COLUMN: September 20, 2018

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The experience could not have been less like this. Thanks, stock photo library, you’ve been a big help

ONE of the problems with living in a second-floor flat is that it is very difficult to wash your own car.

I suppose I could carry endless buckets down four flights of stairs. But you’ve been reading this column long enough to know how that would work out, bearing in mind I ended up sitting in a bucket simply because I was making mashed potato a few weeks ago.

And it’s not as if I could run a hose from my bathroom tap, through my flat, through my bedroom window, and then down two floors to the car park. Don’t think I haven’t considered it.

And standard car washes are out of the question. I do enjoy the spectacle and mild peril of a standard filling station car wash. For example, I like how the gigantic swirling brush runs over the windscreen, and the joy of finding out afterwards that it has left a million tiny scratches on the paintwork.

But the car I bought recently is a 12-year-old hard-top convertible, which is roughly 10 per cent mid-life crisis, 50 per cent brilliant, and 40 per cent “Oh, sweet mercy, where the hell is that water coming from?” If I went through a standard car wash, I might as well coat myself in detergent and run through Niagara Falls.

The only realistic option I have is to go to one of those hand car wash places that have taken over the many filling stations that have closed down because apparently we don’t need petrol any more. The existence of these car wash places is a paradox, a bug in reality, proof of simultaneous demand and lack of demand.

So that is where I went. I drove my filthy car, which was covered in a fine film of sticky sap and the feathers of birds which had unwisely rested on it, to a car wash place.

I steered onto the forecourt, and parked behind a car which was being attacked by four men armed with chamois leathers.

“No!” said one of them. “You go through entrance!” And he pointed to an archway which I had dismissed thinking it was the entrance to an automatic car wash. I am not sure why I thought there would also be an automatic car wash there, but I was on unfamiliar territory. Why would a car wash have car washing facilities? That’s the last thing you’d expect.

I drove muttering through the entrance – it was clearly previously a car wash in the premises’ filling station days – round the back, and came out on the other side of the forecourt. I switched off my engine, not wanting to cause damage to men who spend all day around cars with their engines running at a car wash on a main road. It was like not wanting to throw a chocolate wrapper in a bin because there was already quite enough litter in there.

A man with a cigarette limply hanging out of his mouth emptied a water cannon at my car. I laughed. My roof seals were working perfectly. What was I worrying about? I could have gone to an automatic car wash after all.

That’s when the water started coming in. From the ceiling, from the door, from, somehow, underneath me. “Well,” I thought, “this is suboptimal.” The man blasted my door window, and I was drenched. I might as well have had it open.

Then the deluge stopped. He motioned to me to move forward, as the dripping slowly subsided, while one of his colleagues squirted the car with what appeared to be weed killer. And then the car withstood an onslaught of suds as the chamois-wielding men arrived.

It was weirdly intimate, like having a haircut or a dental check-up. I wasn’t sure where to look, as these faces loomed in close. Still, at least the process was almost over. My trousers would probably dry soon enough.

No, wait! A second blast from the water cannon soaked me again. One of the men laughed. I can only assume they knew exactly where my car’s weak spot was. It was sitting in the driving seat.

Another bout of chamois and the outside was as dry as the inside was not. I opened my dripping door and handed over the cash and, wetly, drove away.

The next morning I found my car covered in a fine film of sticky sap, a number of white feathers, and a lavishly spread pile of bird droppings.

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COLUMN: September 13, 2018

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Of course! I shall happily attach my squiggle to this lorem ipsum gibberish

I HAVE had my own name for quite some time, as long as I can remember, in fact. Ask me what my name is, and I can answer in a flash. It would definitely not be the point at which I embarrassed myself on Mastermind.

And yet, when I am called upon to write my name down, my knowledge escapes me, and I find myself actually misspelling my 10-letter, two-syllable surname.

Every time I visit my dentist, I have to sign my name in a box on a computer tablet using a stylus, and every time I miss a letter out in my signature, and then have to style it out. I am sure my dentist thinks my name is Gay Bainbidge.

