COLUMN: February 22, 2018

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A man in a bullet-proof panther costume

I SPEND far too much of my life sitting down and staring at a screen, so I decided to go to the cinema, because it’s good to get out of your comfort zone occasionally.

For the record, it was Black Panther I went to see, partly because I had heard it was good, but mostly so that I could indulge in one of my favourite activities – laughing at the people who leave before the mid-credits and end-credits scenes of Marvel movies. These are like people who leave five minutes before the end of a play, if such people even exist.

I chose to go alone, because nobody could – or, more likely, would – go with me. Going to the cinema alone is great, because you get to choose exactly which snacks you want to buy without engaging in serious and rancorous negotiations, and you get a full large drink to yourself, which is a brilliant move when you are forced to sit in one place for two and a half hours.

Anyway, I decided to go to an arthouse cinema, because I thought it would make me feel more grown-up about going to see a film about a man who dresses up in a bullet-proof panther suit and flies spaceships in a society where women get to do cool stuff without anybody commenting on it. Unbelievable.

I fetched up at the box office and confidently asked for one ticket to see Black Panther.

“Just one?” asked the man behind the counter, impertinently, in my view. I tried not to look hurt. “Yes, just one,” I said.

“Where would you like to sit?” he asked, “Front, middle, or back?” “Back,” I said. It’s the best place to sit.

“Just one person, back row?” confirmed the box office man. I took my ticket and marched off, like a perfectly normal solo cinemagoer. After all, it wasn’t as if anybody knew me there.

I walked straight into a couple of friends of my late mother. They greeted me warmly while looking over my shoulder to see with whom I was visiting the cinema. “I’m on my own,” I explained. They looked at my sympathetically. “I do it quite a lot!” I explained. Somehow that did not reduce the intensity of their sympathetic glare.

“What are you seeing? We’ve been to see The Shape Of Water,” they asked.

“Black Panther.”

They recoiled briefly, as one would when confronted by the 46-year-old son of a much-missed friend who is openly going to see what is essentially a child’s film without any of his own children, but recovered, wished me well, and sent me on my way.

Armed with a bucket of cola, I approached the usherette, who checked my ticket and told me I was sitting on seat 26 of the back row. This appeared to be non-negotiable, so I went to the back row…

Come with me now as I explain my route to my seat. First I disrupt a group of friends, if you can imagine such a concept, sitting in the five seats nearest the aisle, all of whom do that thing with their legs instead of standing up. Then I walk past 10 empty seats, before meeting a young and nervous-looking woman, who is sitting in seat 25.

My allocated place is next to hers, then beyond mine are another nine or 10 vacant seats. Ideally I would sit in part of the empty section, and not next to this nervous-looking woman. But my ticket states I must sit in seat 26, for which I am grateful to Box Office Man.

I compromise by sitting in such a way that I leave about half of my seat unoccupied, while slurping through a straw. Then Nervous-looking Woman’s boyfriend appears, sitting in seat 24. If I move now, what message does that send?

The lights go down. There is nobody in seats 27-36. I smoothly shimmy into seat 27. It’s all going to be OK. I even spread out a bit, like the worst man on a bus.

And then a man and woman approach me from the left. They’re in seats 27 and 28, as they point out to me.

So I return to seat 26, sitting on the back row, between two young couples, all of whom think I am a creep and/or idiot, watching a film that does not require absolute concentration at all times…

This is why I like my comfort zone.

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COLUMN: February 15, 2018

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Wile E Coyote as Ralph Wolf, with Sam Sheepdog (left)

THERE is a homeless man who sits on the pavement outside the shop near my office where I usually buy my lunch and dinner. I don’t think it is actually the same man each time. He would get piles if it were.

In my head I imagine a sort of clocking-on/clocking-off system, as in those Looney Tunes cartoons with Wile E. Coyote and the sheepdog. Perhaps there is some sort of rota, operated and enforced by a homeless tribunal, a bit like the way buskers are sometimes allocated pitches.

