Porto and the Douro Valley

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Sunset over Porto. Over everywhere on the same longitude, I suppose

AS the early evening autumn sun shone over the Douro Valley and into the barn, warming the stone, our beautiful guide launched into a haunting lament, the fado, the melancholy soul music of the Portuguese.

It was a moment of pure romance, undercut only by the fact that I was standing barefoot in an 18-inch deep pool of squashed grapes. It’s hard to look suave and worldly when your legs are stained purple up to the thigh.

And yet, it was hard not to think that the whole trip had been leading towards this point. I had arrived in Porto on a Ryanair flight from Liverpool a couple of days before, leaving the gloom behind to be warmed by the sun of a Portuguese autumn.

“Porto? Is that in the Algarve?” I was asked before the trip. “No, it’s in the north,” I said. “Who goes to the north of Portugal?” I was asked. “I’m not sure,” I said.

On that first night, it was impossible to get a proper sense of the city, beyond the fact it was both buzzy and hilly, so our resourceful guide, Ricardo, took our party to Cantinho do Avillez.

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Cantinho do Avillez – I sat on the chair at the front of the picture with its back to us. This picture is unrepresentative of the number of people there that night

This is a restaurant owned by one of Portugal’s brightest new chefs, Jose Avillez, and featured clever twists on traditional Portuguese cooking, beginning with bread and truffled butter, with a tomato “cream” which tasted more of tomatoes than most tomatoes, and finishing with a sort of backwards salted praline ice cream, which started like custard and ended an icy solid, in defiance of both usual ice cream practice and the laws of physics.

Fed and relaxed by local wines, we returned to our hotel, the five-star Crowne Plaza, on the Avenida da Boavista, the road which leads to Porto’s Atlantic coastline. It was a fine, business-like hotel, catering for the international traveller, with a bed roughly the size of your living room.

Porto itself is a handsome city, elegantly ruined in parts, with twisting back streets leading downhill to the Rio Douro, the river which irrigates the valley of the same name and runs out to the ocean, and breathlessly modern in others.

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Casa da Musica

And it was the modern Porto we saw first of all the next morning – namely the Casa da Música, the great concert hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and built as part of Porto’s successful bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2001, though not completed until 2005. A stunning angular hunk of concrete, it looks as if it has landed like a spaceship in a formerly run-down part of Porto.

From there, we went to the Contemporary Art Museum of Serralves, set in acres of parkland and gardens. There are no permanent exhibitions in there, which means it continually reinvents itself, as Porto itself did as a result of Capital of Culture, using the honour to transform the city, just as Liverpool did in 2008.

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Fish Fixe – pronounced ‘fish fish’

All that culture can make a man hungry, and so we sat at one of the outdoor tables at Fish Fixe, on Cais da Ribeira, which runs down the bank of the Rio Douro, where we ate sardines and cheese and ham, dipping bread in peppery oil made from local olives. We followed them with arroz marisco – a soupy mix of rice and seafood which every respectable Portuguese mae can make for her children.

Across the narrow river we could see the port houses of Gaia, the cellars in which are held the port wine which was both named after the city, and upon which most of the city’s historic wealth is based. Huge signs above the houses carry names like Sandeman and Taylor’s, names of British exporters who produced and took port to our country in the 18th and 19th centuries.

After lunch we took a tour round the cool dark Sandeman cellars, accompanied by a woman guide dressed like the Sandeman logo, the Don, a Zorro-like character in a black Spanish sombrero and black cloak, which Portuguese students traditionally wear, and discovered how port is made.

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The Sandeman cellars – tawny port as far as the eye can see

So, here’s the science part. Unlike sherry, which is wine fortified with brandy and sweetened after it has fermented, port is only partly fermented, before the fermentation process is stopped by adding a flavourless colourless brandy. This means the port packs a 18% alcohol punch, while retaining the sweetness from the grapes.

Red grapes make ruby port, white grapes make white port, and tawny port is ruby port which is aged in much smaller barrels, which means more of the wine has contact with the wood so more oxygen can get in, changing the drink’s flavour and turning it into a honey colour.

