COLUMN: June 30, 2016


I HAD to have one of those meals out to discuss a professional matter that people have, and I thought I had better do it quickly before the banks ran out of money and you could still buy olive oil in this country.

When I arrived, my dining companion was already there. I was late, owing to a complicated sequence of events which started with a broken shoelace, took in a drunken man trapped in the door of a bus, and ended with me being caught up in some sort of parade or protest march. It is hard to tell the difference these days.

I sat down and apologised, and I began to explain, but we both decided after a while it was best that I stop.

The table, I noted, was quite wobbly. This did concern me. I well remember the Birmingham Event of 2012, in which I forgot about a wobbly table in a well-known chicken restaurant, right up to the moment I leant on it in order to stand up, and landed in a pool of peri-peri, thereby inventing the term “a cheeky Nando’s”.

The waiter appeared. He told me his name and that he was going to be serving us and I immediately forgot his name because I do not think anybody has ever remembered a waiter’s name.

This is because nobody ever uses a waiter’s name. It would make you sound either over-familiar, or like a toff in pre-war India summoning a servant.

Anyway, I ordered roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and none of that foreign muck, thank you very much, because I know which way the wind is blowing, and my dining companion and I began to discuss professional matters of the highest national importance.

And when I was halfway down my glass – too early to ask for another, but not early enough that I would not be worried that I would run out during my meal – our waiter returned with the food. He placed it in front of me, and the reason I never order roast beef and Yorkshire pudding immediately became apparent.

There is no restaurant plate big enough to accommodate a catering-size Yorkshire pudding and all the other items one reasonably expects from a roast dinner. My table was going to look like the aftermath of a well-attended convention for peas.

I picked up my knife and set to work on the Yorkshire pudding. It was an excellent Yorkshire pudding, crisp on the outside, and meltingly soft on the inside.

But this meant it was a disaster, because it made cutting the thing virtually impossible. Too much pressure and the thing would explode, showering shards of super-hard shrapnel all over surrounding tables. Too little pressure and I might as well have had a knife made of cotton wool.

And even if I did exert the correct amount of pressure on the pudding – enough to break its super-strong shell without injuring fellow diners – it was far more than the wobbly table could bear.

The table shook, and I spilled some of my drink. Like lightning, I whipped the napkin off my lap and mopped it up. But now I had left myself at the mercy of accidental gravy. I sat with my legs at ten to two to split the risk.

“Are you OK?” my companion asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s just that you’re sweating,” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s just warm.” She nodded and buttoned up her cardigan, and I continued.

I picked up my knife again, and began to saw away gently at the batter carapace, back and forth, little grains of Yorkshire pudding sawdust collecting in the gravy. After a couple of minutes I had made a decent incision.

I looked up. My companion was staring at me again. “What on earth are you doing?”

“I’m having a Yorkshire pudding,” I explained. “It’s not going as well as I’d hoped.”

She sighed. “Turn it upside down. The gravy will have softened it. That will make it easier to cut.”

I did as I was told. She was right. I made short work of the centre of the pudding, and it was a breeze to cut through the rest. “Thank you,” I told my companion. “You have changed my life.”

And I was so delighted that I stood up to shake her hand, leaning with my other hand on the wobbly table.

You can probably fill in the rest yourself.

COLUMN: June 23, 2016


BECAUSE of the mysterious ways newspapers work, I have to write this before the results of that Big Important Vote are announced, so hooray, if the side I like won, and booo, if the side I like lost.

But one of the most striking things that has come out of this ridiculous and divisive vote has been the revelation that a surprising number of people in this country believe that being good and being clever are bad things.

Imagine the state of mind you must have to consider “do-gooder” an insult. Perhaps you use it as an insult yourself. What does that say about you?

“Tut, there I was, minding my own business pulling the legs off live rabbits and scrawling, ‘I just don’t get this. Call this art? My five-year-old could do better if I had one’, on the wall of the Tate gallery. And then this namby-pamby do-gooder comes along and tells me off, because apparently it’s not ‘politically correct’ to set fire to public buildings. I want my country back from people who just want to make life better for other people.”

