Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Moon Under Water

George Orwell, of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four fame, wrote an essay in the 1940s about his perfect city pub, called the Moon Under Water. For those of us of a drinking disposition, he paints a perfect picture. Go have a read, if you like.

The key thing about Orwell's essay, in which he goes into some detail about the atmosphere, appearance and facilities offered, is that it's actually a lament. He notes with regret that no such place exists. There is no Moon Under Water, certainly not as he describes.

For many, me included, a pub is more than just a place that serves alcohol, although that is quite an important part of the mix. People tend not to get misty-eyed about their local Starbucks, after all. The pub should be more than just a place to get your beer buzz. In fact, excessive inebriation is unnecessary. I've mentioned that here before now; a good pub is a home from home, a meeting-place for the like-minded, somewhere you can shut yourself away from the outside world.

Over the years, to those of us who are not strangers to the public-house, the Moon Under Water has taken on a near-mythical status. We've been looking for such a place for years. But can it be possible that the Moon Under Water could exist, especially now, some 60 years after its original invention? Pubs are shutting across Britain at an alarming rate, down to a number of factors including the rise of the stay-at-home drinker, the smoking ban and the desire of a handful of pub-owning corporations to strengthen their respective bottom lines. Surely, in these commercial times, the Moon is just a fanciful dream?

It isn't, you know. I think I found it on Friday.

It was down a side-street, my Moon. Accessible, but not too accessible. From the outside it had that bluff, no-nonsense appearance you get with Victorian architecture, a look that was continued inside. But there was no falseness about this Moon. To use Orwell's phrase, it had "that solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century." We stepped through a public bar, tidy and basic, with no fripperies intended to distract the clientele. A row of gleaming beerpulls topped the bar, advertising ales from across the country. There was a fireplace, a dartboard and that was it. But the welcome was tangible.

We ordered our pints of Butty Bach, and moved through to the saloon bar where the button-backed leather benches nestled snugly under wood-panelled walls. A doorway led to a rear garden, a rarity for a backstreet Birmingham pub.

This Moon had food - nothing to trouble the Michelin star people - but simple, wholesome and not a microwave oven in sight. I was taken by the full English breakfast, available from 1.00pm on a Saturday. Anyone that thinks 1.00pm is a good time to be taking breakfast is alright in my book.

The three of us could sit in our Moon and talk, discussing the important matters of the day. Politics, finance, families and why Windows Vista is so crap. There was the gentle hubbub of people enjoying themselves, with no amplified music getting in the way. I looked around and saw white collar, blue collar and no-collar. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.

We ordered more drinks, this time the Enville Ale, brewed using honey in the fermentation process to give it just a hint of sweetness. The barmaid took her time to work the beer engines under her control. I've tried this myself and it's easy to mess up, but she pulled three perfect pints all the time smiling, chatting and keeping eye contact with her regulars.

"This is as close to perfection as I think I'll get," I said to myself, as I lifted my third pint to my lips, this time a Black Sheep ale from Yorkshire. I've been searching for as long as I've been going to pubs, 20 years or more. This was, as near as makes no difference, my Moon Under Water.

Of course, that's not it's real name. I'd like to tell you where it is, but I don't want hordes of people descending upon it. It's taken me long enough to find it, I'm not sure I want to share it yet. Selfish, yes, but some things are best left secret.

I'm sure George would understand.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Eleven years and counting

Regular readers, please indulge me for a second if you will. This is mainly intended for one person.

Exactly eleven years ago today I was wearing - for me - very odd clothes. You had a blinding headache. We were standing in front of a man in robes, making some fairly heavy promises.

Here we are now, a little older and, in my case, a lot fatter. There are times when words fail even me, so I'll let the good folks at xkcd help out:

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A novel approach to goodwill gestures

(Below is a copy of a real letter I sent to B&Q Head Office last week. I gave them seven days to reply, but they didn't. Note for our foreign readers - B&Q is a large chain of DIY stores here in the UK.)

