COLUMN: June 22, 2017

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A picture from the film Airplane. I am too hot to think of an amusing caption

OCCASIONALLY it is good that you get to see behind the curtain. These columns do not just write themselves, you know? First, I have to get myself into a ridiculous situation, or become enraged by something petty. And then they write themselves.

But this week I have become angry about too many things. The lack of Cheshire cheese in smaller supermarkets, for instance, is getting my dander up. Smaller supermarkets used to have a decent selection of cheese, but now they have 14 different types of cheddar and a wedge of Parmesan.

I have also become angry about light blue shirts. I bought a light blue shirt this week, and there were five different pieces of plastic keeping it folded flat, along with the plastic wrapping, and four different pieces of cardboard.

Additionally, they do not work when the weather is warm. I wore it and within minutes it looked as if I had been lifted off a playground swing by a giant with wet hands.

I have also become annoyed by people who are unaccountably smug after not winning an election. Yes, I thought Jeremy Corbyn would lose seats for Labour, based on every single piece of evidence before the launch of the Tories’ “we’re going to take your house off you and cut your pension” manifesto, while your belief that the sainted Jezza would sweep to victory was based on blind faith.

But guess what? We were both wrong. Nevertheless, I was like a meteorologist who said it would rain all day based on weather patterns, while you were like somebody who said it would be sunny all day because you’d done a sun dance so it wouldn’t rain at the garden fete. And in the end it started raining at half past six in the evening.

The point is, you don’t get to be smug about being less comprehensively defeated than you thought you would be. A 6-5 loss is not a victory.

Out of all of these three, I am most angry about the supermarket cheese debacle. But I am not going to write about any of them, because it’s too damn hot and getting properly angry about anything requires far too much effort and will make me perspire like a Brexit campaigner taking a polygraph test.

Part of the trouble of writing columns for newspapers is that they have to be written a little in advance. And while it is hot as Hades as I write, there is a risk that by the time you read this we will all be talking about the Freak June Blizzards of 2017, especially if my Corbyn predictions are anything to go by.

But life is about taking risks. If it weren’t for risks, we would still be living in caves, which are cool in the summer, and warm in the winter, and I appreciate I am in danger of losing my own argument.

And so I am going to give you a number of tips on how to keep cool during a heatwave. The first tip is to live somewhere other than the United Kingdom. Countries which are used to the heat have developed coping mechanisms. Homes are built to keep out the worst of the heat, shutters are placed outside windows, air conditioning is installed, nets are hung around beds to stop mosquitoes.

British homes, however, are not built for days of deep blue skies and sun so hot it makes the air shimmer. British homes are built for drizzle. British homes say, “Come on in! There’s loads to eat in here,” to insects.

The second tip is to remember to buy a fan six months ago, when fans were available, rather than now, when the shelves are bare. Some people might think that a fan is worse than useless when the air is as stiflingly hot as it is now, and that it just moves warm air from one place to another, and that you might as well use a hairdryer, and I am not sure they are wrong.

The third tip is to try not to be annoyed with people who are surprised it is warm in June. These are the same people who draw attention to the drawing in of the nights in the autumn as if it is some sort of sign of The Great Darkness instead of something that happens every year.

Other than that, I have no advice. All I have is unfocused rage and three-shower days. Please send rain. And keep that curtain closed.

COLUMN: June 15, 2017

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The Jacksons – responsible for much of today’s blame culture
THE best thing about this time of year is the light nights. Never mind the sunshine; you cannot count on that. Summers in this country are so useless that if the Jacksons were born here the sunshine would not even have made it into the list of suspects alongside the boogie.

There is something entirely life-affirming about being able to leave your house in the evening and go for a walk without arousing suspicion or risking stepping in something.

But the worst thing about this time of year is the light mornings. You see, I have blinds in my bedroom which, when it comes to blocking out the light, are about as effective as cling film. I could trace a pencil drawing through them.

