More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times very harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

AS Christmas 1999 approached, I was somewhat alarmed at the frequently repeated warnings of disaster, inevitable (apparently) because of something called ‘the millennium bug’.

This was a catastrophe we were to endure because current technology had been designed in such a way that it wouldn’t be able to adapt to the prefix ‘20’ as opposed to ‘19’, when referring to the year.

I wasn’t that worried about my watch (it had hands) but would my computer catch fire at midnight on December 31st? Looking back, it was rather an unlikely scenario, because unlike with COVID-19, everyone in the world already knew the year 2000 was coming and had made preparations for it. Either way, work and Christmas partying occupied more of my thoughts than the dreaded bug, as usual.

After a typically unpleasant late December day felling trees, getting wet and splitting logs after work (with an axe), I picked up the telephone and rang a local pub to organise the festive beano.

“I was just enquiring; do you have any vacancies for a Christmas party?” I asked, realising I’d left it a bit late and that such an event might not be possible.

“Yes,” said the landlord, a statement made with such confidence that I was rather taken aback.

“Don’t you want to know the planned date?”

“Okay, when had you in mind?”

I suggested a day and the landlord immediately agreed that would be fine.

“Do you want to double check and get back to me?” I was worried he was being a bit free and easy with the whole booking thing. Surely he was quite busy?

“No, you’re our only party this year.” This was slightly disturbing, since the pub in question had had a ‘book now for Christmas’ sign out since early autumn. “Shall I book you in then?”

“Don’t you want to know numbers first?” The landlord didn’t appear worried about details, but I insisted on explaining there would be two dozen of us, including wives, contractors, suppliers, friends and so on.

“No problem. Twenty-four turkey dinners it is!”

I explained there might be a vegetarian in our midst, and for the first time the pub fellow stalled.

“Does she like soup?” he asked. “Fish fingers?” He’d assumed the vegetarian to be female, a sign of the times I suppose, but suddenly he panicked, possibly concerned that I might go elsewhere. “Wait a minute,” he announced, triumphantly, “I think my wife has an old vegetable lasagne in the freezer, it’s Birds Eye as well.” He said the second part as though he were Raymond Blanc or Rick Stein.

I booked the pub anyway, thanking the man and putting the phone down just slowly enough to hear the landlord shout, “We’ve got a booking, Anne!”

I didn’t listen to the rest, but imagined him delighted and telling his wife to order 23 turkey ready meals and to check the back of the freezer for the fossilised vegetarian option. A few seconds later, the phone rang.

“Will you be requiring pudding, Dave?”

I said we would, and told him I would be delighted to have Christmas crackers on each table, even if it was only one between two, him not being sure how many were in the cellar.

To be honest, it hardly mattered about the food and embellishments. The pub was local, wasn’t fussy, and would almost certainly stay open late for a lock-in. Plus, I knew there wouldn’t be too much scrutiny if things got a bit raucous. It was a woodcutter’s end of year bash, not a meeting of sophisticated foodies.

And so, the year ground miserably to its climax. I hadn’t spent the last 2,000 years clambering around trees in the wet, crawling on hands and knees through muddy flowerbeds to hand-pick up sodden leylandii fronds, and all the other gruelling, miserable jobs that go with the business. But it felt that long.

At last, the evening of the Christmas party arrived. It was a surprise fancy dress, in that I decided, at the last minute, to shave my head into a Mohican style and dress as a Native American (I don’t really know why).

By the time I’d assembled my impromptu outfit and walked to the pub, time was getting on, and it was 6.30 pm before I made my dramatic entrance.

“What the xxxx has happened to you?” asked the assembled throng, almost in unison.

“It’s fancy dress, didn’t I tell you?”

Someone ordered me a drink. A generous mower salesman had put several hundred quid behind the bar and the party was already in full swing.

“What happened to Hube?” I asked, pointing at the apprentice who had passed out in the fireplace.

As if in answer, Hube reared up and retched violently into the coal scuttle. I was worried about what the landlord might think, so I apologised.

“Oh, don’t worry, I was sick in there myself last week.” The landlord smiled benevolently and added, “Just so long as you’re all having a good time?”

Looking around the large group of employees, machinery dealers, farmers and their respective spouses, who were now all several pints into the evening, I assured the chap that I thought we were. Suddenly, there was a mad yelling from the kitchen, followed by a loud clattering and the sound of crockery breaking.

“Excuse me,” said our host, and he vanished down some steps into the galley.

There followed a tumultuous uproar, more shouting, some clattering then a loud metallic crash, as if someone had knocked over one of those big industrial cupboards full of saucepans. The landlord re-appeared with something white splattered on his head and his clothes looking distinctly rumpled.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Jean couldn’t find the horseradish sauce.”

