COLUMN: December 19, 2013

I HAVE been thinking a lot about Christmas songs. I am not sure why – perhaps it’s the time of year.

We have had to suspend the normal rules of critical judgement for Christmas songs in the past, and let any old nonsense through to avoid the charge of being a Scrooge-like figure.

But it is time to make a stand for logic and good sense. For example, Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day is no basis for the organisation of a society.

Roy Wood is the Russell Brand of Christmas, fine on sentiment, but crushingly vague on the detail of how such a utopia would be organised.

Yes, it sounds idyllic, but having Christmas every day would knock the glitter off, rendering Yuletide as unremarkable as brushing one’s teeth.

And at some point somebody would have to go out to work to pay for the constant daily parade of presents, turkey, etc. And where would he or she find the goods if all the shops are shut because it’s Christmas?

Then we have Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe And Wine. Cliff Richard, of all people, called upon to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas in song, sings about getting drunk and snogging somebody at a party, and we are all expected to accept this.

Let us skip lightly over the potential irritant of jingling all the way throughout a journey – I have endured enough trips twitching every time the bus hits a bump in the road because somebody is leaning against the bell – and alight upon an even worse Christmas song.

We Wish You A Merry Christmas is a big teeth-clenchingly bad bag of wrong. I have no idea how it was published. I don’t know if songwriters have editors – and I can’t be bothered looking it up on Google – but let’s imagine they do. And here I am imagining it.

THE BOARDROOM OF THE SMASHING SONGWRITING CO.
MD: Figgis, this is a big teeth-clenchingly bad bag of wrong. What were you thinking?
FIGGIS: Well, what I was thinking was, it’s nice to wish people a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, isn’t it? And not just them but also their kin. And repetition really rams that message home.
MD: Their king?
FIGGIS: No, kin. But I can see why you might think that.
MD: Go back and try again.
TWO WEEKS LATER…
FIGGIS: Finished! What do you reckon, MD?
MD: “Bring out some figgy pudding?! We won’t go until we get some?!” That’s not festive.
FIGGIS: Figgy pudding’s quite festive.
MD: It’s blackmail. It’s as bad as that “trick or treat” scam you devised to sell sweets. Apart from that, how likely are people to have a Christmas pudding on the go the week before the 25th?
FIGGIS: Shall I scrap it?
MD: No, we’ll have to release it and hope nobody notices how terrible and repetitive the lyrics are… Now, how are you getting on with that “Happy Birthday To You” song?

But the most irritating song of all is Ding Dong Merrily On High. It’s not the fault of the song – which I have to admit is one of the best pieces about bells ringing and angels wafting about the place in Heaven – but the fault of you lot.

It’s the bit which goes: “E’en so here below, below/ Let steeple bells be swungen./ And i-o, i-o, i-o/ By priests and people sungen.”

I sang in the choir at school. For some reason I had decided that having glasses, a lisp, poor spatial awareness, and an inability to kick a football in a straight line did not make me enough of a target for the sort of boy who believed knowing the name of the Prime Minister was effeminate and was good at punching.

And so I was taught – CORRECTLY – that the pronunciation of “i-o” rhymes with “below”.

I have tried singing the line extra loudly, at the various carol services and concerts a man with children attends, in an attempt to change hearts and minds. “It’s EE-O,” my voice cries out,

“You’re doing it all wrong.” But it has never worked.

So, I have written this column for four years, and if there is one thought I want you to take away from my body of work it is this: Ding Dong Merrily On High is not a song sung by dwarfs on their way to work.

I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Once.

COLUMN: December 12, 2013

I’VE wondered in recent years how high street printers manage to stay afloat, given that everybody has printers at home.

After all, photo development shops were driven out of business by people’s new- found preference for taking 97 digital pictures at a single event and then never looking at them, rather than for taking 12 and putting them in an easily accessible album.

Then I had to produce the order of service for my mother’s recent funeral, and all became shatteringly clear.

Home printers are the handiwork of the devil. They are deceptively expensive, unreliable, and messy. Like Marouane Fellaini. It would have been quicker to use a monk.

