Don’t let small island worries put us off the wider world…

I KEEP hearing about our ‘open borders’ and must confess to being confused. The last time I looked there was sea all the way round this little big country of ours, miles and miles of sea.

An open border isn’t possible with sea; an open border is a raised checkpoint where the guard is asleep or has gone off for a cigarette; an open border is a gap in the fence and a big arrow pointing the way.

No, the open borders we hear so much about is more of a metaphor, and a malignant metaphor at that.

If you live on the continent where countries rub up against each other, borders are real and physical things, whether you think they should be open or shut.

An island is a different matter, and an island is what we are, a small island with a long and mostly noble history; a small island that has proved larger than its acres and bigger than its borders.

Those who bitch and grumble about our open borders represent the opposite of what Britain should be, if you ask me. Being an island made us look outwards and sail the seas; being an island shapes who we are and were, from building an empire to then taking it apart.

If you stand on an island you can do two things: turn your back to the world and worry and hate; or look over the seas and wonder. The good side of Britain is that which looks and wonders; the bad side is that which frets and sours itself in resentment and suspicion.

The latest worries arise because a boatload of migrants was discovered in the English Channel at the weekend. The good news is that the 18 Albanians on board, including two children, were rescued from the cruel seas off the Kent coast. Good news part II: two British men involved have been charged with people smuggling.

You could easily use this incident to show that our watery borders work; or you could stir up a storm and a panic about our unprotected 7,000 miles of coastland. Perhaps instead you could get a job on the Daily Mail writing table-thumping headlines – “UK’s open coastline shambles: 4 missed warnings.”

Mostly we should be relieved that those poor people who thought it worth the risk of travelling from Albania, and then crossing a hostile sea in a leaky inflatable boat, escaped with their lives. If we remember them, we escape with our humanity. If all we do is hate and mutter, we forget our humanity.

Perhaps we could do more to patrol our coastlines, but there is a lot of it, and you will never be able to police every beach, bay and inlet. Of course if you were Donald Trump you would build a wall all around the coast: that would sort it.

The Europe referendum is what has turned this from a practical matter into a nasty metaphor. The fear of otherness, of difference lies behind the suspicions of those who claim this country is being overwhelmed and weakened.

Dropping by the in-laws yesterday, I read in the Daily Mail magazine that Joan Collins thinks our country is ‘full’ and that she is urging us to leave Europe. There she was with half a ton of make-up on her 83-year-old face, twittering nastiness and being treated like royalty.

Heavens, I reckon we should close our borders to Joan Collins.

Down the decades, down the centuries, people have crossed our seas and arrived here from around the world, and we would be a smaller country without their presence in our lives.

By all means increase patrols of our watery borders, but do so to protect the vulnerable: those, by the way, are the impoverished souls shivering in small boats and not people sitting at home and frowning over the headlines.


Delia Smith’s complete cookery course (Euro-politics included)…

OF ALL the questions surrounding the Europe vote, one that had never occurred to me was this: What does Delia think?

Yet there she was on the front of the Guardian on Saturday in one of the strangest pieces to have appeared in that newspaper. No context or explanation, just a headshot of Delia, an introductory paragraph and the headline: ‘The daily scare tactics beggar belief – they’re not working’.

And off she went, whisking this way and that as she said why she was for staying in Europe, and explaining why those scare tactics weren’t working. “Because at this stage, I’m sure you agree, we voters are just reduced to having a laugh.”

Well, yes. I had wondered if perhaps the Guardian was having laugh, too. Would Jamie Oliver be up next to comment on the migration crisis; was Gordon Ramsay about to start swearing about Jeremy Corbyn’s effectiveness as Labour leader?

Mind you, if they’d like to have Rachel Khoo talking about something, anything – that’s fine by me as I always hang on her every word.

But Delia Smith giving her view on the importance of staying in Europe – “Here’s an argument I made earlier” – was a little odd, wasn’t it?

Delia has done much to improve our lives over the years, so perhaps this was a sort of thank-you. Maybe she knows the newspaper’s editor. Perhaps Delia has time on her hands or had she perhaps been on the wine again?

There was that famous occasion in 2005 when in her role as a Norwich director she wobbled about the Carrow Road ground as she delivered a half-time outburst during a match against Manchester City. People unkindly assumed she’d been at the sherry, although Delia herself later categorically denied having had “too much wine” beforehand.

