Magazine article The Spectator

Private Pleasures

Magazine article The Spectator

Private Pleasures

Article excerpt

My boy's maternal grandfather, a retired farm labourer, loves his food. Almost his entire conversation is about what he ate in the past and what he is going to eat in the future. The remainder is about the general consistency of the waste product and the ease, or otherwise, of its evacuation.

As winter approaches, however, the subject of logs (wooden ones) enlivens the discourse: whose logs are the least expensive, whose are seasoned, who is selling predominantly ash this year and who oak. He prefers to buy 'rings' (tree roundels) and split them himself, because it works out cheaper that way. Once his logs are bought, split and stacked in his outside lavatory, we get regular updates on the rate (an endless surprise to him, this) at which they are going up in smoke.

In summer, the account of his diet is supplemented by reports on the feeding habits of his marrows, which enjoy their grub as much as he does. It says in gardening books that marrows are 'gross feeders', but in my boy's maternal grandfather's marrows' case, that's putting it mildly. They eat anything: potato peelings, bacon rind, even small pieces of rubble. The mysterious disappearance of his blind arthritic cat was only half-jokingly attributed to the voracious appetite of his marrows.

Eighteen months ago, deteriorating knee cartilage forced my boy's maternal grandfather into early retirement. He was reconciled to being crippled when the National Health Service offered to build him an entirely new knee out of plastic and steel. Unfortunately, the local NHS hospital was too busy replacing knees to fit him in for a year or two, so he was offered instead a knee replacement at a prestigious local private hospital at no extra charge to himself. So my boy's maternal grandfather, who rarely leaves the parish, has never been on holiday, stayed in a hotel or eaten in a restaurant, went away for a week to be pampered in a private hospital.

The hospital was 40 miles away. None of his immediate family owns or drives a car, and I was away, so the sight of this unassuming, self-consciously working-class man lying in state in a private hospital ward was denied to us, and there were no photographs. When he came back, new knee and all, we searched his face, as one would search the face of someone who had been abducted by aliens and lived to tell the tale, to see whether the experience had marked it in any way.

When I first saw him after the operation he was back in his own bed, recovering. …

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