COLUMN: April 27, 2017

A distressingly pleasant day

I WAS in far too good a mood. The sun had been shining, and my working day had been almost entirely bump-free apart from the usual vending machine issues.

The issues? Well, it is one of those vending machines which fail in every way. It does not want my money. And when I somehow get it to accept my money, it refuses to give me the item I wish to buy. I am not sure if it is incompetence or snootiness. Nevertheless, I chose not to let it bother me.

I walked through town towards my bus stop, drinking in the sun, though not drinking anything else because of the aforementioned vending machine issues.

It was one of those days where it felt good to be alive, and not just because of the alternative. Fresh leaves were on the trees, the pavement cafes were filled with decorative and sappy young people, and even the vapours from the robofags being puffed on by escapee office workers smelled of butterscotch and lemon drops.

There was a woman at the bus stop I thought I recognised, which is unusual for me. I am awful with faces. And names, as it happens. And cars. I would make a poor crown court witness. “It was definitely a person,” I would say, “beyond that I can tell you nothing other than he made off in a red brum brum. Or it might have been purple. Or she, come to think of it.”

I stared at the bus stop woman in puzzlement – had I worked with her, I wondered? Do I currently work with her? Had I met her at a party? I’m never invited to parties; it couldn’t be that.

But the cheeriness engendered in me by the pleasant day had made me sloppy, and made me drop my natural caution. I had stared for about a second too long. And now she was looking right back at me, with a gaze which said, “Who do you think you’re looking at, you four-eyed sleaze?”

“Argh,” I thought. “I still have no idea who you are and now you have caught me staring at you, which was very much not my intention. I know, I will pretend to be looking past you. Yes, if I act “naturally”, there is no way you will think I was staring at you, which, yes, I admit I was, but not in a way which would get me in trouble with HR if it turns out I do actually work with you. Oh, please come, bus. Please come right now.”

And, as if by magic, it did arrive. And I could have made a plausible case that I was definitely looking past the woman to check the number on its front if it ever came to court.

We both boarded it – because life is never easy – and we sat down, with me as far away from her as possible. I stared at my phone. It was for the best.

But somebody said something funny on Twitter, and it made me smile broadly. It was so funny that I could have written “LOL” in response, even though technically that would have been a lie, and I forgot for a moment that I was supposed to be looking down. I looked up, beaming, just as she turned around.

“Great”, I thought. “First I stared at her in an unnerving way, and now I have flashed her a big grin. I might as well just hand myself in at the police station.” I kept my head down. Again.

The bus approached my stop, and I flew to my feet, whooshing past the woman. At least she wasn’t getting off at the same stop…

She stood up and followed me off the bus, in fact, if not in intention. This was an unwelcome if predictable development.

I ducked into a mini-mart near the bus stop to prove to her, once and for all, that I was not a malevolent stalker. I didn’t need anything, but it was a useful hiding place until it all blew over.

But then I remembered I needed some milk. Oh, and some washing-up liquid.
And as I reached for the washing-up liquid so did the woman from the bus stop.

“Gah!” I said. And then my mouth said, before my brain could stop it, “We must stop meeting like this.”

I have no idea what I was thinking. I blame it on the sun.

She regarded me with befuddlement. I suspect she did not recognise me.

COLUMN: April 20, 2017

An accurate representation of Evel Knievel

I AM still trying to get over the Prime Minister’s recent proclamation that this country is totally united… apart from that lot over there, you know, the splitters.

Of course, she can get away with this self-evident illogical nonsense because she is the only party leader with whom you could imagine leaving your spare keys when you went on holiday.

This is why the polling gap between her and the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is so wide Evel Knievel would cry off jumping it, claiming he had a verruca and carrying a note from his mum. Never underestimate the electoral power of the Keys Test.

But the fact is, Prime Minister, this country is hopelessly and hilariously divided. There is a crack that runs down this country, splitting communities and even families, and the people on the losing side are bitter and angry. And no wishy-washy wishy-hopey bilge about red-white-and-blue unity can heal that divide.

I am talking, of course, about the rift between people who have to work on Bank Holidays and people who do not.

I am very much on the wrong side of this divide, because newspapers now publish on Bank Holidays, thanks to Eddy Shah, the failed press magnate from Warrington, who started publishing on those days, forcing other papers to follow suit. Even if there were no newspapers on Bank Holidays, I would still have to work on Bank Holidays because there has to be a newspaper the day after the Bank Holiday.

