COLUMN: February 28, 2013

CABIN fever had taken a hold and I decided I had been in isolation far too long.

I have been working mostly on my own for the past few months. Even my imaginary friend has abandoned me and gone to live in a newly-restored castle in the air.

I am considerably freer with my burping than I have ever been, and was a playing card’s breadth away from sitting in work in just my pants. It was time to venture outdoors.

I needed a drink – and I have sworn off vending machines after last week’s debacle – so I went to the nearby Tesco to see if it had any.

This Tesco has what I can only describe as curmudgeonly automatic doors. They open only when the customer is right on top of them – requiring a leap of faith far in excess of that demonstrated by a buyer of one of the retailer’s Value meals.

And then they open at the speed of a surly teenager doing the washing up. Perhaps it is a way of weeding out the riff-raff, those people who are not sufficiently committed to going to Tesco. After all, these days the firm can afford to be choosy.

There was a massive queue, so I decided this trip wasn’t for me, and I left the store, openly mocking the curmudgomatic door system. I thought I would go further in search of refreshment and headed for the premises of a newsagent chain located in an office building a couple of hundred yards away.

I jumped backwards as a skateboarder tore past me. He was about my age and I thought, among other unprintable things, that a man in his mid-20s seemed far too old to be tearing about on skateboards. Then I realised that I haven’t been in my mid-20s for about 15 years.

I am middle-aged, but my brain has not yet caught up with that fact. I still expect a pat on the back, maybe a little applause, when I do a grown-up thing like travel on the train to a different town, or put the bins out, or do my job without setting fire to the building.

And even if I did set fire to the building, I’d feel they should be easy on me because I’m only 41. This is not a recent development. I am told that when I was three, I was placed in a playpen with my baby brother, who then, like most people forced to exist in close quarters with me, started to assault me. Reluctant to hit the infant back, I said: “Please don’t hit me, I’m only three.”

I rather assumed that I would feel like an adult at this age, but I do not. I am merely behaving like an adult and hoping that nobody notices long enough for me to get away with it.

I walked past a street-level conference room in the office building and noticed a meeting taking place. Ten people were sitting around a table and I would be amazed if fewer than eight of them felt the same way as me – that they were the odd one out in a room full of grown-ups. It was an oddly reassuring thought.

And so I reached the newsagent, which also has automatic doors, though nippier than Tesco’s. I launched myself towards them, confident that I was not uniquely rubbish at being an adult. And bounced straight off them.

I tried again. The doors were closed, but there were people in the shop, so I forced my fingers into the crack and tried to pull the doors open. The assistant glared at me. “They’re broke. Yer’ve got to go round,” she said, and pointed at an alternative entrance accessible only from within the office building.

So I walked around, and discovered I had to enter the office building through turnstiles, operated by a magnetic pass, which I did not have because I don’t have passes to every building in the world as I am not Batman.

I walked back to the shop entrance. “I can’t get in because I don’t work here,” I said. The assistant looked at me with an expression combining both helplessness and disdain. It would have been easier for me to get into Fort Knox, or Hollister.

And so I shuffled off back to the queue in Tesco.

The only way I was getting into that newsagent shop was if I gave up my job, changed career, and got a position in one of the firms in that office building.

I didn’t want a drink that much. Besides, I’m too old for that.

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COLUMN: February 21, 2013

I HAVE written before about my complicated relationship with vending machines, but they still exist and we cannot ignore this, so I intend to revisit the topic today.

I fancied a Picnic some time ago. I am not sure why, perhaps I felt like a challenge, for Picnics are among the most difficult snacks to tackle. The peanuts get stuck in one’s teeth and are then lodged there, seemingly forever, by the improbably chewy and persistent caramel toffee. Combine this with the crunchy wafer, nougat, puffed rice and squishy raisins, and it’s a wonder that one’s poor teeth know what to do.

