Column June 16, 2010: A noise annoys unless it???s a nice noise

IN THE drudgery custard-filled days of Walter Smith’s Everton reign, the monotonous and insistent drone of the vuvuzela would have provided a welcome spark of excitement.

“Oh, look,” spectators would have said, “Another pinpoint Niclas Alexandersson pass has gone straight into the Bullens Road stand. Still, at least we have this grumbling bee noise to distract us.”

But those were less demanding times. Nowadays, the vuvuzela horn is giving non-South Africans the hump on a massive scale. According to the BBC, 545 people complained to the broadcaster about the noise. 

My sympathy is with the Beeb on this one. Damned if you broadcast the vuvuzela noise, damned if you strip out all the sound from the match and replace it with the soundtrack from a completely different match but which has goals, highlights, fouls and controversial incidents at exactly the same points. As the saying goes.

That doesn’t mean I approve of the din. The big problem for me is the fact that it doesn’t seem to do anything, like Prince Edward. If it’s a constant noise, then it’s meaningless. It’s another method of saying, “I’m at the match,” when a more concise and eloquent way of expressing this thought is by simply being at the match, but I am no expert.

It’s a South African cultural thing. But, historically at least, we bear our own shame. The vuvuzela’s howl is nothing compared with the rattles which British supporters used to swing, now mercifully defunct thanks to health, safety and anti-idiot legislation. Although I was delighted to discover this week that John Lewis is selling football rattles in its toy department. Presumably it also sells spats, jerkins and loon pants in its children’s clothing department.

But there is a place in football for horns and other noise-making devices. And I think they can be used to repair the damage wrought to the game’s reputation by the prima donna alpha males marauding around the pitches of the Premiership.

I am advocating that the kazoo make an appearance in the stands. Imagine the joyous kazoo fanfare that would greet a goal. Obviously, the supporters would have to get together before the match to decide which tune and tempo to use for the fanfare, otherwise there’d be a terrible cacophony.

And there would have to be some sort of conductor who would decide when to start, as it would be dreadful if the kazoo chorus started when, for example, Emile Heskey took a shot which then sailed harmlessly past the post before turning into a beautiful butterfly. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a kazoo player fade into embarrassed silence, but imagine hundreds of them doing it at once. Awful.

But the musical instrument I would most like to see in the stadiums is the swanee whistle. For those not in the know, this is the whistle with a sliding attachment which raises or lowers the pitch. And this would be used whenever there was a foul or missed shot.

This would take the sting out of a two-footed tackle. Instead of the players having a big fight on the pitch and threatening to asphyxiate the referee, they’d all be standing about laughing at the comedy pratfall. Even the poor player rolling about in agony on the grass with a broken leg would have to smile.

And instead of supporters getting irate and shouting abuse at the hapless, for the sake of argument, Emile Heskey, they would be chuckling and demanding that the funny missed shot be repeated on the big screen. “We’re not very good,” one set of supporters would sing. “No, you’re not, but at least we’ve all had a good laugh. Shall we have a pint after the game?” the other set of supporters would reply.

You might think this is an impossible dream, but I’d venture it’s a lot more likely than England winning the World Cup.

Column June 23, 2010: Manners maketh the man, mate

I RECENTLY had occasion to visit the Institute of Modern Etiquette. This is a fine organisation which has provided me with the wherewithal to navigate through 21st-century social interaction without which I would no doubt be either shunned, arrested or murdered.

But so much of its work goes unnoticed, so this week I interviewed Simon Flatley, the director of the Institute, to get an insight into its valuable role.

GARY BAINBRIDGE: Why don’t you tell me about the Institute’s history?

SIMON FLATLEY: Well, it became apparent, following developments in sexual politics . . . 

BAINBRIDGE: Sexual politics, heh. Sounds like something Chris Huhne would do.

FLATLEY: . . . .and information technology that the world had changed and etiquette had to change with it.

BAINBRIDGE: What are they doing over there?

FLATLEY: Ah, that’s our IT team. They’re exploring appropriate responses to the news that one’s mother has added oneself as a friend on Facebook. Early findings are that sticking fingers in one’s ears and shouting “No, no, no, please, mum, no!” is ineffective.

