Sunday, 23 December 2012

Retail armageddon

In the 1968 film Coogan's Bluff, Clint Eastwood played a young deputy sheriff sent to New York from the wilds of Arizona. There's a scene where he's in a New York taxi cab. As he goes to pay the driver, he asks: "How many stores named Bloomingdales are there in this town?"

"One," says the driver.

"We passed it twice."

I was reminded of this exchange earlier today when Katie and I were shopping in The Largest Tesco in the Western Hemisphere, given that we'd passed the olive oil section for a second time and appeared to be going nowhere.

I'm here to tell you - as if you needed to be told - that doing a food shop two days before Christmas is right up there with 'putting your head in a lion's mouth' on the list of stupid things to do.

There is a list. I've checked it. Twice.

We knew that this was going to be a bad idea, but had no choice. So this morning found us in a car park the size of Hampshire, fixing the shopping trolleys with a thousand-yard-stare. And so it began.

Due to the unique way our Sunday trading laws are framed, we weren't allowed to buy anything until 11.00am. However, the good people of Tesco were more than happy to let us, and several thousand others, into their store an hour early for browsing purposes. As long as no money changed hands for that first 60 minutes, no-one would be breaking the law and God would be happy.

So far, so good. But the rising panic was palpable. People were contemplating the festive season. People were thinking about what drink to get in for Auntie Doris. People were fretting at the thought of the shops being closed for two days. There was a wall of humanity, armed with debit cards. It wasn't pretty.

I was on trolley duty. Katie had made a list. Unfortunately, this was a list written with a completely different supermarket layout in mind, so her carefully-planned order was knocked for six. At one point we were randomly throwing things into the trolley, completely swept away in the moment.

"Take the trolley into the next aisle," she said, "and wait for me. It'll be quieter there."

The next aisle happened to be the one with the fresh turkeys. Let me remind you, dear reader. It was two days to Christmas. I was an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was like a tank battle, but less pleasant.

Katie came around the corner, packets of random carbohydrate in hand, and surveyed the scene. "Oh for God's sake. Move into the next aisle then."

I meekly wheeled into World Foods and regarded the fenugreek leaves. It seemed to be the only thing to do.

She caught up with me and deposited the ingredients of a tiramisu. "Right then," she fixed her jaw grimly. "Booze."

The beer and wine section at Yardley Tesco is renowned. It is spoken about in hushed terms by drinking men and women the world over. It would put George Orwell off his breakfast. If he were still alive. And, for that matter, sitting down for breakfast. Visiting it on Christmas Eve Eve is akin to juggling with live dynamite. We fought our way through the masses of wine-seekers and beer-hunters. The chap with the trolley in front of us had two bottles of Baileys, one Jagermeister and one Midori. That's what they make cocktails from in Hades, I reckon.

This wasn't a shopping expedition, it was survival.We eventually emerged, blinking into the daylight like Chilean miners. "Never again," we mouthed in unison as we joined the end of a queue. A queue to leave.

Next year I'm doing this online, even if I have to book a delivery slot in October. It's the only way.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Christopher and me

We're zipping through the 21st century at a rapid rate of knots, aren't we? And although I'm very disappointed that the hover boots I assumed would be in shops by now haven't yet materialised, the human race reaches new heights of development with every passing year.

They've got bacon-flavoured mayonnaise in America, you know. Truly we're reaching a pinnacle as a species.

But at the same time as we've become very clever at lots of stuff, we've shed some of the old ways. We're not imbued by a sense of tradition. Sentimentality appears to be a thing of the past. And with that thought, I'd like you to study this picture.

This is one of the oldest things I own. It's a St Christopher medallion, designed to be stuck to the dashboard of a car. It has a magnet on the back, long since augmented by a blob of Blu-Tack, added when car manufacturers stopped making cars with metal dashboards.

My dad gave it to me in 1989 when I started driving. It had previously graced the dashboard of his cars, from the Morris Minor he got in the sixties when he passed his test, the bizarre Soviet-built Moskvitch he had in the following decade and the Datsuns he drove when helming something with the dynamic characteristics of a WW2 tank around the streets of Birmingham lost its charm.

I suppose the idea of having the patron saint of travellers hitching a ride with you was that you could be protected a little. For all I know, my grandfather may have passed it to Dad, which means it's been around for a while.

Dad was still driving when 19-year-old me came home with my first car, a 1974 Mini 1000. He took one look at this car, bought for £250 from the local auction. He regarded the bodywork, gently blistering away under the black paintwork. He noticed the lack of bumpers, the wheels on spacers, the odd noise it made going over bumps. He gave the St Christopher medallion to me, probably realising that my need was greater than his.

Of course, St Chris wasn't going to provide me with an impenetrable safety bubble. There was the time I lost a wheel from that Mini, becoming an impromptu tricyclist on the M6 motorway during an Easter bank holiday. Then there was the day I parked the newly-repaired Mini in the side of someone else's Ford Cortina. A retro road traffic accident, if you will.

But St Christopher came with me, from car to car. There was the Escort that was essentially a moving collection of Ford parts held together by rust. The Renault that financially ruined me. The MG BGT with exhaust pipes the width of howitzers, so I could be heard across several time zones. (When I sold that car, I could hear the clinking of champagne glasses coming from our neighbours' houses.)

There was The Incident We're Still Not Talking About. No-one said St Christopher was going to prevent accidents. But as before, I was still in one piece, able to get out of the car afterwards. Taking my lucky medallion with me, of course.

The other week I took delivery of a brand new car. It's so far removed from the crates I used to tool around in that someone visiting from another planet would be hard-pushed to recognise them as being broadly the same type of object. It's a lovely car, shiny, comfortable and (hover boots aside) crammed with an almost obscene amount of gadgets and doohickeys. The instruction manual makes War and Peace look like a pamphlet.

But there was one thing I added - the St Christopher medallion from Dad. After all, we might be all grown up and developed. But a little bit of tradition does no-one any harm, does it?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pah Rum Pum Pum Pum

Now this takes the biscuit, thought Mary, as she lay back down on the hay and stared at the ceiling.

It was bad enough that she’d found herself in this situation in the first place. It had raised more than a few eyebrows,and it was fair to say not everyone fully believed her story. All things considered, Joseph had been very understanding. Having said that, there was still a little flicker of suspicion in his eyes from time to time.

But that was no excuse for the travel arrangements. She’d told him time and time again that a donkey ride was not exactly ideal for a heavily-pregnant woman, but he hadn’t listened.

“The census is taking place this winter,” he’d said. “We have to go. These Romans don’t muck about.”

But then to find out, after the most uncomfortable three hundred miles she’d ever endured, that he’d failed to book any accommodation at the other end? That was too much. He might have been a carpenter from the sticks, but surely even he could have realised that all the hotels would have been full? It was the holiday season, after all.

So far, so bad. But when he’d suggested bedding down in a stable she seriously began to wonder if he’d lost his mind.

“Joseph – are you quite mad?” she’d asked. “I don’t know if perhaps it’s escaped your attention, but I am with child. Quite heavily with child. So heavily, in fact, that I think a light sneeze on my part and we’ll need a two-seater donkey for the trip home.”

“I’m sorry Mary, but this is all there is. It’s got to be better than sleeping on the streets.”

Her mouth tightened into a grimace. She said, “My cousin Valerie had a home birth. It was lovely, by all accounts. And do you know why?”

He shook his head.

“The distinct lack of domestic animals. That’s why.”

She reluctantly agreed to have a look at the stable. It was every bit as awful as she’d imagined. Small, cramped and distinctly lacking in what you could call home comforts. And then there were the other inhabitants. She didn’t mind the lambs so much, but the oxen were really trying her patience. But the night was drawing in and there was really very little more she could do.

It must have been all the stress that had caused the baby to make its appearance. It was not an experience that Mary would have liked to repeat again in the near future, but at least he appeared healthy. Exhausted, she lay down while Joseph fussed around her.

Then there were the shepherds.

“Begging your pardon, but we’ve been told to come,” they had said, wide-eyed and trembling in the cold night air. It was unexpected, to say the least.

“Who does that?” Mary asked after Joseph had eventually shown them out again. “I mean, is this normal for this part of the country? Do you often get agricultural workers making unannounced appearances at occasions such as this? What next, olive-pickers showing up at funerals?”

“They just wanted to pay their respects, Mary. And, look on the bright side, you got a lovely sheepskin rug off that last one.” Mary rolled her eyes.

“Oh yes, it’s positively luxurious in here now, isn’t it?”

There was another knock at the door.

“Oh, now what?”

The knock was followed by a booming, heavily accented voice. “We come from afar, to see the newborn.” Mary looked accusingly at Joseph. “It’s like an open day here, isn’t it? See what they want, will you, and get rid of them.”

But the three kings were not quite so easily put off. There was something in their manner that made it clear they weren’t going to wait for the morning. Their robes and headgear bore the marks of a long, sand-blasted journey. And it was clear that they’d spent a lot of time recently in the company of camels.

“We followed a star,” one of them said. “It brought us here tonight.”

Mary said, “Gentlemen, that’s a lovely story. Perhaps someone should write it down sometime. But if you don’t—“

“We have gifts for the young one.”

“Well, why didn’t you say? Please, come in, sit down. Pull up a sheep. So then, this star....?”

Actually, Mary had to admit that the three kings were quite nice. Gold's always good to have, and the frankincense would help to mitigate the general ox-based atmosphere that appeared to be prevailing. She wasn’t certain about myrrh, though. Was it some type of antelope? Never mind, she told herself.