Every house must have a Delia book. We have two or three, but the only one you need is the Complete Cookery Course. Our copy is dog-eared and part of the index is missing, and it’s our second copy, passed on by my mother as a replacement for an even more ragged specimen. Our daughter bought a pristine copy online for a pound or something before she went off to university.

Delia’s beef in beer is a go-to recipe for me, although I usually tinker a little, throwing in a few black olives and adding a diced red chili if I have one to hand. Shin beef from the butcher on York market, cut into big pieces and then long stewed in the slow cooker; lovely.

I was going to say that the beef in beer was a Remain recipe but actually it’s from Flanders, so there you go. Boeuf Bourguignonne is clearly French and more or less the same, substituting red wine for the beer.

But trying to see this vote through recipes soon becomes confusing. Roast beef is the classic British meal, I guess, but does that one belong to those who want to stay in Europe or those who wish to leave?

This morning’s headlines see reports of open warfare in the Conservative Party, with calls for David Cameron to quit because he has ‘lied’ in the Europe debate. To heckling Tories such as Nadine Dorries, all that can be said is this: have you only just noticed that your leader sometimes stretches the truth a little? And then bakes it in a big lie pie.

As it happens, I am still with Delia and Call Me Dave on remaining in Europe, even though the whole debate has become frustrating in its complete lack of illumination. Does anyone anywhere know more now than when this wearisome and quarrelsome debate had its first stir? And why did we even need a referendum when we have general elections to sort out such matters?

Time to call Delia…

Whatever possessed me to write a letter to a newspaper?

I HAD something in The Guardian yesterday; sadly, it was only a reader’s letter. My attempts as a freelance to penetrate the curls of barbed wire surrounding that newspaper’s editorial department remain otherwise unsuccessful.

Whatever possessed me to write a letter to a newspaper? As a former letters editor, you’d think I would know better.

As it happens, that was the second letter I have written to a newspaper, and probably the last. I’ll tell you about the first in a moment, as there is a tale attached.

In the Guardian magazine, a highlight of my week, there is a humorous item called Modern Tribes, by Catherine Bennett; well, I say humorous but it doesn’t always make me laugh. Last week’s modern stereotype was the Airbnb host, and Bennett’s pen was scathing as she summoned up a scuzzy host on the make.

I fired off a quick email pointing out that when I read the item I had just finished cleaning the house for the third time in a week, in readiness for a guest. And there it was in the magazine, slightly edited, but that’s letters editors for you. A sort of revenge perhaps for all the words I used to hack out of other people’s letters.

That job was dumped on me when a colleague, who had himself been lumbered with the task, grew weary of it. I wasn’t pleased but ended up enjoying the task. It has to be said that letters pages sometimes attract the more eccentric readers, and there were a few of those. One of them is still at it and managed to slip a homophobic rant into my old letters page recently. The editor later apologised.

Of all the letter writers of York, the greatest was Margaret Lawson, now long gone, but properly witty, and with a sharp nib to her pen. Such characters make a letters page, although sometimes they do rather take over. And other letter writers complain about their rivals appearing too often. What a bunch letter writers are. Some are cantankerous, some mean-minded; others are generous and amusing; and some bore the tiles off your roof with their one-track obsessions.

But I quite liked them all in the end, although editing letters isn’t as much fun as writing something yourself.

Somewhere in this house, and I couldn’t say where, there is a tin containing assorted letters, maybe a love letter or two. In that tin there is also a letter to me from the novelist VS Naipaul, whose finest work was A House For Mr Biswas, a novel I should read again one day.

We studied Joseph Conrad’s A Secret Agent for A-level and one day Naipaul wrote an article in a newspaper, the Sunday Times I think, about Conrad in which he made a basic error. Snotty young sixth-former that I was, I wrote a letter to the newspaper.

The Times didn’t publish that letter, but they did forward it to Naipaul, who kindly wrote to say that I was quite right. He also said the article was based on an academic paper he’d read to a group of Conrad scholars – and none of them had noticed the error.

I can’t even remember what the mistake was now, but it fired me up. Naipaul was courteous in his reply, although in older age he is said to have become crankier and prone to feuds.

Two letters to the editor are enough for a lifetime, I think. Although when I was out running this morning, I saw that the thoughtless morons among us had scattered an awful lot of litter on a pleasant road leading to the ring-road. Really some people. Dear Sir….

