COLUMN: April 11, 2013

I WENT back to the hotel in which I stayed a couple of weeks ago. I am clearly a glutton for very, very mild punishment.

“And you’ve stayed here before” the receptionist half asked me as I checked in. “Oh, yes,” I said. I felt a little like James Bond arriving at the Ritz.

I gave her a look which showed I wasn’t some hayseed who was easily impressed by a breakfast buffet or wet room and she gave me my key card.

She placed me in the room next door to the one where I slept last time, presumably as some sort of psychological experiment. Everything in the room was identical, except that the layout was a mirror image of the previous room.

This was extremely disorientating at first. This must have been how Alice had felt. But I settled in fairly quickly, and the only mishap directly brought about by the topsy-turvy design of the room was a minor kettle spill caused by my getting out of bed the wrong side in the middle of the night. It could have happened to anybody, I mused as I wrung out the socks which I had discarded on the wrong side of the bed.

I took my laptop with me, partly for work, and partly so I would have something to keep me occupied in the evening. I thought perhaps I might have a go on that new Twitter thing they have these days, but hotel wi-fi was 11p a minute and nothing I have to say is worth that amount of money.

I switched on the television, but the only programmes on were documentaries about that woman who died a few days ago. I didn’t particularly enjoy living through the events as they happened, so I was not keen to revisit them.

Luckily I had brought a couple of Blu-ray films with me. I have a Blu-ray drive in my laptop and it was about time I gave it a go. This was going to be exciting. There is nothing like watching a blockbuster movie in perfect detail on a screen the size of a copy of Take A Break magazine.

I couldn’t decide which of the two films to watch, and resorted to the “Dip dip dip/My blue ship” of my childhood.

I probably would not have done that in public, but how a man conducts himself in a hotel room is his own business. “O-U-T spells Out,” I said, jabbing my finger against one of the movies. It was a shame as that was the one I really wanted to watch, but you cannot buck the Dip.

I slipped the other into the disc drive and closed it, and waited for the machine to wheeze into life. A little message appeared on the screen: “The key has expired. Please download a new one.”


I was incensed by the injustice, and found a way to hook up my phone to the computer. I was going to get this key if it killed me.

I clicked on the link offered by my useless Blu-ray player program, and waited. But the page did not come up.

Instead an entirely different page appeared, one which said that the site which I was trying to access had been classified as an “adult site” – perhaps it thought Blue Ray was the name of an actor – and that my phone provider was happy to let me have a look at it as long as I proved I was an adult by giving it a look at my credit card details.

Apparently that is the only proof of adulthood. I have grey hairs, a mortgage, plantar fasciitis, and an inability to tell you which record is number one in the charts. I am definitely an adult and have been for some time. What I do not have, and never have had, is a credit card. If I wanted one, I could have one. I don’t want one.

My only other option was to phone the providers directly and ask them to lift the block. “Hello,” I would have to say, “I am alone in a hotel room and I would like to watch a film. Please give me access to adult sites.” I decided against it.

I own the films, I own the laptop, I own the phone, and I pay for my internet service.

These all belong to me, but I could not use them for a legitimate purpose because the vendors do not trust grown-ups to make decisions.

That woman might have rolled back the nanny state, but she has let in a nanny private sector to replace it. And we can’t vote them out.

COLUMN: April 4, 2013

I HAVE had to spend some time dining alone recently.

This is not of a consequence of anything I have done. I have exemplary table manners. I wouldn’t even know how to burp the alphabet, and anybody who suggests otherwise had better have video evidence or I’ll see you in court.

It is just that I have had to work in a couple of strange cities and have wandered out alone into the night searching for restaurants, which is as close as I get to having an adventure these days, apart from getting a hand car wash.

On my last trip, I went to a high-end pie and mash place on my first night. It was an unnecessarily complex affair. I had to choose the variety of pie, mash (“Mash? Just “mash” mash, please. You know, mash”), peas, and liquor. By liquor, they meant “gravy”. God knows what Cockneys actually drink.

It was all right. I was pleased with my mushy peas, which were really mushy, and not like the mushy peas they have in chip shops these days, which are less “mushy” and more “slightly distressed”.