Eventually the kings, with much bowing and scraping, left the stable. Mary and Joseph allowed themselves to relax. But then, just when they were getting ready to settle down for the night, a young boy came in.

“I have no gift to bring,” he said quietly. “Can I play you a tune instead?”

By this point, Mary was completely exhausted. She wasn’t thinking straight and just nodded wearily.

The boy pulled out a snare drum and a pair of sticks.

This cannot end well, thought Mary.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Breaking the chain

I'm nothing if not consistent. If there's a pattern, I tend to follow it. I'm pretty much a creature of habit.

Although, it must be said, some of my habits are pretty much unspeakable. But that's a topic for another post, preferably one when I'm on the wrong side of Quite A Bit Of Wine.

But the fact remains that I always do what I've always done. If you see what I mean. And at no time is that more the case than November each year.

Last year I spent the month writing. For two (or was it three?) Novembers beforehand, I also spent the month writing. 2011 was Nanowrimo, when I wrote a 62,000 word novel. The prior three (or was it two?) years I spent doing Nablopomo, where you write a brand new blog post every day for a month.

So. It's 1 November. What am I going to do this year?

Well, I'm not writing another novel, that's for sure. I haven't got the last one to a state where other people could read it without me being extravagantly embarrassed. I think I may have mentioned this before. I really want to set some time aside to see what I can do with it.

But if I sit down every day this month to come up with something new in terms of blog entries, I won't have time for anything else. It's all I can do to put my trousers on the right way around every day. To be honest, folks, anything else you get from me is a bit of a bonus.

I look around me and have talented and hardworking friends who are doing the novel thing again. Others are going to add to the sum of human knowledge with witty and apposite blog posts every day. They'll be telling everyone about it. It will be exciting and creative.

Bloody show-offs.

So I'm starting a new challenge. NaNoWriLaYeEdReWriMo. Snappy, isn't it?

It's National Novel Written Last Year Editing & ReWriting Month. Let's see how we go, shall we?

And yes, I realise that by writing a blog post on 1 November I am technically still participating in Nablopomo at the moment. But seriously, who are we kidding? Tomorrow is Friday pasta-red-wine-and-crap-telly night. I'm so easily distracted these days.

See you at the other end.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A sharp intake of breath


Sorry about that. I've been doing it a lot recently. But look on the bright side. I am now an expert on coughs and coughing.

No, really. Ask me about coughs. I'll happily wow you with my insane levels of expectorant-related knowledge. It's the sort of thing you pick up when you've been doing anything for five weeks, I suppose.


I mean, it's not as if I wanted to be a coughing guru. Back in mid-September, which is when I must have signed a contract to become a full-time cougher, I never thought I'd still be making a noise like a bull sea lion all this time later.

It's not just the technique side of things. I now have lots of cough theory floating around my head, too. After all, when it's 3.30am and you've taken yourself downstairs - on the not unreasonable basis that at least one person in the house should sleep - there's not much else to do than to read up on the subject. The Wikipedia entry on coughing is a good place to start. It'll be my specialist subject on Mastermind.


I know what causes a cough itself, the various mechanisms involved, even a rather natty colour-code you can employ on the end product.

I'm sorry, were you enjoying your soup just now? I guess Coughology isn't for everyone.

Even Katie has become a bit of an expert. She can tell when there's another one on the way, and tenses up appropriately. There's the sharp intake of breath, the cross-eyed look, then a bark like an overweight German Shepherd that rattles the window frames, lifts the curtains and dislodges small ornaments.

She's a lucky girl, and no mistake.


My poor work colleagues are beginning to suffer, I'm sure. In an open-plan working environment, there's nothing worse than The One With The Cough. It's the middle of the flu season anyway, so the office is already doing a passable impression of a Victorian home for consumptives. But my respiratory system provides the rumbling undertone. Why I haven't been quietly poisoned in a team meeting is anyone's guess.


Frustratingly, and despite the combined efforts of several doctors, we haven't yet pinpointed a cause that can be combated. I am a latter-day enigma as far as modern medicine is concerned. We know what it definitely isn't (before you start putting two and two together), but other than that we're all a little stumped.

And here's a tip - never use the Internet to self-diagnose. So far, I've travelled the sputum highway from viral bronchitis to beri-beri, with a detour to Collapsed Lungsville along the way. It's a good job I wasn't sleeping anyway.


Cough medicine, by the way, is worse than useless, which should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of human biology. How can something that you swallow sort your breathing apparatus out? Taking cough mixture is pretty much the same as pouring bleach down your drains and expecting it to clear your chimney.

As a direct result of my consumption of gloopy, syrupy Covonia over the last month, I reckon I can look forward to diabetes in my near future. I also know the difference between a non-productive and a productive cough:
  • Non-productive cough - dry, tickly, wheezy. Red face, bulging eyes. Ladies, form a queue.
  • Productive cough - completes that report you needed to do for work, while hanging out the washing and putting next week's shopping-list together.


I've tried steam. I've tried menthol vapours. I've tried swearing very loudly. Actually, Katie has helped with that last one. Maybe I'm just destined to be one of those blokes who has a cough? There always used to be one man in every room that fitted the description, back when everyone smoked. Perhaps that's going to be my lot in life?

Oh well. It's a living, I suppose.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Onwards and upwards

I think I might have had a bit of an epiphany. Don't worry, It didn't hurt.

Last year, as those few followers who are still here might know, I wrote a novel in a month. Well, I say 'wrote a novel.' In truth, the word 'month' is probably the only accurate part of that sentence. What I actually did was to put some 62,000 words together that roughly followed a half-plot. I did manage to do it all in November, though.

Since then, people have asked me what I intend to do next. When can we read it, they ask? When's it coming out? What the hell do you think you're playing at, Sawyer?

Actually, I get asked that last one a lot. I used to be asked it long before the novel, if I'm being honest.

But despite all this interest, I didn't want to face the draft novel and look at what I'd written. I was uncertain about climbing back on that particular horse. First of all, I was pretty certain it would be ugly. After all, no-one can write a novel in a month that you would actually want to read. Trust me on this. And the second reason was one of scale. Although 62,000 is actually a relatively low word count for a modern novel, it's still a big chunk of writing to re-work. And you've done the fun, creative part already. Where do you start?

Well, my answer to that final question was simply not to start at all. I let the thing fester on my hard drive. (And on a USB stick, my other hard drive, my Dropbox folder - at least I back things up). I looked at it briefly in January this year, shuddered and put it away again.

There were always things to do. Unfortunately, none of those things looked like 'writing a second draft'. Instead, quite a few of those things bore a resemblance to 'pratting around on Twitter'. Trying to come up with witty and amusing 140-character messages - and getting instant feedback - was attractive. When I realised I couldn't do it, watching others succeed was almost as much fun.

But it wasn't writing. Not really. That was beginning to slow down. The short stories, articles, blog posts - they began to dry up. And with every passing week it became easier to carry on doing nothing. I decided not to bother continuing my writing class. And all the time, the 62,000-word elephant in the room loomed large. Which, by all accounts, elephants are wont to do. I couldn't really start anything new. After all, when people asked me what I was doing, I could say I was editing my novel, couldn't I? Even though I plainly wasn't.

A good friend of mine also wrote a novel last November. Since then she's re-written it, self-published the thing, sold some copies and got great feedback. She's now done a sequel and is about to start a separate trilogy. Every time I read an update from her I felt like a neglectful parent.

Then a few things happened. We lost my grandmother not long ago, and the funeral brought together brothers and cousins. These are people who are not easily misdirected, so when they asked me the same questions, they weren't convinced by the whole 'I'm still editing it' line. I think more than one person told me to stop sitting on my thumbs and just publish the bloody thing.

I should add that we weren't having this conversation during the service.

I sat down a few days later and wrote a new short story based on my grandparents - I posted it here last month and people said nice things about it.

I ended up renewing my writing classes for another year. Having the need to submit a new piece every week might help to get the writing muscles going once more.

Last week we went away to a remote Welsh village. There was no broadband - in fact, hardly even a phone signal. So I took a pen. A loose-leaf pad. And the printed draft of a novel I wrote at break-neck speed last November. Look - here's the proof:

Writers using illicit substances is such a cliche, isn't it? In my case, it was a cuppa and Sudafed nasal spray. I'm like a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson, aren't I?

So this is what I did. I read my novel and made notes as I went. I noted how long each 'scene' was, as if it was a screenplay. What worked well, what didn't. I saw what was overdone, what could be cut and what was missing. Which characters needed more work and where the plot holes were (and there were some doozies, let me tell you).

After that work, I actually had a plan and a to-do list. It might not seem wildly, romantically creative, but I'm no longer scared of my draft. I came home yesterday with my notes, several new character studies and a completely new beginning to the first chapter. I'm motivated to get cracking with this book.

The funny thing is, it's not even as if it's some great ground-breaking piece of literary greatness. It's just a silly story. It's not intended to change your life. So perhaps I can just stop stressing, yes? Anyway, hopefully you'll have something else to read soon.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Gardener's Tale, part two

The Gardener leant on the handle of his fork and drew a hand across his brow. He liked the fact that he was busy these days. It was a good thing; the results of his labours were clear to see. But he couldn't help thinking that something was missing.

The sound of footsteps on the gravel path made him look up. The Gatekeeper was approaching.

"Good morning, Gatekeeper. I hope you like the garden. I'm just planning some bulbs for the spring. Should be a blaze of colour."

The Gatekeeper seemed pre-occupied."Gardener, I need to talk to you," he said, the beginnings of a stern expression forming on his face.

"Is there something wrong?"

