Monday, 27 December 2010

Vole Country

To the casual observer, that breed of happy-go-lucky eccentric who endears himself to the fabulously wealthy by waiting for us outside church on Christmas Day morning wearing little more than homemade bunting and a Union Jack sombrero, the Royal Family might appear to be a rather formidable group who take their duties extremely seriously.

It’s understandable, I suppose, that people perceive us to be a bit heavy in the brow and prone to biting our lips in worry. However, the Red Tuft is here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, we younger royals are the very definition of thrill- seeking revellers with high pain thresholds and a wanderlust that encourages to holiday at least three times a year. In fact, there’s no time or place we don’t look to brighten up with a bit of the Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

For example, I awoke on Boxing Day ready for the first day of Christmas that I knew I would really enjoy. In my excitement, I forwent my usual nicotine gasper beneath the duvet in order to deliver myself to my wardrobe ahead of the day’s big fixture. There my personal valet, Bateman, dressed me in my heavy duty woollens and handed me my cavalryman’s sword. Then, not even pausing to peck the duffer on his cheek, I hammered down the stairs and into the hall in search of adventure. That’s where I found the Old Blazer already wearing his overcoat and selecting his walking stick from his cupboard of a hundred.

‘Ah, Harry,’ said Charles, fingering a six-foot length of gnarled birch with a heavy thumping handle fashioned from the horn of a truculent ram. ‘I thought you weren’t for joining us this morning.’

‘No fear about that, pater,’ I said, grabbing my hunting jacket and placing a deerstalker on my head so it might quell the tuft. I showed him that I was already armed for battle. ‘You know that this is my favourite part of Christmas.’

‘I’m not sure if I should wear this hat,’ said Camilla, suddenly appearing from the side room where I could hear the rest of the family chattering. She was cradling her pipe in her hands and wearing the same large fur hat she’d worn for church the day before. I’d remarked at the time that it made her look like a charging Hussar but she hadn’t appreciated the crack and had glared at me throughout the carol singing.

‘The hat looks great,’ I assured her this time, ‘but you won’t be able to take your pipe.’

‘Can’t I?’ she asked.

‘No you ruddy can’t,’ snapped the Blazer, who takes this annual ceremony seriously. ‘How many times must one tell you, Soapy: they can smell tobacco from a mile away?’

‘Bloody voles,’ said Camilla, sticking her pipe in her back pocket.

Her hostility towards voles is misdirected and proves that she’s still very much an outsider in the family. You see, for as many years as I can remember, it has been one of the Old Blazer’s rituals to spend Boxing Day hunting the voles.

‘One finds that they do an enormous amount of damage in the spring,’ he would explain if you were ever foolish enough to ask him. ‘One must do what one can to eradicate them before they can breed.’

I grant you, it’s an argument I’ve also heard many republicans make but the Old Blazer can prove that voles are a real and present danger to his profits from Dutchy Originals. He’s particularly obsessed with the Sandringham strawberries which go into his jam, or as he calls it, his royal preserve. He even has statistics to back up his case. Not that vole gnawing ratios are the reason the family gets so involved. Just the promise of blood sport is enough to get us all up early on Boxing Day morning.

‘Have a feeling I’m going to break my record today,’ said Prince Philip as he came out to join us. He was already swinging his old polo mallet. Like my grandfather, that mallet hasn’t seen the back of a polo pony in many years but it now gets regular action every Boxing Day when it delivers many voles to their maker.

‘Are we ready,’ cried Aunty Anne, next through the door and armed with a pair of claw hammers. The rest of the family followed, except for my grandmother who has never taken much interest in hunting voles and Uncle Eddie who is also funny about the whole business but funny in a very different way.

‘Won’t any of you listen to reason?’ he shouted from the top of the staircase. He was still wearing his slippers and his Starlight Express sarong. He’s a gentle soul, Eddie, but completely barking when it comes to voles. ‘Don’t you think those voles have as much right as any of us to live and love, sing and dance?’ Even his wife, Sophie, shrugged her shoulders as we all ignored him and streamed towards the front door. ‘Snouts not louts!’ cried Eddie. But like I said: barking…

Once outside, we gathered in the shadow of the house.

‘Okay,’ said the Old Blazer, taking his whistle from a pocket. ‘When I blow the signal, you all have exactly one hour to collect as many voles as possible. Bring them all back here for counting, measuring, and throwing on the bonfire.’

‘And what’s the prize this year, P.C.,’ asked Anne, her cheeks already flushed with excitement. ‘It better not be another copy of that bloody book of yours.’

