COLUMN: April 28, 2016

jamjar

WHEN people are asked to think of a “manly man” they never summon up my image. Not even I summon up my image.

This is not to say that I am not definitely male. In support of this proposition I submit the evidence that all my shoes have laces, I have never bought a copy of Woman’s Weekly, and I do not know for sure which Kardashian is which.

But I would never be confused with, say, a rugby player or a marine. I am a lover, not a fighter, and even “lover” is pushing it. The last time I was in a gym Mr Farrington, my PE teacher, was in attendance. Even my chosen method of keeping fit – running – is far more suited to avoiding confrontation than facing it.

So when I am called upon to prove my masculinity and sheer bravery I am always on the back foot, because I am not expecting it, and I say yes without thinking about it.

This is how I became a fire marshal. This is how, 18 months ago, I found myself tearing along a zip wire while dressed as Batman, with the ears of my mask poking through my helmet.

And this is how I found myself faced with The Jar.

“I can’t open this,” a female colleague of mine explained to me, as I was eating a Flake. I don’t really like Flakes – they are just chocolates for people who like chocolate to taste a little like vomit and love having to clean up after themselves – but I’d typed in the wrong code on the vending machine. “Can you do it?” she asked.

I looked around. There were many other people there, but the only difference between me and them was that I have to shave to avoid having a beard. The sole time I have been in a room with a comparable ratio of women to men was when I had to go to a JLS concert.

The only reason I could discern that she was asking me to open the jar was that I am a man. And if you think I am being sexist, please remember that I am not the one who asked me to open the jar.

“Are you sure?” I said. My sleeves were rolled up, just in case I had a hole in the elbow of my shirt, exposing my bendy straw arms. There were women around me who had actually given birth, who had exhibited strength of which I cannot conceive, and she was asking me.

“OK…” I said. I stood up, put down my Flake, and took The Jar. It was filled with strawberry jam. I had as little idea as you as to why somebody in an office would need an open jar of strawberry jam, but when you work in a newsroom you learn not to ask questions. Ironically.

I gripped the lid in my right hand, and the jar in my left hand and began the task. My right hand slipped, just as Mr Sharples the music teacher’s hand had slipped when we put Vaseline on the classroom doorknob that time.

“My hand’s sweaty,” I explained to my colleague, information which she did not need and had never needed. I wiped my hand on my worryingly light-coloured trousers, and had a second go.

The lid was not budging. I gripped tighter. Now the jar was slipping in my left hand.

I looked up at my colleague. “It’s OK,” she said, “I’ll take…”

“LEAVE IT ALONE. I AM NOT BEATEN,” I said.

I had an idea. I bent over, clamping the jar of, do not forget, strawberry jam between my light-coloured trouser-clad thighs. My left hand went behind me to grip the bottom of the jar, while my right hand held the lid. I can only imagine how it looked from a distance.

Slowly I turned the lid. I heard the pop, and whipped the jar out from between my legs. I had beaten the jar and had succeeded in not covering my light trousers with red jam. I handed back the jar, sweat beading my face.

“Thank you,” she said.

“It was nothing,” I said, unconvincingly, and I sat down, on, it later turned out, the shards of Flake which were scattered over my chair as I stood up to take the jar.

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COLUMN: April 21, 2016

I THINK the worst thing in the world is being invited to something where the dress code is “smart casual”.

This is because absolutely nobody knows what “smart casual” is. “Black tie” we understand. “Lounge suits” we understand, even though if I were to indulge in a spot of lounging I would generally not consider it necessary to don a suit.

This is not to say that I accept the widespread adoption of the onesie by actual adults, but there must be a middle ground between dressing like an estate agent, and wearing a babygro, like one of those sexual deviants who pretend to be toddlers, when all you want to do is watch EastEnders.

But “smart casual”? Not even the people who put it on invitations know what it means. How smart is “smart”? How casual is “casual”? It is an oxymoron like, “Circle Square”, “same difference”, or “much-loved TV personality Piers Morgan”.

I was invited to a “smart casual” party about 18 months ago. In the olden days I would have asked a few close friends what on earth this actually meant, but this is the 21st century and I do not have close friends.

I have social media instead, which is a lot better, because it means advice is constantly on tap, and nobody comes to your house and drinks all your tea.