But on my way to work during the last Bank Holiday, I passed through whole streets of people pursuing the traditional Easter Monday activities of shopping, queuing outside Nando’s, and conducting marital arguments.

And it occurred to me that I have no idea who actually gets to be off work on Bank Holidays. Obviously it cannot be the people working in the shops. They have to work so that the people who are off work can shop.

And it cannot be the people who work in the town centre car parks, or the bus and train drivers, because they are needed so that the people who are enjoying the Bank Holiday – the lucky few – can get to the town centre.

Similarly, it cannot be the employees of all the theme parks and cinemas, or the poor, haunted, polo shirt-wearing souls who work in soft play centres.

Nor can it be the police officers called into those soft play centres when one child pushes another child, and then their fathers get into a fight because it’s Easter Monday and they’ve already had a row with the wife on the high street and when do the kids go back, they mean, they’ve had four days of this.

And it cannot be the doctors and nurses at the hospital who then have to patch up the father who came off worse when it all kicked off at Happy Monkey Land soft play centre.

So who is actually off work? Who are these golden people who laze about on a Bank Holiday, while the rest of us wait on them hand and foot? Factory workers – and there aren’t many of those these days, along with back office staff, and teachers. Oh, and people who work in banks.

Now, I am not saying these people do not deserve time off with their families. Of course they do. They work hard doing whatever it is they do.

But so do I. And so do the people at Happy Monkey Land soft play centre. In fact, they probably work harder than the rest of us, because can you even imagine what they have to extract from those ball pools at the end of every day?

Also, can you imagine how much money is lost every Bank Holiday because of offices being closed for the day, and all the sandwich shops and dry cleaners around the offices which have to close on those days because there are no customers. It must be hundreds of pounds… at least. I do not know, I am not an economist.

There is only one way to correct this appalling inequity. We should abolish Bank Holidays (apart from Christmas Day, because I am not Ebenezer Scrooge). Then give the holidays to employees to use whenever they want.

If the Prime Minister is serious about uniting the country, that is what she will do. If she puts that in her manifesto, I might even forgive her for talking nonsense about everybody supporting Brexit.

COLUMN: April 13, 2017

Possibly my most up-to-date cultural reference

SOMEBODY asked me the other day how long I had spent waiting for buses, so I worked it out. I had time, as I was on a bus.

I have been working for 23 years, but for some of that time I drove to work, so let’s say I have got the bus to and from work for 20 years. Assuming I wait a total of 12 minutes a day, roughly 5.5 days a week (because sometimes I work or get the bus for domestic-based activities at the weekend), I worked it out as 190 days.

Then I worked it out properly and got an answer of 48 days. Honestly, they must have given out GCSE Maths passes like sweeties when I was a teenager.

So then I decided to use the same formula to work out how long I have spent on buses in that time. Taking an average of 75 minutes a day, which, I suspect, is an underestimate, I got 298 days.

Add the figures together and we can see I have spent 346 days either waiting for or on buses.

And that is without counting the buses I got to and from school and college. If you include those buses, I have spent more than a year of my life on buses. I have spent more time on a bus than Reg Varney.

That is a long time. You could watch every episode of Coronation Street that has ever been made TWICE in that time as long as you did not sleep or go to the toilet. I am not saying that you should do that, I am just saying you could.

Why are you telling us this, you ask? Do you think you are TV’s Johnny Ball, father of TV’s Zoe Ball, you ask? Why do all your cultural references stop in the 1990s, you ask?

The point is that I have spent a long time on buses, so much so that you would assume I have seen everything bus passengers can do and nothing could faze me.

You would be wrong. I saw something the other evening that I have never seen before and it shocked me.

You see, over the rear wheel arches on the bus I regularly catch, the designers of this bus have placed what I can only describe as bijou conference areas.

Basically they have turned one pair of seats on each side of the aisle around, so four teenagers can sit together and play terrible music at each other from their phone speakers.

But what it also means it that the worst people in the world – the sort of people who go to public toilets and don’t wash their hands afterwards – can sit on one side, and use the opposite side as a footstool.

