Column: September 7, 2011

STANDING in the queue at the litigation-happy, and, consequently, un-nameable fast-food restaurant, I sighed. I had been there for over five minutes, the queue unmoving, and I rued the fact that my order was slightly complicated, which meant I was ineligible to use the Express Service.

I was being punished, frankly, in a manner disproportionate to my transgression, merely because somebody I was with did not like gherkins.

I stared at the unimaginative, but soon-to-be-fed, specimens in the Express Service queue and sighed. Again.

At this stage, I am aware that several readers will be thinking it was all my own fault. “I have no sympathy with you for taking children to that place. If I had my way,” they would say, “I would have you pecked to death by owls, you child abuser. Incidentally, meat is murder.” And I would say, “Oh, I see, it’s all right for owls, is it?” And they would stare at me.

Anyway, I am aware, painfully in some cases, that alternative dining experiences are available, but sometimes they just aren’t, all right?

In any case, further punishment was to come. Autumn arrived and I was called upon to order. I explained to the nice lady how a “plain cheeseburger” was not necessarily a contradiction in terms, although neither of us were entirely convinced. Uniquely, in my experience, the order for five people was correctly honoured.

And then it was plonked on a tray with roughly the size and structural integrity of a beermat, two drinks precariously balanced one atop the other. Her duties discharged, the nice lady said: “Next!” And I was left to carry the tray through a crowd of people. Given that I have never extracted a bone cleanly in Operation, this was some task.

But I was hungry, and somehow I managed to negotiate through people with backpacks, people who don’t like moving, and people who like moving a lot and whose heads were at the same height as the tray – ie, children – without dropping a single chip.

And then I had that feeling, like the one Indiana Jones had when he’d fought the baddies in Egypt to exhaustion and then the man with the massive sword appeared. But I didn’t have a gun. Because I had reached the stairs. And my party was dining on the first floor.

Now, I have had an ambivalent relationship with stairs. On the one hand, I spent most of my tender years reading books and comics sitting on the stairs. On the other hand, I still have a scar on my forehead from when the three-year-old me had a new-sandals- related mishap at the top of a flight.

So I treat stairs with respect. I always go up the up escalator even when both up and down escalators are out of order. I take them, like most men, two at a time going up, and wonder why nobody ever misses out steps on the way down. Give me an opportunity to trip and I will grasp it with both feet. So, if I am carrying something, I will always go upstairs a step at a time.

But these stairs were not ordinary stairs. This was a spiral staircase. What sort of diseased imagination decides that is appropriate in an establishment which requires its clientele to carry trays about the place?

Because when one is carrying a tray in a fast food restaurant, one cannot see the risers of the steps or the treads, so one has to trust that there are no unexpected variations, or one ends up with a faceful of salty chips and carbonated beverage.

But spiral staircase steps have a different depth of tread depending on where one stands. Carrying a tray up a spiral staircase, down which already-bloody-fed customers are frolicking, is like playing chess on the runway at John Lennon Airport with a gibbon.

By the time I got to my seat, my nerves were shot and my chips were cold. I expect this was what the restaurant intended. Next time, I will conform and use the Express queue. I am Winston Smith on the last page of 1984.

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Column: August 31, 2011

IT WAS all Eno’s fault. If she hadn’t told me it would rain, I wouldn’t have had to sit there in pain listening to people whispering, “Don’t his eyes look small without the refracting effect of his glasses?”

I probably need to explain. Eno Eruotor is the usual weather presenter on BBC Northwest Tonight, renowned for her bright clothing, and the way she totters forward on her improbably high heels and steadies herself on the newsreader’s desk at the end of the bulletin. I am probably a little bit obsessed by Eno, but not in a weird or arrestable way.

And when she told the people of the North West in no uncertain terms that it was going to be tipping it down the next morning, I paid attention. What did she have to gain by lying, after all? I went to bed prepared for a soaking the next day, safe in the knowledge that I’d got my mac ready…

I overslept, because I had incorporated the sound of the alarm into my dream and convinced myself that I was up and about. I had done half a morning in work – which I will never get back – before I woke in a panic, and had roughly five minutes to get washed, dressed, breakfasted and to the bus stop.

I tore out of the front door and was halfway up the street when I was gripped by the sense I had forgotten something. “Glasses!” I thought. I wasn’t wearing them. I patted my pocket. There they were. “No! Raincoat!”

I ran back, grabbed my raincoat, and got to the bus stop, to see two buses coming. I couldn’t see which was mine, and didn’t want to stop the wrong one, so I pulled my glasses out of my pocket. They were my sunglasses. And I was late.

