Column: December 14, 2011

TWO women turned up at my front door last week. Churglars, I suppose you could call them, like chuggers, only they come to your house.

Chuggers are easy to avoid. I use what I call my Big Issue face. This is the expression I make when I have bought a copy of the Big Issue the previous day, and find myself confronted by a Big Issue vendor hawking the same edition. I raise my eyebrows, cover my top lip with my bottom lip, and tip my head back over my right shoulder.

This expression says to the vendor: “I am a liberal, socially aware man, who sympathises with your plight and would pay more taxes in order to alleviate your suffering. Indeed, yesterday I bought a copy of the Big Issue from somebody like you. Though not you.”

I appreciate this is quite a lot of work for one expression, but I do have quite an expressive face. But it is impossible to employ at one’s front door.

“Don’t worry,” said one of the churglars, “I’m not trying to sell you something.”

That was where things went wrong. In my experience, the only people who begin a conversation with, “I’m not trying to sell you something” are people trying to sell me something.

She went on to tell me about a benighted but deserving section of society, and suggested I might want to support these unfortunates by setting up a direct debit.

Yes, the opening to her spiel was accurate. She wasn’t selling me anything. But I have to wonder about the meeting at which her pitch was decided. Did they really think that the bit that people don’t like about buying things is the getting stuff, rather than the emptying of wallets?

At that point, I politely wound up proceedings, loath as I am to hand over my bank details to strangers.

I was able to do this because my irritation with their heavy- handed methods outweighed my guilt that I was not supporting their charity.

About 90% of my altruistic acts are prompted by guilt. The remainder can be attributed to ignorance, but guilt is, by far, my prime mover.

I was reminded of this last week. I was full of the spirit of Christmas. I had listened to an hour of live choral music, my hands had more or less healed after the previous week’s struggles with a Christmas tree, and I was thinking of chancing a mince pie.

Had I happened upon a raggedy orphan, I might even have tossed him a shiny sixpence, if that sort of largesse didn’t land one on some sort of register these days.

The rest of the parents shuffled out of the chapel, and we were at the back of the crowd. I realised there was no way there would be any mince pies left by the time we got out. “No, look! Over there,” I whispered. There was another exit, one ignored by most of the people around us.

I led my wife through the wall of unsuspecting adults, my eyes on the prize. And, to my relief at the time, there was a child holding a collection plate. Yes, I had cheated, but this was an official exit. I had not gone rogue in pursuit of a mince pie. I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out my only change – two pound coins. I intended to drop one on the plate, but the child had spotted the second, and I did not want to appear as cheap as I actually am. Besides, it was for a good cause. Guilt won.

We turned the corner, and found ourselves outside the first exit. Behind all the other people filing out. I sighed. And then I saw her. Another child, with another collection plate. And the only money I had left was the £20 note in my wallet.

I had a choice: appear to everybody around me as if I were the sort of person who ignored collection plates after carol concerts, or hand over 20 quid. Yes, it was a good cause, but not that good. And I had already coughed up, dammit!

I pulled out the only weapon in my armoury: my Big Issue face. And so I was able to pass the collection plate without causing a scene.

Obviously they had run out of mince pies.

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Column: December 7, 2011

I DO not wish to come across as an Ebenezer Scrooge-type figure – unless we are referring to the Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol who buys goose for all and sundry even if they’d already got a turkey in. I am not George Osborne, after all.

Nevertheless, I really believe we need to have a rethink with regard to Christmas trees.

My moment of clarity came while I was trying to put together the artificial tree currently standing in my living room. I had already banged my head in the loft retrieving the tree, and then got the box stuck as I was trying to descend the ladder, and hit my head again while trying to dislodge the box, so I wasn’t, admittedly, starting with a blank page.

But it was a ridiculously protracted and dangerous procedure involving the sorting of prickly branches with protruding sharp metal hooks into size order, and the shoving of said sharp metal hooks into small holes, which were covered over with more prickles.

By the end of the ordeal, my poor hands looked as if I’d been using hedgehogs to glue cheese graters to a cactus.

I am aware that several of you are sitting there smugly, the smell of fresh pine wafting past your nose, and thinking, “If only the idiot had bought a natural tree, none of this would have happened.”

But I have tried having a real tree. If anything, they are worse and more inconvenient.

One has to get them into one’s house, through doorways which appear specifically designed not to accommodate the successful passage of trees. And getting them out without coating the floor with hard-to-shift piney booby traps is harder than carrying a house of cards through a wind tunnel.

