COLUMN: October 24, 2013

I HAD to visit my aged mother in hospital. I suppose I did not have to, but these are straitened times and it would be foolish to put an inheritance at risk.

On arrival at the ward, I was confronted by a security measure, an intercom.

I do not like intercoms because I am a natural mumbler with a slight lisp and for some reason I always end up having to spell something containing an S and an F.

In the end, and after several attempts, I am forced to enunciate like Brian Blessed speaking patiently to an idiot who can’t remove his headphones, while people around watch me and throw change into an upturned hat.

It isn’t even a very good security measure. If I were a mob enforcer or enemy agent all I would have to do is say: “I have come to see Fingers O’Shaughnessy. Who am I? Why, I am his brother, Sergei… I mean, Gavin,” and I’d be straight in with my silenced pistol.

I decided to go James Bond myself, and waited till somebody exited the ward, then nipped through the slowly closing door. If I had been in a position to do a forward roll, I would have done that too, but I had just used some anti-bacterial gel on my hands, and also I had a carrier bag with me.

I made my way to the room, where my dear mother was sitting up in bed, holding forth on a recent holiday, and looking to all as if she’d somehow managed to wangle herself a couple of days in bed with room service. And I experienced once again the Iron Rule of Hospital Visiting.

The Iron Rule of Hospital Visiting is this. The number of chairs in a hospital ward room is equal to the number of visitors in the room, minus one.

“Fine,” I thought, forgetting what happens every time I visit somebody in hospital. “There’s plenty of room on the bed. I can sit there. If anything the bed will probably be more comfortable.”

The trouble with sitting on the bed, which becomes apparent immediately, is that you are sitting with your back to at least one person. And so you conduct all conversation as if reversing a car up a tight road.

I am getting old and my neck cannot stand up to this sort of pressure any more, so I looked for a way out.

There was a slightly forbidding elderly woman in the bed opposite. I would not say she was rude, but if you were serving her in Gregg’s and her steak bake were not absolutely piping hot you would not be left in ignorance. She was dozing and her visitors had taken advantage of this fact to leave.

I crept across and liberated one of her chairs, then implanted it at the foot of my mother’s bed and commenced chatting to her and her other visitors like a normal person, trying to think of things I hadn’t said on the previous two visits.

A couple of minutes later, I heard the words, “Excuse me, young man?” Nobody calls me “young man” anymore. The last time I was called “young man” I was in trouble. Slightly Forbidding Elderly Woman must have counted the chairs. She looked the sort.

I stood up and turned around.

“I’m sorry, you were asleep, and…”

She held up a hand. “I want to read. Please switch on my light.”

That was a relief. For the second time that day I’d got away with borderline criminal behaviour.

This is how Breaking Bad starts. Perhaps five years from now I might be an actual mob enforcer.

There was a daunting array of switches behind the woman, like the flightdeck of a jumbo jet. I flicked the switch behind her, but it did not settle, springing out again like a doorbell. I tried it again and again, then realised it clearly wasn’t that one.

I struck lucky with the next switch. The light came on, she thanked me brusquely, and I sat down.

Then a nurse burst in to the ward and strode over to the woman, crying: “What’s wrong?! What’s the emergency?!”

The woman looked baffled. “You pressed the call button three times,” the nurse said.

The woman was outraged. She pointed at me with a bony finger. “HE did it!” she barked, like Lady Bracknell.

“You’d better go,” my mother said.

“But visiting time isn’t over,” I said.

“Yes, I know,” she replied.

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COLUMN: October 17, 2013

I WORE my coat and scarf the other day. When I had left my house, the weather was bitter and sharp as a lime. Tears streaked my cheeks horizontally. And I could not catch my breath as the wind punched me unrelentingly in the chest.

By the time I arrived at work, steel drums were playing outside the office, a limbo dancer was bent over backwards, and the snoutcasts smoking by the entrance were all in bikinis, even the men.

I pushed through the revolving door and heaved myself into the office, looking like the Tom Baker Doctor Who on the set of Ice Cold In Alex, annoyed that I was going to have to lug a coat home at the end of the glorious day.

“Well done, October, you magnificently capricious blackguard,” I thought. Or words to that effect.

So I had an excellent business idea, which I will call Coats2U. The txt-type abbreviation jars, frankly, but I want to appear bleeding edge, so I might appeal to youngsters or Prince.

Essentially, it would be an emergency coat delivery service, and it would cater for people who are not sure if they are going to need a coat.

Then, if it became almost, but not entirely, unexpectedly nippy or balmy, they could tweet, phone or fax, and somebody would deliver or remove a coat within 25 minutes. I’m not entirely sure of the logistics, but it would probably involve vans and the internet.

In any case, I expect to make most of my money between March to May and September to October.

But the weather is turning for the worse now and I managed to wear a coat and scarf all the way to the office this week without breaking sweat.

And now I am worried about escalation. After all, it is only going to become colder and I am already wearing a coat and scarf. Where can I go next?

I was genuinely worried about this earlier this week. I remembered I had my big coat, Big Coat.

Then there are gloves, maybe a jumper. But what if that’s still not warm enough? Do I even own a vest – thermal or otherwise? I can’t wear a hat as my head is freakishly large. Can I get away with two scarves? Would that even work?