As it happened, I had bought a new printer the day before my mum died. The protracted nature of its installation was the main reason why I could not visit her that day. But that is a mere eggcupful of warm water in a Jacuzzi of regrets.

I was quite pleased by the purchase initially – it seemed a bargain for a wireless, full-colour printer with scanner and, I don’t know, teasmade, probably. But that did not take into account that printer manufacturers are the Ryanair of IT.

– “That’ll be £79, sir.”

– “That’s very reasonable.”

– “Now, will you be requiring ink…?”

– “Um, yes. I was sort of planning to use it.”

– “Of course, sir. Here is a small pack of ink cartridges. That will be A MILLION BILLION POUNDS.”

By the time I left the shop, my wallet was actually hysterical. “Leave me behind,” it said. “I cannot go on. Save yourself.”

I took the device home and began the long process of persuading a printer specifically designed to talk to computers wirelessly to communicate with a computer specifically designed to talk to printers wirelessly. It should have been easy. It was not. I didn’t need a manual, I needed a counsellor from Relate.

Eventually, my computer informed me all the necessary drivers were installed and it was ready to set up my printer. All I needed to do was, for this initial installation, connect the printer to the computer with a USB cable.

“Phew!” I thought. “Thank flip for that. I thought this would never end.” I looked around for the cable. It wasn’t next to me. I looked in the box. It wasn’t in the box. I looked at the list of contents of the box. It wasn’t even on the list of contents.

The printer manufacturers intentionally had not included a piece of kit absolutely necessary to setting the printer up. I suppose I was lucky they had included a power cable, or the actual printer itself.

I went to see if I had the necessary USB cable, for I am a man in the year 2013. I have more USB leads than I have pairs of underpants. My drawer looks like a bag of liquorice bootlaces. Did I have the specific lead? Of course not.

Eventually I found a complicated workaround on the internet, and my printer finally whirred into action. This is what counts as a victory in this day and age.

Following my mother’s death, I was going through her effects – effects being what possessions become after death, apparently – and in a box of stuff I found the very USB cable I had needed. A cosmic joke from my mum.

I laughed and took it home. It was bound to come in handy at some point. You know printers . . .

A few days later – the day before the funeral – I had to print out the order of service, and help my brother tidy my mother’s flat before the family descended the following day.

My mum used to produce orders of service for all family members’ funerals, and I thought it would be appropriate to do hers on her own printer.

I flipped open my laptop, which detected her printer immediately. Good, I thought, it’s about time something worked out. I sent a test page. It didn’t print.

“Please install the printer driver,” the computer asked. “Here we go again,” I said.

I did so.

It went on. “To complete the installation, please connect the printer to your computer using the USB cable provided.”

Oh, I thought . . .

And through the quiet of the flat echoed the laughter of my mother.

COLUMN: November 28, 2013

I USUALLY write about minor calamities which have recently been inflicted upon me, most often by myself – encounters with disappointing soup, mysterious doughnuts on my front door, being trapped in a revolving door with somebody who doesn’t know how to use a revolving door, that sort of thing.

And I usually manage to string them out to 750 words so that there is not a blank space on this page, or, even worse, a column by one of my colleagues.

But I have had a major calamity inflicted upon me this week, and I find myself slightly defeated, and not entirely sure if writing about it is appropriate.

My mum died.

Writing that down in bald terms seems very odd, and provokes the same sort of puzzlement in me as if I had written “My shoes are made of olives” or “My unicorn is called Frank” or “They still call themselves Boyzone.”

It happened very suddenly, and it is still too big a concept with which to deal. Although, after the shock, I expect it is much the same for everybody when they lose their mothers, the same sort of feeling as on the first day of school when your mother lets go of your hand and you are led away by a smiling teacher with the knowledge that for the first time you are on your own.

So I will concentrate on small things. Family and friends were gathered at my mum’s on Monday, the day she died, pottering about and making tea in that strange atmosphere of tears and silence and laughter and “This is typical of her” comments, which envelops such occasions.

All of it was undercut with the knowledge that she was still “there”, in the next room.

