COLUMN: December 28, 2017

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An oven front panel

I SPENT Christmas on my own, partly for complicated reasons, but mostly in an attempt not to bring calamity to other people’s Christmases. Nobody needs a repeat of The Stuffing Incident.

It seemed wantonly extravagant to buy a turkey for myself, and Christmas is hardly the time for wanton extravagance. Besides, I was not sure if the shelves in my oven went down far enough to accommodate one and my chopping board is fairly small.

So I decided to go for a chicken. You’d have been happier with a chicken too. At least chicken tastes of something. Turkey just tastes like a photocopy of a photocopy of chicken.

But I pushed the rubber dinghy out and bought the best organic chicken I could find. It was corn-fed, and consequently, apparently, was bright yellow.

I do not understand this. Why does chicken’s skin turn yellow on a corn diet? What is it about corn that tints skin so? I mean, I live on a diet of strong tea, but I am as pale as Michelangelo’s David, which is where the resemblance ends.

Perhaps some enterprising farmer could try different feed, like beetroot or asparagus, and we could have multi-coloured chickens, like heritage carrots or tomatoes. The chiller cabinet in Tesco could look like a packet of Refreshers.

Anyway, I took my yellow chicken, rubbed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and chucked some sprigs of thyme in the cavity, all the while using expressions like “bosh” and “luvvly jubbly”, as Jamie Oliver might have done. And then I fell at my usual hurdle, which meant I had to switch on my laptop.

You see, I live in a rented flat, and a previous occupant had been so fastidious when it came to cleaning the oven that he or she had scrubbed off most of the labels on its front panel, rendering it useless.

So when I moved in, I did a trawl of the internet in an attempt to master my oven, and I found that somebody was selling as a spare part a front panel of my oven on eBay. And so I made a copy of the photograph.

Similarly, I found a PDF of the instruction manual online, not, of course, on the website of the oven manufacturer, but in an internet forum I discovered halfway down page 6 of a Google search, which is, by the way, the best place to hide anything.

So, whenever I have to use my oven, I have to switch on my computer, find the manual and picture of the front panel, and zoom in on it so I know which settings to use.

I know I am not alone. Yes, the specifics are different, but we all have quirky things and workarounds in our homes. There’s the broken flush that you have to press in just the right way. There’s the funny window latch that you have to wobble before you open it. There’s the bathroom door you have to keep your foot against because the lock froze and it would probably work if you got some WD40, but you’ve forgotten to get some WD40 for about 18 months.

These are all things that, if you were buying a property, would probably put you off, the inconveniences that are just enough to annoy you at the time, but not inconvenient enough to stick in your mind and make you do something about it. If they were a television programme, they would be The One Show or a Michael McIntyre variety show.

So instead of fixing them for good we bumble along, with a low-level buzz of irritation in our lives.

No longer. Let us make a New Year’s Resolution together. Let 2018 be the year we finally adopt a zero-tolerance approach to slightly annoying things.

Let 2018 be the year you finally get the gas company to spell your name right. Let 2018 be the year you unsubscribe to those emails. Let 2018 be the year you buy a new ironing board cover instead of just Sellotaping it back down because the elastic perished.

Better than that, let 2018 be the year you find out why corn turns chickens yellow.

Fix the small things as they crop up, and we can turn our ire in 2018 on the important things, like the spread of food bank use, the rise in homelessness, the increase in post-Brexit-vote hate crimes.

And maybe we can see our way to having a Happy New Year.

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COLUMN: December 21, 2017

violinist-735413_1280
Not really my thing

I HAD to pop down to London for a function, which is my favourite word to describe an event in which people stand around with drinks in their hands while eating small pieces of toast.

This is because the word “function” makes it sound as if a party were grimly necessary, like plumbing or paying your council tax, instead of being a jolly business involving a free bar for the first two hours.

I always enjoy going to London, because it allows me to witness one of the best things about living in the UK in the early 21st century – people using public transport looking genuinely angry about having to wait half a minute for the next train.

It is all I can do to prevent myself from telling them about the two trains an hour that run from my local station, and how there are people in rural parts of the country who will be reading this and thinking, “Look at that fancy pants remoaner Bainbridge with his two trains an hour. We have one train a week, every Thursday, and that gives us 38 seconds to get all our shopping at the market in town or we’ll miss the only train coming back.

“This is why we voted for Brexit. Not to make our lives better, but to make his life worse.”