“Oh, but you have no music in your soul,” several of you reply, maintaining optimum smugness levels. “A real tree is natural.” And I say this to you. There is nothing natural about having a tree in your house unless you are Tarzan.

So an artificial tree stared at me lopsidedly, daring me to continue. I untangled a cable and stepped forth, festooning the thing with lights. But the cable was a loop, which meant that, in order to have a fairly equal distribution of light bulbs, I had to get close and hug the tree. I was comprehensively spiked in the face and neck, but I stuck to my task.

I finished and pulled away, my nerves as shredded as my hands and face. I left the bauble placement to my children and retreated into the loving embrace of a cup of tea. And when they had finished, I had to admit that, for a six-foot simulation of a fir tree plonked in the corner of my living room, it looked pretty good.

But at the back of my mind was that nagging thought: in a month’s time, I was going to have to repeat the process in reverse. I am not saying this is going to ruin Christmas for me, but it won’t help. And if I’m forced to watch the Christmas episode of Downton Abbey, it could tip me over the edge.

I refuse to believe that my issues surrounding Christmas trees are not representative of the state of mind of the populace.

So I came up with an idea. I don’t know if Duncan Bannatyne or that new woman from Dragons’ Den – the one who looks like the man from The Mighty Boosh – read this column, but if they do I am willing to go halves for a £500k investment.

I am going to market six-foot Christmas tree screens. That way, the tree can stay in the room all year round. Then, on the first of December, or two weeks later if you are middle-class, you can whip away the screen and – Ding Dong Merrily On High – it’s instant Christmas.

And, on Twelfth Night, back goes the screen, completely insulating occupants of the room from any inadvertent thoughts of goodwill to all men. I am sure George Osborne would approve.

Column: November 30, 2011

I ACCEPT that we have lost the battle against misleading packaging, but I really do take exception to blatant lies.

I had some supermarket paté at the weekend. I understand that Brussels paté has no sprouts in it, in the same way that mince pies no longer have bits of mutton in them. Yes, it is misleading, but I have moved on. If anything, I welcome the decision to remove them.

But this Brussels paté was labelled “Brussels Paté with Garlic: A smooth pork liver paté with a hint of garlic.” I do not know how you read that. I, myself, am quite charmingly literal. I expect a “hint of garlic” to be a waft of garlic, like a beautiful ethereal nymph whispering the word “garlic” in one’s ear.

This paté had a hint of garlic in the sense that garlic has a hint of garlic. It was virtually ALL garlic. If that is a hint, it is the sort of hint that a child might give regarding Christmas presents, ie, strapping oneself into a dentist’s chair, using a Clockwork Orange-style device to keep one’s eyes open, while he or she stabs a tiny finger at various pictures in the Argos catalogue.

If that is a hint, it was a hint of garlic in the same way as the women in Desperate Scousewives wear a hint of make-up to enhance their natural fresh-faced beauty, ie, painting their faces with felt-tips like Outspan the Clown. A hint?! I could have dislodged Artex with my breath.

But that was nothing compared with the tissue of lies wrapping the bag of pasta I struggled with earlier that day. “Easy open and resealable,” it coldly fibbed right into my face. But I had been down this road many times before . . .

I picked at the sticky resealable tab, prising it away from the bag with the care of a neurosurgeon operating on a Mafia godfather’s mother. It tore, almost instantly, making mock of the line drawing of the rolled and sealed bag of pasta next to the tab.

It was not going to defeat me, not this time. I was going to open the bag of pasta. I loosened the folds at the sides, keeping them intact. I mopped my brow. I was going in. I started to open the bag of pasta, as if I were opening a packet of Quavers, slowly, gradually, carefully increasing the force, ready to ease off if there was any risk of tearing. It was working, I was doing it! Then the bag exploded, the pasta flew everywhere, and I spent the next five minutes looking for penne under the kitchen table and saying bad words under my breath.

I wonder why the manufacturers of supermarket pasta use a glue that is actually stronger than the bag? And here I am, wondering . . .

THE BOARDROOM OF THE SMASHING PASTA COMPANY

MD: Figgis, sales of pasta have gone through the floor. Ideas?

FIGGIS: We could make pasta tastier.

MD: Don’t be stupid. The whole point of pasta is that it tastes of precisely nothing.

FIGGIS: We could make it easier to open the packet. And then make it resealable.

MD: Yes! We tell people the packet is easy to open and resealable. But then we make it impossible to open the packet.

FIGGIS: Do you suggest we lie to our customers?

MD: Yes. Then when they open the packet, it will explode all over the place, showering the kitchen with farfalle.

