COLUMN: May 30, 2013

SUMMER had come for its annual overnight visit and I’d already wasted half of it by mowing an unappreciative lawn.

I am not the outdoors type. I know if I am stung by a nettle I should apply a dock leaf, but I have no idea what a dock leaf looks like.

I am best kept indoors, ideally in solitary confinement where I can stay out of trouble and wasps can’t get at me, but even I understand the importance of Vitamin D, and the crucial role of sunlight in its production.

As I did not want rickets I thought I had better make the most of the sunshine. I had already donned t-shirt and shorts – the garb of a small child – in order to increase the surface area of my skin which could be in contact with sunlight.

I felt that was not enough. But there was no way I could remove my t-shirt after what happened last time, when I was wearing beige shorts, and an actual small child spotted me in my garden from the street and informed her father that “the man’s got no clothes on.”

Teatime was coming, and I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was the feel of an unfamiliar breeze on my legs. Maybe it was my mid-life crisis…

“I know,” I said to the disbelieving people around me, for the first time in my life. “Shall we have… a barbecue?”

As a child, I remember Sunday nights, freshly bathed and pyjama’d, watching Return of the Saint while my mother toasted bread on a fork over the coal fire. Maybe, I thought, I can give my own children a memory like that.

It might seem astonishing that I could reach my very early 40s without ever having barbecued something, but, in my defence, I have a very long list of things I have never done and it takes time to get through it. I only sledged for the first time in January.

I do not even own a barbecue. That is not entirely true. I sort of have one. It is a brick-built thing constructed by former residents of my house, but it is under some foliage.

If I ever use that barbecue you will know about it because my house will appear on the news from the vantage point of a helicopter surveying the charred devastation of my neighbourhood. And no matter what else I achieve in this life my obituary will start with the four words “Barbecue idiot Gary Bainbridge…”

Apart from anything else, we have evolved as a species. We no longer have to cook hunks of mammoth over a fire. Yet there is a romance about the old ways, a folk memory which clings like the smoke to the steak.

So I bought a disposable barbecue from Sainsbury’s and set to work. The instructions told me to place the small tray on two bricks. I am not a man with ready access to bricks. I suppose I could have demolished the Barbecue of Danger, but that would have been an irony too far.

There was a half-brick on top of the sandpit, preventing wind from lifting the lid off it. And I found another brick around the side of the house, with some mortar attached to it. I have no idea where it came from, and I hope the day never comes when I find out.

I balanced the barbecue tray on top and set it alight. I waited till the coals were white-hot, as I had learnt from years of watching Ainsley Harriott, and went inside to get the food.

I returned with two burgers and four sausages. My wife had retained the rest of the food to cook under the grill. Some might consider this a grievous lack of faith in my ability, but I could see where she was coming from and I suspect you can too. Also, the tray was the size of a beer mat.

I dropped the raw bits of processed meat on the grill and waited. It was taking a while so I looked at the instructions again. “If the heat is too low, agitate the tray with implements.”

I don’t know if you have ever tried to agitate a very light and unstable tray filled with white-hot charcoal with tongs without dislodging a sausage, but it is quite difficult. It is even more difficult when a wasp lands on your ear.

I yelped, jerked, and dropped a sausage. Instinctively I picked it up. It was quite hot. I dropped it again, fortunately onto the grill, and decided not to mention it.

I brought the food back indoors. The children had already eaten. The best thing I can say about the whole experience is that nobody died.

And, now I think about it, toast made over a coal fire is bloody horrible.

COLUMN: May 23, 2013

EVERY bus I can get to work arrived at the stop at once. And if I were not currently lame, like an old man in a film, I might have been in a position to take advantage of this bus tsunami.

However, all I could do was watch the phenomenon from a distance, helpless, yet in awe.

I limped to the the empty bus stop and waited. This is the lot in life of one with plantar fasciitis, the slight foot injury that sounds like a flesh-eating bug. It is a condition which is worsened by standing in one place for a while, but which also makes one stand in one place for a while by making one late for the bus.

