COLUMN: November 30, 2017

A number of mince pies – I am guessing that number is nine

THE last weekend of November marks the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I went to visit her grave on the Sunday, as is customary.

I updated her on current events – she was disappointed by Brexit, the likely removal of Susan Calman from Strictly, and my skinny black jeans, which were inappropriate for a man of my age – and I told her I missed her, and then went on my way.

It has become one of the rituals I undertake on the way towards Christmas. It joins the December 11 Panic, when I realise that, even though I have a very small list of people for whom I buy presents, I still have no idea what to get, and the Elf Anger, when I realise that there are people I mostly respect who actually like watching gurning Will Ferrell gurning in his gurning tights.

And it joins The Moment Of The First Mince Pie. Now, you can buy mince pies all year round, like tomatoes or hot cross buns. I can understand why people would want hot cross buns all year round. Obviously the best bit of a hot cross bun is the flavourless cross on the top of it, so why wouldn’t you want to eat one in September instead of an ordinary teacake?

But why would you want to eat a Mr Kipling mince pie in August? Who is sitting on a beach, slathering on the Factor 374, and thinking, “What I need right now is some jam made out of currants and orange peel inside a pastry case. And could you make sure there’s enough room to park a bus between the lid of the case and the actual filling?”

It was, in fact, my mother who made it clear to me that mince pies can only legitimately be eaten from the first Sunday in Advent, if for no other reason than you have to draw the line somewhere.

The period of the Mince Pie Window is, therefore, from the first Sunday in Advent until whenever you run out of them or are fed up with them, usually about January 2. It makes mince pies special, instead of mere Eccles cakes with airs and graces.
Only, I would venture, an ignorant barbarian or some sort of mincemeat-crazed monster would eat a mince pie outside the Window.

Anyway, I left the cemetery with the mixed feelings that one usually experiences when visiting the grave of a deceased parent: sadness, yes, but partly the strange comforting sense of having spent some time in their company, as it is when you dream about them.

I boarded the bus home and went upstairs. It was raining, and as the bus pulled away I stared out the window at the rows of graves of people who had died long before I was born, and whose mourners had in turn died. I was turning full Goth. I already had the trousers for it.

“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose…”

I turned away from the window. Three primary-age children were singing songs from what appeared to be their school’s show. Rudolph segued into The Christmas Song, which segued in turn into Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas.

Their grandmother tried to shush them. “Nah, it’s lovely,” I said. They carried on, the rain stopped and the sun came out, which I thought was a little on-the-nose, but you can’t argue with the weather.

My mother would have loved it. I certainly did. Maybe it was time to move onto the Moment of The First Mince Pie. After all, it was the last weekend in November…

I got off the bus into town, and hastened to Britain’s Favourite High Street Baker. I purchased six mince pies and caught the bus home.

My little hands were shaking with excitement as I made a cup of tea and sat down on the sofa. I opened the box and bit into a mince pie. It tasted just like a mince pie. Mum would have been proud.

And then it occurred to me that Christmas Eve is on a Sunday this year. I got a B in my Maths GCSE, so I was able to count backwards…

The first Sunday of Advent this year is the first Sunday in December. I had put a brick through the Mince Pie Window.

Christmas is now ruined. I blame my mother.

Obviously I ate the others. I might be a barbarian, but I am not stupid.

COLUMN: November 23, 2017

A number of low bollards
A FEW months ago, I wrote a column about how I quite like assembling flat-pack furniture, and, contrary to all expectations, am actually not completely awful at doing it.

Following this revelation, I was swamped with requests and suggestions that I might like to help other people assemble bits of furniture, much as when you are washing your car somebody always tells you that you can do theirs too if you like.

I batted most of these requests back. I am not TV’s Tommy Walsh. I don’t even own a pair of dungarees.

But you cannot say no to everybody. An old friend needed some help with a dressing table, and my screwdrivers and Swiss army Allen key were laying idle, and guilt is a terrible thing.

So I went there on a Friday evening, and the advertised two-hour assembly job only took three hours, which was within my four-hour budget. And I only knelt on one bolt, which was surprisingly painful.

