Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Happy Fat Tuesday

Or Mardi Gras, or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods. Shrove Tuesday is the name it gets here. Well, Pancake Day actually, but that's marketing for you.

What exactly is a Shrove, by the way? It sounds vaguely Biblical, which I suppose is appropriate:

And he came down from the mountain and he shrove them in twain whence they stood. And there was rejoicing. For they were unbecoming. And in need of being shroven.

Actually, it does sound like a past tense verb, now you come to mention it:

Mother: Bernard, what are you doing alone in your room? Why is the door locked?
Bernard: Nothing mum, just shriving.
Mother: You shrove all day yesterday and ended up with blurred vision. Get yourself out in the fresh air.

Ah. I've just had a look at Wikipedia and it turns out that to shrive means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and penance. I think I was possibly heading in the wrong direction with my example.

Anyway. Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, which normally means having to give something up for forty days. I have a bit of a problem with this. OK, you may say, nobody claims it should be easy. That's probably the main idea of it. You know, penance, suffering, the whole hardship and hairshirtedness thing.

It's not as if I couldn't do with giving a few things up. This blog started off as a weight-loss journal, after all. How I look back on those happy days of continually reducing tonnage with fondness. So we've established that my problem isn't exactly finding bad habits to give up.

The issue, for me, is that it's all-or-nothing, black-and-white, binary in nature. You give something up completely, no half measures. For instance, I could say: "I shall be giving up booze for Lent. Well, during the week. I might have a cheeky snifter or two on a Saturday night. And maybe the odd cleansing ale on a Friday if it's been one of of those weeks." But it's not going to work, Lent-wise. My mother, who actually still goes to Mass (on behalf of the rest of us, I suspect) wouldn't approve.

And you don't want to cross my mother. Trust me on this.

So I'm a little stuck. I need some ideas of things I can be absolutist about giving up. Anyone care to share?

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Something for the weekend, sir?

Well, that's torn it. As bad news goes, it's not up there with planetary strife, the collapse of the financial system or the release of a new Girls Aloud album, but it's still bad news.

The place I used to go for haircuts has closed down. Oh buggeration.

It's bad enough that I will no more have my tresses attended to by the lovely Liz. Many a hungover Saturday morning has, in the past, been enlightened by the way she would wield sharp implements mere inches from my ears whilst smiling winningly. My Liz-free future is bad enough, for sure. But the abject sheriff-shooting, village-burning, crap-on-a-biscuit running around involved in finding another suitable place is almost too much to bear.

It's one of the few things that is easier for women. Hairdressers want female custom. Customers who attend regularly, have additional services like colouring, nails, Indian head massage, Hopi ear candles (I know, it's a new one on me, too), and who are quite willing to spend a fortune. Customers who will, on each visit, buy up enough chemicals in the form of creams, unctions, styling mousses, sprays and conditioners to deforest an area of the Amazon basin the size of Norfolk.

What these places don't really want is blokes who go in every six weeks, after being nagged to do so, tell the hapless hairdresser: "Can you just do what you did last time?" sit in sullen silence and leave no tip. Men who look on the whole subject of hair products as something to be feared.
"Styling gel, sir?"
"What, and have people thinking I like showtunes?"
So hairdressers go all out to attract the female vote. Us men have some tough choices:
  • The backstreet barber - even if it's not in a backstreet, it has this sort of backstreety-ness about it. Lots of combs in jars of luminous blue stuff. Could be Gatorade, for all you know. Go in smiling, come out scratching.
  • The chain - take a ticket, join a queue. Cheap and cheerless. You may have your hair cut by someone holding the right end of the scissors. But normally they just get the shaver out and ask you what number you want. This passes for conversation.
  • Ye Olde Traditional - looks for all the world like an old-world barber shop. But essentially you're really just paying £5 more for the chain experience (see above) in a room with walnut veneer cupboards.
  • Ladies hairdresser, but does men, too - you're going to get a pissed-off junior who wanted to be the next Nicky Campbell but is instead having to snip away at some bloke in a t-shirt advertising a brand of beer. Yes love, I know how you feel. I wanted to be over six feet tall and meet Scarlett Johansson. Life gives you lemons, and all that....

