Column November 10, 2010: Two drips on the bus and only one is me

I DO not trust Noddy. I do not like his clothing, apart from that hat with the bell. That’s good as you can hear him coming. It’s a public service – trouble alert. They should make all idiots wear them, instead of replica football tops.

Incidentally, why do men do that? It’s just fancy dress for adults. If I turned up at the pub dressed as Buzz Lightyear, I’d get laughed at. But turn up as Jamie Carragher…

And Noddy’s Adventures in Toyland? Adventures? Sailing from Australia to Africa single-handed on a raft is an adventure. Finding out who a lost picnic basket belongs to? That’s not an adventure. That’s a mild inconvenience.

But worst of all is that little yellow car? That is supposed to be a taxi. Can you imagine seeing that in the rank outside the Adelphi? You would be counting the people in front. “They’re together. They’re together. Is he with them, or is he on his own? Oh, please don’t let mine be the red and yellow one with the weird man-boy driving it.”

And the very least I expect from a taxi is that it’s got a roof. I don’t want to have to be dependent on Tessie Bear accidentally leaving her umbrella behind to keep the rain off. No wonder he can only charge sixpence.

I thought of this taxi design flaw while sitting on the bus this week. As you will remember, this week saw monsoon conditions take hold – rain, cold and wind in an unholy trinity driving people off the streets. I was delighted to step onto a warm bus, the steam gently rising from the cargo of pensioners and blatantly dope-smoking teenagers.

And there was a free seat. I could sit by the window and not see out because it was steamed up, which was about the best result I could have hoped for.

I sat down. I felt a bit uncomfortable and wet, but I chalked that up to the rain on my mac. Soon I warmed up and my mac dried off.

Then I felt a drip on my ear. I closed the window. Another drip on my ear. I looked at my mac. One half, away from the window, was dry, the other had a pool of water on it.

I looked up. A fairly steady stream of drips was issuing from the ceiling, and I had sat in the wet patch. I moved over onto the dry seat and thought, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

For a couple of years ago, I stepped aboard the number 78 on Brownlow Hill. Every window seat was taken, but all of the aisle seats were free. I had to make a snap decision: which one of the passengers would give me the least trouble if I sat next to them?

I spied a lady in late middle-age sitting halfway along. I sat next to her. Almost as soon as I sat down, she placed a baseball cap on her head. My spider-sense started tingling.

My fears were confirmed, when moments later, she sneezed. She did not cover her mouth. It was a powerful expulsion, like the one o’clock gun in Edinburgh, and the bald man sitting in front of her got the full benefit. I started at his scalp, half in revulsion, half in pity.

Then, mercifully, the woman said, “Excuse me.” I stood up as she bundled past, then sat down again. “A window seat,” I thought, “Hooray!” I shuffled along the seat and, for extra purchase, put my hand down onto the cushion. That was when I realised the true extent of the woman’s sneeze.

I was stuck. I couldn’t put my hand on anything else, and I certainly couldn’t sit on the affected area. Nor would I want anybody else to. I remained on the aisle seat, a space next to me.

But now the bus was filling up. People were standing in the aisle, staring daggers at me for not allowing them to sit down. But, being English, nobody asked me. And I wasn’t going to volunteer the information that I had a wee-wee hand.

The whole uncomfortable situation could have been averted had that woman worn a hat with a bell on.

Column November 3, 2010: Would you like friars with that?

THE news that the Government has banned the import of printer cartridges, following the discovery of explosive devices within a couple of them on cargo plane, is going to devastate office workers. How else are they going to leave passive-aggressive notes complaining about the state of the lavatories/fridge?

It’s no good saying they could hand-write messages on Post-It notes. That would not be satisfactory. For nothing adequately expresses semi-official whingeing like a crisp laser-printed note set in friendly Comic Sans and Sellotaped neatly to the wall.

Also, handwriting is not always legible and there would be a danger of cups going unwashed or, worse, cubs being washed in an inadvertent, if actionable, misunderstanding. This cannot stand.

It is time for the monks to step forward. They haven’t had much to do since Gutenberg messed up their revenue stream with his printing press. The Devil makes work for idle hands, and they’ve been reduced to making incredibly powerful liqueurs and fortified wines for drunks in Scotland and Burnley.

They used to be a powerful force in society. They ran the first paid ferry service across the Mersey until Henry VIII put a stop to their monk quay business.

But in recent years, being a monk has been very unfashionable. Balding men used to be happy to walk around with a tonsure, that ring doughnut of monkish hair. Now they adopt the “negative combover” and shave their entire heads to make it look as if their baldness were a fashion choice.