So I asked my number of social media contacts what they thought “smart casual” meant, and the consensus appeared to be that I should wear some sort of shirt. This did not seem too taxing. I had a few shirts, some of which require the use of cufflinks.

“No, Gary”, they said, as one. “You have to buy a new shirt. It is the done thing.”

So I bought a nice black shirt – I thought it might be useful if I ever needed to impersonate a priest or if I became a fascist – and went to the party. At the party nobody said, “I can’t believe you’ve turned up in this, Father Mosley. The invitation clearly said ‘smart casual’, you massive plum”, so I considered it a success, and it quickly became my favourite shirt.

I wore the shirt for any occasion which did not immediately suggest to me that it would be soiled, or during which I wanted people to think that I was the sort of person who knew what “smart casual” meant.

It was a great shirt – soft on my manly skin, long enough to stay tucked in, but not so long I would risk having “puffy shirt”, and remained black despite frequent washes.

Here it is on me, in a photograph taken last year by @strnks. I have obliterated the faces of my companions to protect them from the internet. See how happy and relaxed I am in my special black shirt.

Meninbar

Then last week I was at A Thing and I wore my special black shirt. I sparkled, as you can imagine I always do in social situations. “Tell us more about bus journeys you have been on, Gary, we are agog,” my companions said to me. “Enlighten us about Big Coat and how you don’t really like dairy products.”

And then, to emphasise the point I was making that, while the best seat on the bus is generally considered to be on the top deck above the driver, sometimes the seat on the other side of the aisle is preferable for purposes of people watching, I brushed a lock of hair out of my eye, and I realised that I had put my elbow through the fabric of my shirt.

“Well,” I said. “This is embarrassing. I’ve just torn my shirt. I had no idea my elbow was so pointy.”

“Oh, no,” one of my companions said. “It’s been like that all night. I thought it was a fashion statement.”

“What?!” I said. “I’m not a 28-year-old woman. This is a shirt, not a pair of black jeans. I don’t slash my clothes for effect.”

I had no idea when I had torn my shirt. I certainly did not feel my elbow go through the material, but I comforted myself by assuming it must have happened that night. Surely I would have noticed when I ironed it?

But no! I always iron the other side of the sleeve, and the other sleeve is the one that is visible when I hang it up in my wardrobe.

The horrible realisation descended upon me. For all I know I have been going to events where I would wish to impress people for MONTHS with my elbow sticking out of my shirt, like a cartoon hobo.

I would rather go to a smart casual do in a onesie.

COLUMN: April 14, 2016

alcapone

I HAD less time to kill than I thought. As I have aged, I have come to terms with the fact I am unable to judge how heavy things are, or how far away things are, or how long it will take me to complete a task.

I am basically a builder without the ability to make things fit or to intimidate people like me.

Instead of walking I decided to catch a bus to my appointment so I would not be late. This involved traversing Hanover Street at a puffin crossing. The green man appeared in the wrong place – as they do on puffin crossings – and I began to cross.

I became aware of a middle-aged couple standing slightly apart on the other side of the crossing. I corrected my course to avoid bumping into them, but they kept veering into my path too, as if they were attempting to prevent me from scoring a try.

Or a touchdown. They were American. “Excuse me, sir,” said the woman. Her husband hung back a little, accurately sizing up the situation.

No good has ever come of me being addressed as “sir”. I sighed inwardly. “Yes, can I help you?” I asked, as Basil Fawlty might have done.

“Could you tell us how to get to the Philharmonic? We’re a little late,” she asked.

“Really?” I thought. “You’re asking me? Surely all the travel websites should have a warning about approaching me for directions by now?”

As it happened, their luck was in. I was actually going to Hope Street. There was no way they would miss their concert.

“I do! But you should get the bus.”

“We don’t know the city,” she said. “We might get lost.”

“I’m getting the same bus! I’ll take you straight there.”

“Gee,” said the husband, like the American he was, and looking in his wallet. “Will the driver make change?”

“Of course!” I said. “You just stick with me.” For a moment I had a sense of what it must be like to be a sunny optimist.

“Where do you folks hail from?” I asked, easily slipping into their lingo.

“Chicago.”

“Oh, my friend Heidi is from Chicago. Do you…”

They gave me a hard stare.

“I expect it’s quite a big place,” I said.

