of surviving.
When I say cheapest I think the price came out at about £40 each so, at a total cost of over £500, the three of were going on a three hour coach trip instead of, say, going to Paris for the weekend.
The day before our arrival in Mumbai, we were informed by the captain that every guest would have to present themselves to Indian immigration when we arrived. Officials were to come on board and have a look at each of us to check we were who our passports said we were, whether we were going ashore or not. Clearly the irony of the Indians imagining any of us would ever contemplate trying to illegally enter into their country was lost on them. We were warned that this might be an arduous process requiring patience and forbearance – something you will all know I have in spades.
So, we were up at six and, on arriving on deck two to be checked, were presented with the longest queue in Cunard’s history. After half an hour it hadn’t moved much and wound back on itself in the corridors. Luckily, we British are good at queuing and were relieving the tension and the rising urge to lynch the first Indian we saw with jokes and banter.
Americans, however, aren’t so good at waiting in line and when one of them suggested to his wife that they merge into the queue near us I politely told him he wasn’t merging in anywhere in front of me. To cut a long story short there was no merging in and he didn’t take very kindly to my advice to fuck off to the back of the fucking queue. I sound hard but trust me when I say Theresa could have probably taken him.
I eventually made it to an Indian official who greeted me with a cheery ‘Welcome to Mumbai’. As I mentioned above, a sense of irony is not a strong Indian trait and I replied that I didn’t think much about coming to India was at all welcoming.
Anyway, the coach trip was informative – the traffic is endless and motorists appear to drive with one hand permanently on the car horn – like giving a continuous middle finger to everyone you meet. The dancing was bearable – similar to a New Zealand rugby Haka with colourful clothes, bells and women.
At lunchtime we returned to the tranquillity and air conditioning of the ship for a civilised lunch. As I sat there looking out at the city skyline I remembered Arnie’s immortal words ‘I shall not be back.’
More prose despite the protests emanating from Dorothy Avenue in Cranbrook. You’d think that someone who took a Masters in creative writing would appreciate the blogging of one from whom she could learn so much but such is artistic jealousy…
Well faithful reader, we have reached Dubai. Since the last blog little has happened. Theresa is gradually turning brown in the unfailingly beautiful weather. Sunbathing can be quite tiring what with the constant reapplication of sun tan lotion, keeping hydrated and keeping an eye on Lily but she is coping. I spend less time in the sun as I can get a tan in any climatic conditions in about half an hour. I’ve occupied myself by writing a couple of exciting chapters of Neil Mackenzie’s third and possibly final adventure. He and Rocky are in Athens seeking out the Greek half-brother of Marc Gilbert.
Yesterday you will have spotted from my videos that we were in Abu Dhabi, albeit briefly, to visit another shopping mall. I bought some swimming shorts that make me look like an utter twat but that will teach me to try them on before I buy. Today we reached Dubai where we will be staying until tomorrow when we fly home. We are being shown around by Theresa’s cousin Lynn who is an expert on the city and treated us to a memorable afternoon tea earlier at the poshest hotel I’ve been to in years.
If you’ve not been to Dubai it is huge and has the most incredible buildings I have ever seen: everything is hyper-modern and overpowering on the surface but oddly soulless, even medieval, at a deeper level. On balance I prefer Ashford.
I can’t wait to be home – to see the cats and sit on my own sofa again. I’m missing clouds. As the old song goes: ‘It’s very nice to go trav’ling but it’s so much nicer to come home.’
We started cruising with Cunard back in 2011. We’ve been in various cabin types from inside, the cheapest, to the top rated balcony. I’m personally happy with a windowless room because, apart from sleeping and getting changed, one isn’t in it for most of the time. And, of course, I’m a tight-arse. For her summer holiday, however, Theresa insists on a balcony so that’s what we have. But whatever room you choose, everything else is exactly the same – the entertainment, the service everywhere on the ship, dining in the Britannia restaurant and so on. All is accomplished with style and aplomb – like the days of the Raj but with air conditioning. A luxury cruise is probably the only holiday that allows one complete and utter relaxation and where the bother of stuff like finding a place to eat, having a coffee or getting a spot by the pool or on the beach is at the very least minimised and often rendered completely redundant.
Paradoxically, everything is nearby without it ever feeling claustrophobic. For example, after dinner in the evening one could either take in a show, dance at a disco or with a big band, go to a pub, cocktail bar or casino or, as Theresa and I tend to do, stagger to the peace and privacy of our room and collapse. During the day you can sunbathe, read, walk laps around the deck, go to the gym or attend dozens of activities laid on by Cunard. When the ship is in port there are excursions or you can explore a place for yourself before realising it’s actually nicer back in the air con on board.