BAINBRIDGE: And that one?

FLATLEY: Ah, that’s the middle- class guilt team. They look at the best ways of dealing with tradesmen and the working classes – how many times one has to make a cup of tea for the plumber, how to ask a cleaner to do a task without blushing, that sort of thing.

BAINBRIDGE: And taxis?

FLATLEY: Oh, that’s a sub-section of its own – we’re exploring whether one can get away with rounding one’s tip up to a pound if the meter has only just that second gone to 40p, and what to say when the taxi driver asks one which team one supports.

BAINBRIDGE: And what do you say?

FLATLEY: Early indications are “Cuh! What do you think, mate?” works best. The ‘mate’ is, of course, very important when dealing with the working classes. Also, ‘pal’ and ‘love.’

BAINBRIDGE: Erm, it’s funny you mention football. I’ve got a query of my own. Erm, imagine you work in an office with a load of tellies, a newspaper office, say. And the World Cup’s on all of them.

FLATLEY: Yes?

BAINBRIDGE: But you really want to see Roger Federer playing at Wimbledon. How do you broach that subject, without looking like a weedy big girl’s blouse? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

FLATLEY: Ah, that’s easy. Use this script: “Hey, lads. Venus Williams is on in a sec and she’s completely nude. Well, I say nude, she’s actually wearing an all-in- one body suit which is painted exactly like her body, because she thought that Ann Summers outfit she had the other week wasn’t quite saucy enough. In the meantime, let’s kill time by watching this boring Federer match.”

BAINBRIDGE: That’s genius. Simon Flatley, thank you.

 

NEWS that an American prisoner was executed by firing squad led to thoughts of last requests. If I were to be killed by firing squad, I would want the man from the Go Compare TV ad to serenade me.

Then, when the squad reloads after shooting him, I could say, “But look what I have delivered unto you.” And the governor would say, “Yeah, fair enough, off you go.”

You might think this is bad taste, but I suggest you take it up with the US Government. I only joke about shooting people dead; they actually do it.

Column June 30, 2010: Would you like sighs with that?

I WENT to a fast food chain restaurant this week. I’m not proud of the fact, but I had a voucher so it would have been wasteful not to go. Two burgers for the price of one? Who could turn down a deal like that? Idiot.

I stood in the queue and rehearsed the order in my head, for I had company.

When one visits such an establishment, one doesn’t want to hold up proceedings, or bring back a clear fizzy drink when an orange-coloured fizzy drink was ordered.

And I looked at the voucher. And my carefully constructed world began to crumble.

“Ah,” I realised, “It’s not two meals for the price of one. It’s two burgers for the price of one. This is going to add an unwelcome degree of complication. Let’s see if the man in the baseball cap – Jordann according to his badge – is up to the task of serving me.”

“Can I take your order?” he asked, brightly enough. I stepped forward, voucher in hand, and his face darkened, almost imperceptibly. “This is going to add an unwelcome degree of complication,” I could see him thinking.

“Erm can I have two Zappy burgers. I’ve got one of these” – I proffered the voucher – “with fries and Coke.”

“Two Zappy meals,” Jordann said, entering the details into the till. “What drink?”

“Coke? I said Coke.”

“Anything else?”

I rattled through the rest of the order. “That’s £15.30,” he said. “And I’ve got this,” I reminded him, holding out the voucher again.

He looked at it. “This is for burgers, not meals.”

“Yes, I know, but I ordered two Zappy burgers with fries and Coke, not two Zappy meals. I was quite specific. That’s why I…”

“But I’ve rung up two Zappy meals.”

We looked at each other, locked in a Mexican stand-off. I felt a little tear prickle in my eye.

“I’ll have to get the manager,” he said. And he walked off. I turned around. And saw the queue behind me. It was roughly of the scale of a Moscow bread queue, circa 1983, and just as sour-faced. I gave them a weak smile and a stage “Tut!” But I could tell they all hated me, the man with the complicated voucher.

