COLUMN: March 30, 2017

Sir Elton John (the former Elton John) against an appropriate background

I KNEW I was getting a cold when I became very angry at Sir Elton John.

A vintage Top Of The Pops was on the television – it was one of the rare episodes that BBC4 is able to show from that period that does not include a suspected or convicted sex offender – and I was remembering what life was like when I was 10 years old, back in 1982.

(It was a very different time, younger readers. We had a right-wing female PM, who kept making things worse where I lived, and the Labour Party was led by a scruffy no-hoper and had been taken over by militant Trots, who kept making things worse where I lived.)

Sir Elton came on – he was just Elton John then, because we did not give popular musicians titles in those days, unless you count Duke Ellington and Screaming Lord Sutch. He was singing I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, and I sang along, because I was alone in my flat and nobody could judge me.

Then Mike Oldfield came on with his hit Moonlight Shadow. You will remember it, it goes “4am in the morning/ Carried away by a moonlight shadow”. “Hang on,” I said to nobody. “It’s either 4am or it’s four in the morning. It can’t be both. That’s cheating to fill out a line.”

And then it occurred to me that Sir Elton – the former Elton John – had cheated on a much bigger scale. He and his lyricist partner Bernie Taupin, who should not escape the blame, had written an entire song called “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” without explaining at any point Why They Call It The Blues.

I Googled the lyric and went through the song line by line. Oh, there’s pathos in there, readers. He explains in detail to a young lady that he’s off for a while and that she might have to wait for him. (I suspect that he’s not giving her the full story at that stage, but that’s by the by.)

If he had written a song called I Guess That’s Why I’m Feeling A Bit Cheesed Off, that would have been acceptable. But he did not do that. It was false advertising. I mean, I can extrapolate from it. He’s feeling blue. That’s why they call the blues the blues.

But why do we refer to being sad as feeling blue? He and Bernie Taupin do not explain that at all. I was not feeling blue, readers, I was seeing red. This was a cut and shut of a song. They’d come up with a title first and then bolted on some gloomy lines. How dare they? I mean, HOW DARE THEY?

And it was at that point I realised there was something wrong. Nobody should be that angry about a song that does not directly insult them, eg “Gary B Superstar/ Says He’s On A Bus But He Drives A Car.” The last time I was this grumpy about something trivial I was coming down with something.

I was right. Since then I have had a very mild cold, a slight cough, an insignificant ache, a tickly throat, a woolly head. It’s not enough to keep me off work and enough to make being at work a trial.

There is nothing worse than being slightly ill, with the possible exception of being dangerously ill. When you are slightly ill, you are expected to do everything you normally do, but if you complain you are immediately castigated for being a wimp, a hypochondriac, or, worse, a Sufferer Of Man Flu.

This is a pejorative term used by women to suggest that men complain about having a cold while they just get on with it. And it’s complete nonsense.

Women absolutely complain about having colds. It is just that, unlike men, they don’t complain about it at the time. They have their complaint primed and ready to go.

When a woman says to a man, “Look at you with your Lemsip and your bowl of hot mentholated water and your summoning bell. When I had a cold, I didn’t complain,” that is her complaining about having previously had a cold.

It is a weapon in the battle of the sexes, a way for women to get back at men for millennia of sexism and oppression.

And I guess that’s why they call it Man Flu.

See, Sir Elton? THAT’S how you do it.

COLUMN: March 23, 2017

Here is a picture from my favourite film. It has literally nothing to do with this column, but I read something which says you have to have a picture or nobody will read your column

I LEFT home with a £10 note, a £2 coin, a £1 coin, and a 2p piece in my pocket.

I am not showing off, nor do I want you to think that this is normal for me, that I am the heir to Rockefeller, with gold shoes and a suit made of diamonds and rubies.

But I had gone to withdraw £10 from a cash machine the day before, and it only had £20 notes left. Banks, know this, nobody who has gone to a bank to withdraw £10 wants a £20 note, because that person is very aware that handing over a £10 note in a shop for a packet of Polos just so he has change for the vending machine in his office is already pushing his luck.

