Monday, August 29, 2011

A Day Out

Last week we travelled up to East Anglia to visit my wife's great-aunt for lunch. It was a ridiculously long drive in torrential rain, during which I battled to resist the soporific effect of the windscreen wipers and a Noel Coward play on the radio. At one point, everyone else in the car was asleep and I only had the 'satnav' lady to keep me company, with her annoying rising inflection: "At the next roundabout? Take the second exit? Then take the road to Lowestoft?"

I'd never visited the great-aunt's house before, but had wondered why such a nice, cultured woman lived in a place like Lowestoft. In addition to being the easternmost point of Great Britain, Lowestoft is one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. It has a terrible reputation.

However, as the satnav announced "You have reached your destination?", I entered a leafy road full of beautiful Victorian villas and realised how blinkered I had been. Lowestoft may be economically depressed due to problems in the fishing industry, but like Hastings and Margate, it is largely unspoiled and has retained its character. All it needs now is a high-speed rail link to north London and a modern art gallery.

From the outside, the great-aunt's house seemed untouched by the 20th century, let alone the 21st; I almost expected a maid to appear at the door. But I didn't think that the Victorian theme would continue once we were inside:

This photo doesn't do justice to the beauty of this house. The great-aunt's son - an antiques restorer and dealer - has filled the house with beautiful objects and said that he tries to lead a plastic-free existence.

He and his sister had prepared a lavish candlelit lunch, with fine bone china, silver cutlery and lead crystal glasses. With a grandfather clock ticking gently in the background, it felt as if we were still waiting for 1900 to arrive.

I complimented the son on a beautiful sideboard, which looked as if it should be in a museum. He replied that he had bought it when he was 16. What sort of teenager goes around buying antique furniture? Later, I learned that when he was in his teens, the son and his best friend used to dress up as Queen Victoria and drink tea from very expensive china.

I was also told that when the son was sent to Austria on a school skiing trip that he didn't want to go on, he used to sneak away from the ski slopes and spend the whole day in the local village, buying objets d'art and porcelain. When the son's deception was discovered, the master took him to one side and said "Do you know what a homosexual is?"

I left the house feeling inspired by what I'd seen, but depressed by the ordinariness of my own home. I used to seek out beautiful things, but as soon as I became a parent I stopped bothering. I could blame it on money, but several of the objects I saw in Lowestoft had come from car boot sales.

I think it was more to do with the belief that a self-indulgent period in my life was over and it was time to create a more child-centred home, full of clean, new utilitarian furniture. What nonsense. Have my son's lives been enhanced by a glut of plastic toys and flatpack self-assembly furniture?

I still have a few things that I value: a Swedish barometer with art noveau lettering, some chairs that used to belong to Jade Jagger, a Victorian clock with a plaque dedicated to 'Mr and Mrs Ashdown of the Plumtree Ragged School' and an old bakelite phone that was owned by the BBC.

But overall, I have allowed too much junk to creep into my life. I look longingly at blogs like Grey Area and marvel at the beauty of other people's homes.

Luckily, my house is so strange anyway, that no amount of flatpack furniture could completely destroy its character, but it deserves better than an Ikea table and an Argos chest of drawers. As I'm about to embark on my new career as the Lovejoy of books, perhaps I should add antiques to my portfolio.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Grey is the Colour of Hope

I popped into the Colchester branch of Waterstone's this morning to see if the recent change of ownership had made any difference. At first, it looked exactly the same, but then I noticed that the shelves seemed much fuller and there were very few annoying posters with banal bylines.

It felt more like a bookshop.

I suppose it was unrealistic to expect anything dramatic; after all, James Daunt's only been in the job for a couple of months. I shall have to go back later in the year.

I must have been scrutinising the shop a little too conspicuously, as a nervous-looking assistant made a beeline for me and asked if I needed any help. I think they thought that I was a mystery shopper. I was tempted to play along and start asking ridiculous question, but thought better of it.

