Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The serious post

This was always going to be the sort of post that would be difficult for me to write. Difficult because it's about something serious. Difficult because it's normally so much easier for me to do something silly. Difficult because I'm going through something that's really, well, difficult.

My father died on Sunday evening.

Right now we're all in a state of bewilderment and shock. While his health wasn't always 100%, Dad's passing in the matter of a few hours was a complete surprise. The family is strong, but as we lost my grandfather only a few weeks ago, there is a lot for us to take in right now.

There was a part of me that wasn't going to write about it here. Whether or not I'll get some form of catharsis from ignoring that part of me is yet to be seen. I haven't got the energy to do something in parable form, like I did for granddad. I wish I had. But I'm pretty much drained. So the first version of this post - explaining why you won't be reading anything new here for a while - was going to end here.

But as I was sitting here, exhausted after spending the day with my mother and brothers - not doing anything really, just being - I had a bit of an epiphany.

One thing I know I got from my Dad was a love of language. Words - written and spoken - gave him great pleasure. He was an avid reader, and would devour books at an amazing rate of knots. Perhaps it was an inquisitive mind; whenever he obtained a new item he would first sit down and read its instruction manual from cover to cover. I can hear him now: "If all else fails, read the instructions."

I never showed him anything I'd written here - not even the story I wrote after the passing of his own father three weeks ago. I suppose I thought he'd think it was all a bit silly. It gives me pleasure, though, and it's good to know that it sometimes makes complete strangers smile. A few strangers have been good enough to tell me it makes them laugh. Which makes it all worthwhile. Someone much better at this than me once said: "Perhaps blogging is like doing a favour for a friend. It's thankless, but it gives me satisfaction." Perhaps the desire to use words to make people happy is something else I got from Dad.

Final anecdote. I last saw him on Boxing Day. He'd asked for, and was delighted to receive, a large-print copy of the Bible. On seeing our raised eyebrows - apart from Mum none of us are particularly religious - he explained: "I've always wanted to study it. This will take me a good two months or so."

Perhaps he wanted to read the ultimate instruction manual.

Folks, I'm going to take my leave from you for a while. I've got other things to do at the moment. I hope I can honour my Dad's memory by playing around with these silly words again at some point in the near future.

Phil

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A Christmas Message

Happy Christmas to you all.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a turkey with my name on it. And my annual sprout, of course.....

Sunday, 21 December 2008

'Twas the fight before Christmas

For hundreds of years, philosophers, artists and various religious bods have wondered about Hell. What does the underworld look like? That seventh circle of Hades - is it just like the other six but with the AC dialled down a bit? In short, what is everyone's worst nightmare and what would it be like to experience it first hand?

I can now confidently answer their questions. For I have visited Sainsbury's supermarket on the last Sunday before Christmas.

It is 6.30pm as I write this. We left the supermarket over three hours ago. The shaking hands have only just subsided. And as for the involuntary swearing, here's hoping that goes soon, or else the office could be more than a little interesting tomorrow morning.

"We'll go to Sainsbury's," we thought, "they have Selfscan so we can pick up our scanner at the entry, beep-beep our way round and glide effortlessly through the express check-out." So we headed off to this orange-and-white temple to retailing.

We were encouraged by the sight of men in hi-viz jackets, shepherding the onslaught of shoppers' cars around the car park using those flashy light-sticks you normally see at landing strips. We actually found a space quickly enough as a result. "This might work out OK," we thought. "Just need to pick up a Selfscan handset at the entry and we're away," we thought.

Unfortunately the Salvation Army band wasn't there this year. (By the way, have you ever seen a thin guy playing a tuba? No, me neither. Does the instrument choose the player, or the other way round?) This time we had the local Round Table, which was basically a group of Solihull accountants called Jeff dressed as Santa with Wham's 'Last Christmas' playing in the background.

Enjoy that image, if you will.

There was a sign. I've slightly amended the text, but essentially this is what it said:
Selfscan is out of order - on possibly our busiest weekend of the year . We apologise for being really quite crap at this sort of thing. But you're here now, so what are you going to do, suckers?
That was actually a highpoint, compared to what followed.

Consider the standard supermarket trolley. It's not overly-endowed with controls, because it doesn't need to be. Just walk and push, walk and push. Unfortunately, for the denizens of the supermarket today - many of whom I suspect only get out this once per year - these simple instructions would have been like explaining particle physics to your cat.

As we went up and down the aisles, we would meet the same people coming the other way. Like a Halley's Comet of stupidity, you get to experience their dimness on a regular basis. And, keeping the astronomical theme, they're normally accompanied by satellite snotty kids, encircling them and generally getting under my wheels.

We were just picking up a few items for the Christmas holiday period. But for others, clearly the whole idea of the shops being shut for two days was enough to bring on fevered hysteria. Shelves were being cleared. The fruit and veg section was like open warfare.

"Apples and bananas, stat!" came the order from Katie.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Heard it once on ER, don't know what it means."

I now know why supermarkets have the beer and wine aisles towards the end of your route. It's because by the time you get there, you probably need a snifter. I made the annual purchase of a bottle of port - which will no doubt be followed in August next year, with the annual shaking of a three-quarters-full bottle followed by the annual asking of the question: "Does port go off?"

Along with her will to live, Katie's sense of humour had clearly gone west. Approaching the Paxo display, I cheerily asked her, in a voice that could be heard in Norwich: "Do you want stuffing?"

I got a look.

We got to the checkout to find the local Sea Scouts helping out with bag-packing in exchange for donations. (How come their tents don't sink?) However by this time we were in no mood to deal with adolescents in blue serge. A quid in their collection tin meant we were free to do it ourselves - I'm not sure that's how it's meant to happen but it worked for us.

We emerged, blinking in the December sunlight. The accountants had moved onto 'In Dulce Jubilo' and we found ourselves encountering the same mouthbreathing trolley-pushers as beforehand, only this time behind the wheels of motorised transport.

Seriously, people, how are you not all mangled beyond all recognition?

As the song goes: "I wish it could be Christmas every day." But I'm not so sure. I think we'd all have expired from nervous exhaustion by the second week in January.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Hints and tips

Watching Nigella Lawson on the television in the run-up to Christmas with Katie is an education.

Nigella says: "To stave off panic on Christmas morning, I generally like to prepare the basics in advance."

Katie says: "To stave off panic on Christmas morning, I generally like to start drinking from about 10.00am onwards."

That explains it.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

"But you don't really care for music, do you?"

It's a really good job I never published the version of this post I had in mind on Saturday night. Partly because we'd had the neighbours over, the evening had gone downhill rapidly in a haze of Martin Miller's gin and the resultant fuzz would have caused unwarranted randomness.

It would have been the typed equivalent of: "I lurrrve yew...you're mah besht mate," or: "Leave it Darren, he's not worth it". I'm not certain I'm even spelling 'hiccup' properly.

But that's not the main reason why it's better I waited. The other reason is because I was a lot angrier on Saturday evening. Before the gin turned the anger into sodden melancholy.

The 15-week talent-vacuum that is X-Factor finished at the weekend, with one particularly bland singer winning out over several other bland singers.

Battle of the blands, if you will.

It wasn't the fact that it was over that made me angry. If anything, I was glad it had finished. I only really pay attention to it in the opening stages, when it's more a human zoo than anything else. (Does that make me a bad person? Thought so).

It wasn't the choice of eventual winner that made me angry. She seemed like a perfectly nice girl, if somewhat taken to Whitney Houston-esque histrionics. Not my sort of thing, but it appears to be popular with people who wear a lot of man-made fibres, so there you go.

No, it was the song choice of the show's svengali, the oddly-trousered Simon Cowell, for the afore-mentioned winner's debut single. That made me angry. That and the fact that it will no doubt trouble the no. 1 position of the charts at Christmas. A cover of 'Hallelujah', the Leonard Cohen number.

I seem to remember using phrases like 'cultural vandal'. I may have asked: "Is nothing sacred?" I talked about how the song can only be sung by someone who'd been round the block a bit. A little damaged. A bit windswept and interesting. I could well have rambled about how a song that spoke eloquently of the mixture of exultation and despair that comes with passionate love couldn't be sung by someone whose idea of personal tragedy was running out of credit on their Nokia. I may even have offered to play the Jeff Buckley version for my neighbours. Which would have brought the party mood down a notch or two, had Katie not wrestled the iPod out of my indignant fingers.

