COLUMN: October 3, 2013

I WAS walking to work briskly, cutting through the other commuters like a hot commuter through commuters made of butter.

I am no great shakes at most things – barely a wobble, generally – but I have been walking for 40 years now and I’m not bad. In fact, people often say to me: “Slow down, Gary. You are walking very fast.”

And I say to them: “Yes, and that is with plantar fasciitis, the chronic pain in the heel. Imagine how quickly I would go if I didn’t walk like Kevin Spacey in that film.”

And they say nothing back because all conversations have to end eventually, especially made-up ones.

Perhaps if I had been less single-minded about getting to work I would have noticed the woman who was about to cross my path, recognised her as Nothing But Trouble, and altered my course to miss her, like a heat-avoiding missile.

But I knew if I didn’t speed up I would be late for work, and I do not like being late for work if I can help it. Public transport had already done its best to hinder me and I needed to make up time.

“Excuse me,” she said, stepping in front of me. I screeched to a halt like the Road Runner in front of a small mound of grain on a desert road, while behind the rock of circumstance the coyote of misfortune held a rope from which was suspended the 10-tonne weight of grief.

“Are you local?” she asked me, in a northern accent. “I’m standing in front of you right now,” I thought. “I doubt I could be more local without having to marry you.”

“Yes,” I replied. Maybe I was gulled by her salt-of-the-earth-I-know-my-way-around-a-pie accent. She asked me if I knew the way to a high-rise building which is situated next to my office.

I could have given her directions, although they were quite tricky, but I was going her way. “I’m going your way,” I said. “I’ll show you.”

And the coyote of misfortune let go of the rope.

Einstein is often attributed with the assertion that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Of course, he kept telling people he didn’t say it, but nobody ever believed him.

For I have done this before. I have taken people to the location they sought, and it always goes wrong. Last time I shepherded a group of Spanish people, and accidentally spoke to them in Italian. Before that, I got in a small car with four, eventually hostile, men and took them to the road for which I had misheard them asking, rather than the road they actually wanted.

And now I was doing it again. We walked. I noticed the pull-along suitcase behind her, with its thudding, scraping wheels.

“It’s just down here,” I said. The trouble with this particular high-rise is that it is completely invisible until one is in front of it. This is not a Harry Potter-type building. It is just that the much smaller buildings around it block its view.

I could tell she was sceptical.

But worse than that, she was very, very slow. Infuriatingly slow for a brisk pedestrian like me. Walking with her felt like walking with a thick elastic band binding one’s ankles together. She was making me late. Maybe I could ditch her here, I thought.

“I’m slow,” she said. “I hope I’m not making you late.”

“No, no, not at all!” I said. Politeness had screwed me over. I shuffled alongside her trying to match her pace and appearing incredibly patient. We had nothing to say to each other. All we had in common was a direction.

The wheels thudded and scraped…

“It really is this way,” I said. “It’s just invisible.”

She looked at me, worried. “No! It’s not actually invisible, you just can’t see it.”

I wasn’t helping. “It’s definitely there. It was there on Friday. Unless there’s been a terrible disaster.”

“There’s been a disaster?” she asked.

“No, no! I mean, I don’t think so…” Maybe there had been, I didn’t know. This was a new low. I was terrifying a Lancastrian woman and I was late for work.

“Honestly, I’m sure it’s still there,” I said. I was committed then. Perhaps I should be.

Eventually, 10 minutes into a four-minute walk, we rounded the corner, and there it was, glistening in the autumn sunlight, 30 storeys pointing to the sky. Perfectly visible.

“There you are,” I said. “No disasters.”

She looked me in the eye, then walked off without thanking me.

I didn’t blame her. I think we were both relieved it was over.

COLUMN: September 26, 2013

AN ENVELOPE arrived for me and I sighed because I knew I would have to open it.

I hate envelopes, I thought. Envelopes carry bills and junk mail and Dear John letters. They never carry good news, because people phone to give good news. The best they ever do is carry confirmation of good news you have already been given.

But I mostly hate them because I am useless at opening them.

This is what would happen were I to present the Best Supporting Actor Oscar along with, say, Miley Cyrus…

MILEY CYRUS: … And Dustin Hoffman for Massacre At Sleepy Pines.


ME: And the winner is… Miley, would you mind not twerking? I am trying to open an envelope. No, seriously, you are knocking into my leg.