On the second night I chose a Pizza Express, and that all went reasonably well at first. I was provided with a wheel cutter, in case I wanted to eat my pizza like a barbarian.

I had a go across the diameter just for the hell of it, but, as usual with wheel cutters, as soon as I reached the crust, it lost all its effectiveness, and I had to saw back and forth for a couple of minutes until I finally broke through, all the time fearing that I would smash my plate with the pressure I had to exert.

Still, after I had reverted to my knife-and-fork comfort blanket, I enjoyed my pizza, and when the waitress asked me if my meal was all right, I replied with a big smile and an actual thumbs-up gesture, like a person from the 1970s.

Obviously, I couldn’t go back there again after that – nobody could – and so on my third and final night away, I found myself standing outside a Chinese restaurant.

I am not sure what I was thinking. Possibly if one feels like a stranger in a city, one might as well embrace it. I am rarely taken for somebody of Chinese extraction. I don’t recall the last time somebody said, “Oi, you there, the six-footer with the green eyes and slightly ginger-tinged sideburns, what’s the Cantonese for ‘lazy racial and cultural stereotype’?”

I walked in and was hurriedly ushered to a small, out-of-the-way table, possibly for my own good. For, apart from a single table of Western-looking types, the restaurant was filled with Chinese people. A single, Western diner, I would have looked less conspicuous dressed as Wonder Woman.

Still, this was promising. I have always been taught that if Chinese people eat in a Chinese restaurant, it must be a decent establishment. I’m not sure why this is the case. Restaurants in Hong Kong are jam-packed with Chinese people and they can’t all be good.

Then I looked down at my table. In front of me were a spoon and two chopsticks. And no knife or fork. This was no good. I had never eaten with chopsticks before. I am not James Bond.

Panicking, I looked across at the Westerners. Surely they had knives and forks? No! They were using chopsticks, the turncoat swines.

I’m sure I could have asked the waitress for a knife and fork – they probably keep some for emergency idiots – but I made a decision. I was going to try chopsticks.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pick up a steamed dumpling with chopsticks, but it’s like trying to pick up jelly with a safety pin.

But I persevered. And eventually, if painfully, I was picking up actual rice with actual chopsticks, and getting a significant amount in my mouth. It felt like a great achievement. But nobody noticed. I wanted to shout out,

“Look, I am doing this thing that all of you have been able to do since you were about 18 months old,” but I would have looked silly.

Sighing, I picked up my rice bowl. There were some soupy grains in the bottom and I used my spoon to scoop them out.

And the waitress saw me do that single thing. As far as she knew, I had eaten my entire meal with my spoon. She gave me a small, understanding smile.

I smiled back weakly, defeated, and, without thinking, gave her a thumbs-up.

So I can’t go back there again, either.

COLUMN: March 28, 2013

I AM currently staying in a hotel because of work. I appreciate this makes me sound impossibly glamorous, like Sir David Frost or Rihanna, but I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, although I have tea and coffee making facilities, I do not have any biscuits. I bet Sir David Frost doesn’t want for bourbon creams. I bet Rihanna can’t even remember the last time she had to ask for a garibaldi.

She probably has her own garibaldi wrangler in her vast entourage. I certainly would.

I don’t have a wardrobe, either. There’s a bar sticking out from the wall with coat hangers dangling from it, enabling the domestic staff to judge me on my clothing as well as the state in which I leave my room.

“I find it incredible to believe, Consuela,” one domestic would say to another, “that a man who stays in a hotel because of work would have underpants from Matalan.”

“He is clearly a fraud, Magda,” the other would reply. “When you replenish his tea and coffee-making facilities, do not give him any custard creams.”

Nor do I have a proper shower. Yes, I have the correct plumbing. What I do not have is a shower base. What I have is a “wet room” which is correctly named, as far as it goes, but would be more accurately named an “Oh, crumbs, it’s going everywhere, what if it goes under the door and out into the bedroom, you only need one little leak/great, my socks are now soaking as I brush my teeth because the floor is still damp room”.

I admit it would be difficult to market a product under that name, but it would serve to show the manufacturers that they have created one of the most stupid inventions since my alien abduction/doppleganger excuse for not doing my Greek homework. A wet room makes as much sense as a gravy table.

