COLUMN: June 1, 2017

Not lemony. Not sippable

THE sun had been beating down for days, turning the world around me into a shimmering Mediterranean paradise. The beautiful people filled the pavement cafes with tans and laughter. Diners in Greggs were actually considering the salads.

Even I was wearing a slightly less heavy tweed jacket – next stop, a mankini, no doubt.

And so the land was prepared for me to have a cold. Nobody knows why colds are called colds. I only seem to get them when the weather is sunny, and when the night air is warm and stagnant, and when people do not seem to believe that I might have one.

The full packet of tissues I took with me to work had expired just after lunchtime, the final one looking like a string vest. I had to replenish my supplies.

This led me to a nearby branch of a nationwide chain of newsagents. I will not say the name of this company, but if I just say that you can’t buy a pen in there nowadays without them trying to sell you a family-sized Fruit & Nut for £1, you will know of which I speak.

I found the tissues, and near them was a packet of Lemsip Max Day & Night Cold & Flu Relief Capsules. I was not sure how severe my cold was in the range of colds, but I decided that something called Max would do just the job. There’s no point in pussyfooting around with cold medication. I don’t mind using a sledgehammer to crack a nut as long as the nut ends up cracked.

I took the items to the counter. “Ooh,” said the shop assistant, “Have you got a cold?”

I peered at her through bloodshot eyes, with a throat that felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater for a bet, and a red nose that was crying out for the tissues that lay between us. I looked like somebody miming a cold in a game of charades.

Sarcasm would have been so easy. “A cold, you say? Tell me, what gave me away, Miss Marple? Was it the sense that I appear to looking at you through a very thick pane of glass? Was it my Barry White voice? Or was it the fact that I have just put some aloe vera tissues and cold medication right in front of you? Ooh, it’s a right poser and no mistake!”

“Yes,” I growled, with levels of restraint that should have been beyond me in my weakened state. It was almost superhuman. “I hab a cold.”

I paid the woman and shambled weakly back to the office, my supplies in hand. I staunched the, well, flow with my newly-replenished stash of tissues, and then opened the box of Lemsip Max Day & Night Cold & Flu Relief Capsules.

I would have complained to colleagues about how ridiculous it is to have a product called Lemsip that neither tastes of lemons nor is designed for sipping, but instead I was in a good mood and did a victory lap of the office because I opened the end of the box that didn’t have the folded end of the “how to take tablets” instruction sheet.

But then I went to pop the capsules out of the delightfully-named blister pack, and everything went very wrong indeed. I pushed the first capsule from the back with my thumb, as one does when faced with a blister pack. And I could not break the foil.

I know I was in a weakened state, but surely even I should have been able to push a capsule through a bit of foil. But it was not my fault. The capsule buckled with my pressure, which meant that it did not pierce the surface.

I am not making excuses. I recommend that you try this exercise. Take a large square of cling film, and place a swiss roll on top of it (jam for preference). Then put a large square of aluminium foil over the top, and pinch it around the cling film, as if you are making the least appealing ravioli in history.

Now try to push that swiss roll through the foil. You can’t, even if you use a massive thumb made out of plaster, because the swiss roll collapses.

The point I am making is that the manufacturers of Lemsip capsules might be good at chemistry, but they are terrible at physics. And that remedies should make you feel better, not worse.

COLUMN: May 25, 2017

Sock Man by NIL L (Flickr, Creative Commons)
I HAD to go to Loughborough from Liverpool by train for reasons which need not detain you. I am a sophisticated journalist and one of the metropolitan elite. I have to travel to and from exotic places all the time, like Alan Whicker.

Unfortunately, travelling from Loughborough to Liverpool by train is a complex affair. And while it is half the distance to London, it takes roughly twice as long to get there. Also, I did not want to go to London.

The problem is that, in the history of the world, only about four people have needed to go from Liverpool to Loughborough on a Saturday, which means that there is an eye-watering number of changes before you actually reach the East Midlands home of the Sock Man (look it up).

