You see, we’re going through another little phase of letting him lead us into cities. That’s an absurd notion, I hear you cry, inevitably leading to disaster. Yes, well you may well have a point there.
He overtakes me on the A1 in Germany, just before our exit this morning – so far, so good. Then he confidently turns right down a cul-de-sac and has to reverse out, under my benevolent, if despairing, gaze. ‘I’m useless at this, aren’t I?’ he asks meekly. It’s a rhetorical question.
There was the odd expletive thrown in, too. Lovable teddy bears, however, preparing such marvellous thermos flasks of tea for colleagues, need not be proficient at everything. And anyway, Cologne’s Rhein Energie Stadium is easy to miss – it only holds 45,724 people.
Cologne – or Koln, to give its native name – is the city that first produced perfumed liquid. And…Oh hang on, that’s all you’re getting I’m afraid – I’m heading out of town already. You see, I have a scoop in Bonn, capital of West Germany before reunification.
‘Barnaby, you old son of a gun! Are you coming to visit? We’re cooking,’ he says enthusiastically over the receiver. One doesn’t need asking twice where meals are concerned, and I jump on a tram.
Unfortunately, the tram promptly engages in a skirmish with a Honda car, and I have to walk for a bit instead. Dinner is starting to burn with the delay. Then the U-Bahn takes an hour; Bonn is a little further than I’d first thought.
Peter collects me from Bonn Central in a dilapidated Citroen, a 25-year-old wreck that makes even my car look roadworthy. ‘It leaks oil like a sieve,’ he says breezily. ‘It should be banned, really. Now, let’s see if we can get out of the car park without demolishing the place.’
The car is the length of a bus, with a bonnet that stretches towards the horizon, and looks absolutely beastly to manoeuvre. ‘It’s so long that I hit another car with it once,’ he continues, giving my point credence.
Up in the flat, I discreetly ask why his wife Monika wears glasses permanently, yet never seems to look through the lenses. ‘Part of her image, I think,’ answers Peter. ‘Oh, and it makes her nose look a bit smaller.’ We all exchange customary pleasantries, and wine begins to flow.
Mid-sip, I inadvertently let the cat out of the bag: Grandpa, one of Peter’s oldest pals, was in this part of Germany last month and didn’t come to visit. Whoops, Grandpa is now in the proverbial hot water, and has to do some pretty fast-talking on the telephone to extricate himself.
‘Pronto,’ says Grandpa at his Italian residence, before babbling apologetically to Peter. When it is my turn, however, I also have a little music to face.
First, I endure a litany in German before reminding him that I don’t speak that language. ‘Ah yes, sorry,’ he says before chastising me in my native tongue.
Now, Grandpa John was once the editor for CameraPress. If you’ve not heard of the company, it is a British agency begun in 1947, and it’s still one of the top international photography agencies worldwide. Perhaps still fancying himself in the position, Grandpa remains a stickler for exactitude when giving feedback on my writing.
‘Three grammatical howlers in your last letter I’m afraid, Barnaby. And you mixed up “who” and “whom” again; you simply don’t understand the dative.’ I freely admit it; my schooling is to blame – I think I can say I learned absolutely nothing in the classroom.
But, in cases like this, is it worth arguing that language is continually evolving, if only to preserve a touch of self-esteem? Blooming grandfathers..