Column: December 15, 2010

MY HAIR presentability cycle goes like this: haircut, rubbish, fine, fine, fine, fine, good, fine, fine, fine, FOR THE LOVE OF MERCY, GET A HAIRCUT.

Unfortunately, I can never quite predict when my hair will fall off the plateau of fineness, which means that there is usually a short period every six or seven weeks during which mothers pull their children away from the Big-Haired Man, because I haven’t been able to get to the barber’s in time.

The period of bouffant terror has been longer than usual this time round because I went to my usual barber’s, only to find that he had closed down. This was a small bereavement. A gentleman only changes his barber under such circumstances. Partly this is because of loyalty, partly because of fear that another barber might faff it up.

But mostly it is because he doesn’t want to experience the excruciating embarrassment delivered in the barber’s chair by those five painful words: “Oo’s been cutting your hair?”

I have no idea how barbers can tell that somebody else has cut one’s hair for a change – surely one cut strand is much the same as another – but they can. I suspect that each barber leaves their own mark in the hair, perhaps initials, or a phallic symbol. He probably does it at that point in the haircut where he “remembers” that he’s missed a bit, even though he’s used that lethal electric razor/combine harvester thing, and gives the back a bit of an unnecessary clip with the scissors.

Nevertheless, aside from the embarrassment of having one’s disloyalty found out, there is the more practical concern of knowing that one has severely cheesed off somebody who is wielding a blade about one’s head. One grumpy slip and from then on everybody calls you Van Gogh behind your back. Or by your side . . . you’d never know.

In the absence of my old barber, I had to find a new one. And so I gingerly entered a new establishment. This was a very manly shop and I am, admittedly, a man. But I am the sort of man who was not good at games. Oh, they were ALL OVER ME when it was class quiz time. But when it came to football, I was stuck in goal, precisely the worst position to put somebody who is, at best, eye-wateringly rubbish at football.

The talk in this barber’s shop was of football and boxing. This was bad. I could pick out Henry Cooper in a line-up, but that is my limit. However, there was only one barber. And that was good.

Because the worst thing about my old barber’s shop was that there was always one barber who wasn’t as good as the others, and I would pray that it was one of the better two who would finish first and usher me to the chair.

This barber would ask me what I wanted, but give me the same haircut no matter what. She would comment on the amount of grey hair I had accumulated on the back of my head, as if I wanted to know. And she would offer to shave my eyebrows, making me feel like the love child of Denis Healey and Frida Kahlo. I would stumble out of the shop feeling like the loser in a game of Tonsorial Russian Roulette.

I settled into the new barber’s chair. He asked me what I wanted, then proceeded to give it to me. He didn’t ask me who’d been cutting my hair, or about my holidays. He established in his own mind early on that he’d get little change out of a conversation with me about boxing.

For my part, I was able to discuss the relative merits of Liverpool and Everton with such fluency a casual observer would have thought that they were my own opinions, rather than pundits’ observations I’d managed to dredge up from memory.

It was, in short, the perfect haircut experience, if not the perfect haircut. As a result, he is now my barber. 

And if you see something obscene and grey on the back of my head, I don’t want to know.

Column: December 8, 2010

I WAS doing a spot of Christmas shopping, it being the season, and wandered down the boys’ toys aisle. I picked up the odd item, looking for all the world like a solicitous adult looking for a gift for a young relative, but actually thinking “Whoa! Look at that, if you press a button, wings swing out of the Batmobile. That is so cool!”

And then I saw it. The abomination. A Postman Pat figure which transformed into his own post van. Evil toymakers had turned Postman Pat, lovable, plodding, decent Postman Pat, into The Terminator. I didn’t see Jess, his black and white cat, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d turned him into some sort of robot puma with laser claws.

I am assured by those who know about such matters that this is not a reflection of the TV show, Pat still being all flesh and blood, or Plasticine, I imagine.

When I was a small boy, I liked toys which were more or less accurate replicas. That’s what toys are for.

I remember being given a Batman mask which had the Batsignal placed just above the eyes, which, as any eight-year-old boy will tell you, is NOT where it’s supposed to be, and I refused to wear it until I realised I could colour it in with black permanent marker. Which didn’t dry very quickly. Which leaked through. I was 27 before all the ink had vanished from my forehead.

