COLUMN: October 20, 2016


A mobile telephone

YOU know how in films the hero’s friend survives an attack and then either limps on, or appears perfectly fine for a while, but then collapses and dies?

“Oh, no,” says the person with medical knowledge conveniently nearby. “Billy Yourmate must have had internal injuries. You couldn’t have known. There was literally nothing you could have done to prevent this.”

I had just arrived on a railway platform. I had had to go down to London for A Thing at which I would have to talk to actual people about stuff the previous day, an exhausting task. All I wanted to do was go home and make a cup of tea that did not feature a guest appearance by UHT milk – the worst substance in the world.

Why is UHT milk the worst substance in the world, you ask? Because people who hate milk hate it and people who like milk hate it.

But I digress. I had just stepped onto the platform. In one hand I held a heavy suitcase containing my laptop. In the other hand, I had an Oyster card, such is my preparedness to “tap out”. (If you are not from London and do not know what an Oyster card is, it is a card with the word Oyster written on it.)

And snaking from both of my ludicrously belobed ears was an earphone cable, leading to the phone in my jacket pocket. This is a recent development. I do not generally listen to music on my phone, but I have been trying to learn a couple of foreign languages in an attempt to make myself more interesting.

The point is that I am not used to having my head wired up to my phone. And so when I reached forward to tap my Oyster card on the sensor, my arm caught the cable, yanking the phone out of my pocket.

My hands were full, and, in any case, if my reflexes were to be compared to those of a cat, that cat would be Garfield. I was helpless as I watched the phone tumble groundwards. The cable was pulled taut by the phone, and then gravity pulled the phone away from the cable.

“Oh, good,” I thought, watching the incident unfold in slow motion, “NOW the cable comes out. Why didn’t it do that when the phone was in my pocket?”

The phone hit the floor hard. “Oh, dear,” I thought, “I hope, with some force, that the screen isn’t broken.” I picked it up. It was unscathed. I tried to use it. It was working. “Phew,” I thought, which is an odd word to think, “That was close.”

About an hour later, as I was learning the German for the important phrase “A duck is a bird”, my phone froze. None of the buttons would work, so, in a huff, I removed the battery and replaced it, my standard “I used to work in IT” solution to phone freezing.

It must have had an internal injury. Reader, my phone would not come back on, a calamity beyond measure and scarier than Ed Balls twerking while dressed as a killer clown on the Hallowe’en edition of Strictly.

Now you are all saying at this point, “Poor Gary!” But half of you are being sarcastic, and remembering war and refugees and suffering. And the other half are genuinely realising that you would be completely stuck if that happened to you, and angry I did not put a trigger warning on this column.

And it would be even worse if you were in a strange part (i.e. Barnes) of a city in which you do not live (i.e. London). And if the code you had to type into the ticket machine at the station to get your ticket home was only on your phone.

And it would be even even worse if you didn’t know anybody’s phone numbers these days because nobody knows anybody’s phone numbers these days because they are all on your phone. Or if you had to tell a German that a duck was a bird and you had forgotten the word for “duck” because of the business with your phone.

Essentially, it has made me incredibly aware of how stupid it is to have everything upon which you depend stored on a single mobile device, which you can break just because you are trying to learn conversational Portuguese and you don’t have three hands.

And now I have to buy a new phone.

COLUMN: October 13, 2016


THEY say that before you die your life flashes before your eyes, a Big Brother-style showreel of your best bits. I have often wondered how they know this. Seances, probably.

It must be awful finally to remember in which programme you first saw that man who was in that thing, but not be able to say because you are now dead.

Sorry for the morbid thought. It was prompted by one of my surprisingly infrequent brushes with death. It may appear unlikely that a man as accident-prone as myself is rarely confronted by mortality, but my mishaps are usually minor, if frequent.

For example, only yesterday morning I had a minor mishap. What I did not realise at the time was that it would turn into a more serious threat to my wellbeing.

This story features, as so many do, a cup of tea and a bus. I was due to work an early shift. An early shift to me is what most people would call an ordinary shift – a nine-to-five slog involving traffic-clogged journeys to and from work and a lunch break taken at exactly the same time as everybody else. I don’t know how you do it.

