COLUMN: May 10, 2012

IT IS all Matthew Broderick’s fault. He is the one who makes me do it.

I find it virtually impossible to leave a cinema before the end credits have finished rolling. This is not because I am particularly interested in the work of the American Humane Association – although I fear their evil counterparts, the American Inhumane Association.

It is because of the post-credit sting. I saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the cinema and went home before the credits finished rolling.

So I missed the fairly amusing scene where Ferris, played by Matthew Broderick, tells the cinema audience to go home as the film has ended, and did not find out about it until I loaded a VHS cassette of the film into our wheezing fridge-sized video recorder 18 months later.

Since then I have watched many films right through to the end, occasionally with success. I am a gambler who gets just enough big wins to keep him going. When there is a post-credit sting, it is like finding a little more meat under the bone of the chop.

And I also have the satisfaction of being able to say, “See, I told you it was worth staying,” to whomever has accompanied me to the cinema. Admittedly, I am never sure that my companion ever believes it was worth staying, but I can’t be responsible for other people’s happiness.

But imagine the effect it has on me to know – absolutely know – that there is definitely a post-credit sting. Marvel Studios does it all the time. This year’s big film, The Avengers, came out of a Samuel L Jackson cameo at the end of the first Iron Man movie. Thor was previewed at the end of Iron Man 2.

Last Friday, I went to see The Avengers. I know in this country the film is called Marvel Avengers Assemble, but that is a terrible mouthful. I don’t know who came up with it, but it’s probably the same person who came up with “Liverpool John Moores University,” a construction of such committee-pleasing clunkiness it still sounds like a bag of gravel being emptied into a skip 20 years on.

In any case, there is no way in the world I am going to confuse it with the Steed & Mrs Peel Avengers. I work with a man called Gary. Occasionally, we will both turn around if somebody calls our name. Nobody has suggested that one of us change our name, and if one did, it would be the other Gary BECAUSE I WAS HERE FIRST.

I took a 10-year-old boy of my acquaintance, one whom I always exploit when I want an excuse to see a super-hero film. I might not read comics any more, but I have four-colour pulp in my veins.

And I was primed, because I had read there was a post-credit sting, one filmed on the night of the movie’s premiere, when all the stars were together.

“We’re not going to do that thing where we have to stay right to the end, are we?” asked the boy.

“Shh! The adverts are on,” I said, and pushed two pairs of glasses up the bridge of my nose.

We watched the film – I won’t give you a review, I am not that man who explains things to Claudia Winkleman – and then the titles started to roll, to the sound of seats folding up.

“Don’t move,” I told the boy. “Da…” he started. “Shh!” I said, as the poor dupes sitting around me filed out, trailing popcorn and bubble gum. “Wait…”

Four cleaners entered. They stood in a line and watched us. “Look, can we go?” asked the boy. “No!” I said. “I’ve shelled out for the WHOLE film. They can wait.”

And so we waited and watched a telephone directory’s worth of names roll up the screen – and I mean a directory from 15 years ago, not a modern one, as that would only take 20 seconds. The auditorium emptied. “They’re going to feel pretty silly,” I told the boy, and I folded my arms.

The credits got to the bit where it’s just symbols and logos. “Here it comes,” I said.

It turns out the post-credit sting only appears in the US.

We trudged past smirking cleaners, the boy looking at the floor and shaking his head.

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COLUMN: May 3, 2012

I FOUND a really good tea shop.

As I grow older, I am becoming increasingly obsessed by tea. You might say to me at this point that I wrote about tea a few weeks ago and surely I can’t be writing about tea again.

And I would say to you this: “I’ve just said I’m obsessed by tea. That’s the point of an obsession. Now take your teapot and… oh, sorry, I thought it was a teapot.”

Specifically, I am becoming obsessed by the quest for the perfect cup of tea. I know I can get the perfect cup of tea any time, brewed correctly, with a snid of milk, by making it myself. It would probably not be your perfect cup of tea, but tea preference is like fingerprints, unique and admissible as evidence in a court of law.

But it is virtually impossible to find a cafe which can furnish me with a cup of tea which is as good as my own.

It’s all right for coffee drinkers. Coffee is coffee. I don’t actually believe people like coffee anyway. They just pretend to like coffee because coffee has got a better press than tea.

For I have watched people drinking tiny cups of espresso, with their faces turning inside out, their mouths puckering like tea towel holders from the sheer bitterness. People would be much better off having a nice cocoa and a Pro Plus.

But the one advantage of coffee is that there is a scale of strength, from espresso through Americano to … I don’t know, I don’t drink coffee, it’s horrid. And there is a scale of milkiness from black to vaguely-coffee-flavoured milk shake.