He came back with the manager, a man with the air of power that comes from realising that one will never have to wear a baseball cap to work again.

“It’s this gentleman,” said Jordann. The manager looked at me. “It’s two burgers for the price of one, not two meals,” he said.

“I know! I…”

Jordann and the manager hunched over the till, muttering technical phrases. Finally, they looked me in the eye. “That’s £14.30.” I’d saved a quid. I could have wept. I’d have paid them £5 just to let me walk away.

The manager departed to supervise some activity with mayonnaise and I took out my card to pay.

“The card machine isn’t working on this till,” Jordann told me. He pointed to the perfectly visible “Cash only. PIN machine out of order” sign in front of me.

With a huff, he lifted up my tray and carried it over to another till. Now, not only had I held up my own queue intolerably, I was about to jump another. The Muscovites started constructing a gallows for me. I was deader meat than the contents of my burger.

I decided that I would not make eye contact with my fellow diners. So intent was I on making my escape, I failed even to play the PIN Cushion game* for the first time ever.

But, somehow, I made it back to my table, where my dining companions were waiting for me. I slumped into my seat, battered, broken, like Hercules after he’d seen off the Hydra.

“Didn’t you get ketchup?” they asked.

* The game where one attempts to enter one’s PIN in the time between the machine displays “Enter Number” and the cashier says “Enter your number.” See columns passim for rules.

Column July 7, 2010: Do Not Throw Stones At This Notice

CAUGHT short while out, I took advantage of the available facilities. And I was feeling pretty lucky as I washed my hands, as, for once, I’d chosen the sink which had the soap dispenser with some soap in it.

Then I looked up and saw a little notice: “Now wash your hands.”

Now, I generally approve of the nanny state. The nanny state is what cut motoring fatalities by insisting that people wear seatbelts and not have 14 pints of absinthe before going for a spin. The nanny state is what introduced health and safety legislation, slashing industrial deaths.

And I find that the sort of person who hates the nanny state is usually the sort of person who actually had a nanny, the sort of person who preaches self-reliance while sitting on a massive pile of inherited money.

But that little notice? “Now wash your hands?” What is the purpose of that? There are two types of men in the world: those who wash their hands after using the lavatory without being told, and revolting savages who deserve to be shamed in public but for the fact that they have no shame.

And that second type is not likely to pay any attention to the sign because they are not standing by the sinks . . . BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT WASHING THEIR HANDS.

There isn’t a third type, the sort of man who does his business and then walks over to the sink and thinks: “Now, what’s this porcelain thing for? Ooh, look, running water. I wish I could come up with some sort of application for this whole piece of apparatus. Wait a minute! What does that notice say?”

I pondered the uselessness of many signs while perusing the city council’s plans for Old Hall Street. These plans, admirable in their entirety, state: “All unnecessary signs and street furniture such as bins or poles will be removed.”

I took a lunchtime walk along the street to see what these unnecessary signs were. I must admit, it was difficult to find them. I saw “No entry” signs, “one-way” signs, “No parking” signs, parking meter signs, railway station signs, but no unnecessary signs. All of them had an important use.

Then, as I rested by an unnecessary bin – it was full, but, of course, the rubbish could just as easily and efficiently be distributed across the whole of Old Hall Street – I looked up. And found one. And once I’d found one I saw another, and another.

In fact, there were loads of signs indicating that I was in “The Commercial District,” a conclusion I would probably have reached all by myself, merely by noting I was surrounded by offices, men wearing suits and women carrying gigantic cardboard cups of coffee and copies of Heat.

And all of these signs had been placed there by the city council, the same city council now declaring war on unnecessary signs. This war on unnecessary signs is the equivalent of somebody barging into your living room, emptying a wheelbarrow of compost onto your nice carpet, then cleaning it up and expecting a round of applause and a cup of tea.

In fact, if our Coalition Masters wanted to save some money – and the evidence that they do is pretty overwhelming – they could make a good start by abolishing all Unnecessary Signs departments.

This would mean an end to signs like the one I saw last week at the Hall Lane construction site, as my bus took 10 minutes to go 100 yards – “SLOW ROADWORKS.”

