Column: October 26, 2011

I DO not spend much time over the course of a year worrying about whether I have a hole in my sock, but the vast majority of that time is spent sitting on little leather banquettes in shoe shops.

The rest of the time I worry about having a hole in my sock is when I go to the sort of house where they make one take one’s shoes off in the vestibule – the sort of house where they put things away, are always dusting their ornaments, and never read books.

I am sure I would not thrive in Japan. I would have a nervous breakdown by the end of the first week. By the end of the second week, I would be a folk devil, akin to the bogeyman, inspiring films – Godzilla V Colossal Four-Eyed Shoe Man.

Allied to my genuine and deep-seated fear of the exposed sock fissure is my continuing inability to get to grips with fastening shoelaces.

I was not a dexterous or co-ordinated child – very different, of course, from the suave, competent, James Bond figure about whom you read in this space every week – and I was the last one in my class to learn how to tie my shoelaces. As a result, I overcompensate, with a double or sometimes even triple knot, pulled very tightly.

This is all very well, and there is little danger of my shoes flying off if I launch into a Riverdance routine, which is unlikely of me but not unprecedented. But I have a terrible nervous nail-biting habit, making it difficult for me to untie my shoes.

It is like picking up a heavy pallet with a fork-lift truck made from cotton wool.

By now, you are thinking that I am just a bundle of neuroses, but I assure you I do balance that with a relentlessly sarcastic attitude. A winning combination, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Anyway, I have developed a compensatory knot-loosening technique over the years. It involves the use of a sharp canine tooth and is not for public display.

So the last thing I needed, with my sock hole dread, and my knot difficulty, was the shoe shop assistant standing over me while I tried on a new pair of shoes at the weekend.

“Please look away,” I thought. She did not. I decided to kick off my untidy old shoes.

However, I had chosen a triple-knot. No matter how hard I pushed down on the heel with the toe of the other shoe I couldn’t get the shoe off. The assistant continued to watch, horribly fascinated.

I crossed my leg, and started to tug the shoe with my bare hands. It came off, but at a heavy cost. I strained my calf, causing a pain exactly like the pain of a calf cramp sustained in bed. In my head, I shouted, “Ooyah!” as I would have done in bed. But, watched by the assistant, I had to contain myself. A little tear pricked at my eye.

The other shoe came off more easily. I looked down, preparing myself for the worst.

Despite the heavy punishment of the preceding 90 seconds, my socks had held. A small victory. The assistant walked behind me, the spectacle now over. “Ha, ha!” I thought. “You have no idea how I’m going to undo these laces.”

I tried on the new shoes, forcing myself to tie them like a normal person. They fitted perfectly. Another small victory. I was on a roll. I slipped them off, and picked up my rubbishy old shoes, their knots bulging like hernias.

I gave the knots a cursory attempt with my useless fingers, for the sake of due diligence, then went straight in, like Dracula at a black pudding factory. And as my canine loosened the first knot, I was suddenly aware, out of the corner of my eye, that the assistant was standing behind me, from her perspective effectively watching me eat a shoe.

“Oh, please!” I said, my patience gone. “Can’t you leave me alone for a second? I’m not a thief. You don’t have to watch me all the time.”

I turned to face her. It was actually a customer, who wasn’t even looking until the man with the shoe dangling from his mouth accosted her.

Column: October 19, 2011

IF CAR parking were a school playground sport – and, for the sake of our children, I am glad it is not – I would be the last one to be picked. I have poor spatial awareness and an ambivalent relationship with heavy machinery.

Nevertheless, I was, on the second attempt, adjudged to be sufficiently proficient at parking to be allowed onto society’s roads. Sometimes it makes me wonder just how low the bar was set – as I invariably park at an unsatisfactory angle – and I shiver.

Anyway, I recently drove to do my shopping in Warrington, mostly to give the exasperated shop assistants of Liverpool a rest. I didn’t crash, not even once, and I looked for the multi-storey car park I had been promised.

“You’ve gone past it,” said my travelling companion, inevitably. “What?” I said. “Was that it? That’s virtually a concealed entrance. Did Warrington council tell the developers they had to do that to make sure local people who know where the entrance is get preferential treatment?”

“Just turn around,” my companion sighed. “No need,” said I, “there’s another one down here.”

“There aren’t as many places in this one.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. ”The sign says there are 53 free spaces. Even I can park in one of 53 free spaces.”

