Thursday, 24 December 2009

Un-Grinched

As we hurtle, plummeting headlong towards the festive season like a badly-affixed bauble, it is time to consider the true meaning of Christmas. After all, wouldn’t we otherwise wish it could be Christmas every day? Aren’t we simply having a wonderful Christmas-time? Is it not the done thing to ding-dong? Preferably from on high. And merrily, according to the instruction.

As a child Christmas was one of the Holy Trinity to me – up there with Halloween and Bonfire Night on the calendar. For the ten-year-old me, it was all about the same experiences, year after year. Going to a frosty forest for the tree, picking presents out of the Great Universal catalogue, pinching a nip of Babycham, avoiding sprouts and thanking aged relatives for extravagantly-wrapped packs of socks.

But now? Surely Christmas is just expense, hassle, queues and acid indigestion? Perhaps. But look. It's Christmas Eve. I've finished work and I'm not doing any more running around. The house groans under the weight of festive fare. I'm using phrases like 'festive fare'.

Perhaps, if we wish very hard, the jaded old curmudgeon will remember what it's like to be a ten-year-old again. It’s Christmas. Time for miracles.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Now that I have your attention

Things might have to change around here. But it might just be worth it.

I first thought this a few months ago, back in July in fact, when I was sitting at the foot of a mountain. My colleagues had all gone off to climb Ben Nevis, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I hadn't been able to join them. Although we don't have mountains that your average Sherpa would recognise, Ben Nevis is no pushover, taking 5-7 hours for a reasonably fit person to climb and return. And there's no way I could fit into the 'reasonably fit' category. Not unless we were comparing me with those people who we see on TV being winched into ambulances after the local fire department has removed a wall from their houses.

I knew that trying to climb the mountain would have put me and other people at risk. I was still seeing lights in front of my eyes and breathing heavily, some 20 minutes after having ridden a bike a few hundred yards up a gradual incline. So while everyone was keen to reassure me that I'd contributed to the effort by driving one of the teams around, I felt a bit deflated.

"Here I am," I said to myself, "same old fat bloke who can't do everything normal people do. Hopeless." And to reinforce the effect I pulled out a bag of McCoys crisps and dug in. Base camp comfort eating.

But it was at that point I had the germ of an idea. And now I'd like to tell you about it.

Almost 12 months ago I lost my father. It's knocked me sideways, quite frankly, and if it's all the same to you I'd like to stop feeling like this. I want and need something to focus on. So I'm setting myself a challenge. Well, actually, two challenges.

At some point in 2010 I am going to go for a walk. I'm going to start at one side of England and finish on the other. In particular, I intend to walk the Hadrian's Wall Path. OK, it's no Pennine Way, but we're still talking about six or seven days walking over rough terrain, by someone who currently struggles if he parks too far from the office in the morning.

I want to do this for Dad and, to be honest, for me. I poke fun at myself all the time. But I actually don't like being the bloke who gets left behind. Who sits in the car. Who minds the coats. Who never gets picked. And there's more to it than that.

I will at some point be asking people to dip into their pockets to support my walk, with funds raised going to Diabetes UK. Dad coped with the condition for about 25 years, but according to the coroner it was probably diabetes that masked the heart disease that finally claimed him last December.

I've told my mom what I'm doing. You could say I'm committed.

I mentioned above that there were two challenges. The walk actually comes second. My first challenge is to get myself into a position, health-wise, where I can manage this walk safely. I currently weigh 18 stone - that's over 250 pounds. I need to lose a chunk of this, because I'm not hauling all of it over 90 miles of Roman wall and pathway. Once again, I need to make lard history.

So I'll spend the rest of December doing what normal people do at this time of year, then in January I'll need to knuckle down. I'll try not to clog this place up with healthy recipes and exercise routines, though, OK?

Saturday, 19 December 2009

"No Way, I Won't Follow Your Instructions!"

It's been quite a lively week in what I believe is called the Hit Parade. I'm not entirely sure if that's the right name, but given that the last time I listened to the singles chart it sounded like a collection of mobile phone ringtones, perhaps I'm not the best judge.

For some years, the Christmas no. 1 position has been most highly prized for some reason. Apparently this is a peculiarly British obsession - in other countries they couldn't care less who's topping the charts on the 25th day of the 12th month. This seems eminently sensible to me, but as we've seen, I'm the sort of person who refers to it as the Hit Parade, so what do I know about such things?

For the last couple of years the Christmas no. 1 has been occupied by various acts that have spewed forth from the Simon Cowell-run machine that is X-Factor. Last year we had the unedifying spectacle of a young innocent RnB singer crooning a Leonard Cohen number about the pain and agony of ecstatic love, all while we munched away at our mince pies.

And so the stage was set once again this year for a similar coronation - this time of a pleasant-enough chap who appeared to be rocking that whole rabbit-in-the-headlights look while delivering a range of granny pleasing ballads with all the character and passion of a photocopier.

Nothing wrong with it, if that's your thing. I'd rather light bamboo shoots and put them in my eyes than listen to it, but perhaps I'm funny that way.

A lot of people got very worked up about this and decided to try and get an alternative song to top the charts instead. And the one they chose? Those jolly funsters Rage Against the Machine's 1992 track 'Killing In The Name'. As is the case with all mass movements these days, there's even a Facebook group - this one with some 600,000 members.

Surely I would be a prime candidate to support this sort of thing? After all, I'm no fan of the sickly sweet saccharine balladeer cabaret-fodder shows like the X-Factor churn out week after week. And it does indeed give me a warm glow to think of a nation's grandmothers collectively spitting out their Brussels sprouts when Zack de la whatsisface delivers 'that' line.

However, for much of this week I've been ambivalent. First, I really couldn't give a tinker's cuss about the singles chart. Last time I checked, neither Peter Gabriel nor The Decemberists featured heavily. Hardly any of the songs feature a Mellotron. And second, it seemed a little like the music snobs ganging up on the poor innocent Joe. Bless him, he's in Cowell's clutches - unless he's massively successful he'll be an empty husk in six months, performing to the chicken in a basket crowd on a Scandinavian cruise ship somewhere. Let him have his fifteen minutes, I thought.

Then I saw this interview with him today:
"They can't be serious! I had no idea what it sounded like. It's dreadful and I hate it. How could anyone enjoy this? Can you imagine the grandmas hearing this over Christmas lunch?"
Sod him. I'm off to Play.com right now.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Not quite identical

Quick quiz for you - what do Chicago, Frankfurt Am Main, Johannesburg, Leipzig, Lyon, Milan and Nanjing have in common?

a) They are all names of 1970's soft-rock groups.
b) They were all originally considered as alternative first names for the character of Indiana Jones.
c) They're all twinned with my hometown.

While the thought of the seminal No Sleep to Jiangsu Province album is a tempting one, the right answer is c.

I've never really completely understood this town-twinning malarkey, but until recently I accepted it potentially had some merit. After all, it's better for the worthies from each town to be visiting each other's civic centres and having cups of tea instead of bombing the living bejeebus out of each other.

Hmmm. Maybe that's why we have two German ones in the list. I see now.

I don't have a massive problem with the whole twin towns concept. But the news of Swindon's latest twinning exercise has thrown me somewhat. (Note for Americans: for Swindon, think Fresno). Anyway, Swindon has become twinned with the Disney Corporation.

I spent a week in Swindon once. The town itself was OK, but I did not at any time feel it was necessary to burst into a rendition of 'It's a Small World'. I didn't see any six-feet mice, even though I was staying in a rather grim Hotel Ibis which was staffed exclusively by Albanians with personal space issues.

In short, it was not a Magical Kingdom. Although I did get some very nice trousers from the Great Western Outlet Centre, if that helps.

Strictly speaking, Swindon is now twinned with an entity that is not really a town. But if we're allowing 'things-that-are-not-towns' in on the whole twinning thing, that opens up a whole world of opportunities. And so, dear reader, I am allowing progressive-thinking civic leaders across the globe the chance to be the first town to be twinned with a blog. Yes, your town could be an official twin of Make Lard History.

Think of the possibilities! There's the cultural exchange, for starters. I can come to your town to further cement our twinning relationship in a meaningful way, while your mayor could come here, sit on my sofa and watch me typing into a laptop. If they could put the kettle on while they were here, that would be peachy.

So then. It's up to you. Have you got any sway in your local authority? Can you suggest a municipality that wants a new twin? Suggestions in the comments, please. It could be the start of something beautiful.

After all, I need the Airmiles.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Getting things in perspective

I was not a happy person yesterday. The wireless router that has, for several years provided top-notch quality broadband Internet to a number of devices dotted around chez Fatboyfat decided to go on the blink.

No amount of resetting, twiddling with settings or uttered oaths would get the thing to work. The laptop could see the router. The two would communicate at one level, the electronic equivalent of that raised eyebrows thing you do when you pass someone you think you know in the corridor at work. But actually providing any Internet feed was a no-no.