If David Cameron was willing to start his rolling back of the nanny state with this common-sense move, I would be first in line to shake his hand. That is, as long as I can be sure he’d washed it.

Column July 14, 2010: A night on the slats

A THING I’d written was being put on in London last week. That sounds more impressive than it was, but it meant I had to be down there. And that meant I had to stay in a hotel.

Now the last time I stayed in London, I decided I wouldn’t spend that much on a hotel. It was only one night, after all. Eighty quid would be plenty.

It turned out eighty quid a night doesn’t buy you that much in London.

I had low expectations of this hotel when I came upon it. It was situated mostly above a closed- down restaurant and behind a solid windowless door.

It failed to live up to these low expectations.

I had to empty my wallet of cash before the reception clerk gave me my key, forcing me to roam the streets of south-east London to find a cash point before my evening out. The least I expect of a hotel in the early 21st century is the ability to pay A) on checking out, and B) using a debit card. That was the high point.

The radiator in my tiny, one coathanger-supplied room was on full blast and the window open. The shower had two settings – Arctic and Seventh Circle of Hell. The television was chained to the wall, eight feet up. I would have had a crick in my neck, had I been inclined to watch it. But I was not, as it had only five channels, all of which showed the same programme, a snowstorm through which stalked sad-faced ghosts.

And the metal-framed bed had a loose slat, which sent a CLANG! echoing atmospherically throughout the hotel every time I slightly moved position or, indeed, breathed. The only compensation was the pair of rolled-up ladies’ white socks (dirty) I found at the bottom of the bed. It was, by far, THE worst hotel I have ever stayed in, and I swore I would never do London on the cheap again. “Next time, I’m doing luxury,” I cried to the stormy heavens.

But when I was looking for a hotel for last week on a late booking website, I was blinded by the magic “It’s under a hundred quid, but it’s supposed to be £350.” That’s not cheap and nasty, I thought, that’s a cheeky bargain. I’ve found one of the cheat codes for real life.

When I arrived in my room, I switched the television on. But it didn’t work. I went to tell reception. “Which room are you in?” the receptionist asked. “Erm . . . ” I didn’t know. I’d just arrived. I’ve only just memorised my mobile phone number. The number 014 swam into my head. “Er, four . . . fourteen,” I stammered, under pressure to act like a competent grown-up.

“We don’t have a room 414,” the receptionist coolly replied.

“No, 14. Just 14,” I replied. “Zero-one-four,” he said. “And your television isn’t working. We’ll send somebody to have a look at it.” He must have forgotten to say, “. . . after you’ve left.”

I trudged back to my room, bested by the receptionist, and availed myself of the tea and coffee making facilities. There were three tea bags and two of those tiny cartons of long-life milk. I have no idea how that works. Did they assume I’d think: “Hey, I’m on a trip. Nobody’s looking. I’m going to see if I like black tea?”

By then, I was in full fault-finding mode. It wasn’t too difficult. The laptop-sized safe wasn’t.
And the bathroom boasted hot and hot running water, a treat I discovered while brushing my teeth. To be fair, scalding really does bring out the minty taste.

How can a hotel get so much wrong in one room, I wondered? Why is it that the chains, the top-end establishments and the boutique hotels get it right, but three-star independents get such simple details wrong?

I removed the superfluous cushions from my bed and lay on it, looking at the dead television. I breathed in and out. Not a sound from the bed. Now that’s luxury, I thought.

“Did you enjoy your trip, sir?” the receptionist asked as I was checking out.

“Yes,” I said. I wasn’t even fibbing.

Column July 21, 2010: Once upon a time there was a strange man in a shoe shop

I WAS sitting in a shoe shop at the weekend, at once completely bored and at the same time marvelling at the range of the shoes on offer, and thinking: “If this is your Big Society, Cameron, you can stuff it.”

And I found myself wondering just what was so unique about Cinderella’s feet that the glass slipper she left behind would fit only her.

Surely there would be at least one other person in Fairytaleland who’d be able to slip her foot in.

If that is not the case, it’s a wonder poor Ella’s nickname was Cinderella, based on the fireplace cinders which made her grubby, and not Weirdofeetella.

