COLUMN: June 28, 2012

I RECENTLY found my big coat Big Coat on the floor, with a coat hanger rent in two, one half in each sleeve.

I appreciate Big Coat is a big coat, but it shouldn’t have caused a coat hanger worthy of the name an existential crisis. If you are a manufacturer of coat hangers, and you are manufacturing coat hangers which are not up to the task of hanging coats, then you need to take a long hard look at your life.

This is coincidentally what I am currently doing. Specifically, my sartorial life. I am going through my wardrobe and removing garments purchased before Peter Mandelson’s first resignation.

As I tug the shirts from the wardrobe, I find the coat hangers often break. From which material are these hangers fashioned? Supposedly it is plastic, but one can only surmise that it is moth wings, able to withstand the breath of a dying faerie, but crumbling to dust under the pressure of anything else.

What was wrong with wire coat hangers anyway? Admittedly, they were a bit bendy, but they didn’t break. Also, I dropped a set of keys down the back of the radiator, and worked out that if I unravelled a wire hanger I could fashion a hook. Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen a wire hanger for years.

Incidentally, I did try the magnet on a piece of string trick. It did not work, as it kept attaching itself to the radiator, physics once again thwarting me.

So I found myself with a pile of shirts and trousers, most of which were in a state of good repair, if not taste.

It included one pair of trousers, which I wore only once because they were sadistically and comically uncomfortable about the crotch and made me walk like John Wayne with piles. I have no idea why I kept them – it is not as if my personal circumstances were likely to change – but there they were, placing unnecessary strain on a gossamer hanger.

I don’t like to throw away perfectly good stuff. Who knows? Perhaps there is somebody out there who would like the clothes, maybe a smart casual 1990s clothing enthusiast. I have seen worse on the internet. Maybe even somebody would take on the trousers, somebody with very short thighs and freakishly long calves.

That meant only one thing. A trip to the charity shop. And at that point I quailed.

During a previous clear-out, I was called upon to get rid of a nest of tables. There was a little scratch on one of them, but I decided that gave it character. I have a number of scars myself, without being a candidate for euthanasia.

The nest would not fit in the boot of my car, so I unscrewed the legs.

I entered the charity shop with a bag full of top quality, if not Queen Anne, table tops and legs, and walked confidently to the nearest assistant.

“What’s that?” he asked. “A nest of tables,” I explained. He looked at me as if I were offering a nest of vipers.

“I’m not here to put that together,” he said. “You do it.”

So I sat in the middle of the charity shop, assembling a nest of tables, while people stepped over and around me, and occasionally watched me appraisingly. I am not one of nature’s furniture assemblers. I am not entirely incompetent, but I prefer to do it alone, so I can experiment with swearing. It was a little like being on The Cube.

Eventually, my nerves shot, the sweat trickling down my back, I finished my task, and slid the tables into each other. The assistant inspected my handiwork.

“I’m not taking that, it’s got a scratch on it,” he sniffed.

A little star did a supernova in my head. “What?” I said. “This isn’t John Lewis. You’re a charity shop.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got to sell it though, haven’t I? We don’t sell any old rubbish.”

“You’ve got Pretty Woman on VHS over there!” I said.

He turned away, and I sat on the floor, unscrewing the table legs again, the man who was turned down by the charity shop, my reputation as wrecked as a plastic coat hanger.

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COLUMN: June 21, 2012

I WATCHED, helpless to influence events, wishing it were five seconds earlier, before it all went wrong. It was not my fault.

Yes, I well understand the system – still water bottles are blue, fizzy water bottles are green – but the sequence of bottles in the vending machine went like this: blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, green, blue, green, green.

I was blinded by the blue sea and did not notice the island just off the verdant coast. So I pressed A6 and realised I had selected a fizzy water. THE WORST SORT.

So I watched as the little pushy thing pushed the green bottle forward, like a reluctant pirate walking the plank. “Get stuck,” I thought. “Maybe it will let me have another go.”

But down it plunged, and out I took it. And I sighed. For I do not like fizzy water. Yes, there are people out there who like nothing better than carbonated water, and I do not judge them, any more than I would judge women who take pictures of cupcakes and post them on the internet, or those grown men who wear nappies.

I am not one of those people. I am not three of those people. I just don’t see the point of fizzy water. Fizzy pop is fine. The fizziness cuts through the sweetness. Drink a glass of flat Coke and you might as well drink liquid candy floss.