My bus arrived and I boarded it. As it was a later bus, it was almost full, with only one seat available – the sideways-facing individual seat behind the driver. This seat is usually occupied by little old ladies, surprisingly, perhaps, given that it is quite high. One of public transport’s many little jokes.

As there were no little old ladies about, I sat down in it and opened up a book. The seat was not terribly comfortable. The height of it made sitting in it a similar experience to that of being perched on a bar stool. I spent most of the journey feeling like a member of Westlife about to stand up for the key change.

I was as comfortable as I could be under the circumstances when the bus stopped, and a woman boarded carrying a baby. The baby was in one of those front-facing slings, staring out at the world as if she were carrying her mother in a backpack.

I carried my own children in such a harness, which afforded a certain fatherly closeness until the day when a lengthening baby, an infant’s involuntary kicking movement, and my groin collided. I couldn’t enjoy it after that. It was like playing a game of high stakes Buckaroo.

One thing I do remember about carrying children in that way is that it is not easy on the back muscles, and after a while one needs to have a sit down. I am not saying it is because of this I know what it is like to be pregnant, but that is only because I do not wish to be lynched by all women.

I wear a supportive insole, but to all intents and purposes I appear as a normal, relatively fit person. There was no way I could get away with just sitting there while Pocahontas had her child dangling in front of her.

So I gave the woman the look, the one which says, “Would you like my seat?” I have just done the look in front of a mirror so I might describe it to you, and I am afraid it looks a little like a surprised Frankie Howerd watching a dog run past his feet.

This probably explains why the woman declined my offer, though at the time I assumed it was because she was worried she would find it difficult to stand again. I always did.

The woman stood opposite me, and her baby looked around the bus. Then she found me. She stared at me. I smiled at her. No response. I smiled harder. No response. I did the biggest smile anybody has ever done without the aid of medication. Still no response. So I stared back until the mother noticed.

By this time the bus had filled up with standing passengers. And each of them did the same thing. They looked at me in the little old lady seat. They looked at the woman, struggling with her staring contest winning baby. And then they looked back at me, their faces blackening.

“Look!” I wanted to say. “I have a foot thing that sounds like a flesh-eating bug. It bloody hurts! Besides, I gave her ‘the look.’ She didn’t want to know!”

It was no use. I was boiling with rage and embarrassment, my constant companions. I slammed my book shut and shoved it into my bag, and, as the bus stopped, I stood up in the most forceful way possible, as if I were the member of Westlife who was fed up with singing granny pop and who wanted to do drugs with Axl Rose.

And as I jostled my way down the schoolchild-filled aisle, I saw, through the window, the woman walking along the road, her baby bouncing in front of her. She had alighted, as she was only going three stops.

I swear the baby looked at me and smiled.

COLUMN: May 16, 2013

I FIND as I grow older that I become increasingly baffled by everything. And bear in mind that I set up Base Camp relatively high up Mount Befuddlement in the first place.

Specifically, I am unclear on why people do things. It is not all people or all things, but it is an ever- growing number of both.

For example, I was perturbed this week by the twentyish woman with whom I shared a revolving door.

I saw the woman enter the door as it moved, stepping into one of the compartments. I stepped into mine. And she did not move. She just stood there, trapped, a look of confusion on her face. I was equally trapped and confused.

Why didn’t she move?

For 10 seconds, we looked at each other. Then I realised. She didn’t know you had to push the door to make it revolve. I gripped the handle and started to push. She looked at me as if I were a madman, but then as the door moved, it dawned on her and she was freed.

Somehow, she had managed to reach her early twenties without encountering a revolving door either in reality or in films. I found that utterly incomprehensible.

Even more baffling this week was the display I witnessed from my work-bound bus.

I saw through the window a pair of tables with accompanying chairs on the pavement outside the premises of a chain bakers.

I found it quite difficult to imagine who would want to sit six feet away from a busy road used by buses and articulated lorries, but I had a go. And here I am, imagining it . . .

