COLUMN: March 2, 2011

I’VE been reading a book which I am finding very absorbing, and I am desperate to discover what happens next.

But it is taking me a long time to read it, because I won’t read it on the bus as I am crippled by social embarrassment.

It’s the third book in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy. You know the ones – they started with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Of course, when the book was written 10 years ago, it was considered very exotic to have a tattoo. These days, it is very difficult to find a girl in her twenties who does not have a tattoo, dragon or otherwise.

En masse, say on a Saturday night in Concert Square, they look like my notebook after a long and boring meeting. They might as well have called it The Girl With The Head.

You see, I was actually what they call in IT circles an early adopter of the first book and bothered a number of people with my insistence that they “really must read this book. It’s not the best written book, but the characters are really compelling and . . . and . . . she’s got this computer, yeah, and, erm . . . It’s Swedish!”

But just as I was about to buy the second part, the whole Larsson phenomenon exploded. Everybody was reading the books, the films were released, IKEA was running tours around the Warrington store – “Look, these are the meatballs Blomkvist ate, and those shelves over there are very like his.”

So when I walked into Waterstone’s to buy book two I saw the huge display of “The Girl . . . ” novels and thought: “I can’t buy this now. I am a serious man who reads the posh newspapers and looks down his nose at Britain’s Got Talent.

“I mean, I did Latin in school. I am basically Michael Gove’s good twin. Buying this book right now will make me look like a chump.” And so I left the shop.

Over the past year or so, as the movie versions have been released, friends and people whose opinions I respect (not necessarily the same thing) have told me, “Oh, you really must see this film. It’s not the best written film, but the characters are really compelling and . . . and . . . she’s got this computer, yeah, and, erm . . . It’s Swedish!”

Of course, I have avoided the films because I wanted to read the books first.

And I haven’t read the books because the films came out. 

I am clearly the victim of bad timing. Obviously not as much as the author, who died before the books were published and made a squillion pounds, but bad timing nonetheless.

But it is a vicious circle of my own making. I have made an apple pie bed and got into it myself.

Thankfully, in the past couple of weeks, I found a loophole. I got somebody to buy the books for me. By this, I mean I was given them as a present. I didn’t loiter by Waterstone’s like a 15-year-old hanging around outside an off-licence. “Hey, mate, can you go in there and get me a Georgette Heyer and a couple of Jeffrey Archers?”

Which brings us back to where we started. Now that I have the books, can I read them in public without looking like the type of person who reads Harry Potter with the “adult” covers?

This sort of consideration did not worry me in the past. I was a comic collector well into my thirties and would think nothing of reading the latest edition of The Adventures Of Superman on the bus. What happened to that devil-may-care larrikin?

So, I have to man up. So what if the people around me think I am uncool? There is nobody more uncool than he who attempts to avoid looking uncool. Apart from he who uses the word “uncool”.

So I will read The Girl Who Flicked V-Signs At Bad Men, or whatever it is called, on the bus, and hang the consequences. And if I lose my nerve, I will simply conceal it behind a copy of The Beano.

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COLUMN: February 23, 2011

READERS of the Liverpool Daily Post are probably unfamiliar with the television series The X-Factor. Our research shows that you are too busy listening to Radio 3 or disproving Fermat’s Last Theorem to watch that sort of guff. Thankfully, that’s what I am here for.

Then take it from me that one of the most beloved/derided acts on this talent show in the past few years was the brother-sister duo Same Difference. If you can imagine a camp blonde Donny and Maria Osmond, but much more sinister, you wouldn’t be far off.

Every week I would watch the group and hate them. Hate is not too strong a word, I would despise them. Not because of their perky smiles. Or of their perky dancing. Or of their perky maulings of perfectly decent songs.

It was their name: “Same Difference,” a phrase which, when falling upon my ears, provokes the same sort of physical revulsion as a Michael Winner lapdance. It makes my ears retract into my skull and my spine fuse.

Imagine hook-handed militant cleric Abu Hamza grumpily having to write the line “Some aspects of Western life are actually quite admirable” on a blackboard 50 times WITHOUT CHALK, while Janet Street-Porter sings Delibes’s Flower Duet* with a Dalek. That is what it sounds like to me.

I refuse to believe that I am the only person wound up by a particular phrase, although I am happy to accept that I am uniquely troubled by “same” and “difference.” I know that you, gentle reader, will have your own bugbear phrases. And I apologise if your bugbear is the word “bugbear.”