Beyond even the best balcony staterooms are the Princess and Queen’s Grill categories. If you’ve ever perused a Cunard cruise brochure these are the ones with the accompanying prices that make men like me laugh with disbelief. To give you some idea of the price differential, let’s take a 17-day cruise on the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to Cape Town next January. You would pay from £1849 for an inside cabin, £2399 for a balcony, £5349 for Princess Grill and, wait for it, £6049 for Queens Grill. That’s per person if you’re sharing a stateroom which most married couples tend to do whatever the state of their relationship. Clearly, the last two categories are not for us or anyone we know except perhaps for those of you who have, quite reasonably, kept your drug dealing business quiet. So, almost three thousand quid more or well over double the price of any balcony room for the Princess Grill.
But here I am writing this blog from the exclusive lounge reserved for Princess and Queen’s Grill guests on the Queen Victoria. How for fuck’s sake did we wangle this one? Well, one word – upgrade. A few days before the cruise a nice girl from Cunard phoned me up and offered us the upgrade for fifty quid each. Bearing in mind the prices for the Southampton to Cape Town trip this looked like the bargain of the bloody century so I gabbled my acceptance down the phone. Let me also say that in the lead up to the trip Theresa and I haven’t been so excited since the births of any of our children. It almost made Brexit bearable. Before we left, now and again one of us would look at the other and say ‘Princess Grill’ and we’d both laugh happily and look into the middle distance with wistful looks on our faces.
So what do you get? Well, right from the start things were looking good. Our taxi dropped us off in Piraeus just after noon where the Queen Victoria was berthed. Inside a huge hall we found at least five hundred guests waiting in groups to be checked in. But not us – oh no – with our ‘preferred’ check in we were on the ship in ten minutes. I looked at Theresa and winked: ‘Princess Grill,’ I said.
We raced up to our room which was twice the size of what we’re used to and had a bath in the bathroom. Yeah, big deal, but I suppose these things matter to some people. The next bit was good though. Because of the preferred check in we were in time for lunch and one of the pleasures of Cunard is the Britannia restaurant – art deco, silver service and the world’s best waiters. Unfortunately, it was closed on a changeover day – something we didn’t know because we’d never before got onto the ship in time to find out. It looked like lunch in the excellent Lido restaurant and open twenty-four hours a day. Except I hate self-service – I have a gene that I probably inherited from an aristocratic ancestor that stopped me enjoying the experienced as soon I’d left university.
Theresa, however, had an idea and it turned out to be the best one she’s had in over a decade. ‘Let’s go up and check out the Princess Grill first,’ she suggested.
So we found a lift and made our way to the part of deck eleven where both restaurants are secreted away. Ordinary guests cannot ride up to them because Grills guests’ door cards must be inserted in a slot before selecting deck eleven or twelve (the exclusive sun deck). If you have an ego that likes to be massaged this card insertion exercise in front of a lift-full of intrigued and envious non-Grill guests is rather something. I have developed a rather apologetic manner when inserting my card, ignoring the hate vibes emanating from my fellow guests. Theresa, on the other hand, likes to hold the card up to show her captive audience before shoving it in with a flourish.
When we came out of the lift we were still a little distracted by the endless possibilities of one-upmanship that our door cards were presenting to us but aware enough to spot that the door to the Princess Grill was open. I asked the smartly dressed Head Waiter (Seby from Kerala – upright, balding, charming) if they were open. Maybe I’m wrong but I sensed the Seby and the tall Mâitre D’ (Hven from Goa - the restaurant’s boss and my candidate for the next James Bond) standing behind him suspected that the lift had malfunctioned and allowed two imposters up to their welcoming desk. Maybe it was my pink Superdry tailored shorts or Theresa’s hot pants and boob tube but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a tribute to Seby’s professionalism that he kept his smile friendly and checked my stateroom number on his computer.
‘Oh yes, Doctor Grayling and Mrs Dickens, welcome, table 136,’ he chuckled, keeping the disbelief out of his voice, and he led us to our table.
You are always led to your table in the Princess Grill unless you can sneak in while the staff are busy taking orders or are distracted giving shoulder massages. And it’s a truly great restaurant: an enhanced Britannia. Smaller, with better views and even more choice: last evening at dinner, for example, I counted sixteen different appetizers, seventeen entrees and fourteen desserts. And, if you were to select any of them you’d be convinced that the artist who’d cooked the dish would have been a shoe-in for the MasterChef crown. The other plus is that your table is yours whenever you arrive between the start and finish times for breakfast, lunch and dinner whereas in the Britannia breakfast and lunch is first come first served and at dinnertime you eat at 8.30 if you are the late sitting or 6.00 if you have opted to eat early.
The final perk for us Princess Grill travellers is the reserved sundeck where the towels are softer, the sunbed mattresses thicker and the suntan lotion is complementary. Theresa assumed the deck stewards would also be applying the lotion and they seemed only too willing to oblige until the Captain appeared and took over himself.
