COLUMN: July 27, 2017

A person from a television programme
I HATE raffles. They combine two of my least favourite things – giving away money and admin – and so I tend to avoid them if at all possible.

For this is what happens in raffles. Somebody sidles up to you with a book of tickets and says, “Twenty pence each, five for a pound”, as if I don’t have a GCSE in maths, and you think that sounds reasonable, and you can’t get away with giving them 20p, but you don’t mind handing over a quid.

And so you hand over that quid and then the person with the lanyard – for that person is always wearing a lanyard, as only the most responsible members of staff are entrusted with raffles – says, “Right, just write your name and address on the back of all of the stubs.”

This is pressure you don’t need, because you have to do five times a boring task which you should not be capable of getting wrong, but during which, because you are being watched, you find yourself thinking “Argh! What number do I live in? How do I spell my surname? What is ‘pen’?”

And then you think, “Why am I writing my name and address on the back of the stubs? I have an individually numbered ticket. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that, as it happens, the point?”

So, I was at my desk, minding the company’s business, when I became aware of money being extorted from colleagues, and my antennae, finely tuned by years of working in the same office, detected that it was not a leaving envelope. There was something about the jingle.

He appeared at the desk next to mine, blindsiding my colleague Barrie. Some people might question the wisdom of putting a Gary and a Barrie next to each other in an office, but I welcome the confusion.

I overheard the conversation, while frantically calculating if I could leave my desk without being detected until the coast was clear. Each ticket was a pound. That’s inflation for you. (For European readers, a pound is roughly equivalent to half a euro.)

I felt in my pocket. I had a two pound coin, a 50p piece, and a couple of copper coins. No idea where they came from. Copper coins are like blue belly button fluff these days. Could I really buy just one ticket? Yes, I could.

But then I heard Raffle Man say which charity it was supporting. Now, I am all for charity, but there are some charities which tend to leave me unmoved. Funds to build garden bridges, for instance, or those which employ people in tabards to stop you in the street in an attempt to obtain your bank details.

However, this charity was a children’s hospice, and there is no arguing with the need for hospices for children.

Raffle Man came to me. “Go on, give me two,” I said, like Rockefeller. I wrote my name and extension number on the back of the tickets – after checking my extension number on the phone twice (I don’t need to know it; I never have to call myself) – and it was only after I had done this that I had a look at the prizes.

There was a range of treats – a bottle of expensive gin, some high street vouchers, that sort of thing. But one thing stood out above all – a pair of tickets to see Mrs Brown live.

You can’t argue with Mrs Brown’s Boys. It is the most popular and highly-rated TV sitcom in years. It makes millions of people happy. It is so popular, somebody thought giving away two tickets would be a good prize.

It is just… its appeal eludes me. I don’t get it. I’d rather watch QVC. Knowing my luck, I chuckled, I’ll win those tickets. And then I forgot about the raffle.

The weekend went past. It was a glorious day. I was humming ELO’s Mr Blue Sky on my way to work, when I received a message.

“You’ve won tickets to see Mrs Brown,” a colleague, who finds the sitcom’s appeal equally elusive, informed me with some glee.

It was the first raffle I have ever won, and now I have to go and sit with thousands of Mrs Brown fans, while watching Mrs Brown. Don’t tell me I can give the tickets away and I don’t have to go. Of course I do. I am a journalist.

And that’s why I hate raffles.

COLUMN: July 20, 2017

Game Of Thrones
This man isn’t in Game Of Thrones any more. Don’t ask me how I know this

WHEN I was undergoing the six-year process of changing from a boy into technically and legally a man, I owned a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer.

It was not by current standards a powerful computer. It was not even by the standards of the time a powerful computer. It was the computer equivalent of me. But it was relatively cheap and easy to program and had so many games. Again, the computer equivalent of me.

Yes, it took eight minutes to load one of those games – and often the loading process would fail – but that was OK. I was 13, what else did I have to do but wait? Teenagers are famously patient.

But I was loyal to that computer. In those days, among my peers, there was a divide. On my side, Spectrum kids, on the other Commodore 64 divs. I suspect they did not refer to themselves in such terms, but that is because they were divs because they had Commodore 64s.

Yes, there were other computers available, like the BBC Micro, but they were for rich children whose parents could afford to spend £399 on a computer just because it had a nice keyboard.