"No. Well, not really. The garden is beautiful. It's much better than I could have hoped. How long have you been here?"

"It's difficult to tell, Gatekeeper. But this will be fifth time I've done a winter planting-out, if that helps."

"You've truly put your heart and soul into this. But I can tell that there is something you're missing."

The Gardener looked down at the neatly-mowed lawn. His words came slowly."You're right, Gatekeeper. I love this little patch, and you've been very generous. But sometimes I wish I could share all of this..."

"I think I know what you mean," said the Gatekeeper. He was thinking. Then he raised his head and looked the Gardener in the eyes. He spoke softly, almost a whisper. "I think it's time, you know."

Months later and the garden was a blaze of colour. Each bed was planned to perfection, every pot a riot of colour. The Gatekeeper was unsurprised; this was another triumph for the Gardener. But he could tell that there was something extra at play.

The Gardener's dwelling, now that was a different matter altogether. The Gatekeeper hadn't really noticed this place before, but he found himself drawn to it now. It had been somehow transformed. He couldn't really put his finger on it, but it was a home now, not just a place for living in.

The Gatekeeper was sitting on a long sofa. French windows opened out into the garden, a gentle breeze moving the apple tree branches to and fro. He could hear the trickling of a water-course, while the smell of baking wafted in from the kitchen. It was almost as if the garden and the house complemented each other. He looked around. There was an armchair next to the fireplace, knitting patterns and balls of wool strewn across it. Quite the largest aspidistra he had ever seen nestled in a blue and white pot in the corner, while a herd of small china hedgehogs marched steadily across the mantelpiece.

"Another cup of tea, Gatekeeper?" asked the Gardener's wife from the small kitchen.

"No thank you madam." Secretly he was hoping that another jar of pickled onions was coming his way, but he didn't want to press matters. "Are you settling in well?"

She bustled in through the doorway, drying her hands on a small towel."Oh yes," she said, "I've never been so busy." She motioned to the garden. "He thinks he knows it all, but every now and then he needs a little supervision. Plus his cardigans were were getting a little worn at the elbows. There's always something that needs doing." She chuckled to herself.

"The garden does look lovely."

"Oh, I know. All the colours. Reds, blues, yellows. I never thought I'd be able to see them like this again. It's been wonderful, you know. Just how I rememebred it."

The Gatekeeper leant back and regarded the Gardener's wife. "You know, madam, in my line of work I get to meet lots of people. Scientists, mathematicians, people of logic. If you were to ask them what one plus one comes to, they'd say it was two. But seeing you and the Gardener together, I'm not so sure any more."

Her eyes shone brightly as she replied. "Yes. Sometimes, one and one are worth more than that."

"Just one question, though. Why have you got the number 198 on the front door?"

She grinned. "Ah. I can explain that. You might think you know everything there is to know about paradise, Gatekeeper. But me and Alf, we'd been perfecting this for quite a while."

"That makes sense," said the Gatekeeper. He noticed her looking intently at him. "What's the matter?"

"Oh, nothing. I'm just trying to figure out if you're a 42-inch waist or a 44-inch. I've got this spare wool, you see, Gatekeeper. I think you'd look quite smashing in a nice cable-knit."

In loving memory of Edith Sawyer, 1917-2012. Enjoy the colours, Nan. Hoping you and Granddad are planning the spring bulbs together once again.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Don't say it

Well, that was a silly thing for me to do, wasn't it? And I've done some daft things in my time.

There was the time I went on holiday - my first holiday away with SheWhoMustBeObeyed. We were young, we were thinner. Certain things were to anticipated from our first time away together. I don't think I need to draw you a diagram, dear reader. I sat in the sun on day one, casually ignoring the commonly-held belief that Suncream Is A Good Thing. I then spent the next five days yelling, "Don't touch me!"  Which wasn't what either of us wanted to hear. That was daft.

I've done stupid things with illicit substances. I know, you're shocked. But it was only a half-pound of stilton cheese. I was hungry, it was 11pm. That night I slept the sleep of the damned as my arteries furred up. I dreamed I was being stalked by flying monkeys. That, too, was daft.

But none of this daftness (is that even a word?) ranks alongside the sheer rank stupidity of what I did last night. More to the point, what I said. Admittedly, we'd had a busy day. With the help of the in-laws, we'd cleared the garden, managing to fill the second of two skips. (By the way, if you ring the company that supplies these and say: "I'd like to have a skip in my driveway at the weekend," they will reply, "You go ahead, sir.")

I've digressed, sorry. Anyway. We had removed enough bamboo to feed a whoop of pandas. Or a flange, I forget which. We gazed upon the newly-cleared garden, features reappearing like those lost cities of the Amazon, all ziggurats and stepped pyramids. I half expected to find an ancient Japanese soldier in there, still unaware that WW2 was over.

Look, we'd worked hard, ok? And as I wiped the sweat from my brow I said these fateful words to Katie:
"Tomorrow, we're going to have a nice, restful day."
She did not respond. Or at least, if she did, her voice was drowned out by the fridge freezer in our kitchen. It said:
 Which, as songs go, is a lousy lyric. Although the rhythm wasn't bad, I'll admit.

"Does it normally make that noise?"

"Yes," I replied. "It's the mating call of a Samsung upright fridge freezer. We're privileged to hear this, you know. David Attenborough would give his eye teeth for this."

I received a look.

"Look," I said. "It's a pain in the neck but it still seems to be working. Let me have a look at it in the morning." I then spent an hour or so looking on the internet about rattly refrigeration devices. Because this is what we do these days instead of calling a professional engineer who might actually have the faintest clue.

This morning, I had intended to be one where I moved slowly around the house in loose-fitting garments, drinking expensive coffee and reading classic novellas. Like those blokes in the furniture ads do. So it was with no small disappointment that I found myself instead on my hands and knees, waving a screwdriver meaningfully at some precision Korean domestic engineering.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" asked Katie nervously.

"No, but some very clever people on the Internet seemed to know what the problem was. This panel only has four screws on it. The rattling seems to be coming from behind it. And there are only four screws." I felt that point needed repeating.

Unfortunately the four screws were not the only gatekeepers to the noise-maker behind. The panel wouldn't shift and, for once, I decided not to employ the brute-force-and-ignorance-approach. This was clearly a job for someone whose toolkit consisted of more than one screwdriver, a mallet and tube of NoMoreNails. I sheepishly replaced the screws and went to switch the fridge freezer back on.

It hummed back into life, giving us a few seconds of daggadagga. Then it stopped and switched itself off. No refrigeration, no freezing. Which, to be honest, is pretty much all you ask for from a fridge freezer. Arcane symbols appeared on the front panel. Katie's eyebrow raised. I instantly considered emigration, but realised I wouldn't get to my passport in the bedside table in time.

"Well, look on the bright side," I said. "At least the noise has stopped."

So that's how I spent the remainder of my planned sybaritic Sunday - calling various refrigeration engineers. The general consensus appeared to be that some sensors had iced up and my switching it off had sent the unit's little electronic brain into default safe mode.

Apparently this happens to space probes all the time. Which is nice, but Voyager 2 doesn't have to look after half a dozen Muller Fruit Corners, does it?

Unfortunately, I soon found out that 'rapid callout' and '24/7 service' actually means, "we might be able to squeeze you in next Thursday. If the planets are in alignment. And our pet rabbit has had its litter. And we can be arsed." Which is quaint and old-fashioned and lovely but won't preserve my cauliflower cheese. Which is why I then trolled over to the afore-mentioned in-laws, black bag in hand, with my perishables.

The in-laws have one of these American-style fridge freezers and it is a joy to behold. I guess they're called 'American-style' because you could accomodate one of the smaller states in one of them, no problems. In fact, I swear I saw Rhode Island in there, behind the radishes.

They're good people, my in-laws. Nevertheless, I reckon we'll never see that unopened Carte d'Or icecream again.

Then to our friends Karen and Chris to borrow their mini-fridge. This is one of those items that is normally used for drinks, which explains why it  has the logo of the English Football Team on its front and sides; inebriation being the only fit state for watching our national game.

I brought it back, huffing and puffing because it was big and awkwardly-shaped and it looked to the neighbours as if we were having a drinks party but we weren't and I had to drink half a litre of milk so we could prop the carton up at an angle without it spilling and I'm not sure that did my cholesterol any good come to think of it and I hadn't even opened any novellas up yet.

So. How was your day?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Faster, higher, stronger

Well, this is rather unusual.

I fully expected to be cynical about the actual running, jumping, pedalling and throwing bit of the Olympics. I didn't think I'd be spending much time actually watching the sporting part of the whole shebang.

I liked the opening ceremony. I think I've made my position clear in that respect. But I really thought that once Danny Boyle's influence was out of the way, it would be a succession of vaguely sweaty people doing unnatural things in front of cameras.

Yes, I realise how that sounds and you should be ashamed of yourself. Behave.

I am not a sporting person. As befitting someone with my unique shape, I don't take part. But I'm not normally to be found watching it on the idiot lantern either. That's always been the case for me. I know very little about sport. When the topic comes up in a pub quiz I always groan inwardly and hope the next round will be pop music. Or types of cheese. Or the Reform Act. Or just about anything.

So why have I spent much of the last ten days with the BBC's coverage of the Games on almost constant rotation? How is it that I now know more about cycling events - the strategy and equipment - than is strictly healthy? That can't be right. Up until last weekend I cold barely tell one end of a bike from another. Now I'm some sort of expert. It's all Keirins and Omniums (Omnia?) now. You'll never get me on one of those things - partly because I don't think there's that much lycra in the Western world - but still.