Tuning into a different sort of tweet…

THE birds wake me unless I am sleeping around; around the house, that is. Our bedroom is in the attic and the birds start early at this time of year, perhaps at 4am.

Sleepless nights put me down a floor and into another room, where you don’t hear every trill and twit.

As it happens, birdsong fills my ears now as I type. This is for two reasons: one, the study window is open; and two, I spotted something on Facebook about Bernie Krause, who created sounds for the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now, and now records the world around us.

Krause calls himself a soundscape ecologist, not something I have heard before. In short he records the natural world and has, over the years, noticed how much you can ‘hear’ the effects of global warming on our planet, as he puts it on his website.

In a clip doing the rounds on Facebook, Krause talks about what he does over one of his natural soundtracks. On his Wild Sanctuary website, you can choose different tracks; different aural slices of nature (the wind is blowing just now, and a creature of some sort is calling; don’t ask me for a name because I am far from being David Attenborough).

Listening to this beautiful babble is very therapeutic, certainly compared with the human babble that fills our lives, especially the political clatter. Although I will confess to enjoying the push and shove of politics, the heft and heckle of it. Or most of the time.

But sometimes it is good just to listen to tweets rather than to tweet; to step back from the noise and surrender to these beautiful sounds. Unless it’s four in the morning, perhaps.

We are lucky in this house. There may be a busy road at the front, and the ring-road in the distance, but the back gardens down our side of the street are all long, up to around 300 feet, and filled with trees. So the birds are having a riot much of the time, although you can exclude from that happy scenario the young tit our cat brought into the house the other day.

The bird survived after my wife’s intervention, or at least we assumed so, and the cat survived being shouted at, not that cats care. We love ours dearly but wouldn’t have another, not with so many birds around.

This study where I sit looks out over the garden, and even with my back to the window I can hear the birds, without being able to identify hardly any of them. An excitable twitter of tits and the lower notes of the wood pigeon, whose song, according to a website I just visited, sounds like the eccentric phrase, “my toe bleeds, Betty”. And once that notion is stuck in your head, you won’t shift it.

We could all benefit from stopping and listening to the birds. Many doubts and worries grub their way through my brain, even if I try not to show it, and birdsong is a good escape, evidence of a world that existed before mankind, and will still exist after we are gone, unless we’ve finally screwed it all up by then and silenced the birds.

So listen to tweets instead of Tweeting and the world will seem a kinder place. Having said that, I’ll be putting this on Twitter any minute. And, bloody hell, did you hear what that idiot just said about the EU referendum. Well, really…

EU chatter and splatter and a made-up man called Boris…

I SEE that senior EU official Jean-Claude Juncker has accused Boris Johnson of feeding British people unreal stories about the EU. This is true but demands an important qualification. Boris Johnson himself is an unreal story.

Nothing about him, from that intentionally mussed-up hair to the ‘characterful’ bumbling, is real. It’s all a made-up story to charm us into thinking that scheming, plotting and inconstant man is the cheery avuncular figure we so love from his occasional TV appearances and faux-clumsy publicity stunts on the television news.

And he gets away with it. The reason for this is that most politicians are boring beyond words. Or if they’re not they pretend to be. Being a politician is like trying to talk while carrying a tray of eggs across a minefield. Put one foot wrong and you’ve had it. And got egg on your face.

As it happens, Jean-Claude Juncker sounds like the action hero of a second-rate Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s because his name sounds a little like Jean-Claude Van Damme. That’s where the resemblance ends by the way.

Jean-Claude (the boring EU one, not the hammy Belgian beefcake one) thinks Boris Johnson should return to Brussels and see how it all works nowadays.

But why would be do that? The pretend Brussels suits him far too well. Making up all sorts of nonsense about Europe has been his knockabout trade since his days as a journalist in the city. When his imaginative reporting gave birth to assorted EU myths that squirreled into the British brain and have ever since refused to leave.

Many of his fellow Tories don’t even believe Boris really wants to quit Europe at all. It’s all a bit of an act. What he really wants is to lead his party. And if Remain wins by a squeak, David Cameron will be victorious but weak. Giving Boris a chance to put No 10 Downing Street on his sat-nav. That’s if he knows how to use one.