This means that the sun, while not in any way responsible for the fact that my baby’s always dancing, is entirely to blame for waking me at a quarter to six in the morning, which is not ideal for a person who mostly works nights.

And so, at the moment, I am mostly wandering about in a daze. My reflexes are shot – I beg you not to throw a satsuma at me, even if you think I would like one, as it would no doubt injure me – and my normally sketchy memory is even more unreliable.

All of this is to explain that what happened was not my fault, and I would be well within my rights to sue you if you suggested it were.

I realised I needed apple juice at 9pm. Most people would not consider this a pressing issue, but I am not most people. While I am not lactose intolerant, I refuse to tolerate lactose. Basically, I don’t like milk.

And so this leaves me with three options: 1) eat my morning muesli dry, as a hamster might; 2) moisten it with tap water, as, I don’t know, Theresa May might if she were feeling a little bit racy; or 3) soak it in fruit juice. I go for the third option every time, and needed to buy apple juice to avoid options 1 and 2 the following day, seeing as I could not just put a note out for the apple juice man.

I picked up some money and my house key, and headed out into the late evening sunshine. I might even have been whistling – it was that sort of atmosphere. In any case, I wandered to the shop feeling for all the world like one of those continentals for whom we are destroying our economy so we don’t have to associate with them any more.

I entered the shop, which was cooled by a bank of chiller cabinets, and went into my usual disorganised shopping mode. “Ooh, some peaches!” I thought. “I’ll have those. Oh, and I’m running low on teabags. And eggs. Some spinach. I like a bit of spinach…”

By this point I realised I would need a basket, so I went back to the entrance and set off the alarm, because of course I would. But it was resolved quickly, and I resumed my shambolic shopping, buying the things I had forgotten to buy the last time I went to the same shop.

“Oh, yes, shampoo. I need that because I have hair,” I reasoned. “Kitchen roll. I need that because I have a kitchen,” and so on and so forth, until my basket was so heavy I needed to use both hands.

Finally, I fetched up at the checkout. “Would you like a bag?” the checkout man asked me. “Hell, yeah,” I chuckled. “Hang the 5p expense.”

He started ringing up the purchase and bagging the produce, and it was at that point that I realised that, while I had certainly picked up enough money to buy two cartons of apple juice, I did not have enough cash for a heaving basket of groceries.

“Um, this is a bit embarrassing,” I said. I explained, and asked if he could keep the groceries behind the counter while I went home for my card. He looked pained, but agreed to my request.

Then I sprinted home, through the balmy evening, grabbed my wallet, and ran back to the shop, carrying all the perspiration such a feat implies, before lugging the groceries home.

And then I went back to the shop to buy the apple juice I had forgotten to pick up. I blame it on the sunshine. I certainly can’t blame it on the good times.

COLUMN: June 8, 2017

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the excellent film of the same name, ie Wonder Woman (not Gal Gadot As Wonder Woman)

I WENT to see Wonder Woman at the cinema, because where else would I see her?

I settled in my seat with about £12 worth of fizzy pop, ie a medium-sized cup, and realised that by the time I was let out of the auditorium, following half an hour of adverts and trailers and a two-and-a-half-hour film, that I would regret this purchase for more than financial reasons.

As a result, I can tell you that Wonder Woman is an excellent film, and I would highly recommend it to people who like excellent films. It is a far better DC Comics film than the dismal Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad.

In fact, it was so good that it was worth having to listen to Ooh The Trailers Man.

If you do not go to the cinema very often – for example, if you are a person who still calls it “going to the pictures” and doesn’t think that Pearl & Dean are a jungle/drum & bass duo – then you will not know about Ooh The Trailers Man.

Ooh The Trailers Man is the most irritating innovation in cinema-going since they started making 3D versions of films and glasses that you have to wear over your actual glasses.

His voice pops up first before the adverts, when he tells the audience to shut up and be quiet and turn their phones off. Now I am 100% behind his message here.There is a difference between paying out half your monthly mortgage to appreciate a film properly and watching it in your living room with people who keep asking you what’s happening now and what he was in with thingy from that other one.