I've never been a mystery shopper, but I used to pretend to be a restaurant critic. I'd dress smartly and turn up with a small clipboard, pretending to surreptitiously take notes which I made a great play of concealing every time a waiter approached. After ordering, I'd inspect the loos and ensure that I 'accidentally' walked into the kitchen, scanning the surfaces for any signs of dirt. As the evening progressed the waiters became increasingly attentive and at some point, I'd invariably end up getting at least one free drink (a decent one, not a thimblefull of Bailey's).

At the end of the visit, the waiters would wait by the door and, with anxious smiles, ask me if I'd had an enjoyable evening. I'd nod knowingly and reply "A very enjoyable evening indeed." Their relief was palpable.

Was that wrong? I never actually claimed to be anything I wasn't; I just let people infer it from my behaviour. Either way, it was good fun.

But I digress. Returning to Waterstone's, the shop looked good and it was packed, so perhaps there's still some hope for the high street bookshop. I hope so. The way everyone is talking about the 'Kindle', it feels as if the question about the demise of bricks and mortar bookselling is not if, but when.

However, I have uncovered evidence of a failed attempt at Kindle-style reading from the 1940s:

This book was published during the Second World War and although it looks perfectly ordinary on the outside, the contents reveal a bold new initiative in the publishing world. Black on grey:

"Black text on a grey background? It'll never work, Carstairs. It looks damnably awful!"

And that was the end of that. The book industry had to wait another 65 years before the Kindle made grey backgrounds acceptable.

But sometimes grey can be good:

I love cover designs like this from the 1960s, which have an elegance, simplicity and wit that has never been surpassed. In this post, Richard from Grey Area posted a comment that pointed out how much work went into creating such seemingly effortless designs.

Just a few years before 'Choral Verse', dustjackets like this were the norm:

This is a sex education book for young people from the late 1950s. I'm no expert on these matters, but I would have thought that the first thing they could do is take their raincoats off.

But I mustn't mock. It's actually quite a good book, full of dangerous, radical ideas, like trying to see things from the woman's perspective.

I'm not sure if these women needed any advice with delicate matters:

In the second picture, the urban sophisticate deals with a group of 'brigands' with barbed wit and condescension. I've tried that approach too, but with more mixed results.

There's something very appealing about the demi-monde of the period between the wars, but I'm also attracted to the innocence of children's book illustrations from the mid-20th century:

I expect that these children were called Peter, Joan, Colin and Kenneth and their parents didn't mind them sitting on the edge of tall buildings in the dark, because they were too busy getting 'tight' at the local yacht club.

Finally, four photos that turned up at work last week:

A very moody shot. Perhaps it's all a little too English for this gentleman.

The sporting Scotsmen theme continues with this appealing portrait of a young boy.

This couple are also from Scotland, but there's no evidence of any sporting activity.

Finally, a slightly disturbing portrait of Father Christmas:

I'm not sure what effect this Santa would have had on the young visitors to his grotto, but I'm sure that it can't have been as bad as the New York department store that had a sign outside which promised: 'FIVE SANTAS. NO WAITING.'

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Decline and Fall

My leaving date at work is now official and people seem more shocked than I thought they would be. Everyone has been very kind, but I could have done without the two colleagues who asked me if I was retiring.

Do I really look that old?

Admitedly it's been a hard year, but I didn't think I looked that bad. I have a good 20 years left before I retire (probably longer, if the Government have their way) and can't say I feel like someone who's about to draw their pension.

Perhaps I'm fooling myself. In the spirit of objectivity, I took this 'warts and all' photo of myself an hour ago:

It's a sad contrast to the photo in my last post. I am a shadow of my former self: hair has been lost and weight has been gained, but does this really look like someone who is about to retire?

I only hope that they meant early retirement. Very early retirement.

Things didn't get any better today. I had an appointment at the optician's and was pleased to see that my eye test was being done by a very attractive woman. She had long blonde hair, a strange tattoo on her leg and a breathy voice that sounded as if she was acting very badly. For a moment I thought I'd been transported into a porn film and waited patiently for her to complain how hot the room was and start loosening her clothing. But instead she began telling me that I had reached the age where I should consider getting varifocal lenses.