I pointed out that he seemed to have some on his head.

“Not enough, nowhere near enough,” he said, sadly, and wiped the mess off his face with a bar towel.

After an hour or so we were seated around the tables in the lounge and I expressed surprise that so many other families were eating out with us, in random isolated groups, interspersed with my own motley crowd.

Gringo, the landlord (I don’t know why he was called this), explained: “We seem quite busy for once. I think people are celebrating the end of the millennium and our Christmas meal deal has brought in a lot of punters.”

At less than a tenner a head, I wasn’t surprised. That had been part of my thinking in booking this establishment.

After a short while, a lady in her seventies with a bedraggled beehive hairstyle appeared from the bowels of the pub, impressively balancing six or seven turkey dinners on one of her capacious forearms, leaving her other hand free to hold the cigarette she occasionally puffed at.

“Seven turkeys,” she bellowed, in a voice that cut through the clamour of the pub to such effect that a small boy in the corner, out with his parents I presume, burst into tears. She repeated this, four or five more times, until everyone was happily chomping into their dinners which, despite all evidence to the contrary (and a touch of fag ash), were delicious.

Finally, she produced one last meal, held with some disgust, limply in her serving hand. “Who is the vegetarian?” She said this with such malice that the dining room fell silent.

The wife of one of the subbies coyly put her hand in the air. “It’s me.”

Jean slammed down the meal and lit another Benson and Hedges, before announcing, at full volume, that it was time for pudding.

“Hold on, Jean,” I said. “I think we’re not quite ready yet …” Emboldened by beer as I was, however, I couldn’t take on the chef. I noticed she had a boil on her chin, and it, for some reason, worried me more than the cigarette.

“Thirty Christmas puddings, two trifles and a fruit salad!” This sounded a threat as much as an announcement, focussing on the subbie’s wife as she spat out the words ‘fruit salad’ with a degree of contempt I’ve rarely heard from hospitality staff.

It seemed unwise to tell Jean there were only two dozen of us and my old friend Sheppy said he was happy to eat all six additional Christmas puds rather than risk a confrontation but, as it happened, the choice wasn’t mine to make.

With a flourish, the waitress produced a bin bag from a pouch in her apron and, fag in mouth, moved from table to table at lightning speed (surprising given her great size), scooping half-eaten meals into her sack.

There was some astonishment and some laughter, but the main focus was to eat as much of the turkey and trimmings as possible before it could be bagged.

In the corner, Hube lay unconscious and smouldering, a small trickle of vomit dribbling into the fire hearth, so I asked that someone might pull him clear of the danger of combusting.

Within seconds of scooping the last remnants of uneaten food into her bin bag, which she slung over her shoulder, Jean was back with 32 desserts and a fruit salad. We ate these as fast as we could, but needn’t have bothered. The chef was now at the bar and had lost interest in her career. Gringo didn’t seem to mind.

Much, much later I remember eating a large doner kebab in Marlborough, six miles away. I don’t remember much else, but heard from a third party that a large gang of tree men had descended on the Rotary Club Festive Beano. Rumour has it there was much consternation among the local dignitaries, but that this quickly turned to relief as the party had been a bit of a damp squib until it was so rudely interrupted.

Apparently, there was country dancing, singing, bawdy drinking games and much merriment, though I can’t recall it at all.

We weren’t invited again.

The dead space between Christmas and the Dawn of a New Era (I write that in capitals for a reason I’ll explain at the end) was, as usual, deeply pleasant, marred only by a Mr Onslo.

“I need you to look at a planting scheme,” he said curtly, down the telephone line.

“I’m on holiday until New Year’s Day,” I said, irritably, wishing I’d said January 4th, or whenever the next working day was.

“Fine, see you at 8 am.” He gave this early hour out of spite, but I wasn’t that bothered. I don’t really do lie-ins, not even at the beginning of the next thousand years, so I showed up on time, in the rain. Onslo didn’t, so I banged angrily on his front door, causing him to appear in a dressing gown, reeking of alcohol and distinctly annoyed.

“I didn’t expect you to come,” he said, crossly.

Well, you shouldn’t have asked me, should you? I didn’t say it, obviously, but I did get to quote an awful lot for his planting scheme.

As for, ‘The Dawn of a New Era’, it was the headline in the Sunday supplement of a major newspaper (The Independent, I think), complete with a full-page photo of yours truly doing something heroic, looking up a poplar in north Wiltshire.

There was no millennium bug, no collapse of society, as the computerised world slipped uneventfully into the next 2,000 years, but there was a pleasant warm feeling as I read, over and over again, about what a brave and skilled bloke I was.

Just for once, during my few minutes of self-indulgent narcissism on that miserable January morning, it all seemed to be almost worthwhile.


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