I turned into the second multi-storey car park and took my ticket at the barrier. It was dark. A sign informed me I was on Level 1. There were many cars and not many spaces, and so, as I would have done in IKEA, I followed the arrows. After all, when in Warrington . . .

The arrows took me past a coned-off area, where improvements were taking place. There was nobody implementing the improvements, but a sign said work was ongoing. It was at this point my faith in signs showed evidence of fraying, but I continued to follow the arrows and search for a space.

My hopes were raised, and then dashed, by a couple of Aitches of Disappointment, with which you will probably be familiar. If you are not, an Aitch of Disappointment occurs when one small car is parked between two longer cars, giving the impression that a space is available, an impression dispelled the second after the driver behind sees one’s indicator flashing.

And then I was back where I started. I had trawled all of Level 1 and found nothing. “They must be upstairs,” I said. I followed the arrows again, looking for the ramp for Level 2.

And then I was back where I started. Again. And I was suddenly aware that I was being followed by a number of cars, their drivers assuming I knew where I was going. This was the worst parade ever.

I couldn’t find the ramp, so I decided to go off piste to find it. I turned down an aisle. The cars followed me. I reached a dead end. So did the other cars. Somehow, I was able to turn my car around and I drove back, passing the other drivers. They did not look especially impressed. I was so desperate, I found myself wondering if my occasional “policeman’s heel” qualified me for disabled parking.

I dismissed the notion, and rejoined the path of the arrows, driving past the coned-off area for a third time.

And suddenly everything became horribly, mercilessly clear. The coned-off area was roughly the size of 50 free spaces. Possibly even 53 free spaces. And while this was incontestably Level 1, it could have been more accurately labelled Level 1 And Only.

Worse. I had spent so long trying to find a parking space, I was now trapped in the car park. I had to pay to get out. And I had nowhere to park so I could go to the station and pay. This wasn’t a car park, it was a paradox.

I suggested to my travelling companion that she jump out and pay, while I led the parade once more around the now-familiar car park, my second home.

She did so, and ten minutes later, my car was parked in a virtually empty car park, at an unsatisfactory angle.

Column: October 12, 2011

AS EVER, it was my own fault.

Last week, I worked a late shift which meant I was at large during daylight hours. I took advantage of my not being in work while shops are open to donate a couple of items to charity.

I do not tell you this so that you will garland me for my largesse, but to explain how I came to be carrying a cot mattress in high winds down a busy street.

If you have never carried a cot mattress in high winds, you can simulate the experience by placing a cot mattress against the nearest brick wall, placing your face against the mattress, and then attempting to walk through the wall.

Several passers-by stared at me as I wrestled the mattress into the shop. I assumed at the time it was out of appreciation for an impromptu display of slapstick comedy, but later events were to suggest otherwise.

I get ahead of myself. When I returned to my car, I noted, with some regret, that I had driven through the largest pile of dog dirt this side of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I sighed, and got into the car. “What’s that smell?” asked my companion, a woman of my long acquaintance. I explained. She also expressed some regret for my actions and off we drove.

“I’m going to have to get that cleaned off,” I said, unnecessarily. “We’ll go to that car wash we went to last time.”

“Shame you’re driving, it’s 20% off for women there today,” my companion replied.

“We can easily rectify that,” I said. And I turned into a narrow side street. I performed a 17-point turn and got out of the car. I held my nose. “Oo dwive in and ged the discount. I’ll beat you ad dat buzdop over the woad.”

She drove to the car wash and I popped into a newsagent’s to get the Daily Post. I considered this to be an unremarkable process, the newsagent was on a road I travel down on the bus every day. And the newsagent’s shop itself was one I often used to visit as a teenager when it was a comics shop.

But as I walked down the road I felt slightly intimidated. Things had changed since my youth. Most of the shops were boarded up or shuttered. There were few people about, and those who were looked at me suspiciously, including two men who, when they passed me, sniggered. I was sure much of this was paranoia. It is entirely possible they were sizing me up to see if I was the sort who would respond positively to the offer of a nice cup of tea and crumpets.

However, I surmised it was mostly down to the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie, a sartorial choice associated in those parts very much with The Man.

I hurried to the bus stop and waited. The waiting passengers also stared at me. I was feeling very uncomfortable.

“Look!” I wanted to say, “Yes, these days I live in a more salubrious area, but at heart I am one of you. I was born in Everton. I went to school down the road. I am not The Man, I am a simple newspaper columnist, who occasionally writes satirical articles which are, if anything, mildly critical of The Man.”