I got up, made a cup of tea, showered, dressed, and drank my tea. I was a model of early-morning efficiency. And then I went to wash my cup and it all went horribly wrong.

There was a teaspoon in the sink, and I had somehow managed to leave it in exactly the wrong place. The water hit the spoon, and it was then deflected into the air making a textbook arc straight for my light blue shirt and turning it into a piece of modern art.

I chuckled. “Ho, ho,” I said, as I removed my sopping wet shirt. “At least my daily mishap has already happened. Argh! I don’t have any ironed shirts.”

I set up my ironing board and started the pointless time-sucking job of temporarily removing creases from a clean shirt. Seconds were ticking by, but at least I would just about make it to the bus stop in time. Years of practice have taught me exactly what time my bus will arrive at the stop.

“Oh,” I thought, as I arrived at the stop. It turned out that the bus arrives three minutes earlier at that time of day. I had missed it. “Silly me for thinking that the spoon incident was my daily mishap. THIS is my daily mishap.”

I started to walk. I would have to get the train to work instead. It was annoying, but not the worst thing. Assuming it was on time, I would arrive at work five minutes late, giving my colleagues the gift of less time with me.

The sun was low in the sky as I reached the corner of my own road again on the way to the train station. I checked the road for oncoming traffic, as directed by the Green Cross Man.

The sun was in my eyes, and I looked across the road, seeing a boy wearing the same school uniform as my own son. I wondered what he would have been up to at that time of day, then I stepped into the road without checking again.

That was when the car hit me.

My life did not flash before my eyes. The only thing that flashed before my eyes was the sun, and the strong awareness that I had just been hit by a car, and I was not sure how long that state of affairs would continue.

It must have lasted only a second, but time really did seem to slow down. It hit me in the leg and I felt it buckle, but I did not fall over. Instead I was pushed along the road as my palm hit the bonnet.

Luckily, the car was driving slowly after having just taken the tight corner into my road. If I had been a few feet further down, I might have been in more trouble.

Shocked, I shouted out a bad word. But the impact had been so minor that nobody had noticed it apart from me and, I would like to think, the driver.

And so, all any onlookers noticed was a forty-ish, respectably dressed man screaming out an expletive in the street for no apparent reason.

Embarrassed by the whole business, I fled. I can only hope that it does not appear in my end of life showreel.

COLUMN: October 6, 2016


Theresa May – Andrea Leadsom without the giddy sense of fun

SO somebody asked me: “Where are you from?” And I said: “Well, I was born in Liverpool.”

And he looked me in the eye, and he said: “No, but where are you from? Where is your family from?” I blinked. “Er, Liverpool. That’s why I was born there. It was more convenient.”

He stared at me, his eyes boring into me. “No, you’re not getting it. Where is your family from? You’re not British, are you?”

“Oh!” I said. “Well, I’m not really sure about my dad’s side, though Bainbridge is a village in North Yorkshire, so I suppose they must have come from there at some point.

“But on my mum’s side… well, there’s some Irish in there. I mean, see how pale I am. I make milk look brown. I could hide out in a paper factory for months.

“But there’s also some Italian in me from a few generations back. Half my mum’s siblings looked Irish like me. The other half looked like Al Pacino.”

“Ah! I thought so,” he said, and made to wander off. “Hang on a sec,” I said to him, “are you a figment of my imagination?”

He nodded, and vanished in a puff of smoke, his point made.

I’m quite lucky in that I am white, and usually pass for a native. If I were brown or black, I would have been asked those questions so many times I would not have had to make up an anecdote.

But ask yourself: “Where am I from?” If you can go back more than four generations without finding a foreigner in your forebears, you are a very unusual and rare flower. Even the Queen is part German, and married to a Greek.

The fact is we are all immigrants, or the children of immigrants. So when the Government starts talking about cutting immigration, and about taking us out of the European Single Market just so that we can halt immigration, you should feel uneasy.

When the Government talks about cutting the number of foreign students who come to Britain, pay fees to learn here, and then go back home, you should feel uneasy.

And when the Government talks about forcing companies to publish lists of their foreign workers, you should feel worried. Because while this is bad enough, where will it end?

It is becoming clearer than ever that Brexit is going to hit this country hard. The pound is crashing already. And instead of surgically unpicking the legal and social veins which bind us to the EU, this gang of vandals is going to yank us out.