I almost found a place this morning. The sign advertising 'Hot Towel Slaves' was, I must admit, the first thing that caught my eye. Novel, but I suppose you have to keep the clientele entertained. On close inspection that last word turned out to be 'Shaves', of course, but I guess you knew that all along. That's another shop in the locality where I can't show my face again.

So I'm stuck. Katie tells me that the place she goes to also does gents, but going to the same place as her brings back memories of those times my mother would take me for haircuts as a child. Perhaps they'd have a plank across the seat for me to sit on.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Random is as random does

By all accounts, the latest big thing (coming hard on the heels of the previous latest big thing and about 20 seconds before the next big thing) is 25 Random Facts. It goes like this:
  • Come up with 25 random facts about yourself that no-one else knows;
  • Post them on your blog, Facebook notes, MySpace page or other Web 2.0 portal of choice;
  • Wonder why no-one in what we shall call the 'virtual world' has made any comment whatsoever;
  • Wonder why everyone in what we shall call the 'real world' is giving you a wide berth;
  • Pass the fun on!
Part of me is with the good folks at Despair.com about this one. After all, surely I can come up with something more interesting for my readers than 25 trivial snippets? Surely, this part of me thinks, there is some aspect of the human condition that I should be hunting down, placing a glass over and dissecting with finely-wrought prose?

The other part of me thinks, "Sod it, I've not posted anything in days," and has the laptop.
  1. I was born exactly nine months after the moon landings. I should be grateful I wasn't christened 'Buzz'. Although the name 'Apollo' would perhaps have led me to a lucrative career as an exotic dancer.
  2. My real name is spelled unconventionally because my dad, when registering my birth, asked the registrar if there was a charge for extra letters.
  3. Seemingly for months at a time I appear to be afflicted with a singular blocked nostril. Perhaps I'm evolving the skill to breathe round corners.
  4. I'm not allergic to peanuts, but I am inexplicably scared of them.
  5. And spiders bring me out in hives.
  6. I have a mental block which means I often get the words 'umbrella' and 'envelope' mixed up. This causes issues at the Post Office, especially when it's raining.
  7. I don't think I have any celebrity lookalikes. Although some people think it's amusing to claim I look like Chris Moyles.
  8. Or that bloke out of the Mavericks.
  9. I've never grown a beard, which makes (7) and (8) all the more bizarre.
  10. When I was 10, a woman driving a Triumph Toledo knocked me off my Raleigh Chopper on a pelican crossing. I've decided this is the most 1970s accident it's possible to have without a wah-wah pedal being involved. Perhaps I should have been wearing a tanktop and carrying a packet of Spangles?
  11. I still can't hear the word 'phenomenon' without humming "MahNaMahNa" quietly to myself.
  12. And if anyone starts a sentence with "I believe...", I find myself adding "...that children are our future."
  13. You know all that weight I lost, back in 2007? I haven't checked properly, but my waistband tells me that some of those pounds have crept back. And invited a few mates, too.
  14. I was a teenage hooker. How much more interesting would this list be, if I didn't add that 'hooker' is a rugby position?
  15. Brandon Flowers might ask: "Are we human, or are we dancers?" I fall heavily into the former category.
  16. September 3rd 2004: the last day I drove the 25 miles to work without having to question another driver's mental capacity.
  17. There's an alternative universe where I write chick-lit under the pen-name Marcella De La Rue. Probably best that it stays there. Marcella isn't that accomplished.
  18. My body chemistry is mainly carbon, but with a higher-than-average pie quotient.
  19. I am officially the Worst Motorbike Pillion Passenger of the 20th Century. There is a lamp-post in Liverpool that will forever be a part of me.
  20. I'm not even certain what constitutes a good hair day.
  21. There are spineless creatures in the inky black depths of the ocean that are better at DIY than me. Seriously. I walk through the door with a new power tool and Katie is making hotel reservations.
  22. I once nearly crashed a small helicopter into Milton Keynes.
  23. I contain scenes of fantasy violence. Or am I confusing myself with 'The Golden Compass'?
  24. Until recently, I was unaware it was even possible to put the lid back on a half-empty tube of Pringles.
  25. Always leave your audience wanting more, I believe.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

To twit, or not to twit?

Just like most of the Western world, or so it seems, I have decided to have a look at this Twitter malarkey. Actually, that's not entirely true, I've been on Twitter since August 2007 - practically the Jurassic age - so I can look at all these current adopters with a thousand-yard stare, adopt a random American accent and declare, in the manner of a Vietnam veteran: "You weren't there, man, you know nothing."