ME: And the winner is… Argh, I’ve given my thumb a paper cut. No, stop, it really hurts. (SUCKS THUMB) Honestly, it’s the chemicals they use to treat the paper. Miley, please put your clothes back on, there’s a time and a place…


ME: Sorry, and the winner – Miley, stop rubbing up against Billy Crystal! He remembers when Buddy Holly died – the winner is. (RIPS ENVELOPE) Argh! I have totally destroyed the envelope and torn entirely through the card inside. Erm, the winner is Ryan… er, Ryan somebody.

I have never opened an envelope cleanly. It always starts so well, slowly I prise the flap away from what the internet informs me is known as the side fold. I push in a thumb, and slowly run it along the flap.

And then carnage. The envelope disintegrates. Every time. It might as well be made out of smoke. I am left with shreds of paper around my ankles and an envelope which looks as if a dog opened it in a hurry.

I am not sure why I should be so worried about this, but letters are so rare these days. If somebody has taken the time to put pen to paper, then carefully inscribed one’s name and address on the envelope, paid for a stamp, and taken it to a postbox, I feel it is only right to treat the envelope with respect.

I did once own a letter opener and it did not work out very well for me as it was, after all, basically a small sword. I would make an incision in the top of the envelope and tear along it cleanly, and then discover that I had either sliced through the actual contents of the envelope, or through the actual contents of my finger.

None of this is my fault. The poor design of envelopes is responsible, and that poor design starts at the closing of the flap. For there are two types of flap: the self-adhesive sort, and the adhesive variety which requires a DNA sample, like the next generation of iPhone.

I object to licking envelopes. It is not the taste, it’s the principle. I object on the same grounds as I do to sherbet dips. I was brought up with the sure knowledge that spitting is a terrible thing and only to be tolerated if by a parent on a hanky in order to wipe away some facial grime.

So an object which requires one to apply saliva in order for it to work is an abomination. Also, if you’re not careful you can get a paper cut on your tongue.

And yet this sort of envelope, which requires one to behave like a barbarian and places one at risk of injury, is preferable to the self-adhesive envelope. This is because sometimes people need to check what they are sending, and if you are quick you can re-open a spit-soaked envelope.

But the self-adhesive type was designed by somebody who apparently assumed that people do not make mistakes. Seal one of those and the only way to retrieve what is inside is to tear it open, and put the contents in another envelope. At best it is an envelope-selling scam and at worst it is a calculated insult to people like me who cannot remember things.

I looked at the envelope and sighed again, then I opened it, destroying it in the process. It was a letter from my GP. Bad news.

It was inviting me for a health check-up, which is something the practice offers to all men between 40 and 70. Bad news, as I am now placed in the same age bracket as Billy Crystal, a man who remembers when Buddy Holly died.

No wonder I hate envelopes.

COLUMN: September 19, 2013

“YOU must read David Sedaris,” somebody told me, not long after I started writing this column, unaware of my cussedness when it comes to reading recommended books.

This somebody was followed by another somebody, and another, making a small crowd – three, of course, being the minimum requirement for a crowd.

Obviously I’d heard of Sedaris, the American rock star of humorous essays, as I read the book pages of newspapers, even if I do not read many books, but I was only aware of him in the same way that I am aware of Tuscany or programmes on Posh Telly or social competence.

Eventually I asked, “Why? Why must I – specifically I – read David Sedaris?”

“Oh, you’d love him. He’s like you.”

“Is he?”

“Yeah, except he’s really successful, and he’s had an interesting life, and he’s funny.”

I had a book token, so I bought one of his books, and, annoyingly, it was all true. He became my writing hero, and I became just another Sedarista, buying his books and giving them away to convert others, like a Jehovah’s Witness.

Because I work in the media, like Kelly Brook or the late Sir David Frost, I sometimes receive certain perks. I know people who know people. Some might call it corruption, but that is because they are jealous.

Anyway, thanks to my insidious web of influence, I somehow managed to get onto the guest list for a recording of David Sedaris’s radio series. I decided I would take a book for him to sign.

Unfortunately, because of giving them away and the staining properties of tea, I didn’t have a book fit for him to sign, so I went to the grimly apostrophe-free Waterstones, and bought a copy of his latest book.

When I returned home later that evening, I dipped into the book and discovered that the author had already signed it.

What was I supposed to do? Take it back to the shop? “Sorry about this, but can I have a refund? Somebody has written in the front of it… Yes, I know it’s the author’s signature, but I need a clean copy… Why? Erm, erm, I want him to sign it.”