I am quite keen on 'Hallelujah'. I like the story behind it - Leonard Cohen apparently agonised over it for two years before completing a version with 80 verses. I am quite keen on the Jeff Buckley cover, or, 'the one they play on the OC when someone dies', as it's now known. And although I don't like her that much, I have a copy of it done by kd lang that I have to go for brisk walk after playing, making sure to avoid eye contact with other people.

Since Saturday, however, my mood has changed a little. The purists are angry now - and they're sober. There's a campaign to get other versions to number one instead. The story has been covered by papers, radio and TV. A lot. There is even a swathe of Facebook groups campaigning, as only Facebook groups can. Every man and his dog has written a blog post about it (many of whom used exactly the same line from the song as the title - I'm just following the herd here).

And you know what? It's a song. A great song, but just a song. It's been covered by about 150 people at the last point, so moaning about another one is a pretty good example of the stable-door-horse thing. It turns out a certain L. Cohen gets some benefit from the royalties. A whole bunch of people will get to hear the original and other 'definitive' versions as a result of the publicity. And I realised that a lot of musical snobbery was being displayed.

So has my opinion changed with regards to the Alexandra Burke version? Have the scales lifted from eyes? Have I learned to accept this mainstream recitation?

Oh God no, it's bloody awful.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Gardener's Tale

The Gatekeeper leant on the handle of his spade and let out a deep sigh. These gardens were causing him no end of concern. He was busy enough with his normal duties; all this digging, planting and weeding was too much.

It wasn't as if he could see any result for his labours. The gardens were unkempt. Leaves were strewn across an unruly lawn. There were plants in the borders he certainly hadn't remembered putting there. And it wasn't as if he wasn't busy enough with his normal job. Keeping the Register up to date was work enough.

"Gatekeeper," enquired the Master when they met later that day, "can you tell me why our garden looks as it does?"

"I'm sorry Sir. I try, I really do. But I can't summon enough enthusiasm for it. And I've been so busy recently, what with manning the Gate and everything. We've had a lot of people coming through, so the garden has fallen by the wayside."

The Master was thinking.

"Your problem," he said, "is that you don't have enough love for the garden. You can either do it, or not. There is no in-between"

"What do you suggest we do, Master?"

"You mentioned you'd had plenty of people through the Gate in recent days. I've been looking closely at them." It seemed the Master had someone in mind.

Six months later and the garden was perfection. The neatly edged lawns practically glowed emerald. The borders were a riot; a symphony of chrysanthemums, dahlia and begonia. The heady scent of roses wafted gently on the breeze. The Passion flowers were a nice touch, thought the Gatekeeper.

The Gardener stepped back from his wheelbarrow and straightened his tie. A smile broke across his features. It had been some years since he'd felt like this. "What do you think, then?" he asked.

"This is truly wonderful, " said the Gatekeeper. "Well done. The Master chose well. What's your secret?"

"You must love what you do. I must say, Gatekeeper, this takes me back. I never thought I'd be able to do all this again. It's like I'm young again."

"This place does that to you. If you want to, you can look after this garden as long as you want."

The Gardener's smile broadened: "Well, thank you. If you don't mind, I think I will. This place is like heaven."

Now it was time for the Gatekeeper to smile.

In loving memory of Alfred Sawyer, 1911-2008. Happy gardening, Granddad.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The jet set

How to wash your car in 15 easy steps:

1: Notice that your car is so dirty, people have stopped writing 'Clean me' in the grime and have started opting for 'Plough me' instead.

2: Realise that it's only several degrees above zero outside, so anyone expecting you to get busy with the bucket and sponge can go hang.

3: Drive to your local petrol station, the one with the jet wash machine. People, I can't stress that last point strongly enough. If you go to one without a jet wash, you're just going to end up wandering around your car making 'shooshing' noises again. Fun though that is, it's not going to shift that motorway muck.

4: Select your programme carefully. New car? Go for the gold programme. Old banger, or someone else's car? Bronze. We all know it's the equivalent of getting a llama to spit at your windscreen, but think of the £2 you saved!

5: Go to the attendant and ask for a jet wash token. Marvel as he regards you with a look that speaks of utter contempt/complete confusion/rampant constipation.

6: Insert token. Realise at this point, with no small degree of panic, that you should have untangled the spray lance and shampoo brush hoses first. In their current configuration, you can only move seven inches. You now have to negotiate a 3D puzzle, and the clock is running.

7: Step backwards into what you thought was a mere puddle only to find that it was actually six inches of dirty water. Realise you have to spend the rest of the day with one leg damp up to the lower shin. It's a look.

8: Grasp the spray lance. Resist the urge to make light sabre 'voom' noises.

9: Get the car nice and wet, following the instruction to work from the bottom up. Because, of course, water applied to your car doesn't respond to the law of gravity.

10: When the buzzer sounds, that cycle is over. Switch to the shampoo brush. See how easy it is to get your wheel clean, using a rectangular implement on a circular item!

11: Realise when the buzzer sounds again that you have one very clean wheel but the rest of the car is bereft of shampoo.

12: Drag the now water-free shampoo brush across the rest of your paintwork. Swearing optional.

13: Time to rinse. Grab that spray lance, Skywalker. Now it's in high-pressure mode. Gaze in wonder as the jet dislodges not just caked-on insects and road tar, but small items of clothing and the dental fillings of passers-by.

14: Stand back and admire your work. Realise that buying a black car was a really bad move. Michael Knight should have had your problems.

15: Drive home, allowing your left ankle to drip gently onto the carpet adjacent to your clutch pedal.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

It might just work

Dear Oxfam

I've been looking at your website, with the gift ideas for animal lovers. Now don't worry, I'm not one of those people who thinks that for £95 I get to keep my own camel. I'm well aware that it goes towards someone far more needy.

It goes like this; I pay £95, you use the money to provide a camel to someone in a developing country. Preferably someone who wants a camel, of course. You're a respectable organisation, after all. I can't see you pushing ungulates on unsuspecting rice-farmers.

No, I know that I don't get to keep the camel. I couldn't put one in my garden, for starters. I mean, what about the smell? I guess the camel wouldn't mind.

That's just my little joke.

Anyway, I'm sure you've heard there's a recession going on. I know the people who you deal with are normally at the other end of the financial scale. After all, your clients can't exactly cancel their Sky subscription when the crop fails.

But the ones here, in what we call, with no sense of irony, 'the developed world', might have a bit of a problem with shelling out £95 on a camel. Or even two ponies for a donkey. So I wonder if you should think about broadening your product range a bit? Going for the budget market.

Hamsters.

No, don't screw this letter up. Bear with me. Hamsters cost, what, a few quid each? You could knock them out at a fiver a piece. Mom and dad get to solve junior's constant whining, teach them a story about the beauty of giving, and someone several thousand miles away gets to have an addition to their livestock.

Of course, your typical hamster is no use as a beast of burden. I know that. Even the Siberian hamster will struggle to carry more than a gallon of water from the pump. But have you considered the energy generation angle?

At night, your clients just pop their Oxfam-provided hamster onto its wheel and get it going. Hook up a generator and hey presto - instant, effortless, carbon-free electricity! OK, I accept that a single hamster isn't going to give the village much in the way of power - maybe a 60watt bulb at a time. But bear with me. You need to realise of the power of networking.

Imagine, if you will, a hundred, no, wait, a thousand hamsters, all in their wheels merrily providing all their owners' night-time energy needs. I can't help smiling when I imagine it. I suspect you're picturing it right now, and a grin is playing across your features, isn't it?

I don't blame you. It's a beautiful image. Hamsters are the future.

And when they get too old to generate electricity, they're apparently quite nice baked in a shortcrust pastry.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Once bitten, twice cooked

I was at a work-related meeting this afternoon. I know, what a crazy lifestyle I lead. Somebody stop me!

The meeting was with people from another company who are working on a project for us, and so I and a few colleagues went to their office. I was there first (this never happens normally, a dodgy map had sent my colleagues to the other end of town) and I was shown to the meeting room.

Tea? Coffee? I muttered my thankyouverymuches.

"And," said the sales manager, a glint in her eye, "for something to get this meeting really started!"

Blimey, I gulped. I half expected shots of tequila and/or lines of coke, the way she said it. I was therefore disappointed relieved to see a plate of chocolate biscuits materialise.