There is probably a name for this condition, and the condition probably could not spell it under pressure.

In most other ways, I present as an ordinary member of the public. I hold open doors for people and can engage in good-natured repartee with the woman in Sainsbury’s about my grocery choices. Not even my friends would know I was a member of the “incapable of writing their own names on a piece of paper” community.

Which was why, as I was walking through the office the other day, one of them stopped me and asked for my assistance. She wanted me to countersign a passport application for her child.

Finally, I thought, recognition of my true worth. As you will know, if you have ever had to apply for a passport, a countersignatory has to be “a person in good standing in their community”.

I am that in spades. I pay my taxes and I have never been arrested, as long as you don’t count that time I drove the wrong way around a bollard right under the nose of a police officer and he told me off. In fairness, I did not know it was the wrong way, nor did I see the police officer, but apparently that is not a defence in law.

I readily agreed, feeling at once like an actual grown-up and not like a teenager forced to live undercover posing as a grown-up.

Can you imagine the sensation of one of your lamp bulbs popping when you switch it on, and then going to the cupboard where you keep light bulbs, more in a spirit of hope than expectation, and then finding that you have a spare bulb which exactly fits the lamp in question? Well, it was like that. I felt like somebody who can drink coffee and actually enjoy it.

I took the form and black ballpoint pen and sat at my desk. The form was one of those ones on which you have to write each character in a separate box. These require a level of concentration far above of which I am generally capable. Worse, they require planning. This is because you have to be aware, at all times, of how many characters there are still available at the end of the line on which you are writing AND how many characters there are in the next word you will be writing.

And this is because the last thing you want to do is to start writing a word and then find out you have run out of boxes and have to continue the word on the next line, because you don’t know if the computer that will be scanning this form will be able to work out if your address is 221b Baker Street, London, or 221b Baker Stree, T, London.

And it is not as if you are filling the form out for yourself, and if you make a mistake, you just have to go back to the Post Office for a new one. Twice, in my recent experience. You only have one opportunity to get it right, otherwise you have to go back to your friend and tell her she has to fill in a new form. Or, worse, make her have her small child have new photographs taken in a booth.

I actually allowed a drop of sweat to fall from my forehead onto the page, as I painstakingly formed every letter. I do not wish to overdramatise matters, but now I know exactly what it is like to be a bomb disposal expert or brain surgeon.

And then, finally, I completed the difficult part. I was relieved. All that remained for me was to sign my name. Which I did. As G. Bainbirdge.

COLUMN: September 6, 2018

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A number of potatoes. I’m assuming three, but there might be a smaller spud behind the one at the front

THE most ridiculous accident I ever had, in a field as crowded as the Glastonbury Festival, involved a potato.

As ever, I came to grief because I was attempting to broaden my horizons. You would think I would have learned by now never to alter my life in any way, but the trouble with experience is that it merely allows me to recognise a mistake after I have made it again, rather than before, enabling me to prevent it.

“Ah, yes,” I think ruefully, tumbling down the stairs, “this is exactly what happened last time I tried roller skating to the bathroom.”

I had become mildly obsessed with making the perfect mashed potato and had eaten it a little too often. I was, at that point, a human croquette. But my mash was a little gluey, and I wanted it to be fluffy.

Then somebody – I can’t remember who, probably somebody on television with a massive kitchen and a book deal and a PA – suggested that boiling my spuds was the issue. If I wanted my mashed potato to be good enough to serve to humans it needed to be drier. I needed to bake my potatoes, taking water out of them rather than putting it in.

Fine, I thought. I’ll make one type of potato dinner to make another type of potato dinner and it’ll take twice as long and this had better be worth it, Nigel, or Nigella, or Nigellest, or whoever it was.