Maybe that is why Prince Charming couldn’t describe Cinderella’s face when he sent out Dandini on his quest. Maybe he spent the entire time staring at the servant girl’s unlikely tootsies and wondering how they could possibly exist in nature.

However, that is not the most unbelievable part of the story for me. I find it difficult to accept that somebody named Charming could actually be charming, even if he were a Prince. In my experience, naming somebody after a positive attribute is the single most effective way of ensuring they grow up into absolute horrors, Charity Dingle in Emmerdale being a case in point.

It set me wondering about other fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example. How did the giant, so high up in his castle in the sky, get basic provisions and groceries, given that the only way to access the castle was up a beanstalk which had only grown that morning? Even his goose laid golden eggs, which he was unable to scoff. No wonder he was prepared to eat an Englishman, he must have been starving.

But fairy tales are a model of internal consistency compared with nursery rhymes. I wonder how our modern world, with its DVD players and packets of Space Dust popping candy, would cope with the sheer lunacy of nursery rhymes. And here I am, wondering . . . 

TWO SOCIAL WORKERS SIT DRINKING COFFEE

FRAN: Honest, Bel, worst thing I’ve ever seen in 12 years of social work. I turn up, and the baby’s in its cradle at the top of a tree.

BEL: You what?

FRAN: Honest. The wind’s blowing and the cradle’s rocking all over the place. God knows what would have happened if the bough had broken.

BEL: So what did you do?

FRAN: Well, I get the baby down and go in to see Mrs Hubbard. In her shoe.

BEL: What, she lives in a shoe? An actual shoe?

FRAN: Yeah, an everyday 25ft tall shoe, and dozens of kids all milling about. She doesn’t know what to do with them.

BEL: But how can you live in a shoe?

FRAN: Well, she’s got a little stove. But there’s no food in the larder. Cupboard’s bare. And there’s no water. She’s been sending a couple of the children up the hill to get some from the well.

BEL: What? She sends the children?

FRAN: It’s worse than that. When I get there, two of them have had an accident, and fallen down the hill. The boy’s got a serious head injury and what does mum do? Phone an ambulance? No. Pours vinegar into the wound and wraps his head up in brown paper. Not even a proper bandage.

BEL: So what did you do?

FRAN: Took ’em all. Applied for a court order. You can’t keep children in those conditions. So, what case you working on?

BEL: Kerry Katona.

FRAN: You poor cow.

Ah, well, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, children’s stories. They might be unbelievable, but they’re good training for believing the unbelievable, a quality we’ll need as adults if we are to give credence to Cameron’s Big Society.

Column July 28, 2010: You spin me right round, baby, right round…

I DON’T like revolving doors, especially the ones which revolve vertically.

And automatic revolving doors are not much better. These are the ones which revolve at a slow, but specific, speed, forcing one to walk at the same slow, but specific, pace.

Walk too quickly and the sensor stops the door, making everybody in the device smack their noses into the glass. Walk too slowly and one is smacked on the backside.

I suspect the inventor was some sort of pervert who gets off on people shuffling, a niche interest poorly catered for by the internet. Needs must, etc.

However, there’s one good thing about automatic revolving doors – it is impossible for the hapless user to go the wrong way. Not so with the manual kind.

I accidentally went the widdershins way through a revolving door a couple of months back. To be fair to me, I wasn’t really paying attention and the person coming out of the door had gone the wrong way. I just followed the rotation. Then I realised there was no handle.

But I’d gone too far to turn and go the right way round and, if I’m honest, it’s only just occurred to me that I could have done that. I had to press on, pushing against the glass and forcing the door the wrong way.

I emerged into the open air and was surveyed by the snoutcasts smoking outside. I could tell they found me wanting.

Since then, I have been scrupulously careful to go through the revolving door the right way. I’ve even become quite good at it, nipping into the correct compartment without getting my foot trapped despite the fact that it’s spinning a bit quickly.

And one day last week, I, along with my fellow users, achieved revolving door nirvana.