My router would no longer route. Wirelessly or otherwise.

And so last night found me doing any number of things I understand people are prone to do when they don't have unlimited mobile access to the most extensive collection of human thought and emotion ever gathered together. I read a book. I watched some TV.

Nice, but I can't see them catching on as pastimes. I was, in Katie's words, a "grumpy bugger".

Not being at work today I fired up my wired cable connection. A static desktop computer connected to a box on the wall. I believe this is how Shakespeare accessed his Yahoo account. I did a bit of searching around and then hurried out to PC World to get a new router.

On my way back I popped into Solihull to get a couple of things. It was when I was returning to the car park that it happened.

A young chap, I'd say in his early twenties, was sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall. And he was asking passers-by for spare change. Nothing too unusual in that, I suppose. It's a sad fact that we see this situation playing out in cities and towns all the time. I muttered "No thanks" and hurried on, avoiding eye contact.

Whatever might happen to someone that leads them having to sit on a street, begging for change? And to do this in full view of the most conspicuous capital consumption, too. XBox 360s selling like hot cakes. People rushing around buying daft secret Santa presents - for work colleagues they don't really know - that'll be in the bin on December 26th. The German beer stand selling wheatbeer at £3.50 per pint.

But then it occurred to me. I've spent the previous 24 hours feeling hard-done-by simply because one electronic gadget in my house wasn't talking to another one. But I'm warm, well-fed and have a (mainly) loving wife to go home to that night. I do things that I enjoy for people I trust, and get paid to do them. I have friends that make me laugh and don't judge me.

I don't know if he was genuine or not, our gentleman beggar. And in any case, define 'genuine'? What events must unfold to lead you to be needing to ask strangers for change on the street?

So I went back. I didn't have much. But I shared it with him. And when I got home I looked at the overflowing wardrobe in the spare room. Those things I bought and haven't worn in ages. I filled a bag and took it to the charity shop. And then I came home again and got the various bits of electronics to talk to each other. Which is, I think, where we came in.

I know I can do grumpy cynicism with the best of them. But a bit of blessings-counting, once in a while, can do a soul the world of good.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Either it's Christmas or it's the New Forest in here

There's a tree in my living room. This is not normal. Given that I haven't taken up the life of a forester, the most obvious answer must be that we're hurtling carelessly towards the festive season and Katie has decided to mark this headlong dash by erecting the Christmas tree.

In previous years I have had a degree of creative input to the whole process. In previous years I have joined her beside the tree to hang decorations. In previous years we've worked on this together - I might even have pompompommed a Bing Crosby number in a pleasing baritone while she handed me the tinsel.

In previous years the tree has ended up looking like someone had dipped it in glue and then ramraided their local Homebase.

So this year my involvement was not even supervisory. I went into another room and sat there, doing various non-seasonal things and while I was in my self-appointed purdah the tree sprouted in a tastefully themed way.

The other break from the traditional in recent years was our purchase of an artificial tree. We used to have a real one every year so we could have the undiluted pleasure of the car smelling like toilet cleaner for a week. All was well. But every year we'd forget one thing.

Our cat would hump the tree.

We'd be sitting there, slowly relaxing after a difficult December day. Perhaps we'd have friends round and would be gently discussing the matters of the day. Then there'd be a frantic rustling noise and the tree would start vibrating, like a really specific mini-earthquake had been triggered next to the TV cabinet. The less secure decorations would start to fall off and bounce across the floor.

"Oh for God's sake!" one of us would shout in exasperation. As if on cue the cat, either embarrassed or simply satiated, would emerge from beneath the foliage, blinking in the sudden light. The tree's honour would be protected for a brief few minutes before its feline paramour started circling it once more, a glint in its eyes. The cycle would continue.

After several weeks of this onslaught the tree was beginning to lose grip of its needles. This didn't make it any less attractive to the cat, unfortunately, and the room started to resembe a forest floor. You've not lived until you've tried to hold a struggling moggy suffering from emotional frustration while attempting to extract a pine needle from its eye.

I've had better nights.

And so we reverted to an artificial tree. It's very nice, but not quite the same. We don't have the look and feel. But at least the cat gets a Silent Night.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What is this, some sort of interview? Oh, it is. (Part 1).

A couple of years ago a chap called Neil Kramer had a stroke of genius. He would get people with blogs from all over the world to interview each other. They'd each throw their names into a virtual hat, with blogger number 2 putting questions to blogger number 1, whilst themselves being interviewed by blogger number 3. Bloggers 4, 5, 6 would join in, et cetera.

And so the Great Interview Experiment was born. A chain formed, with dozens of complete strangers finding new friends and putting their deepest thoughts online.

As is customary with all good ideas, Neil has decided to repeat it. This year, I've been interviewed by Natalie. Natalie has had to plough through two and a half years of Make Lard History in a matter of days, so we must all make sympathetic noises. But it's been worth it, as she asked me some very good questions and I was a little more open than I am here. Go and read her blog, folks, she's one of the Good People.

You can read her interview of me here.

There is a second part to the Experiment, where the random person I'm interviewing gives me their answers and I post them here. The person in question has been hellishly busy but I'm hoping to get her replies soon. Watch this space.

Friday, 4 December 2009

...and I for one welcome our new alien overlords

Well, that's torn it then. We might as well just keep the door unlocked. Clearly we'll just let anyone in, these days.

Don't worry, I've not gone all Daily Mail on you. I'm talking about the Ministry of Defence's announcement that they were shutting down their UFO unit. Which sounds dramatic, although to be fair it was probably some bloke sitting at a desk in a broom cupboard in an office in the Ministry building. He must have been sick and tired of all the guys referring to him as 'Fox' at the watercooler, so it was probably a merciful release.

The MoD have explained their decision, saying:
The Ministry has no opinion on the existence or otherwise of extra-terrestrial life. In over 50 years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom.
That's easy for them to say. Have they never seen Independence Day? First it starts with big saucers floating over the cities, then before you know it there's laser beams, force fields and destruction everywhere. If it happens in a town centre on a Saturday evening we'll not notice the difference for a while, but you get the idea.

Before we know it we'll be overrun. Assuming there are legs involved. I mean, our latest visitors may have eschewed legs in favour of some other form of locomotion. Maybe we'll be overbounced. Or overslimed. Who's to say?

Mind you, who's to say the aliens would even want to come to Britain? They're used to their own environment, surely? Living under leaden grey skies, at extremes of temperature. Consuming weird food and using unintelligible methods of communication.

I can't even be bothered with the punchline. Make it up for yourselves.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

In the chiller

Yesterday the great big thermostat in the sky got turned down a few notches. December in Britain and it's chilly - who'd have thought it?

But it was the suddenness that struck everyone. On Monday it was a bit grim but manageable. A bit like having to do algebra back at school. But yesterday was the equivalent of triple geography. In a dangerously unheated classroom. There's only so much terminal moraine you can deal with.

I don't believe it. I've actually crossed the line and I'm now making glacial deposit references. Look out for an oxbow lake soon, folks.

Anyway. Yesterday was that first day of the year when you leave your house to find a layer of ice on your windscreen. That is of course assuming you actually have a windscreen. Or, indeed, a car. Thinking about it, just having a windscreen on its own propped up in your driveway would be a little bit 'out there', but each to his own, that's what I say.

Along with the vehicular difficulties, there's the sheer bloody coldness to deal with. We'd left it until last night to bring out the winter duvet. This is a serious bit of kit, approximately three feet thick and capable of withstanding the worst the climate can throw at us. Katie, having been visited by the Can't Be Arsed Fairy, decided to throw this on top of the summer duvet, rather than replacing it. It was like trying to sleep while a farmyard animal lies on your chest.

And I thought those days were over, quite frankly.

I was reminded that duvets have tog ratings - a measure of how good they are at keeping the heat in. But what is one tog? Where did it come from? The internet is here to help - apparently one tog is the measure of heat retention from a set of standard army battledress. So essentially I was going to bed with the equivalent of 15 soldiers last night.

I mean, I support our armed forces, but even I have to draw the line somewhere.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Endgame

Everything has to end sometimes. That's the way things are.

As far as the ancient Mayans were concerned, the end of life as we know it on planet Earth is December 21st, 2012. That's a Friday, in case you'd made plans for that weekend. Although there is another theory that the end will actually happen two days later, on the 23rd. For those of us who never have anything to do on a Sunday afternoon, this will clearly be a godsend.

One of these two dates is supposed to represent the end of the 5,125 year Mayan Long Count Calendar, which may be associated with all manner of worldwide catastrophe, we are told. There's even a movie about it, although in the best Hollywood tradition, I'm sure the wholesome family with the cute Labrador will probably survive intact.

The Mayans have some previous form when it comes to prophecy, accurately foretelling such events as the end of World War 1, Hitler's rise to power, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the inexplicable popularity of Simon Cowell.