And as the blood spills and the damage mounts up, the Brexiteers in government who blundered and blustered and said we had nothing to fear from leaving the EU will not take the blame.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, has already said that if Brexit is a failure we are all to be held responsible. Well, not me, matey – I am not going to be accountable for this disaster. And neither will the half of the country who voted to remain in the EU.

So who do you think will be considered responsible? It will be the ones who always get the blame, the easy targets already being lined up – the unloved immigrants. It will be the people like your great-grandparents, the people who spoke foreign in shops and even so were allowed to stay and work and marry and eventually produce you.

They will be blamed for taking British jobs, as if there is a queue of Brits outside the hotels and fruit farms dying to do a hard day’s work for a pittance. They will be given the blame for why you are unemployed after the car manufacturers and call centres leave this post-EU country. And God help them.

We’ve seen all this before in this continent. It ended with a world war and millions dead. That’s why we had an EU, why we had to make it inconceivable that the countries of Europe would ever go to war with each other again.

But the question is, which side are you going to be on?

Are you going to be one of those cheering as people like your great-grandparents are hounded out of their homes and this country?

Or are you going to remember that you yourself are an immigrant, with foreign blood rushing through your body, and tell the Government “No?” Because that would be the British thing to do.

COLUMN: September 29, 2016

I TAKE quite a lot of buses and I have probably done a poor job in concealing that fact. But what you might not know is that sometimes I use other forms of transport.

For example, occasionally I use the train. Trains are great. If you are not sure what a train is, it is a sort of incredibly expensive bus that goes on rails, apart from on Sundays, when it is an incredibly expensive bus that goes for large sections of the journey on roads.

And, even more occasionally, I use aeroplanes, or “flying buses” as I like to call them. Up till this month I could count the number of times I had flown on aeroplanes on one conventional hand, i.e. five times. If you are wondering how somebody can fly an odd number of times, the answer is that I got the train back once because of a shampoo-based incident which need not concern you.

But last week I took an aeroplane to Abroad, specifically Portugal. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, having weighed my bag several times to ensure I was nowhere near the point at which my chosen carrier would make me shell out actual money.

I was, it was fair to say, something of a naïve rube at the airport. All I lacked was an ear of wheat protruding from my mouth. I tried to remember the advice I had found online at, “Remove your belt and metal jewellery and walk through security with purpose.”

The trouble with this advice is that I find “walking with purpose” difficult at the best of times. It is terrible advice, like being told to “act naturally”. I never know what to do with my hands when forced to behave as if everything is perfectly normal. It’s a wonder I can remember how to breathe.

But it is even worse when you have to “walk with purpose” without your belt and your trousers are on the loose side.

So my purposeful walk was less 1-2-3-4, and more a sort of free jazz. The scanner beeped, despite the fact I had less metal on me than you would find on the bill at a twee folk festival.

I had drunk some Irn Bru a couple of weeks previously, so maybe it was that. Or maybe it was because I was a shifty looking man travelling alone.

In any case, I was called “sir” and told to face a guard, who gave me a patting down so intimate and delicate that I think we might now be engaged.

And then I was told to go into The Other Scanner, where I had to hold my hands above my head as if I had been photographed in the audience at a Queen concert during Radio Gaga, and scanned again until I was told I was free to go, certified “No Threat: Irn Bru/Awkward Walker”.

I greeted my various possessions on the other side of their own scanner, and went to retrieve them, to be told by a second security officer that my bag was going to have to go through a second time. I gulped. Because I remembered… On a previous trip to London a few weeks before I had packed some migraine tablets in the bag.

“Oh, crumbs,” I thought, paraphrasing, “I am going to be hauled up before the beak for drug smuggling. I’m going down. I won’t do well in prison. There’s no wi-fi and I wouldn’t have the first idea how to make a shiv.

“My only hope is that my glasses and general demeanour would make the other inmates call me The Professor, and I would have to read or help them compose their letters.” Also, I was worried about my belt, as my trousers were hanging onto my hips for dear life.

But my bag came back without explanation. Maybe I had packed it in an amusingly unconventional way, and the guards were going to pass the x-ray around later on in the pub. “Ha! Have you seen the way he’s balled his socks? He must have three feet.”