“Are you wearing contact lenses, Gary?” somebody said to me as I walked into the office. I don’t know who it was. “Where are your glasses?” asked another person with a different voice.

“I have forgotten them,” I mumbled.

“How can you forget your glasses? You always wear your glasses,” the person helpfully reminded me.

“I just forgot them! It is all Eno’s fault!”

I settled myself at my desk. I could see my monitor if I squinted, so I got on with my work. As the morning progressed, I grew weary of having to explain my bare face to a succession of people who had felt it necessary to inform me I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Eventually, I snapped when one colleague suggested that I get a Larry Grayson-style chain for my glasses. “How would that help me? I forgot to pick my glasses up! That would only help if I NEVER took them off. Do you think I sleep in my glasses? Do you think I shower wearing my glasses? Perhaps you think I have windscreen wipers on them?”

My colleague Emma Johnson, who writes on matters stylish for this newspaper and goes “to the clubs” asked me if my sunglasses were prescription. I said they were. “Why don’t you wear them?”

“Because I work indoors in Liverpool, and not outdoors in Los Angeles! I am not Lady Gaga.”

She shook her head and continued with her work. And the headache, which I had been expecting, came to visit, along with her daughters, Dizziness and Mild Nausea. I resigned myself to my rubbishy plight and spent the rest of the day softly moaning, apart from when I found I had bought the wrong sandwiches and the volume of my moaning increased.

And then, about half an hour before I was due to go home, I repeatedly banged my head on the desk. I walked over to the coat rack, slipped my hand into the pocket of my raincoat, and pulled out the glasses I had put in there the night before. I am so forgetful that I had forgotten that I had not forgotten my glasses.

I put them on. Nobody noticed, of course. They have come to expect this sort of behaviour from me, which is the cruellest lesson of all.

And Eno lied. Not one drop of rain all day.

Column: August 24, 2011

I HAVE spent a bit of time on the road recently. I won’t go into details but it involved buckets, spades, deckchairs and knotted handkerchiefs.

In any case, I spent a lot of time in the sort of roadside dining establishments where the menus are laminated. This is just as well, as there is a high risk of vomiting on them. Not because of the food, which is uniformly wholesome and tasty, but because of the bumptious tone in which the menu is written.

I will give you a flavour. The following tsunami of magic guff is the blurb for fish and chips . . .

“Do we need to describe the crispy batter? Or go into detail about the piping-hot chips, the Birds Eye garden peas, the wedge of lemon or your essential slice of bread and butter? Thought not.”

Yes. “Thought not, but we’re going to anyway. Because we have to fill in this gigantic, door-sized menu somehow.”

I do not understand the target audience of this painful rubbish. If you have never heard of fish and chips, I imagine this might have a marginal use. But the final, smug “Thought not” is almost designed to make that diner think, “I feel an idiot for never having heard of this dish. I cannot order it in case I make a dreadful faux pas. Actually, looking again, I am not keen on the idea of eating the eye of a bird, either.”

My favourite entry in the Menu of Doom was for scampi and chips. It was fairly straightforward until it went off the rails spectacularly…

“Whole-tail scampi in breadcrumbs – sustainably sourced, of course . . . and served with chips and Birds Eye garden peas. Don’t forget to squeeze your wedge of lemon over it.”

I wonder again at whom this menu is aimed – perhaps there was an incident. Maybe somebody paying his bill at the till next to the lollipops was inconsolable after remembering he hadn’t squeezed his wedge of lemon over his scampi. Maybe it was more serious than that. Maybe it was more like this . . .

A LITTLE CHEF, THE BACK OF BEYOND.

DINER: Waitress, I require a quantity of sugar, some water, ice and a glass.

WAITRESS: Certainly, sir.

DINER: And a lemon squeezer.

WAITRESS: Sir?

DINER: You stupid woman! You have given me a lemon wedge. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it as I am a cretin. So I asked all my friends on Facebook, and apparently if life gives one lemons, one is obliged to make lemonade.

WAITRESS: I think you might have the wrong end of the stick. Allow me . . .

DINER: What have you done?! You have accidentally got lemon juice on my scampi, no doubt ruining it. I am going to sue you and the little chef after whom this establishment is named. Antony Worrall Thompson, probably.

DINER STRIPS OFF, RUNS AROUND RESTAURANT NAKED, SETS FIRE TO CURTAINS AND RACK OF TERRIBLE BOOKS.