But they continued to stare, until their various buses arrived and they departed, and there were just two of us left – me and an old woman. And her bus was coming. She gave me another look as if to say, “This is the only other bus which comes here. Why are you not getting this bus? Are you some sort of weirdo who gets his kicks standing at bus stops?”

Why did I put myself through this humiliation, I thought? I’d saved 80p, tops, by not staying in my car. I’d have paid twice that not to have to do this.

And then, as the old woman shuffled past me to get on the bus, she said to me softly: “I don’t like to say, love, but you’ve got dog shit on your trouser leg.”

Column: October 5, 2011

I DO not have Posh Telly, so I am occasionally left out of conversations. “What did you think of Treme last night?” people will ask me.

“Oh, is that how you pronounce it? I thought it rhymed with cream.”

“You don’t have Posh Telly, do you, Gary?”

And they move on, keen to discuss The Greatest Long-Winded American Import Since The Last One with other people willing to shell out a million pounds a month to watch repeats of The Sopranos and every second of the action from the pulsating Bolton Wanderers v Stoke City clash.

I do, of course, have Freeview, which gives me as many channels as I am able to manage, so I understand the concept of channel identity in a multi-channel world.

For example, if I want to watch an episode of QI from 2008 – which I never do – I know I can find it on Dave, or if I want to think “Friends isn’t on any more,” I can do that by watching E4.

The company behind Dave perfected this stratification of programming by splitting its output into very distinct channels. I am sorry for that sentence, but I am in the media and we do actually talk like that. Good Food is about food, G.O.L.D. is repeats of Gavin & Stacey and Fawlty Towers, and Yesterday is documentaries about the Nazis. It is a good system and we all know where we are.

But it is becoming a bit confusing. It all started with Yesterday, which decided that there weren’t enough documentaries about the past in the BBC back catalogue, and started showing episodes of All Creatures Great And Small, presumably on the grounds that it was set in the past, and was also on the television in the past, so that is a double whammy of being-in-the-past-ness.

Some would consider that a spurious argument, but there is little more subtle than the intellect of a television scheduler. It is not for us to question these decisions, only marvel at them.

Nevertheless, I was astonished to see a trailer on the channel Really for Being Human.

Now, Really is a channel of documentaries. That is why it is called Really. The bar is set fairly low, admittedly; we are not talking Shoah. We are talking Help! I Eat Too Many Pasties, Betty: Sex Addict At 83, and My Mum Has A Gigantic Head.

But Being Human is not strictly speaking a documentary. Strictly speaking, it is a drama series about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living in a shared house. Admittedly, it is filmed in quite a naturalistic style, but it is very much pushing at the boundaries of what would normally be considered a documentary.

The only explanation I can think of is that the controller of Really has watched so much Twilight and True Blood and, I don’t know, the Count on Sesame Street, that he or, more likely she, given the Twilight viewing habit, believes that vampires and werewolves are real. I am going to call her Roz because I cannot be bothered checking on Google and I am comforted by the fiction.

And Roz has seen Being Human on BBC Three and got it mixed up in her head with the constructed “reality” shows The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea, which is reasonable, as Being Human, with its tooth-centred murders and exploding lycanthropes, is often more believable.

I don’t know how she explains the fact that various people featured in Being Human resemble actors who appear in other shows. Nor do I understand how she explains the change in the appearance of the ghost between the first episode, in which she resembled the white actress Andrea Riseborough, and subsequent episodes, in which she resembles the mixed-race actress Lenora Crichlow. Maybe she thinks it is one of those inexplicable supernatural phenomena.

Perhaps Roz is even now planning an original show for her channel, “Crikey! I’m A Supernatural Lookalike Of A Prominent TV Actor.”

If that were on Posh Telly, I would definitely subscribe.

Column: September 28, 2011

I DO not know what it is like to be a bear with a sore head, but I know what it is like to be a human with a sore head and I can extrapolate.

I imagine it is much the same, except it would be much more difficult for a bear to open a child-proof bottle of pills or pop a couple out of a blister pack. I do have to say at this point that “blister pack” is the worst name I have seen for something essentially positive since I saw “pitted dried plums” for sale in Costco.

I have suffered from a number of headaches over the past few days. Do not panic, readers, I am coping manfully, by which I mean I am ruthlessly extracting maximum sympathy from onlookers by protesting that I will be fine and sighing while holding the back of my hand to my forehead and getting on with my work.

I have to do this because I also suffer from migraines. People sometimes say that they have a migraine when all they have is a headache because it sounds a bit more middle- class, but a headache to an actual migraine is a scraped knee to a full amputation, or a mild annoyance to a Piers Morgan.

