COLUMN: December 29, 2016

Robin (The Frog), nephew of Kermit The Frog

THE thing about New Years is that they force you to take stock of your life.

They give you a chance to look back at the previous 12 months and see what you would have done differently, in order to make your life improve, to be a stronger you, a happier you.

For me, 2016 was a rickety roller coaster of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. And, looking back now, I know what I would have done better.

For example, I know that I would be a better, happier, and, crucially, richer person had I worn different trousers on Boxing Day.

When I got home from visiting on Christmas Eve, I changed into my “not going out” trousers. I will not attempt to describe these trousers, suffice to say they are built for comfort rather than style. It was only then I realised I had forgotten to buy satsumas, and what is Christmas without a small orange you can buy all year round?

I rushed to the nearest branch of Britain’s Best-Loved Struggling Retailer and bought the necessary citrus globes, hoping that shoppers and staff would be too busy with Christmas preparations to ask questions about my trousers.

And then from Christmas Eve afternoon until Boxing Day I largely confined myself to my flat, in a brave and largely successful attempt to avoid ruining Christmas for everybody else.

But Boxing Day afternoon came around, and I had to go to work. The greatest divide in this country is not between Leavers and Remainers or Strictly fans and X-Factor fans. It is between those people who have to work every Bank Holiday and those who do not.

To people like me, the words “Boxing Day” do not mean “day of eating cheese and the rest of the Roses and seeing the relatives who didn’t make the Christmas Day cut”. They mean “day I still have to go to work, but there aren’t any buses or trains when I want to come home.”

I dressed for work, leaving behind my “not going out” trousers, and donning my “going out” trousers, and prepared to step out, blinking, into the light, like a mole emerging from Hollister.

And as I slammed my flat’s door behind me, before the echo died away, I realised that my “going out” trousers had been transformed into my “going out and not getting back in” trousers.

For I had transferred my flat key from my “going out” trousers to my “not going out” trousers on Christmas Eve, and had completely forgotten that I needed to switch it back.

“Oh,” I thought. “This is very disappointing. This is going to inconvenience me quite massively.”

I wondered for a moment just how much locksmiths charge for a call-out on Boxing Day, but the calculation made my jaw ache, and I sat on the staircase leading up to my flat with my head in my hands. I was not going to let this beat me and I was certainly not going to shell out a load of money the day after Christmas.

I have seen enough films in my time. I flicked through my wallet and found a plastic card I do not need any more. Which, it transpired, was just as well.

Could I get into trouble for this, I wondered? Surely not, as it was my own flat.

I wiggled it into the gap between the door and the frame, and tried to fiddle the lock open. But it turns out that films are full of lies. My efforts were fruitless. On the bright side, I have now discovered a new and glamorous way to destroy expired credit cards.

I sat back on the stairs, like Kermit the Frog’s nephew, Robin, and contacted my long-suffering colleagues to explain my temporary absence.

Eventually I got through to the emergency maintenance contractor, who told me that I would be paying time and a half for him to come round with a key and let me in, because it was Boxing Day and nobody works on Boxing Day. I decided not to beg to differ, because I wanted to see the inside of my flat before 2017.

He arrived and let me in with his skeleton key. “Why didn’t you lock the mortice?” he said, as he pushed the door open. “That’s not very secure.”

“Because I didn’t have my key,” I explained, as I handed over a cash sum roughly equivalent to my day’s wages.

And at that moment I resolved that, in 2017, I would not forget the satsumas.

COLUMN: December 22, 2016

A bauble – not suitable for juggling by small monkeys

TWAS the day before the night before the night before Christmas, and all through the house it was utter bedlam.

Mummy Monkey did a big sigh as she lunged forward to stop the tree from falling over. It was always like this on the first day of the Christmas holidays.

As usual for the time of year, her cheeky monkeys were hyped up on cheap Advent calendar chocolate and the prospect of presents and were bashing about the place, laying waste to it. It was as if a bomb had gone off in Lady GaGa’s dressing room.

“Enough!” she yelled, as she tried to pick glitter off a piece of cold toast. “There will be peace on earth, or, at least, in this living room.”

“You!” she said to her little girl monkey, Georgina. “Baubles are NOT for juggling.”

“You!” she said to her smallest boy monkey, Howard. “Stop laying Lego traps for your father.”

“And you!” she said to her biggest boy monkey. “I want you to go out and find the spirit of Christmas, Eric.”

