COLUMN: March 24, 2016


I HAD to buy a Nice White Shirt for A Thing, the details of which need not concern you or your loved ones.

I did already own a number of previously Nice White Shirts, but the first problem with owning Nice White Shirts is that they inevitably become pressed into service as office wear, and become progressively less Nice, like Cinderella going back to work after the ball.

And the second problem is the cuffs. For some reason Nice White Shirts always have double cuffs with no buttons, necessitating the use of cufflinks, or, as I have come to know them, The Devil’s Clamps.

Buttons on cuffs were a brilliant invention, but it is obvious that designers of Nice White Shirts consider them to be on a par with Velcro fastenings on shoes – a vulgar and juvenile solution to a problem they invented themselves.

I own a number of cufflinks, an odd number, unfortunately, because I am incapable of keeping anything nice, and I understand that they perform a decorative and unnecessarily practical function.

But these designers are clearly people who have never had to put on a shirt in a hurry, because it is virtually impossible to wear cufflinks without setting aside a morning to attach them.

Perhaps it is just me, but it takes me so long to put on cufflinks that if I were in a film I would need a body double for the putting on cufflinks scene. This is because every time I try to thread the bar through one of the buttonholes (look, designers of Nice White Shirts, they are actually called buttonholes, which should tell you something) the minimal resistance offered makes the bar rotate, rendering me unable to push the cufflink through.

But I have finally come up with an absolutely foolproof way to beat this design flaw, and I am happy to share it with you today. The following directions assume you are right-handed, so reverse them if you are left-handed.

A) Take a cufflink between the index finger and thumb of your right hand.

B) Hold the left-hand cuff with the other fingers of your right hand.

C) Try to push the cufflink through the hole which will be decorated by said cufflink.

D) Watch The Rotating Bar Of Satan pivot.

E) Repeat steps C and D.

F) Use your middle finger to prevent The Rotating Bar Of Satan from twisting.

G) Repeat steps C and D.

H) Swear.

I) Somehow push the bar through the first hole.

J) Try to push cufflink through next hole.

K) Realise it’s more difficult when you can’t actually see the cufflink because it’s on the other side of the fabric.

L) Repeat steps C and D twice.

M) Somehow push the bar through the second hole.

N) Pant heavily.

O) While gripping the cuff, try to push the cufflink through the third hole.

P) Watch the cufflink fall out of the first two holes again.

Q) Sit on your bed and cry softly for a little while.

R) Repeat steps A to O.

S) Somehow push the cufflink through the third hole.

T) Push the cufflink through the fourth hole, annoyingly easily, and wonder why this didn’t happen with all the other holes.

U) Twist The Rotating Bar Of Satan to lock The Devil’s Clamp in place.

V) Realise that you have to repeat the entire process now with your left hand and right-hand cuff.

W) Bang your head on your mattress six or seven times while shouting: “Why? Why? Why?”.

X) Look at your watch.

Y) Invent several new swear words and a plausible excuse for being late.

Z) Pull shirt over head, go to wardrobe, and pull out any shirt at all with buttons on the cuffs.

This method will work every time. It certainly does for me.

COLUMN: March 17, 2016

I LOGGED into Facebook, because life is too long, and I wanted to see which of my friends and relatives have poor opinions or a disappointing grasp of grammar and punctuation.

And Facebook did one of those things websites occasionally do when you log in, where they stop you from entering until you deal with some admin.

Usually it is something along the lines of: “Hey, Gary, why not give us your mobile telephone number? It would make your life so much easier if, for example, you forgot your password or… I don’t know JUST GIVE US YOUR NUMBER. COME ON, ALL YOUR OTHER FRIENDS HAVE YOUR NUMBER. THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”

At this point, I have to explain to Facebook or the website in question that while I like it, I don’t actually want to have a relationship with it, and eventually, grudgingly, I am allowed in to see which of my friends and relatives like wine or can’t believe it’s still only Tuesday.

But this time was different, and a little chilling. It was the equivalent of Facebook approaching me as I arrived with a sombre expression on its face and ushering me into a side room. It informed me that somebody had tried to access my account a few hours before from an unusual place and asked if it was me.

It told me that eight hours before this, somebody had tried to enter my account from China.

