Column: February 2, 2012

THERE exists somewhere the earliest sound film footage of me. I am about nine years old and I am sawing a thin piece of wood.

For four full minutes I saw away, making very little headway, and the only noise on the soundtrack is the rasp-rasp-rasp of the saw and my increasingly frequent sighs as the saw works loose and I have to push it back into the groove. Truly the boy is the father of the man.

It is the most boring footage ever filmed, with the possible exception of any Everton match under Walter Smith, and was captured by Bernard Cammack.

Every family has an Uncle Bernard, one man – and it’s always a man – who is entrusted to chronicle every family party and gathering. In those days his weapon of choice was a Eumig Super 8 cine camera, though in later years he switched to a huge camcorder.

He was never much of a cameraman and editor, but that means there are reels and reels of spliced films going back to the early 1960s, filled with faces and movement of people no longer with us, social history without interpretation, and lots of bad shirts.

There is quite a lot of Bernard in me. I am an Evertonian because he was one. I cannot frame a video shot either. And we share an inability to master our environments.

For example, our extended family went on a caravan holiday to Rhyl. I don’t know which year, every holiday when I was a boy was in Rhyl. I presumed until I was 14 that everybody outside Liverpool spoke Welsh.

My grandmother was concerned that somebody would trip over the iron steps which led up to the caravan door and pushed them under the caravan, just to be safe.

Bernard, an early riser, woke the next morning and decided to take his usual trip to the nearby newsagent’s. And so he stepped out of the caravan.

In my mind’s eye, I see Bernard like Wile E. Coyote, hanging in the air for a moment before the realisation that the steps were not beneath his feet, and he toppled forward onto the gravel.

Some years later, he, along with some other men, was called upon to push a car to get it started. This he was happy to do, and Bernard and the men commenced pushing the car down a steep hill. His reflexes were similar to my own, and when the driver signalled that he was starting the engine, he wasn’t quite quick enough to step back.

The car bolted forward. And so did Bernard, rolling over and over down the hill like the gymnast he was not.

He liked to be helpful, and would occasionally deliver leaflets on my mother’s behalf. After an incident, he discovered a fail-safe way of posting leaflets without being mauled by dogs. He would push a wooden spoon through the letterbox to hold it open, followed by the leaflet.

On occasion, the spoon would be grabbed by the dog and a struggle would ensue. Sometimes Bernard would win, sometimes not. I often wonder what the local chandler’s shop thought about the round man with the glasses who got through an awful lot of wooden spoons. Also, I wonder where the dog-owners of south Liverpool thought the mysterious wooden spoons their pets were chewing came from.

I’ve called him Bernard up to now. I never called him Bernard or even Uncle Bernard. He was Uncle E-Ar at first, because he would give me treats, so often accompanied by the words, “’Ere, y’are,” and later he was just Unc. A one-syllable name, like Mum or Dad.

It was appropriate. I lived with him for 20 years. He was a father to me, took me in when I needed a home, and doted on my own children like a grandfather.

And then he died, 10 years ago this week.

The trouble with being the family’s chronicler is that one is always behind the camera. One never actually appears on the flickering screen.

So this one’s for you, Unc.

And I never did get through that piece of wood.

Column: January 26, 2012

I FOUND myself walking past an Odeon cinema, and wondered idly what was on. I looked at the row of signs outside the cinema, all designed to hold publicity posters, and I found it very informative.

For example, I came away with the understanding that I can use Odeon Points to buy popcorn, and that, were I to switch my phone provider, I would be able to visit the cinema more cheaply on a Wednesday, presuming I was able to get anybody to go to the pictures on a Wednesday.

I was also clear that the establishment was backing British cinema – presumably by showing The Inbetweeners Movie rather than the latest Ken Loach about a Bolton pensioner who lives in a skip.

What I did not know was which films were being shown. Yes, if I had walked up to the small panel with the films on it, I would, eventually, have obtained the information I sought. But I couldn’t be faffed. I am one of those very busy, time-poor people they have these days.

Presumably, a policy decision has been taken to publicise the splendid deals the cinema chain has on snacks – “Buy a large popcorn and we will give you half the deposit on the mortgage you will need to buy a large popcorn” – instead of the films being shown.

To a certain degree, this is understandable. After all, cinema chains make most of their profits by selling snacks.

But nobody has ever said: “You know, Ethan? I am gagging for a hundredweight of popcorn and a Coke cup the size of my head. If only there were somewhere I could obtain such luxuries.”

