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.


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.


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.


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