Sunday, 10 August 2014

Pedalling nonsense

It occurs to me that I never really gave an update after my last post, in which I made a frankly shameless attempt to beg for your money for a cycling event.

I mean, I ask you for your cash, tell you I'm off to ride a bike around the West Midlands (well, around a really quite small bit of it) and then...nothing.

For all you know, dear reader, I could have been lying in a ditch somewhere for the last few weeks. I could have been set upon by a band of rabid stoats who are holding me hostage until their demands are met*.

It could happen.

Well, it didn't. I'm here today to tell you that I completed the 18 mile circuit and didn't die. I only had to get off and push once, and that's solely because I mucked up the changing of the gears when a sudden hill appeared. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Look. I even have photographic proof:

I was shepherded around the course by two friends, Leanne and Rich, who are much more competent cyclists than me. They wear lycra and have ridiculously light road bikes. I mean, look at them. They're thin and fit. An alien landing on Earth and looking at the three of us wouldn't even think we were all the same species, for God's sake.  They even thought to take off their helmets for this photo. That's the sign of a proper cyclist.

They kept close to me as I bimbled around the circuit, being overtaken by everyone. I think we were passed by an eight-year-old on a Raleigh Chipper at one point. They are serious cyclists and would normally have been off, like wheeled greyhounds, but they stuck to me and made sure I wasn't left alone to die in a pitiful steaming mess by the side of the road.

But here's the thing. I've been cycling now for a few months. I only get to go out maybe twice a week at the moment. And I haven't really logged hundreds of miles yet. But I actually quite enjoy it. Perhaps I've found a form of exercise I can get along with? Walking is too boring - it takes a long time for the scenery to change. If I took up jogging it's a toss-up as to what would fail first, my heart or my knees. But I've found I can get on with cycling.

No-one's forcing me to do 100 miles up a mountain at 25mph. I can go at my own pace, and I seem to be getting used to it. When I first did 10 miles I was indistinguishable from a corpse by the time I finished. But now I'm easily pushing on past that and adding more miles every time.

Here's the real test. It was tipping down with rain this weekend so I didn't get a chance to ride. And I've missed it.

Whoa. This is scary. Whisper it quietly, but I even found myself looking at some road bikes online the other day.

I used to look at middle-aged-men-in-lycra in a slightly bemused way before this started. But I think I'm beginning to see the point. Mind you, winter's coming. A couple of weeks of ice and I'll be saying "Bike? What bike?"

But at least while the sun's out I might be able to make a bit of a difference to the waistline.

*(Independence for Stoatland. All weasels to be kept in harnesses. Severe punishment meted out to anyone who can't tell the difference).

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A never-ending cycle of madness

So a few months ago I got a bicycle.

I know. It's a terrible cliche. Large bloke gets bike. Large bloke covers himself in Lycra. Large bloke gives it all up as a bad idea within six weeks. Large bloke puts bike on eBay.

But the fact of the matter is that I don't want to weigh 18 stone any longer. I tried going for walks, but the scenery didn't change quickly enough. I didn't want to join a gym, because, well, that just seemed ridiculous. So cycling it was.

I was quite sensible about the whole endeavour. I didn't get one of those racing bikes that weigh the same as a crisp packet. I got a sensible bike, with flat handlebars, so I didn't have to crouch down like a racer. The saddle is still like sitting on a razor blade, but I'm told you get used to that over time.

I am surrounded by people who cycle at a vastly different level. They come into work on a Monday morning and talk about the 80km they did at the weekend. They have bikes that seem to be made of approximately 12 carbon atoms that cost something equivalent to a Central American country's nation debt. They chatter about things like cadence and chainsets. 

Meanwhile, I talk meekly about the pitiful miles I have done, sweating up the hills and extravagantly crapping myself on the way down again. I don't mention the times I have to get off and push, my heart pounding like Santana's rhythm section while stars float in front of my eyes.

But I've gone and done it now, haven't I? Tomorrow morning I'm actually doing an organised cycle. The plan is that I'll do 30 kilometres (about 18.5 miles to you and me) which is a few miles more than I've ever done before. Real cyclists will be sniggering up their Lycra-clad sleeves already, but it's a bit of a big deal to me.

I'm doing this for the British Heart Foundation. I lost my dad to heart disease nearly six years ago, so it's a sacrifice I don't mind making. It's a worthwhile cause so any discomfort on my part (and distress caused to spectators as they watch this blubbery mess cycling around Solihull) is just a means to an end.

If you have a few spare quid, the link is

I must be out of my mind.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

This Man Attacked His Face With A Sharp Instrument - What Happened Next Will Astound You

I have, for the last six months or so, been a member of a select group of men.