CHARLES AND EDDIE SPOT A PAIR OF TABLES OUTSIDE A CHAIN BAKERS.
CHARLES: Oh, my stars and garters! A pavement cafe! Just as in Paris! Do you remember, Eddie?
EDDIE: No, That was Ramon.
CHARLES: Ah. Well let us sit and have an espresso and an exquisite pastry and watch the boulevardiers saunter by.
CHARLES SITS DOWN. AN OLD WOMAN PASSES, PULLING A TARTAN SHOPPING TROLLEY.
EDDIE ENTERS THE SHOP. HE RETURNS WITH THE FOOD.
EDDIE: They did not have any espressos, I have had to get Bovril.
CHARLES: And exquisite pastries, as those crafted by the master patissiers of Montmartre?
EDDIE: Jumbo sausage roll or cheese ’n’ onion pasty? They were the only things that were hot.
CHARLES: Pasty.
AN 86 BUS WHIPS PAST. ITS SLIPSTREAM TEARS THE PASTY FROM THE HANDS OF CHARLES STRAIGHT INTO THE FACE OF EDDIE.
EDDIE: I hate you.

But I am most often confused by young men, which is in itself strange as I used to be one.

Consider the hipster – and why not, as he is already thinking about himself 24 hours a day – and his laughable life. I have railed against him before, and I admit defeat on the battleground of red trousers. I will never surrender in the battle to retain “may I have?” instead of “can I get?” but I am doing that for all of us.

I saw a hipster recently walking through the city with a metal detector. I assume it was a metal detector; he might have been taking a floating disc for a walk – you never know with hipsters.

Imagine the readings this young man must have been getting in a street filled with cars, lamp-posts, cables, and copper pipes. Perhaps he had been fooled into thinking he was listening to some difficult but incredibly hip electronica.

Nevertheless, he was overshadowed by the young man I saw on the homeward-bound bus this week who had a shaven head and a complicated and extensive beard. I understand naturally bald men having beards, as some sort of proof that they can still stimulate the odd follicle, but this was ridiculous. He had chosen to look like a character from the game “Guess Who?” on purpose.

He compounded his ridiculousness by wearing a flat cap and short trousers. I will set aside the fact that a good test of whether a man under 65 is a psychopath is whether he can wear a hat without appearing self-conscious.

The issue here is that this was not a man who was cool and didn’t know it. This was a man who was cold and didn’t know why. This was a man who was the logical conclusion of the incomprehensible fashion for wearing T-shirts with gloves and tourniquet-style scarves. I think I hated him.

They say ignorance is bliss. If that’s true, why am I so angry?

COLUMN: May 9, 2013

I HAD to assemble a goal. It is unclear why anybody thought this would end well.

I am actually a dab hand at putting together flat-pack furniture, this talent being the shining light which illuminates my many other DIY failings.

I am not afraid of an Allen key, and I could demonstrate the insertion of little dowels into bits of drilled MDF on television. There is probably a channel dedicated to that on Sky, but I wouldn’t know as I don’t have Posh Telly.

However, this goal threatened to defeat me. It potentially was six feet tall by ten feet wide. I’ve been in smaller hotel rooms. I opened the box and emptied out the parts, separating them into the correct groups, like a flat-pack veteran.

But there were quite a lot of parts. The goal had been virtually deconstructed to the atomic level. And so I turned to the scrap of paper on which were printed the assembly instructions.

I refer to these as instructions, but they were nothing of the sort. Yes, there was a diagram showing where each of the 73,000 parts was meant to go, but there was no step-by-step assembly guide explaining in which order the parts should be put together.

This would be fine if, like Marvel Girl of The X-Men, I were able to lift every part of the goal into the air and snap them together simultaneously with the power of my mind.

Unfortunately, the power of my mind can barely lift me out of a chair these days. Nor could it recall the word “chicken” on Tuesday. I don’t remember the last time I finished a Sudoku, but then it could have been yesterday as I have a very poor memory. In fact, on Tuesday, I couldn’t remember the word “chicken.”

The point is that I had assembled the left and right hand uprights, but when it came to attaching the horizontal bar things I became uncomfortably aware of my limitations.

Now, I am a shade off six feet tall. I have normal length arms for a man of my height. My knuckles do not graze the floor unless I am really bending over as I walk, and there are very few situations in which I am called upon to adopt that gait.