And nobody has ever replied: “It’s funny you should mention that, Demi-Jade. I saw an advertisement for such luxuries outside that special cafe where it’s dark and all the seats face in the same direction and they have a telly so massive it has to have curtains.”

And nobody has ever replied: “Let’s go, Ethan! After all, it is Wednesday.”

Yet the only film this cinema was publicising to any extent with a poster was The Iron Lady. In Liverpool.

That is like trying to sell “Fergie: My Story” starring, as Sir Alex Ferguson, Kelvin Mackenzie in Liverpool. Or Green Lantern anywhere.

I wonder how cinemas decided upon this insane path. And here I am, wondering . . .

THE SMASHING CINEMA CO. BOARDROOM.

MD: Figgis, I know how we are going to save the cinema industry!

FIGGIS: Sigh.

MD: Thirty-one years ago, I watched the film Raiders Of The Lost Ark and was rapt as Indiana Jones braved traps to reach the treasure. And as I saw him being chased by a massive boulder, I knew . . . this was the future of cinema.

FIGGIS: Big budget blockbusters?

MD: No, danger! We make it as difficult as possible for people to see our films. Then they understand how precious they are. And you can charge a lot more for precious things. And if that means death traps, then so be it!

FIGGIS: There would be health & safety concerns . . .

MD: Oh, typical! Blasted red tape binding the hands of wealth creators.

FIGGIS: We could just make it slightly more difficult for people to find out what’s on, by not publicising the films outside the cinema.

MD: Yes! That’ll do it.

I mention this as part of a rare sortie into the realm of news, rather than intense personal embarrassment.

You may be aware that this very cinema’s staff told of the angry Scousers who demanded their money back after going to see The Artist because it was silent, and black and white. I am as baffled by their displeasure as you. After all, every time one turns on ITV2 it is showing Battleship Potemkin or another flipping Chaplin movie.

That apart, had the poor saps, who probably haven’t subscribed to Sight & Sound for years, seen an actual poster for the film, they would have been in no doubt about its nature, seen something with Adam Sandler in it, and everybody would have been happy, if a little diminished.

Column: January 19, 2012

I HAVE found myself thinking about lifts. This is because this morning, on my way to the Liverpool Post Hyperdome*, I used a lift in Liverpool One.

A disappointed-looking man in his very early forties confronted me as I stepped in. I acknowledged my sad reflection, and noted the glass panel in the side of the lift which faced onto the scene in Paradise Street.

And so, I did what any man wearing glasses and a suit, who has a hint of a kiss curl, and who works for a newspaper, would do: I looked out of the window of the ascending lift and pretended I was flying. I don’t think I made a whooshing sound with my mouth, but I cannot be 100% sure.

It occurs to me that that was one of the very few occasions in my life I have actually enjoyed travelling in a lift. Perhaps I am immune to the exoticism of lifts. After all, for the first three years of my life I lived in a block of flats, using a lift every day.

Even now, the smell of stale urine induces in me a Proustian response and I am whisked back to a time of no responsibility, when it was possible to admit to being a devotee of Gary Glitter and provoke nothing more than hoots of derision instead of inclusion on some sort of register.

And, actually, responsibility is the key to my lift discomfort. I do not like having to stand next to the panel of buttons and ensure the floor choices of the other occupants are honoured.

Conversely, I do not like being at the mercy of somebody else at the panel, and having to enunciate the word “three” six or seven times before the button-pusher understands which floor I want even though he has asked me for a number and only one floor in the building has a number which sounds anything like “three,” so what else could I be saying, really?

Also, I do not trust the “door open” button. I accept that the doors will stay open as long as I am pressing the button, but I am aware that the doors are just dying to close and I am worried that they will start to close in the two seconds between my release of the button and my potentially successful exit. I have seen Speed, I know what can happen.

I do not want you to think I have claustrophobia. I have not. Nor that I am scared of heights, although I am. It is just that a very traumatic incident happened to me while I was in a lift and I think it has coloured my outlook.

I was sharing a lift with a young blonde-haired woman I did not know and staring at the door. I was on button duty, so I was quite tense anyway. And, as occasionally happens – inevitably if life were like an American comedy film – a noise occurred. I do not know if there is a scale for such things, but it would certainly have ranked quite highly.

Crucially, however, it was not mine.

Now, I try to be a polite person. I hold doors open for people and don’t swear in church, etc.

Reader, I claimed the fart.

“Excuse me,” I said. What was I doing? There were two people in that lift. Both of us knew who was responsible. And I had acknowledged the trump, making her aware that I knew what she did. No wonder she became enraged by me.