“We’re not bothering with plates any more, Ian.”

“But the red wine jus is dribbling onto my chinos.”

“I saw it on Grand Designs, so shut your face and build a mashed potato dam.”

But I am mostly carping. It is all worth it because I get a cooked breakfast every morning. I only ever have a cooked breakfast when I go to hotels, mostly because I don’t need one in everyday life.

I do not till fields or dig hunks of carbon out of rock tunnels. I just move a mouse around a bit and press keys. If I had a cooked breakfast every day I would need two seats on the bus by August, one for each buttock.

Nevertheless, because this is, as I think I have suggested, a budget hotel, my breakfast is not cooked to order. It is a breakfast buffet, which is basically a trough filled with scrambled eggs, beans, and sausages, among other things.

I am not delighted by this because I have to decide A) how much I want to eat; and B) how much I can get away with taking. And so my greed and guilt are set, as ever, in conflict.

On my first morning at the hotel I decided to put off that battle and get my tea and orange juice first. One of the hotel employees, resplendent in a waistcoat with an eye-wateringly bright purple rear lining, was busying himself just to the right of the hot water machine.

“Do I just press this?” I asked Waistcoat Man.

“Dunno,” he replied.

“Casual,” I thought, as I pressed the button and watched the hot water fill my cup.

I spied some fruit salad. “Why not?” I thought. “It will counteract the bacon.”

“Are there any bowls?” I asked Waistcoat Man.

“Dunno,” he replied, barely looking at me.

“Do you know where the spoons are?”

“No,” he said, impatiently. There was no way he was getting a tip. He’d actually got my dander up.

“How long have you actually worked here?” I asked, my tone shot through with sarcastic vitriol.

Waistcoat Man stared at me. “I don’t work here,” he said. Then he picked up his plate and went to his table.

I refuse to accept the blame. If anything, it was his fault for wearing a waistcoat in a hotel for no reason.

I bet this never happens to Rihanna.

COLUMN: March 21, 2013

HAVING wheezed through the worst of the winter, my boiler finally decided enough was enough, and collapsed, like Devon Loch, last Friday.

We discovered it was weeping, a steady drip running from somewhere in its mysterious innards. And soon, so was I. Because I knew it meant I was going to have to get a man in.

It is bad enough, as I have documented painfully recently, having to take an item of machinery to a man to have it fixed, but so much worse to have one visit.

On Saturday, I bit the bullet. I’d had to empty the water from the big red Celebrations tin twice during the night, and it was increasingly clear that the boiler was not going spontaneously to mend itself.

Also, while the heating was still chugging away, we had lost our hot water. I don’t mind cold water. It is very useful, for example, when preparing a glass of lemon squash, or if I need something to take with a headache pill.

What I do not like is unexpectedly cold water. I am not one of these people who wakes up early on Boxing Day and thinks: “Thank flip that’s all over. I’ve had enough of warmth, being able to feel my extremities, and having testicles on the outside. I’m jumping in the sea with a load of ugly men in Speedos.”

So when I was made keenly and suddenly aware of the lack of hot water while I was in the shower, I decided to take action.

I phoned a helpline, not for the first time in my life. A patient woman answered. I explained my difficulty. She asked me if there were any children in the house – perhaps she thought they would be more articulate. I knocked a few years off their ages and said yes, and that they would need hot water, this being the early 21st century.

She outlined a choice of tariffs – one exorbitant, and one which would attach myself and my descendants for a thousand years to some sort of direct debit arrangement. I chose the former and an engineer was dispatched.

He arrived and looked at the boiler. “Have you had this cover off?” he asked. “Sort of,” I said, looking at my shoes.

He had a good look. It wasn’t difficult to see what was wrong. A jet of water was spraying out of a broken something.

“Yes,” he said, “Your something is broken. It’s very common.”

“Great, so you can fix it?” I asked.

“I don’t have the part,” he explained.

“But it’s very common?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“But you don’t have the part,” I reiterated.