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The insane staircase at Livraria Lello

After a tasting of the three ports, our trip guide, Ricardo, took us to Livraria Lello, Porto’s most famous bookshop. It’s so famous it has a bouncer on the door and you have to buy a ticket over the road to get in.

It’s because it’s considered to be the inspiration for Hogwarts castle in the Harry Potter books. The theory has some weight. It’s very ornate and has an eccentric staircase. And JK Rowling lived in Porto for a few years while she was writing the first book in the series. It meant the shop was packed with Potter fans who, crucially, were not buying books.

“So, I expect this crowd are all here because of Rowling,” I said to the bookshop guide. “No, no,” he said, “this is a very important and historic place for Portuguese literature,” as he was jostled by three small children in wizard hats.

After a quick trip to Porto’s main railway station to see the stunning blue and white tile pictures which decorate the concourse, we got ready for dinner at Porto Cruz, another port house. But while Sandeman’s is big on history, Porto Cruz is about modernity, with a swish rooftop bar and restaurant, serving port-based cocktails with excellent food.

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The Douro Valley – it’s quite nice

The following day we headed into the Douro Valley, the lavishly attractive source of the grapes which make the wine of the region. It is hardly any exaggeration to say that every part of the valley that is not a road, or water, or a house, or another business, is covered in vines, running along the terraces which cling to the hills.

The Douro was one of the world’s first demarcated wine regions, cold in winter, baking in summer, the sun beating down on the soil, which is covered with flat gravel, which soaks up the heat and releases it at night, keeping the temperature constant.

We went first to Amarante, a small golden town with an A-Level in charm, and a weird line in phallic-shaped biscuits. We had a traditional British afternoon tea at Casa da Calçada, a gorgeous villa of a hotel, with hefty fireplaces and comfortable sofas. The relationship with Britain is important to the Portuguese – we liberated them from Napoleon and we frequently got stuck into the Spanish – in a way we rarely reciprocate. Our loss.

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Casa da Calcada in Amarante – I wish I knew how to do cedillas in captions
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The wine library at the Six Senses Hotel in Lamego – all hotels should have a wine library

After a wander through the bridge-crossed town, we headed further into the valley, to the Six Senses Hotel in Lamego. An unprepossessing entrance gave way to pure luxury, a modern hotel which was shot through with comfort and elegance, with everything just so, and amazing views of the valley. It was too good for the likes of me, quite frankly.

We sat on the terrace and ate veal and potatoes while we listened to absolutely nothing, a peace and quiet I have never before experienced. I gazed out at the wine terraces, the olive trees framing the crest of every hill, and felt an almost transcendent sense of calm. It was basically the cosmic opposite of the London Underground.

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The Wine House Hotel at Quinta da Pacheca
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The terrace at Quinta da Pacheca looking out at the vineyards

From there we went to Quinta da Pacheca, a lush green vineyard and medium-sized wine producer with its own four-star hotel. The sun dappled the terracotta roofs of the whitewashed buildings through the rustling leaves of the trees. There was a touch of lavender in the air. I looked at the unapologetically modern cantilevered first floor extension on the main hotel building and was smitten. I felt I wanted to…

GRAMOPHONE NEEDLE SCRATCH SOUND EFFECT HERE.

“So I will take you on a tour,” said our quinta guide, “and then you’ll be treading the grapes.”

“Hooray!” said the rest of our party.

“What?” said I. Maybe I am odd, maybe I am too damned buttoned-up, but I did not consider this much of a gift. Sloshing about thigh-high in pulverised fruit is not my idea of a good time, it is a forfeit in a Noel’s House Party game.

But after the tour, during which we sampled the producer’s excellent ruby and ridiculously good tawny port, as well as their fruity, if tannic, table wine – “It needs a little time to mature”, said our guide – we were taken to the granite vats, where we changed into T-shirt and shorts, and washed our feet before plunging into the grapes.