In any case, as I reattached my belt and saved everybody from a terrible fate, I looked across at security and wondered: “Why do they have two scanners? Why don’t they just make everybody go through the good scanner?”

This is why I stick to buses. It is simpler and nobody ever frisks me apart from late-night drunks.

COLUMN: September 22, 2016


I WENT to the newsagent’s to renew my monthly bus ticket. This is always a source of conflict for me. On the one hand, I understand that I would save money on bus fares over the month by paying in advance.

On the other hand, what if something happened to me which would prevent me from taking enough bus journeys in the month to justify the initial outlay? What if I won a car, or I died after being hit by a bus wing mirror, or there was a nuclear apocalypse? That would be typical.

Of course, after I had paid the surcharge for using my debit card to buy my ticket in a newsagent’s – 50p to use a card in a shop in 2016 – I bimbled towards the bus stop, whether I wanted to or not. How else was I going to make inroads into my investment?

And there in the bus stop was displayed an advertisement recommending that I buy the very ticket I had just purchased. It was illustrated with a photograph of a young, unthreatening, ethnically-diverse bunch.

This gang would not play videos of auto-tuned singers on their phones on the bus, unlike every other group of youthful bus passengers I have encountered in the past eight years. Nevertheless, I hated them, obviously, with their haircuts and their enthusiasm and their lives stretching ahead of them.

But that was as naught compared with my anger towards the words which accompanied the picture. “Cut out the need for photo ID and buy one or more Mega tickets on your Wibble card, leaving you more time to have a laugh with your mates.” I have changed the names of the tickets because I do not want this column to show up on a Google search and give them extra publicity.

It is not the first time I have seen a poster which suggests travelling on public transport is a source of unlimited mirth. My local train provider recently ran an ad depicting a carriage filled with, variously, a woman singing karaoke, a man DJing, a string quartet, a chef cooking, and a hen party. Underneath was the slogan “Great Nights Out Start On The Train.”

That is not a great night out, that is the result of a fire alarm at Blackpool Tower, or ITV’s Saturday night schedule. It is certainly not a great train journey.

But what is this bus poster nonsense, this “leaving you more time to have a laugh with your mates?”

What sort of young person will see that advert and think: “Well, yes, having more LOLZ with my friends is exactly the sort of thing to which I aspire. As God is my witness, I WILL buy this season ticket – which, by the way, is the only type of bus season ticket available now – and achieve my ambition, no matter how marginal the effect?”

For how much time is the travel authority suggesting will be made available for mate-orientated ribaldry as a result of buying this season ticket? Why is this not quantified? There should be an asterisk after “more time” and some small print at the bottom of the poster stating: “On average, 28 minutes more LMAOs and LOLZ over 35 years, assuming 10 journeys per week. That’s roughly 0.7 extra HAHAs a day.”

Also, I am not sure the travel authority should be encouraging raucous behaviour on buses. Buses are not fun places to be, like nightspots or Methodist youth clubs or wherever youngsters congregate these days. Buses are for quiet and despairing reflection on where you are going and how your life has come to this.

But the worst thing about this statement is that it is not true, certainly not for me. Back in the olden days, about a year ago, I had a conventional pass, what I would dub The Classic. It had a terrible picture of me on it, and the expiry date clearly stamped, and I wafted on and off buses like Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost might saunter into Claridge’s.

Now I have lost my VIP status and have to queue up with people who pay their fare with 43 different coins, and teenagers, leaving me with even LESS time to “have a laugh with my mates”, if only I had some.

I calculate I have lost an average four minutes a week, and 50p a month, because of the Great Bus Pass Switch Caper. And that is no laughing matter.

COLUMN: September 15, 2016

TELEVISION PROGRAMME : Coronation Street (1994)

The smallest picture I could find of Jack Duckworth’s broken glasses

IT IS coming up to a year since I lost my favourite pair of glasses. “Lost” is probably not the right description. I know exactly what happened to them.

They were crushed under the wheels of at least one uncaring car after they fell out of my pocket as I crossed the road during an unnecessary walk.

This left me with only my second-favourite pair of glasses. The fact that they are now my only pair of working glasses and still my second-favourite pair should tell you how much I dislike these spectacles.