“No. I’ll be back on Monday,” he said, and with a “Hi-yo, Silver, away,” he swept out of the building like The Lone Ranger, only a Lone Ranger whose guns were coming on Monday, so I’d have to hole up in the abandoned silver mine and fight off the bandits single-handed for the rest of the weekend.

Three hundred and twenty-five kettles later, the engineer returned with the part, and the house took on That Atmosphere. That Atmosphere is the thing I like least about getting a man in.

I found myself, as always, virtually confined to my living room, uncomfortable in my own presence, not wanting to switch on the television. I didn’t want to walk around my house in case he thought I was either spying on him or some sort of house-wandering weirdo.

It’s the quiet, I think. Even the hammering and drilling – drilling, why is he drilling?! – cannot dispel that strange uneasiness when a workman is doing something in one’s house.

And I really wanted to go to the toilet, but I knew if I went he would need something from me at that moment, and I’d have to explain that I was using the toilet, and there would be an awkward moment when I came down the stairs, because he’d known I’d been to the toilet in my own house.

Then he called me. “Can I use your toilet?” he said. “Erm, yes,” I said. I pointed up the stairs. “It’s that one, there, with the toilet in…” He bounded off and conducted his business with the door open. Then he came back downstairs, apparently without washing his hands.

I was incensed. This was my house and that was incredibly unhygienic and disrespectful. I had to make a stand. I had to take back my own house.

And, so, emboldened, I switched on the television. That showed him.

COLUMN: March 14, 2013

I SPEND quite a lot of time on buses, but I do actually own a driving licence and, indeed, a car. It is a black car, and there the similarities between myself and Batman end.

A couple of Sundays ago I went out visiting, as people used to do on Sundays before they let the shops open. I had left a couple of items in the boot and needed to retrieve them before the visit proper began.

I pressed the special catch, the lock clicked open, and I pulled open the boot, and, basically, it all came off in my hand. Specifically, the plastic moulding around the catch, which I had always used to get purchase on the boot in order to open it, sheared off with a sickening crunch.

It dangled limply, attached only by some electrical wires, and I sighed. I tried to reattach it but it was no use. And I sighed again. Because I knew what this meant.

I was going to have to explain to a professional how I had broken my car and I simply do not have the vocabulary.

I returned home after applying gaffer tape to the affected area and called the dealership where I bought my car.

A pleasant woman in the service department answered.

“BOO-HOO! CAR BROKE! MEND CAR!” I said. I am only partially paraphrasing.

“And what is the problem?” the woman asked, after I’d calmed down.

“The bit around the catch has sheared off,” I said. I knew even then that wasn’t going to be enough.

“I’m sorry, sir, can you explain in a little more detail?” she asked.

“There’s a sort of plastic moulding around the catch on the boot. And I pulled it off.” As I said it, I must confess there was a part of me that was impressed by my own strength.

The service woman seemed happy with my explanation, which was good as, as I have explained, I do not have the vocabulary. I am not a mechanic. I know what a car is, and I know how to drive one, but that is about my limit.

I suspect many mechanics go home at night, and switch on their TVs or generic tablet devices, and have no idea how they work, or how to program in C++, or how HTML 5 handles multimedia files.

And that causes them no difficulty in social situations because knowing how to fix cars is part of the officially sanctioned list of Man Skills, while knowing how to fix computers is not

I do think the list needs to be updated, in the same way that the basket of shopping in the Consumer Prices Index is frequently updated to remove, say, Dickie Valentine long-players, and replace them with, I don’t know, something on the internet. But in the meantime I am stuck.

I arrived at the service desk at the time of my appointment. I tried to hand over my service book and the wheel nuts which the woman on the phone had insisted I would need – which were in the boot, and which made me tear the moulding off again because I’d forgotten – though even I knew that you don’t have to take the wheels off to fix the boot.

The woman on the service desk chuckled at my nuts. “We won’t be needing them, sir,” she said. I ignored the opportunity for the obvious line and merely looked at her ruefully.

I sat in the waiting area, and watched as men in oily overalls – real men – did mechanical Man Things, while I did some non-manual work with a pen, and wished I were a real man.

Then I decided that there were many sorts of men. We need men who design cars, and men who fix cars, and men who drive cars. And that is just in the car sector. There are several other jobs, too.