So is it all worth it? Well, in my humble opinion, there is no definitive answer to the question. I would suggest, however, that if money is no object then go for it. Otherwise don’t. Yes, we’re having a great time but we would be without the upgrade. Firstly, the size of room really doesn’t matter. Secondly and thirdly, I’m irredeemably competitive so the small matter of dining or finding an unreserved sunbed doesn’t affect us – we’re always first in the queue for breakfast and lunch for a table for two by a window and most of the guests are still in bed when we arrive poolside. The Princess Grill is more personal – I’m only human - I like being addressed all the time as ‘Doctor’ by our waiters Fahad, Joey as well as Seby and Hven and we’re both loving the overall experience – but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and we know it.
Naively, I also imagined the guests in the Princess Grill would be different – you know, more attractive or charismatic or whatever it is that makes one able to afford such luxury. But of course they’re not. They’re as ordinary and annoying as everyone else: generally middle-aged and overweight and in relationships where the little communication that appears to be taking place is mostly through gritted teeth. When the restaurant, any restaurant on the ship, is full then I suspect that the majority of the best educated, most civilised and erudite people in the room are the staff. Many of us Brits, Americans and so on are wealthy as much as because of our country of origin as our careers and abilities. Men and women from India and the Philippines, for example, are not born with the same advantages.
We have a few favourite guests of course. On a nearby table is a couple where the man has a catchphrase which is becoming the signature slogan of our cruise. Theresa pointed out to me after the first dinner that he had a habit of saying ‘Thank you very much INDEED’ on a frequent basis. The emphasis on the indeed is all mine but his use of it has rendered an innocent expression of gratitude as a source of childish and barely concealed mirth every time he says it to a waiter or anyone else. We wait expectantly every time his wife and he come and sit down just to hear the magic words. He is a ruddy faced Midlander with a Richie Benaud haircut and a jaunty taste in checked shirts, white sandals and see-through linen trousers who wouldn’t look out of place being outraged in a Carry On film.
On another table is a couple who we’ve nicknamed the Ronseal Pair. I’ve done a lot of painting in my time and without a word of a lie these two started off as untreated wood and as the days have gone by their skin colour has passed through the complete range of wood-stain shades available at B and Q. Whereas Mr Thank You Very Much Indeed went from white to post-box red in a day, we’ve watched these two go from Light Oak, Oak, Walnut, Mahogany and Ebony in quick succession. Theresa is convinced the man will have changed his ethnicity by tomorrow.
It is a sobering thought that Theresa is easily the most glamorous woman up here despite only bringing one pair of ear-rings and never spending more than twenty quid on a frock and, after Hven, I’d easily make the next best James Bond.
One last thing – when we sat down on that first lunchtime we recognised an old face across the room who I’ve mentioned before in these cruising blogs. He was our first sommelier in 2011 and it was an incredibly pleasant surprise to see him when we arrived for our first lunch. Darko from Croatia is an urbane and educated man who it is a pleasure to exchange insults with when I’m ordering wine.
The holiday is nearly over but I’m hoping it won’t be our last on a Cunard ship.
So, we booked another cruise. Nothing new in that except this time we had a rush of blood to the head and didn’t go for our usual week somewhere in the Med. Instead we went for sixteen days on the Queen Mary 2 for the Sydney to Hong Kong leg of its 2016-17 world voyage. We suddenly fancied seeing Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House as well as the various sights up on Australia’s famous east coast. Vietnam and Hong Kong also held a certain attraction and one that is enhanced when you are visiting them from the safety of an ocean liner.
Trouble is, the first bit of the holiday is the near day long flight to Sydney. To put it bloody mildly, I wasn’t looking forward to that. I‘d done the leg to Singapore before with the aid of some sleeping pills that I’d blagged off an elderly neighbour but this time I was going to have to go through with it without the benefit of prescription drugs. I’d asked my GP, offering to pay for the pills, but the pernickety bastard turned me down. A friend had suggested some drowsiness-inducing antihistamines or Night Nurse but I wasn’t convinced. In a panic I tried to upgrade, only to discover that there weren’t any places left. The die was cast: it was going to be economy all the way.
As it was, the journey was much more bearable than I’d feared. With good ol’ BA there is plenty of food and alcohol on offer and I managed to sleep, albeit uncomfortably, for three or four fours on the Singapore leg and for a couple over Australia with the help of the antihistamines, a shot of whisky and some wine. We had a lovely Aussie lady in the aisle seat next to Theresa which also helped. One has visions of being lumbered with some enormous overweight blob for a day but our fears turned out to be groundless. We left Heathrow at nine-forty-five in the evening on Sunday and arrived in Sydney at seven on the morning on Tuesday. I treated it like a very long night because most of the flight was in darkness and felt human enough when we finally landed.