I do not judge them. But I saw a young man wearing a cap yesterday, with tell-tale stubble growing at the sides of his head. And he was shivering. “If only he had the courage to have a tonsure,” I thought, “his head would be toasty warm.”

So I suggest, when the toner runs out, that offices employ their own monks. Imagine how much authority a note reading “Whoever has taken the pineapple chunks, please return them ASAP” (which I recently found on a fridge in work) would carry if inscribed by a monk in blackletter, with an illuminated “W”, replete with angels and pineapple chunks rendered in goldleaf.

Imagine those water cooler moments enhanced by a monk.

OFFICE WORKER 1: Did you see Masterchef last night?

OFFICE WORKER 2: Yes, what was that about, leeks in ash and bits of twig?

OFFICE WORKER 1: No, you’re thinking of Cheryl Cole. What did you reckon, Brother Francis?

BROTHER FRANCIS: I did not see it. I was in my cell in prayerful contemplation of the wonders of Creation.

OFFICE WORKERS 1 AND 2 FEEL A LITTLE SMALL AND TRIVIAL.

BROTHER FRANCIS: I Sky Plus-sed it, obviously.

But if monks are the answer to an al-Qaida-inspired toner shortage, what would we use in the event of a Bin Laden cyber attack? That would be monks again, in this case reverting to the internet of medieval times.

In those days, monks would stand at the top of hills shouting “Zero! One! One! Zero,” while a second monk would take note of these binary codes and convert them into characters which he would inscribe into a book. This monk was known as the browser monk, or Friar Fox.

Downloading a movie took ages. The browser monk would have to draw the scene described by the shouting monks in the corner of a book, and when, years later, the ‘movie’ was finished, he would flick through the pages, effecting a rudimentary animation.

I have thought this through and it will definitely work.

All this would make becoming a monk cool. The monasteries would be buzzing, apart from the silent orders which would continue to be silent.

Column October 27, 2010: Sighing tonight

I WAS walking down the road, idly wondering what would happen if somebody was killed in a crash because he slowed down to look at a pavement floral tribute to somebody else killed in a crash. Whose floral tribute would have precedence? And would the incident be ironic, coincidental or merely unfortunate?

As these thoughts whirled around, I was distracted by a notice in the window of a fish and chip shop.

The scrap between two sets of families over the positioning of a teddy bear going on inside my head dissolved immediately.

The sign read: “Four-star hygiene certificate.”

I looked around. Yes, it was the only sign in the window. Now, keen students of marketing will be aware of the concept of the USP, the unique selling point – the one thing that makes one’s widget or establishment stand out among all the others.

The owner of this fish and chip shop had probably looked at his vast array of pies, savoury cakes and sausages and addressed his staff, saying: “I need to know what will get people in here. We need something that will make us stand out.”

And one of his employees, an idealistic sort, probably said: “I know, boss. You know when we ask the customer if they want salt and vinegar…?”

“Yes,” said the owner.

“Well, we could be the only chip shop actually to listen to the customer when they say no and not put it on automatically.”

“No, that won’t work . . . Wait, I’ve got it!” said the owner. “We’ve got a mop!”

Why didn’t he go the whole hog? He could have put up a sign reading, “We run a tight ship here. If you eat here, you are very unlikely to die or even be sick.

“Have a look around the kitchen. You won’t see green potatoes. Our cooks don’t strap cod to their feet and pretend they are roller skates before chucking them in the fryer. We don’t put anthrax in the mushy peas, not even by accident.”

I felt a tremendous sense of pride in my country, that a chip-shop owner could think this, not food quality, not healthy eating, would be the prime concern of a sufficient number of people and be correct.

But then I realised that I don’t even know what a four-star hygiene certificate is, as I am not an environmental health officer.

It sounds good, which is presumably why they are advertising it, but what is the maximum number of stars? If it is five, then buying an open tray of chips with curry sauce starts to look like a riskier proposition.

On the other hand, if four is the maximum and there is a fish and chip shop down the road which does chicken balti pies, but is only three stars, one might consider it worth the (probably) 25% risk of death.

That’s up to you in David Cameron’s Big Society, where health and safety are optional. Eric Pickles would probably shake your hand, partly to congratulate you for sticking one to the Nanny State, but mostly to get close enough to snaffle your pie.

It was all very confusing. I have enough to worry about in my life without playing Russian roulette with battered scallops and saveloys. How could I be sure a trip to the chippy wouldn’t kill me?