Varifocal lenses? Great! While I'm at it, I might as well order some Werther's Originals, a waterproof mattress cover and a boxed DVD set of 'Last of the Summer Wine'.

I need a holiday. But not here:

Preferably somewhere warm and exotic, like these photos from 1979:

I found these pictures in an old Selfix photo album that turned up at work last week. Sadly, they weren't actual photographs, but pictures that someone had cut out of a holiday brochure - a whole album's worth. Why would someone go to so much effort?

Why not relax with a complimentary glass of Dubonet and a cigarette, while Jacques plays 'Misty' for you, before boogieing the night away to the latest Patrick Juvet smash hit...

And in the morning you can sample the local crafts and historical buildings...

After lunch, why not not take advantage of our exclusive 'Members Only' club facilities? If tennis isn't your scene, you can relax with the latest Harold Robbins in our new library room...

It looks like the sort of place where you'd bump into Roger Moore.

Anyway, I must go now before the cocoa boils over.

(Now where did I put my slippers?)

N.B - Since writing this post, I have been out for curry with a lovely person 41 years older than me. She drank me under the table. I need to listen to Dale Carnegie: 'Stop Worrying and Start Living'!

Monday, August 22, 2011


My wife has taken our sons to her mother's house on an island off the coast of Essex. For the first time in ages, I can hear nothing but the sound of death watch beetles and the floorboards expanding and contracting as the sun rises and falls. It is a guilty pleasure.

When I first met my wife, I refused to believe that there was an island off the coast of Essex. It all sounded too Enid Blyton. Then I went to stay with her and visited her grandparents' vast Tudor farmhouse. I'd never been to a home with a grand piano before, let alone two (the second one was in the nursery) and felt as if I'd been sent to live in a novel.

My wife's grandparents' heyday was in the 1940s and 50s. Fifty years on, the men still wore pencil-thin moustaches and drank double whiskies, before staggering into their Rovers for the drive home at a steady 23mph. It seemed such a solid world and I felt overwhelmed by it. But within only a few years they were all dead and the Tudor farmhouse, which echoed with the sound of glasses clinking, risqué jokes and druken renditions of 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', was silent.

It was a world of certainties and a sense of belonging: the yacht club, the Masons, the Conservatives and the golf club. If there was a dinner dance, Nanny looked after the children. Later, boarding school ensured that the social calendar went ahead without any disruptions.

I wonder what my wife's grandparents made of me, with my strange boots and long black coats, all bought from charity shops:

I looked a total prat. But to their credit, my wife's grandparents were never anything less than charming. I suppose they'd seen it all before.

My wife's grandfather once took her to one side and asked what my 'prospects' were. She roared with laughter. I'm not sure if she's laughing now, living in a house that's less than a fifth of the size of the one she grew up in, but luckily she still feels relieved that she didn't end up with a nice young man from the yacht club.

My prospects are still uncertain. I hope that 'Steerforth Books' will at least pay the bills and put bread on the table, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I have 39 days left before I leave the security of salaried employment for the terra incognita of running a business.

Oddly enough, I don't feel at all worried.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I'm in Love With Joanne Woodward

I've just had one of those aimless evenings spent looking at random YouTube clips. I always end up feeling guilty. Another wasted day. Why didn't I spend my time reading a novel or watching an Ingmar Bergman film, rather than typing 'skateboarding chimps' in the search box?

I blame it on stress.

But I find that if you spend enough time on YouTube, you invariably stumble on something wonderful.

This evening I started looking at clips of 'What's My Line' from the late 1950s and early 60s, marvelling at the quality of the guests, e.g. Salvador Dali, Alfred Hitchcock and Eleanor Roosevelt. No E-list former reality tv contestants or failed pop stars, although there was a slightly bizarre appearance from Colonel Sanders (who looked exactly like the Kentucky Fried Chicken picture).