The point is, there is always somebody there, asking politely for spare change, and wishing a genuine nice afternoon/evening to those who hand over a few coins, and wishing a sarcastic nice afternoon/evening to those who do not.

I receive the sarcastic wish more often than not. This is because I don’t carry much change around with me. I don’t want you to think I am like the Prince of Wales and do not carry cash for regal motives – I suspect he is tired of being reminded that he is not the King yet, and avoids using stamps for similar reasons.

Nor that I shun shrapnel because it ruins the line of my trousers. Frankly, the line of my trousers is already ruined by my legs.

It is because everything I buy these days costs more than a pound – thanks, Brexinflation – which means that I pay for virtually everything using my card. And any change I have has usually been snaffled by other homeless people I have come across on my way to work.

Besides, if I give money to the same homeless person every day, does that person then become officially a dependent of mine? Will he have a claim on part of my estate if I die intestate? There are so many legal questions. I can’t believe that I have to make a will because of this.

So lack of change has made me hard-hearted. I now walk past homeless people without giving them a glance, ignoring their pleas. I am sure I am not the only one, which is a terrible position to be in. It’s not good for the potential donor and even worse for the homeless person.

So homeless people need to get their act together. Firstly, what they need is some sort of network whereby people who have already given away their change are not later harassed.

Maybe we people with homes should wear electronic tags, or have a hand stamp. Then, when a homeless person sees a person with a roof, they can check before asking for cash. That would cut down the number of pointlessly repeated requests, which merely build up tolerance in the roofed, and in the long term could increase the amount of money people give to the homeless.

Secondly, the homeless need to find a way of taking micropayments from contactless cards. Perhaps they could have a price list, and we could choose whether we want to give the amount of cash for, say, a cup of coffee, or a week’s worth of food for the homeless person’s dog. Then we could tap our card on the device and it would eliminate the need for spare change.

The important thing is that the homeless become much more creative in their attempts to relieve people with roofs of their cash, whether that’s with an app, or some sort of crowdfunding initiative. It’s 2018, the age of the gig economy!

Or, you know, the government could do its job properly. It could stop chucking money away on Brexit – that fact-defying project that makes most people poorer just so that we don’t have to have shops selling Nutella with Polish labels – and spend it on the NHS and social care.

It could spend our cash on fixing the holes in the safety net that these vulnerable people – people that you and I could become after a run of bad luck – have fallen through.

Because the government could virtually eradicate homelessness. It did it before from the late nineties, back in the good old days when we thought homelessness was not a price we would willingly pay for a cut in taxes and public spending.

It could cut drug-related crime overnight by just supporting people until they find work and a home, instead of saving a penny today and spending a pound tomorrow. Or making each of us hand over our spare change. Which we haven’t got.

COLUMN: February 8, 2018

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By no means the worst Star Wars film

MY mother was a wise woman and I live much of my life according to her advice. For instance, I avoid running with scissors, to the extent that when I have gone out for one of my runs I have never taken scissors with me.

I always wear clean underwear in case I am in an accident. I always say “thank you” to bus drivers in case I need one of them to wait for me at the stop and they will remember me as that nice polite man. Obviously, this has never happened, but I have faith that one day it will.

And she told me never to geg in on other people’s conversations. “Geg in”. It’s a Liverpool expression my mum used, the meaning of which you can probably gather from context.

The point is, I usually keep my nose out, despite great temptation. But sometimes I cannot help myself. This is a very rare occurrence, and only takes place when the people involved in the conversation are saying something so stupid or objectionable that the only responsible course of action is to geg in, and geg in hard.

And it has happened to me twice this week. The first time was on a train. It was late and I was tired, so my resistance was down. Across the aisle from me were three men in their mid-30s to early-40s who were explaining Star Wars to each other in tones which suggested a) deep and long-lived familiarity with the subject; and b) deep and recent familiarity with scrumpy.