When I have passed by, ladies have looked at me and felt the full power of my previously-absent manliness. People have looked upon me as a font of wisdom. I have been considered a sage of our times.

I have been in the same club as Brian Blessed, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare. And Conchita Wurst too, but there's not terribly much I can do about that.

Yes, since late last year I have been hairy of face. I have been able to pause and stroke my chin in a thoughtful way when asked a tricky question. Other bearded men and I have been able to acknowledge each other in the street with that raised eyebrow that says: "Hello, brother of mine."

I have been able to spend an extra five minutes every morning in bed. It's been ace.

But all good things must come to an end. I'm sorry, ladies. I grew the beard last year for theatrical purposes. And it is for the same reason that it's coming off. My next play is not set in the fuzzy 70s, but in the smooth-chinned 50s. It was written by Noel Coward. I even wear a dressing gown at one point. Rough-and-ready just won't cut it.

So I thought I'd treat you, dear reader, to a visual story of my journey. Because every man, no matter how grown-up he is, uses the removal of a beard to try out a few different looks. Here we go.

Step 1 - our start point. Full 'Extra in an Elizabethan Feast Scene' mode. It's quite magnificent, isn't it? Right, fire up the Braun.

Step 2 - the Van Dyck. As worn by cavaliers, laughing or otherwise, for 300 years or so. See also 'Bassist in a nu-metal band.'

It was at this point that I realised I was going to have to forego the 'Lemmy', as I'd already got rid of my jowl-hair. Oh, dear reader, imagine my disappointment. But this is an occupational hazard. You can't go backwards. Never mind. Onwards and upwards.

Step3 - the Zappa. I think the Soul Patch is a look which never really went away. Mine has had a little bit of every drink and morsel of food I've consumed over the last few months. Farewell, little patch, I think I'll miss you the most.

 Step 4 - the Adult Performer. "Hello, Missus, I've come to repair your boiler......"
Step 5 - the Traffic Policeman. "Can you tell me how fast you were going, sir?"

Now then. I thought long and hard about the next phase of the transformation. Obviously this next character is a divisive figure, whose actions affected millions of people in the last century. This moustache is one that is inextricably linked to one individual. But, fellas, we've all wondered what we'd look like if we adopted this man's look, haven't we?

Here we go.

Step 6 - the Charlie Chaplin.

OK, OK. I know. You were expecting someone else. It's Ron Mael from Sparks. I can't see why this look didn't catch on.

Step 7 - my face is really, really cold.

That was a really odd 20 minutes.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

How to win friends and keep your customers

Over recent years it's become blindingly apparent that I spend an ever-increasing fraction of my income having zeroes and ones piped into my house. In other words, I'm paying a heck of a lot money for broadband.

Every now and then I have a rush of blood to the head and think about moving my ISP somewhere else. But then I have a cup of tea and a biscuit and the urge dwindles.

It's not that I'm rich enough to stand the loss. I am not. I am, as is well known, monumentally lazy (the post counts alone on here should tell you that) but also somewhat resistant to change. My internet connection sort of works, after a fashion, so why would I want to risk it with someone else? Added to that, my ISP also provides me with cable TV and a landline so quite frankly it just seems to be a bit of a faff.

So when Virginmedia (for it is they) sent me a letter last night, practically begging me to ring them to see what they could do for me as an existing customer, it seemed like the answer to my prayers. Perhaps I could get a better deal and not have to uproot everything.

So I gathered up some information. I looked at what I was getting for my monthly payment. I looked at the competition to see what I could get elsewhere. Then I dialled the number on the letter from Virginmedia.

"Our operators are busy and the wait time is 30 minutes," said the message. I looked at the phone in my hand like a drunk does at the bottle of whisky in those comedy movies when he's seen something unlikely.

I am not a marketing person. No, really. But even I think it's a bit daft to lead on your existing customers, motivate them to think about what they've got and what they could have, and then leave them hanging.

I contacted Virginmedia on Twitter to tell them that is was a bit daft. Fair enough, they responded, asking me to fill out an online form. Which had a field on it for a password I have never used. I couldn't get past it - it was a mandatory field - so I couldn't contact them that way either. 

Virginmedia's Twitter team did seem genuinely as if they wanted to help (it's probably a nice difference from dealing with irate teenagers complaining that they can't shoot their friends on online gaming as fast as they'd like) but they wouldn't let me DM my details to them.

"Oh no," they said. "That's not secure. Send us an email instead."

So according to this technology company, sending a plain unencrypted email, which will bounce around several unknown and random email servers before reaching its destination, is the way forward.