There is, I'm told, a protocol for the chocolate biscuit in business meetings. But they never teach it in Harvard. Oh no, sunshine, you've got to learn the hard way. They may well look tempting in all their choccy biccie goodness. They may well have put a whole plateful down in front of you. Including the plain chocolate ones. But it's considered bad form to wolf them down before we've got past the introductions. At least wait for the second item on the agenda.

It's like a delicious form of torture. You're sitting there, trying hard to concentrate on the discussion and make erudite contributions. But all the time, you're thinking: "What will they think if I take a third one?"

And there is the time when you're asked your opinion - on something you miraculously do know about - and you give it with an impressive flourish. Everyone at the room has been regarding you with rapt attention. You think: "That's going to make a difference. That's marked me out as a man of wisdom. I have added value here."

Only to find that you have a crumb of white chocolate flake on your chin large enough to be seen on Google Earth.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Never mind the width, feel the quality

Well, that's that, then. Quite reasonable in fact - no need to see a solicitor after all.

For the second year running, I have survived the post-every-day-a-thon that is NaBloPoMo. Of course, the sense of achievement was lessened somewhat when I realised that this event was evolved from NaNoWriMo, when otherwise sane people opt to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of a month.

For a moment I thought: 'Hmm, that's not beyond the realms of possibility..."

What's that you say? Did I go off and do something stupid like perform a word count on my November blog posts? Well, that would be a daft and pointless exercise, wouldn't it? What good could possibly come of such an endeavour?

11,197 words. Seriously. And I thought I was a wordy bugger. But it's a mere foothill - a molehill, if you like - plonked next-door to the Himalayas created by some of these novel writers. Mind you, if I'd written 50,000 words over the month in my usual style I'd probably have alienated you all. Plus Katie would be no longer talking to me and I'd have the word "Acer" permanently imprinted on my upper thighs from this overheating laptop.

Which is not a good look.

So what have we all learned from this month of material, these weeks of writing?

We now know that there is an internationally-recognised uniform for bloggers. The name of the long-lost Village People disco/progressive rock crossover album is no longer a mystery. And there's been some of the latest guidelines for modern management, alongside biting political commentary. Most of all, we learned that writing something aimed at an American audience, but posting it on Thanksgiving Day (when, let's face it, they have better things to do), was guaranteed to be as successful as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

It barely seems like only a couple of weeks since we read the moving stories behind the real victims of the economic crisis. We ranted at clueless journalists and pretentious restaurateurs alike. What fun!

Of course, I've been in a sharing mood, too. How else would you know about my one big weakness? Or my hippie past? Or even the reason why I never seem to be able to show up on time? It's enough to make someone adopt an alter ego.

So what can you expect from tomorrow onwards? Well, I know that some blog-writers have decided to extend this exercise and will post something every day for a year. I can't commit to this (I've got a screenplay to write, don't you know) but I plan to keep things nice and regular here, too. For one thing, there's the Small Mercies thing which looks like developing into a series. Well, it amuses me, anyway. Plus I can see that I've picked up some new readers. Hello you. Please stay - your validation of my existence is way cheaper than any therapy.

For now, though, I have the Sunday papers and my sofa. And they're calling my name. No, really, I can hear them. Perhaps I should reconsider the therapy thing.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Four second wonder

My watch has started doing something very odd indeed. Instead of doing what watches are traditionally supposed to do - the classic 'move the second hand once every second' routine that's been with us for so long - it instead has been waiting.

It hasn't stopped - in fact it still keeps perfect time. But the second hand just waits.

And counts to four.

Before moving on four seconds.

Then waiting again.

See how irritating that is?

At first I wondered whether this was some form of analogy for time speeding up. Well, for starters it would mean the long dark nights would fly by if they were cut by 75%. And a gentle retirement would be here in five and a half years instead of the depressing 22 I'm actually going to have to endure.

But no. A little research tells me that this is my watch informing me its battery is on its last legs. Or whatever batteries use for legs.

It's worth mentioning that this is actually quite a nice watch. Bought some years ago in a world where there were fewer bills, I splashed out on it, seduced by the fact that this particular brand was promoted by a Piers Brosnan-era James Bond. And who doesn't want some of that 007-ness to rub off on themselves? I like to think that Piers and I have many things in common. We both have Irish ancestry. And legs.

So off I went to the jewellers, to get the battery replaced. "I can quote you between four and six weeks," came the reply.

What? Do you have to send the bloody thing off to Switzerland where some aged artisan will work upon it in an arcane laboratory, using tools made of purest unobtainium?

Actually, that would appear to be the case.

"So, how much battery life has it got left when it starts doing this four-second thing?" I asked him.

"About six days, seven if you're lucky."

So it turns out I get a week's notice about something that'll take six weeks to fix. How Bond ever showed up on time for anything, I'll never know. Maybe Q gave him a Timex to fall back on.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Ich bin ein fatboyfat

'Do something different' is a common refrain from those of a more adventurous bent. Those jolly souls who think nothing of chucking themselves off a piece of a relatively high piece of landscape while attached to a piece of elastic. Or out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft attached to a duvet cover. Or even in front of an enraged bull in some Spanish village.

In our case, however, "doing" is often in itself "different" enough for us. So yesterday found us walking to get a bus into town. There are two different doings in that one sentence alone.

We were going into Birmingham town centre for the German Christmas Market. They've been running these for eight years now; we get a genuine Frankfurt market for over a month in the run-up to Christmas. It's a big operation - there are the seasonal gift stalls, food places and even mini beer-halls, all run by German families. Their kids even get the month in schools over here, too, by all accounts.

I do wonder if there's an exchange programme going on, with the good citizens of Frankfurt getting a whole load of market stalls run by Brummies selling knock-off DVDs and handbags made by Louis Vuitton's brother-in-law.

But I digress.

This year the market was bigger than ever, and though the icy rain did its level best to dampen everything yesterday, it was all picturesque and everyone was in good spirits.

'You did remember your camera, didn't you?' was Katie's earnest query on the bus going in.
'Oh bugger,' was my witty response.

So you'll have to rely on these pictures from the Beeb to give you a flavour.

After we'd had a random wander around we were to be found in one of the afore-mentioned beer-halls. We'd filled ourselves with various fried pork products and I was reaching for my third stein of ice-cold beer.

'So, this "do something different" malarkey,' asked Katie. 'When do we start?'

Thursday, 27 November 2008

From sea to shining sea

I still don't quite know how it happened. What started as some bloke sitting on his sofa to document his weight-loss programme in a blog has ended up being popular in all types of places across the planet.

Including a whole bunch of people who are right now scratching their heads on the spelling of 'programme' in that last sentence.

And I have proof. Look here:


Just when we thought we'd seen enough colour-coded maps of the States in recent weeks, too. This tells me the whereabouts of visitors over the last month. The darker the green, the more people from that state who've been here.

Wowsers. There are people in Alaska who've read this nonsense! Surely they're all too busy watching out for Russians trying to nick the milk from their doorsteps?

You'll have noticed, however, some white bits. There are whole states that have never experienced the unalloyed delight of my witterings. Whole stretches of America that have yet to encounter the Lard. Or, indeed, to Make it History.

People of America, this is where you can help. (And those of you from the Rest of the World, who were about to bugger off to BoingBoing, you can help too). Do you know anyone living in what we will for the moment call 'The Lardless States'? Those poor, benighted places on the map above that are pearly white in all their shame?

Get on the phone. Drop them an email. Use carrier pigeon if it'll help. And get them to visit. They don't have to kick their shoes off. They'll be welcome. We have tea. I barely ever mention Boston Harbour. Look, it's Thanksgiving Day today - what else could be more fitting than to speak to your long-lost cousins over the state line? "Good to speak to you, cuz- we must do this again soon. Oh, and by the way, could you visit this strange British guy's blog?"

And it does work. I did this on a global basis last year and I now have a power base in New Zealand, thanks to some premium-quality blog-pimping by le Laquet. Well, 'power base' is perhaps stretching it a bit, but you get the gist.

We can unite America. Think about it. One nation puzzled by one blog. We can do this, folks.

Yes we ca....oh, that's been used, hasn't it?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

High spirits

Today Katie and I went to the Good Food show at the Birmingham NEC. It's a regular event for us - we did it last year - and as unrepentant foodies it's a cause of some excitement.

There are some analogies you can use for situations like this, 'kid in a sweet shop' being one. But 'two overweight people surrounded by food' would appear to be equally apt.

