COLUMN: November 15, 2018

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Iron Man, Stan the Man, Spider-Man

Up to the age of nine, the greatest moment of my life was when I received a letter from Marvel Comics. It’s probably still in the top five.

This was because I had used an insult in conversation which I had previously seen crudely etched in cement on a wall in school, and assumed was beyond the pale.

But then it had appeared in a amusing comic strip called Jet Lagg in Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, and I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Marvel Comics, surely it’s good enough for me.”

It was not. I was roundly admonished by my mother in the traditional early 80s manner and I never swore in front of her again, even as an adult.

When she stopped for breath, and I was able to get a word in, I explained my reasoning, and she demanded I show her the offending comic. “Hmph,” she said, and she dropped the subject.

I forgot about the incident until a week later, when the handwritten letter arrived from Marvel. I shook as I read it. It had a colour letterhead, with Spider-Man on one side and The Incredible Hulk on the other. And they were apologising to me.

“Sorry, Gary. Of course we meant to write ‘twit’.”

My mother had called to complain. It was all Stan Lee’s fault.

If he hadn’t, over a period of about 10 years, created or co-created or inspired the colourful and compelling characters which dominate popular culture in 2018, including the Spider-Man and Hulk at the top of that letter, there would have been no Marvel Comics, and especially no Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, with the landmine onto which I unwittingly stumbled.

Stan Lee, who died on Monday at the age of 95, was one of the biggest influences on my life. It surprises me, as I write this, just how much of my childhood memories are tied up with the Marvel comics created and inspired by Stan Lee.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 60s Spider-Man cartoon in the house in which I lived when I was three years old.

And then I remember, a few years later, cuddling up to my Uncle Bernard, as we watched Bill Bixby’s eyes turn white before he transformed into a giant green Lou Ferrigno in a fright wig and trousers which ripped at the hem, but somehow never at the waist or bottom.

I remember the Spider-Man suit my Auntie Mary made me and the Marvel Top Trumps game that everybody in my primary school played.

I remember the chemistry set I got for Christmas, because I wanted to be Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, although I failed to give myself super powers, unless you count the ability to make a bad-egg smell in a test tube.

And I remember, most of all, the comics. First of all they were an escape from mundane 70s and 80s childhood. I would read them curled up on the stairs, usually black and white British reprints of the American originals, but later, when I found an actual comic shop in my hometown, full-colour imports.

Second, it was through those that I bonded with my closest secondary school friends, people with whom I am still in touch. We would pore over the latest X-Men or New Mutants, as if they were sacred texts.

By this point, Stan had largely stopped writing comics himself, but his monthly Stan’s Soapbox letter still appeared, full of his catchphrases like “Nuff said” and “Excelsior”. He was easily pushing 65 at this point, but was clearly the coolest man on earth.

You can see that in his 1960s Marvel work. It’s quite quaint now, and a little antiquated, but compared with what his rivals at DC were publishing at the time, it’s like the difference between punk and Englebert Humperdinck. There’s an energy and reality to it, and the characters are solid and have proper motivations.

It wasn’t all his own work, but he brought magic and pizzazz to Marvel Comics.

If you had told me 15 years ago that people – actual people with legs and jobs and bills – would know, in 2018, who Groot is, I would have had you sectioned.

But these Marvel characters dominate popular culture now. And I take great pleasure in the fact that so many people see in Stan Lee’s creations what I saw in the pages of Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly.

And in the fact that he lived long enough to see this happen.

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COLUMN: November 8, 2018

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Absolutely dental

THIS week’s column starts with a trigger warning. People can be a little sniffy about trigger warnings and start bandying about words like “softy” and “snowflake”.

But then, when they find out that this trigger warning is about dentistry, half of them will say, “Oh, no, well, fair enough.”

So, I was having trouble with a tooth, an impacted wisdom tooth to be exact. If you don’t know what an impacted wisdom tooth is, you are either lucky, or you are in for a rude awakening one day.

Basically, your teeth normally emerge from the gum vertically, but impacted wisdom teeth – and they are common – emerge lazily and almost horizontally, and they form a small gap between its crown and the next perfectly upstanding tooth.