It seems ridiculous in the 21st century that treading the grapes is still a thing, but our guide explained that stainless steel presses, which some of the bigger producers use, crush the seeds, making acid leak into the wine and impairing the flavour. On the scale of production of this quinta, it makes more sense to use the old methods. And the alcohol kills off anything bad anyway.

I decided to take her word for it and stepped inside, joining a seven-strong crew as we marched back and forth, arm in arm, to the rhythm of songs sung by the Portuguese contingent. Apparently, walking in step to a rhythm reduces the chance of a stumble. And nobody wants to fall over in that.

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I did this. I didn’t wear a hat, though. I have my limits

Despite my qualms, it really did feel like an honour in the end, as if I had taken part in something ancient.

It wasn’t over yet. To finish our visit to the valley, we were taken to chef Rui Paula’s DOC in Folgosa. Paula is one of Portugal’s most inventive chefs, and there, on a wooden terrace, we ate a modern and witty five-course meal, each course matched with a wine from the region.

Sitting on the banks of the Douro, watching the lights twinkle on the jet river, drinking wine from grapes harvested a few miles away… it wasn’t a bad way to round off a visit to one of the most beautiful and underrated regions of Europe. Who needs the Algarve? Northern Portugal has so much more to offer.

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Rui Paula’s DOC restaurant in Folgosa

THE CONTRACTUAL BIT AT THE END
I flew to Porto via Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Liverpool John Lennon Airport (liverpoolairport.com). Direct flights are also available from Gatwick and Stansted. He stayed at Crowne Plaza Porto (crowneplaza.com/porto) and Quinta da Pacheca (quintadapacheca.com). For more details on Porto and the Douro Valley, see visitportoandnorth.travel.

COLUMN: November 24, 2016

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A pair of broken glasses (not author’s own)

I HAVE been avoiding little messages for a few months now, little reminders which pop up in my email, or in my actual mail. They started with “Your eye test is due soon”, moved on to “Your eye test is due”, and became “Your eye test is overdue.”

It is like holding onto a runaway hot-air balloon, knowing that if you let go of the rope, you will fall, but also aware that the longer you leave it, the harder you will hit the ground. Avoidance is my default setting when dealing with difficult situations.

But this week, a bird flew into my armpit, forcing me to let go of the rope.

I was at my desk at the beginning of my shift, doing whatever it is I do for a living, tapping away on a keyboard, and moving a mouse, appearing to passers-by as if I know what I do for a living, when I heard a sound, something between a ping and a boing, somewhere around my temple.

I am not a trained medic, but even I knew that sounded like bad news. And then I had a terrible pain in my eye. “Oh, dear,” I thought, “am I having a stroke?”

No, I was not having a stroke, readers. What had happened is that one of the lenses of my glasses had sheared away from part of its housing and had now taken up residence on the surface of my eye.

I have never fancied the idea of wearing contact lenses, and if this was any indication, I was right.

I removed my glasses. This was not so much a transformation of Clark Kent into Superman, and more Clark Kent into Colonel Blink: The Short Sighted Gink from the Beezer.

If I squinted I could see my computer screen, which was fine, but I also looked baffled by the idea of words, which is not ideal when one works in newspapers. “Where are your glasses?” a succession of colleagues asked me, before assuring me that things could not possibly be that bad.

I showed them. “Can’t you just fix them?” they asked. It turned out I could not. The springiness of the frame which previously kept the lens in place also prevented glue from working.

“Don’t you have a spare pair?” they asked. I began to tell them the story of my recreational walk in the rain which culminated in the destruction of my other pair under the wheels of several vehicles, but they stopped me. “Of course you don’t,” they interrupted.

There was nothing for it. I let go of the balloon and booked an eye test for the following morning at my usual opticians. My optician is great, I thought. I started going there about 12 years ago, almost entirely because it had a same-day service. I won’t say the name of the company, but it’s along the lines of Super Speedy Glasses.

I could cope for 24 hours without glasses, I thought. I would be asleep for eight of those. This would be fine. I just needed to get through one day of looking as if everything confused me.

My eye test passed without incident, and I went into the main shop to choose my frames. You will be pleased to know I picked a tasteful, non-comedy pair.