All four of the compartments were occupied at once, a state of being which happens maybe once or twice within the lifetime of a door. If we could have high-fived each other I reckon we would have, but of course the fabric of the door prevented this.

It couldn’t last.

I’d popped to the hole in the wall to get some cash. I did the little dash that one does when one realises somebody else is heading for the same cash machine and I’d won, so I was feeling pretty smug.

I headed back to the revolving door, stepped inside the compartment… and realised it was going the wrong way. 

And there was a man inside pushing the door.

We both stopped. I looked him in the eye. He looked me in the eye. Both of us absolutely still.

I cracked first. I rolled my eyes. It was the sort of eye-roll which says, “Never mind, we’ll extricate ourselves from this sorry mess and nobody need ever know that you tried to go through the revolving door the wrong way.” You know the sort.

And he rolled his eyes too. In exactly the same way. 

For he had decided that I was the one going the wrong way.

I’d exhausted all the diplomatic options. It was time for war. I gripped the handle and started to push. He gripped the lack of handle and also started to push. Irresistible force met immovable object. And neither of us was moving. It was a classic Mexican stand-off, only in a revolving door.

And then I realised that only one of us was going to win. And he was clearly more resolute. The door handle was behind him, for heaven’s sake.

A man who had decided, against all the overwhelming evidence, that he was right wasn’t going to be deflected by me.

I let him win. He pushed the door and emerged into the open air, where the sneering snoutcasts were waiting for him.

And I? Well, I have a column which allows me to put the record straight. So who’s the winner now, Mr Clockwise?

Column Aug 18, 2010: The customer is only right when we say so

I WAS amused to see that a college professor and strict grammarian was chucked out of a New York branch of Starbucks for failing to use the correct terminology when ordering a bagel.

The bloody-minded academic, according to the New York Post, had already had her card marked for asking for big and small coffees, instead of vente and tall Americanos.

And when I say “card marked” I mean literally. The big chains have “anti-loyalty cards” they stamp every time you fail to order properly – nine stamps and they get your next order slightly wrong. So think on.

I will do the same when I open my own chain of Bovril shops. This will be a tremendous money spinner.

Cups will come in calf (huge), cow (gigantic) or bull (affects the tides).

There will be several concentrations of Bovril too, from Milky (“gnat’s wee” levels) to Strong (“Oh, my sweet Lord, get me a jar of Marmite to take away some of the salty taste”).

For added luxury, I will provide the option of floating condensed chicken soup on the top of the Bovril, à la cappuccino.

For even more luxury, customers will be able to have “sprinkles”, or bits of mince, as you would probably call it, on top of their chicken soup.

And for the most luxurious option, the capo di cappuccino, I will put a sausage in it.

I’m going to call it “moo!” with a lower case “m”.

The Starbucks banning business reminded me of when “The Speakeasy” opened on Penny Lane, in the early 1980s. This was an American-style hamburger takeaway which arrived before the first McDonald’s in Liverpool and the various sizes and styles of burgers were named after American gangsters of the 1920s.

I imagine, 20 years from now, US kids will return the favour and eat fish and chips and jellied eel dishes named after Mad Frankie Fraser and Reggie Kray.

As this was an American-style establishment, the owners insisted that customers ordered in the appropriate manner. A sign was erected, explaining the various terms: overeasy, easy, tricky, difficult* . . .

To the 10-year-old me, this was the coolest thing since thick plastic spokes on BMXs. To one of my adult relatives (hereafter referred to as Terry) it was a laminated nightmare.

I was with Terry when he approached the counter. “Howdy, sir. What can I get you?” asked the perky assistant.

“Beefburger, please.”

Her eye twitched a little. “Which type of HAMburger, sir?” She pointed at the list of gangsters and blackguards lining the serving area.

He looked at me. “Al Capone,” I advised. He nodded at the assistant.

“And how would sir like his HAMburger?”

“Er, in a barmcake.”

“No, sir.” She patiently took Terry through the list of alternatives as the takeaway slowly filled up. Eventually he settled on “tricky.”*

“Does sir want all the fixings?” Terry looked blank. “Pickle, onion,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll have a pickled onion.”