Now I know little for sure about my life at the moment, but among the few things I do know are that A) I had been asleep eight hours previously; and B) I have never been to China and certainly not eight hours before. I know that because I had to get up in the night to go to the toilet.

Admittedly there is very little damage that a person in China could do with my Facebook account, other than posting some Britain First or Minions pictures. But the implication was that somebody sinister had obtained my password, and the trouble is that, while I do not use the same password everywhere, I do tend to whistle a limited number of tunes.

So I had to change my password on Facebook, and then I had to remember every other website where I have used that password and change it there too.

The advice from internet security experts is that you should have a different password for every website you visit, and that you should change these passwords frequently.

But the reason I use recurring passwords across a number of websites is because I have a terrible memory, and so I have absolutely no idea if I have caught them all. This criminal genius in China could be causing mayhem on the British Risotto Guide forums in my name, and I would have literally no idea, because I had forgotten that once in 2011 I had to sign up to read a funny thing about risotto somebody had mentioned on Twitter.

The other advice from internet security experts is that passwords should be made up of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks – to that person on Facebook I know, punctuation marks are the little symbols on your keyboard that are not letters and numbers. They should not be recognisable words.

So not only are you supposed to be able to remember a different password for every site, but the passwords themselves have to be specifically designed not to be memorable?

How am I supposed to live in that sort of world? I cannot even tell you my own mobile phone number without getting it out of my pocket and looking for my contacts and then accidentally phoning somebody and then cancelling the call and then texting them to apologise.

The obvious answer is to keep your passwords in a safe place. But there is no such thing as a safe place. And if my diabolical foe in Jiangxi province got his hands on all of my passwords he could empty my bank account even faster than Tesco and my direct debits combined.

So I have decided to employ a sophisticated double-bluff. I am going to replace all my passwords with the name of my childhood pet Krypto the dog, or the word “password”. There is no way that anybody would believe that I would use those passwords, especially as I have just told all my readers I would use them. Or maybe it’s a triple-bluff, my devious Chinese nemesis. You will never know.

COLUMN: March 10, 2016

“HERE we go again,” I thought. “This is typical.”

For a much-loved newspaper columnist such as myself, there is nothing worse than enduring an experience which would make an ideal column were it not for the fact that you had already done it.

In this case, it was a fire evacuation. I had just arrived in work when the fire alarm went off on a non-drill day. Long-time readers of this column, of which there are four, can switch off for a few paragraphs. You have basically already read this bit.

My colleagues and I grabbed our coats – in direct contravention of fire evacuation procedures which, in our defence, had not taken into account snow in March – and headed for the emergency exit corridor.

But, as we arrived, keener fugitives from the licking flames, who had not bothered with their coats because they were young and foolish, were pouring back from the emergency corridor. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“We can’t get out that way. They’ve padlocked the fire door.”

A change swept over me, transforming me from the mild-mannered, disappointed, and disappointing man who normally presents himself to the world into something greater.

“We’ll see about that!” I said, and I strode into the corridor, Medium Coat swirling behind me heroically. The fire door was indeed padlocked, as is correct, but it was connected to a glass tube. I had been here before, with fewer witnesses. I had only to break the seal by smashing the glass tube with the hammer attached nearby, and the door would open.

I pushed it open and led the terrified masses into another corridor, this time pitch-black. “Hug the wall,” I said, “and follow me.” Using the light from the screen on my phone I found my way to the end of the corridor, where the light switch and exit door were situated.

I brought light to the corridor and placed my hands on the door. “This is typical,” I thought. “If I hadn’t done all this before, it would definitely make a column, AND one which would make me look good for a change. Ah, well… I suppose I should continue to save these people’s lives.” And, triumphantly, I flung open the door to the outside world…

And I squashed against the wall the man who was on the other side of that door, and who was sheltering from the snow.

That is where I would normally finish my column, except for one thing. The reason the man was sheltering behind the door was because he was homeless. And that is increasingly typical too.

Over the past few years the number of people sleeping rough on the journey I take from bus stop to office has grown markedly. Actual people living in the year 2016 find themselves forced to live on the streets, on nights when it is cold enough to snow, dependent for food on the charity of passers-by.

The government’s own figures – which are dependent on rough sleepers actually being seen by members of the public and so underestimate the problem – show the numbers across the UK have more than doubled since 2010.