And the chocolate coating, presumably embarrassed by association with the shambles, tries to make a break for it, shattering and ending up all over one’s trousers.

It is almost as if the entire Picnic were designed by a sadist.

And this must have been a sadist who was completely unfamiliar with the concept of a picnic. I have never been on a picnic in which the basket was opened and somebody said: “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten the nougat and puffed rice.

“What sort of picnic is this, you total amateur?”

I am starting to feel a little sorry for the Picnic’s inventor now. No wonder he wanted to punish the world.

Somebody should have taken him on an actual picnic as a child and then he would have felt loved, and the Bad Thing that happened to me would not have happened.

So, the Bad Thing . . . I had to go to a vending machine to get my Picnic. I’m sorry if you’re a food fascist and that offends you. It is not my fault they don’t do macrobiotic and organic seed health biscuits in vending machines. I didn’t decide that the canteen should not have a permanent farmers’ market in the corner. I am as much a victim of the 21st century as you.

I dropped a shiny pound coin in the slot, but it did not clunk or chink. When one drops money into the slot of a vending machine, there are three noises it can make: the Clunk, which means that one’s money has been accepted; the Chink, which means the money has not been accepted for some reason – I don’t know, because it’s new, or it’s Tuesday, or something – and has fallen through to the change tray; and the Deathly Absence of Sound, which means the money is in a sort of limbo, Schroedinger’s slummy.

Perturbed by the Deathly Absence of Sound, but prepared to deal with that in a moment, I shifted over to the adjoining machine to get a can of fizzy pop.

Yes, I’m sorry again, food fascists, I didn’t have ready access to freshly-pressed parsnip and apple juice.

And as I bent over to shove my arm in and help the machine give birth to my can, somebody – a contractor in overalls – approached the first vending machine, dropped in a clunking coin, and swiped a Snickers. I heard the heavy fall of cash, and knew my pound must have been released.

But then the man scooped up the change and made to walk away.

“Hey, mate,” I said. He turned and dropped the coins into his pocket. I heard the jingle as they hit other money already waiting there. “I think you’ve taken my change.”

“No, I’ve just bought this.” He waved his Snickers at me, in a Freudian gesture.

“I know, but the thing is, I put my money in and I didn’t have a Clunk, and I got a drink, and you came in mid-transaction,” I explained. Possibly inadequately.

“Are you serious?” he asked. Now, that was a question.

“It’s on CCTV,” I replied, pointing at the camera. It was a desperate act, admittedly. I couldn’t imagine actually troubling the security guards to go through the footage. On the other hand, it WAS a quid.

“Fine!” the man huffed. He took a pound out of his pocket and slapped it into my palm, then he turned and strode away.

“Blimey,” I thought. “I could get used to this new assertive attitude of mine.”

Then I heard the Chink. I turned around. A shiny pound coin had landed in the change tray. My shiny pound coin.

After that, it becomes a bit of a blur. I know I found the man and I definitely gave him his pound back, but I don’t remember what I said to him, or what he said to me.

I just know it was no picnic.

COLUMN: February 14, 2013

IT WAS time to replace the kitchen. I don’t even like replacing printer cartridges, so it was clearly a drastic move.

It wasn’t a particularly bad kitchen, but the trim – I assume it’s called the trim – was carved and effectively a battery farm for dust.

What we needed was something sleek and modern and easy to clean, and mostly the last of that list of criteria.

We quickly dismissed the idea that I could assemble and install a flat pack kitchen, following the shoe-tree debacle, and put ourselves into the hands of professionals.

Sadly, we used professional extortionists and wind-up merchants rather than professional kitchen suppliers.

A rep measured up and came back to us with a design based on our exacting specifications, which were essentially, “A kitchen, please, with an oven and a fridge and other stuff.”

She talked us into having integrated appliances, as this would enhance the sleek and modern feel of the new kitchen. And I suppose we were gulled by her silver tongue. After all, who could resist the idea of under-the-counter doors all looking the same? This is the 21st century, grandad. But there was still a snag…

“What if something goes wrong?” I asked the rep. “Something always goes wrong. You should see the shoe-tree.”