My favourite 'What's My Line' clip featured Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I remember reading articles about Newman and Woodward's marriage and the subtext was always "here's a man who could have any woman he wants and yet he's chosen to remain faithful to his wife who, let's face it, is no glamourpuss, although she's a formidable character..."

However, on the strength of this clip, I can see exactly why Paul Newman fell in love with Joanne Woodward and remained happily married to her until his death. Apart from being beautiful and elegant, she radiates intelligence, wit and a sense of fun.

I think I'm a bit in love with Joanne Woodward too:

N.B - Since writing this post, I've discovered that there are rumours that Dorothy Killgalen - described by Frank Sinatra as the 'chinless wonder' - may have been assassinated!

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I must admit I'd been having sleepless nights about handing my notice in. How would my employers react? I knew that they regarded me as a permanent fixture and had planned accordingly. Would they be angry, indifferent or sympathetic?

So far, everyone has been brilliant. Indeed, they've even offered to help me find a way of setting-up in Lewes and I've been told that if my circumstances change, I can go back. I couldn't ask for more.

Now comes the hard bit. I have to find a unit in Lewes that's large enough to store a few thousand books. It doesn't matter what state of repair the building's in as long as it's dry. It also needs to be accessible for lorries and vans. Finally, I need a short lease in case I turn out to be utterly useless at running my own business.

In the meantime, I will be in my current job for at least another month, paving the way for my successor, so I'll continue to share the latest discoveries:

This book appears to be very rare. I can't find any other copies of it on sale. The flyleaf has a Guernsey bookseller's name blind-stamped in the corner, whilst the front endpaper has this bookplate:

I was surprised to find a bookplate for an English prize in French, but later realised that it was actually in Guernésiais - a Norman French dialect that remained the island's official language until 1972. Today, only 2% of the population speak it fluently, but when Victor Hugo was in exile on Guernsey, writing Les Miserables, Guernésiais was commonly spoken.

The language declined for the usual reasons, but was accelerated when many of the island's children were evacuated to the British mainland at the beginning of World War two.

As for the book, it has some beautiful colour illustrations accompanying a military-themed ABC:

Can you guess what each letter stands for? I've already thought of some (which are unrepeatable).

In addition to the ABC illustrations, there are also some full colour plates:

The final scene clearly shows that rioting isn't a modern phenomenon, but in the Victorian age they disguised themselves with clown suits instead of hoodies. The police response doesn't appear to have changed very much.

That's the nearest I get to writing about the riots. I have very strong opinions about why they happened and what could be done to prevent future unrest, but like most of the UK population I didn't witness any of these disturbances. I've lived in thoroughly middle-class Lewes for ten years and London feels a world away.

Maybe it's time for me to go to Tottenham and get down with the kids.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


A month or so ago my managing director walked up to my desk and asked me to come into his office. My heart started beating quickly. Suddenly, I was eight years old again, worrying that I had unwittingly transgressed one of the grown-ups’ rules. Had they discovered that I hadn’t ordered my post-it notes from the preferred supplier?

I did the walk of shame through the vast open-plan office and noticed eyes quickly dart in my direction. I tried to look as nonchalant as possible, but sensed that my face was glowing. It had to be bad news.

I sat down and listened to what sounded like a preamble to something unpleasant. The managing director showed me a series of spreadsheets with figures that seemed to merge into each other and talked about budgets and long-term strategies. Then he came to the point. My department was now the most profitable part of the business and it was time to think about the future.

It slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t bad news. I listened as my managing director talked about expansion, moving to a separate building and investing in the project, realising that this was actually very good news for me. At last, I had the potential to earn some serious money.

But I felt utterly miserable. Why?

At first I couldn’t understand why I had reacted so badly, but on reflection it made perfect sense. Things had changed. My son and mother needed me more than ever and even though my employers had been very understanding, the 9 to 5 routine no longer made any sense. I needed to work in Lewes; preferably for myself, as this would give me the flexibility that I needed.

