MY normal resting facial expression is one of confusion or worry. It does occasionally prompt colleagues to ask if I am all right or reassure me that “it might never happen”.
What I really want to cultivate is Resting Grumpy Face. It would be ideal for travel on public transport to deter people from sitting next to me with their pickled onion-flavour Monster Munch or extended mobile telephone conversations.
“I’m not sitting next to him. He looks as if he would bite my head off,” I want them to think. “I’d be better off sitting next to that woman in the floral dress and Viking helmet who is singing.”
But I am stuck with Resting Vaguely Worried Face, which is all very well – my face has to be arranged in some way while it is not in use – but it does not intimidate people in any way.
I was walking to work, trying to learn a foreign language on a phone app through my earphones, so that, when I am thrown out of the country following the Big Brexit Revolution, for Remoaner offences like whistling Beethoven or being nice to people with dark skin, I will be able to obtain food and shelter overseas.
That was when a young woman with dark skin appeared in my path. “Help me, please”, she said. “Oh, no,” I thought. “I hope she doesn’t want me to assemble a bed.”
But she was young enough to be my daughter, and I switched into Dad Mode. “What do you need?” I asked, hoping that it would be quick and painless.
She swung a lanyard badge from the local FE college in my face. “Where is college?” she said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Erm, which campus?” She looked at me as if I had asked her which frying pan Hylda Baker would have used to fly to Mars. “What is campus?” she asked.
I tried a couple of my newly-acquired languages on her, but she was unmoved, so I resorted to English, enunciated clearly and very slowly. “Are. You. Learning. At. The. College?” I mouthed, miming the word “learning” by pointing at my head.
“Yes,” she said.
“What. Are. You. Learning?”
“English”, she said.
“Of course”, I said. I whipped out my phone, and Googled the college. Up came a page with the details of the English as a foreign language course. Did it say where the course was? No, of course not.
I decided to phone the college myself, and find out. Was the college telephone number on the mobile website? No, of course not. Because websites are all about spiffy animation and not about unfussily telling you the stuff you need.
Then the woman bustled past me, presumably tired of my uselessness. But it turned out she had spotted four other young women, with lanyards like her own. “Where is college?” she asked them.
I walked over. “Which campus?” they asked. She looked at me. “She doesn’t speak English,” I said. “Do you know which campus does English as a foreign language?”
They did. They told me. It was about a mile away. I thanked them with the heaviest of hearts. I knew where this was going. Worse, I knew where I was going…
“The college is that way,” I said, pointing hopefully in the approximate direction of the institution.
“Now, you need to take the…” I stopped. Her incomprehension was as clear to me as my instructions were unclear to her.
“Please take me,” the young woman said. I was still in Dad Mode. I imagined my own daughters in her position, in a foreign land, completely lost, trying to learn the language. What would I want a local to do?
I would want him to be late for work. “Come on,” I said. “I’m Gary. Follow me.” She scurried after me, and I wondered how I would be able to fill up the silence of a mile’s walk with somebody who didn’t get my jokes.
But then, after a mere 10 metres of walking, she squealed excitedly. “I know this! It’s there! I know this place! College is there!”
And off she went, a cloud of dust behind her. “Thank you,” she called. “I haven’t really done anything,” I said, to nobody in particular. I was almost disappointed.
I THINK if one thing would improve the quality of my life, it would be to develop the ability to assess accurately how good I will be at a particular task.
“Oh, yes,” I find myself saying far too often. “I am a grown man. I shouldn’t find that bulky object too difficult to carry.” Or I say, “Hmm, I walk fairly quickly, and I am well acquainted with the timetables of local public transportation. It will probably only take me half an hour to get to this place.”
And then I end up late, covered in sweat and soil, staggering under a bulky object, incapable of chewing the amount of stuff I have bitten off.
“Know your limits, Bainbridge,” I forever tell myself, while also seriously overestimating my limits. Which is how I found myself limping through the city centre.
An old friend had complained about her inability to assemble a flat pack bed, which had rendered her sofa-bound. And I volunteered to help. It is not for me to call myself a hero and/or saint. Indeed, if you did call me that – and you should – I would dismiss the suggestion.
I am a competent flat pack furniture assembler. This always comes as a surprise to people. It is as if Kenneth Clarke MP had disclosed that he was a dab hand at pole dancing. But it should not. I am a plodder who needs instructions to do anything correctly. And flat pack furniture comes with instructions.
I put together an entire wardrobe in two and a half hours. The last time I assembled a bed it took me two hours. This bed seemed slightly more complicated, so I estimated it would take me another hour. But seriously, how difficult could it be? It was a bed. Beds aren’t tricky. They have four corners and a mattress. They don’t have engines or wi-fi or opinions.