Anyway, the damage was done, and there I was, swanning off to work with folding money in my pocket, like Rihanna or the late Sir David Frost would if they were going to the bus stop.

I am currently trying to improve myself by learning a couple of foreign languages, which should enable me to be misunderstood by even more people, and so I was listening to a radio programme in one of those languages and only recognising the word for “thank you” and the occasional bit of stolen English.

In order to do this, I was wearing earphones attached to my phone, because I am not the sort of person who thinks it is perfectly OK to make other passengers listen to my rubbish music, unlike the woman who was on my train showing her friends a video of herself singing karaoke. Several times.

I arrived at the bus stop and was alone. I had just missed one. It sailed past me as I was on my way to the stop, showing a fleetness rarely demonstrated when I am on the thing.

It was sunny, and I had left my coat at home for the first time this year. After a few minutes I was joined by a small and elderly woman, who stared at me long enough to make me uncomfortable. I have developed a sort of radar sense for bus-related trouble, and she was making it buzz like an angry giant bee in a skip.

My bus appeared in the distance, like Omar Sharif in Laurence Of Arabia. I realised my earphone cable had become caught up with the strap on my very manly shoulder bag. I disconnected it from the phone and put my phone in my trouser pocket while I began the untangling.

The untangling completed, I took the phone out of my pocket along with the £1 coin. I started to reattach the earphone cable, as the bus came close.

As it pulled into the stop, the little old lady pushed in front of me – as if I were not going to let her on first anyway – jostling me unnecessarily.

The pound coin was knocked out of my hand, flew through the air, and rolled into the road, whereupon its progress was stopped only by the weight of the front wheel of the bus.

The only way I would have been able to get my money back would have been for me to have let the bus go on its way without me, which would have made me late for work. I had to sacrifice the quid. The injustice still burns, as hot as the daggers I gave the old lady as I went to sit down.

I was still angry when I left the bus, half an hour later, but luckily it had started to rain, and my anger was replaced by a profound sense of regret that I had left my coat at home. I began the 10-minute walk from the bus stop to work.

Soaked, I approached my office, feeling glum and wet. And sitting by the side of the road was a homeless man. He was clearly having a worse day than me, so I stopped in front of him and put my hand in my pocket to give him the quid I knew I had.

Oh, I remembered, I no longer have that quid because of Old Mother Queuejumper. But then I was stuck. I had to give him something, because I’d stopped. I couldn’t give him 2p. I certainly wasn’t going to give him £10.

So I had to give him the £2 coin.

And then I had to buy another packet of Polos to get change for the vending machine.

COLUMN: March 16, 2017

It’s a piece of cake

I HAVE never really been on board with the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it,” because it sounds like nonsense. How on earth am I supposed to eat my cake if I do not have it first?

Even if I steal the cake – and you should not put it past me, especially if it’s a nice bit of ginger cake – I have definitely had it first before I have eaten it. It is my cake now and you really do not want it back, even if I were willing to return it.

Of course, the saying should accurately be “You can’t have a piece of cake, eat that piece of cake, and then still have that same piece of cake in your hand, though technically you do still have the cake as it is inside you”.

But that’s the choice we have made. You can’t have everything. And so we have decided to sacrifice clarity for convenience. After all, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

We all accept this. It is part of the nature of being an adult that we realise that actions have consequences, that social and professional relationships require give and take, that you have to hand over cash to receive goods, otherwise it’s shoplifting. It is what we teach children as they grow up to stop them from turning into monsters.

And yet there is one public sphere where we completely ignore that lesson – politics. Politicians of all rosettes pop up all the time to tell us that we can have exactly what we want with no adverse consequences to us, expecting us to lap it up.

I have yet to encounter a Brexiter who will admit there might be some drawbacks from pulling out of the European Union.

Even our own Prime Minister, a woman who backed the Remain campaign and said that the country would be more secure from terrorism within the EU, that firms and jobs would be at risk outside the EU, and that the UK would break up, cannot bring herself to admit to the electorate that all might not be plain-sailing in the next few years.

But we are not stupid. Oh, no. Whether we voted Leave or Remain we knew that there were risks and benefits either way, we just disagreed about priorities.