Today I handed in my resignation. In October I will be self-employed for the first time in my life. The whole thing feels unreal and slightly terrifying, but I am absolutely certain that I have made the right decision.

I will need to have enough money to pay for food and bills, so I’m planning to do what I do now on a smaller scale: Steerforth Books. I’ve also been offered a few pieces of work by other people, so I hope that between running a small business and doing a few short-term projects, I’ll survive.

I may just have made one of the silliest decisions of my life, but somehow I don't think so.

(By the way, this blog is five years old today. It began almost by accident – a nasty bout of food poisoning from bad oysters left me bed-ridden for two weeks and out of sheer boredom, I created a blog. It would have probably been swiftly abandoned, but Ms Baroque generously responded to my fatuous first post and I was hooked. I couldn’t quite believe that you could type any old nonsense on your laptop and with minutes, complete strangers would come up with pertinent, thought-provoking observations. It was wonderful.

Thank you to everyone who has posted comments over the years. I only wish that we could all meet up in a pub one day. I have met a few bloggers in the flesh and, without exception, they have been even more likeable and interesting than their blog selves.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Today's Favourite Book Blurb

This comes from 'The Shadow of Happiness', by Betty Manvers:

'MIRANDA MARKHAM, who has lived all her life in a London suburb with her father, never travelling any further than the coast for her annual holiday, suddenly learns that her mother, who she has always believed died when she was very young, is the talented concert pianist Miriam Sarelle. Miriam has been mauled by a lion while on safari in Africa, and the radio reports that her right arm has had to be amputated. Gerald Markham, Miranda's father, asks her to go out to Africa to Miriam, who he feels will be in need of someone of her own. He has never ceased to love her since she left him twenty years previously. The first person Miranda meets on arrival at Livingstone is Brett Craybourne, the big game hunter who has organized the safari on which Miranda had been hurt; she falls in love with him, but realises that there is little hope of her love being reciprocated...'

It sounds a corker.

I'm glad that Miriam managed to hang on to the left arm. At least she could still perform this piece:

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s might have roared for some people, but probably not for the subjects of a photo album I found yesterday:

Although I was born in the 1960s, this image feels very familiar to me. When I was a boy, there was a shoe shop in the road next to mine that had been opened by two brothers in the 1930s. It occupied the ground floors of two adjacent houses. One half contained a shoe repair workshop, where the brothers could usually be found; the other contained a showroom with countless boxes of shoes. I used to buy my Clarks Commandos there.

The workshop was like a time capsule. Nothing had been changed for 50 years and the fixture and fittings were all painted in a shade of brown that had probably become obsolete in 1949.

Even when the brothers were in their seventies, they continued to work, buffing leather shoes over ancient lathes. They finally retired in the early 1990s.

I love this idyllic photograph for so many reasons. It was about to be binned, so I'm very glad that it will now be seen by more people than ever.

I receive lots of old photograph albums at work. Many contain nothing more than snapshots which are of little interest to anyone; but the best have images that are either historically or artistically appealing. This photo may just be the work of an amateur who was having an 'artistic moment', but it doesn't deserve to be consigned to oblivion.

Is that graffiti? So much for the good old days.

This is a slightly creepy photograph: a man who looks like a waxwork dummy and a woman holding a doll. Very odd.

This is a bit of a Caspar David Friedrich scene, with the protagonist squaring up against the forces of nature.

This is a rare, naturalistic 'Monday is washday' scene. No Sunday best here.

A ridiculously large hat.

The first recorded sighting of a Kindle.

This is a very touching photo (assuming that rabbit stew was not on the menu).

This pensive pose is an early example of flash photography (look at the shadow in the background).

This Danny Kaye lookalike would have loved a full-blown Hammond organ. Perhaps he lived long enough to see one.

Finally, a picnic scene. The location and identity of these people will always be a mystery - I wish that I could transport myself back there, as they look as if they're having fun.