I arrived at my friend’s flat with a screwdriver set and hammer, and my phone pointing at the series of texts with my friend outlining my intent to assemble a bed in case a police officer arrested me for “going equipped”. I do not think I carry myself like an opportunistic burglar, but you never know.
It became quickly apparent that my three-hour assessment was miserably off target. It took me 25 minutes to open and dispose of the first box. It was an hour before I had put in the first screw. And the instruction booklet was longer than some novellas.
It was an Ottoman bed, named after the bloodthirsty empire, presumably, which involved springs and hinges and – according to a calculation I have just done using the assembly instructions available online – 90 individual screws.
That’s 90 screws to be fixed with my terrible Phillips screwdriver and one of three Allen keys. And roughly 60 of those screws had to be affixed at floor level, which involved me crouching like Gollum, only a Gollum who, instead of punctuating sentences with “my preciousss”, constantly swore at slipping Allen keys.
But on I pressed, like the hero/saint I refuse to let you call me, until, finally, we came to attach what I am going to call the insanely complicated mattress-holder thingy (ICMHT) to the spring-loaded hinges. There were no holes through which I was supposed to push the screws.
I realised at that point that my limits also include the inability to distinguish left from right. For some cruel reason, the ICMHT could be convincingly constructed the wrong way round.
I wept and undid the 45 minutes it had taken me to construct the ICMHT and rebuilt it correctly, so the holes would be at the right end. Then we attached it to the hinges.
Then we pushed it down into place, and it sprang back up. We did this a few more times until I realised that my limits also include the inability to distinguish up from down. For some cruel reason, the ICMHT could be constructed the wrong way round AND upside down.
I wept and undid, etc, etc, until finally the ICMHT was in place, fully slatted, with a mattress resting upon it, SIX hours after I had ripped open the first box.
And five hours of affixing screws in a crouching position have left me unable to stand or sit without complaint, and walking like an elderly nun, dragging a ball and chain, who is in no hurry. It has not improved the quality of my life one bit.
AIDAN has been with me all week, ever since I met him, every time I close my eyes, every time I walk down the city centre streets.
Aidan is not his real name. There was so little dignity in the circumstances of our meeting that I have to give him at least some of the stuff by leaving him his anonymity. This is ironic. People like Aidan have anonymity in spades.
I had just arrived in town on my way to work. The sun had decided to make a brief appearance, and people were more cheerful, or, at least, less not cheerful. I crossed over a busy road, and then checked my phone as I walked, as it is 2017 and that is what we do.
And that is when I stumbled upon Aidan.
“Stumbled upon” is a poor choice of words. It would have been entirely accurate had I been walking 12 inches to my left. Aidan was lying on the pavement, convulsing, in a pool of his own vomit and blood.
The last time I had first aid training was when I was nine years old. I was not going to be much use there. There was a part of me – quite an insistent part of me – that was saying that I should just move on. Somebody had already dialled 999, and a paramedic was on his way. All I would be doing is getting in other people’s way.
Except… there weren’t any other people. There was a man on the phone, speaking to paramedic control, and describing the condition of Aidan. There was Aidan’s friend, standing next to him, inappropriately chuckling away. And there were people walking past, as I would have done normally.
But he was lying on his front, which vague memories of Casualty and of an old acquaintance who had epilepsy told me was bad. “What’s his name?” I asked his friend, which is how I learned his name was Aidan. I crouched by his head, and turned him on his side into the recovery position.
It was the first time I had seen him properly. His hands were filthy. He had a sleeping bag bunched up underneath him.
“What happened?” I asked the friend, although I didn’t need to. I have read enough about it. “He’s on Spice,” his friend said cheerfully, clearly on it himself.
You can look it up yourself. Google “Spice seizures”. Page after page of scientific studies into this synthetic form of cannabis, many times more powerful than pot. It’s so powerful it can cause psychosis, and, yes, seizures.
A second seizure started. I kept him in place on his side. It seemed the right thing to do. Why had I not kept up with first aid? I had the badge, for goodness’ sake, although Cubs first aid was fairly sketchy on drug-induced seizures. “It’s all right, Aidan,” I said, “help’s on its way. You’re going to be OK.”
People kept stopping and asking if they needed to call an ambulance. A cyclist rode over to us. “His name’s Aidan,” he said. “It’s the Spice. It’s happened before.” The fact it had happened before was both horrifying and reassuring.
“It won’t be long, son,” I said to the young man shuddering in front of me, his eyes rolled back into his head. I had no idea how old he was. He could have been anywhere between 20 and 35. I asked the man on the phone how long the ambulance would be. “They just keep saying it’s on its way,” he said.
And as I was trying to settle Aidan, I was aware of something happening over my head. Even then, the cyclist was conducting a Spice deal with Aidan’s friend.