And if small gaps love anything, it’s bits of food. They love bits of food so much it’s very difficult to get the gaps to give them up. This means that when you brush your teeth, you spend 90% of your time dealing with the gap between just two teeth, like a bad teacher exerting most of their effort on that one annoying kid.

So, although it was not causing me any pain, I decided I wanted it to be expelled, because bits of food that can’t be removed start to make their presence known, if you follow me.

I went to my dentist and asked him to get rid of it, and he referred me to the local dental hospital, presumably because he’s been treating me for a few years and he didn’t want any part of this.

A very capable fifth-year student saw me on my first appointment. I was x-rayed and it was confirmed that I very much did have the tooth about which I had been complaining. This was a relief. I hate those imaginary teeth that people sometimes have.

She explained the risks of my operation, and I signed a form, and went away, pleased that I was going to be rid of this nuisance. I had had a couple of similarly impacted wisdom teeth removed about 20 years ago and knew what the procedure was like – fairly unpleasant, with a few days of recovery, but ultimately worthwhile. Like jogging.

I then received a letter inviting me to a follow-up treatment appointment with the consultant. “Ah,” I thought. “This will be the appointment after which my extraction will be booked in. What this absolutely is not is the extraction itself, because there would be some sort of leaflet telling me how I would have to behave after the extraction, including, for example, advice to take a couple of days off work.”

On the day, I went to work as usual, and told my line manager that I would have to pop out of the office for an hour later that afternoon, explaining why. “Are you sure they’re not going to take it out today?” he asked. I scoffed at him, for the reasons I outlined in the previous paragraph.

You do not need an MA in Gary Bainbridge Studies to know what happened to me when I arrived at the hospital…

I was ushered into a room, to be greeted by a consultant, a registrar, two nurses, and a student dental hygienist. “Right, let’s get this tooth out,” the consultant said.

“But… But…” I said. “I wasn’t expecting this now. I thought this was just a follow-up appointment.” She gave me a look. “I didn’t get a leaflet,” I added, pathetically. “I mean, I’ve got to go back to work.”

“What do you do?”

“Erm, I sit at a desk and press keys.”

“Yeah, you’ll be OK,” she said.

I sat in the chair while my mouth was numbed, and I was subjected to what I can only describe as an assault. From the sounds of things, my tooth was the biggest and most awkwardly placed any of the medical professionals in that room had ever encountered. I expect it’s in the Natural History Museum now.

“You’re doing very well,” the consultant said to me, while the registrar stood on my chest, the better to get purchase on my tooth. I didn’t exactly have a choice.

After a couple of stitches, I was allowed to return to work.

“How did you get on at the dental hospital?” my line manager asked.

“I gon’t gant go galk agout it,” I dribbled.

My jaw is still sore and swollen a few days after its ordeal. I look like Brando in The Godfather.

And I can only eat flat food because I can’t open my mouth wide. In fact, my face can now only register mild surprise.

But at least I can brush my teeth properly now.

CODA: The day after the extraction, I received a text from the dental hospital asking me how likely I would be to recommend my experience to friends and family if they needed similar care, from 1, meaning extremely likely, to 6, meaning extremely unlikely.

I imagined for a moment the circumstances in which this would be a thing anybody would do, and replied with a 1, assuming I would be left alone.

A second text arrived, asking me the main reason for the score I had given.

I replied: “I needed my impacted wisdom tooth to be extracted. It was extracted. I can’t elaborate on that any more. I didn’t visit on a whim, I didn’t choose to visit you. I didn’t think, ‘Ooh, it’s Thursday. Shall I go to the cinema or have two dentists yank my tooth out?’ I was referred. You lived up to my expectations. I’m not sure I can write a review beyond that. I’m not the Dentistry Critic for The Sunday Times.”

COLUMN: November 1, 2018

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It’s that bloody cake again

A FEW weeks ago I wrote a column about Brexit, as I occasionally do. Partly it is because it is a massive issue which none of us can dodge, and partly it is because I have to write these columns in advance and there is no way that the situation is unexpectedly going to come good between my writing it and its appearance in your newspaper.

What usually happens when I write a column about Brexit is I get a number of emails and letters from Brexiters who lambast me for my lack of belief, or my naivety. I always reply and ask them how they think it will work, and they always reply with something amounting to “It just will.”