However, the show isn't just about food. Oh deary me, no. There's drink, too. And we have a cellar to fill. Well, not exactly a cellar. More 'a space in our kitchen where we keep booze'.

I was reflecting on this as I used the 'shop and drop' at the show, where visitors can leave their purchases until they go home. I was checking in packs of ale from the Purity Brewery and Hook Norton. Quite a few, actually, bottles clinking ominously. Then there were several bottles of Martin Millers gin. And the Peat Monster whisky. It was, I have to say, a sight to behold; the chap behind the counter regarded the booty and drew an approving breath.

"Looks like someone's going to have a good Christmas," he said, jealously.

I fixed him with a weary smile before replying.

"Yes, but if it wasn't for the kids we wouldn't bother."

Not a flicker.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Small mercies

That's it. I've had enough.

The news is unremittingly glum. Not a chink of light can be seen. It's so depressing I found myself putting on a Leonard Cohen record for some light relief.

And I've had enough. So tonight I'm making a stand. We need to celebrate things more openly.

At the moment, we only ever celebrate the things we think are worth marking. Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and the like. Congratulations on your new job. Good luck as you rush headlong into marital bliss.

All of these are big things, and clearly they're worth shouting about. But what about the lesser events? How about the small mercies? Wouldn't it do us wonders - emotionally at least - if we were able to record and celebrate the little victories?

So I've started. And I'm designing greeting cards to help us along the way. Here are the first ones:

You've failed in your career. Your love life has all the frantic activity of a Methodist cheese and wine party. But you've managed to cultivate a beard, all on your own. Celebrate!

After years of emails from Nigerian princes with more money than sense, some that offered drugs whose dramatic effect would have you incapable of running up the stairs to take advantage, plus degrees from "Honest Al's MBA Shop", you finally got one that was selling something you needed. Felicitations!

He's been there for you through thick and thin. It's time to mark the old fella's time with you. Although he's now out of warranty, so keep it modest.


It'll be a millstone around your neck for the next 240 years. But at least for the following month you'll be avoiding snarky letters and phone calls from people called Jason in call centres.

I think we might be onto a winner, people. So if you can think of any small mercies, perhaps we can develop the range a little. Doesn't matter how minor a victory, how banal the achievement. Someone, somewhere, needs a pat on the back. And someone, somewhere else, to pay £1.30 for the privilege of doing the patting. (Note to Hallmark and Clinton cards: this counts as a patent. Don't you be getting smart on me).

So this is where you, the gentle reader, come in. Give me your ideas. What would be worth marking? Put your ideas in the comments. Or, if you're good with graphic packages (I'm looking at you, Dory), send me a jpeg by email - the address is on the top right navigation menu thingy.

Come on people - I'm relying on you. Together we can banish the blues, dispatch the depression, and give glumness the finger.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Do it yourself

In reality I was quite happy to do it in the semi-dark. After all, it's something I've got quite good at; I've been doing it for years. So when one bulb - out of two in the fitting - went kaput in my bathroom, it never really bothered me.

It's amazing how one's lack of handiness allows you to adapt to inconvenience. Shaving in the semi-light was never a problem; at least not as much of an issue as getting on some step ladders, detaching the fitting from the ceiling (several small and awkwardly placed screws), replacing a bulb and then putting everything back together.

It turns out that the off-chance of slicing my face to ribbons is nothing when compared to the unadulterated faff that comes with having to perform basic DIY tasks. Eventually, however, the risk of facial injury was too great and I was to be found, a heady two feet off the ground, my arms in the air and bitching like a bastard.

Only then, blinking in the new-found light, did I realised how I'd allowed my crapness* at DIY to drive my life. I honestly had no idea my bathroom looked like it did. Shaving was to become less dangerous, if more efficient.

It was the same in the kitchen. Many years ago, before we had the whole lot ripped out and replaced by someone professional, we had the original kitchen the house builders had installed. The low-level cupboards were clearly designed for Italians. I say this because they had no shelves and were therefore useful only for tall items like pepper grinders or those glass containers filled with dried spaghetti.

In a fit of usefulness I went and bought timber (well, chipboard) from B & Q, cut it to size and fixed it in each cupboard as a halfway shelf arrangement. This immediately curtailed my long pasta storage ambitions, but helped in terms of holding just about everything else.

For about a fortnight.

I'd done what I usually do in all matters DIY. I'd set out with good intentions and absolutely no idea. I'd failed to let my lack of ability and tools get in the way. In this particular case, I'd not thought about fixing the shelves to the back wall of the cupboards with anything even remotely robust.

Slanting started to occur. Things began to move around independently. Triggered by what, I don't know - perhaps the rotation of the Earth was enough to do the trick. But as a result, it meant that opening the kitchen cupboards was a task filled with the tension normally associated with defusing a landmine. Which particular utensil, you'd wonder, was going to leap out on you with no notice?

As a result I adapted. I'd adopt the stance of a wicket-keeper. I might just have been retrieving a colander, but to casual observers I was facing a first-order West Indies bowling attack. And the thing was, I'd started to do this naturally, because it was just easier than fixing it.

So what can we learn from this, dear reader?
  • The average man will happily put up with all sorts of inconvenience as an alternative to doing work around the house; and
  • If you want anything doing around here, employ a professional.
(*I know. It's not a real word. I've been doing this daily for 24 days, for crying out loud. Throw me a bone, why don't you?)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

I got rhythm

There is, critics tell us, a higher order of musical artists. The Mount Olympus of rock music. A roll-call of such luminaries as Hendrix, Townsend, Presley, Lennon and McCartney.

And Billy Ray Cyrus. We mustn't forget the Cyrus.

Whenever observers of the late-eighties music scene are gathered together, they speak in hushed tones of the acts that made a difference. One band - The Flood- tends not to get much of a look-in. The fact that I played drums for them might be a reason.

From an early age I would irritate the bejesus out of anyone within earshot by tapping or banging away on any available surface. So when schoolfriends started talking about forming bands, they had a ready-made drummer in me. A complete inability in reading music, allied to borderline tone-deafness, meant I was ahead of the game. The fact that I'd never actually sat behind a drumkit was not considered a handicap. Initially I thought it might be. Then I heard the quality of musicians around me and relaxed.

And so was formed The Flood.

We named ourselves after a Peter Gabriel song, 'Here Comes the Flood'. We never played the song itself, however, the chord count being a little too high for us. Undaunted, I bought a second-hand Remo drumkit for £99 and we set to rehearsals. We embarked on an extensive tour of bedrooms and garages over the summer of 1987. By the end of it we'd moved from atonally painful to plain average. We could hold a tune, although Kevin the guitarist (the one with the hair from two posts ago) did try to insert the solo from 'Stairway to Heaven' in every song.

Which made ballads interesting.

We only had one proper gig, at our school. It was us against another band, whose guitarist started off with a note-perfect facsimile of the Hendrix version of 'Star Spangled Banner'. Quite frankly, our heavy-metal 'Twist and Shout' didn't cut the mustard. Even though Richard - our keyboardist - played Bach's Toccata and Fugue as we entered. You had to be there.

Looking back on those days, it's obvious to me that we were just doing what millions of teenagers had done before. This was before 'X Factor' and the like - we were simply kids having a lark with musical instruments and had no ambitions of fame. Which was just as well, all things considered. Quite frankly, we were to music what King Herod was to careful parenting.

We went our separate ways after school; no Beatles-style last gig on a rooftop for us. Some went to University, some went off to work. All that time hours spent enthusiastically murdering the classics went by the wayside.

I bumped into Kevin just once after we had a blazing row about something stupid. He now lives in France. Alan the bassist is somewhere in the suburban hinterland. And a few years ago, thanks to Friends Reunited, I learned that Richard had passed away after a long and lonely struggle with leukaemia.

Katie and I went to see Peter Gabriel playing live the other year. He started with 'Here Comes the Flood'. The tears welled up, bitter and unexpected. To this day I don't know exactly what I was grieving for most.

But if I ever have the money and the space, I'm getting a drumkit again.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Writer's Block

Several of you may remember earlier this year I was asked to take on a challenge of a vaguely artistic nature, when my friend Mike set me the task of writing a screenplay.

Ok, when I say 'several of you', obviously I mean City Girl, who gets the full fatboyfat experience by being a Facebook friend, too. A message from her popped up on my wall a couple of weeks ago that said something along the lines of: "You errant fraud. Where's this frickin' screenplay, then?"