Maybe I could cross it out, or use some Tippex. This was becoming complicated. I decided I would take him a copy of my own, vanity- published book (available in no good bookshops) for him to sign, on the grounds it would be funny. I realise now that was a mistake, but I was becoming desperate…

I settled back in my seat at the Radio Theatre in London and watched Sedaris take the microphone, an incongruous green sports holdall at the feet of this neat, slight man.

As a warm-up, he and his worried-looking producer asked the audience which of us had travelled furthest to see him. The winner would take the holdall, which cost him $750.

“I’m definitely in with a chance here,” I thought. I was about to call out, when I remembered I was on the guest list. Would that be right? Or was it like celebrity editions of quiz shows, where the C-listers involved have to compete for charity, no matter how skint they are?

I kept quiet, and the bag was, inevitably, won by somebody from Liverpool.

My burning disgust was extinguished by Sedaris, as this sparrow of a man made his middle-class, middle-aged audience hoot like gibbons, and I completely forgot my calculations of the pounds sterling value of the bag.

After the show, I joined the queue of autograph hunters. I looked in my own, lesser, bag, my own, lesser, book next to Sedaris’s sullied edition. “I don’t sign other people’s books,” I heard him say. “It seems disrespectful.” I was going to have to get him to re-sign his own book.

“Erm, this is a bit complicated,” I said, when I reached the master. I explained in unnecessary detail the course of events.

He glazed over. “Where did you buy this?” he asked, when I had stopped.

“Liverpool,” I said. He looked at me, confused, and inscribed something in my book.

Then, as an afterthought, I handed him my own book. He received it with the politely encouraging smile an adult gives a six-year-old when given a picture of something which could be a ship or… actually, is that an iron?

As I walked away, I opened the book and read the inscription. “To Gary, you lost a $750 bag,” he had written, a permanent reminder to me from my hero that I am a prevaricating loser.

COLUMN: September 12, 2013

THERE are two types of people in this world. The first is people who take the last chocolate biscuit from the plate even though there were only five there to begin with and they’ve already had three.

The second is people who keep choosing rich tea because, although they really want a chocolate biscuit, they don’t want to appear like the sort of person who takes all the chocolate biscuits.

In fact, the rich tea industry is entirely based on the exploitation of this second type of people.

Nobody in the history of humanity has ever thought, “I know what I really feel like. A rich tea biscuit. Yes, that will hit the spot. I want something so bland and dry I forget what it tastes like even while I’m eating it.”

And yet they are still manufactured, just to bulk out plates of biscuits and feed resentment.

Because while the second group of people share many of the same emotions – fear, shame, guilt – they feel none more keenly than resentment.

They resent the people who go through life knocking over plant pots and spreading out while the rest of us clear up and budge up.

They resent the “anti-PC” people who boast that they “don’t take any shit” and “tell it like it is”, as if taking account of the needs and feelings of others were some sort of character flaw, and entirely inappropriate in the context of a celebrity cooking competition.

They resent the people who never listen and never shut up.

But they don’t do anything about it. They just seethe, because they don’t want to be like them.

Depending on whom you ask, I probably fall into either of the two camps, but I identify most with the second. And I have found I spend quite a lot of time seething lately.

Partly this is because of the current government, which seems incapable of understanding the relationship between cause and effect, economically or socially. It takes a certain amount of wilful ignorance to claim the proliferation of food banks and the simultaneous rise in house prices as a success.

But mostly it is because I get the bus every day and come into contact with an increasing number of chocolate biscuit takers, shouting loudly into phones, playing music out of their phones, and sitting with their legs at ten to two – while on their phones.

The worst moment of seething in recent memory happened a few months ago. I was sitting on the bus, trying to remember Curiosity Killed The Cat’s other hit, when I saw a middle-aged woman with some heavy shopping boarding. I still refer to “middle-aged women” as if I am not myself middle-aged, but let me keep my delusions.

The bus was full, with a couple of men standing. I was about to join them so she could rest, as heavy shopping is heavy, hence the name, but she sat in the old-lady seat behind the driver and placed her bag on the floor.

Soon afterwards, the driver braked suddenly, and a tin of cling peaches flew out of her bag and rolled down the aisle. It was followed by a tin of marrowfat peas, proving to me at least that they are still available.
I stopped the tins with my foot, like the expert footballer I am not, and returned them to her. She didn’t thank me.