However, they could only demonstrate the latter. They were loud and they were sure of themselves and they were wrong. They announced to the carriage that the first Star Wars film was always Episode 4, that The Last Jedi was the worst Star Wars film ever, and that Revenge Of The Sith was the second best Star Wars film.

These are all completely untrue. I am only a vague Star Wars fan, and even I knew they were talking absolute nonsense. I put my anti-drivel earphones in, but I could not turn up the volume high enough to drown out the levels of rubbish they were spewing. My levels of rage were building…

Eventually one got off and the other two continued talking in lower tones. They moved away from the subject of Star Wars and on to “this TV series with the man from Miranda, who plays the Devil, who gets fed up being the king of Hell, so he moves to LA and becomes a detective.”

“Ooh, that sounds interesting,” said the other man. “What’s it called?”

“Oh, I’m trying to think,” said the other man. “Erm… Erm…”

This is none of my business, I thought. Stay out of it. He’ll get it…

“Erm… Erm… Oh, I know. Luther!” he said.

I yanked out my earphones with a pop. “LUCIFER!” I shouted.

They were shaken. The whole carriage was shaken, I expect, by the sound of a man crying out the name of the Devil. “Yeah, all right, mate,” said the Luther-idiot. “Calm down.” I flushed, shoved my earphones in, and stared at the floor for the rest of the journey. Mum was right. I would never do this again…

Two days later, I had finished a long shift making a newspaper and was on my way home. It was 10.30 and I needed milk, so I called in at a small branch of a large retailer.

There were three checkout staff chatting among themselves, so I decided not to bother them and used the self-checkout. It took a while because of improvements to the system which make things slower, and I tuned into their conversation.

They were talking about newspapers and journalism in general. And then one of them, a young man, said: “Yeah, well, all journalists are…” and then a word you wouldn’t hear on Cbeebies.

I forgot my promise, and marched over to him. “Two things, pal,” I said. “First, swearing in front of customers is unprofessional. And second, if you’re going to slag off journalists, try not to do it in front of somebody who’s just slogged his guts out for nine hours making a newspaper.”

I had stood up for my profession, my friends, and myself. My heart was racing, my blood pumping. I felt empowered, readers.

Then I turned on my heel and strode away with purpose. Straight into a stack of shopping baskets.

Mum was right. Never geg in.

COLUMN: February 1, 2018

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The Millennium Falcon

DO you remember the Millennium Bug? Younger readers might assume it was something to do with Star Wars. Slightly older readers will assume it’s the disease baby boomers have passed on to their children and grandchildren which means they can’t afford to buy houses or have final salary pensions.

It was not. Essentially, it was a widespread computer software error caused by programmers assuming there was absolutely no way the code they were writing for equipment in 1976 would still be used 23 years later.

Without going into the sort of detail that has me regularly shunned at parties, it meant that at midnight on Millennium Eve, many computers would think it was the year 1900, causing their software to experience anything from mild colliwobbles to a full-on nervous breakdown.

And while this might have been amusing for some applications, say, in the software controlling a Big Trak toy truck, it would have been less so in, say, a Soviet-era nuclear power plant or air traffic control system.

Luckily for the human race, the Millennium Bug was one of those problems that could be solved by taking it seriously and throwing money at it, like homelessness or the NHS. Disaster was averted, and the worst thing that happened on December 31, 1999, was the Queen not knowing how to hold hands for Auld Lang Syne.

In fact, it was so successfully averted that people now suggest that it was a hoax. “Look,” they say, “They warned us for years that the Millennium Bug was a disaster, but we’re all still here.”

These are the sort of people who might only be convinced if planes dropped out of the sky, and even then they would probably say, “Those planes were too high anyway. That was a necessary corrective.”

These are the same sort of people who think that they don’t need to vaccinate their children against measles, because nobody has measles these days.

These are the same sort of people who made scientists change the term “global warming” to “climate change” because “Ha! They say that the world’s heating up, but it’s been the coldest winter since records began,” as if “the coldest winter since records began” shouldn’t ring alarm bells.