The rep looked at me, perceptibly disappointed by our lack of faith in white goods technology. With a sigh and a recovering smile she assured us that wouldn’t be a problem. The appliances would just slide out and, if necessary, be replaced by a new one.

Reassured, we signed on the dotted line, and a couple of weeks later a team of heavy-booted men came. Within a week they had ripped out the old kitchen and replaced it with 90% of a new kitchen.

We then spent the next few weeks relentlessly pursuing the kitchen suppliers to complete the remaining 10% – that crucial 10% which would actually enable the room to be used as a kitchen – to the point where we felt like nuisances for wanting the work for which we had paid to be finished.

Eventually the job was done, but the beans of their revenge were already sown.

And a few years down the line they have grown into beanstalks of doom. The washing machine was first to go. It works, but the seal has gone, meaning that water trickles out into a Carte D’or ice cream tub which has been requisitioned for the purpose.

We would replace the washing machine – replacement being cheaper than repair in this age of obsolescence – but it has been blocked in by a plinth, and removing the plinth will entail removing half the kitchen.

And now the freezer has broken. Early investigations have shown that this will indeed slide out. But getting another freezer to slide back in is proving trickier than a tongue-twister to Jamie Oliver.

According to the Man In The Shop, the holes are in different places on different freezers. This basically means that the only freezer which we can guarantee will fit in the space being vacated by the old freezer is an identical model. And we know they break.

Why did we not listen to the little voice inside which said: “An integrated appliance in a fitted kitchen makes as much sense as integrated underpants in a pair of trousers,” and tell the rep to draw up new plans?

I live in a house with children and, consequently, a washing machine in round-the-clock use. I don’t think the covering door has ever been closed.

And it is not as if white goods are inherently embarrassing. I can’t imagine any circumstances in which the vicar came for tea and somebody said: “For Pete’s sake, Audrey, don’t let him anywhere near the kitchen. If he sees the Smeg, we’ll never get the children into St Bart’s.”

I suppose the lesson is always listen to the little voice and never trust anybody else. It is a harsh and brutal lesson, but this is a harsh and brutal world.

As a coda, a few weeks after the job was completed, the kitchen supplier went bust. I am not saying the curses I placed on the firm during the time of the missing 10% were to blame but I refuse to rule it out – I am not Richard Dawkins, or one of those atheist comedians they have these days.

Nobody screws me over with a plinth and gets away with it.

COLUMN: February 7, 2013

I HAVE never been an especially competitive person. I am probably the least competitive person I know.

One of my friends thought he was less competitive and we had a bit of an argument about it, backed up with examples and citations and Powerpoint slides.

And I let him win.

When I decided I would like to be a journalist, I went for a course assessment in Preston. I did quite well on the written papers, but there were interviews in the afternoon. I chose to go last, as I had the shortest journey home, and I wanted to get a feel for Preston.

It turns out one can get a feel for Preston relatively quickly, and I spent three hours looking in a comic shop, trying to look different every time I passed a busker, and not walking on the cracks in the pavement.

The interview started quite well, then one of my interrogators apologised for my long wait, and I said it seemed only fair seeing as I lived the nearest. And I saw the lights go out in their eyes.

This boy, they evidently thought, does not have the killer instinct of a born journalist. We cannot see this boy, they thought, accidentally gatecrashing a drug baron’s child’s birthday party, becoming trapped on an illegal camp site by burly gypsies, or being chased across a football pitch by geese.

How wrong they were.

But as age has started to strip away the vitality from my body, like the ocean wearing rocks into pebbles, so my patience has eroded. And today the last remnants floated away into the sea.

I get the bus every day. I have probably mentioned this before. It is not an eccentric lifestyle choice, it is a matter of necessity.

