Royal Visit.

Around Christmas time there was a documentary on the telly box about the engineers, mathematicians and thousands of support workers at Bletchley Park, the top-secret location of the codebreakers who cracked the Enigma machine messages. I made a comment on Facebook about what an amazing story it had been, and what heroism those people had displayed – working against seemingly insurmountable odds.

My Facebook comment was responded to by Mike O’Connor who has largely been an internet friend of mine for about 7 years, having met him and his wife Sue at an Ian McNabb gig at The Stables in Milton Keynes, back in February 2004. I once referred to Mike as ‘Mikey Boy’ online, and believing this automatically made him cool and youthful again, he’s never really forgotten it.

We’ve all met up from time to time at various gigs, but we’ve never spent any proper time in each other’s company. Mike mentioned that he and Sue and their son Jamie live just five minutes from Bletchley park, and to their shame had never visited. We agreed therefore that I should go over to their house in Milton Keynes for a weekend, sometime in the new year, and we would all go together.

This weekend was that weekend. I packed a bag, bade farewell to the cats and caught my train to Milton Keynes Central. Some eejit train driver had turned his freight train over at Bletchley, causing network chaos and signalling fuckwittery.This meant that I had to disembark at Northampton, but very kindly Mike and Sue came all the way out to collect me from much further afield.

I had heard rumours of Mike and Sue going a bit billy bonkers on the welcoming committee, and there had even been whispers of a red carpet with brass band and various local dignitaries. However, since I was now arriving at another station, all of the pomp that had been arranged was apparently dispensed with, and happily I was met by the O’Connors about 10 minutes after my train arrived. I walked towards their car shouting, “Where’s my fucking brass band!?”, but I was appeased with the promise of a G&T as soon as we got back to the house.

Milton Keynes is not nearly as dull as people would have you believe. There are some really pretty areas, and it feels like it has alot of space. Mikey Boy and Sue’s home is beautiful and very welcoming. I was ushered in and introduced to Binnie the Jack Russell, who quickly became my new best friend. Then I saw the banner. And the t-shirts. And the mugs. And the typed and printed menus and itineraries. And the place settings. Bloody hecking hellfire. Mike had gone utterly mental and had all kinds of brilliant stuff printed up with “Chappers in MK 2012”, as though it were a bona-fide royal visit! Completely flattered, a bit gobsmacked, but highly amusing. Absolutely priceless!

The G&Ts started to flow and while Jamie began to entertain me with anecdotes about how totally EPIC he is, Sue cooked up an absolute storm with meatballs, pasta and a delicious tomato sauce. Over dinner the conversation got sillier and sillier and the laughter was non-stop. Mike was quizzing me about things he’d read on Facebook, but had hardly dared ask until I was a) tipsy and b) full of pasta. A great night with great friends, round a family dinner table, just as it should be. Full and drunk and happy, I stumbled off to bed in The Chappers Suite, which was in fact Jamie’s Dr Who themed bedroom, which had been temporarily renamed by him for the duration of my stay. Blessim!

The following morning, Mikey Boy made us all do PT on the lawn in our vests and knickers. Actually that’s a fib. What actually happened was we all performed our ablutions and sat down to a delicious cooked breakfast, to set us up for the day ahead. Following breakfast be repaired to the lounge with steaming mugs of tea, and carried on with nattering, catching up and having a larf.

At a suitable juncture we set off at a brisk rate to Bletchley Park, and by buggery it was cold. The wind was icy and a bit painful if I’m honest. Sue (a fellow Northerner) and I agreed that it was definitely colder down South, than it ever is up North. But then the Sun only shines on the righteous, I suppose. Bletchley Park was just as I imagined. Some huts have been renovated to look something like they did in the 1940s, some have been left as tumbledown prefabricated buildings, but I understand that finances are coming in slowly but surely to help renovate more of these historic buildings. Some of the unused land has been sold off for housing developments, which is not an ideal scenario in terms of preserving the site I suppose, but it makes economic sense, and since Bletchley Park is the very by-word for progress, one can’t complain.

There’s a large brick-built block with houses the majority of the exhibition, and the all important Turing Bombe – one of the decoding machines used to decipher the Enigma messages that were sent by the Nazis to each other, giving vital operational information during WWII. The Enigma machines were very complex coding machines that transformed plain text into coded text via wires, cogs, reflectors and valves, and the patterns were altered by the Germans every 24 hours. There were millions upon millions of possible variations, and every day WRNS who were trained to operate Turing’s Bombe (named after an ice cream sundae) cracked the enemy codes, and passed on the Nazi communications to the Home Office.

It was absolutely mesmerising to see a reproduction of the Bombe actually working, and to see how the 12 miles of wiring and shedloads of Bakelite were used to crack these codes, sometimes in less than 15 minutes. There were also a number of Enigma machines, including Mussolini’s own personal unit.

In the manor house itself, we learned about the Leon family who built Bletchley Park, and continued to own it until 1937. The actor Sir John Standing (the pervy bishop in V for Vendetta) is a descendant of the original Leons and is in fact the 4th baronet, but never uses the title.