At the end of a flight to the other side of the world to find Mediterranean type temperatures is good enough, but when the locals are also speaking English it does make one glad we once had an empire. The airport with its English signage and Aussie staff almost made it feel like we were still in the UK, an impression strengthened by the seventy-dollar taxi ride (1 A$ = 60p) through rush hour traffic to the hotel. The Indian driver said he liked Australia although it was ‘a bit expensive’ – one of the best examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy I’ve personally experienced for a long time.
My mood was improved, however, when the sexy Ukrainian receptionist at our hotel gushed over my English accent. At first, she informed me that we would have to wait until two in the afternoon for a room but, after falling under the spell of my voice, she said she would ‘see what she could do’. Within half an hour we had a room. I know, either landing in Australia has imbued me with a hitherto unrecognised sexual magnetism or she wants something. Still, I’ve never been invited to talk to a woman just so she can listen to my voice before so I’m not complaining. When Theresa was around I just had to make sure I didn’t laugh too readily at my new admirer’s jokes.
The room is fine, although it seems to be the one reserved for any disabled guests. Theresa suggested that it was my limp rather than my voice that had won over the Ukrainian but fuck her – I like showering sitting down and there’s also a lot to be said for scaffolding around the loo. The hotel is an elegant revamped colonial style building in the Potts Point area of Sydney. The streets are reminiscent of the wealthy suburbs of any western city in the Mediterranean except the locals speak English and the cars drive on the correct side of the road - it’s a bit like downtown Bristol with sunshine and less traffic.
After we’d showered I felt ready for action and Theresa also felt frisky enough to go out. We left the hotel and walked down to the harbour. It was all very pleasant – the route taking us down through quiet streets and Sydney’s botanical gardens until we reached the sea at Farm Cove. There were lots of exotic trees and plants in this wonderful park as well as some strange birds such as the cute, to me anyway, ibis. Every few seconds a runner would pass us or come into view. Since we’ve been in the city I’ve never seen so many people dressed in lycra running somewhere. It’s not only the young and beautiful either – every age and shape is on view.
After about twenty-five minutes ambling along we neared the Opera House with its outrageously imaginative silhouette and the more conventional outline of the venerable bridge I was genuinely excited to have finally seen them for real. We had lunch two minutes’ walk away towards the city on the waterside at Circular Quay. We ate at Buckley’s, a kind of upmarket Australian pub chain where the staff are young and polite, the décor modern and trendy and where two fish and chips and a couple of lagers came to $50.
We walked back to the hotel through the park dodging the joggers who now seemed to be hunting in packs of twenty or more. Jet lag was beginning to make itself felt when we arrived back at the hotel but we refused to succumb to the urge to sleep by popping out for a coffee at a nearby pavement café and, afterwards, watching Australian TV. The latter is like British television without any pretence of subtlety. Everyone is confident and upbeat and laugh a lot: the men are well-groomed, square-jawed men’s men and the women aren’t much different. There is a twenty-four-hour news channel but only God knows why, because nothing much really happens in Australia. Stories like ‘Old Lady Falls over in Street’ or ‘Man Picks Nose on Beach’ seem to be high up the running orders so thank God for weather forecasting, or such channels would be completely without purpose. In their world-news coverage there is always a piece about the royal family - as far as I could tell, the activities of William and Kate receiving daily attention.
We ate out at an Italian restaurant where an average lasagne, a risotto and a couple of miniscule glasses of wine came to ninety dollars. I usually avoid Italian eateries because their macho self-confidence is rarely matched by the quality of the food, but I blamed the jet lag and being in the southern hemisphere for my lapse in concentration. The following night we went Australian which was much the same. Where they got the idea that the greenery in a Greek salad should consist of parsley escapes me but anyway, the bill came to a hundred and six dollars, although a bottle of wine was included in the total.
The next day we went to see Theresa’s Uncle Noel and Auntie Norina. Noel is an Irish immigrant via The Old Kent Road. A Ten Pound Pom from the early sixties: sharp as a tack, the Irish brogue long ago replaced by Aussie intonations. Norina, as her name suggests is as Aussie as is hereditarily possible and as glamourous as any woman in her seventies can dream of being. The Sydney train system is excellent and cheap and, despite cocking up a train change, it was a straightforward journey to Casula in the suburbs where they live.
We were picked up at the station by Noel and his daughter Shane, which threw me for a moment, but I imagine the name works equally well for men and women in this part of the world. Shane and her husband John, a six foot seven Sydney policeman, live over the road from Noel and Norina’s place in a quiet up market cul de sac. We spent an enjoyable morning at Noel’s place. My role was mostly to pretend to be charming and to listen to old Scanlon family stories which I managed to fulfil for most of the time. When the conversation turned to politics I discovered I was on the opposite side of the road to this Australian branch of Theresa’s family but I managed to guard my tongue. Well almost – later, when I ask how long it had been since Australia stopped competing at the Olympics, John’s face clouded over and the room went quiet. Thankfully the mood quickly recovered and, after a convivial lunch, it was time to go. They were a great bunch and I hope we meet again.
