Once upon a time I wrote a Friday column in The Newcastle Journal Based on my rural retirement from Big City journalism. My characters are real people; drinking friends, mostly, from the Red Lion in an area I call Godzone. Now it’s back. . .
Friday, February 28
A ragged rendering of God Save Our Gracious Queen from the urinals last night reassured me that all was well with my elderly pals at the Red Lion: the hostelry’s newly-formed Coronavirus Male Voice Choir has thankfully taken to heart Jacob Rees-Mogg’s patriotic exhortation that hand-washing should take as long as the national anthem.
“Would that be one verse or two?” mumbled Dennis the Menace. “One!” snaps the Lawnmower Salesman from the bowels of Trap Two. “No one except Mystic Mogg knows the second verse.”
Rees-Mogg’s musical choice isn’t universally popular, though: Klondike the wind farmer, a diehard Jock, insists on warbling Flower O’ Scotland while the landlord, who was raised in Wales, whistles Land of My Fathers. Me? I wash my hands to The Red Flag to spite Boris; That’s the dis-United Kingdom for you!
Back in the bar a lively Thursday night crowd discussed the unreported bits of the ‘stay washed to stay well’ message from the Leader of the House which is rumoured to advise keeping a snuff box full of opium about one’s person, always having a leech handy should blood-letting be deemed necessary and ingesting sixty drops of laudanum before vespers.
I tell the old farmers of my secret fear that all the ten-times-a-day hand washing will cause a drought. Or that we’ll be up shit creek with an epidemic of norovirus if we don’t. The Byreman worries that the country will run short of toilet paper so I tell him that I’d be happy to share my copies of the well-stuffed Guardian that I am stockpiling.
“No thanks,” he sniffs. “I’d rather use The Times.”
It’s all politics, you see.
Sunday, March 1
My grandson, seven-year-old Logan, Skype-calls from Accra. Born in London and given a Scottish name (followed by a parade of tribal ones) he lives in Ghana where my son the chef and his wife own a successful restaurant.
“Granny, look!” he demands, pointing to the hole in his smile where a tooth used to be. Together, we admire the gap that shows he is growing up and carry on a bitter-sweet conversation that follows a familiar script. How are Granny’s chickens? Is Pampa [that’s me!] still feeding ‘my’ fish? When will you come to stay?
Alas, the modern world is one in which our children and their children often live a great distance from the grandparent generation; many of our friends are in the same boat. Yet it is an estrangement about which Gemma and I can have no complaint, having imposed a similarly tyrannical distance between our parents and their grandchildren during my career moves to London, New York and Sydney.
But today, of course, coronavirus combined with sickly old age and long-haul flights add months to the prospect of a family reunion. For now, Skype will have to do.
Monday March 2
Sad news comes in the most tragic way: I receive via Microsoft Messenger a stack of replies from friends to whom I purportedly sent a message but which was actually the result of a hack. Most of them have seen through the scam but one is different: ‘Hi, David: I am Richard Herkes’ daughter-in-law. Unfortunately, Dick passed away in November, he went very suddenly. I am clearing his iPad — Rona’
Dick Herkes of West Rainton in County Durham was my great friend, particularly in my early twenties when I lived in Sunderland and worked for The Journal. We had some great times together, he the night circulation manager and me the journalist, which usually ended at three in the morning with a ‘sober me up’ all-night breakfast at a cafe opposite the Central Station.
The wildest and unwisest of our escapades almost got me fired: wandering down to the little office where Dick hand-wrote the Journal’s posters (‘Byker Man Murdered’ and so forth) I found him sleeping off an earlier encounter with the demon drink. As a jape I turned my hand to bill posting and painted a dozen ‘Pope To Wed!’ posters, carefully folding them face down in the pile.
I almost choked on my all-night breakfast an hour later. “What d’you mean you ‘didn’t find them’?” I shrieked. “Where will they be, then?”
“Anywhere in the West End,” wailed Dick, face buried in hands. “The mainly Catholic side of the city.”
The rest of the night was spent making frantic phone calls to newsagents begging them to check the posters before inserting them in the billboards or, where a newsagent could not be reached, sending out a man in a van to surreptitiously tear down any offending poster.