I baked the spuds for an hour, did some domestic tasks including mopping the bathroom floor, then took the red-hot boulders out of the oven and began the work of scooping them out with a spoon into a bowl, holding each potato with a tea towel because I am not an idiot. Ah, I thought, this potato is already very fluffy. I can see where this is going. As, indeed, I suspect, can you…

My phone rang, so I left the kitchen to answer it. Only three types of people ever ring my land line: people who have heard I have recently been in an accident (which is always true, but never with grounds for compensation), people pretending they work for BT and attempting to get my bank details and passwords, and my father.

It was one of the first category, and I strung the caller along for a while with the story of when I fell off my bike when I was nine, and after he had hung up in despair, I sauntered back to the kitchen and picked up the last potato. Without the tea towel. Because I am an idiot.

It was roughly five minutes out of the oven. If I’d cut a cross in it and shoved some butter and salt inside I might have been able to eat it, as long as I blew on it. In my hand, it felt like a glowing coal.

I flung it out of my hand with a yelp, it ricocheted off my fridge behind me, bounced between my legs, and ended up underneath my worktop, behind the bin.

I ran my poor fingers under the cold tap, shook off the water, and went to retrieve the potato, crawling under the worktop, and pushing out of the way the many bags for life I have accumulated. I have so many bags for life I can only hope that reincarnation is real.

Experience should have told me that the potato would still be quite hot, and also a little battered after its journey. And yet I still went to pick it up with my bare hand. My middle finger pushed right through the ruptured skin into the steaming hot, if admittedly extremely fluffy, flesh.

I yelped again and flung my head back, as one does in these circumstances, bashing the back of it fairly hard on the worktop above me.

I missed the opportunity for a yelp hat-trick by swearing fairly inventively and forcefully, and crawled out, to rub my head and to cool down my hand under the cold tap again.

But I did not immediately get the chance to do either of those things. I slipped on the small patch of water left on my tiled kitchen floor after the first attempt to cool down, fell backwards, hit the fridge, slid down the wall, and ended up sitting in my mop bucket, which I had not yet emptied.

I am happy to report that the mash was quite good.

COLUMN: August 23, 2018

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An actual picture of me in the wild, with a clue to the final paragraph of this story. Picture: @VONmarketing. Models: your writer and @SouthLondonGirl. Hair and clothing: Models’ own

AS regular readers will remember, or, at least, have just been made aware that they had forgotten, I recently bought a car after years of exclusively using public transport.

It turned out that, while I remain more or less capable of driving a car, many things have changed on our country’s roads.

Speed bumps are far more prevalent, for instance. It is unclear why they are now called “speed bumps”. They were previously and poetically called “sleeping policemen”, which lent them a certain Z Cars-style glamour.

But “speed bumps”? That is the opposite of what they are. They should be called anti-speed bumps. Speed bumps are what you give somebody on their birthday if you’re in a hurry and they’re getting on a bit.

Cyclists have also become more cocky in recent years, like pigeons, or racists. They weave in and out of traffic with less care than I remember, treating traffic lights as guidelines and pavements as extra lanes of the road. It is as if the enhanced danger from increased numbers of cars has given them the sort of fatalism that we could admire in battle but not when they are inches from our bumpers.

Only last week, I was driving down the road and on the other side of the road a cyclist with the livery of a takeaway delivery app was moving in the same direction, causing cars coming in the opposite direction to us to swerve wildly.

He was of Asian appearance, and I charitably decided that he must have been a recent arrival and had forgotten that we drive on the left in the UK, as I would inevitably have done in the same situation.

I shouted, “Hey, mate” – I call people “mate” even if I don’t know them, as a way of showing that I am not to be feared – “you’re on the wrong side of the road.”

“No, f****** way, mate?” he replied. “Do you think I don’t know?” as if being on the wrong side of what was a single carriageway were a cross he reluctantly had to bear and he were disappointed that I had highlighted this sore point to him.

However, the biggest change on our roads since I were last a regular motorist appears to have been in parking. I was lucky in that the written theory section was introduced about five minutes after I passed my driving test, and I haven’t really kept up with developments.

