26 December 2010

We hope you have all had the most delightful of Christmases – we certainly did. And, of course, someone celebrated a “significant” birthday in the week which was equally delightful.

The celebrations began on Sunday morning when our Ben walked through the door – undoubtedly the best birthday surprise anyone could have hoped for. He flew in to the UK on Saturday morning but because of the chaos caused by the weather, his flight was diverted from Heathrow to Manchester. Nick, who was in on the surprise, of course, had started his journey to Heathrow to collect him (we, of course, were up in London enjoying War Horse) but was forced back by the conditions on the motorway, fortunately, and didn’t struggle all the way to the airport. Instead, Ben made his way by train from Manchester to Leamington and then Nick brought him over on Sunday morning. Complete and utter surprise and a delightful one at that.

60 Years Old Birthday Cards

So, on Wednesday we celebrated Greg’s Gargantuan Birthday. There were many presents and a grand feast in the evening prepared by Byfield’s most famous and well-respected chef, Penny. The dining table was extended to its maximum and we managed to squeeze thirteen around the table; Pete and Sally from next door, Mary and Paul from across the road, Nick and Lucy and Ben, the Waltons (Dave and Sue) and Sue and Stuart from the south coast. Everyone made it through the weather and it was a fabulously delightful occasion.

The menu was extraordinary and even I made a couple of contributions. I choose the wines and made the sorbets and ice cream! The rest of the feast was lovingly prepared by Ms Playchute and we partied well past our bedtime. (Well, partying might be a bit of an exaggeration but the final guests did not leave until about noon the following day so, as far as I can remember, we sure had a wonderful time).


Birthday Dinner Birthday Dinner

The great thing about my birthday is that it sets you up nicely for the festivities on Christmas Day. Sadly, Ben had to fly back to LA on Friday so we got him delivered to the airport on time and his flight was only delayed by about an hour and a half – luckily he wasn’t trying to fly earlier in the week when Heathrow simply was not coping.

After a leisurely start to Christmas Day, Nick and Lucy arrived (again) and we were joined soon thereafter by Penny’s folks, Beryl and Oz. Another fantastic meal once again, surprisingly, prepared by Ms Playchute (I don’t think I made any contribution to this feast; if so, I certainly can’t remember what it was – how bad is that?). We opened presents and had a lengthy Skype with Adam and Tang in China which was a real treat. A roaring fire in the lounge ensured that almost everyone was snoring contentedly away once we put a film on the television.

Lucy's Hat
Lucy's Hat from Ben & Donna

Skyping with Adam
Skyping with Adam in China

Christmas Morning
Christmas morning - he came!

Icicles Downspout

A great day and a great week.

All our love to you all,



19 December 2010

What a miserable week. Not just for me but for everyone around me, I suspect.

I started displaying the symptoms of the season’s first cold on Sunday which deteriorated steadily throughout the week. Sore throat followed by a few aches and pains, a nose so congested that not the slightest oxygen molecule could penetrate which alternated with alarming alacrity with a runny nose of Niagara Falls proportions, coughing fits capable of causing earthquake tremors and episodes of sneezing so vigorous that the windows rattled in their frames.

So, as you can imagine (being a guy) I spent the whole week whining and moaning and groaning and coughing and sneezing and complaining and bleating and whimpering and whinging and generally feeling utterly sorry for myself. Now that I am more or less on the mend I can only sympathise with the kind, benevolent, generous and compassionate Ms Playchute who suffered my gripes and grouses with the demeanour and disposition of an angel.

She walked the dog while I lay on the sofa groaning with discomfort, she cooked all the meals (actually, she does that most of the time anyway) while I wailed about the injustice of it all and the incompetence of the medical profession in failing, so far, to find a fool-proof cure for the common cold, she cleaned and hoovered the house while I contemplated making my funeral arrangements and never, not once, did she bellow at me or give me a good slap, which is probably what I needed. I only hope that when she next has a similar episode I can demonstrate half the compassion.

Perhaps I should have taken the advice of, allegedly, Pearl Williams:

You have a cough?  Go home tonight, eat a whole box of Ex-Lax – tomorrow you’ll be afraid to cough.

So, a pretty miserable week until yesterday (Saturday) when we enjoyed one of the best and certainly one of the most exciting adventures we’ve experienced in quite some time. Saturday was our annual pre-Christmas trip up to London for a visit to the theatre and a meal with friends. Saturday was also the day the weather gods decided to bring our region the delights of the arctic conditions which the other parts of the country have been enjoying for the past couple of days.