I am happy to use these words separately, but they vex me severely when used in conjunction. Partly, I think it is because of the occasions on which the phrase is uttered.

This is when somebody has used faulty facts to back up a spurious argument. And when they are caught bang to rights, they use the phrase to gloss over their error, rather than addressing it.

“Churchill was a disgrace. All those men being killed in the trenches while he’s in 10 Downing Street just because he was eating a Big Mac and listening to his iPod . . . ”

“Erm, you know Churchill was Prime Minister in World War II?”

“Yeah, well, World War I, World War II, same difference, innit?”

“And they didn’t have Big Macs then. It was all Spam in those days.”

“All right, a Big Mac made out of Spam and Camp coffee. Same difference.”

“And – and I don’t want you to think I’m any sort of history anorak – as far as I know they didn’t have iPods either.”

“Oh, all right! An earlier model of MP3 player. Same diff . . . argh!”

That’s the point at which the hurting starts.

But it’s not just the intent behind the phrase, it is the phrase itself. It is utterly meaningless. Let’s just examine it for a moment. Same difference. Same, which denotes an identical nature. Difference, which denotes a non-identical nature.

How in the name of Patrick Moore can something be both the same AND different? It’s a paradox like hot ice, cool jazz or a good Jennifer Aniston movie. Only the sort of person who would gloss over errors by saying “Same difference” would use the phrase “Same difference.”

A family friend used to use the phrase “same horse, different jockey” which at least addresses the paradox, if not the faulty facts.

So if you are in my presence and you want to backtrack while keeping your dignity intact, then I will allow you to use that phrase. And I promise I won’t use any words or phrases you find odious.

What do you mean, “it’s Marie Osmond, not Maria”? Oh, well, same difference.

See?

*That’s the old British Airways theme tune for viewers of The X-Factor.

 

COLUMN: February 16, 2011

I AM becoming increasingly concerned by misleading packaging. By this, I don’t mean outlandish claims on packaging like “Special K: Makes you fit in a slinky red dress even if you are a man”, “Mars: Helps you work, rest, play and see through walls” or “Dr Pepper: It tastes nice.” Legislation has more or less dealt with excesses like this.

And I certainly wouldn’t want us to go too far the other way. Although that is probably already happening.

I saw a packet of cream crackers recently which had a picture of one of the crackers with a piece of cheddar on top along with a sprig of parsley. Underneath the picture was the legend “serving suggestion.”

Really, if you need a serving suggestion for cream crackers, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed the knife to cut the cheese anyway.

No, the problem is with items which should be packaged in a particular way but actually appear in another. As an example, take the cheese and onion crisp.

For years, the cheese and onion crisp was associated with the colour green.

If you picked up a packet of Tudor Crisps, Smith’s Crisps, even Golden Wonder Ringos, and it was green, you knew what you were getting. Blue was for lovers of salt and vinegar, red was ready salted, there was some leeway around the exact shade of mustard for roast chicken crisps but that was about it.

The point is, if you didn’t like salt and vinegar, you knew to steer clear of the colour blue.

Then Walker’s came along with their blue cheese and onion crisps and green salt and vinegar, totally messing up what had been a perfectly good system and turning choosing a crisp from a proffered packet into snack Russian roulette.

I rued the current tendency towards misleading packaging this morning* when I showered. For the purposes of this column, it is necessary for you to be aware of the mechanics of my morning shower. I am as uncomfortable with this as you – and I’d be grateful if you would strike it from your memory at your earliest convenience – but this is for the greater good.

OK, for speed’s sake, I shave in the shower. Only my face, I am not a weirdo.

But, for the sake of tonsorial balance, I have to shave around my sideburns outside the shower and in front of the mirror.

I squirted the shaving gel into my hand, noticed there wasn’t much left, lathered up, put the gel back on the shelf, and all went well. I did get a bit of shampoo in my eye.

As I grabbed the towel to extract the errant shampoo, I picked up the shower gel, squirted it straight onto my rugged manly chest, and realised I’d used the last of the shaving gel. It wasn’t my fault – the bottles are the same size and colour. I was misled by the packaging.

“For sensitive skin,” the shaving gel states. I am sorry to report that that is not entirely the case.

Luckily, I managed to remove it before it caused lasting damage.

I threw the empty shaving gel bottle into the bin, climbed back into the shower, reached out a hand, squirted the shower gel onto my rugged manly chest and discovered I had picked up something suffused with ylang-ylang and lavender.

