6 November 2009


It's a big day today. My father in law, Ted, celebrates his 90th birthday. It's a fabulous milestone, but it is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has been in hospital for more than a fortnight after suffering a stroke.

When a man of such advanced years has a stroke, you prepare for the worst. Indeed, we were told to do just that a few days after he was admitted to hospital. Yet almost from the moment the doctors told us he might not last another 48 hours, he has got a little stronger and a little better and so today his big day has come.

Ted, who already has Parkinson's, caught pneumonia once he was in hospital but has already fought it off with the aid of atomically-strong antibiotics. He has regained the feeling he lost in his left side and, although sometimes semi-conscious or confused, has managed a few conversations which included airing his wish for fish and chips on his 90th birthday, proving to us that he knew who he was and roughly where the calendar was at.

It's little short of miraculous that he has fought his way to this day of all days, ready for his family of four generations to make a fuss of him (though he won't get fish and chips just yet). However, I had a hunch he might see his birthday, despite the initial prognosis. Medical knowledge I don't have, but knowledge of this man I do.

He had not had a day of illness in his life, and therefore boasted a fully paid-up immune system to call upon for when adversity finally hit. He is a tall, heavily-built, strong old widower, rugged and handsome with a glint in his eye and, until recently, a happy capacity for long walks and the occasional drive.

He's not out of the woods yet and we don't know what sort of long term issues will come from this stroke. But that's for later. Right now, we're celebrating a 90th birthday that a few days ago looked like it wasn't going to come. I raise a glass your way today, Ted.

5 November 2009

"If God hadn't meant us to eat animals, he wouldn't have made them meat-flavoured..."

There's a Bob Monkhouse joke about vegetarians in the Bible, who had there been any, would have "killed the fatted cabbage", thereby re-influencing all Christian dietary habits thereafter.

The very carnivorous Kevin Day once asked the Loose Talk audience if there were any vegetarians among them, only to add "yeah there is, but they're not strong enough to put their hands up".

Jeremy Clarkson went on Room 101 to bemoan "vegatablists" who expect you to cook an entirely separate meal for them when you have the grace to invite them to a dinner party, before expounding on a comically rational theory that the only way to preserve all animal species, endangered or otherwise, was to eat them.

Soap operas have mentioned it, in passing. The only episode of Brookside I ever watched involved a siege (about 1986?) during which one of the hostages was a committed vegetarian, but ended up scoffing meat as she was starving and it was all that was on offer. Maxine and Ashley briefly became vegetarian in Coronation Street, much to the chagrin of Fred Elliott, master butcher of Weatherfield. And Harold Bishop was a vegetarian in Neighbours, despite accidentally once eating meat in a stew he began to cook but then left to Eileen Clarke, who added ham to it without telling him.

Yes, vegetarianism is both a serious issue and the butt of many jokes, mainly at the expense of those who practise a herbivorous lifestyle. But yesterday, for the first time ever, I learned of someone who had given up many years of flesh-free diets and returned to meat consumption.

And it kind of knocked me sideways, genuinely so. Vegetarians don't do that, do they? Whether their commitment to such a lifestyle is through principle or just what their palette prefers, I assumed it was a case of once a veggie, always a veggie. Yet I suppose that a quiet commitment to vegetarianism, as opposed to a Hynde-esque political struggle against farmers and their customers, is as susceptible to change as any other lifestyle habit, such as drinking and smoking.

I am an animal lover but have rarely considered vegetarianism. I think it's more than possible to be both pro-animal and pro-meat. The food chain is nature, and we're merely at the helm. I like roast beef, bolognese sauce and bacon sandwiches (not on the same plate, although then again I've never tried that...) way too much to ponder giving them up. I don't like lamb at all, am so-so with pork and can do without most poultry, though the turkey at Christmas always goes down well. My taste in meat is limited but it does exist.

There are the meat substitutes of course. I remember Sissy Rooney got chucked out of the Big Brother house because, among other things, she was a vegetarian who - and this is the killer - also didn't eat Quorn. So the grocery budget had to have a vast percentage of it thrown to one side to satisfy one solitary person's medically-unrelated dietary needs and as there were still ten people in the house and money was tight, she had to go.

But while I can understand meat substitutes, I can't understand the need to make products that resemble meat in looks as well as taste. Vegetarian burgers, for example. Why make burgers? Why not just eat the vegetables? Is it about keeping up with everyone else? If so, what happened to all the revolutionary principles that go with not eating meat? "I don't eat meat, but, well, I want to look like I do..."

Then there are the half-committed vegetarians, like those who eat poultry only. They call themselves "vegetarians, except for chicken". That makes me a teetotaller, except for Guinness and the odd bottled lager on warmer days. Nonsense.

Howard Jones, my childhood hero, was such an extremist in vegetarian issues that he tried to get the family dog and cat to eat meat-free pet food. Only the dog conformed. As everyone knows, dogs eat what you give them and cats eat what they like.