Dear CEO

Please allow me a few minutes of your time. I understand you’re a busy person, and I am just one customer. You may be variously interested, amused and, perhaps, horrified by the story I have to tell.

It started with a £3.48 pack of light bulbs. I visited one of your warehouse stores this evening to buy them. That was the easy part.

I was pleased to see that your store had installed self-service express tills. This is a good thing. Only having one item to pay for, and mindful of the word ‘Express’ signposted above each one, I thought I’d use the nearest one. I scanned my light bulbs and fed a £20 note into the machine. A receipt came out, confirming my £20 payment, together with £1.52 in coins. The note dispenser flashed, balefully. There was a pause. No money. Then the beacon above the till lit up to alert a staff member.

“No problem,” I thought to myself, “these things happen. There’s probably a procedure to deal with this sort of thing.” At this point I was calm. I could see a (non B&Q) technician maintaining one of the other tills and I immediately assumed this was just one of those teething errors you get with new technology.

The first staff member approached me and I explained my predicament. He checked my receipt and pressed a magnetic key to the till. He entered some service menu on the screen and saw a message saying that £15 was outstanding. He cleared this message but seemed a little uncertain about what to do next. “I need to get a supervisor,” he said and disappeared.

After a while I heard him calling over the tannoy and M came to see me. At this point I was relieved. Perhaps, I thought, this is the sort of thing that needs the expertise and training only a supervisor can bring to bear.

How wrong I was.

M started pawing at the till’s screen in the same way you or I might deal with the flight deck of the Space Shuttle. He would get into a sub-menu, look at it blankly, and then press the ‘back’ key. Then he’d go back into the same sub-menu once again. And pause. And press the ‘back’ key until we were back, literally, at square one. He was displaying all the signs of being under-trained on the technology.

Perhaps we would still be there now. Some people may have found watching M’s attempts to train himself - by accessing the same screens again and again – thrilling stuff. Call me fussy if you will, but I was beginning to find it less than entertaining. I expressed this to M. “Look,” I said, “I am in a bit of a hurry and this doesn’t appear to be getting us anywhere. Could you just refund me the £15 and sort out your till afterwards?”

“I have to see the cash position of this till to see what it’s paid out.”

“But we know that it owes me £15. The on-screen message said so. Can’t you just sort it out and let me go with my money? I am in a hurry.”

M's response was enlightening. “I can’t do this if you talk to me.” I think my eyebrows were disappearing under my hairline at this point. But he went on. “I could do this far more quickly if you weren’t interrupting me.”

I am just a customer, after all. I’ll just stand here meekly, shall I?

Despite his somewhat misplaced confidence, M's continued pressing of random buttons wasn’t getting me any closer to my £15. I plucked up the courage to inform him that, if he didn’t mind, I was a little unhappy, and, terribly sorry and everything, but I’d really quite like my money back, regardless of your company policy and/or security procedure. He mentioned something about time locks before walking off.

Just to inform you, in case you’ve lost the will to live by this point, that I’d now been standing there for quite a while. A small crowd was forming. Your in-store security guard had sidled up and was eyeballing me. And I was still £15 down on the deal.

A rather curt M returned with £15 from another till and a blank piece of A4. “I need your name and address”.


“In case this till doesn’t balance.”

“Excuse me, but are you calling me a liar?”

I’m just guessing, but that’s not a phrase you want a customer to be saying to one of your staff, is it? But the piece de resistance came from M in response.

“Look, sir, I’m doing this as a goodwill gesture.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“This is a goodwill gesture. I shouldn’t be doing this.”

What a novel concept. I must admit, my knowledge of the retail trade is somewhat limited. My understanding had always been that the ‘giving of correct change’ was actually a prerequisite of the successful retail outlet. A hygiene factor, if you will. Not something extra. Not a ‘goodwill gesture’.