Jean-Claude Juncker also Tweeted to suggest that Boris Johnson ending up as prime minister would be a “horror scenario”. And Jean-Claude doesn’t even live here. Imagine how the rest of us feel.

But is it only Boris who is all made up? David Cameron’s old advisor Steve Hilton says Cameron would be all for Brexit if he weren’t prime minister. To which a prime ministerial spokes-lackey almost said: “This is nonsense – Mr Cameron is far too busy going round the country stirring up panic like a door-to-door gloom salesman.”

These prime ministerial set-pieces are laughably tailored to each audience. The latest one was to the offices of Saga, where funnily enough Cameron said pensions would be hit if we left Europe. Earlier he visited an airline and said holidays would be more expensive if we left.

Next he’ll be popping into an undertakers and saying that bodies will be walking the streets if we leave Europe.

At which juncture let’s turn to Nigel Farage. Can’t stand the sight of the man myself. Or a single thing he says. But at least you feel he believes all the rubbish he spouts. All that genuine UKIP claptrap comes right from his nicotine-stained heart.

As for the referendum, the chatter and splatter has been going on for weeks now. Many ordinary voters will probably still not have made up their minds. And more than a few will be thinking they’d like to be done with the whole quarrelsome business.

For rarely has such an important decision been beset by so much blather and bickering. It’s like one big advert for why people go off politics.

Coffee bean counting and a kind word for Corbyn…

COFFEE or Corbyn? Oh, let’s go for the pair of them. A skim of this morning’s headlines offers two stories connected only by virtue of the coffee-loving, politics-watching brain of this writer.

According to the Sun newspaper, there are now 20 times more coffee shops in our high streets than there were 18 years ago. As for the drink they serve, 70 million cups of coffee are drunk each day in the UK.

The Sun story is short on detail – semi-skimmed in its skimpiness – but does include the fact that Costa Coffee is reported to be spending £40 million on a new roasting plant to meet demand. And there is a quote from Starbucks saying that customers are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes, wanting to know where the coffee has been sourced.

I don’t drink coffee from those two corporate establishments, preferring to find a local coffee shop. York is awash with coffee shops, from cosy to corporate: for a city that is prone to flooding, it seems to have been inundated with caffeine in recent years.

This is mostly a good thing, or it is when I am having a coffee in my favourite locations, the Attic in King’s Square or the Fossgate Social a street away. Other good local coffee shops are available.

Such lovely places will be only partly responsible for turning a nation of tea drinkers into caffeine-heads twitching for the next cappuccino fix. The big boys will be the main reason for the rise of coffee, with their coffee-spurting shops everywhere. It is now common to see people walking down the street nuzzling a mini-bucket of coffee, often from Costa (sorry, don’t like their coffee).

I grew up drinking only tea more or less. Everybody did back then. But now I am multi-talented and can turn my swallowing skills to both beverages.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn looks like a tea man to me, but that is only a guess. His old-fashioned nature suggests a man who would drink tea, perhaps having once spotted Tony Benn swimming in a tannic sea of teabag tea.

In this morning’s Guardian, Corbyn receives a surprising endorsement from Steve Hilton, the so-called blue skies thinker who turned David Cameron green for a short while. Hilton looks more lifestyle guru than political advisor, an image fostered by his reported habit of having walked barefoot round Downing Street.

Hilton believes Corbyn has been bullied by the Westminster establishment because he has an unconventional approach to politics. In support of this thesis, he sites that truly awful occasion in February when Cameron took Corbyn to task for not properly fastening a tie, saying: “I know what my mother would say. I think she’d look across the dispatch box and she’d say: put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”

In that moment you felt as if the real David Cameron had flashed through the confected milky froth of the caffeine-free Cameron.

To my mind, the exchange left the prime minister looking snooty and shoddy. His former adviser would seem to agree. Now a resident of California, Hilton is in London to promote the UK publication of his book, More Human.

He tells this morning’s Guardian: “What I really hated about the reaction to Corbyn at the very beginning was this immediate, … very bullying ganging-up by the political establishment to say: this guy is not doing it the way we are used to doing it; he’s not wearing a tie; he’s not reshuffling his cabinet in the way we’re used to doing it.” He added: “I thought it was incredibly unattractive.”

Hilton adds that he warmed to Corbyn’s unpolished style and his appeal to a “kinder, gentler politics”. It’s not all good news for the Labour leader, though, as Hilton worries he may not be up to the tough management job of running the opposition.