And then I sat with the sales assistant, who went through the range of options which were not part of the basic package but which everybody needs.

Has anybody ever said, “No, I don’t think I will have the anti-glare protection, as glare is one of my favourite things?” Opticians these days are like budget airlines. “Oh, you want to sit INSIDE the plane? That’s another £23.”

When she had stopped adding things to the bill, the sales assistant told me my glasses would be ready some time in the next seven days.

“No, I’d like the same-day service, please,” I said.

“I’m sorry, we don’t do that any more,” she said.

My eyes creased up. No longer was I simulating confusion. “But that is your selling point. That’s the only reason I came here.

“Your name is Super Speedy Glasses. That’s like British Airways getting out of the airline business and going into cupcakes, but still being called British Airways.”

The shop assistant smiled at me beatifically. I was clearly not the first.

So I have to manage for a week without glasses. I should avoid me if I were you.

COLUMN: November 17, 2016

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SOMEBODY needs to check her umbrella privilege
AT THIS time of year, I mostly find myself angry with myself for not understanding how seasons work.

I should know by now that in November I need to be suitably prepared for those blustery, sunny, windy, rainy, warm, and snowy days we have, but I just assume a non-waterproof coat will see me through. I am like one of those people who express surprise at the shorter days in winter or those who are rescued from Snowdon in their flip-flops.

Allied to my unpreparedness for predictably unpredictable weather is my inability to keep an umbrella for more than a few days. My record for the shortest time between buying an umbrella and losing it is one and a half days.

I don’t know why it should be umbrellas which I single out for this treatment. Everything else I accumulate I seem to be incapable of ditching.

I still own clothing with St Michael labels. Some of it might even come back into fashion again, which will be great as I rock a Six Million Dollar Man T-shirt and Black Watch slack. Essentially I am half man, half Velcro.

As I left my chosen form of public transport, I was aware that it was raining, owing to the fact that water was falling from the sky and it was wetting me. I won’t lie, this disappointed me.

“What I need,” I thought, “is an umbrella, such as we know Rihanna would have.” Why I was thinking of Rihanna, we will never know for sure, but it was probably to help whoever has to think of a picture to place on this column.

I scrabbled in my bag for an umbrella, but, of course, there was no umbrella there.

All that was left were two black sheathy things which covered umbrellas I had previously owned, ghosts mocking me for my placing of wet umbrellas on the floor of buses, and subsequent alighting from the buses without them.

The rain was splattering the pavement, leaving dinner plate-sized impressions on the stone. I needed shelter, or when I got to the office somebody would say, “Oh, is it raining?” as I dripped everywhere, like an ice statue left near the radiator, and I would have to commit murder.

Then I remembered there was a key-cutting and shoe-repair shop nearby which sold umbrellas. I am not sure why a key-cutting and shoe-repair shop would diversify into umbrellas, but I suppose if you have chosen to put two random and unconnected things together under one roof, you might as well add a third.

I stumbled into the shop, as the rain lashed the street behind me, setting off car alarms and exciting ark builders. I pulled an umbrella off its hook and took it to the counter. “That’s £4,” the shopkeeper said. “Will you be using it now?”

I looked at him as a drop of water rolled off my eyebrow. “Yeah, you will,” he said, and he pulled the tag off the umbrella.

I handed him my card. “Oh,” he said, “we don’t take cards.”

“But you’re a shop,” I thought. “I could understand it if you were a homeless person or a carol singer, but this is 2016, for heaven’s sake.”

“Oh,” I said. I did not have £4 on me. In other circumstances, I might have left and searched for umbrellas elsewhere.

But the shop assistant had pulled off the tag. I had basically bought the umbrella at that point. That is the rule of buying umbrellas.

“Where’s the nearest cash point?” I asked. “Ooh, just down the road,” said the shopkeeper.

“Right,” I said. “I’ll be back.”

It was not “just down the road”. It was a considerable distance down the road. The wind whipped up, flinging rain somehow inside my shirt sleeves, as I trudged down the road.