Instead of going straight back to the hotel I persuaded Theresa to visit Bondi Beach. After the bridge and the Opera House this was the only place I’d really wanted to see in Sydney. To be fair, it is a pretty decent stretch of sand and the surfers were having a great time out in the waves. On the other hand, the UK has many beaches of a similar standard. What we don’t have is the temperatures necessary to make hanging out on them pleasurable.
The next day we were picking up the ship at lunchtime so we had the morning to continue looking around Sydney. We retraced our steps towards the botanical gardens and stopped off at the New South Wales Art Gallery. I’m not a particular fan of this sort of thing but what I instantly realised is that this one is as good as anything we have in London. Perhaps there isn’t the vast quantity of art that goes with centuries of plundering foreign cultures but there is an airy serenity about the place which makes it a pleasure to walk around. Highly recommended.
So, to sum up, if you get a chance to go to Sydney don’t think twice. Your hotel and eating out will be expensive but those are the only downsides. It is a friendly, vibrant city with plenty to see. There is a comforting Britishness about the place but without our cloying middle-class smugness: Australia feels invigorated and youthful and forward-looking. I’m sure the country has problems but twenty-six years of continuous growth speaks for itself. Just as the UK has recently decided it is more comfortable living in the past, Australia is enthusiastically embracing the twenty-first century.
Proud to Remain British
Lately I’ve been accused of being unpatriotic. It’s true – somehow my Remain views reveal a lack of faith in my country. At first I put these slights down to ignorance and said nothing, but now I’m ready to remind Brexiteers that patriotism goes beyond sticking a St George’s cross flag in a fucking window.
You see, I’m as proud to be British as anyone. And I don’t rely on a stereotyped, agenda-driven and borderline racist Daily Mail version of history and the news to inform my opinion either; it’s a level-headed view of the facts combined with the gut feeling that belonging to this extraordinary race of ours provokes in me. The first comes from being educated and is probably well beyond the comprehension of many self-styled patriots.
People say, or, if they don’t I’m going to, that self-love is the bedrock of sanity and wholeness. Not narcissism, where a healthy acceptance of one’s faults and mistakes is suffocated by an unquenchable sense of self-importance and longing for recognition. And that’s how it is with my patriotism: I can acknowledge that England has a lot to be ashamed about in its history but, on balance, I think the world would be much shittier without our involvement in it. You just wouldn’t notice very much if some countries hadn’t come into being, but not us – despite our relatively small size, Britain has been a colossus of the last four of five hundred years, some might argue the colossus. Our language dominates the world, our scientists largely laid the foundation for the industrial revolution and our art and literature has enriched the planet. The ideals of democracy and the freedom of the individual guaranteed by the laws of the state were nurtured in some part in this Sceptred Isle. We even invented football. We should all, quite rightly, be proud to be British.
There’s also the small matter of recently saving civilisation. We had a few lucky breaks back in 1940, I know, but without the extraordinary bravery of ‘the few’ and the leadership of a great man, Britain would be in a united Europe now all right, but one we’d all be keen to see the back of. It’s all ifs and buts of course but who knows how far fascism might have reached back then. It could, although our American friends might disagree with the thought, have encompassed the entire world. It would have been game-over for decades or even centuries. None of us would have ever experienced the freedom of living in tolerant liberal democracies where you can act like a dick and not be shot or locked up for it. We did all right - we were the good guys and we won against all the odds. So, I’m going to say it again – we – you - all of us - should be proud to be British.
Before you get carried away, however, I’m not proud of everything about my country at the moment. Most of the modern press are a hateful, lying bunch who perpetrate a false narrative designed to spread suspicion of foreigners and anything remotely left wing. The modern Tories have mutated from a party I could have once considered voting for into a collection of incompetent neo fascists whose only aims are the dismantling of the welfare state and facilitating the advance of big business: global corporations are to be admired but international cooperation between countries, as exemplified by the EU, are a ‘bad thing’ And, finally, much of our society and the way we run it is outdated and iniquitous.
Right, back to Brexit. I read an article by a Remainer the other day which tried to explain why the EU was so important to him and why he hated the Leave side for trying to take it away from him. It was a good article and it struck a chord with me as to why Brexit has wormed its way so deeply into my soul. Basically, his argument was that he felt so European that Brexit was, in a real sense, denying him an essential part of his identity. For example, if the people of Kent where I live, voted to leave the UK, most of the inhabitants of the county would simply not be able to accept that decision, majority or no majority. The vote, in a real sense, would be illegitimate because Kent is clearly a part of the UK.