People who have walked along grimy puddle-filled streets and stepped in Richard-Dawkins-knows-what think it is perfectly acceptable to place their grubby shoes where other people will later sit.

It is not. The only thing that makes living in cities bearable is consideration for others. It is why we don’t sound our car horns after 9pm or walk around with our shirts off when it gets a bit sunny.

I am used to seeing selfish idiots rest their legs in such a way, and, if I am fairly confident I will not be punched in the face or stabbed to death, will strongly recommend to them that they desist.

But until the other night I had never before seen two passengers who were not together do it at the same time.

I was as shocked as you are. Has this become a thing now? Have people decided it’s OK to plonk their dirty soles on bus seats in the same way they’ve decided they can say “Can I get…” in shops, or write down “could of” instead of “could’ve”?

One of the men – they’re usually men – was within my range of “not likely to commit manslaughter on me”. I could have told him to put his feet back on the floor.

But the other had biceps which suggested he would beat me in a best-of-three arm-wrestling bout, and all I could see were various scenarios in which I told the weaker of the two to be a decent human being, only to be pulverised by the offended stronger of the two.

And so I stayed in my seat and fumed. It felt like a very long bus journey home. And I should know.

COLUMN: April 6, 2017

The Doors

TIMING is everything. It’s why the only piece of jewellery I voluntarily wear these days is a watch. It is always good to know exactly how late travelling by public transport has made me.

My own timing, of course, is abysmal. I cannot save a penalty or catch a ball. My career has been a succession of events which have placed me in the right location at the wrong time.

And I cannot tell the simplest joke without going off on tangents and making the listener forget what was going on at the beginning of the joke. My knock knock jokes can last up to five minutes. I appreciate this is not strictly a point about timing, but I had a joke about timing and I’ve forgotten what it was.

Nevertheless, the point is my timing is lousy and frequently gets me in trouble. The only time my timing was excellent was when I was walking up a road during high winds, and an entire window was blown out of the third floor of a building, landing just behind me. I think I used up all the good timing allocated to me in that instant.

This is all to explain how I came to be trapped in the Corridor Of Perpetual Thankyous.

I had been walking slowly, as a result of the recurrence of my policeman’s heel, which had been caused by a previous knee injury, which in turn had caused by running with an strained thigh on my other leg. Nobody had warned me that, when one reaches one’s forties, bodily injuries are like a series of toppling dominoes. You start with a hangnail and end up with your leg in plaster via sciatica.

I was heading towards a set of double-doors, and in the distance I could see a woman heading towards the same doors. My phone buzzed. If I had chosen to check my phone after I had gone through the doors, I would have been all right, but I did not. If I was walking at my normal pace, I would have been all right, but I was not. Timing is everything.

The woman reached the doors just before me and pulled them open. She nipped through, then held the door open for me. “Thank you,” I said, sealing my doom.

For this was a corridor with a succession of five double-doors, and I was brought up properly.

This means that I am physically incapable of not thanking somebody for holding a door open for me, no matter what the circumstances. If Satan himself held open the Gates of Hell for me, I’d greet him with a polite “thanks, mate” and a nod, as I passed through. And then I would sit for eternity next to the man with the armpits that smelt like onions, and the psst-psst-psst from his headphones, that I sat next to on the bus the other day.

We reached the second set of doors, her again before me, and she opened them again. Should I thank her for opening this door, I wondered? The form, apparently nowadays, is to thank once at the first door of a series and once at the last, which seems perfectly sensible.

But what if this WERE the last? I had no way of knowing. We might have parted ways after this set of doors. I had no idea who she was or where she was going. And I hate it when I open a door for people and they do not thank me. So I thanked her again, to be on the safe side.

Now we were heading for the third door. My only chance was to beat her to it somehow. But I was limping and she was nimble. I made a late lunge, but it was too late. She had the door open and was through. I styled out the lunge by turning it into a skip. “Thank you,” I said. “Again,” I said.

I was trapped now in the Corridor of Perpetual Thankyous. I thanked her again at the fourth. I could not stop at this point. It would have been weird.

And then we reached the final door. I accepted defeat. The woman stepped forward, opened the door, went through…

And somebody came through the other side, carrying a television, and blocking my progress.

By the time he had passed, the woman was in the distance. I had not thanked her, and she no doubt considers me rude. But it was just bad timing.