FIGGIS: That is a terrible waste.

MD: Exactly. To make up the shortfall, they’ll have to buy even more pasta. Everybody wins, except the customer. So just us, basically.

A former editor of mine once demanded a picture of a phoenix to illustrate a story. His staff scrabbled about, turned over stones and finally found a beautiful line drawing of a phoenix. “No,” said the editor, “I want a photo of a real phoenix.”

He might as well have asked for a photograph of a rolled and sealed bag of pasta.

Column: November 23, 2011

I AM sure you are aware of the Marvel Comics character Mole Man, the first villain to face The Fantastic Four.

A genius, shunned by the world because of his mole-like features – a situation with which I am more than familiar – he journeyed underground and discovered a subterranean race of ugly mole people who adopted him as their leader. This should be a happy ending, but he frequently blots his copybook by trying to conquer the surface world, proving that some people are never satisfied.

I believed this story to be entirely credible until I visited my first branch of Hollister, encountering the Beautiful Mole People. The Beautiful Mole People are like Oompa Loompas, except they work exclusively in Hollister, rather than chocolate factories.

They look nothing at all like the mole people from Marvel Comics. They are tall and lithe, with glossy hair, and symmetrical features, like models or film stars.

If it were not for their terrible affliction, they would grace the covers of magazines and the silver screen. For their tragedy is that, while they are very beautiful, nobody can ever see the full extent of their beauty because they cannot be exposed to any sort of light, owing to their highly sensitive retinas.

Thank goodness, then, for the Hollister company, a presumably not-for-profit organisation set up specifically to give work to these gorgeous unfortunates.

While Hollister outlets are ostensibly clothing stores, they are unfit for purpose as such, as the lighting is at such a low level that nobody could possibly distinguish colours or styles, or even the type of garment one is examining.

Visitors to the store, wearing night vision goggles, would witness customers as they stumble about the place, arms extended out in front, hoping, praying, to see the tiny chink of light which will guide them out of the shop. They trip over low tables and step on fallen shoppers’ fingers.

And while this calamity goes on, the Beautiful Mole People waft around, tossing their lustrous hair, avoiding the melée, folding up discarded items of clothing, and making lumpy men with glasses in their late thirties feel very out of place, like Max Bygraves backstage at an N-Dubz gig, thanks to their uncanny mole senses which enable them to move unaided through the inky blackness.

Nobody knows how these mole senses work. Theories include the possibility that the Beautiful Mole People possess infra-red vision. Or perhaps they use a form of sonar. Researchers have attempted to determine how they navigate without any discernible light, but have found two insurmountable difficulties.

One, it is impossible to read scientific instruments within Hollister. And the Beautiful Mole People can never leave Hollister during daylight hours to visit a laboratory.

Two, the Beautiful Mole People give off a terrible smell of malted milk biscuits from their artificial tans, making it unpleasant for researchers to spend an extended time in their presence. Thankfully for shoppers, the owners of Hollister have taken this into account and flood the store with very strong smelling perfume to mask the biscuity stench. This does, of course, prevent the use of rescue dogs to sniff out shoppers lost in the T-shirts area.

I accept there are some terrible cynics who might think that the Beautiful Mole People are not real and a figment of my bitter middle-aged imagination. “The lights are low in Hollister,” they would say, “in order to give the stores a mystique to pull in discerning and, crucially, young customers.”

But this is nonsense. If turning the lights down to the lowest setting on the twisty switch attracted customers, there would be a range of stores called Tesco Noir.

So I urge you to pop along to your nearest Hollister at the earliest opportunity to see, but mostly smell, the Beautiful Mole People.

And if you see me in there, I will be amazed. Because it is very dark.

Column: November 16, 2011

I AM a pessimist, and not what you would call a summer person. Summer to me means getting stung, being made to wear shorts, saying the word “phew” a lot, people going about the place wearing flip-flops, and not knowing how late it is.

Instead, I am a glass half-empty sort of person, which is probably why I did not get a second interview at Wetherspoon’s. And it is why I am more comfortable in autumn and winter, when people are covered up, wasps go into hiding, and I can wear my extensive collection of brown, grey and black things without people assuming I am a half-hearted Goth or in mourning about something.

So I should be cock-a-hoop at the moment. I stare out of the window in the morning, note how the 8B pencil sky has turned into a 3B, and think: “Excellent, time to crack out Big Coat.”