So what apocalyptic events can we look forward to if they're right? There is talk of mega-tsunamis engulfing whole countries, the poles shifting and throwing the Earth's crust off like a blanket in summertime, solar radiation bombardment and even a collision with an as-yet unknown mystery planet.

This may affect house prices.

Looking on the bright side, it means I really need to stop stressing about my credit card balance. The good people at HSBC are going to be too distracted to worry about my minimum payment if Planet X hoves into view and takes a sizeable slug out of the upper atmosphere before vapourising much of Western Europe.

And there's another advantage. My boss always asks me, in performance appraisals, where I see myself in five years' time. I can never answer this question. But now I can say something like: "In five years time I will be a loose collection of pulverised remains, possibly under several hundred feet of water. In terms of exact location I will be entombed in what's left of a German mid-sized hatchback car, an office block or a semi-detached house. Depending upon the timing."

Everyone's a winner.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is the last of my posts for NaBloPoMo November - 30 blog posts in 30 days. This is the third year I've done this and I hope you've enjoyed reading. I'd like to thank all of you for visiting and commenting. I'd also like to thank Katie for not slapping me when I had any of my numerous stupid writer hissy fits throughout the month.

If you started reading Make Lard History recently, please stick around. Like almost everything in life, it's much more fun when there's more than one person involved in the process. Ahem.

There are some things coming up I'd like you to know about. First, I'm taking part in the Great Interview Experiment once more. And second, I have a Big Announcement to make.

To find out more, keep reading in December.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The reluctant nomad

"All I want to know is, why have you decided on this all of a sudden?"

Jack kept his eyes fixed firmly on the floor and wilted slightly under the full force of his mother's questioning. He'd known she was going to be disappointed. For her, the Lifestyle was everything. Hadn't she drilled it into them all ever since they could first understand? We aren't the same as the Others. We do not stay still. To Travel is everything.

There was no way he could escape. A converted Ford Transit campervan, he thought, is not the ideal location for a life-changing discussion. But it was all they had. So he remained fixed under her stare like a butterfly pinned to baize. All he needed was a discoloured label, "Mobilus Disillusionus" and the effect would have been perfect.

"But mum," he started. "It doesn't change anything."
"Doesn't change anything? We're Travellers. We Travel. We're not like the Others." She dabbed at her eyes with a slightly grubby handkerchief before continuing. "All these years I've tried to teach you and your brothers about the Lifestyle, and now you throw it back in my face."

Jack thought back. His memories of the Lifestyle were clearly not as rosy as his mother's, that was for sure. That constantly changing horizon? The allure of the road? All he could remember was a succession of council-run sites. Tarmac and standpipes. The grubbiness. The smell of overcooked vegetables. And clearing off sharpish every time the genuine Romany families came around to reclaim their spot.

"Mum, we're not even real Travellers," he paused as his mother took a sharp breath, "not like the Romanies, anyway. They've been doing this for hundreds of years. This is something you picked up in 1990 after you went to a rave. We're not following some cultural calling - that's why we have to keep moving off the sites because we're not part of the Romany nation. Your dad managed a branch of Office World in Basingstoke, for God's sake."

His mother closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "Why now, Glendwr, why?"

"And that's another thing, Mum. Glendwr? Really? And with brothers called Iolo and Cadyryeith? We're not even Welsh! Mind you, I suppose we should be glad we didn't live with Jo in the next caravan. She called her kids Starburst, Mars and Galaxy. She thought it was all cosmic, but whenever she called them in for their tea it sounded like a sweet shop. I'm calling myself Jack from now on."

"But why give up the Lifestyle?"
"I've met this girl, mum."
"A girl?" His mother's eyebrows rose in a way he'd never seen before. Almost judgemental, Jack thought.
"Yes. A girl."
"And you've decided to throw your lot in with the Others? The house-owning, nine-to-five Others? The wage slave, consumerist Others? Because of a girl? Where did you meet her?"
"It was last winter when we stayed at that site outside Norwich. You'd like her, mum. Her dad works for the council."

She snorted. "How very nice. So you get to play housey-housey?"

Jack could feel his cheeks flushing as he turned on his mother once again. "Look, mum, you chose this Lifestyle. I didn't. I'm sick and tired of it. Everytime we go anywhere, people are unhappy to see us. And, frankly, I quite like the idea of being able to use a proper toilet once in a while."

She bristled at this, as if the bathroom arrangements were part of some long-respected Traveller tradition.

"So what are you and this girl," she almost spat the word, "going to do with yourselves?"
"I'm going to get a job. Her dad says he can help. We're going to work for a year or so to save up some money, then I want to see the world."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Yeah. India, China, the lot. We want to see it all. And I don't mean from behind the wheel of a converted Transit van."
"So, Gle..um, Jack," his mother replied, slowly and carefully, "you plan on throwing away your current lifestyle and going against the wishes of your parents. So you can go travelling."
"I'm sorry mum, but yes I do."

A smile broke across her features. "That's my boy."

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The morning after

Brain: Oi! You! Wake up, you colossal pillock.
Me: Wha? Oh. Ow.
Brain: Yeah, not so clever now, are we? What were you trying to do yesterday? Kill me?
Me: Christ on a bike, Brain. Stop shouting. My head hurts.
Brain: Oh, you reckon? You want to try it from where I am, matey. I mean, I'm already losing cells at a rate of knots - you seem to want to go out on the town and accelerate the process.
Me: I only went out in town for a couple of quiet pints....
Brain: Followed by quite a few noisy ones, if I'm any judge.
Me: It's all coming back to me now.
Brain: That's because I'm replaying it to you right now. You started off at the German Market. It was the wheat beer at first. Then you all decided to find a pub.
Me: Hold on a minute, Brain. It's not completely my fault. The heart wants what it wants, after all.
Heart: Look, pal, don't drag me into this. If your arteries get any furrier you'll be able to display them at a petting zoo.
Brain: See? You've gone and annoyed Heart now. I'm not surprised. At the second pub...
Me: Second pub? Oh God...
Brain: That's right. The second pub is where you decided, after another pint or two, to order some food. The chili beef nachos were an inspired idea.
Me: There were jalapenos, weren't there?
Brain: I don't know. Why don't we ask Tongue?
Tongue: Mmf mmf m mmfm mmff mmfff!
Me: What did he say?
Brain: Tongue was reminding us that you got a chili seed stuck between your teeth. He would be a bit more talkative, only he's all swollen up and stuck to the roof of Mouth.
Stomach: If I might say something at this point...
Me: Oh no...
Stomach: Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not a fermented-grain-based-beverage storage receptacle. I don't think Bladder was too happy with the whole deal, either.
Brain: Quite. And Lower Intestine has been fairly, um, vocal while you've been sleeping, too.
Nose: You're telling me.
Brain: But we're getting ahead of ourselves. It's a good job you weren't planning on doing any calculus today. Anyway, do you remember leaving the pub?
Me: Yes, we got a taxi home, where we...
Brain: Drank a pint of water and went to bed early?
Me: Um, no. I think we may have moved onto wine. And perhaps..
Brain: Yes?
Me: ...a little gin.
Brain: Hmm. Liver wanted to speak to you about that, but he's a little busy right now. So if you don't mind, I'll do the thinking. It is what I'm here for, after all.
Me: What do you want me to do?
Brain: Get yourself down to the kitchen and dig out the Nurofen, there's a good chap.
Me: OK, will do. And Brain?
Brain: Yes?
Me: Do you think this works?
Brain: What, you mean using an imagined conversation with various parts of your anatomy as an effective and creative narrative device to tell the story of what you got up to last night and the degree of crappiness you're feeling right now?
Me: Yes. It's not too far-fetched, is it?
Brain: Nah. Your readers are intelligent, witty and, let's be honest, hugely attractive people. They'll get it. And the more intelligent, witty and attractive they are, the more likely they are to comment below. Now then. Let's be getting that Nurofen.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Ein prosit

Following on from yesterday's American fine dining, today I'm travelling elsewhere, experience-wise. This time it's rather more Teutonic, though.

This afternoon we're going into Birmingham for the Frankfurt Christmas Market. It's the largest such market outside of Germany and Austria. Of course, we're going to celebrate different cultures. To see the intricately carved wooden artifacts. To gaze in wonder at the traditional brightly-painted childrens' toys. To see the works of skilled artisans from Frankfurt.

But mainly to drink unfeasibly large glasses of ice-cold beer.

Look. You do cultural exchanges your way, I'll do them my way, OK?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Breakfast in America

I'm mindful that the intended audience for this post may not read it today. They're going to be rather busy deep-frying whole turkeys and doing extravagant things with pumpkin pie.

But in the hope that a few of them might be going somewhere near the Internet, in honour of Thanksgiving Day I am today joining our American readers for at least one meal. And it's breakfast.

Well, of course it's breakfast. It's just gone 6.00am as I write this. I can hardly rustle up cornbread and beans or a Philly cheesesteak, can I?