But he cannot just tell people to shut up and be quiet because that is not how we do things these days. Oh, no, Ooh The Trailers Man has to pretend to be your “mate”, like a trendy vicar.

And so he says things like, “Come on, now, let’s switch our phones off and finish our conversations. Yes, that’s right, I mean you in the middle row. You cheeky monkey. Come on, a joke’s a joke.”

And then, when the trailers are about to start, he says, “Ooh, the trailers” – hence his name – “This is the best bit. And they’re all suitable for this film’s certificate,” which is the point at which my rage reaches peak levels.

Firstly, who is really expecting a trailer for The Exorcist or Emmanuelle VIII: Women In Their Pants at a 12A certificate film? You don’t need to tell us things that we expect anyway. You don’t get Cadbury saying, “We’re proud to say that we don’t put cyanide or broken glass in Dairy Milk.”

Secondly, the contention that trailers are “the best bit”. What on earth is he talking about? Surely the best bit when you go to the cinema is the film. If a trailer for the latest Transformers rubbish is better than the film, I want my money back.

But thirdly, why on earth are you saying, “Ooh, the trailers?!” You are not in the cinema with me, Ooh The Trailers Man. I know that because I would hunt you down and empty £9-worth of brown fizzy beverage over your head. Don’t pretend to be excited about it, Ooh The Trailers Man. I know how recordings work, I used to have a hi-fi.

This matey nonsense is everywhere now. I only pick on Ooh The Trailers Man because you cannot avoid his bumptious rubbish if you go to the cinema. But usually it is written on the side of boxes or bottles or on building society leaflets.

I blame Innocent Smoothies. They are the ones who started this with their twee “1/2 of a lovely banana” in their list of ingredients. And then Dorset Cereals got in on the act. And now every brand out there wants to be your friend. Before too long, BAE Systems will be etching flowers and “Mmm, love a good bomb” on the side of their missiles.

Enough is enough, as the politicians say when even a bit is too much. We don’t buy products because we want to be their friends. I don’t want to go on a stag night with a jar of marmalade, I just want to know what’s in it before I spread it on my toast.

If you really want to make me feel better about your product, just make your product better. Just like DC Comics did with Wonder Woman.

COLUMN: June 1, 2017

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Not lemony. Not sippable

THE sun had been beating down for days, turning the world around me into a shimmering Mediterranean paradise. The beautiful people filled the pavement cafes with tans and laughter. Diners in Greggs were actually considering the salads.

Even I was wearing a slightly less heavy tweed jacket – next stop, a mankini, no doubt.

And so the land was prepared for me to have a cold. Nobody knows why colds are called colds. I only seem to get them when the weather is sunny, and when the night air is warm and stagnant, and when people do not seem to believe that I might have one.

The full packet of tissues I took with me to work had expired just after lunchtime, the final one looking like a string vest. I had to replenish my supplies.

This led me to a nearby branch of a nationwide chain of newsagents. I will not say the name of this company, but if I just say that you can’t buy a pen in there nowadays without them trying to sell you a family-sized Fruit & Nut for £1, you will know of which I speak.

I found the tissues, and near them was a packet of Lemsip Max Day & Night Cold & Flu Relief Capsules. I was not sure how severe my cold was in the range of colds, but I decided that something called Max would do just the job. There’s no point in pussyfooting around with cold medication. I don’t mind using a sledgehammer to crack a nut as long as the nut ends up cracked.

I took the items to the counter. “Ooh,” said the shop assistant, “Have you got a cold?”

I peered at her through bloodshot eyes, with a throat that felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater for a bet, and a red nose that was crying out for the tissues that lay between us. I looked like somebody miming a cold in a game of charades.

Sarcasm would have been so easy. “A cold, you say? Tell me, what gave me away, Miss Marple? Was it the sense that I appear to looking at you through a very thick pane of glass? Was it my Barry White voice? Or was it the fact that I have just put some aloe vera tissues and cold medication right in front of you? Ooh, it’s a right poser and no mistake!”