And travelling on trains at the weekend provokes the sort of tense nail-biting and leg-jiggling you might perform while watching a Hitchcock movie. All the planets must align, you see, for you to make all your connections in time. Just one late-running train on the line ahead of you, and you could arrive at your destination four hours late.

So when the third of my four trains was 10 minutes late arriving into Leicester, just nine miles away from Loughborough, I was in something of a state. I had roughly 90 seconds to get from one train to another and, while I run for fitness, I am 45 years old.

I will never be mistaken for Usain Bolt. There are many differences between us, but the biggest difference by far is in our running techniques.

And, despite the fable telling you otherwise, the hare always beats the tortoise when it comes to the sprint. We know this because sprint coaches don’t stand by the side of the track saying: “No, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, you must, if anything, be MORE lackadaisical in your approach. Here, have a Werther’s.”

I tore through the station in pursuit of my train. Maniacally, I demanded of a station guard, as I raced past him: “Where’s the Loughborough train?”

“Platform 6,” he called out, as I disappeared into the distance. (Look, trainspotters, I don’t remember the numbers of the platforms, so I’ve probably remembered this wrong. Trains are not my be all and end all, I am a bus man.)

The doors were closing as I reached the train. I knew it was my train, because it was the correct operator – one of the benefits of a privatised train service is that you always know if you’re on the right train – and I flung myself dynamically through the sliding doors.

My clattering entrance having announced me to everybody in the carriage, I sat in a seat and began the important work of making myself newly inconspicuous. I texted my Loughborough contact to say I would be there in nine minutes, and smugly settled back.

“Tickets, please,” said the guard. I handed her my ticket, mangled by three previous inspectors. “Um, where do you think you’re going?” she asked.

“Loughborough,” I chortled.

“Right,” she said, “It’s just that this is the train to London St Pancras.”

I felt my blood chill. It suddenly occurred to me how much “Luffbruh” might sound like “Lundun” when spoken by a scouse-accented man sprinting past.

“Oh,” I said. “Can I get off at the next stop and come back?”

“The next stop is St Pancras”, she said, fighting back the laughter, and she wrote, “Got the wrong train,” on the back of my ticket. “Give that to the guard at St Pancras.”

The worst thing about doing this sort of thing is not the inconvenience, or the time wasted – it is having to explain what has happened to other adults. I texted my Loughborough contact, who knew me well enough to be disappointed but unsurprised.

And then I travelled for 90 minutes to London, a place which, as I mentioned, I did not want to go, before waiting an hour for the train back.

Then I had to explain to a guard what I had done in a way that did not make me A) look like a fare dodger; and B) like a total imbecile. His expression of, somehow, both amusement and disgust demonstrated that I was only half successful, but I was allowed to board the train.

And so I arrived in Loughborough four hours late, and a broken man. It was worth it. It always is when I go to Loughborough.

COLUMN: May 18, 2017

Cava – enabler of stories about rodent infestation

I WAS at a party and had had a couple of drinks and decided that it was a good time to regale my companions with the story of a rodent infestation with which I had had to deal when I was 16 years old.

Some people sing when they are merry, other people get into brawls. I tell stories about being inconvenienced by vermin to people who wish they were somewhere else.

I will not get into the story at this stage, as I am sober and you do not need to hear about it.

But while I was telling the tale to my appalled companions, the name Rentokil cropped up, and for the first time in my life it occurred to me how “on the nose” that name is.

If I were in the business of vermin mass murder, I would name my company “Removapest” or “Troublaway”, just to make the act sound more palatable. Even Mafiosi talk about “taking out” or “knocking off” opponents.

But there is no being circumspect with Rentokil, there is no gloss, there is no “the rats went to live on a farm” with Rentokil. You know exactly what Rentokil is selling. Or renting.

And yet, as on the nose as Rentokil is, it is like a cryptic crossword clue in comparison with InjuryLawyers4U.

You might expect that you would not need to be told in which line of business InjuryLawyers4U operates, but life is apparently not that simple.

So I have become a little obsessed with the InjuryLawyers4U advert which appears on daytime television. I am going to do you the courtesy of assuming that you never watch daytime television and describe what happens in this advertisement.