American breakfast could mean anything from a bewildering array of items. I remember being in a New York diner some years ago and seeing the chap next to me take delivery of a huge plateful of crispy bacon. When he started to pour maple syrup over it, I was thrown into a whole world of sweet/savoury confusion. I was going to interrupt him and point out his obvious mistake before I realised that I was English and We Don't Do Things Like That. But he seemed to like it, and when I tried it myself the following day I was suitably chastened. Score one for the colonies.

So. Let's get started. What is the classic breakfast Stateside? The aforementioned bacon? Eggs Benedict? Something with hash browns? No.

Lucky Charms. An American classic, I'm told. We had to go to a special shop to get these - I hope you acknowledge the effort involved. I have no idea what I'm going to find inside. Let's pour some out and add milk.

Coloured marshmallow pieces! Well, that's not something I see in my breakfast bowl often. This is almost too much stimulation so early in the morning - I'm used to the 'various shades of brown' approach to breakfast cereal. However, on trying a spoonful I'm made aware that this isn't, technically, breakfast cereal. It is in fact a Sugar Delivery System. I'm suitably impressed.

Now, what to wash this down with? Ah, yes.

Mountain Dew - the ideal early-morning beverage of choice! Or 'mtn Dew' if the can is to be believed. This isn't normally sold here either, so that trip to the specialist shop really paid off. Although I'm slightly worried about the fluorescent colour of the drink itself. It has a sort of 'nuclear power plant cooling water' nature about it. Let's have a sip.

Wowser. I love the taste of tartrazine in the morning. That's quite something. And, hang on, here comes the caffeine kick. I need a mirror, I think my pupils will be like pinpricks.

Well, that was my latest American breakfast experience, although I'm not entirely sure it's completely typical. But with the Lucky Charms and the mtn Dew, I think I'm set for the day. I'll be bouncing around all over the place. From sea to shining sea, even.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Seven things only grandparents do

  1. Be present in the room when something vaguely embarrasing is showing on TV. Think love scenes in movies, overly fruity language, etc. They'll sit there watching every last detail while you cringe on the sofa, holding a cushion in front of your face.
  2. Get given names like Edith, Maud or Nelly. Or, for that matter, Charlie, Alf or Sid. There are as yet no grandparents called River or Chardonnay.
  3. Use strange and arcane forms of language. Katie's grandmother was going on about a 'weskit' for some considerable time before we realised she was referring to a waistcoat. What time is it, nan? "Ooh, it's coming up to five-and-twenty to seven."
  4. Remain completely unfazed by their grandchildren's attempts to follow fashion. The most extreme reaction you'll get might be: "That's an interesting hairstyle, dear." Remember - these people faced down Hitler; they're not going to be in the slightest bit bothered by an ironic post-modern mullet.
  5. Loudly remind your parents, when they're about to deliver a telling-off to you, about that time they tipped over a full potty forty-odd years ago and ruined the carpet in the sitting-room.
  6. Surprise you when you least expect it. Imagine your grandmother, well north of 80 years-old, announcing that she's formed a modest liking for vodka. Maybe not to any excessive degree - we're not talking about a superannuated Amy Winehouse - but still a little unexpected coming from someone who'd previously been happy with a snifter of Harvey's Bristol Cream after Christmas dinner.
  7. Pickle. Apparently when you become a grandparent you're given instructions on how to gather various foodstuffs, soak them in vinegar and put the end results in cleaned-out Nescafe jars. Oh, you say, you've seen non-grandparents doing this? That may be the case:

But would they knit a jaunty little hat for the jar?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt

I was driving to work and the radio was playing a Smiths song. And I was 17 again, playing pool in the sixth form common room.

Well, clearly I wasn't. I was actually 39, clapped out and anxiously threading a car between Latvian trucks on the M6, but you get the idea.

Then the song finished and the DJ talked about former Smiths frontman Morrissey's recent difficulties on his live tour, including his Hamburg show where he got a fan thrown out.

"You know," he said, "Morrissey needs to lighten up a little."

Lighten up? Lighten up?

This is Morrissey. Lantern-jawed and bequiffed, the merchant of moodiness. This is the man who sang a ballad with lyrics about being crushed by a ten-ton truck. He makes Leonard Cohen look like Bobby McFerrin. He could no more lighten up than I could dance the pase doble.

And I'm no dancer.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Now that's what I call a bit of a thumping

This is that rare thing for this blog - a post about football. I'm sorry. This probably won't happen again. If you don't want to read it, look away now. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

I don't know much about football. I mustn't know that much - after all, I follow Birmingham City, with their ambitions of mid-table mediocrity. But even I can tell when something unusual has taken place in the game. However this time it happened to someone else's team.

It was a difficult weekend for supporters of Wigan Athletic Football Club. They were on the end of a bit of a thumping. Even to my limited knowledge, 9-1 scorelines are few and far between. Things are so bad that the Wigan players have even decided to delay their next Bentleys for a week and refund their fans the cost of their tickets.

Still, at least the papers have been sensitive. I mean, it's bad enough to lose by such a margin. Nine goals, five of which were scored by one player, Jermaine Defoe. What would make this worse would be the headline writers entering into cliche mode:

London Metro - "Five Star Defoe is on Cloud Nine"

Oh dear.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Way off target

People who work in the world of marketing like to talk, often from behind interesting rimless spectacles, about such matters as customer targeting. Find the right punter for your product, they say, and you're home and dry.

They'll probably use long words, but that's basically the trick.

However, two things happened recently that showed me that there are some marketers operating at the moment who clearly haven't got the faintest clue.

Landing with an audible thump on my doormat, the envelope certainly looked interesting. It was from a rather up-market jewellers and was addressed to me personally. Inside was a catalogue for Rolex wristwatches. Starting at £3,500 and not stopping until prices were well north of 'terraced house' territory, I was amazed at the amount of cash people were seemingly willing to strap onto their wrists. Katie was particularly interested in the ladies Oyster Perpetual - an absolute snip at a few quid shy of seventy grand.

I'm sorry, Mr Jeweller, but your efforts will come to nought. I don't move in those circles. Did you not see my address when you printed out the envelope? This is not Rolex Country.

Then this morning I got an email from Amazon. Apparently, their intelligence tells them, I'm just the sort of person who would like to purchase the Greatest Hits of Enya. What I've bought in the past that makes them believe this, I just don't know. I have nothing against Enya. I'm sure she's a lovely person. It's just that, as far as I can ascertain, she's been singing the same song for about twenty years. And it's not one that I want in my extensive CD collection.

Amazon, we can probably mark this down as a fail.

I'm sure there is a market segment of people with pricey timepieces who also have a love of remarkably bland New Age music. But I'm not in it.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Collision course

I woke up this morning after a confusing sleep. Getting out of bed, I ducked my head to avoid some near-light-speed particle beams that were swirling around the bedroom.

Tutting gently, I pulled on the dressing gown hanging on the back of the bedroom door and made my way gingerly across the landing, hopping over several mini black holes along the way.

I went into the spare room, making sure to negotiate carefully the eleven dimensions available to me. I tutted once more as the PC switched on and loaded the dickwaddery that is Vista Home Premium. "It's a bit nippy in here, isn't it?" I wondered aloud. Looking at a thermometer that was coincidentally hanging from the wall for the purpose of this story, I noticed that it was about 1 degree above absolute zero.

A number of Higgs Boson-particles clustered around me as I fired up my web browser.

"Large Hadron Collider back up and running!" shouted the first news story I came across.

"I do hope they know what they're doing," I thought, as I swatted some inter-dimensional visitors away with my hand.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Constant rotation

At last count I think I must have nearly a thousand of them. Plastic circles, 12 centimetres in diameter. Writing on one side, shiny on the other. A time traveller exploring my house would surely wonder what the fixation was with all these discs.

He'd also have a bit of an issue with the dust bunnies in the living room, but that's another matter.

My CD collection goes back right to the beginning of my adult life. A few months into gainful employment and I persuaded Comet to let me have a hi-fi on HP. While this had the usual record and tape deck, it also came with something very new and very scary for the 1988 me; a CD player.

I remember anxiously putting everything together in my bedroom, being slightly freaked out by the warning label about laser radiation. And then, like a spotty Edison waiting for someone to invent the second telephone, it occurred to me that this technology was all very nice, but needed to be put to practical use. Getting a CD to play on it could only help.

That first one? "Love Over Gold" by Dire Straits. It was the eighties - it was probably a bye-law. I have no other explanation.

So started a love affair with the CD that has remained to this day. I love everything about them; going to the store and riffling through the racks, grasping the shrink-wrapped cases, tearing them open, reading the booklet. Then that first play.

It's all about the music. I have CDs of quiet reflection, CDs of raucous expression. CDs that make me laugh, CDs that give me the shivers. There are the worthy ones I bought when I was finding my way. The one-offs I got on the basis of one track and then regretted. The surprises. The growers. Those that are never out of the car. The ones quietly collecting dust in the spare room.

But I can remember them all. I recall where I was when I got each one. What was I doing when this one came into my life? What made me buy this one? How did I feel on hearing this one?