But it seems that there has been a shift in parking practice and I can only assume that the test has changed so that drivers have been told, when confronted by a 90 degree parking space, to park at a 45 to 60 degree angle, so that at least one wheel, and preferably two, will touch a painted line separating parking spaces.

I drove to an appointment today, entering the car park. Time was pressing, but I found a space. My driving instructor, a highly-strung man, would have been proud of my skills for probably the first time, as I executed a centimetre-perfect old-school parking manoeuvre, ending up at precisely an equal distance from the two painted lines.

However, the person who parked next to me was one of the new-style 45-degree drivers, and as I opened my door and poked a shoe out it became clear that I would not be able to continue opening my door to a width which would enable me to leave my vehicle, unless I gouged out a significant portion of the other car’s door.

Fine, I thought. I am just going to have to re-park a little bit further over. But as I attempted to pull my foot back inside, it became obvious that it was stuck, and I had three immediate choices: become double-jointed, tear my trousers down the seam separating my posterior’s twins, or amputate my foot. And time was pressing.

Maybe, I thought, if I turn slightly, I can straighten my leg and pull it in by lying back and shifting into the passenger seat. I did so, edging over.

But as my foot re-entered the car, my back hit the gear stick or handbrake – I don’t know which. I jerked in pain, slipped off the leather seat, and my head ended up in the passenger footwell, with my feet dangerously close to going through the sun roof.

I gathered my thoughts, unlocked the passenger door, and continued my ungainly cartwheel out of the car.

I don’t want to tell you how I got back in after my appointment.

COLUMN: August 16, 2018

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A harmless-looking glass of water

EVERY night before I go to bed I lay an elaborate trap for myself as part of my bedtime admin routine.

Among other things, I brush my teeth, check all the things that are supposed to be unplugged are unplugged, look for the charger cable for my phone, check once again that all the things that are supposed to be unplugged are unplugged, and place a glass of water on my bedside table.

Often I go to bed before completing all of those tasks and then annoyedly have to get up again when I realise I haven’t ticked everything off the list, but the point is, by the time I close down for the evening, everything on that list is done, especially the last one.

And yet, despite the fact that every night I feel compelled to provide myself with a glass of water, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in the past couple of years I have woken in the early hours desperate for a drop of tepid water.

Roughly 90% of the time I find that I am just replacing the full glass of water that is left on my bedside table from the night before with a new one.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Gary, you said you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times you’ve had a drink of water in the night in the past couple of years. That means you’ve had four drinks of water tops, or five if you’re including your thumb.

“Yet there have been 730 days in the past two years. Five is nowhere near 10% of 730. You’ve left a lot of glasses of water out of this story, haven’t you? What’s happened to the other glasses of water, Gary?”

The answer to that is partly down my trousers at the moment. I am a serial and inadvertent knocker-over of bedside glasses of water. I did it this morning, while fully dressed and watchless, while reaching for my watch. I now look as if I have had “an accident” instead of merely an accident, having worn precisely the wrong trousers in order to get away with a water spill.

I did it last week while reaching to turn off an alarm on my phone which I had set earlier that week but had forgotten I did not need any more. Honestly, you do not appreciate just how much water a tumbler contains until you find yourself on all fours on the carpet at 6am trying to mop it up with some tissues.

I did it the week before by dramatically pulling back my duvet in a huff because I had forgotten to do one of the things on my bedtime admin list. The corner of the duvet hit the glass, the glass hit the bedside lamp, and then ricocheted back. On this occasion, my relief that virtually none of the water had reached my carpet was overshadowed by the fact that virtually all of the water had reached my mattress.

The only time I spilled my water as a result of actually reaching for the tumbler was when, a couple of years ago, I woke with the sort of raging thirst that only a faintly stagnant room-temperature glass of water could slake.

