Saturday 19 December 2009

From today’s BBC website:

Whisky hangover 'worse than vodka', study suggests.

Drinking whisky will result in a worse hangover than vodka, according to research by US scientists.

No shit, Sherlock! I could have told them that, and for half the price. And during a controlled (-ish) experiment lasting decades I betcha I’ve done more practical research, than they have.

For another large wodge of greenbacks I’ll happily affirm that vintage Port gives you a far worse head than either of them.. And if (because it might seem a good idea at the time) you get stuck in to the Taylor’s 1960 on top of half-a-bottle of Bells, you’re topping the Premier League, hangover-wise. That’ll be loadsamoney, please, Brown University. Cash in a Brown Envelope will do nicely.

I can’t help wondering how many zillions of dollars this ‘research’ actually cost. And more to the point, why it was carried out in the first place. After all, it won’t make any difference to anybody’s drinking habits. Thems that have been hacking into into the Famous Grouse since it was an Unknown Egg will keep doing just that, while the Smirnov Brigade, having no doubt noted the pseudo-research, will neck an extra couple of large ones with a sigh of relief, a feeling of moral superiority, and a mixer to mask the taste.

As my Grandmother Pearl used to say (in Yiddish) – “Only in America!”.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

A Well-spent Age.

What is it with doctors?

I went to see mine the other day, – I say ‘mine’, but round here we don’t have personal medics these days – the Surgery - sorry – Health Centre - consists of two Principal Doctors, with a consulting room each, (but to see either of them you need to book an appointment a month before you fall ill,) plus several part-time registrars box-and-coxing it in the third consulting room, with the result that you never know which one you’re going to get, until you’re told by the touch screen computer they’ve just installed just inside the door in order to book you in. This is presumably to save the Receptionists having to put their conversation on hold in order to talk to you, although this isn’t a bad thing, in practice – the computer has far more warmth and personality then the Receptionists ever managed to muster, and doesn’t look down on you like you were something it had just stepped in.

After the usual 25 minute delay, sat on what must be the most uncomfortable seats this side of Death Row, the computer paged me to go into the consulting room. Today’s incumbent was young, female, and pleasantly ethnic. I’d not seen her before.

I was there not because there’s anything particularly amiss – I’m in rude health, other than the usual list of minor ailments and annoyances that septuagenarian flesh is heir to, but because they’d asked me to come in for what they call ‘a medication check’. I don’t know why they couldn’t just look at their own notes, and read the list (unchanged for the last ten years at least) of pills they prescribe me. These must be working – I’m still here.

Anyway – the consultation consisted of a blood pressure check (passed with flying colours) and a two minute conversation to establish that the prescription needed no re-adjustment , and as far as I’m concerned was a complete waste of time, both mine and hers. But I suppose it keeps the paperwork straight and the NHS computer up to date. So that’s alright then. Admin, having stolen an hour or so out of my day to no purpose, can breathe easy.

But, seeing as how doctor’s appointments are supposed to last the full ten minutes, regardless of how many people are kicking their heels in the waiting room outside, I then had to be treated to the statutory inquisitorial lecture to fill the time in.

“Do you smoke, Mr James? “

“Omigod – here we go again”, I thought, and pointed out that her colleagues had asked me that question every time they’d clapped eyes on me over the last twenty years, and by now it must be engraved ineradicably on just about every page of my notes. Unclean! Unclean!

“Yes”, I said. “not cigarettes any more, though. I smoke a pipe.”

“You really should think of cutting down an bit,” she said, in her best headmistress to recalcitrant schoolboy voice (and of course without taking the trouble to enquire as to the level I was expected to cut down from, or for that matter to inform me as to how much I should cut down to. The theory presumably being that no matter how little I smoke, the Nanny State still requires a decrease.)

I pointed out that over the last decade or so I had voluntarily “cut down” dramatically, from the 4 packs of Benson and Hedges a day which was my norm for about 40 years, to about an ounce-and-a-half of pipe tobacco a week. That’s what I’d call fairly serious pruning, but somehow she seemed less than impressed. “Sniffy” comes to mind. “Did I want a leaflet?”

No – I Bloody Didn’t! Why is it that everybody in a position of little brief authority these days thinks that every problem can be solved by stating the obvious in a turgid multilingual folded a4 pamphlet?

“And I really do think you should start losing some weight”, she went on, waving a diet sheet under my nose. A diet sheet, let me tell you, describing meals of such an awful grey, puritan bland institutional dullness that I wouldn’t impose them on my worst enemy. Not even on the local VAT inspector. Not even on Wee Gordy McBroon, although he’d probably think them irresponsibly hedonistic. No fats, no sugar, no starch, no alcohol, no red meat, no dairy products except the abomination known as skimmed milk, no chocolate, no biccies, no salt, no nothing. No nothing, indeed, in several languages, including Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Polish, and various scripts I didn’t recognise. I thought of asking for one in Hebrew, but bottled out.

“I want you to stick rigidly to this for a month, and then come and see me again”.

It was at this point that all diplomatic niceties deserted me.

“For God’s sake, woman! I’ve been fighting my weight since I was fifteen. I’ve tried more diets than you’ve had hot dinners. I’ve variously starved myself, purged myself, bored myself titless, and stressed myself out. And my weight hasn’t altered a jot.

Just answer me one question. To quote the Good Book, the days of my age are threescore years and ten. So at what point will the National Health Service say to me “Phil – you’ve reached a ripe old age – now eat what you like, smoke when you want to, have a few drinks if the mood takes you, sprinkle a bit of salt on your veggies, in fact stop trying to give up, or feeling guilty about not giving up, all the things you enjoy.” Against all the odds, I’ve reached seventy, for God’s sake. What age will I have to achieve to be allowed to do as I please, without having somebody haranguing me on the supposed evils of all the minor pleasures of my life? ? Eighty? Ninety? A hundred? “

And do you know – she had no answer to that.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

By any other name……..

We were in Sainsco’s – not our local bandits as it happens, although I guess they’re probably all much of a muchness, but another example further afield. We only wanted a couple of bits and pieces rather than the customary over-indulgent truckload, and it happened to be on the way back from where we’d been to pick up a load of books.

The store was quite busy – it was after all Saturday lunchtime - but we weren’t that fussed – grab a basket - nip round – pick up the few odds and sods, and straight to the quick checkout..


Except why is it that supermarkets – they all do it, no matter which flavour – why is it they always station the slowest dimmest, most gormless checkout girl, or the one who speaks the least English, on the quick checkout line?

And why is it that there’s always some female (they’re always female – it’s obviously a Girl Thing.) in front of you with about forty money-off vouchers to be fed one by one through the system, whereafter she’ll check her bill, item by item, with Ms Dimbo Snailspace al Raschid at the till, and then, and only then, she’ll spend ten minutes going through all her various pockets, handbags and shopping bags trying to find her purse, thereafter counting out the cash, more often than not in large quantities of coin. Grrrrr!