And one of the main priorities of those who voted Leave was immigration. There was too much of it, they said. Take back control.

I quite like immigration. I think immigrants help a country to adapt to the times and stop society from becoming stagnant. New is good. Our national dish is chicken tikka masala, invented in Glasgow by a Pakistani immigrant, just like “fish and chips” was invented by East End Jewish immigrants from Europe.

But I know that a lot of people are not as keen on immigration. I am incapable of changing the heart of somebody who does not like hearing foreign voices on the bus or in Tesco. They see the world differently to me. We might as well be speaking different languages.

Yet they appear to believe that reducing or even ending immigration has no consequences, that it will not harm them at all.

That is utter nonsense. By 2045, a quarter of the UK’s population – assuming Scotland doesn’t run off with the European neighbours – will be aged over 65, including me.

That means there will be fewer working people to pay for their pensions, the NHS that will keep them alive, and their social care.

So in the coming years, the government will have a choice. It will have to slash the NHS and pensions to keep taxes down – because in order to be competitive after Brexit, the UK will have to have lower taxation – or make people work much longer. Do you really fancy having to work until the age of 75? I need a sit-down now after a difficult crossword and I’m only 45.

Or it will have to import immigrants to boost the working population, just as governments have always done, because you decided to have fewer children than your parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Because whether you like mass immigration – like me – or not, it’s going to be necessary to keep this country prosperous, especially after Brexit. And if you don’t like that, it’s your own fault, because you thought you could have your cake and eat it, and you should have known better.

COLUMN: March 9, 2017

The eyes follow you around the room

I DECIDED to go to a gallery, because culture is important. Also it was raining, and one of the good things about galleries is that they have ceilings.

I suppose I could have continued to depend upon my umbrella, but the trouble with umbrellas is that they are unfit for purpose if there is any wind, and rain rarely comes without a wind chaser. I was essentially poking some bent wire at the heavens in an attempt to ward off the rain gods.

And so I went indoors, through the clouds of steam emanating from people in kagouls and clear plastic ponchos, emerging from the other side like a contestant on Stars In Their Eyes.

I picked up a guide and leafed through it, confused that it was in French until I realised I was looking at the wrong bit. In any case, the guide was quite clear on one subject. There was a symbol of a camera inside a red circle with a diagonal line going through it.

Either photography was prohibited or this was a branch of Camerabusters. So photography was not allowed. Perhaps they were worried that people might try to copy the paintings and set up their own gallery down the road.

As I am scrupulously law-abiding, I kept my phone firmly in my pocket. There was no way I was going to be thrown out of a gallery by an elderly bouncer, not with my knee. Also, it was still raining heavily and I was not going out in that again.

I had forgotten how much I like galleries. My father used to talk about “egg and chips” experiences, those activities which you disdain because you find them a bit dull in theory, like walking in the park or watching an episode of Still Open All Hours, but which you actually really enjoy when you’re doing them.

Do not be under the impression that my life is a tornado at the eye of which is me. I am excited when I am handed a plate of biscuits and spot a fig roll.

But there is something calming about a gallery, something soul-soothing. Perhaps it’s the quiet, or the subdued lighting. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are among works which have taken months, even years, to complete – a sense of trapped time slowly leaking out into the room, and giving you back a bit of life.

Anyway, who needed to take photographs of the paintings? The whole point of going to see a piece of art is to take it in properly, to appreciate the brushwork, to see the cracks in the paint, to experience the colours as they are, instead of how printer’s ink or the electronic eye of a camera interprets those colours. To see the…

“Click!” went the phone of the idiot who pushed in front of me. “Ho ho,” I thought. “He’s in lumber now. That gallery attendant will have his scalp for a balaclava.” But she did nothing.

And, as I looked around the room, I saw that most people had phones and were clicking away, untroubled by the attendant.

“Oh,” I realised. “That symbol did not mean ‘No Photography’, it literally meant ‘No Cameras’.” Liberated, I whipped out my phone, ignoring all that flowery guff I wrote three paragraphs ago.

