COLUMN: July 28, 2016

cocktails

I HAVE come to the conclusion that we have gone mad with regard to straws in drinks for grown-ups.

For reasons which need not concern you, I have spent more time than usual in the sort of establishment where there is a menu for drinks on the bar.

These places are great if you are one of those people who like spending £12 on a deceptively large ice-filled drink called something like a Squiffy Belgian or a Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, which contains 26 different ingredients, which takes the bartender 18 minutes to prepare, and which is gone in four slurps.

These are establishments which believe that the bit that everybody likes most about going out for a drink is the waiting by the bar rather than the actual drinking part.

Perhaps it is my ingrained lack of sophistication which makes me unsure about such places. When I was growing up, and when I first attempted to obtain alcohol from a public house, things were much simpler. You knew where you were with a vodka and tonic, or a cider and black. Basically the recipes for drinks were exactly the same as their name.

But I do not let such considerations stop me, for these days I consider myself a kind of David Niven figure, the sort of man who knows which fork to use without being told, and owns socks which need those little shin suspenders, and claims ladies’ farts.

And so I found myself in a cocktail lounge recently. I sidled up to the bar, eased onto a stool, perused the menu coolly, and caught the barman’s eye. With practised savoir-faire, I leant forward. “A Sexy Dog Explosion, please,” I said.

I was sceptical, I admit, about the barman’s ability to deliver a definitive Sexy Dog Explosion, as Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost might have enjoyed. The list of ingredients was long and obscure, and apparently involved a degree of muddling, whatever that is.

I watched him busy himself with ice and cups and swizzle sticks while I read a couple of chapters of my book, and eventually, long after I had forgotten that I had ordered a drink, he presented me with my Sexy Dog Explosion with a flourish.

First he placed a small black napkin on the bar, then he plonked the plonk on top of the napkin, and then he put two thin black straws in the glass. And I wondered, not for the first time, why do bartenders in these places give you two straws?

It is difficult to understand why it would be considered necessary to give an adult even one straw. Granted, when you are a child it is true that using a straw introduces a small element of fun into the practice of drinking. And I would never attempt to drink a Capri-Sun without a straw.

But I would suggest that there is already an element of fun in the practice of drinking for adults, namely alcohol. So unless you have no hands, you should not really require a straw as an adult.

And if you are going to stick straws in adults’ drinks, would it not make more sense to buy straws that are wide enough for the purpose of drinking, instead of having to double up?

Apart from anything else, those straws are sharp, and damned dangerous, especially as the evening wears on, and the effects of a succession of cocktails begin to be felt.

I have lost count of the times I have forgotten about the other straw, picked up my glass, and scraped the roof of my mouth, much as I did that time I popped an entire one of those tiny slider hamburgers into my mouth without realising that it was held together with a cocktail stick. I did not have to go to hospital on that occasion, but it did leave me with a greater appreciation of the art of sword swallowers at circuses.

And I cannot tell you how many times I have given thanks for my glasses as I have picked up my drink and watched a straw I have missed slide around and bounce off one of my lenses.

So I fished the straws out of my Sexy Dog Explosion and resolved to drink like a grown-up. I lifted the glass to my mouth and took a sip.

The twist of orange fell out, in my surprise I jerked my elbow, and roughly £5.38 of my cocktail ended up in my lap.
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COLUMN: July 21, 2016

ticketmachine

OWING to a series of unlikely, unavoidable, and yet entirely in character, events I was cutting it fine if I was to catch my train on time.

And so I arrived at the station in a blur, the heat of the day and the stress of the taxi journey through roadworks combining to turn me into a sort of sculpture of myself made entirely of sweat.

My train was already at the platform, tapping its watch, and asking what time I called this. I did not have time to explain to it, I had to pick up my tickets from one of those machines because I had booked online.

There were passengers queuing for the ticket machines, which was not ideal. I looked across at my train. “Oh, don’t worry, mate, I can wait all day. It’s not as if I have to be anywhere,” it said.

Luckily, I remembered that there was a “secret” ticket machine, one not immediately apparent to passengers in a hurry. I scurried to it and discovered it was free. “Ha,” I thought about the passengers queuing at the other machines, “you massive chumps.”

I found the booking code and attempted to type it using the touch screen. Those of you with Apple devices will be aware that touch screen technology has improved markedly over the past few years, making it possible to type tweets, open letters, and death threats with ease.

Such advances had passed this machine by. The keyboard on the screen refused to recognise the jabbing of my fingers. I tried coaxing the screen, stroking it, all to no avail.