So I’m standing at the checkout behind her, with thoughts of slow torture and bloody homicide running through my head, and the Tannoy erupts into life.

“This is a Colleague Announcement. Would all checkout colleagues please assemble at their checkout points. “

“A Colleague Announcement” ?

A What????

Why, for God’s sake?

Is plain English really no longer good enough? OK – “workers” is probably pushing the Trades Descriptions Act envelope a bit, but why is the word “Staff” suddenly unacceptable? And why do they have to “Assemble”? A simple “All staff to the checkouts, please” would be so much easier to understand, and so much less intrusive to pedantic Linguaphiles like wot I am. Besides, who do they think they’re trying to impress? The place is almost entirely staffed by ethnic minorities, most of whom wouldn’t know a colleague from a cauliflower. And as far as the customers are concerned, providing there’s somebody they can ask where the Orange Squash lives, or if they sell paper plates, couldn’t give a toss whether they’re speaking to staff, colleagues, workers, esteemed employees, the Board of Management, the Archangel Gabriel, or the Great Panjandrum Himself.

Anyway - eventually, we manage to dump some of our hard-earned on an undeserving Sainsco, and head for the exit. I’m surprised they don’t call it an egress – it sounds so much more superior. Except that the customers (how long will it be before we’re “clients”, I wonder) probably wouldn’t recognise it, and they’d spend all afternoon asking some ‘colleague’ or another for the Way Out.

On the wall above the door to the Car Park I noticed the following rubric:

“Sorry you have to go. Come again – see you very soon. Drive safely.”

So not only have I spent half-an-hour buying such comestibles as would have taken me five minutes in an old-fashioned grocer’s shop, but now I find I’m being commiserated at for leaving their premises, being ordered when to report back, and by implication having my driving criticised.

By a Wall, no less.

Sorry, Sainsco, I shan’t be coming again. Soon or otherwise. On me, you shouldn’t rely, if you aren’t prepared to eschew all this fake posh and verbose rubbish and tell it like it is.

Or in the case of the Wall, preferably not at all.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Babes and Sucklings………..

This morning, I find myself at a loss. I don’t know whether to be amused, amazed, embarrassed, or just plain touched. All of them at once, probably.

We have, included in the eight lovely grandchildren Susie and I share between us, a little lad called Rhys. Second son of Sharon, Susie’s younger daughter, and her husband, Mark.

Rhys is about 18 months old, and at that fascinating stage where he’s beginning to turn from a mere blob, noisy at one end and insanitary at the other, into an individual person in his own right. He’s quite articulate for his young age, but he obviously tends to think in generics, rather than specifics; for instance to him all dogs are called “Gemma”, after our younger rough collie, with whom Rhys has an ongoing love affair. Which is mutual - they adore each other.

Now, as anybody who knows me will attest, I’m not exactly noted for a slim trim figure. Lithe, I’m not. I have an extensive (and expensive, come to think) tum-tum. “Stout” will cut it. Or “Corpulent”. Or any other euphemism for “fat” you can think of. I don’t mind. I like me as I am.

But why am I telling you all this?

Because Sharon has just texted, to tell us that young Rhys has taken to pointing at a statue of the Buddha that she has on her shelf, and proudly declaring “Grandad”.

Just wait till I see the little sod. I’ll give him “Grandad”.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Missing the point.

I was speed-reading the headlines on the BBC website over coffee the other morning, and had almost reached the end when I realised that I’d glossed over something interesting.

“ASDA sees total eclipse” impinged on my early morning half-consciousness.

Bloody recession!” I thought. “Bloody Gordon Brown……..!. ”

And clicked on the link.

Then realised that it wasn’t about my favourite( ie nearest) supermarket going down the tubes, but an astronomical phenomenon in the Far East.

I really should get a life.

Monday 29 June 2009

Why did the Chicken Cross the Road

I have been giving some thought to this age-old question, aided and abetted by (and with apologies to) the following:

John Wayne
A bird’s gadda do whadda bird’s gadda do

Inspector Morse
Don’t be silly, Lewis. Get another pint in and stop worrying about chickens. This is a murder enquiry.

Dylan Thomas
Morning. On the side of the tar-black, car-black road Dai Dungheap dreamed of his wives; feather-arsed, feather-brained, clucking and pecking their way through mindless, worm-important lives. Blind Captain Cat, sitting at the window of his snug cottage with his early morning tea-and-rum, bible-dark, treacle-thick, half-heard the ‘Cockadoodledoo’ as the fowl fluffed out his sleek, green-necked, sheen-necked plumage, self-important and shiny as an admiral’s hat, and crowing loud as a travelling preacher, began to cross…………..

William Shakespeare
Thus do I cross here, as the plot doth thicken:
In sleep an eagle; waking, a mere chicken

Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a chicken in possession of a good road must be in want of a reason to cross it.

Rudyard Kipling
If you can cross each unforgiving highway
With sixty seconds-worth of distance run
You’ll earn the right to crow “I did it my way”-
And what is more, you’ll be a chook, my son.

Tony Blair
I must tell you - New Labour – new chicken – new road. That’s what we mean by a caring society, a society where a chicken doesn’t need to give a reason for crossing a road, a society where we the Government have earmarked billions of pounds over the next five years to provide a new road system for our chickens – yes – our chickens - to cross………….

Dans ce pays ci c’est necessaire qu’une poule traversait la rue de temps en temps, pour encourager les autres.

Genesis, 1
In the beginning God created the Road. And the Road was without form, and void.
And God said ‘Let there be chooks: and there were chooks.
Male and female made he them. And God saw that it was good
And God spake to the chooks: Thus spake the Lord God:
O chooks – eat not of the Tree of Knowledge which groweth on the other side. Cross thee not the road, for the wrath of the Lord thy God is mighty
But the chooks did cross the road: And the chooks did eat of the Tree of Knowledge
And The Lord God spake thus unto the chooks, saying:
What is this that thou hast done?
In sorrow shall thou bring forth eggs, and the extra large ones thereof shall make thine eyes water, yea verily.
And thou shalt peck about in the ground for evermore, and feast on worms, thee and thy children and thy children’s children, yea even unto the lands of Colonel Sanders………………….

John Betjeman
Mrs Partlet crossed the High Road,
Back to comfy flat in Sheen;
Frozen chicken in her basket,
Safely wrapped in polythene.

G.K. Chesterton
Before the Romans came to Rye or out to Severn strode
The rolling English chicken crossed the rolling English Road.

Cole Porter
Hens do it; Cocks do it;
Even Orpingtons or Wyandottes do it
Let’s do it;
Let’s cross that road

Each batt’ry hen, now and then, does it
If let out from its bed
A bantam cock, if in shock does it
And a Rhode Island Red

You’ll find a point-of lay pullet does it,
Even Chanticleer like a bullet does it
Let’s do it!
Let’s cross that road!