Let me give you some pointers. Acknowledging that I’ve been inconvenienced - that would be showing goodwill. Sorting out my problem quickly - that would be showing goodwill. Someone - just someone - saying, “Sorry.” That would have had ‘goodwill’ written all over it.

As it happened, the only goodwill I received from your staff this afternoon was £15 of my own money, grudgingly given to me after a ten minute wait, once I’d provided my home address.

Is this the ‘delighting our customers’ you talk about on your corporate website? Would I go past ‘delighted’ and reach ‘enraptured’ should I be able to carry out a simple transaction without a ten-minute wait and gentle accusations of criminality?

I’d quite like a reply – you can call it a ‘goodwill gesture’ if you want – in the next seven days. Anything that attempts to defend your position with phrases such as “It is company policy…” or “Our standard procedures require…” will be treated by me first with disbelief, moving swiftly onto hilarity and finishing shortly afterwards with outright rejection. You might like to include the following in your reply:

- Your confirmation that the till in question was faulty and hadn’t returned the £15, which will give me comfort that I am no longer a fugitive from justice, somehow under suspicion of diddling one of the UK’s best loved DIY brands out of cold hard cash;
- A reassurance that the staff at the above-mentioned branch have now received sufficient training to be able to resolve dispensing problems with their new self-service tills. This to include workarounds involving obtaining notes from standard tills should it be necessary;
- Confirmation that the piece of paper with my name and address has been securely destroyed; and
- An apology. (This is the biggie).

I guess that I’ve probably wasted about 10 minutes of your time by now. Just like your organisation did with me this afternoon. Not nice, is it? And all because of a £3.48 set of light bulbs.

But next week I might want to spend £10,000 on a kitchen. And I won’t be doing it with B&Q.

After all, there are others more deserving of my goodwill.

Yours sincerely


Sunday, 23 August 2009

Clothes maketh the man

"I've bought you some new clothes," Katie said down the phone to me. "You're spectacularly bad at buying clothes, so I've taken matters into my own hands."

She's not wrong. There's an orange jumper and brown corduroy trousers combo from my past that has mentally scarred us both.

Katie is quite used to me returning from somewhat unwilling trips to the shops, bearing new clothes that make me look like a myopic 1970's accountant on a stag-night. I have no idea. So I was keen to see what she'd got me this time around.

Was I going to be Birmingham's answer to Daniel Craig, replete with barely repressed animal energy, underneath restrained tailoring? Or was I going to have the cool relaxed bohemian look that's so popular with, well, relaxed people from Bohemia?

"You'll like it," she said. "It's a cultural reference from the 1970s. Very 'in' at the moment."

I've never been 'in', fashion-wise. The nearest I've been, sartorially, was 'near'. Well, actually, 'within walking distance', if you want to split hairs. So what did I end up with?

I ask you.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

All things must pass

In my late teens and early twenties I spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around with people with way more hair than me, wearing scruffy leather and listening to music at head-splitting volume. Beer was involved on a regular basis.

It was great.

Central to this lifestyle was a pub in the centre of Birmingham called the Costermonger. Well, I say "pub" - technically it was a pub in that it was licensed to serve alcoholic beverages. But if you were expecting it to confirm to the romantic ideal of public houses - horse brasses, cheeky barmaids and pints of foaming ale in front of a roaring fire - you'd have been bitterly disappointed. And ever-so-slightly scared, too.

I mean, look at this picture of it here. That's the outside. That's the picture they want to project to passers-by. Not exactly welcoming, is it?

Intimidation was the key. It was in a basement, for starters. I know this worked wonders for 'Cheers', but at the Costers, nobody knew your name. Although they might have been interested in your blood type. It was dark. In fact, the Costers went beyond dark and came out the other side. What they must have done was to consider the appropriate amount of lighting to illuminate the available space, then divided that number by ten. The steps down to the bar were reasonably well lit, so the denizens within could check out new entrants, a bit like a rather-less-safe version of the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars.

Everything at the Costermonger was accompanied by a soundtrack of heavy engineering being carried out in a battle zone. It was unremitting. Anything with discernable lyrics was introduced as "One for the ladies."