Eventually, I found that if I very gently but firmly touched the bit of screen just to the bottom left of a key it would fool the machine into thinking I had pressed that key. Painfully slowly I typed the eight-character code. Triumphant, I pressed the Enter key. And then I pressed the bit of screen just to the bottom left of the Enter key.

But I had clearly angered the machine. It began to print three documents: one outward-bound ticket, one return ticket, and one receipt.

However only two items appeared. The outward-bound ticket, and the receipt. My return ticket was stuck inside. Through the window I could see my train. It glared at me.

“Help!” I yelped at a passing customer-facing railway executive. “Bad machine done bad thing.” My ability to speak was compromised by my panic. My train was leaving in five minutes and it was only the first of four trains I had to catch that day. If I missed this train, I would arrive at my destination some time after I was due to come home. I calmed myself and explained my predicament.

“Dum-de-dum-de-dum”, he sang, like David Cameron, as he went to get a key for the machine in no discernible rush. My foot was tapping faster than a hummingbird’s wings.

He opened up the machine and looked painstakingly through the various channels and crannies inside for my ticket. “No, there’s no ticket in there,” he eventually said. “I’ll have to give you a chit.”

He took me over to the counter and put the keys away. “Now, where’s the pen?” he wondered out loud. “There! There! It’s there!” I said, pointing madly. “Oh, yes,” he chuckled.

I realised I was in the worst of all predicaments – I was the person who was in a hurry, who needs somebody else who is not in a hurry to hurry up, and knows that pointing out the urgency of the task is the surest way to slow down that other person.

“Now, what’s the name?” he asked me. “Bainbridge,” I replied. This was no time for dissembling.

“How are we spelling that?” he asked. “B…I…A! No, wait! B.A.I.N…Bridge. As in…erm…high up road thing goes over rivers.” That was what my brain had decided was a good description for a bridge at that point.

He licked his nib and wrote my name very slowly. “B…A…I…” he said. The train was still there. It was going to go in one minute.

“There you are,” he said, handing me the chit. “You just need to…”

“OK, thanks, bye!” I said, tearing out of the office. I ran through the station to the train. “Too late, mate, I’m off,” said the train, its doors closing.

And I leapt, flinging myself through the sliding doors like Indiana Jones, catching my foot on the step, and landing flat on the carriage floor.

COLUMN: July 14, 2016

andy-murray-wimbledon-tennis_3741489

FOR reasons which need not concern you it became clear to me that I needed a coffee table. Perhaps previously I had subconsciously considered I did not need one because I do not drink coffee.

But I think I decided a coffee table is one of those things adult people have and it would signify that I am a grown-up.

As is traditional, I went to a place and bought a flat pack coffee table, which I then transported home on the bus. As is also traditional, I had forgotten just how heavy flat pack furniture can be.

I am not saying it was a struggle, but it was one of the few warm days we have had this summer, and so by the time I got it home I looked as if I had been pacified by one of Boris Johnson’s German water cannons before being chased by a wolf.

I placed the flat pack box on the floor and changed my clothes into something cooler – a T-shirt and shorts – reasoning that I could get away with that as nobody else could see me. There was no point having a shower; I would only have to do it again afterwards.

During the third set of the men’s finals at Wimbledon, I put together an entire coffee table. I am not saying my achievement was greater than Andy Murray’s, but I will not stop you from saying that.

Then, as I stood up, I grazed my knee on my brand new coffee table, the fact of its existence apparently escaping me two seconds after I had spent 45 minutes constructing it.

“Ow,” I said out loud, “My word, this is quite an annoying turn of events.” I am paraphrasing. As Andy Murray kissed his trophy on my television, I hopped around the room for a bit, saying “Ooyah!” and similar things.

I went to the bathroom cabinet in search of a sticking plaster. I only had one left, which was about the size of a drinks coaster. I sighed, stuck it on my knee, pulled on some vaguely appropriate shoes, and went out to buy more plasters so that I would be prepared for my next minor accident.

I was uncomfortable in my skin. I do not want you to think I am a sort of David Niven character, immaculately dressed at all times, and whose bow ties do not have clips, but I would not like to go to a job interview dressed as I was on that trip, in T-shirt, shorts, and sockless shoes. I did not want anybody to think I was an Australian.

It would be OK, I told myself, just a quick trip to the shop around the corner. I would be home in five minutes. Only about four people would see me.