None of this is my fault. If toiletries manufacturers don’t have the wit or inclination to produce packaging which gives more of a clue as to their contents, then I should be allowed to sue them.

And if you think I am overreacting, then I remind you that you’re not the one who had to go to work feeling like a lady, and strangely peckish for a bowl of Special K. Unless you are a lady, of course.

*WHEN you read this, it will be “yesterday morning”, but I shouldn’t be surprised if it happens to me again today.

COLUMN: February 9, 2011

I’M QUITE mild-mannered, really. If I worked on the same newspaper as Clark Kent, and somebody referred to “him over there with the glasses, the mild- mannered one” they would be talking about me.

It takes quite a bit to rile me: somebody parking across two bays, Piers Morgan’s continuing success, hearing the words “Chancellor George Osborne.”

But nothing has got my dander up quite so much and so often as a social networking site of which I, until very recently, was a member. For legal reasons I will not name the site in question. Hereafter, I shall refer to it, entirely appropriately, as LockedIn.

LockedIn allows business people to set up connections between themselves and other business people. If you can imagine Facebook without any warmth, wit, or sheer positivity of the human spirit, then you’re very close to understanding what LockedIn is all about. You’re also very close to understanding what Facebook is all about.

I was press-ganged into LockedIn by a former colleague and zealot supporter of all manner of social networking sites. “It’s really good,” she said. “You can connect with all sorts of people who could help your career.”

“All right,” I said. At this point, the only person who could help my career would come equipped with paddles and a defibrillator, but I gave in and set up an account.

For around the next 12 months, my colleague was my only connection on LockedIn. And that was fine. I didn’t trouble LockedIn and it didn’t trouble me. I forgot about it.

And then, one day, an email arrived. From LockedIn. “Oh, yes,” I vaguely remembered. “That’s the site that was going to connect me, etc.” The email was a notification that somebody wanted to connect with me. This somebody sits roughly 15 feet away from me. And if he was going to help me with my career he’d have done it long ago. In any case, I couldn’t remember my password, so I left it. But LockedIn wouldn’t. Every few days, it would send me another little reminder. And another, like a passive- aggressive nag. I buckled.

But, over the next six months, I received an email from LockedIn every other day, asking me to check in and confirm that I knew people. I stopped being discriminating. I would accept anybody, just to stop the needy little site wheedling away.

The final straw came when somebody I slightly knew asked me to write her a recommendation. “I am not a vicar,” I railed. “I can’t write a eulogy for somebody I don’t know.”

I logged on and spent 20 minutes trying to find the hidden instructions on how to destroy my account. The best it would let me do is deactivate my account. That was OK, it had nothing of use in there.

Even then it begged me to tell it why I was leaving. “Look, it’s not me, it’s you,” I told it, albeit at greater length. It felt liberating. I could begin my life again.

Then, at 4.30am on Monday, my email alert rang on my phone, waking me. I checked it. It was LockedIn, the jealous ex, telling me that another work colleague from 10 feet away wanted to connect with me. And there was a little note at the bottom. “Don’t want to receive email notifications? Adjust your message settings.”

But I couldn’t! I’d deactivated my account! Wasn’t that a big enough clue? What did I have to do? Take out a 30-second ad during Britain’s Got Talent? Change my name to Lockedin Isrubbish? Not only was my dander up, but they had also got my goat and were twisting my melon.

I wrote them an email in anger.

“Dear LockedIn,

“I deactivated my pointless account. Stop sending me email reminders at 4.30am, you magical bunch of shit-for-brains idiots.

“Yours lovingly,

“Gary Bainbridge.”

I’ve had nothing since, but I know this isn’t over.

COLUMN: February 2, 2011

I FINISHED what I had to do and adjusted my zip. It jammed. With a certain amount of trepidation, I pulled hard and heard a ping. Pings are always bad when it comes to zips. The fastener was broken, beyond repair.

“Aaargh,” I thought. “Why didn’t I bring my jacket with me to the toilet?” The answer was obvious. Because I was in work, and I work indoors.

“Calm down,” I told myself. “Nobody will see. You’ll just walk quietly and calmly to your desk, grab your coat, casually hold it in front of you like a waiter carrying a towel and leg it into Church Street to buy a replacement pair of grey trousers.

“You will get away with this as long as you don’t do something completely stupid or unlikely to foul it up.”