I finished the job, racked with the sort of pain that being hunched up on the ground while trying to screw in a table leg, with an Allen key that did not exactly fit, inflicts on a man in his mid-forties. And I was pleased with my work – I had assembled a dressing table and I had invented a number of new obscene words and phrases.

I was fed and sent on my way. My friend could not give me a lift home for a number of boring and/or spurious reasons, and so I had to walk home about two miles in the dark. And in the rain.

Now I am a slightly above-averagely tall man with a fairly purposeful stride usually. I don’t give off a “mug me, I am easy pickings” vibe. Admittedly my stride was less purposeful that night because of the knee/bolt incident, but, even so, I was limping with a certain force.

This is partly because it was raining, but mostly because my route home passed a graveyard and the street lighting was out. I am not a superstitious man, but this was just pushing my luck. I was one crack of lightning away from an episode of Scooby Doo and one crack of pavement away from a fall.

So I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate the glowing grinning disembodied head that was floating towards me. Did I yelp? I cannot swear I did not.

Luckily, my brain reminded me that there is no such thing as ghosts and there had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the smiling skull approaching me. It was a bald man in dark clothing who was reading his phone, and the uplight from the phone had illuminated only his face in the way that we used to use a torch to give our faces that eerie look when we were camping with Cubs.

As he passed me, and I adopted the nonchalant look that one who does not want to appear as if he has just seen a ghost displays, I thought about how stupid this man was.

Our surroundings were blacker than an undertaker’s joke, and there he was, taking no care about where he was stepping. He was an accident waiting to happen, the big fool. One raised paving slab and he would swallow that phone.

I shook my head, sending drops of water flying everywhere like a cocker spaniel. Home was a mile away. On I limped, barely dodging a puddle. “Bet he stepped in it,” I thought, “the phone-reading idiot.”

I was dreaming of a nice hot cup of tea and half a mile from home when my pocket buzzed. I dried my hand and pulled my phone out. It was a message from the friend I had left one and a half miles before.

“U home yet?”

Grrr, I thought. “No, not quite,” I typed in the darkness. I pressed send, then walked into a knee-high bollard.

I don’t know if you know what it is like to knee a pebbledashed concrete bollard, but it is even more painful than kneeling on a bolt. Especially if, somehow, you do it with both knees at once.

Somehow it hurt even more than the irony. “Ooyah!” I said to an unimpressed cat, while trying not to fall.

My phone buzzed again as I bent double, wincing, blinking back tears. “OK, cool. Thanks again,” the message said.

“Don’t mention it,” I said, as I shuffled home.

COLUMN: November 16, 2017

Perfectly normal trousers. Nothing to see here
IF YOU have a job, there will be days when you wish you could just pack it in.

Maybe it is when you’re on the last day of a holiday, drinking something cold somewhere hot. Maybe it is when it’s seven o’clock in the morning and you’ve just understood why people have duvets. Maybe it is when your boss asks you if you can “just” do a two-hour job five minutes before you’re meant to knock off.

The fact is, if you have a job, even if it is your dream job, sometimes you will want to leave. Because no matter how good your job is, your employer has to compensate you for your time and effort by paying you, otherwise it’s a hobby.

And a good rule is that if you have more days of hating your job than loving it, then you should definitely resign. Just shout loudly, “I quit!” like an American in a film, and walk out that door before your shift ends.

But you wouldn’t do that, would you? Because it’s irresponsible. Because you know you have bills to pay. Because you know you have to eat. Because you know that when you started that job you signed a legally-binding contract that you had to give a month’s notice.

What you would do is look around for another source of income, and, when you had found that, then you would hand in your notice.

Or maybe if you found your job so intolerable that you had to resign before you had found another job, you would spend the entire notice period looking for regular employment.

What you would not do is spend the first two weeks of that notice period on holiday, and then the next week insisting that your employer will give you the same salary and fringe benefits, even though you’re not working for them any more, on the basis that you might spend some of that money on your former employer’s products.

And then, when it became clear that the selfish employer was not going to give you all of that, you would then not threaten your employer by saying, “Fine, if you’re not going to give me everything I want, I am just going to walk away with no job. See how you like that.”

