Sunday 13th November 2016.
Henning Mankell’s ‘Faceless Killers’ is a suitably austere introduction to Kurt Wallander, the sombrous Swedish detective; a man suffering all manner of familial upheaval and private torment, in between sleuthing gruesome murders. Skane is chill, sparse country – isolated, almost desolate, farmland veiled in impenetrable sleet. Elderly, obsolete farming folk plough shallow, profitless furrows through the wintry terrain of their dreary days. Nothing much happens but the elemental weather. Even the sentences seem to trudge in languid, laconic deference to the unyielding landscape. Northumberland in November a fitting location to tackle my first Wallander.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the World Chess Championships commenced in New York. Carlsen, playing white, opting for The Tromp (Trompowsky Attack) – a rarely seen opening at the top level. Perhaps the recent Trumpian cataclysm subliminally influenced his thinking. If not worse. Remember ’72, Reykjavik? Soviet psychiatrists seeking evidence of psychic manipulation; the playing auditorium surveyed for radiation; Spassky’s orange juice tested by the KGB… Questions remain over more humble, domestic chess competition: that nettle tea Skippy brewed, for instance, before demolishing my accelerated dragon: slipped it in my urine sample at the docs – awaiting news from toxology.
The Valley Junction 397 is a multi-award winning Indian restaurant in Jesmond (not to be confused with the legendary West Indian barbers, Desmond’s). It’s initial novelty value derives from its surprising setting – a disused signal box and railway carriage. Somehow they combine to create an enticing, unique dining ambience. The 397, by the way, refers to the railway carriage’s original number when built for the Great Northern Railway back in 1912 – a saloon car for wealthy families to hire. And the decor and style remain luxuriant (if you overlook the 2nd class toilets). I counted at least five single malt whiskies on the spirits shelf, for instance – another mark of its swish and decadent pretensions.
With a blast on the guard’s whistle, amidst puff-puffing steam belches and furiously waving silk handkerchieves, our journey commenced. The five-pronged pickle tray arriving like the station master’s high five through the carriage door window. Or like a band of dandies bidding bye-bye: a jubilant fare-thee-well replete with familiar fond charmers, jostled by a tangy hot upstart and his gentleman’s excuse mes. Deflatingly, the starters beckoned us into flat, grey vistas: the dhai baigon (grilled aubergine stuffed with spiced vegetables and yoghurt) offered an unusual plateful, however, the visual promise was quickly undone by its yoghurt-sodden blandness. The onion bhajis, bold and brassy in appearance, in flavour, lacked seasoning and intensity.
Never mind that grim, featureless moorland of romantic, Bronte fantasy, finally the screeching wheels halt us under the grand, majestic canopy of Darlington railway station. From here one can relish and devour artistry and design, history and humanity without fear of indigestion. (You may not know this: in dubious homage, the BBC built a replica set of Darlington railway station for an episode of Noel’s Saturday Roadshow. ) King prawn pongo po. Outsize mutant Bay of Bengal prawns could barely wet their toes in the divine pongo po juices -considered pulling them up a chair. A big dish in all senses – thrilling the taste buds with rich, zingy chilli hits. Skippy’s lamb malayan also impressed, boasting both banana and pineapple bathed in a sauce of thick, creamy sumptuousness.
It was in Darlington railway station Skippy and I first kissed after lunching on plantain and sniggering at a pair of joke shop boobs.
Judge ‘Gonzo’ Pickles
Fred ‘Skippy’ Pickles