COLUMN: September 29, 2016

I TAKE quite a lot of buses and I have probably done a poor job in concealing that fact. But what you might not know is that sometimes I use other forms of transport.

For example, occasionally I use the train. Trains are great. If you are not sure what a train is, it is a sort of incredibly expensive bus that goes on rails, apart from on Sundays, when it is an incredibly expensive bus that goes for large sections of the journey on roads.

And, even more occasionally, I use aeroplanes, or “flying buses” as I like to call them. Up till this month I could count the number of times I had flown on aeroplanes on one conventional hand, i.e. five times. If you are wondering how somebody can fly an odd number of times, the answer is that I got the train back once because of a shampoo-based incident which need not concern you.

But last week I took an aeroplane to Abroad, specifically Portugal. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, having weighed my bag several times to ensure I was nowhere near the point at which my chosen carrier would make me shell out actual money.

I was, it was fair to say, something of a naïve rube at the airport. All I lacked was an ear of wheat protruding from my mouth. I tried to remember the advice I had found online at, “Remove your belt and metal jewellery and walk through security with purpose.”

The trouble with this advice is that I find “walking with purpose” difficult at the best of times. It is terrible advice, like being told to “act naturally”. I never know what to do with my hands when forced to behave as if everything is perfectly normal. It’s a wonder I can remember how to breathe.

But it is even worse when you have to “walk with purpose” without your belt and your trousers are on the loose side.

So my purposeful walk was less 1-2-3-4, and more a sort of free jazz. The scanner beeped, despite the fact I had less metal on me than you would find on the bill at a twee folk festival.

I had drunk some Irn Bru a couple of weeks previously, so maybe it was that. Or maybe it was because I was a shifty looking man travelling alone.

In any case, I was called “sir” and told to face a guard, who gave me a patting down so intimate and delicate that I think we might now be engaged.

And then I was told to go into The Other Scanner, where I had to hold my hands above my head as if I had been photographed in the audience at a Queen concert during Radio Gaga, and scanned again until I was told I was free to go, certified “No Threat: Irn Bru/Awkward Walker”.

I greeted my various possessions on the other side of their own scanner, and went to retrieve them, to be told by a second security officer that my bag was going to have to go through a second time. I gulped. Because I remembered… On a previous trip to London a few weeks before I had packed some migraine tablets in the bag.

“Oh, crumbs,” I thought, paraphrasing, “I am going to be hauled up before the beak for drug smuggling. I’m going down. I won’t do well in prison. There’s no wi-fi and I wouldn’t have the first idea how to make a shiv.

“My only hope is that my glasses and general demeanour would make the other inmates call me The Professor, and I would have to read or help them compose their letters.” Also, I was worried about my belt, as my trousers were hanging onto my hips for dear life.

But my bag came back without explanation. Maybe I had packed it in an amusingly unconventional way, and the guards were going to pass the x-ray around later on in the pub. “Ha! Have you seen the way he’s balled his socks? He must have three feet.”

In any case, as I reattached my belt and saved everybody from a terrible fate, I looked across at security and wondered: “Why do they have two scanners? Why don’t they just make everybody go through the good scanner?”

This is why I stick to buses. It is simpler and nobody ever frisks me apart from late-night drunks.

COLUMN: September 22, 2016


I WENT to the newsagent’s to renew my monthly bus ticket. This is always a source of conflict for me. On the one hand, I understand that I would save money on bus fares over the month by paying in advance.

On the other hand, what if something happened to me which would prevent me from taking enough bus journeys in the month to justify the initial outlay? What if I won a car, or I died after being hit by a bus wing mirror, or there was a nuclear apocalypse? That would be typical.

Of course, after I had paid the surcharge for using my debit card to buy my ticket in a newsagent’s – 50p to use a card in a shop in 2016 – I bimbled towards the bus stop, whether I wanted to or not. How else was I going to make inroads into my investment?

And there in the bus stop was displayed an advertisement recommending that I buy the very ticket I had just purchased. It was illustrated with a photograph of a young, unthreatening, ethnically-diverse bunch.

This gang would not play videos of auto-tuned singers on their phones on the bus, unlike every other group of youthful bus passengers I have encountered in the past eight years. Nevertheless, I hated them, obviously, with their haircuts and their enthusiasm and their lives stretching ahead of them.