When I bought them I thought they were quite swish, with a sort of 60s feel about them. That much was true. When I got them home I realised they made me look like my grandmother. I am not saying there is anything wrong with looking like a 75-year-old woman, but that is not the look I am going for. I am aiming for “man in his increasingly less early 40s, or late 30s from a distance if you are squinting and it is dark”.

But it is clear my glasses have sensed my hostility towards them and so they have been plotting against me, waiting for the perfect moment to take revenge. That day came a couple of Thursdays ago.

I was working in London on a super-secret project and had taken the overnight coach to get there. My seat was next to the toilet. Consequently, sleep mostly eluded me and I was about as fresh as the last loaf left in the only shop open on Easter Sunday.

I rubbed my bleary eye under my glasses and they fell off. My colleague, a man I will call Phil, jumped with the shock of the event. “Sorry,” I said, “this doesn’t usually happen.”

“No,” said Phil, “that would make them rubbish glasses.” Here, I thought, was a man who understood why these glasses would be my second-favourite.

I slipped the rubbish glasses back on and continued with my work. “Hmm, I thought, “the right arm of these glasses seems unusually loose. As soon as I can I will have an optician tighten the screw holding it in place. That would be the responsible thing to do, as they are my only glasses.”

“Gary,” said Phil, “could you have a look at…”

I turned my head, eager to appear helpful and attentive for once, and my glasses flew off my nose and past Phil’s head, to his evident disappointment.

“Oops,” I said. I picked up the glasses and found the screw was indeed very loose. It was so loose that it was no longer there. The arm had, in flight, detached itself from the rest of the frame.

“You want to get them fixed,” Phil suggested. I explained to him that trying to find a glasses screw on a carpet would be like trying to find a glasses screw in a haystack, and, besides, I did not have a screwdriver of the specific size.

He recommended that I attach the arm to the frame using a sticking plaster, as Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth would have done. I dismissed his suggestion on grounds of vanity, and dispensed with my glasses for the rest of the working day.

But when I left the headquarters of the super-secret project, it became evident I would need my glasses. I had no clue where I was. Everywhere was blurry, and I am not a Londoner.

I decided that if I clipped the arm back into the frame I could manage, just as long as I did not make any sudden movements. I began to walk and the glasses began to slip. “Wait”, I thought, “make gravity your friend. For once.” I cocked my head back and continued to walk, keeping my head very still.

It is hard to describe how I must have looked to the various pearly queens and jellied eel merchants I passed but if you can imagine Kenneth Williams walking a tightrope through a sewer, you are pretty much there.

Then I sneezed and the glasses fell off. That was it. I had to fly blind – literally, apart from the flying part – stumbling through our great capital like a mouse in a maze.

Eventually, I stopped. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked what turned out to be a young woman. “Could you tell me where Ladbroke Grove tube station is?”

She threw an anatomically-themed insult at me and walked away. I was standing right outside Ladbroke Grove tube station. Revenge, apparently, is sweet.

COLUMN: September 8, 2016


The closest I could get to a picture of Sir Philip Green’s yacht for the money I had

FOR complicated professional reasons I am flying to Portugal for a couple of days later this month. It is about four columns waiting to happen.

Now, I know Portuguese about as well as Jose Mourinho knows humility. And so for the past couple of weeks I have been trying to learn the language, with the result I am currently 15% fluent in Portuguese according to the Duolingo app. This, I suspect, is overstating matters.

Nevertheless, I now know how to say in Portuguese “Where is the tea?”, “My pillow does not speak,” and “There is a cat in my shower”, which should cover all of the issues which might trouble me in a hotel.

One of the aspects of life Duolingo seems particularly keen that I understand is the difference between varieties of lamp. Time after time it ensures I know how to say “the lamp”, “the pendant lamp”, and “the chandelier”, to a degree which makes me worry about how dark Portugal must be.

Combine this constant darkness with the obvious cat problem the Portuguese have in their bathrooms and you understand why Mourinho always looks so miserable. He must have spent his childhood bruised after tripping over Tiddles in the shower and not being able to find the door. That sort of thing changes a man.

It led me to ponder where the Portuguese purchase the lamps they so desperately need.