“Yes,” I growled, with levels of restraint that should have been beyond me in my weakened state. It was almost superhuman. “I hab a cold.”

I paid the woman and shambled weakly back to the office, my supplies in hand. I staunched the, well, flow with my newly-replenished stash of tissues, and then opened the box of Lemsip Max Day & Night Cold & Flu Relief Capsules.

I would have complained to colleagues about how ridiculous it is to have a product called Lemsip that neither tastes of lemons nor is designed for sipping, but instead I was in a good mood and did a victory lap of the office because I opened the end of the box that didn’t have the folded end of the “how to take tablets” instruction sheet.

But then I went to pop the capsules out of the delightfully-named blister pack, and everything went very wrong indeed. I pushed the first capsule from the back with my thumb, as one does when faced with a blister pack. And I could not break the foil.

I know I was in a weakened state, but surely even I should have been able to push a capsule through a bit of foil. But it was not my fault. The capsule buckled with my pressure, which meant that it did not pierce the surface.

I am not making excuses. I recommend that you try this exercise. Take a large square of cling film, and place a swiss roll on top of it (jam for preference). Then put a large square of aluminium foil over the top, and pinch it around the cling film, as if you are making the least appealing ravioli in history.

Now try to push that swiss roll through the foil. You can’t, even if you use a massive thumb made out of plaster, because the swiss roll collapses.

The point I am making is that the manufacturers of Lemsip capsules might be good at chemistry, but they are terrible at physics. And that remedies should make you feel better, not worse.

COLUMN: May 25, 2017

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Sock Man by NIL L (Flickr, Creative Commons)
I HAD to go to Loughborough from Liverpool by train for reasons which need not detain you. I am a sophisticated journalist and one of the metropolitan elite. I have to travel to and from exotic places all the time, like Alan Whicker.

Unfortunately, travelling from Loughborough to Liverpool by train is a complex affair. And while it is half the distance to London, it takes roughly twice as long to get there. Also, I did not want to go to London.

The problem is that, in the history of the world, only about four people have needed to go from Liverpool to Loughborough on a Saturday, which means that there is an eye-watering number of changes before you actually reach the East Midlands home of the Sock Man (look it up).

And travelling on trains at the weekend provokes the sort of tense nail-biting and leg-jiggling you might perform while watching a Hitchcock movie. All the planets must align, you see, for you to make all your connections in time. Just one late-running train on the line ahead of you, and you could arrive at your destination four hours late.

So when the third of my four trains was 10 minutes late arriving into Leicester, just nine miles away from Loughborough, I was in something of a state. I had roughly 90 seconds to get from one train to another and, while I run for fitness, I am 45 years old.

I will never be mistaken for Usain Bolt. There are many differences between us, but the biggest difference by far is in our running techniques.

And, despite the fable telling you otherwise, the hare always beats the tortoise when it comes to the sprint. We know this because sprint coaches don’t stand by the side of the track saying: “No, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, you must, if anything, be MORE lackadaisical in your approach. Here, have a Werther’s.”

I tore through the station in pursuit of my train. Maniacally, I demanded of a station guard, as I raced past him: “Where’s the Loughborough train?”

“Platform 6,” he called out, as I disappeared into the distance. (Look, trainspotters, I don’t remember the numbers of the platforms, so I’ve probably remembered this wrong. Trains are not my be all and end all, I am a bus man.)

The doors were closing as I reached the train. I knew it was my train, because it was the correct operator – one of the benefits of a privatised train service is that you always know if you’re on the right train – and I flung myself dynamically through the sliding doors.

My clattering entrance having announced me to everybody in the carriage, I sat in a seat and began the important work of making myself newly inconspicuous. I texted my Loughborough contact to say I would be there in nine minutes, and smugly settled back.

“Tickets, please,” said the guard. I handed her my ticket, mangled by three previous inspectors. “Um, where do you think you’re going?” she asked.

“Loughborough,” I chortled.

