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Saturday, 2 January 2010

Let's get physical!




I try to go to my gym three times a week. Occasionally, I take aqua classes, which, for the unsuspecting observer, might appear more akin to water ballet for hippopotami but is nonetheless great fun. I can tell if I am particularly unfit when I see hoards of pensioners power past me on their walking sticks and zimmer frames. But l ”have my vengeance -- in this life or the next” when, at the end of an exercise session, I take no quarter as I swagger back home, not so much Maximus Decimus, more Gluteus Minimus.

If I am on the rowing machine, I tend to listen to the theme from Gladiator on my headphones, as I like to imagine that I am re-enacting a scene from Ben-hur. I also listen to Khachaturian’s stirring music for the ballet Spartacus, relating the story of the slave uprising against Ancient Rome. Though instead of a tender love scene between Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, Khachaturian’s music is destined to evocate the shipping trade in 19th century Liverpool, adorned with feisty women in crinolines and poke bonnets (and if they weren’t feisty then they were doomed to be long suffering and generally killed off in childbirth) and a certain roguish captain in side whiskers, battling the high seas and everyone else in his ambitions to carve a great shipping empire for himself from a less than seaworthy vessel, which his first wife brought to him as part of her dowry. The Onedin Line was compulsory Sunday night viewing in an age when there was only a choice of three television channels to watch.

In real life Spartacus managed to evade the Roman army by holing up at his refuge on Mount Vesuvius overlooking Pompeii. There is no evidence that Spartacus, who had trained as a gladiator, ever fought in the arena at the doomed city. Has he done so he would have seen the canopy stretched over the roof of the arena, which was furled from its rigging to provide shelter from the blaze of the midday sun. Historians now believe that sailors, drawing on their skill at handling the rigging of sailing ships, were hired to set up and then furl and unfurl the canopy atop the gladiatorial arena when it was in use. Had the BBC ever wanted to do a prequel of the Onedin Line set in Ancient Rome, they could have created a story line involving Iacobus Onedinus making a pretty denarius or two hiring out his sailors for such duties, whilst stocking up on amphorae to take back to Britannica.

As a schoolgirl I had been on the netball and rounders teams. I also played hockey a few times but never got to grips with the rules of the game. I do remember borrowing someone else’s hockey stick and using it, alongside my own, to fashion a pair of makeshift stilts to negotiate the muddy playing field, as nothing much  seemed to happen in some corner of a playing field that was forever Finland. I was also made an umpire for my school’s tennis tournament. I gave up after one match when the spectators had to give me the correct score, as I clambered down shamefacedly from my umpire’s chair. As I was within walking distance of the arena, when the Wimbledon tennis championship opened their doors for the first time ever on a Middle Sunday, I hearkened to a radio message advising people to queue overnight for tickets. Everyone else came armed with sleeping bags, ground sheets and even tents. I came along with a winter coat and a single cushion. My attire was likewise unsuitable when, on a sudden whim, I entered a rowing competition at a health fair. Despite wearing high heels I beat off all comers, including male colleagues and won the prize.

To help ready myself for the marathon of feasting on Christmas Day, I usually walk from Hampstead to join friends in Highgate in the early afternoon. I used to walk across Hampstead Heath itself: a scenic route but not to be advised when trailing a wheeled suitcase behind if the ground is especially muddy and treacherous. Instead I stuck to the road skirting the heath. En-route I passed the Spaniard’s Inn. Sited across from the inn is the old toll-booth, although drivers no longer have to pay to pass along either side of the road. The inn itself dates from 1585 and is said to have been the childhood home of the 18th century highwayman, Dick Turpin. It is also claimed that the presence of this public house indirectly saved the life of Lord Mansfield and presumably Dido Belle, when an armed mob set out in 1780 to destroy Kenwood House and kill its illustrious occupant, the Lord Chief Justice. Apparently, they stopped for a drink at the inn, which being only a short walk to Kenwood itself suggests that they needed Dutch courage to continue on their reckless course, enabling the landlord to secretly alert the army as to their presence, resulting in their capture and imprisonment.


My own memories of the Spaniard’s Inn turbulent history concern an unfortunate first date there. I had encountered Eggnog the solicitor-advocate on-line. We had exchanged a number of e-mails and telephone calls. He seemed incredibly keen on me, too keen in fact. I had to warn him to tone down his effusive e-mails. I am prepared to entertain the possibility that a man might, from time to time, be bowled over upon meeting me in person, but I am naturally suspicious of too marked an enthusiasm if we have yet to meet face to face. Eggnog saw me as Anne Boleyn to his Henry VIII, which should have been warning enough. There were other aspects of him that had set off alarm bells in my mind. For example, whereas I freely gave him my landline number, he always used the caller number withheld facility when ringing me. I chose to ignore these nagging doubts for the simple reason that the man, to put it kindly, was as plain as a pikestaff. It soon became apparent why he never displayed a photograph of himself on his profile. If a man has wit and charm, he does not need to be an Adonis for me to be attracted to him. In Eggnog’s case, as I only saw a photograph of his distinctly homely features some while after we had first began corresponding, I felt obliged to stifle any lingering doubts lest they sprang from some uncharitable motive.

Eggnog suggested we meet at night at the Spaniard’s Inn, which was at a considerable distance from me. Reliant on the vagaries of public transport, I rang him to say I was running late and would be there 15 minutes later than planned. When I arrived he was not in the main bar as promised. Instead I found him leaning morosely against the bonnet of his jeep.
“I have to visit a client in a police cell and will probably be there all night,“ he moaned. “And I need to leave at once”, he added reproachfully. I failed to understand why he was being quite so churlish towards me.
“Well you can give me a lift back to Hampstead station as it’s on your way.” I insisted briskly, as I had no desire to trek all the way back along Hampstead Lane in the dark. He seemed somewhat taken back but could hardly refuse. As we drove the short distance to the station, he pointed out several landmarks. I refrained from remarking that I probably knew the vicinity better than he did.

From the station I made my way to the Partridge’s as planned. She counselled not contacting him until the following afternoon, lest he be tired from the visit to the police station, coming as it did after a busy week in court. The next afternoon I sent him a brief e-mail suggesting we met up again now that we had at broken the ice.
“This is to inform you that I have met someone else.” he replied tersely.
I had to laugh.
“I see I am more Anne of Cleves than Anne Boleyn to your Henry VIII,” I wrote back.

Of course if I were Anne of Cleves, that made Eggnog Henry Tudor at the time of his first encounter with Anne. His looks, figures and hair long gone, Henry had decided to play the ardent young lover and call upon Anne in disguise while she rested at Rochester, having recently arrived from Germany. Anne had no idea that the obese bald old man was Henry in disguise and had all but ignored him, finding the view from her window overlooking the celebrations in the courtyard below far more enticing a prospect. His vanity piqued, Henry sought a swift divorce. Like Anne of Cleves I had a lucky escape too.  Unlike the swaggering highwaymen of yore, who once roamed Hampstead Heath, the hapless Eggnog could never cut the kind of dashing figure destined to steal many a woman’s heart.