Occasionally they will invoke World War II. “We got through a war and won it,” they say. “So we’ll get through Brexit.” And that much is true. We definitely did win the war, and all on our own, without the help of an empire that spanned a third of the globe, the countries of which were obliged to sacrifice themselves for us, and without an alliance with the Americans and the Russians.

If the lesson you take from World War II is that we are stronger when we are not taking a leading role in an alliance of nations, then I am not sure what I can say to you.

However, that did not happen on this occasion. I received no letters from Brexiters – presumably because I had them bang to rights. No, something much worse happened…

After they appear in print, I post these columns on the internet. I don’t think it’s fair that people who can’t afford the few silver pennies that it costs to buy a brilliantly written and designed newspaper should miss out on riveting stories like that time I was in Tesco or the front-door doughnut incident.

The Brexit column included a long section in which I imagined a Leaver and a Remainer talking about cake, and somebody copied that section and posted it on a quite popular website. And then somebody copied that into an email and sent it to a friend. And the friend copied that and put it on Facebook, the popular website on which you find out which of your school friends have become racist and which ones can’t spell.

And, to cut a long story short enough that you won’t go away, what happened next is that a small skit I wrote for you, my loyal and long-suffering readers, went viral.

Nine years I’ve been writing this weekly column, my friends! Nine long years I have ploughed a lonely and unloved furrow of stories about disappointing soup or my inability to give directions to lost tourists without getting so tied up in their lives that I still get Christmas cards from them.

And the first time one of my columns went viral and lauded by the masses, my name wasn’t even on it. And, even worse, the name of the woman who copied and pasted the column on to Facebook WAS.

People were saying how clever and funny she was, and I was yelling “NO! I AM THE CLEVER AND FUNNY ONE!” like a Saturday morning stage-school student who has missed out on the lead role in their production of High School Musical.

And then people were copying her post, and apologising to HER for stealing her content. I was furious.

Friends were kind enough to say I should be flattered that people were pinching my Brexit skit. I gave them short shrift. “Oh, yes,” I said. “I bet if somebody burgled your house you’d love it if I fetched up and said you should take it as a compliment for having such a nice telly.” It’s a wonder I have any friends, quite frankly.

Still it came, serving me right, shared by friends, and showing up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds again and again, always with somebody else’s name on it. A Twitter friend, who hadn’t read my column, referred to it, in a conversation with me, as “that sodding meme”.

The final insult was when a stranger messaged me on Facebook and accused me of stealing the sketch from the internet and putting it into my column, and still didn’t believe that it was mine, even after I showed him incontrovertible evidence, including date-stamping of my column. “That proves nothing. You could have added that in later,” he said.

This is why we have Brexit.

COLUMN: October 25, 2018

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Caution

I AM enjoying being a car driver, rather than a miserable bus passenger, on the whole, but I am not sure it has made me more independent.

Yes, I no longer have to walk across a rainy city centre to sit on a steaming bus, listen to other people’s one-sided conversations on their phones, hope that man with the beany, “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirt, and old Kwik Save shopping basket doesn’t sit next to me, and then get off into the rain for the five-minute walk home.

But I have traded one dependency for another. I am now dependent on this car in order to get about the place, and the car is also dependent on me, in what therapists call a toxic co-dependent relationship. It is more of a drain on my resources than Tesco.

And I am also dependent on the car, because it constantly tells me what I should do next, like a micro-managing boss. It tells me when I need to fill the windscreen washer tank, when the tyre pressure is low, that I’ll need to buy petrol soon – not right now, but soon.

This is a big change from a previous car I drove, in which the fuel gauge was not reliable. I had to guess when it needed to be filled, with predictable results. There is nothing quite like the thrill of walking two miles at night while carrying a container of combustible liquid during the two weeks running up to Bonfire Night.

Most usefully, but also dangerously, it tells me how to park.

Previously, I was not bad at parking. I was good at taking into account my environment and judging the size of spaces in relation to my car’s size. I don’t want to brag, but when I failed my first driving test, parking was not the issue.

But my current car has parking sensors which beep as I back into or out of a space, and the closer I am to an obstacle the faster it beeps. However, this is not a gradual process. The increase in frequency is quite abrupt and often terrifying.