Consequently, I find it difficult to understand the mindset of a toy manufacturer who thinks that a child will be happy with a cyborg Postman Pat/van hybrid which doesn’t look anything like the character he sees on the television. A child wants a Postman Pat which goes inside a van.

Nevertheless, Pat is now much more of an all-action hero these days. He flies a helicopter and delivers parcels with a sense of urgency and purpose not necessarily representative of the wider Royal Mail.

I think this is a terrible shame. I was too old to watch Postman Pat as a child and came to it only with my own children. And then I was struck by the sheer reality of the programme.

For a start, all the characters had names which sounded authentic. Lesser children’s shows would have a postmistress called Mrs Stamp and a farmer called Farmer Combine-Harvester, instead of Mrs Goggins and Alf Thompson. The adults spoke down to children, and to each other like adults, and drank endless cups of tea.

Pat’s own adventures revolved around helping to find some lost sheep after a townie had left a gate open, or delivering the mail despite roadworks in the only road into the village, things that might actually happen. It was a more accurate reflection of life in a small rural village than Emmerdale.

But the changes wrought upon Postman Pat are nothing compared with what’s happened to Noddy in recent years. The Noddy episodes from the mid-1990s by Cosgrove- Hall, the makers of DangerMouse, Chorlton And The Wheelies and, ironically, the new series of Postman Pat, are perfect little jewels, with wit running from the scripts right through to the stop-motion animation.

The Noddy episodes of today are like caffeine- free Diet Coke, utterly pointless. They are computer-generated, lowest common denominator, bowdlerised rubbish stripped of any ability to offend. And bear in mind that we are not exactly talking about Reservoir Dogs in the first place. Even the naughty goblins have been made over to look like boy-band members, a change with which I would be happy, if I thought for one moment there was any satirical intent.

Programmes of quality, like Aardman’s Shaun The Sheep, and its spin-off Timmy Time, spark just as many toy sales, but at least their hearts are in the right place.

I know they’re not for me, any more than that Batmobile was, but children deserve better than to be treated as wallet fodder. The old Pat would agree with me.

Column: December 1, 2010

THERE are many amusing examples of items designed to be unfit for purpose – a chocolate kettle, the 2010 Lib-Dem manifesto, the Irish government.

I once had a plastic canoe with an integral gas stove to keep the feet warm while one sliced through the icy waters. Unfortunately, the first time I used it, the stove melted the plastic hull below the water line and the whole thing sank.

I learnt a valuable lesson that day: you can’t have your kayak and heat it.

The most obvious unfit- for-purpose item is, of course, the big winter glove. These bulky hand-shaped garments keep the hands toasty warm right up until the point at which the hands have to operate as hands.

If one needs to unlock a door, operate a touch- screen phone, or hold anything smaller than a rat for any more than a nano-second, the gloves have to come off. It is like having a pair of trousers which only work if one is standing still, and if one tries to walk or engage in any other leg-based activity (hopping, skipping, Kung Fu, etc) the pants transform into some sort of polyester man-trap and make one fall over.

I might as well put my hands in my pockets. At least I wouldn’t lose one of my pockets on the bus.

One would think the big winter glove’s position as “Most Useless Thing In The World” would be unassailable. But one would be wrong, wouldn’t one? Because such a reckoning does not take into account the new John Lewis TV ad.

I don’t know exactly who thought the commercial was a good idea, but I can imagine the thought process behind it. And here I am, imagining it . . .


JOHN LEWIS: Tell me about Waitrose .

MALFOY: Oh, it’s a corker, my lord. We’re getting Roger McGough to do the voiceover.

JOHN LEWIS: Ah, that will annoy the people of Liverpool at least, given that we refuse to put a Waitrose in Liverpool. Good . . . but not good enough. I want an advertisement which really winds its target audience up.

LESTRANGE: We did try, my lord. We did that very scary advert where the dark-haired girl grows up into an old woman while the outside world remains exactly the same, like a backward version of The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

MALFOY: Yes, my lord. And we even used one of Billy Joel’s most sour, some would say misogynistic, songs as the soundtrack. And a rubbish version of it, too, just to underline the horror. We have no idea why it did not work.

JOHN LEWIS: We need to be more subtle. You will create a heart-warming Christmas advertisement, filled with images of loving parents sneaking presents into their home, a gentle giant wrapping a child’s teapot, a dolls house placed in the attic . . .

