Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Open wide

This morning I got the taste of latex and another man's fingers in my mouth.

Be honest: that got your attention, didn't it?

My dentist is an unusual chap. Mind you, I suppose a professional life that involves peering at the tonsils of strangers while knuckle-deep in saliva does make you a little differently-wired.

Having said that, I have had an unusual relationship with dentists. My first one, when I was a small child, was Chinese. The thing is, middle-class Birmingham families like us in the early 1970s didn't get to mix with that many people from different ethnic groups. Dr Chen was the first and only Chinese person I'd ever met at that point. So, to my five-year-old mind, all dentists were Chinese. Or perhaps all Chinese people were dentists, I can't remember.

This would have made any trips to Beijing deeply confusing. Luckily, Great Yarmouth was as eastern as we would travel at the time.

For many years as I got older I didn't go to a dentist regularly. As a result, in 1996 when Katie finally dragged me to the practice her family had used since she was born, my teeth were not in a good condition. (I know some Americans read this blog. Hello. Suspend your disbelief for a moment, folks, but some people in the UK have bad teeth. I know, it's a shock.)

By the time I sat in that dentist's chair 14 years ago, my mouth was a battlefield. Or rather, it was the aftermath, all craters and tombstones. Time and amalgam heals all wounds, and the various holes were patched up in the finest NHS traditions. My mouth is now like a Soviet engineering project; everything's workable, but there's a lot of metal involved. On a good day I reckon I can pick up FM on my lower jaw.

So now I take care. I brush, I sluice. I'm no stranger to floss. My dentist tells me I have lovely gums. Crap teeth, but lovely gums. I see soup featuring heavily in my future.

This morning was just a routine check-up. As I lay there, examining his ceiling tiles rather more closely than is healthy, my dentist poked and prodded while calling out to his nurse his litany.

"S4, NTL, P7, JJG, N4, missing, G22, Duckworth-Lewis Method...."

Then he turned back to me, fixed me with a stare and pronounced: "You know, I reckon the Victorians had the right idea."

This was a conversational gambit I hadn't expected, to be honest. But I tried an honest reply:

"At some level you make a reasonable point. Certainly the Victorians had some good ideas; the development of drainage, for instance, made a huge difference to public health in 1840s London. And then there's the way they put the discoveries of the Industrial Revolution to work. The architecture has many followers, although to me it seems to be a corny pastiche of the Classical era. However you can't deny that it was a time of breathtaking social division, and many commentators believe that the faux puritanism of the middle classes held back the intellectual and cultural development of the country over the latter part of the 19th century."

That's what I would have said. But his hand was in my mouth. So instead it came out as:


I bet dentists never lose arguments.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

10 ideas for TV shows whose time has come

Note to BBC, ITV, Channel 4 commissioners. Channel 5 even. Roll your sleeves up guys, this is pure gold.

1. Geek in a Week - take your average, outgoing and happy teenager. Within the space of seven short days, introduce them to the joys of playing board games with 20-sided dice. Bonus points if they get interested in at least one computer language.

2. Pro-Celebrity Shoplifting - pitting ex-soap stars and former news anchors against the finest exponents of the five-finger discount. Like to see Vanessa Feltz spiriting a frozen turkey away from Asda under her blouse? You're in the right place, sunshine.

3. Challenge Hannukah - two teams help guide a jump-suited girl around Jerusalem in a helicopter, following clues to find hidden treasure. Or perhaps just a box of dates.

4. That's My Intervention - watch as the subject of the show realises that the dinner party she's been invited to is turning into a Life Changing Moment. Sometimes a pint of Amontillado Dry Sherry is a just a cry for help.

5. Come Recycle With Me - four strangers go to each other's houses to separate their various plastic types, rinse out tin cans and figure out whether an empty Bombay Sapphire gin bottle counts as clear or brown glass.