I laughed at myself for my panic. Shaking my head, I turned on the tap to wash my hands. Just a little too hard. The jet rebounded off the plug and described a parabola en route to the least appropriate area of my trousers. Which, as you know, were grey.

At that point, if you had offered me unembarrassingly dry trousers with a broken zip or grey trousers with a disturbingly dark wet patch and an intact zip, I’d have taken the former. As it was, I was in the worst of all possible trouser worlds.

I stood by the door, and steeled myself for my exit . . . 

Such preamble is to explain just how uncomfortable I felt seconds before my stand-up comedy debut last week in front of an audience of strangers and people from work who had found out I was doing it.

I am not, as regular readers will readily attest, a natural comic. Nor do I exhibit a quiet and easy authority when speaking to people I do not know. Or, indeed, people I do know.

So what made me think I could stand up in front of a group of fee-paying customers and hope to amuse them?

Well, I had performed in an online comedy show in aid of Amnesty International, alongside actual comedians off of the television. “Performed” is a misleadingly chosen word.

In reality, the organiser of the show curated some of my more amusing nuggets from the social networking site Twitter and re-presented them. It required more effort from the audience than from me.

But, after the show, a few people who did not know me asked when my next actual stand-up gig was taking place. And the fear the very idea struck in my bowels made me determined to conquer it. I called in a favour, and so I found myself as the first act in the gong section of the Rawhide comedy club’s Raw show.

The music played. I shuffled onto the stage like a feckless teenage pirate forced to walk the plank. I blinked under the lights. I gripped the microphone and tentatively offered a joke I’d thought of three hours before. It got a reasonable laugh.

But that laugh was like getting a big hug from Claire Rayner in her pomp.

I started to settle down, walked around on stage. I improvised. I did silly voices. I even looked at the audience instead of my shoes. And because I settled down, the audience did, too. Everything was getting better, as things often do before they go horribly wrong.

A bell rang to signal the fact that I was halfway through my eight minutes, just as I finished a sequence. I was distracted. I looked out at the audience.

And nothing. Absolutely nothing. Couldn’t remember a word. Couldn’t even remember my own name.

For 10 painful seconds – and I know this, as I counted them – my mouth flapped like a beta-male fish trying to be served at a Mathew Street bar on a Saturday night.

The gong was a kindness when it came.

Will I do it again? You never know. I’ll tell you this, though. There’s no way I’ll be wearing grey trousers.

COLUMN: January 26, 2011

WHEN I went to buy my last lap-top, proceedings were going fairly well. I had managed to snaffle a bag with FREE mouse for a paltry £25 as part of the deal, so I was feeling pretty good about myself.

I felt as if I’d been to a Moroccan souk and bought the beautiful daughter of the merchant for $8 and a bag of plums. If the merchant had been a pimple-faced boy who hadn’t even been born when the first Pentium processor came out.

That’s when it went downhill, of course.

“And would you like to buy our Superdupercover option?”

“What’s that?” I wondered.

“It’s total cover against breakdown of the equipment.”

“How much is that?”

“That’s £200.”

What? The laptop was only £500.

“Are you telling me you’re selling me a crock? Is that what you’re saying?”

“It does cover you if you break it yourself.” I noticed he hadn’t actually answered my question.

This is an outrageous way to run a business. Why should I take out insurance on an item with the store which is selling me the item? It’s tantamount to the store saying: “It’s Russian roulette buying stuff from us. I just don’t know how we get away with it.”

Can you imagine walking into Greggs and finding them behaving in the same manner?

“Can I have a sausage roll, please?”

“Jumbo or ordinary?”

“Erm, jumbo, please. As long as the noose is around my neck, I might as well jump off the horse. Ha, ha, ha! How much is that?”

“69p. But for an extra 30p you can have our special RollBack cover.”

“What?”

“Yes. If you bite into your sausage roll and find, for example, a slug in there – NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED, MR GREGGS’ SOLICITORS – then we issue a replacement sausage roll or other savoury bake to the same value.”

“And can you guarantee there won’t be a slug in that one?”

“We’re very confident there won’t be. But you can never be 100 per cent sure.”

I am reminded of the sign I saw in the window of a recruitment and temping agency in Liverpool city centre some time ago: “Due to shortage of staff at the office today, please post your CV through our Letterbox.”