I could be paraphrasing, but that was the gist.

And she has a good point. Because for most of this year I've been able to have all of the advantages of writing a screenplay (looking sagely into the middle-distance and telling people "I'm writing a screenplay" in a nonchalant manner) without any of the disadvantages (actually writing the screenplay).

That's not to say no work has been done. Oh no. I came up with a handful of story ideas (none of which involved monkeys and typewriters, although it was a close call), there have been development meetings (two of us sitting down ver a beer and figuring out how the plot might go), Mike's found someone to help on the production side and we've even given our enterprise a name and website. Nothing much on there, but it's the thought that counts.

But the meat in this particular sandwich? Well, it's been a little lacking so far, which is a shame because I entered into this with all the enthusiasm of a teenager in an unlocked off-licence. My intention to spend a fortnight in the French countryside being suitably inspired was thrown off-kilter. September and October were filled with distractions. It's been a flipping nightmare.

Mike, as well as displaying the patience of a saint (Saint Bernardette the Constantly Early), has been keeping himself busy though. One of his projects this year had him involved in a local film competition. Teams had to write, produce and screen a short film in 48 hours flat. You can see his team's entry here:



I was a little jealous. This was written in several hours. Yes, my screenplay is a little more involved, and will be longer, but seeing the team's film made me realise I have to knuckle down. And there was another thing that gave me a kick up the backside, too. NaBloPoMo.

November has put me in front of a keyboard every night. I'm not going to say it's been a punishing discipline - people who work in metal-bashing factories or down mines would find that ridiculous - but for me it's been quite a challenge to drag myself away from the telly and just write something every day. And I suspect that's what I'll have to do with this screenplay.

I'm still enthusiastic about the story - it's quite an appropriate topic. However, I'm not going to pretend that the Hollywood studios will be fighting over themselves. I've never done anything like this before. If it goes further than a private screening for friends and family, I'll be pleased. But it'll be something to look on and think: "We did that."

Friday, 21 November 2008

I blame the parents

I was interested to see that sing-a-dozen-notes-when-one-will-do chanteuse Beyonce has decided, for reasons best known to herself, to adopt a new name. Sasha Fierce. An alter ego. A different persona.

Clearly she's keen to emulate the colossal success that followed Prince when he did the same. Oh.

Nevertheless, I suspect Ms Kno, um, Fierce is onto something. After all, giving yourself a different name is one way of allowing another character to emerge. And so, dear readers. I'm using this opportunity to introduce you all to my other side.

Dominic Thrust. Man of our age. He's confident, cool and urbane. He has a chiseled jaw and washboard abs.

If you've got a problem, Dom is your go-to-guy. Fluent in dozens of languages, including several that haven't even been invented yet. A master of the martial arts, Dominic is trained in fourteen methods of combat. Including one highly-efficient form involving cocktail onions.

But he's no automaton - he's a truly cultured man. Dominic can recognise not only the grape, but the year, vineyard, even the individual plant, from just one sniff. He can recite the Ring Cycle from memory. He knows which way to hang a Pollock.

Advisor to presidents, sage to kings, guru to princes, Dominic is in demand. But he's not some distant figure. Oh no, he's a man of the people. Give him a guitar, he's bashing out a tune. Put a golf club in his hands - hole in one. Darts? One-hundred-and-eighty! He can let his hair down with the best of them. In fact, I just checked, and he's not even wearing any underwear. What a guy.

Actually, I think we'll put Dominic back in his box. He's a bit of a dick, isn't he?

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Just a little off the back, please

One of the only poems I ever wrote, at the age of 14, went like this:

Look at my hair
It's my despair
It goes everywhere
But I don't care

Oh yeah

It's not exactly up there with the sonnets, is it? But I was writing from the heart, at least. As an anxious teenager I actually did care. For one thing, I appeared to have an unruly marsupial perched on my cranium. Mixed with the rampant acne, the girls from the grammar school up the road from mine were never going to give me a second look.

The problem was one of thickness. Stop sniggering at the back, there. As I hurtle manfully towards the wrong end of my thirties, having a thick head of hair is definitely something to be put into the 'Good Thing' column. Several of my colleagues can now comb their hair with a flannel, for instance. But it has had its downsides in the past.

As I stumbled into my later teens I spent a lot of time listening to music played at stratospheric volumes. In the circles in which I moved, long hair was de rigeur. And I was going out drinking with Kevin. Quite a lot.

Kevin was a friend, probably my best friend at the time. He captained the rugby team, skied, played guitar, had his own car and was built like a brick outhouse. Kevin had the hair of a young Robert Plant - a blond mane all the way down his back - and a confident swagger. Wherever he went, girls stuck to him like poo to a blanket.

I tried to follow suit, but where Kevin's hair grew down, mine just went outwards. It just wasn't the same, especially as I was whippet-thin at the time. I tried acting as wingman whenever Kevin and I went out - all the girls who'd failed to catch his eye would have to speak to someone, I thought. I used humour to compensate, which put me firmly into the category of 'Kevin's weird mate - the one who looks like a furry lollipop'.

Kev looked like a rock god, I resembled an extra from Shaft.

Eventually I got my Afro reduced to a sensible haircut one lunchtime, without telling anyone in advance. My ever-supportive parents never said anything when I returned home, but I'm sure I heard champagne corks popping later that night.

On Saturday I go to the lovely Liz who will adminster to my boring tresses. I will emerge the picture of respectability. But deep down, there's still a bit of me that will forever be a longhair.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Arachnophobia

I am bloke, hear me roar. Not inclined to panic or concern, am I. 'Flighty' is not a word typically used in conjunction with me - I'm typically unphased by most things. In short, it takes a lot to cause me to be unsettled.

But get me near a spider (or more likely, get a spider near me - it's the normal way for these things to happen) and I'll revert to my default factory setting of Gibbering Infant Mode. In fact, I tend to de-evolve to some primitive state.

I can't begin to explain it. Logic tells me that there are no poisonous spiders in this country. Logic tells me that I'm several thousand times the size of the spider that emerges from a dark corner. Logic tells me to stop being such a baby.

Logic can go hang as far as I'm concerned.

People tell me that I could go for immersion therapy - where they throw you in the deep end, with loads of close-up images and even contact with the little critters. "But why would I want to do that," I'll ask, genuinely puzzled, "if it means being close to spiders?" I think I'm probably missing the point.

A story to illustrate just how hopeless I am.

Many years ago I was clearing my back garden and had filled my little Ford Ka with chopped-up bits of tree and bush to take to the municipal tip. (You can see where this is going already, can't you). I drove to the tip. This consists of a concrete platform surrounded by several dozen huge steel containers and a bloke in a cabin who dispenses directions in a guru-like manner, telling everyone which container to use after moments of deep thought.

It was when I was halfway to the tip when the thought struck me that I might have been carrying extra passengers in what was a tiny hatchback car with the rear seats down. I bit my lip and carried on. After all, I was going to the tip - Blokesville Central - so the wearing of brave trousers was mandatory.

(Those of you who saw where this was going - stand by.)

I swear it was the size of a Labrador puppy. It was licking its lips and grinning at me. A great fat hairy body, black with virulent red blotches, thick legs. The whole shebang. And I was standing at the tip, hyperventilating beside my little car, surrounded by hairy-arsed blokes unloading building rubble from transit vans. I had the presence of mind to consider that asking for help wasn't exactly going to go well.

I have never been so alone.

With a barely-suppressed whimper I dived in and in one smooth move, the branch and it's attendant horror moved from car boot to container. It was almost balletic. Other denizens of the tip stopped to watch this madman unloading garden refuse at hypersonic speeds.

Over the next few weeks the spider's little friends came out of the car's nooks and crannies to say hi. I was particularly enamoured by the one that dropped into my lap as I was doing 70 on the motorway. "Little bastard - you'll get me killed. But I'll take you with me, see if I don't." I was seriously considering selling the car.

There is no hope.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Land of Poke and Glory

I was surprised this evening by an offer made to me on Facebook. Normally, the sort of offers I get involve being part of someone's elven tribe, seeing some obscure Croatian orange juice advert that's the Next Big Internet Viral Thing, or being invited to throw a farmyard animal at someone I haven't seen since school.

And who says the Internet doesn't reflect real life?

