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.

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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.

COLUMN: July 26, 2018

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A mob

IMAGINE, for a moment, a piece of chocolate cake. This is not the most difficult exercise so far, admittedly, but bear with me.

Now imagine somebody is offering you that piece of chocolate cake at lunchtime, but you’re on a diet, and you’ve been doing really well, and, honestly, a piece of chocolate cake is the last thing you need. So you politely say no.

But your hostess won’t let it lie. She is like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted. “Go on. Go on. Go on. Go on. Go on.” And each time you say, “No, it’s bad for me. I can see the appeal of it, but it would be wrong.” Until, finally, you prevail over the chocolate cake pusher and the danger of chocolate cake has passed.

And then, later that night, when you go to bed, you turn back the duvet, and there, squashed into your sheet, is a piece of chocolate cake.

That is how I feel about the death penalty debate. This is something I was fairly confident had been dealt with. Yes, there were people grumbling out there about bringing back the rope, and it’s still weirdly popular with the sort of people who miss being able to smoke in pubs and beat up their children, the sort of people who rail about the Nanny State, but still think the state should be able to murder its citizens in cold blood as punishment.

But it turns out the debate was just lying dormant, like a virus. And when the Government said that it was dropping its objections to a death sentence in the case of the “ISIS Beatles” the debate woke up again.

Before we knew it, it was being suggested that after Brexit, we would be able to bring back the death penalty, which is, as far as it goes, true. Let’s put aside the fact that it’s not the EU that has dictated that we stop putting our citizens to death. We abolished the death penalty in 1964, long before we joined the Common Market.

In any case, it’s our membership of the Council of Europe and our signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights that prevents us from indulging in state-sponsored murder. And I don’t remember withdrawal from that being on the referendum ballot.

Now I get the appeal of the death penalty. There are murderers and terrorists in our prisons at the moment whose death at the end of a rope would not make me mourn. Some of these deaths would be cause for celebration.

But that is the very worst part of me, the bit that craves revenge is the blackest part of anybody’s soul, the bit that should never be indulged because that’s the point of civilisation. We’re not savages. We live in houses and have iPhones and watch David Attenborough programmes.

The thing is, the death penalty doesn’t even work. In the case of the ISIS Beatles, killing them will make them martyrs. It’s what they actually want. It’s why we kept feeding Ian Brady even though he wanted to die.

And it certainly doesn’t work as a deterrent for murderers. The prisons of US states where execution is legal have death rows filled with murderers who were undeterred by the existence of capital punishment. Study after study has shown that it’s not the severity of the punishment that deters offenders but the likelihood of being caught.

And the idea that wrongly convicted people might be executed chills my blood. Incidentally, I’ve often found that there is a correlation between people who are comfortable with this and people who appeal speeding fines.

But it’s easy to conceive of a Britain post-Brexit, in which the term “human rights” is considered a dirty word, the preserve of the spoilsports who make us wear seatbelts, and prevent us from sending children up chimneys.

This would be a country which withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights because we don’t want those continentals, with their garlic bread and ability to import cancer drugs without having to fill out 12 forms every time, telling us we can’t kill whomever we like.

It will start with the death penalty for treason being reintroduced. Then we’ll get a taste for it, and we’ll extend the definition of treason to include “remoaners”, as the Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman wants.

Bannerman

That’ll be the end of me. Is that what you want? For half of you it probably is.

It’ll be a piece of cake.

COLUMN: July 19, 2018

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Chris Hemsworth: unavailable

THE sun was shining down on me. Technically it was shining on lots of people around me too, and, I suppose, my half of the globe, but I play the lead role of the story of my life. Probably because Chris Hemsworth was unavailable.

The point is, I was in a good, if slightly sweaty, mood, heading across a courtyard on my way to work, and feeling at the top of my game. Yes, I play my game near the top end of the non-league rankings, but that is irrelevant. I felt I could take anything on – an interview with Donald Trump, Brexit negotiations, a difficult Branston pickle jar lid, anything.

I spotted a family of three generations – grandmother, mother, and two small daughters – bobbling around the courtyard looking both lost and trouble. In a spirit of almost lunatic optimism, they approached a backpack-wearing olive-skinned pedestrian and asked for directions to a nearby office operated by HM Government.

“¿Que?” replied the pedestrian, inevitably. It was obvious that they needed my help, difficult as it is to imagine a situation in which my involvement would improve matters.

I stepped in. “Excuse me, I know where you need to go. See that passage over there, on the left hand side? Just walk through it, and carry on in that direction and it’ll take you to the office.”