But surely this is anachronistic? After all, as a member of the iPod generation I can simply download music and carry it around as digital files. But my CD collection is more than just a load of music; it's a journal of my life.

There are some things you just can't do with zeroes and ones.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Directional issues

I was very much entertained by this story in the news about an Australian pensioner who, driving to the shops one morning, got lost and ended up 370 miles away.

At first I thought it was going to be simply a variation on the regular tales we see of bewildered old folk behind the wheel who somehow navigate to the incorrect Newcastle, ending up under Lyme rather than upon the Tyne. Or one of those stories where a superannuated motorist pilots their Micra the wrong way down the M6 for hours without end, causing untold destruction and dry-cleaning bills.

But no. This one went took on a whole new dimension as, gloriously, the driver in question gave this as his response:
"I didn't know where I was going but I knew it was somewhere."
I don't think a more accurate statement has ever been uttered.

Mind you, getting lost can indeed be very liberating. I remember some years ago, on our way back from a driving holiday, we took a wrong turn at the Welsh border. One moment we were heading to the Midlands, the next we were in a completely different and hitherto-unknown part of the British hinterland. I half expected to see a faun, a lamp-post and the inside of a wardrobe's front door hanging in the middle of the landscape.

We were lost. Hopelessly lost. We weren't even in anything as obvious as the middle of nowhere. At best, we were in the suburbs of nowhere. The outskirts of nowhere, even.

But as we crested a hill we gazed down on a glorious valley. A medieval abbey stood proudly at the head of a town, a limpid river winding its way lazily past the ancient sandstone outbuildings. We crossed over a hump-packed stone bridge, rolled along a perfect street and gazed open-mouthed in wonder as all this passed, green and contented.

"Wow," I breathed.
"Blimey."
"This place looks fantastic."
"We must come back here again at some point."

And so we promised we would. Trouble is, we hadn't a clue what we'd done to get lost in the first place. Since then we've never been able to find our way there.

I blame satnav.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I was young and needed the money

The newspapers have recently been full of stories covering the unveiling of previously-anonymous blogger Belle du Jour. BdJ's blog covered her earlier life as a lady of negotiable virtue; the blog had been extremely successful and had led to spin off book publishing deals and even a TV drama serial last year. But now she is no longer protected by a nom de plume.

I fear, dear reader, that my anonymity may not be safe for long. Soon the papers are going to be gathering around this place like, um, something that gathers around something else particularly attractive to the first something.

I can't blame them. After all, I had to undertake various activities to support myself in my younger years, too. I know, it's probably coming as a shock to you. But I should come clean.

I remember those days well. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. It was a prime city-centre location and I only needed to work a few hours a Saturday, leaving the rest of the week free for study.

I don't remember all of the customers. They'd all blur into one after a while and, to be honest, you never really got the chance to form a relationship with any of them. They'd all have different tastes anyway. Some were traditional, some just plain weird.

Christmas was the worst time. You'd get people who were completely inexperienced in this type of transaction. They wouldn't know what to ask for. That's when I had to be creative.

Yes, it's true. In the 1980's, I had a Saturday job in the record department at WH Smith in Birmingham. It's probably best to declare these things before I'm outed.

There. I've said it. Let the journalists do their worst. Just please don't judge me.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In praise of the lie-in

Perhaps it's the fact that I'm back at work after a week off, but yesterday I was wandering around a little like I was in cotton wool. Jet-lagged, even. Everything seemed slightly otherwordly.

It's amazing how quickly you can get into a new rhythm when you don't have to get up in the mornings to sit in a building in another city and move symbols around on a screen until they make sense. Midweek last week we were happily staying up to watch garbage on TV, or read, or lark about on the internet, until the wee small hours.

But of course, none of this bohemian excess would have been possible were it not for the lie-in. The alarm clock took a back seat for the week and we allowed Mother Nature to tell us when wakefulness was required. Actually, Mother Nature was mainly channeled through a hungry cat, but you get the picture.

We ran the gamut of loafing, this lie-in life. For the first day or so, we'd glance at the clock, smile knowingly, turn over and gratefully enter the arms of Morpheus once more. Even when we got up, we'd keep it leisurely. We even explored the dressing-gown and daytime TV combo.

The thing is, we know that we were living a lifestyle many would disapprove of. It's not the done thing, you know, this lying-in. One must achieve. By rights we should have been up at the crack of dawn, doing worthy things and being polite to animals. We should have been improving our minds or adding to the sum total of human knowledge. Instead we were under the duvet, in my case gently dribbling into my pillow.

I know. That's a great image for you all. Cherish it.

But, you know, no-one ever started a war while having a lie-in. No financial crisis was caused by people catching a few extra z's. Last time I checked, you couldn't be involved in a multiple vehicle pile-up while in bed. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it's good for you.

So let us celebrate the lie-in. For some of us, it's the nearest we get to self-improvement.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Originally proposed names for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

  1. I Find It Hard To Sustain Credence in This Spread's Origins
  2. This Foodstuff is Undermining My Entire Belief System
  3. Surely This is Going to Contribute to My Ongoing Issues With Sat Fats? No? Blimey!
  4. I Can't Believe It's Actually a Blend of Different Vegetable Oils, Water, Sweet Cream, Salt and Beta Carotene
  5. I Refuse To Countenance The Possibility That This Substance Did Not Originally Emerge From a Cow
  6. I Don't Want To Get Into Another Argument With You, But Surely This Is Merely Churned Fermented Milk?
  7. If This Isn't Butter I Don't Think I'll Be Able To Trust Again
  8. You Want the Truth About Your Spread? You Can't Handle the Truth About Your Spread!
  9. Remember That Time Your Parents Told You Your Puppy Had Gone To Live on a Farm Rather Than Fronting Up and Telling You The Truth? Well, This is Nothing Like That.
  10. Margarine.
Nothing like being topical. It's been out for ten years and only now am I getting around to mentioning it.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Urban gorilla

I was surprised when Katie first suggested it to me while we were in bed.

Don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those sort of stories.

"You're off work for the week," she said. "Why not give shaving a miss, see how you end up looking by next weekend?"

"Are you sure? You don't normally like it if I go one day without shaving. You complain I get too spiky."

But she was happy for the experiment to proceed. I'm sure she was somehow expecting me to transform into Dave Grohl by the end of it all. Boy, was she storing up a whole heap of disappointment.

Growing a beard, I have found, really isn't much an achievement. If anything, it represents the lack of achievement. You don't need specific skills or equipment, just a little time and patience. It helps if you don't mind looking like a pillock, too. This is particularly the case at the moment; after a whole week I've gone past stubble but I'm not at 'frontiersman' stage yet. In fact, Katie suggested I was 'rocking the vagrant look' the other day.

It came to a head on Wednesday evening, when a night out Katie had planned with her work colleagues turned into a 'plus partners' event. What should I do? Make myself presentable or preserve my proto-beard? I was surprised how difficult a decision this was. In the end I went unshaven. Liberally sprinkling quotes around from 'Das Boot' helped, I think.

Surprisingly, however, I've started to get a little attached to the face fuzz. For one thing, it's quite pleasant not having to faff about with the razor every morning. And now I've got past the bristly phase, it gives me something to toy with when pretending to look intelligent. When asked a question, I can stroke my beard meaningfully before answering.

It's a little like being a pipesmoker but without the health concerns.

But it will have to go. It's been fun. Apart from inferring that I looked like a gentleman traveller, Katie seemed quite keen on the whole idea. But I don't think I'm ready for the commitment to the cause that being a bearded one entails. Yes, it's less work in the mornings. But people might expect the bearded me to be sensible, steady and wise.

And that's never going to happen.

Ladies and gentlemen, say goodbye to the Official Fatboyfat Almost-But-Not-Quite-Beard of 2009.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A quick one for the weekend

Picture the scene: we are sitting in the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham City Centre. It is a Friday afternoon, but as Katie and I are off work for the week, beer and pies are featuring on the agenda. Quite heavily.

Katie gestures to St Philip's Cathedral opposite. "Remind me," she says, "is that St Philip's or St Paul's? I can never remember."

"I'll give you a clue," I reply. "Think about the name of the bloke you married."

"Oh," she says, not missing a beat, "is there a St Grumpybastard, then?"

It's so good we have a relationship of mutual respect.

Friday, 13 November 2009

This is my sport

I don't do exercise.

Hold on to yourselves. I know this news is coming as a colossal shock. But I don't do running-around-a-sports-field-chasing-a-pig's-bladder. I don't do running-around-a-sports-field. I don't do running.

I'm actually drinking from a bottle of Gatorade as I type this. The irony would be unbearable, were it not for the fact that I had to go and get a spoon from the kitchen to lever off the sports cap.

But there is a competitive edge in all of us. And for me, this materialises itself in the arena of the quiz. Often, but not always, the pub quiz. No, I don't get all sweaty and out-of-breath. But put me in a team with a suitably pithy and amusing name, and I will crush all comers. And if there's a pint or two in the mix, maybe some pork scratchings, I'll be at peak performance.