“Right,” she said, “It’s just that this is the train to London St Pancras.”

I felt my blood chill. It suddenly occurred to me how much “Luffbruh” might sound like “Lundun” when spoken by a scouse-accented man sprinting past.

“Oh,” I said. “Can I get off at the next stop and come back?”

“The next stop is St Pancras”, she said, fighting back the laughter, and she wrote, “Got the wrong train,” on the back of my ticket. “Give that to the guard at St Pancras.”

The worst thing about doing this sort of thing is not the inconvenience, or the time wasted – it is having to explain what has happened to other adults. I texted my Loughborough contact, who knew me well enough to be disappointed but unsurprised.

And then I travelled for 90 minutes to London, a place which, as I mentioned, I did not want to go, before waiting an hour for the train back.

Then I had to explain to a guard what I had done in a way that did not make me A) look like a fare dodger; and B) like a total imbecile. His expression of, somehow, both amusement and disgust demonstrated that I was only half successful, but I was allowed to board the train.

And so I arrived in Loughborough four hours late, and a broken man. It was worth it. It always is when I go to Loughborough.

COLUMN: May 18, 2017

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Cava – enabler of stories about rodent infestation

I WAS at a party and had had a couple of drinks and decided that it was a good time to regale my companions with the story of a rodent infestation with which I had had to deal when I was 16 years old.

Some people sing when they are merry, other people get into brawls. I tell stories about being inconvenienced by vermin to people who wish they were somewhere else.

I will not get into the story at this stage, as I am sober and you do not need to hear about it.

But while I was telling the tale to my appalled companions, the name Rentokil cropped up, and for the first time in my life it occurred to me how “on the nose” that name is.

If I were in the business of vermin mass murder, I would name my company “Removapest” or “Troublaway”, just to make the act sound more palatable. Even Mafiosi talk about “taking out” or “knocking off” opponents.

But there is no being circumspect with Rentokil, there is no gloss, there is no “the rats went to live on a farm” with Rentokil. You know exactly what Rentokil is selling. Or renting.

And yet, as on the nose as Rentokil is, it is like a cryptic crossword clue in comparison with InjuryLawyers4U.

You might expect that you would not need to be told in which line of business InjuryLawyers4U operates, but life is apparently not that simple.

So I have become a little obsessed with the InjuryLawyers4U advert which appears on daytime television. I am going to do you the courtesy of assuming that you never watch daytime television and describe what happens in this advertisement.

It starts with an arty shot of a man with his head in his hands. “You’ve had an accident that wasn’t your fault,” the narrator says. Hmm, you will think when you see him, that man looks guilty. I bet the accident was his fault.

“You need help and you want legal advice. You don’t want social media experts,” the narrator says, as some scary clowns bang on a window behind Guilto The Definitely Responsible For That Accident.

Of course I don’t want social media experts, you will think. Nobody in the history of the world has ever thought, “I need legal advice, I’d better call a social media expert.” Why are you even bringing them up, narrator?

“You don’t want cold callers.” Wait a minute, you will think at this point. That’s exactly what I want. If I had had an accident that wasn’t my fault, and I received a phone call from one of those people who ring when you’re about to have your tea to discuss the “accident” I have had recently, that would be literally the only time I would welcome a cold caller. It would save me the price of a phone call.

But the narrator has already moved on. “You don’t need celebrity endorsements,” he says, pointlessly, as a crowd of business suited people who, quite frankly, look exactly like personal injury lawyers join the clowns in bashing the windows.

“You need,” the narrator goes on, “an injury lawyer for you. That’s why we’re called InjuryLawyers4U.” And suddenly the scales fall from your eyes.

Ah, you think, now I understand. Before now I would have assumed a firm called InjuryLawyers4U would specialise in painting and decorating, or quantity surveying, or Zumba.

But now, thanks to this advertisement, I get it. It’s such a clever name. Thank you for explaining to me, an imbecile, so clearly why you would be called InjuryLawyers4U.

At this point, you are probably thinking that I am being sarcastic. And you would be correct.