Consequently, it is impossible for me to attach a ten-foot crossbar to two uprights at the same time. I am not Mr Fantastic of The Fantastic Four. I cannot stretch my arms beyond their normal bounds.

And the crossbar would not slot into place correctly unless it was clipped into both uprights at the same time.

I shouldn’t have to be a Marvel super-hero to put together a goal from Argos. Yes, I know that it should have been a two-man job, but I have seen too many Laurel & Hardy films and Chucklevision episodes to know how that works out.

I would like to say that I am aware I should have accepted my inability to slot some plastic tubes together without the assistance of a structural engineer with good grace, but I did not.

I became increasingly angry and frustrated, and kicked a swing. Not even the bees would come near me, although that might have been a reputation issue.

Eventually, I constructed the frame. I was delighted, and unpacked the net.

I gazed at the net. I gazed at the instructions. I gazed at the frame. I gazed back at the instructions.

At this point, I noticed the goal was made in China. The instructions were written in China, by a Chinese person.

I find it incredibly difficult to reconcile the rigid bureaucracy of day-to-day life in an authoritarian Communist state with the laissez-faire, borderline hippy-ish, useless instructions on how to attach the net, which basically said, “Hey, man, just, y’know, put the net on. Use clips if you want. Groovy.”

An hour later, I had stretched the net over the frame, and somehow secured it in place. I stepped back to admire my handiwork. It did look a little like a child’s drawing of a goal, but it appeared sturdy and I was pleased.

I called upon the young owner of the structure to take a shot and christen the goal. He took a run up and smacked the ball in the centre.

It hit the back of the goal, bulging the net. And pulling the bar running along the ground out of its now broken joint.

COLUMN: May 2, 2013

I HATE gardening. But I had to do some a week or two ago, seeing as winter had finally decided it had better get its skates on or it would be late for the southern hemisphere.

I do not know if you do gardening, but it is just like tidying up, except that complete strangers are able to judge you on how well you have tidied up by simply walking past your house instead of coming inside and running a finger along the dusty mantelpiece.

I spent some time pushing a lawn mower over the back garden. As there had been no sun since October this should have been a fairly easy task. The grass had grown maybe one or two millimetres in that time.

But the trouble with mowing a lawn that has barely grown is that it is very difficult to see where you have done. It is like colouring in a large green piece of card with a small green felt-tip pen. While insects attack you.

Insects and I do not get on particularly well. I am not a racist, but I do not like their eyes, and believe strongly they have too many legs. They come into my house without invitation, make me paranoid about covering my food if I have to leave the room, and make loud insistent buzzing noises. If the insect kingdom were a person, it would be Gregg Wallace from Masterchef.

I see gardening as an incursion into enemy territory. I cannot help thinking insects use this to justify their invasion of my home, as I dodge clouds of tiny flies. But I know that is ridiculous because insects are as stupid as they are ugly.

At this point I expect the many entomologists among my readers to tut loudly and explain to me how insects are useful and, in many cases, beautiful.

And I say to them: “Why do the insects have to be useful in my garden? Can’t they be useful in somebody else’s garden? And stop showing off, and pretending you like exo-skeletons, compound eyes, and creatures that vomit on their food before eating it.”

With the back lawn more or less polished off, it was time to tackle the weeds at the front.

One of the previous occupants of my house was evidently a sadistic weed enthusiast and had installed cobbles from pavement to front door. It is less a pathway and more some sort of city of dandelions.

Over the years I have tried a number of chemical solutions to prevent the weeds appearing between the cobbles but the thing about weeds is that they just laugh at me. The only action that works is the application of a wallpaper scraper, stabbing through their roots.

As I began the long tedious process, I became aware of a presence next to me. And a buzzing. A loud, lazy buzzing. I turned to face it.

Hovering by my head was a very large bee. I assume it was a bee. It could quite easily have been a pigeon on its way to a fancy dress party. If this bee had been any larger I would have had to include it on the electoral register.