The all important pit stop at the coffee shop (Mike’s poorly hip was playing him up – an old shrapnel wound perhaps?) found their refreshments to be both delicious and reasonably priced, except Mike expressed horror at the price of tinned pop. We reminded him there was a war on, and he plumped for a NAAFI cappuccino.

There were lots of displays giving a wider view of wartime Britain: a mock-up of a 1940s home, displays telling the stories of the carrier pigeon teams, HMS Petard (the crew of which won George Crosses for capturing the first of the Enigma machines) and various other amazing WWII heroes. Sue and I found a display about the important role of female spies and resistance agents very informative, but got the giggles when we reached a board about ‘FANY Support’ (First Aid and Nursing Yeomanry).

Eventually, having been in Hut 8 (Alan Turning’s workplace throughout his stay at Bletchley), seen the Bombe and Enigma decoding, and gradually starting to suffer the effects of hypothermia, we dashed back to the car, and buggered off back to O’Connor Towers for a warm up. There’s a slight possibility that I had another G&T at that point, but if I did, it was only to ward off the cold, and certain death.

Having provided me with a comprehensive overview of the region’s restaurants, Jamie had been keen for me to choose somewhere to eat out on Saturday night. Since he seems to be quite a young connoisseur, I delegated that choice to him, and he decided in his infinite gastronomic wisdom that we should go to the Red Hot World Buffet in Milton Keynes’ theatre district. Some of you may already be familiar with this concept, but for those of you who prefer the food on your plate to be of one nationality at a time, I will explain.

Basically you pay a plate price, and then  you stuff your fucking cake hole as much as you like. There’s Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, Thai, Tex Mex and everything else that you can imagine or possibly want, all sitting there either in rows upon rows of bain-marie, under yards and yards of heatlamps or on hotplate upon hotplate of deliciousness.

We ate until we were a table of four Mr Creosotes. I guzzled down half a pint of Black Russian at one point, like it was tap water. It was a feeding frenzy, and there was a certain amount of very un-British jostling at the bain-marie when the fajita chicken started to run out, but all in all it was brilliant. Jamie chose well and it was a smashing night out.

It was snowing like a good ‘un by the time we left the restaurant, so back at the ranch, Sue and I changed into our cosy jimjams, and we all watched Paul (the Pegg/Frost alien film), while I washed my tea down with another couple of G&Ts. Rude not to, since they’d bought a whole litre of Gordon’s especially for me. At bedtime I trundled off to the Dr Who themed ‘Chappers Suite’ and utterly zonked out within nanoseconds of my head touching the pillow. Apart from a few minutes at 3:30am (when poor Jamie’s Red Hot World Buffet decided to make a re-appearance) I slept soundly, and all in all I thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful stay with great friends.

This morning we breakfasted together, but one eye was on the clock as we were thinking about me getting back to the train station, and since Milton Keynes was under about 4″ of snow by this time, we decided to take it easy and not visit the Peace Pagoda and Tree Cathedral, which had been on the itinerary. Sad, but I suspect they may be even more beautiful after Spring has sprung.

Goodbyes were said just after 1pm, and Mike dropped me off at Milton Keynes Central. Sad to leave good friends and a great weekend behind, but pleased to be going home to the felines. I’ve just opened my weekend bag to put my mucky (mostly food stained) things into the washing machine, and found a beautiful card, handmade by Sue, which encourages me to return to them.

Careful what you wish for O’Connors – I bloody well will!

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London Loves – Part 2.

In the morning, we woke up a bit blurry headed, and so more tea was had, and after a post-mortem on the shenanigans of the night before, we headed off in the car to a National Trust place called Morden Hall Park, and met with Fenella’s friend Sally, who among a great many other lovely things is a dog-walker and dog-sitter. She is also a trainer and can help owners with dogs with behavioural problems. Sally had nine dogs with her: Fenella’s two, her own two, and five more of her clients’ dogs. It was great fun, strolling through the park with all these assorted dogs. They’re all wonderfully behaved and so were allowed off the lead, and I made a special friend in Hattie, a little old Staffie lady, who believes she is a princess and is quite above all this hanging around with filthy mutts. Once all the dogs had had a good run and a swim in the River Wandle, he headed for the caff, and had some lovely grub, coffee and a chin wag. At this point the dogs were tethered to a fence, and sat so beautifully, that Sally hardly had time to eat because of all the people coming over to compliment her on such a lovely pack of woofs.

We took Fenella’s dogs back to the house and relaxed for while, with a cuppa. I was starting to feel blue about having to go back that afternoon, having had such a great time. Reality’s such a bitch at times. Fenella enquired about which train I had to catch and I explained that I had an open ticket, so I could catch any off-peak train between then and December. Then she made a suggestion. Since I didn’t have work until Friday, why didn’t I stay another night and go with her to work? She explained it might be a bit dull to hang out at Radio2 for a whole evening, but I was welcome to come and go as I pleased. Blimey. AS IF hanging out at Radio2 would be dull! AS IF! Outwardly, I was composed and being quite cool about the whole thing, “Yeah, I suppose that’d be alright…”, but inwardly I was wooping, punching the air and high fiving myself… if of course, that were possible.