Do they have, for example, their own version of BHS called Portuguese Home Stores, filled with lamps and shades, like we do?

And then I remembered that not even we have a BHS any more.

I walked past a BHS branch a couple of weeks ago. It was during night of the day it had finally closed, and the lights were still on. Through the mesh of the shutters I looked inside. It was bare, stripped not just of stock, but of fixtures and fittings. I thought of school shirts and lamps – so many lamps – I had bought there. But I was not sad.

We have seen so many household names shut up shop in the past 10 years – Woolworths, Comet, Borders, even Past Times, which allows us now to be nostalgic about a shop which sold nostalgia – and most of us were sad to watch them go. Although if we loved them that much, they would still be in business.

But BHS is different. The closure of BHS should not make you sad, it should make you angry.

Sir Philip Green, the owner of BHS for 15 years, took £400m out of the chain during his ownership. When he finally sold the struggling chain in 2015 – for just £1 – to serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell, a man who had had no retail experience, the company had a £571m hole in its pensions fund. It was the equivalent of selling your house while it is on fire to a man who doesn’t know how to dial 999.

And while 11,000 people were put out of work, Sir Philip holidayed on his £100m yacht. As the former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle said: “It appears this owner extracted hundreds of millions of pounds from the business and walked away to his favourite tax haven, leaving the Pension Protection Scheme to pick up the bill.”

This week, the comedian Lee Nelson plastered a sign on that yacht, emblazoned with the words “BHS Destroyer”. And that is probably the key to this.

A man who owns a £100m yacht and £20m jet plane, and who books Beyonce and Rihanna to play at his private parties, is a man who cares deeply about his reputation.

So they should not just strip him, like the disgraced Fred Goodman of Royal Bank of Scotland, of his knighthood, he should be forced to change the name of his Topman and Topshop stores to “Terribleman” and “Terribleshop” until he pays hundreds of millions into the BHS pension fund.

It would not bother me – the last time I bought anything in Topman UB40 were in the charts – but I cannot imagine many customers enjoying carrying bags with Terribleman written on them. I’m not sure what they could call Burton and Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps “All My Customers Smell” and “Ms All My Customers Smell.”

Maybe this sort of embarrassment would help “Sir” Philip learn to be humble. It would happen a lot sooner than I will learn Portuguese.

COLUMN: September 1, 2016

A church

A church which may or may not be the one to which I refer below

BY THE time you read this, the sun will be a distant memory, for I am writing on the last day of a baking August, and you will be reading in rain-lashed September, probably batting away falling leaves and trying to put on a jumper as you do so.

But for a short glorious period, the sun – that warm yellow ball they have in the sky in foreign countries – made a guest appearance in Britain, and it seemed a shame to waste it.

So when lunch time came about, instead of eating al desko as usual, I decided to go for a stroll and see if my body could make some of that Vitamin D one reads about in the news.

I fought my way through the crowds who had had more or less the same idea, and played Guess The Tattoo. And eventually I found the solitude I craved in the garden of a church. I sat on a bench, in my dark suit, looking like a spy waiting for a drop-off.

It was a shady spot, because I didn’t want to go too mad with the sun, and I listened to the birdsong over the distant sound of cars, and was grateful for the respites of green we have in our city centres. For a moment I was at peace with the world.

It couldn’t last. I do not believe in karma, “what goes around comes around”, cosmic balance, or whatever you call it. I just know that whenever something good happens to me I will pay for it. That is not religion, it is science, based on the evidence of a 44-year life.

And so, just as I supposed I’d better get back to work, the church emptied. Dozens and dozens of people poured out, following a coffin.

An elderly man who had been sitting on one of the other benches approached me. “Who’s died?” he asked. “The bloke in the coffin,” I replied.

“Are you not with the family?” he said. “No, I’m on my lunch break. I need to get back to work,” I said, as more and more people piled out of the church.

“I doubt I’d get that many people to my funeral,” said the man. “I doubt I even know that many people,” I said.

For there was now a crowd of mourners, maybe 150 of them, packed into a small space outside the church, the small space which was between me and the church garden exit.

And I had to get back to work…

I looked at myself – white shirt, dark suit, could I really get away with this? Yes, I told myself. Merge into the crowd of mourners, make your way through the crowd, and you won’t be late back from lunch, I told myself. Easy peasy.

