Two Up, Two Down

Our little house is one of a small row of four workers’ cottages standing proud next to the 12th-century parish church of All Saints. Built in 1852, each dwelling once consisted of just four rooms – the original meaning of a ‘two up, two down’ – with water supplied by a well at the end of the row and, in all likelihood, a single outside latrine shared by all and sundry. There must have been quite a queue when cholera struck. The well’s still in full working order but, these days, only used for watering the roses.

One of our neighbours, a sucker for genealogy, obtained the entries for the 1911 national census. It provided a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the residents of our little terrace at that time. 

While Liam was lapping up a concert by a local ladies choir at our spitting-distance church, I took a look through the documents. I really hope Mr Jackson the wherryman*, widow-woman Maria, James the omnibus driver, Mr Kerry the jobbing gardener and all their assorted families had happy and fulfilling lives. I guess we’ll never know, but the chances are their day-to-days were hand-to-mouth, horribly insecure and plagued by illness or the fear of it. Life expectancy at the time was about 56 for women and 52 for men, though this average was skewed by high child mortality rates which meant if you did manage to survive to adulthood, you had a better chance of growing grey.

Still, this was a big improvement on the situation when the houses were first chucked up. Back in the 1850s, life expectancy was only 42 for women and just 40 for men. As life was short and often grim, it’s little wonder people took to religion for solace. Thank God for the doorstep chapel.

*a wherry is a shallow-draught barge with a large single sail once used to transport cargo on the rivers and broads hereabouts.

Tut Mania

Tut Mania

I was eleven when, in 1972, Tutankhamun last came to town. I queued for hours at the British Museum to get just a fleeting glimpse of that death mask as I filed past with all the other kids bussed in from the four corners of the realm. 47 years later, King Tut’s on tour again – probably his last – and Liam and I caught the London gig at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Sadly, this time Tut left his extraordinary mask at home but there were plenty of other astonishing riches to gasp at. Let the bling speak for itself.

The exhibition – Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh – was very, very busy with lots of polite jostling, reflecting, perhaps, an eternal fascination with the antiquarian boy king and his burial booty. Apparently, ancient Eqyptians believed we all die twice – first with our final breath, and then the last time our name is mentioned. At this rate, young Tut really will live for ever.

Beware of Mad Cows

Beware of Mad Cows

As we’re the only gays in the village, Liam, in his infinite wisdom, thought it would be fun to get better acquainted with our new parish. I thought pub crawl. He thought picnic and a gentle stroll along the river Chet. Now, anyone who knows me, even ever so slightly, knows I don’t hike, roam, ramble, trek or yomp. Still, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?

Having hunted and gathered our provisions – a meal deal at the Co-op – we ambled across the pretty graveyard of Loddon’s fifteenth century Holy Trinity Church in search of the leafy gate to one of the many Broads walks which make up the Wherryman’s Way. As we passed the rows of lopsided headstones, we were serenaded by squawking rooks. It was an ominous sign.

The trail guided us through a tunnel of wild foliage, across babbling brooks and along country lanes to a riverside clearing called Pye’s Mill. The mill’s long gone but it’s a pleasant spot with picnic tables, a barbecue grill and a place to shelter from the rain. We munched on our lunch watching the holiday boats slowly chug along the still waters of the river.

Fully replenished, we embarked on stage two of our great expedition – across a marshy field populated by bugs and a small herd of black cows grazing on the lush grass, tails flapping about to shoo away the flies. We’re both city boys and the only cows we normally see are sliced up at the Tesco’s meat counter so we kept well clear as we tip-toed around the puddles and shit.

Suddenly, a white-faced beast with pendulous udders and a mad cow look in her eyes emerged from the brush heading towards us, mooing in earnest. We stopped. She stopped. We stared her out. She stared us out. Guess who blinked first? Knowing the game was up, we turned round and started slowly retracing our steps. She followed. We quickened our pace. She quickened hers. Then she charged, picking up quite a speed, udders sloshing from side to side. We ran. Yes, we ran. It wasn’t our finest hour and thank the Lord there was no one around to video the pathetic sight of two old poofs fleeing from one ton of angry beef hell-bent on making mincemeat of us. It could have gone viral. Liam even considered chucking himself in the Chet to escape. Having seen us off, she trundled back into the bush.