Then there was a flash, and the attendant showed her fangs. “No flash photography!” she informed the punter, leaving him in no doubt that she would happily murder him if it were not for the interfering nanny state. “It destroys the paintings.”

I shuffled off after snapping a couple more pictures into the next room. There was a sculpture of a beautiful woman, and I wanted to take it with the window as a backdrop.

This meant I needed to use my flash, or the woman would be in silhouette. There were no paintings in the room for me to destroy, nor, crucially, any attendants. I switched on my flash and risked it, before moving on.

In the next room was a stunning painting taking up much of the wall. I took out my phone and lined up a shot. I pressed the button. And the wall lit up.

“Argh!” I said. I had forgotten to switch off my flash. I clamped my hand over the phone, but could not muffle the whole stardust.

“Sir!” said the same attendant. “No flash!”

And so I made a run for it, out into the rain.

COLUMN: March 2, 2017

A cheerful sheep

I AM a massive fan of sleeping through the night in the same sense that I am a massive fan of long division or backward somersaults. I am impressed when people can do it, but incapable of doing it myself.

I cannot remember the last time I went to sleep the day before I woke up. For bedtime for me is not about resting, but is about thinking in the dark until my exhausted body launches a coup against my brain and switches it off.

If the thoughts I had while attempting sleep were profound it might be worth it for the human race. I would probably have found a new sustainable energy source or a cure for cancer or a way to make the Labour Party electable in this time.

But they are not. They are all “I wonder what would have happened if Frank Spencer had checked in at Fawlty Towers” or “Which Bangor were they going to in the song Day Trip To Bangor – the one in Wales or the one in Northern Ireland? Are there any other Bangors?” or “Who came up with the idea of eating eggs?”

Inevitably this takes its toll. The bags under my eyes are so heavy Ryanair could charge me an extra £25. And probably would. It means that between the hours of 1pm and 3pm I could happily snooze at my desk if it were not for the fact that HR had to put out a memo once.

I know I am not the only one. Everybody is tired. You’re probably yawning now. Even if you were not, you are now, thanks to the power of suggestion. But the 2pm slump is real. Most people who work in offices suffer from it.

The theory is that it is a combination of sitting in one place for hours at a time, the rhythms of our body, and the fact that between 2pm and 4pm, the core temperature of our bodies drops, triggering the brain’s sleep mechanism.

All of this preamble is to show you, dear reader, that what happened to me was not my fault. It was the fault of whichever buffoon decided that having an hour-long meeting of people who work in an office at 2pm was a good idea.

It was a while ago. I do not want to say how long ago it was, for reasons which will become apparent. Sometimes it is better not to be specific, which is why some birthday cards do not have a message inside.

We sat around a table in a windowless room, a flipchart in the corner with indecipherable notes from a previous meeting, and the meeting started.

I had nothing to contribute. It had been decided previously that somebody from my department should be at this regular meeting, but the goings-on in this meeting had little if anything to do with my department.

And it was warm, so warm. Cosy, even. Somebody started reading out some figures. It was so warm. Wake up, I thought, this is like counting sheep.

I focused on the smeared flipchart. Perhaps I could work out what the puzzle of words said. That would keep me awake. But I could feel a yawn building. I had to suppress it. I couldn’t suppress it. I covered my face with a sheet of A4 and yawned silently, my mouth making a sort of figure-eight, as the figure reading droned on.

Maybe if I looked away, I could just close my eyes for a second, just rest them, I wondered…

And then suddenly I was in a muddy field with sheep everywhere. And in the distance there was a cow in a suit with a clipboard coming towards me. I knew, somehow, I had to move the flock through the gate before the cow told me off.

“Gary, what do you think?” somebody asked me.

My eyes snapped open. “We need to get all the sheep in the pen,” I said, immediately and automatically.

I could feel every pair of eyes in the room on me. Everything slowed down. My stomach dropped to somewhere below my adjustable chair.

And then somebody said: “Exactly.” And, lo, there was a great umming and nodding of heads. I had inadvertently created a buzz phrase. It’s probably still being used across the business.

I had got away with falling asleep in a meeting, but the adrenalin kept me awake for the rest of the hour.

Sometimes it still keeps me awake at night.