It is like the olden days, when you would have to have your passenger get out and guide you into the parking spot, except the beeping is equivalent to “Back a bit… Back a bit… Bit more… Bit…AARGH! OH, SWEET DAWKINS’ POT OF HONEY! YOU’RE ON MY FOOT! YOU’RE KILLING ME! AAARGGGHHH!”

Anyway, all of this is to explain how what happened was not my fault…

I was returning to an open-air car park to pick up my vehicle. It was mostly a free-for-all with regard to where people parked. But I noted, with some interest, that there was a number of traffic cones marking out some spaces, including one fairly close to the rear of my car. I started the engine, and slowly backed up. My parking sensors made no sound, and I’d checked for passers-by, so I was extremely confident…

I heard the crunch before I felt the bump. I can only assume that the conical shape of, well, a cone had eluded the sensors. I exited the car to discover I had driven over a cone, which was now lying on its side, its rectangular base under the car next to the rear wheel.

Oh, I thought. I tried to pull it out, but the base was wedged in place. I could, of course, have lifted the car, but that would have taken two hands, and that is literally the only reason why I had to dismiss that idea.

My brain told me to get back in the car and reverse a little more, which would probably dislodge the cone’s base. I did so. I heard a screech and then another crunch. I had clearly succeeded. So I turned to drive away from the cone.

But the car continued to screech. I got out again and looked at the wheel. The cone had vanished. I looked under the car. There was no sign of it. I closed the driver door. Oh, I thought.

The cone was now lodged firmly in the arch of my front wheel, like a spike on a chariot. I don’t know how. I pulled it. It was my last hope. It was coming, it was coming…

The cone tore away from the base, and, well, I bruised my bottom as a result.

Gingerly and painfully, I sat back in my car, and drove away, over the base. I should have got the bus.

COLUMN: October 18, 2018

manaboutthehouse
Paula Wilcox, Richard O’Sullivan, and Sally Thomsett in Man About The House

I LIVE in a flat in a converted house, like Richard O’Sullivan in Man About The House, only without two female flatmates and Yootha Joyce downstairs.

Living in a flat has a number of advantages. For example, when I need to go to the loo, I don’t have to go upstairs. Nor do I have to vacuum stairs, which is the worst part of vacuuming.

But it also has several disadvantages. I can’t slide down the banister, for instance. And there is no loft, so there is nowhere to hide away my Christmas tree, which means it sits in the corner of my bedroom all year long, reminding me that Elf, the worst film ever made, is a thing.

And it means I share a building with an ever-changing cast. It’s worse than Casualty. I only just get used to one neighbour and then he shows up in Coronation Street. It’s a nightmare picking up the post, especially as we still get junk mail for people who were in flat 3 for three months eight years ago and are now in Emmerdale.

But recently things have become slightly worse. Because one of the people in my building has come out as a passive-aggressive note writer.

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you will be familiar with the passive-aggressive note, or passagg note for short. These are the notes that appear in the kitchen, next to the sink, and usually go along the lines of:

“Please can whoever is putting the spoons back in the drawer upside down stop? It is very upsetting to have to go into the drawer and turn them the right way up, as God intended.”

Or:

“Tea bags should not be used as scouring pads. If anything, they make matters worse. Please put used tea bags in the special used tea bag box. I am sick and tired of having to remove tea bags from the scouring pads Tupperware.”

These passagg notes usually finish with a smiley face, just to make it clear that this is not a scowling telling-off, but, rather, just a perfectly normal way of communicating with other human beings.

The best passagg notes are the ones that refer obliquely to dark events, perpetrated, presumably, by one individual. I used to work in an office in which there was a note in the gentlemen’s lavatory saying something like “Owing to recent events, please leave these toilets in the state in which you found them. It is not fair for the cleaners otherwise”, and nobody ever got to the bottom of the “recent events”.

The passagg notes in my building are more along these lines. The first one appeared a couple of weeks ago, and said:

“PLEASE stop slamming the door as you leave. It is very unpleasant for the people who live downstairs.”

The trouble with this is that the front door is a big heavy one that you have to slam to close, otherwise one can trap one’s fingers, which I suspect would be even more unpleasant. Still, since the note went up I have attempted with mixed results to close the door like a ninja.

Then, a week later, a second note appeared:

“Can everyone please ask visitors to park on the road? Spaces should be for those who pay to live here. Thanks.”