A woman joined us, a mother, with the wipes that all mothers have. She cleaned the area around Aidan’s mouth, and stayed with us until the paramedic arrived. His siren spooked the dealer and Aidan’s friend, and they scarpered.
“Will he be OK?” I asked the paramedic, as he donned his latex gloves. “Yeah,” he sighed. “I’ve seen a dozen of these this month. It’s the Spice.”
Spice is the only thing that makes life bearable on the streets. I can’t blame Aidan or his friend for taking it. I can blame the suppliers, though.
And I can blame the government for allowing rough sleeping and homelessness to become rife. Because somewhere along the line we let Aidan, and people like him, down.
About three and a half years ago, my marriage broke up. I didn’t write about it at the time. I don’t imagine I ever will.
But unless you knew me personally, you would never have known about it from my columns. Over that period I continued writing the sort of thing I usually do, pieces about small social embarrassments, designed to amuse.
I drew a veil over it for two reasons. Firstly because break-ups are private and painful for all concerned, and the family of a writer should not necessarily be fodder for copy. Those relationships inform the work of the writer, but that doesn’t mean wholesale invasion of family members’ privacy is warranted.
But the second reason is because it is so much easier to be the clown, it’s so much easier to be the one who gets into silly scrapes on the bus than it is to talk about feelings and being hurt and vulnerabilities. And, especially, about your own failings. It’s so much easier to expose yourself as an idiot than to expose your wounds. Especially if you’re a man.
Robert Webb is braver than me. A clown of much greater note, in How Not To Be A Boy, he writes about his Lincolnshire childhood, and the two men who taught him what it was to be a man – his father and stepfather.
These are two men trapped by patriarchy, emotionally stunted, like most men of their generation, and, I suppose, mine. These are two men who unquestionably love him, and who are almost incapable of expressing this love except through subtext.
And he writes about his mother, a woman who appears romantic and practical and uncomplicatedly loving, and whose absence is felt on every page of the second half of this book.
Webb is honest, sometimes almost to the point of cruelty, about his father’s and stepfather’s failings. But he is never as hard on them as he is on himself. He rips pages from adolescent diaries to show his self-centredness. He picks at scabs covering his crimes against kindness. He acknowledges his behaviour in the early years of his marriage.
In part it is a difficult read, especially for the sort of man who doesn’t know how to repair his own white van. So many bells are rung it feels like a campanologist’s convention at times.
And it is not perfect. It loses momentum in the second half of the book – we’ve read the Cambridge/Footlights memoirs a million times from previous alumni – and sometimes Webb goes for the gag when he knows he should hold back. Just like a man.
But this feels like an important book. How Not To Be A Boy is heartbreaking in the right places, and Webb writes fluently and stylishly, with a light touch. And the central thesis is compellingly drawn – that patriarchy is an evil that limits men as well as women.
Comedy is hard, honesty is harder. Robert Webb has managed to master both.
- How Not To Be A Boy is published by Canongate, RRP £16.99.
- I am speaking to Robert Webb about How Not To Be A Boy at Heswall Hall, Heswall, Wirral, on Friday, September 1, at 1pm. All the tickets are sold out. I’m just being transparent in case you think I’m getting a bung for this review. Which I am not.
A FRIEND suggested that I get into minor scrapes intentionally, just so that I will have something to write about every week. I know this revelation will shock you. “You have a friend, Gary?” you will say.
My friend, who definitely exists, and is not just a narrative device, went on to clarify the belief that this was not a conscious act, but my subconscious becoming aware that I would soon have 750 words to write and no subject matter, and then leaping into action to force me into a poor decision which would backfire on me, providing me with column fodder.
It gave me food for thought. I mean, I am generally competent in most everyday matters. I am maintained and clean and mostly solvent. How can I really be so accident-prone?
But then I realised it was nonsense. I have only been writing a weekly newspaper column since the end of 2009, but for 37 years before that I was regularly self-sabotaging for absolutely no benefit.
For example, when I was 12, my Auntie Edna gave me a book by the humorist Richard Boston, called The C.O. Jones Compendium of Practical Jokes. It explained the concept of the apple pie bed. An apple pie bed is made in such a way that victims, when they climb into bed, cannot get their feet down.
This is a confusing explanation, and the explanation in the book was equally confusing, so I tried the method outlined by the author on my own bed. I laid down the bottom sheet and tucked it in as normal.
Then I put the top sheet over it, and tucked that in only at the top of the bed. I put the pillows in place, then folded the top sheet in half, back over the pillows.
Then I arranged my blankets in the usual formation, folded the top sheet back over the blankets – it helps to imagine the top sheet now looking like a Z shape from the side – and tucked in the sheet and blankets as usual.
I stepped back, proud of myself, a new arrow in my quiver. Anybody who crossed me would risk being slightly inconvenienced at bedtime, assuming I had five minutes’ access to this person’s bedroom. Then my mum called me for my tea, and I think we can all guess what happened when I went to bed that night.
