COLUMN: May 26, 2016

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THE couple walked towards me, glowing with youthful love and springtime, their hands clasped as if they feared that if one let go the other would disappear into the mists. It was beautiful, inspiring, life-affirming, and it made me think.

“Ah,” it made me think, “This pavement is definitely not wide enough for people to be holding hands.”

But it was clear that the couple did not have my grasp of the laws of physics, or perhaps their expression of their love was more important to them than any concern that I might be splattered across the front of the oncoming bus. “Live by the bus, die by the bus,” they probably thought.

Either way, they refused to let go of each other and walk in single file for even a moment. Similarly, I refused to die an ironic death. There was no way I was stepping into the road.

We continued to walk towards each other. Suddenly our shared predicament filtered through the love-addled brains of the couple and they veered to their left while still holding hands, changing their angle and giving me a gap of roughly three-quarters of my width.

I could work with that. I flung myself through some closing train doors a couple of weeks ago, like a sort of commuting Indiana Jones. And I did this without being cut in two at the waist. This would be easy in comparison.

Unfortunately I had already committed myself to veering to my right in order to avoid them, and so we were still on a collision course.

To prevent an unseemly accident I changed direction, heading to my left. Inevitably, the couple had realised that a collision was imminent, and had switched to their right. Once again the crash was on. It was going down and there was not a damned thing we could do about it.

I suppose, in retrospect, we could all have just stopped walking and worked out how we were going to pass each other without being injured in one way or another, but in the heat of the moment such clarity evaded all three of us.

Unless… If the couple would actually let go of each other for five seconds I could pass between them. I put my faith in human nature and headed straight for them.

They did not unclasp their hands in time. Essentially I walked myself into a very low punch. Not for the first time.

I apologised in a high-pitched tone and they expressed some regret for their actions, and afterwards I gave some thought as to how such an incident could be avoided in future.

And I have decided that we need to have actual laws of the pavement, just as we have laws of the road.

I am not saying that we necessarily have to have traffic signals on the pavement, but it would not distress me unduly.

That said, I definitely see a case for brake lights on the sort of person who stops abruptly in front of me outside shops, causing scenes of impromptu intimacy best left to clubs in Ayia Napa and age-restricted websites.

Similarly, indicator lights for people who step out of shops and into swift-moving pedestrian traffic without checking if anybody is walking past would also be of some use.

Pavements themselves could be split down the middle to prevent collisions. Particularly wide pavements could become dual carriageways, with “dawdle lanes” on the outside, and “perfectly normal lanes” on the inside for people like me, who believe walking to be a method of getting from one place to another rather than a leisure activity.

But all of this would cost money, for white paint, for a start, and especially if pedestrian traffic laws are to be enforced. Which they should be.

So I suggest that, until my Glorious Pedestrian Revolution comes to pass, we make a decision right now.

And that is this. When there is a pending collision between people, whether on the pavement or in a corridor, without exception we veer to the left. If we make that the absolute rule we will never have to think about it.

Only by taking this sort of firm action can we ensure that the sole reason in future for me to be punched below the belt is that I deserve it.

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COLUMN: May 19, 2016

I HAD an uncommonly good day this week. I finished something on which I have been working during my spare time for about a year.

And then, after I had done a little victory lap in my living room, practised my award-winner’s speech, and chosen my sun-bleached villa on the Amalfi coast, I got ready for a Big Quiz.

I am quite good at quizzes. When I was a child I was captain of my school quiz team, and we won actual competitions. Cambridge Bainbridge, they called me, loading me with a level of expectation I have spent the subsequent 34 years comprehensively shedding.

It turns out that my knowledge is wide, but also shallow. I know that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but I have no idea why. My intellect is like a crème brulee, a thin, brittle coating of wisdom and general facts concealing a vast, seething custard of self-sabotage and ignorance.

Anyway, this makes me prime fodder for people rounding up quiz teams. So it proved last week when my friend Alistair begged me on bended knee to join his group competing in a quiz night.

A couple of years ago, Alistair and some people from the office appeared on the TV show Eggheads. They were glorious failures. I am not saying that they would have won had they asked me to be among their number, but we will never be able to prove otherwise.

In any case, a couple of the massive Egghead losers were unable to attend this quiz night and so when Alistair was forced to ask me to make up the team I agreed. Among the things that make me so brilliant are my humility and my ability to set aside long-held and totally understandable grievances for the common good.

This is because I do like a pub quiz. I am an occasional member of a team which plays on a Thursday night – occasional because I usually work on a Thursday night – and so I feel I am among my people, people who cannot kick a ball in a straight line unless a curve is required but know that Albania borders on the Adriatic.