6. Big Cousin - 12 people who sort of know each other are thrown together in a house and asked to perform various tasks. "Didn't we meet at Sharon's wedding?" "You're Auntie Marion's youngest, aren't you?"

7. Nightbus* - live unedited CCTV feed of the West Midlands Travel number 50 bus from Colmore Row to Maypole in the early hours of a Sunday morning. Sleepy Goths, bevvied up girls on their way home from the hen-party. Streaked mascara dramas a-plenty.

8. When Pasta Goes Wrong - sometimes al dente just isn't enough.

9. World's Wildest Team Meetings - who would have thought that the discussion on regional performance indicators would end up like this? Minute this, baby!

10. Live Blogging - I'll just switch my web cam on for this one. The angle's hardly flattering, but who am I kidding?

I tell you, the offers are going to just flood in.

*(Scary thing is, I can see someone actually taking this one on and running with it).

Sunday, 18 July 2010

It's like Russian Roulette - but with more Van Morrison

Picture the scene, dear reader. It is a Sunday afternoon in casa fatboyfat. The two of us are engaged in the sort of advanced relaxation common only amongst people who don't have children.

Right, that's lost all the parent readers.

Katie is (wo)manfully wading her way through the latest Patricia Cornwell. It has a scalpel on the front cover. I've said enough. I am to be found on the other sofa, a netbook computer gently warming my nether regions and putting paid to any plans my mother may have of being a grandparent once more.

"It's a bit quiet." Katie says, ironically breaking the silence. "Do you want to put some music on?"

"Why not? Any requests?"

"No, just put it on shuffle."

This could turn nasty. There are a lot of things hidden in that little black sliver of Apple-branded plastic. Amongst its zeroes and ones there are tracks that wake you up, tracks that bring you down. Songs that speak of love, others that testify the pain of separation.

And quite a lot of widdly guitars.

We settle down. And for about twenty minutes, things are going alright. We get a little bit of Van the Man, from the Astral Weeks album. Some Proclaimers. Even an instrumental Pogues number. My iPod appears to have gone Celtic on me. I'm thankful. I don't own any Enya.

However I'm still on edge. I glance nervously at the remote control as each song ends, waiting to pounce if something threatens to disrupt the mood. You don't get this with 'Play Album'. You know what to expect. You can say to yourself, "It's OK, I fully expect that I'm going to get twelve tracks of witty-yet-occasionally-dark-yet-somehow-uplifting-introspection." (Elbow). Or "Here comes another set of bouncy-ditties-about-your-uncle-who-works-on-the-market." (Squeeze).

But if there's a chance of your flow being disturbed by a seven-minute essay on the essential hopelessness of the human spirit, you know there's a risk of being Radioheaded. It doesn't lead to a restful afternoon. Katie will raise an eyebrow above Patricia, and I will be gently but firmly quizzed.

There are things on that iPod that are the result of going on iTunes after rather too much red wine. There should be a law, or at least some sort of "Are You Absolutely Sure?" process to stop drunken song downloading. But there isn't, so I live in constant fear that the shuffle will unearth one of these Merlot-fuelled moments.

But we'd managed so well this afternoon. Surely nothing could come along to disturb the vibe?

Then this comes on:

"Care to explain this one, then?"

"I have no words."

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Unaccustomed as I am - ten tips for best man speeches

I was recently commissioned to do some writing. That's not nearly as high-powered as it sounds; a colleague asked me to help her husband with an upcoming best man speech. I did so, they were delighted and in return a charity got some money. This went under the category of A Very Good Thing Indeed.

The idea of public speaking strikes fear into the hearts of otherwise fairly level-headed people at the best of times. Then add in the emotional maelstrom that is your typical wedding, with all those potential pitfalls for the unsuspecting speaker. Perhaps it's no surprise that those called upon to speak - whether best man, groom or father of the bride - often get nervous about the whole idea.