This was greeted by much laughter. Like the rest of us, she’d received a copy of ‘Harmony’ from the Old Blazer, only, in her case, ‘Harmony’ had quickly been blazing on top of the log fire. In that respect, we’d all agreed that it’s the best book the Old Blazer has written in years.

‘The prize,’ said Charles, leaning on his crooked staff, ‘is so… so… extremely well worth winning this year… The person who brings back the most voles will win… will win…’

He paused for a moment. People think he does it because he’s deep in thought but I know different. It’s the result of one too many cracks across the noggin with a polo stick.

‘Well?’ cried Anne.

‘Er,’ said Charles. ‘The winner will win… Absolutely splendid prize this year… One feels so… so… deeply honoured and in touch with nature just to be giving it away…’

‘On, bladdy hurry up,’ cried Philip, no doubt feeling the chill. ‘What do we win?’

‘Kent,’ said Charles.

‘Bloody hell!’ cried Anne who’s been after another home county to add to her small collection of Berkshire and Surrey. ‘Well, let’s get cracking, shall we?’

(You might not know much about this arrangement we have inside The Firm but we often indulge in a little horse trading of the English counties. It means very little, of course, to the people who live in places like Lancashire and Dorset but we enjoy it as some might enjoy playing Monopoly or playing poker with the global economy. For instance, I own most of the North East and half of Yorkshire but I’d swap the lot for Essex, which I’ve coveted for many years but my brother won’t give up.)

With the prize decided and the terms of victory explained, the Old Blazer raised his whistle to his lips and gave a mighty blow that inflated his cheeks and produced a thin rattle inside the whistle.

And with that, we were off!

I stuck with Philip who immediately started off across the West Lawns. I hunt with him not just because I enjoy hearing his ribald tales but because he knows every inch of the Sandringham estate and he has a natural ability to smell voles from a distance.

‘Ah,’ said he, his leathering brow lowered as he sniffed the cold morning air. ‘There are voles around here, Harry, my boy!’ He led me into the woods and sure enough, we were soon following vole tracks in the snow. ‘Reminds me of the Far East,’ he said as he examined the undergrowth. ‘The Imperial Japanese Army loved to hide in bushes. You couldn’t unbuckle your periscope behind a bush without some little gizzard running at you flashing three foot of steel and shouting “Banzai”. My bladder was a mess when I got back. Still can’t pass water in a rural setting unless I feel like I’m in mortal danger.’

I told him a few anecdotes of my own time in the trenches and we passed out time searching the woods. However, we’d not been hunting for fifteen minutes before a cry went up from over towards the house.

‘Oh, what is now?’ groaned Philip from behind a bush.

I stopped swinging my cavalryman’s sword over the bush to help enhance his feeling of dread.

‘Sounded like the bladdy fool of a son,’ said Philip emerging and zipping himself up.

Sure enough, we got back in time to find the Old Blazer lying on the back of a trailer. Camilla was cradling his head and holding a bottle of whisky to his lips.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘he’s just had a fright.’

I moved to his side. ‘What happened? Did he fall or did you push him?’
Camilla scowled at me but the Old Blazer sat up. ‘Worse than that,’ he said. ‘I was rushed by a mob.’

‘Bladdy locals,’ said Philip, his blood rising and his hands tightening around his polo mallet. ‘How did they get on the estate? I told you we need electric fences and machine gun turrets.’

‘Not locals,’ said Charles. ‘Voles!’

‘Voles?’ I repeated.

‘They’re learning, Harry. Haven’t I always said that they’re a cunning beast? Well, now they’re organised.’

‘You were mobbed by voles?’

‘They ganged up on me,’ said the Old Blazer. ‘They caught me alone.’ He held up his bloodied right wrist, punctured by small holes. ‘Look what they did! This is terrible! That’s where I rest my hand when I’m typing!’

‘Thank heaven for small mercies,’ muttered Anne who’d arrived on the scene looking distinctly disappointed. She knew as well as all of us that this meant that the hunt was over.

However, much to her pleasure, it also meant that Anne won Kent with a rather feeble haul of one dead vole which, by the looks of it, had been dead for weeks and was still frozen solid, and a 16oz croquet ball that she’d recovered from a shrubbery where, in a spirit of high jest and mild intoxication, I’d bowled it the previous summer hoping to stun a corgi as it did its business in the bushes.

Once Charles was back in the house and had been attended by the best surgeon in London who dressed his vole bites, it was decided that these organised voles were too much for us and that we’d have Special Branch clean out the woods in the spring. These voles might have organised but they’re not so organised that they’ll be able to out-riot a Heckler & Koch MP5k.