I put on my sombre face and pushed through the mourners. “’Scuse, sorry, y’all right, so sad,” I said. Obviously I felt bad about it. You only get that sort of crowd at the funeral of a really good person or a really bad one, and this felt like one of the former.

But then I reached an impassable obstacle… the hearse. The coffin was inside and everybody was waiting for it to be driven away.

“Aw, shame, isn’t it?” said a man behind me.

I turned around. “Er, yes,” I guessed, as my stomach dropped to somewhere near my ankles.

“And how did you know him?” the man said, extending his hand.

I shook it. “Ah, well, you know…” I said, my eyes wildly scanning the crowd. A woman standing nearby clutched an order of service. I could see the deceased’s first name. This was a sort of victory. “… everybody knew Tommy.”

The man chuckled. “Ah, they did, all right,” he said, still shaking my hand. Oh, God, I thought, he’s never going to let go. “Great turnout,” I said, pulling my hand away and indicating the crowd.

“Yeah,” said the man, “shame Mary couldn’t be here.” Who was Mary? Estranged sister? Deceased wife? His goldfish? I couldn’t work out if he sounded bitter or regretful. I nodded, non-committal.

“Are you going to the do?” he said. “Oh, well, I…” I began. I really hoped it would not come to that, but everything was heading in that direction.

But the hearse drove off, the man was distracted, and I managed to slip away.

This is why I should never leave the office.

COLUMN: August 25, 2016

An exploding washing machine

It was not this bad

I CAME home from work to absolute silence. This should be normal as I live alone. I was not expecting a samba parade or a Beyonce concert or a Virgin East Coast coach.

Nevertheless, it was unusually quiet, and it took me a little while to put my finger on what was wrong. There was no whirring sound from my fridge, the background noise to my home life.

I walked into the kitchen to discover that one of the circuits in my flat had been tripped while my washing machine was mid-cycle.

Investigation the next morning revealed that the washing machine itself was the culprit. Further investigation revealed that broken washing machines do not drain themselves. Even further investigation revealed that sopping wet bed linen is quite heavy when you carry it a mile down the road to the nearest launderette.

I called my long-suffering lettings agent when I returned. “Washing machine broked. So sad. Please help,” I attempted to explain through the tears. She sighed and promised to send a man.

And so last Sunday morning a man appeared in my kitchen. “Is this it?” he said, pointing to the washing machine. I indicated that it was indeed my only washing machine, imagining a golden life in which people would refer to me as “Gary Two Washing Machines”.

 “And what’s wrong with it?” he asked.

I decided it was not a trick question. “It keeps tripping the circuit,” I said, pretending I knew what that meant. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I’d better (Is that the kettle on? Black coffee, no milk, one sugar) pull it out and see what’s wrong with it.”

While I made a bad coffee, the man pulled the washing machine out and saw what was wrong with it. “Dear oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear,” he repeated for about eight minutes while shaking his head.

“This is what we call in the trade ‘beggared to feck’,” he said eventually, using some different vowels. “It must have been leaking for months. Didn’t you notice?”

“No!” I said, offended that he would imagine I could be so unobservant.

“I mean,” he said, “it must have been taking ages to wash. A couple of hours?”

“Oh,” I said. “I… I just thought it was a feature.”

“Dear oh dear oh dear,” he began again. “Well, there’s nothing I can do to fix this. It’s rusted to feck,” he said, using just one different vowel this time. “You’re going to have a new one. I’ll put the order in. Won’t be me, though, I’m off on my holidays.”

He began to put away his tools and drink his terrible coffee, while asking me a series of questions about my life, previous conduct, and personal ethics, which was so comprehensive it led me to conclude he was writing my definitive biography and was delighted to grab some time with the reclusive Gary Bainbridge.

Then, as he dropped the last screwdriver into his box he said: “What’s that noise?”

“Noise?” I said. “A train?”

“No, that whirring sound,” he said.

“Oh, that’s just my fridge,” I said.

“And how long has it been making that noise?”

“Dunno,” I said.

“Let me guess,” said the washing machine man. “You thought it was a feature.”

I shrugged, while he opened the cabinet which houses the fridge. “This fridge isn’t closing properly,” he said. “Hadn’t you noticed?”