Games for my computer were not always available for the Commodore 64, and vice versa. Normally, this was fine, because, ugh, who wants to play a Commodore 64 game?

But occasionally a game would appear on the Commodore 64 that I actually wanted to play. I would hear the Commobores in my class excitedly chatting about their game about llamas or Ghostbusters, and ache to join in. But I had made my choice. It was not to be.

I grew up – more accurately, older – and such emotions of frustration and exclusion were relegated to the 1980s, along with Black Watch check trousers, trimphones, and cartoons on BBC2.

But now it’s back. Because virtually everybody I know is watching Game Of Thrones, and I am not because I don’t have Posh Telly.

Actually, I do have Posh Telly, but I have the wrong sort of Posh Telly. There are three main types of Posh Telly – I won’t list them here because this is not an advertisement – and I have picked one of the ones which doesn’t have the Bosoms And Dragons programme.

Usually when I tell people this, they explain to me that I can very easily sign up to a package which will give me access to Swords And Nudity. And I have to tell them that I am not in a position to do that.

This time I am not sticking with my own type of Posh Telly out of loyalty, but because I can’t afford to have three types of Posh Telly. I have to draw the line somewhere. If I shelled out eight quid a month just to watch a show that only has 10 episodes a year, what would happen if a show I like appears on the remaining type of Posh Telly?

I’d have to pay for that too, and in the end I would be paying more per month to watch programmes that aren’t even on than I would be paying for food.

This logistical situation means that I have now effectively become a keen viewer of a television programme I do not watch.

I understand all the references. I know what the Red Wedding is. I know who John Snow is. In fact, when I hear somebody say the name “John Snow” I do not automatically assume they mean the Channel 4 News man.

I understand the joke when people say “Hodor”. I know what both Robson AND Jerome are doing these days. I am incredibly angry that Ed Sheeran was in the latest episode.

I feel like I did whenever I visited my late mother and she would tell me the ins and outs of the lives of people I had never met: utterly confused and yet fully briefed to A Level standard.

But this stuff is taking up too much valuable real estate in my brain considering I have never seen a second of the show, and I wonder which important information is being crowded out whenever I recognise the Iron Throne in a picture.

However, I am not going to let it bother me. And that is the proof that I have now grown into an actual man.

Mind you, I bet if I had been a Commodore 64 owner I’d still be whinging. They are the worst.

COLUMN: July 13, 2017

An amount of ice cream
I HAD accidentally worked for seven days in a row because I am both unlucky and stupid. I understand that that does not sound like a very long time, and that many workers in the NHS can work for 10 days at a time, but what you do not appreciate is that I am very lazy.

I am so lazy that sloths use me as a metaphor. “Hurry up,” they say to each other, “Sloth Tesco is going to close in four hours, you total Bainbridge.”

The point is that I was really looking forward to my single day off in 12. I was going to have a lie-in, maybe have a cup of tea in bed, take a walk to buy an ice cream. The sky really was the limit.

And, best of all, I was going to have a bus-free day. I do not get a lot of buses – maybe two a day tops, to and from work – but I do feel that I spend most of my life as a bus passenger. So this was going to be a proper day off – a busman’s holiday, if you will, which I very much hope you won’t.

I settled in bed with my cup of tea, half delighted to be drinking it, half annoyed that I had had to get out of bed to make it, and decided that this was the perfect time to catch up with my correspondence. I insulted a couple of people on Twitter, half-heartedly “liked” some posts on Facebook, and checked my email.

This column contains two lessons. This is the first: never check your email on a Sunday. I did it and immediately regretted it. For there was a reminder that two books I had borrowed were due back at the library the following day.

This would not normally be a problem, but I am working on a project at the moment, the hours of which mirror precisely the opening hours of the library, which meant that I would not be able to take the book back until the following weekend, which meant that the fine would start racking up, for both books…

“Argh!” I said, out loud, to nobody, save a pigeon that was perched outside my bedroom window. “I’ve got to get a flipping bus.”

Enraged, I got out of bed, did the things necessary for me to pass in the outside world, picked up the stupid books, and stormed out of the house.

It was rather sunny, and the rage soon passed. I reached the bus stop. My bus was not due for another five minutes. It was too sunny to stand at a bus stop, so I decided to walk to the next stop, about two minutes down the road.