Returning to Pye’s Mill, we glanced back at our nemesis. She was being closely followed by a cute little brown calf. That was why the old cow was so pissed off. She was protecting the veal. Pity they didn’t mention that in the guidebook. I knew we should have gone to the pub.

Monarch of the Hill

In 2010, I handed over a king’s ransom for a set of crowns courtesy of a handsome Turkish dentist called Ufuk (yes, you’ve read it right). And since we ended our Anatolian affair in 2012, I’ve been going to a dentist regularly here in old Naaridge in an effort to preserve my Hollywood smile. It’s a modest surgery above a shop on Timberhill – very different from the swish practice Liam attends where the waiting room looks like a hotel lobby. Ramshackle it may be, but my dentist has all the right equipment and a hands-on approach. Despite my many scale and polishes, I’ve only just recently noticed the statue of a stag on top of the building. I must have passed it a thousand times so that says a lot about my powers of observation. My only defence is that, unlike the monarch of the hill, I don’t keep my head in the clouds. I did a bit of digging and the sculpture was erected in the 1890s by gun maker George Jeffries who once occupied the shop below. Presumably, it was put there to promote his deadly double-barrells, just the ticket for slaughtering these magnificent beasts in the wild. Hardly what I call a fair fight.

Lighting Up the Dark Ages

Following our friendly skirmish with modern Norsemen, we decided to give the Viking Exhibition at Norwich Castle a whirl and find out a little bit more about their hell-raising forebears. I’ve no clue what kind of history kids get taught these days but when I recently asked a history student what happened in 1066, he didn’t know. Now, I’m not one who thinks it should all be about dynasties and dates, but 1066? Really? In my day, the ‘Dark Ages’ (as they used to be called) were very much part of the curriculum and the Viking era was all about rape, pillage and good King Alfred burning his cakes. The aim of the exhibition – Viking, Rediscover the Legend – is to deconstruct the blood and guts myth and tell the more complex story of raid, migration and integration.

Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the show – a bit sparse, exhibit-wise. But it was a welcome distraction on a very hot and sweaty afternoon. And I loved the exquisite York Helmet, the best surviving example of its type in Europe. It’s quite small. I imagine the owner, Oshere, was a bit on the short side. This may explain all that Viking aggro – small man syndrome! I know all about that. I was also struck by the size of the coinage – no bigger than modern-day pennies and easily lost down the side of a sofa. But then they didn’t have IKEA back in the dark days of the Dark Ages.

Summertime in the Netherlands

Summertime in the Netherlands

It was that time of year again when I joined my partner in crime and the force of nature that is Jo Parfitt for our annual general meeting to discuss this publishing malarkey and plan the road ahead. It also provided a welcome excuse to have a proper natter. Previous AGMs have been on this side of the North Sea and so Jo suggested we pop across the water to her elegant gaff in The Hague. We bit her hand off.

Not that it was all work and no play. That would make Jack a very dull boy. Naughty gossip was definitely at the top of the agenda, accompanied by tasty fare and free-flowing wine. Jo and husband were generous hosts. The ‘any other business’ involved a walkabout. As our lodgings were city-centre chic, we had plenty of time to amble round the cobbled streets of the tidy and graceful City of Peace and Justice. We had to keep our wits about us – looking left not right, eyes anxiously peeled for the trams and cyclists coming at us from every which way. We were lucky with the weather: warm and breezy with a few heavy rain clouds that failed to burst, and we took full advantage of the café culture spilling out all over the bricked pavements.

We even got the chance to hop on a tram to delightful Delft, a mini-Amsterdam without the reputation, criss-crossed with pretty canals and home to blue pottery and the House of Orange. The still waters were distinctly green in places: a quick dip would have been unwise.

Just to demonstrate we’re not total lightweights, cultuur-wise, we took in the cute and bijou Vermeer Museum to sample Delft’s most famous artist. Liam was definitely plugged in to the Vermeer vibe.

We flew the KLM City Hopper to and from Amsterdam’s manic Schiphol Airport courtesy of the rather sedate Norwich International which is more of a hut than a hub, but then we were home 30 minutes after landing, chilled white in hand.

Go West!

Go West!

One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.

After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…

I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.

‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.

Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.

Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.

So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.