Eric blinked. “What?” he said.

“You heard,” said Mummy Monkey, as she untangled Howard from the lights.

“It…” said Eric, “It’s just that 1) that seems like an incredibly vague challenge; and 2) you’re seriously sending me out on my own? I’m only eight.”

“Well,” said Mummy Monkey, “1) yes, that’s the point; and 2) this is a generic children’s Christmas story – that’s the sort of thing that happens in children’s stories. Eight-year-old children go out on their own, even though the last time that happened was in 1982.”

“Fine,” said Eric Monkey, and he went upstairs to change out of his pyjamas and into his warmest clothes, including trousers which had a hole in the bottom to accommodate his tail.

Eric stepped out into the snow, and trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met his friend Rhino. “Hello, Rhino,” he said, “Do you know where I can find the spirit of Christmas?”

“Listen, Eric,” the rhino replied, “do you know how racist that sounds? You’ve got an actual name, but I’m just called Rhino? I have a name too. I have hopes and dreams and…”

“Sorry,” said Eric, “I have been Ukippy. What is your name?”

“Ian,” said the rhino.

“Ian, do you know where I can find the spirit of Christmas?”

“No,” said Ian Rhino. “I am only the first person you have asked. In these things it’s always the third person you ask who has the answer. You’ll have to waste your time with a second person first.”

Off Eric trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met his monkey teacher, Mrs Baverstock.

“Hello, Miss,” said Eric. “Do you know what the spirit of Christmas is?”

“Where’s your mother?” asked Mrs Baverstock. “What are you doing out on your own?”

Eric explained that this was a generic Christmas children’s story, and anyway, there was no way Mrs Baverstock would have the answer because she was only the second one he’d met, but the author had to pad this out somehow, and they said their farewells.

Off Eric trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met a human with a white beard and normal clothes who was clearly Father Christmas, but not in his Christmas Eve regalia.

“Hello, kindly human stranger,” said Eric, his tail twitching in case you’d forgotten he was a monkey. “I don’t suppose you know what the spirit of Christmas is, given that you’re the third person I’ve asked and we’re close to the end of the story.”

“You’re in luck,” said the undercover St Nick. “It’s stories like this one, which are boring and repetitive for grown-ups, but which you read to your children one Christmas.

“And then they insist that you read it to them every year after that, because Christmas isn’t Christmas without that story. You see, you do it for them because they love it, and you love them. And that’s the spirit of Christmas. And then one day you don’t get to read it any more, and you miss it.”

“You’re a very wise man, kindly human stranger,” Eric said, “but that’s a bit of a downer. Can’t I just tell Mum it’s ‘letting kids do anything they want, even eating the rest of the Advent calendar chocolate’.”

“Yeah, go on,” said incognito Santa. “It’s Christmas.”

COLUMN: December 15, 2016

A sensible way to serve hot mulled wine

I THOUGHT I would do some Christmas shopping after work, given the season. I reckoned it would be not very busy at that time of day. And maybe I could have a couple of treats at the Christmas market.

There is no such thing as “not very busy” as this time of year, is there? I do not know what I was thinking. Maybe my brain was addled by the tissues I have been using as I struggle with a minor cold.

For I bought some tissues in a hurry and failed to see that they were mulled spice scented. I am not sure what purpose is served by adding mulled spice to tissues. Nobody has ever bought tissues on a whim. It would be like buying scouring pads or bleach on a whim.

Anyway, when I got the tissues back to the office and cracked open the box in order to blow my nose, I was unpleasantly surprised. If I wanted to feel as if somebody had squirted half a can of Glade up my nostrils, I would stand in the doorway of Lush.

Making my way through the crowd of people who also thought it wouldn’t be very busy, I somehow managed to access the shops I needed to visit, by fighting against the stream.

It was long past tea time, or dinner time if you grew up in the south, and I was feeling hungry. After all, I had just done some very strenuous shopping and I could smell sausages cooking over coals. Or maybe I had accidentally bought some frankfurter-scented tissues – it is anybody’s guess these days.

In any case, it was time for the treat I had promised myself. I made my way to a German bratwurst stall and paid five actual pounds for a sausage in a crusty roll. I slathered it with that pointlessly mild mustard that tastes like strained piccalilli and tried to eat it.

It was not an entirely positive experience. First, the amount of pressure my jaws had to exert on the sausage was half that which they had to exert on the roll, so when I bit into it, I did not take into account the differential and most of the mustard ended up on my face.