Then the doors opened. And people stepped into the lift. And they also became aware of what she did. I turned to her. She was looking daggers at me.

The other people clocked this. The implication was clear. She was blaming me. And they believed her, because she was young and pretty, and I am rough and old.

It was a life lesson. I should have left the elephant in the room well alone. Hell’s teeth, it smelled like an elephant.

Anyway, I jumped out of the lift at the earliest opportunity and pressed the up button, delaying her journey by a few moments, so in the end I won.

* If you’re looking to buy sign letters, specifically, D, A, I, L and Y, please contact the management for a good deal.

Column: January 11, 2012

I AM about to reach one of those milestone birthdays, one of those birthdays specifically designed to say, “Ooh, I thought you’d have achieved that by now. Certainly that was the plan, wasn’t it? You’ve probably forgotten about it, at your age.”

I won’t go into specifics. Let us just say that my late thirties are about to become very late and move on.

I know I am getting old because people used to say to me, “Gary, you are going prematurely grey.” And now they just say, “Gary, you are going grey.”

It is very difficult for me to come to terms with this. After all, I still delude myself when I go to the pub that I will have to show identification. And I consider myself a young Turk in the newsroom, even though the actual young Turks think of me as some sort of bumbling eminence grise.

The point is that I am, if I am very lucky, about halfway through my life, with fewer days ahead than behind. So it is time to take stock and make some changes. Sadly, as regular readers will attest, expansive gestures are beyond me.

For example, I won’t be off to Goa to find myself. For a start, I know exactly where myself is: myself is here typing. Also, I really don’t like walking on sand, barefoot or otherwise. Sand is the rubbishest surface about – it is tiring to walk on, liable to conceal sharp objects and gets everywhere. We wouldn’t put up with it if every time we walked on flagstones, we got bits of concrete inside our shoes, so I don’t see what’s so special about sand.

So, the grand plan being beyond me, I have decided to improve the quality of my life in smaller ways. And the first thing I thought would have to change is the pens.

I am sick and tired of picking up a pen and finding out it doesn’t work and then remembering that the last time I picked up that pen it didn’t work either. Every time I fail to throw away a dead pen, I am inflicting a stupid practical joke upon myself somewhere down the line.

I know exactly why I don’t throw the pen away. It is because when I need a pen, I usually need it in a hurry. I pick up a dead pen, scribble once, see no results, scribble again, gouge a hole in the pad or newspaper I am using, say a bad word in my head because I remember that the pen didn’t work last time, and run off in search of a viable instrument.

And when I find a pen that works, I race back to the telephone and forget about my previous minor dead pen trauma, and so the useless pen is reprieved and primed to disappoint me at a later date.

But it is not as simple as that. I think subconsciously I believe that, with a little care and attention, any pen can be coaxed back into life. Just as there is always a bit of toothpaste left in the tube, there’s probably a bit of ink left in the barrel. And because once, just once, after a vigorous bout of scribbling, I revived a previously- dead pen long enough to write my name on the back of my Switch card, I find it hard to let go of the hope that other pens similarly can be given the Frankenstein treatment.

And if that is not a clever metaphor for shaking up one’s life at 40, I don’t know what is. I’m not dead, I just need to be scribbled about a bit and I’ll be as good as new. Or a zombie.

So, I’ll have to think of something else to change. The pens can stay. They have been useful. There is no excuse, however for the underpants with the hole in at the back of my drawer. They’re going first thing tomorrow.

Column: January 4, 2012

“WHERE’S the receipt?” she asked. “In the bag,” I replied. “Are you sure?” she asked, a little too quickly for my liking.

“Yes,” I replied again, with a confidence experience should have dashed on the rocks long ago. But on this occasion, I well remembered the assistant asking me if I wanted the receipt in the bag, and had watched her put the receipt in the bag.

“What, both receipts?”

“Erm, yes,” I said. “Probably,” I thought. “No, definitely, I think. Why wouldn’t the assistant have put it in the bag?”

Come to think of it, I hadn’t been paying as much attention as I should have when I was exchanging the item at the till. It wasn’t my fault. There had been a woman behind me in the queue speaking to her friend.

“Well, you know Marjorie,” she said. “She’s a big fan of royal jelly.”

How was I supposed to function properly after overhearing that? How could I not then imagine a world in which that was an unremarkable comment – the unspoken assertion that, while we all like some royal jelly, especially at Christmas, Marjorie took it just that little bit further, collecting pictures of royal jelly and writing on royal jelly internet forums, etc.