And then the undertakers came and we sat together in the living room – the room of the living – while they prepared my mother’s dignified exit. It was so quiet, save for the odd gulp and muffled sob, as we sat and thought about her…

WOOF WOOF WOOF! AROOOOOO! WOOF WOOF WOOF!

“Sorry,” said my brother. And he switched off his phone.

We settled back in to contemplation.

AWOOOOOO-GA! HONK! HONK!

“Sorry,” said a friend of my mother. And she switched off her phone.

We settled again, and waited for the next one.

And so it was, that over the next 10 minutes there was an unwitting competition between the mourners gathered as to who had the most inappropriate ringtone for the occasion – twangs of arrows ranked up against monkey chatter, fanfares against farts.

I cannot swear that I was not laughing like an 11-year-old schoolboy, so I will not.

It occurred to me that mobile phones usually have an “airplane” mode, which quickly switches off wireless connections to prevent somebody tagging all their friends on Facebook and causing a plane to crash.

So why can they not also have a “funeral” mode, which replaces Outkast’s Hey Ya, cockerels crowing, or the sound young boys can make with a wet palm and their armpits, with a funeral march, Pie Jesu from Faure’s Requiem, or bird song? If they can auto-correct spelling, they should be able to auto-correct ringtones.

I left her home and went for a stroll through my past. My mother had moved from the house where I grew up years ago, so I traced the route we used to walk every day from my primary school to my old home. I stood outside for a while.

I was tempted to knock and ask if I could come in, to stand in the vestibule one last time, but there is a fine line between mourning in an honest and raw way and being a weirdo.

So instead I walked through the park she loved. And suddenly I felt very old. A man too old, at 41, to have a mother.

But as I emerged from the park, near some halls of residence, a pizza delivery man carrying some leaflets approached me. “Scuse me, mate, do you know where I can leave these?”

He thought I was a student! I’m not old, I thought. “Sorry, I’m not a student,” I was about to say, slightly lifted.

Then he saw my face properly, for the first time in the twilight. He was horrified. “Sorry! I didn’t…” he said, and scurried off. The sod.

I said at the start I wondered if it was appropriate to write a column this week. But the fact is I refused to let my loyal fanbase down.

Even though she’s died. Bye, Mum. x

COLUMN: November 21, 2013

I DECIDED to get a taxi. I don’t know why. Perhaps I wished to see how the other half lives, flush as I was on payday. Perhaps I wanted to be like somebody on The Apprentice.

Or perhaps it was because of my reluctance to walk across town with a stinking cold, through rain so fine it could have been lazy fog.

In any case, I hailed a taxi and stepped inside. That was my first mistake.

Bent double, I explained where I wanted to go, ie home, where there is tea and always-disappointing Lemsip, and the cab leapt forward, like a sufficiently wound Evel Knievel toy.

It was at this point that I became suddenly grateful that I am not a smaller man. A smaller man, with shorter legs, would have been deposited on the floor of the cab.

But, luckily, I am a taller man, and I was merely flung into my seat with the force of a gangster’s henchman, insistent that I sit down. I hit my head on a speaker.

This was going to be an interesting journey, I thought. I did not want an interesting journey. I wanted a journey I could introduce to my mother.

He rounded a corner with a certain gusto. I can’t swear he didn’t do it on two wheels.

And so I did something I rarely do in taxis. I weighed up the risks and put my seatbelt on.

I looked around the cab, trying to keep calm as it nipped through a gap between two moving buses so tight that if it were any narrower it would have required the application of Vaseline.

That was no good. I noticed that the driver had a satnav and I am always uncomfortable when a taxi driver has a satnav, especially a Hackney cab driver.

Cab drivers are supposed to know where everywhere is. They just are. That is supposed to be part of their skillset, along with being able to listen to TalkSport radio for hours on end without climbing into a clock tower with a sniper’s rifle.

When I see a satnav in a Hackney cab, it’s as if Sir Chris Hoy has fetched up to the velodrome with his bike sporting a bell and stabilisers.

