Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Not fit for purpose

Many years ago I was a member of a gym. I'll wait for a moment for the hilarity to die down. It's true - not only was I a member, but I actually went there on a regular basis. And I didn't just used to sit in the juice bar with a towel around my shoulders, making out that I was 'cooling down' - I actually went and used the equipment.

I had a proper routine, all worked out for me by a young chap who was a supreme physical specimen. If aliens had landed at the time he was assessing me, they'd have thought we were two different species. Over a course of six months or so I attended regularly. I used the cardio machines and the weight-lifting apparatus. I didn't use the free weight area as it seemed to be populated by lots of muscle-bound gentlemen who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at each other in the wall-to-wall mirror. Each to his own.

Briefly I attained a level of fitness that had otherwise eluded me. Well, I say 'level of fitness'. Essentially, I could walk up some stairs without getting out of breath. Ah, the memories.

The gym in question was part of a chain called Fitness First. That seemed a little counter-intuitive to me - I had no discernable fitness at first. In my case, 'Fitness Eventually' might have been more appropriate. In common with many people, over time my interest levels dropped and at the end of the contract period I cancelled, in order to spend more time with my sofa. The company needed a little persuasion for them to understand that I was no longer going to be visiting, but eventually they took the hint and stopped trying to take the monthly fees out of my bank account.

I was reminded of this when I read this story today. In summary, it was about a couple of members of another gym chain - in this case LA Fitness. He had been made redundant, she was eight months pregnant. They were living on benefits and were about to be made homeless. LA Fitness were refusing to allow them to cancel their contract and were insisting that this couple continued to make the payments for a membership they were no longer using.

Even when a journalist from a national paper intervened, LA Fitness continued to demand payment. After an inordinate amount of pressure, the company eventually decided to reduce the contract term. So instead of demanding £780 from an unemployed couple, they only wanted £360 from an unemployed couple.

I'm not making this up.

That's when social media sprang into action. There's nothing quite like a Twitter outrage, is there? Hundreds, possibly thousands of people weighed in to let LA Fitness know exactly what they thought of them. Which, to be honest, wasn't terribly much. A whole new vein of swearing was mined.

Let's be straight. Most of these chain gyms would like you to think they are there to change your body for the better. It would appear, however, that they are subscription-generating factories, using Nautilus machines as bait. Here's the thing: any contract that is sufficiently weighted in favour of one party to the detriment of the other may not be enforceable. I know this because of what I do for a living, but when it's January and you can't fit into your jeans, are you going to look at the small print when you waddle through the doors of your local gym? They know you won't.

Eventually, this evening, a rather curt stream of messages from LA Fitness' Twitter account told us that they had written to the couple to waive the contract. But the fact that it had to get this far should tell us something about the attitude LA Fitness has towards its customers. Seriously, guys, if you couldn't find it in your heart to be nicer, your head should at least have remembered your pocket.

I mention this not because I'm about to join a gym. That would indeed be a cause for comment. If anything, this confirms my long-held opinion that gyms are evil places that should be avoided at all costs. Let's be honest - the chance of me spending any more money at LA Fitness was remote even before today. But some of you out there might be about to enrol with a gym. That's fine. But there are others out there that might understand the concept of human decency.

Remember. If a company shows contempt for its customers, it does not deserve to have any.

Monday, 23 January 2012

My life in sport

Last weekend I went to a film premiere. I know, get me. There wasn't a red carpet, unfortunately. No reporters on the way in asking me what I was wearing. Shame really. I would have loved to been able to answer them with a confident "Jacamo. For men who love pies a little too much."

But anyway. The film. It was the latest release from my friend Chris, who over the last few years has done a number of these friend-sourced movies. I have mentioned them here before. They're great fun, even when filming them involves the possibility of injury. This latest one was a selection of short sketches tacked together for the general amusement of the discerning filmgoer. And Chris was generous enough to let me put one of mine in.

The sketch was based on a silly short story I wrote. And as most of you weren't present at the cinema screening on Saturday, here it is. I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote it.


Whenever real sports fans are gathered together the same names will crop up. The legends of athletic history. Coe, Ovett, Redgrave. Thompson, Hoy, that one that goes to the toilet in street. These are characters spoken of in hushed tones. And to that list, that panoply of greats, we could so easily have added one more name.

My name.

For I had the ambition. And the vision. Not much in the way of natural ability, or, for that matter, physical fitness. But I was hoping that the ambition-and-vision thing would make up for these glaring omissions.

Because I not only wanted to bring gold back to Blighty; I wanted to introduce the world to a brand new Olympic sport. My name is Phil. And I was going to be the world’s first Sudoku Olympic Gold Medallist.

I was never the most athletic of people, growing up. My idea of strenuous physical exercise involved a game of chess next to an open window. But I thought it unfair that the plaudits only went to those able to work up a sweat. It was my considered opinion that the Olympics should be open to all; not just the grunt-and-jump merchants. And that’s when I had my brainwave.