And these are the same sort of people who are ignoring all the evidence about Brexit, because what sort of loser pays attention to inconvenient facts when the important thing is what your instinct tells you?

These are people like the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who rails against “the metropolitan elite”. Now it is unfair to play the man rather than the argument, but he does not make it easy for me to resist temptation.

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, the wealthy Eton and Oxford-educated investment banker son of the late Lord (William) Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Arts Council (1982-1989) and editor of The Times (1967-1981).

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Parliamentary representative so in touch with ordinary people that he admits he has never been to IKEA. (I do not blame him, if I had never had to buy my own furniture I would also avoid the Doomed Maze of Arguments.)

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who could legitimately wear a top hat even if he were neither a magician, nor at a wedding in 1993.

Following the leak of a report by the Department for Exiting The European Union saying a hard Brexit could hit economic growth by 8%, Mr Rees-Mogg said the report was “highly speculative”, and he added that predictions of job losses if there was a vote to leave had been “comprehensively wrong.”

And previously he has said the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal are being exaggerated “much like the Millennium Bug”.

It’s hard to imagine that if the report had predicted an increase in growth that he would be so blasé about predictions.

The thing is, predictions can be wrong. We still laugh at Michael Fish’s assurance that the hurricane that took down most of Sevenoaks’ seven oaks was not on its way, forgetting that most of the time the weather forecasters have it spot on.

The weight of economic evidence points to Brexit being a disaster. If Rees-Mogg and his not-remotely-elite chums said this was the price we pay for regaining our sovereignty, that would be an honourable position to take.

But this handwavy, “oh, something will turn up” approach to Brexit is the one thing that will make economic disaster more likely.

And it will make the Millennium Bug look like a hoax.

COLUMN: January 25, 2018

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The best non-copyright picture of a man having his hair washed that I could find

I WAS watching the television, because sometimes even highly-paid glamorous media superstars need to keep it real. We cannot live like Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost all the time.

I watch the television to relax or to get angry at gammon-faced men who say “Why aren’t we out of the EU yet? We voted Brexit” on Question Time, as if extracting ourselves from 45 years’ membership of a political and economic union while negotiating new non-punitive trade deals with the rest of the world were easier than cancelling a phone contract – which, to be fair, it probably is.

The point is I do not watch the television to have my life changed and all my preconceptions questioned. And yet…

I do not want to say what I was watching – that is none of your business – but it was one of the commercial channels. The channel had given me a semi-unit of entertainment, and now it was time for me to take part in the quid pro quo of watching a commercial channel – to sit there passively and be sold things.

An advertisement came on for Head & Shoulders, the shampoo I use. It featured one of those attractive footballers they have these days – from the David Beckham end of the spectrum rather than the Phil Neville.

He nodded the ball into the net, with his floppy haired head, while the voiceover man explained that men have special hair that takes a bit of a beating. He did not actually say that women, on the other hand, sit in the drawing room doing embroidery and pressing flowers lest they faint from the effort, but he didn’t need to.

And then there was the reveal. Head & Shoulders now makes shampoo suitable for men, called Head & Shoulders Men Ultra, a name so shot through with testosterone that it made me need to have a shave.

Now I am no stranger to the gender-specific product. All my shirts have buttons on the man side rather than the lady side. My toothbrushes are blue or green. I wear trousers rather than skirts. I drink Coke Zero instead of Diet Coke, even though it is basically the same thing.

But I have been using Head & Shoulders for years. I don’t want to get into the state of my scalp beforehand, but it was shocking. Every time I moved my head my suit jacket looked as if somebody had emptied the contents of a hole punch over me. I was tired of constantly being asked if I had just come from a wedding.

So I had good reason to be grateful to Head & Shoulders. That blessed elixir had made me able to face the world without looking as if I had had an accident in a correction fluid factory. But now I know the manufacturers have been lying to me for decades.

For years they have made out that Head & Shoulders was equally effective for both men and women, a true unisex product protecting all people from the curse of dandruff.