And in champagne, of course. I am no bon viveur, I get excited when I find that the Hobnob I have just picked up has chocolate on the underside. But even I know a good thing when I taste it, and bubbles work in champagne.

But in water? Water has no taste. Liverpool is in a soft water area. My physics teacher came from a hard water area and maintained that hard water tastes better than soft water, but nobody believed him. He also came in one day with a perfectly round mark on his forehead, which was caused by the sucker of an arrow he had attached there to amuse his child. A physics teacher who does not understand the principles of a vacuum cannot be trusted on the flavour of hard and soft water.

So what we have in fizzy water is a carbonated, flavourless liquid. The bubbles do nothing except explode in your mouth. Where is the softness, you ask? There is none. It is pure aggression, with extra salt, like a brine-soaked pitbull terrier. And who could want one of those?

The only people who could possibly like fizzy water are those people who, like me, were brought up on Junior Disprin, the soluble tablet that children were given routinely until somebody checked and realised that giving aspirin to children is a bit like giving matches to children.

Nevertheless, these people might have come to associate the vile taste with the positive benefit of not having a headache, a little like Pavlov’s dogs, and so seek it out. It is the only possible explanation. They cannot be held responsible for their appalling lack of taste. If anything, we must blame their parents.

I walked back into the office glumly. I didn’t have another pound coin, but I couldn’t bear to drink it myself. I asked a colleague if he would like my water. A hasty explanation later, he was just as adamant that he did not.

I tried a few more people, all of whom replied with a combination of the word “Ugh!” and facial expressions of loathing towards me for even thinking they were the sort of people who would order “sparkling” water in restaurants.

It was not a scientific survey – and, frankly, I think science has let us down here if my physics teacher is any indication – but I could find little justification for the one-third to two-thirds proportion of sparkling to still water in the vending machine.

I had only one option. I unscrewed the cap, thought of Junior Disprin, and took a tentative swig. And then another. And I was pleasantly surprised.

That is because I am so rarely right. And I had been proven so. Fizzy water is horrid. Judge all those who like it however you like. And shun them.

COLUMN: June 14, 2012

I AM not good at sports. The sport at which I am least not good is cross-country running, where I nestle comfortably in the middle of the pack. But even that is because I am so useless at running quickly that I don’t expend enough effort to burn out early on.

However the sport at which I am most not good is football. Football combines all the things that I am not good at in one sport, namely running quickly, aiming at things, and confrontation.

I found out early in life that football was not going to be my path to fame and fortune, mostly by being in a small primary school with only 13 boys in my year.

Despite the school team being eligible to name two substitutes, I never pulled on a brightly coloured jersey. My school decided my absence was actually more likely to bring about a victory than my presence. On one level it is actually quite a compliment for my game-changing ability.

It will come as little surprise that I was always picked last for games of playground football. I was not prized even for the satirical value of picking me voluntarily.

My playground captains would then invariably commit the gross tactical error of placing the worst person in their team, i.e. me, in the most sensitive position on the pitch, i.e. in goal, instead of putting me somewhere where I could do less damage, i.e. absolutely anywhere else.

I would watch, helpless, as if from outside myself, as the ball would come flying past my flailing hands. And my team mates would glare at me, as if I had called their mums a bad name and spat in their sherbet fountains, as I picked up the ball and rolled it out.

I remember quite clearly the only goal I ever scored in secondary school. It was during Games, which was PE with extra sarcasm and outdoorsness. The ball landed at my feet. For the first – and, to date, only – time in my life I was in the right place at the right time. I saw a team mate in what even I could see was a scoring position.

And so I passed to him. I hit the ball cleanly, a perfectly executed, weighted pass. But it completely missed him and ended up in the back of the net. A total accident. My one goal was not intentional. “Bonecrusher Bainbridge,” my sarcastic teacher called me. I expect he’s dead now.

As a result of all this, actual football, played by grown men in boots on a Saturday afternoon for money, left me cold as a child. It was only when I became of an age not to be called upon to play the game that I was able to tolerate it.

So when I was called upon to play in a five-a-side team for the weekly paper at which I was working. I agreed. Besides, I’d been given a job on a daily, so I was leaving anyway. We had a little kick-about on the pitch, a smooth surface covered in what seemed to be brick dust. It was decided that I would go in goal, obviously.