Secondly, the coolness of the roll and the blandness of the mustard lulled me into a false sense of security. The interior of the sausage was hot enough to melt steel beams.

I burnt my tongue and the roof of my mouth and I had to use the mustard to cool my mouth down. In what sort of zany mixed-up world must the Germans live where mustard is considered a coolant? Do they use Tabasco sauce for eye drops?

I deposited £1.38 worth of nuclear sausage and bread in the bin along with a yellow mustard-smeared napkin. And then I saw it. A stall selling mulled wine…

Maybe the tissues had altered my body chemistry, but I felt the mulled spices calling me. “Cad I had a bulled ine, blease?” I asked, my cold and injured tongue combining to make me incomprehensible.

“What’s that, love?” asked the woman behind the counter, who knew perfectly well what I wanted and was clearly playing with me. She worked on a mulled wine stall. What else might I have wanted?

“Dat dere!” I said, as I pointed at a vat of steaming stuff. The woman ladled some into a waxed cardboard cup and handed it to me.

“Ow!” I said. It was hot. Waxed cardboard, you see, is not brilliant at insulating heat, which is why in coffee shops they give you an extra bit of cardboard to wrap around your cup. And they give you a lid to prevent spillage.

Mulled wine stalls, however, treat these innovations as devilish tricks, and probably European. How on earth was I supposed to carry this cup? I couldn’t swap it from hand to hand till it cooled because I had Christmas shopping, and it didn’t have a lid in any case.

I took a sip, thinking that it would leave a rim of cooler cup around the top. But the problem with mulled wine is it does not have any milk in it to cool it down, unless the stall holder is absent-minded. It was as hot as a German sausage.

I couldn’t carry it, and I couldn’t drink it. And so I poured it into the bin, on top of the other treat I had bought.

COLUMN: December 8, 2016

An amount of cress

I HAD to go to London to judge a cress competition with TV’s Konnie Huq from Blue Peter.

I appreciate that this is an unusual move for a person to make, but what you have to understand is that I am not like you people. I am a much-loved commentator and newspaper columnist who appeared on Channel 5 News once.

In truth, Paul Nuttall, the 40-year-old 60-year-old new leader of UKIP, would be justified in calling me one of the metropolitan elite, right after he had looked up how to spell “metropolitan” in his Collins Junior Illustrated Dictionary.

And I felt the fact that I do not like cress should not disqualify me from judging it. It should not matter that I think cress only exists so that people who like an egg sandwich can think they’re having salad.

So I booked train tickets down to London, and I chose the quiet coach, because life is hard and not long enough to have to listen to people having conversations on their phones about how clever they are for the benefit of the carriage.

Unfortunately, the people in the seats behind me were having a closely-fought wittering contest.

I cannot tell you what they were talking about, as my Cantonese is rusty and, in any case, restricted to items of food, but they were enthusiastic about their many topics of conversation for the entire three-hour journey in a way that was at odds with the concept of the “quiet coach”.

I just wanted to sleep. I had a cold. Besides, I am 45 soon, which renders me technically capable of being referred to as “a local grandad” by rookie reporters in newspapers, and sleeping has become one of my top four favourite leisure activities. But every time I closed my eyes, the thread would be picked up again.

And so, when I arrived at my cress judging session in a London pub, I was not entirely compos mentis. I could have sworn it cost me more than £10 to buy two pints for me and the head judge, but that is clearly impossible.

TV’s Konnie Huq from Blue Peter

Anyway, the head judge immediately told me that TV’s Konnie Huq from Blue Peter would not be joining us, and had emailed her cress picks instead. “Oh,” I said, “Ah, well, the important thing is the cress. I am not the sort of person to have my head turned by celebrity.” And then I went to the toilet and kicked a bin.

Joined by the rest of the judges who turned up, I judged an interminable number of pictures of cress, using a set of criteria so esoteric that to the general public it would look as if the panel had just chosen a winner at random.

My cress appreciation obligations fulfilled, I faffed about London for a bit. I saw the sights – some chicken shops, a pigeon, and a Costcutter – and I bought a 65p packet of paper tissues from a newsagent’s for £1.95.

It was time to go home. What I needed was the tranquillity of the Quiet Coach. There was no way, I thought, I would have that couple sitting behind me again. Unless they were coming back at the same time…

I put those thoughts out of my mind and boarded the train. This was promising. There was a bit of bustle as people stowed away their luggage, but conversation was carried out at a volume unlikely to get oneself busted for talking at a silent monastery.