A proper migraine makes everybody – man or woman – take to their beds and pray for sweet oblivion. So if I make a big fuss about a mere headache, it devalues my migraines.

On Sunday, the first of my headaches arrived, and it was an Antony Worrall Thompson on the Piers Morgan Scale, enough for medical intervention. I went to the cupboard, pulled out the paracetamol and took two. It was a pointless exercise on a par with raking the garden while leaves are still falling, coincidentally the exact activity in which I was engaged when the headache struck.

For paracetamol is the worst painkiller in the world. Take two pills and it does nothing. Take fifty-two and it kills you. That has to be the most rubbish of all drugs, a drug which does nothing but harm. If you think I am spouting drivel and paracetamol has given you relief from your own headaches, I would contend that what you have done is taken for a headache the sensation of a butterfly gently stroking its silken wing across your forehead.

Anyway, the paracetamol didn’t shift the headache, so I tried a magic menthol Chapstick-like thing, which one smears over the area affected. It did not remove the headache, but it did overlay it with an entirely unpleasant tingling sensation, and a nagging smell of throat sweets.

The second headache – a Janet Street-Porter – landed on Monday, while I was in work. “Ow,” I moaned.

“What?” asked a colleague.

“Headache,” I said.

“Have you got any paracetamol?” replied the colleague.

“No,” I said, darkly. “Just popping out.”

The pain was getting worse – Janet Street-Porter on Question Time. I went into a shop and picked up a packet of ibuprofen and a bottle of water. I should be able to swallow tablets without water – I swallow bigger items of food without it – but, in my defence, I am pathetic. I rushed to the counter. Janet Street- Porter was being joined by Michael Winner on the This Week sofa.

And then the shop assistant started chatting to me! “They reckon it’s going to be sunny this week. What is it, an Indian summer? Ha ha, I’d have been happy with a normal summer. Oh, it was terrible wasn’t it? Did you go abroad . . . ?”

I couldn’t believe it. I had a packet of ibuprofen and a bottle of water. Did she think I’d bought them on a whim? One day I might have a headache, you never know. I can’t think of a clearer statement of need and intent than standing there with headache pills and the means to take them. The frustration was fuelling the pain. I had reached Stage One Hazel Blears.

The penny obviously dropped. “Oh, have you got a migraine?” she finally said.

“Yes,” I replied. It was easier.

And now I can feel another headache coming on. Hear me roar.

Column: September 21, 2011

I WAS having my morning shave, fending off the incongruously ginger beard which has threatened to overwhelm me for the past 20 years.

I have one of those battery-powered wet-shave razors, which is like an ordinary wet-shave razor except that it buzzes, so I was finding it difficult to hear John Humphrys cutting short various studio guests on the radio.

Much as I enjoy listening to arguments and Garry Withersport, the radio’s primary use for me in the morning is to ensure that I get out of the house on time. “Have I got time to attend to my monobrow with my buzzy razor?” I ask. “It’s a quarter past seven,” says James Naughtie. “No,” I say.

But, halfway through John Humphrys stopping somebody from talking, John Humphrys stopped talking. I whirled around, shaving foam flying all over the shop.

The digital radio was dead. “Gah!” I thought. “The batteries have run out.”

I panicked and grabbed my toothbrush. I picked up the toothpaste. It was in one of those new- fangled standy- uppy tubes, with a plunger on the top which one depresses to dispense a uniform amount of paste. I pushed the plunger and nothing came out. It was completely empty.

“O tempora! O mores!” I cried out, or words to that effect.

“What?” came a voice from outside.

“Nothing!” I called. But it was not nothing. I was fuming. This would not have happened when I had a normal FM radio and a proper squeezy toothpaste tube. Because they would have given me adequate warning that their stocks were running out.

The radio would have become gradually cracklier and quieter, the toothpaste tube would have been obviously curly. And the day before I would have replaced the batteries and the toothpaste tube, or, more likely, it would have been done for me because I would have forgotten.

Once again, something designed to make life easier for me has turned me into a slavering monster full of hatred for humanity.

I have been involved in the creation of new products myself, and I know that a lot of research goes into their likely reception, so it is inconceivable these failings had not cropped up. The only explanation is that the manufacturers have done it on purpose. I wonder why this is, and here I am wondering . . .

THE SMASHING RADIO AND TOOTHPASTE COMPANY BOARDROOM.

