COLUMN: January 10, 2013

I HAD to pop up to Newcastle – the one upon the Tyne, not the other one that’s under Lyme, to avoid confusion.

I don’t know without looking at Wikipedia which one came first, but I’m sure it rankles with the original. “Look,” the nascent Geordies would have said, for argument’s sake, “at those Johnny-come-latelies under Lyme with their lah-de-dah castle. How dare they, bonny lad?”

Wiser heads would have said: “Well, to be fair, their castle is newer, so technically they are correct, and it is we who should change our name to, I don’t know, Castle? Whey aye!”

That would have been dismissed and those upon the Tyne and those under Lyme would have had a big row, followed by a summit at which an untidy fudged solution would have been found, whereby both places would be called Newcastle, but the Lymes would put the emphasis on the “new” part in intonation, while the Tynes would put the emphasis on “castle.”

But I am no historian. I am just working on the evidence available to me while the internet is down.

Anyway, Newcastle. I say I had to “pop up.” It was an eight-hour round trip on the train, changing at York. The existence of York, actually, must really annoy the people of New York. It’s a bit like those companies who had to shell out fortunes to buy website domain names because early adopters called Terence Esco and Steve Ainsbury had set up little homepages in their bedrooms.

“Come on, buddies,” the Americans probably say to the people of York every so often, “Let us be York now. You can be Old York. We’ll even pay for the signs,” not taking into account the cussedness of Yorkshiremen.

The lesson is, never name your product or town “New Something.” It’s fine for the first five minutes, but you’re just storing up trouble for later years.

Oh, yes, Newcastle. Handsome place. Didn’t stay long, and caught the Kings Cross train back to York. It was quite busy. I searched for a seat, but soon realised that was uncharacteristically optimistic of me.

The only place I could put down my bag was outside the toilet. And so I leant against the window. Eventually I noticed an electrical socket. My phone’s battery was drained because I got lost in Newcastle and had used the map app.

A little notice next to the socket said, “Not for passenger use,” but I reckoned I could get away with it.

But there was a woman standing next to me. Maybe she was undercover. Maybe a warning light would go off in the cab. Who knew? I looked at her and rolled my eyes. She rolled hers back. It was quite a trick. Then I leant against the window again.

“How long have they been in there now?” asked the woman. “What?” I said. “Whoever’s in there,” she replied, pointing at the toilet.

“There’s nobody in there,” I said.

“Aren’t you in the queue?” she asked, her rage barely suppressed.

“No, I’m just standing here,” I replied.

“What?” she barked. And she stabbed the button. The door slid open and she dashed inside. The door slid shut. Then opened again.

“How does it work?!” she asked.

I looked at the toilet. “Erm . . . ” I started.

“The door!”

There were two buttons. One to open or close the door and one to lock it. “I think you have to press that one first, and then that one,” I explained. She tutted again, the door closed, and the little engaged light came on. I was almost as relieved as she presumably was.

The door swooshed open again, and the woman strode out, glaring at me. “You could have said,” she stated.

“Said what? Am I supposed to tell everybody who passes by that I don’t need the toilet? ‘Excuse me, mate, I did a wee before I left?’ Maybe I should make a sign?”

She stalked off, and I spent the rest of the journey to York trying not to look as if I needed the toilet, and having to tell people to press the lock button second, like some sort of freelance toilet attendant.

I don’t know what convinced the designer of the toilet to have one button to open and close the door and a separate button to lock it.

What sort of person goes to a public toilet and closes the door, but isn’t bothered about it being locked?

And I tried the socket. It didn’t work.

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Previous Coach-related Misery

I HAVE a complicated relationship with sleep. Do not get me wrong, I am generally all for it and think it’s an excellent idea.

But what I have found recently, I expect owing to my advancing years, is that when I want to sleep, for example in meetings, I am not allowed to; and when I am allowed to sleep, for example at bedtime, I do not want to.

Some would call it insomnia. I would call it downright stupidity. After all, my brain and my body have known each other for quite a few years now. It is about time they came to some arrangement.