EXTRA: That’s a rubbish idea.

JOHN LEWIS: Avada kedavra!


MALFOY: But, my lord, I do not understand.

JOHN LEWIS: You fool. We are using tender images of homes where the children are expecting a visit from Santa . . .


JOHN LEWIS: And what will happen if a savvy child sees these images of parents hiding away Christmas presents? And puts two and two together . . .

MALFOY:We will destroy Christmas in those households! We will alienate our core customers! Gasp! It is evil genius, my Lord.

JOHN LEWIS: I know. I’m ace, me.

This is the only explanation. You’re a shop, John Lewis, not WikiLeaks.


Column: November 24, 2010

I WAS shopping. More specifically, I was waiting while somebody else shopped, which is not the same thing, as I was essentially purposeless. A dangerous state.

I wandered into the man creche, ie, the technology department, too warm in the big coat which I could not be bothered to remove, and started fiddling with things I would like to own but cannot afford, black, shiny things for producing content which I would never get round to printing out or uploading in any case.

And there was a lovely camera there. One of those new digital SLR ones with HD video. I think I actually drooled. I certainly had occasion to stroke my chin, which reminded me that I hadn’t shaved. I fancied that I looked rugged, but I probably just looked like a terrible old scruffbag who hadn’t had a shave.

Ginger and grey bristles covered my lower face, for I am afflicted with UGC – unexpectedly ginger chin. I do not understand how this happens, as the rest of my hair is a greying brown.

In any case, were I to forego shaving, it would look as if I had bought a novelty half Adrian Chiles, half Groundskeeper Willie mask and that would be rubbish.

I took my hands out of my old jeans, loosened my scarf and touched the camera, like Harry Potter choosing a wand. It felt so right in my hands. I picked it up. This was quite difficult, as the supermarket had attached the camera to the display with a powerful electro-magnet, but I was more or less equal to the task.

I looked at the underside of the camera. I don’t know what I was looking for. There were slots for things down there. But it was academic as I didn’t have enough money. Reluctantly, I attempted to put it back in its place.

I have to say that this was a singularly inappropriate time for the alarm to go off.

Really, what sort of alarm fails to go off when the item is removed and starts blaring when it is put back? If that is not a powerful disincentive for thieves to have second thoughts, then I don’t know what is.

It was at this point that I realised how this might look to the casual bystander. I am not mad. As a young reporter, I spent a lot of time in magistrates’ courts, and had I seen a red-faced unshaven man in scruffy jeans, a straggly scarf and a big coat in the dock accused of shoplifting, I would not have bet on his acquittal.

I looked up. I was surrounded by store employees. Either that, or there’d been a special on polyester trousers at Primark. I prepared my all-purpose excuse, something along the lines of “It wasn’t me. A scary duck did it and ran away” and waited for the inevitable.

But it did not come. There were half a dozen store employees within collaring distance, but none of them came to admonish or apprehend me. If anything, they turned away from me. I took my chance and scarpered into ink cartridges. I watched over the shelf. The alarm was still crying out.

And I realised that this alarm was even worse than I thought. Not only did it sound at the exact opposite of the time it should, it must do this several dozen times a day, so much so that, instead of prompting staff into battle-readiness, it just made them tut a bit and hope for somebody else to turn it off. 

It was the Gillian McKeith of alarms.

Eventually, a middle-aged assistant with a jingling ring of keys did the honours. She looked daggers at me. Embarrassed, I turned and started playing with something, anything.

In this case, it was one of those new tablet computers. I started a film playing, and discovered that those things are quite loud. But it was locked and I didn’t have the password. As gunshots echoed around electricals, I became desperate. I picked it up to look for a volume control.

This alarm sounded at a much more appropriate time. I dropped the tablet and legged it. This is how criminals are made.

Column: November 17, 2010

IT’S always a pleasure to take the old FutureScope 5000 off the top shelf in the kitchen, next to the George Foreman grilling machine (or grill), and give it a whirl.

I rarely use it these days, as I have enough trouble keeping up with TV programmes which have already been on without worrying about programmes yet to be broadcast, but I couldn’t resist getting a sneaky peek at next year’s Royal Wedding.

You see, I missed the groom’s parents’ wedding in 1981 as I was away with the Cubs on the worst holiday of my life. I won’t go into detail, but I have not been able to zip a sleeping bag all the way up ever since, nor hear the words “corned beef hash” without running to the toilet.