Hmph, I thought, and turned to go back to my seat. Which was now filled by one of the men who had been standing.

What could I do? Have a row? What would it achieve? One of us had to stand. It might as well be me. Lord, it burned. I seethed like a man in intensive seething training, who wasn’t as naturally gifted at seething as others but got by on work-rate.

I looked at the man in my seat. He was looking dead ahead, ignoring me. Not on purpose. I suspect I was an irrelevance to him. I swear there was chocolate around his mouth.

The present government is full of sharp-elbowed chocolate biscuit takers, knocking over the poor, and unaware of the mess they are making because they have never had to clean it up for themselves.

I would rather have a government of rich tea eaters, which cares about the vulnerable and tries to make their lives better. I would rather pay more tax and know it is going to prevent children from living in poverty.

I just don’t see where that government is going to come from. In the meantime, all I can do is seethe.

And you can have my rich tea biscuits. They’re horrible.

COLUMN: September 5, 2013

I DROPPED my pen and sighed. I was going to have to pick it up, and whether I bent over or crouched, it was going to have the same effect.

I opted for crouching, as I have been on a health and safety “picking up objects” course, and retrieved the pen. Then I stood up again and I tucked my shirt in for the 37th time that day.

Why is it impossible for me to buy an off-the-peg shirt that actually fits? It is true that made-to-measure shirts exist, but they are not a realistic option.

For a start, I would need more than one shirt if I wanted to spend time in the company of humans. And if I could afford more than one made-to-measure shirt I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. I would be lying in a hammock somewhere, I don’t know where, with a sea as blue as the sky, while a Filipino writes a column for me about how annoying it is when Scarlett Johansson pops round without phoning first.

My major difficulty in obtaining a shirt that fits is that I have a ridiculously large head. You are probably thinking, “Open more buttons, you idiot, and it’ll fit over even your head.”

But it is not the head that is the problem, it is the neck that has had to develop to support its bulk. My neck is in proportion with my head, but not with my slimmish body. If you put me on the Russell Scale, I’d be between Brand and Crowe, rather than Crowe and Grant. I do not have “guns”, I have “peashooters”.

This means that when I buy a shirt, I have two choices. I can buy a shirt that fits my torso but has the effect on my neck that a choke chain has on an excitable dog.

Or I can buy a shirt that fits my neck perfectly, but billows out about my body, as if I’d just put my head through the airhole of a parachute.

They are my usual choices. And, no, I can’t get a slim-fit shirt because sometimes I have to breathe out. I thought I had found the Holy Grail when I was able to obtain two shirts which fit my chest and are not too restricting about the neck

By this I mean I can have them buttoned up to the Adam’s apple for tie-wearing for a few hours.

But when I undo the top button later in the day I experience palpable joy, similar to that of a woman undoing her bra after a long day of being a woman, or the relief experienced when a cooker extractor hood is switched off.

But these shirts are not long enough, and I find I am tucking them in 80 or 90 times a day, which makes me look shiftily uncomfortable. This is because nobody needs to see my middle-aged midriff. It is less a midriff and more a midextendedsolo.

Certainly nobody needs to know what colour underpants I am wearing or where I get them.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to look dignified when one is constantly adjusting oneself like a man on a register.

I do not know why it was decided that neck circumference was the sole consideration when it came to sizing shirts, but I can imagine. And here I am, imagining it . . .

MD: This had better be good, Figgis. I am missing the first episode of a new TV series called Doctor Who, which looks as if it could run for 50 years, albeit with a break between 1989 and 2005.
FIGGIS: It is, MD. The boffins have come up with a way to mass produce shirts which will push our secret agenda. We will classify them solely by collar size.
MD: That is genius, Figgis. I can only imagine the frustration of, say, a man in his early 40s, who is about a Harty on the Russell Scale, with a freakishly big head and consequently thick neck, being forced to wear what is effectively a barber’s cape.
FIGGIS: That is probably an extreme case, but the principle holds. It might take around 50 years for our plan to work, though…
MD: I’ll watch Doctor Who then, and by the time the series finishes, we will have wiped out shirts forever.
FIGGIS: MD, why do you hate shirts so much?
MD: I don’t. I just really like ponchos.

That is the only explanation.

And thinking about it logically, I would probably be in my hammock in the Philippines.