In fact, if I were told tomorrow that I would no longer have to get the bus because they had invented something better, like jetpacks, or remote working from home, I would be delighted.

But we do not live in that sort of world, and so I try to derive as much pleasure as I can from getting the bus. That means sitting on the top deck front seat driver side – the best seat on any bus. It is the equivalent of getting a corner office in Mad Men.

This morning, the bus I did not want arrived at the bus stop first. I moved out of the way and saw my bus arriving behind it. My eyes flicked to the top deck. The seat was free, and I was in pole position, closest to the door of the bus. But then I looked back, and saw two young women who were at the bus stop before me walking towards my bus. I could have pretended not to have seen them – do not think I was not tempted – but my killer instinct was still shackled.

I let them on in front of me and watched, helpless, as they walked up the stairs. I dared to hope as I took the stairs two at a time…

But, no. They were sitting in the prime seat, my seat. I shuffled down the bus, flopped into a second-rate berth, and looked at them, my eyes boring into their backs. If they had taken some sort of pleasure in sitting in that seat, I would have been able to cope with it. If they had even looked down the periscope once… Instead they chatted throughout the journey. They could have sat anywhere.

I’ve been working on a project in a stuffy office the past few weeks and decided today to get some air. I needed some cash anyway, so I left the office and walked the short distance to the cash point. There was a younger man walking just ahead of me, and I just knew he was going there too.

The bus disappointment was still raw, and something snapped.

I sped up, passed him, and got to the cash point first. I heard him tut, but felt triumphant. Yes, I am in my forties, but I can go toe to toe with a much younger man and win. I felt like Rocky Balboa, though in the later films.

Then I realised that my jacket was on the back of my chair in the stuffy office, safely housing my wallet. I had no cash card on me.

And so I leant forward, made myself as wide as possible to block his view with my body, and I pretended to put a card in the machine and then to use it.

I might be able to compete with others, but I will never be able to win against myself.

COLUMN: January 31, 2013

I HAVE never worked in retail, unless you count the week I spent on the tuck shop in school.

Actually, you should count that, as my tuck shop experience is what convinced me that retail was not for me. I do not want to go into detail, I will just say that I am unable to look at Drumstick lollipops without wincing.

So I have deep respect for all of those people who do work in retail, dealing all day with the public, because I know I am incapable of doing their job. I do make an exception for that woman in WH Smith, who, when I informed her I did not need a carrier bag, said: “Yeah, yeah, save a tree.” But then there is a dodgy till in every checkout.

I say deep respect, but of course I have my limits. And this weekend I discovered what those limits are. I had been left in sole charge of a child of my close acquaintance while out shopping, and had been given one of the most difficult choices anybody has been forced to make: Build A Bear Workshop or the Disney Store?

It was no choice at all, really, there was no way I was going to the workshop. I do not know if you are familiar with Build A Bear Workshop. It sells outfits for teddy bears. It is basically a ruthlessly efficient machine to extort cash from adults by using their own children as weapons against them.

I will say this once. Teddy bears don’t need clothes. They are covered in fur and are designed for cuddling. PVC, zips and souwesters are completely unnecessary.

And so I found myself going to the Disney Store, and being greeted by the second worst thing in retail. Literally. The greeter. Somebody actually employed to say hello and goodbye to customers as they enter and leave the store. I know that these are straitened times, and job creation should be encouraged, but this really is pushing it.

When I go into a shop, I just want to enter quickly, hand over as little money as possible, and leave. It is not a visit. I don’t want somebody to be paid to be nice to me, although I understand that cash would have to change hands.

And it is worse when she says goodbye to me, especially if I have not bought anything, as I then feel guilty for wasting her time. I imagine her putting on a brave face as she cheerily says goodbye while secretly being heartbroken.

I muttered hello as the child and I entered the store, and immediately was faced with a display of Disney Princesses. I had a flashback to Boxing Day, when I spent three quarters of an hour trying to release such dolls from their packaging, and I flinched so hard I expect you can see it on the store CCTV footage.