And so it goes with the UK and Europe – for me anyway, and apparently for millions of others as well. And that’s why we get so worked up about it. It’s no use Leavers labelling us as ‘Remoaners’ or accusing us of ignoring the will of the people or refusing to accept a democratic vote. They - you - perhaps, have every right to do so of course but, leaving the raw emotion to one side for a minute, a little calm reflection would reveal that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Life tends to be and Brexit is no different with knobs on.
There’s no denying the fact that Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1% of those who voted. But there are other factors that a sensible Prime Minister should have taken on board. Firstly, to state the bleeding obvious, that’s a close vote and it seems iniquitous that the losing side should be forced into accepting all aspects of the winners’ definition of leaving the EU on such a close-run thing. It’s not a simple choice like deciding to divorce your spouse and, even then, it’s a matter of negotiation.
Secondly, the Leave campaign was characterised by lies. Lies that were propagated by devious politicians who should have known better and by The Sun, Daily Mail and the majority of the printed press. In fact, the latter had been reinforcing the false narrative that the EU was unaccountable and responsible for unsustainable immigration for years. On that basis 48% is a pretty good result. It’s like playing football when the referee is bent against your team. How were most people going to be able to make an informed choice?
Finally, the seventeen million or so who voted for Brexit obviously don’t represent a majority of the British people. That’s not a reason to reject the Brexit vote but it is a reason for the winners to show restraint, sensitivity and magnanimity in victory. But no, Theresa presses ahead, deaf to the legitimate concerns of a significant minority of the populace. She has confused strength with force and determination with pig-headedness.
Okay, now that’s off my chest I’m going to tell you the reason I and, I suspect, most Remainers voted to stay in. It wasn’t much to do with economics, although staying part of the largest and most civilised trading block in the world is a no-brainer. To deny it, as the duplicitous Tory right do, is obvious bollocks. Deep in your hearts you Leavers know it too, just as well as you know Boris Johnson is a utterly untrustworthy and Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood and their mates are mad. You won’t allow yourselves to see it because that would fundamentally contradict your choice to vote Leave. And you voted Leave because of a greater imperative – you’re afraid the Britain you love will be lost under a tidal wave of foreigners and the twenty-first century which, of course, means you’ve been seriously misinformed. Leaving the EU won’t affect immigration and I’m afraid time is a constantly increasing parameter of the world we live in, whatever the Daily Express says.
I voted Remain because I see myself as a European. That’s it. Like being a Devonian among the English. I love it that I can freely travel, work and live there and that my children and grandchildren will be able to do the same. I value the security that a united Europe brings. I love the way Europeans embrace culture and have improved on our models of democracy and social care. I love the Gemans, French, Spanish and Italians, Greeks, Poles and the rest. All of them. I love the way some big business and all the right-wing press hate the EU. What are they afraid of? Perhaps it’s the regulations that limit their power and protect our rights and our environment.
So, that’s why we Remainers won’t lie down and take leaving the EU on the chin and move on, despite the depressing news from Parliament. And, for the last fucking time: we love our country.
It's Wong to be Racist
‘I’m no racist!’ has almost become the go-to phrase adopted by, yes, racist xenophobes. But not me – or at least that’s what I thought. And, in my defence, anyone who has had to either put up with me on Facebook or in the flesh would have to acknowledge that.
I have to admit, however, that I’ve been flirting with it on this cruise, I hope light-heartedly, but there’s no denying I’ve been showing the early signs of some kind of dalliance with the forbidden. Actually, there’s always been an obvious dichotomy between my views of racism and my attitude to people in general. In other words, anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not a fan of most of the human race. And cruises tend to bring my loathing for my fellow man to the fore because, like it or not, they’re in your face almost all of the time once you step outside your stateroom.
So, I’m coming clean: the list of those I find irritating is endless. Lazy people, fat people, bad drivers, teenagers, most children, posh people and so on and so on. Almost everyone. Only my children and, most of the time, Theresa escape my critical eye. But this week the object of my scathing criticism has been concentrated on one single ethnic group - the Chinese.
It started when we were allocated a table for two for dinner next to a Chinese couple. I like to think I’m pretty tolerant (sic) but these two jokers began to annoy me after only ten minutes. First it was their table manners – I’m sorry, but on Cunard you do not eat your meal with your face two inches from your plate. If I was visiting China, I’d at least practise with chopsticks before I arrived. Second, both man and woman spent the entire meal playing games on their mobile phones. This particularly wound up Theresa who is of a much milder disposition than me. Third, they were rude to our charming waiters, using gruff single word commands and, finally, their dress sense was a cross between an old peoples’ home and a Glaswegian pub. A track suit top worn under a jacket simply doesn’t cut the mustard in an Ashford takeaway, let alone a silver service restaurant on the Queen Mary 2.