So here, free gratis and for nothing, are some hints and tips for aspiring best men.
  1. Timing is everything. A good speech should be like a skirt. Long enough to cover the important items, but short enough to maintain interest. Thank you, I'm here all week. Those three pages of densely-typed A4 might not look like much in your hand, but once you've ploughed relentlessly onto page two, hitting the ten-minute mark, and still haven't mentioned the radiant bridesmaids, you're in trouble. You'll notice heads dropping all over the room. Keep it short - everyone will thank you for it.
  2. You are not Billy Connolly. Neither are you Michael McIntyre, Rich Hall or any other professional comedian. (Unless you actually are of course, in which case, hello Big Yin!) You don't have to cram your speech full of gags. Light-hearted and easy-going works most of the time, not joke after joke after joke. Unless you're 100% confident and adept, you will fall down the first time one of your lines doesn't raise the roof. And it certainly will, unless you...
  3. Know your audience. This is not the Embassy Club. It's a wedding and there is almost certainly going to be a range of ages from kids to oldies. Play it safe, chaps. Your ten minutes worth of carefully-crafted riffing about the groom's personal habits is not going to play well with Great Aunt Edith, especially if she's going to be asked by the pageboys to explain some of the words later on.
  4. Remember, they're starting off on your side. It's a wedding. The congregation have seen two people getting hitched. Relax and enjoy yourself (not too much though, see point 5), you're amongst friends. People are in a good mood and they're looking to you to maintain their high spirits. Well, apart from Cousin Deirdre in the corner, who still hasn't forgiven their Kevin for what he said about our Tracy at Chantelle's christening do in 2008, but there's no pleasing some people.
  5. To drink, or not to drink? Some best men think a little Dutch Courage before they get on their feet will help them through. I'm not a huge fan of this approach - having witnessed a wedding breakfast many years ago where the best man was leaning like a galleon in a force ten gale. It wasn't pretty. Wait until you're finished, then fill your boots.
  6. Say good things about the bride. Fellas, I can't stress this one enough. She is the most beautiful bride we've ever seen. She's the best thing that's ever happened to the groom. She will be the making of him. All of the above might be patently untrue. She might be the one thing coming between you and the groom's weekly beer appreciation evenings. It doesn't matter. This is not the time or the place. Get this wrong and people will be rushing the top table, flaming torches and pitchforks in hand.
  7. The groom: roast gently for several minutes. People will be expecting you to point out the groom's foibles. The endearing habits, the minor irritants. But it's not open season. This is not the place to open up about his past drug use or what exactly happened with that exotic dancer in Riga during the stag weekend. There a subjects you can cover, and some you can't. Past girlfriends? Do. Not. Go. There.
  8. Practice. It's one thing to write a heartwarming, gently amusing speech that hits the mark. It's another thing completely to say it out loud. So say it out loud to yourself. Record it if you can, or press-gang a third party to listen. Those sentences that seemed fine on paper might be awkward when it comes to saying them aloud, and it's best that you discover this before the Big Day, when you've still got time to make corrections. While we're on this subject, a quick note about notes. No-one is expecting you to know your speech off by heart. Notes are fine, but if you're already used to saying these words, you'll know where each bit goes and won't need to bury your nose in your crib sheets.
  9. Old faithfuls. We've all heard the same lines. "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..." (dangerous - this is meant to be ironic and if you die on your backside it will haunt you). "If I could just say a few words, I might make a better public speaker... "(it wasn't funny in the 12th century when it first came out). It might seem attractive to rely on these, but they're just a little formulaic. Speaking of which...
  10. Do your research but do it right. A quick Google shows thousands of sites offering wedding speeches, and it's perhaps tempting for the nervous best man-to-be to sign up and download a cookie-cutter template speech. As approaches go, it's just about OK, but I would avoid it if possible. Apart from anything else, a lot of them are on US sites, where they do things a little differently to the UK. Say what you want to say (bearing in mind tips 1-9 above) and you'll rarely go wrong.
And if all else fails, I'm open to offers.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Joining the Club

A basement. The dingy space under a well-used building. Darkness gathers around the pools of light created by neon strips. Suffocating. Deadening. All-enveloping.