Several weeks ago there was such an event - a music quiz, no less, my specialist subject. Knowing about Greek gods and the periodic table is all well and good, but really there is no substitute for being able to recognise obscure one-hit wonders from the early eighties.

Nominally, we were a team, the four of us. 'Sex, Drugs and Sausage Rolls' was our name. But our respective strengths were a little unequal. Essentially I answered the questions, team member A reminded me that the Shangri-Las did 'Leader of the Pack', G got the crisps in and S giggled nervously. A role for everyone.

And I was transformed. The music clips played, and I whispered the answers after a second or so. On one occasion the music failed and only one note was played. "Oh, that's the beginning to 'Under the Bridge'. It's not the Red Hot Chili Peppers version, though, it's the All Saints cover."

My team members shot me a nervous look.

They were even more nervous when I had to correct the quizmaster later on. But if people are going to assert that Soft Cell performed the original version of 'Tainted Love' then they need to be corrected. Do these people not know anything about Northern Soul?

The nervous giggling from S became even more intense. G suggested I was exhibiting special characteristics. I think I may have been showing off. But this is my sport. This is my arena.

In recognition of my single-minded focus, this was posted over my desk the following day:

I think they're trying to tell me something.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Something tells me we're not in Osaka

I often wonder what Richard Branson was thinking when he chose the name 'Virgin' to christen his new record company. I suppose it was meaningful back in the longhaired and slightly musty seventies. It was him up against the Establishment and his new business endeavours were pure and unsullied. Virginal, even.

He probably didn't realise that some 30-odd years later the same brand would be applied to all manner of things. An airline, financial services company, telecommunications and even a railway. None of these are normally spring to mind as being particularly pure and unsullied.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was on a Virgin Pendolino train bound for London. A colleague and I were on our way to the capital for an awards ceremony. Not wanting to hang about, we'd planned matters with military precision. It was to be an SAS-style assault; get in, pick up a slab of perspex with our employer's name on it, and get out.

I know the SAS don't normally hang about for accolades, but apart from that the comparison works, OK?

The train had ten carriages, A to J, with A at the back and J at the front. We were towards the rear, in car B. We'd shown up at Coventry station, the train was remarkably prompt and we found our reserved seats with ease. This was good. It was all we could have expected.

Pulling through the concrete-ness of Rugby, the train manager's voice came over the tannoy. In days of old, he'd have called himself the Conductor, but progress had occurred. With a world-weary voice, he announced:
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is an announcement for customers* in carriages A and B. We would be grateful if you could refrain from visiting the buffet car in carriage C. A customer appears to have been sick and as a result it is, erm...somewhat unhygienic underfoot."
I then remembered that Brother No. 2 was on a business trip in Japan. That very morning, he'd updated his Facebook status to tell us he was also going to be train-bound. Only he was going to experience the legendary 300kph Shinkansen bullet train. I couldn't help thinking there would be no vomit-derived disruption to service on the Tokaido line.

As we approached Milton Keynes, a grim-faced cleaning operative strode down the train's corridor, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves, readying herself for her chunder nemesis ahead.

It occurs to me that I've just written quite probably the most depressing sentence in the history of mankind.

Pure and unsullied, Sir Richard? I don't think so.

*(Customers=passengers. More progress.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

In Memoriam 2009

Ninety-one years ago today the Great War ended. An unholy clash of 20th century technology and 19th century tactics, World War 1 ultimately caused the deaths of some 15 million combatants.

We remember them today.

Seventy years ago, conscription was increased in Britain, to cover all men aged between 18 and 41. Of those who joined up, many did not return.

We remember them today.

We remember the fallen in all conflicts - a litany of times and places; Korea, Malaysia, Aden, Northern Ireland, Falklands, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan.

We remember those whose names are read out at Prime Minister's Questions every Wednesday lunchtime. Whose flag-draped coffins are applauded through the streets of Wootton Basset.

But we should also remember the other ones. In the Birmingham suburb of Selly Oak is a military trauma ward. The staff there speak of wounded soldiers, often brought directly from the battlefield thousands of miles away under heavy sedation. Some of them wake up asking where their rifles are. "They think they're still out there," said a staff member, "if they see relatives they warn them to stay away, saying they're not safe."

Today we remember the dead. But let's not forget the living.

Because when diplomacy fails, when negotiation has no further part to play, it's the soldier, sailor or airman that bears the brunt.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

To the extreme

Katie has taken to watching an American TV programme in recent months. (Should that be program? Never mind.) It's called "Extreme Makeover:Home Edition." And for those of us used to DIY SOS it's quite an experience.

But for those of you who haven't seen an edition of EM:HE, let me give you a quick rundown.
  1. Loud shouty bloke called Ty (I'm sorry, but is that even a name?) and bunch of chiseled interior designers in a fancy bus descend upon a family that has tried to prevail against a tragedy of some kind.

  2. Within the team there is a female designer who wears Too Much Pink. That's her thing. There's a grizzled New Yorker. There's a Brit who is clearly channelling the spirit of Dick Van Dyke. And then there's Michael. Who, according to the caption, is in charge of 'Glamor'.

  3. Michael is good with colours.

  4. The worthy family are sent off to Disneyland. For it is ordained, It Shall Always Be Disneyland.

  5. The word 'awesome' will be used. A lot.

  6. A cast of thousands helps to demolish the family home, managing this task in seconds, often with mere handtools. Every time, Katie and I will ask, "Does no-one build things out of bricks and mortar over there?"

  7. The British carpenter bloke will use phrases like 'lumber' and 'highway'. We shout 'wood' and 'motorway' back at the screen. This doesn't seem to help.

  8. Ty will wander around shouting at people through a loudhailer. Perhaps 'Ty' is short for Tylenol?

  9. Someone will go shopping to kit out the new house. Essentially this entails leaving the local branch of Sears looking like a plague of locusts has passed through.

  10. The family return to their new house. The bus is rolled out of the way so they can see it. We wonder what the neighbours think, given that the new house towers over all others in the locality.

  11. Many tears ensue.

  12. There is a very shiny kitchen with one of those big fridges. Typically it's the size of Herefordshire.

  13. The words 'Oh My God' will be used a lot. Unless they're Good Church People, when 'Gosh' gets bandied around more often than a Wodehouse novel.

  14. If they're in Texas, Someone Quite Famous in a Big Hat will show up and deliver an impromptu concert.

  15. The mortgage is paid off and/or college funds are provided. At this point Katie will ask, "But what if the kids didn't want to go to college?"

  16. More crying, including the odd tear or two from Michael.
You couldn't do this over here, you know. We're a bunch of cynical buggers at the best of times. The nearest we have is those shows where a homeowner is delighted to get a new bathroom over the course of a weekend.

Somehow, the sight of someone getting tearful over a new heated towel-rail just isn't on.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Bread and circuses

The Emperor was not a happy man. His armies had endured months of intractable conflict, from Palestine to Gaul. The Senate members were not agreeing to his demands. And he knew the citizens would not take too kindly to the higher taxation he was planning to impose next spring, following the collapse of the spice trade.

It used to be so simple, he thought. When all those years of debate and politicking had led to his accession to the throne of Rome. First amongst equals. Wherever he went, the people had shown him respect. He was, in every sense of the word, a God.

But now he could sense unrest. Unrest was...inconvenient.

"Minstrel, play me a tune," he ordered as he settled back in his chair. The soothing notes of the Venetian folk muse drifted across the room, but did little to calm the Imperial brow.

Unless....

The next day the Emperor called together his closest counsellors. "The people need distracting," he said. "They need something to stop them from thinking."

"But my lord," stuttered one minister, "freedom of mind characterises the Roman citizen. For are we not the cradle of philosophy and democracy?"

"Thought is over-rated. Look at what happened to the Greeks. I would rather a city of sheep."

"What would you have us do, Emperor?"

"Organise a competition. Have it held weekly. Make it so alluring that all citizens desire to see it."

"The gladiatorial combat? But my lord, all the fighters have been conscripted to the German campaign."

"No. Music and song. Every week the citizens can watch the competing muses. They want democracy? Allow them to vote on who to save. They want debate? We arrange it so there are unexpected developments. They want to protest? Let them march in the streets in support of their favoured minstrel!"

"Sir, do you think this will work?"

"People are simple. We give them full bellies, we entertain them, we distract them. They will become as children. Yet they will love us for it."

And this is how the Roman spectacle of Bread and Circuses came about. Of course, in these enlightened times, 2000-odd years later, we're far more savvy than your average Roman, aren't we?

Ahem.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

In which our hero does a 180-degree u-turn

Two days. That's all it took.

On Thursday I'd wittered on intelligently argued against the use of fireworks. "A considered commentary on the latter-day ramifications of this ancient festival," the critics said.