But that was as naught compared with my anger towards the words which accompanied the picture. “Cut out the need for photo ID and buy one or more Mega tickets on your Wibble card, leaving you more time to have a laugh with your mates.” I have changed the names of the tickets because I do not want this column to show up on a Google search and give them extra publicity.

It is not the first time I have seen a poster which suggests travelling on public transport is a source of unlimited mirth. My local train provider recently ran an ad depicting a carriage filled with, variously, a woman singing karaoke, a man DJing, a string quartet, a chef cooking, and a hen party. Underneath was the slogan “Great Nights Out Start On The Train.”

That is not a great night out, that is the result of a fire alarm at Blackpool Tower, or ITV’s Saturday night schedule. It is certainly not a great train journey.

But what is this bus poster nonsense, this “leaving you more time to have a laugh with your mates?”

What sort of young person will see that advert and think: “Well, yes, having more LOLZ with my friends is exactly the sort of thing to which I aspire. As God is my witness, I WILL buy this season ticket – which, by the way, is the only type of bus season ticket available now – and achieve my ambition, no matter how marginal the effect?”

For how much time is the travel authority suggesting will be made available for mate-orientated ribaldry as a result of buying this season ticket? Why is this not quantified? There should be an asterisk after “more time” and some small print at the bottom of the poster stating: “On average, 28 minutes more LMAOs and LOLZ over 35 years, assuming 10 journeys per week. That’s roughly 0.7 extra HAHAs a day.”

Also, I am not sure the travel authority should be encouraging raucous behaviour on buses. Buses are not fun places to be, like nightspots or Methodist youth clubs or wherever youngsters congregate these days. Buses are for quiet and despairing reflection on where you are going and how your life has come to this.

But the worst thing about this statement is that it is not true, certainly not for me. Back in the olden days, about a year ago, I had a conventional pass, what I would dub The Classic. It had a terrible picture of me on it, and the expiry date clearly stamped, and I wafted on and off buses like Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost might saunter into Claridge’s.

Now I have lost my VIP status and have to queue up with people who pay their fare with 43 different coins, and teenagers, leaving me with even LESS time to “have a laugh with my mates”, if only I had some.

I calculate I have lost an average four minutes a week, and 50p a month, because of the Great Bus Pass Switch Caper. And that is no laughing matter.

COLUMN: September 15, 2016

TELEVISION PROGRAMME : Coronation Street (1994)
The smallest picture I could find of Jack Duckworth’s broken glasses

IT IS coming up to a year since I lost my favourite pair of glasses. “Lost” is probably not the right description. I know exactly what happened to them.

They were crushed under the wheels of at least one uncaring car after they fell out of my pocket as I crossed the road during an unnecessary walk.

This left me with only my second-favourite pair of glasses. The fact that they are now my only pair of working glasses and still my second-favourite pair should tell you how much I dislike these spectacles.

When I bought them I thought they were quite swish, with a sort of 60s feel about them. That much was true. When I got them home I realised they made me look like my grandmother. I am not saying there is anything wrong with looking like a 75-year-old woman, but that is not the look I am going for. I am aiming for “man in his increasingly less early 40s, or late 30s from a distance if you are squinting and it is dark”.

But it is clear my glasses have sensed my hostility towards them and so they have been plotting against me, waiting for the perfect moment to take revenge. That day came a couple of Thursdays ago.

I was working in London on a super-secret project and had taken the overnight coach to get there. My seat was next to the toilet. Consequently, sleep mostly eluded me and I was about as fresh as the last loaf left in the only shop open on Easter Sunday.

I rubbed my bleary eye under my glasses and they fell off. My colleague, a man I will call Phil, jumped with the shock of the event. “Sorry,” I said, “this doesn’t usually happen.”

“No,” said Phil, “that would make them rubbish glasses.” Here, I thought, was a man who understood why these glasses would be my second-favourite.

I slipped the rubbish glasses back on and continued with my work. “Hmm, I thought, “the right arm of these glasses seems unusually loose. As soon as I can I will have an optician tighten the screw holding it in place. That would be the responsible thing to do, as they are my only glasses.”

“Gary,” said Phil, “could you have a look at…”

I turned my head, eager to appear helpful and attentive for once, and my glasses flew off my nose and past Phil’s head, to his evident disappointment.