MD: Well, this is all very impressive, Figgis. A toothpaste tube which distributes a uniform amount of paste! And a radio with crystal-clear sound as long as it isn’t raining and access to 400 Absolute Radio stations, all playing more or less the same music! Teething troubles?

FIGGIS: Weeeeell, we haven’t given any indication that batteries or toothpaste are about to run out. But that is easy enough to fix . . .

MD: Over my dead body!

FIGGIS: Sorry?

MD: I love the uncertainty! We are cosseted in this world of fax machines and antibiotics, unlike in Medieval times when people were dropping dead all the time and people just said: “Oh, good, dad’s dead. More gruel for me.”

FIGGIS: Erm . . .

MD: What better way to remind people of the arbitrary nature of the Grim Reaper’s cold touch and the need to seize the day while one still lives than not giving them any sort of clue when their appliances will go pear-shaped?

FIGGIS: But won’t people, for example a man with glasses in his late 30s who just wants to get to work on time in the morning and doesn’t want to have to look for bloody toothpaste at a quarter to bloody eight in the morning, hate us and want to throw rocks at us?

MD: Mark my words, Figgis, we are making the world a better place. One day, even he will come to love us.

I promise you I will grow a ginger beard before that happens.

Column: September 14, 2011

I HAVE been fastidious in detailing my many inadequacies in this column. Yet I am aware that, like the various species of the Amazon basin, there are many more to be discovered.

Nevertheless, I have mentioned previously that I should not be approached for directions. I am an anti-compass, or, more accurately, a pocket watch which has been mistaken for a compass and so is occasionally, if coincidentally and unpredictably, correct.

The point is the British public has been warned, and what unfolds here was clearly not my fault, any more than it would be the fault of the hungry lion if, say, Jedward climbed into his enclosure, sprayed lion-attracting scent all over their stupid bodies, and cried: “Come and play with us, lion, for everyone loves us!”

I had staggered off the bus on my way into work. It had not been an easy journey. Some-one had been leaning against the bell and it rang every time we went over a pothole. Even now, when I hear a bell I jerk in my seat, like Pavlov’s bus passenger. And I’d left my umbrella on it.

I was walking along drizzly Hanover Street, when a car slowed alongside me. “Walk in a brisk, emphatically masculine manner,” I thought, keen not to give out the wrong signals.

“Scuse me, mate,” said a voice from the car, in a Cockney accent, as a bus hissed past on the wet road. “Do you know where Leeds Street is?”

I sighed, and looked in the car, a three-door supermini. There were three men inside: the passenger speaking to me, the driver, and one in the back. “Yes, I thought, I do know where Leeds Street is. It is a stone’s throw from the Liverpool Daily Post Hyperdome, my destination. Were I a crow, I would find it easily.”

However, Liverpool has a one-way traffic system, and describing the route to Leeds Street from Hanover Street would be like solving a Rubik’s Cube over the phone. And it was raining. I made a foolhardy decision.

“It’s a bit complicated, but . . . I’m going that way myself. If you want to give me a lift . . . ?” I said. The three men considered my proposal, then the passenger got out.

“Cheers, mate,” he said, and he tilted the front passenger seat forward. I looked up at him for a moment. He was about four inches taller than me. Then it occurred to me that I was the one going in the back.

I stumbled in, climbing intimately past the passenger in the back, who was wedged in and unable to move, and sat behind the driver, my knees framing my face. And off we went.

It transpired that my knowledge of the one-way system in the city centre was not quite as complete as I had thought. Some roads which I had believed to be one-way were indeed one-way, but in the opposite direction. There was a significant number of three-point turns involved.

“Are you sure you know where this road is?” asked the driver, a laugh in his voice and murder in his heart.

I could see the amount of goodwill I had built up by offering to guide the men was being rapidly burnt away. I became suddenly aware that I could soon be sharing a car with three very hostile strangers. And I didn’t have an umbrella with which I could defend myself.

In the nick of time, by chance more than design, we arrived in Leeds Street. “Sorry about that, lads,” I said. And I clambered over the wedged passenger, introducing my buttocks to his face a second time.

“Cheers, mate. We’re looking for a vanilla factory on here somewhere,” said the front-seat passenger, as he got back into the car.

“Ha ha,” I said. “You’d better ask somebody else for directions to that. You know me.” We laughed.

I scarpered. Because I did know where the Vanilla Factory was. It is pretty much behind where the men had stopped me. Apparently, “Fleet Street” sounds like “Leeds Street” from a car when a wet bus is barrelling past.

Please add cowardice and deafness to my list of inadequacies.