And then I came up with my idea. There should be a floral tribute outside each fish and chip shop for every case of food poisoning (fatal or otherwise) traced back to it.

The more flowers outside the shop, the more rank inside the shop. That is a simple system that everybody can understand.

And if a drunk trips over the flowers on a post-pub jaunt to the chip shop and cracks his head open on the pavement, we’ll find out the answer to the question of precedence. Everybody wins.

Now, who fancies rock salmonella and chips?

Column October 20, 2010: High Elevenses

I WALKED into the coffee shop and ordered a coffee just how I like it, without any coffee in it and with a teabag in it instead.

I stood at the side of the counter and dunked the mini teabag up and down in my mug in a desperate but ultimately doomed attempt to make the not-quite-hot-enough water change colour from clear to deep brown. When I realised the “tea” would never shift from a sort of dismal yellow, I went over to the condiments station, splashed some milk in and sat down.

I opened the fruited spiced cookie I had bought in a moment of abandon.

Disappointingly, it was broken in three pieces, so I reassembled it so that any passers-by would assume I had an intact biscuit.

Turning attention back to my tea, I lifted out the teabag, but it swung back on its string, burning my hand. I dropped the teabag fully into my cup in a reflex action. The tea splashed out over the table.

I went to the condiments station again to get some napkins, came back and mopped it up.

The woman on the table facing me gave me a sympathetic smile. I smiled back, but I secretly hated her for having a nice no-trouble drink of her own.

I couldn’t get my teabag out of the mug. While the water was too cold to make a decent cup of tea, it was too hot to dip one’s fingers in. It was the exact opposite of Baby Bear’s porridge.

I went back to the condiments station and picked up a wooden lolly stick. Into the mug it went, and I twisted the teabag string around it like spaghetti around a fork.

And, like spaghetti around a fork, it slipped off again. The tea splashed out over the table. Back I went to the condiments station for more napkins.

I did the lolly stick trick again, and this time it worked. Now I had a soggy teabag and nowhere to put it. I went back to the condiments station, dripping hot “tea” into my hand to stop it going on the floor, and dropped it into the special hole designed for such items.

I sat back at my table, my half-mug of tea, a broken biscuit and a scalded hand in front of me, five trips to the condiments station behind me.

I had been punished for wanting a cup of tea in a coffee shop. This was the worst “popping out of the office for a treat” ever.

This preamble is to explain exactly why I was not the mild-mannered Clark Kent-ish specimen who usually appears in this space. Normally I only give offence unintentionally (if frequently) but my dander was up. I was primed, just one spark required.

A young man walked into the coffee shop. He was wearing that special uniform that young undergraduates wear these days: cardigan, T-shirt, scarf that looks like a tourniquet, laptop bag slung across torso, stupid hair and face. I would have hated him anyway, but then he opened his mouth . . . 

“Yeah, can I get a tall Americano?”

Fireworks exploded in front of my eyes. What? “Can I GET a tall Americano?”

“No,” I said, through gritted teeth.

He turned around. “Yeah?” he said.

“You can only GET a tall Americano if you climb over the counter and obtain one. What you want is to have one. You are not American. This isn’t Friends,” I said. “You meant to say, ‘Please may I have a tall Americano.’ The ‘please’ is important.”

I looked at the woman who had been smiling at me. She was studying her cup of coffee hard. I was on my own.

The young man shrugged and paid for his coffee. He walked out. “And you say ‘thank you,’ or ‘cheers,’ if you must,” I called after him.

I felt like a cross between John Wayne and Stephen Fry.

Satisfied, and absent-mindedly, I picked up my cookie.

A third of it broke off and fell in my tea.

Column October 13, 2010: I???ll make you a BOGOF you cannot refuse

I WAS buying a book from a branch of a national bookshop chain. I won’t name names, but, let’s face it, there’s only one of them left.

I waited for the crackling sexual tension to die down between the dynamic pair of assistants, and then, as the hairier one ambled forward, I handed over my book.

“Do you have a loyalty card?” the assistant asked me. Did I? I have 14 cards in my wallet and 13 of them are loyalty cards. I flicked through them.

“No, sorry,” I said. It turned out that W*terstone’s was not among the 13 retail organisations to which I am loyal.

“Would you like one?” asked the assistant. I wasn’t sure. It was not that I didn’t like the shop – I did. I have bought many books from that bookshop and have never had to return them owing to slight foxing or inadequate spine glue.

But I feared for the integrity of my wallet. One more loyalty card and the poor thing would perish, like a male X-Factor winner in January.