After a couple of nights, we manged to change to a different sitting and I still rejoice when I see Mr and Mrs Oddjob walking around the ship and I remember I won’t have to spend dinner with the soundtrack of slurping and the occasional karate-like outburst. No, now we are next to a couple from Stockport, Brian and Janet. They both sound like Gary Neville but are, nevertheless, great company. For you old TWGGS girls, Janet is the spitting image of Mrs Newton and Brian is more of a kindly, manicured version of Hogwarts’ caretaker in the Harry Potter films.
Anyway, back to the Chinese. There are a few of them on the ship and they are easily spotted in their anoraks or bad haircuts. Shapeless zip-up outerwear is clearly big in China: personally, I would ban anoraks as an item of clothing in any public space – they’re just too eloquent an argument for the pointlessness of existence. And haircuts – I can only assume every family owns a suitably sized range of pudding basins.
Changing the subject slightly, but only for a moment, it was my birthday yesterday - sixty-two if you must know. We went up to the top deck of the ship at seven in the morning so that I could Whats App call my girls to say hello. I tell you, video calls over twelve thousand miles are a reassuring counterbalance to the anorak. Anyway, also on the large netball court sized deck area were four others: a tall Aussie trying to stretch, a grey-haired Japanese gentleman limbering up for what I assumed would be some mystical stretching routines that would make the Aussie walk off in shame and a smiling Japanese couple running around the deck.
I was, of course, immediately put out that we didn’t have the deck to ourselves, but the couple, wearing matching replica Arsenal tops, waved cheerily and I felt suitably chagrined. I made the calls and then, spotting the netted deck tennis court was free, suggested we use it to try and improve Theresa’s pitiful racket skills. Well, what followed was interesting. While Theresa was thrashing the tennis balls to every corner of the netting, I noticed (as I was repeatedly picking up the balls) that the couple and the Aussie had joined the other older Japanese and he had started to help them copy his stretches. He was quite a joker in a Japanese-Sergeant-Major kind of way and soon had the others laughing and stretching.
This morning we went up early again and this time we joined in – there were about nine of us now – at this rate the old guy will have all the passengers at it by the time we reach Hong Kong. His English isn’t very good but it didn’t stop him helping Theresa and I do some of the moves – he was great. At the end, to try and ingratiate myself with him and the others (the couple were there again) I announced that my grandfather was Japanese which everyone found hilarious, announcing that they were, er, Chinese. Our instructor even sprang into a mock-martial-arts pose at which we all laughed again. Turns out he, Mr. Wong, owned a chippy in Liverpool for 45 years.
And that’s not all - Theresa and I were walking away when he ran after to us and pointed at my dodgy hip. ‘Hip bad!’ he exclaimed. For the next ten minutes, he put me on a sun bed and proceeded to pummel my upper legs in a kind of oriental sports massage, showing Theresa how to do it for me later.
I think you get the gist – how ridiculous was it to disparage a quarter of the world’s population on the basis of one couple’s table manners. It was wrong and, rather appropriately, it took a Wong to remind me.
Kung Fu Fighting
It’s five sea days from Yorky’s Knob (yes, it’s a real name) in northern Queensland to where we’re going next: Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. The route involves crossing the equator and the sights of exotic islands and coral reefs and the negotiation of narrow and sometimes precariously shallow straits. As the captain likes to playfully remind us over the ship’s Tannoy system, ‘We are a big ship,’ so it all has the potential to be exciting although it never is. There is so much technology running the ship it feels more Star Trek than Titanic - on deck, all one is ever aware of is the sea and the sky: even the thrum of the ship’s engines hardly registers. Inside one is cocooned by soft carpets, expensive furnishings and lavish décor.
If I’m honest, however, three weeks is probably too long to be divorced from reality. I was taking a leak yesterday evening in one of Queen Mary’s palatial public loos when an Aussie came in and confided that he was ‘bored shitless’. And I knew what he meant. It seems you can have too much of a good thing; I’m even getting blasé about seeing Theresa in a bikini.
We’ve been getting up early. One of us makes some coffee and half an hour later we’re up on the top deck of the ship in the balmy air with Mr Wong doing Kung Fu. We had no idea what it was at first and hadn’t realised that learning to kill people could be so much fun. Mr Wong was originally minding his own business every morning doing his own work-outs but now he has about fifteen followers hanging on his every word. Since those words are in Cantonese we are clueless until a kindly Chinese man whispers hurried interpretations to us.
Unlike most of our fellow guests, we rarely take part in any of the myriad of lectures, clubs or demonstrations that Cunard put on unless they involve free alcohol. Apart from the gym, if the court is free we’ll play some deck tennis or go to afternoon tea and that’s it. We read up on the virtually deserted top deck for most of the time: so far, I’ve read a Jimmy Perez and a Martin Beck and am pleased to report that, in my completely unbiased opinion, neither are as good as a Neil Mackenzie. Right now, I’m halfway through Robert Galbraith’s (aka J K Rowling) Cuckoo’s Calling which really is good. Apart from that, now and again I go inside to write these blogs or other stuff.