It starts with an arty shot of a man with his head in his hands. “You’ve had an accident that wasn’t your fault,” the narrator says. Hmm, you will think when you see him, that man looks guilty. I bet the accident was his fault.

“You need help and you want legal advice. You don’t want social media experts,” the narrator says, as some scary clowns bang on a window behind Guilto The Definitely Responsible For That Accident.

Of course I don’t want social media experts, you will think. Nobody in the history of the world has ever thought, “I need legal advice, I’d better call a social media expert.” Why are you even bringing them up, narrator?

“You don’t want cold callers.” Wait a minute, you will think at this point. That’s exactly what I want. If I had had an accident that wasn’t my fault, and I received a phone call from one of those people who ring when you’re about to have your tea to discuss the “accident” I have had recently, that would be literally the only time I would welcome a cold caller. It would save me the price of a phone call.

But the narrator has already moved on. “You don’t need celebrity endorsements,” he says, pointlessly, as a crowd of business suited people who, quite frankly, look exactly like personal injury lawyers join the clowns in bashing the windows.

“You need,” the narrator goes on, “an injury lawyer for you. That’s why we’re called InjuryLawyers4U.” And suddenly the scales fall from your eyes.

Ah, you think, now I understand. Before now I would have assumed a firm called InjuryLawyers4U would specialise in painting and decorating, or quantity surveying, or Zumba.

But now, thanks to this advertisement, I get it. It’s such a clever name. Thank you for explaining to me, an imbecile, so clearly why you would be called InjuryLawyers4U.

At this point, you are probably thinking that I am being sarcastic. And you would be correct.

I do not mind an “on the nose” name. Phones4U, Bargain Booze, Kentucky Fried Chicken – they are all acceptable names for businesses. And when you advertise them, feel free to tell me how good your phones are, how cheap your Lambrini is, or how happy your chickens were before you popped them in batter and deep-fried them.

But what you don’t have to do is spend three-quarters of your advert explaining what your name means.

Because the only people who see the name “InjuryLawyers4U” and have no idea what that might mean are the sort of people who were definitely responsible for the accident in which they were involved, because they are incredibly stupid.

But not as stupid as somebody who tells strangers at a party about finding a decomposing rat under his floorboards.

COLUMN: May 11, 2017

A menacing black cat
THE wind whipped leaves up the street, rustling the branches above, and troubling the tops of the wheely bins. Even so, the sky was clear, and there was enough light from the half-moon to pick out the black cat which crossed my path.

It mewed, out of fear or defiance? It scarcely mattered. I was too busy trying to remember if it’s good luck or bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. “It depends on if you trip over it”, I imagined.

And then I started to wonder about where superstitions came from. Was there a Superstitions Board – presumably staffed by Old Wives – deciding on which colour of socks you are not allowed to wear on Maundy Thursday, and how far away from a theatre you are safe to say “Macbeth”, even though there is a regularly-staged play called “Macbeth”, during which various characters have to say the name “Macbeth”.

Before I reached the door of my flat I had forgotten all about the black cat and its potential impact on my life. I was too busy wondering about whether cherry-pickers counted as ladders or not, with regard to walking under them.

I entered, dropped my bag in the living room, put the kettle on, and went into the bathroom. You don’t have to know why – this is still a free country. That was when I noticed a number of leaves on the floor.

“Hmm,” I thought, “I don’t remember seeing them before I left to work, when I mopped the bathroom floor.” I am slapdash when it comes to tidying, but even I would notice foliage on my bathroom floor when mopping it. “They must have been attached to my shoes,” I thought.

Except… they were in a part of the bathroom upon which I had not yet stood. Nevertheless, that was still the most likely explanation.

My flat, you see, dear reader, is up four flights of stairs, so the likelihood that a freak gust had blown them up the stairs, through the tiny gap under the door to my flat, and then through the tiny gap under my bathroom door into my bathroom was slim.

Ah, you might say, then perhaps you had your bathroom window open, and they came in through there. And I would like your thinking, if it were not for the fact that the only window in my bathroom is a skylight roughly 12 feet above me, which does not open, even if I did have a stepladder.