In any case, if this winter is as cold as the past few winters – judging by my reaction to the current temperature, I am going to spend most of December and January resembling a table at a jumble sale, or myself the time that woman on the mobility scooter knocked me over into the rack at Matalan.

What I do know is that I am not going to wear a very long scarf. Not after what happened a few years ago.

I was sitting on the bus, as I do occasionally. It was wintry out, it being winter, and I sat at a window seat. The heating was on, burning up my left leg like a laptop PC, and the window was steamed up, revealing smeary libels written long ago by teenagers.

I was wearing Big Coat and a long scarf, and the heat became overwhelming. I was about to take off Big Coat, when a woman sat next to me.

I do not know if you have ever tried to take off a coat or jacket while sitting next to somebody on a bus, but it is impossible to do it without slamming an elbow into the face of your neighbour. As I had discovered the hard way.

So I could not remove my coat. I had to make do with taking off my long scarf. But in the heat I became drowsier and drowsier, and I lolled and lolled and . . .

The bus went over a bump, and my sleeping head hit the window. I snapped awake, just in time to see the bus stop before my own pass by through the gap in the condensation which had been made by the side of my face.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman next to me. I grabbed my long scarf, quickly wrapped it once around my neck, and stood up.

It was not my long scarf. It was the long scarf belonging to the woman sitting next to me. I knew this because it was wrapped around her own neck, throttling both of us as I stood.

I don’t think my face has ever felt so warm, or I have experienced a look so frosty. It was a little October all of my own.

COLUMN: October 10, 2013

I WROTE a letter to Jim’ll Fix It when I was a boy. In retrospect, and for a variety of reasons, I am glad it was ignored.

I wanted to meet Spider-Man, specifically the actor Nicholas Hammond, who played him on the television. It’s a good thing it did not happen as we would have run out of things to talk about after the first five minutes.

“What’s it like climbing up walls and swinging on webs?” I would have asked.

“No idea. Stuntman, innit,” he would have replied, in American, while silently seething that I was not asking him about the sheer bloody hard graft of 2am shoots on the streets of LA and whether he used the Stanislavski method.

But I really did love his show, and thought fondly of it over the years. When other series were repeated, I always thought it a shame The Amazing Spider-Man was never given another showing.

Imagine my delight when I discovered, a few nights ago, the entire series was on YouTube. It’s probably difficult for you to do that, so think of that new television series Sexbox, and your feelings knowing that gravel-voiced Mariella Frostrup was going to present a programme featuring a shed in which actual people had actual marital relations while she waited for them to finish. My delight was the same size as your incredulity. Possibly a little smaller.

But my disappointment was even bigger.

For it was shocking. I was prepared for it to look dated, but it was so boring.

It has none of the pathos and wit of the Spider-Man comics. Essentially, it is the story of a man in a red and blue costume – who manages even in that outfit to look nondescript – fighting drab middle-aged baddies in suits, with the minimum amount of effort possible.

Most of the episodes’ action is centred around his day job, which is a bit like a James Bond TV series that focuses mostly on him filling out time sheets and expenses claims.

The fights are more unconvincingly choreographed than my dancing the night I tried tequila for the first time. His saggy costume makes him look like a Fathers For Justice protester.

And the big set-piece of every episode involves Spider-Man crawling up the side of a skyscraper, defying gravity as he clings to its skin by his fingertips, with all the grace of a 46-year-old stuntman called Eric being winched up the side of a building on a rope, reaching his destination more slowly than if he had used the lift.

It was so bad that I was embarrassed for my eight-year-old self, leaping about in the Spider-Man suit my Auntie Mary made, and there was a lot by which my eight-year-old self should have been embarrassed but I have chosen to disregard in adult life.

It reminded me of the time I excitedly showed a child of my close acquaintance one of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum games I had enjoyed in my youth.

To the 1984 me it represented the zenith of excitement, with sheer fun and breathtaking computer graphics and sound effects combining to give me the heady thrill of life as a space fighter pilot.

To the child in my charge 27 years later it looked like some Lego moving about in the distance, to the soundtrack of a checkout assistant scanning goods.

It is all the internet’s fault. If it were not for the internet, Spider-Man and Bleepy Lego Space Game would have still been inside my head, fuzzy, warm memories, set in the context of their time, enabling me to say, “They should repeat Spider-Man. I always think it’s a shame it was never given another showing,” with a clear conscience.

This is why I feel very sorry for Doctor Who fans. It is well known that lots of shows from the 1960s were wiped by the BBC in order to save money on expensive videotape. Along with episodes of Steptoe And Son, and the 1967 spectacular “75 Years Of Bruce Forsyth,” many Doctor Who stories were destroyed.

But this week the BBC announced that several of the missing Doctor Who episodes have been discovered – behind a sofa, if there’s any justice in the world – and will be made available for all to see.

And I say this to all Doctor Who fans reading this (all four of you): don’t. Let my Spider-Man experience act as a warning to you, because the thought of a tsunami of disappointed Doctor Who fans is too much to contemplate.

Don’t watch them, don’t even have a look at them. Let them stay in your head, as good as you always imagined them to be.

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.

AN EXPECTANT BUZZ AROUND THE ROOM.

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.

MORE BUZZ.

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…

MORE BUZZ. RICKY GERVAIS STARTS SINGING “WHY ARE WE WAITING?”

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.