COLUMN: February 22, 2018

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A man in a bullet-proof panther costume

I SPEND far too much of my life sitting down and staring at a screen, so I decided to go to the cinema, because it’s good to get out of your comfort zone occasionally.

For the record, it was Black Panther I went to see, partly because I had heard it was good, but mostly so that I could indulge in one of my favourite activities – laughing at the people who leave before the mid-credits and end-credits scenes of Marvel movies. These are like people who leave five minutes before the end of a play, if such people even exist.

I chose to go alone, because nobody could – or, more likely, would – go with me. Going to the cinema alone is great, because you get to choose exactly which snacks you want to buy without engaging in serious and rancorous negotiations, and you get a full large drink to yourself, which is a brilliant move when you are forced to sit in one place for two and a half hours.

Anyway, I decided to go to an arthouse cinema, because I thought it would make me feel more grown-up about going to see a film about a man who dresses up in a bullet-proof panther suit and flies spaceships in a society where women get to do cool stuff without anybody commenting on it. Unbelievable.

I fetched up at the box office and confidently asked for one ticket to see Black Panther.

“Just one?” asked the man behind the counter, impertinently, in my view. I tried not to look hurt. “Yes, just one,” I said.

“Where would you like to sit?” he asked, “Front, middle, or back?” “Back,” I said. It’s the best place to sit.

“Just one person, back row?” confirmed the box office man. I took my ticket and marched off, like a perfectly normal solo cinemagoer. After all, it wasn’t as if anybody knew me there.

I walked straight into a couple of friends of my late mother. They greeted me warmly while looking over my shoulder to see with whom I was visiting the cinema. “I’m on my own,” I explained. They looked at my sympathetically. “I do it quite a lot!” I explained. Somehow that did not reduce the intensity of their sympathetic glare.

“What are you seeing? We’ve been to see The Shape Of Water,” they asked.

“Black Panther.”

They recoiled briefly, as one would when confronted by the 46-year-old son of a much-missed friend who is openly going to see what is essentially a child’s film without any of his own children, but recovered, wished me well, and sent me on my way.

Armed with a bucket of cola, I approached the usherette, who checked my ticket and told me I was sitting on seat 26 of the back row. This appeared to be non-negotiable, so I went to the back row…

Come with me now as I explain my route to my seat. First I disrupt a group of friends, if you can imagine such a concept, sitting in the five seats nearest the aisle, all of whom do that thing with their legs instead of standing up. Then I walk past 10 empty seats, before meeting a young and nervous-looking woman, who is sitting in seat 25.

My allocated place is next to hers, then beyond mine are another nine or 10 vacant seats. Ideally I would sit in part of the empty section, and not next to this nervous-looking woman. But my ticket states I must sit in seat 26, for which I am grateful to Box Office Man.

I compromise by sitting in such a way that I leave about half of my seat unoccupied, while slurping through a straw. Then Nervous-looking Woman’s boyfriend appears, sitting in seat 24. If I move now, what message does that send?

The lights go down. There is nobody in seats 27-36. I smoothly shimmy into seat 27. It’s all going to be OK. I even spread out a bit, like the worst man on a bus.

And then a man and woman approach me from the left. They’re in seats 27 and 28, as they point out to me.

So I return to seat 26, sitting on the back row, between two young couples, all of whom think I am a creep and/or idiot, watching a film that does not require absolute concentration at all times…

This is why I like my comfort zone.

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COLUMN: February 15, 2018

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Wile E Coyote as Ralph Wolf, with Sam Sheepdog (left)

THERE is a homeless man who sits on the pavement outside the shop near my office where I usually buy my lunch and dinner. I don’t think it is actually the same man each time. He would get piles if it were.

In my head I imagine a sort of clocking-on/clocking-off system, as in those Looney Tunes cartoons with Wile E. Coyote and the sheepdog. Perhaps there is some sort of rota, operated and enforced by a homeless tribunal, a bit like the way buskers are sometimes allocated pitches.

The point is, there is always somebody there, asking politely for spare change, and wishing a genuine nice afternoon/evening to those who hand over a few coins, and wishing a sarcastic nice afternoon/evening to those who do not.

I receive the sarcastic wish more often than not. This is because I don’t carry much change around with me. I don’t want you to think I am like the Prince of Wales and do not carry cash for regal motives – I suspect he is tired of being reminded that he is not the King yet, and avoids using stamps for similar reasons.

Nor that I shun shrapnel because it ruins the line of my trousers. Frankly, the line of my trousers is already ruined by my legs.

It is because everything I buy these days costs more than a pound – thanks, Brexinflation – which means that I pay for virtually everything using my card. And any change I have has usually been snaffled by other homeless people I have come across on my way to work.

Besides, if I give money to the same homeless person every day, does that person then become officially a dependent of mine? Will he have a claim on part of my estate if I die intestate? There are so many legal questions. I can’t believe that I have to make a will because of this.

So lack of change has made me hard-hearted. I now walk past homeless people without giving them a glance, ignoring their pleas. I am sure I am not the only one, which is a terrible position to be in. It’s not good for the potential donor and even worse for the homeless person.