I travelled down to London by train, and unfortunately there was an incident down the line which caused my journey to be cut short at Rugby. A light-hearted column is not the place to dwell on what the incident was, but my sincere sympathy goes to the family, especially at this time of year.

As a result, my entire train was decanted onto another entire train, on which space was already at a premium. This meant that people who had paid for seats were forced to stand. Nobody, of course, could complain, and nor should they have done. Soberingly, we had all been reminded that things could definitely be worse.

And this meant that we could focus our full attention on the very specific problem of remaining upright on a fast moving and tilting train while being unable to move one’s feet because of luggage on the floor.

I have rarely been accused of being well-balanced. I have to stop before descending stairs because of vertigo. My record distance travelled on a skateboard is 1.5 metres, and that was mostly by accident. My PE teacher used to call colleagues to watch whenever I attempted to walk from one end of a gym bench to another. I suspect there was a book run on it.

So standing in a very small space while battling the twin forces of momentum and gravity is especially taxing for a man like me. All of this is to explain that what happened was not my fault.

Five passengers including me were crammed in a small space between the toilet and the on-board shop. One of our number decided that this was the ideal opportunity to learn everything he could about four new friends, while four of us were more sceptical, focused as we were on being mostly vertical while everything else was diagonal.

The others were holding safety bars. But I did not have one to hand, and had to grip a slightly dimpled part of the wall, like one of those rope-free climbers you see dangling from overhanging rocks. And it was heating up, and my fingertips were becoming increasingly slick with perspiration.

“And why did you leave your last job? Have you had any sexual problems? What’s your favourite colour?” our garrulous friend asked. I was distracted, and, before I could say “green”, the train jolted violently, my grip was lost, and I was flung forward, my face ending an inch away from that of a recently retired elderly gentleman.

“Sorry!” I said, and flung myself back, my elbow hitting the sliding door between our tiny compartment and the on-board shop. It hurt my elbow, but that was the least of my issues.

For I had hit the button which activates the sliding door, and the elderly retired gentleman’s similarly elderly retired wife was leaning against the door at the time.

And the door slid open, sending the woman spiralling backwards into the on-board shop, just shy of the display of Snickers bars.

I apologised to her, as she staggered back into our shared area, but somehow it did not quite seem enough. Or functional.

COLUMN: December 14, 2017

Hulk
It’s not easy seeing green

WHEN I tell people my favourite colour is green – for example, whenever I am interviewed by Smash Hits or Look In – they look at me askance.

“Green?” they say. “That is a very unlucky colour.” I usually ask them to explain, but they cannot. “I have green eyes,” I say, “and I am not… oh, yes, I see what you mean.”

Green is certainly discriminated against in the colour community. Some people say “red and green should never be seen”. Many more say “blue and green should never be seen”. But both camps clearly agree that green is a bad ‘un, associated with sickness and envy.

Even when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented The Incredible Hulk they must have had a conversation about his hue. “What colour, Jack, should we make our big angry monster? Shall we make him red, the colour traditionally associated with rage?”

“No, Stan, we will make him green, to symbolise his terrible curse.”

“Excelsior, Jack. Right, I’m off to be a film star while you die in virtual penury.”

Despite the slurs against its character, I remain a fan of green. It soothes me when I see it, unless I am camping and it means something has gone very wrong with my ground sheet.

And a few years ago I found my perfect green, a shade which somehow, for reasons I do not understand, made me feel at peace with everything. And, when you consider that I can become angry about onion soup and bollards and literally anything else, that is quite the thing.

It was a green bauble in a garden centre, hanging among other, more boring colours, and it stopped me dead. I cannot describe this green, apart from to say it was at once more blue and more gold than any other green I had ever seen, which should be impossible but somehow was not.

I had to buy it – it was only a couple of pounds – but you can’t buy things if you’ve left your stupid wallet on your stupid bedside cabinet and all your stupid change in your other stupid trousers. I went home to get cash, but by the time I got back to the garden centre, my green had gone.

I have spent much of the time since looking for “my green”, unable to describe it, but knowing I would recognise it if I saw it. I’ve looked at paintings, at colour charts, in books, everywhere. Google is a marvellous thing, but “that shade of green I like” is not a search term which has brought me much joy.

I have been Elmer Fudd in search of Bugs Bunny for years, driven to distraction at times.

And then, last week, as I was walking through a department store, I saw it. It was a bauble again – perhaps it is a colour that only works on spheres.