This outing had been organised months ago and it was a trip we were particularly looking forward to. We were off to the big city to see the National Theatre’s production of War Horse which has had great reviews. Given the gloomy weather forecasts we decided to make an early start and, in fact, made our way into Banbury and on to the train with little distraction – it seems that most of the rest of the local population were heeding the advice not to travel anywhere unless the journey was absolutely essential. There were plenty of spaces in the car park, the trains were running on time and our journey up to London was very pleasant and comfortable. Then the weather arrived.

Our early phone conversations with Sue & Stuart and Dave & Sue (who hadn’t the foresight to set off as early as we had done) were not promising. Stuart was convinced they would never get out of their driveway, let alone make it to their local railway station and Dave & Sue similarly felt the inability to see anything other than white was an indication that perhaps they shouldn’t be venturing out.

The fact that we were already in London might have influenced their decision to make the effort but I suspect it was my disowning them all as “wimps.” So, they struggled to their respective railway stations and made their way to town and finally, we all collected at the theatre for the matinee performance.

War Horse is about the relationship between a young farmhand and his horse during the First World War. At the outbreak of the war, the horse is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France where it participates in cavalry charges against the German machine guns. The horse’s officer is killed and it is “captured” by the Germans and made to pull an ambulance cart and artillery. The young farmhand, although underage, joins up and ends up in the trenches hoping that he might find and save his horse.

So, how does one present a stage show where the main character is a horse? With life-sized puppets, naturally. Each horse is operated by three puppeteers; one operates the hind legs, one the fore legs and one the head. At first glance it’s a bit disconcerting to see the people inside the belly of the horse operating its legs; the puppeteer operating the head appears as if he/she is simply holding the horse’s lead. However, within about thirty seconds the horses are alive. The movements and sounds they make are utterly realistic and clearly the result of detailed studying. In short, the show was outstanding and certainly one of the best we’ve ever seen.

War Horse

Normally on these outings we then make our way to a suitably convenient restaurant and enjoy a sumptuous meal. On this occasion, however, we all decided the better part of valour, in view of the weather conditions, was to initiate our respective journeys home. And so, to the real adventure of the day.

I have written before how the UK (well, southern England at any rate) is utterly incapable of coping with the slightest ice and/or snow. The entire transport infrastructure shuts down and drivers take the view that what they should be doing in the snow is driving into trees and ditches or abandoning their vehicles in the middle of the road preventing anyone else from getting past.

The first challenge was to get from the theatre back to the mainline station where we, hopefully, would get a train back to Banbury. However, because of the weather much of the underground was “disrupted” and, in fact, the underground line we needed to use to get to the station was not running at all. So, by a circuitous route we eventually made our way to Baker Street which is only about a ten minute walk from Marylebone station.

Luckily, there was a train heading for Banbury and that leg of the journey was accomplished with little difficulty. The next challenge we faced was getting the car out of the car park. Fortunately, there was another car attempting to leave the car park at the same time – a husband, wife and teenage daughter who had been up to town to see a play themselves – and so we were able to be of mutual benefit in pushing each other out of our respective parking bays and towards the feeble track which one or two previous cars had created. Unfortunately, the guy driving the other car which, from our prospective, was ahead of us on the track leaving the car park, was utterly incapable of driving on snow and/or ice. Now, I readily concede that I am no expert at driving in these conditions but I do know that what one does not do is to rev one’s engine and start off in first gear with a lot of acceleration. Spin, spin, spin. He also had no understanding about “rocking” the car forwards and backwards to get up a bit of momentum in spite of my demonstrating the technique myself (quite effectively, if I do say so myself) and attempting to explain it to him.

Finally, after about forty minutes, we all (Penny, me, the wife and daughter) managed to push him so that he eventually made it to the main road. Once he was out of the way we got into our car and drove straight out. No pushing, no spinning of tyres, just a little care and caution. Don’t know whether they ever made it all the way home; fortunately for us, the main roads were just passable and we made it home with no further incidents. An absolutely fantastic day out, in spite of the additional weather-related adventures.

Today, we are hunkering down and have no intention of venturing anywhere!

Much love to you all,





12 December 2010

Oh my goodness! Is that the time? Somehow, this week seems to have scampered by without my noticing.