COLUMN: August 29, 2013

ONE of the things at which I am quite good is swinging. I do not mean the pampas grass/Channel 5 documentary variety, I mean the hanging from a rope variety.

I have always had an appreciation of the physics involved, thanks to years of watching Spider-Man on the television, and, insofar as I can be graceful doing anything, I appear effortless when I swoop through the air. I would probably have made a decent trapeze artist, were it not for my poor depth perception and crippling fear of heights.

In any case, it is not really a CV skill, but it came in useful when I was made to go on an adventure trail.

This trail involved for the most part various unlikely ways of crossing a stream, including rickety ladders, spring-mounted bridges, and rope swings. I was in my element (air), which prevented me from being in not my element (water).

And behind the laughter, derision, and, frankly, insults issuing from the various children with me – ostensibly amused by the sight of a man in his early forties, in his third-best jeans, and with a crippling fear of heights, trying to get his leg over a scramble net – I detected admiration.

In short, it was not my fault that I began to feel invincible and allowed the Bad Thing That Happened to happen. It was their fault for lulling me into a false sense of security and a true sense of stupidity.

There was a children’s roundabout. But this roundabout was not powered by the hand of a slightly envious parent. It was rotated, through a series of cogs and pulleys, by an 8ft-tall hamster wheel.

As I arrived at the roundabout, there was a man running in the hamster wheel, powering my own children’s ride. On a normal day, I would have thought nothing of this, but I had had my head turned by easy swings and slightly more complicated ladders.

“That looks like fun,” I thought. “I want a go.” And with those words I sealed my fate.

I sidled over to the wheel and the man eventually, if reluctantly, concluded that his fun was over.

He brought the wheel to a stop and alighted.

I stepped into the metal wheel and examined it. “How do I get this to move?” I wondered.

This was not my milieu. I am not a hamster, I am a man. I don’t store food in my cheeks. I have never gnawed on railings, not even at school. And when I see a pile of shredded paper on the floor, I think: “You have to tidy this before somebody gets home.” I don’t think: “Mmm, that looks comfy. Time for a snooze.”

I stepped forward. Nothing happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the man I had displaced chuckling. “Amateur,” he was clearly thinking. I took another step, as if attempting to walk up the side, and the wheel started to move.

I continued to walk, spinning the wheel. It sped up and I began to jog, breaking into a steady run. The roundabout was turning, the wheel was spinning. It really was fun.

“Look,” I overheard the man say to his wife. “His technique’s shocking. He’s got no rhythm.”

This man had actually practised. He was clearly a seasoned hamster wheel enthusiast. “Technique? Rhythm?” I thought. “Why do I need such things?”

It was at this point I realised I had no idea how to stop. I tried to slow down, but the wheel wouldn’t let me. I had to run to stop myself from falling over. And running made the wheel move ever faster. It was a vicious circle. Literally.

I suppose I could have jumped off and let the wheel slow naturally, but I was not as acquainted with the physics of human-size hamster wheels as I am with rope swings.

Inevitably I fell, and was dragged backwards around the wheel until gravity prevailed and I tumbled over and over until my elbow was skinned and the wheel had stopped.

The Amazing Hamster- Man was still there with his wife, watching and chuckling. I felt sorry for her. If I was correct in my assumptions about her husband, she would have to listen to this anecdote all the way home, and then every couple of weeks for the rest of her grim life.

I staggered away, and stood behind an 11-year-old, waiting for my turn on the zip wire. “Stick to what you’re good at,” I thought, as I nursed my injuries. “Swinging on ropes and judging people”.

COLUMN: August 22, 2013

I HAVE been away at a maximum-security forest holiday village. It is wrong to identify it by name, let us just call it Boden Butlins.

It has involved more swimming with young children than would normally be expected during a typical week, in the super-tropical thunderdome, I think it’s called.

“Swimming” is probably overstating the nature of the activity. One does not swim with young children. What one does is crouch, trying not to fall over, for an hour and a half to two hours, while the children have a whale calf of a time.

This teaches us a valuable lesson about context. If I attempted a cossack dancing stance while three-quarters naked in Marks & Spencer I would end up on some sort of register, but nobody bats a soggy eyelash at the pool.

Anyway, I don’t normally mind having my swimming activity curtailed. After all, it is “for the kids”. Also, I am not one of nature’s swimmers.

In fact, I think one of my best days was when that first proto-human crawled out of the water, flopped onto the sand, and thought, “Wow, this golden area with non-slippy rocks will make a great home. There are no sharks and it’s much easier to breathe. It will be even better when somebody invents towels.”