I’m afraid I saw red. I was so angry I wrote a passagg note of my own:

“Please can whoever is leaving these notes stop? It is too much to read when leaving the house and might make other occupants forget what they want from Little Tesco. Thank you.”

But when I returned home, my note had been torn down. This was outrageous. Not only had the passagg neighbour put up the original notes, but he or she had decided that other people in the building were not allowed to put up their own passagg notes.

So I put up a second note:

“Can whoever is tearing down my passagg notes please stop? It takes me three attempts to do a clean one without spelling mistakes. Thank you.”

And within minutes it was violently torn down, Sellotape and all. I mean, really! How dare he or she? I pay my rent too so I should also be allowed to tell people off in this manner for going about their lawful business of closing doors or having guests.

So now I am out for revenge. And this column is probably it.

COLUMN: October 11, 2018

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A cake

I DO hate to bang on about Brexit, but it’s nearly here and we’re still no closer to knowing what it’s going to be like.

Obviously, we can make an educated guess based on facts, but half the population (or less than half these days, given that 1.3m of the Brexit electorate has died, to be replaced by even more young people) has decided that facts aren’t as important as feelings.

For example, it doesn’t matter that the UK was always sovereign, and always had the power to walk away from the EU, because it didn’t FEEL like it was sovereign.

But the fact is, nobody actually knows, not for sure, not even the government. If you interviewed the government for a job and asked them where they thought they’d be in five years’ time, they couldn’t answer you with any sort of conviction. In a fair world, some of them would actually have a conviction.

The only thing we do know is that the people who have been pressing hardest for Brexit are obsessed with cakes. The former Foreign Secretary was convinced in public that we could “have our cake and eat it”. John Redwood, the perfectly normal former Welsh Secretary, talked about making our own cakes instead of helping other countries with their cakes. And UKIP is full of fruitcakes.

So I have decided to explain the Brexit process through the medium of cakes.

LEAVER: I want an omelette.

REMAINER: Right. It’s just we haven’t got any eggs.

LEAVER: Yes, we have. There they are. [HE POINTS AT A CAKE]

REMAINER: They’re in the cake.

LEAVER: Yes, get them out of the cake, please.

REMAINER: But we voted in 1975 to put them into a cake.

LEAVER: Yes, but that cake has got icing on it. Nobody said there was going to be icing on it.

REMAINER: Icing is good.

LEAVER: And there are raisins in it. I don’t like raisins. Nobody mentioned raisins. I demand another vote.

DAVID CAMERON ENTERS.

DAVID CAMERON: OK.

DAVID CAMERON SCARPERS.

LEAVER: Right, where’s my omelette?

REMAINER: I told you, the eggs are in the cake.

LEAVER: Well, get them out.

EU: It’s our cake.

JEREMY CORBYN: Yes, get them out now.

REMAINER: I have absolutely no idea how to get them out. Don’t you know how to get them out?

LEAVER: Yes! You just get them out and then you make an omelette.

REMAINER: But how?! Didn’t you give this any thought?

LEAVER: Saboteur! You’re talking eggs down. We could make omelettes before the eggs went into the cake, so there’s no reason why we can’t make them now.

THERESA MAY: It’s OK, I can do it.

REMAINER: How?

THERESA MAY: There was a vote to remove the eggs from the cake, and so the eggs will be removed from the cake.

REMAINER: Yeah, but…

LEAVER: Hang on, if we take the eggs out of the cake, does that mean we don’t have any cake? I didn’t say I didn’t want the cake, just the bits I don’t like.

EU: It’s our cake.

REMAINER: But you can’t take the eggs out of the cake and then still have a cake.

LEAVER: You can. I saw the latest Bake Off and you can definitely make cakes without eggs in them. It’s just that they’re horrible.

REMAINER: Fine. Take the eggs out. See what happens.

LEAVER: It’s not my responsibility to take the eggs out. Get on with it.

REMAINER: Why should I have to come up with some long-winded incredibly difficult chemical process to extract eggs that have bonded at the molecular level to the cake, while somehow still having the cake?

LEAVER: You lost, get over it.

THERESA MAY: By the way, I’ve started the clock on this.

REMAINER: So I assume you have a plan?