Safely ensconced in the heaving mass of near-humanity, you'd then fight your way to the bar to be served by creatures with wilful piercings, Yakuza tattoos and/or both. The male bar staff were even scarier. A pint of fizzy yellow liquid would be the perfect way to start the evening. But pretty soon you'd need to visit the Scariest Toilets in Christendom. Mere words don't help to describe the horror. To this day I still wake up from time to time, like a Vietnam veteran, with flashbacks concerning the Costermonger loos.

Looking back, the Costers must have featured fairly highly on the 'Walk in smiling, walk out scratching' scale. But I bloody loved it. I adored every scary, loud, sweaty, cramped second I spent there. It was great. It was my place.

I drifted away from the Costermonger over time. I started listening to different types of music, I mixed with different people. I started going to different places.

And now, some twenty years later, I'm properly grown-up. I know how pensions work. I'm fully versed in different varieties of wine and can tell the difference between ciabatta and foccacia bread. My idea of a good pub is definitely going to involve decent seating and sanitation.

But when I heard, a few days ago, that the Costermonger was going to close for good, a little bit of me died. These days I would be more likely to crowdsurf a Slipknot gig than I would be to go to the Costermonger. But nevertheless, part of my youth has gone forever.

It doesn't matter how respectable you get, apparently. You can still hark back.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

My handmodelling career will just have to wait

I've been doing more filming. Or I have been filming. I'm being a verb construction pedant - sorry about that. It comes with having to type more slowly - it's giving me too much time to think about what I'm writing.

And that's not necessarily a good thing.

Anyway. We were aiming to finish off the filming that had started back in June. You may recall I wrote about this, and the injuries that arose, at the time.

Today we were at an abandoned industrial estate somewhere in the Worcestershire countryside. The perfect place for a gritty crime drama, if not quite right for an Edwardian romantic comedy. Luckily we were doing the former rather than the letter.

Today it was planned to film one of the big set-piece fight scenes. Lots of extras, heavy duty weaponry and fruity language. They're clearly not going for a 15 certificate, put it that way. In fact, looking back at some of the ad-libs, I think 18 might be pushing it a bit.

There was a great shot of three of us, me and two fully tooled-up lackeys, walking towards camera on our way to the shoot-out. If Chris, the director, doesn't put it in slo-mo for the final cut I'll be very distressed. I can't do 'macho' in real-time, it always looks a little more 'churlish/dyspeptic'.

The plot called for me to receive a knee to the groin from the heroine. She was very good, and treated me gently, so I acted-up being the recipient of her tender mercies. Basically, rolling around on the floor and grimacing always works, I find.

What was supposed to happen next was that I'd get up and run for the van, the heroine being distracted by the desire to shoot the living bejesus out of a dozen or so extras.

The getting up bit worked well. No problems with getting up. I can get up with the best of them.

The 'stumbling over' bit definitely wasn't in the script. Neither was 'falling head-first into a muddy puddle in your best suit' part of the deal. Especially the 'breaking your fall with your forehead' aspect.

There was a silence. Chris was heard to mutter: "Bugger. I have no insurance."

Assorted cast members gathered around to lift my prone form to a standing position. First aid kits were offered. Mud-caked and bloody, I was. Which is not the ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon, I'm here to tell you.

Then a thought occurred, and I went over to the cameraman. "Did you get that?" I asked. He ran the footage through. "Yes, here it is."

"Ooh. That looks good. And look, I'm all bloody and mud-caked. You'd spend a fortune on make-up to get this look. Let's go with it."

So Chris did a little re-writing to suggest I'd taken a non-lethal shot to the back. This allowed me to look suitably windswept when I faced the heroine a little later. Everyone was happy. Well, at least, we were until we realised we needed to shoot a whole batch of dialogue from earlier in the scene. Some careful editing might be required, I feel.

