COLUMN: February 25, 2016

THE greatest trap a man can fall into these days is the mansplaining trap. And here I am, falling into it, because I am now going to mansplain what mansplaining is.

Mansplaining is the act of telling a woman how to do something, or why a thing exists, when she is perfectly capable of working it out for herself because she is a person with a brain and access to the facts, solely because she is a woman.

It is a terrible thing for a man to do, because, no matter how helpful you are trying to be, it shows women that on some level you believe them to be second-rate.

And it is no good saying that you were just trying to be helpful, because you are then mansplaining your mansplaining, and you are sucked into the mansplaining vortex from which you can never escape.

It is part of what makes it quite difficult to be a decent middle-aged man these days, because mine is the first generation to be brought up with the idea that it is a good thing that women can vote and work and choose with whom they sleep.

But we also have thousands of years of conditioning bred into us telling us that women are the weaker sex, and we have to look after them because they are woolly-headed poppets, who are deranged by their wombs and cannot be left to their own devices.

It is a bit like the way my generation was taught about centimetres and litres in school, but went home to inches and pints, and so has absolutely no idea how heavy or how wide things are. Except instead of weights and measures it is about the historical oppression of half the human race.

The best thing you can do as a man is to shut up sometimes and let women talk until we have paid for thousands of years of making them be quiet.

And yet… And yet…

I was waiting in the queue at Britain’s Biggest Struggling Retailer with a £3 meal deal. I had calculated that I had saved 23p, so I was feeling pretty smug, although I do not know what you can pick up for 23p these days. You can’t even buy five carrier bags.

I had taken my colleague Barrie with me because sometimes you need a wingman when you are buying lunch. I approved his choice of crisps. “Does this small bag of grapes suit me?” I asked him. He sniffed in accord.

We reached the checkouts at the same time and he decided to join the long queue awaiting human operators, while I opted for the robots. There was only a single woman in front of me. “Ha, you massive chump,” I told Barrie in my head, and I imagined what I would do during the glorious time I would have to myself while waiting for him to be finished.

It was my great misfortune to be behind a young woman whom I can only assume was a time traveller from the late 19th century such was her confusion.

She kept placing her four – ONLY FOUR – items on the Platform of Preparation instead of the bagging area. She rang up her bag of ready salted twice, which meant she had to call upon the assistance of one of the humans dealing with customers. She could not find the bar code on her yogurt…

I was clenching so hard the person behind me in the queue was in danger of being stuck.

When she had finally bagged her items, she pressed the number 1 on the keypad to inform Big Grocer that she had taken one carrier bag, but then did not press Enter. Instead she just stood there, looking alternately at the screen, and then at the card reader, as if she were watching a tennis match between fairies.

“Don’t mansplain,” I kept repeating in my head. “Don’t mansplain. Thousands of years of oppression. Don’t mansplain.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Barrie being served.

It was too much. “Press the…” I started, stepping forward. “Stop!” I thought. “Would you do this if the person in front were a man?”

And the truth is, I did not know.

So I left it, the woman in front of me resolved the issue on her own, and I waited another two minutes while she then failed to press the contactless payment button, thwacking her card fruitlessly again and again on the sensor, proving herself to be as inept as I am in most circumstances, and thereby striking another blow for sexual equality.

COLUMN: February 18, 2016

I HAD to go on a long train journey on a Sunday. Those of you who have been on a long train journey on a Sunday will currently be making me a hot tea with six sugars and preparing one of those foil blankets they have at the end of marathons.

But those of you who have not been on a long train journey on a Sunday, or an LTJOAS, as we seasoned travellers prefer, might not understand the weight of this statement. “Oh,” you will say, “so you had to sit in comfort for a couple of hours, perhaps devouring a Georgette Heyer and an iced spiced bun from M&S, while somebody actually took you at high speed to your destination? Boo-hoo. Pass me an onion.”

What people who have never been on an LTJOAS need to understand is that Sunday is the day the rail companies of Great Britain just give up, as if the strain of charging £1.60 for a can of Coke for the other six days of the week has caught up with them.

“Oh,” they say, “you’ve paid for a ticket to travel on a train, have you? Yeah, well, it’s Sunday. Here’s a bus, sucker, and don’t lean on the bell.”

For Sunday is the day the British rail infrastructure is dragged into the late 20th century, causing significant delays just outside Crewe, as slaves hammer the track into the ground, watched by Colt 45-wielding baddies with black hats. I am not sure that is exactly what happens, as my knowledge of rail engineering works is entirely restricted to Western movies, but the technology cannot have changed that much.