Robbie Burns
Wee cluckin’, feathert cacklin’ Beastie
O what a panic’ s in thy breastie
Thou need tae start awa sae hastie
Tae cross yon street.
Aye, me, I’ll gang tae rin and chase thee,
Thee for tae eat!.

Geoffrey Chaucer (from the Cackleberry Tales)
And smale foweles maken melodye
That slepeth all the nyghte wyth open ye
So makyth them nature yn hir corages.
Thann longen hennes to goe on pilgrimage,

Winston Churchill
Some chicken! some road!

Anne Robinson
You are the weakest chook. Goodbye.

Margaret Thatcher
This chicken’s not for turning!

Ogden Nash
I am often asked for a reason as to why the chicken crossed the road.
I wish I knowed.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
WATSON “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention.”
HOLMES “To the curious incident of the chicken.”
WATSON “But Holmes - the chicken wasn’t there. It was across the road”
HOLMES “That, my dear Watson, was the curious incident.”

Albert Einstein
Where e = the energy used in crossing the road, m = the width of the road in metres and c = the circumference of the chicken.

The EU Agriculture Commission – Directive EU/7/1995/D24T99XK/EL56 Part 67SD3 Section 21
A summary of rules concerning the crossing of roads by chickens. For the full directive see Publication EU/12/2000/495720937/fr/645/ay (HMSO 6 languages 1854 pp price £1450 inc VAT)

A chicken (henceforth known as the appellant) shall be defined as any live fowl of the genus cluckus domesticus indigenous to any sovereign member state or colony protectorate commonwealth dependancy or satrapy thereof(for non-indigenous fowls and other feathered livestock see Section 37) over the age of six weeks and either male or female (for capons see section 132 clause 544a) whether in the food chain or no subject to its meeting all requirements contained in Directive 272/ SDFVW723/RVWEKJ4W3RWJ section 27 clause 533a and regardless of whether or not the appellant aforesaid has an egg-laying capability within the meaning of Directive 164A235M 2E43/2HH/128 part3 but excluding in all cases domestic fowls other than ducks geese swans larks orioles and other edible avia imported to or exported from the United Kingdom and its colonies dependencies and protectorates due to the veto imposed by the government of Her Britannic Majesty and any emergency directives currently in force under the Salmonella Protection (eggs) Scheme and also pigeons whether wild or domesticated but it should be especially noted that a parrot is not a chicken within the meaning of this Directive

A road shall be defined as any Motorway Autostrada Autobahn Route Nationale class A road class B road lane track public footpath or other highway river canal stream or other waterway situated wholly or in part in one or more member states and used for the transport of persons goods livestock cattle and other commodities always excepting substances prohibited under EU or national law but not excepting the transportation of cannabis within the national borders of Holland

Permitted reasons include any lawful desire on the part of any such appellant(s) as defined above to traverse any road to reach the other side of said road always assuming that any such journey is not commenced during the hours of darkness as laid down by the governments of each member state and that any such journey does not involve or include the crossing of national boundaries within the Union and does not involve any fowls as defined above crossing any boundaries into or out of non-member countries states commonwealths (see Directive 1 – exports section 7 livestock and Directive 2 –imports section 7 livestock and section 23 clauses 678-932 quarantine regulations for non EU fowls) and that any such traverse is conducted in a proper manner by the appellants aforesaid subject to or within local or national traffic rules regulations bylaws and emergency strictures as may then in force and providing always that any licences permits visas permissions passports and other documentation as may be required as laid down by the Commission in Directive 11/2000/549/VFRWEV8ASCQ6567C have been obtained at least six calendar months before the commencement of any proposed journey ……………………..

J.K. Rowling - from Harry Potter and the Chicken Soup of Mama Mephistofiles
The chicken crossed the road to where Harry, Ron and Hermione were standing outside the moonlit gates of Hogwart’s Academy. Harry could clearly see that there was something strangely different about this chicken, but couldn’t for the life of him think what it was. It wasn’t until the bird produced a crumpled cigarette from under its wing, stuck it in its beak, and gruffly demanded a light, that Harry realised who it was. “Cockamamie!” he cried joyfully………………………..

W.S. Gilbert from “The Chikado”
The chicken that crosses the road, tra-la
Has nothing to do with the case.
I refuse to take under my wing, tra-la
A horrible feathery thing, tra-la
With a satisfied smile on its face,
(chorus) With a satisfied smile on its face

And that’s what I mean when I say or repeat
To Hell with the chicken that crosses the street
(chorus) The chicken that crosses, the chicken that crosses
The chicken that crosses the street.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
By the side of Emmi- Leven
By the oil-spattered hard shoulder
Stood a chicken, feathers draggled
Daughter of the far Rhode Island
Far from home was this poor chicken
Far from lovely clean Rhode Island
O’er the shining Big-Sea water.
Standing by the Emmi-leven
Past her roared the mighty diesels
Past her screamed the Ford Fiestas
Middle-management Fiestas
Talking ever on their mobiles
Never seeing a poor chicken
Tired and hungry, heading homeward
Frightened by the Emmi-leven
Frightened by the fox behind her
In the dark and gloomy pine trees
Coming nearer, ever nearer
Looking for a chicken breakfast.
So the chook in desperation
Steps out on the Emmi-leven
On the busy Emmi-leven
Splat! The noise she made when dying.
Swallowed up by roaring traffic.
Chicken flattened by the traffic
On the fearful Emmi-leven
Never more to see Rhode Island ( and so on, interminably)

Samuel Pepys
To Charing Cross to see the new fowl lately arrived from the Indies. These were being driven across the strand and into pens the further side thereof, and looked as cheerful as any fowl could do in that condition. And so to bed.

Monday 1 June 2009

Another fine mess......................?

Just a couple of amusing little things, but they’ve left me unsure whether to be worried for the future my country, or smug in that my opinions of those running it have been confirmed.

Item: We sold a book this morning. Called “ The Best of Laurel and Hardy” . Nothing unusual in that.


The buyer? HM Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Item: – I must confess to having a giggle at the headline in yesterday’s Sunday Times, which read “ Gordon Brown wants Balls for Chancellor”.

And Arse for Foreign Secretary, Dick for Minister of Education, and Armpits for Minister of Health, no doubt. Is the man so arrogant that he thinks he can run the whole country on his own?