As we got in the vicinity of Western House, we stopped to eat at a lovely little Thai canteen, and had Phat Thai, spring rolls and tempura vegetables, washed down with tins of fizzy pop. Bliss. We headed off then, and were quickly whizzed through security once we were in the building. I was given a pass that says, “BBC Visitor” which gave instructions to return it upon departure. I have to admit to still having mine, and yes I realise this makes me deeply uncool. The lift up to the correct floor is absolutely tiny, but before I could continue with my fantasy of being trapped in there with Huey Morgan, we arrived.

Busily Fenella gathered up the papers and documents and bits and pieces she needed to do her first bulletin, and as i sat there feeling a bit wowed about it all, Sally Traffic popped in to say hello. Then with the six o’clock news over with, we went for a wander. We stood and gawped at Simon Mayo through glass for a bit, listened to Bob Harris talk about bum cancer from Nashville and then went to get a cuppa. I was making myself feel useful by carrying some papers round for Fenella and increasingly felt like Baby Houseman, when she carried a watermelon. “It’s okay, I’m carrying papers you know…”. I then met Steve Wright who is a) more dashing than I imagined and b) really very lovely indeed. The sort of person who is so smashing, you feel that you’d like to hug him. I didn’t though, rest assured.

After a bit of a natter with Steve (first name terms, see?) we set up in his studio so that Fenella could do the remainder of her bulletins from there. What I hadn’t realised was that after a certain time at night, instead of filing ones nails, shopping online or practicing a golf putting technique with the aid of a coffee mug, the news presenter is actually in control of the ENTIRE station. So every segue, link, programme and back-up programme (I probably have the technical names all wrong, but you get the idea) on that evening, were entirely as the mercy of two red heads, who 24 hours before had been in a nightclub, arms aloft, yawping, “So let me go faaaaaarrrrrrrrr!” at the tops of our voices. Now obviously as a visitor I did very little except make tea for me, Fenella and Trevor Nelson (Trev’s producer was new that night, and couldn’t get the hang of the machine) and collect news scripts from a printer. However, the idea of duct taping Fenella to a chair and taking over the airwaves for my own evil purposes did cross my mind.

At about half eleven, and after five bulletins, alot of BBC tea and much gossiping, Janice Long came in. Now it had all been exciting and wonderful (except going to the loo straight after Jo Whiley and finding the seat warm) but this was the best bit. I love Janice, and having met her in person and chatted a while, I love her even more. She is where it’s at. She is passionate about music, really properly knows her stuff and knocks many of these young pretenders of broadcasting into a cocked hat. It was an absolute pleasure to meet her. What made it even more of a pleasure was when Janice began her programme with a little on-air chat to Fenella, who had just delivered the midnight bulletin. “Thanks Fenella, so how was the Dodgy gig?” she asked. “Great thank you Janice”, replied Fenella, and continued to tell her a bit about the gig and how good the music had been. “That’s great Fenella. And was Clair from Crewe there?…”. Blimey. A mention from Janice Long, who was sitting just feet away, smiling at me through several sheets of glass. SQUEEEE!

Anyway, hometime. A swish looking car with blacked out windows was waiting outside Western House for us, and transported us back to Fenella’s, like proper celebs (or drug dealers, take your pick). It was about 1am when we got back, and so straight to bed. Fenella explained that we had an early start tomorrow, and so I set my alarm for 8am.

I was up and at ’em by 8:30, and we caught a train to Victoria just after 9. My host was a bit concerned about me, a provincial type, travelling through the capital at rush hour, but it was fine. Nothing to it, just busy, that’s all. We said quick goodbyes on a delayed and slow moving Victoria line tube, as Fenella got off at Oxford Circus, and I continued on to Euston. Once there, I found the next train I could take was almost an hour away, but that was okay because t gave me time to grab a coffee, acclimatise myself to reality and de-Londonise. Ann rang to catch up on each other’s gossip, and it was just the loveliest way to feel like I was going home.

I had a wonderful time, was really glad to have seen great friends and to have made new ones, and to have had some truly money-can’t-buy experiences. A great gig, a lot of love, a kick through the leaves in a pretty park, a fantastic and generous host for my stay and to have been able to learn so much about one of my favourite things in life: radio. Enormous thank yous to everyone who made that possible.

And that’s why I love London again.

London Loves – Part 1.

I’ve fallen back in love with London. It comes and goes in fits and starts, but at the moment London and I are having a very deep and meaningful affair.

The first time I really truly fell in love with London was almost exactly three years ago, sitting on a bench on the South Bank, looking out at the water. I had hot chocolate because it was so cold, and there was a mist rolling along, so that I could barely see to the other side. Then just as if I had been dropped into a film set, an old man sat on a fold away chair in front of us, took a cello out of its case, and began to play Chopin’s Etude Op25 No7.

I cried and cried and cried.