But the invitation I had this evening was truly unexpected. Above the status update bit (which I've been using all month to shamelessly drive visitors to this blog) there was a drop-down box with language settings, and a big notice saying: "Now you can use Facebook in British English".

Which is very nice, I'm sure. For one thing, I can now join the 'Fans of Aluminium' group. But do the Facebook chaps realise the unworldly can of worms being opened here?

The language is one thing. But what if, by selecting this option, my entire profile gets all Britished up? The blue bits of the page will become grey. (That's 'gray' for you lot over there). All my photo galleries will have to have rain digitally added - my profile picture will show really poor examples of dentistry. And I'll end up finding it hard to express emotion in my status updates.
******* is moderately pleased, but not complacently so.
******* feels satisfied, but with an undercurrent of realism.
******* wishes his companions, colleagues and acquaintances a good day.

However, it does mean that if anyone is putting together a videofilm to put on their Facebook Funwall, they can cast my profile as the bad guy.

Monday, 17 November 2008

And an infinite number of bananas, too

It was the smell that hit me first.

From the instant the big, heavy, double-height doors swung open, I was assailed by the smell. Sweet, musty, strangely warm in its impact. Rotting soft fruit, shot through with more earthy undertones I couldn't place.

I didn't have much time to react before the noise. "Noise" was perhaps not the right word. There was a mixture of sounds competing for my attention. And not ones I'd ever heard before, a little like someone chainsawing a herd of donkeys. There were hoots, screams, mutterings.

And the clattering. Always the clattering.

Smell and hearing had leapt in because, quite frankly, sight was out to lunch. My eyes saw the room. My eyes regarded the desks. My eyes took in the office chairs, the reams of paper, the banana skins.

But my brain was struggling with the monkeys. Dozens of monkeys. Scores of monkeys. Hundreds, thousands. Millions. Monkeys as far as the eye could see.

I realised that although I'd observed the room, I hadn't actually seen the far wall. I couldn't focus on it. There was a distant haze, but I couldn't make it out.

In any case, I'd been distracted. Not just by monkeys. But by typewriters. One placed squarely on every desk, ranks of which stretched off to the horizon. Most monkeys ignored them. A few had ripped the paper from the open typewriter carriages and fashioned nests. Some simply crouched, slumped on the keyboards. A number, though, showed a sort of simian interest. They added clatter to the background as they struck keys with fists, heads and feet.

As I walked between some desks, there was a tug at my trouser hem. A capuchin sat there, his thin fingers curled around some torn-off foolscap. Chestnut eyes fixed mine with a questioning look. I took the scrap:
cddhuidhunihy8n udpa8di d jnjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj cjdijj\ jdic\jcikxo4ifkc aouhuik
I was puzzled. I read on.
cbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbhdbih\djisdjkenckjneakfle ke\jdemk edjKXMMDJDMKMK
What did it mean? What was it supposed to mean?
ncjxhgcud nj989jmncaTo be, or not to be--that is the question:whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--No more--and by a sleep to say we end The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks That fleshhcduhdn duchdunw vcndwjb nvejhce cxn fhr
I had my answer. It was possible after all.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

On the gravy train

The British have a long and distinguished history in all things gastronomic.

No, you're right, I can't even type that with a straight face.

The combination of a northern European climate together with a robust approach to carbohydrates means that Britain hasn't, in the past, approached the giddy heights of those pesky continentals when it comes to cuisine.

In recent years this has changed, however - in fact, you only need to see how popular food and cooking are in the TV schedules to see evidence of this evolution. I will regularly eat meals cooked here at home by Katie that would have been alien to my grandparents.

It's a similar story if you choose to eat out. Where once the height of sophistication was a well-done steak at a Berni Inn washed down by half-a-bottle of Blue Nun, we now have a potential embarrassment of riches to choose from. And this is a good thing.

However it does have a potential downside, in that everyone seems to think that they're Marco Pierre White.

Take today, for example. Katie and I went to Stratford on Avon, for a general pootle around and to get Sunday lunch. It was a chilly autumnal day and we were ready for some comfort food. This was precisely the sort of situation where classic British was exactly the style we were after. And Lamb's, on Sheep Street (see what they did there?) delivered beautifully. Simple food, great ingredients, cooked superbly.

I ended up with the ribeye of beef, roast veggies and Yorkshire pud. I gazed in anticipation at the lovely pink meat and reached for the horseradish. The waiter returned to my table with a white china jug, and used five words that chilled me to the bone.

"Here's some extra jus, sir."

Jus? JUS?

W, and, I might add, TF?

It looked like gravy, smelled like gravy, and wouldn't you know, it was gravy. It would still be alien to my grandparents - mainly because my grandmother, bless her, made gravy that didn't move very much when you touched it - but it was, nevertheless, gravy.

Not sauce, not roux. And certainly not jus.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Blinded by the light

Sometimes I do wonder, are my standards too high?

Do I expect too much from others?

In short, am I a bit of a picky bugger?

Then I see an article in Times Online about what is surely an amazing development. Scientists have managed, for the first time, to directly photograph a planet orbiting another star. This is groundbreaking - for years they've only known about the existence of such planets by measuring the indirect effect they have on the stars they're orbiting. Up until now, we've never actually seen the planets themselves.

So this is a particularly significant image. And this is a very important story, wholly about this one, significant image. Many people, not just borderline nerds like me, will want to see this image.

Go have a look at the story on Times Online. You might notice there's a small detail missing. Check the comments for a hint.

And I ask again, in all seriousness. Is it me?

Friday, 14 November 2008

What a difference a meltdown makes

Today is the day I take delivery of a new car. Given the state of the economy, this might make front-page news.

For quite a while, since the incident we're still not talking about, I've been without a car of my own. OK, that's stretching it a bit - it was a company car after all (do I look like I could have afforded something that respectable?) but you understand my point.

So I've been looking for a replacement. The interesting part was when I went out to some local dealers. "Credit Crunch," I thought. "People just aren't buying big-ticket things like cars," I surmised. "You're only doing it because your previous one was laminated over a section of French autoroute in the summer," I recalled, wincing slightly. So I was unsure how I'd be treated by the salespeople.

I have a test for these situations. When I was looking for cars last time, in 2005, I dressed in my normal weekend apparel. Which is not the height of sartorial elegance. A default t-shirt name-checking a brewery tends to be part of the mix. Gok Wan would have a seizure. But it's a good test - I actually am in the market for a car, Mr Salesman, despite looking completely otherwise.

However, last time I was treated like a ginger stepchild. Audi people hated me, Saab folks thrust me from their premises, VW salespeople must have thought I'd run over their dog and the MG Rover chaps were just plain odd. And look what happened there merely months later. I ended up with the Honda simply because they were the only ones that hadn't reached for automatic weaponry when I crossed their threshold.

Amazing what a global recession will do, though. This time it was all eyes and teeth, coffee and attentiveness. Test drive? No problem, sir. Want to look at some fabric swatches? Of course. Would you like to marry my daughter while you're at it, sir?

This is what being a member of the minor royalty must be like! Shame it requires near financial meltdown to happen before people stop acting like complete arses. Mind you, silver linings, and all that.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Go with the flow

It's cold and raining. Christmas, with all its attendant hassles, is looming on the horizon like a big loomy thing. Driving a car, at £1.10 per litre, seems to involve being mugged on garage forecourts on a semi-regular basis. There is too much month left at the end of the money.

But none of this matters.

I'm overweight. Or undertall. Walking up stairs tends to be an issue. Although when I get up there, I tend to forget why it was I went in the first place.

However, it's not a cause for concern.

Politics seems to be a case of the grumpy Scottish bloke and the other one with the chin deficiency syndrome shouting at each other while the rest of us go to Hell in a Tesco trolley. There are lots of people who don't like each other - to the extreme - because of what they say someone said to someone else, in another language, that no-one was writing down at the time, several thousand years ago.

I am not worried.

My driveway is full of rotting leaves and yet I have no trees. I have about nine weeks worth of work to do in December. And the cat, for reasons best known to himself, has taken to peeing on the sofa.

I couldn't care less.

Because it turns out that there are structures - bloody massive ones, too - tugging at the very fabric of the universe. And everything - you, me, the shouty people and my damp sofa - is being pulled toward these structures at the rate of two million miles per hour.

I could still use some Febreze, though.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The gasman cometh

This morning I am sitting on my sofa, waiting for one of British Gas's finest to arrive. And it's awkward.