Monday 18 May 2009

The Hair of the Dog

I may have mentioned before Susie’s fascination with vacuum cleaners. [v. “Taking the Mickey”]

I think we currently own about eight – one for upstairs, one for downstairs (OK - this is not unreasonable – it saves lumping the bloody thing up and down the stairs every day ) one Vax in case one of the dogs does a whoopsie on the carpet, a small portable job for the car, and a few dead ones, which I’d be happy to take to the tip, but which she insists we hang on to ‘just in case’. Just in case of what, escapes me – as far as I know they don’t do a Doctor Who and miraculously regenerate all on their own, and being older models than our current crop, they’re not even worth keeping to cannibalise for parts.

I, on the other hand, detest the infernal machines with a passion. Apart from anything else, the noise they make disturbs my concentration, sours my mood, and engenders that squeaky-chalk effect which penetrates deep into my soul. The Professor of Physics who thinks sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum hasn’t heard ours. I’ve been through quieter and less stressful air raids, in my time. Goering doing his damnedest didn’t annoy me as much as the daily vacuuming does. Mind you – I was only a toddler at the time, and probably didn’t realise he meant it.

But her love affair with assorted floor-cleaning devices has just reached new heights. Or do I mean depths.

But, as they say in Llarregub, to begin at the beginning. You don’t have to be Welsh to be a poet, but it helps.

We have two dogs, Gemma and Amie, Rough Collies both, who as is customary with the breed, have long, long coats. And so when they moult, which at this time of year they do, they moult bigtime. Thus, a certain amount of vacuuming is (admittedly) necessary, if we don’t want to be permanently wading through an inch-thick layer of discarded Collie.

A few days ago Gemma began scratching herself rather a lot. So Susie had a careful look through her (Gemma’s) coat and found (shock, horror!) a flea. It wasn’t a particularly big flea, as fleas go – maybe it had been ill. It was certainly somewhat dead. But Suse, having won (for the moment at least) the Second Mouse War, has no problem recognising a new foe when she sees one.

Red alert! Action Stations! Mobilise forces. Call out the Cavalry! (in this case her elder daughter Melinda, her usual second-in-command and co-conspirator when it comes to the armed conflict against household pests. I must tell you of the Great Ant Wars, sometime.)

The first exercise involved their stripping-out both dogs, which took a couple of stressful hours and resulted in enough spare fur to cover another one, most of which came from Amie, who since she’s been interfered with by the vet had grown her coat to over a foot long, in places. And another insectine cadaver. But no live ones, and no fleashit. Problem solved, or so we thought.

But then Gemma promptly sat down, had an exploratory sniff at both her own and Amie’s now pristine rear ends, and then started scratching again.

Deep sighs all round. A light sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon from the Mrs James aforesaid. Never mind. Re-group. Initiate Plan B. Bathtime.

Amie’s very good, when it comes to baths. You’ll lift her in, and she’ll just stand there resignedly, looking down her long aristocratic nose with all the innate disapproval of a Dowager Duchess in a bus queue. But she won’t make a fuss – that she would consider beneath her.

Gemma is a dog of a different colour. (Literally, as it happens, as well as figuratively.) Gemma doesn’t do baths, and throughout the process will do her utmost to leap out and leg it. This engenders a slight logistical problem, involving all hands, with the aim of getting all of the dog into the bath at once, and keeping her there, which unless you want the bathroom floor a foot deep in water, is a bit necessary. And in all fairness to the poor beast I suppose that if I had two people holding me down and one directing hot water all over my head or up my jacksie I’d be somewhat miffed and inclined to try and do a runner, too.

But the canine ablutions completed, and the bathroom vaguely cured of having had two wet dogs shaking themselves all over it (and the rest of the Dramatis Personae), it was everybody downstairs, and one-at-a-time (the dogs, not us) onto the grooming table. (no – we’re not really that doggy, or that posh, the kitchen table with an old blanket slung over it has to suffice.)

Roll of Drums. Flurry of Trumpets. Sound the Advance. Let Operation Dry Dog commence.

This last consists of two grown women spending several hours with a hair-dryer and a curry comb apiece doing Vidal Sassoon impressions on dumb animals, thereby transferring considerable quantities of surplus-to-requirement fur from dog to kitchen floor, assiduously checking, comb-ful by comb-ful, for any unwanted fauna with high-jumping talents. To not much avail, frankly. One more defunct example of Ctenocephalides canis, and that’s yer lot.

Amie went first, and was, as usual, no trouble. Gemma, on the other hand……..well. let’s just say I had to leave off watching Man U winning the Premier League again, and come and hold her down. You’ll get the idea.

Anyway – finally she allows herself to be lifted down from the improvised grooming table, has a pro-forma shake, wanders into the front room, and begins another reciprocal arse-sniffing contest with Amie.

And then sits down and starts scratching again.

“O – what a pity” quoth Mrs J. (and if you’ll believe that,……………..)

So - finally, we come to plan C, which brings us neatly back to Susie’s vacuum cleaner fixation.

Because I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes watching my darling wife actually hoovering the dogs.

Honestly! I promise!

And then sifting through the dust and detritus with all the studied care of an archaeologist going through a spoil heap. I told her – if she finds any Iron Age pottery shards in there we’ll have to call Time Team in.

But, I suppose, why not? The dogs seemed to enjoy the sensation, and if anything’ll get rid of the little nasties it’s Susie’s industrial strength juggernaut vacuum cleaner.

So when I stop laughing, I’ll probably,,,,,,,,,hang on a moment…….GEMMA WILL YOU STOP BLOODY SCRATCHING!!!

Thursday 7 May 2009

Chacun a son Gout.

On this lovely sunny spring day, I have all the calm serenity of an open-air antique fair in a cloudburst, all the joie-de-vivre of a lovelorn amoeba, and all the affection for my fellow-man of Tomás de Torquemada on a bad day in Sevilla when the Inquisition ran out of firelighters. I’m not happy! Bunnywise, I’m positively myxamatotic.

I’ve suddenly morphed from a respectable upright clean-living serious bookseller into a standing joke. While I love, even expect, to be laughed with, I do not, repeat not, like being laughed at! Especially when it’s not my fault, and even more especially when I’m in bloody agony.

So what brought this on?

I woke up yesterday morning with an attack of gout.

Go on, then, all you wannabee comedians – get it out of the way – have a good belly laugh. Call up regiments of red-faced ex-colonels. Do all the Grouse and Vintage Port jokes. However, the only grouse I’ve had lately are not of the edible persuasion, but entirely verbal, and invariably politically inspired. (McBroon and his New Muddle Army, Stasi Britain, Jackboot Jacqui, the wholesale abandonment of our traditions and culture, and all the other festering boils on the bum of a true Englishman) and I’ve barely been near a decanter of Taylor’s 1960 since it was at the “not a drop is sold till it’s almost cold” stage. I love good port, but sad to relate, it’s a love not reciprocated. And besides, if I do occasionally indulge, it’s not so much my foot that rebels, but my head.