THERESA MAY: Actually, back in a bit. Just having another election.

REMAINER: Jeremy, are you going to sort this out?

JEREMY CORBYN: Yes. No. Maybe.

EU: It’s our cake.

LEAVER: Where’s my omelette? I voted for an omelette.

REMAINER: This is ridiculous. This is never going to work. We should have another vote, or at least stop what we’re doing until we know how to get the eggs out of the cake while keeping the bits of the cake that we all like.

LEAVER/MAY/CORBYN: WE HAD A VOTE. STOP SABOTAGING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE. EGGSIT MEANS EGGSIT.

REMAINER: Fine, I’m moving to France. The cakes are nicer there.

LEAVER: You can’t. We’ve taken your freedom of movement.

COLUMN: October 4, 2018

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Two lifts or elevators, depending on where you are reading this

MY office recently moved premises to a swish new building, and it has meant I have had seriously to raise my suaveness game.

I can’t turn up to work looking as if I lost at strip poker on my way in and had to steal items from a washing line, like David Banner. Not any more.

No, this glamorous new building requires that I look as debonair as, say, the late Sir David Frost or Rihanna. It requires highly-polished Chelsea boots and pressed shirts and a deck tan. It requires that I greet the security person on reception as I would the concierge at the Waldorf, as I glide past, still wearing my sunglasses.

Luckily, I can manage all of that, apart from the deck tan. Despite the long hot summer, I still look as if I have been carved from ivory by a sculptor who died before he finished.

In the old building I used an escalator to access and leave my office, which was fine apart from when it was switched off. Nothing is more disconcerting than walking down a paused escalator in the semi-darkness. Every step is a new adventure.

But in the swanky new offices, it’s lifts all the way. I am a big fan of lifts. They’re marvellous. I have often wondered how the pitch meeting went when the inventor – let’s call him Otis – addressed his bosses. I can only imagine. And here, I am imagining it…

OTIS: “OK, so, It’s a little box, and you go into it and stand with some other people, and the door closes, and you wait for a bit, and when the door opens you’re somewhere else.”
BOSSES: “You mean you’ve invented the TARDIS?”
OTIS: “No, this just goes up and down floors in a building. And it’s very cramped, so you’re standing way too close to people you don’t know.”
BOSSES: “That sounds a bit intimate. Can you make it so that everybody faces the door, so there’s no eye contact?”
OTIS: “Of course. Only a sociopath would face INTO the box.”
BOSSES: “OK, but we’re worried that people will be spooked when the doors open on different floors. Can you make it so that when the doors open, every floor looks exactly the same? You know, just to reassure them?”
OTIS: “Not a problem.”
BOSSES: “And what are you going to call your invention?”
OTIS: “I was thinking I’d call it a lift in the UK, and an elevator in the States, because things always have to have different names in the States.”
BOSSES: “So this thing doesn’t go down? It only lifts and elevates?”
OTIS: “Err…”
BOSSES: “Oh, whatever.”
OTIS: “Hang on. How do you know about the TARDIS? Doctor Who isn’t going to be invented for another 110 years.”
BOSSES: “It’s a time machine, innit?”

All this is to explain how what happened was not my fault.

I glided through reception last week in my sunglasses to see the doors of one of the lifts starting to close and I dashed forward to press the button so they would open again, just in case, I don’t know, they abolished lifts.

The doors opened and I stepped inside a lift full of mildly-inconvenienced people, noting that my floor had already been selected. Then I turned to face the door, and went through the tedious process of swapping sunglasses for normal glasses.

The doors opened again on my floor, and I stepped out into the lobby, turned to face the office door, and realised I had got out at the wrong floor. They all look the same, dammit, Otis.

“Still”, I thought, “style it out. Walk towards whichever office is on this floor and let the lift close. They don’t need to know. You can just take the stairs after they’ve gone.”

The trouble was, for the doors to have opened, somebody must have pressed the button for that floor. And so she emerged, also walking towards the office door, fumbling in her handbag for her pass card.

So I did what I always do in these situations. I dropped to the floor and pretended to fasten my shoelace until she had gained access to her office…

And, as she rooted through her bag, I realised that this was really not the day to have worn highly-polished Chelsea boots, as I genuflected before her for no apparent reason.

I really must raise my suaveness game.