As for myself, I returned to my room feeling that Christmas had ended rather early.

Bateman met me at the door.

‘Catch many voles this year, sir?’ he asked, taking my sword from me.

I kicked off my boots. ‘They’re organising,’ I said. ‘Break out the whisky.’

His eyes questioned me with a look meant to say ‘Before lunch, sir?’ but he knew better than to ask. If I couldn’t enjoy Boxing Day one way, I’d enjoy it the other. The very familiar other.

Regius Gingiber! 

Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Red Tuft’s Christmas Message

A transcript of my annual Christmas message, as broadcast over at The Dabbler.

Dear Subjects (of my grandmother),

It’s three o’clock on Christmas Day and, if any part of you is Englishman, you’ll be sat at home, nursing a mince pie, and watching this year’s Queen’s Christmas Message. And I’m sure it will delight! Having finally listened to me, the old girl has adopted an ‘X Factor’ approach to 2010’s highlight reel, so please vote for your favourite natural disaster or ceremonial ahead of the grand final in the New Year when the two lucky finalists will compete for a cash prize.

Yet despite my hand in the broadcast, you’ll quickly twig that it’s all a bit heavy on charity work and very light on culture. Luckily, I bumped into your editor licking the bark from the bar at Mahiki the other night and he asked me if I’d like to provide my own Christmas message to a more cultured audience. Naturally, I said that I would and we drank to our arrangement until the early hours.

Television in 2010 explored new territory, especially at the upper end of the Sky Viewing Guide. A special mention has to be made to Babestation which continued the excellent work they started in 2009 by extending its broadcasts into daylight hours so red-headed men can be entertained whilst sobering up ahead of a busy night on the town. However, this being a culture blog, I hope you’ll agree with me that the television highlight of the year was the moment Jeremy Kyle suffered severe paper lacerations when a snorting yahoo threw an envelope at the back of his head.

My musical highlights of the year are many but my Album of the Year is Sparks' ‘Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’, a choice which might surprise you. Yet my knowledge of Swedish and natural ability to sing in a high falsetto made Ron and Russell Mael’s witty experiment the perfect antidote to much of the autotuned pap that has passed for hit records this past year. I might also make a second recommendation of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM (Because Music/Elektra) not because English brunettes with impeccable French are the flavour of the month but because it made up for ‘Antichrist’, the film that ruined my most promising date of the season.

If Lars Von Trier didn’t carry away the film award this year, who did? My award for ‘Services to Cinema’ goes to Judge William Hodges who locked up Wesley Snipes for tax avoidance. If, like me, you sat through ‘Game of Death’ you will think three years is what he deserves.

Sport was rarely out of the news and the World Cup was a victory for the vuvuzela’s bid to be taken seriously as a musical instrument. However, another bid didn’t go so well and my own brother made an arse of himself schmoozing with FIFA wideboys. I was asked to attend but I was too busy putting pins into my Sepp Blatter doll. Meanwhile, Zippy Phillips continues to dominate her sport (as well as the imagination of her cousin) but this year also saw her engagement to rugby star Mike Tindall. He’ll be a welcome addition to the family since we’ve not had someone able to rush a student riot since Fergie was kicked out of the Firm. My tip for next year: don’t go poking us royals with any sticks.

Can’t say I noticed a ‘Book of the Year’ but I can name my ‘Calendar of the Year’. Keeley Hazell trumped the rest by delivering a calendar that defied the critics. The setting was conventional – silky bedclothes and soapy lather abounds but the placement of witty elements elevated the genre to new heights – but I was particularly taken by the way she enhanced her cleavage with a large yellow rubber duck and her use of a large paper fan to keep her cool whist my temperature soared.

Online, the events of the year are no less difficult to choose. After much deliberation, my blog of the year has to be ‘The Dabbler’. Recent feature articles on whisky and beer have particularly caught my eye as well as my throat. Indeed, my Drink of the Year is not the usual expensive wine. I’m instead nodding my head towards a little cocktail invented by Yours Truly and named after this blog. ‘The Dabbler Daiquiri’ is a simple drink containing rum, lemon juice, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lime juice, a touch of sugar, vodka, and mixed with a paddle in half a bucket of iced Moet and Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne.
Finally, we come to the big awards.

My ‘Woman of the Year’ is Lady Gaga for doing much to enhance the status of women, particularly the work she has done to promote fire safety.