The trouble is solving this homelessness problem costs money, and it appears the government would prefer that we pay for it from the spare coppers in our pocket.

I give what I can, within reason – a quid here or there, some shrapnel spoiling the line of my suit trousers – and it makes me feel virtuous. You might feel the same way. You might even feel heroic.

It is not good enough.

We have become accustomed in this country to think that we can have things of value for nothing. We do not pay for music, we do not pay for news, we complain about the BBC licence fee.

And then we vote for governments which pander to the idea that we can have decent public services for nothing, and complain when it turns out we can’t.

So the only way to get rough sleepers off our streets is through decent social services and decent social housing, and we have to pay for that through taxation, not charity.

It’s how we emptied the streets of rough sleepers after the Thatcher years. It is not glamorous – it does not even sound virtuous – but it is the effective option.

Do that and you can leave the heroism to me and Medium Coat.

COLUMN: March 3, 2016


ONCE upon a time, back in the days when I drove vehicles rather than sitting in the front seat of the top deck of vehicles and pretending to drive, I was involved in a very minor accident.

I was driving carefully along a wintry road when I hit a patch of black ice. My steering wheel became as useless as the imaginary wheel I employ on buses, and my car slid slowly towards another car, parked against the pavement.

It gave me time to accept the accident as it was happening, to watch it unfolding with a sort of horrified yet fascinated resignation.

I have had a similar feeling as I have witnessed the baffling rise of Donald Trump.

Let us leave aside any jibes about the suitability to office of a man who believes that haircut to be acceptable in polite company, or that his skin colour should then match that hair.

If anything, the fact that he clearly does not know what he is doing and cannot even commit to a consistent position on the parting of his hair appears to be central to his appeal. His pitch, as far as one is discernible, is “Vote for me! I have no idea what I am doing but how hard can it be?”

And the voters of the Republican Party are lapping it up. “We love Trump,” Mr Hiram Z. Notactuallyreal told me yesterday, “because he tells it like it is.”

Even the fact it has been pointed out that Trump repeatedly tells it like it isn’t has failed to dent his popularity, because it just goes to show that the establishment is rattled by him.

Trump is riding the wave of anti-politics feeling that is washing over the western world at the moment. It is the same feeling which put Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party – an appetite for easy answers, and a sense that career politicians cannot be trusted.

But what is so wrong with career politicians? Why is it uniquely the politician who gets it in the neck for knowing how to do her job?

If I were lying on an operating table waiting to be anaesthetised, I would not complain that the consultant is a career surgeon. I would not say: “Ugh! Get away from me, you charlatan, with your qualifications and your many years of experience. Fetch me an orange businessman who had a cameo in Home Alone 2 and who is rich enough not to be in the pocket of Big Pharma.”

Because what Trump and Corbyn and Nigel Farage and the rest of the easy answers brigade fail to acknowledge is that politics is actually a tricky business. It involves building alliances, and balancing the needs of various interest groups, because every decision that a government makes benefits some people and annoys others. Like everything I do, apart from the benefit part.

And that is exactly what Trump would discover if the sky turned blood red and the seas boiled and Piers Morgan married Susanna Reid, and the war crime-advocating, Ku Klux Klan-endorsed, failed meat salesman ended up in the White House.

He would have to take into account the views of Congress, from his own party and the Democrats. He could not just stomp about, insulting the losers and whiners who stand in his way, and imposing his will. Even if he did have the nuclear codes.

To get anything done, he would have to build alliances, grant favours, ask for other favours. He would have to disappoint large sections of the electorate who voted for him.

In short, he would have to become a politician. And if you’re going to vote for a politician, you might as well pick somebody who already knows how to play the game.

I have a rule when it comes to voting, and it has proved me right over and over again. It is “never vote for anybody you suspect incapable of using the phrase ‘It’s not as simple as that’,” or NVFAYSIOUTPINASAT for short.

It’s a good rule to follow in the upcoming EU referendum, and a much better reason to vote Remain than the fact that you can’t take Nigel Farage seriously because he owns a pair of yellow trousers and looks like an enthusiastic frog.

That sort of insult cheapens the debate and you should refuse to have any part in it. Like Donald Trump’s hair.