So homeless people need to get their act together. Firstly, what they need is some sort of network whereby people who have already given away their change are not later harassed.

Maybe we people with homes should wear electronic tags, or have a hand stamp. Then, when a homeless person sees a person with a roof, they can check before asking for cash. That would cut down the number of pointlessly repeated requests, which merely build up tolerance in the roofed, and in the long term could increase the amount of money people give to the homeless.

Secondly, the homeless need to find a way of taking micropayments from contactless cards. Perhaps they could have a price list, and we could choose whether we want to give the amount of cash for, say, a cup of coffee, or a week’s worth of food for the homeless person’s dog. Then we could tap our card on the device and it would eliminate the need for spare change.

The important thing is that the homeless become much more creative in their attempts to relieve people with roofs of their cash, whether that’s with an app, or some sort of crowdfunding initiative. It’s 2018, the age of the gig economy!

Or, you know, the government could do its job properly. It could stop chucking money away on Brexit – that fact-defying project that makes most people poorer just so that we don’t have to have shops selling Nutella with Polish labels – and spend it on the NHS and social care.

It could spend our cash on fixing the holes in the safety net that these vulnerable people – people that you and I could become after a run of bad luck – have fallen through.

Because the government could virtually eradicate homelessness. It did it before from the late nineties, back in the good old days when we thought homelessness was not a price we would willingly pay for a cut in taxes and public spending.

It could cut drug-related crime overnight by just supporting people until they find work and a home, instead of saving a penny today and spending a pound tomorrow. Or making each of us hand over our spare change. Which we haven’t got.

COLUMN: February 8, 2018

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By no means the worst Star Wars film

MY mother was a wise woman and I live much of my life according to her advice. For instance, I avoid running with scissors, to the extent that when I have gone out for one of my runs I have never taken scissors with me.

I always wear clean underwear in case I am in an accident. I always say “thank you” to bus drivers in case I need one of them to wait for me at the stop and they will remember me as that nice polite man. Obviously, this has never happened, but I have faith that one day it will.

And she told me never to geg in on other people’s conversations. “Geg in”. It’s a Liverpool expression my mum used, the meaning of which you can probably gather from context.

The point is, I usually keep my nose out, despite great temptation. But sometimes I cannot help myself. This is a very rare occurrence, and only takes place when the people involved in the conversation are saying something so stupid or objectionable that the only responsible course of action is to geg in, and geg in hard.

And it has happened to me twice this week. The first time was on a train. It was late and I was tired, so my resistance was down. Across the aisle from me were three men in their mid-30s to early-40s who were explaining Star Wars to each other in tones which suggested a) deep and long-lived familiarity with the subject; and b) deep and recent familiarity with scrumpy.

However, they could only demonstrate the latter. They were loud and they were sure of themselves and they were wrong. They announced to the carriage that the first Star Wars film was always Episode 4, that The Last Jedi was the worst Star Wars film ever, and that Revenge Of The Sith was the second best Star Wars film.

These are all completely untrue. I am only a vague Star Wars fan, and even I knew they were talking absolute nonsense. I put my anti-drivel earphones in, but I could not turn up the volume high enough to drown out the levels of rubbish they were spewing. My levels of rage were building…

Eventually one got off and the other two continued talking in lower tones. They moved away from the subject of Star Wars and on to “this TV series with the man from Miranda, who plays the Devil, who gets fed up being the king of Hell, so he moves to LA and becomes a detective.”

“Ooh, that sounds interesting,” said the other man. “What’s it called?”

“Oh, I’m trying to think,” said the other man. “Erm… Erm…”

This is none of my business, I thought. Stay out of it. He’ll get it…

“Erm… Erm… Oh, I know. Luther!” he said.

I yanked out my earphones with a pop. “LUCIFER!” I shouted.

They were shaken. The whole carriage was shaken, I expect, by the sound of a man crying out the name of the Devil. “Yeah, all right, mate,” said the Luther-idiot. “Calm down.” I flushed, shoved my earphones in, and stared at the floor for the rest of the journey. Mum was right. I would never do this again…

Two days later, I had finished a long shift making a newspaper and was on my way home. It was 10.30 and I needed milk, so I called in at a small branch of a large retailer.

There were three checkout staff chatting among themselves, so I decided not to bother them and used the self-checkout. It took a while because of improvements to the system which make things slower, and I tuned into their conversation.

They were talking about newspapers and journalism in general. And then one of them, a young man, said: “Yeah, well, all journalists are…” and then a word you wouldn’t hear on Cbeebies.

I forgot my promise, and marched over to him. “Two things, pal,” I said. “First, swearing in front of customers is unprofessional. And second, if you’re going to slag off journalists, try not to do it in front of somebody who’s just slogged his guts out for nine hours making a newspaper.”

I had stood up for my profession, my friends, and myself. My heart was racing, my blood pumping. I felt empowered, readers.

Then I turned on my heel and strode away with purpose. Straight into a stack of shopping baskets.

Mum was right. Never geg in.