The worst thing is, the Little Chef menus have actually raised their tone in recent years. Previously, fish and chips, scampi and chips, and steak and ale pie were “fish ‘n’ chips”, “scampi ‘n’ chips” and “steak ‘n’ ale pie.”

That is right. Somebody, somewhere, in Little Chef Towers, or, more likely, in a marketing “break-out area” full of people who would rather be seen on a park bench with a bag of sweets next to Gary Glitter than in a Little Chef, had decided that the word “and” was too highfalutin for the likes of the chain’s customers.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and Little Chef, under the influence of Heston Blumenthal, a man so born to the role he even sounds like a motorway service station, is improving.

Now all they need to do is stop treating their customers like simpletons. Then we can leave our buckets in the car with our spades.

Column: August 17, 2011

THE candles guttered in the draught, casting jerky and misshapen shadows of the noblemen on the walls of the games room.

In the amber light, the players stared at the cards fate had dealt them. The only sound was the crackling from the fireplace, and the soft chatter from the womenfolk in the drawing room.

One of the men laid down his cards with an aching sigh. “This hand is bobbins,” he said. “Can’t we play snap?”

“No,” said John Montagu, Fourth Earl Of Sandwich, “We will continue to play the game Faro, this being the 18th century and Faro, consequently, being all the rage. Besides, my hand is a corker.”

Outside the room, the servants hovered and havered. “What shall we do?” they asked. “Dinner will go cold if his Lordship doesn’t end his game. And then her Ladyship will go ape. It will be as bad as the Battle of Culloden, which happened recently according to Wikipedia.”

“You will have to tell him,” the chief butler told a pageboy.

The pageboy was shoved into the room. Gingerly, he approached the Earl.

“Your Earl of Sandwichness?” said the page.

“What is it, Ginger?”

“Your dinner’s ready.”

“Damn and blast it, boy! Can you not see that I have some cards which are quite good in the game Faro, which is currently popular? Go and put your head in the … Wait! I have an idea.”

And he whispered in Ginger’s ear. Ginger disappeared and returned with two slices of bread and some salt beef.

“Look!” The Earl said to his companions. “I have liberated us from the tyranny of the knife and fork.” He slipped the beef in between the two slices of bread. “I have made… a SANDWICH.”

The other noblemen clapped and said what a clever chap Montagu was. “That is the best thing since sliced bread,” said one of them. “In fact, if anything, it finally provides a function for sliced bread.”

But when Montagu went to pick up his “sandwich” he saw Ginger had whipped away the plate. “What the devil?” roared the Earl.

“Sorry, your Earl of Sandwichness,” said Ginger. “Needed to make a few adjustments.”

“What is this?” Montagu said, pointing at the plate.

“Garnish, boss. Some lovely crisps…”

“Well, that’s all right, I can pick them up with my fingers. But salad? Yes, I can pick up the quarter of tomato, and the cucumber slice, but the lettuce is pushing it.”

“Oops, nearly forgot,” said Ginger, and he dolloped a load of coleslaw on the plate.

“What’s the point of that?” said Montagu. “Now I HAVE to use a knife and fork. You have completely obliterated any advantage of having a sandwich at all.”

“Can’t help it, boss. That is how sandwiches have to come. It is catering law.”

“Oh, bad luck,” said one of the noblemen, the one who wanted to play snap, and who was secretly jealous that Sandwich had managed to have something named after him. “Never mind, maybe one day you will invent something useful…”

“Wait!” said Montagu. “I have it! In around 250 years, I expect there will be a man in his late thirties on his holidays. Perhaps he will be from Liverpool and wear spectacles.

“Most days while he is on his holiday he will have a sandwich for his lunch for convenience, and, no matter where he goes, he will receive it with crisps, a quarter of tomato, a slice of cucumber, two massive pieces of lettuce and a gigantic splop of coleslaw. Every bloody time with no variation. In the end it will drive him insane.”

“Isn’t that a long shot?”

“Yes,” said the Earl of Sandwich. “But if my name can be used just to make somebody not yet born slightly fed up in a cafe, it is worth it.”

The jealous nobleman sighed. “I wish I could have something named after me, but it is just a hopeless dream.”

“Never mind,” said Montagu. “I will let you play snap. Will that cheer you up, Lord Kentucky Fried Chicken?”

Column: July 27, 2011

IF I AM good at one thing – and even then I am probably overstating matters – then it is queuing. It rarely comes up in an interview situation, which is why I reluctantly stopped putting it on my CV, but I am proud of my ability to line up and wait.