He also points out that Corbyn’s popularity among his supporters reflects the same anti-establishment forces that have put Donald Trump barely one step away from the presidency in the US.

I admire much of what Corbyn says, but still worry that his approach to politics is unlikely to win over enough voters, especially in the Labour-sceptic south.

But you never know. One day we were all drinking tea; and the next we were swilling ourselves in coffee. Perhaps tastes can change in politics, too.

Rotten eggs, EU squabbles and a bit of Boris blather…

HOW biased are some newspapers in the run-up to next month’s EU referendum? Very, according to new research. Here is one small example involving an egg that wasn’t thrown in York yesterday.

According to the virulently anti-European Daily Express, this was quite a moment, as shown by the teaser on its website: “Man ‘tries to throw an egg’ at Boris Johnson & he replies with most EPIC put down ever…”

Well, I reckon eggs, rotten ones and all, have been thrown at the dictionary if that was an EPIC way to deal with a heckler. I clicked on the video clip idly expecting a bit of widescreen wit. Instead all I got was a spot of Boris burble – “There are people hungry in this country, my friend; don’t waste that egg.”

My old newspaper reported the incident in a more straightforward manner, noting that Sam Grigg, a university student, had booed the politician’s arrival while holding three eggs he’d brought along for the occasion. Sam told the Press that he had “never planned to throw the eggs and he was protesting not against Brexit but Tory Government benefit cuts”.

That does leave me wondering why you would take eggs along as a form of protest and not throw them, but never mind. Sam has kindly provided a theme for today.

You see I reckon rotten eggs are being thrown in all directions in this debate over Europe – and, as it happens, in allowing fracking to go ahead in North Yorkshire. As I shall now explain by rolling a few hard-boiled verbal eggs.

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, press coverage of the first two months of the campaign has heavily favoured the pro-Brexit side of the argument, with 45 per cent of articles in favour of leaving. The Daily Mail and the Express were among the papers most obsessed with being anti-Europe (well, you could knock me down with an eggy soldier).

During that period, a survey of my own feelings concludes that all the politicians on both sides of the divide have done is throw eggs at each other – and, by implication, the voters too. The level of discussion has been vindictive, threatening and petty. And anyone who remains undecided is as likely to find the answer listening to that lot as they are to make an omelette from all those discarded eggs (don’t choose the rotten ones – that will never do).

Scare story has been matched by scare story, with David Cameron and George Osborne trundling out a new supposed horror every day – only for those who wish to leave to come up with some matching spittle-flecked nonsense of their own.

The differences cross parties, but the most vicious fighting has been among Tories, where the blue-on-blue action spits and seethes with long-stewed resentment and dislike. Whatever the outcome next month, the Conservative Party is going to suffer a long hangover from all the internecine nastiness.

Instead of informing people properly, all the squabbling politicians have done is trade insults and scare stories – and, in metaphorical terms, do untold damage to the truth, which has been scrambled, fried, coddled, boiled, baked and poached.

At North Yorkshire County Council, the eggs have been reserved for those protestors who opposed fracking on a site near Kirby Misperton in Ryedale. The council’s planning committee voted seven to four in favour of allowing the first fracking operation in England since a ban was lifted in 2012. Third Energy’s bid to extract shale gas was approved yesterday, as hundreds of protesters attended a meeting in Northallerton to voice anger at the project.

The council received 4,375 objections and only 36 letters in support of the plans to frack for shale gas an existing well owned by Third Energy. By that calculation alone, the council has thrown box loads of rotten eggs at those very many people who were opposed to fracking taking place in the village.

Strictly speaking, this was a local decision. But the Conservative council has followed the Government line, as set down by David Cameron in 2014 when he said his administration was “going all out for shale”.

So more companies will surely want to follow suit. So now a rotten eggy smell hangs over the environment.

I never knowingly eat low-fat anything…

IS there anything more dispiriting in life that a low-fat yoghurt? Nope – glad that one’s sorted then.

I never knowingly eat low-fat anything unless it’s an apple. Any product which proclaims such a reduction isn’t proper food: it’s a messed-up nutritional experiment and a dietary apology for whatever it should be.