I joined the back of the ATM queue, withdrew the cash from the machine, and walked back, the wind now depositing the rain on my previously dry back. I handed over the money, keenly aware that had I just gone to work I would be steaming dry by now.

He gave me the brolly and I stepped out of the shop. Putting up the umbrella was now a futile gesture. I looked as if I had dived for a rubber brick. But I did it anyway.

The wind caught it, turning it inside out and mangling it for good. On the plus side, I now have a new record.

Abracadabra!

WHEN I was little, I used to be able to do a magic trick in which I would make a necklace disappear and then reappear. It used to stun all the grown-ups around me.

I used to place it on a table, cover it with a handkerchief, tap three times on the necklace with a magic wand, close my eyes, turn around three times, and when I lifted the handkerchief the necklace was gone. I would go through a similar process to make the necklace return. It was excellent, let me tell you.

In fact, it was so excellent, I was emboldened to show my teacher and all the kids in my class. I took a necklace, covered it with a paper towel, tapped on it three times with a pencil, closed my eyes, turned around three times, and lifted the handkerchief to reveal… a necklace.

What I did not know was that when I did the trick at home, while my eyes were closed and I was spinning around, my dad was removing the necklace in full view of all spectators.

This is basically how Cameron won two general elections and two referendums, and then lost the EU referendum, isn’t it?

COLUMN: November 10, 2016

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A person in a T-shirt

IT WILL come as little surprise to long-time readers of this column that I was bullied as a child. I mean, look at me. Now imagine me as a child in school, a clumsy swot with a lisp and an inability to play football… My parents might as well have coated me in honey and thrown me to the bears.

It was fairly low-level bullying when I was at primary school, a sort of background buzz within my tolerance.

But when I got to secondary school, it changed quite dramatically. There was a boy, a couple of years older than me, who lived near me. I’ll call him Squeakybum, partly to protect his identity (he might now be a decent man ashamed of his childhood), and mostly as an act of revenge.

We would get the same bus to school. In those pre-deregulated days, a junior bus ticket would cost me 9p, the equivalent of 28p now – yeah, thanks for that, Maggie.

But there was a cheaper 5p ticket available for shorter journeys. Squeakybum and his friends would buy that ticket and stay on the bus for longer than they were entitled. It was theft, basically, and I am many terrible things but I am not a thief.

A couple of days after my first term started, Squeakybum came up to me, surrounded by his friends. “Stop paying 9p on the bus. We all pay 5p.”

“Yeah, but it’s 9p,” I said.

“I don’t care. If you pay 9p, the driver will know we’re paying the wrong fare.”

His message delivered, Squeakybum and his associates went to get on the bus. I followed them. And paid 9p.

I continued paying 9p for days until Squeakybum realised I was still defying him. That was when he punched me in the gut for the first time.

I carried on paying the right fare, he carried on bullying me, verbally abusing me, hitting me, for months. This was a boy who if I had said to him, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” he would have taken it as a tip to use sticks and stones.

I would like to think it shows character on my part that I continued to pay the correct fare, but maybe I was just more scared of the authorities than of him. It is hard to tell. I am not even sure what motivated me to choose my current breakfast cereal.

The point is that it was not the actual punching that was so debilitating, nor the name calling. It was the constant sense of dread, the knowing that Squeakybum could be around any corner, and the helplessness to do anything about it.

I have not really felt that dread for years. I have had short stabs of it when I have remembered that time, echoes of the pain, like the day after you have recovered from a migraine and you cough, and the jarring brings the headache back for a moment.

But I feel it now, because we have started to elect bullies like Squeakybum into power. And even more so since Tuesday.

I get the appeal of the strong man, who will knock heads together, instead of the wheedling pygmy compromising politicians lining their own pockets, blah, blah, etc, etc.

It’s not as simple as that. Everything is connected. That’s not just the way of modern life, that’s the way of life. You can’t just yank out the bit you don’t like and expect there to be no consequences.

But these easy answers-peddling bullies won’t tell you that. They won’t tell you that working women or the immigrants you don’t like because they talk foreign in shops are the ones paying for your NHS and pension.