I don't know any of the others. But I recognise a couple. That man there; he works in the hardware store at the end of the street. The fellow in the black coat - I'm sure he drives a taxi uptown somewhere. We're looking at each other, but avoiding eye contact at the same time.

Another man steps out of the shadows. He is younger than most of us. Blond. Square jawed. He addresses the group.

"Welcome to Flan Club. The first rule of Flan Club is: you do not talk about Flan Club. The second rule of Flan Club is: you DO NOT talk about Flan Club! Third rule of Flan Club: if someone yells "stop!", goes limp, or taps out, you get to have their flan. Fourth rule: only two guys to a flan. Fifth rule: one flan at a time, fellas. Sixth rule: the flans are double-baked. No pre-mix, no shop-bought flan cases, no squirty cream. Seventh rule: flans will go on as long as they have to. And the eighth and final rule: if this is your first time at Flan Club, you have to eat flan."

"Erm, excuse me?" It's the hardware guy.


"Weren't the first two rules essentially the same?"

Blond guy sighs.

"Gentlemen. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. And, like all the others, you're going to end up quite partial to flan."

Now it's the taxi driver's turn to speak. "Is quiche alright?"

"I beg your pardon?" Blond guy's voice is almost inaudible under the hum of the city.

"Well, it's just that I quite like to have a savoury option. My doctor says..."

"Enough!" Blond guy erupts. He walks over to a table, laden with a selection of custard-based delights.

"Gentlemen, tonight we will have the finest flan mankind has seen. From a basic Spanish flan to this delightful chocolate variety from the Mexican plains."

He turns to regard the group. His eyes narrow once more. "It has cinnamon."

One by one we step up, an unheard signal driving us forwards. As a newbie I am expected to be in the first wave. I take it all in. "I don't know where to start," I mutter to myself.

Blond guy hears me. He tilts his head as he speaks. "A guy who came to Flan Club for the first time, he was carved out of wood at the beginning. After a few weeks his ass was a wad of cookie dough. Try the English Custard. I made it myself." His eyes shine now. "Whole milk makes all the difference. Don't let anyone try to fob you off with semi-skimmed."

I eat. The creamy egg and milk texture coats my willing tongue. The crust is light, yet hearty. And then, something happens. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom, amongst the flan. I run. I run until my muscles burn and my veins pump battery acid. Then I run some more.

After flan, everything else in your life is like the volume has been turned down.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Dragging something from the jaws of something else

This news just in: mountains can be a little tricky.

You may have been looking for a post with three cheery photos; here's me on three summits, looking windswept yet successful. The post would have tales of derring-do, exertion, man's struggle against the elements. A bit like Touching the Void, but with more Jaffa Cakes.

This is not going to be that kind of post.

Take a look at this picture:

This is the path going up the side of Ben Nevis. It's towards the beginning, about half an hour in. Looks quite pretty, doesn't it? But it's relentless - it goes on like this for much of the mountain's height. No problem. This is a mountain, after all. It's not as if they put summits at ground level to make them easier for larger blokes.

So I went at my pace. Most of my party were ahead of me, but I wasn't last. I was breathing a little heavily, but making solid progress. I carried on around the contour of Meall an t-Suidhe (please don't ask me to pronounce this), a 2,100-foot hill adjoining the Ben itself:

It was at this point that I would have been able to get my first glimpse of the summit, had it not been shrouded in mist. Then Richard (who does this kind of thing for fun when he's not being my boss) came up to meet me; he'd been looking after another member of the party who'd had to turn back.

"Blimey, this is tricky," I panted. "This pack is so rocky."
"Well," he dead-panned, "this is a mountain."