So the poor dupes who buy coffee “for pleasure,” as long as their delusion allows them to distinguish between the varying levels of discomfort drinking varying potencies of coffee can afford, are guaranteed a consistent experience every time.

Not so for tea drinkers. We are the poor relations, when we should be treated as the toffs.

“But look,” say the coffee shops. “Ah ha! Look at the range of blends we have – Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, twigs, fruit-scented-but-in-no-way-actually-flavoured tea.”

“Yes,” I say, “But I watched Tiswas and not Swap Shop as a child. Yes, I have clawed my way up to lower middle class, and take a newspaper with foreign news in it, but I cannot entirely shake off my humble origins. Look, sunshine, do you have a Yorkshire, or a Tetley, or a PG Tips? And can you brew it so that I have the perfect cup of tea?”

I don’t say that at all. I just convey it with my eyes. Then I point at the English breakfast tea and hope for the best.

If I am lucky I will get to put my own milk in. If not, they will ask, “Milk?” I will say yes, and then try to explain exactly how much I like, which is not very much, but it depends on how strong the tea is. I momentarily feel like a prima donna for wanting to specify the amount of milk I want, but then I remember that I am paying roughly a 1500% mark-up price on a teabag, water and a splash of milk and I get over myself.

“Just a…” I begin, but am drowned out by the glub of half a cow’s daily capacity being sploshed into my cup. I take my ruined beverage and sit down, gently seething.

But then I found my tea shop. The tea came in leaves, in a little clear teapot, so I could judge the exact teaness of it before pouring it into my cup. And I could take the edge off with a little jug of milk, rather than having to walk over to a condiments station, and tentatively depress a plunger, unsure of the milk flow. And it was perfect.

But when I went to visit a few weeks ago, it had suddenly closed down, a victim of the double-dip recession, and the coffee conspiracy.

And I walked home, past a dozen Starbucks and Costas, with dark thoughts of revenge in my head. Because one day the tea lovers will rise. For we are obsessive.

COLUMN: April 26, 2012

I HAD an accident while gardening at the weekend. It was only fair. I was inflicting a certain degree of damage upon it, so who could blame the garden for hitting back?

My wife had suggested it was about time I cut the bushes back. I tried to explain that we meddle with nature at our peril, and, besides, The Planet’s Funniest Animals was on, but she felt my thesis lacked a certain something and won the philosophical argument.

And so I found myself attacking a holly bush with shears, protected only by gloves made of cloth and my gardening glasses. They are my old glasses, but I read once about somebody being blinded by a stone thrown up by a lawnmower, and I don’t want to get my normal glasses broken.

In any case, I do not know how much you know about gardening, but holly is bloody sharp. I stared at the gloves and wondered why military manufacturers do not use cloth in armour, seeing as it’s so obviously effective against mildly spiky foliage.

I took my glove off and sucked my finger. It tasted horrid, like gardening gloves. Angered, I launched another assault on the bush. I was Conan the Horticulturalist.

And that’s when the bush decided to take a small nip out of my nose. “Ooyah! That really was a sub-optimal experience,” I said, or words to that effect. It left a little cut above my left nostril.

A little, itchy cut, which I couldn’t stop scratching, making it worse, as scratching always does. I sometimes think that scratch mittens should be made available to adults.

I passed a mirror and quailed. I had disfigured myself, even taking into account my low base position. I had a big shiny red sore on my nose, suitable for guiding reindeer through the fog, able to stop traffic if I stood on a street corner.

Worse than all this, it looked from a short distance as if I had a boil. I am not entirely sure that a sore is much better, but boils are definitely worse than anything else. I could have got away with it if I drove to work. Nobody in work ever looks at me directly, and it is a well-known fact that people playing with their noses in cars are invisible.

But I get the bus to work, like an eccentric millionaire, and tend to sit on the back seat. This is because as a child I was not allowed to sit on the back seat of a single-decker. I would make for it every time, but be told to sit somewhere else.

Now I am an adult. And I can sit wherever I like on the bus, apart from on the driver’s knee.
It meant I was able to observe the other passengers as they got on the bus. And, to a passenger, they reacted the same way. They looked up the bus, presumably searching for a seat, saw me among the throng, and suddenly clocked my big, red, to all intents and purposes, boil.

Their eyes widened. Then they would look away. A young woman sitting opposite, kept looking at me, and then averting her glances. I suddenly understood what it must be like to be famous. Or the Elephant Man. In fairness, he too was famous. He was even in a film.