The leaves must have come in on my shoes, and perhaps have been propelled down the bathroom by the draught caused by, I don’t know, my dynamism. I convinced myself of this.

And then I found one in the bath. And one in the sink. And two on top of the bathroom mirror cabinet. If you added up all the air-displacing activity I have engaged in during my life, it would not blow a leaf from the floor to the top of my bathroom mirror.

They must have come from above. But I did not have any holes in my ceiling. I know this because part of my ceiling once collapsed on me and when I went back to examine it more of my ceiling collapsed on me, and so I am forever vigilant.

Was there a hole in my skylight? I looked as closely as I could given that it is 12 feet up and I do not have a stepladder, but there was nothing apparent.

And even so, these leaves were big. They were not tea leaf-sized, they were “could cover Adam and Eve’s modesty”-sized.

I think it was Sherlock Holmes who said, “If one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Or possibly Jessica Fletcher, I don’t know, I can’t be bothered Googling.

So the only explanation that physics allows is that a burglar somehow broke into my home, and was so annoyed by how few possessions of any value I own, that he (or she) dashed back outdoors, picked some big leaves from a nearby tree, came back, scattered them in my bathroom in places that would confuse me, then made his (or her) exit after having first locked the door behind him (or her) in case another opportunist intruder with cleaning materials was passing by. “That will teach him for being rubbish at having things,” he (or she) will have thought.

Or maybe it was that black cat. That would be just my luck.

I Told You So. Are You Going To Listen To Me Now? (SPOILER: No)

<> on September 12, 2015 in London, England.
YOUR choice

THE moment Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party for the first time I was writing in the library. I doubt there was a person in there who didn’t hear my anguished cry.

I immediately wrote an intemperate tweet which suggested that perhaps the people who had voted for him might eventually come to regret their choice, and eventually took it down because I had called people I like and respect “gobshites”.

I am not going to say that everything I predicted was correct. I suspected that Corbyn’s old-time religion would pile up votes in Labour strongholds while putting off voters in swing areas. I was wrong. Mea culpa. I vastly overestimated his appeal.

Now I absolutely get why Corbyn appealed to Labour Party members and the three-quid recreational leftwingers. Labour had just lost an election which it was expected to win, like in 1992, and supporters were upset.

“We’ve already had to put up with Miliband saying he’d keep half an eye on immigration,” they said, “and now this?! You’re expecting us to vote for somebody like Yvette Cooper? Or Liz Kendall?!”

And then Corbyn came along, with those soothing words that told you what you wanted to hear: “It’s not you that’s wrong, it’s the electorate. Let’s not bother convincing those Tory voters, let’s just enthuse the non-voters and build a bright, etc, etc.”

No wonder you voted for him. Losing an election is tough. Being told that the reason you lost it is because you didn’t work hard enough to accommodate people to the right of your party is even tougher.

No wonder you took the easy way out. And then you justified it by saying that people have had enough of “moderates”. That’s the message you were getting from the electorate, oh yes.

You heard that message in 2010 when Brown was turfed out of office, and you heard it again in 2015 when that notorious Blairite Ed Miliband was defeated at the polls.

But it’s absolute nonsense, isn’t it?

Brown lost in 2010 because Labour had been in office for 13 years, and he was at the wheel when the economy crashed. It doesn’t matter how well he and Alistair Darling did to pull the country back out of recession, or how influential he was in saving the world economy.

Nor does it matter that the crash was caused by the collapsing loans market in the United States, and not because Labour spent some money on fixing school roofs. The fact is he was in charge, so he got a pasting.

Even so, if the Tories had been led by Michael Howard or Ian Duncan Smith in 2010, Brown would probably have beaten them. But they were led by “a moderate” who had spent three years reassuring the electorate that he was a safe option.

Yes, in power David Cameron presided over a dreadful right-wing shambles of austerity and bedroom tax and Brexit, but he had a plausible manner. He spoke like a centrist. “I’m not one of those old-style Thatcherite hang ’em and flog ’em Tories”, he said to the electorate, “I hug hoodies and huskies and I like The Jam and don’t mind the gays.”