So, apart from a chronic heart condition, type 2 diabetes, a small macular hole in my right retina, serious back problems caused by many years of heaving sodding great lumps of elderly furniture in and out of houses and vans , rheumatic knees, elbows and ankles, and all the other heartaches and natural shocks that septuagenarian flesh is heir to, I’ve now got bloody gout. Sod me - I only need piles, toothache and athlete’s foot for the full set!

Although in general, I feel quite good, for my age, in spite of the deliberately non-PC lifestyle I’ve followed avidly for the last 50-odd riotous years, smoking too much, drinking far too much (and far too often) , dining to an extent that would make Lucullus Lucius Lioinius look like Mahatma Gandhi, and indulging in as much similar bodily abuse I could think of wherever and whenever the opportunity arose. Which I made damn sure was as often as possible.

According to the Nazional-Health-Polizei, I have a life-expectancy of about minus thirty years. But what do they know? As they said about Churchill, when he died at 92 or whatever, “It was the cigars and the brandy that killed him, you know”.

Although I still feel about 18 in my head, I have to admit that the old bod is beginning to slow down a bit. I’ve had to give up on any ambition of playing up front for England alongside Wayne Rooney, running the London Marathon dressed as a penguin, or rowing across the Atlantic in a coracle. Especially all at the same time. But as somebody (Maurice Chevalier, I think - I can’t be arsed to look it up) once said when asked what it was like to get old – the alternative is worse.

So I shall grow old disgracefully, with a bit of luck.

Meanwhile I have this nasty tootsie-come-lately on the end of my right foot where my big toe used to be, about the size and shape (and colour, come to think) of a small haggis. And throbbing, visibly. I can’t get a shoe on, (I rarely wear socks, unless I’m going somewhere special, like a Buck House Garden Party or Bow Street Magistrates Court) and even the duvet weighing on my foot is unbearable. This littlepiggy went to pot.

And everybody, notably my nearest-and-not-so-dearest-all-of-a-sudden, is laughing at me.

Oh well – I’ve had the effect, I might as well enjoy the cause. Pass the Port, somebody.

Friday 6 February 2009

Remembrance of things past.

It wasn’t always like this. Sitting in a nice warm office, tapping away at a PC, insouciantly dispatching books all over the civilised world and Milton Keynes. Once upon a time, before the Web was spun, I had to really earn my living. The hard way.

So let’s wind back ten years or so. Please find to follow: A Day in the Life of an Itinerant Bookseller.

Typically, it’s 8-30 on a damp Saturday morning, and I’m behind my regular pitch in Horsham Market Square outside the Old(e) Town Hall, trying to recover from both a five-o’clock start and the physical effort of heaving the worst part of a ton of assorted literature out of the van and lumping it onto a 70 foot run of stall space; then unpacking and arranging the lot into an attractive display. At least the pitches there are covered, which helps.

I must be a masochist. Books are uncompromisingly heavy. I usually carry about 30 banana boxes full plus some magazines, ephemera, prints, and sheet music, And not forgetting the kit – collapsible shelves, a trolley, lights, point-of-sale display stuff, wet weather protection, and so on. It’s a toss-up as to which will collapse first, my back or the van springs. Sadly, only one of these resources is renewable.

From an itinerant trader’s point of view, in addition to the Olympic Qualifying Standard weightlifting requirement, the main drawback with books as stock-in-trade is that to optimise sales they need displaying by subject, but in order to optimise precious van space they need to travel by size. This means that they all have to be re-sorted and re-arranged at each end of every day. It can take me the best part of two hours to unload and to set out the stall, although funnily enough I can usually whistle through the reverse process in half that time. Maybe I sell more than I think I do.

So I’m soaking up a coffee and a bacon butty, bent on getting what’s left of my breath back and waiting till the pump stops banging away like a steam hammer on Viagra and settles back into its normal comfortable fibrillating apology for a beat.

A few early birds cluster round the stall. I concentrate on fortifying the inner dealer and leave them to browse at their leisure and to approach me only when and if they want to. One can’t hard-sell books – the gung-ho “Have I gotta volume here for you Guvnor” approach will send the average browser scurrying off like a frightened meerkat. And my early birds buy a lot of worms, dropping in on me every week as they do, grubby fivers at the ready. I can usually reckon to have taken the exes and to be into profit after the first three or four customers.

A disembodied ‘Excuse me’ materialises, seemingly out of nowhere. I glance up, and manage to work out that it’s emanating from a plastic mac and rain hood about twenty feet to my right, lurking in front of the Bargain Basement end of the display. And it’s a plastic mac and rain hood sort of a voice. The sort that wears old-fashioned National Health specs with one side bit Sellotaped on, and keeps its ready cash in one of those squeeze-open leather pouch thingies.

“I’m looking for a book”.

Now – there are several possible snappy ripostes to this exposition of the overwhelmingly obvious, ranging from “When and where did you last see it?” through “A particular example perchance, or will any one do?” to “Sorry, this is a fruit and veg stall – we don’t do books.”

But he gave every appearance of having had a sense of humour bypass, so I swallowed all of these and raised an enquiring eyebrow. He sidled along the front of the stall and muttered, almost whispered, into my face. Gottim in one, specs-wise.

“It’s called ‘Journeys by Foot and on Horseback to Deserted Lepers in Siberia.’“ [Honest – I’m not making this up!]

By Katherine somebody, I think he said – by the time he’d got to the end of the title I was so mesmerised that I failed to take proper note of the author’s name.

I resisted an almost overwhelming temptation to enquire as to whether he'd like the hardback or paperback version. and shook my head, weakly.

"Catchy title. Can't say as I've ever had a copy, though. Not that I’ve noticed." And I’d have noticed. But I kept my professional smile pasted on, without letting it disintegrate into the fit of the giggles that I could feel gestating.

"Published in about 1880. It's out of print." He volunteered, disappointed, but helpful to a fault.

No! It never is! Fancy that! Stroll on! This tome must have been out of print for almost as long as a First Folio or a Gutenberg Bible. And probably sold almost as many copies.

"Yerss - well, it would be, I s'pose. The interesting ones always are."

He informed me that he’d been searching for the book for years, which snippet of autobiographical passementerie left me less than surprised, and insisted on my taking his phone number in case I found a copy. I probably still have it somewhere, in the unlikely event that this esoteric literary chef d’oeuvre should turn up. Details on a postcard, please, but don’t all rush.

He then went back to browsing through the morning’s offerings, culled a couple of cheap paperbacks from the Bargain Basement, handed over his 75p in coppers and 5p coin, (notch up another one, for the purse,) and continued on his way.

Meanwhile, there are by now more than a dozen potential nice little earners, heads down along the length of the stall. Time to play Spot the Customer. A fascinating game, this. Size up the browsers, and mark down, before talking to them, which ones will actually part with money. After years of practice, I can reckon to score in the high nineties, although just occasionally I do get it spectacularly wrong.