I picked up my glass in the darkness – which could only have been a fluke – forgot that one has to be upright when drinking, collapsed back onto my pillow, and emptied the vessel all over my face, somehow waterboarding myself. In one move I had both demonstrated the reason why I had such a raging thirst AND provided a cure for that reason.

The point I am trying to make is that I have got myself a glass of water every night of my adult life, mostly with no benefit, and, when it does impact on my day, it overwhelmingly does so in the most negative way.

I can only assume that as a child I decided that what my adult life needed was more largely ineffectual practical jokes, and, in the absence of a regular target, I would have to do it to myself. And then I underwent some sort of self-hypnosis to ensure I did this every day.

No more. Tonight I am going to bed without a glass of water by my side. Like everybody else, I will just have to balance a bucket of water over the bedroom door.

COLUMN: August 9, 2018

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I am almost entirely sure that I locked it

YOU might remember that I bought a car in last week’s column, after years of travelling everywhere by public transport, and about three days after buying my monthly bus ticket.

It has been a period of intense readjustment. I have gone from pretending to drive the bus, in the Golden Seat (top deck, front row, driver side) to actually driving the vehicle. And while it has been several years since I regularly drove a car, it is odd how easily I have slipped into the routine of driving.

I thought I might have been rusty, but it turns out the physical act of driving is something my body did not forget. It’s just like riding a bike, although clearly not. Checking the rear mirror, reversing into parking spaces, doing that tiny – almost imperceptible – wave to tell somebody you’re giving them right of way… they all feel like instinct.

But they are not instinct, they are learned responses ingrained in the driver’s behaviour. It’s a muscle memory. If they were instinct, even babies could drive, if it weren’t for the pedal issue and expense. Can you imagine how much insurance would be, for a start?

What I have tended to forget is the little tricks of driving. These are the bits of local knowledge that have been lost, or made obsolete by highway changes, the nuggets that you carry with you, like “If you’re going from A to B on a Friday afternoon, do not in any circumstances go via roundabout C, or you’ll feel like you’ve been stuck at the back of a lift carrying twelve flatulent sumo wrestlers,” or “never let anybody out at junction D if you ever want to see your family again”.

On the other hand, sometimes the forgetfulness is entirely benevolent. Take, for instance, the other day. I had to go to visit my GP for a complaint which appeared trivial, if annoying, but which Dr Google had convinced me was life-threatening. Googling symptoms is like a flow-chart in which all the boxes lead to one marked “CANCER”.

The appointment was before my shift started, but uncomfortably so. I would have to rush out of the appointment, jump on a bus, and then… Wait, I thought, I have a car now. I’ll be fine. And the realisation removed a little bit of stress from my day. It was like the joy of waking up in a panic because your alarm hasn’t gone off and then realising it is Saturday morning.

I jumped into my car and tootled off to the surgery, parking in a side road opposite, locking the car with the remote, then going back to the car to check that it had actually locked, then going back again, just to make sure.

Of course, sitting in the GP’s waiting room quickly replaced the stress that had previously been removed. On top of the worry about my clearly impending death, the radio was tuned to a station which believed it acceptable to follow Total Eclipse Of The Heart with I Just Called To Say I Love You, and then Tina Turner’s The Best. All this in an environment which is supposed to make people feel better.

I saw the GP, who told me in the kindest possible way that I was a total idiot and little more than a timewaster, but did at least give me a prescription. I thanked him and left, and took a long and deep breath…

I composed myself and went to the pharmacy next door. There was, inevitably, a mix-up which involved the man behind me, who had only come in for a bottle of cough mixture, paying for my £8.80 prescription, but I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to enjoy it.

Eventually, I left the pharmacy, and began walking, while composing a text message to my significant other, giving her the good news about my no-longer-imminent demise, still feeling distracted.

Argh! I thought, as I looked up mid-message. It’s my bus! I abandoned the message, and sprinted, Usain Bolt-like, to the stop.

I flopped into the bus seat, my heart still pounding from the stress. What a relief, I thought, that was close. I’m not going to be late for work.

