The Northumberland matrimonial Challenge

In the Sticks
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The Independent Culture
When my partner Catherine and I announced our intention of moving from London to Northumberland our Metropolitan friends expressed doubts. Are you sure? they asked. I mean, they said, it's all right in the summer, but in the winter when the evenings draw in... the isolation... the skirling wind... the black, black shroud of night. You'll get cabin fever, or, at the very least, its English equivalent, shed fever. They'll find you in the spring, long-haired, wild-eyed and reeking of creosote, sorting bags of nails into colour-coded pots. You'll go mad with boredom, they said.

Half-a-dozen years of living in Northumberland later, and I am still touched by their concern. I think of it often. Usually on Friday mornings as I scan our local weekly paper. The local weekly paper is the focal point of our hectic rural social life. Every Friday lunchtime, for instance, my friend William phones me and we engage in a game of "sub-editors whist" using favourite headlines from the latest issue. William throws down "Sack Fell Off Lorry". I counter with "Village Man Shouted". He offers "Drunk Held Up Daffodil". I am crushed. Afterwards, we examine the court reports together to see if the town youth have broken their own record for assaults outside the pizza take-away in a seven-day period (nine during a particularly hot week in August 1993).

In the evening Catherine and I go to the cinema. The town cinema is above a bingo hall. It shows staple Hollywood movies, but even Tom Cruise is worth enduring to see "The Plumbing Advert". "The Plumbing Advert" features a man in overalls self-consciously flushing toilets, fiddling with taps and waggling plungers to the accompaniment of a funky, brass-heavy Seventies cop show theme. At the end, he is presented with a mug of tea by a beaming woman, while a baritone voice oozing the treacle charm of a practiced gigolo asking a dowager if she'd come to foxtrot announces: "Brian Hood. Whether it's a dripping tap or a complete central heating system, we'll take care of your plumbing needs." When William wanted a new boiler fitting, he phoned Brian Hood. He left a message on his answer machine. "I got your number from the cinema ad," he said. Brian never returned his call. Fame can do funny things to people.

When we get home, we sit by the fire, and Catherine reads to me from the WI Reports: "Mr Albert Robson kept members entertained with an informative talk on the theme of `Teapots Old and New'." The competition for the prettiest ornamental toffee hammer was won by Mrs Crossthwaite." These days I seldom have trouble sleeping.

On Saturday mornings it's time to go to the International Shopping Mall. And we don't even have to leave home to get there, because the International Shopping Mall is a collection of mail-order catalogues from around the world, arranged in a strict grid-system on the kitchen table. Once in the International Shopping Mall, Catherine usually heads for Cyrillus, a sophisticated, stylish French catalogue featuring sophisticated, stylish French clothes, modelled by sophisticated, stylish and, frankly, rather smug-looking French people. Meanwhile, I pop into Betterware to see if they still have the device that cleans venetian blinds without bother or fuss, before striding off in the direction of the Winnipeg Fur Exchange. The hat department of WFE (as we afficionados know it) is my favourite. If it's dead and you can wear it on your head, it's in the Winnipeg Fur Exchange. A boyhood obsession with Davy Crockett is re-kindled by the sight of the raccoon-skin caps. There are two types: without face ($99) and with face ($103). They all have tails, though. Which suggests that somewhere in Canada there are a lot of raccoon faces going spare. Is it possible, I wonder, to pay $107 and get a raccoon-skin hat with two faces? I think of asking, but as usual there isn't anassistant around when you want one.

Later Catherine and I rendezvous in LL Bean, peruse the Bavarian boiled- wool clogs and stare at the charmingly named "New England Jelly Hutch", trying to work out from the description if it comes with an exercise wheel and drinking bottle, or if you have to buy them for your jelly separately.

The day reaches its climax when we meet up with friends for the weekly Northumberland Matrimonial Challenge. This is a game of skill in which contestants must gauge the honeymoon destination of the happy couple from snippets of information (groom's occupation, length of ivory silk tulle in the bride's train, name of the maid-of-honour) read out from the weddings page of the local paper. Claudia, a sculptor, is undefeated champion, playing with the intuitive skill of the true artist. However, I have found that if I shout out "Dominican Republic"at every opportunity I can usually finish in the top five.

A typically frenetic couple of days, then, for us up here in the so-called wilds. I relate it chiefly for the benefit of those friends of ours in "happening" London who are still worried about our mental well-being. You can stop fretting now. Mad with boredom? With all this going on, are you kidding?

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