I have seen the future, dear reader. And I think it involves letters and the Royal Mail.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Random acts of kindness

It has been a funny sort of week. Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. But they say that any week you can walk away from must, by definition, be a good one.

Oh, hang on. That's aeroplane landings isn't it? Never mind.

On Monday we came back from an overnight stay. We'd had a good time but She Who Must Be Obeyed was not in the best of spirits. In fairness, she was probably in a better condition than the mouse that Eric, our cat, had left on the kitchen floor. Actually, it was the lower half of a mouse - we never did find the top - but that wasn't the salient point.

After I had cleaned up the kitchen so it looked a little less like the set for a rodent snuff movie, I turned my attention back to SWMBO. She was sitting on the sofa, a pained expression on her face, rocking slowly backwards and forwards. She didn't feel too well. To emphasise the point, she said, "I don't feel too well."

She suffers from an intestinal condition which much of the time stays fairly benign, but occasionally flares up. Thinking it was just another case, she dosed up on codeine and went for a snooze. However, as afternoon turned into evening it was clear that all was not well. It was 10pm on a Bank Holiday Monday and things didn't look too positive.

We drove gingerly to the out-of-hours surgery, SWMBO now mining a whole new vein of swearing. After waiting in a room full of other people's coughs, we saw a triage nurse. And this is when I stopped worrying.

It's sometimes a little tricky to get into the health system in this country. But my experience on Monday showed to me that, once you're in the system, you're generally surrounded by people who want to help.

A doctor checked her over and immediately referred us to the main hospital next-door. As we limped along a corridor, a member of staff - with her coat on, making her way home - stopped to ask if we needed a wheelchair.

On the ward, we encountered a fierce-looking Ward Sister. But while she entered our details and dealt with several other people, we saw her stop a young female patient who was leaving.

"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I've been discharged. I'm going home."
"On your own, at this time of night? Don't be silly. There's no bus. I'll call you a taxi."
"But I've got no money."
"Then we'll pay for it. It's gone midnight, dear."

SWMBO pulled her regular party trick of fainting during a blood test. The nurses took this in their stride, unflappable, ever-cheerful. "Just sit down here, there's no rush."

She was placed on a ward and we waited. I noticed the staff - not just nurses, but other medical staff, domestics, doctors - going about their business. Efficiently, quietly (it was gone 1.00am by this time), but with utter care for their patients.

Eventually a young doctor came and examined SWMBO. "Yes, you did the right thing coming in. This isn't your normal flare-up and I'm afraid we'll have to keep you in. Let's get you a drip going."

At about 4.00am I left her in a hospital bed. The Ward Sister saw my evident confusion, stopping me at the exit to write down the ward's phone numbers and visiting hours.

"She hasn't got anything with her," I said. "I'll need to bring a change of clothes in the morning."
"Don't worry about it," she winked. "We'll provide her with what she needs. And we won't stop you if you come back outside of the visiting hours."

In the next two days, while they stabilised her condition, ran several scans and generally patched her up before releasing her, I had plenty of opportunity to witness the care first hand. I thought it would be worthwhile - after all, at the age of 44 I've probably got more of this to look forward to as bits of me stop working.

It was first class. But more than that, it was delivered at a human scale. From the surgical attention, all the way down to the cheerful woman pushing her tea trolley around the wards, everyone was there with one purpose. And it wasn't about the bottom line.

At no point did I get an invoice. No-one is asking me to fill in insurance forms. This is the UK's National Health Service and I cannot imagine living in a country without it. I know it's not always perfect. Sometimes it doesn't work as it should.

But it's a system that puts people first. And we muck about with that at our peril.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

So, exactly one month after the last post, in which I said I'd be posting more often, you get another one.

You lucky people.

But it's a Sunday afternoon, one of the less-credible Bond movies is on the telly, so I'm easily distracted. And it was on an afternoon just like this, a few months ago, when they pulled me back in.

Oh yes. You think you can leave. You believe you can put it all behind you. But they're incessant. They'll find you. And they'll get you to do what they want.

They're not the Cosa Nostra. They're much more scary than that. I have re-joined the shadowy world of Amateur Dramatics.

It was a normal Sunday afternoon about six months ago and I was idly looking at Facebook. A status update popped up from my Auntie Bibby.

I should explain. Bibby is not her real name. That would be odd. She's really a Vivienne, but as youngsters we all struggled with the letter 'V', so Bibby she became and 40-odd years later Bibby she remains. She is the lynchpin of the murky world of AmDram in South Birmingham. The Capo di Tutti Capo, the head honcho. Oh, she'll deny it and say it's a harmless pastime, but Auntie Bibby is the main recruiter. One quick conversation with her and before you know it, you're in the chorus for a production of HMS Pinafore in a community hall.