I flumped into my seat and closed my eyes. And then he came. The man who would sit next to me.

He was wearing roughly nine layers of clothing, and proceeded to remove seven of them. Five of those seven hit me as he cast them onto our shared space.

He kept standing up and getting things from the overhead rack throughout the journey, but every time forgot two things. One, that the tray was down. Two, that his shirt was not long enough to conceal his navel.

And so each time he stood up, he would bash his knee against the tray, cry out in pain, wake me, and then expose me to the deep inky blackness of his belly button. I can still see it now.

He even turned the pages of his book loudly, after licking his index finger and thumb with a smack of his lips EVERY TIME.

He was, by far, the noisiest silent person I have ever encountered.

I bet this stuff never happens to TV’s Konnie Huq from Blue Peter.

If you want to make my cress judging worth my while, go here and donate a small amount of money to Children In Need. Or a large amount. Actually a large amount would be better.

COLUMN: December 1, 2016

Railings outside a supermarket
SOMETIMES it seems that I am engaged in a competition with myself to see if I can have an accident which is simultaneously unbelievable and unnecessary, and yet could only happen to me.

One contender is the time I bruised my coccyx while attempting to assist a fellow passenger’s exit from my bus. I stood up to let her out just as the bus went over a humpback bridge, was knocked off my feet, and sat down on the floor unexpectedly and forcefully.

Another is the time I attempted to ride a junior motorcycle at a fair in Welshpool. As I pulled back on the throttle, the bike sped out from between my legs. In a panic, I maintained my grip on the handlebars, increasing acceleration, until the bike pulled me through the air and into the crash barrier.

Up to now, the unquestioned leading contender is the occasion on which I was in Matalan and distracted by my phone, which meant that I did not see the oncoming woman in the mobility scooter, who crashed into me, knocking me into a spinner rack of bras.

However I was not physically injured in that altercation with an electric vehicle. I was a little scuffed, yes, and my sleeve became attached to a hook, and I now have an aversion to doilies, but the only thing that was hurt was the last few dregs of my pride.

You don’t have to have a PhD in narrative studies to realise that this is leading up to the news that I have a new contender for the top spot.

I was going to visit my brother in hospital, but I could not turn up empty handed. I needed to buy a get well soon card.

I should say at this point that I am not sure about get well soon cards as a concept. They seem like an added pressure on people who are already struggling. “Stop malingering, you lazy article. Get well soon. Don’t stretch it out, I’m on a clock.”

But the alternative was to look as if I were totally OK with him not being well, and so a get well soon card was the lesser of two evils.
I went to the big supermarket near the stop where I would catch the hospital bus. This supermarket has railings running around its car park, the official entrance was about 100 metres away, and I had six minutes to buy the card and catch the bus…

I went rogue, readers. I climbed the railings like a person who is not nearly halfway to 90 years old. I swung my leg over and…

Nothing bad happened. I can climb railings. I am not a complete imbecile. Not everything I do goes wrong.

I rushed across the car park and into the supermarket. There was a knot of people bimbling about the section of the card rack appropriate to my needs.

Every time I tried to grab a card, one of the people would move in front of me, as they pondered which of the mass-produced cards before them most accurately reflected their complex feelings and relationship histories.

It became infuriating. Time was ticking by. In the end I thrust my hand between a man’s legs – not intentionally, he moved at the last moment – and yanked a card from the rack. It would have to do.

I bought it and raced out of the supermarket. My bus was due in 90 seconds, and, knowing my luck, it would be on time for the first time ever. I rushed back across the car park towards the railings.

I clambered over them, practised, catlike even, dropped to the other side…

And I cut my face on the get well soon card.

I am not even sure how it happened. All I know is that paper cuts really hurt. I was actually bleeding.

It is not just that it hurt, but it was ridiculous. Paper is so unthreatening that the only reason “paperweight” isn’t the lowest weight in boxing is because stationers complained it would be confusing.

How can you be hurt by paper? It’s like being hurt by a bar of Milky Way, or the breath that curls from your mouth on a cold day.

And yet, there I was, bleeding from my actual face as I clambered onto the bus.

“Are you all right, lad,” said the bus driver. “What happened?”

“Cut myself shaving,” I said. The truth was too unbelievable.