When I was 20, I met an elderly Welsh farmer on the outskirts of Lampeter. He looked at me and said "Ydych yn siarad Cymraeg?"I replied that I knew a little (I'd worked in a Welsh-speaking pub during the National Eisteddfod of Wales), but it would be a very limited conversation. He immediately switched to English and, like a man possessed, told me that I must sort out my photos:

"Write the names and dates on the back of all of your photographs. I've got albums and I don't know who they are. It's gone. Forgotten. I can't tell my sons who these people are. They're strangers. You need to write everything down."

I promised him that I wouldn't forget and I'm glad that the internet has given me the opportunity to repeat this man's sage advice.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Island Life

I have just returned from a slightly odd five-day trip to the Isle of Wight, house-sitting for a complete stranger that my wife had met through Mumsnet.

My oldest son didn't want to go. After years of being warned about the dangers of chatting to strangers online, he was convinced that we were being lured to our deaths by a Belgian psychopath. It was only when I casually mentioned that the house had a Wii and Xbox that he began to change his tune.

The last time I went to the Isle of Wight I was six months old. Several people commented that very little had changed since my last visit. Of course this isn't true, but the four miles of water that separates the Island (as the locals refer to it) from the English mainland does give the place a very separate identity, almost as if it inhabits an alternate reality.

It's not quite Britain in the 1950s, but it doesn't feel like the 21st century either.

Here are a few things I loved about the Isle of Wight:

1. The walk to the Needles Old Battery:

It's almost a mile from the car park to the Victorian coastal defence at the southwestern tip of the island - not a huge distance, but enough to deter the hoi polloi from ruining the tranquil atmosphere.

2. The Isle of Wight Railway:

Where else would you find a 1938 tube train in the middle of the English countryside? This isn't a 'heritage' line for tourists, but a genuine passenger service, using reconditioned London Underground rolling stock.

The journey from Ryde begins in a long tunnel and for a minute, listening to the the familiar clunks and whirs of the electric motors, it feels as if you're on the District Line approaching Sloane Square. When the train emerges into the English countryside, the juxtaposition of such unlikely elements feels like a very strange dream:

London Underground stations look nothing like this.

Or this:

3. Red Squirrels:

You can't see them, but they can see you. Unlike their big, brash American cousins, who now dominate the mainland, the native British squirrel is petite and discreet. I had to wait patiently in some dense undergrowth before I was rewarded with my David Attenborough moment: a red squirrel (tiny little thing) resting on a branch, making a series of strange squeals and clicks.

The next day I nearly ran one over.

I expect the BNP like the Isle of Wight. It's almost entirely white working class (I struggled in vain to find my favourite brand of balsamic vinegar), with very few of those annoying, Guardian-reading London types like me who push the property prices up with their art galleries and organic cafes. Even the squirrels are thoroughly British.

4. The Roman Villa in Newport:

Actually it's quite boring and I feel sorry for anyone who has got excited by the brown sign announcing a 'Roman Villa', only to find themselves looking at a floor. It's a very nice floor, with lots of impressive mosaics, but it's not a villa. I'm sure that people have been prosecuted for less misleading descriptions.

However, what I liked about the Roman villa in Newport is its incongruous location, situated in a dull-looking bungalow in a quiet residential road, a few doors down from the house we were staying in. Apparently the villa strays into next door's garden, but the previous owners didn't want to ruin their patio and it remains buried to this day.

5. Osborne House

This was Queen Victoria's favourite residence because it provided a sanctuary from a world in which she was routinely "mobbed by crowds", enabling her to enjoy a relatively normal life with her husband and children.

The coast of mainland England is visible from the gardens, but reassuringly distant:

The interior of the house wasn't my cup of tea: hideously opulent furnishings and objets d'art, complemented with badly-lit, poorly-executed oil paintings by forgotten masters. It didn't help that I kept bumping into an annoying mother and daughter, who made loud, confident pronouncements like "They didn't have magazines in the Victorian times."

The daughter was probably ten years younger than me, but every time we reached a staircase she wheezed and complained with each step. Instead of advising her daughter to eat fewer doughnuts, the mother agreed.