So I was determined not to miss a SECOND of this Royal Wedding. And I’m delighted to share with you the transcript of David Dimbleby’s commentary, which I painstakingly wrote down. If you don’t want to know the result, look away now…

“And just look at the crowds outside the Palace. Some of these people have been there for days in their tents, camping out, just to get a glimpse of Prince William. Sorry? I’m just being… Oh, I do apologise. The people in tents are homeless. Familiar sight of course, in these days of austerity.

“And that spirit of austerity is reflected very much in the tone of today’s wedding, designed to be just like the wedding of one of the Queen’s subjects. Is that, is that? Yes, the Royal Family emerging from the Palace. The Prince of Wales leading out a horse. No, I’m sorry, that’s the Duchess of Cornwall.

“The Duke of York … The Princess Royal… The other one.

“Now the groom himself, with his best man, Prince Harry, the events of the stag evening, when the younger brother tied the naked Prince William to an actual stag and led him through the streets of Edinburgh, no doubt forgiven, if not forgotten.

“And here, Her Majesty, with the Duke of Edinburgh. Now, what are they doing just hanging around? Oh, yes. Here comes the minicab. An Asian driver. Charles steps in between his father and the driver, a fine diversionary tactic.

“Oh, but he hasn’t noticed Prince Harry, speaking to the driver good-naturedly. The driver is saying something back. He’s driven off. We apologise to our deaf viewers for that. They’ll have to wait for another cab now…

“Now, at Westminster Register Office, we’re just waiting for the bride. And she arrives, in her long white stretch limo. Out step the bridesmaids, the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. Beatrice’s dress has an exceptionally bulging skirt, most unusual. Four feet? Ah, the Duchess of York is hiding under the skirt. I dare say she won’t make it past security. Now the bride, resplendent in her Florence + Fred dress, donated by Sir Terry Leahy. A shame we won’t be able to go inside, but the BBC now only has two cameras and the other one’s being used for EastEnders…

“Now the Royal party emerges, the Prince and new Princess. A kiss… and then straight into the minibus to the reception at The Queen’s Arms, which is, at least, appropriate…

“The strains of Build Me Up, Buttercup echo from the pub as Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands arrives. The door opens. Ah, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Harry popping out for a crafty fag.

“And here’s David Cameron. What’s that in his hand? Ah, a bottle of lemonade and a packet of crisps. Proceeding to the Prime Ministerial car. The window winds down. He hands the lemonade and crisps to Nick Clegg. Then rushing back in for New York, New York…”

The FutureScope 5000 stops at this point, offering only the odd fragment about the unused party-poppers being gathered up and stored for the Olympics opening ceremony. Still, it’s good to know that we have something to look forward to in these straitened times.

Friday Stairs

I let people on Twitter vote on whether they should send me pictures of their landline phones (suggested by @orange_monkey) or pictures of their stairs (@MerseyMal). People overwhelmingly voted for stairs, stairs being quite popular.

So I allowed people to send me pictures of their stairs. And here they are.


Stairs were provided by @__mice, @AlannaPajama, @AndrewStuart, @ap279, @arprice, @artfulbooks, @brooka_shade, @cartoonsbyRic, @corrie_corfield, @DebsFurness, @Feisty_Onion, @fionalaird, @FrankieMcGinty, @frizzychick, @gerrymulvenna, @glamlovinkitty, @Jem73, @joecraiguk, @KateBielby, @KatyShuroo, @Kel2708, @KetherBound, @macington, @MarianneLevy, @markhughes1967, @MerseyMal, @miche, @MicheRobinson, @MsAlliance, @mtrh, @NinjaWorrier, @NortyLiz, @peacockpete, @PopupGardener, @QuintinForbes, @RachSum, @richhale, @robstickler, @rosebiggin, @Sheppitsgal, @stephjl, @SuQ10, @thecatsdaughter, @titianred and @WeeChrissieB.

They are all very good. I particularly liked @artfulbooks’s Escher-like staircase and @corrie_corfield’s artist’s model. @MarianneLevy gets a special mention for being first, and @markhughes1967 for giving me a picture of stairs I actually run up every day.

But the winner is this one from @NinjaWorrier, because I would be able to have paper helicopter races from the landing.


I have nothing more to say on the subject.