Not because we're experiencing central heating issues. Quite the opposite, in fact; my pipes appear to be in rude health, thank you very much. Which is just as well, given the impact Siberian winds are having on our climate at the moment. Sarah Palin might be able to see Russia out of her kitchen window - I suppose it gives her something to look at while gutting a salmon - but I can feel the Urals against my cheek whenever I step outside.

The gasman is here to service my boiler. To check that it's doing what it should and not what it shouldn't. Like emitting dangerous levels of carbon monoxide that will creep up silently behind me like a Japanese admiral before striking.

The awkwardness is because I'm pretty much hopeless when it comes to anything regarding domestic engineering. Plumbing, electricity, gas - there is no beginning to my talents. So whenever someone comes to fix things, I'm left there standing around like a spare part. There is, deep down in my male sensitivities, something that tells me I should be ashamed about this. But when I'm told: "Your pump header seems to be eroded and we'll need to reverse powerflush your rads," all I hear is: "I have a gelatine hovercraft called Nigel. The antelopes are humming. Anyone for tennis?"

It's not as if I can offer much of a service in return. Should the gasman want some analysis of the effect of principles-based regulation on the financial sector, a policy proposal on customer engagement techniques, or even some nicely worded copy on the latest developments in the mortgage market, I'd be OK. As it is, if we ever revert to a barter system, I'm screwed. I'd die hungry.

And probably very cold.

He's due at some point within the conveniently vague time slot of 8.00am to 1.00pm. Which pretty much puts paid to the whole 'going out to work' thing today. I've brought a whole bunch of work to do from home, and used half a day of my holiday allowance, to assuage any remaining guilt at being sofa-bound. You'll be pleased to note that the blog-writing is being done on the part of the day classed officially as 'holiday'. Perhaps I should be wearing a Hawaiian shirt or something.

Ah. I can see the gasman's navy blue van pulling up in front of the house. Good. I've just constructed a lovely pivot-table database in MS Excel. Hope he likes it.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

In memoriam 2008

I was thinking long and hard about what to write today. At this point last year I wrote about the Armistice. About how we should remember the sacrifice that - sadly countless - men and women have made over the years.

Some people were very kind about what I wrote. But, to be honest, this year I'm struggling for more words.

So I'm letting some other people do the talking today.

Henry Allingham is Britain's oldest war veteran; at 112 one of only four known British survivors of World War 1. And he says it much better than I can:
"Whenever I saw people wearing poppies, it reminded me of my time in France when death and the fear of death was as near to me as the poppies growing in the fields.

"Age has made my eyesight fail and I can no longer see the symbolic red flowers. But when someone near tells me they're wearing a poppy, I always ask if I can feel them. It's comforting to know that people are still paying their respects.

"And that is all a poppy represents - respect. All this talk of wearing white poppies, red poppies and no poppy at all is getting away from the point. Pinning a poppy to your chest is a sign that you are remembering all those men who didn't want war, but volunteered anyway and had no idea of the horror and brutality they would face."
For a modern take, please go and look at this piece of compare-and-contrast, from London-based blogger diamond geezer. It's simply brilliant. I can't add anything else.


Monday, 10 November 2008

Stop carping on

"It's a vile slur," he declared, very angrily for someone who was patently behind glass. "I tell you now. I'm heartily sick of it all."

To be honest, my visit to the Sea Life had taken an unexpected turn. I hadn't quite expected the inhabitants to answer back.

"I'll have you know, that 30-seconds-memory thing is absolute rubbish, too."

The crisp Chinese accent was a little unsettling. Perhaps an unnecessary detail, seeing as it was coming from the mouth of an ornamental goldfish, but it's one of those things that tends to stay with you. That, and the fact that it was a talking fish.

"Test me, why don't you? Go on, you nose-breather, test me."

I think I was being insulted by an Oranda.

"Erm." I ventured confidently.

"FA Cup Winners from 1970: Arsenal, Leeds United, Sunderland, Liverpool, West Ham United, Southampton, Manchest..."

"I never accused you of having a short-term memory. Oh God. I don't believe this. I'm arguing with a fish. Anyway. It's not my fault."

"Not convinced, warm-blood? OK then, let me see. Oh yes, Restoration Kings & Queens: Charles II, James II, William III, Mary II..."

"What are you doing?" I asked. Things seemed to be going downhill. I was getting a history lesson from something with scales.

"Excuse me?" He waved his dorsal fin in what I suppose was a questioning way. Never having had one waved at me before, I was having to guess a little. "You mammals think you're all that. It's all 'Look at us with our opposable thumbs' all the time. Well, I'm sick of it. I'm very well-read. I can retain information with the best of them. Test me on the Laws of Motion. Go on, test me."

"I'm not going to test a goldfish on A-level physics. It's not right." I turned to leave.

"Oi! Bottom-feeder! Come back here and let me recite pi to 500 decimal places. 3.1415926......"

I could take no more. I had to run away. I had to flee, get myself to a place of safety, get my befuddled head together.

And just to be certain, I made sure to travel via Mr Sunny's Fried Fish Bar.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Nice and easy does it

The Internet has brought about a revolution in the way we live today. We can communicate with friends and relatives, collaborate with colleagues remotely, browse the world's finest libraries, galleries and museums. An ocean of information is there, in which we can happily go skinny-dipping.

Plus we can look at Paris Hilton being boffed. If we so wish.

One of the biggest improvements the Internet has brought has been in the way we transact normal business. We can find services, look at products and buy online. And nowhere is this more evident than the unmitigated palaver that is Christmas. I used to look upon the final two months of the year as being somewhere parallel to the seventh circle of Hades. But being able to organise things with my fat arse sat on the sofa instead is nothing short of revolutionary.

Which is why, this year, the otherwise splendid people at Marks & Spencer are getting a virtual bitch-slap from me right here and right now.

Katie has already started planning the biblical catering effort* that will be our Christmas dinner. I've had to keep reminding myself, looking at the details, that we're not planning on feeding a battalion of the Royal Marines. But, it doesn't matter, because our friends at M&S are now offering their 'Food to Order Online' service. Which is good, because I don't do queuing.

So I thought we could just select what we needed from their slinky e-catalogue system, enter some personal details, and Robert would be my father's brother.

Hmmm. Let me give you a direct quote from their website:
"View the range of festive foods in our Christmas E-Catalogue. Print and complete the order form. Place the order in your nearest store."
Whoa. I have to actually visit and talk to someone? Why don't I make some cave paintings of buffalo while I'm at it, daddy-o?

So that's why yesterday afternoon saw us waiting. In a queue. In the Solihull M&S. At the desk in the corner of the store, at the end of the run of tills. With my ankles being nipped by passing trolleys, I stood their gently fuming, watching Mary.

Mary, I'm sure, is a lovely person. She probably likes walks in the countryside, fluffy kittens and knitting sweaters for her nephews. Unfortunately, she is also preternaturally scared of her computer. She moved the mouse as anyone would, if they suspected it was booby-trapped. She entered data for the customers at a rate of up to several characters per minute. I swear, I have seen speedier continental drift. And she was on her own.

Occasionally another member of staff would walk up and down the ever-growing queue and brightly ask each customer what they were there for. Although, clearly, her abilities didn't stretch to actually being able to deal with food orders.

"Christmas order? Oh. Christmas order? Ah. Christmas order? I'm neither use nor ornament, am I?" Eventually she wandered off to be hopeless in a corner, all by herself.

After what seemed like several months of umming and ahhing we finally got our order input and paid a deposit. After this level of hassle, I would now expect our delivery to be made in person, at our doorstep, by Mr Marks or Mr Spencer. But no! We have to go back on the 23rd December and wait in another queue, then struggle to our car with several farmyards worth of food.

Memo to the strokey-chin marketing people at M&S: that "e" in "e-commerce" - what's it stand for, then? Easy? Efficient? Or how about "Errr. Sorry. We actually don't know what we're doing."

*(And I'm not talking about the loaves and fishes thing, either.)

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Masters of the Universe

One of the most striking aspects of what has been variously called the "financial crisis", the "credit crunch" or the "heap big money frick-up" of the past 12 months has been its affect on the little people. Those quiet, unassuming types who've now been brought into the forefront.

Yes. That's right. The stockmarket traders.