Now, I know what you would say if you were with me now. You would say, “Bainbridge, have you just used the best part of 400 words coming up with an ingenious metaphor about the government’s approach to Brexit?”

And I would say, “You are correct. You are probably one of my cleverer readers.”

And you would say, “Do you have any additions to your brilliant analogy?”

And I would say, “Oh, yes, although I am aware that all analogies break down in the end.”

And you would say, “Please continue, O wise one, to remove the scales from my eyes.”

And I would say, “OK.

“In this example, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the right-wing press, and all their frothing chums are your sozzled mates in the pub who encourage you to quit your job immediately, to just walk away. Because it’s easy for them. They’re not at risk of losing their salary.

“And when you say that you’re a bit worried about your future finances, they tell you you’re great and you shouldn’t talk yourself down. After all, you managed before you had that job, didn’t you? Even though your circumstances then and your circumstances now are completely different.

“Because it’s easy when you’re in a job you’re not enjoying – because, say, you don’t like how many foreign colleagues you have, or you don’t like the health and safety regulations imposed on you – to focus on all the things you hate about that job, and not appreciate the good things you’ve come to depend on, like a regular pay packet, and the security for your family that comes from that.

“And you have to take into account what you’re going to lose when you leave that job, and have a proper plan to ensure those losses are as minor as possible.

“Because doing that isn’t talking yourself down. It’s being realistic. It’s proof that you’re a mature, level-headed person, and that you should not talk yourself down.

“And what your sozzled mates in the pub, with their mustard-coloured trousers and their ‘common-sense-don’t-listen-to-experts’ approach, are doing is far worse than talking you down. They’re talking you out of a job and into the gutter.”

COLUMN: November 9, 2017

The Good Place
This is The Good Place, a programme I currently cannot watch, which is proof I am not in The Good Place

I AM currently working on a Super Secret Project that I cannot tell you about because I am the sort of person who likes telling half a story and then making you guess the rest.

But it means that I am spending quite a lot of time in my flat, with only the occasional foray for supplies or to go to work to do my actual job for eight hours.

I have been unusually productive because I have been without internet for 10 days. But this is not one of those digital detox columns people with children called Tamara and Hugo write.

The lack of internet is because my supplier is unable to get its story straight as to why my connection is down, and has a call centre in India with an impenetrable script and an aversion to straight answers.

If I asked them what day it was they would tell me, “I am appreciative that you wish to know what day it is and I am wishing to reassure you that I am immediately going to escalate your query. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Lack of internet, of course, means lack of Netflix, which means that my series obligations are mounting up. I am not sure I will ever catch up, or will be able to have a conversation in work ever again.

Lack of Netflix also means that I have to rely on Normal Telly. Normal Telly during the day is the worst thing. It is mostly cheap documentaries about people who have enough money to buy second houses doing them up. And then they rent them out to people who can’t afford to buy their own houses, because there aren’t enough houses, because people are out there buying second houses.

All of this is to say that I have mostly been spending the past week or so in my own company. And now I feel terrible for all those people who have previously had to spend time in my company, because it turns out I am dreadful.

Firstly, it appears that I talk to myself, pretty much constantly. Behaviour I would shun if somebody were doing it on the bus is apparently A-OK when I am doing it in my flat.

I noticed how much I was doing it a couple of days ago, when I embarked on a running commentary on emptying the washing machine and hanging up my pants and socks on a clothes horse.

“Right, just get these out of the machine. Where’s the little detergent bowl? Oh, inside this sock. How did it get in there? We’ll never know. Take them over here. Oops, dropped one. And another one. Just dump them here. Go back for the other two. Put these pants on the clothes horse. What? How is this a clothes ‘horse’? Who invented a standing rack for drying clothes and then said, ‘Hmmm, what shall I call it? You know, it reminds me of a horse, because this is a thing that exists and horses are also things that exist’. Hang on, I should have two brown socks…”

Secondly, it appears that I have become unapologetic about making involuntary noises. I had previously been conditioned to apologise after, for argument’s sake, burping, and did so even if nobody was around. But now I was doing it freely, lavishly, without embarrassment. This is bad because what if I brought this behaviour into the public arena?