It’s long been a rule-of-tum in this house to spurn anything with the words ‘low fat’ on the tub. If picked up in error, these dietary doppelgangers are put down sharpish. Although that word is generally used to refer to “someone who looks like someone else”, I reckon it’ll do nicely here, too. That’s because a low-fat yoghurt looks like something else – and what it looks like is a proper yoghurt with the amount of fat required to make it taste nice and feel right on your tongue.

Low-fat foods have been tampered with something rotten to live up to the label, often by having their sugar content raised. They taste thin and nasty and I have long believed they cannot be good for you.

So it was cheering this morning to wake up to headlines such as “Official advice on low-fat diet and cholesterol is wrong, says health charity” (The Guardian) or “Low-fat diet bad for your health” (Daily Mirror).

The National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration believe the advice to eat low-fat foods and to lower cholesterol is having “disastrous health consequences”.

In what is described as a damning report, they say the focus on low-fat diets is failing to address Britain’s obesity crisis – and add that what makes people fat is snacking between meals.

Instead, the forum advises, we should be eating wholefoods such as meat, fish and dairy – and full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese could help with weight loss and protect the heart.

Years ago we used to eat margarine – I know, the shame of it – of the sort that proclaims its health benefits. But we went back to butter. This is because butter is natural and delicious, while margarine spreads are unnatural and unpleasant (as well as being far too processed and manufactured).

Of course no report about diet and food comes without its hecklers, and the Daily Express quotes Dr Alison Tedstone of Public Health England as saying “calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs, and ignore calories is irresponsible” as “international health organisations agree too much saturated at raises cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and obesity”.

I guess in the end you have choose what to believe, and I just choose to believe that low-fat yoghurt is false food – and a false friend to anyone foolish enough to believe that eating such a nasty thing will be good for them.

The report also points out that the influence of the food industry represents a “significant threat to public health”, adding that the recent Eatwell Guide from Public Health England was produced with representatives from the food and drink industry.

That always looked like a dodgy arrangement to me, seeking the advice of the people who want to sell you manufactured food of questionable worth.

Professor David Baslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, says in the report: “Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

My own advice is to eat proper food and cook most of it yourself – nothing fancy most of the time, just real food that hasn’t been ‘factory fiddled’ in the name of good health.

Oh, and here’s a plug: if you want a good yoghurt, buy Longley Farm ones (full fat, naturally). I’ve been eating those since I was a boy, when sometimes I used to freeze the pots, against the advice on the label, and eat them iced.

And the same Yorkshire dairy produces the best natural yoghurt around, pots of which are nearly always to be found in our fridge. A small dish of that sharp but thick and lovely full-fat yoghurt with a drizzle of honey makes for a perfect quick pudding.

This experiment I call my life…

THIS experiment I call my life has been going on for nearly a year now.

I left my old newspaper at the end of last May. The other day the paper won a decent honour in the Regional Press Awards, the best daily or Sunday newspaper with a circulation below 20,000. How did I feel about this? Well, it’s complicated.

Mostly I was pleased. A small bunch of good and hard-working people keep that newspaper afloat in difficult times, and deserve to the praised for winning that accolade. It’s not easy bringing out a worthwhile newspaper when everything is being cut around you.

So well done to the good and talented people of the Press. Sadly, and this is where I am conflicted, many good and talented people have been shown the door during the past two years.

It would have been nice to have still been there when the award was won, especially after 27 years at the paper. But that’s the way life rolls and congratulations to those hardy few who remain.

I keep in touch with friends on the paper and with some who left when I did. As for the newspaper itself, I keep tabs online but rarely if ever pick up a good honest newsprint copy.

I can’t recall if the Press won a similar award during my time, but I did go to London for a Regional Press Awards ceremony once. Yesterday, as it happens, my wife was clearing out the attic and came across a copy of the Press Gazette from July 2000 when the newspaper won the Local Newspaper Week award, as sponsored by the Newspaper Society.

The features department, in the shape of Chris Titley and myself, produced a supplement about the work of the Press, and it was nominated. Chris wrote the supplement, I did the edit and the design, and it read well and looked good.

A party of us went down as various people were nominated. I can’t recall if anyone else won an award, but that little supplement did. The editor of the day, Liz Page, said I could go up and collect the award, and there I am in that old copy of the Press Gazette, trophy in hand. That bit of brass was pinned to the wall behind my desk for years at the old Press building, but heaven only knows where it is now.