Perhaps there was a little jealousy in her tone. Maybe the woman behind me was one of the people allergic to royal jelly, coming out ironically in hives. Who knew? The point is the specifics of the receipt transaction were hazy and there was no way that was my fault.

We left the stores and went to what the chain’s owners would laughingly call “a restaurant,” and I queued for 20 minutes for some food. When I brought back the cold food to the table where our party was sitting, my wife explained in broad terms that the original receipt, which was our proof of purchase for another 15 items, was not in the bag, despite my assurances.

Furthermore, she suggested that I might like to pop back to the shop and retrieve the receipt. This, of course, I was delighted to do.

And so I found myself back in the queue, painfully aware that the woman who had served me was now on a break, and that I was going to have to offer a complicated explanation of my plight.

“Hello,” I said to the assistant. “I was in here before. Well, over there, actually. And I was bringing something back to exchange, and the other assistant didn’t give me the original receipt and I didn’t notice because . . . ”

This wasn’t the time for my smashing royal jelly anecdote. The assistant went over to the other till and started looking around the place, disrupting operations around that till.

The customer being served there looked across at me in annoyance. I cocked my head and raised my palms signalling that it wasn’t my fault. Actually, I was annoyed myself now. If they’d done their jobs properly, I wouldn’t have had to return and run this gauntlet of mild inconvenience.

And so, in a way, I was glad when the assistant was arm-deep in the bin, scrabbling about, searching for the receipt. But I was a little concerned that the receipt had not yet been recovered. I decided to text my wife to keep her posted. I reached into my pocket for my phone.

I think I knew what it was when I felt it. I pulled it out of my pocket, praying that it was just a piece of paper, with the likes of which my pockets are stuffed. I opened it out and saw a long list of items, the socks which I had returned neatly crossed out in blue ink.

I looked across at the assistant, surrounded by wastepaper and banana skins and despair. “Erm,” I said. She walked across to me. I showed the piece of paper. “I think this is . . . ”

“I’ve just been in the bins for you,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Still, at least we’ve found it, eh?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Next!” she said.

I must learn to mind my own beeswax.

Column: December 28, 2011

A SITCOM thing I’d written with my friend Griff was being performed on stage in London earlier this month.

I appreciate this makes me sound like the sort of go-getting winner you have not come to expect, but I assure you that it was only a statistically irrelevant blip in my ongoing chart of failure.

In any case, I found myself compelled to go down to the capital and watch it, on the off-chance that the various BBC radio comedy producers we had invited turned up.

Now, one can count the times I have been to London on the fingers of both hands. Actually, one can count the times I have been to London on the fingers of Homer Simpson’s hands, as it is exactly eight.

Consequently, the novelty of riding on the Tube, 24-hour souvenir tea-towel stores, and bumping into people has not yet worn off, and I wander the streets, marvelling at red buses.

But, on this occasion, I did not wish to appear gauche. I am a grown man, with a mortgage, who mostly buys his own shoes. And so I fetched up at my hotel reception affecting world-weariness, as if I were the sort of James Bond figure who spends most of his life in hotels.

I told the Eastern European gentleman behind the counter my name three times, then spelled it, then just dumbly pointed to it on his screen, and he called for a porter to show me to my room.

He opened the door and led me in. It was quite a small room. I have eaten bigger crispbreads. And then he showed me where everything was in my room. I knew where this was leading. I’ve seen films.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a five-pound note. Then I shook his hand, passing the cash into his.

“Thank you, sir,” said the porter, and he legged it. I closed the door, and sat down on the bed. And the enormity of the situation finally rested upon me, crushing me like four hippos playing piley-on.

I had just given a man five pounds to show me where my bed was, in a room which was about 45% bed. Yes, I probably wouldn’t have immediately known that the tea and coffee making facilities – one normal teabag, one Earl Grey, pathetic – were in that particular drawer, but a systematic sweep of the only four drawers in the room would have cracked that one fairly quickly.

What was I hoping to achieve by my unprecedented display of largesse? Preferential treatment in the unlikely event that there was a fire during my one-night stay? “It eez all right, sir. I ‘ave sent ze ozzer guests ze wrong way so you might be unimpeded in your progress to ze fire escape.”

I tried to put it out of my mind as I dressed for the performance, but I could not. Five pounds is still five pounds, even in this day and age. If I find five pounds in a pair of old trousers, I am delighted, especially if it is still legal tender, so blowing five quid on an unwanted teabag-finding service is an equal amount non-delightful.

In the bar after the performance, I told various London-based friends of my fiver-related woe. “He saw you coming,” they said. “Yes,” I said, “It was a very small room.”