Four or five beards. For some reason they nearly always buy, do beards. Possibly both books and beards are a comfort thing. Or maybe chaps who don’t spend time shaving have more for reading. (The other dead cert customer, and easily the most productive, is your middle-aged, middle-class woman. But it’s a bit early for them – you rarely sight one before about 10-30. )

There’s a cheap suit, aluminium briefcase and rimless glasses. He’s meticulously conning every page of every book on the stall. He’ll be there for an hour or more, but won’t buy a thing – his type never do. So why bother? If he just wants a good read he’d be much more comfortable in the Library, especially on a miserable morning like this. Another one of Life’s Minor Mysteries, like (for instance) why does Tooting Bec Tube Station always have a freezing gale blowing through it, even if outdoors it’s 75 in the shade and dead calm, or why don’t banks and credit card companies put a wider signature strip on the backs of their cards, for all us flash Leos with bold handwriting .

But he helps keep the stall looking busy, so I leave him carry on undisturbed.

Omigod. Here’s my favourite anorak. Mid to late sixties – thin face – sharp red nose - graying sandy hair – clothes by Millet’s out of Oxfam – and almost certainly a retired pedagogue of the Grammar or Minor Public School calibre. Classics, at a guess. He tips up every week, and not only does he part with money, but he often brings me a couple of carriers full of his surplus-to-requirements, often including some rare out-of-print stuff which he sells me for sod-all and change. I must ask him about the Deserted Lepers – it’s just the sort of thing he’s likely to have.

Anyway - he’s a nice bloke, a good customer, and up for a considerable slice of my attention. The downside is that [a] he automatically assumes that I’ve read and can discuss every book on the stall, no matter how abstruse, and [b] given a smidgin of a chance, he can and will bore for England.

I wave him a cheery Good Morning and edge down to the other end of the stall, leaving him to browse undisturbed. I don’t feel up to a half-hour debate on the relative merits or otherwise of the Oxfordian and Baconian Heresies, or on whose translation of the Iliad is truer to the original.

Although we’d done that one the previous week, as it happens, and believe me, ploughing up my ‘O’ Level Greek after 45 fallow years had proved a strain. Then we’d conversed for a while on the subject of whether Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ still stood up given 30-odd years of hindsight.

(For the record, we ended up awarding Alexander Pope an alpha, and Alvin a beta-minus.)

A couple of old dears, complete with shopping trolleys and Daily Mirror opinions, are rummaging through my sole box of fiction. You’ll only get money out of them in the unlikely event that you’ve got a Catherine Cookson, a Barbara Taylor Bradford, or something else of that genre they haven’t read. As long as it’s in paperback, nice and thick, and under a quid. And as long as you can tell them what it’s about – God forbid they should take any risks.

No luck today, anyway. They drift off, chattering noisily.

I notice another regular approaching. And I almost wish she wasn’t. Regular or approaching. New Woman. Mid thirties, power dressed, Attitude. She prowls up and down the length of the stall, barking into her mobile, shoving all obstacles, human or otherwise, out of her way, grabbing book after hapless book, invariably the newest, shiniest or best condition examples, from my carefully organised display or even out of her fellow-reader’s hands, cracking them open, scanning a page, sniffing, and tossing each rejected volume higgledy-piggledy back onto the stall.

She does buy, and isn’t fazed by price –she’ll happily lash out £15 - £20 on a book if it interests her, (or, and more likely, if it goes with her décor or her self-image) but whereas the transaction, indeed the relationship, between reader and bookseller is normally a gentle one, this Rottweiler bitch will attempt to make a confrontation out of anything. Worse, she invades the noiseless tenor of my ways and sours my mood, wrecks my display and endangers my crunchiest stock.

A few minutes later, having pillaged along the entire length of the stall, leaving chaos reigning in her wake, she reaches me, several glossy coffee table books wedged under her mobile-wielding arm. I brace myself for the inevitable haggling session, to which I have no particular objection as a rule, but today her timing isn’t that good. There are several customers within earshot, and unlike predatory antiques hunters, most book-buyers don’t expect to beat you down, and stump up the marked price like lambs, bless ‘em. The last thing I want is her giving them ideas.

She slings a capacious briefcase-stroke-handbag onto the stall, hoicks a book out of it with her unencumbered hand, and waves it under my nose, temporarily breaking the flow of her mobile diatribe.

“You sold me this last week.” No I didn’t – she chose it and bought it entirely without my aid and assistance.

“I paid you £14.50 for it….” No she didn’t – it was priced @ £14.50, but she beat me down to about a tenner on a Byzantine deal involving several volumes, some unframed prints she wanted for her new office, the picture framing bloke on the pitch opposite, and something belonging to Steph, the girl on the up-market repro stall behind mine. I took her money and we divvied it out later.

“…. and it’s absolute bloody rubbish” . No it isn’t – it’s a universally recognised benchmark work on the subject, if a tad technical, which can be a drawback if one only buys books because one thinks the pretty graphics on the covers might impress one’s friends or clients, and one has to have absorbed enough of the contents to ginger up the small talk or fend off questions.

“It’s total crap. Easily the worst book I’ve ever read. And so what are you going to do about it?” And without waiting for a reply, continues giving the poor bugger on the other end of her phone a hard time.

“I’m not going to do anything about it, sweetheart.” (I always do the term of endearment number on her type – it really pisses them off.) “I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but I only flog ‘em, I don’t write ‘em.”

She sniffs the scent of battle, which demands her undivided attention, so she snarls “I’ll Speak to You Later, and I Bloody Well Want Answers!!” into the phone, hangs up, and eyeballs me.

“That’s not damn well good enough. I have rights here. I want my money back.”

This calls for some quick thinking. As far as rights go, she hasn’t got any. After 40 years dealing with the General Public, God Bless ‘em, I know all about rights, theirs and mine. And she’s a pain in the butt. But OK, a pain in the butt that has been known to drop next week’s Tesco’s tribute into my lap. So while she has no right to a refund, and no chance of getting one even if she had, in truth I’ve no particular objection to taking the book back and giving her a credit against future purchases, even though the handsome dust jacket is by now on the missing list, the spine’s cracked, and by the state of the wretched thing she’s been reading it in the bath.

Beckoning to her to follow. I walk along to the end of the stall, out of earshot of other potential and more innocent sources of income. “Let’s have a look at what you’ve picked out, and I’ll see if I can do anything.”

We go through her selection. Adds up to £65. On a straight haggle she’d reckon to get the lot for a level £50, and I’d be more than happy with that, so she wouldn’t get much more than a pro-forma argument. But let’s try it on a bit, for the hell of it. I can always submit gracefully, and blush all the way to the bank. I fire the opening shot.