But the most unnerving thing was the silence, the constant silence. The driver did not speak. He had no radio on. He neither took nor made a phone call. He was driving like this and he wasn’t even distracted.

This was turning into a horror film. He was some sort of silent assassin. I didn’t even know if he had a face.

I didn’t want to die alone. I started tweeting.

– “My taxi driver is taking a broad brush, big picture approach to traffic laws.”

I received little sympathy. I might have died and people were just being sarcastic.

– “Remember that bit in Planes, Trains & Automobiles where Steve Martin hallucinates John Candy is the devil? That’s me and this driver.”

Still no sympathy. I put my phone away. I was on my own.

It was so bad, I was actually starting to wish I’d got the bus. It was my own fault for having ideas above my station.

If this is how the other half lives, they are welcome to it.

The driver ripped through a just-red light. Through the window I could see pedestrians pointing, probably at the twin trails of flames licking at the Tarmac behind the taxi.

My life started to flash before my eyes. I had to snap out of it – I needed my wits about me, this was no time to be bored.

I was close to home. “I might just make it,” I thought. My grip loosened slightly on the door moulding.

“Can you take the next left?” I asked. Could he? Oh, yes, and without even slowing down.

He stopped outside my house, as abruptly as he had started the journey; my seatbelt was the only thing that prevented me from being attached to the driver’s security screen like a Garfield toy.

I gave him the money, and ran my fingers through my even greyer hair. (I say I have grey hair, I prefer to think of it as platinum brown.)

He handed me my change. He wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t going to let me go. I was safe, uninjured, apart, perhaps, from some seatbelt strap welts and the time I bit my cheek.

I’d made it. I was so relieved I flung open the door and leapt from the car.

And I twisted my ankle in the gutter.

COLUMN: November 14, 2013

IT HAS occurred to me that I do not actually like going out to eat.

I am not saying that I do not enjoy food. I do. Not a day goes by without me actually eating some – in fact, I’ve come to consider it an essential part of my day.

But the actual experience of eating out fills me with anxiety. And sometimes breadsticks.

And this is true whether it is an upscale restaurant, in which the menus do not feature the word “and” – for example, “pigeon, textures of cabbage, home- pickled onion, banana-flavour Toffo” – or if it is a restaurant in which the waiter calls you “guys”, or if it is a restaurant in which there are pictures of the food above the counter.

I do not mind the bit in the middle of eating out – the actual eating part. But I do have serious difficulties with the practice of waiters asking me how my meal is while I’m chewing the first mouthful. “I can’t possibly know,” I want to say, “I didn’t manage to get a sample of every piece of food on the plate onto my fork.”

I do not, of course, I merely mumble something while trying not to give a thumbs-up sign, and force it down my gullet in case there’s a follow-up question – “Do you like my hair?” or “Can you see this spot?”

Why they ask is baffling. It just seems needy. If there’s something wrong with my food the only way they are going to find out is if they receive a letter from my solicitor.

I am as likely to complain about the food as I am to twerk in the middle of the restaurant or David Dimbleby is to get an anatomically-incorrect scorpion tattoo on his shoulder, i.e. improbable but not impossible.

And when I have finished eating, I am even more uncomfortable. I just want to leave. I don’t want to sit and chat, stretching out coffee after coffee. I can do that somewhere else.

Perhaps it is a holdover from my childhood, when I was taught to move out of the way and let others pass, but I am always painfully aware that restaurants are businesses and that they need my table so that the waiter can ask new people what their meal is like.

But I am incapable of catching a waiter’s eye at this point, invisible like a ninja. I suppose I could call out for the bill, but who wants to be the sort of person who calls out “Waiter!” in a restaurant? It is a wafer-thin mint away from clicking one’s fingers.

So I sit there, jogging my knee and occasionally raising my hand until the planets come into alignment and I am in the line of sight of a waiter, and my ordeal is ended.

These days I have a new source of anxiety, ever since a time I dined alone, as I occasionally must. It’s difficult to get people to agree to eat with me for the reasons outlined above.

I was actually enjoying my meal. The waiter had left and it did not seem that he was going to come back. I was maybe three-quarters of the way through my plate, when a thought suddenly occurred to me. I wished I’d had that thought before my meal arrived, but these things happen from time to time.