Well, if I tell you they said it, and you don't ask for proof, no-one gets hurt. OK?

But then we went to see Liz and Kev last night. And that's when it all unravelled. The first words spoken to us as we walked through their door - "Did you remember to bring fireworks?"

"You wanted us to bring fireworks? We never knew."

"Well, we've got some left over from Thursday. We're going to have a little display in the back garden. But we haven't got any rockets. They might have some in Asda across the road though."

There was a pause. Katie looked at me. I looked at Katie. Katie sighed a well-rehearsed sigh and uttered the immortal words. "Go on then."

Like big kids Kev and I skipped over to the shop. Like overgrown children we surveyed the goodies on offer. Like superannuated toddlers we came back, tooled up with our own Weapons of Rather Localised Minor Destruction.

The next 50 minutes were spent hurtling back and forth along L & K's garden, brightly-coloured cardboard tubes in hand.

"Is it lit?"

"Dunno. It's difficult to tell."

"Ooh, hang on, the fuse is fizzing. Scarper!"

Then we'd run the 30 feet back to the house, turning to survey our handiwork. For We Are Men And We Make Fire.

Just for a brief moment, I actually was 8 again. And I was in another garden, miles away. And my biggest worry was whether the fireworks would last all night. And I was watching the stars bursting overhead. And I was smelling the cordite. And I was looking forward to Mom's baked potatoes and chili. And Dad was telling me and my brothers to watch out for the next one.

And I was remembering how he'd be even more excited than us kids.

I seem to be getting a lot of echoes this year.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Numbers Game

Sergeant Reeves sighed inwardly. It was going to be a long night.

He was always slightly nervous when partnered with Detective Inspector Moss. He was considered an excellent policeman, legendary within the Met. It was Moss that broke up the Ukrainian fraud ring, Moss who caught the St Swithin's Day murderer - only 17 days into his reign of terror, saving at least 23 more unnecessary deaths. Moss was the consummate police detective.

But he had his odd ways. And Reeves, sitting at the wheel of his standard-issue Mondeo, parked up in a lay-by, was stuck with him uhm-ing and ah-ing for an eight-hour stretch. The sound of Moss' pencil, scribbling away furiously, drifted over from the passenger seat.

"Sir," Reeves started, but trailed away to silence as Moss raised his grey eyes and coolly regarded his junior colleague.

"Please, Reeves, don't interrupt me. I meditate." He licked the end of his pencil and regarded the page in front of him.

"Sorry sir. It's just...well...I'm not sure why we're waiting out here. This case - no-one's under surveillance so far, are they?"

"No," replied the Detective Inspector absent- mindedly. "But we are carrying out important detective work nevertheless."

Reeves sighed once more, but audibly this time.

Without turning to address him, Moss continued, "You wonder why we're here, Sergeant Reeves, don't you? Well, everyone has to be somewhere. That's the nature of things." He pointed at the page in front of him, printed boxes with rows and columns, some filled with numbers.

"See that number seven in the top right-hand corner of the lower-left sub-square here? Now, to the untrained eye, that's just a number. But with the application of some simple rules, a little logic and years of practice, that one number tells me where other numbers will go. And where they won't. Plain as daylight. It's the key that unlocks the larger mystery."

"But sir," protested Reeves, "that's just Sudoku. Playing puzzles isn't going to get us closer to the truth. We've spent hundreds of man-hours trying to find a link between Woodward's gang and the jewellery shop robberies. This isn't helping."

Now it was Moss' turn to sigh. "Like I said, everyone - and everything - has to be somewhere. To solve this puzzle, we start by looking at the givens - those are the numbers already printed on it - although you might prefer to call them 'clues'. Then we go and cross-hatch. Or, in police parlance, we 'eliminate figures from our enquiries'. For instance, we know seven can't go there," he tapped a cell, "because it is already here. Because it definitely can't be in one place, we can see where it should be. Sometimes we deduce, sometimes we use trial and error."

Even while speaking, Moss constantly scanned the page, making notes and scribbling figures into the cells. Reeves gazed back along the road and counted the cars rumbling past.

"Got it!" Moss wrote the number five into the last remaining blank cell and folded the puzzle book away. Turning to Reeves, he smiled, "And I think we have an answer to our other mystery too. Woodward himself was involved. No-one else could have done it."

"What do you mean?" stuttered Reeves.

"Everyone has to be somewhere, Reeves. Woodward's alibi doesn't stack up. He physically couldn't have been at his club that night, like he told us. Think about it. There was a tube strike that night and he'd never have been able to made the journey from his home to central London in 20 minutes."

"So he's not being straight with us."

"And if I've taught you anything, Reeves, it's that sometimes you have to look at where someone isn't..."

"To see where they are! Brilliant, sir!" Reeves gunned the Mondeo's engine, and swung the car back towards town.

Moss waved the younger man's praise away. "It's really not difficult, Sergeant. Just a matter of putting figures into cells."

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Hum

We first noticed it as we were getting into bed the other day. A low-pitched, steady hum.

"What's that?" Katie asked.

"It's a low-pitched, steady hum," I replied, having already seen the script.

I got a look.

"It's really annoying. Have we got anything switched on?"

"Don't think so. The heating's not on. Everything's switched off, I think."

Katie sat up. "I don't like it. I'm going to check." She got out of bed and went downstairs.

"What are you doing?" I called after her.

"Checking the microwave oven's switched off," came a muffled voice from the kitchen.

"Why? Do poltergeists like popcorn or something?"

Then a thought occured. "Is it the cat?"

"No, you're getting mixed up. Purring, that's what cats do. Purr. Hum. Not the same thing."

I remembered that we'd do this thing at school to drive supply teachers over the edge. We'd sit in class, and random pupils would make a humming noise just on the edge of audibility. They'd never be able to pin it down to one person. I mentioned this to Katie.

"So you think the cat's trying mindgames on us? What next, will he mess around with the settings on a bunsen burner? Don't be a pillock. Anyway, this hum is still going on. I can hear it through the walls." She had her ear up against the party wall.

"You know, I don't think the neighbours will take too kindly to your asking them if they're humming late at night."

"It might make things a little tense, yes. Anyway, it's not them." She was right, the hum was all-pervasive. "This is going to make sleep a bit of a challenge."

I laid my head on my pillow and tried not to think of overheating electrical circuits, ruptured gas mains or CIA mind control signals. Funnily enough, this did indeed make restful sleep a little tricky.

Nevertheless I must have drifted off. I couldn't hear the hum this morning. For all we know it might still be going on and we've just become numb to it. We sould be the subjects of an experiment. At any time I could just flip out and start acting all random.

Spiral Sir Anthony, your overcoat is like a potassium submarine!

I'm just playing with you now.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes Night 2009

I'm in a bit of a quandary. By rights I should right now be stood by a roaring fire, watching incendiaries exploding over my head.

That's city life for you, I suppose.

But it is November 5th, Bonfire night. And we celebrate things on this night. I even held a fireworks party right here, on this very blog, last year.

But things are different this year. We've been told that setting off fireworks is a Bad Thing. There are considerations to be made. And let's be honest, we're still in the middle of a recession. I was going to have a firework party but decided that sitting at home setting fire to a £20 note every five minutes would be more effective.

Plus, it occurs to me that I was baptised a Catholic. Burning an effigy of a Catholic man is probably going to earn me at the very least a wedgie from the Pope.

So given that the forces of noise control, Health and Safety, fiscal prudence and religious sensitivity are allied against us, what can we do?

Well, sparklers are still OK. I would suggest that we just don't light them. See the look of glee in the kiddies' faces as they wave around lengths of stiffened wire in figure-of-eight patterns in the dark.

The bonfire is slightly more problematic. Hey grandma! Try this new cocktail of Baileys and Tabasco, then we'll all gather around as you do your party piece of falling asleep with your mouth wide open.

The fireworks could be a challenge. How do you replicate the effect of rockets trailing against a darkened sky, each reaching its own zenith and climaxing in a dramatic starburst?

Easy. A few pints of heavy, followed by a sharp blow to the back of a head with a blunt object. Works every time.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

In the t-shirt shop

Shopper: Hello. I’m sorry, but I need to return this t-shirt that I bought here last week.

Assistant: I’m sorry to hear that sir. What seems to be the problem? Was it the wrong size?

Shopper: Oh no, not at all, it fitted perfectly. Like a glove. Not that it had five arm-holes, of course.

Assistant: Ha ha no sir, that would be silly. So why are you bringing it back?

Shopper: Breach of promise.

Assistant: I beg your pardon? Breach of....

Shopper: ..promise. That’s right. It was not as advertised.

Assistant: I don’t follow you sir. It’s a t-shirt. You put it on, you’re wearing a t-shirt. You have, in all senses, become a t-shirt wearer. That’s pretty much what our customers expect, vis-a-vis t-shirts and the wearing thereof. What promises are there to be broken?

Shopper: Well, look at it! Read the slogan on the front of it!