At first, I’d considered developing Wordsearch as an Olympic event. But then I realised this would be giving an unfair advantage to Chinese competitors. After all, they would already be comfortable with the concept of writing up and down as opposed to side to side. So Sudoku it was.

I embarked on an extensive training session. I would start by learning the numbers. All of the numbers, one to nine. After all, if you’re going to be an expert, you need to start with the fundamental principles. At the same time I got my application in to the International Olympic Committee. Apparently they have to decide on things like this; it’s not as if you can just show up at the stadium with fifteen hundred copies of the Puzzler book and expect to be let in.

My parents were supportive, in the main. “He needs to do this,” my mother said to anyone who would ask. “He needs to achieve. He needs to push boundaries. He needs to win.”

“He needs to get himself a sodding job and stop living in our loft,” my dad would reply from behind the Daily Mail.

Over the months and years my Sudoku skills came on in leaps and bounds. I had a testing regime, practicing for up to twenty hours per day. At my peak condition I was a lean, mean, Sudoku-completing machine. I could do the ‘three lightbulb’ ones in 45 minutes.

But I needed further encouragement. I found out that Sir Steven Redgrave was visiting my town to give a talk on his life and career. I went to see him, and, when he had finished speaking, had a minute or two to explain my plans for greatness.

He had a couple of words for me. I did not understand either of them.

Eventually the momentous occasion arrived when the letter from the IOC arrived. This was it; the continuation of all of my hopes and dreams. A further step along the long and arduous route towards Olympic glory.

I opened it with trembling fingers and read the contents carefully. There were terms I did not fully expect, like ‘colossally inappropriate’ , ‘bringing the Games into disrepute’ and ‘please do not ever write to us again’.

And I’ll tell you something. I’m sure Jesse Owens never had this trouble.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Nine lives

I didn't mention it at the time, but December was a pretty crappy month at Fatboyfat Towers. I didn't mention it because everyone else was busy walking in their own winter wonderlands, jingling their bells and dinging their dongs merrily on high.You all have your various parades. And you don't need me raining upon them.

It started on early in the month when we noticed the cat was limping heavily. Bodie was ten years old and had been with us since we'd adopted him and his brother Doyle as kittens. Doyle hadn't made it out of kittenhood, unfortunately, which illustrated to us the folly of naming any pair of animals after a well-known double act. But Bodie was relatively healthy, in a feline way.

The fact that I've used the past tense a lot in that last paragraph should tell you where this is going, shouldn't it?

It was me that took the phone call. That call. The fact that it was from The Nice Irish Vet That Katie Quite Fancies did little to lessen the blow. Bodie had an inoperable mass under his rear nearside and there wasn't terribly much we could do.

I had to go for a walk around the block. There was something in my eye, you see.

Circumstances meant that there was about a two-week period of time before we were able to take the final sad little visit to the vet. That was a horrible fortnight. We knew what was coming, but had to continue as normal. He was on pain relief, but even so he would look at us sometimes in a knowing way.  I often had things in my eye over those two weeks.

People who don't have pets find this sort of thing difficult to understand. But these animals worm they way into your heart, you see. You can't bear to think of them suffering. But even more, you can't bear to think of them gone.

A week or so before Christmas we took that visit to the vet. It was very quick. Although I got something in my eye again.

Christmas passed. The house seemed empty. We went away to Cornwall for the New Year, which was a nice pasty-filled distraction.

Then last week I was looking at the local Cats Protection League website. In fairness, Katie had pretty much favourited the site and was spending much of her waking hours on it. But alongside the cute kittens at the local Centre there were slightly older cats being looked after by members of the public.

On Saturday we drove to the suburb of Harborne to meet Slinky, an 18-month-old male who'd been taken in by a lady called Caroline who makes maps for a living. I've never met a cartographer before, so that's one thing to cross off the list. As we sat next to Slinky on the sofa he purred gently and proceeded to sink his claws into my left hand in a calm and considered way. Blood dripping onto my wrist, Katie and I exchanged looks. I got the cat carrier out of the car.

Less than 12 hours later and Slinky had become Eric. This is mainly because he looks like an Eric. It is partly the effect of a bottle or two of some bloody good New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Last night I came home from work and parked in the driveway. Walking up to the door I looked in the front window to see the unmistakable shape of a pair of triangular ears poking up above the window ledge.

And it occurred to me. I wasn't standing outside a house. I was standing outside a home once more.

Dammit. Something in my eyes again.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

I can't get no sleep

This morning a doctor placed a camera inside my nose. I'll be straight with you - I'm not confident of an Oscar.

The reason for this investigative documentary-making was to try and get to the bottom of some nagging problems. In fairness, most of the nagging has come from Katie. It's the only way she can get me to go and visit a health professional. Like most men, I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to this sort of thing; we chaps tend to wait until a limb is hanging off by its final tendon before making an appointment with the doctor.

But this time it was different. I'm not very good in bed.