“No sir. Would you like a pickle?”

“No, no pickle,” he said.

“Hold the pickle,” she said.

“What pickle?”

“No, sir. You say, ‘hold the pickle’.”

“Hold the pickle.” By now, Terry was the colour of a Coke can and not through embarrassment.

“Onions?”

“Yeah.”

“How many?” Blankness. “Would you like it heavy on the onions?”

“Yeah.”

“So you want an Al Capone, tricky, heavy on the onions, hold the pickle?”

She made Terry repeat it back to her in front of a shop filled with tired and hungry men. Then, satisfied with a good day’s work, she asked him if he wanted anything else.

“Yer, a bag of chips.”

The Speakeasy closed not long afterwards.

* MY MEMORY might be faulty.

Column Sept 1, 2010: It’s a chiller, thriller night

I AM wary of security guards who work in the retail sector. I understand that they do an important job and do not begrudge them their big walkie-talkies, but I had a nightmare once about being falsely accused of lifting a packet of Pacers (pre-striped) from Fine-Fare and still carry the emotional scars.

Consequently, when I leave a shop and realise I am going to walk past a security guard, I hold on to my receipt for dear life. If, for whatever reason, I don’t have a receipt, I “walk naturally,” an exaggeratedly loping gait adopted by gangsta rappers and drunks.

So I was perturbed when I was stopped by a security guard on my way IN to a convenience store. “Excuse me,” he said.

I panicked. I nearly said: “They didn’t give me a receipt.”

But then I realised I didn’t have any groceries on me. Maybe I looked shifty. Maybe they were being proactive, like the police in Minority Report, and had identified me as a potential shoplifter thanks to my “natural walk.”

“Yes?” I lamely offered.

“Can you settle an argument?”

I doubt it, I thought. I usually cause them. “Go on.”

“He reckons . . . ” – he indicated an embarrassed- looking young man filling the chiller section – “. . . you can turn fat into muscle. You can’t, can you?”

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting this. Of course you can’t turn fat into muscle, you just can’t. It’s like changing marble into cheese. But, in the confusion of the moment, I couldn’t remember why.

“No, you can’t.”

“And why not?”

I looked around, hoping that Magnus Pyke or Dr Miriam Stoppard might walk in.

“They’re just different.” That should do it, I thought. It didn’t. They were still looking at me.

“They’ve got a different cellular structure.” I was pleased with that. I remembered the term “cellular structure” from Superman The Movie. That was definitely a science term.

I felt sorry for the chiller man, who up to this point had lived his life with the sure knowledge that you could turn fat directly into muscle in some sort of weird alchemical experiment. Now I was tearing his certainties apart.

It reminded me of a former colleague from my reporting days. He was the office junior, so we would give him onerous tasks such as making cups of tea and doing vox pops (ie, standing in the howling wind and rain with a notebook and camera while asking those punters too slow or distracted to avoid oneself what they think of the finer points of education policy/soup/etc.)

He came back one winter morning shivering violently. It had been a cold day and the passing pensioners uncommonly nimble. “Get that boy a cup of tea,” said the normally flint-hearted editor.

“Oh, no, it’s all right. I’ve got this,” said Junior, his lips blue and the first hint of frost-bite about his fingertips. It was an ice-cold can of Coke, so cold steam was curled around it.

“You need a hot drink.”

“No, you know how when you’re hot you’re supposed to have a hot drink to cool you down?”

We nodded. We’d all heard that old wives’ tale.

“Well, I’m cold, so I’m having a really cold drink to warm me up.”

Apparently, he’d done that since he was a child, despite the evidence which must have built up over the years. It’s a wonder he hadn’t become an ice-based super-villain.

I snapped back into the moment. The guard and the chiller man were still looking at me. I think by that point they were finding me wanting.
“Look, they’re just different. It’s like saying you can change marble into cheese.”

A moment of silence.

“See, I told you,” said the security guard and the chiller man turned away, defeated by the power of my argument.

I went and bought my ironically-cold Coke, then “walked naturally” out of the shop past the security guard. He was looking the other way.