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.”

dog biscuits

I have been away in Center Parcs. I’m not going to say much about that because there will be actual COLUMNs and you will find them tiresome enough.

However, I left the family home in the hands of our next-door neighbours. I wasn’t expecting them to tackle burglars – I just gave them a mobile number and asked them to call if the house was in some way destroyed.

For carrying out that task it was decided they were entitled to a box of Center Parcs-branded marmalade-flavoured biscuits, and because I am the man of the house it fell to me to deliver the biscuits.

This is because my neighbours have a Jack Russell with an enthusiasm for barking and jumping far beyond his dog years. It probably qualifies as a mid-life crisis. I suspect he also suffers from “little dog syndrome” and is over-compensating. Either way, he can be quite tiresome.

I used to own a Jack Russell and so I am able to speak with authority on the subject. They are loyal but vicious little buggers.

I rang the bell, and the dog – let’s call him Davina – started barking and scratching the door with gusto. I was filled with a sense of foreboding and wished I’d thought to bring a ham roll with me.

My neighbour answered the door and Davina shot through my legs.

“Thanks for looking after the place. It didn’t burn down, then? Ha ha ha ha ha,” I said. I am amazing at banter.

“Ooh, biscuits. I like them”, she replied. “You shouldn’t have…”

And as she said it I felt a very sharp pain in what I can only describe as my rumpy parts.

I was aware Davina was jumping up behind me. What I do not know is whether he scratched the area with a claw, or whether he actually nipped my backside with his sharp, dog-style teeth. What I do know is that I squeaked very loudly.

But the squeak was not acknowledged. I assume she thought this was the sort of thing I do in the middle of a conversation and I can sort of see where she would get that impression. Instead, she took the biscuits from my hand and dismissed me with a cheery bye.

Now, my question is this: should I have demanded the biscuits back having paid my debt by being possibly nipped by her dog? All she had done was have a phone number somewhere in her house. I have loads of phone numbers in my house and I don’t expect a lorry-load of biscuits.

I have basically given her a couple of biscuits for having a piece of paper and the rest for the privilege of not knowing for sure if a dog has bitten my arse, haven’t I?

This is why I should never go on holiday or speak to other people.

Thank you, as I believe Dido once said

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