It's not just the cycling. As I watched Mo Farah setting off on his 10,000 metre run last Saturday I was to be heard talking about pace and stride technique like a calorifically-enhanced Brendan Foster. And I'm not alone. We're all commentators these days.

We watched the skeet shooting last week. I didn't know what a skeet was, nor why you'd want to shoot it. But I was rapt in amazement. A group of colleagues discussed the equestrian dressage event the other day as if it was a natural thing for normal folk to be talking about. I mean, that's basically reverse-parking a horse, isn't it? But a five-minute conversation ensued.

Most nights I've had the TV on in the background and let these extraordinary people into my living room. It's almost, but not quite, inspiring me to take up some form of regular exercise. I know. I'm as surprised as you are.

In common with most other Britons, the only way I was ever going to win a medal would be if they introduced Cynicism as an Olympic discipline. We all thought the sporting bit of the Games was going to be a little underwhelming, to be honest. That is the British way, after all. But I think our natural scepticism has dissipated, at least for the time being.

Our uncharacteristic sporting success may be a factor. Serial plucky underachievement is our default setting - all this high-performance is very odd. Or perhaps we're all thinking: "Sod it, the money's been spent, we might as well enjoy it."

I don't know what's causing it. But I suspect normal service will resume at some point. Let's get ready to be maudlin and disaffected once more.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Isle of plenty

It's sometimes a little tricky being British. Not in a life-threatening way. On the grand scale of things, we don't have too many problems to deal with; we're not being visited by tornadoes on a weekly basis and plagues of locusts seem to be rare. But we're difficult to label, hard to describe.

Oh, we've all seen the stereotypes - diffident, slow to show emotion, a little stand-offish. We all drink tea, and when we're not doing that we gulp down warm beer out of very large glasses. Actually, there's a grain of truth in that last one, but my point stands. Britain, and the whole concept of being British, is a hard concept to pin down.

That's why I was anticipating last night's Olympic opening ceremony with a touch of concern. After all, events like this are supposed to show the country and its people at their best. But what angle to take?

Britain has a lot of history. This is a truth universally known - after a year of studying British history at school we were still looking at Roman roads with another 2,000-odd years of castles, battles, errant clergymen and stovepipe hats ahead of us. The opening ceremony could have tried to cover this vast swathe of events, but with only a couple of hours to fit it in, it would have needed fast-forwarding. The Reformation of the Churches and Henry VIII on roller skates? I don't think so.

What creative director Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame, did instead was to look not at Britain as a rather rainy island in the North Atlantic, but as a collection of people. People who came together and ended up giving something back to the world.

We saw a picture of the country in its rural idyll, rapidly transformed by the pandemonium of the Industrial Revolution. Individual people - those who had the spark of an idea - working together to improve their lot. Of course it was broad brush stuff. There was no Marx and Engels discussing the avarice of Victorian factory owners to counterbalance Branagh's Shakespeare-quoting Brunel. But the social aspect wasn't missed.

At the first Olympics where every country finally had female athletes in attendance, there was a nod to the Suffragette movement. The appearance of the Empire Windrush marked the major incoming of West Indian immigrants in 1948, just one aspect of the constant influx we've seen since the Romans. Our greatest post-war achievement, the introduction of universal healthcare for all, got an affectionate nod. And then the rapid growth in digital communication - transforming our lives in ways far beyond Brunel's imagination - with the eventual unveiling of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. He waived all commercial rights to the Web and let everyone dig in, free of charge. That blows my mind.

God, that all sounds horribly worthy doesn't it? A rich tapestry, but not one you'd hang on your wall.

Luckily, Boyle remembered the one thing that binds us Brits. We like to take the piss. We can laugh, most often at ourselves. So we saw the Queen - the actual flipping Queen! - take part in a sketch with Daniel Craig, plummeting out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute. Mr Bean gatecrashed the famous Chariots of Fire beach scene. Gregory's Girl rubbed shoulders with Michael Fish.

And running through all of this was the music. Sometimes irreverent, anarchic, angular, sometimes throwaway, always there to move you. Elgar's Nimrod at the beginning brought a lump to my throat. Pink Floyd's Eclipse at the end, after the most fantastic Olympic cauldron lighting, had me pretty much blubbing.

Although being British, I tried to hold it in. I think I said "Well, that's quite lovely."

Last night proved to me that you can be proud of your country without the macho, chest-thumping nonsense that sometimes comes as part of the bargain. I don't think I'm the only one, either. We're a world-weary lot, normally, but the conversations I've seen since last night - online and in the real world - suggests that many of us have suspended our cynicism for the time being. A non-cynical British person? That just doesn't happen. It's a modern-day miracle.  

In short, Danny Boyle didn't just get Britain. He got us. It was a love letter back to the country. It might be baffling to outsiders. It might not translate into foreign languages. That's perhaps the British way.

Here's the thing, though. I said at the start of this, we're not easy to pigeon-hole, us Britons. We come from hundreds of different places, originally. We're a mongrel nation. We certainly don't all look alike. And we're not perfect. You might not always like us, although we're hard to ignore. We like to grumble. It's a little difficult living here sometimes. Things don't always work. Historically, our country hasn't always got everything right.

But from now on, if someone asks me about what it's like to be in Britain in the 21st century, I can simply show them last night's ceremony. After all, it's not about castles and kings these days. It's about people. It's about ideas. It's about dreams.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hints and tips for Olympic visitors

Apparently there's a whole list of words I'm not allowed to use when discussing the London 2012 Olympics, in case I annoy the sponsors. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I can even mention the words 'London', '2012' or 'Olympics'. Which might make this post a little tricky.

After all, I want to give helpful advice for those planning on visiting our capital city to watch the Games. Let's just hope I don't upset those purveyors of fizzy brown sugar-water and McRandom animal protein burgers encased in bread whose logos seem to be all over the bloody place.

So you're coming to London? Some things you should know:
  1. Despite being a highly-urbanised world city, London has its fair share of wildlife. For instance, locals may tell you about the gangs of badgers that roam the streets after night. Don't be fooled by the creature's reputation for docility. The London Urban Badger is known for its short temper. They go for mobile phones in particular, which is puzzling as everyone knows that badgers have no love for cellular communications, preferring instead to convey information through the medium of modern interpretative dance. Just keep your phones safe and look out for furry little jazz-hands.
  2. Before the badgers moved in, foxes were highly-regarded by many Londoners due to their natural homing instincts. In the 1920's a network of uniformed City Guides operated in the city, using foxes to offer navigation tips to passers-by. This died out in 1956, but even now you can mark yourself out as being 'in the know' when asking a local for direction. Once he's finished, stare straight in his eyes and intone, "Wear the fox hat!" as loudly as possible.
  3. Jellied eels have not been eaten seriously by Londoners since the days of Hogarth.  It's one of those dishes that are rolled out to fool tourists. Every city has one. See Deep Fried Mars Bar, Chicken Phall, Ulster Fry, etc.
  4. On the subject of food, do try the most typical of London dishes, the doner kebab. Containing a delicate mix of spices, sauces and something that once might have been meat, all wrapped up in a pitta bread, this represents the high point of fine dining. Make sure you order plenty of salad, but do not eat it. You're supposed to leave this part on the pavement as an offering to the Badger God.
  5. Do not make eye contact with people on the Tube. A Canadian tourist did it once on the Circle Line in 1978, by all accounts. Henry Kissinger got involved, there were questions in Parliament, but in the end it was hushed up and Londoners don't like to talk about it these days. 
  6. The British sense of humour tends to be a little robust to some visitors. We are fond of gentle banter, or as we call it, 'taking the piss'. British people like to take the piss out of ourselves, the weather, situations, politics, culture and people from other places. If you can take the piss out of us, we'll probably join in. We take the piss out of people who can't take the piss out of themselves. We're helpful like that. 
  7. If a local says to you, "You're taking the piss!" that might not be a good thing. I didn't say this was easy.
  8. It's a little-known fact that London was invaded by giant but invisible aliens in 1860. Estimates place them at being somewhere around 100 feet tall, but to prevent public panic (or, given this was Victorian England, an outbreak of tutting), their existence was only made clear to the government, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The aliens worshipped Albert as their god, leaving offerings around the city in the form of ten foot tall red monoliths. The locals hollowed these out, put in windows and converted them into telephone boxes. We don't know what happened to the aliens. Come to that, we don't know what's happened to the telephone boxes, either.   
  9. Those people who mime at Covent Garden? No, beats the hell out of us, too.
  10. Take some additional time to look around and you'll see that not all of the UK is the same as London. It's tempting to think that with such a dominant capital city the rest of the country suffers by comparison. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For instance, I understand Northumberland now gets mains electricity two days per week and those of us in Birmingham are certainly looking forward to receiving our supply of rudimentary hand-tools next month. Who says there's been no trickle-down from the Olympics?

Thursday, 12 July 2012


I have a bit of a confession to make. It's quite difficult to own up to this, but, well, we're all friends here aren't we?

I mean, it's not a wholly shameful admission. It's not up there with impaling infants on spikes. Think about it as being somewhere on the same level as admitting a fondness for steam traction engines or Morris dancing, perhaps.

I don't like steam engines or Morris dancing, by the way. Just in case you were worried. No, I'm owning up to something else that is spoken about in hushed, slightly aghast terms. Something that you'd never admit to at a smart dinner party. Or a shabby one, come to that.

It's a musical thing. I like lots of types of music - I have the weirdest iPod in the Western world. But a significant part of it is filled with sounds coming from men (and it is normally men) with strange instruments. Banks of keyboards. Guitars with more than one head. And bass played on pedals.