We walked further into the dispiriting jungle of purple and pink and glitter. I have no problem with Disney’s film output, which is usually saltier, wittier, and weightier than you might imagine. But the toys and merchandise based on those films are so sweet they make me want to brush my teeth.

I appreciate that 41-year-old men are not Disney’s core demographic, but even I can see that it’s pap. Luckily, the child I was with appeared to accept that thesis too and we were able to leave the store without making a purchase.

But near the exit was the greeter.

I don’t know what was going through my head. Maybe I didn’t want to feel guilty for not buying anything. Maybe I wanted to stick it to Disney’s corporate philosophy. Nevertheless it became very important to me that I escape the store without being bade farewell.

We waited near the greeter for somebody to enter, thinking that she would be distracted by having to say hello. So it proved. We darted forward… straight into the display of princesses. It collapsed like a camp game of Jenga.

I made an attempt to aid the greeter in her rebuilding of the display, but it became quickly apparent I was not helping. “Sorry, bye,” I said.

She didn’t reply. There wasn’t enough money in the world to make her, and I couldn’t blame her. So in one way, I succeeded, but in all the others, I failed badly.

It was still better than going to the Build A Bear Workshop.

COLUMN: January 24, 2013

I DO not like it when people tell me I must read a particular book or watch a particular film.

Perhaps it is my innate sense of fair play, but there are many books and films I have not yet experienced, and it seems like queue jumping.

Also, it is quite a significant investment in time to read a recommended book or watch a recommended film just so that you can tell the person who recommended it to you that he or she was absolutely right and it was a very good film or book.

My advice is to pretend to read or watch the thing, and when your so-called friend asks you what you thought of it say this: “Oh, you were totally right. Brilliant (or rubbish, depending on the tone of the original recommendation). That bit near the end. I couldn’t believe it. You know that bit where…”

At that point your friend will chip in, filling in the blanks, and the heat will be off. You might consider this a risky course of action but I promise you such behaviour got me and several others through the English module of my degree course.

But I mostly do not like being told to sample something because it reminds me of the lowest point of my life, when I did A Very Bad Thing.

It was 10 years ago, and I suppose the statute of limitations is up on Very Bad Things which do not involve physical harm. It’s times like this I wish I’d paid more attention to the Law module of my degree course. Actually, I’m not sure I even did Law.

I am babbling because I do not want to tell you what I did, but I suppose I must.

Ten years ago, I worked for a female editor a couple of years my junior. She was one of those go-getting women that they have these days on the television. She is no longer a newspaper editor. She decided one day she would become a best-selling chick-lit author and sorted that out basically in an afternoon.

We were chatting about books one day – perhaps she was doing early market research – and she mentioned an excellent book she had read. Let’s pretend it was The Very Big Turnip.

“I haven’t read it,” I said, with rightful trepidation about where this was going.

“You must,” she said. “I will,” I said. “I’ll lend you it,” she said.

The next day she handed over a dog-eared copy of The Very Big Turnip and explained to me that she wouldn’t be speaking to me again until I had read it. I momentarily considered the idea that I might employ the English module stratagem, but she was too sharp and, also, my boss.

So I read the book (Have you read it? You must. That bit with the mouse near the end!) and came back into work. I was gently grilled by my editor and came through it unscathed. “Where is it?” she said. “Still at home,” I replied. “I left it on the kitchen table so I wouldn’t forget it, and forgot it.”

When I went home, I was informed that a small child of my acquaintance had found the book on the kitchen table and taken such a shine to it that he had made copious margin notes on virtually every page in what educationalists would regard as emergent writing and everybody else would regard as a massive load of scribbling.

A little bomb went off inside my head. If the book had been the editor’s own I might have got away with it. But it was a borrowed book.