But there are three types of attendee who are always at a pub quiz. The first is the person who knows nothing beyond his or her own name and the name of Beyonce’s latest single.

This is always good because “What is the name of Beyonce’s latest single?” is invariably question number 29 and nobody else in the team knows the answer. They have always turned up at the quiz by accident, assuming it was an unusually quiet Zumba session.

The second type is Billy Second. Billy Second knows the answer to every question, but only suggests the answer after somebody else has started to write that answer down.

When it transpires that the answer is incorrect, Billy Second will explain that was his second thought, but everybody was so convinced the first answer was right that he didn’t say anything.

The third type is Mr Serious. It is always a man. Mr Serious spends his life scouring quiz books and is ready to pounce when the quiz master says “Zaire” instead of “the Democratic Republic of the Congo”.

Mr Serious has a gimlet eye on the pot of money next to the quiz master, and will be the first to congratulate the winner – on the rare occasion that it is not himself – with a handshake that means, “I wish you a painful and lingering death”.

They were all in attendance at the Big Pub Quiz, but somehow managed to cancel each other out, and our team broke through the centre and won.

We were handed a shiny cup and some prize money, and we wandered through the night streets singing a creditable if tipsy rendition of We Are The Champions, and I thought, for once, even though I had an early start the next day, that it was good to be a winner. It had truly been a great day. Life could not get any better.

And so it proved. I woke the next morning, disorientated, but not exactly hungover, and stumbled into work, a few minutes late for my 9am start.

The spoon of fate had crashed through my crème brulee, exposing my self-sabotage and ignorance to all the world. I had read the wrong week on my rota. I had arrived at work four and a half hours early.

COLUMN: May 12, 2016

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AVUNCULAR PRESENTER: This week on Things We Buy Even Though We Know They Will Go Wrong, we’re going to get the bottom line on choc ices. Why do we still buy them even though we know they will go wrong? Let’s go over to Kerry McKerry in Switzerland…

[A montage of cuckoo clocks, Roger Federer, piles of Nazi gold, and cheese with big holes in it. Intrepid reporter Kerry McKerry walks along a very clean street.]

KERRY McKERRY: This is Zurich, home of things which come from Zurich, in the same way that there is a sign at Wolverhampton train station saying “Welcome to Wolverhampton, Home of the University of Wolverhampton.” And home too to somebody who does not come from Zurich but who went to live there: Derek Wilton, the shadowy inventor of the choc ice.

[Kerry walks up some stone steps to a Swiss castle in the mountains. A hunch-backed retainer opens the creaking door, and Kerry steps inside. She sits in a library with Derek Wilton, who is in a wingback chair and mostly in shadow.]

KERRY McKERRY: Derek Wilton, I suppose my first question must be, “Do you get a lot of people pointing out that you have the same name as Mavis’s husband in Coronation Street?”

DEREK WILTON: No. I live in Switzerland, and he left the show in 1997, so it doesn’t come up that often. I think it’s just you and Les Dennis who’ve brought it up.

KERRY McKERRY: So, choc ices? What were you thinking?

DEREK WILTON: That is very simple. You see, before I invented the choc ice, I invented both the carpet which bears my name, and the carpet cleaner. Now, the carpet became very popular, but I could not sell a single bottle of the cleaner.

KERRY McKERRY: They’re very easy to clean, Wilton carpets, aren’t they?

DEREK WILTON: Exactly. I was a victim of my own success. But then I thought, “If I can somehow manage to get people to rub some sort of stain all over their carpets themselves they will beat a path to my doorway to get their hands on my carpet cleaner.”

[Wilton’s voice over a montage of scientists in a laboratory.]

DEREK WILTON: So I got onto the boffins in my lab. I asked them to think of something that people like, but which could cause serious damage to a light carpet. They came up with Marmite, but apparently not everybody likes Marmite, and Bovril, but vegetarians are less keen on beef tea. And then, suddenly, nice chocolate!

KERRY McKERRY: Everybody likes nice chocolate, apart from the Americans.

DEREK WILTON: Exactly, but how were we going to transfer chocolate efficiently from people’s mouths to their carpets? The answer was to use something else people like: ice cream.

KERRY McKERRY: I don’t understand.

DEREK WILTON: It’s so brilliantly simple. When do people really like ice cream? When it’s very hot. What happens to ice cream when it’s hot? It melts.