And I wasn’t even alive then, which just goes to show how many great days I have had.

However, on this occasion I did object, because I had been landed with the ring.

I have written before how I am plagued by things with holes in, e.g. front-door doughnuts, molar-destroying onion rings, my monthly budget. But this was the worst of the lot, a gargantuan inflatable ring, with which the children in my charge played for a maximum of 97 seconds over the two-hour period.

For the rest of the time I had to hold this colossal ring. It was like winning a large plush elephant at the coconut shy shortly after arriving at the fair and then having to lug it around for the rest of the day. (I imagine. I’ve never been able to knock off a coconut, but bear with me for the sake of the metaphor.) It’s a massive pain, but complaining about it makes one sound like Trevor Wet-Blanket, hon. sec. of the SWBBTGVS (Scrooge Was Better Before The Ghosts Visited Society).

But as I stood there, lumbered with Rubberhenge, I was comforted by the fact this was at least an improvement on what had happened earlier, when I attempted to inflate it.

I was standing in my trunks at a table by the side of the pool, and opened the valve. This was a big ask, I accept – this was no namby-pamby party balloon – but I am full of air and so I blew hard.

I felt my head go light. I think I saw stars. I had made precisely zero impact on the rubber ring. There was a man in late middle age on the next table. He gave me a look of understanding. This was a man who had been where I was, and left it behind, perhaps even with a sense of regret.

I parped into the ring again, with fresh resolve and more effort than I have ever expended on anything. I looked at the ring again. A deep wrinkle at the bottom of the hoop appeared to be slightly shallower.

OK, I thought, this is going to take a while, but I am having an effect on this thing. I blew again. My eyes popped. The man on the next table smiled, perhaps a little too much for the sake of solidarity.

A small crowd gathered, all astounded by the purple man.

I tried again, and again. Each time I could see a tiny smoothing in the ridged texture of the ring. Each time, I was aware of the man on the next table chuckling.

This is beyond me, I thought. I need the breath control of Bill Withers, or that man who did the longest trombone note ever on Roy Castle’s Record Breakers. Yes, I know my references are not very contemporary, but we can’t all be Jasper Carrott.

No, I thought, I have to do this. For the children.

Also so that the man on the next table, who was now rolling on the floor, hooting, tears of mirth streaming from his eyes, did not see me give up after ten minutes of effort.

He composed himself. “You know you can get that blown up over there?” he said, pointing over my shoulder.

About 20 feet behind me was a lifeguard surrounded by inflatable toys, with a pressurized nozzle in his hand.

I need a holiday.

COLUMN: August 1, 2013

I SAT in the dentist’s waiting room and looked around for something to pass the time.

But apart from some leaflets and posters around the place explaining the importance of looking after one’s teeth – a massive “I told you so, Myrtle” to everybody sitting there – there was nothing to read.

So all I could do was sit there and think about what was about to happen. This was not very much – it was only the dental hygienist for a small repair on a chipped molar and a scale and polish. Nothing at all to worry about…

Gary, stop now.

My name was called, and the dental hygienist, a pleasant young woman, asked me to sit in the dentist’s chair. I noticed a sign as I sat down which said the surgery was open until 8pm. My previous dental appointment had been at 8am. I got a B in my maths GCSE, so I quickly worked out that was a 12-hour day.

I didn’t much fancy the thought of people who put drills in other people’s mouths working 12-hour days. There must be a shift system in place, I thought, so I…

Gary, seriously, stop this now…

I’m sorry, who is this?

I’m one of the voices which tells you what to think about things.

What, are you Twitter?

No. You know how you’ve got a conscience which stops you from doing bad things?

Kind of …

Well, I’m like that, but I’m the one which stops you from doing stupid things.

Right. So if that’s true, where have you been for 41 years, matey? You are the worst “stopping people from doing stupid things” voice ever.

You never listen to me.

Why now? What stupid thing am I about to do?

You’re going to tell the readers what you said to the dental hygienist. It’s a very, very bad idea.

Well, I know it was a stupid thing to say, but I’ve got a deadline, and it’s not as if I’ve got much of a reputation to trash.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Sorry, readers… So I made a bit of chit-chat with the hygienist about how good the air conditioning was, and how I could lie there all day.

And then, with the potentially 12-hour shifts of the surgery in mind, I turned to the dental hygienist and I asked her, “What time do you finish work?”