They will tell you everything would be great if it weren’t for one thing. They will give you scapegoats.

Build a wall, throw out the Poles, beat up the little kid who pays 9p on the bus so you can carry on paying 5p. They’re all of a piece.

And you have a choice. Are you going to be one of the kids standing behind Squeakybum, holding his coat as he beats up his current target, egging him on, so that he doesn’t make you his next scapegoat?

Or are you going to stand up to him, and carry on paying 9p on the bus because it’s the right thing to do?

Not literally, obviously. That would be theft.

COLUMN: November 3, 2016

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A picture of an otter. There are no otters in this column, but pictures of plastic carrier bags are quite boring and will actively prevent people from reading it

I BOUGHT a pen and a roll of wrapping paper from a shop and the woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted a bag.

“No,” I thought, “But you could wrap it for me, and then I would have extra wrapping paper.”

“No, thank you,” I said. I had weighed up the situation in my mind and realised that the pen could go straight into its new jacket pocket home, and it was not as if I would gain anything from carrying the roll of wrapping paper in a bag rather than in my hand. If anything, it would be worse as the roll would just keep bashing into me. Bags are rubbish, I thought. Stop trying to press bags upon me, Shop Woman.

I was too reckless. If only I had known that I would offend the gods of the carrier bags, I would have been more careful.

I went into another shop and bought the item which would go inside the wrapping paper – a box of Lego, intended for my soon-to-be-double-figured daughter. “Would you like a bag?” the man behind the counter asked. “No, thank you,” I said.

Then I weighed it up. Now I would have two items to carry – one in each hand. What if I fell over? I can never rule that out.

“Actually, yes, can I have a bag, please?” I said, after I had paid by card. I rummaged in my back pocket and pulled out a warm 5p piece. A momentary look of disgust flashed across Shop Man’s face as I dropped the coin into his hand. I did not blame him.

I put the Lego box and wrapping paper in my newly-purchased bag and left the shop feeling fairly happy with myself. I had already bought a birthday card, so I was bang up to date.

I did not even mind, as I walked back to the office, that I was right about the wrapping paper bashing into me as the bag swung in time to my weird lollop of a walk. The gods of the carrier bags had taken their revenge for my slight, and I did not care. I had achieved the bare minimum expected of a man in my position.

And then, as I got closer to my office, I remembered that last time I had slightly raised the bar by buying a box of chocolates. “Why must I constantly if only very marginally improve my performance?” I opined. “I have made a very minimal rod for my own back.”

Then I remembered that I had seen the particular sort of chocolates in the shop over the road from my office. It just went to show, I thought, that that day I was a winner with tiger blood.

I went into the shop, wrapping paper poking my armpit, and went to the confectionery aisle. “Where are they? Where are they? Ah!” I thought. I reached out and found the particular chocolates. Sunbeams shone out from them in their humble place on the shelf.

I picked them up, triumphant! And then I am not entirely sure what happened next.

I can only assume it was the true revenge of the gods of the carrier bags. Or maybe I was confused by a victory. But somehow, in my addled brain, I had decided that the carrier bag I was holding in my hand was a basket.

I dropped the chocolates straight into my bag.

And I did not realise what I had done until I noticed the mini-supermarket worker who was stacking the shelves about a metre to my left and who had clearly seen everything.

How on earth was I going to retrieve this situation? What was I going to say to her? “I’m not shoplifting, honest, I was just confused by a bag.”

“There’s only one thing to do,” my useless brain told me. “Shift the blame. I don’t know how. Why are you asking me? Just do something. Quickly, that woman is looking.”

And so, I yanked the chocolates out of the bag, and yelled, “You naughty chocolates. You know you’re not meant to be in there. Don’t do it again.”

The woman’s jaw dropped. I think her brain told her, “No, you’re OK, you’re hallucinating.” And then I raced to the self-checkout, and paid for the chocolates, waving my card about so that nobody was left in any doubt I was buying them.

The machine asked if I wanted a bag.