“Oops,” I said. I picked up the glasses and found the screw was indeed very loose. It was so loose that it was no longer there. The arm had, in flight, detached itself from the rest of the frame.

“You want to get them fixed,” Phil suggested. I explained to him that trying to find a glasses screw on a carpet would be like trying to find a glasses screw in a haystack, and, besides, I did not have a screwdriver of the specific size.

He recommended that I attach the arm to the frame using a sticking plaster, as Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth would have done. I dismissed his suggestion on grounds of vanity, and dispensed with my glasses for the rest of the working day.

But when I left the headquarters of the super-secret project, it became evident I would need my glasses. I had no clue where I was. Everywhere was blurry, and I am not a Londoner.

I decided that if I clipped the arm back into the frame I could manage, just as long as I did not make any sudden movements. I began to walk and the glasses began to slip. “Wait”, I thought, “make gravity your friend. For once.” I cocked my head back and continued to walk, keeping my head very still.

It is hard to describe how I must have looked to the various pearly queens and jellied eel merchants I passed but if you can imagine Kenneth Williams walking a tightrope through a sewer, you are pretty much there.

Then I sneezed and the glasses fell off. That was it. I had to fly blind – literally, apart from the flying part – stumbling through our great capital like a mouse in a maze.

Eventually, I stopped. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked what turned out to be a young woman. “Could you tell me where Ladbroke Grove tube station is?”

She threw an anatomically-themed insult at me and walked away. I was standing right outside Ladbroke Grove tube station. Revenge, apparently, is sweet.

COLUMN: September 8, 2016

The closest I could get to a picture of Sir Philip Green’s yacht for the money I had

FOR complicated professional reasons I am flying to Portugal for a couple of days later this month. It is about four columns waiting to happen.

Now, I know Portuguese about as well as Jose Mourinho knows humility. And so for the past couple of weeks I have been trying to learn the language, with the result I am currently 15% fluent in Portuguese according to the Duolingo app. This, I suspect, is overstating matters.

Nevertheless, I now know how to say in Portuguese “Where is the tea?”, “My pillow does not speak,” and “There is a cat in my shower”, which should cover all of the issues which might trouble me in a hotel.

One of the aspects of life Duolingo seems particularly keen that I understand is the difference between varieties of lamp. Time after time it ensures I know how to say “the lamp”, “the pendant lamp”, and “the chandelier”, to a degree which makes me worry about how dark Portugal must be.

Combine this constant darkness with the obvious cat problem the Portuguese have in their bathrooms and you understand why Mourinho always looks so miserable. He must have spent his childhood bruised after tripping over Tiddles in the shower and not being able to find the door. That sort of thing changes a man.

It led me to ponder where the Portuguese purchase the lamps they so desperately need.

Do they have, for example, their own version of BHS called Portuguese Home Stores, filled with lamps and shades, like we do?

And then I remembered that not even we have a BHS any more.

I walked past a BHS branch a couple of weeks ago. It was during night of the day it had finally closed, and the lights were still on. Through the mesh of the shutters I looked inside. It was bare, stripped not just of stock, but of fixtures and fittings. I thought of school shirts and lamps – so many lamps – I had bought there. But I was not sad.

We have seen so many household names shut up shop in the past 10 years – Woolworths, Comet, Borders, even Past Times, which allows us now to be nostalgic about a shop which sold nostalgia – and most of us were sad to watch them go. Although if we loved them that much, they would still be in business.

But BHS is different. The closure of BHS should not make you sad, it should make you angry.

Sir Philip Green, the owner of BHS for 15 years, took £400m out of the chain during his ownership. When he finally sold the struggling chain in 2015 – for just £1 – to serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell, a man who had had no retail experience, the company had a £571m hole in its pensions fund. It was the equivalent of selling your house while it is on fire to a man who doesn’t know how to dial 999.

And while 11,000 people were put out of work, Sir Philip holidayed on his £100m yacht. As the former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle said: “It appears this owner extracted hundreds of millions of pounds from the business and walked away to his favourite tax haven, leaving the Pension Protection Scheme to pick up the bill.”

This week, the comedian Lee Nelson plastered a sign on that yacht, emblazoned with the words “BHS Destroyer”. And that is probably the key to this.