And then we got on the bus. I swiped my card, went to sit down, and watched as Mr America pulled a £20 note out of his wallet and attempted to pay for the bus fare. The sunny optimist inside my head remembered a previous appointment and scarpered as the bus driver explained in broad terms that he would definitely not be able to “make change”.

The couple appeared confused and angry. They looked across at me, the smiling architect of their misfortune, and I gave them a small thumbs-up.

Mrs America scrabbled around in her purse, looking for coins of a denomination she did not entirely understand. I felt responsible. They were visitors to my city, and I had strong-armed them onto the bus. I had to sort this out.

“Please, allow me,” I said to her. I had a £5 note. Awkwardo The Bus Driver would only have to give me 60p change from that. “No, wait…” she said.

Mr America at this time had left the bus and rejoined the queue at the back. “I’ll get this,” I told him. “No, wait…” he said. “It’s quite all right,” I said, then to the bus driver, “Two £2.20s, please.”

Mrs America walked up to me. “I already have a ticket,” she explained. “Oh,” I said. The driver stared at me. The other passengers wished I were dead.

I dug in my pocket to find change to buy her husband’s ticket, but I was a pound short. “Actually, do you have…?” I said to the wife. She handed me a pound coin.

I gave the husband his ticket and sat down, and said nothing else to them until we reached the correct bus stop. I could see them shaking their heads and conferring quietly all the way there.

I rang the bell and indicated that they should follow me. They were sceptical, but did so, and I led them all the way to the Phil.

“Thank you,” Mrs America said.

“This doesn’t look like a pub,” Mr America said.

“Oh, right, um, you want there,” I said, and I pointed at the Philharmonic pub over the road.

“How do we get back?” Mr America asked.

“Well, you just walk down this hill, and you’ll get right back where we started from.”

“You mean we could have walked?” he asked.

“Well, yes, but I thought you were in a hurry.”

“We are,” he said, and they disappeared off to the pub.

COLUMN: April 7, 2016

THERE are too many super-hero films and they need to stop making them. This is a bold statement, and one which would disappoint the eight-year-old me, who would be eagerly awaiting Superman II while simultaneously watching The Incredible Hulk and wearing the Spider-Man outfit my Auntie Mary made me.

But that is the point. I recently went to see the film Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. I give it its full title, because if I had to sit through two and a half hours of that bloated nonsense, I am damned if I am not going to make you sit through the six words of that title.

I am aware that, as a man in his increasingly less early forties, I compromised my dignity going to see a film about Superman and Batman beating each other up, especially as I went alone. But I owed it to that eight-year-old version of myself, who would have sold his grandmother to ICI to see a film starring both Superman and Batman.

I sat on the back row, as I usually do, partly because it affords the best view, but mostly because it leaves an odd number of seats free, annoying any couples who might arrive late for the film.

Next to me were two men, one of whom could easily have been a finalist in the Mr Terrible Moviegoer pageant in any of the past 10 years, and his long-suffering friend, who must have been regretting that day in Freshers Week a couple of years ago when he expressed approval of his future cinema companion’s Nakatomi Corporation T-shirt.

Mr Terrible Moviegoer did two things noisily throughout the film. The first was to eat popcorn. One might imagine that it is difficult to eat popcorn noisily. Yes, there is often a bit of rustling, but the actual chewing of popcorn should be about as noisy as the chewing of candy floss. Yet this man managed it.

The second was to narrate the film to his companion as it went along, warning him about bits that were coming up and explaining references to the original comic text that the filmmakers had shoehorned in. Every illogical twist in the plot was telegraphed by Mr Terrible Moviegoer. The effect was to make this film, already an trial, unsurprisingly awful. It was like watching paint explode dry.

But across the aisle was somebody undergoing an even more dreadful ordeal. It was a mother with a group of children, all roughly about the same age as me when I was awaiting my second Superman film, all of whom had faces expressing the same amount of boredom, bewilderment, and fear as I had.

She had to keep hiding their faces or taking them to the toilet to avoid them seeing people being blown up and branded, or trafficked women, or a beaker of urine, or Clark Kent and Lois Lane having sex in a bath.

It was all her own fault, of course. She should have known that a film starring Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, and which had associated toys and Build-A-Bear outfits and children’s books, would not be suitable IN ANY WAY AT ALL for children.