I had travelled perhaps four stops before I remembered the car that I had abandoned in a side street opposite the surgery. You might have remembered that I bought a car in last week’s column. I certainly flipping hadn’t.

I blame muscle memory.

COLUMN: August 2, 2018

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Haggling, as seen in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

I HATE haggling. The last time I had to haggle was nine years ago, when I was doing a car boot sale, and a customer was trying to get me below a quid for an unopened set of four Ben 10 figures.

I, you will be delighted to know, refused to budge, and the customer moved on, to be replaced by somebody happy to pay £1 for something worth at least 12 times that amount. Retail’s loss is also journalism’s loss.

I am not, it turns out, a natural haggler, haggling being alien both to me and the British psyche. I am comfortable with the system we have in which items are labelled with a price, and if you hand over the amount of money on the label you walk away with the item, and it doesn’t become an anecdote.

But haggling is a complicated poker game, with many opportunities to insult your opponent and also be ripped off by him. It is, in short, extremely stressful.

We don’t go into newsagents’ shops and try to knock down the price of a Twix, so why do we British reserve this uniquely stressful way of conducting transactions for the already stress-filled business of buying houses and cars?

I recently decided to buy a car. My friends were aghast. “But, Gary,” they said. “You can’t buy a car. Your personal brand is that you catch buses everywhere. In fact, your defining personality trait is ‘bus passenger’. Without buses, you are just a man with glasses.”

“Yes,” I said, “but all bad things must come to an end.” The final straw had been when I was forced to watch a sweaty man eat a sweatier cheese sandwich on the sweatiest bus. You can’t blame me. I’ve put up with a lot.

And it was not as if I had never driven. One of the things you need to take part in a car boot sale is a car.

But I am not one of those men who can lift up a car bonnet, peer inside, and say, “The big end’s gone”, with any sort of conviction. I am one of those men who hovers by the bonnet and says to the other man, “Well, I’ve definitely filled the windscreen wiper reservoir recently, so it can’t be that.”

When a man like me walks into a used car dealership, it is like dropping a steak into a tank of sharks. So I was at an advantage when I saw the exact car I wanted online at roughly my budget. All I had to do was walk into the dealership and pretend to be somebody who takes no nonsense from car salesmen.

“I’m interested in this,” I said, pointing to the car of my dreams. “It seems quite cheap for the model. What exactly is wrong with it?” Ha, I thought, come back from that, carmonger.

He did. He explained that this was a small operation with low overheads. But that was fine. I had laid down a marker.

We took the car out for a spin, the dealer in the passenger seat. I took a corner a little ineptly – I was rusty, dammit – and the dealer audibly inhaled.

“I feel like I’m on my test,” I said.

“Everybody says that,” said the dealer. Good, I thought, my mission to appear like a normal, no-nonsense person is succeeding.

We returned to the dealership. I informed the dealer that he would be parking the motor, giving him the impression that I was a very busy person rather than somebody terrified he’d scratch something while executing an otherwise perfect 44-point turn.

We retired to the office. It was time for the dance to begin. I call it a dance, but it was very stressful, with many opportunities for things to go wrong, leaving me flat on my face. Come to think of it, it was exactly like a dance.

“I’m very interested in this vehicle, but it is slightly above my budget,” I said. This was both a bargaining position and 100% true. “Would you accept [£200 less than the asking price]?”

He looked at me. “The first thing you said to me is that the car was cheap for the model. It’s already as low as I can go.”

I had sabotaged myself, as usual. Damn him, I thought, for using my own words against me. I considered using the Trump defence of denying I’d said what we both knew I’d said, and even if I had said it, I meant the opposite.

But I aim to be honourable, even if I often miss. I made a half-hearted attempt at £100 less, and the dealer batted it away, as if I were making a sub-£1 offer for a set of Ben 10 figures.

And so I left agreeing to pay the price on the ticket, and disappointed with myself that I had done so.

This is why I hate haggling.