There was only one thing for it. I had to rejoin humanity. And where better than the cinema? The cinema is just like a big Netflix, except it shows films you might want to see rather than what was left in the video rack at the back of the off-licence.

I sat alone in the back row, but not for long. I was joined by a group of young men who had all come to the conclusions that Lynx was an adequate substitute for a shower, and that cinema etiquette – in essence, sit down and shut up – was a bourgeois convention from which we should all be freed. It was like sitting next to gibbons, but gibbons given to speculating what might happen next in the film.

It was the right thing to do. Because it made me feel so much better about my enforced solitude. I might be the sort of person to tease you with half a story, but at least I don’t want to punch me.

COLUMN: November 2, 2017

A hand dryer designed for the purposes of drying hands and probably only hands
MY good friends were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary – their tin wedding. I don’t think anybody is quite sure why 10 years is tin. It seems fairly stingy for double figures.

Perhaps somebody from New Zealand was asked for how many years they had been married and they replied “ten”, and there was some confusion.

The point is there was a party and I was invited. The invitation said “dancing shoes” which was encouraging as far as it goes, but is not an iron-clad dress code. So I decided to wear a suit, on the basis that it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed, unless you are an undercover detective infiltrating a family of Mafia naturists.

A suit requires a shirt, and I pulled my good white one out of the wardrobe, gave it a once-over with the iron, and slipped it on.

There is never a good time to discover that one has unusually sharp elbows, but this was a particularly bad time. I had somehow put my elbow through the shirt sleeve, as if I had started to transform into the Incredible Hulk, but then thought better of it.

The only suitable looking shirt that was not also in the wash was a light blue one. I do not know why I own a light blue shirt. Light blue shirts are accidents waiting to happen. Anyway, it was late October and quite chilly, so it was probably going to be fine.

I donned my suit and my dancing shoes – to be honest, they were just shoes, but any shoes can be dancing shoes if you have the right attitude – and headed out in the cold for the party…

The temperature was just right in the village hall. I was comfortable. I sipped a glass of wine and chatted to some old and new friends and it was all tremendous.

But it was a slow start on the dance floor, as is often the way at these things. Nobody wanted to be first, in the same way that nobody wants to be the first out of their seat for a standing ovation. I nodded at a fellow party-goer and gave her the “I suppose if nobody else is going to do this it had better be us” look.

And as we got up, we jostled others, who also stood up and headed to the dance floor, whereupon we all cut a rug.

It is hard to describe my dancing style, but I think the most accurate term would be “disturbingly enthusiastic”.

In fact, my exertions brought on a degree of perspiration, and my face glowed. In fact, I was glowing like a pig. I excused myself and headed for the Gents’, to splash some water on my face and cool down. I did this, and looked up at the mirror and saw that I had developed what I can only describe as a dark blue bib.

The light blue shirt had sprung its trap. I might as well have worn a neon sign saying, “This man’s sweat glands are in perfect working order. It’s a good job he had a shower before he left.”

Then I realised I had no way to dry my face following its splashing. There were no hand towels, and the only method of drying anything was a hot-air hand dryer.

I panicked and grabbed some toilet paper from one of the stalls to dab at my face. But it shredded and became trapped in my beard and I had to use more water to free it.

My face was soaked again. I couldn’t go back out like that – people would have thought I was having a cardiac arrest.

And then I had an idea. There was nobody else in the Gents’ and nothing else for it. I crouched down in front of the hand dryer. Maybe I could direct the air onto my face and chest.

But my face could not activate the sensor. I had to be lower…

Which is why the next man to enter the Gents’ discovered me on my knees, waving my hands in prayer to the hand dryer god.

“It’s my shirt,” I explained. I don’t think he believed me.

And it didn’t even work. I’ve expelled more hot air huffing onto my glasses in order to clean them.

So, next time I go to a party, I’m wearing a wetsuit. I should get away with it. As long as I’m wearing my dancing shoes.