I have a queuing stance – weight on one foot, alternating as required. I even have a queuing face, which I have noted when waiting in shops which have a mirror behind the counter. It is a cross between “determined” and “bored”, which is a difficult look to carry off.

My powers of queuing are best in evidence when I am next in line to use a cash machine. I stand the correct distance away from the person at the machine, so I am unable to see his or her PIN code when it is typed in, but not so far away that I would need a sit-down during my journey to the machine.

Why I do this, I do not know. There is no risk to the person in front from my seeing his or her PIN code. I am not a criminal. I wouldn’t even know where to start when planning a mugging. I would be all self-conscious, and still be clearing my throat before saying, “Stick ’em up!” despite my intended target having sauntered halfway down the street.

Even if I were bundled into a Transit van by a pair of burly toughs and threatened with torture unless I revealed the PIN code of the person in front, whose card the robbers had stolen, my terrible, if quirky, memory would fail me and I would volunteer Victor Meldrew’s telephone number “4291.”

Anyway, the point is, I am good at queuing. But this makes me intolerant of those who are bad at queuing… like the man who was in front of me in the cash machine queue this week.

Picture the scene. There was a man at the machine, another man behind him, and then me. And then there were some other people, but they are not relevant to the story, so you can crop them out.

I was staring at the man in front of me and thinking, “This man is rubbish at queuing. He is much too far away from the man at the machine. Move forward, you idiot.”

But he did not move forward. He stayed resolutely TOO FAR AWAY from the machine. Perhaps he was a reformed criminal, fighting off temptation. It did not matter. At the time, I hated him and his rubbish queuing.

And then it happened. The thing I had feared. A woman walking along the street, texting and not paying attention, stood behind the man at the machine.

Technically, she was jumping the queue in front of me. But I did not mind, because I was right, and it was Rubbishy McQueuer who had to deal with the situation. 

It was not pretty, and Texting Woman gave as well as she was given, but it was an enjoyable spectacle and, I hope, has provided him with a blueprint for his future conduct.
It was some sort of karmic payment for the experience I had a couple of weeks ago. In the film Unbreakable, Samuel L Jackson, whose character has extremely brittle bones, posits that there must be a man who is invulnerable to injury to offset his own weakness.
In a shop I met my cosmic opposite.

I queued patiently behind him for five minutes, gallingly watching others who had arrived after me be served before me, before he was approached by a woman walking away from the till with her purchases and they left together.

It was only then I saw the little sign in front of which he had been standing: “Queue other end.”

This was the anti-me – a man who was so bad at queuing that he appeared to be queuing when he was not.

My only hope is that he was so discomfited by the peculiar man who stood behind him for five full minutes, staring down his neck, that he is still having bad dreams about him.

Column: July 20, 2011

I FEEL sorry for Rupert Murdoch. As I watched him being grilled about things that happened a couple of years ago, I felt a great sense of sympathy for the Wizened of Oz. And this was before the idiot with the white foam.

For I, too, suffer from his affliction. They say there are two sorts of people in this world: those who can remember things.

I have a dreadful memory. My uncanny ability to wipe information from people’s minds is almost a super-power, if it weren’t for the fact that it only works on me and that I have no control over it. If I were in the X-Men, my code-name would be Forgeto.

It has caused me more grief than any of my many other failings, because people assume it is actually laziness. Far from it.

If anything, the firefighting that my forgetfulness causes me to do expends far more energy than the performance of the tasks I have forgotten. If I could get back all the time I have lost unnecessarily making up ground for stuff that has slipped my memory, I would be retired by now.

Occasionally, well-meaning types ruffle my hair and tell me I have a memory like a sieve. And I say to them, “Oh, that is very good. Did you come up with that one yourself, or did you get it out of the Bumper Book of Rubbish Clichés?” And they say, “Well, at least I haven’t left my umbrella on the bus.” And I look at my shoes and tuck the black sheathy umbrella cover sticking out of my pocket farther inside.

But they are right. My memory is like a sieve, but not any sieve which could work in the real world, because it lets all the big stuff, like loved ones’ birthdays, fall through its holes, and keeps all the small stuff, like Superman’s birthday (February 29). This is what makes people think I do not care. They ask, “How can you know all the words to The Beverly Hillbillies theme tune, but not remember that report is due today?” And I say, “What report?”

Other well-meaning types take me to one side and try to organise me. “Yes, yes,” they say. “I’ve got a terrible memory, too. So what I do is I write everything down in a diary or notebook, and then I don’t forget things. Why don’t you try that?”