But then there have been visits to London that have just been grubby and disappointing, and my terrible dislike (sphincter-clenching phobia) of downward escalators has sometimes stopped me from doing all the exploring that I have wanted to, via the Underground. However, this terrible dislike (ahem) seems to be fading, and I’ve even bought an Oyster card in the last few weeks. Increasingly, I feel like I belong there, although London is probably not as thrilled as I am by this concept.

This time, I was doing everything just right. I had scoped out the cheapest possible tickets between here and Euston (£23.50, open return! It’d cost me more than that in butties if I walked it!), booked them in advance and arranged to meet friends from all over the city (get me!) in a lovely pub recommended by my mate Roussety. I had also got my bed for the night at Fenella’s place, which she affectionately refers to as The Crack Den, but which in fact is BEEYOOTEEFULL. I stepped off the train at Euston, wandered casually across the station, stuck a tenner on me Oyster card (which for some reason makes me feel very grown up), took a DOWNWARD ESCALATOR (oh yes!) to the Underground trains and travelled on the Northern line to Leicester Square. I know roughly where I’m going in that area, so I took myself for a bimble round, to Londonise myself a bit.

I was disappointed to note that Leicester Square is STILL a bloody building site (what ARE they doing in there?) and so headed for Charing Cross Road. I stopped off for a lump of choccy cake and a coffee in a Cafe Rouge, which seemed to annoy my waitress intensely. You’d think I had just ordered baby brains and nun’s blood, the way she looked at me, but I decided that being mocked by the French is character building, and continued to slurp at my beverage. I left most of the cake though. I know, right? Me! Leaving cake! And it was quite delicious, but I will admit to being a bit of a giddy kipper, and I had started to get excited butterflies in my tummy.

The butterflies were for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were there because I was about to see some of the very, very loveliest people in my life, all of whom are people I don’t see nearly enough of. Secondly, I was going to see Dodgy play their new album in its entirety in London, which is really a sort of homecoming gig for them. I love Dodgy for many reasons. Primarily because they’re my mates, and I am just heart achingly proud of my best boys, but also because they’re really, really fucking good. They always were, and their new material is definitely worthy of a Mercury nomination. Definitely.

So I met Fenella, Gordon, John Devine, John Roussety and Julia in The Angel, nextdoor to St Giles in the Fields church. What a beautifully preserved pub! I half expected to hear an air-raid siren go off, and Nicholas Lyndhurst walk in, wearing a Trilby and overcoat. Once everyone had arrived, the terrible business of getting pissed had to be addressed, and we made quite good inroads within a very short space of time. I really cannot remember why, but at one point I thought I was going to have a stroke, because Gordon declared (fictitiously) that he had once fingered David Bowie.

At the correct moment, the remains of our drinks were downed, and we traipsed off to The Bowery. I have just remembered that I linked arms with Mr Roussety all the way there, because his coat looked warmest. Ever the Girl Guide. Upon arrival, we were ushered to a table to say our names to the lady, who would then check lists and stamp our hands. I was at the head of the queue and the seven-foot bouncer said, “You have to join the queue”. I explained that I had, and even demonstrated it by indicating towards my feet to show where I was standing, and then to my friends behind me to indicate the remainder of the queue. He rolled his eyes (I rolled them back – it seemed polite) and added, “No, you have to join the back of the queue”. I explained that ‘the queue’ constituted my friends and no-one else, and therefore we were all together as one party, but no. Igor had spoken and until Master had flicked the switch marked ‘logic’, the queue was going nowhere until I moved to the back. When I got the front again, I smiled at the lady with the clipboard and said that I would be on the guest list. She looked and exclaimed, “Oh yes! You’re at the top of the list actually! Sorry…”, and gave Igor a withering look. I tried to form my features into a face which said, “I will NOT be writing kindly about this in my London clubs column in the Independent!”, but realising I had drunk a whole orchard’s worth of cider, it probably looked more like, “Heheheheheeee HIC!”.

Downstairs, in the room where the gig was being held, I looked around, spied a great spot for us all to stand, and headed that way. As I crossed what was essentially a tiny dancefloor, I passed Math, we hugged hello and he headed directly for the stage. Bloody hell, how’s THAT for timing!! I hadn’t even got me coat off and the gig began. Perfect. Dodgy’s new album “Stand Upright In A Cool Place” is fast becoming one of my all time favourite albums. I have only heard it live, except for a few recorded snippets that have been made available here and there, and I am absolutely dying to get my copy, to have, cherish, listen to over and over, and learn word for word, and chord for chord. The tone of the album, the subject matter and the musical style could not be more perfect for me, right now, at this very stage of my life. And here I was, watching three of my favourite people playing some of my favourite music of all time, surrounded by some of my best friends, in one of the greatest cities in the world. That realisation hit as I sang along to ‘Only A Heartbeat’, and I don’t mind admitting that there may have been a moistening of the eyes. For me, that’s what it’s all about, and without those moments, life would be pretty shit.