But now I know they were hiding the truth from me. They were not taking into account the special nature of my manly hair. I needed a shampoo that protects hair that heads footballs, gets covered in engine oil, and is frequently sprinkled with the residue from massive manly guns, even though I mostly work in an office and my greatest physical risks are carpal tunnel syndrome and piles.

And now I am wondering which other items I use regularly are not taking into account my overwhelming masculinity. Is the toothpaste I use really suitable for my manly teeth, which have to bite through raw steak and barbed wire?

Are my tea bags up to the task of withstanding use on a building site, where men are men and have four sugars in tea strong enough to clean loose change?

Is my vacuum cleaner handle ergonomically designed for the male hand, accustomed to picking up spiders, putting up some shelves, and bare-knuckle street fighting?

And even if there were specifically male versions, would that be enough? Is it enough to use Colgate Men, or would I need Colgate Men Ultra? I would not want people to think I were only technically a man, say for purposes of filling out a form or using the correct toilet.

I want them to be in no doubt of my masculinity. For I am MAN! Clear my dandruff.

COLUMN: January 18, 2018

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Guy Fieri eating something. I shudder to imagine what

I HAVE never been to America. But I know everything I need to know about America because I have read DC and Marvel comics and watched a lot of television.

Certainly I have learned a lot about American food because I am a regular viewer of the Food Network, which shows hours and hours of American food programmes when it is not showing the same four episodes of Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals.

And the most American of these programmes is Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.

Diners, Drive-ins & Dives – or Triple D, as the programme is known, because they went overboard with the title and didn’t consider how often American TV presenters would have to mention the name of the programme – is presented by Guy Fieri.

Fieri is what a hairdresser would look like in a Nintendo Mario game. He has bleached blond hair, a red convertible, and a permanent outdoors voice. By rights, I should hate him. But I do not. Perhaps it is because he is engaging and appears genuinely enthusiastic about food, or perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome.

If you have never seen Triple D, I will walk you through a sample episode…

Fieri fetches up in a dusty American city. There are no pedestrians in sight. He says something along the lines of, “Right now, Triple D is in Bogbrush, Indiana. And you know what that means…” I don’t know what that means. Only people in Bogbrush, Indiana could possibly know what that means.

He goes on, “We’re in the home of the Bogbrush double dip piranha sandwich, and there’s nowhere that does it better than Carlito’s Piranha House. They’ve been doing the double dip for an amazing 23 years.” In America 23 years is roughly equivalent to 387 British years.

They then go into Carlito’s Piranha House to meet some of the regular customers. “I have a double dip piranha every day,” lies an attractive, clear-complexioned woman. If she really had a double dip piranha every day she would be on the news because they had to use a crane to get her out of her bedroom to take her to hospital. “They’re so fresh and tender.”

Tenderness is very important to Americans. They hate chewing things. This is why their teeth are so good – they never have to use them.

Fieri then goes into the kitchen to meet the chef and watch him put together a double dip piranha sandwich. This will involve a ton of sugar and salt, which will go into the “rub” so the piranha has a great “bark”, and a whole “stick” of butter. Americans have butter in sticks because they use it as a weapon.

Fieri will then shove the entire sandwich into his mouth before explaining that it is by far the best Bogbrush double dip piranha sandwich he has ever had, which is probably true, and that the flavours are “off the chart”, which is probably not.

And then off he rushes to another diner or drive-in. He has been to more of these than he has had hot dinners. I don’t know how that can be, but there we are. (He never seems to go to any dives. Or if he does, he does not refer to them as such, for diplomatic reasons.)

He is always in a hurry. It’s a wonder he does not have constant indigestion. This time he is at “the best chilli dog joint in Milwaukee”.

I should explain. Americans, like Guy Fieri, are always in a hurry, so much so that they often have one meal on top of another meal in order to save time. They put bacon on top of pancakes with maple syrup, scones and custard next to their fried chicken, and they have the chilli dog.

For those who do not know, a chilli dog is a hot dog, but instead of topping it with mustard, or perhaps onions, the Americans opt for chilli con carne, a thing that other nationalities eat on its own as a satisfying meal.