Sitting here, it turns out that the part of me that didn't use my noggin for deceleration instead used my right hand. Eighteen stones of morbid obesity and cynicism landing on one small part of me. I can't actually grip right now. And typing is a bit hit-and-miss, too. Which is, I think, where we came in.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Steven Segal just does not have these problems.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Cover me, I'm going in

I would like to assure my readers, especially those based over the Atlantic, of my wellbeing.

I understand that you may be worried about me. After all, I have a doctor's appointment this afternoon. And if the reports circulating around the US are to be believed, our National Health Service consists of white-coated facsimiles of Vlad the Impaler. I fully expect to spend the next 72 hours on a trolley, sorry, gurney, drenched in various fluids, only some of which will have come from me.

At least, that's what Fox News is saying will happen.

I was particularly interested to hear of the following assertion in something called the Investors' Business Daily (I'll be honest, it's not in my Favourites list):
"People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless"
That'll be the same Stephen Hawking who was born in the UK and has lived his entire 67-year life here. In fact he was recently quoted as saying: "I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

Perhaps the good people at IBD were confused by his accent?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Happy Flant Day

Scene: the ants' nest. About 2.30pm. There is a general hubbub.

Ant 1: What's going on? What's with all the panic?
Ant 2: It's Flant Day?
Ant 1: Flant Day? What's that?
Ant 2: Flant Day!
Ant 1: Look, Geraldine, simply repeating it isn't going to aid my comprehension. What's Flant Day?
Ant 2: Flying Ant Day! It's the day when us virgin queens take flight. We all do it. All of the flying ants do it on the same day.
Ant 1: First I've heard of it.
Ant 2: Didn't you get the memo from Nest Central?
Ant 1: Oh, I never pay that lot any attention. Their memos seem to be for the drones, anyway. They're so boring. It's always "Leaf mould production is up 10% this week". Means nothing to me.
Ant 2: Well, if you'd read the latest one from them, you'd understand that today is when we virgin queens get to fly. We'll finally be able to make use of our wings.
Ant 1: Oh, you mean these things here! (Flaps vigorously). I did wonder what they were for. Quite frankly, they're a bit of a pain here in the nest. The workers seem to do well enough without them.
Ant 2: It's a great honour to be a virgin queen. We get to leave the nest and....
Ant 1: Whoa. Hold on one second. Leave the nest? No-one told me about that. I never signed up for leaving the nest.
Ant 2: You need to leave the nest so you can found a new one. That's how it works. We leave the nest, mate with a male, then start a whole new nest. That's how our Queen got started.
Ant 1: There is so much that's wrong with that statement I don't know where to begin.
Ant 2: Did you never pay attention in virgin queen class?
Ant 1: I skipped that day.
Ant 2: Typical. Anyway. We all leave the nest on our nuptial flight. Those of us lucky enough get to mate with a male, then we go and form a nest.
Ant 1: "Mate with a male?" What does "mate" mean? For that matter, what about "male"?
Ant 2: I really don't have the time to explain. You're going to have to let instinct guide you. All you need to know is that if you're lucky, you get to be a Queen of your own nest.
Ant 1: And this male you speak of? Does this male stay and help out?
Ant 2: Oh no, he dies off pretty shortly afterwards. Once you've had his, erm, contribution you're on your own. You simply become an egg-laying machine.
Ant 1: Riiiight.
Ant 2: It's an honour, isn't it?
Ant 1: Quite frankly this isn't what I expected.
Ant 2: You don't get to choose, Kimberley. And in any case, you might not get to meet a male.
Ant 1: No?
Ant 2: Goodness me no. Apparently less than one in ten thousand of us gets lucky. The rest of us will either get eaten by predators, or simply die alone and exhausted.
Ant 1: Bugger this for a game of soldier ants.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Erudition, erudition, erudition

Despite the onset of a cold (Katie) and a night of interrupted sleep (both of us) our conversation this morning was nothing short of sparkling.

Me: Meh.

Katie: I concur.

The language of Shakespeare.


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