I do not mind an “on the nose” name. Phones4U, Bargain Booze, Kentucky Fried Chicken – they are all acceptable names for businesses. And when you advertise them, feel free to tell me how good your phones are, how cheap your Lambrini is, or how happy your chickens were before you popped them in batter and deep-fried them.

But what you don’t have to do is spend three-quarters of your advert explaining what your name means.

Because the only people who see the name “InjuryLawyers4U” and have no idea what that might mean are the sort of people who were definitely responsible for the accident in which they were involved, because they are incredibly stupid.

But not as stupid as somebody who tells strangers at a party about finding a decomposing rat under his floorboards.

COLUMN: May 11, 2017

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A menacing black cat
THE wind whipped leaves up the street, rustling the branches above, and troubling the tops of the wheely bins. Even so, the sky was clear, and there was enough light from the half-moon to pick out the black cat which crossed my path.

It mewed, out of fear or defiance? It scarcely mattered. I was too busy trying to remember if it’s good luck or bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. “It depends on if you trip over it”, I imagined.

And then I started to wonder about where superstitions came from. Was there a Superstitions Board – presumably staffed by Old Wives – deciding on which colour of socks you are not allowed to wear on Maundy Thursday, and how far away from a theatre you are safe to say “Macbeth”, even though there is a regularly-staged play called “Macbeth”, during which various characters have to say the name “Macbeth”.

Before I reached the door of my flat I had forgotten all about the black cat and its potential impact on my life. I was too busy wondering about whether cherry-pickers counted as ladders or not, with regard to walking under them.

I entered, dropped my bag in the living room, put the kettle on, and went into the bathroom. You don’t have to know why – this is still a free country. That was when I noticed a number of leaves on the floor.

“Hmm,” I thought, “I don’t remember seeing them before I left to work, when I mopped the bathroom floor.” I am slapdash when it comes to tidying, but even I would notice foliage on my bathroom floor when mopping it. “They must have been attached to my shoes,” I thought.

Except… they were in a part of the bathroom upon which I had not yet stood. Nevertheless, that was still the most likely explanation.

My flat, you see, dear reader, is up four flights of stairs, so the likelihood that a freak gust had blown them up the stairs, through the tiny gap under the door to my flat, and then through the tiny gap under my bathroom door into my bathroom was slim.

Ah, you might say, then perhaps you had your bathroom window open, and they came in through there. And I would like your thinking, if it were not for the fact that the only window in my bathroom is a skylight roughly 12 feet above me, which does not open, even if I did have a stepladder.

The leaves must have come in on my shoes, and perhaps have been propelled down the bathroom by the draught caused by, I don’t know, my dynamism. I convinced myself of this.

And then I found one in the bath. And one in the sink. And two on top of the bathroom mirror cabinet. If you added up all the air-displacing activity I have engaged in during my life, it would not blow a leaf from the floor to the top of my bathroom mirror.

They must have come from above. But I did not have any holes in my ceiling. I know this because part of my ceiling once collapsed on me and when I went back to examine it more of my ceiling collapsed on me, and so I am forever vigilant.

Was there a hole in my skylight? I looked as closely as I could given that it is 12 feet up and I do not have a stepladder, but there was nothing apparent.

And even so, these leaves were big. They were not tea leaf-sized, they were “could cover Adam and Eve’s modesty”-sized.

I think it was Sherlock Holmes who said, “If one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Or possibly Jessica Fletcher, I don’t know, I can’t be bothered Googling.

So the only explanation that physics allows is that a burglar somehow broke into my home, and was so annoyed by how few possessions of any value I own, that he (or she) dashed back outdoors, picked some big leaves from a nearby tree, came back, scattered them in my bathroom in places that would confuse me, then made his (or her) exit after having first locked the door behind him (or her) in case another opportunist intruder with cleaning materials was passing by. “That will teach him for being rubbish at having things,” he (or she) will have thought.

Or maybe it was that black cat. That would be just my luck.