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.


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