Barely a news item goes by without a shot of an anonymous man (and it is, for reasons unknown, usually a man) with (a) his head in his hands (b) wearing a multi-coloured blazer (c) shouting with a whole bunch of other men, or (d) glancing anxiously at a line on a graph heading south quicker than a swallow in autumn.

But who are these people, and what of their stories?


Robert and Trevor are almost unique in the financial world. The only Siamese twins to actively trade on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, they've been a familiar sight to all since 1983. Being joined at the pelvis hasn't stopped them from enjoying a 25-year career. The fact that Robert is a bear while Trevor is a bull does give cause for some fireworks, though. Shortly after this photo was taken, they went and had 'Sell' and 'Buy' tattooed on their respective foreheads.


David had begun to regret his choice of wallpaper design.

Norman's rendition of "here's the church, and here's the steeple" never failed to raise everyones' spirits at Morgan Stanley.




When Vanessa found out who'd put superglue on her telephone handset, a whole catering pack of whup-ass was going to get well and truly opened.


Wise, avuncular old Bernard had been a feature of the trading floor for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, he'd walked in off the street looking for Danish pastries back in '77. The fact that he would still perform "Mr Bojangles" for spare change hadn't stopped him from becoming Director of Equities for a global investment bank.



The dying firefly struck Maurice a glancing blow to the back of the head.



The superglue phantom had struck again. For George, the nightmare was just beginning.

Friday, 7 November 2008

D minor - it's the saddest of all keys

I was using iPlayer the other day when I noticed something truly wonderful. For those of you who are unaware of iPlayer and its works, it's a service that allows you to experience all of the BBC's TV or radio output for up to seven days after the original broadcast.

And, in itself, it's a very good service.

I was checking the last edition of Later with Jools Holland, watching The Killers doing their thing, when I needed to turn up the volume a little. As you do. And that's when the wonderfulness* struck me:

















No, it wasn't their rather disappointing new single that was striking me. Well, not in that way, anyway. It was the iPlayer's volume control. Take another look:
















The volume goes up to 11! I'll say that again. THE. VOLUME. GOES. UP. TO. 11!

Clearly someone at iPlayer Central, some otherwise anonymous developer, thought it might be nice to sneak that little detail in. 99% of people wouldn't notice. And perhaps of those who did, few would even know who Nigel Tufnel is.

For a few of us, though, this is a lovely little find. And for those of you still don't understand:



Genius.

*(No, really. I can make words up now.)

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A tale of two cities

I was born and brought up in one city. We'll call it city B. I still live there now, as it happens. Whatever the DNA of a nomad looks like - I have the opposite.

For the last 13 years I've worked quite happily in another city about 25 miles away. For the purpose of this story we'll call it city C.

I am aware at some level that city B and city C each have football teams. I'm not exactly a huge football fan. If someone uses very small words I can just about get the drift of the offside rule. Which is odd, as I'm passionate about rugby, with rules as arcane as anything you'd find inside a Quidditch arena.

Anyway. I digress. The respective football teams from B and C rarely face each other, mainly because C's team has been inhabiting a lower league due to a temporary (ahem) issue with form. But on Monday evening they played against each other. A local derby.

Incidentally, what do they call it when two teams from Derby play each other? Sorry, I'm doing it again.

So teams from B and C played each other. And given that, every day, I'm surrounded by people from C, who know I'm from B, there were attempts at banter. To me, it was like water off a duck's back. But not for G.

G works with me. He, also, is from B. And he supports B's football team. A lot more closely than I do. There was a lot of banter between him and his C colleagues. A lot was riding on this one match.

He was watching the match on Monday night. I know this, because I got this text message from him on Monday evening:

I was just guessing, but from this message I suspected the game hadn't gone B's way. A quick check told me that B had, as per their long and illustrious history, snatched defeat from the jaws of a boring draw.

I could have been sympathetic to G's fears. He was facing several days of hell from jubilant C fans. I know how football fans can take this sort of thing really seriously. I could have been a supportive boss.

I thought long and hard before replying:


There are probably management textbooks that'll carry this story before long.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Everybody, after me: "Oooooh. Aaaaah."

It's that time of year again, when we celebrate a failed terrorist attempt to blow up the seat of Government over 400 years ago. And we use tons of high explosive to mark the anniversary.

We're funny that way.

The latest developments in Web 2.0 mean that I can now bring you all of the Bonfire Night experience through your computer screen. I know, amazing isn't it? Try to contain your excitement if you can.

Right. Can everyone stand back a bit, please? Thank you. We're about to set the bonfire alight, and after soaking it with several gallons of red diesel over the course of the last 20 minutes, it might be a little unpredictable.

Gosh.

No harm done. Anyway - I've never believed that eyebrows were truly necessary in this day and age. Really, I'm hardly surprised. Although you'd not be able to tell, now, would you?

Yes, the Guy is wearing a shellsuit. Doesn't the man made fibre give off an interesting glow? I wouldn't breathe in too deeply, if I were you. Now for some fireworks. First, the Venus Rockets.

Woooh. That was very impressive, wasn't it? Yes, I suspect, if you want to get all technical about it, it probably was meant to go vertical. Still, I've never much cared for that fence.

Anyone for sparklers? Lovely. Oh. Well - look on the bright side. With your fingertips now a mass of scar tissue, this is the perfect time to take up domestic burglary as a career, isn't it?

Right, now for the next firework. Let me see what's in the box...OK....well, that's interesting. You're right, it does seem a little industrial, doesn't it? Indeed, Hans Blix would have got excited about it. Bought from a bloke in a white transit van, you say?

What could possibly go wrong?



Well. That's done the baked potatoes no good at all.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Shhhh....

Best if I don't talk about it. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it. But it's preferable if I don't do it again.

After all, there has to be some space on the Internet - just one page, perhaps - that isn't talking about it right now. And I'm quite keen to be responsible for that page.

Yes, I'm certain, on many levels, that the outcome is important. But we can talk about other things, can't we? You and me, we're deeper than that, aren't we?

I have regular visitors to this very blog from the country in question. They might be tired. Huddled masses, even. It would be wrong of me to assume that the very thing they want is more in-depth analysis. The hurly-burly intellectual challenge of debate. After all, they've had something like two years of it. Maybe we'd all just like a night off?

Look! Kittens!



And cake. Lots of cake!



There. Isn't that better? One whole blog post, with no mention of the US Elections whatsoever.

Oh. Bugger.

Monday, 3 November 2008

...and how did you find the deckchair arrangements?

Erm. Hello. Could everyone stop crying for a moment, please and pay attention? Settle down if you will, ladies and gentlemen.

For those of you I haven't met on the voyage so far, my name is George Trugwarn. Purser Second Class, and part of the customer engagement team for White Star Line. I recognise some of you from the orientation exercise at Southampton on the 10th. Yes, I thought we'd be doing this at New York too, sir. When life gives you lemons, and all that.

Yes, madam, I'm well aware that it's three in the morning and we're in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic, but at White Star, customer satisfaction is key. If you can help me with my Customer Pathway Survey, we can resume trying to find the RMS Carpathia and get on with the rest of the day.

Lovely. Right, first things first, can I get your opinion about last night's dinner selection?

Please. Stop screaming. We'll come to open responses in a bit.

On a scale of one to five, where one is "Strongly Agree" and five is "Strongly Disagree," can you give me your view on the following statements, please, ladies and gentlemen?

The poached salmon with Mousseline sauce - appropriate for an April dinner? Hmm. The filet mignons Lili. A little heavy going? I see. The Waldorf Pudding. A fitting finish? Oh, wonderful. Chef will be delighted. Well, if we ever find him, of course. Last time I saw him he was playing "Nearer My God To Thee" on an oboe. Never mind.

Right, now feedback on your the rest of your voyage. As you were, ladies and gentlemen, one to five, please.

Enough with the whistles, already, that's really not helping my data collection, folks.

Your cabins. Comfortable and spacious? Riiight. Some of you had dampness issues. I understand, really I do. It's been a humdinger of a night for all of us. Let's move on to the final section, shall we?

The alarm calls. How prompt for you? I see. And the evacuation instructions? Oh, I see, you wanted a Spanish option. I'm sorry, I'll note that down for the crew on RMS Olympic. You see, this whole experience has been worth it after all, hasn't it?

Now some quick customer segmentation statistics, please. Just a show of hands will do. First class? Uh-huh. Second? Right. Third? Good.

And Steerage? Steerage? Oh bother. Well, that's going to throw my demographics right out.

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