I'll stand up and admit it, here and now. My name is Phil. And I like progressive rock.

I've loved this type of music since my early teens - even then it wasn't trendy. While my schoolmates were listening to Wham, I was the one digging out some obscure Emerson Lake and Palmer. I knew what a Mellotron was when everyone else was getting excited by drum machines.

This explains why I was to be found the other week at a music venue in Bilston. Bilston doesn't really feature in many rock and roll history books. I think the drummer from Slade was born there, but that's about it. But what Bilston does have is a music venue called the Robin 2. And on this occasion, a Genesis tribute band was playing. The Book of Genesis, if you're interested.

So I went to a small town near Wolverhampton to see a progressive rock tribute band. That is possibly the least-fashionable sentence I'll ever write.

But it was ace.

The bass player used pedals to accompany himself while he strummed a double-necked guitar. There were keyboard solos. They had immense technical skill. The singer wore a cape at one point. There was a bit of a lightshow. The audience was 99% male. Interesting facial hair abounded. Marvellous.

And through it all, the long-suffering Katie was there with me. This had been part of my birthday present which she had bought. She offered to drive back, so my evening was lubricated by pints of Banks's Original.

"Are you enjoying this?" I asked worriedly as the band ploughed into Supper's Ready, a 23 minute epic of dystopian nightmare visions.

"Yes, I'm fine. Look, you go up to the front if you like. I'll be ok here."

Bless her. She had an evening of my nonsensical music, poured beer down me and drove me home.

Good God, that's love for you. Think I'll write a 17 minute song about it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Off the rails

We're quite lucky, on this small, rain-sodden island of ours. It doesn't take too long to get anywhere. If the mood takes us we can jump on a train and go to, oh, I don't know, London for instance - have a meeting, take a picture of a gherkin-shaped building for no apparent reason - and then jump back on the train to be back at our desks by mid-afternoon.

Don't believe me? I see.

A bit of London.

Some people just aren't satisfied unless there is pickle-based architecture as proof.

But it's not all rosy. We've had rail travel for some time now, and yes, it's moved on a bit from Stephenson's Rocket. The latest ones even lean on bends - I have no idea if this makes them faster, but it's definitely cool. But there are still shortfalls.

People arranging meetings in London always seem to set them up to start at 10am. Despite the speed of modern trains, that still means having to get up at OhMyGod o'clock. You park in the station car park and walk, zombie-like to the station concourse. There are lots of other grumpy sleep-derived people there, all of them secretly hating the organisers of their meetings, who at this point are probably just waking up to a splendid breakfast in Islington.

Being vaguely organised you have booked your ticket and seat in advance. You go to the self-service machine and enter a handy 16-digit alphanumeric code on a touchscreen. Which promptly and simultaneously gives you both a Windows error message and a sense of foreboding with regards to the train company's technical expertise. Eventually it spits out a succession of small orange bits of cardboard. Your next few hours will revolve around these.

Walking down to the platform with your fellow melancholics, you wait for the train. These days we don't tend to have much in the way of delays, but to enliven your wait there will be a station announcer with nasal constriction and access to the Tannoy.

Your train arrives, and everyone dashes to find a seat. But not you. Oh no! You booked a forward-facing window seat on that snazzy website, didn't you? The seat number is even printed on one of those bits of orange card. You are relaxed and confident for the first time today. You're going to coach B, seat 33A. Everything is going to plan.

Which is why you're confused to find that seat 33A is (a) facing backwards (b) placed in the one row that has no window, and (c) has all the comfort and space of an above-ground coffin. You're going to spend the next hour and a quarter looking at a panel of beige plastic.

And as you become one with your panel, you realise that rail travel has one thing in common with flying in that you are, essentially, trapped in an aluminium tube along with the farts of a whole bunch of strangers.

I'm not sure that's an official policy of Virgin Trains. Maybe Richard Branson has a carb-heavy diet. Who knows?

So as I'm being dragged backwards through the English countryside, I'm aware that Sharon, three rows ahead, needs to tell David something. She has her phone out and is speaking, with a voice that could curdle milk at 20 paces. David appears to have issues with comprehension, however. After the seventh time she's told David that she's on a train, her fellow passengers are becoming keen on changing that situation.

We reach the capital and I get to experience the London Underground. I made a big mistake this time - I made eye contact with another traveller. I think I got away with it though. There might be a small parliamentary enquiry, nothing too major.

Meeting done, it's the same in return. I get to read someone else's copy of the Metro this time. No-one pays for it, and having read it I can see why. I could feel my brain trying to exit through my ears.

And then back to the car, having paid £8 for a few hours' parking. This 20' by 8' stretch of tarmac is on a better hourly rate than I was when I started my first Saturday job in a record store. OK, I can't accommodate a parked car, but I don't think it could have cashed up and told customers when the new Jesus and Mary Chain album was coming out.

It's a little known fact that Birmingham International railway station is home to a breeding colony of pterodactyls. That's the only way to explain the bewildering volume of fecal matter that is on my car when I got back to it. I don't know what pterodactyls eat, but their aim is uncannily good. The direct hit on the driver's window was especially skilful, I reflected, as I wound it down to put my ticket in the machine.

Oh yes, there's nothing like letting the train take the strain.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Camera rolling....sound rolling...

I am pretty sure that Alfred Hitchcock spent his formative years taking shelter from the rain outside his local dry cleaners. Tarantino couldn't do anything unless the West Midlands Ambulance Service had passed by. And Spielberg was often to be found filming toast being made.

Yes. I'm pretty sure that's how they got started.

These were just some of the highlights of the weekend just gone by. While you were off doing whatever it is you do on a Saturday and Sunday, I was directing a film. And I'm here to tell you, it's better than gardening.

'Jess' is a wonderful short story from a young (well, young to me) and enthusiastic film & Television graduate from Worcester called Matt Johnson. Together with my partner in many things creative, Mike, we took this story and worked up a screenplay. The story aims to do two things; to document a day in the life of a young teenage girl (the eponymous Jess), and challenge a few perceptions.

We see young kids on the streets all the time. We talk about them in outraged terms. Feral kids. Hoodies. We dehumanise them. And sometimes our preconceptions are valid. But is that always the case? Jess seeks to give an alternative view.

It's a short film - less than three minutes. It has to be that length to be picked up by the regional and national film festivals that concentrate on short films. The last film we did was wonderful (I would say that, having written it) but at seven minutes long it was practically an epic of Tolkienesque proportions.

And let no-one tell you short films are easy. Samuel Johnson once wrote to a friend: "I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead."  He was right. Telling a complete story in 180 seconds-or-less is quite a challenge.

But it was great fun. We're not making money, and our budget was precisely zero. We overspent by buying a clapperboard. Oh, and a packet of sausages to use as props. Universal Studios should have our problems. However we pulled together a crew - photography, sound, the whole shebang. Our small cast of volunteer actors were great. I had people looking to me to tell them what to do. And they did it without fail. Our lead character, a 12 year-old girl, had never acted before but was a natural.

One scene has our heroine making herself breakfast, inclusing toast made from authentically-mouldy bread. We wanted a shot of the bread going in, and another of the toast popping up. To make things easy, we decided just to film the whole toasting cycle - after all, you don't know when it's going to finish - and edit it later. So we ended up - a whole film crew, cameras, sound, actors, fiming a toaster, toasting two slices of bread.It's 2012 and we can't CGI this stuff yet.

I'm sure some of us wondered what we were doing with our lives. I know I was.

But now it's all in the can. Or 'on the memory card', if you like. Now comes the editing part. We hand our precious files over to yet another skilled volunteer who will help us wrangle our shots into the finished article. I can't wait. Hopefully, neither can you.

Beats gardening, any day of the week.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Breakfast in America

In the classic 1969 song, The Boxer, Art Garfunkel – or Paul Simon – refers to the ladies of negotiable virtue he used to encounter along New York City’s Seventh Avenue. “I do declare,” sang Paul – or was it Art? – “there were times that I felt so lonesome I took some comfort there.”

While I can’t admit to having sampled such earthly delights, I too have felt great comfort in a similar area of that great city. While my current diet means I probably can't do it now, I have in the past experienced that wonder of the modern age, that miracle of the culinary and gastronomic arts. I have eaten breakfast in an American diner.

Now,I’m not going to pretend to be well-travelled. I certainly can’t make any claims about being some sort of expert on the United States. I’ve been there a handful of times and, on each occasion, limited my experience to the Eastern seaboard. I have not eaten from sea to shining sea, despite appearances to the contrary. And, yes, I am aware that it’s wrong to characterise an entire nation simply by writing about one meal in one city. I hear rumours of breakfasts in New Mexico that feature cheese and peppers, tequila and beans. In the mid-West they go for corn in a big way – ordering the low-carb option is probably still a hanging offence. In Maine I suspect it’s lobster and peach cobbler all the way.

But I discount all these tales. For I have breakfasted in the Big Apple. And never has my fast been broken more conclusively. It was on our second or third visit when we discovered the place. We were staying in mid-town Manhattan, on 57th Street, just a couple of blocks down from the sudden green strip of Central Park. As seasoned travellers, or so we thought, we’d eschewed the more obvious commercial delights of Sixth Avenue or Times Square.

The truth is, we were still in downtown touristville, but by moving a few blocks further out we found the places that other Americans used when they were visiting. This also meant forgoing the blandness of a hotel restaurant. We were going to have to go out for breakfast – a novel concept in itself. So that’s when the diner made its delicious, hustling, calorie-laden impact on our lives.