This is like going to the chip shop and ordering fish and chips, and when they ask you if you want salt and vinegar you say, “No, actually, could you chuck a couple of scoops of shepherds pie on it?”

After he goes into rhapsodies about a sausage with some mince on top of it, Guy Fieri leaps into his red convertible, cuts off proceedings abruptly, and promises he will be back next time.

And this is why I can never live in America. It’s hard to pull off that sort of exit when you travel everywhere by bus.

COLUMN: January 11, 2018

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A carelessly discarded banana skin makes a delightful floor ornament

I HAVE two pairs of shoes. I don’t want you to think I am bragging when I say this. “Oh, here he comes, Billy Four Shoes.” If anything, I am Billy Ten Shoes, as I also have two pairs of boots and a pair of running shoes. I know, I know, my flat is almost indistinguishable from a branch of Clarks.

The point is that, unless I am running, I have a choice of shoes. I can literally fill my boots.

So I suppose that what happened that day was my fault. I did not have to choose the one pair of shoes I own which have a smooth sole.

But, on the other hand – or foot, the manufacturers were at fault for making a shoe with a smooth sole. What were they thinking?

These are people whose job it is to think about how shoes work and are used. Is there nobody in their R&D department who has pointed out that shoes would ideally grip the floor, rather than glide like Torvill and Dean on Teflon across it. Is there nobody saying, “People tend to stand up and walk when wearing our shoes. I don’t see the benefit of a sole that reduces friction on surfaces. Our customers tend not to fry eggs on the soles?”

Anyway, I first realised that this was an issue when I was on my way in to work. I had run out of the specific hair gel that I have to use – and a man with difficult-to-explain hair like mine has to use a specific hair gel – which is only available in the bigger branches of Britain’s Favourite Large-scale Retailer.

Hair gels and suchlike are situated on the first floor of this establishment, and accessed by a travelator on a steep slope, shopping trolleys being tricky to accommodate on conventional escalators, as anybody who has ever gone to town on a Saturday with a pushchair will tell you.

I stepped onto the steep travelator, and gripped the moving handrail, and all was fine until about halfway up, when I had to release the handrail to answer a text message about nothing.

The thing about gravity is that it is no respecter of texts about nothing, and I felt its pull immediately. I started to slide down the incline, my shoes giving me no traction, my legs thrashing about as if I were in a Japanese game show called Enormous Comedy Slippery Slope, until I could sheathe my phone without causing it damage and snatch the handrail again while falling to my knees.

This is why I have never been skiing, incidentally. Ice is slippery. I don’t see how making a virtue of that helps anybody.

Luckily only the 12 or so people behind me on the slope saw me, and, presumably, the security man watching on CCTV. And the members of staff he called over.

After picking up the gel, I went on the return journey. It was easier going down, because even if I slipped at least I was going in the right direction.

I walked gingerly to work after that, very much aware of the shortcomings of my sole, and got on with my job.

But I had a lunchtime meeting outside the office. A cold wind was whipping up as I went there, but there was nothing to concern me, because I was wearing Medium Coat.

However, the wind, as it turned out, was the beginnings of Storm Eleanor.
“Goodness me, it’s blowy,” I thought, as I returned to work, and I turned a corner, walking down the middle of the pavement. But Eleanor was now at my back, and the difficulty began.

You see, Medium Coat is a three-quarter length affair, and is flappy in even a light breeze. In these conditions, Medium Coat was effectively a sail.

Had I been wearing any other shoes, I might have got away with it. A gust slid me along the pavement, heading helplessly straight for a busy road.

I was too far from the railings on one side of me, but there were cars parked perpendicularly to the pavement…

I jumped, using Medium Sail to turn me into the path of a car, and grabbed the bonnet, preserving myself until the wind passed, my head down.

And then I looked up into the eyes of the driver, who was sitting behind the wheel, watching a man who had, inexplicably, leapt from the pavement to hug his car.