By the time I arrived at the station to change trains, I was already 90 minutes late because of weekend engineering works. This was really cutting it fine. There was a Premier League match that had taken place in the city where I had to change, and the away fans would be travelling on my route home. But they would not have time to go from the stadium to the station in time for this train.

I was at the platform first, and anticipated a quiet trip home, perhaps drinking a pina colada with an umbrella sticking out of it. But the train was delayed by other engineering works, the football fans started to stream onto the platform, and then there was a platform change.

My excellent initial position became a disadvantage, and I was stuck at the back, like the heel of a loaf. The last time I had been so far behind the front of the queue was when God was handing out luck.
When I was able to board the train all the seats were taken by people smugly checking their phones, people who claimed their good fortune by right, even though it was only an accident of fate that they were in the right place at the right time, like baby boomers, or Manchester United.

I took my place in the aisle, my bag between my feet, which I had planted in an attempt to prevent myself from ending up face first in a Pumpkin Cafe chocolate-style muffin, and adopted the stoicism for which I am noted.

The train began to move, and the football supporters began to explain to the rest of the carriage their strong belief that the team they supported was very much the best at football. After a while I was able to block it out, and then I became aware of a conversation being conducted across my bottom.

Two young women were seated on opposite sides of the aisle, and were chatting about whatever it is young women chat about – shoes, I suppose, or casual sexism – leaning back so that they could see each other without having my posterior in their way. I suppose the football fans in my carriage would have called it “restricted view”.

Then one of them, frustrated by my presence, looked at me and tutted, actually tutted.

And instead of me saying, “Oh, I am so terribly sorry. Is the fact that you have a seat and I do not inconveniencing you? How very inconsiderate of me to want to go home and, indeed, exist”, I bent myself backwards, forming a sort of crescent for the next 45 minutes, just so that my buttocks would not interrupt their conversation.

Apart from accepting the appalling service on the Sunday rail network, it was the most British thing I have ever done.

COLUMN: February 11, 2016

I DEVELOPED a headache in the office, which, frankly, is the only rational response to life in 2016. But, because I work for a living, I was unable to take to a darkened room with a cold compress on my forehead while being sympathetically nursed.

Consequently I had to buy tablets and struggle on like the hero I am. But the problem with headache tablets is that they are so damn cheap these days, and all my shrapnel was in the pocket of my other trousers. Nor did I have any folding cash about my person.

I did, of course, have a cash card, but it feels wrong to buy anything that costs less than, say, £1.50 with a piece of plastic. You can almost hear the electronic card reader sigh: “Really? I have to contact his bank for the sake of 49p? It’s going to cost us 50p for the transaction. Can’t we just give it to him? He obviously needs it more than us. Look at him. He only has two pairs of trousers.”

And so, in order to avoid annoying an inanimate object, I made my way to a cash machine, my head throbbing like a speaker at a Foo Fighters gig.

There was a single person at the machine when I arrived, peering intently at the screen as if it displayed one of those magic eye patterns and if she looked hard enough she would find that she had enough money in her account.

Good, I thought, she is the only person here and there are only six options on the menu, so even if she goes through each one of them I still have a fighting chance of buying tablets before this headache spontaneously ends.

I took up position behind her, leaving an appropriate gap between us, finding that sweet spot which allows people to pass between us, and prevents me from reading how much is in her account, but is still close enough for it to be obvious I am next in the queue.

For I have been burned before, when a complete idiot took up position in the gap before me, and I was reminded of this as I waited for the woman to just flipping hurry up. Honestly, I thought as I reminisced, what sort of utter buffoon would step into the gap between the person at the cash machine and the next person in the queue?

Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. “Scuse me, mate,” he said, in a tone which suggested that he did not really consider me his friend. “I’m next.”

“Sorry, mate,” I said, persisting with the fiction that we were BFFs. What with this and last week’s hugging ordeal, which occurred on the very same street, I have had quite a lot of difficulty with imposed and unexpected intimacy recently.

I could not let it go, probably because I had a headache. “To be fair,” I said, as I stepped aside, “you were standing quite a long way away from the cash machine. I’m not sure how I was supposed to know. I didn’t even see you.”