“ I never allow more than half price on returns, but seeing as how it’s you, I’ll take that one back and knock a tenner off this lot in exchange. Deal?“

Fortune sometimes favours chutzpah. At that moment, her mobile rang, and she recognised the imperative to impose her will on some other poor sod. “OK – done deal” she said quickly, fiddling in her purse and counting me out five new tenners and a fiver. I trousered the cash, stuffed her purchases into one of Tesco’s finest, and smiled sweetly at her as she marched off in the direction of the Carfax, firing off a further quiverful of expletives-deleted into the tender care of One-2-One. Then I re-priced the battered prodigal at £7, and put it back on the stall. With a bit of luck somebody’ll buy it, but even if they don’t, the worst way I’m three quid light on one side of the balance sheet, and the best way I’m fifteen ahead on the other. I can live with that.

A few minutes repairing the damage to the display and filling the gaps, and then it’s back to Spot-the-Punter. A couple of couples; one pair browsing the books, the other going through the sheet music.

Couples are difficult to assess – whether they buy seems to depend on which is the dominant partner – if it’s the man they’ll quite likely jolly each other into buying everything that catches their attention, but if it’s the woman they’ll talk each other out of buying anything at all except the one slim volume she might happen to want.

Don’t ask me why – I’m still reading through the History section, and haven’t got round to Psychology yet.

The first couple have kept hold of 2 or 3 fairly serious books, which is a good sign, they’re still looking, which is another, and they’re laughing, which is probably the clincher. But no – all at once they look at each other, dump their selection back onto the stall, and saunter off, arm in arm, without catching my eye. Funny – I could have sworn………

No matter. Suddenly I have a line of people clutching books and waving money, so I go into cash-and-wrap mode for a few minutes. Last in line is the sheet music couple. He’s doing the carrying, she’s doing the talking. A cultured, nicely modulated, sexy voice like blued steel dipped in honey.

“You’re asking a lot for your music – does it really fetch that much?” Uh-oh – here we go again.

“Well - yes it does – but don’t worry - I can do you a fairly good quantity discount on that lot. Let’s have a look.”

He dumps a 6 inch high pile of Classic FM’s raw material in front of me, and I riffle through it and start to work out a total. She pipes up again, interrupting the flow of my mental arithmetic.

“We’ve got boxes and boxes of music at home that we no longer need – might you be interested in buying it? “ You can see her visualising three weeks in Tuscany on what she thinks will be the proceeds.

A tricky one, this. While I do achieve good prices for old sheet music, possibly because I’m one of the few people to stock it, there are two considerations. First of all it comes in for nothing, as a bonus included with the parcels of books that I buy anyway, and secondly, I end up with far more than I can possibly sell. Even if I were to reduce the prices, I couldn’t shift any more, or worse, I’d have to carry twice as much to achieve the same turnover. So the residuum builds up in the garage, and every so often a space crisis threatens. At which point I ring one of our local schools, who are only too delighted to come and collect the surplus. Phil as travelling philanthropist. This lets me bask in the warm glow of a self-nominated Good Citizenship Award, and saves me time and money running a vanload to the tip. These two benefits not necessarily in order of significance.

So the last thing I need is to pay out hard cash, especially as they will expect some relationship between a buying and a selling price. But I can’t tell them that, because any music I manage to sell them will be clear profit, and less tonnage to carry home, so I don’t want to upset them. Fudge it, Uncle Phil.

“Well yes, in theory, but not at the moment. I bought a vanful last week from the estate of an old lady who used to play second violin for the LSO, and until I’ve shifted some of that I’ve no need for any more. But I’m here every week, so keep asking. And I’ll tell you what – I haven’t even sorted through it all yet, so tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll try and bring you a fresh selection next week”

This seems to mollify her, for the moment. She nods, understandingly. Back to the maths. What they’ve selected comes to nearly £75, so I offer them a generous 30% discount, unasked. Stuffing bundles of notes into the back pocket is less strain on the lower lumbar than lumping boxes of notes into the back of the van, I find.

He writes me out a cheque, I start stuffing carrier bags, we get to chatting in general terms about their musical requirements, and I promise to do my best to fill them the following week. Then to let myself off the hook, purchase-wise, I suggest the school idea.. They think this a brilliant wheeze. Positive re-cycling, like a musical bottle-bank. Local Benefactors. Even more kudos than Tuscany. So everybody’s happy, except possibly Robinson Minor in Form IVa of the local Grammar, who’ll be forced to plough for hours through their largesse on whichever musical instrument his upwardly mobile parents have inflicted on him, when he’d rather be out playing footie with his mates. But he doesn’t know that yet.

Time for me to re-jig the display again.

It’s notable how rarely people bother to replace books exactly where they found them. Half end up back to front, another third upside down, half of the rest manage both, five per cent get slung back any old how, and the remaining few end up where they started. Maybe. So by now the stall looks like a tip.

The tidying up takes longer than expected, because I get cornered by the schoolmaster, who’s dug out one of Laurens van der Post’s turgid tomes. This leads us into a fascinating if somewhat one-sided discussion as to whether the theories of Madam Blavatsky can be reconciled with Rudolf Steiner’s Theosophy of the Rosicrucians, this knotty problem served with a side order of Sir James Frazer and a dollop of Radakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy. And yes – I have actually ploughed through all these, but not lately, and never again please God, so that after five minutes of this intellectual stodge my eyes are glazing over and my recall module is in overload. I’m sure the guy on the fruit and veg stall doesn’t have these problems. Although knowing Mr Chips here, he probably gets inveigled into debates on the implications of EC regulations for the straightness or otherwise of cucumbers, the social dilemmas caused by recent advances on the hybrid tomato front, and whether avocados have souls.

I escape, because somebody down the other end of the stall needs my attention, and on the way I gather up the books left on the stall by the couple who’d disappeared earlier. I don’t know why, but I didn’t re-display them, I put them round the back of the stall out of sight.

Then I bribe Steph to nip down to the caff for refills all round. This costs me a cuppa, a Danish and five minutes looking after her stall, but I don’t mind. We do it turn and turn about. Market folk are great like that – we all babysit for each other when the occasion demands it.

So I’m standing with my back to my stall, watching hers - her stock poses more of a security risk than mine, when out of the corner of my eye I notice the male half of the couple who’d done a runner. He was almost frantically searching along the length of my stall, and it wasn’t difficult to guess what he was looking for. I turned round and held up the hidden books.

“Looking for these, by any chance”.?

The relief on his face was palpable. “Thank God for that.” He grinned at me. “I thought you’d sold them, and She-Who-Must-Be-Indulged has finally made up her mind she wants ‘em. It’d have been Cold Tongue Pie at home for a week, if you had.”

Funny – she hadn’t looked that fierce. I lied a little, but only a little.

“I knew you’d be back, somehow, so I put them aside. All part of the service. That’ll be fourteen pounds fifty.” He paid up like a lamb, grinned conspiratorially at me again, and went merrily on his daily round, a happy bunny.