It was the 1984 equivalent of emailing an important document to oneself, and then immediately seeing an email notification on one’s phone, and thinking, “Ooh, somebody’s emailed me. I wonder what it is,” and opening it. I am only grateful that everybody has duvets these days, so I am unlikely to inflict another apple pie bed on myself again.
These days I have to inflict apple pie beds on myself in other ways. You might remember a few weeks ago I missed a bus because I became too engrossed in the book I was taking back to the library.
What I did not mention at the time is that I renewed the book. Why should I? You don’t need to know everything. Stop hassling me.
And so it became due again. I left it on my coffee table to remind me to take it back, but still somehow kept forgetting. Until I read about somebody going to the library, just as I was getting ready to leave my flat for work.
My brain made a quick calculation. There was a train due at the station near my house in five minutes’ time, and that train stops near the library. If I scooted, I would be able to take my slightly overdue book back – and pay my fine – before work.
I tore around my flat, made sure everything was switched off, pulled on my boots, made sure everything was switched off again, and ran to the station, buying my ticket on my phone as I sprinted.
I ran down the long ramp to the platform just as the train doors were opening, flung myself onto the carriage in a cloud of sweat, and fell into a seat, panting, opposite two seven-year-old boys screaming and hitting each other with McDonald’s Happy Meal balloons on sticks, while their mother, sitting behind them, kept telling them what good boys they were being.
And eleven minutes later, when I disembarked, dishevelled and nerves shot, I realised my book was still on the coffee table.
AS A person who occasionally writes comedy for money, I found myself drawn once again to Edinburgh’s Big Showing Off Festival. For the sake of clarity, when I say I write comedy, I am not referring to these columns. These columns are not comedy; they are cries for help with the occasional joke.
This was my third visit to the capital of Scotland and the capital of people who can balance on sticks. This makes me an old hand and meant that when I arrived, I had already learnt the important lessons.
For example, I knew that you cannot pull a trolley suitcase through a bus shelter without enraging a local, that bagpipers don’t like it when you laugh at them, and that it would have been no loss if jugglers had gone out of business when we invented bags.
It also means that I know how the Edinburgh Fringe works. You have the normal Fringe, where you buy tickets for events beforehand, and the free Fringe, where admission is free, but you have to pay to get out, as they used to do in clip joints.
That is unfair. What actually happens is that the performer stands by the exit with a bucket and as you file out past him or her, you put in what you believe the show merited.
Now, technically you could walk out past the performer and put nothing in. But very few people are capable of doing that, and those who are tend to become right-wing radio talk show hosts.
Or you could drop 28p in the bucket. In many ways, that would be worse than just walking past the performer. That would be like saying, “It’s not me, it’s you. That performance was so abysmal, so lacking in any artistic merit, that I am paying you in coins so inconsequential that they will probably be abolished in the next four years. Watch as each of the five coins bounces grimly off the bottom of a bucket for which you will still be out of pocket at the end of your run.”
But you do not. You drop paper money into the bucket, because you are a human being who understands the torment of other human beings, and the choices that have led a person to stand in a small room in Edinburgh dressed in curlers and a housecoat, pretending to be their own grandmother.
Another thing about Edinburgh during festival season is that time has no meaning, and mealtimes happen when you are hungry, and so I was wandering along a street mid-morning, looking for somewhere to eat in a place where the Edwardian beard and tattoo count was acceptably low, when I was assailed by a woman bearing flyers.
But this one was unlike most other flyers distributors because she was also one of the two women on the flyers. “Please come and see us. We’re very funny and we’re not Frank Skinner,” she said. At no point had I even imagined that Frank Skinner was two women, but this was clearly meant to be helpful.
But when I looked at the flyer, it said Franks & Skinner – presumably their surnames – and I understood the potential for confusion. I had no idea what their show was about. Half of the sales pitch was explaining that they were not a male Brummie comic.
Their show was in 15 minutes’ time. “Yes,” I said, “As God is my witness, I will come to your show.” There had to be more to them than not being the man from Fantasy Football League.
But it was a Free Fringe show, and I only had 28p in my pocket. I had no choice. I had to find a cashpoint, for I am not a monster.
However, there was not a cashpoint in sight. Quickly I opened the maps app on my phone and looked for the nearest cashpoint. It was six minutes away. I could do this.
And so I tore through the always-uphill streets of Edinburgh, directed by my phone. Until I reached my destination. Where there was no cashpoint.
I thought I had learnt all the lessons about Edinburgh, but I was wrong. I had learnt three new lessons. First, always have a five-pound note in your pocket. Second, never promise anybody anything. And third, if you have a double act and your names are Franks and Skinner, and you are worried about the confusion, you should go by Skinner & Franks.