I had almost given up hope of seeing anything I liked, but Queen Victoria's bedroom more than made up for the disappointment of the rest of the house. To see the bed where Victoria died and look up at the ceiling decorations that she must have stared at countles times was very moving. I tried to imagine the scene - only 110 years ago - in which the dying Queen was attended to by her servants, physician and loved ones, but just as I started to lose myself, the mother and daughter appeared:

"Oh yes, she was a very respectful lady..."

Fortunately they didn't stay long. But as they left, two attendants decided to begin a detailed comversation about their dogs' health and the resulting vet bills. I gave up.

One other thing I liked about Osborne House was the gallery devoted to Indian nobles. It looked as if Queen Victoria took her role as Empress of India very seriously, devoting several rooms to portraits of maharajas and artifacts from the subcontinent.

I had no idea that Victoria went to great pains to learn Urdu and a display case showed a page from an exercise book in which she had written several passages in the local script. Perhaps the recent memory of the Indian Mutiny had prompted a more respectful attitude on the part of the British.

But even if you don't like vulgar, excessively ornate 19th century interiors, Osborne House is worth visiting for the beauty of its grounds. The formal gardens had an idyllic, arcadian quality; like a ruined Greek temple:

However, at the edge of the grounds through a gap in the trees, I caught a glimpse of my true arcadia:

6. Carisbrooke Castle:

There isn't much to say about Carisbrooke Castle; it's just a beautiful place with a wonderful panorama of the surrounding countryside. Charles I was held prisoner here after Parliament had won the English Civil War and although it can't have been a terribly happy time for him, at least he had a room with a view:

After exploring the grounds, I went to the tea shop and ordered a cup of tea and a slice of cake (it's a rock n'roll life). Instead, I got a pot of tea and a huge wedge of Victoria sponge. No wonder there's an obesity crisis.

I've noticed that portions have doubled in size over the last 20 years, with a standard packet of crisps going from 20g to 40g. I can understand why this has happened: a manufacturer who sells a 15p slice of cake for £1.70 can now sell a 30p wedge of Victoria sponge for £3.40, making almost £2 additional profit for doubling the portion.

But the end result is that I'm stuck on a staircase behind a 30 year-old woman who is wheezing like a consumptive war veteran. It's not good.

In the tea shop, I was joined by a couple who spoke in a loud nasal accent about how "taahribly entrahsted" they were in the Castle's past:

"In Tennesse we met a chap who claimed that he was descended from one of the signatories of Charle's I's death warrant. He seemed convinced that because of this he wouldn't be allowed into England and nothing we said could change his mind..."

There was a pause.

"Still, perhaps he wouldn't be let in for other reasons! Hwah, hwah, hwah!"

I was happy in Carisbrooke Castle, but all my sons wanted to do was go back to the house and continue playing with the Wii. My youngest son complained that "you're taking us out all the time. This is the worst day of my life since the start of the world."

It was very frustrating to realise that all my sons wanted to do was stay in and play computer games. I'd vaguely entertained the idea of buying a Wii - I'd fallen for the marketing spiel about getting families to play together, but it's bollocks. All of these games suck the imagination dry, replacing original thought with predetermined scenarios and ghastly soundtracks that repeat the same leitmotifs, ad nauseum.

Worst of all, I was also becoming addicted to the Wii. When, on the last morning, I realised that I was the first person to wake up, I crept downstairs to see if I could beat the high score in Wii Sports. I'd developed a genuine dislike of a character called Martin, who kept stopping me get to the next level. I had a score to settle with him:

But I haven't completely lost hope. I'd say that the moment when we were all at our happiest was on a summer's evening, walking along the cliff tops to the Old Needles Battery. Away from the distractions of the Wii and the temptations of 'family' theme parks (our one vist to a theme park lasted for a mere 15 minutes, as a girl vomitted in front of us within 10 seconds of arriving and my son got stung by a bee), we managed to find our 'mojo'.

Sometimes the best things in life are free.