A man who owns a £100m yacht and £20m jet plane, and who books Beyonce and Rihanna to play at his private parties, is a man who cares deeply about his reputation.

So they should not just strip him, like the disgraced Fred Goodman of Royal Bank of Scotland, of his knighthood, he should be forced to change the name of his Topman and Topshop stores to “Terribleman” and “Terribleshop” until he pays hundreds of millions into the BHS pension fund.

It would not bother me – the last time I bought anything in Topman UB40 were in the charts – but I cannot imagine many customers enjoying carrying bags with Terribleman written on them. I’m not sure what they could call Burton and Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps “All My Customers Smell” and “Ms All My Customers Smell.”

Maybe this sort of embarrassment would help “Sir” Philip learn to be humble. It would happen a lot sooner than I will learn Portuguese.

COLUMN: September 1, 2016

A church
A church which may or may not be the one to which I refer below

BY THE time you read this, the sun will be a distant memory, for I am writing on the last day of a baking August, and you will be reading in rain-lashed September, probably batting away falling leaves and trying to put on a jumper as you do so.

But for a short glorious period, the sun – that warm yellow ball they have in the sky in foreign countries – made a guest appearance in Britain, and it seemed a shame to waste it.

So when lunch time came about, instead of eating al desko as usual, I decided to go for a stroll and see if my body could make some of that Vitamin D one reads about in the news.

I fought my way through the crowds who had had more or less the same idea, and played Guess The Tattoo. And eventually I found the solitude I craved in the garden of a church. I sat on a bench, in my dark suit, looking like a spy waiting for a drop-off.

It was a shady spot, because I didn’t want to go too mad with the sun, and I listened to the birdsong over the distant sound of cars, and was grateful for the respites of green we have in our city centres. For a moment I was at peace with the world.

It couldn’t last. I do not believe in karma, “what goes around comes around”, cosmic balance, or whatever you call it. I just know that whenever something good happens to me I will pay for it. That is not religion, it is science, based on the evidence of a 44-year life.

And so, just as I supposed I’d better get back to work, the church emptied. Dozens and dozens of people poured out, following a coffin.

An elderly man who had been sitting on one of the other benches approached me. “Who’s died?” he asked. “The bloke in the coffin,” I replied.

“Are you not with the family?” he said. “No, I’m on my lunch break. I need to get back to work,” I said, as more and more people piled out of the church.

“I doubt I’d get that many people to my funeral,” said the man. “I doubt I even know that many people,” I said.

For there was now a crowd of mourners, maybe 150 of them, packed into a small space outside the church, the small space which was between me and the church garden exit.

And I had to get back to work…

I looked at myself – white shirt, dark suit, could I really get away with this? Yes, I told myself. Merge into the crowd of mourners, make your way through the crowd, and you won’t be late back from lunch, I told myself. Easy peasy.

I put on my sombre face and pushed through the mourners. “’Scuse, sorry, y’all right, so sad,” I said. Obviously I felt bad about it. You only get that sort of crowd at the funeral of a really good person or a really bad one, and this felt like one of the former.

But then I reached an impassable obstacle… the hearse. The coffin was inside and everybody was waiting for it to be driven away.

“Aw, shame, isn’t it?” said a man behind me.

I turned around. “Er, yes,” I guessed, as my stomach dropped to somewhere near my ankles.

“And how did you know him?” the man said, extending his hand.

I shook it. “Ah, well, you know…” I said, my eyes wildly scanning the crowd. A woman standing nearby clutched an order of service. I could see the deceased’s first name. This was a sort of victory. “… everybody knew Tommy.”

The man chuckled. “Ah, they did, all right,” he said, still shaking my hand. Oh, God, I thought, he’s never going to let go. “Great turnout,” I said, pulling my hand away and indicating the crowd.

“Yeah,” said the man, “shame Mary couldn’t be here.” Who was Mary? Estranged sister? Deceased wife? His goldfish? I couldn’t work out if he sounded bitter or regretful. I nodded, non-committal.

“Are you going to the do?” he said. “Oh, well, I…” I began. I really hoped it would not come to that, but everything was heading in that direction.

But the hearse drove off, the man was distracted, and I managed to slip away.

This is why I should never leave the office.