I am not sure how much clearer I could have been. You understand those instructions. There was no “take the second right after where t’Dog And Duck used to be and make sure thy ankles are widdershins, or treadle will be put out o’skew… No, wait, not Dog and Duck, t’old Farmer’s Arms” of the sort that I always get when I ask for directions.

They definitely took in the directions I gave them and did not glaze over at all. They headed towards the passage on the left hand side, and I headed towards the passage on the right hand side satisfied that I had done a good turn.

We exited our respective passages at the same time, and I looked down the road proudly at my fledglings. The pride did not last long. The grandmother wanted to turn left, the mother wanted to turn right, and the children were doing rapid laps of the adults.

I had given them a clear two-step itinerary, and somehow both adults had forgotten the second of the two steps. Even I can remember two steps and I’ve only just memorised my mobile phone number.

The worst part of me wanted to leave them to their fates. I owed them nothing. Worse, I had given them something and they had said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then smashed it up in front of me, before setting fire to my house.

But they had children with them, and there is nothing worse than being lost while in charge of children, and that trumped whatever goonery they had visited upon me. I gritted my teeth and headed towards them.

“Hello, me again,” I said, as if they couldn’t see or remember me. Belt and braces. “Sorry, I should have been more clear,” I lied. I was not sorry and I could not have been more clear.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just down there. Can you see that building with the big sign on it?” I pointed, extending my index finger further than it had ever been extended.

Their eyes went everywhere apart from where I was pointing.

“Which big sign do you mean?” asked the grandmother, on a road on which there is only one big sign.

I felt I was getting more purchase with the mother. “Can you see it?” I pleaded.

“That one down there?” she said.

“Yes! Brilliant! Well, it’s not that building, it’s the one after it. See? Dead easy.”

They thanked me again and went on their way, following the direction I had pointed out to them. I hung back and watched them as they slowly edged into the distance, getting closer to the building with the big sign, the two girls orbiting the adults like hyperactive moons.

I felt pretty good about myself. I had helped somebody and gone the extra mile to help them again. And given them the correct directions. I felt like a proper grown-up…

And then they turned left before they reached the building with the big sign, and I have no idea where they ended up. They’re probably still looking for that office.

Some people aren’t worth helping.

COLUMN: July 12, 2018

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A perfectly normal Chinese dish

THERE are some experiences we repeatedly undergo because we forget about the bad parts and only remember the good parts – buying a car, or jogging, or childbirth, for instance.

To this list of infamy we must also add the act of going to a Chinese buffet restaurant. Visiting a Chinese buffet restaurant always seems like a good idea at the time. “What?” you say. “All I can eat for £9.99? Did they not see me take the last piece of Dundee cake on December 29?”

Challenge accepted, you walk inside. Because you have forgotten about The Chinese Buffet Trap.

You take up a seat and order a small beverage, perhaps a Coke. “THREE POUNDS?!” you think. “I wanted a Coca-Cola, not cocaine. So that’s how they make this pay.”

You pick up a bowl and take it to a couple of tureens. One of them is filled with hot and sour soup. You can see one prawn in there. “They must be saving the prawns for the sesame prawn toast,” you think. Then you look in the other tureen. It is labelled “sweetcorn soup”. “Where’s the chicken?” you wonder. The floor, you realise at this point, is going to be strewn with cut corners.

“I didn’t come here to eat bits of sweetcorn,” you tell yourself. You take some hot and sour soup, and the three prawn crackers that you can carry, and sit down. The soup is both hot and sour, and so you cannot complain, even though you didn’t get the prawn on this occasion.

Now for the bit for which you really go to Chinese restaurants, the dim sum/hors d’oeurves. “Take me to the sesame prawn toast, feet,” you say. You fetch up at the buffet area. There is no sesame prawn toast. Instead there is sesame chicken toast. “Oh,” you think, “that’s where the chicken went.”

You pile your plate with ribs and dumplings and chicken wings and crispy seaweed – because what could be healthier than deep fried kale? – and sit down again. You realise that 70% of what is on your plate is bones. “So that’s how they make this pay”, you think again. You try to pick up crispy seaweed with your fork. Neither the fork nor the crispy seaweed is having it. It is like trying to pick up water with a tennis racquet.

The napkin you have been allocated has given up the ghost, defeated by hoisin sauce and your skin. Your plate is now 95% bones and 5% crispy seaweed. It is time to return to the buffet.

The buffet is a free-standing thing filled with vats of stuff. You take a fresh plate and pay close attention to the flow of traffic. It is moving anti-clockwise. You find a gap and join the queue, planning to furnish yourself with a bed of rice on which you will later sit a variety of what the Chinese think the English will eat based on years of the Chinese’s bitter experience. A nearby waitress watches and inwardly shudders.