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last six months, Twitter is a service that allows people to write short text messages - no more than 140 characters, including the spaces - and share them with the masses. Or in my case, about three people I actually know and a whole bunch of complete strangers who've elected to follow for me for reasons best known to themselves.

I joined it all those months ago, wrote a few messages (I'm sorry, I refuse to call them 'Tweets', that's just silly) and forgot about it, mainly because I knew no-one else on it. It felt a little like Alexander Graham Bell, The Early Years - after all, if you've got a telephone but no-one else has, it's all a little pointless.

Actually, I've just looked back at some of the things I wrote at the time, and it's full of insightful stuff like: "Must avoid making the tea", "Just had some tea", "Watching Jon Stewart on the telly". So I can hardly make out that I've been pushing the boundaries of human experience. Unless the boundaries in question are rather close. And easily pushable.

In recent months, though Twitter has become a Very Big Thing Indeed. People who know nothing about such matters, who couldn't tell a blog from a google from a flickr (what is it with the web and all these daft names - are we all five years old now?) are now aware of Twitter. The first skirmishes in the 'Facebook vs. Twitter' war appear to be getting underway. Which seems a little like comparing apples with pianos, but appears to be par for the course.

Now the celebs are involved. Everyone's favourite dinner companion, Stephen Fry, is on there. The nation's second-best morning DJ is Twittering away, too. The thought of the great and the good, communicating with the rest of us without a layer of PR people, is revolutionary. I even had a personal response from Dave Gorman the other day.

Everyone to whom I mention this news is singularly unimpressed, but I could care less.

I'm plugging away with Twitter for the moment. I'm a little sporadic, to be honest; I'll go days without updating it, then I'll remember and there'll be a burst of activity. A bit like this blog. The 140-character limit forces me to be economical with the verbiage. Completely unlike this blog. And I must admit, there's something I find quite attractive about getting a sneak peak into the minutiae of other people's daily lives. The triumphs, the struggles, the burnt toast. I suspect that says something profound about me. Or else I'm just a nosey bugger.

For more detail, feel free to follow me at http://twitter.com/fatboyfat

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Print: Fail. Humour: Fail.

I despair sometimes. I really do.

We have a shared printer at our office. It's a big one that takes a miraculous array of paper sizes and prints in glorious technicolour. Having said that, it uses four-colour toner cartridges that cost the same as the Bolivian National Debt, whilst emitting a strange warm aroma that can't be too healthy for anyone sitting within a 10 metre radius.

As a shared printer, it gets all sorts of print jobs thrown at it. Brochure proofs, Powerpoint handouts, shiny graphical things. You name it, the printer will churn it out, under a haze of carcinogens. One colleague insists on printing their monochrome text documents on it too. That's a bit like getting Michelangelo to paint your kitchen.

I sense the printer is not happy with this latter colleague.

I can tell this because the printer breaks down with alarming regularity. We used to have a small, gnomic man come round pretty much every day, to tinker and tut. Last summer he had to go back to his mountain hall, and since then we've been stuck with trying to decipher the service messages on the little LCD screen.

Such an instance occurred last week. A colleague was standing by the printer, a look of abject despair painted on her face. "It's done it again," she sighed.

"What's the screen say?" I asked, in best Boy Scout mode.
She peered at the grey characters: "Jam in print tray."
"Well, there's your problem, right away," I opined. "Who's gone and put jam in the sodding printer? Honestly, if people can't get through the day without introducing fruit conserve to our office equipment, there is very little hope for us as a species."

She paused. And sighed again. And rolled her eyes.

"No. I think it's a paper jam." She pronounced the italics.

I ask you. Pearls before swine.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Shoe protests: a spotter's guide

In recent months we've all seen a new weapon in the armoury of your common-or-garden political activist. The shoe protest. It's been a perennial favourite among the shouty classes in certain countries for some time, but a couple of recent events have helped to push footwear fulmination into the stratosphere.

First there was the Iraqi journalist slinging his slip-ons at previous US President George W 'The Decider' Bush. And most recently we've had some home-grown high jinks, with the Chinese prime minister being on the receiving end of a rather poorly-aimed training shoe while giving a speech at Cambridge University.

I suppose it was too much to expect an Oxford brogue.