And so I found myself between the sticks, watching the editor of the paper who had just hired me, barrelling towards me, a ball at his feet. All I needed to do was dive and grab the ball. I had a choice: slay the dragon of my childhood, that little voice which says, “You aren’t good enough,” or humiliate my new boss.

I went for the ball. He jumped over me and scored easily. And I took a chunk out of my knee on the brick dusty floor.

And then, with a taste for the satirical sadly lacking in the team captains of my childhood, a few years ago my editor at our sister paper, the Liverpool Echo, made me acting assistant sports editor. He might as well have made me acting assistant quantum physics editor.

I spent a few months doing my job much as a contestant on The Apprentice might have done when tasked by Lord Sugar to “do the bladdy sport pages,” but left the job with enough Conversational Football to get by when talking to normal men.

I still have that football scar. I just lump it in with all the mental ones.

COLUMN: June 7, 2012

I HAD to go to London for A Thing and decided I would stay in Paddington, which is the part of London which is most Londony, that is to say the part which most looks like the London I have in my head when I think of London.

And I decided I would stay in a hotel I had stayed in before. It was not a great hotel, but it is close to the station, and it is cheap. I am not Sir David Frost.

I don’t know how far your memories go back, but it was quite warm last Wednesday. Men walked the streets of London without their vests on. Women walked the streets of London without their vests on. A camel asked me if I had a bottle of water.

I, myself, had developed my Hot Weather Shimmer, whereby I am entirely coated with a thin film of perspiration, refracting the light from my body, making me look larger or smaller depending on one’s vantage point. In motion I look like the paused image of a VHS tape.

And so I staggered into the reception, droplets of sweat flying off me, like an Old English sheepdog emerging from a pond. “Reservation for Bainbridge,” I gasped, dropping my bags and placing my cheek on the cool, cool marble of the counter.

The receptionist frowned and asked me to spell my name. I did so. It was an effort, to be honest. I lifted my head to see the receptionist consulting with her manager. The manager came to see me. “Do you have your booking letter?” she asked.

I scrabbled in my bag and proffered the document.

It turns out that there are two hotels from the same small chain, with virtually identical names, on the same long road in Paddington and I had booked the wrong one.

“Where… Where is it?” I pleaded. “That way,” she said, and she pointed vaguely outside.

“Please, no,” I thought. “Please don’t let the sort of thing that happens to me happen to me now. Please let this hotel be nearby. I need tea and a shower and another tea.”

I picked up my bags and shimmered out. I wandered up and down the road, vainly searching for my hotel. It was not there, obviously, and so I turned to phone-based technology, which is when I discovered that there were two roads of the same name in Paddington, about a five-minute walk from each other.

Unfortunately, that same phone-based technology gave me a 15-minute route, assuming, presumably, as a tourist I would prefer a route which would show me the “real” London. It was sorely mistaken.

Eventually, I staggered into the right hotel. I don’t know how I got there, the human body is a mysterious and resilient mechanism. I went to my room. It was quite a small room. I did not have a bedside cabinet, but that was absolutely fine as everything in the room was by the bedside. In many ways, it was nice to be able to draw the curtains while lying down on my bed.

An ironing board resting against the wall mocked me. There was no way that had ever been unfolded.
Perhaps, I thought, the room is so small because the shower is of a decent size.

I was as mistaken as a phone which thinks I want to see the real London. It was a very small shower. Many years ago I watched a contortionist on David Nixon’s magic show climbing into a tiny glass box, folding her limbs over themselves, and the memories came flooding back.

When I shower I have a three-stage routine. Without going into too much detail, I get wet. I step out of the flow and lather up. I step back into the flow and rinse off. In this shower I could not step out of the flow. I could not bend to wash my legs. I could not even turn around without putting my elbows through the glass. Janet Leigh had a better shower experience in Psycho.

I have never before had a shower which left me sweatier after the process. Well done, London. No wonder you bagged the Olympics.

COLUMN: May 31, 2012

IF I were Prime Minister – and every day I see more and more compelling evidence that I should be – I would put two laws on the statute book.

The first law would be that the chief executives of mobile phone manufacturers should be locked in a room – with good reception – with their own power-drained phones, their chargers left in a jumbled pile in the corner of the room next to a socket, and told they will only be released if they call a particular number.

The best outcome of this would be that all mobile phone manufacturers finally come to understand that every mobile phone should have the same charger.