For this is how the evening conversation between my brain and body goes…

BODY: Goodness me, brain, I’ve been on the go for 16 hours. I say, “on the go.” What I mean is I’ve sat at a computer and on a bus for, well, 11 hours. I’ve sat in front of the telly, made a few cups of tea. I don’t know, it all adds up, probably. I’m not a brain so maths is not my strong suit. Shall we go to bed?

BRAIN: Yeah, you are tired, aren’t you? Trouble is, I’m not quite ready. I’ve got to finish writing this thing. Also, I’m watching telly and want to see if the loud man can eat half a bull minced up into burgers, with 97,000 jalapenos, and a Shetland pony-sized lump of that cheese the Americans have. You’ll just have to wait. Tell you what, I’ll let you have a yawn.

BODY: Yeah, thanks for nothing.

Later…

BRAIN: I am amazed that man is still alive. Right, let’s go to bed. I’m ready to shut down for the night. Body? Body? Are you asleep?

BODY: Leave me alone.

BRAIN: But I thought you wanted to go to bed.

BODY: I do want to go to bed, but I can’t face the admin.

And so the two argue for another 20 minutes until the brain somehow forces the body off the sofa and drags it up the stairs, after making it do all the socket checking and cup washing.

It would all be simpler if I could actually sleepwalk.

I know that sufferers of somnambulance say it is not a laughing matter, but, to be fair, sometimes it is. Especially if you have the likes of, I don’t know, Popeye or Harold Lloyd six steps ahead of you ensuring you don’t fall down manholes, or plummet from the high steel of a skyscraper construction site.

But I am not a sleepwalker. I have only sleepwalked once in my life and it went quite badly, so I have dismissed it as an option.

I was 13 years old – second year seniors in old money, year 8 these days – and on my way back from a French day trip to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

We had left at 10pm the previous night, with the assumption that we would sleep on the coach on the way to Dover.

This assumption was made by somebody who had never travelled on a coach with 60 teenage boys.

However the excitement of visiting a foreign country for the first time and asking for an Orangina in French – “Un Orangina, erm, por favor” – carried me through the day.

And it was only on the coach on the way back I felt myself drift off…

I woke in a very cramped, if brightly-lit, toilet. I had no idea how the lock worked and banged on the door, shouting “Let me out!” A teacher talked me through the difficult process of sliding a bolt to the left and I emerged to hoots from 59 teenage boys.

I thought it was something of an overreaction, but back at my seat, I was told what had happened.

I had leapt to my feet and shouted: “We’re late for school!” Then I had apparently attempted to wake my brother. My brother was not there. In fact, I had gripped the throat of the boy in front of me and throttled him in order to “wake him up.”

Then I had stumbled up and down the aisle of the coach about half a dozen times crying out, “Mummy! Where’s the toilet? I need a wee-wee,” before finally being diverted into the lavatory by one of the teachers.

I am sure there might be worse audiences in front of which I might have performed this impromptu act of theatre than a group of 59 teenage peers, but I cannot think of any.

Perhaps I should sleep on it.

COLUMN: January 3, 2013

I FOUND myself having to go for a run this week. I can scarcely believe that I have just typed the previous sentence.

This is not to suggest an unfamiliarity with running. I am fairly sprightly for a man of my age, and frequently find myself having to run, for buses, etc.

Actually, you can strike out the etcetera. My running is entirely bus-related, apart from my recent experience with a stray Staffordshire bull terrier.

In fact, running for the bus was directly responsible for one of the more spectacular movie-style stunts of recent years. It is a shame the cameras were not there to capture it, as I am sure I would have got a BAFTA, but one of the less glamorous ones that you don’t see on the television, for lighting, or script writing.

And it was all the more astounding because I was not trained for it. I am less the unknown stuntman and more the unknowing stuntman.

I was tearing along the road, keen to catch my bus, coat flapping behind me in the wind, glasses wobbling, beads of sweat flying from me as in the comics, when the toe of my shoe met the raised lip of a flagstone.

The flagstone refused to budge, and so a series of events were set in train. First my torso continued to move busward, while my foot was impeded by the concrete. You do not need to know much about physics to know what happened next, but the extent might surprise you.