“I don’t know!” I said. “I just close it. I’m not a… a fridge man.”

“Dear oh dear oh dear oh dear,” said the washing machine man. “This must be costing you a fortune in electricity. It’s going to have to come off.”

“What? No!” It was too late. He began jemmying off the cabinet door attached to the fridge door. Something fell at the back. “That’ll be a hinge,” he said. “What?” I said.

He lifted the cabinet door down and closed the fridge door. The whirring noise stopped.

“There you go,” the washing machine man said, handing me the door. “You’ll need to get that put back on again. I can’t see the hinge. They’ll have to pull the fridge out.” He looked me up and down. “It’s a two-man job,” he explained.

“Right, I’m off on holiday now. Bye,” he said, and he vanished in a puff of smoke.

It has been very quiet in my flat since then. Although my milk is colder than it’s ever been.

COLUMN: August 18, 2016

A plate of patatas bravas

Some brave potatoes

I FIND dining out to be something of an ordeal. It’s a thrill ride of anxiety during which so many things can go wrong, and I have little control over them, like a Labour leadership election.

This fear of a bad dining experience can strike at any establishment. It can strike at one of the Argos-like collection points at a big McDonald’s, where I am convinced somebody is going to filch my burger bag and abscond.

It can strike at the production line at Subway, in which I come under pressure to make so many rapid decisions about the constitution of my sandwich that I might as well have made my own at home.

And it can strike too at one of those very posh restaurants where they have plates and cutlery, where you order while sitting down, and where they only ask you to pay AFTER you’ve finished your meal.

As a result, I find that the less time I have to spend in the restaurant, the better, which is probably why I pop up out of my seat like a meerkat as soon as I have finished eating, waving frantically at the waiting staff, and miming the writing of a cheque in an attempt to obtain the bill at the earliest opportunity. This is despite the fact nobody who waits in the sort of restaurants I visit even remembers cheques.

Essentially, nobody has ever wanted me to leave the restaurant quickly more than me. Or so I thought…

I went with a friend some time ago to one of those small plates restaurants. It was not exactly tapas because not all of the food was Spanish, but you understand the sort of establishment to which I refer. I am yet to be convinced that small plates restaurants are not some sort of scam to fool us into buying simultaneously too much food and not enough food, but that is by the by.

I was not sure how much to order, but I was told the advice was that I should order one more plate than I thought I would need.

“But what if the amount I think I need is the amount that I actually need?” I asked.

“Just… Just order,” my friend said.

Nevertheless, the food was sufficiently tasty, and our waitress was sufficiently friendly, and for a moment I was able to forget that I hate dining out. Obviously then we had to ask for a glass of Coke three times because nothing ever goes completely right.

Anyway, as the meal progressed, I speared the next to last wedge of patatas bravas with my fork. Was that a patata brava? And why should a potato be brave? I didn’t know. I didn’t do Spanish, I did Ancient Greek in case I ever went to Ancient Greece. I dipped the spud in some garlic mayonnaise, and bit off half of it.

I approved very strongly, and put the rest in my mouth. And as I went for the last one, the waitress reappeared and whisked the plate away.

“What?” I said, when my mouth was no longer full. “She just took the last patata brava.”

“Did she? I wasn’t looking,” my friend said. “She must have thought we were finished.”

“There was one left! How can that be finished? That’s the opposite of finished.”

The waitress returned. She made a grab for the plate with the last croquette. My friend was ready for her. “We haven’t finished with that.” The waitress was shocked to the point of insult.

And so for the next 10 minutes she kept returning to the table. “Have you finished with that? How about that one?” she would say. I am not sure why. Maybe I had ordered so many things they had run out of small plates. My nerves were shredded. It was like playing a restaurant version of Operation.

“Shall we have pudding?” my friend said.

“I don’t think we dare.” I said. I did my meerkat impression. “Can we have the b…” I started. The waitress shoved it under my nose before I finished the sentence.

We paid, and then we slid off the banquettes. We turned back to pick up our bags from the seats, but we could not reach them. The waitress had already started cleaning the table.

“Can we just…?” I said.

“I’ve just got to do this bit,” the waitress said. “Can you wait a second?”