KERRY McKERRY: Oh…

DEREK WILTON: And that is the genius of a choc ice. We have something very brittle surrounding some liquid, like one of those liqueur chocolates you have at Christmas. It is therefore impossible for a person with teeth to stand and eat a choc ice without chocolate going all over the floor.

[Archive footage of a man wearing flares eating a choc ice in a laboratory. Scientists are measuring the amount of chocolate around his feet.]

DEREK WILTON (cont.): And what happens to chocolate when heat is applied? Have you ever tried to get a Jaffa Cake out of the cellophane when it’s sunny outside? You look like you’ve been mud wrestling. Even if the chocolate is not that warm, it melts as soon as you touch it to pick it up off the carpet. Hail me, for I am a carpet cleaner-selling genius. [Maniacal laughter]

[Kerry walking along a Zurich street.]

KERRY McKERRY: So that is why we buy choc ices. Because we are total idiots. Now back to whichever white middle-aged man they hired to do the easy bit in the studio, weeks after I schlepped all around the world with a stinking film crew.

AVUNCULAR PRESENTER: Thanks, Kerry. That’s all we’ve got time for this week, apart from this bit I am now saying. Next week on Things We Buy Even Though We Know They’re Going To Go Wrong we’ll be taking a look at the Conservative Party. Goodnight!

COLUMN: May 5, 2016

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I AM poor at multi-tasking. To put this in context I have been trying to write this column for the past two hours, in which time I have done a bit of admin, put some laundry on, and made two cups of tea, and this paragraph is all I have to show for it.

I am a nightmare in the kitchen. Because I am incapable of doing two things at once it takes me so long to make a meal that ingredients have actually gone off while I’ve been cooking. I once did a Jamie Oliver 15-minute meal, and it took me four and a half hours, which is a full half hour longer than most people.

As I write, however, I have a decent excuse for being not as sharp as other people. Several months ago, I accepted an invitation to see my dentist this morning, at 8am. Even when the appointment was made Past Me thought that was a little steep. But Past Me did not care, because it was months away and Past Me is a malevolent idiot. Virtually all of my problems have been caused by Past Me.

But this was particularly idiotic. Owing to the vagaries of newspaper production, I often work late shifts. Last night, I did not return home until 11pm. I am as capable of then going to sleep at 11.05pm as a nine-to-five worker would be of coming home at 6pm and going to sleep at 6.05pm.

And so it was long past 1am when I let the cares of the day slip away. Sensibly, I had set my alarm for 6.30am. Inevitably, when the alarm rang this morning, I ignored it. “What sort of buffoon sets an alarm for 6.30?” I wondered, as I drifted – plummeted heavily – back to sleep.

I woke in a panic at 7.02am. “Argh!” I thought, accurately summing up my predicament. I tore out of bed, knowing that I had roughly 20 minutes to get ready. I was a whirlwind of activity, brushing my teeth, while ironing my shoes and polishing my cereal and whatever.

It was all very confusing and I was not sure entirely where I was or how I was doing it, but somehow I managed to dress myself and have matching shoes and deposit myself at a bus stop in time to reach my appointment. I sat on the bus and felt pretty good about myself, or perhaps I was just delirious. I do not know, I was very tired.

In any case, I arrived at the dental surgery. My dentist – a handsome, intelligent, and charming man who is allowed to put drills and other sharp objects in my mouth and, consequently, is not somebody I wish to anger or displease in any way – engaged me in some small talk and showed me to my seat.

I sat and felt the seat recline and pretended, as I always do, that I was Dr David Banner just before an accidental overdose of gamma radiation. The dental assistant placed a bib on my chest and goggles on my face, and just as my dentist shoved a mirror in my mouth I realised something very important about myself. In the kerfuffle and panic of my morning

I had neglected to zip up my trousers.

My hands were gripping the arm rests of the chair and I had two people standing over me, one of whom had a whining plaque-removing tool a millimetre away from my gums. There was no way that I could adjust my sartorial maladministration discreetly. They would see exactly what I was doing.

And even if I chanced it, what then? There was absolutely no guarantee that the zip would not get stuck. Face it, it was me. Of course the zip would get stuck.

So I stretched my body as far as I could, in an attempt to make the zip taut and not obviously open. This made my dentist assume he was hurting me far more than he was. “O, o, I’n ine,” I explained.

Somehow I got through the ordeal without either the dentist or his assistant drawing attention to my clothing discrepancy. I opened the door, thanked him for his efforts, and, with my back to them, pulled up my zip.

And so I apologise in public to the man I did not know was sitting in the waiting area, who saw me thanking my dentist, and then pulling up my zip. In my defence, I was very tired.