My "lapsed" ex-vegetarian friend, whom I won't name in case he has militant pals who will call him a traitor and smear his windscreen with deer's blood after reading this, says he had "few, if any, principles behind it" and so regarded it as "pointless" and re-invested in steak knives, a George Foreman grill and a tenderiser. Maybe he sees it as a growing up exercise, which is harsh on him as he is already at the highest of maturity levels (except when ratted).

But either way, despite all the vegetarians I've known (and I'm related to one, shared houses with at least two others, used to go out with one, and can think of half a dozen more whom I've known or worked with), he is the first I've ever heard of who has happily ditched the lifestyle and reverted back to how God (through his messenger Fred) apparently intended. I suspect there aren't many like him.

3 November 2009

"The next voice you hear will be your mum's..."

I was watching the football tonight and, upon the shrill of the half time whistle, did a spot of channel-hopping. I happened upon Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on ITV1, a programme that was once discussed round every watercooler in the country.

Like, I suspect, many more people, I haven't watched Millionaire? for years. Yet within seconds of finding it here I stayed tuned in as Chris Tarrant mentioned that the middle-aged lady in the hotseat was from Brough. If you've ever driven or travelled by train to Hull from the west or south then you'll always go through Brough. Nice place.

So, with a slightly tenuous local interest, I eschewed the restart in the Champions League and stuck with the last 25 minutes or so of Millionaire? as this lady blundered and quipped and twittered (in the traditional sense; modern day twittering would be regarded as cheating, I fear) her way through questions she didn't know the answer to but, by hook or by crook, managed to get right nonetheless, eventually reaching £75,000 before a question about the first ever House of Lords speaker finally dried up her luck and she ran back towards the A63 with the cheque.

Do you remember just how massive Millionaire? was when it first arrived on our screens? It was ten years and more ago. It is the simplest of formats - Chris Evans describes it in his (very good) book as the best format for a TV show he has ever seen - and it just seems so odd that the finest creators of TV concepts never came up with something similar in all the years of gameshows that preceded it.

It was high noon, with the contestant sweating and worrying while Tarrant offered a mixture of concerned assistance and clownish goofing in order to fulfil his brief of reassuring the competitor while entertaining the audience. The music was brilliantly dramatic, a mixture of stabs and underscores that could be fired off the playout systems whenever the situation demanded it. The tension sometimes was unbearable, especially if you were yelling the answer at the television while someone in the studio was deliberating, a mixture of bewilderment and self-doubt.

I remember one woman going over the answers to a question over and over again and eventually blurting out in all her desperation: "Oh Chris, I don't know what to do!" You felt for her. You also wanted to reach through the screen and offer a hug to the woman who, upon reaching the £8,000 mark, looked at the gurning multi-millionaire Tarrant and explained, coldly and matter-of-factly, that as a nurse and single mum this was already a sum that would transform her life.

There was the controversy over Judith Keppel, a woman as unlikely an applicant for an ITV quiz show as you could find (though the money on offer does dispense with principles; you couldn't imagine Judith doing Pass The Buck or Keynotes, really) as she was, as Ian Hislop put it, "a rather agreeable woman who lives in Fulham". For a good while questions were asked about whether she was planted as the first millionaire of the show because of the clash with the final episode of One Foot In The Grave on the other side. Given her wretched performances on Eggheads, she was either a set-up or just fantastically lucky. A sport question on £2,000 would have sent her home early.

The major and his wife, and the terrifically-named Tecwen Whittock, all conspiring to get an evidently unintelligent man all the way to the million. The bloke who struggled and spluttered and agonised his way through to half a million and then didn't know where Chester-le-Street was. The guy who changed his mind a thousand times about the occupation of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire, before finally choosing the right answer.

And the tricks were soon learned. Don't use Ask The Audience after around £4,000 as you'll get a mega split, as too many simply won't know. Don't say out loud what your suspicions are before taking 50/50, as the computer will always "randomly" leave you with the two answers you were most attracted to. Don't be afraid to take your time - the also-rans on contestants' row, despite being desperate to try another Fastest Finger First, would do the same were it they in the chair.

I didn't know, such was the length of time since I last saw it, that the prize money ladder had been altered and now a thousand quid was achievable - and guaranteed - within two questions. A bit late to comment on this, I suspect, but the one thing Millionaire? lacked was the facility to make it dramatic from the beginning. The questions leading up to a grand were kindergarten standard, with only the odd dense contestant falling victim, and it became a slightly pointless watch.

For all the drama of the Brough lady, I don't know if and when I'll watch it again. I hung around because of where she was from and then quickly began rooting for her big time because she managed to put on a show for the crowd while working through the questions. And there was real drama in her decision to choose Frog as an answer as soon as a question )"What kind of creature is a treecreeper?") came up, double checked with her son on the phone, and trusted his call when he said Bird. He was right, and he won his mum £50,000 in being so. Good on them all, though it's not as if Brough isn't already full of residents with that sort of cash - half of Hull City's first team squad lives round that way.