We crossed the afore-mentioned Seventh Avenue and were drawn in, like moths to a chrome-plated, neon-lit flame. A six-foot-tall black guy in full evening suit welcomed us in, smiling broadly and making us feel genuinely as if his entire life had been building up to welcoming these latest two customers that morning. I’d just like to repeat the salient point of that last sentence; an evening suit. Bow tie, cummerbund, shiny patent leather shoes – the whole nine yards. It was eight in the morning and our breakfast already involved a maitre d’.

He showed us to a booth, one of thirty or so, and I had a few moments to take in our surroundings. The booths were decorated with hundreds of small brass plates, each only an inch across and inscribed with the name of a famous patron. Apparently we were sitting in a booth previously occupied by Ted Danson and the bloke from Seinfield with the tall hair. The whole of one wall was taken by a mural of the boardwalk in Atlantic City; the home crowd at New York Giants stadium peered out from the one opposite.

“Something tells me we’re not in the Grab-a-Bite in Acocks Green,” I said to Katie.

“I know,” she replied, eyes wide open. “Look out, here come the menus.”

Tyrone was possibly even happier to see us than his tuxedo-wearing colleague.

“Good morning Sir, Madam!” He meant it. “Here are your menus.” He gave us each a bulky tome and checked our coffee order. Because, let’s face it, we were always going to have some. The aroma of freshly-ground beans permeated every nook and cranny. Even the most avid tea-drinker was going to be beaten into submission by it. Looking over to the coffee station was to see an industrial process in place as the barista dispensed the brew to a never-ending stream of punters. At the marble-topped bar, suited-and-booted New Yorkers perched, waiting for their take-out order. They barked at Blackberries, thumbed their NYT or WSJ or simply glanced at the 24-hour rolling news. There was a cacophony of conversation; it seemed as if they were already making deals before moving on to the concrete and glass eyries next door.

“Phil. Have you looked at this menu?” said Katie in a low voice.

I had. Although I hadn’t fully understood it. There were items there that I’d never considered for breakfast before. There was a heady mix of Italian and Yiddish, interspersed here and there with familiar words. I pounced on one of them like a lifebelt.

“Eggs. Right, they do eggs,” I said under my breath. “You know where you are with eggs. Oh blimey..”

I ran my finger down the menu. I had been given fewer options the last time I bought a new car. How do I want them, what do I want in them, under them, to the side of them? What type of bread to accompany the whole shebang? I eventually settled for three eggs scrambled with Nova Scotia salmon, crispy polenta and something called challah toast. Katie had cinnamon raison and pecan French toast, topped with strawberries, whipped cream and maple syrup.

“Great choice,” said perma-happy Tyrone. “I’ll get these to you as soon as possible.” The contrast with your typical British Harvester employee could not have been more stark.

By this point I think we were hyperventilating ever so slightly. It was like being on an alien planet. Our pulse rates went up another notch when the food actually appeared.

“Christ on a bike,” I gasped, “this isn’t breakfast. This constitutes my entire set of nutritional requirements for the next fortnight.”

“You’re telling me,” said Katie from somewhere behind a mound of whipped cream.

“How is it that they’re not all the size of houses?” I pointed an egg -laden fork at the coffee line. “Look at them. You’ve heard the stereotypes about American people, yet this lot all look like racing snakes. They eat like this and yet none of them are even remotely at the waddling stage.”

“It’s a city thing, I suppose. They must burn it all off through nervous energy.”

“But Katie, we live in a city.”

“Not this one. Not this one." She had a point.

And so we rolled our sleeves up and set to. My eggs were scrambled to perfection and shot through with sea-fresh chunks of salty salmon. The polenta, crispy on the outside, yielded to creamy softness in my mouth. Challah turned out to be French toast but made with traditional Jewish braided bread. All of this was washed down with thick dark coffee, constantly refilled by orbiting staff closely watching to see if your cup fell below the half-way level. I looked over at another table, watching in awe as a gentleman poured what looked like maple syrup over some rashers of bacon. My mind was sufficiently boggled by the whole sweet/savoury interface.

“Katie, we’ve got to come back here tomorrow.”

“I’m not entirely sure I’ll have finished these pancakes by then, but why?”

“I’ve just seen what I’m trying on our next visit.”

We turned back to the breakfast challenge and after fifteen minutes of Herculean effort, managed to finish. While both being fully aware of the general concept of ‘leaving some food behind’ it was just too good to even contemplate. I sat back against the wall of the booth and patted my distended belly.

“That breakfast was quite possibly the pinnacle of civilisation. After something like that to start you off, I reckon you could build a transcontinental railroad, bolt together a Boeing or put the finishing touches to a moonshot. That’s how to do it.”

Katie raised an eyebrow. “I’m not so sure, she said. “I can actually hear my arteries furring up. If everyone had breakfast like this back home I’d give the NHS eighteen months, tops.”

We left some dollar bills at the table, like they do in movies, and gently manoeuvred ourselves back into the manmade Manhattan canyon outside. My heart was singing Home of the Brave while my stomach provided a counterpoint with Hava Nagila. Yellow cabs honked and jostled. At the street corner, steam arose from a manhole like a well-placed cliché.

We did not eat until that night. And even then it was more out of tradition than anything else. One thing is for sure. I shall return. To the city, to the diner, to the more experimental parts of the menu. Because, in the immortal words of Messrs Simon and Garfunkel, I am leaving, I am leaving, but the breakfast still remains.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ticking the boxes

We're all going to Hell in a handbasket. And I think it might be my fault. I'm terribly sorry.

It started in the week of my birth. I can hardly claim to have known what I was doing at the time, being rather more interested in emptying my bowels in an extravagant fashion. But it turned out that I'd chosen the right time to be born. The British Cohort Study was underway, a study of everyone born in one particular week in 1970.

Originally this was just a case of midwives filling out a few extra forms to help the powers-that-be better understand a cross-section of their latest citizens. But five years later someone had the bright idea of contacting these families once more to see how their five-year-olds were getting on. Every few years after that there was a litany of tests, surveys and questionnaires.

Yes. I'm well aware that a survey and a questionnaire could be the same thing.

42 years later and the BCS is still ongoing. I've just completed the latest questionnaire-survey, actually. And that's when it occured to me that I've probably had a hand in ruining everything for everyone. You see, someone must be taking seriously my responses to all of this data-gathering. They're using it to plan things. They know in intimate detail how us 42-year-olds feel about politics, our general health requirements, the number of bedrooms we have in our houses and how many units of alcohol we consumed last week.

That's the sort of information you need when making decisions on behalf of everyone. Best to make sure it's all accurate, then, yes?

The problem is this. When I'm filling in a survey/questionnaire thing, I sometimes embellish things. I give the answers that I would like to give. When asked, "How many times have you visited a museum in the last 12 months?" I really want to be the sort of sophisticated person who can glibly tick the 'Four times or more' box.

I don't completely fabricate matters. There's no way I'm going to be able to convince anyone that I visit a gym three times a week. Or that I've never been inside a pub. But if the form asks me about my reading habits, its a regular diet of literary fiction all the way, rather than the truth (Twitter and camera instruction manuals, in case you were wondering).

We only have to hope that the thousands of other Cohorts are a little more diligent when giving their details. The people using all this data have to hope that some people are being brutally honest, otherwise they'll be opening loads of libraries and museums.

And we can't be having that, can we?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

It's a start

I used to love beige food. Still do, as a matter of fact. But avoiding it for the last two weeks has had a profound effect.

Just to be clear, when I say 'beige' I am being literal. I'm referring to the colour. Chicken nuggets, crisps, pastries, pies, you name it, I would eat it. In fact, all the stuff my doctor told me I had to pretty much stop consuming - it all occupied the beige end of the spectrum.

Our fridge used to look like the paint job in a Barrett's show home.

Over the last fortnight I've been eating a rainbow. Mainly, it has to be said, the green end, but certainly there's been a variety. I don't think I've ever had quite so much fresh fruit and veg. I even recognised some of it. The red lentil and sweet potato curry the other night was a particular high point, although I should probably apologise to anyone who was near me the following morning.

I don't suppose I need to paint you a picture.

The new regime has forced us to adopt some new practices. We now both get up in the morning at the same time so that we can have a proper breakfast and also to carry out the extra prep required for lunches, etc. It's quite civilised - we're able to talk to each other in the morning, which beforehand we tended not to do. Apparently that's what married couples do all over the place. Who knew?

As a result of all this colourful cuisine I've lost nine pounds in two weeks. Which is nice. I'm not yet at the point where it's noticeable to others, or in fact to me, but hopefully that will come in due course.

There are still some challenges. Last night we went to a party, which meant party food. There were acres of beigeness. It was spectacular. In the good old days I would have wandered from room to room, grazing on Doritos, stuffing pork pies into my gaping maw. Instead, I had a couple of cucumber sandwiches and munched on lettuce and tomatoes.

This is where you'd expect me to say how refreshing it was, not to fill myself with junk food. No. I won't say that, because it was bloody horrible.

But my war against beige food must go on.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Never knowingly underweight

When your doctor replies to the question, "Should I do some exercise?" with the following answer, it's probably a sign:

"I wouldn't recommend it right now. You'd probably keel over there and then."

When you get to the stage where a person you don't really know - literally a step away from being a complete stranger - feels able to pat you on the stomach and say: "So when's it due?" that's almost certainly a sign. (I didn't smile back at her. She probably thought that being my size I could at least have had the good manners to be jolly.)