Oops – Bore Alert! I see my schoolmaster approaching. Evasive action needed. Quick! Where’s my mobile? I grab it, and fake what is going to be a long drawn out call, interjecting “really”s and “I see”s and suchlike into the dead instrument. He shows me a couple of books, including the van der Post, I raise 4 fingers, he gives me £4 in coin, I hand him a carrier bag, he packs his purchases into it, we wave at each other – I break off my imaginary conversation long enough to mouth “ thanks - see you next week” at him, and that’s that. Another crisis averted.

And so it goes on. By the end of the day I’ll have taken a fair bit, three-quarters of which is profit. But this is hardly Easy Street – if I take into account expenses, and the time spent buying, loading, sorting, pricing, driving to the market and back, and so on, I’m probably on less than a fiver an hour. Or looking it another way, something like a couple of quid per box per journey into and out of the van.

These days, thanks to the Internet, life is easier, especially on my elderly back, but somehow it’s nothing like as much fun. It was a tough old life, selling books in the market, but I miss it, in a funny sort of way.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Alternative Medicine. Is there a doctor on the phone?

One has to take one’s fun where one can find it, these days, amidst all the doom and gloom.

As that rightly celebrated (and much missed) columnist Cassandra of the Daily Mirror noted, telling of the time when he enjoyed (literally) a telephone number differing by one digit from the local railway goods yard, and how he answered the inevitable wrong numbers and directed everything from bales of wire netting to crates of pigeons hither and yon across the Metropolis. Hilarious. Especially the pipe organ dispatched to Hackney Gasworks.

[“Camden Goods” – September 24th 1956, quoted in his book “Cassandra At His Finest and Funniest” – please, please, pleas,e if you can find a copy, do yourself a favour and read it !]

We have a similar scenario – I hesitate to call it a problem – in that our telephone number differs only by the last digit (a 9 instead of an 8) from our neighbourhood Doctor’s Surgery. Consequently we are subjected to a steady trickle of people banging on about their insanitary and embarrassing complaints, plus the statutory few with attitude, who steadfastly refuse to believe that they have a wrong number.

“Are you sure you’re not the Surgery?”

“Certain. We’re a booksellers/”

“So why did you answer the phone, then?”

It would of course be easy to give people the right number and suggest they dial again, but there are three arguments against this simple remedy.

Firstly, they’d never get through to the surgery. You could die waiting for them to answer the phone, especially if you’re a bit under the weather to start with.

Secondly, eight out of ten callers have minimal English. Judging by my ad hoc telephone survey, the Children of Allah must be a fairly unhealthy lot, compared to the indigenous population. Or maybe there’s just more of them than there are of us.

Thirdly, where’s the fun in putting them right? Or, for that matter, where’s the point? Doctor will in any event be far too busy to see them for at least ten days, and all he’ll do when they do finally get past the receptionist and enter the hallowed halls is to prescribe a few pills. Doctors don’t do doctoring any more, they are merely overpaid sales reps for the international drug companies, when they’re not being pushers of Nanny-State propaganda for our Stasi-inspired Government. I know this, because I went in recently with a touch of tennis elbow, and after waiting the best part of an hour got given a diet sheet and a ten minute lecture on the evils of smoking. I tore up the first, stuck a metaphorical two fingers up to the second, and bought some Deep Heat from the Chemist, which sorted me out in no time.

Anything more serious than a boil on the bum and you’’ have to go to the Walk-in Centre, so-called because it’s located bang in the centre of the traffic gridlock known as Coventry, and is invariably a two mile walk from the nearest available extortion racket masquerading as a council car park. Once you get there you’ll be kept waiting, sitting on a extra hard chair, for five or six hours, before being given a cursory examination by a twelve year old doctor who has been on duty without a break since a week ago last Thursday, and an appointment to see a consultant in about six months time. If you haven’t died in the meanwhile from the Bubonic Plague you caught in the waiting room.

So I decided that the best course for all concerned would be for me to diagnose and treat the various ailments of my callers myself. Dr Phil, the telephone medic, that’s me. “What seems to be the trouble?” is the watchword.

I work on the assumption that for real emergencies folk will know enough to dial 999 without my help. So if they’re talking to me they’re not exactly at death’s door. For anything that sounds as if it might be complicated I cut out the various middlemedics and give them an appointment at the hospital at some point in the distant future. With instructions to telephone the hospital and confirm a couple of weeks beforehand, because they might be busy that day.

Other than that, I find that the bulk of the supplicants can, like Caesar’s Gaul, be divided into three parts.

A large percentage of callers turn out to be the indigent and indolent parasites and shirkers amongst us, trying to pull a sickie.. I’ve no time for them. I simply say “Sorry – we don’t issue sick notes any more – we gave out so many that the Benefit Office won’t accept them any longer. Suggest you go back to work.”

For anything girly, such as morning sickness, period pains, or of an obstetric or gynaecological nature generally, I prescribe Friars Balsam, to be diluted in a large bowl of boiling water and the fragrant steam so generated inhaled. I have good medical precedent for this; when I was first married in about 1962 our local GP prescribed this to my wife, who went to him because she thought she might be pregnant. He habitually prescribed Friars Balsam for everything from a fractured skull to Athlete’s Foot, however, so we weren’t really surprised. However, she gave birth to a perfectly heathy son, so presumably it’s effective.

Most of the rest can be assuaged with a sharp intake of breath and “There’s a lot of it about – take two soluble aspirins twice a day and telephone again in a week to confirm that you’re still alive, so that we can keep our computer records up to date.” “Antibiotics? We don’t prescribe antibiotics any more, I’m afraid . Not since the Credit Crunch. That skinflint Gordon Brown put a stop to it. “ You owe me bigtime, Cameron!

Otherwise, I tend towards the Revenge Option, and prescribe medicaments that I had inflicted on me as a child; Witch Hazel or Arnica for aches and pains, Iodine (ouch!), half-a-pint of Cod Liver Oil for anybody that phones when I’m in the shower or is otherwise mildly annoying, a double dose of Dr Collis Brown’s Chlorodyne for anybody that really pisses me off, and so on. Does anybody remember Dr Potter’s Pink Pills for Pale People? I bet my local Chemist does, by now. I wish I could recall the name of that purple ointment they used to use for such things as Impetigo.

The odd thing is, that in spite of sending monthly invoices to the Health Minister, I don’t seem to have received any payment for my services to date. Which seeing as how I must have saved the NHS a small fortune, is a damned bad show, I reckon. No wonder the country is in such a mess.

One final thought. The phone number situation presumably works both ways, so be careful; if they’re as fed up of taking my calls as I am of taking theirs, you’ll ring ‘em up to order some nineteenth century French erotica, and receive a 16 page booklet on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and a ten minute lecture on contraception.