She looked at me in horror. I didn’t count, but possibly three seconds of silence occurred. That doesn’t sound much, but try counting them.

“I finish at five and then I go home to my baby, which WE’VE just had,” she said. Then she pushed some instruments into my mouth and I couldn’t explain. And the moment was lost.

Gary, you don’t ask a woman what time she finishes work.

I know!

Not even if she’s a taxi driver.

I know! Do you write the posters in dentists’ waiting rooms? Yes, but if I write a column about it, I can sort of explain that I wasn’t flirting and everything will be all right.

Oh, God, it’s not going to be all right, is it? I just look as if I’m justifying myself after the event so she doesn’t “accidentally” smack me in the mouth with something metal the next time I see her.

Yes, Gary, at best you look like an idiot. At worst you look like a lecherous and mendacious flirt. And now everybody knows about it.

I wasn’t flirting! I am so bad at flirting I am even terrible at not flirting, apparently. Where were you before I opened my mouth, Mister Wise-after-the-event?

I told you, you never listen to me. If you listened to me, you wouldn’t have a column in which you explain every week in detail how incapable you are.

Aha! I knew there was a good reason.

On the other hand, if you listened to me you would be rich and successful.

Swings and roundabouts, isn’t it?

Yes, Gary, except the swings are massive and made of gold, and the roundabouts are tiny and made of manure, and you never get to go on the swings.

COLUMN: July 25, 2013

AT THE time of writing it is still Quite Warm. It is entirely possible that normal British summer service will have been resumed when you read this, but at the moment it is like living in some sort of science-fiction movie in which the earth moves ever closer to the sun and men respond by wearing flip-flops.

Reading recent columns, you might have been led into thinking that the relentless heat – or the “bit-nippy-might-need-a- coat” season if you’re African – irks me.

And if you have that impression you have got me bang to rights. I just want a world in which grass is the colour of grass and not the colour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair. I just want a world in which I can have a shower before I go to bed and not need another as soon as I wake up. I just want a world in which, when I go to bed, in order to be comfortable I am not forced to turn my bedroom into an all-you-can-eat buffet for insects.

More to the point, I just want a world in which attempting to keep cool does not make me look like a dangerously inept chump.

But we do not live in that perfect world. We live in a world in which somebody can have the job title “service lead for liveability”, in which television news channels focus for hours on end on a closed door, and in which a woman who wore too much blue eye-shadow on The Apprentice is employed as a social commentator.

And as proof that we do not live in that perfect world, I will tell you about The Bad Thing That Happened.

I was walking to work and I was feeling hot – not in the Beyonce sense, more in the Windsor Davies sense. I passed one of those coffee shops of the sort I visited last week, and there was a sign in the window for a “mango and passion fruit cooler”.

“That’s just the ticket,” I thought. “I like mango. I am not unduly put off by passion fruit. And cooler? That is exactly what I want to be. It is written in the stars. Surely they can’t expect me to make that for myself.” I removed my sunglasses – for anybody who wears sunglasses indoors is a fool unless he be Stevie Wonder – and went inside.

I emerged 10 minutes later, carrying a clear plastic cup filled with orange-coloured slush, with one of those domes designed for people who like a massive swirl of cream on the top of their coffee and wish to transport it in its pristine state to their place of work.

When future historians look at these domes, they will laugh with horror at our decadent ways. “How soft our ancestors were,” they will say. “No wonder they could not defeat our alien overlords. All hail Zarg.”

I arrived at work and sighed. I was still wearing my sunglasses.

But I could not remove them, because I was carrying a bag, my electronic pass, my jacket – it was warm, remember – and my domed slush cup. I was going to look like an idiot because once again I had totally underestimated the number of hands I would need over the course of the day.

I approached the turnstile. I am not entirely sure why there is a turnstile. I can understand it at Alton Towers, but there is rarely a queue to get into work. I placed my pass against the sensor. It didn’t work. I tried again, with the same result.

I sighed more heavily and gave it a third go. There was a beep, and the light went green for a second, but it turned red before I had a chance to walk through. It was quite frustrating.

A plan presented itself. I walked right up to the turnstile, leant back, held the pass against the sensor, heard the beep, and pushed against the turnstile.

But the turnstile did not move. What I had done was walk into a crotch-height metal bar. “Ooyah!” I said, in a high-pitched voice, and I dropped my slush all over the electronic gubbins. “Aargh!” I said. Sighing somehow did not seem enough.