“You need better glasses, mate,” said my new friend, and he stepped forward to the machine. While I waited I resolved that, when I am inevitably put in charge of everything, I would place some sort of holding pen, with a queuing system, at every cash machine to prevent arguments.
Eventually I reached the machine, intending to withdraw £10, but Friendly Terry The Inept Queuer had taken the last one, which meant I had to withdraw a £20 note.

I went into the shop, picked up a 49p box of ibuprofen, and joined the lunchtime queue curling around the shelves. Slowly I shuffled forward, my head banging, as if my brain were trying to escape through my right eye socket, and five minutes later I arrived at the checkout.

I handed over the small box of tablets. “Do you need a bag?” the assistant asked. I sized up the small pocket-sized box. “No thank you,” I said.

“That’s 49p,” said the assistant. I pulled the £20 note from my wallet. “Ooh,” she said, as she opened the till, “have you got anything smaller?”

I felt a tear prickle my eye. “No, no, I haven’t,” I said. She started to look in the drawer, and proceeded to remove 19 pound coins. “I’ve… I’ve got a cash card,” I said.

She shoved the drawer shut. “Yeah, that’s fine,” she said.

COLUMN: February 4, 2016

I AM not really a touchy-feely person. I am more a shunny-shunny person. I guard my personal space as enthusiastically as the Israeli army.

If you take up position within 12 inches of me, I will lean back, if necessary taking up the pose of an expert limbo dancer. My theme tune is the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, but only the chorus.

Incidentally, none of this applies in lifts or on public transport, because it is clear the people around are not standing next to me by choice. We are all in it together, and it is horrible.

All of this is by way of setting the scene of last Monday night. On the way home, I remembered that I was down to the last sheet of kitchen roll and penultimate squirt of washing-up liquid, and called in at the late-night tiny supermarket opposite my office.

“Would you like a bag?” the man on the checkout asked. Yes, I thought, the last thing I want to do is walk through the city centre carrying kitchen rolls and washing-up liquid in my hands, appearing to all the world like a crack freelance cleaner who is always ready for action. It is definitely worth five pence to avert that eventuality.

“Yes, please,” I said, because even when I am ruining the environment I like to be polite.

But, as I left the shop, my bag swinging by my side, I began to feel annoyed about The Bag Of Bags, the bag for life in my kitchen, whose only purpose is to house about three pounds’ worth of carrier bags I have previously bought.

A sensible person would always have one to hand, but I do not want to be that person. I am surely too young to be the sort of person who has an emergency carrier bag tucked away – I was born after the Beatles split up and I barely remember James Callaghan, let alone Harold Wilson.

It was this line of thought which distracted me and made me not see the couple in the street until it was far too late. Had I seen them earlier I would have crossed the road and got on with my life.

Their voices were raised. “Oh, good,” I thought, as my every muscle tensed, “What I need now is to have to intervene in a violent argument with a man who is roughly three inches taller and 15 years younger and the only weapon I have is concentrated washing-up liquid.”

But, as I got closer, I realised that it was not an argument so much as a concentrated haranguing by the young blonde-haired woman. It was a relief. I veered to avoid them, when she said: “Excuse me, can you settle an argument between me and my boyfriend?”

I doubted that very strongly, but I turned around, dreams of catching the 25-past bus ebbing away.

“I reckon people don’t hug each other enough,” she said, as she swayed towards me, clearly drunk on something, probably not hugs. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know, I mean…” I began. “Oh! Can I hug you?!” she said, and before I could react she flung her arms around me.

I stared terrified at her hulking boyfriend and shrugged, my palms raised. He, equally bemused, made the same gesture. We had bonded, brothers in bafflement.

“See, you feel much better, don’t you?” said the woman as she clung onto me. No, I thought, please stop doing this. “Yes,” I said, “Can I go now?”

She did not let go, and, so much worse, her boyfriend said: “Oh, I’ll join in.” And he made it a triple hug.

Two young men approached. I turned my head and said: “I don’t know what is happening.” I was concentrating hard on my wallet and my phone, in case this was some sort of pickpocketing scam.

They were with the couple. “Oh, group hug!” one of them said, and they piled on too. I was in a sort of scrum.

“Well, this has been very nice,” I lied. “But I must get my bus.” They peeled away, leaving only the woman, who planted a smacker on my actual mouth.

She dislodged herself from me and sent me on my way. “Don’t forget you are loved,” said the drunken angel.

And, as I walked away, I realised that I had learnt a valuable lesson. Always have a carrier bag in your coat pocket.