Out of all the insects – and there are lots – the ones I like least are bees and wasps, because they have stings, and stings sting, hence the name. I am aware that if a bee stings it dies, but, as I have established, insects are stupid, and I am not sure the bee actually understands the consequences.

I tried to ignore it. I couldn’t remember if that was something that worked with bees. I know it’s supposed to work with bears and bullies, although in my experience it never worked with bullies, who persisted with sticks, stones, and names.

But the bee remained attracted to me. I suppose that stands to reason. We are always attracted to one who shuns us. I am not saying the bee had a case of unrequited love towards me, but I cannot rule it out.

So I waved my hands around my head, as if I were plumping up an invisible afro, hoping to frighten the bee away.

But I went too far.

Reader, I punched a bee.

I am not sure which of us was most surprised, but I sent the bee flying in an arc over the roses. I shuddered violently.

Then I became aware of another presence. A passer-by had watched me as my elbows jerked about like a breakdancing Thunderbirds puppet. Out of context it probably looked disturbing.

“It’s not what it looks like. I punched a bee,” I called after the man, as he scurried off.

This is why I hate gardening.

COLUMN: April 25, 2013

I WILL never forget what I was doing when I discovered JLS were splitting up. I was reading about JLS splitting up.

I do not know if you know who JLS are, but they are a pop group made up of four young men, like the Beatles or the Four Tops. They came to prominence on a talent show on one of the commercial channels, like Lenny Henry.

And they are popular primarily with young girls, like Claire’s Accessories.

If you are now imagining a cross between the Beatles, Lenny Henry, and Claire’s Accessories, then you are remarkably close to what JLS are.

Sadly for their young girl fan base, the four gentlemen from JLS – short for Jack the Lad Swing, apparently – will be going their separate ways following their next tour and album, to spend more time with their money.

At this point, you are wondering, “How does this man know so much about JLS? What happened to the columns in which he writes about being hapless in a range of social situations? Has he turned into Paul Gambaccini?”

And there is a very simple answer. I know so much about JLS because I have seen them performing live.

About a year ago, I accompanied some female family members to a JLS concert. If I am brutally frank, I was not entirely looking forward to the trip, and as we wandered along the approach to the arena, I was confirmed in my reservations.

The mass of people pouring into the venue could be split fairly evenly into two tribes.

There were the early-teenage girls, and pre-teens aping them. They were all glittery and pink, with teddy bears featuring the names of JLS members.

And then there were The Women. They were just as glittery and pink, but with boob tubes and talons. They also had teddy bears featuring the JLS members’ names, but there was a whiff of voodoo about them. I suppose if JLS had a natural predator it would be these women.

I swept the area and came to the actually terrifying conclusion that I was the only person I could see who possessed a Y chromosome. I installed myself in between my womenfolk, partly as protection, and partly so that people could see I was with somebody, and not the sort of weirdo who turns up on his own to concerts jam-packed with pubescent girls.

I have been less comfortable in my time, but it has involved surgical procedures.

We entered the arena, bought some competitively priced drinks – if the competition were platinum and white diamonds – and took our seats.

I scanned the auditorium while the terrible support act attempted to entertain an audience who didn’t care that their new single was out on Monday as they had come to see JLS. Not one man to be seen. No boys either.

I have seen more males in a ladies’ toilets and I have never even been in a ladies’ toilets, not even by accident, unless you count that time I was unable to decipher the symbol on the door in that restaurant, and even then I only got as far as the air dryer.

After two more support acts – and the sense that this was less a concert and more a sales convention – on came the four JLS chaps.

I’d like to say that my cynicism was washed away by the sheer joy, brio and musicality of JLS, but I’m afraid it wasn’t. I was impressed by the one who kept doing back flips – if I were able to do a back flip, I assure you I would do it all the time too – and the ability of another to bring entire sections of the audience into bloom with a single thrust of his hips.

But they only appeared to have two songs, a fast one about being in a house, and a slower one about having one’s hands up, and they seemed to repeat them again and again over screaming. It was the worst time of my life, and I’ve watched people die.

When all seemed lost, a spotlight swept through the crowd, and picked out my saviour. It was a man with the same haunted look as mine.