After Dodgy’s new album set, a support band called The Rise came on. They were unexpectedly good. I say it like that because as people wandered off to the bar, or for a natter, or for a smoke, The Rise started to play, and people were looking at each other, saying “Bloody hell, these are GOOD!”, and going back in to watch. I watched a bit of their set, but in the end we went outdoors to smoke and natter to people. We were introduced to all kinds of lovely people we had heard of through old Dodgy tales of yore, and people whose names and photos we’d seen on Facebook, but here they were in real life to say hello to! I met some great folks, especially Ray, Mick and Vanessa, and at one stage I was chatting away to a lady I had danced with earlier, and Math came out and exclaimed, “Christ! I cannot believe YOU two are chatting to one another!”, although I am still not sure why. Must remember to ask. It felt like the new Dodgy family was meeting the old Dodgy family, and there was a LOT of love about. We all very much came away with a collective feeling of having been to a big old love-in. And I know what you’re thinking, but no. Not even the tiniest of Garys. Good eh?!

Back downstairs for the second of Dodgy’s sets, and the place was bouncing. All the greatest hits were played, everyone’s favourites and crowd pleasers, and it was brilliant. Dancing and singalongs aplenty. There was a point at which Nigel made up an impromptu two verse song, while Andy tuned up. At the end of the song he said, “Sorry, it’s only short”. Now, I tried with every fibre of my being, but my comedy timing gland was in overdrive, so I replied, “That’s what SHE said!”. Quite a lot of people heard. Some laughed. But Nigel gave me one of those stern looks that only someone with experience of placing minors on a naughty step can give. “Chappeeerrrrrs….”. Ooops.

Afterwards the party raged on and Ray continued to tell everyone who would listen that he is fifty-one. “I’m fifty-one you know, I am!”  I felt compelled to compliment him on how well and fresh-faced he looked, despite his years and the ravages of rock and roll. This encouraged him further. “Yeah, I know, I’ve looked after myself, see. Fifty-one you know…” Bless. Photographs were taken (none of which were in the least bit sensible or attractive), goodbyes were said, and eventually, after a really very lovely night out, Fenella and I decided to head back to her house.

We got literally yards before some friendly voices shouted from behind us. “Oi! Wait up!”, and we turned round to find Nigel and his nephew Chris, hot on our heels. Collectively we decided that Burger King was the very place to be and so settled in for more silliness over beanburgers, Whoppers and coffees. Marvellous. We left the boys to drive back to Malvern, and we ladies (ahem) caught the last Brixton train, which isn’t nearly as edgy as it sounds. Once back to base, I seem to recall there were cups of tea before bed and happy slumber.

Remember, Remember…

…the fifth of November. And what a night it was. No gunpowder, not much treason and very little plot (that was lost years ago), but definitely an awful lot of booze.

I had spent the afternoon relaxing and nattering with my Mum and was invited down to Stafford to hang out with Ann. Her daughter Tilly was staying at her friend’s house and so Ann and I had an opportunity to pop out to a local pub for a quiet one. Once RBS had got their act together and decided to reboot their digital banking system (“Have you tried switching it off and switching it back on again?”), I was good to go, and whizzed down the M6 like a whizzy thing. I did however take care not to be too whizzy as some people had just that afternoon perished in an enormous pile-up on the M5. Eeep.

I got to Ann’s and was greeted by two enormous breasts and a French Martini. While the breasts were quite lovely, it was the Martini that impressed me most. There is a distinct possibility that I kissed the glass and said, “Come to Mama”, but I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny this. Ann’s French Martinis are perfection. Vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice and a tiny dash of vanilla. Deeeeelishuss. Two Martinis in, it became apparent that it was going to be ‘one of those nights’. I thought it wisest to put make up on, just in case. Ann did the same, we scrubbed up lovely.

By this stage we had a boogie playlist blasting through Ann’s iPad, and we were dancing like Pan’s People wished they could dance, round Ann’s living room. Then we made a tactical switch to Southern Comfort. I was called a number of less than politically incorrect names for asking for Coke with mine; Ann necks hers straight. She’s nails. Hard as. And then red wine, with Coke. I decided that since it looked like we were going embark on a bit of binge drinking, I’d better charge my phone up and take some photos. I leaned over to plug my charger in, draped my favourite animal print scarf into a lit scented candle and set fire to it. As I patted out the flames, Ann proceeded to wet herself on the settee. While she was crossing her legs, rolling around and crying a bit, I tried to raise awareness of the potential seriousness of the incident by shouting, “Ann! There was an actual flame! An ACTUAL flame!”, which served only to send my companion further into hysteria. With friends like her…

Having recovered from my near-death experience (which Ann still insists is one of the funniest things she’s ever seen with her own eyes) and found the funny side of the two holes that were now melted into my scarf, we decided it was best to get out of the house and treat the good people of Stafford to the Annie & Chappers Roadshow. Those lucky, lucky people. We got a taxi (our driver was George, who was amused, but not really joining in) and not knowing what the best watering holes in Stafford were, we said for him to drop us off at the first one we came to. The Shrewsbury Arms.