Unfortunately, after the 2010 election, the Labour selectorate learnt the wrong lesson. Did they pick the wrong Miliband brother? I don’t know if it’s that simple…


But what they did do was pick the most left-wing candidate on offer who wasn’t a black woman. They picked the candidate most likely to spend the next five years saying how dreadful the previous Labour administration had been. And who wasn’t a black woman.

And in 2015, what happened? The Lib Dems collapsed, mostly because the Labour voters who had defected to them because of Iraq and tuition fees wanted to punish them for entering into coalition with the Tories, and the Lib Dem/Tory floating voters were sufficiently reassured by Cameron’s government to decide they did not need Clegg’s restraining hand.

It wasn’t because of a collapse in support for centrist politics. Cameron still painted himself as centrist. He did quite well out of it.

Miliband tried to paint himself as centrist to the broader electorate, and radical to Labour members, which was a difficult trick to pull off and one which he failed to do. But that was not the problem he had.

People decided early on in his leadership that he was not prime ministerial material, just as they had with William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard.

And Scotland went full centrist. The SNP is completely Blairite, apart from the constitutional issue, and its position on Trident, which is bound up with the constitutional issue.

The point is, centrism and moderation are not the problem here. It’s about credibility.

So when Corbyn came along in 2015 saying all the things you wanted to hear, and you convinced yourself that the problem with Ed Miliband was that he was too right-wing, and that’s why people went for the Tories, you were wrong. You were so wrong. You were 20-points-behind-in-the-polls-a-month-before-a-general-election wrong.

I’m a centrist. But I’m a centrist who knows that centrism isn’t enough. You need the electorate to believe that you have a leader who is prime ministerial, a leader who goes to where most people are, and gently pulls them in the right direction, rather than standing miles away from them with a megaphone and placard, a leader who says some things that they want to hear and that you don’t.

And what did you do? You picked a man with no experience of office, who has never seen a British foreign policy he liked, or an authoritarian left-wing leader he didn’t like. A man who won’t sing the national anthem. A man who is “always on the right side of history” – apart from Kosovo, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and that time he founded an organisation which then called for insurgents to kill British soldiers in Iraq, before becoming its chair.

Oh, yes, and that photo of him opposing apartheid – as if that were an unpopular position in Britain in the sixties to the nineties? That’s at a protest which the bulk of the British anti-apartheid movement did not want to happen.

As my dear friend Twll Dun says:

…what actually emerges from our brief potted history of a picture of Jeremy on a demo is not a lone man, prescient in his opposition to the evil apartheid regime. Instead, it is a man who – when an idea is already mainstream and backed by the vast majority of the left – finds himself drawn to a demonstration organised by those on the wildest shores of it, a demo the utility of which – centred entirely around the right to keep a non-stop picket outside an embassy – to the wider cause of the movement is debatable, to say the least.

You picked a man with absolutely no hope of becoming British prime minister – and a long history of opposing the EEC/EU – and you knew all this before you voted for him, because you were told.

And all this because you didn’t want to compromise. Because you were happy to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

That’s fine if you’re on the far left of British politics. If your concern is about building a populist protest movement, then you know what Jeremy Corbyn is and how he would be as leader. I have no problem with you. You had an objective and you succeeded. Fair play to you.

But the rest of you, the ones who voted for Jeremy Corbyn because you thought he was the most likely to become Prime Minister – what on earth were you thinking?

I’m a centrist. But there’s a line at that centre. I’m probably far closer to some people on the other side of that line on many subjects than I am to the leader of the Labour Party.

But I won’t cross that line, because in the end I think people who have all the advantages have to help those people with none of the advantages – not that they ought to help them, not that they should be encouraged to help them, but that they have to help them. It’s not a matter of charity, it’s a requisite of civilisation.

That’s why I have to vote Labour at this general election. Not because I think Jeremy Corbyn is good – I think he would be a terrible Prime Minister, incapable of taking the sort of quick and ruthless decisions with which Prime Ministers are faced.