Dick always believed that my career was saved at the inquest that followed by him ascribing the emergency recall to ‘a spelling error’ in the posters. But I know it was down to the power of prayer!
Tuesday, March 3
A friend who lives in Italy emails with some helpful advice in combatting coronavirus: “If you are unlucky enough to catch the virus then eating pizza may be your only solution,” he writes. “It isn’t a cure but it’s the only food you can slide under a door!”
How we laughed when I shared the email down at the pub. Naturally, Farmer Morebottle had to top it.
“There’s a pub in the centre of Callander where the Princes William and Harry stopped off on the way back to London from Balmoral seeking a couple of toasted sandwiches.”
“‘Sorry,‘ said the landlord, ‘No can do. The chef’s gone home and won’t won’t be back until 5pm.” Hungry and disgruntled, the princes left, leaving a delighted landlord to order the local signwriter to install this legend over his door:
‘ By Royal dis-Appointment’. . .
Wednesday, March 4
I worked with Patsy Chapman, a wonderful tabloid journalist and former editor of the News of the World, when we were young execs on the Sun in the 1980s.
She was the brightest, bubbliest wordsmith I ever shared a desk with and her talent endures even into her premature retirement. That’s why I follow her every utterance on Twitter. Today she kicks off a whole new angle on the coronavirus sage. . .
Coronavirus reminds me of the three-day week in the 1970s, which affected factory production, and the global energy crisis which gave rise to panic buying. There was a big run on toilet rolls, just like today. There were also sugar and bread shortages.
In my mum’s old people’s flats, little old ladies had wardrobes full of bags of sugar. Newspapers ran easy bread recipes. . . then there came a flour shortage. Motorists were squabbling at the petrol pumps, which attracted mile-long queues whenever fuel supplies arrived. Meanwhile, with strikes everywhere, bins went unemptied and bodies couldn’t be buried. The power went off before you could even plug in your Carmen hair rollers.
We had to walk miles, with all the bus and train strikes. I did a story about the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle (an area around Wakefield) not being able to heat sheds in which to bring on forced varieties. So there was a rhubarb shortage. I got a quote from some rhubarb authority saying: “We would advise housewives not to hoard rhubarb as it will just go limp. . .” — PATSY
Well, that kicked off a volley of tweets from her old newspaper pals. . .
ELLEN: Loved being in the office during the power-offs. Out came the lanterns and the bottles of booze from the filing cabinet. Party time!
GILLIAN: I have a massive stockpile of anti-bacterial gel given to me by a PR and am inviting sealed bids. I don’t use the stuff; it dries the hands terribly and at my age that’s not a good look.
I’m going to an event organised by the same PR on Thursday, and yesterday they sent me their ‘Coronavirus Protocol’ guaranteeing anti-bac bottle on every table. I’m going to grab every bottle I can. I am pondering a county lines arrangement with the supply of anti-bac gel alongside cocaine for provincial middle-aged women. It would be shortlived, but the profits will be massive!
BILL: I remember when the power went off down the pub the electric lager taps stopped working but the bitter drinkers were fine as pint pulling with old fashioned beer engines only needed muscle power.
MICKEY: In our pit town toilet roll shortage didn’t affect us; we always used the Northern Echo, anyway. But we couldn’t use pages with any image bigger than double column because the ink made your bum itch.
PATSY: You’re okay now, though? It’s all soya ink these days, isn’t it? So you can have a sustainable bum!
LINDSEY: I LOVED the three-day week. Candles. Chatting. Crumpets toasted on the fire and…extra pocket money for cleaning the glass in the Parkray! Happy days! I loved Edward Heath
Thursday, March 5
A producer on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show calls just after 8am (“Thought I’d let you have lie-in, David”!) to ask if I will talk on air to Nick about criticism of the media’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be an old pals’ act: Ferrari and I were broadcasting partners many years ago, first on LBC and later on Talk Radio, but, as I often point out to him, there’s nothing in it for me these days.
How wrong I am. At the end of the interview, Nick goes on to congratulate me for a recent column concerning both him and LBC and urges listeners to “check out VoiceoftheNorth.net”. Within hours traffic to the website quadruples. By day’s end we experience a volume of first-time visitors like few others.