That’s right. A company whose very purpose is to find people to fill temporary vacancies was forced to close because it has a temporary vacancy. Can you imagine the sense of failure there when this cropped up? A dirty great cloud of ennui. It’d be as if the whole of the remaining staff were forced to wear parkas in warm weather, but parkas made of gloom.

I told the man in the computer shop that I would take my chances, picked up my special-offer bag with mouse (who uses a mouse with a laptop anyway, by the way?) and completed my purchase.

Obviously I broke the laptop some months later, but I make no claims to be representative of humanity. If anything, I am a wake-up call to evolution.

 

I AM appalled by the efforts of the so-called “shepherd lobby” to indoctrinate our children in the ways of “woolly animal husbandry” as we must no doubt call it these days.

Now they want to make our children learn how to count in Shepherdese (ie,. Yan, tan, tethera, etc) and replace the classics with old Black Bob strips and episodes of Shaun The Sheep.

We must resist the “shepherd agenda”. What if all our children grow up to become shepherds? For a start, they’d have to change the name of shepherd’s pie. It would just be known as “pie”. It’s a slippery slope.

(NOTE TO ED: It’s all right. I have not gone mad. I’m hoping for a Jan Moir/ Melanie Phillips- style storm. Everybody on Twitter will link to the online version, just like they do to the Daily Mail. We’ll be quids in!)

COLUMN: January 19, 2011

HELLO, readers. Is there something that you once loved on television and would love to see back on free-to-air television? I do not mean revivals of shows – like the Upstairs Downstairs thing that was on over Christmas, the one which took a chance on little-known actress Keeley Hawes.

No, I mean actual shows which should be repeated for the benefit of the next generation, shows like Fawlty Towers and Father Ted. Or films, like the 2004 Michael Mann thriller, Collateral.

In that case, might I recommend that you give me a call and tell me to go out and spend actual money on the appropriate DVDs? 

I will happily go out and buy them, secure in the knowledge that within one week of the purchase, the programmes in question will be broadcast on television, probably along with a comprehensive documentary explaining how the series was made, and how Nicholas Lyndhurst was in the frame for the lead role until he gave David Jason a horsey ride and did his back in.

I have been stung in precisely that way more often in recent years than I would like to admit. And bearing in mind that I have admitted to placing my hand in a urine puddle on a bus seat in this column, you have to see I must mean it has happened a lot.

But, then, I have always had a poor sense of timing, comic or otherwise. As a young reporter, full of vim about the job and desperate to impress, I happened upon a court story about a drug baron’s wife and sister- in-law, who had been found guilty of living on her husband’s immoral earnings. Central to the story was a mansion in a leafy suburb.

(As an aside, why is it that criminals who run drug gangs are known as barons? Are the owners of illegal gambling dens known as earls? Are sex traffickers known as viceroys? Actually, that would be a good name for them).

I convinced my editor that we should get a photo of the property. He suggested that we might wait until the following Monday, but I said there was no time like the present, grabbed the reluctant photographer, and off we toddled in my little car, like an early 90s Noddy and Big Ears.

We arrived at the house, which was surrounded by a seven-feet tall wall, and briefly pondered the ethics of such a situation. But this was the early 90s – bandit country – and they were criminals. This was in the public interest, probably.

I left the engine running in my car and we walked over to the wall. We argued for a moment about who was going to give whom a bunk up to get the picture. In the end, Dave the photographer won, as he was the photographer. I bent over, fingers interlaced and up he went. I staggered a little . . . 

“Leg it!” shouted Dave. He leapt from my hands like a salmon showing off on Britain’s Got Talent. “What? What?” I cried as we raced to the car.

I flung the car into first, floored the accelerator, didn’t move, took the handbrake off, stalled, started the engine again and tore away. In my rear view mirror, I saw three men, of such burliness that light itself bent around them, rush into the street.

It was a full five minutes before I’d gathered myself enough to ask Dave what had happened. And I would ask you to put yourself in the place of the owners of the property.

“Gracious me,” you might think, “Close family members have just been found guilty in a court of law. The last thing I feel like doing right now is hosting this flipping outdoor children’s party.

“Hang on a moment, who is that man with the camera, whose head has appeared atop the security wall? Should I call the police? I’d better not, lest I be thrown out of the Desperate Criminals club. I’ll just send Bruiser, Fists of Death and Declan out to give him a good talking to. Honestly, what atrocious timing!”

I left reporting not long after that incident. I didn’t fancy a repeat.