I toppled, pulling off an acrobatic, if painful, forward roll. I topped this immediately, with a second, again painful, forward roll which brought me to my feet. At this point time slowed down, and I clearly remember thinking: “That hurt, but you have to say that was quite impressive work.”

But momentum, like a stray Staffordshire bull terrier, had not quite finished with me. Time sped up again, and I was flung forward once more, off my feet, back into what I would have to admit was a fairly scrappy third forward roll, and which ended when a metal cable television cabinet absorbed my kinetic energy owing to me smacking it with my head.

I lay on the ground, looking up at the cloudy sky, the sound of the bus arriving at my stop filling my ears. I cannot recall if the first of a series of unnecessary drops of rain landed on my grazed forehead at that point, but I would not be surprised.

So my experience with compulsory running has not left me with a hunger to do it for pleasure. Which is why I was surprised to be running recreationally this week.

I have a very complicated explanation for why I went for “a run,” with which I will not bore you. But I will explain that it has nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions. My mid-life crisis has taken many forms, but going for “a run” is not one of them. You would be more likely to see me in a onesie with ears than a pair of running shoes. Or so I thought last week.

I took out a pair of tracksuit bottoms I last wore in 1997, strapped on my gardening trainers, and went for a gentle run around the block. I assumed it would be no trouble. Yes, I live in a hilly part of town, but I am still 23 in my head.

I am not 23 in my body. I was fine at first, but I found at one point my running speed was actually slower than my walking speed. It was actually slower than the walking speed of the elderly lady pulling a tartan trolley, who lapped me at one point.

I reached the top of the hill and felt a little like Rocky Balboa when he reached the top of the steps. I would have hummed the theme tune but would not have heard it owing to the deafening sound of blood whooshing around my ears.

I used momentum, my old enemy, to carry me down the hill, past the cable television cabinet, my other old enemy, and home, where I collapsed onto my bed, dizzy, with one lung attempting to escape through my mouth.

But I did it again the next day, and it was a little easier, so I might stick at it. Perhaps I’ll achieve the quadruple forward roll.

NEXT WEEK: Gary wears a onesie with ears.

COLUMN: December 27, 2012

I WAS slightly bleary of eye on Boxing Day morning. I was even more bleary of brain. Like people on the tills in Next and some train drivers, journalists generally have to work on Boxing Day.

This is so that you can sit where you are now reading this, probably complaining that there isn’t much on the television and wondering why you have eaten so many satsumas over the past three days, bearing in mind that this is nearly 2013 and satsumas are available at pretty much any time of the year. If I sound bitter about that, then that is because I am.

I stumbled into the living room and fumbled with the Christmas tree lights. It was about half an hour before I had to get up, but a couple of younger members of the household had inexplicably woken me early.

Then a small girl of my close acquaintance shoved a package into my face and made it clear, in a sweet but insistent way, that I was expected to open this package. It was a box containing four Disney Princesses. And I quailed.

Normally I perform this task with a clear head and sharp focus. But I was bleary of eye and brain, as I think I mentioned. This was going to be trickier than usual.

First, the lid was stuck tight with a form of sticky tape. I am full of nervous energy – it is the only energy I have – and I squander it on biting my nails. This makes peeling Sellotape a difficult and onerous task. It is like trying to scrape ice off a windscreen using a piece of fruit cake.

If all people were like me, those pieces of tape would be enough to protect the contents from shoplifters. But very few people are like me, which is how our society is able to have electricity and roads and houses.

This is why, after I had struggled to remove not one but three pieces of tape, I had to move onto the next level – the twisty wire.

Each of the four dolls was attached to a cardboard backing by two or three pieces of twisty wire and some other devices, the likes of which I had not seen before.

I decided I’d worry about them later. I would have a go on the twisty wire first. I did the due diligence, ascertained it would need a clockwise action, and started untwisting the first one

About a minute later, I was still untwisting it, and realised I had untwisted it so much that I had twisted it in the opposite direction.

I cursed softly under my breath, and carefully unwound the wire until I realised it was going to happen again. At no point did the wire come free. I was baffled.