Now then, at first glance “The Shrew” looks a bit weird. My first impression was, “It looks like the Slaughtered Lamb off American Werewolf. If we walk in here and everyone turns round and stares, I’m off”. We opened the doors, Ann fell over a bar stool, shouted “SHIT!”, and everyone turned round and stared. So in the much respected style of Aveline Boswell, we just smiled and shouted, “Hiya!” to our new audience. A man with a tattooed face said to Ann, “So, are you from Liverpool then?” and Ann replied (in the broadest Toxteth you have ever heard), “What the fuck do you think, Einstein?”. It could have gone either way frankly, but everyone laughed, and within seconds we had free Jagerbombs, a snug full of new mates, a handshake and a welcome from the publicans, and an official introduction to the pub’s pets (a cockatoo that bites and an iguana called Iggy).

While the welcome was warm and the craic was outstanding, we decided not to stay, and see what other pub based adventures we could have in Stafford. We wandered along and ended up in Joxer Brady’s. As we walked in, we heard a guitar and a singer and gave each other that look: we’ve hit the mother lode, we’re here to stay. Among many areas of compatibility, Ann and I have discovered a lot of our musical ‘likes’ are similar. We have also discovered we both like watching hot men sing and play songs, and that we both like getting pissed. So when we found ourselves in a very nice pub, with a red wine & Coke each (we like to think of it as a winter spritzer), and a very pretty Irish boy playing all our favourites, we had to check we hadn’t died and gone to Heaven.

Luckily, our fears of a premature deliverance to St Peter were quickly allayed. As we walked into the back room to get a better view of the entertainment, I was pounced upon by a man who looked like the love-child of Michael Stipe and Gollum. This was proof, if any were needed, that this was not the after-life. However, Gollum/Stipe was a great laugh and Ann and I danced and sang along and got the rest of the pub off their arses too. Turned out to be a great gig for Yer Man too, despite him refusing to sing rebel songs, because “England’s been good to me”. Hm.

As the music ended (which, after a number of encores, only happened when our hero broke a string) Ann and I staggered into the bar. I went over to buy us another couple of drinks “for the road” while Ann got busy with her organisational skills and her iPhone, and ordered usa taxi home and a kebab. I swear, given enough lip gloss, hairspray and carbohydrates, Ann could rule the world with that phone.

While she did all that, I chatted up a very good-looking, one-armed man at the bar. I mean he was hot, had the cute beard thing going on, the twinkly eyes and a lovely accent. He lived in Stafford but came from somewhere in Lancashire originally. Don’t know where. Anyway, his lower right arm was missing, which is quite a distinguishing feature in anyone’s book, and so if you happen to know him, and he happens to be single, point him in this direction? Cheers.

JUST as I thought I was getting somewhere with this guy (although I was so fucked at this stage, there is a good chance he was just tolerating me to be polite, or was just plain scared), Ann came over to remind me that I went to get drinks half an hour ago, the taxi had arrived and it was time we left. I necked the red wine I had purchased, Ann downed hers too, and we staggered off into the night.

Along the route home, we attempted to convince the taxi driver that we needed to get home quickly. Instead of admitting that this was because we had kebab-based loveliness on its way, we told him that it was because we were due to do a live-feed show from Ann’s house, for Babestation. Our driver laughed. Now I’m still not sure if that was because there were two well-upholstered women on his back-seat and he thought it unlikely that we were telling the truth, but by the time we had got home he was actually crying. Might have been because I told him my minge looks like Hagrid. Who knows.

Shoes off, telly on, another drink poured, kebab delivered, feet up. We were still laughing and still doing a post-mortem on the night into the early hours of November 6th.

Eight hours later, we were up and nursing hangovers, and being soothed by mugs of tea and Noel Gallagher on the BBC red button thingy. Lovely.

“But ANN! It was an ACTUAL flame!”

Spooky Samhain.

I’m not normally one for Halloween. I dislike the way it now seems to be sponsored by Haribo and is mainly an excuse for hordes of teenagers to beg for sweets and cash with menaces. There I’ve said it.

This year I was invited to do it properly, with applewood bonfires, purification from the bad luck of the last months, offerings to the Ancestors and welcoming the dark months (for without dark, there can be no light). In addition to this, there was cake, booze and dirty joke telling, which as far as I’m concerned is what makes Paganism so brilliant. Actually, I’ll go so far as to say that they are three of the things that make LIFE brilliant.

Ken and Lucy O’Malley-Local were our hosts, along with their daughter Sassy. I was invited along with Marie and Paul Bentall and their son Kian. It became apparent that it was going to be a great night, when Ken answered the door to us, dressed as a bearded crone, complete with pipe and headscarf. Marvellous. I am pleased to say his wife looked rather sexier as a saucy corsetted pirate lady, complete with bandana.

Drinks were poured, music was played and the kids were taken for a spot of trick or treat action (not that I approve, but I did steal a chewy lolly or two, just for safety test purposes you understand). Afterwards we were fed and given another metric fuckton of booze (note pattern starting to form) and were encouraged outdoors for fireworks and bonfire lighting.