Having said that, such a choice in payload would have said more about the sender than the recipient. A hand-tooled shoe with heavyweight welted sole denotes the more thoughtful type of protester. The type whose main gripe might be the scheduling on Radio 4 or the willingness, or otherwise, of the local deli to stock free-range couscous.

And so, as a service to political leaders behind lecterns worldwide, and following the tradition for which this blog is known, I offer below a guide to translating the message behind the shoe.

The Croc - quite frankly, whatever the thrower is protesting about, you can happily disregard them. They clearly let slip the bonds of sanity some time ago.

The deck shoe - hmm. Have you threatened to close down a marina recently?

The Nike High-Top - are you John Lithgow and have you recently banned dancing in your local town? In which case, look out for Kevin Bacon in the audience.

The Manolo Blahnik slingback - actually, this might not be a protest at all, more of a request to join the thrower in the bar afterwards for a Cosmopolitan.

The Doctor Marten boot - you've pissed off a Goth. He'll probably be too dissolute to do too much else. But be careful in case there's a patchouli oil follow-on.

The sandal - a tricky one, this. It depends very much on where you are. If you're standing at a lectern in a temperate climate, then this is a bit of a classic, if stereotypical, case. Expect something involving furry creatures or CO2. However, if you're in a warmer country, somewhere sandy, perhaps, then quite frankly you're on your own, sunshine.

Any shoes in a pair - this isn't a protest. You have taken a job in a bowling alley.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Mondays are for drinking with the Seldom Seen Kid

In my snow-and-horrifying-traffic-capers-related excitement I forgot to mention last night.

The BBC, in their ultimate wisdom, recorded a session with Elbow earlier in January, at Abbey Road studios. They invited along the BBC Concert Orchestra and a full choir. Someone trained a whole load of cameras on them, then the Beeb decided to show the whole thing on the telly. Cue lots of "Actually the BBC licence fee is not bad value for money" style-discussions.

Those of you reading this in the next few days might be in time to see it on iPlayer, if you'd like. I recommend the track 'Mirrorball', by the way - about 11 and a half minutes in. If you don't get chills, check for a pulse.

Those of you coming along later will have to make do with this track below. Make sure you do:

Doing it sideways

It was never like this when we were kids. I shall brook no argument in this matter.

For starters, snow was a regular occurrence. I am sure of this. Every year, without fail, there would be a covering. It would be deep, crisp and, indeed, even. It would lay round about, as it should. You could be guaranteed a good few inches overnight.


We've had a bit of a drought, snow-wise, for the past few years. You'd get an odd smattering every now and then, but really there was nothing to write home about. Which has made today's snow a little bit of a shock to many people. Despite it being the sort of snowfall that would cause snorts of derision amongst Scandinavians, Canadians and those from the northern US states, the papers have managed to portray today as something akin to the country grinding to a halt.

The snow was light this morning when I departed for work, but fell steadily throughout the day. A sympathetic boss let me leave early, and I started the 25-mile trudge back home. It was as I sat in a line of stationery traffic that I noticed something.

My car appears to have several settings to allow driving in extreme conditions. The normal mode is in use most of the time, as Tesco's carpark doesn't tend to provide too much of a dynamic challenge. There is an enhanced traction control setting, for getting by when things get a little slippy underwheel. And there's a third level, which switches all the driver aids off. You need to be wearing your brave pants for that one. Or at least, a white racing suit and matching helmet.

All of this trickery is managed by a single button on the dashboard. Unpressed, and we're in normal mode. If I need a little help, a single press gets the electronic traction angels sitting on my worried shoulder. But here's the thing. To switch everything off, moving swiftly into mad-bugger-trackday-banzai-mode, you press the self-same button for half-a-second longer.

You can see where this might lead, can't you?

Of course, my car's manufacturer has thought of this, and so puts little indicator lights on the dashboard to tell you what mode you're in. Unfortunately, the lights for mommy-I'm-scared and hairychested-bejesus are pretty much identical. So you have to rely on other visual cues. In my case, the gaunt black-clad figure sharpening ancient farmyard equipment whilst sat in the passenger seat would be a bit of a hint. Or the fact that a casual glance out of the window showed me heading sideways toward a crash barrier, 400-year-old yew tree, cliff-edge or suddenly interested bus queue.

Clearly, there are some buttons best left unpressed.


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