It made me ponder upon the nature of the loyalty card. The idea of loyalty to a large commercial organisation is insane.

For a start, how can you be loyal to both Tesco AND Sainsbury’s? Apparently you can, because I’ve got the cards to prove it. And if I had a Wa*erstone’s loyalty card, but bought the new Harry Potter for 7p in Tesco, what message does that give?

And, in any case, to whom do I owe the loyalty? If the owner of Waters*ones sells it to another group, does my loyalty transfer to the new owner or stay with the old owner?

Maybe the old owner and new owner would sit down, arguing like a divorcing couple dividing up the CDs. “Who gets Bainbridge?”/ “You have him.”/ “No, you have him.”/ “I didn’t want him in the first place. He doesn’t spend enough money and his demographic fit is a stinker. Also, he bought the new Harry Potter for 7p in Tesco.”

But I once was properly loyal to shops. When I was a child, just 10 short years ago, I lived off Greenbank Road (technically in Mossley Hill).

There was a parade of shops there, extending into Smithdown Road, and in that parade was a grocer, a butcher, a greengrocer, two sweet shops, a fish and chip shop and a newsagent. The owners and workers in those shops knew my name and I knew theirs, and the only time I bought items from other shops was when I was on holiday.

I mentioned two sweet shops. Our family only ever used one of them, and when our neighbours bought the other one, we switched loyalty. It was a wrench, and I was mortified when I had to go to the original shop and they asked me where I had been for the past few weeks. Now, that’s what loyalty means.

These cards are not loyalty cards. They are bribery cards. “Spend your cash in our shop and we will give you some of it back,” the shops are saying. In fact, it’s our money in the first place. They are charging us more for goods so that they can give us some back. That is the worst bribery in the world.

And, as such, I think that a more effective “loyalty” scheme would place employees of one supermarket outside the premises of another to deter holders of their own loyalty card from shopping around. These would be either particularly burly gentlemen, who would carry a hint of menace, or passive-aggressive women, who would sigh, not in anger but in sorrow.

If, for example, Sir Terry Leahy would like to use that idea, I will happily sell it to him for a million pounds and 400 Clubcard points.

“Excuse me, sir, I said would you like a loyalty card?” asked the assistant in Waterstone’*.

“No, thanks,” I said.

By the way, the shops of my youth are all gone now, apart from the fish and chip shop.

Apparently there is no room for a fish and chip bar in the Tesco which now sits on the other side of Greenbank Road.

Column October 6, 2010: The filling in a sandwich of failure

IT WAS a Friday. Better than that, it was the Friday after payday.

Not only that, it was Dress Down Friday, which has moved on from its roots as the day when the boss would tell his employees off in front of everybody, to a day when one can come into work IN ONE’S OWN CLOTHES, ie, jeans.

No wonder I was feeling festive.

And, feeling festive, I decided that I would treat myself to posh sandwiches. Because I’m worth it, I thought.

I walked into the posh sandwich shop in my jeans, feeling like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she first goes to Rodeo Drive.

But I didn’t care, because I knew I could pay for ANY sandwich in the shop.

I walked up to the serving counter. A vast array of sandwich ingredients faced me. Think of a sandwich, dear reader. I could have had it.

“Chicken and bacon, please,” I asked. I know I could have got that anywhere, but I lost my nerve. 

The assistant assembled the ingredients. My mouth was watering. This was going to be the best chicken and bacon sandwich I had ever had.

Then . . . “Do you want any salad?”

“Noooo!” my brain cried. I do understand the point of lettuce, but will never truly love it. Salad dressing is the equivalent of the bit on Big Cook Little Cook where the mismatched chefs sing a song while washing up in a doomed attempt to make it fun. It’s not fun, it’s just necessary.

“Bit of lettuce, please,” I said. One down, four to go, I thought.

She handed me my sandwich and my little slip and I joined the queue to pay. Salad was a small setback, but I wasn’t going to let it get me down.

Then it happened.

There were only two cashiers working. I was standing equidistant from each of them. They were both serving customers. But, crucially, they finished serving them AT THE SAME TIME.

The cashiers looked at me. I looked at the cashiers. And time slowed down as my mind raced. I had to choose between them and we all knew it.

Who would I go for? One of them would be crushed, and by that I mean slightly miffed. Why had I been put in this position? I just wanted a sandwich. Maybe I could flip a coin, would that be too obvious?

I looked at the two women. One was an older lady, like the dinner ladies of my childhood. The other was a young woman.