But I think Theresa May has demonstrated she is a much worse Prime Minister. I believe she will pursue a disastrous Brexit and leave the public realm devastated for generations, while Corbyn would pursue a slightly-less disastrous Brexit and keep the NHS and schools ticking over until a proper grown-up who can do sums could take charge.

If you’re on the same side of that line as me, you should do the same. Being an adult in British politics often means voting for the unsatisfactory to avoid the worse. I told people before Corbyn was first elected that they were making the perfect the enemy of the good. It would be inconsistent for me not to follow my own advice.

But don’t bloody make me do this again, you gobshites.

COLUMN: May 4, 2017

A friend from work
I ADOPTED the correct stance, feet shoulders-width apart, the club gripped tightly, right hand above left hand, and breathed in. I could see the hole, so tantalisingly close.
The onlookers held their breath too. If I sank this ball in one, I’d be back in contention. The pressure was unimaginable.

I addressed the ball, and then swung the putter, fluently. It hit the ball, square and true, and the ball went on its way toward the hole.

But I’d hit it too hard.

It went up the ramp and instead of it going down the other ramp and into the hole, which was in a specially adapted toilet, it bounced off the wall and rolled back to hit my foot.

“Ah,” I thought. “This is exactly what I feared would happen.”

It was my own fault. I had been incapable of getting out of a work’s night out because I did not have a plausible excuse. This is what happens when you do not have a plausible excuse.

“What we’re going to do,” my cheerful colleague informed me, with menaces, “is go and play crazy golf at a place called Ghetto Golf.”

If I were to play a game called “Name two things beginning with the letter G that would never be associated with you” I would find it hard to do better than “ghetto” and “golf”. I think only “glamorous” and “gung-ho” would beat them.

Ghetto? I am a middle-aged middle-class man, so white I could use Tipp-Ex as foundation. I am not so much street as cul-de-sac. My favourite rap song is Rapture by Blondie.

And as for golf? One would expect of the author, given what has just been written about his middle-aged middle-class whiteness, that he would be all over golf like yellow corduroy on Nigel Farage’s legs. But one would be wrong. Dead wrong.

I am not saying that the fact that golf clubs are full of Farage types, who blame everything on brown people and gays and women, is the thing that puts me off golf, although it doesn’t help.

It is more the fact that, owing to virtual blindness in my right eye, my depth perception is shonky to the point of comedy. I can only catch a ball by accident. It takes me three attempts to pick up a cup of tea set down in an unfamiliar place. I am reluctant to tell you what else can go wrong.

So, not only am I incapable of judging the direction or speed of the ball when I hit it, it is anybody’s guess if I will hit the ball in the first place.

Essentially, if you were to design a sport that was so much not for me that it makes me appear good at all other sports in comparison, then you would come up with golf, a game in which the trickiest drive is no harder for me than the simplest putt, in the worst possible way imaginable. I can miss a putt from two inches away.

This means that crazy golf is just as difficult for me as actual non-crazy golf. Or golf, for short.

I took a second shot, while the RnB and rap music on the PA echoed around the re-purposed brewer’s hall. This time the ball missed the ramp, settling, after a couple of rebounds, at the side of the ramp. I took another two shots, somehow positioning it at the foot of the ramp. I could not possibly miss now.

I hit it. The ball flew up the ramp, hit the back wall again, and rolled back to the painted white cross where the ball had begun its humiliating ordeal at my hands. There was a ripple of sarcastic applause from the crowd in the bottleneck I had caused.

This was my sixth shot, my last chance for redemption. I lined up the shot, I hit it, it flew up the ramp and hit the back wall again.

But this time, miraculously it did not come all the way back. Instead it rolled the way it was supposed to, down the second ramp, and into the toilet-shaped hole. I did it!

It was the story of my life: a series of embarrassing errors, leading up to a final success, which still ends up in the toilet. To a background of sarcastic applause.

I don’t remember much of the rest of the holes. I was too busy having a nice time with friends from work. Not everything ends up in the toilet.