Now then, you know how they always tell you to keep your fireworks away from flammable materials in case they ignite and start a great big fire? Well, the plan was to use that risk and turn it to our advantage. The fireworks were set into the unlit bonfire and set off, in the hope that they would cause the paper, kindling and recently collected wood to spring into impressive and fiery action, and that it would be spectacular. No fucking chance.

The fireworks worked, but no fire. It took another half an hour, ALL of Ken and Lucy’s newspaper recycling, another bag of kindling, a tube of Pringles, a gallon of petrol and a napalm thrower to get it going. However, we persevered (a pyro like me will never give up on the possibility of a fire) and eventually a lovely fire burned.

Lucy lit candles and tealights at her garden altar and all the correct things were said to please the dead and to invoke loveliness upon the assembled boozers. I wish I knew what those blessings were, so that I could relate them to you, but I’m afraid I was very, very drunk. Just rest assured there were no goat sacrifices and no boiling of babies, although we did come very close to roasting a Jack Russell…

As the night air cooled, we wandered indoors and sat around Lucy’s kitchen table and attacked more of the food and booze. There were River Cottage vegetable pasties (as made by the Bentalls) and sexy cake (as made by Ken, who is a cakey genius). There was great hunks of tiger bread and ooooh I’m going to stop now before I get accused of upsetting people’s pre-crimbo LBD diets or something. Let’s just say it was carb heaven, and did a lovely job of a) soaking up the boozes, and b) making me sleepy.

So, after we had collectively put the world to rights, bitched about shit witches, talked bollocks and told more dirty jokes, it was time for home.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been one for Halloween, but from now on, give me Samhain and sexy cake at the O’Malley-Local house, every year. The Ancestors would definitely approve.

Socks Appeal.

It’s that time of year when I am in the dreadful footwear quandry of the 36-year-old woman. What to wear? I am mostly a flip-flop person. A few childhood years spent in South Africa have shaped my hatred of having my feet enclosed, although strangely throughout my teens I was rarely seen without Dr Marten boots. As a result of wearing either nothing or something that resembles orthopedic rambler’s shoes, my feet have a distrust of the shoe. This year I discovered Fit-Flops, and that was like discovering walking again for the first time. So comfortable.

I am yet to understand what pleasure there is in having one’s toes squashed together. Why must I have my heels rubbed and not complain? Why blisters? WHY? I really don’t have a clue why a huge number of my friends have (in these Sex And The City enlightened years) become obsessed with the perilous heels, pointy toes and pinchy straps of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Kurt Geiger, when they look just as great to me in Converse All-Stars and Birkenstocks. But that’s just me.

There is a whole market out there for foot remedies, cool patches, blister proofing, comfort cushions and all manner of relief for people who choose to ruin their feet in this way. But you know what is the saddest thing? They’re almost all marketed to women. They all have daisies and butterflies on the packaging, and not spanners and fishing rods (well if they will have their stereotypes, I’ll have mine). So why aren’t men afflicted in this way? Because they’re not wearing ridiculous shoes to impress anyone. That’s why. As long as a man’s shoes are fairly ‘with it’ and relatively clean, we’re usually happy, right? So why do women quite literally still feel the need to injure themselves in order to be attractive?

I’m lucky in that I have a fairly robustly upholstered chest, and so not many people notice my feet. Sometimes, they don’t notice my face either, but that’s often for the best too. However, I have never ever, not once heard two blokes talking saying something along the lines of, “She’s lovely, but her shoes are just so last season..”, or even, “What a pretty girl, but I won’t be asking her out, her heels aren’t high enough, and that wedge needs to be in a blue patent..”. Never, not once.

So with the spiky shoe fashion being a big no-no, ‘shoes’ basically means ‘flatties’ to me. In this in-between season where there’s a chill in the air, and yet the sun’s still shining, the choice is: a) flip-flops and chance the weather, b) shoes, or b) boots. It’s too warm yet for boots (for me anyway). Flip-flops will sadly have to go back in the cupboard soon. Which leaves flat shoes.

I inadvertently opened up a whole kettle of fish on this issue this morning on Facebook. The thing is, how does one (as a woman in her 30s or 40s) wear a shoe without looking like a twat? Boots are easy, you bung socks on, pull the boot up and they go under or over everything. But flat shoes are a weird no-mans-land. Youngsters (God, I sound like my Granny) wear leggings or slim jeans on their lovely legs, and ballet style flatties or brogues for a gamine look, but they all seem to have no socks and an Elastoplast or two hanging out of their heel. As a woman of a certain age and (ahem) shape, what do I do?

The idea of wearing a shoe without the protection of some kind of hosiery fills me with horror. I will not tolerate foot torture, that is out of the question. So what are the options? Socks are great but does it give the right impression if you’re in a business meeting with one of Primark‘s fluffy finest poking out between shoe and trouser leg? And what if you’re a skirt wearer? Short skirts mean you absolutely MUST wear tights which never fit very well, or stockings which automatically make you feel like you should be doing it roughly, over a canteen table. What if you just want to be comfortable? Long skirts hide a bit more leg, but even so, they still reveal too much ankle to make socks an option. Aaaargh!