The second best outcome would be some sort of Hunger Games arrangement, only with middle-aged men instead of teenagers. I would expect Nokia’s chief to make the early running, before Apple’s boss just ate everybody up and found his own charger lead solely because it is white.

But it really is very silly indeed that mobile phones do not have a universal charger. Can you imagine what it would be like if all appliances had differently shaped plugs, requiring differently shaped sockets? If you cannot, I will tell you that I have. And it would be horrible.

People would be wandering around with toasters, rare toast (i.e bread) wanly sticking out of their slots, weeping with the need for toast, and waving plugs impotently. “Does anybody have a socket for a Morphy Richards Toast Manipulator X-11?” they would cry.

Then a kind woman would say: “Yes! I have a socket for a Morphy Richards Toast Manipulator.” And the man with no toast would rush to the woman’s socket, to find that it was only suitable for the Toast Manipulator X-8. And he would go toastless.

You might think that I paint a needlessly apocalyptic scene, but this is precisely what happens every day with mobile phones, often to myself.

The second law would be that people who design battery gauges for mobile phones be forever disqualified from employment as designers of aircraft fuel gauges.

Even the most batty, Tea Partying, red tape-shredding, libertarian, right-wing nutcase would have to accept the case that we ought to prevent aeroplanes from falling out of the sky. Although even now I expect there is a think tank somewhere working on a paper entitled Set Gravity Free.

I think it is giving children mixed messages if we tell them that they should not lie, and then allow them to have mobile phones with battery gauges.

If the battery gauges were accurate, then I could cope with my twice-weekly inability to remember my phone charger, for I would be able to ration my use, eking it out until my phone can be reunited with its power source. I am fine with rationing. Rationing won us a world war. Also, rationing is the only reason there are any biscuits in the house.

But my phone goes from full green bar, to slightly less full green bar, to half green bar, to half amber bar, to red, to “For Goodness’ Sake, Plug Me In Or I Will Die, You Monster.” My favourite part of this process is the moment where the half green turns into half amber.

It is the point at which my phone decides that the glass is half-empty rather than half-full. It reminds me of that beautiful line from Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, “How strange the change from major to minor.”

This would all be fine if the length of time between full and half, and half and empty were the same. But they are not, and I am frequently left bereft of mobile phone coverage as a result.

I have much more to say on this subject, but the battery on my laptop is about to die. It was three-quarters full a minute ago. I bet David Cameron doesn’t have this problem.

COLUMN: May 24, 2012

THE thing I do when I am not writing this column has kept me away from home recently, and I have spent some weeks in a hotel off the M6 at Birmingham.

It is quite hard to describe the hotel, not because my powers of description have deserted me, but because I cannot really summon it to mind. It is fairly unremarkable, like that boy in your class who you can’t remember even though you know there were 30 of you and you’ve only named 29 and yes, you have counted yourself.

The only thing I can say with any certainty is that it does not have a restaurant, and there are no shops nearby.

Consequently, I have had to explore other avenues to obtain food during my trips to Brum. I have been to a Nando’s and a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The former was like every other Nando’s, the latter like nowhere else I have been on earth. I drank the tears of angels, ate clouds, and laughed – actually laughed – at how sublimely delicious the food was. McDonald’s has been utterly ruined for me.

Generally, I have been to the chain pub next door to the hotel, partly in an attempt to “keep it real,” but mostly because it is next door to the hotel and I am lazy. Plus, I have detailed previously my difficulty with taxis in Birmingham. Twice bitten, shy for an eternity.

The chain pub advertises itself as the “Home of the Square Burger,” but I have been resisting the lure of the mince-based cuboid.

I am a sceptic. I could not see how the introduction of right angles would improve the burger-eating experience.

And then I was on the bus, back in Liverpool, listening, as I am occasionally forced to do, to a conversation between two strangers. They were talking about cheese toasties. (For those of you who do not know what a cheese toastie is, it is a toastie with cheese in it. I am sorry, I am not AA Gill.)

One man said to his friend: “Yeah, when I have a cheese toastie, I don’t like it cut like that.” He chopped his hand in a downward motion. “I like triangles.”

I waited for the reply, agog. But his friend did not say to him: “Why don’t you go the whole hog, Howard, and have it cut into aeroplane shapes, and have your grey-haired mother fly them into your mouth, you infantile buffoon?”