“Don’t give anybody a tip in London,” they told me. “That is rookie behaviour. Stop going on about that bloody fiver.”

The two who were left I deemed worthy of buying a drink. The bill came to £6.35. I don’t know how, either. I think one of them only wanted water. I handed over a ten-pound note, and before I could stop myself, I said the words I always say when buying a drink.

“Have one yourself.”

In Liverpool, when one says, “Have one yourself,” the barkeep drops 20 or 30p into a glass before handing one’s change back.

But, in London, “Have one yourself” apparently means “Take £3.65 of my money for yourself.”

And, no. No BBC radio comedy producers turned up, mostly because we had chosen the night of the BBC radio comedy Christmas party to put on our show. Always do your research. There’s a tip to you from me.

Column: December 21, 2011

THE ruby glow crept under the door of the stable, an early warning to Blitzen. The reindeer raised a hoof, pushed the dark goggles over his eyes, and sighed.

The door burst open and in trotted Rudolph, his mutant nose turning the whole shed crimson. He shivered. “Brrr,” he said, “Bit parky.”

“Yeah, well, North Pole, innit,” said Blitzen. “Oi, were you born in a field?”

“Sorry,” said Rudolph, and he closed the door. “As it happens, I was,” he chuckled. “Listen, do you fancy a game of . . . ?”

“Busy, mate,” Blitzen cut him short. “Christmas Eve, in case you’d forgotten.” The begoggled reindeer turned away and continued packing his bag, which is really hard when you’ve got hooves.

“I’ll just, er . . .” said Rudolph, the sentence dying on his tongue. He looked at Blitzen, trying again and again to pick up a Scotch egg with his hooves, before spearing it with an antler and attempting to shake it off into the bag. He left the stable.

There was no way he was imagining it. Comet and Cupid had been just as cold. This was how it had been before the Night of the Implausibly Big Fog. There were reindeer games going on, and Rudolph was not a part of them.

“Rudolph, I need to speak to you.” The reindeer turned around to face the fat man. “Aarrgh!” said Santa, shielding his eyes. “Don’t look at me directly.”

“Sorry,” said Rudolph. “Santa, things have changed. The other reindeer no longer love me. There’s no more shouting out with glee.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Santa. He rubbed the back of his neck. “There’s no easy way to say it. I’m letting you go.”

“What?!” cried Rudolph. “But what if there’s another Implausibly Big Fog? What about the children? How will they get their presents?”

“Yeah, well, basically, satnav,” replied Santa. “Look, Rudy, you will go down in history, no question. But I’ve got to think of the others. You’ve already blinded poor Vixen with your mutant nose rays.”

“But where will I go?” asked Rudolph. “It isn’t as if there’s much work around for reindeer with incredibly bright noses.”

But Santa was already walking away, a trail of footprints leading to a cosy cabin. “Try Hollister,” he called over his shoulder.

Rudolph stared at the frozen ground, his anger building. How could Santa do this to him? It was an outrage.

And then he realised he was standing in a steaming puddle, the snow beneath melted away. For his anger had unlocked the destructive power of his nuclear hooter. A dark thought formed in his brain: “Claus will pay…”

The first laser blast hit the toy workshop at 3pm on Christmas Eve. “Take cover,” yelled Santa to the elves, as flaming Xboxes crashed down around him. The old man looked out of the window. In the swirling snow stood Rudolph. “Come and face me, Claus. Come and face your death.”

“We will protect you, Santa,” said the elf foreman. And hundreds of elves poured out of the workshop.

But these weren’t hard elves, like the ones in Lord Of The Rings. They were rubbish elves, like the ones in the film Elf, with no combat skills, and consequently were no match for Rudolph’s death ray. They tore back inside, their pants aflame.

Yet Rudolph had taken a glancing blow from a stripy candy cane, and retreated into the woods to conserve his strength. “Who’s there?” came a soft voice.

Haltingly, a beautiful doe stepped into the clearing Rudolph had made with his schnozzle of destruction.

Rudolph looked away, so as not to incinerate her. “Just a reindeer,” he said.

“What’s your name?” asked the doe. And Rudolph recognised the voice. It was Vixen, the reindeer he had blinded. “Ru… Terence,” said Rudolph, ashamed. His anger abated. And they walked off into the woods to live happily ever after.

There are three morals here. One, never annoy a mutant reindeer. Two, Santa might appear jolly, but he’s a ruthless sod. And three, if Santa doesn’t have your postcode, you’re getting nothing this year.