Your plate filled with a variety of rice and noodles, you move anti-clockwise towards a vat of vegetables in something when somebody swoops in from the clockwise direction and swipes the serving spoon before you can touch it, and you have to wait for them, like a seaside gull waiting for a dropped chip.

“Fine,” you think. “Anarchy it is.” And you plunder the remaining vats, pushing children and little old ladies out of the way, piling some very undistinguished sweet and sour chicken and beef in black bean sauce onto your plate, not caring that it is the equivalent of piling pizza, fish fingers, and shepherds pie onto your plate, and forgetting that this is lunch and not a Man V Food challenge.

And then you remorselessly work your way through the meal you have carefully curated. It turns out that “all you can eat” is roughly equivalent to a normal meal. And now you have found yourself in the Chinese buffet trap.

There is a sign saying, “Please do not take more food than you can eat.” But also you remember that bank advert that says that Chinese people take it as an insult if you clear your plate, because it implies they haven’t given you enough food.

So how much food are you allowed to leave? You have no idea, and you remember that’s why you told yourself last time you would never go to another Chinese buffet restaurant.

COLUMN: July 5, 2018

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It wasn’t like this. And even if it were, it still would have been unacceptable

I HAD to catch the bus for a meeting and it was warm, early July warm. And I don’t mean normal early July warm, where we are insulated by off-white clouds and the rain is slightly less cold.

No, I mean this early July warm, where the sky is an unbroken blue and the grass verges are an unbroken yellow, where the tumbleweed blows across the cracked soil and tongues dart in and out of the mouths of lizards.

I do not know if you have ever been on a bus in such weather, but it is like a greenhouse on wheels, a portable Tenko, a charabanc outing for the Body Odour Pride Support Group.

Windows are abundant, and windows that can open are rationed, because it’s a nicer design, and air conditioning is restricted to the breeze caused when somebody rushes past when he realises that the bell didn’t work and he has to alert the driver to his stop sharpish.

And I was wearing a dark suit and trying not to perspire, in circumstances expressly designed to make a body perspire, because I was going to a meeting and did not want to give the impression that I had stopped off at the baths in order to dive for a rubber brick.

“Think cool thoughts, chum,” I told myself. I imagined Rihanna and the late Sir David (Aptly-Named) Frost sitting on thrones of ice while making short work of a pile of strawberry mivvis, and, for a moment, this inspirational scene fooled my easily-led body into holding off on the sprinkler system.

“This is good,” I thought. “The important thing is that nothing enrages me in the next five minutes…”

And then I saw him. Across the aisle, there was a man, also dressed in a dark suit, the sweat on his neck making his hair curl. Had things turned out differently, I might have shared the Rihanna/Frost secret with him and changed his life.

But they did not. I saw him reach into a carrier bag and bring out a cheese sandwich. And instead of him saying to the rest of the passengers, “Who has put this in my bag? I mean, what sort of absolute psycho eats a cheese sandwich on a bus as hot as the core of the sun?” this man actually took a bite of the sandwich.

I do not want you to think I am against cheese sandwiches in general. There is little that gives me greater pleasure than Cheshire cheese and tomato on some thickly sliced wholemeal bread. And I am a big fan of the cheese toastie.

But it is utterly unacceptable to attempt to make a cheese toastie by using the heat of an early July bus, no matter how hot it is.

Just imagine what this cheese sandwich would have been like – medium-sliced Mother’s Pride slowly drying out on the outside, butter melted into bubbling liquid, and cheese, sweaty and floppy. What kind of monster could actively enjoy that?

Reader, I baulked, involuntarily and loudly. I am sure I was not the only one.

Because you can’t do that. Cheese sandwiches are on the list of things you cannot eat on a hot bus, because of the effect they have on normal people like me. The other items include – and this is not a complete list – egg sandwiches, fish sandwiches (specifically tuna), sliced ham, slices of melon, peaches, and yoghurt.

And then he took another bite, and a small morsel of cheese attached itself to his chin. Did he not know, or did he not care? I expect it was the latter. Either way, it remained on his chin as he polished off the rest of his vile sandwich, as if he were taking part in some sort of Japanese gameshow.

I felt the heat rising in me throughout, and the sweat ran down my face and the back of my neck, and I turned up at my meeting looking as if I’d been sculpted out of strawberry ice cream.

Some of you – the worst of you – will be thinking, “Just get over yourself, Gary. He ate a cheese sandwich on a bus. What’s it got to do with you?”

But what if he’d been flossing his teeth, or cutting his toenails right in front of you – both examples of behaviour I have witnessed on the bus?

We have to draw the line somewhere. And this is where I draw it. No cheese sandwiches on hot buses.