Some 20 years ago, I thought I'd got out. Oh, I'd started reasonably enough, hefting scenery backstage for a pantomime. But then it'd developed into something else. I'd had to learn lines and remember not to bump into furniture. They'd had me in period costume. Oh the horrors. But I'd escaped. I'd put that life behind me, or so I thought.

But there was this message. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'd just had a bacon sandwich. I was as relaxed as it was possible to be without chemical help. The message said that a local amateur dramatics group was looking for some help. One of their male actors had pulled out of a play due to go on stage a few months hence. Could anyone out there in Facebook-land help?

I thought about it. I wandered around the house a bit. I might even have had a cup of tea. It was that serious.

I called Auntie Bibby, to be told the play in question was Alan Ayckbourne's Absent Friends. A play that I had actually done all those years ago. The part in question was, in fact, the same character I had played before. It was almost as if Auntie Bibby intended me to be pulled back in.

Fast forward to November last year and I was on stage in front of a paying audience. I remembered my lines. I avoided the furniture. I even got some (deliberate) laughs. So it ended there, yes?

Well. No, it didn't.

We're in early rehearsals for our next play, and this time I'm learning the words of Noël Coward. And bloody hell, but he did like writing them. I've got speeches coming out of my ears. The trick, of course, will be for me to make the come out of my mouth. But every Thursday evening I and the rest of the Billesley Players do our level best to put this show together. And in-between, I'm often to be found with a script in my hand.

So if you're near the Old Repertory Theatre in Birmingham in early June, you'll be able to see me hyperventilating my way around the Old Master's words.

Who said nothing good ever came from Facebook?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

In which I explain my prolonged absence

I blame Steve Jobs.

I know I shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but in all honesty it's his fault. I haven't written anything for ages. I have done very little creative work over the course of the last few months. My productivity has reached a new low.

I mean, look no further than this very blog if you want proof. There's been the square root of bugger-all in terms of updates. I can hardly call myself a blogger, can I?

And it's all down to the late Mr Jobs. Or, more to the point, one of his inventions.

Because, some four-or-so years after the rest of the Western Hemisphere, I obtained an iPad in 2013. It was about two-thirds of the way through the year; you can plot its impact on me by looking at the frequency of posts from me. At one point it was relatively healthy; every week or so. But once I got iPadded, it dropped lower than a snake's belly button.

Do snakes have navels? Probably not. But I'm on a roll here, don't distract me.

At first I thought it would be ok. I could take it or leave it. Nothing was going to change. I could give it up tomorrow if I wanted. But then, night after night, weekend after weekend, the device inveigled its way into my existence. It got under my skin.

And I hadn't even needed to have a compatible docking mechanism fitted.

So, instead of doing something useful every night, I've been hooked up to Apple's finest. (And yes, I'm well aware that other tablets are available. I'm sure they have the same effect. It's like comparing crack cocaine with crystal meth.)

There's no doubt that the iPad has its attractions. You switch it on and everything's just there, immediately. The faff-factor is practically zero. I turned on this laptop today and, after waiting what seemed like a fortnight for it to boot up, I've now had to install seven Microsoft updates, reconfigure my antivirus and deal with Adobe, Java and others being all needy.

Quite frankly, it's all a colossal pain in the arse. And you can quote me on that.

So iPads are great for consumption. You can sit there, making the most of other people's content. You can read from any newspaper on the planet, watch obscure films, hear some terrible music and see a quite depressing array of videos of cats doing something inopportune. You can, if you like, use up a quite significant proportion of your life slashing at pieces of fruit and doing unspeakable things with cartoon birds. If you're like me, you can test your knowledge of obscure rock music on QuizUp against the rest of the planet. (Fatboyfat - 'best in Classic Rock Music in the UK', if you're interested.)

But this is all consuming. It's not producing. And I know there will be someone from Apple's marketing department who'll tell us that any number of people with fascinating facial hair use their iPads to create content. But, let's face it, most of us use ours while we slob out in front of the telly, upping our Candy Crush score while stalking old school friends on Facebook. (I went to a boys' school, so that's a little worrying.)

We've become battery hens, pecking at our screens for a quick hit of feed. And that's fine for some people. Witty Facebook updates and Tweets might be enough for many.

But three years ago I wrote a novel. Last year I had two screenplays that got filmed. In 2014 that novel is still no closer to getting edited and published. There are no new films in the pipeline.

I guess the iPad and I need to be nodding acquaintances, rather than best buddies.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a screenplay to think about.


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