I panicked. I tore out to Borders (RIP), bought an identical copy of the book, then came back home and spent a good two hours foxing the book. I bent back pages, scratched it with a scalpel, yellowed it with a damp teabag, and flung it around the room. In the end it was almost indistinguishable from the original copy apart from the Biro spirals and anatomically inaccurate faces.

The next day I handed it over to the editor. “Here you go. Wasn’t the bit with the mouse…?”

“Are you sure this is my book?” she asked.

I looked her in the eye. “It’s either your book, or I’ve bought a replacement and foxed it in an ridiculous attempt to deceive you. Now what do you think?”

She took the book. I think we both had learnt a valuable lesson.

COLUMN: January 17, 2013

I HAVE been spending a lot of time on trains lately, like Michael Portillo without the inexplicable television career.

Nevertheless, train travel still feels quite glamorous to me, in a way that bus travel no longer does. I do not know why. Maybe if they installed £1.50 Mars bar shops and complicated toilets on buses I would feel differently.

In any case, I was resting my head against the window, counting the trampolines in people’s back gardens, as the train sliced through the country. I wondered who it was who first came up with the idea of putting a net around trampolines, and exactly how big his mansion made of pure gold and unicorn hair must be, when I saw him.

This was not the inventor of trampoline nets – probably – but the man who would ruin my journey. He appeared in my window as the descending darkness turned it into a mirror, and it was hate at first sight.

I couldn’t decide at first what I hated about him most. Was it his youth? Was it was the way he flopped into his seat and used the seat opposite as a sort of pouffe? Was it the gigantic headphones he was wearing over his flat cap, attached ludicrously to a tiny iPod?

No to all of those. It was the way he wore a white T-shirt and scarf. I cannot tell you exactly why it set the alarm of my loathing for two minutes after I woke up, but it did.

It was stupidity, probably. The man had either left the house without a coat on one of the coldest days of the year, but remembered a scarf, or he did not see the correlation between being cold and wearing only a T-shirt.

I will refer to the man hereafter as Scarface – “scarf” because of his scarf and “ace” because of sarcasm. Scarface sat, nodding his head gently to the rhythm of the song I could barely hear because of his enormophones. I turned away from him, but had no respite because of the reflection in the window.

And so I stared at the back of the seat in front of me, becoming increasingly annoyed by the fact I had received a now ineligible HMV voucher for my birthday the day before the firm went into administration.

I likened it to handing over money to a shop assistant who goes behind the counter to pick up your goods, who is then distracted in her search by the news that her company is going bust, and then comes back to the counter to say that she won’t give you the item for which you’ve just paid. And no, you can’t have your money back. It would be the most disappointing trip to Argos ever.

“Oi, mate,” came a voice, in the unmistakable tones of a middle class boy condescending to trade. I turned towards Scarface.

“I’m going the toilet. Can you watch my bag?”

Before I could say anything, he was off, leaving his canvas iPad-and-bottle-of-water bag, on the seat. I sat staring at it, grimly hating myself for doing what he asked.

For the second time in two weeks, somebody going to the toilet on a train was messing up my journey.

I started to think about him. I bet he was the sort who said “Can I get…?” instead of “May I have…?” I bet he was the sort who didn’t go to HMV and didn’t understand that unless money is handed over by somebody at some stage, there will be no content for him to download illegally. I bet it was his fault that I had an HMV card worth less than the plastic from which it was made. His and his stupid scarf’s.

And I wondered what he imagined I would do if somebody did try to take it.

Was he expecting me to leap into action if Raffles came along in his stripy jumper and domino mask? Would I die to save his tablet and ready access to Facebook?

No, I would not. I got my paper out and started reading, ignoring the bag until he came back. It served him right for being stupid.

I do not want you to think I am prejudiced against stupid people. I count several stupid people among my friends. I just think they should practise their stupidity behind closed doors, in the privacy of their own homes, and not be shoving it in my face when I am just trying to get through the day.

Portillo wouldn’t put up with it, and neither will I.