The day was long and drink was taken, at the ceremony and at a nearby pub. I was steady as you like, until the train home when someone – I think it was former chief photographer Martin Oates – ordered in the cans of Stella.

Back at home in York later, the doorbell rang and my wife opened it to find me propped against the bricks, swaying somewhat as I held the award and slurred: “We won.”

I guess it is a sad sign of the times that a once fairly mighty newspaper should be nominated in a category for newspapers with a circulation below 20,000. When I started it was easily more than twice that, I’d have said. There is the internet version too now of course, so that makes up some of the difference.

As to my life, well, I hadn’t expected to be still experimenting at this stage. Plenty of my features have appeared in the Yorkshire Post, with appearances elsewhere (Mensa Magazine, The New Day just before the sun went down). I have finished one thriller, and written something new that is almost done, at least the first draft. And I have tapped out this blog nearly every day for the best part of a year.

Jobs have been applied for without success; national newspapers have been approached without luck (apart from that fleeting appearance in a paper that shut a few days later).

Other than that, life goes on. The experiment will sort itself out eventually – and, just to repeat, well done to the old crew at the Press.

A basic incident and no flush in the pan…

YESTERDAY morning started with one of those reminders of life’s basic nature. It all began when the downstairs loo started blocking up.

We tried caustic soda to no effect. Then we used a trick discovered online involving making a seal over the lavatory with Sellotape; only we didn’t have any wide enough and used cling film instead. The idea was to create a vacuum that would on flushing plunge the blockage away. Not a success.

Then we heard an intestinal gurgle beneath where we stood. We inherited this downstairs shower room when we moved into this house. The estate agent called it a wet room and never a truer word did an estate agent speak: it was wet, soaking wet as the shower had no doors. We had doors fitted but everything else is as it was.

The gurgle led to the shower, and when we inspected the trap in the floor, that too was flooded.

So I went outside and lifted the manhole cover from the drain next to the shower room, and into which all waste water seems to flow. It was full and contained evidence of what the toilet was used for. Not a pretty sight before breakfast.

My wife went off to work, leaving me in charge, and how she returned nine hours later to a house unflooded is a miracle.

I phoned an unblocking company and the man said I should contact Yorkshire Water first. The woman who answered the phone had a decent wodge of Yorkshire accent, as did the woman I spoke to in the drains department (perhaps you have to pass an accent test before you can work there).

The second woman wanted to know the direction of my drains, a personal question as we’d only just been introduced. She also wanted to know if we shared with next door. If your drain is shared with your neighbour, Yorkshire Water is obliged to sort out the problem; if the drain is private and unattached, the problem is yours to solve.

A man duly arrived and I offered to make him a drink. “Yes, that’s a blocked drain,” he said, looking down at the unhappy evidence. “Coffee with milk, please.”

The drain runs down the garden to another manhole cover, which I had been unable to dislodge. With assorted tools and a grunt or two, the man removed the cover and peered down a deep brick shaft. This was, he said, a Windsor trap that connected to a main sewer somewhere and was designed to prevent anything backing up. All was clear here.

At this point the drains man, a friendly sort and cheerful in his work, returned to the other drain. He got me to ask the neighbour to flush their toilet to see if our flooded drain would be disturbed. There was not so much as a ripple and he decreed no drain cohabitation had been going on, and therefore the blockage was not the responsibility of Yorkshire Water.

I had earlier established that a man with a high-pressure hose would charge £80 plus VAT to blast out the drain.

As a goodwill gesture, the man from Yorkshire Water got a reel from his van. This was a long thick wire with a camera on the end, and he pushed this through the drain, managing to unblock it. He then ran the wire through again, showing me the pictures on a screen above the winding mechanism. The images were oddly medical in nature and reminded me of the time I had to go to hospital and swallow a long flex with a stomach-searching camera attached.

The problem, likely as not, was caused by the roots of trees working into the pipe and then attracting grease from cooking and so on.

The man finished his coffee and left to probe someone else’s drains, although not before admiring the old Volvo and telling me he had one that was even older and used to be a police car.

I was left satisfied at a job done well: back-breaking phone and coffee-making work, me; real work, the man from Yorkshire Water. But the incident did stand as a queasy reminder: never mind how civilised we are, we are only ever a step or two away from hidden unpleasantness.