I'll rephrase that. What I mean is that I'm not very good at the sleeping part of the bed equation. Apparently, what's meant to happen is this: you go to bed, lie down, close your eyes and sleep deeply for eight hours. On waking, you feel refreshed. Small birds and woodland creatures caper around you as you shower under a waterfall, singing brightly.

This is not the case for me, by all accounts. I can do the lying down bit. Closing eyes, I can do that too. I can close my eyes with the best of them. But it all goes somewhat pear-shaped after that. I'm not entirely sure what happens, but me and Mr Sandman are not close acquaintances. Generally I tend to hover around some shallow form of wake/sleep hybrid, making strange noises redolent of faulty plumbing and, according to my long-suffering bed partner, forgetting to breathe.

I'm no expert, but I suspect breathing is quite important.

As a result of my night-time perturbations, I seem to spend most of my time out of bed interacting with the world as if it's under a blanket of fog. Ooh, it's tiring, this life, isn't it? Meetings are the worst. Put me in a meeting past 1.00pm and I'll need to be stabbing myself with a pen under the table to avoid pitching forwards headlong into the chocolate digestives. People can see you're half-asleep, but they're invariably too polite to say anything, even when you're wiping biscuit crumbs from your eyebrows.

So the doctor was having a look this morning to see if I had any obvious obstructions. I was wondering if perhaps there was an errant pice of Lego from the early 1980s, perhaps. But there was nothing obvious. The doctor did say that losing weight might help. I've been here before, folks.

The next step is to go and have a sleep study. This is where I go and sleep - or try to do so - in a hospital bedroom while they run various checks on me. At least Katie will get a good night as a result.

Now if you don't mind, I need to prepare myself for bed. Well, you never know.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Random musings 2012

Another 12 months have gone past, in the manner of months since time began. And it's time for the annual random music post. Yes - we have been here before. In fact, this is the fifth year - which is practically forever in Internet Years. I know. I'm practically a sodding tradition, aren't I?

What do you need to do? It's really easy. Get hold of your iPod or other music playing device. Hit the 'Shuffle' button. Then tell us about the first five that come along. It's as simple as that. And no cheating - of something embarrassing comes along, you can't just hit 'next' until you get a cooler track.

Ok. Here goes for nothing.

1: Queen - Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy

It is a universal rule, or even a Universal Rule, that everyone has a copy of Queen's Greatest Hits somewhere in their collection. Even if you don't like Queen, you're going to have it. Don't fight it. There are tribesmen out in the Amazon rainforest who have never met people from the 'civilised' world, and even they know all the words to Another One Bites the Dust. And what about this particular track? Well. Looking back at it I just wonder how we never guessed the obvious about F. Mercury, Esq.

2: The Selecter - James Bond

Because no-one's record collection is complete without a Ska version of the James Bond theme tune, is it? Formed just up the road from me in Coventry, the Selecter were described as 'conspiring to make dancing the only way to walk'. Clearly they'd never seen me dancing.

3: Turin Brakes - Full of Stars

This track is from an album called Ether Song which I loved more than was actually healthy when it came out. Sun-dappled melodies, laid back vocals. Just marvellous. What's that? You've never heard of them? Take this as a gift from your Uncle Phil - go and check them out. No, put down that forkful of breakfast - you don't have time - do it now.

4: Kings of Leon - Birthday

Oh, you crazy Followill brothers. How you entranced us with your early blend of Southern rock and blues. A grittiness and soulful approach. Something new, yet harking back to simpler times. Then someone let you into an arena and showed you the reverb pedal. It all went downhill from there.

5: The Who - Baba O'Riley

Ace. I could have stumbled across any track from the Who's Next album and it would have been spot on. This is the opener, syncopated synths at the start and whirling dervish gypsy violins at the end. Mind you, I can't listen to it without thinking of the question I once had from a friend: "Who was this Barbara O'Riley anyway?"

Now it's your turn. Get shuffling and put your results in the comments.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Start as you mean to go on

Yesterday we spent a considerable amount of the day in the car, going to one end of the country on a Haribo high. Yes people, that's how we roll. Welcome to Cornwall.

Last night we saw 2012 in with some rather nice Champagne. Happy New Year. And cheers.

As you read this I am relaxing. I am so laid back as to be practically horizontal. We're in a small cottage with thick walls to protect us from the worst of the Cornish weather. Hunkering on down, that's our plan for the next week. We have books, we have music, we have deeply, deeply unhealthy food. Marmite features quite heavily. As does Nutella. But not at the same time. I have the draft of a novel to edit. Oh yes. It does not get better than this.

We're a few miles away from Looe, which, by all accounts, is lovely. In the week I fully intend to go into town and get some Cornish pasties.

Or, as they call them here, pasties.

I'm sorry to be so self-indulgent. No, sod it, I'm not. After a rather strenuous and stressful few months, I'm looking forward to this.

See you all in a week.

(This post comes in recognition of Positive Upload Day. Spread the word.)


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