When you can't find clothes that fit you easily, that's not necessarily a sign. But when you can't even find a belt that fits, that's a sign. It's a great big sign. A great big fat sign, if you like.

The doctor was very nice, by the way. He showed me lots of numbers on his screen. There was the cholesterol one which was high and needed to be lower. Then the vitamin D and calcium ones which were too low and needed to be higher. Very low, they were. I have the vitamin D of a cave-dwelling emo teenager and the calcium levels of an 80-year old, bizarrely. Heaven help me if I have a fall.

The doctor, after warning me against exercise until I lost some tonnage ("Your knees would outlast your heart") gave me some diet advice. And it went like this:

"All the things you like to have? Stop having them. And all the things you really don't like, you need to have more of them. If I see you in Greggs, you're a dead man."

Before you ask, I'm pretty much quoting him word for word.

He prescribed me some calcium tablets to be taken for the next year. I wonder if it's possible to overdose on them? Would you go all stiff-limbed and grin at everyone? Who knows.

So this is why, after a last calorie-laden blow-out on Saturday evening, Sunday found Katie and me in the supermarket, looking at green things. We bumped into a friend; I told him we were strangers to the vegetable aisle and he thought I was joking.

I was not joking.

I'll tell you something, though. Those people who say, often in a breezy, carefree manner, that you can eat healthily and pay no more than eating junk? They're talking arrant bollocks. I've got a weekly shopping bill some three times my normal amount as proof. I feel that some adjustments might be necessary for next week.

But we'll make the adjustments and go on. Because there was another set of scary numbers over the weekend. An 18, followed by a 1. 18 stone, 1 pound (or 253 pounds if you're American).

We've been here before, haven't we?

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Not the same thing at all

My wife, the sainted Katie, She Who Must Be Obeyed, sometimes reads this blog. I suppose someone has to.

I often don't know about it until weeks afterwards. I'll have written something and then, when I've practically forgotten about it, she will ask questions. Of course, when I say "ask questions" what I mean is "deploy interrogation techniques that would put the Stasi to shame".

Potato, puh-taht-o.

A month or so ago I wrote about our experience when buying a bed. I know, I'm like Ernest Hemingway without the rum, aren't I? If you've not read it, I freely recommend it. It's a right riveting read, a roller-coaster from start to finish. In the posting, I complain how difficult it is to just go out and buy something. How tricky it is to simply part money without the salesperson trying to get more of your hard-earned out of you with additional sales, related items, extra charges, delivery, etc.

I think I made a well-reasoned point. Which is why I hope Katie doesn't read it. Because if she does, I'll be hoist upon my own petard. The moment I find out exactly what a petard is, I suppose.

You see, the truth is this. The day after we paid for the bed, I went and bought a camera. This was a planned purchase. I knew the make and model - I'd even reserved it from the shop beforehand. Both Katie and I knew exactly how much money was going to change hands.

So it was a little unfortunate when the well-meaning folk at the camera shop told me about this fantastic new deal they'd got on. How I could get an additional lens for Not Very Much At All. And of course, you need another lens, don't you? I might as well get a case, too. You're not going to go around without a case, are you Sir? It would be a shame if any damage happened to this camera, just because you didn't take this LowePro case that we just happen to have on offer? And what about a memory card? You can't do anything without a memory card, can you?

Stitched up. Like a kipper. I walked out of that shop, my wallet feeling like it had been violated. So if I moan about spending extra on getting a bed delivered, you must take it with a pinch of salt. Because at some point Katie will read about it, and an eyebrow will be raised.

Still, as long as I haven't spent all this money on a camera just to take pictures of the cat, all's OK, isn't it?

Oh dear.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

High fidelity

Apparently, today is Record Store Day. "What's that?" I hear you ask.

Actually, I don't hear disembodied voices any more. Not since the Event. Anyway.

Record Store Day is supposed to help us celebrate the unique culture of our independent record stores. There are special vinyl and CD releases, promotional produtcts, the whole shebang. This is officially a Good Thing.

Why? Because when I was putting this post together I was trying to remember the last time I had been in an independent record store and my mind drew a blank. Then I tried to think about the last time I'd even seen an indie store. Nope, still struggling.

This is clearly a  market sector that needs our help.

Which is odd, because I think I spent about 30% of my waking hours between the age of 13 and 19 in record shops. I loved them, really loved them. I had the nonchalant finger-flick down to a fine art. You know, the action used when riffling through a shelf of vinyl albums or CD jewel cases, digging through the dross to uncover the treasure.For a couple of years I  even had a Saturday job in a record store. And while it wasn't an independent, it was still the coolest job a teenager could have.

But that was long ago. These days we don't  tend to buy music in the same way. There's very little thought involved in the wqhole process. Music is a commodity, there to be downloaded as a series of ones and zeroes at the click of a mouse. It was so much different back then.The first single I ever went out and bought was this:

I heard it on the radio as a young teenager. I fell in love with it but then had to wait until the weekend before going to my record store. Somehow, clicking a link doesn't seem to have the same emotional involvement.

Still love it now, to be honest. Brother number 1 played me the orchestral version once when I was driving us through Wales. We very nearly had an accident.

Record stores perform another vital task. They are places for blokes to go when their wives/girlfriends/significant others are shopping for clothes. We can go and do the riffle through CDs of impenetrable guitar music while she's off looking at 27 near-identical tops. These places save marriages, of this I am certain.

I can vouch for this. A few weeks ago Katie was on the retail trail so I wandered into a record store. I picked up a couple of CDs from artists I'd never really listened to before, but sort of felt I needed to discover. Taking them to the counter, the cool long-haired guy behind the till smiled and nodded approvingly at my purchases. I walked out of that shop 20 feet tall.

You just can't get that from iTunes.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

This thing that I wrote

Could you help me out a little, please?

Last year I wrote a novel. I know, I haven't mentioned it for a while. Think yourself lucky. You thought you'd got away, didn't you? The novel - or rather the first draft of it - has been sitting on a memory stick since I finished it at the end of November and I haven't gone back to edit it.

Why? Because.editing is hard work and I'm lazy. Creating stuff is fun. Going back and making it slightly-less-crappy is difficult. There will always be something else more attractive to do. Like sitting on my sofa, drinking tea, for instance. I need a sizeable kick up the backside.

So this is what I'm going to do. Below is an (unedited) exerpt from the book. Have a read. Let me know what you think - in the comment box, Facebook, Twitter or your social network of choice. Because, after all is said and done, I'm a tart, and feedback flicks my switches, presses by buttons and turns my dials to 11. There's an image for you. Anyway, here goes for nothing:


Ken Hamilton was a clockwise man and proud of it. Asking him to drive in the other direction would have been like making him betray his very soul.

He checked the time on his watch; still six minutes until he needed to get going. Good, he thought. I’m ahead of schedule. Can’t mess up the timetable, especially not with Inspectors out on the route today.

Hamilton considered himself at the very peak of his profession. He was, he thought, similar in many ways to an airline pilot given the keys to a 747, only in his case he was in the driving seat of a National Express West Midlands Metro-Cammel Turboliner double-decker bus. But it wasn’t the vehicle that was significant – it was the route.

The number 11 bus route following Birmingham’s Outer Circle was, he would tell people, the longest scheduled urban bus service in Europe. He wasn’t entirely sure if that was true. More often than not, a listener’s eyes would get that strange faraway look whenever he started to talk about it. He was rarely challenged by people when he made claims like that.

He used to tell the very same people that he was just like his namesake, Lewis Hamilton. “He too drives his own single-seater around circuits all day.” By this point in the conversation the other party would rarely take him up on this claim. The other seventy seats on the bus surely should count for something. And the clockwise 11C bus route was hardly the same as Monza. Normally though, he’d get comments like, “Is that the time?” or “Excuse me, I think I’ve just seen my wife carrying a week’s supply of humus,” or some such.

Ken had been on the 11C for fifteen years and had resisted all attempts by the management to move him onto other routes. The 11C was the gig for him. He was a man with a passion. He knew every inch of the 27 miles, every one of the 68 stops, every turn, every junction and every sleeping policeman. It was a pity the passengers got in the way somewhat, but he supposed they were a necessary evil. And he was not going anti-clockwise, no matter what.

It wasn’t as if he had any personal enmity against the 11A drivers. Ken had spoken to one once for a few minutes before realising, and in fairness he’d seemed almost reasonable. But anti-clockwise was retrograde, against the natural order of things. Some things happen for a reason. On one occasion he’d absent-mindedly missed the terminus at the end of his shift. He couldn’t face driving against the flow of the route, so he’d simple completed another circuit.

The Inspectors hadn’t liked that one bit. What did they know, the philistines?

He glanced at his watch once more. Still three minutes before I can get going once more. He looked out of his window, at the nefarious delights of Acocks Green Laser Quest. This is the life. I am master of all I survey.


Oh, this was really too much. Someone was trying to get on. Really, he thought, it’s the passengers that make this job so difficult. Always wanting to get somewhere, that mad dash from A to B. In Ken Hamilton’s mind there was a lot to be said for starting out from A and ending up back there once again, a mere hour and a half later.


For God’s sake. This was completely unnecessary. It was putting him off his Daily Express. He had half a mind to drive off, but that would mean arriving at the next stop ahead of the timetable. He wasn’t having that.

With a hiss of hydraulics, the passenger door folded open and made further argument academic. Ken stared madly – he hadn’t even touched the controls. “What’s going on?” he asked out loud.

“Please don’t be concerned, Mr Hamilton,” said the figure, stepping lightly onto the bus. “I am sorry to have inconvenienced you. I need to take you somewhere.”