It would be cruel to call this woman plain. And, yes, I am aware that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – although they can grow tomatoes in their living room, swings and roundabouts, etc.

So I shall say she had niche appeal. In any case, the only thing I was interested in was my sandwich. I think of sandwiches roughly 19 times a day, and I think that’s enough to be going on with.

Had she been considerably more pulchritudinous than her older colleague, I would have gone to the older woman. Chivalry is my middle name.* But she was not.

However, as I looked down, I noted that I was standing left foot forward. And the young woman was on the left. I made my choice.

As I walked over to the young woman, paying for my sandwich, her colleague said: “Ooh, I see. Go for the pretty young one, will ye?”

My mind was on fire, as were my cheeks. I had hurt this nice lady. I didn’t have time to think. If I had given it a second’s thought, I would have come up with a hundred better things to say, but the words burst out before I could stop them.

“God, no! I don’t fancy her at all!”

Everything stopped for a moment. Then the young woman flung my sandwich into a paper bag, slammed my change into my hand and shouted: “Next!”

I will never be able to go back there. Never. It was a lovely sandwich, though.

(*It’s not. It’s Edward.)

Column September 29, 2010: Why won???t you sign me up, Buttercup?

“HULLO?” inquired the Scot on the other end of my phone. “Hello,” I replied, in my English accent.

“Can I speak to Mr Bainbridge, please?” Could he?!? I should cocoa! Nobody ever phones my house wanting to speak to me. This would be a rare treat. For him, too, I imagine.

“Speaking.”

“I’m calling on behalf of Madeupname-toavoidlegalgrief Broadband. Would you like to reduce your broadband bill with us from £19 to £12 a month?”

There’s no way there could be a catch in that, I thought. “Yes, please,” I said immediately.

This was a weight off my mind, to be honest. Madeupnametoavoidlegalgrief had phoned a week before to suggest I might want to continue using their services. I told them I wanted to shop around to see what the other broadband operators had to offer. But when I investigated, it seemed that everybody hated their own broadband operator at least as much as I did.

Kylie is right, I thought. Better the devil you know, I thought. Everybody would be happy with this arrangement, I thought. I was, of course, wrong.

You see, Cameron – as I will be referring to my caller – had a script to deal with resistant customers, one which my immediate capitulation had rendered obsolete. And there was no way he was going to fly blind and deviate from that script. After all, he’d seen on Facebook what happened to the last guy in his call centre who improvised . . .

– Ewan McDougall sneaked an xtra gd mrng into script no. 4. lol

– Ewan McDougall just found a new word for Snow on Inuit Wars.

– Ewan McDougall is being summarily executed for use of unauthorised “good morning”.’ 😦

“We have noticed that you do not use the extra phone line. We can give you a reduction to £12 if we remove that facility.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve just said, I want it.”

“And the speed package goes up to 20 meg . . . ”

“Yes, yes, I want it. Let me have it. Please let me have it.”

“I’m testing your line now . . . Your line can take up to 10 meg.”

“Right, £12 a month. Ace,” I said. “Hang on, only 10 meg? No, no, go on. Sign me up.”

“And this is an 18-month contract. Right, Mr Bainbridge, if you could just confirm the first and third letter of your Madeupname-toavoidlegalgrief password.”

What? Eighteen-month contract? Hadn’t he seen the news? There might not even be computers in 18 months. My head was swimming. How could I possibly be expected to give Cameron the third letter of my password?

“O and G,” I said.

“Sorry, sir, could you repeat that?”

“No, wait! O and Y!” In my confusion I had become either dyslexic or innumerate.

Cameron, through his insistence on maintaining his script, had turned me from a definite into a maybe. He wasn’t a salesman, he was an anti-salesman. I mean, why should I pay for 10 meg access the same price as somebody who gets 20 meg?

And then it occurred to me.

Madeupnametoavoidlegalgrief had been happily taking £19 off me every month for the past three years, £7 of which had been for a service which they knew I hadn’t used and was never going to use. I bet they’d all been laughing at me for years. Cameron probably won a raffle to be the one who’d get to call “Bainbridge The Idiot,” as I am no doubt known.

I changed my mind. Too late. “Thank you, Mr Bainbridge. Your details have been changed. Goodbye. CLICK. Brrrrrrrrr…”

Ah well, I’m sure there might be better deals around, but the fact is I can’t find the box my broadband router came in. I’d happily endure slightly rubbish internet access for another 18 months to avoid the embarrassment of having to post the router back without its proper box.

So, in the end, I suppose I’m a winner. But I don’t think I’ll ever answer the phone again.