What’s more, there were loads of them, all packed in boxes with other, lesser colours. And I had my wallet this time.

But I was on the way to work, and if there’s one thing you can’t take into a newspaper office, for fear of distracting the younger reporters, it’s a box of shiny baubles.

I went back a few days later to claim my victory. And all the boxes had been sold. I actually gibbered. In public…

“Mum, can we get these?”

I looked. There was a boy, aged about eight or nine, holding the last box of my baubles. It must have been hidden behind other, rubbish baubles. My eye twitched. I looked at his mother, hoping that she would be a terrible misery guts.

“No, put them back,” she said. The boy tutted and did as he was told. I felt bad for him for a moment and then, after he left, pounced on my green.

Now they are sitting on my tree, and I feel guilty that that boy is going to have the same long quest to find that colour as I had.

So this is a message to that boy. If you are that boy, and this is several years later, and you Google in desperation “that shade of green I like”, you will probably have found this column online, and I will give you one of my baubles.

But if you’re not that boy, and you’re trying to con me, don’t even bother. I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking.

COLUMN: December 7, 2017

Film: Die Hard
Scrooge with an Uzi

A FEW years ago I wrote a column about the Christmas film Elf in which I explained in painstaking if compelling detail why I thought it wasn’t any good. That done, I gave it the inflammatory headline “Why You Are Wrong To Like The Film Elf”.

I knew what would happen. The sort of people who like the film Elf would rage at me that you can’t say it’s wrong to like a film, even if it is definitely a bad film. As Elf is.

And they did, and it is true. It’s entirely possible to like something that isn’t remotely good. Even Violet Kray loved her boys.

Because everything is a matter of opinion, apart from the things that aren’t. For instance, a recent poll by YouGov said that 50% of people in Britain believe that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie, and just a film that happens to be set at Christmas.

Half the people out there believe something that is demonstrably not true to be true. Obviously it is none of my readers, who are a sceptical and fiercely intelligent bunch, but their number contains your friends, your neighbours, maybe even members of your family.

For of course Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and I will explain why. I apologise to those of you who haven’t yet seen a film that is 30 years old next year, but you’ve had your chance.

Everything that happens in Die Hard happens because it is Christmas. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife and family because it is Christmas. The company his wife is working for is having a Christmas party. The building in which the film takes place is deserted because it is Christmas Eve. The heist and hostages plan carried out by Evil Alan Rickman – the best sort of Alan Rickman – only works because the building is deserted.

The ending is rooted in Christmas. The secret gun McClane has hidden is attached to his back with Christmas wrapping tape, and the Swiss watch to which Evil Alan Rickman clings before his slow-motion fall is a Christmas present to McClane’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) from her sleazy colleague.

More than that, McClane’s own story in the film follows the classic Christmas movie tradition, a selfish man sacrifices himself for the good of others, and through that comes to realise that the most important thing in his life is his loved ones. He is basically Scrooge with an Uzi.

Yes, there are more violent deaths in Die Hard than in your average Christmas story – unless you’re counting the Slaughter of the Innocents – but it could not be a more explicitly Christmas film if Willis were replaced by Santa Claus and it were set in a stable. Even his wife’s name is Holly, for goodness’ sake!

There’s a case that you could heavily rewrite Die Hard to be set at another time of year, but that would entirely change the character of the film. Everything bad that happens in the film is made worse – as in life – by the fact it happens on Christmas Eve.

But you could rewrite Home Alone – the children’s version of Die Hard – to take place at another time of year, and nobody ever suggests that is not a Christmas film.

Even It’s A Wonderful Life – the Christmas film to end all Christmas films – could be set in June, with even less rewriting than Die Hard would need.

So Die Hard is clearly a Christmas film, and anybody who suggests otherwise is deluded, insane, or wantonly contrary. This is not a matter of opinion, it is plain fact.

And yet, 50% of the people out there, faced with overwhelming evidence, have told YouGov that black is white.

Apparently that is democracy these days. People make a decision, while paying no attention to the facts, and then the rest of us – who have done the reading – have to lump it no matter how demonstrably wrong it is, just because the tiny majority “feel” they are correct.

And there will be people now, reading this, who will say it’s just a matter of opinion, and if I could just get behind the idea that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie then we could make Die Hard not be a Christmas movie, even though Die Hard clearly is a Christmas movie.

They are wrong, no matter how they feel. Just like Elf lovers.