I do not know why cyclists bother with expensive chains and padlocks – all they need is to attach the bike to some railings using toy packaging-grade twisty wire.

Eventually, I realised the wire had been tied in a simple knot before being twisted and I was able to release the first doll. I imagine this is how Hillary felt upon reaching the summit of Everest.

I handed the doll to the small girl, who correctly remarked that it had taken me some time.

The next two dolls were released relatively easily. The twisty wire was no longer an obstacle, and the clear plastic strands holding the necks sinisterly in place were despatched with a snip of scissors.

But the last one, Sleeping Beauty, was to prove more tricky. Her twisty wire was around her waist, but I couldn’t see where, meaning she stayed resolutely attached to the cardboard. The only way I could remove the wire was to remove her dress.

I feel uncomfortable enough about removing clothes from a Barbie – which I am sometimes called upon to do – and she seems quite a game lass. But then I generally feel uncomfortable performing any sort of task about which another adult could reasonably ask: “What on earth are you doing?”

Anyway, it felt downright sordid doing it to a Disney Princess. Not even the prince had to do that to release Sleeping Beauty from her trap.

As I finished, the alarm on my phone went off, telling me it was time to get up. It had taken me half an hour from being given the box to handing over the last doll. It appears the children knew exactly what they were doing.

COLUMN: December 20, 2012

THE night rain splashed onto the pavement as the yellow cab pulled up outside the club. The reflection of its brake lights glowed an ominous crimson in the puddle, before being shattered by a shiny black boot, as the old man climbed out.

He stopped for a moment, his green-gloved hand resting on a fire hydrant, which was next to a Walk/Don’t Walk sign, which was next to a baseball player, who was next to a cowboy on a horse. Then he walked to the head of the queue and addressed the doorman.

“I’m here to see Red,” he said.

The doorman snorted and asked the old man’s name.

The old man answered, fixing the doorman with his steely blue eyes.

The doorman snorted again. Perhaps he had a cold. “Look, buddy, you ain’t coming in. I got a list, and your name ain’t on it…”

“Is that so?” said the old man, pulling the red fur-lined hood back off his face. “Well, I’ve got TWO lists. Your name’s on one of them. I could move it to the other…”

The doorman blanched. And snorted. It was definitely a cold.

“Now look again,” said the old man. “According to the array of cultural signifiers I have encountered since the beginning of this story, I am definitely in America, so I might be down under Santa Claus.”

The doorman checked. And snorted. He needed a tissue. “Oh, sorry, Santa.”

“Father Christmas to you,” said the old man, as he swept past him into the club. He stepped into a cavernous room. It was just like his grotto, except instead of elves making toys, it was full of people disporting themselves in a louche and immoderate manner best suited to a documentary on BBC Three.

All the club was lit red, and the source of the light was a plush booth in the far corner. Christmas picked his way through the sunglasses-wearing throng towards the booth. Sitting at the table was a reindeer with diffuse beams streaming from his nose, painting the club scarlet. He was sipping a cocktail through a straw, and surrounded by three women with morals as loose as their dresses were tight.

“Ho, ho, ho,” said Father Christmas.

“That’s not very nice,” said the reindeer. “Actually, it’s downright misogynistic.” The women took their handbags and left.

“So, ‘Red’, huh?”

“What do you want, old man?”

“I want you back on point,” said Father Christmas. “It was foggy last Christmas Eve and I didn’t have a clue where I was going.”

“So what happened to your sat-nav?”

“That’s not important. Look, come back, please? It was nothing personal,” said the old man.

The reindeer gave a bitter laugh. “Nothing personal? You genetically modified me so I would have a massive red glowing hooter. I was mocked by my peers. You weren’t interested until I became useful to you, and then you dropped me at the first opportunity. No wonder I went on a laser beam-based rampage and ran away.”

“Where did you go?”

The reindeer drew on his straw. He needed it because you can’t pick up a glass if you are a reindeer. “I tried to live within the normal reindeer community, but it’s difficult for a flying reindeer with a laser nose to integrate, though I did have some early success as a super-hero.