“What? I’m in the middle of my shift. Don’t be daft. Now, unless you have correct change or a pass I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He thought it a little odd that he couldn’t make out any features. The youth of today, always in hoodies or some such clothing. Strange, I can’t actually make him out at all. It’s like the light just skips over him. Must get my eyes checked out. He blinked.

“Mr Hamilton, please step out of the cab and follow me. You will understand.”

“I understand,” said the driver. An alarm sounded briefly as he opened the door to his compartment, then silenced as he slammed it shut once more behind him. “Where are we going?”

“I cannot tell you at the moment. But the journey is necessary.”

“We’re not going to have to go anti-clockwise, are we?”

“Probably best that you don’t worry about it, Mr Hamilton.”

Monday, 2 April 2012

I think I get it now

I think I've made my position on parenthood quite clear. If I wanted to be constantly anxious, sleepless and financially ruined, I'd have a crack habit instead. I know that children are supposed to be a source of constant joy. So they say, at least. But I'm ever so slightly cynical - the 'they' in question only ever seem to be existing parents.

I can't help thinking that they want the misery to be shared amongst others.

I'm fully aware that my position in this respect goes against common sense. The species needs to continue, after all.  But last time I checked, we seemed to be doing a pretty good job. Some might say that my view is contrary to nature. I normally ask these people how they square Mother Nature with being able to make such comments on a website with a complete stranger hundreds of miles away. That tends to do the trick.

I'm not anti-child, though. It's just the whole concept of babies I find completely alien. You essentially give up the fun things and have to be responsible for this little person that is completely, 100% dependent upon you. Katie and I can barely look after ourselves. Put an infant into the mix and quite frankly it'd be a recipe for disaster.

Babies are, effectively, machines for making a terrifying amount of poo. It's what they do. When you're six weeks old, that's pretty much all you're going to have on the CV. Pastimes? Pooing. Oh, and crying. And while I've been in several situations where bodily fluids and yelling were on the agenda, it's not something I'm keen on choosing as a lifestyle choice.

Another thing - babies are just exhausting. I've written about this before. It's just relentless. The effort you have to put in is immense. I wouldn't mind, but you don't even get much in the way of conversation on the weighty matters of the day.

And yet. And yet.

Yesterday I spent a little time with my niece, who is about a month off her second birthday. It was a sunny afternoon in the garden. She had her white sun hat on, and went "Uh-oh" every time it slipped off.  She laughed and giggled at her Aunt and Uncle, flashing ocean-blue eyes at us both. Running after a tennis ball was the funniest thing in the world. Seriously, if I could get adults to laugh that easily I'd have a career in stand up.

So here's the thing. I'm still not sold on parenthood. But I learned something. If you can manage to keep a baby alive for a year or so, it turns into a toddler.

And toddlers are the best thing in the universe.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Tucked up good and proper

Is it at all possible, in these austere times, to buy a Thing? I mean, I know there's a recession on. We're practically scraping by. No-one has any cash; everyone is living on tears and memories. Taste the salty bitterness, people. But surely it should be possible to manage a normal retail transaction without complication? You would think so.

It used to be so simple. You would go into a Thing Shop. You'd find the Thing you wanted and check the price of your Thing. You might speak to the Thing Salesperson before handing over your money and walking out of the place, your Thing acquisition needs well and truly satisfied.

I was reminded of this novel concept the other day when I went to buy a bed. I know. My lifestyle is pretty much full-on rock and roll, isn't it? But we were mindful of the fact that our current bed is a little on the antique side. It is old enough for us to be embarrassed about how old it is. Most people don't ask you "How old is your bed?" in polite conversation, it's true. But if they did ask us, we'd have to shuffle around and look at our feet before murmuring the answer.

If our bed was any older it would date back to the Ottoman Empire. Oh yes, I don't write anything for ages, and when I return it's all bedroom-furniture-historical-reference gags. I spoil, you, I really do.

Our ancient bed could have a relief map, it's so lumpy. Katie has spent much of the last year or so attempting to sleep over a crevasse. It's not conducive to a good night's sleep. So that's why we were to be found in the bed shop earlier this week, where I came to the realisation that buying Things is really tricky.

We found one we liked. We lay on it and marvelled at the experience of a bed that didn't try to hurt us in return. The saleswoman came over. And then we fell through a wormhole into another world.

"Do you want it with drawers in the base?"

"Well, yes, that's one of the reasons we chose this one. Because it has drawers in the base."

"That'll be an extra £120. Although there are drawers in that one, they are extra. Now then, delivery?"

"That would be a good idea. I'm not sure your boss would like us having to come over here every night to sleep on it. It would be very inconvenient if I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night."

"That'll be another £40."

Ok. Yes, I can hear you all saying, "But Phil, that's quite reasonable. What did you expect?" But you lot buy beds more regularly than I do. Come to think of it, you probably buy houses more regularly than I buy beds. But if you really think about it, paying an extra forty quid for the privilege of having the Thing I'd just spent a scary amount of money on actually placed in my house seems, well, odd.

"Now then, what about your old bed?" she asked me, my mind already performing the type of mental calculations usually preserved for astrophysics.

"I don't think it would be a good idea to put the new one on top of it. We'd be too close to the ceiling, for starters."

"We can take it away for you..."

"Well, that might reduce the crowding in our bedroom."

"...for another £40."

Of course. I mean, after all, you will have a truck at my house with a bed-shaped hole. Might as well fill it and charge me some more money for the privilege. I was about to open my mouth at this point, but Katie kicked me under the desk, perhaps worried that I was going to leave the old bed in the front garden, ghetto-style.

"Right," I said, mind suitably boggled. "Please tell me that's it."

"We-ell, you see, there's the protection plan."

"Beg your pardon?"

"What would happen if your bed was damaged in an accident, for instance?"

After a brief discussion, I promised the saleswoman that I wouldn't attempt to drive my new bed down the fast lane of the M6. I didn't buy the cover plan, leaving a spare £75 for two pillows. I was going to baulk at this, but my shins took another under-desk battering from Katie.

We left the bed shop, feeling strangely light-headed. It turned out that the price of a Thing bears no relationship to what you actually end up paying.

"At least we'll be able to sleep better at night," said Katie.

It's just as well. It turns out I can't afford to do anything more adventurous.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Part of the machine

So, how was your Friday night, dear reader? A chance to unwind after the week's efforts, maybe? A little drink, perhaps something nice to eat? I bet you retired to bed and slept a deep, restful sleep.

You lucky, lucky gits.

As my saintly wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, will tell you, bedtime with me is an acquired taste. Stop sniggering at the back there. Being next to me in bed means putting up with a bewildering array of noises. The sounds I make have been variously described as 'chainsawing through a herd of donkeys,' 'kickstarting a DC10,' and 'navigating one's way through the lower colon of an enraged bull sealion'.

She's a fortunate girl, and no doubt.

But the snoring, bad as it is, is a symptom of something else. As I've mentioned before, I have a bit of a problem with the whole 'eight hours of restful sleep concept'. Which is why on Friday morning I paid a trip to Birmingham Heartlands Hospital.

I've had very little contact with the NHS in my 40-odd years; it was a novel experience to be visiting a hospital as a patient instead of being, well, a visitor. I asked for directions to the sleep clinic and was given a laminated card. There then followed a confusing succession of lifts, and corridors. I'm almost certain I crossed more than one time zone; looking through one open door I'm convinced I saw the Serengeti desert off in the distance. Eventually I reached the clinic, where a very efficient technician measured my height and weight (I winced at this latter number) before explaining what was going to happen next.

I'd known in advance that I was going to pick up something called an Embletta. I had no idea beforehand what this device would be. The name suggested it could be one of those small Italian scooters and to be honest I was struggling to understand how this would help. But, as it turned out, an Embletta is not something you'd have seen in La Dolce Vita. It's a digital recording device, designed to monitor and save a whole bunch of data while you sleep. Or, in my case, fail to sleep.

The technician explained how the Embletta would work and got me to sign a form confirming that I would bring it back, or pay the NHS £7,000 if I failed to do so. No pressure, then.

So this is why, on Friday night, I was to be found with a device the size of an old-school Sony Walkman strapped to my chest. I wouldn't mind, but I couldn't even play my Rush cassettes on it. Then there were additional sensors around my stomach (yes, they reached, thank you) and upper chest. My index finger was plugged into another sensor, plus there was a cannula - a tube with little prongs going into each nostril, to measure my breathing.

Katie watched, wide-eyed, as I strapped myself into this array of wires and tubes, little lights flashing. I lumbered towards the bed, wearing a shapeless old t-shirt, looking and sounding for all the world like a Poundland Darth Vader.

"You know, I don't think I've ever been more aroused than I am right now," she said.

She wasn't helping. And so, just to make my position clear, I told her. "You're not helping," I said.

And so to bed. I don't lie on my back as I can't breathe then, and I've found breathing to be quite important. I couldn't go on my front as I had all this hardware there. So I balanced precariously on one side and tried to sleep. I failed miserably.

I don't know what data the Embletta will have recorded. I'm not sure what the sleep clinic will make of my 11:45pm visit to the bathroom to have a pee. Or the fact that I went downstairs for a couple of hours to lie on the sofa, because Katie was snoring loudly (ironic, huh?). I think perhaps there was some fleeting sleep there, but if the machine blinked it might have missed it.

So I think we've established one thing with regards to my sleeping. I can't do it if I have sensors velcroed to me, my index finger in a bulldog clip and a tube up my nose. Fascinating. Who knew?


Related Posts with Thumbnails