Assistant: “Surf party – Malibu Beach.” I’m really sorry sir, I don’t understand.

Shopper: I wanted to live the life. I wanted to hang ten. To be able to survey the roaring foam with a gimlet eye, and proclaim to those around me, “Surf’s up.” In short, I wanted what this t-shirt promised.

Assistant: I see.

Shopper: But it was all a tease. I took your t-shirt at face value. I bought it, I took it home. I wore it.

Assistant: You wore it?

Shopper: Oh yes, I wore it! And I hoped. Hoped against hope. But nothing happened.

Assistant: Nothing, erm, happened?

Shopper: Nothing. No . Nothing. I didn’t get invited to any parties, Malibu Beach or otherwise. I was ready to carve some radical tubes. I was amped. I was going to pop. I was ready to rip. But the t-shirt did nothing. Despite the t-shirt, it turns out I was still an insurance clerk from Basingstoke.

Assistant: I see. Well, there is perhaps something we can do for you.

Shopper: There is?

Assistant: Ye-ess. Clearly when you bought the t-shirt we hadn’t carried out a sufficiently robust lifestyle analysis. Had we known a little more about your background and expectations we could have offered you something a little more appropriate. Here, look at the slogans on these ones.

Shopper: “Born to file”. “Doug’s Double-Entry Book-keeping Shack.” “Spreadsheet Summer camp.” My, but these are just perfect!

Assistant: Oh, I am so pleased to hear that, sir.

Shopper: Now I can wear a t-shirt that actually says something about me!

Assistant: We aim to please, sir. I’m totally stoked we were able to help.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Heritage Condiment

What will they say of Britain, those that come after us in some long-distant future? When the institutions we today hold sacred are no more than words upon a page, our history, architecture and culture no more than footnotes, what will there be that speaks of Britain?

There is something. There is something that represents this country better than any person, or any idea. It is bold and uncompromising, steadfast and sure. In an ever-changing world it is one true constant.

It is Magna Carta in a pot-bellied jar. It is Marmite.

It lurks in the nation’s kitchen cupboard psyche, starless and Bible black. And for a humble condiment it manages perfectly to express everything we know and love about Britain and the British.

In a world of beige it is a decidedly binary substance. You either love Marmite or you hate it; there is no in-between. There is a jar sitting not more than six yards from where I sit as I write. To me it is the purest ambrosia; my wife treats it as one would a vial of Polonium 210.

It is traditional yet relevant. Look at the jar, that comforting, maternal pot. No fancy 21st century re-branding exercises here, thank you very much. It is the trigger for memories. Grasp the top, twist it off and inhale. Take in a pungent lungful of childhood picnics, of rainy-day lay-by sandwiches, of morning hangover remedy toast.

Plunge a knife in and pull out the silken ooze. Watch as it dances on the bread, threads of black against the grain. And taste. Feel the bitterness subside into deep, meaty, yielding, fulfilment.

It has a final party trick to play; that most British of qualities – strength in depth. When you think there’s nothing more to come, when the jar’s apparent emptiness taunts you, do not fear. An angled finger reveals hidden reserves. You just need to know how to call upon them.

All that we know of Britain could be cruelly snatched from us in a heartbeat. Governments could tumble. The Ravens could leave the Tower. The seas may rise.

But with a pot of Marmite to hand we could face all odds. And, if the oceans do get a little restless, at least we’d have something with which to waterproof our dinghy.

Monday, 2 November 2009

I am not Stephen Fry

On a number of levels there are some similarities between me and National-Treasure-and-generally-good-egg, Mr Stephen Fry. It's a low number, but it certainly counts as a number.

We're both blessed with physiques that would, if we were being charitable, be described as being somewhat less than athletic. I'm a bear of a man. I loom. I can only loom. And blunder. Loom and blunder, that's me. I suspect Stephen would recognise the same characteristics.

I have this deep, booming, stentorian voice. I can't whisper to save my life. Blunder, loom and boom. That's pretty what I'm about. Mr Fry would, I fear, find this familiar.

Despite these seemingly antisocial characteristics I can turn my hand to the avuncular if I wish. Dispensing wisdom and charm, I'd make a damn good uncle. If I had glasses I'd perch them on the tip of my nose while gently explaining the best use of the terms 'rebut', 'reject' and 'repudiate'. Stephen personified.

I'm even on Twitter, too. But this is where things start to unravel. Stephen Fry is seen (wrongly) by some as the eminence gris behind Twitter. If he sees some injustice, a single tweet from his fingers will send his massed followers into overdrive, leaving him settling into a wingbacked chair, gently harrumphing. Yet if he wants to support something, a favourable 140 characters from the keyboard of his Apple is sufficient to guarantee its success.

I tried this last week. My mate Barry was running the New York marathon yesterday for a jolly good cause. I thought he could use all the help he could get, so I tweeted about it. I thought if I could mobilise the masses, Fry-style, we'd see Barry nosing the tape (or whatever it is they do at the end of races) with a couple of grand behind him.

Nothing. Nada. Rien. Sod all. Sweet Felicity Arkwright.

Maybe I need to work on my charm a little.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Boo!

It is a fairly well-known fact that Halloween, which we celebrated last night, has its background in older, pagan festivities.

Indeed, the word 'Halloween' originally comes from 'Haughlerwai'iaighn', which is, as you probably know, Gaelic for 'pretending you're not at home by hiding behind the sofa with the lights off when teenagers knock your door'.

As it happens, last night we actually were out, spending time at the pub surrounded by people with pale faces, scars, blood stains and bullet wounds. There was no make-up involved - it was just that sort of pub.

I thank you. Tell your friends. I'm here all month.

But every year Halloween gives the more Grinchy among us the chance to go on and on ad infinitum about trick-or-treat, this pesky new import from the colonies. How it's a Bad Thing. How it encourages kids to essentially go begging. How it terrorises the old folks. This is a new thing, they say, it's an unwanted import from that lot over the Atlantic, and therefore it must not stand.

But the thing is, I remember it as a kid. And I'm an old git, so it can't be that novel to us. I recall one time, when I was about seven, trying to get my own back on trick-or-treaters coming to the family home. I'd hide behind the dustbins at the side of the house and wait for them to approach. I'd emit a low, menacing moan. I'd make the bins judder. I'd then realise that I'd pretty much run out of things to do. They'd call me a pillock. It was a tradition, though.

And it has spawned a number of other traditions since then. The 'making sure you've bought a whole load of funpack chocolate and sweets' one. The 'putting them in a bowl by the door' one.

Or, if you're like us this year, the twin traditions of 'going out to the pub to drink Hobgoblin beer', then 'taking a whole load of uneaten chocolate and sweets into the office on Monday morning'.

(Image credit www.freeimages.co.uk)

Friday, 30 October 2009

More than skin deep

Last night Channel 4 broadcast the story of Katie Piper. Eighteen months ago she was a happy 23-year-old with a burgeoning career as a model and TV presenter.

All this changed in an instant when sulphuric acid was thrown in her face by an attacker. Last night's film documented the progress she has made since then, the incredible reconstructive surgery she's undergone and the steps she is taking to deal with life in the here and now.

I started off not really watching it - as usual there was something going on with the Internet that seemed more important at first - but then I started taking more and more attention. Here was a young woman that was beautiful - truly beautiful. And that beauty still shone out.

At the end of the show, as seems to be the norm with harrowing documentaries these days, Channel 4 invited viewers to call a number if they were affected by the content.

Bloody hell - you'd have to be in possession of a heart of stone to not be affected.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The madness continues

NaBloPoMo!

Bless you!

That's now three years running I've made the same gag. It's almost a Heritage Joke. I'm sorry.

For those of you who don't know, NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month. The Nation in question is the US, I think, but Blogs, Posting and Months are concepts that transfer quite well across the Atlantic so I think we can safely proceed on that basis.

The idea of NaBloPoMo was originally that bloggers would commit to writing on their blogs once a day for the whole of the month of November. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it's not. It really isn't.

This will be the third year that I've taken part. And I'm more than a little concerned about the whole thing.

You see, one of the beauties of having a blog is the freedom to not update it every now and then. Those nights when the laptop stays unopened. When, quite frankly, you've spent enough time at work with qwerty and his friends, and you're buggered if you're going to do it - unpaid - in the evening. But NaBloPoMo forces you to put that aside. The physical act of writing is one thing, but I do myself no favours because I do insist on having something tangible on the blog, so I can't really get away with putting any old tut on here in November. I have to think about it.

In my first year of NaBloPoMo I was fresh-faced and new to the idea. I blundered through the whole thing like Bambi on ice. Year two saw me doing some serious preparation. I had a whole bunch of things thought out beforehand.

Year three sees me seriously banjaxed. I have nothing. But. But. I've neglected this blog for much of 2009. It's the end of November and I've only done about two posts a week for the year to date. This will not stand.

So, good reader, would you like to sit back and see what November has to bring? I'm not making any promises. It could get messy. But hopefully both of us will get something out of it.

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