I fixed my eyes on him, and he saw me when the light washed over me. And we shared a moment. I rolled my eyes, and he shrugged.

It was an eloquent expression of solidarity. I was no longer alone. I had a brother in suffering.

JLS should think about that before they all go solo.

On the other hand, they deserve everything they get.

COLUMN: April 18, 2013

I HAD 12 minutes to catch a connecting train and it was the back end of lunchtime.

It was the point of lunchtime at which if one were leaving the office to get some food, some colleagues would think you were leaving work early for the day. “Where’s he off to?” they’d say.

And then they would talk about “the part-timer” behind your back, but still within earshot.

But they wouldn’t have the decency to look embarrassed when you returned with your sandwiches, oh, no. Not that I am settling scores from 19 years ago or anything.

I swept my eyes around the station at the various franchise offerings. One half of my brain was reminding me that

I had only 10 minutes now, the other half was trying to work out how long the staff in the burger place would take given that there were four people in the queue, and only one wrapped burger in the chute behind the burgerista.

“Nine minutes, come on,” said the timekeeping part of my brain. There was nobody in the pasty shop. That was fine. In fact, if I had a “traditional Cornish pasty” I could feel slightly smug about British regional delicacies, even though I was in Yorkshire, which is about as far from Cornwall as it is from Jupiter.

“Stop faffing about provenance, you total idiot. This isn’t The Food Programme. You have eight minutes left to stuff your face and catch a train,” said that bit of my brain again. I walked into the pasty shop.

There was a friendly young woman behind the counter. “What can I get you?” she asked. “Erm, a pasty, please” I blurted out. I looked at the counter. It was filled with roughly 74 different varieties of pasty. I might as well have said: “Erm, a thing, please.”

“Seven minutes, Bainbridge,” said time-brain. “Pick one and go.”

“I can’t,” rest-of-brain told time-brain. “How can I possibly choo… steak and stilton?! Why do they keep putting stilton in things? Who invented blue cheese anyway? You wouldn’t eat Angel Delight with blue mould in it…”

“Shut up, rest-of-brain,” said time-brain, “A) you like blue cheese, and B) six and a half minutes.”

The woman behind the counter was looking at me, with a kind sort of concern in her eyes. I picked the pasty right in front of me. “Chicken and chorizo, please,” I said. I tried to pronounce “chorizo” correctly but it didn’t go well.

“Very British,” time-brain pointed out. “Didn’t they have frogs’ legs and escargots?” I hate time-brain. The woman bagged up the pasty and I handed over some folding money.

She gave me my change, and I was just about to put it in my pocket when I realised she’d given me change from £10. And I’d handed her a £20 note.

“Just go,” time-brain said. “No, time-brain,” I said. “That is still a fair bit of money. If I found £10 I didn’t know I had in my back pocket, it would be a cause for delight.”

“Erm, I’m sure I gave you a £20 note,” I told the woman.

“I don’t think so,” she said. Her kindly eyes hardened.

“Five minutes to get to the other end of the station,” time-brain said. “Be quiet, time-brain,” I said.

“But I only had a £20 note on me,” I told the woman.

“Do you have any proof?” she asked. “Because I’m sure you only gave me a tenner.”

I thought for a moment. “Fingerprints…? Look, I remember being really annoyed when I got £20 out of the cash machine and it gave me a £20 note, because who wants a £20 note when you’re only withdrawing £20?”

She looked me up and down. Yes, she clearly thought, this is the sort of man who A) would only have £20 on him, and B) would know when he had a £20 note. She opened the till and gave me a £10 note.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s all right, everyone makes mistakes,” I said, and ran out of the shop in a cloud of pasty dust.

I hared down the platform, stuffing my change in my pocket…

“Oh, no,” I thought. “Please, no.” I took a crisp £20 note from my pocket. Apparently I had found £10 I didn’t know I had in my back pocket. And it was not a cause for delight.

I ran back to the pasty woman. “SORRY!” I yelled, and turned away, leaving a £10 note fluttering in the air as I raced for the train.