He said: “Yeah, triangles taste better, don’t they?” And not even in a sarcastic tone of voice. His friend agreed, and they went on about something else, leaving me adrift in a world I no longer understood. Perhaps there was something in this, I thought.

So this week, back in the Home of the Square Burger, I took a leap of faith. I ordered the Square Burger with Spicy Sausage. I was nervous, but I chose to have this experience on your behalf.

I took the laminated, slightly sticky, menu, made a note of my table number, walked over to the bar to stand behind one person, went back to my table to check the table number again, walked back to the bar to stand behind two people, and waited to be served.

I sat at my table, and eventually the burger arrived. And not only was the burger square, so was the bun. I was going to get the full square experience, slightly undercut by the roundness of the onion rings on the burger. I could not help thinking that in my Michelin-starred restaurant they would have made onion squares, but I had to take this on its own terms.

I took a bite.

It tasted like a burger. Had I been blindfolded and fed a piece of square burger and a piece of round burger, I would not have been able to tell the difference. The men on that bus were deluded.

Yes, I thought, I might be sitting by a ball pool on my own in a pub under an M6 flyover, but at least I am right about the irrelevance of the shape of food. And that made everything better.

COLUMN: May 17, 2012

I ALWAYS wanted to be Bruce Willis from Moonlighting when I grew up. I still do.

I understand that Bruce Willis is no longer Bruce Willis from Moonlighting and is just Bruce Willis these days. I also understand that I am now older than Bruce Willis when he was Bruce Willis from Moonlighting. But that is not the point.

When I was a teenager, Bruce Willis’s character David Addison was the coolest man in the world. David Addison could wear sunglasses without anybody noting, “You’re wearing sunglasses.” That is how cool he was.

However, I look like a teacher. I am not cool. I have never been able to wear a pair of sunglasses without somebody pointing out the fact. Even strangers in the street look askance at me when I wear sunglasses, as if I were on a unicycle.

“In the eyes of the law,” their faces say to me, “you are within your rights to do this. But be in no doubt that you are an abomination against nature and everything that is right.”

It is because I do not have the face and bearing for sunglasses. Very few people do. I have worn glasses nearly all my life, so one would think I would have developed the necessary facial muscles and confidence. But one would be wrong.

Consequently I have generally shunned sunglasses over the years, preferring instead to squint, like a cowboy on the range, or a man without sunglasses. I know my limitations.

But when I had my last eye-test, as part of the fleecing which accompanies the purchase of prescription glasses I was offered a very good deal on prescription lens sunglasses.

I was weak. The combination of a bargain and the prospect of being able to drive without thinking, “This sunshield is worse than useless, not only does it prevent me from seeing motorway signs, the corona effect burns a lozenge shape into my retina,” was too seductive.

I tried on the various frames and styles on offer. They were either too big, making me look insectoid, or too small, like unnaturally large pupils. The only pair which suited my oddly-shaped head were in a style most often described as “tragically hip.”

They were almost frameless, with a bluish tinge to the lenses, and the arms did not have a hook to prevent slippage, giving off a minimalist “vibe.”

Could I wear them? “What would David Addison do?” I asked myself, not for the first time. I decided he would definitely wear them, and, therefore, so would I. I put them on and looked in the mirror. I still looked like a teacher, but maybe a sexy teacher, as in one of those films. I bought the sunglasses

It transpires they are not tragically hip. They are just tragic.

This is mostly because of the minimalist arms. The hook to prevent slippage behind the ears is one of those things that one does not fully realise one needs until it is gone, like a lover, or gravity.

If ever I look down, or turn my head suddenly, my sunglasses make a bid for freedom, sliding off my nose. This would not be a problem if I never needed to look down or turn my head suddenly, but I am constantly surprised by my need to do both of these things.

The only way I can ensure I keep my sunglasses on is by walking as a debutante at a Swiss finishing school, my back ramrod straight, as if balancing a Georgette Heyer on my head.

Deviate from this path, and I have do a special jerky catching manoeuvre in order to stop my bargain, but still quite expensive, sunglasses from smashing into smithereens. This is not easy for me. I can remember the encouragement from my teacher when I caught the ball that time when I was playing rounders.

So if you see me out and about in sunglasses over the next few months, do not mock me. Instead turn to your neighbour and explain how rather than an abomination against nature, it is a triumph against nature. And then applaud me.