I left my table and visited the place whence my thoughts had wandered. I probably spent a bit too long in there because they had a Dyson Airblade hand dryer and it was the first time I’d used one. “This is like massaging a ghost,” I thought.

But when I returned to my table, the waiter had cleared it. My plate was gone. I still had a sausage left! I’d been saving it.

“Would you like to see the dessert menu?” the waiter asked.

I don’t enjoy confrontation in a dining environment, but this was going too far.

“You took my sausage,” I blurted out. I would have phrased it differently, but I wasn’t thinking properly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I thought you’d finished,” he said.

“No!” I said “I was…” – I didn’t want to say I’d been saving it – “… resting. Who leaves a whole sausage?!”

“I could get you another one,” the waiter said. I imagined a situation in which the waiter returned from the kitchen, carrying a plate on which rested a single sausage, garnished with a sprig of curly parsley.

I said no. The damage had already been done. Now I can never leave the table during a meal again.

COLUMN: November 7, 2013

I STOOD in the queue outside the nightclub. This is not a regular occurrence. The last time I went to a nightclub, we still thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

We were only in that queue because we had been turned away from another club because one of our party – a grown man with a car and a mortgage – was wearing trainers.

“Have we all got ID?” one of our group asked. “What?” I said. I was not anticipating that.

I felt as if I were in an episode of The Inbetweeners, that seldom repeated sitcom about spies in their mid-to-late-20s who infiltrate a school and masquerade as pupils.

“What?” I repeated, “I’m 41.” This is true. From a distance, I might appear to you like a 14-year-old boy shambling about in his father’s suit, but when you get closer you will see every one of my years etched on my face, 15, 37, and 40 particularly heavily. I have not needed to show ID in an alcohol-obtaining context for some time.

“No, they scan your ID before they let you in. For security.”

Oh, good, I thought. I am going into a place where they take your picture in case they need to help the police with their inquiries. Or to identify the victim in the absence of dental records.

The bouncer let me through, and I handed my driving licence to a pleasant young woman, who scanned it so that the mugshot appeared blown up on a screen for all to see. This is the mugshot which looks as if it were taken in the back of a Transit just as the black bag was removed from my head. People behind me shivered.

I walked in . . .

Nightclubs have not changed much since the last time I went in one, but I have. I still stand awkwardly, wondering how people are having fun in that environment, when virtually nobody is dancing, and assuming drugs are involved, but that is about all that is the same.

I was old, and I knew it. I was surrounded by people the oldest of whom thought Uptown Girl was a Westlife song, and the youngest of whom had not heard of Westlife.

These were people who had never handed over a £10 note for two drinks and received enough change to buy a Mars bar. I felt like a chaperone at a school disco. Or one of The Inbetweeners.

This was simply not fair, I thought. This was a night out. I shouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of my mortality. I have my own children to do that for me.

But then, through the fog, I realised this was payback for what I had done earlier in the evening.

I was chatting to a colleague in a pub, as this was a leaving do, and she mentioned her boyfriend. I asked how long they had been together and she said 15 years.

Regular readers might remember that a few months ago I accidentally asked a dental hygienist what time she finished work. I clearly have learnt nothing.

“Oh,” I said. “I assumed you were younger.”

This is part of being older. When we are children, we know the ages of all of our friends. “How old are you?” is the second question we ask when as children we meet a new child. The third question is, of course, “Can I have one?”

As adults, it is different. I have no idea how old the people I know are, unless they specifically tell me or I’m having to sign a card for one of those milestone birthdays.

“How old do you think I am?” she asked.

This was not my fault. I had had a couple of drinks and I was not thinking as clearly as I should have been. I know what I did wrong. I made the catastrophic error of assuming that this was a maths question.

“Hm,” I thought. “Been with boyfriend for 15 years. Assuming she was about 20 when she met him . . .”

I hit 35. Then, even in my befuddled and socially inadequate state, I realised that I should knock a couple of years off.

“Erm, 33?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, coldly.