Big Coat is a big coat. When I wear it, I am about 90% coat. It has a lot of pockets, mostly filled with black sheathy things from defunct umbrellas, and is so warm I can only wear it on very wintry days, or risk shrivelling like an old crisp packet under the grill.

This week, Big Coat has made its seasonal debut, and I have been running for the bus in the morning with the navy blue coat billowing in the wind, making me look like a slow-moving Batman, when normally the only thing I have in common with Batman is that we both tend to wear dark grey suits.

And so this was my state on Monday – Big Coat, grey suit. Unremarkable, if evidently stylish. It was cold in Liverpool city centre, obviously, but not so cold that I would button up Big Coat and look like a chess piece on the Sex Offenders Register.

Nevertheless, there was a chill on my chest, so I decided to fasten up my suit jacket. Just the middle button, no need to go mad.

There was no button there. “Oh, no,” I thought at first. “My excessively rigorous motion in running for the bus has caused my button to fall off. This must happen to Batman all the time.”

But further investigation revealed there was no corresponding button hole. My three-buttoned jacket only had two buttons. No excessively rigorous motion could account for this. I looked down and realised that I was wearing either the wrong jacket or the wrong trousers, depending on one’s viewpoint.

It was the worst of all worlds, because the colours of the two garments were too close to make my error look like a two-tone style experiment, and too far apart to be undetectable by the naked eye. I would not look eccentric, just incompetent.

“At least with Big Coat,” I thought, “nobody will be able to see my jacket en route to the office. I will worry about the office when I arrive.”

When I arrived, I removed Big Coat and my jacket unseen by others, then hung up my jacket far enough away from my desk that people would, if they noted the colour of either my trousers or jacket, have forgotten the exact shade by the time they saw the other garment.

But this left me with a knotty problem when leaving the building at lunchtime. Wear my jacket and be immediately detected, or wear Big Coat and make people think, “Hmm, that is an incredibly big coat. Why is he not wearing his jacket?” prompting further investigations.

I decided to wear neither, and ventured out into the bitter winds of Old Hall Street, my teeth chattering, my torso protected only by a thin white shirt. And I caught a chill.

If only I had not been wearing Big Coat, I would have seen that I was wearing the wrong jacket in time to change. And I would not have got through an entire packet of Kleenex 3-ply before 2pm today. I hate Big Coat.
I realise that, in telling you this story, I have rendered all my efforts worthless. But, as I am a self-defeating idiot, the pessimist in me knows you would have found out anyway.

Column: November 9, 2011

LONGTIME readers of this column with memories better than mine might remember that in January this year I overcame my crippling self-doubt and inability to speak without burbling to take part in a stand-up comedy gong show.

They will recall how I held an audience in the palm of my hand, rapt and helpless with giddy laughter until, like the Road Runner’s nemesis Wile E. Coyote running across an empty chasm, I simultaneously remembered where I was and forgot what I was going to say next. The gong of doom was sounded, and I was bundled from the stage in order to avoid an unpleasant scene or duffing-up.

In the aftermath, one of the few comedians still willing to meet my gaze told me I should have written key words from my routine on my hand, for quick reference.

Armed with this precious nugget of advice, I swore I would try again. I would beat that gong. Well, not beat it. If anything, that would be counter-productive. The point would be for the gong not to sound and for me to finish my routine.

So I tried twice more over the months. And each time I was gonged off. Now, each person in the audience had shelled out three pounds to watch an evening of comedy with nine acts. That works out as 33p an act. I was gonged off, on average, 64% of the way through my routine. Assuming an average audience of 60, and multiplying that by three… essentially the people who watched me had raised £21.38 to get me off the stage.
But I refused to take the hint.

And so, I found myself sitting once again with a group of actual comedians waiting to go on stage. I took out my pen, and wrote the keywords on my hand. There was no way my terrible memory would be allowed to sabotage me. I guzzled a glass of cola to get the nervous dryness out of my mouth and watched the first part of the show.

At the interval, before I went on, the cola decided not to hang around, and I went to the lavatory to bid it farewell, running over my routine in my head again and again.

I returned to my seat and watched as the three gong show judges were chosen – two men, and a young woman in front of the stage. My call came. I bounded forward confidently. I took the mic. I let off a brace of jokes. Warm laughter rippled over me.

I carried on for a couple of minutes, then stumbled over a joke. It didn’t go well as a result.

“Do the next one,” I told myself.

“What’s the next one?” myself asked.

I looked at my hand, and rued the fact that I am not one of those men who can go for a wee and not wash his hands. My aide-memoire had become a black smear.