Next morning, I decided to take action. I could not bring myself to use concealer – I am a man, with a man’s shoes – but I did try something else. I sprinkled some of my wife’s talcum powder onto my finger and dabbed it on the sore, reducing the redness markedly, and making everywhere smell of lavender and flowers as an added bonus.

I sailed through my bus journey, unnoticed, as I like it. Perhaps the passengers wondered why they could smell ylang ylang, but we will never know.

And I sat at my desk, confident, a man with a normal nose. A colleague behind called me. I whirled around on my chair, dynamically.

“Ew, Gary!” she shrieked, as soon as she saw me. “Have you got a boil on your nose?!”

And that, reader, is why you don’t meddle with nature.

COLUMN: April 19, 2012

I AM not a naturally trusting person. I always have to check the date from two sources before I write a cheque. I still write cheques because I don’t trust online payment methods. And if somebody tells me not to touch something because it’s hot, I have to make sure they’re not just having fun with the Man Who Paid With The Cheque Last Time.

So the idea of trusting a taxi driver in a city which I barely know does not thrill me. However, during a recent stay on the outskirts of Birmingham I was left with little alternative.

I was invited to dinner by friends. In a way, it was all their fault. Their flat was on the other side of Birmingham. The only part of Birmingham I know well is Kings Oak, where the Crossroads Motel was, and that doesn’t even exist. I called for a taxi.

My taxi arrived at my hotel. I knew it was my taxi because of the distinctive livery on the side with the name of the firm I had rung. I bounded out of the lobby, past a group of smoking men. I was feeling pretty smug, too, as the car was a Mercedes. I don’t know much about cars, but I can tell posh when I see it.

I opened the door. “Bainbridge,” I said, as I climbed in the back. The driver turned around to me. “Simpson,” he said. I had nearly stolen another man’s taxi, the worst thing one man can do to another. But nobody needed to know about this.

I climbed out again, as one of the smoking men walked calmly to the car and said the name Simpson. The other men watched me as I slunk back inside the hotel.

Five minutes later, my actual taxi arrived. I checked. Twice. The driver motioned that I should get in the front seat. This is literally the most exotic thing I have done for 20 years. It felt wrong, even in a private hire cab.

“Where to, my friend?” asked the driver. Friend? I thought. I know I’m sitting in the front seat but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Still, they say a stranger is a friend you haven’t met and disappointed yet, and, strictly speaking, we were no longer strangers.

I told him where I wanted to go.

“And where’s that?” asked the driver.

“I’m not sure. I am from Liverpool.”

The driver humphed. I had gone from stranger to friend to disappointing Scouser in record time. He lugged a satnav out of his glove compartment. “What’s the postcode?” he asked. I told him. He tapped it in.

“There’s no such postcode,” he said.

I expected that. I had no information leading me to expect that, but I could see how things were going. Luckily, as I don’t trust anything, I had asked my friend if there were any local landmarks. He told me the name of the road off which his own road was.

I told the driver, “It’s off Namewithheld Road.” The driver looked at me again. It turns out Namewithheld Road is one of the longest roads in Birmingham. I had essentially narrowed down the location of the flat to “Birmingham.”

And so, for the next three quarters of an hour, I was driven through Birmingham, depending mostly on luck and partly on the Google map on my phone. I saw many of the sights, several times. I suspect he drove in a spiral pattern knowing eventually we would arrive at our destination.

I left Birmingham a couple of days later. I called the same taxi firm again. A car arrived at Fort Dunlop, where I was working, with a different firm’s livery on it. That sometimes happens, I thought. I stepped forward, as there were no smoking men around.

“Bainbridge?” I faltered.

“New Street Station?” said the driver. “Yes!” I said and jumped in.

I felt confident on the journey. This was clearly a man who knew his way. All was well.

And then my phone rang. It was the taxi firm. “Whereabouts in Fort Dunlop are you, mate?”

I had stolen another man’s taxi. I am not worthy of my own trust.

COLUMN: April 12, 2012

I KNOW that wide-scale jet-pack use is not going to happen in my lifetime, despite quite clear and specific promises in my youth. A cure for the common cold is as far away as ever, and I quite understand the reasons for that.

But I refuse to accept that there is no immediate prospect of boffins perfecting bin technology so that I can have one which opens and closes without causing me any sort of difficulty.

For the past 15 years or so, I have been searching for the perfect bin – and, by perfect, I mean adequate – like Stanley, searching for Livingstone. Or Alan Davies, searching for a way out.

My first disappointment with regard to bins was with a swing top model. You will be familiar with this type of bin – lozenge-shaped with a white V-shaped lid which swings both ways on a hinge.