You’re right, of course. What sort of country wants do-gooders? In fact, let’s just abolish police forces and fire brigades and hospitals.

And while we’re at it, let’s make charities illegal. Who wants people going about the place raising money and protecting animals and keeping beautiful old buildings open and stopping abusive adults beating up their children? Do-gooders – they make me sick.

Because that is what it is about. When you feel the need to call somebody a “do-gooder”, it is because you know they are right but you want to do the thing that is wrong. And even if you do not agree, you are mocking the impulse to do good.

It is the same with mocking people for being intelligent. This is the only country in the world where it is possible to insult somebody for being “too clever by half”.

As a person who writes, mostly intentionally, humorous columns, I have found that the easiest group of people to mock is the stupid. I flatter myself that I am “punching down”, but I think we all know I am not.

But the reason it is easy to mock the stupid is that I do not receive letters of complaint from the stupid. To date I have never had an email which starts, “Dear Mr Bainbridge, as a member of the stupid community, I take exception to your assertion that there should be a special queue for us at Greggs…”

This is because nobody really thinks that they are stupid, in the same way that nobody believes they have no sense of humour.

But over the past couple of years, people have started to ally themselves with the stupid, so much so that the worst thing you can call somebody is an “expert”.

Even the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice – a cabinet minister and former writer for The Times, no less – said during this awful campaign, which has divided families and generations, that people were “fed up with experts”.

I blame the media. Stories of national importance are routinely capped with vox pops, in which some unfortunate reporter has to stop people in the street and ask them their opinion on subjects they’ve barely considered. It makes the pronouncements of people who know a lot about a subject and people who do not appear equivalent.

Let’s make this clear. When you discount the views of experts in a subject in favour of what some bloke down at the pub thinks, when you don’t trust the judgement of somebody who has spent years studying a subject in detail and prefer the opinion of your mate Dave, who saw the first 10 seconds of a Facebook video on it once, then you are throwing in your lot with the stupid.

Apparently some experts are fine. People will happily go to the GP and show off their wart, because they know she has studied medicine, instead of trusting their mate Brian in the pub. Unless Brian is a GP.

But when it comes to constitutional politics or economics or climate change, experts are worthless.

That has to change. Whatever happens after this vote, over the next few years we’re going to need clever people more than ever.

Even if you think they’re just do-gooders.

COLUMN: June 16, 2016


LAST week, while I was pleading with the Undecided not to chuck 75 years of progress down the toilet just so that Iain Duncan Smith can make you work a 14-hour day, I mentioned a terrible woman I had encountered in the supermarket.

Since then, my postbag – I have a postbag, shush – has been divided into three categories: people thanking me for writing last week’s column, people telling me I am an utter disgrace for writing last week’s column, and people saying, “Never mind about the biggest political decision we will ever make, to be made in an atmosphere of toxic misinformation, tell us about this terrible woman.”

Admittedly what happened was partly my fault. I had entered the mini supermarket in need of toothpaste and kitchen roll, and so I shunned the baskets at the entrance. I am lucky enough to have two decent hands, and I considered that even I could manage those two items without a basket.

Unfortunately I had forgotten that mini supermarkets are designed to take advantage of people like me, people who remember that they have run out of things only when they see replacements on the shelf, people who are pathologically incapable of writing shopping lists, and even if they did, would forget six things.

And so, as usual, as I passed through the shop I acquired items as efficiently as a Ronco lint remover picks up fluff from polyester jackets.

“I need a basket,” I thought, trying to see between the tin of cling peaches and French-style baguette the pile of stuff in my hands had placed in front of my face. But the baskets were situated conveniently at the entrance, and to reach them I would have had to go through the security scanner, and then, no doubt, explain myself in the interview room of a police station.

Slowly I manoeuvred the Great Pyramid of Gazza through the store, hoping that the washing-up liquid would not come free from its supporting position, making the largest man-made supermarket-based structure in history collapse.

I joined the queue. There were two people at the automated checkouts, and a line the length of an Olympic-standard swimming pool snaking its way to the manned tills. I chose poorly. I chose the automated checkouts.