For the fourth year running, my ‘Man of the Year’ is Silvio Berlusconi who continues to enliven Western European culture by providing a role model for the rest of us with ambitions to never let our libido lapse.

All winners will be notified through the post but let me end by wishing you all well for the New Year. 2011 promises much in the way of royal weddings, Wikileaks, and naval conflicts off the Korean peninsula.

Friday, 24 December 2010

That Ruddy Coin

I hate the wallpaper in my room up here in Sandringham. It resembles a sneezing fit in a lepidopterist’s study with dead moths stuck to all the walls. A lepidopterist, for those of you not in the know, is a moth collector. Or so the Old Blazer tells me. He’s quite the one for using big words.

Me, I’m a guy who loves a good abbreviation. For instance, if I were to say that I also hate the furniture in my room, I’d add that it consists of nothing but knobbly elbows that always connect with your nuts when you get up in the middle of the night to relieve the weight of bladder on the ale. Only, that’s not how the Old Blazer would describe it. It would be ornamental bosses impacting testicles, which, if you ask the humble opinion of this Red Tuft, doesn't adequately convey the situation I’d be trying to describe. That situation is best summed up as: two weeks of solid boredom as we royals come to Norfolk to celebrate Christmas.

Then there’s the view from my room. I used to have a nice angle on Zippy Phillip's boudoir but I think she grew suspicious of the way my curtains kept twitching at night and I’ve been moved around to the other wing where I now overlook the farm. From where I’m typing this, I can watch manure steam.

And that’s the real problem with Sandringham: it’s no better than living on a farm. It’s also too crowded. We all get under each other’s feet, which wouldn’t be so bad except Uncle Eddie has to put anti-fungal powder between his toes and we all end up spending the holidays smelling like mustard.

So, if you detect a note of misery in the old Red Tuft today it’s because I’m not at home...

And while I'm complaining, I should add that I’m also damn exhausted.

I thought Christmas this year would mean escaping London and taking some R&R. Only I now find myself in the middle of this mini-crisis over these souvenir coins commemorating next year's Royal Wedding. I refuse to take the blame, of course, and I’ve spent my morning firmly pointing my finger at the Old Blazer who lies at the heart of the spectacular cock up.

It all began when Will asked me to provide a design for the coin. He knows that I enjoy doodling and his plan was that my design would be sent to the Royal Mint where one of their top illustrators would take on the commission, copy my design but fill in the faces with some lifelike resemblances. You know: steely glances, soft pouts, and the usual amateur dramatics in gilt form.

Now, I’m no great shakes as an artist. I hold up my hands to that one. And I certainly find it difficult drawing a likeness when I’ve not got the original sitting in front of me, preferably still and even more preferably buxom and naked. The buxom part certainly makes the artistic juices flow.

Only both Will and the Lovely Brunette were unavailable to sit for me but that was not going to be a problem. The Royal Academy type down at the Royal Mint would sort out the noses from mouths. I needed to only think about the design of the coin so, naturally, I employed a couple of models to stand in for the happy couple.

Nelly Duffy is in charge of the Old Blazer’s washing over at Clarence House. She is a lovely woman who was only too willing to help, but I’m sure she won’t mind mentioning that she has a slightly lazy eye. Young Bill is the window cleaner and general odd job man. He’s the son of Old Bill who did the same job for the past fifty years, and even Older Bill who did it before him. He too was up for a little modelling. Of course, neither Young Bill nor Nelly Duffy look anything like Will and the Lovely Brunette but they had the right shape of heads for the purpose of my design so I slipped them a couple of fivers and had then sit in the corner of my pad for the afternoon as I pencilled them into my plans.

Things when awry once I’d finished designing my coin. I forwarded my sketch to the Old Blazer only for the Old Blazer to perform his duties with his usual indifference to the whole project. Before you know it, he'd passed them on to the Royal Mint with instructions to have them made. Now there are twenty thousand coins depicting Clarence House’s cross-eyed washerwoman and a man who spends most of his time up a ladder cursing London pigeons.

I’m only telling you this so you don’t believe any of the accusations you read in the papers, especially if any of those accusations are directed towards my easel. You should also get in there and buy a coin before the stocks run low. There’s already talk of recalling them in the New Year – or, at least, producing no more when the current stocks run low – so this will be a much more collectable commemorative coin than any other. Not only were they designed by me but they are the only coin minted to celebrate minor members of the royal household.

To my credit, people tell me that I’ve captured Nelly and Bill’s likenesses to perfection. I hope you agree.

Regius Gingiber!