You will be very pleased to hear that the snow and frigid conditions have abated, at least for the time being. While we are undoubtedly pleased, I’m not convinced that Molly is quite so content – she comes home from her walks caked in mud which, of course, necessitates some sort of hose down and banishment from any of the downstairs rooms with carpets, in other words, just about everywhere. Since she normally spends most of her time with us in the lounge, especially when we have a fire in the wood-burner, you can imagine that this is not very popular.

Yesterday Pen took her out in the afternoon and returned with a chocolate-coloured golden retriever. Unfortunately, although the snow had melted and the temperature was a degree or two above freezing, the garden hose in the garage, which is the dog-washing implement of choice, was still frozen. So, Molly got washed down with water from a watering can – warm, tap water admittedly but not much fun nevertheless. Later in the evening while we were watching television, we both heard running water. Upon investigation, it turns out that Pen had not turned off the faucet to the garden hose and it had finally thawed sufficiently – the hose was happily leaping about spraying everything in the garage.

BarclaysSome of you will know of my recent discussion with the complaints department at Barclays Bank. I was stunned at the size of the chunk the bank took for allowing me to transfer some of my money to the Huletts Landing Trust. Not only did I think that £25 for, essentially, clicking a mouse button to effect an electronic transfer was a bit steep, but the American bank also charged me £4 for the privilege of allowing me to put some US dollars into their establishment which I felt was positively criminal. When I queried the amount the person with whom I discussed the issue assured me that £25 plus £4 was indeed the correct amount. It seems that they assumed that I was complaining that the fee was somehow incorrect – the notion that it seemed somewhat excessive hadn’t even occurred to them.

I suggested that, in the current financial climate, bankers and the financial institutions are not held in the highest regard and one of the reasons for this was what would appear to most sane people as the excessive charges they levy for fairly basic services. Of course, I was speaking with a mere phone operator in a call centre but when I asked whether she earned £25 for what was about five minutes work she assured me somewhat emphatically that she did not. I also pointed out that Barclays paid £1.5 billion in bonuses last year and made profits of £11.6 billion and suggested that they might regain some of their tarnished reputation if they announced that they were reducing their charges. Naturally, I won’t be holding my breath. And, have you noticed the similarity between the words “banker” and “wanker”? Do you think this is a mere coincidence? Are bankers the new lawyers?

We watched the film City Island the other evening which, if you’ve not seen, is certainly worth a shout. It’s been around a while so I guess you’ll find it on DVD or Netflicks or whatever. It’s about a dysfunctional family each of whom is hiding some relatively innocent secret from each other. Andy Garcia plays the patriarch who works as a corrections officer in a local prison. His secret is that he is taking acting classes but he tells his wife he is playing poker. Not surprisingly, she comes to the conclusion that he is having an affair. The daughter has been suspended from college and is working as a stripper to earn the money to go back again and she perpetuates her deception by taking a week off work and coming home for “Spring Break.” And there’s more which I won’t go into but the final scene is like the conclusion of  a Shakespearean comedy where everyone finally discovers what the audience has known all along. Very cute.

Closed PubFinally, one group of people who are delighted that the snow and freezing conditions have temporarily relaxed are a couple from Darlington and the five staff of The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge, near Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire. They were trapped inside for eight days as 20 feet of snow drifted against the pub and closed all the roads. I suppose I can think of worse places to be stuck but eight days with just your husband/wife and five strangers?

Love to you all,



5 December 2010

SnowGood morning from the frigid tundra of the United Kingdom. We’re into our second week of freezing Arctic conditions and snow which, as I wrote last week, is the earliest the UK has experienced weather conditions of this sort for at least seventeen years. We’ve had the lowest temperatures for early December since record keepers started keeping records of these record-breaking events. Never happened under Labour!

Given the frigid conditions, on Wednesday evening, while Ms Playchute was out at the gym, I decided that I would accede to her numerous requests to put the electric blanket on the bed. As I’ve written in the past, Pen likes the electric blanket on the bed and turned up to the maximum from about late August through until the end of May. I would quite happily do without it altogether and have the bedroom window open most of the year. Still, the weather was freezing and I thought (a) it might be quite nice to climb into a pre-warmed bed and (b) Ms Playchute would think I was an absolute star and perhaps even reward me in the nicest possible way (cook me a full English breakfast the next morning, of course. What were you imagining?)