Through the gap in my groceries, I could see on the right-hand checkout a woman with a lanyard dealing with a number of items. On the left was a young man who had done something extraordinary. He had gone into a supermarket and bought one thing.

Technically, I suppose it was six things – a six-pack of yogurt – but it would only have accounted for one item on a shopping list. I wondered, as I often do, why yogurts and variety packs of cereal never come in sevens.

The woman with the lanyard was experiencing some difficulty – mostly because she was buying booze at an automated checkout – but the light was flashing above her station, and she would soon have help.

The young man finished his transaction, scooped up his yogurt, and left. I was next in the queue. The Platform of Preparation awaited my ludicrous pile of unplanned groceries. I stepped forward…

And the woman with the lanyard, having decided that she had waited quite long enough, grabbed her prosecco and stepped sideways, thereby stealing my checkout.

I stopped abruptly, to avoid bumping into the ignorant monster. But my groceries did not. They tumbled out of my hands and onto the floor. A packet of crumpets hit the woman on her calf.

“Do you mind?” she huffed.

“Sorry, but I was next,” I pointed out.

“I was still being served,” she said.

I gathered up my groceries and stood up. But I could not use the other checkout because it was still awaiting the assistance of a human. Not only had she stolen my checkout, she had ruined her own.

I had to put my stuff down, so I dropped it on her first checkout. A shop assistant arrived. “Do you need help?” she asked.

“No, I…” I began.

“No, he doesn’t need help,” Lanyard Woman snapped. “I was here first. Deal with me.”
The assistant approved her booze purchase, and off swept the Rudest Woman I Have Encountered Since 2007, probably to select Leave on her postal vote.

And the next person in the queue took Lanyard Woman’s place, leaving me stuck at an inoperable checkout. The story of my life.

COLUMN: June 9, 2016


OCCASIONALLY when I write these columns I push my nose into the political realm. This is generally when a week has gone by without minor incident, when somebody has failed to ask me for directions, or I have negotiated a revolving door successfully, or a member of front-of-house staff has smoothly guided me through the ordering process at Nando’s.

That is not the case this week. In fact, only yesterday I had an experience in a supermarket involving a malfunctioning automated check-out and the rudest woman I have encountered since 2007. This would definitely have made a column, and probably will.

But I have children, which means one day I will probably have grandchildren, and I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that, when the biggest political decision I will ever have to make came around, I tried my best.

I want to tell them that I tried my best to make sure that Britain did not cut itself off from the rest of the world and become an insular small-minded country which lost an empire and then could not find a new role because it didn’t like foreigners.

I want to tell them that I tried my best to stop right-wing zealots from abolishing all the employment rights my generation and the generation before me enjoyed: the maternity leave, the minimum paid leave, equal pay, anti-discrimination.

I want to tell them I tried my best to prevent the destruction of a union of independent nations, an imperfect union which, while it stood, prevented war in Europe.

That is a point that is surprisingly rarely made. The history of Europe is war, nations endlessly scrapping among themselves for land and money and power.

If you went back in time 200 years and told people living in Britain that not only would we not be at war with either France or Germany or Spain in 2016 but they would actually be our allies, they would be amazed. Then they would probably smash up your phone as the work of the devil and chuck you in an rat-infested lunatic asylum, proof that it was not always better in the Olden Days.

The idea that we would go to war with France or Germany now sounds apocalyptic. But the only reason it is unthinkable is that being in the European Union has made it so.

I understand that for some older people the idea of going back to the 1950s appeals. It was a golden age and you knew where you were. Dads went out to work, and they all had jobs. Mums looked after the house. Everybody had a house. You knew your neighbours. And, yes, there were no foreigners speaking languages you did not understand and cooking food you did not fancy.

But part of the reason the 1950s appeal is that you were young then, and it’s always better when you are young. And the 1950s were always going to look better because of what came before – rationing, bombs falling onto your neighbourhoods, a war in Europe.

That world is gone, and it is not fair for you to try to impose it on the young people of today, who would not recognise it, who have grown up in a world in which women get to choose when they have children, and whether they go to work, it is not fair to impose it on your grandchildren who have friends who are black or brown or gay, who ARE black or brown or gay.