No woman in her right mind would still wear tights under trousers. It’s not something I’ve ever done, but I’ve heard of the upsetting things it does to people’s undercarriages, needing the topical application of ointments. Ouch. So in terms of The Shoe, we’ve found issue with trousers and socks, trousers and tights, skirts and socks, skirts and tights, skirts and stockings. And that leaves one last option. Trousers and… The Pop Sock. Oh Christ no, not the pop sock…

I’ve never owned one, never worn one and cannot even look at one without considering it to be something from another generation, like liberty bodices and tuberculosis. But isn’t it the most practical solution? It’s not attractive by any means, and it’s about as rock and roll as Horlicks, (unless you’re Nicola Roberts) but is the pop sock the way forward? I have to say I’ve shuddered at the mere thought of it, but from a logical point of view… Oh I dunno.

Since I cannot bring myself to be a shoe and pop sock person, I’m afraid I’ll have to carry on wearing my jeans long enough to cover my socks, or flit carefully between flip-flop and boot until the Winter arrives properly. I am also a bit astonished that this seemingly innocuous issue was warranted almost a thousand words and not a little angst.

Weather: too cold for flip-flops, not cold enough for boots. Fuck.

Tramadol Nights.

I have a badly behaved wisdom tooth. Every six months or so it decides it’s going to grow a bit more and bring my head into a whole new word of pain. It lasts only a couple of days, and some medium weight painkillers usually see it off a treat, but not this time. This time it hurts till I could cry, and I’m no wuss. It kept me awake the whole of last night, and I don’t function well on anything less than seven hours’ sleep a night, nevermind with added agony.

Thing is, I knew it was just teething pains. You know your own body/mouth/mind, right? But because I was a baby and bleated on about it to anyone who would listen on Facebook, I began to doubt myself. I have alot of very caring lovely friends (including Ann who is a proper Dental Hygienist, and is quite within her right to kick my ass over this), and an online intervention was put together to make me go to a dentist and get this pain checked out. People messaged me with horror stories of infections and impactions and (gusp) DEATH, so I decided I ought to go.

I haven’t been to a dentist in YEARS, maybe 12 years. In fact, I wasn’t even registered at a dentist anymore, until today. Mum grasped the nettle and rang her dentist. She knew they were taking on new patients and asked if there was a possibility I could be seen today. I was already on the edge of a sob just with the throbbing, but then the thought of someone’s latex-clad hand rummaging about in my painful piehole tipped me over the edge – a proper cry.

Suddenly I was petrified of going to the dentist. Actually not so much the dentist himself, just the potential for more ouchiness. I’ve never been afraid of the dentist before, in fact the only reason I haven’t been in years is because I just kept forgetting and nothing bad ever happened. I’ve been pretty lucky with my teeth; didn’t need braces, never had a filling and apart from not being as white as I’d like them (I want them TOWIE white please), they’re pretty good gnashers. Good dental genes on me Mum’s side I think.

Eventually the time came to go and meet my fate in the masked-man’s whizzy chair. I picked Mum up (she wanted to hold my hand, but even I am a bit braver than that), and went to the surgery. After filling out some forms, I was introduced to Rosario, my new dentist. And then Rosario took his paper mask off to say hello. HELLO! He looks and sounds exactly like Gino Di Campo. In fact I’m still not convinced it wasn’t him. Gino, erm.. I mean Rosario sat me down in his whizzy chair and down I went (no tittering at the back please). He asked me about what pain I was getting, where it was, how it felt, if it had happened before and had it ever been this bad before. Then he had a look.

Unfortunately I can’t open my jaw very wide because of the inflammation, so he did what he could with a limited aperture, bless him. Rubbery fingers and a couple of pokey instruments went in, and Rosario had a good rummage round. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I had psyched myself up for, and so I left feeling quite chirpy. Turns out I was right, and I do know my own mouth. The tooth’s just having a growth spurt, it’s inflamed and just being generally painful. Phew. He drew up a prescription for Amoxicillin in case there was infection present, but basically said it’s okay and he’ll see me in six months. He did add though that if this much pain happens again and I’d prefer to have it removed, he’d gladly whip the fecker out.

Back at Mum’s I realised that even though I have no appetite, I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, and so she tried to tempt me with cheese and beans on toast. It took me ages and it hurt so much it made me cry again, but I ate it (minus the crusts), and washed it down with a brew. She then brought me one of those gel packs you microwave to apply heat to poorly areas. That was gorgeous. I fell asleep on her sofa with that pressed under my cheek, and had an hour’s snoring practice. Bliss.

So now, here I am at home, up to here *touches forehead* with Codeine (which no longer works), Anbesol, Difflam, Amoxicillin and just for a bedtime treat tonight, Tramadol. I was hoping 200mg of Tramadol might see the pain off a bit and let me sleep tonight, but no, no effect whatsoever.

Has anyone got a spare bag of smack?

Weather: cold as the dead, miserable as sin, grey as Bruce Willis’s singlet.