And so we carried on, Richard giving plenty of encouragement. For a while the path gave way to a gradual sandy incline and we made faster progress. Then back on to the rocks again. I'd been going on this staircase of mis-matched boulders for two hours now.

Richard took a picture of me as we reached the zigzag path, roughly halfway up:

To give you an idea, our starting point was further down the valley under my left arm, obscured in this picture by the bulk of Meall an t-Suidhe.

By now, things were getting a little slower. I was stopping more regularly, although Richard showed infinite patience, reminding me how well I'd done so far. We carried on for 20 minutes or so in this vein.

Then, ping! Something gave way at the top of my left leg. I tried lifting it, only to be greeted by pain. I can walk this off, I thought.

I couldn't. We were doing ten steps at a time, then having to stop. This was no way to climb a mountain. Richard didn't sugarcoat things for me. We were still some way below the summit, he told me, the mist was closing in and this was a dangerous place for people with one-and-a-half legs. He was right.

I'm not ashamed to say I had a bit of a moment.

That climb down was the longest, hardest two and a half hours I can remember. Tired, demoralised, the rain being blown at me by 50mph winds. Standing aside to let faster people pass. More than once I was overtaken by people who'd overtaken me on the way up. Some of my party found me, and reckoned I'd made it to 900 metres, about 2,700 feet. "You'd made good progress, too, for a first-timer," they said, "You were about an hour away from the summit."

I'd love to tell you all that I'd found this information useful at the time. I waved them on and plodded downwards alone.

The rain coated the rocky steps, and I must have been distracted when I lost my footing. I fell, bounced sideways, then tumbled onto my back. My left calf bashed into the edge of another rock and immediately went into spasm. It was rock-hard. Oh, the irony.

For me, my challenge was well and truly over and I finally limped in at about 10.20pm. Lots of people were there to make sympathetic noises (Richard had called them in advance) but I just wanted to be alone. I let Katie know I was safe and tried to sleep, quietly curled up in the back of the minibus as it moved on to Scafell Pike.

Yesterday morning was wet and windy, typical Lake District. Some of our number decided to give Scafell Pike a miss, me included. As the day went on, though, we decided we'd have a go at Snowdon that afternoon. My leg was moving more freely and a quick trot around the car park gave me confidence. But it didn't happen; conditions were atrocious at Scafell and by the time the climbers had returned to the minibus we were running out of daylight to get to North Wales and get up and down Snowdon safely in daylight. Home it was, then.

Folks, I'm sorry, especially if you sponsored me. Sorry that I couldn't deliver you three peaks. It seems the deities of steep places weren't smiling down on me on the day. I am awe-struck at anyone who could do one of these mountains, let alone all three, in a single trip.

Having said that, I'm the wrong side of 40 and weigh 18 stone. I started exercise only a few months ago. And despite that I got roughly two-thirds of the way up the highest mountain in Britain and got stopped only when one of my muscles said "Enough". I gave it a go.

Would I do it again? I honestly don't know. Am I glad I tried? Yes I am.

Now if you don't mind, me and Johnnie Walker have an urgent appointment.

Friday, 2 July 2010

With sufficient thrust, pigs fly just fine

That title came from a quote sent to me by someone who was commenting upon the Thing That I'm Doing This Weekend That I've Already Bored You All About.

I think the friend who sent the words was being supportive. At least I hope so. They also included a Lance Armstrong quote about no-one ever dying from tired legs. I'll bear that in mind. Although Captain Oates got mentioned in the exchange too, which was probably not a wise move.

Anyway, this will be the last post before I get up at Stupid O'Clock tomorrow morning, as I need to spend the evening loading stuff into bags and carbohydrates into myself.

Those of you not completely turned off can follow me throughout the weekend, if you're really that way inclined. Just visit my Twitter stream - you don't need to be a Twitterer yourself.

One more link before I go - hint hint.

I'm just going out - I might be, oh never mind.


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