It is not fair for you to impose an uncertain future on your grandchildren, a recession, years of wrangling for trade deals, in an attempt to bring back the past, especially if you will not be around in 15 years’ time to suffer the consequences.

I know there is no way this appeal will move those opposed to the EU on principle, who say Britain should stand alone, even though it needn’t. There is no way it will move the people who say, “I’m not racist, but…” who oppose immigration and think we should bring in “an Australian points-based system” even though Australia lets in more immigrants per head of population than us.

But if we vote Leave, and things do turn out badly, the EU will not let us back in. And if you really don’t know, then you have to vote Remain, because the country we live in now really isn’t that bad, despite that very rude woman in the supermarket.

COLUMN: June 2, 2016


I DECIDED I needed to buy a new black shirt. Following the surprise destruction of my previous such garment, a reader had told me that black shirts are actually a style faux-pas, along the lines of double denim or yellow corduroys, but I pooh-poohed this person.

“How,” I asked, “are men supposed to know if they have dandruff if they do not own a black shirt? Answer me that.” And, of course, my interlocutor could not.

So I went in search of a black shirt and experienced some difficulty. Either there is no demand for black shirts, or there is currently a black shirt shortage. I suppose somebody must be buying them for Donald Trump rallies.

The first shop I entered had a plethora of shirts, in a variety of colours from white to not-white, and a disturbing number of Hawaiian and lumberjack patterns. I am neither Hawaiian nor a lumberjack, nor do I frequently come across either category of man on the 80A bus, so I can only assume this was some sort of inventory error.

However, the only black shirts I could find had short sleeves or were “slim fit”.

Firstly, I do not understand the existence of the short-sleeved shirt. I get T-shirts. They are designed for people who want to look casual and keep their forearms cool during warm weather. Nothing is worse than a warm forearm when the sun is out.

But what is the purpose of the formal short-sleeved shirt? Are there men out there who are happy to button up the front of a shirt but absolutely draw the line at rolling up their sleeves? Where are these men? Hawaii, presumably.

Secondly, slim fit shirts…? I am not a rotund man. Despite the fact we both wear glasses, I am never going to be mistaken for Eric Pickles, even by somebody in a hurry who has been given the vaguest description.

If I had to describe my body type it would be “slim, but not slim enough to wear a slim fit shirt”. I have tried, obviously, and I can just about get away with it as long as I am standing up.

But when I sit down, my 44 years gather for a conference around my waist, and the shirt finds it has a little more work to do than it had anticipated. Essentially, nobody needs to know what my belly button looks like, and it is my responsibility to ensure this does not happen.

What I need is a tailored fit shirt, something which does not billow in the wind, making me look like a flying squirrel, but also does not look as if it has been applied by a bored spray-on tan beautician who has accidentally filled up the tank with creosote.

And so, luckily, in the fourth shop I visited, I found the shirt of my dreams – not my actual dreams, of course. Given that my last nightmare starred a 2cm duck that turned out to be a transformed Captain Mark Phillips, former husband of the Princess Royal, you may assume that shirts are far too mundane to feature in my actual dreams.

It was black, it had long sleeves, it was tailored, and, crucially, it was £50 cheaper than its £70 price tag when it was first on sale. I cannot swear that I did not hear a choir of angels when I found it.

I was cock-a-hoop, readers, especially the reader who said I should not wear a black shirt. And then it all went wrong.

I handed over the shirt and the nice man behind the counter confirmed the price and asked me if I wanted a carrier bag.

Now, it’s clear why he was obliged to ask this, given that he has to charge for a bag if I want one. But how many times must he ask this question every day in order to hear the answer “No, thank you?” He works in a clothes shop. Who buys clothes and does not want a bag?

Who says, “No, thanks, I’ll just tie the sleeves around my waist?”

The answer is me. I said that. And then the nice man rang up my bill without a bag.

And then I had to explain that I was being sarcastic, and I really did want a bag. But it was too late. And I had to dig in my pocket for 5p to pay for a bag.

I hope you are satisfied, my black shirt-sceptic reader.