And I say to them, “No, you don’t have a terrible memory. Because YOU remember to write things down. And then you remember that you have a diary or notebook with things you’ve got to do written down in it. And later you remember to read it. You’ve actually got an absolutely brilliant memory, because you remember things some time BEFORE you are meant to do them.”

I did once feel guilty about my ability to retain trivia at the expense of important things, so I tried the “writing things down” trick. It did not work and I nearly missed my girlfriend’s 18th birthday meal as a result. This was 20 years ago, by the way, I am not Hugh Hefner.

We had not been going out very long and she phoned me to tell me the time of the meal. As soon as I put the phone down, I ran to get a pen, phones being essentially fixed devices in those days of black and white internet and 15p Mars bars. I wrote it down, “8.30” and put it next to the phone. There was no way I was forgetting it.

It was 7pm on the night of the birthday meal, and I was in the bath. It was pushing it, admittedly, with regard to the time, but I was keen to be clean and tidy. So when my mother knocked on the bathroom door with the news that my girlfriend’s entire family was waiting outside in their car, I wasn’t really in a position to receive guests.

It transpired that in the period between putting down the phone and writing down the time, I had forgotten my girlfriend had said, “7.30” and decided it was “8.30.” I later married her, and, ironically, none of her family has ever forgotten the event.

Oh, yes! “And people who can’t remember things.”

Column: July 13, 2011

THEY pop up during the course of my day unexpectedly, in my bag, or perhaps a coat I haven’t worn for a while. “We are of no use,” they say, “And it is all your fault, you four-eyed idiot.”

I do not even know what they are called, but they are the sheaths which encase all the umbrellas I have lost. They were stuffed in my pocket in a hurry, the element of surprise being essential to the concept of a sudden downpour, and never reunited with the umbrella which provides them with their raison d’etre.

And so they lie there, like gargantuan slugs on a diet, or, more accurately, like something else which I am not going to get into. So to speak. And they mock my basic inability to keep an umbrella long enough for it to be mangled by the wind and then stuffed into a roadside bin. They might as well be made of crepe paper and dreams for all the use I get from them.

I suppose there is a part of my subconscious which thinks: “This umbrella is rubbish. It basically keeps the hair on the top of my head and part of my neck dry, and nothing else.

“If I were Clive Anderson, I would derive absolutely no benefit from this umbrella. Just leave it there, under the bus seat. Go on. Get off the bus and leave it behind. Spite the black sheathy thing in your pocket by depriving it of its single purpose.”

So that is what I do. It is an unsustainable model.

And that is why I invested in a massive black golfing umbrella. When I unfurl this beauty, I thought, nobody in a radius of one American city block is getting wet, that is how good it is.

Admittedly, if I do not pay attention, one gust of wind is going to carry me 200 feet up and three miles away, but that is a risk I am willing to take to keep my tie slightly drier than otherwise.

It was a black day when I took my umbrella out for the first time. Literally. It was last week. The sky was coal and the air was treacle. A hard rain was gonna fall. But not on me, for I had Mega-Brolly.

But Mega-Brolly, while handy in the event of a downpour, does have its faults. I had it gripped in the same hand as my bag as I walked to the bus stop, which was awkward, but no more awkward than carrying a normal umbrella.

However, when I arrived at the bus stop, I decided I would swap hands. And I deftly swished the sharp point of my umbrella an inch away from the naked eyes of the woman standing next to me. Mega-Brolly, so useful when freed of its shackles, is a swine when furled. It can put somebody’s eye out. Combined with my sense of spatial awareness, it becomes a deadly weapon.

The woman used her thankfully intact eyes to regard me coolly. I apologised and sat as far away from her as I could on the bus. And I understood why jousting has fallen out of favour in recent years while other equestrian sports continue to thrive. It is because it is very difficult to travel on a bus with a lance.

I stood up and tried to stow my giant umbrella in the bag stowing area. It would not fit, its silver tip sticking out into the aisle, a bottom-themed accident waiting to happen.

Shamed, I took it back to my seat. The only seat on the bus with no room underneath to stow away an umbrella.

I stood it in the aisle and held it as if it were a staff. I looked like Gandalf the Tax Inspector. This was fine, but the bus was filling up so I had to put Mega-Brolly between my knees.

We hit a pothole. I was chinned by the umbrella handle and I bit my tongue.

In short, it was the least comfortable bus journey I had ever been on. And regular readers will be aware that there is a fair deal of competition for that title.

I stumbled off the bus, into the light. Not blackness. There were no rain clouds in the city centre. In fact, it didn’t rain all day. I had done it all for nothing.

And, in a pocket somewhere, a black sheathy thing laughed.