Halfway between the stops, I was passed by my bus. You can do the mathematics. This was definitely not my fault even though my actions brought it about. My next bus was not for ages, so I trudged off to a stop half a mile away, where I would be able to get a bus which would come sooner.

I sat at the stop, and could see my new – and better – bus in the distance. “This is the bus life,” I thought. It was going to take a while to reach me because of traffic lights and physics.

I opened one of the books I was taking back, and began reading it. It was a book on Italian grammar. I am trying to learn a few foreign languages in time for Brexit, when I won’t be able to use them.

“Ah! Now I get it”, I thought, about a simple bit of grammar that I had not previously been able to grasp. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my bus bearing down on me. I leapt to my feet and flung my arm out.

But it was too late. A second bus in 10 minutes flew past me. And this one was definitely my fault. I was too engrossed in Italian verbs – that old story.

And by the time the next bus came, and I got to the library, and came home again, the ice cream shop I was planning to visit was closed.

And so that is the second lesson I have to pass on to you: never try to improve yourself in any way – you will miss out on some ice cream.

COLUMN: July 6, 2017

A cooling glass of cider in a perfectly ordinary pub in London. Price: £47

I HAVE A naturally quiet voice. It is sometimes hard to tell whether I am whispering or shouting. It does not help that I make the same cupping gesture for both activities.

Part of this is because I have a lisp, which was cute when I was a small child, made me a target when I was a larger child, and is just annoying now I am an adult.

It means that I spend far too much of my life avoiding S sounds in conversation. There is no way, for instance, that I could ever romance a woman called Cecilia. I would have to call her Thingy all the time.

Similarly, I could never take up with a coastal-based marine fossils dealer, because I could never explain her job.

But mostly my quiet voice exists because I am polite. I do not think that anybody should be forced to listen to me when I am having a conversation. It would be nice to think that people engaged in conversation with me did not feel forced so to do, but they are not my concern.

My concern is that I am never considered That Man In The Pub. For there is nobody worse than That Man In The Pub.

You hear him before you see him, and then when you see him you immediately know that the voice you heard came from him even if, for that moment, he is not speaking, because his appearance is as loud as his voice.

There are two main types of That Man In The Pub. The first wears a suit and appears to be aged about 35. He may not actually be 35 – he might be in his twenties – but he has always wanted to look 35. He is probably an estate agent. He may not actually be an estate agent, but he has always wanted to look like an estate agent.

This man does not wear a tie, but he does have a pocket square. The pocket square is the most ridiculous piece of clothing since Adam and Eve donned fig leaves. (Incidentally, does anybody know how they managed to attach these fig leaves? Did they have Pritt Sticks in the Garden of Eden?) It is a handkerchief that you cannot actually use as a handkerchief. Its only use is as a signal to other people that you are a person to avoid.

The second type of That Man In The Pub wears a football shirt. It is a never-ending source of amusement to me that if I turned up at the pub dressed as Spider-Man I would be lambasted. Also I would have no idea how I would drink anything through the mask.

However it is perfectly acceptable for a man with a beer gut and an approach to personal hygiene and fitness rarely seen in the modern game to pretend to be John Terry.

But what the two types have in common is an overwhelming need for everybody in the pub to know that they are there. They have to be the loudest in their group. They think that banter is a good thing rather than a substitute for a sense of humour for people who cannot think of their own jokes.

I witnessed the first type this week. I was in London for a meeting and had an hour to kill before my train home.

I went to a pub, because there is only so much entertainment to be had in a station waiting room, ordered a drink, and sat in the corner trying to look as if I hadn’t been stood up.

In he came, wearing a pinstriped suit and shiny shoes, surrounded by his entourage of nodding pillocks. The party sat around me and started talking across me. I know I was going for a discreet effect, but I did not realise I was actually invisible.

The subject matter chosen by That Man In The Pub was wide and varied. It concerned the ugliness of his companions, the likelihood that they might be homosexual, the likelihood that various female tennis players might be homosexual, and the physical attributes of the female bar staff. And all of it was delivered in his outdoor voice.

I tried to hide my distaste, finished my drink, and left them to it, glad that I am able to say I am not like That Man In The Pub.

But even if I did, you wouldn’t be able to hear me.