I had no paper towels with me, so I tried the turnstile again. This time it worked and I raced into the nearest toilet, passing at speed a man emerging. I can only imagine what he assumed.

I grabbed a toilet roll and rushed back out, hiding it under my jacket. Yes, I could have explained if called upon why I was running around the office with a toilet roll in my hand, but it would have taken some time, and I needed to get to the electronic gubbins before the slush melted.

As I wiped up the orange mess, a colleague passed with ease through the turnstile.

He looked at me and said, “Are you wearing shades indoors, Gary?”

COLUMN: July 18, 2013

I WAS out of town last week for complicated reasons. And for even more complicated reasons I had to stay over an extra night.

I had not anticipated the extra night when I packed my bag, which I came to regret. I won’t go into detail, but you know what the weather has been like. Frankly, it was a bit like Tenko for men.

Anyway, after a continental breakfast – European, it turned out – it was time for me to depart. I had some time to kill before my train, so I went for a wander through the centre of the town which I will not be naming. This is partly in order to introduce an element of mystique into my narrative, and partly so I am not sued for libel. I shall call it Boomtown.

The sun was bouncing off the various coffee shops and Tesco Expresses as I wandered through Boomtown. It was humid, like a steam room. Some confused people were dressed as if they were in a steam room, and the air shimmered in the heat, rendering many of the tattoos of these people hard to decipher.

Exhausted by the effort, I stopped at one of the coffee shops and ordered a tea, hoping to sit in an air-conditioned environment. I was handed the ingredients to make my own tea, as is the custom in these places. I still have no idea why this happens.

If you went into a cafe, ordered beans on toast, and were presented with a tin of Heinz, a can opener, a camping stove, a loaf of Warburton’s, and a toaster, you would be bewildered. But, as a tea-drinker, I am expected to assemble my own beverage. I am basically paying for the right to be the barista’s sub-contractor.

I also ordered a cinnamon apple fritter doughnut. I expected – correctly – it would be horrible, but I could not resist the pile-up of words, and I took the DIY tea and Frankencake for a tour around the shop until it became clear there were no free tables.

So I stumbled outside and cleared a table, and sat in the full glare of the sun with my very hot drink and disappointing pastry. This had all worked out very poorly.

Then I looked up. There was a church nearby and I had what I suppose you could call an epiphany. I realised it was what I had needed for so long. I was saved.

“Yes!” I thought. “Churches are always freezing!” I swallowed my tea and raced to the church. I stepped inside, the smell of incense mixed with polish dragging me back to my altar boy days, and I began to walk up the aisle, my footsteps echoing off the cold stone pillars and the ceiling as high as heaven. For the first time in days, I was cool.

That’s when he stepped in front of me, a man in his late sixties.

“Welcome to Boomtown Parish Church,” he said. “Lovely day, isn’t it? Is there anything you’d like to know?”

“I’ll say,” I thought, “I wonder if he knows why I had to make my own tea.” I had no other questions. I’d been in a church before, I knew which end was which.

“Anything at all?” he pressed me.

“Erm, when was the church built?” I asked. That seemed safe.

“A-ha! When do YOU think it was built?” he asked.

I didn’t have a clue. I haven’t got an MA in ecclesiastical architecture. All I could do was proffer a meaningless guess. “Erm, 1782?”

“Wrong!” he yelled. “Try again.”


“Wrong! Try again.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, suddenly aware of the time. “I don’t have the faintest idea.”

“It was 1890,” he said, triumphant. “Really?” said a woman who had joined us.

“Yes!” He leant in towards me. “I must say, you both speak English very well.”

“I am English!” I said. “Ah,” he said, pointing at the woman’s face. “But your wife is foreign.”

“I’m English too!” said the woman.

“She’s not my wife,” I said.

He gave me a disapproving look. “Partner, then,” he said. “Look at the window. How old do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Have a guess . . .” he said. The woman who was not my wife sidled away. I didn’t blame her. There was no way I was going to be allowed to leave that church without knowing how old everything was. I was going to miss my train.

I waited till somebody else entered the church, then said I wanted to see the altar.

As he pounced on the fresh meat, I stepped away, and walked to the altar, watching until he was turned, the sweat dripping down my neck.

I am not saying that I was bent double using the pews as cover as I crept out of the church behind his back. That would make me look ridiculous.