I babbled. The two male judges whipped up their cards, to signal I should be swiftly removed. But the female judge, sitting in front of me, kept her card down: perhaps it was compassion, perhaps it was sadism. I like to think that it was Stockholm syndrome – comedian/kidnapper and audience member/victim locked together in a dysfunctional but supportive embrace.

But it was clear she wasn’t going to gong me off. Consequently I recovered and finished to a fanfare. I had slain the Kraken. I had beaten the gong.

I sat in my seat, smugly chuckling at my black smear, waiting for the end of the evening, when those who beat the gong would line up and the comedian given the biggest cheer would be the overall winner. I knew I wouldn’t win, but just to be up there was achievement enough. Damn you, previous audiences, I thought, these people here . . . they know comedy.

Four of us took the stage. Our names were read out in turn.

– “Terry McBloke.” Wild applause.

– “Fintan O’Bulldogclip.” Wild applause. A little whooping.

– “Gary Bainbridge.” Somebody softly clearing his throat.

– “Jasmine Mullard.” Wild applause.

At least I have a new target.

Column: November 2, 2011

DATELINE: A secret location, outside Geneva.

The chopper touched down in the mansion grounds, scattering leaves around the helipad. Inside, the silver-haired man adjusted his tie. He stepped out onto the Tarmac, and unconsciously stooped, the better to avoid the blades still whirling above his head.

“Are they all here?” he asked the woman, who was waiting for him. A cool Hitchcock blonde. She checked her tablet. “Yes, Mr M . . . ”

“Shh!” he said. “No names. Never any names. Lead me to them.”

They walked, without a word, across the lawn and into the mansion. He followed her up the stairs, distracted, for no more than a split-second, by her pencil skirt and the click-clack of her heels.

She opened the heavy panelled door and he stepped inside. They were indeed all here. Seated around the long table were a dozen men – and they were all men – of power and influence, some so powerful and influential even Piers Morgan had never heard of them.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “Today, we save the world.”

There was silence. “And how do you propose we do that?” sneered a man, in a sarcastic tone.

“By this!” barked the silver-haired man.

One bold sentence appeared on the screen behind him . . .

“WE CHARGE PEOPLE A PENNY FOR PLASTIC CARRIER BAGS.”

“Have you any idea how much damage plastic carrier bags cause?” asked the silver-haired man. “They are a drain on our oil resources, they do not bio-degrade and, discarded, they are a danger to wildlife.

“But, if we introduce a powerful reason to stop people from taking plastic bags, we can slash this danger, and step back from the abyss.”

“Oooh, a penny? That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?” said the sarcastic man. “How uncommitted to the idea of having a carrier bag would you have to be that a penny charge would put you off? Who thinks, ‘I’ve got all these items, of various sizes, so it’s likely I’ll drop one. On the other hand, a penny?! I’ll pass on that carrier bag. The initial outlay is too much?’”

“Yes,” said the silver- haired man, who wanted to smash the sarcastic man right in the mush. “A penny is of little consequence to men such as us, with our own helicopters and fax machines and big tellies. But to normal people, a penny is a lot of money, equivalent to, say, $97bn to us.”

“I’m not convinced, pardner,” said the Texan, cocking his Stetson.

“Then look!” said the silver-haired man, and he stepped aside. On the screen behind him appeared a closed-circuit TV image, at the centre of which was a bespectacled man, in his late thirties, carrying a copy of Doctor Who Magazine, standing in a queue in a large- chain newsagent.

The man stepped forward to the counter. The shop assistant, barely more than a girl, asked him, in a Liverpool accent: “Would you like a carrier bag?”

“Too right,” said the man, and placed the money on the counter.

“They’re a penny, you know?” said the assistant. The man nodded.

“That’s £3.96,” said the assistant, dropping the magazine into a bag.

“Freeze,” said the silver-haired man, back in Geneva. “Enlarge and enhance the counter.”

The desk filled the screen. On it was £3.95, in various coins. The screen snapped back. Then, for 30 seconds, the men in Geneva watched the man check every pocket on his body. Twice. Along with the cashier. And the people in the queue behind him.

“Actually, I, er . . . I won’t bother with the bag,” he said, finally. The shop assistant took the magazine back out of the bag and handed it to the man, who walked away.

The sarcastic man nodded. “I shouldn’t have doubted you, Mr M . . .”

“I said no names!” shouted the silver-haired man. And he pulled out a Beretta and shot the sarcastic man dead.

“I’m glad you shot him,” said the Texan. “He was a terrible nuisance.”

“I know,” said the silver-haired man. “Any excuse, to be honest.”