And a world of mechanics would be a world with lots of working cars, but precious little poetry and music and risotto.

I had earned the money which paid for the mechanics to fix my car. I am a real man, dammit. I have the underpants and Sure for Men to prove it.

Reassured in my masculinity, I went back to my work. And then Chaka Khan came on the radio. And as the mechanic walked over to me to tell me the work was complete, I absent-mindedly started to sing along.

“I’m Every Woman, it’s all in meeeee.”

And this is basically why I get the bus.

COLUMN: March 7, 2013

WE have run out of food. I am not talking about an Old Mother Hubbard situation, I just mean that all the food has now been invented.

All we are doing is stalling for time until the scientists finally stop divving about on BBC2 in front of lavishly filmed vistas and get around to inventing magic food pills.

In the absence of actual innovation, the manufacturers of our food are playing around with already existing grub and it’s about time they stopped.

It all started with the Chunky Kit-Kat. The Kit-Kat was a perfectly decent bit of confectionery. Yes, it didn’t stand up to heat, and it was always a little frustrating if it had been just that bit too close to your cup of tea, meaning that half the chocolate got stuck to the foil, but that was part of the hedonistic thrill.

And we even had a choice regarding the size of our wafer-based chocolate treat. If you were some sort of miserable vinegar-faced puritan, or a catwalk model, you could have the two-fingered variety, while normal people could opt for a proper four-fingered Kit-Kat. That was all the choice we needed.

But then some complete idiot decided that what we really needed was a gigantic Kit-Kat, and somehow managed to smuggle that idea past a meeting, and now it’s Kit-Kat anarchy. There are too many flavours and varieties and I am worried that one day there will be a beef Kit-Kat, and what if it isn’t beef, but it’s horse?

And other manufacturers have looked at the terrifying array of Kit-Kattery and decided they would do the same.

I saw a particular chocolate bar on sale today being advertised on the grounds that it had a new shape. That is a little like an off-licence boasting that it is “Under New Management.”

What sort of person is tempted to buy a chocolate bar based on the fact that the shape of the individual chunks has changed? It is hard to imagine, but I will have a go…

CHEZ CHARLES AND EDDIE. (Charles and Eddie are a gay couple, but their sexuality is not an issue in this context. I am just being modern.)
CHARLES: Edwardo, I have just popped to the shops and picked you up a treat.
EDDIE: I wish you wouldn’t call me Edwardo just because we are now gay married. What is the treat?
CHARLES: It is a Fruit & Nut bar, of the sort Frank Muir used to advertise.
EDDIE: Ugh! I cannot believe you have done this to me. I want a gay divorce.
CHARLES: But wait, Edwar… Eddie. Hear me out. I wouldn’t inflict a traditional Fruit & Nut bar upon you. This one is new, and has a curved aspect to its individual pieces, rather then the harsh lines of memory.
EDDIE: Hand it over immediately. I have been waiting even longer for a lozenge-shaped chunk than I have for equal marriage under the law. Then rush back to the shop and buy ALL the Fruit & Nuts. I must have them all.
CHARLES: You really are very high-maintenance, aren’t you?

But all of this nonsense is over-shadowed by the recent faffery surrounding pizzas, and I think we have finally reached the tipping point.

It started with the stuffed crust pizza. I don’t mind a stuffed crust pizza. It is just a way of putting more cheese on a pizza. Who could object to that? If you don’t like cheese on your pizza, you don’t like pizza, so it’s none of your business.

But what we did not realise was that the stuffed crust pizza was the Chunky Kit-Kat moment for pizzas. And it led to the abomination I experienced a few nights ago.

I returned from work to find pizza had been bought for dinner. You don’t need to know why. But I slipped open the lid, noted the tell-tale bulging rim of a stuffed crust pepperoni pizza and lifted a slice to my mouth. I bit into the crust…

It was not cheese. Some imbecile had decided that it was perfectly all right to stuff the crust with hotdog sausages smeared with American mustard, and nobody had the intelligence or the gumption to stop him.

This is how the Roman Empire ended. It is just a matter of months, possibly weeks, before Western Civilisation crumbles. And then we really will run out of food.

And it’s all Professor Brian Cox’s fault.