I am not entirely sure why a kitchen bin lid needs to swing both ways. It is a rare kitchen which has the bin in the centre of the room, easily accessible from all angles. “Well, Claudia, we were thinking about having an island there, but in the end we plumped for a lozenge- shaped bin.”

It did not live up to expectations. The lid kept swinging off its hinge, and every time I touched, or even thought about, the non-moving part of the lid, it would become a moving part of the lid, falling off the base and depositing the swinging part into the bin itself.

Bin number 2 was more promising, a pedal bin. I am a man. When one introduces an element of machinery into a household object, one gets a little bit excited. Depress a pedal at the bottom to open the lid at the top? That’s like flipping Mouse Trap.

But pedal bins do not work either, it transpired. The pedal on my bin was more like a trigger. One had to depress it slowly and then, at a variable point, the lid would flip up.

Push too hard and the lid would stay up, even after the foot had been withdrawn. Given that the whole point of a pedal bin is to obviate the necessity to touch the bin with one’s hands, this was something of a failure.

Push too gently, however, and the lid would hover, quivering, at a 20 degree angle, giving just about enough room to throw in a dropped Rich Tea biscuit, but nothing thicker. It was not a Mouse Trap of a bin, it was an Operation.

The third bin started off so well. A gleaming chrome cylinder with a flat black top. Push the lid gently, and it would flip up. Flip is the wrong word to use. It would glide up. If it had a sound effect associated with it, it would be the sound of the automatic doors opening in Star Trek, appropriate for the Space Age bin it was. I loved that bin more than another man has ever loved a bin, ie, lots.

And then, after two weeks, the catch went. Yes, I might have used it a bit more than was necessary – it did have a lovely action – but, really, TWO WEEKS? And the lid would not go down. In the end, the only way I could keep the lid down was to place a bag of rubbish on top of it. It is difficult to imagine a more damning failure of bin design.

Difficult, but not impossible. For now I have the worst bin of all – Bin Laden. Bin Laden is also chrome, with a black top, but the lid is on a 45 degree angle and closes, thanks to a powerful spring. And the lid is about the size of a bread roll plate, making it fine for the disposal of bread rolls, apple cores, crumpled-up Liz Jones articles, etc.

But watch me scrape a plate into Bin Laden and watch a man cry. For plate scraping requires a minimum of two hands, one to hold the plate, and one to make a horrible noise with a knife. And pushing back a bin lid held in place with a powerful spring takes one hand.

One does not have to be Carol Vorderman to realise that, even with a full complement of hands, I am going to spill bean juice all over my trousers. So off comes the lid, and I find myself back at square one. Or, more accurately, lozenge one.

COLUMN: April 5, 2012

PHIL COOL saved my life once.

If you are knocking on the door of middle-age, or, like me, are hanging around in the vestibule of middle-age reading the takeaway pizza leaflet, you will remember Phil Cool well.

For those of you who think of the 1980s as an exotic time, full of Tom Cruise in aviator specs having a Rubik’s Cube-off with Mr T and the Human League in a bleeping warehouse, I will explain Phil Cool. Incidentally, you are exactly right. That is what the 80s were like.

Phil Cool was, and still is, an impressionist, able to re-arrange his facial features at will – the anti-Andie MacDowell – and had a hugely popular series on BBC2 called Cool It, before he decided fame was not for him and retired from television. But when I was nearly 17, he was at the height of his fame.

I had recently acquired a harmonica, fancying that the ability to play the harmonica would make me catnip to teenage girls. I might as well have learnt the bagpipes.

And I had the harmonica with me when I went to the heaving cellar of Flanagan’s Apple on Mathew Street, with Martin and Philip, my equally unencumbered-by- female-interest friends from school. I liked going out with Martin and Philip as they looked a year older and were able to be served at the bar without any reasonable doubt on the barmaid’s part in those pre-ID days.

I, however, was much fresher of face, like some freakish elongated baby. So that night, after Martin and Philip had both got their rounds in, they turned to me.

“Get the Guinnesses in,” they said.

“I don’t like Guinness. It tastes like earwax,” I said. I looked over at the bar. I was convinced the barmaid would not serve me. She looked the sort. “I won’t get served.”

“Get on with it, you freakish elongated baby,” they said.

The Saturday night Flanagan’s crowd at that time was entertained by a singing guitarist whose name my memory convinces me was Lenny. Members of the exclusive clientele were often invited to join him on the tiny stage and sing along.

A plan formed. If I got up on stage with Lenny, it would surely be proof to the bar staff that I was of age. After all, what sort of idiot would draw attention to himself if he were underage?

At that moment, Lenny’s G-string snapped. Let us ignore the comic resonance of that statement and join me as I push through the crowd, harmonica in hand.