“I drifted for awhile, got a job as the red light for a house of ill-repute, and ended up here. This is my joint.”

“Please come back.”

The reindeer eyed the old man suspiciously. “What’s in it for me?”

“All the carrots you want.”

“So you’re saying your carrot is a carrot?”

“And a song!” the old man floundered. “You can have a song about you.”

“I like the sound of that…”

“You’ll go down in history, Rudolph… We’ll just airbrush out the rampage and the brothel.”

“All right,” said Rudolph. “I will come back. I don’t like it here. They have Fox News and they don’t know how to spell the word colour.”

The old man and the reindeer walked out of the club together.

“So what did happen to the sat-nav?” asked the reindeer.

“Upgraded to Apple Maps, didn’t I?” said Father Christmas. “I was still making deliveries in July.”

COLUMN: December 13, 2012

I AM enjoying the Traditional Christmas Markets which have popped up in our cities of late. Admittedly these traditions are only a couple of years old, but all traditions have to start somewhere.

Actually, I am not sure how many times something has to happen before it becomes a tradition. Once is clearly not a tradition. Twice could be a coincidence. It is probably three times. By that bare criterion, I suppose Traditional Christmas Markets make the cut, but the paella is pushing it.

I had to visit Chester this week for a meeting. There’s no need for me to go into detail, but I didn’t want to be late so I overcompensated, and arrived far earlier than I intended. This led me to wander the streets of that ancient city like an unusually well-dressed vagrant, stopping only to note the plaque commemorating the unveiling of the railway station’s refurbishment in 1994 by the town’s former MP, Gyles Brandreth.

Younger readers might find it hard to imagine Gyles Brandreth as an MP, but it was a different world back then. We didn’t have the internet, massive coffees, or common sense.

Also, I had committed the classic office worker error of bringing my lunch to work, not flinging it away to pacify an aggressive stray dog, and eating it at 10.30am, so I was a bit peckish.

So when my wanderings deposited me at the city’s Traditional Christmas Market, and I smelled the waft of barbecuing food, I was like a soon-to-be butterflied and marinated lamb to the slaughter.

The Traditional Christmas Market in Chester is not the same as the Traditional Christmas Market in Liverpool. Liverpool has a Continental Market. I am not sure to which continent the market refers, but it appears to include China and the Indian subcontinent.

Chester, however, has plumped for an Olde English Market, as they would have had in Tudor times. The way it distinguishes itself from a modern English market is by having mock-Tudor cabins instead of flapping tarpaulin, and by putting the letter E at the end of several words. There are more unnecessary Es in Chester at the moment than there would be at a disco for ADHD sufferers.

I decided to enter into the spirit of the occasion by buying an Olde English hotdog, as Henry VIII would have done. I decided not to go for the Olde English Thai chilli hotdog because there is only so much authentic Tudor spirit one can take.

The sausages were on a rack suspended over a barbecue. I have never barbecued anything, for a variety of reasons mostly to do with a keen sense of my limitations, but I’ve seen enough cookery programmes to know that barbecues work best when the flames have died down and the coals are white hot.

This barbecue was like something out of Dante. Flames leapt from the pit, like flares from the sun. An ambitious low-budget film director could have made a disaster movie about it.

“Onions?” asked the man serving me. He was dressed as a Dickensian chimney sweep. This was clearly some sort of Tudor/Victorian/21st century mash-up, like Tory social policy. “Yes, let’s go mad,” I replied, as I watched him pick up my sausage with melting metal tongs.

I handed over four actual pounds for a single sausage in a bread roll and looked around for condiments. There was a squeezy bottle of American mustard, so I picked it up and squeezed it.

Two minutes later I had managed to extract enough from the bottle to make the effort almost worthwhile. It is an incredibly bland substance – Americans are the only race which can add mustard to a dish to cool it down. They should call it American yellow stuff.

In any case, taking the delay and the cooling properties of American mustard into account, I decided that my hotdog would be ready to eat. I was quite wrong.

I bit into the sausage and yelped. I took a layer off the roof of my mouth. Even a few days later, the act of eating muesli this morning was like consuming sharp gravel.