I panicked. “I’m 41! I’d love to be 33,” I burbled.

I am not sure how I thought this was going to make things better, but it did not.

“If it makes you feel any better, I was going to say 35,” I said.

And that is why I deserved to be reminded that I have sagged over the halfway point of my life and that death rapidly approaches.

COLUMN: October 31, 2013

I HEARD a rattle in the office. “Oh, good, another collection,” I thought. “Who’s leaving now? I hope it’s not me.”

It rattled again and I recognised it. It wasn’t money in an envelope, it was the hollow but resonant sound of concave discs made of reconstituted potato solids bashing against foil-lined cardboard. Somebody had Pringles and was sharing them with colleagues.

I couldn’t take the risk that I would miss out on free office food, so I anticipated the course the Pringle-giver would take and found an excuse to be on it, standing at the desk of another colleague and asking him a question to which I already knew the answer.

“Would you like a Pringle, Gary?” Lorna the Snack-donor asked. I pretended to look pleasantly surprised. “Why, yes I would. What flavour are they?”

“Mint chocolate,” she replied.

The gears in my head began to grind. “What, it’s chocolate in the shape of Pringles?”

“No,” she said. I looked inside the tube. It was filled with Pringles of normal appearance. “Do you want one?” she asked…

It was at this point that I finally decided, beyond the point of certainty, that we have to get a grip on crisps.

I have been formulating this notion for some time, ever since Walkers, the duplicitous creators of the blue cheese and onion packet, started boasting of the provenance of the ingredients which are smashed up in a lab to produce flavours.

The very limit was a packet I saw last week in Tesco of “Cornish sea salt and Westcountry cider vinegar” crisps.

I am not saying that provenance in food is unimportant. I understand the implications of food miles and supporting British farmers and humane animal husbandry.

But it’s bloody crisps! If I have chosen crisps, I have already dismissed crudites, or flatbread with houmous, or olives.

What I have done is chosen a vegetable that is so nutritionally useless that it does not count in one’s “five-a-day”. Even bananas count in that and they are basically sweets.

Then this vegetable has been sliced so thinly that it is merely a vessel for the oil in which it has been deep-fried. And finally it is coated in salt, flavourings and preservatives.

These are what I have chosen, lovely, lovely crisps. I’ve already given up.

I don’t care if the pork in the smokey bacon flavour is from Norfolk. I had previously assumed that smokey bacon crisps had been so far away from actual pig that they could conceivably be considered kosher. I am as interested in where the salt comes from as I am in the origin of the potassium chloride.

I am trying to imagine a world in which people worry about this sort of thing. And here I am, imagining it…

CHARLES & EDDIE ARE IN THE SUPERMARKET.
CHARLES: Edwardo, poppet, could you choose some nibbles for tonight’s soiree?
EDDIE: Do you have to speak to me like that in public? Here we are. Prawn cocktail crisps?
CHARLES: I’m not sure that’s quite the impression we want to give in 2013. What next? Monster Munch?
EDDIE: We could do it ironically, like Nigella…
CHARLES: Oh, I do like that. Carry… No, wait! Those crisps! Are the tomatoes used in the chemical compound which flavours the crisp from the Vale of Evesham?
EDDIE: Erm… No.
CHARLES: What sort of monster are you?!

“Do you want one?” Lorna repeated, shaking the tube. I thought about it. Did I want to lie on my deathbed, counting my regrets, and have that one included in the tally? “I should have tried a mint choc Pringle. I only had that one opportunity before the world came to its senses.”

“OK,” I shuddered, and pushed my fist inside. I paused, Pringle in hand, and took a bite.

Imagine eating a potato crisp that tastes of mint chocolate. That is exactly what it is like, as vile as that sounds. It was utterly baffling and never to be repeated, like Lost.

It’s astonishing to think that somebody at Pringles thought, “What flavours haven’t we done yet?” and alighted on this before venison or houmous or cabbage.

But appalling as it is, at least it is honest in its appalling nature. At least it doesn’t pretend that I care whether the chocolate flavouring my potato crisp is Belgian.