And that is why super-hero films have to stop. There are so many of them now that the directors have to make them “distinctive” and self-consciously serious and artistic.

They have to start talking about “universal themes” and “mythology”.

That is why we end up with films in which Batman and Superman kill and maim criminals and innocent bystanders, instead of stopping people from killing and maiming criminals and innocent bystanders.

These filmmakers forget that people mostly like super-hero stories because they feature characters in silly bright costumes going about the place doing good and spreading hope.

They should learn a lesson from TV’s Russell T Davies. When he brought back Doctor Who a decade ago he produced something quite extraordinary.

He produced a programme for all age groups, that everybody could watch, that introduced some adult themes in a way that was suitable for children, that could make people laugh or cry, that was faithful to the spirit of old Doctor Who, and which felt new and exciting. And it became the biggest show on British television for years.

If the filmmakers followed his example, they might be able to make a Superman story that not even Mr Terrible Moviegoer 2016 could spoil for me. And one that I would allow my eight-year-old self to see.

Sensor Sensibility

heath-ledger-as-the-joker-in-the-dark-knight

I KNEW it was going to be a difficult journey when I slapped my bus pass card on the sensor and the green light did not come on.

The bus driver looked at me as if it were my fault, as if my actual hobby were annoying bus drivers and that day I had chosen him as a target. I might as well have addressed him in French.

I missed those glorious times, when having a pass meant that I was able to waft past the people paying for tickets and snaffle the best seats, like Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost would if they had to catch the 86.

Now we have to queue to place our cards on a sensor and wait until the computer inside the ticket machine stops chatting with his mates over the internet – no doubt plotting the downfall of the human race through the use of automated checkouts – then umms and ahhs, and finally lets us through.

“I’ll try it again,” I said to the bus driver. “I’ve only just renewed it in that newsagent’s down there, it should be fine.”

The bus driver appeared pained by having to listen to so much of my life story but nevertheless acquiesced, and I plonked the card back on the sensor. This time the computer inside had come off its tea break and the green light finally flashed.

The driver waved me through, clearly angered that somehow I had gamed the system, and I went to find a seat.

Of course, all the decent seats were grabbed in this post-convenience world, and I had to take one of the weirdo rear-facing seats.

I have no idea why bus designers decided that they would have little nooks of facing seats over the wheel arch. Maybe they were trying to capture the corporate mini-conference market.

In any case, I sat down, took out my copy of Bus Driver Annoyer Monthly, and noted that I was sitting opposite a young woman with rollers roughly the size of those hay bales you see in farmland down the M6.

It appeared she was taking a long time to compose a selfie, until I realised the phone I thought she was holding was a compact and she was actually doing her make-up.

I started wondering why it was that some women do their make-up on public transport. It’s not that I object in principle – although you would never see me having a shave on the bus – but in practice it must be difficult. And this woman was sitting over the wheel arch. One pothole and she would look like The Joker in The Dark Knight.

I need not have worried, for her phone rang, and she paused her cosmetic activity to answer it. The call was clearly from a young suitor, for her demeanour went from calm to animated very quickly.

She chuckled, then said, loudly, so that everybody on the quiet bus could hear, “If you talk to me again I will stab you,” and she ended the conversation.

I am paraphrasing, of course. In reality, she scattered f-words on the sentence like rice at a wedding. They got in everywhere, even between syllables. It was almost poetic.

The ferocity of her promise made the middle-aged woman sitting next to her edge away. But she resumed making up her face as if nothing had happened.

Her suitor rang again. Calmly, if loudly, she informed him that she would personally cut him in such a way that it would reduce his marital value sharply. Then she carried on with her make-up. The woman sitting next to her edged away further. The rest of the bus passengers were on pins.

Her suitor rang a third time. This time she was no-nonsense. “I’m gonna get my cousins to cut your fingers off and shove them down your f*****g throat,” she trilled.

The passengers suppressed a gasp, the woman next to her was now so far away that only one buttock was on the seat. But, of course, I have no poker face.

“What?” she said to me.

I weighed up the situation. This woman’s first response to adversity was to consider the use of a knife. This woman had cousins. Worst of all, this woman was hard enough to put on make-up on the bus.

I had only one option. “Je ne comprends pas,” I said. And thus I still have the fingers to type this column.