The shock of the volcanic heat made me spill my mustard-smeared onions. I leapt backwards to avoid a mustard-smeared suit, mindful, even in my agitated state that I had a meeting, and the sausage fell out of its bready vessel. I was left with a £4 extended barmcake, an oral injury, and the pitying stares of passers-by.

Once again, I had humiliated myself in public. It has become a tradition.

COLUMN: December 6, 2012

I WAS halfway up the road before I remembered my lunch. “Fiddlesticks,” I said, or words to that effect.

I pivoted on the spot, turning a smooth 180 degrees. I did not mean to pivot quite so smoothly on the spot. A combination of shoes with an ineffective tread and the slime of long-fallen leaves helped me on my way. I was lucky I didn’t do a triple axle.

I was pushing my luck anyway. My bus was due at any moment. But my wife had kindly made me a ham roll for my lunch, and I do like a ham roll.

So I dashed back, picked up my sandwich, threw it into my shoulder bag, and tore back out again.

And, with my mind concentrated on the task of walking without landing on my backside, I only vaguely noted the cat prowling along the wall just ahead.

So it was only when I was a few feet away that I realised it was not a cat. It was a Staffordshire bull terrier.

I do not know much about dogs. In fact, I basically know three things about dogs: 1) that we don’t call some dogs Alsatians these days as they have been re-branded German Shepherds, presumably for the same reason Marathon became Snickers, with an eye for the international market; 2) that the original Lassie was actually a male; and 3) that Staffordshire bull terriers have a grip that is best described as tenacious and persistent.

And this particular Staffordshire bull terrier was within sniffing distance of my throat. That unsettled me somewhat. It occurred to me that a stray dog is often a hungry dog, and that I am made primarily of meat, so I crossed the road.

But I am inexplicably fascinating to stray dogs, and this dog – let us call him Rocky – decided I was worthy of closer inspection. I am generally uncomfortable around unfamiliar dogs, but if anything Rocky was over-familiar, and I was equally uncomfortable.

“Walk,” I thought. “He will lose interest and go away. As long as I don’t antagonise him.”

It was at that point that my heavy bag slipped from my shoulder and clouted Rocky on the nose.

The dog was singularly unimpressed. He started to growl and bare his teeth. Somehow I managed to use my bag as a shield and grab hold of his collar. Rocky was prevented from attacking me, but it was a little like holding a dead man’s trigger. At some point I was going to have to let go, and then there would be a reckoning.

As I was pondering my next move, I saw my bus sail past just ahead of me. If I hadn’t gone back for my sandwich…

The ham roll! I opened my bag, and pulled out the roll. I waved it under Rocky’s nose to pique his interest, then flung it as far away as I could. Then I ran, like the not-wanting-to-be-mauled coward I am.

I discovered later that it was a ham and English mustard roll. This probably explains why 10 seconds later Rocky was back at my legs in a state of confusion. He did not know what to make of the man who, on the one hand gave him food, but on the other gave him food which actually hurts.

He raced towards my bus stop, where a terrified teenage girl was standing alone. He sniffed around her legs. “I don’t like dogs,” said the girl, as calmly as she could.

And so, once again, I took Rocky by the collar. “Erm, you walk to the other bus stop,” I said. “I’ll keep him here.”

“Are you sure?” asked the girl. I wasn’t.

“Yes, go on,” I said, my eyes sweeping the area for Rocky’s no-doubt tattooed, bull-necked, and hostile owner.

But before she could walk away, the next bus arrived. The girl boarded it, and I pushed the dog away and jumped on.

“Shut the…” I said to the driver, but too late. Rocky also boarded the bus.

“Look, mate,” said the driver. “I can’t let you on if you haven’t got a lead.”

“It’s not my dog,” I whimpered. Once more I grabbed Rocky’s collar and wrestled him off the bus, virtually flinging him into the bus shelter. The driver was quicker this time, Rocky threw himself at the closed doors, and the bus sped away.

As I sat down, I remembered I now had no lunch. “Fiddlesticks,” I said, or words to that effect.