“Fancy a jam?” I ask, anticipating tooting the odd note in the background. Even I can handle that.

“Nice one,” says Lenny. “You just play for a bit while I fix this.” Before I can say anything, he introduces me to the audience as “Johnny Harmonica.”

I look out at a sea of faces. I don’t know what to do. I can’t play anything all the way through. And who really wants to listen to an unaccompanied harmonica? Somebody clears his throat. As the silence goes on, the atmosphere becomes threatening.

And suddenly Phil Cool’s gurning face swims into my head. I bet I could play the harmonica-based theme tune to his show, Cool It. So I begin. And it turns out I can. And, a few bars in, the crowd starts to clap along.

It isn’t a long song, so I start to improvise. Brilliantly. I take the roof off, readers, which is even more difficult given we are in a cellar. I finish to applause and cheers. And then I accompany and sing along with Lenny as he does the Rolling Stones’ All Over Now. It is the best night of my life.

I step down and am patted on the back all the way to the bar.

“Blimey,” say Philip and Martin, as I pass.

I drink it in. This is my life now. Adulation and respect all the way. I am Johnny Harmonica.

“Two pints of Guinness and a pint of cider, please,” I say.

The barmaid looks at me and beams.

“There’s no way you’re 18, lad,” she says.

It has been like that ever since.

COLUMN: March 29, 2012

I LOVE tea. I don’t like coffee. I know that coffee is sophisticated and rich and French and that tea is for characters from Coronation Street in the 1970s, but I can’t help it.

I don’t like Guinness either. If I wanted to be reminded of the taste of earwax, I have ready access to a supply.

But that is by the by, let us concentrate on the positive. I love tea. So when I examined the tea and coffee making facilities in the hotel room from which I send this dispatch, I was disappointed, though not surprised. I have written before about the paucity of tea and coffee making facilities in hotels.

There were two teabags to last me 24 hours. That would only be an adequate number of teabags for somebody who sort of liked tea, but was not fussed, although I cannot imagine such a person. It certainly is not enough for me, a tea lover.

Luckily, after the last time I complained about this nonsense, a reader suggested I bolster my tea supplies by purloining a bag or two from the “continental breakfast buffet.” I cannot condone thievery, no matter how minor. On the other hand, I had a reasonable case for describing myself as a sort of Robin Hood figure.

I stood in front of the display of tea and coffee sachets, with a cup in my hand, and picked up an “everyday” teabag, and another one in the same movement. I had two teabags, but to onlookers it appeared as if I had only one. It was the perfect crime.

But then I was aware of somebody next to me. I glanced to my left and saw a member of staff standing there, watching me. This was a disaster. There was no way I’d be able to operate the hot water machine and tear open the sachet without her noticing that I had two.

I waited, pretending to regard the tea and coffee sachets more keenly than was necessary, hoping that she’d vanish. But she did not. She was clearly waiting for me to do something.

I looked around, searching for inspiration. And I found it. “Is that a toaster?” I asked, indicating a toaster. As she turned and confirmed it was indeed a toaster, I slipped the teabags inside my pocket. Better, I thought, that she consider me the sort of person who isn’t sure if a toaster-shaped object with bread sticking out of the top of it is a toaster than a common thief.

She turned back, as I remembered I had two teabags in my pocket. And so she watched me remove a single teabag from my pocket and drop it into my cup. She walked away, I think shaking her head. It was hard to tell as I couldn’t bear to look at her directly.

Nevertheless, I realised, I’d got away with it. I had swiped an extra teabag, undetected.

But, like a Bond villain, I was compelled to boast about it. When I reached the office in which I am working this week, I placed the teabag on the desk and, took a photo of it on my phone, which I uploaded to Twitter. And then I charged up my phone, because I had used up the battery in the process.

And while I was doing this, fate, like James Bond, was wriggling out of her ropes and readying herself to pounce.

At the end of the day, I sat in a colleague’s car in a scorching half-hour, traffic jam-filled, half-mile journey back to our hotel. But I didn’t mind. For that night, I would drink my fill of tea.

As I walked into the lobby, I patted my pocket. My phone was not there. It was sitting in the office, merrily charging up. I am a 21st century man. My life is on my phone. Also, I had to send this column, and I couldn’t do that without my phone, so in a way you are responsible.

I trudged back in the sweltering heat to the office, retrieved my phone, returned, with the baking sun on my back and no access to a knotted handkerchief, used my single allocated evening teabag for a swift cuppa, and joined my colleagues for dinner.

Afterwards, I retired to my room to put the kettle on, before writing this.

And that’s when I realised that the teabag was still on my desk.