So, I rummaged around the dressing room and found the blanket and controls. A cursory inspection showed no damage from mice and so I spent the next fifteen minutes or so taking great care to make the bed, plug the blanket all together and switching it on so that it would be nice and warm when Pen got home. Imagine my disappointment, (not to mention Penelope’s), when I discovered that alas, after probably about fifteen years of faithful and dependable service, the electric blanket is no more. I had originally thought that this was the first electric blanket we purchased in 1975 but Penelope assures me that this one was purchased to replace that one which died about fifteen years ago. Still, fifteen to twenty years of service is pretty good value, I guess. The new one is on order as we speak.

And then, to add insult to injury, why does one’s central heating boiler always choose the coldest day in the coldest week to cease functioning? And, as it happens, that day is always a Friday, just before the weekend when one won’t be able to secure the services of a plumber for love nor money. Yes, we awoke on Friday morning to a distinctly frosty morning, both inside and out. The boiler had apparently decided it was simply too f**king cold and although it was quietly ticking over and circulating water throughout the radiators, that water was slightly above freezing and none of my inducements could persuade it to fire up and actually produce some heat. So, on the phone to our usual plumbers – they are run off their feet and might be able to get to us next Wednesday. They very kindly gave me the contact details for another firm which was similarly run off their feet but they promised to get back to us later in the day to see how they were fixed.

So, off to the garage to dig out the two portable gas heaters; back to the garage to dig out the two gas cylinders for the heaters only to discover that, of course, both cylinders are almost empty. Still, we managed to get them set up and, with a fire in the wood-burning stove and seven layers of clothing we just about survived.

Oh, did I mention that we had a guest arriving for lunch?

Finally, about three-thirty we had a phone call from the plumber who was on his way! Naturally, I assumed that this would be the first of seventeen visits as he would surely not have the requisite equipment or parts but he turned out to be a gem and we had heat again soon after his arrival. He also very kindly explained and showed me where the issue was and how to rectify it should it occur again so, in spite of shivering and struggling with a gas-fume induced headache most of the day, by the time it came to go to bed the house was feeling very comfortable again.

If that’s the one boiler breakdown we have to put up with this winter I can live with it. Knowing, however, the experiences we’ve had with our boiler over the last couple of winter, I doubt it. We’ll let you know how we get on.

The saga of the Members of Parliament fiddling their expenses reached another landmark this week – the first conviction (punishable by up to seven years in prison – ha, ha!) This “honourable gentleman” as they refer to one another, no longer an MP, of course, had fiddled his expenses claiming just over £20,000 over a four year period. He claimed £12,925 for rent on his apartment in Westminster (London) which is actually fair enough, according to the rules. This was his “second” home enabling him to stay in London for parliamentary business. The only slight problem with his expense claim is that he actually owned the apartment outright. So, he had to produce a fake tenancy agreement to submit with his claim. Now, does that strike anyone as being just a tad on the shady side?

He also claimed expenses of £5,425 for renting a home in his constituency. No problem with that. However, the rules do say that one cannot rent a property from a relative and, unfortunately, the owner of the house was his mother. So, he ought to have known the rules and should have known that what he was claiming was not allowed. Still, that might have been a genuine mistake or oversight. One small problem: it turns out he never paid his mother anything, again inventing a false tenancy agreement to submit with the claim. Finally, not content with that, he submitted two invoices totalling £1,950 for “IT Services”. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The invoices were fake and the work had never been carried out nor paid for.

At the time he was charged he pledged that he would vigorously defend the case and clear his name. However, he then went on to try and claim that these actions were covered by parliamentary privilege and that therefore he shouldn’t be facing criminal charges at all. He took that case all the way to the British equivalent of the Supreme Court which, sadly, ruled against him, poor chap. So, when all his legal challenges had run their course, as an “honourable gentleman” he did the honourable thing and pleaded guilty. Nice to have one’s perception of the ethics and honesty of those in politics affirmed – are politicians the new lawyers? The good news? There are five more former MPs waiting their turn in the dock.

I’m sure you’re all as excited as we are over the announcement of the royal engagement (yawn). I spotted the first set of commemorative coffee mugs in Tesco the other week. What happens if it all goes pear-shaped and they call it off? The boys might have been too young to remember but I guess Mom and Dad will as they were in the UK with us at the time. I can’t remember whether it was the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana or the Queen’s Golden Jubilee but all the children in the village were given a commemorative mug. Very nice they were too apart from the one small “mistake” of having the wrong date. I wonder what they would fetch on e-Bay?

Love to you all,