Every night at dinner Brian and Janet on the next table run through an exhaustive list of all the things they’ve attended during the day and seem shocked when admit to never doing anything. I think we must be giving the impression that southerners aren’t a huge barrel of laughs.
I’ve deliberately not watched any television or read any news. I presume Mrs May and Donald Trump are still in charge but for once I don’t really care. My internet access is limited to about five minutes a day so there’s not much time to look at Facebook or WhatsApp. I’ve ignored Twitter almost entirely. Coming back to real life will be a shock but, nonsensically, like my Aussie peeing companion, I’m almost looking forward to it.
A few words about my friend Andrew ‘Caz’ Williams. Caz is short for Casual because of his laid-back playing style on a badminton court. Jamie ‘Bullet’ McGuire (never was a nickname less deserved), who was Caz’s partner on court for many years, gave him the epithet and it stuck, at least as far as the three of us were concerned.
I got to know Caz back in the late nineties, playing against him to begin with and then as a team mate. Unlike most men in their thirties, he was divorced and great fun. Marriage has a habit of dulling one’s personality and Caz’s lack of commitments saved him from such a fate. Soon, he and Jamie (who was married, although Caz and I knew that was a situation that was unlikely to last) were involving me in nights out and various excursions and holidays that make me smile whenever they come to mind. As his illness has advanced and entered its final, eviscerating stage, the laughter has sometimes been replaced by tears, although I’ve vowed to make this a temporary phase – we had far too much fun ever to let cancer take away his memory as well as his life.
Outside of the badminton court my first encounter with Caz was late at night under the railway bridge in High Brooms. I was driving home after a badminton match against them and found Caz and Jamie standing next to the former’s crashed car. Caz seemed very unperturbed by his misfortune and when I stopped and offered them a hand it was laughingly declined. The second was a phone call - he did a very good impersonation of an inspector from the Inland Revenue who’d been tipped off that my tax affairs weren’t entirely kosher. He let me plead my innocence for five or so excruciating minutes before owning up to his identity.
In the early days of our acquaintance, our friendship centred around badminton. We would go for a pint after club night and then started spending evenings out with the team. Our first memorable night was at Gracelands in Tunbridge Wells. Sadly, now closed, in its heyday, it guaranteed a fun night out eating Chinese food and, later, listening to their Chinese Elvis and taking part in some karaoke. Caz was on first name terms with the management (inevitably a woman) and I went there frequently with him and Bullet whenever we could think up an excuse to go. Anyway, on that first night, we had the most fun I’d ever had in Tunbridge Wells. I always associate Caz with hilarious banter and that was a night when I crammed a year’s worth of laughing into three or four hours. I also got so drunk I had to be carried to Theresa’s car to be driven home while Caz, who was equally under the influence, only made it into work the following day long enough to throw up in his waste paper basket and go home again.
In the twenty years or so that I knew Caz he must have had at least a dozen girlfriends and even more friends who were female. He never seemed to be able to get close to re-marrying but that didn’t seem like a problem. In fact, nothing ever seemed like it was bothering him, although I know he went through some difficult times. As he often said about marriage: ‘I love steak and chips but I wouldn’t want to eat it every night.’ Readers of The Big Finish will recognise that quote as belonging to Gere, one of Neil Mackenzie’s two best friends, and, if you didn’t already know, Gere really is a thinly disguised Caz.
Caz is inextricably linked with most of the highlights of the last fifteen years of my social life outside of Theresa and my family. He, Bullet and I visited Newcastle, Alicante, Marbella, Malta and Barcelona together and every one of those trips is a rich source of fond memories. Like all of us, Caz wasn’t perfect – he could sulk and have frequent sense of humour failures. He was also, without any question, the most frightening driver I have ever been in a car with, but it was all part of the package. We endured watching England fail together – every World Cup or Euros between 2000 and 2014 inclusive saw us disappointed somewhere together. It simply felt great when the three of us were fucking about in some foreign place keeping a karaoke bar open or bantering our way through a dreadful England performance.
In truth, he and I drifted apart in recent times, but from his perspective I can understand that getting cancer while everyone else is still fit and healthy would make one wish to withdraw into oneself. He texted me this in February: ‘…bastard cancer’s ruined everything for me…’. And later: ‘…fully prepared now to go; had enough of all the pain…’ All I can say is that I might react in a similar fashion and keep people at a distance.
For all his faults, I loved Caz. He was easy to spend time with and he always made me laugh, sometimes without realising. He was one of my few real friends and, for me, the world is a much sadder place without him around.