But when I reached the sliding doors of Little Tesco I found my way blocked. They did not swish open, even when I did my special Obi Wan Kenobi hand movement. I knocked desperately. An assistant appeared. “Sorry, the doors are broken. We’re closed. You’ll have to go to the one up the road.”

So I trudged up the road, beginning the one-mile journey to the only other nearby shop which both sold plasters and was open at that time on a Sunday.

I could not tell you if everybody walking past me was silently judging me, only because silent judging is silent. But I could feel their eyes on me. They looked at me as I look at people who go to the shop in their pyjamas.

All I know is that the journey from my Little Tesco to the other Little Tesco a mile away felt like one of those anxiety dreams people have about going to work in the nude. I expect it did not help that my beige shorts were roughly the same colour as my beige legs, so that from a distance I looked naked from the waist down.

And then I arrived at the shop and saw my reflection. I looked at myself in my T-shirt and shorts and sockless shoes, a big plaster over my left knee, and I realised that I had left the house dressed as an eight-year-old boy.

By the time I got home I was fraught. I showered, made a cup of tea, flopped on the sofa, and put my tea on the lamp table next to it. It was closer to me than the coffee table.

COLUMN: July 7, 2016

The_Queen_Vic

I WENT to the pub, an entirely rational decision based on the state of the country these days. I do not know if you have ever been to a pub, but it is a building full of men who drink ludicrous quantities of liquid and fail to wash their hands after going to the toilet.

Nevertheless, I thought a quiet pint would be in order. Perhaps I could read a book undisturbed. “Who’s that over there?” people might ask, indicating over their shoulders with their thumbs. “We call him The Professor,” the rosy-cheeked barmaid would say, “on account of his glasses and his book.”

I settled down at a table, put down my drink, and exhaled. I could hear the ticking of a clock that was not there. Yes, we might have recently chosen to break up the United Kingdom and plunge the country into recession just because we did not like people speaking foreign in Tesco, but the sun was shining outside, and it was quiet and cool in the pub.

I nodded at the two women sitting opposite, hoping it was enough to appear friendly while heading off any attempts at conversation. I am not a rude person but I was up to a good bit.

As I looked across at them I noticed something unusual about the bosom of the woman on the left. In it was nestling the tiniest dog I have ever seen.

It is hard to overstate how small this dog was. If dogs had pets and turned up with this dog on a lead, other dogs would laugh at how small their dog was. It would have to look up to address a sausage dog. I have seen more imposing hamsters.

I turned to my book and tried to put the size of this dog out of my mind, when one of the women addressed me. “We’re going out for a smoke, could you watch our shopping for us?”

I nodded, and they disappeared off to hasten their deaths along with Tiny The Smallest Dog In The World. Responsibility for their shopping weighed heavily on me. I closed my book and kept a watchful eye on the bags. Ah, well, I thought. At least it was quiet.

Five minutes later, the women had not returned. I started to worry that I had been pranked, or worse, that this was some sort of terrorist incident. Where were they?

Two men clattered in, accompanied by a normal-sized dog. It was starting to feel like Crufts. They pulled up chairs and switched on the television to watch the football, and began talking loudly and doing banter to each other. It was the logical extension of manspreading, that tendency of a certain type of man to sit with legs at ten to two on public transport, while people on either side are cramped.

The peace was shattered and so I continued to monitor the shopping bags. A third man joined the party carrying drinks and bringing some extra banter. They plonked one of them on the women’s table.

“Watch our shopping”, the women had said. That was my remit. I felt like a UN peacekeeper watching one country making an incursion on another, but with no direct orders to prevent it.

Why did they have to give me this level of responsibility, I thought? I only wanted a pint and a sit-down. I did not want to get involved in a demarcation dispute. I decided that if one more drink appeared on the women’s table I would step in.

The women returned. One of them shot me a look which clearly said, “You were supposed to be watching our table.” I shot one back which said, “Shopping, you clearly stated.”

The women explained to the men that it was their table and all five of them looked at me as if I had disappointed everybody. The new dog sniffed my crotch. I would have complained, but I had lost all moral authority. My nerves were jangling.

The dog then turned its attention to Tiny, regarding it as you or I would regard a jelly baby, an insubstantial but tasty snack appealing to our cannibalistic tendencies. It sniffed the tiny dog and licked its chops.

The stress was too great. I just wanted a pint, not to see a little dog gobbled up. I sank my drink and scarpered, preferring to take my chances in the chaos of Brexit Britain. It may be a dog-eat-dog world nowadays, but I don’t need to watch it.