One of our friends lives in an area where Covid-19 is steeply rising and has voluntarily entered a recent drastic version of mostly self imposed lockdown. He’s okay about being restricted as it allows a bit of breathing space from a massive row with a neighbour that’s been ongoing for months. His hope now is that nobody tells the neighbour when the lockdown is eventually lifted as he’s enjoying a rest from endless weeks’ relentless strife conducted over the garden fence.
He attended the same school as me, he’s a year older, but lived nearby and we both had three ‘bus journeys each way every day so we got to know each other pretty well.
I remember the Headmaster singling him out on one occasion, in front of the entire school, saying ‘you are without doubt the cleverest boy of your age in all England.’ We were pretty astonished at the stratospheric nature of this rare praise, but after allowing an interval of at least ten seconds the Headmaster added, ‘it’s unfortunate that this is only your opinion and bears no relation whatsoever to the facts. On the contrary, you set yourself lamentably low standards of achievement and yet consistently fail to achieve them.’
Public humiliation of that ilk sticks in the mind. I certainly remember it, the gist of it anyway if not word for word.
As he reads this blog, I won’t embarrass my friend by naming him - let’s call him Ringo, it’s actually his dog’s name - but if I asked ten thousand random people in the North West of England who was the most awkward, cantankerous and argumentative person they’d ever met several hundred of them would utter his name.
Of course we get on very well with just the occasional difficult incident - only on every single occasion we meet and we rarely come to blows!
He knows when he’s outmatched.
I’ve learnt over the years not to take any of his absolute statements of fact at face value as there’s often very little empirical evidence to support them. He seems to subsist entirely on Guinness. It’s only on very rare occasions he’s seen eating anything that could be regarded, even loosely, as food. It’s Guinness all the way.
‘Food and drink in harmony,’ he’d announce, knocking the top off a bottle of porter on the edge of the table. ‘There’s all the nourishment the body needs in every swallow. Plus, no need to wash up after a meal, just chuck the empties in the bin.’
I’ve known him for many years and have yet to notice any deleterious effects on his health. Memo to self, order a crate of Guinness for the weekend.
Chocolate Digestives, fairly prosaic items, were the latest cause for diversion of views. ‘Of course, the chocolate forms the base, not the topping,’ Ringo pronounced as he handed out his customary ration, two for him, one for me.
I’ve devoured a great many chocolate digestive biscuits, a digestive biscuit with a chocolate topping, so was only too ready to take issue with his spurious claim that the chocolate formed the base of the biscuit.
To my horror, I read recently a press release by McVities stating with unassailable veracity that the chocolate on a McVities digestive is administered by a reservoir of chocolate, meaning that the chocolate side is the bottom of the biscuit, rather than the top. The same applies to Jaffa Cakes, also made by McVities, which is even more bizarre.
I fully intended to ring up Ringo and apologise and beg his forgiveness for ever doubting him, but for some reason it slipped my mind. Will this do, mate?
Digestive biscuits, the bog standard variety not the chocolate ones, have been around a long time and were once heavily promoted as a health product. The idea was that the bicarbonate of soda used in the biscuit acted as an antacid and aided the digestive process, hence the name.
In 1836, Buss’s Digestive Biscuits declared that they contained ‘the greatest amount of farinaceous nutriment that can possibly be concentrated into a biscuit.’ *’Farinaceous’ simply means they contain a lot of starch, as do bread, potatoes and many other elements of our diet that we rarely hear being singled out as being beneficial to a healthy lifestyle.
Advertising has never paid much attention to actual facts when extolling the virtues of products and digestive biscuits have a dubious track record in this industry. J. Hutchinson, ‘the original introducer and sole proprietor of Abernethy’s celebrated Digestive Biscuits’ proudly informed the biscuit buying public, ‘these biscuits, when taken regularly by families, have the good property of keeping the body in a regular state, and in a great measure supersedes the necessity of having recourse to medicine.’
My underperforming heart notwithstanding, no wonder I feel so fit.
Not that good health is always a blessing. Edvard Munch would never have painted his masterpiece, The Scream, if he’d been a well man. ‘Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder,’ he said. I can only assume Edvard didn’t care for the taste of Guinness.
‘Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.’ ― Pablo Picasso
I’m usually reprimanded on arrival for failing to give due respect to Ringo’s title. He’s a baron, yes I have friends in the higher echelons of society, yet I invariably fail to refer to his ennoblement in a sufficiently impressive fashion. His title of Baron gets mentioned a lot, but not by me. It’s the sine qua non of just about every conversation.
This highfaluting title, bestowed by a Monarch no less, is rather less impressive than it sounds. One of the many oddball acquaintances who have crossed paths with Ringo was a magnificently eccentric man named Roy Bates who discovered a rusting World War Two fort off the coast of Harwich, Essex in 1967 and unilaterally decided to take possession of it. Together with his wife Joan, Roy Bates declared his new home independent from the UK and became Prince Roy and Princess Joan, rulers of Sealand. They produced coins, stamps and passports, and the sovereign nation of Sealand was represented in the World Egg-Throwing Championships.
Sealand was in fact a former Maunsell naval fort, put in place in 1942 at a cost of £40,000 (which would be in excess of £2 million today), one of a series stretching from Clacton in Essex to Margate in Kent. I’ve come across a few of these forts, but only one had claimed independent nation status. Originally manned by 120 soldiers and fitted with Vickers anti-aircraft guns, the Maunsell forts protected the Thames Estuary from German bombers and were abandoned by the military in 1958.
Sealand, formerly known as Roughs Tower, was, crucially, outside British territorial waters. In those far off days when Radio 1 was unheard of it was fashionable to set up ‘pirate’ radio stations outside the reach of British laws beaming pop music to a deprived ‘Yoof’ audience. The best known was Radio Caroline, but there were several others and Roy Bates was not one to miss out. It wasn’t luxurious; the ‘facilities’ consisted of a hole in the deck with a toilet seat on top of it and if a kettle was switched on, the record turntables slowed down.
Roy Bates died in 2012, aged 91, Sealand is now ruled by Roy's son, Prince Michael, who awarded the Sealand Peace Prize to Nelson Mandela and Sealand ‘noble titles’ to various people such as Terry Wogan, Ed Sheeran, Jeremy Clarkson and Ben Fogle, who are barons.
These notables would suggest Ringo, better make that Baron Ringo, is in good company, but alas for £199.99 anyone can become a Count or Countess and a mere Knighthood costs only £99.99.
If there’s still no sign of a gong heading my way in the next New Year’s Honours List I may yet have to lash out £199.99, if only to compete with Baron Ringo. Marigold has as yet expressed no interest at all in becoming a Lady.